Although they shelved a strongly debated statement on the economy, the U.S. bishops’ approved moving ahead with the reorganization of their communications department, and the publication of documents on preaching and confession.
The bishops voted by a margin of 202-25 to hire a director of public affairs to help improve the conference’s communications effectiveness and strategy.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained that while all the details of the position have not been finalized, “the potential for being a spokesperson would be part of his or her job description.”
He explained that the person who fills the new position will coordinate communications efforts and will be able to speak to the media for the bishops, directing them to relevant statements by the bishops and applicable Church teaching.
The bishops voted in favor of creating the position on Nov.13, the second day of their fall general assembly in Baltimore.
The meeting also included a lengthy and intense discussion about a proposed document entitled "The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times."
The bishops had authorized the drafting of the document at their gathering last June, agreeing that a timely statement on poverty and the economy was necessary.
Rather than a major document, the bishops called for a brief pastoral message of about 12-15 pages, expressing concern and solidarity for those struggling under the current economy and offering them hope in Christ.
Because it was agreed that the timeliness of the message was key, the bishops authorized its drafting under an abbreviated schedule.
The proposed statement prompted a lively debate over what the scope and content of such a document should include. While several bishops voiced support for the idea behind the statement, there was also suggestion that it could be improved with more time.
Several bishops posited that this may be a good time to revisit their previous statements on the economy in the context of modern circumstances.
Others suggested that the topics of tax reform and unions should be discussed at greater length, along with the proper role of government in aiding those in poverty.
The question of how these various topics could be adequately covered while remaining in the allotted page length was repeatedly raised. Some recommended the creation of shorter pamphlets instead, allowing for better dissemination among the faithful.
With Cardinal Dolan warning that “we get burned if we rush documents,” the bishops ultimately rejected the document, while also noting that some other type of statement could still be proposed with a clear consensus on what the bishops expect.
A document entitled “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: the Sunday Homily” was accepted by the bishops in an effort to renew and revitalize preaching during the Mass. Homilies must always be a Christ-centered “summons to conversion,” presented with love an offering the truths of the faith, it said.
“The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord,” the document explained.
The bishops also approved a short document inviting all Catholics to participate regularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, particularly during the Lenten season.
The document draws the connection between Penance and the New Evangelization and expresses the Church’s eagerness to welcome those who have been away from confession for a significant length of time, as well as those who struggle with hesitation or uncertainty about the sacrament.
During the meeting, the bishops also approved their 2013 budget and heard reports on conference work in the areas of cultural diversity, national collections and Haiti earthquake relief efforts.
A new national collection for the Archdiocese for the Military Services was approved, as well as creating new staff positions in the National Religious Retirement Office and the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.
They also passed a strategic plan for 2013-2016, which is centered on the New Evangelization and emphasizes faith, worship and witness. The plan includes detailed areas of focus for each year, covering topics such as marriage and family life, sacraments, faith in the public square, migration, cultural diversity and respect for life.
A measure to add the optional memorial of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos to the U.S. liturgical calendar also received approval from the bishops.
Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, Ala., said that Fr. Seelos holds “contemporary significance” because he was “remarkable in his pastoral zeal” and “came to serve this country because of the need.”
“(T)hat can be a source of encouragement to our seminarians and our priests who come to us from other countries,” he observed.
Discussion of the HHS contraception mandate also came up during the second day of the meeting, with Cardinal Dolan explaining that the conference remains committed to its principles, even as the mandate’s Aug. 2013 implementation date for religious organizations draws closer.
“Right now I can tell you, the only thing we’re certainly prepared to do is not give in, not violate our consciences, and not obey what we consider to be something immoral,” he said at a press conference, adding that this conviction “would have an enthusiastic unity among the bishops.”
Throughout different dioceses, bishops are currently talking to people who work in charity, health care and education in order “to see what options are open to us,” he explained.
“No door is closed, except the door to capitulation,” he said.