ST. LOUIS – The U.S. bishops' point-person on the environment defended Pope Francis' plan to issue a high-level teaching document next week on ecology and climate change, saying Wednesday that global warming was the result of moral failings that the Roman Catholic Church has a duty to address.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, head of the bishops' committee on justice and human development, said he has heard the comments from critics that the church should leave the debate to scientists. Wenski said the science is clear enough that global warming is occurring and that some leadership is needed to move beyond the ideological divisions that have plagued public discussion.
"Much of the debate on ecology in the past years has been really caught up in the partisan divide. Hopefully, by Pope Francis weighing in on it, he's going to transcend that," Wenski said, in an interview at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Ecology is a moral issue because it touches human beings. And anything that touches human beings has moral and ethical implications. And that is what the pope is going to explore."
The highly anticipated papal teaching document, or encyclical, will be released June 18, and was expected to be the dominant topic at the St. Louis assembly of the bishops. However, as the session began, the Vatican announced Francis had approved a proposal from his sex abuse advisory panel for a tribunal system that would review cases of bishops who committed "abuse of office."
The announcement for the global church has particular resonance for the United States, where the abuse crisis erupted in 2002, then spread around the world. No U.S. bishop has been punished by the church for failing to notify parents or police about guilty priests.
In April, Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse, resigned. Last week, prosecutors charged the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis with child endangerment. Archbishop John Nienstedt, who was not charged, attended the St. Louis meeting.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst with the National Catholic Reporter, called the Vatican announcement a "shot across the bow" to bishops around the world that they must "get their act together or there will be consequences."
Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, said in an interview that the American bishops were not alerted ahead of time about the announcement, and learned of the plan only from news reports, which spread among the bishops as they listened to speeches on the environment and their relief work in Haiti.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who leads the pope's advisory commission on abuse, is the archbishop of Boston, and was in Rome this week for meetings as a member of the pope's advisory council of cardinals.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, said he awaited details on how the tribunal would run. "We welcome it and will cooperate," Kurtz said.
For years, U.S. bishops said they would offer "fraternal correction" to each other if any bishop failed to comply with the national child protection policies they adopted in 2002 under enormous public pressure. However, no such censures were ever made publicly. At the meeting Wednesday, before news of the Vatican announcement had spread, the head of the bishops' National Review Board, a lay advisory group on child protection, raised the issue in his presentation. Francesco Cesareo urged the bishops to define what "fraternal correction" means and strengthen their response when other church leaders fall short.
Coyne said the plan for the tribunal would bring welcome clarity to any Vatican review of bishops' actions. Coyne was spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston from 2002-2005 when the U.S. clergy sex abuse crisis erupted there. Then-archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, resigned in 2002 after nearly a year of damaging revelations about his failures to stop abuse.
"What this new board does is it provides a structure in which to address these issues that may arise involving questionable behavior or inappropriate responsibility regarding the reporting of child abuse by a bishop," Coyne said. He said the tribunal would help, "so everyone knows a process to be followed and we can address the issues as they need to be."
Separately, Kurtz issued a statement condemning racism in light of the tensions over police shootings of African-American men.