Catholic bishops are focusing on the many Catholics who
misunderstand or disregard church teaching, instructing them
on beliefs about homosexuality, marriage,
contraception, and Holy Communion. In a national
meeting to start Monday in Baltimore, the bishops were to
consider new guidelines on ministry to gay parishioners,
explaining the theological underpinnings of the
Catholic mandate that marriage must be limited to one
man and one woman.
The prelates were also to take up documents on
worthiness for receiving Communion and on the church's
widely ignored ban on artificial contraception.
Surveys have found that only about 4% of Catholic married
couples of childbearing age use natural birth control,
according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The attention to core teachings comes as the 64
million-member U.S. branch of the church faces a
shortage of priests, low rates of Mass attendance, and
a massive influx of Hispanic immigrants. Diocesan budgets
are stretched thin. Bishops nationwide have been closing
older parishes that are too expensive to maintain
while trying to cover rising costs for operating their schools.
Several dioceses are still negotiating
settlements in the millions of dollars over claims of
clergy sex abuse. The cases of three of the four
dioceses that have sought bankruptcy protection from
molestation claims remain unresolved.
To adjust to these pressures, the bishops this
week will consider restructuring the conference's
Washington, D.C., headquarters. Under the
proposal, American dioceses would send less money to the
conference, which would in turn cut jobs and committees.
Bishops have complained for years that the funds
they turn over for conference work are badly needed in
their home dioceses. Others consider the large
conference staff unnecessary, a hangover from its heyday in
the early 1980s when revered Chicago cardinal Joseph
Bernardin was guiding conference work and the prelates
undertook such ambitious projects as the pastoral
letter on nuclear war called ''The Challenge of Peace.''
The bishops have proposed a new set of
priorities for their streamlined conference through
2011, including an initiative supporting
traditional marriage, increasing the number of
candidates for the priesthood, and improving education
for Catholics on church teaching.
The meeting runs through Thursday, but the
bishops have decided to conduct more business than
usual behind closed doors. This week, public sessions
will end Tuesday. In previous years the conference held only
a half-day executive session at its fall meeting, but
a spokeswoman said the extra time was needed for
''prayer and reflection.'' (Rachel Zoll, AP)