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Is a plenary council a good idea?

Catholic News Service

In response to requests from editors for a regular sampling of current commentary from around the Catholic press, here is an unsigned editorial titled "Is a plenary council a good idea?" from the Sept. 15 edition of Our Sunday Visitor national weekly newspaper.

In the wake of the ongoing scandals in the U.S. church, a diverse group of eight bishops and at least 50 co-signing bishops have petitioned that their call for a plenary council be put on the agenda of the bishops' November meeting. Church, the magazine of the National Pastoral Life Center, raised the same call in a recent editorial.

Why a plenary council now?

According to the bishops' proposal, such a council would be a means to address "the root causes" of the current crisis. Church magazine suggests that "the current challenges to the church in the United States cannot be addressed within ordinary structures."

The two proposals differ significantly on their proposed agendas. The bishops' proposal centers on identity, life and ministry of priests and bishops and the church's teachings on sexual morality and celibate chastity.

Church magazine wants the plenary council to look at lay roles and participation and institutional structures.

While the bishops can be expected to give these proposals significant attention in the next few months, we have some initial reflections.

First, the very existence of these calls confirms the growing feeling that the Dallas meeting was flawed in both its organization and conclusion. It was a media circus and a public humbling, and now the entire canonical mess surrounding "zero tolerance" has been dumped in the lap of Rome.

Second, it is hard not to see such calls as an implicit rebuke of the bishops' conference and its ability to effectively address the crisis. There seems to be a growing resentment in many quarters about what the conference has or has not done, and the plenary-council debate may become a referendum on the conference as well.

Third, with more than 1,000 possible participants, it is not clear that such a council will be a more highly effective deliberative body than the current conference. In addition, the media onslaught that overwhelmed Dallas is likely to be even more a factor at such a council. If the bishops are forced to work in the glare of minute-by-minute media coverage, the council's mandate and focus risk being hijacked again.

Fourth, the range of agendas likely to be aired at such a forum will expose the divisions and fractures that already limit the effectiveness of the church's leadership in this country. After three decades of pretending such divisions do not exist or are not serious, it may be time for the church to welcome this opportunity, but it will be difficult to manage, much less control.

Finally, what will Rome's role be in such a council? We hope the Vatican's involvement from the beginning will strengthen the reforms to be adopted and send a message of unity and resolve rather than disarray and delay.

We share the concern of those bishops who feel the Catholic leadership in this country has not yet fully grappled with the implications of the current crisis in terms of dissent, homosexuality, chastity, priestly formation and episcopal leadership. We are concerned also that it has yet to face the implications of the looming shortage of active clergy.

The crisis certainly warrants a plenary council, but is the church prepared for what it may unleash?