Customarily, the vice-president of the NCCB is elected president at the expiration of the current president's term, putting Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois in line to head the group. The bishop is a Catholic convert and only the fifth black bishop to head a US diocese. "I'm sure for African-American Catholics this is a great moment, not because of me but because of us," Bishop Gregory said. "I can represent our presence in a very symbolic but real way."
Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Houston was elected president of the NCCB. The new president is known for his strong pro-life positions and traditional views on Church doctrines and disciplines. However, in the early 1990s, he was president of the committee overseeing the Campaign for Human Development, which has been criticized for supporting left-wing organizations that often contradict Church teaching.
"In terms of doctrine, I believe what the Catholic Church believes and teaches," Bishop Fiorenza said. "Politically, I'm more progressive on social issues affecting life in the United States. I believe that involves the church helping poor people and giving them an opportunity to help themselves."
The bishops also approved a new document on peace, justice, and the economy that calls on all Americans to promote the dignity of human life and defend the poor. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit criticized the document as not going far enough and failing to criticize the Church herself. The document also fails to criticize the Catholic Church itself, Gumbleton said. "If we're really going to get serious," he said, "why not challenge ourselves? We have Catholic hospitals still fighting labor unions," despite his view that the Church mandates the right for workers to unionize.
On Wednesday, the bishops were due to discuss disabilities, when they vote on the statement, "Welcome and Justice for People With Disabilities."
O'Connor conducted a running feud with pro-abortion Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and in New Jersey, Camden Bishop James McHugh forced pro-abortion Gov. Jim Florio to resign from the Knights of Columbus, declaring that "No Catholic can hold a pro-choice position and claim to be in unity with the church."
Now, after a lengthy internal debate over how to present a united front on this sensitive issue, the nation's bishops are poised to enshrine their disapproval in a document the could make the lives of many Catholic candidates a lot more uncomfortable come the next election cycle.
At their annual meeting in Washington this week, the country's 287 active bishops are expected to adopt a forceful policy statement that tells pro-abortion Catholic politicians that their actions "jeopardize their own salvation, erode the community of faith, and give scandal to the faithful."
"Catholic public officials who disregard Church teaching on the dignity of the human person indirectly collude in the taking of innocent life," the 28-page document continues, and it holds out the threat of unspecified penalities to leaders who persist in their views.
"As chief teachers in the Church, we must . . . explain, persuade, correct, and admonish and do whatever else may be pastorally required in regard to elected leaders who contradict the Gospel of life through their actions and policies," says the document, titled "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics."
While Catholic leaders like O'Connor have in the past said that Catholic officials who support abortion put themselves "at risk of excommunication," bishops in recent years have shied away from threatening such harsh sanctions.
"I think it has to be handled at the local level," said Camden's Bishop McHugh, an influential member of the bishops' Pro-Life Activities committee, which drafted the document. "It is extremely difficult to formulate a national policy on what to do in these cases."
Although he is an outspoken conservative, McHugh has ruled out excommunication as a sanction for pro-abortion Catholics like Florio. The hierarchy's main weapon has instead focused on measures that publicly register the church's disapproval.
In 1995, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey, then a state senator and mayor of Woodbridge, ran afoul of the church for his pro-abortion views and was barred from speaking at Catholic churches.
Last summer, the bishop of Orange County, Norman F. McFarland, chided pro-abortion Democratic congresswoman Loretta Sanchez for speaking at Catholic churches during her tough rematch with pro-life ex-Rep. Robert K. Dornan.
In 1989, in the harshest punishment ever meted out, San Diego Bishop Leo Maher announced that he would deny communion to Lucy Killea, a Democratic candidate for state senate who was pro-abortion. Killea won however.
Non-Catholics also have come under increasing pressure from Catholic leaders as the bishops have sought to raise their profile on the abortion issue. Just this week, Seton Hall University administrators decided to move a ceremony honoring pro-abortion Governor Christine Whitman, a Presbyterian, to an off-campus locale. The university cited Whitman's pro-abortion stand, which became especially galling to Catholic leaders last year when she lobbied hard against a ban on the partial-birth abortion procedure.
The bishops feel that their greatest clout -- and responsibility -- lies with Catholic politicians, and they say that with this new document they can finally present a united and consistent front in hallenging Catholic leaders.
"Two years ago a number of bishops expressed concern about a growing number of Catholic politicians who were taking pro-abortion positions with no apparent concern," said McHugh, who has pushed his fellow bishops to assume a higher profile in public policy debates. "We felt we had to call this to their attention," he added. "We also felt we had to do it consistently and not to think that we could assert our position once and then let it go."
With more than 60 million members, Catholics are the largest single denomination in the country, and the conflict between pro-abortion Catholic officials and bishops is common in states with large Catholic concentrations, like New Jersey, where 42 percent of the residents are Catholic.
Five of the New Jersey's 13 House members are Catholic -- three of them pro-abortion Democrats. For the most part, politicians have avoided fights with church leaders over the abortion issue, and several pro-abortion Democrats, including McGreevey, and Reps. Bill Pascrell and Robert Menendez either declined to comment on the draft document or didn't return calls seeking reaction.
With the exception of prelates like McHugh, bishops, too, tend to avoid public spats with individual candidates. But if the bishops' new document passes muster, pro-abortion Catholic candidates might have less wiggle room.
In a famous 1984 address at Notre Dame, Cuomo set forth the argument, widely adopted by other pro-abortion Catholic officials, that he could be personally opposed to abortion yet should not impose his personal views on others. The draft document criticizes that reasoning as "seriously mistaken on several counts" and lambasts such a view as "thinly-disguised selfishness."
Still, it is unclear what political impact the document might have. Democrats have usually been the target of the bishops' critiques since Democrats tend to support abortion and there are more Catholic Democrats than Republicans.
The Vatican press office has neither confirmed nor denied the report.
Patriarch Raphael told Fides that during his October visit to the Vatican, Pope John Paul had indicated "his desire-- not to say his decision-- to undertake a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Abraham, beginning in Ur of the Chaldeans." The patriarch reported that the Pope saw this pilgrimage as a form of preparation for the Jubilee Year. He added that the Vatican Secretariat of State was now forming plans for such a trip in November 1999, while he would seek a formal invitation from the Iraqi government.
Meanwhile, at his regular weekly audience-- conducted indoors this week, in the Paul VI auditorium-- Pope John Paul II said that the rising concern for preservation of the environment is one of "signs of hope" which the Holy Spirit provides for our times.
In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the Pope had already called for "a livelier sense of responsibility regarding the environment." Quoting from that apostolic letter today, he went on to observe: "Today, mankind has discovered-- largely in reaction to the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources which has often accompanied industrial development-- the significance and the value of an environment which remains a hospitable home for man, where mankind is destined to live."
The Holy Father said that environmental dangers forced world leaders in science, industry, and government to find new ways to use the earth's resources responsibly. The key challenge, he said, is "not only to limit the damage which has already been done, and apply remedies, but especially to find approaches to development which are in harmony with respect and protection for the natural environment."
For believers, the Pope continued, preservation of the environment takes on a special importance insofar as the world is seen as the design of the Creator. Mankind, he pointed out, was commissioned by God to act as steward for the earth's resources, and guardian of God's "creative work."
The Pope also recognized the presence of several officials of NATO, and encouraged them to "always see your professional work in terms of preserving and promoting peace."
The Pope said that the work of peacemakers is particularly vital "at a time when tensions and conflicts continue to threaten certain regions of the world." During his catechetical discussion, on the signs of hope around the world, the Holy Father had mentioned "efforts to restore peace and justice especially where they have been violated," and "the will to reconciliation and solidarity among different peoples."
Those signs of hope, he noted, come at the end of a century marked by "the immense tragedy of two world wars." The harsh lessons of the century, the Pope argued, have helped to sensitize the human conscience, which today "sees the persistence of unjust conditions, underdevelopment, and violations of human rights as intolerable crimes."
The solution to those unjust situations, the Pope concluded, should be found not in warfare but in dialogue, solidarity, mutual respect, and development.
"Franciscan University considers it a privilege to award the Poverello Medal to Sister Peter Claver Fahy," said Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, president of Franciscan University. "Throughout her life she has demonstrated a St. Francis-like charity and has brought healing, strength, and empowerment to thousands of God's little ones."
The twelfth of 14 children, Hannah Elizabeth Fahy was born to Sarah Jonas, a convert from Judaism, and Thomas Fahy, an Irish immigrant. At age 26 she joined the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, taking the name of "Peter Claver" for the Spanish-born Jesuit who ministered to African-Americans. She has spent the last 73 years serving the poor, abandoned, neglected, and imprisoned.
Sister Fahy evangelized, taught school, and organized charitable organizations for the poor and oppressed throughout this century in New Jersey, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Georgia, including missions for African-Americans in New Jersey, on the Choctaw Indian Reservation in Mississippi, and Hospitality Houses for battered women and children in Pennsylvania and Georgia. She continues to serve in ministry as she approaches 100 years old, beginning a prayer and Scripture group for inmates in last year.
The Poverello Medal, named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, patron of the University, symbolizes the spirit of charity that filled the saint's life. Previous Poverello Medal recipients include Dr. Jonas E. Salk, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, Ferdinand Mahfood, the Salvation Army, and Special Olympics.