.- Since the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States, several Catholic commentators have speculated on how the original agenda of the annual Fall General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will change.
According to bishops involved in the organization of the three-day meeting, which starts this Monday, the agenda, including a public discussion of abortion and politics, is fully on track.
Speculation that the agenda might change came late last week when several prominent Catholic commentators argued that the bishops had "lost authority" by speaking out strongly against Catholics voting for pro-abortion politicians, like Sen. Barack Obama and other mostly Democratic candidates, who were elected to office last Tuesday.
On Friday, Religion News Service reported that the USCCB “has scuttled plans to discuss abortion and politics next week in Baltimore,” citing the bishops' spokeswoman, Sister Mary Ann Walsh. RNS also quoted Sister Walsh saying that the agenda had yet to be finalized.
Moreover, according to the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr., “some analysts, especially those of a more liberal bent, are spinning the election of Barak Obama as a ‘repudiation’ of what they see as an overly strident and partisan tone from the bishops, especially on abortion. A few ardently pro-life Catholics, meanwhile, actually believe that what they call ‘silence and treachery’ from the bishops on abortion helped pave the way for Obama’s success.”
On Friday, Peter Steinfels argued in his regular New York Times column that "anyone constructing a list of the big losers on Tuesday would probably include the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops."
Steinfels served as editor of “Commonweal” magazine before landing a job at The New York Times in 1988 and still frequently contributes to the magazine that he and his wife, former editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, have helped shape since 1964.
During the election season, Commonweal's blog openly wooed Catholics to vote for Obama and harshly criticized bishops who took a strong stand on life and family issues.
Steinfels supported his assertion that the bishops were “defeated” on the grounds that nominal Catholics voted 52 percent to 45 percent for Obama.
“Will that fact be candidly addressed when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets next week in Baltimore?,” he asked, suggesting that the bishops should “change strategy.”
A similar suggestion was made by Fr. Thomas Reese S.J. of Georgetown University in an article published by the Dallas Morning News on Sunday.
Quoting the same figure of nominal Catholics voting for Obama, Reese said that “Episcopal authority took a major hit during the election,” and argued that “(the) division between the vocal, partisan bishops and the silent, nonpartisan bishops will be a major issue at the Baltimore meeting.”
“This argument," Reese continued, “will take place behind closed doors lest the bishops scandalize the faithful with their divisions.”
Reese also came up with his own list of proposals, which would essentially require the bishops to remain silent about the evil of abortion and concentrate on practical political engagement for “reducing abortions,” as promised by Barack Obama.
“Why am I not surprised?" joked one bishop about Reese’s comments, speaking on a condition of anonymity to CNA.
"Fr. Reese is a mainstream media darling, but the truth is that he has very little knowledge of what goes on (in the episcopate) and far less influence,” he added.
Another bishop who requested anonymity, confirmed to CNA that the bishops will not drop the issue of abortion or hold the conversation behind closed doors. On the contrary, they will discuss it on no less than three occasions: “in our regional groups, in executive session, and in the public session.”
The sessions open to the media will take place on Monday, November 10, from 9:00 a.m. to mid-afternoon, and Tuesday, November 11, from 9:00 a.m. until mid-afternoon. The rest of the meeting will be for breakout sessions, executive sessions, and prayer and reflection.
Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland entered into greater details of how the USCCB meeting will proceed.
“At this year’s fall assembly we bishops will hear an address from our President, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. We shall also elect a USCCB secretary and chairs-elect of the Committees on National Collections, Cultural Diversity, Doctrine, Pro-Life Activities and Communications. In addition we will vote on the revised Grail Psalter for use in the United States, the translation of the Proper of the Seasons and the Order for the Blessing of a Child in a Womb.”
In this weekend’s column on the Catholic Sentinel, Archbishop Vlazny also revealed that the bishops will also “hear a report from Bishop Gerald Kicanas about the work of our Priority Task Forces. These priorities are strengthening marriage, faith formation and sacramental practice, life and dignity of the human persons, cultural diversity in the church, and promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life.”
Archbishop Vlazny is himself a member of the task force on the faith formation and sacramental practice.
“We plan to set aside time to discuss practical and pastoral implications of political support for abortion, an issue that remains problematic for us and our people,” he confirmed.
“The mission of our Conference calls all of us bishops to act collaboratively and consistently on the important issues which confront the church and society. Furthermore it helps us foster communion with the church in other nations under the leadership of the Holy Father,” Archbishop Vlazny said.
Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon, also offered a different vision on how to interpret the current circumstances from a Catholic perspective.
“In our present political climate it would be very easy to somehow link our courage and hopefulness to the outcome of political endeavors. It would be easy to position our hope in some kind of political strategy and call for greater courage in fostering that particular strategy.”
“The fact that whatever kind of kingdom we manage to build here will always be an imperfect kingdom helps us keep our focus on that in which and for which we ultimately hope, a kingdom of God in eternity,” he said.