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7 Things You Should Know About The Plenary Council

7 Things You Should Know About The Plenary Council

CRISIS Magazine - e-Letter

August 23, 2002


Dear Friend,

First, let me apologize for the delay in getting this e-letter out to you. Things have been very busy around the office with news breaking left and right. But finally, we've put together some information about the possible plenary council -- information you need to have a look at. If it happens, the council could be a landmark moment in the history of the Catholic Church in America.

But before I get to that, I wanted to mention a few other things that have come up since I last wrote to you:

* First, it seems we got their attention. Voice of the Faithful has come out with a response to the criticism they've received from some media outlets. Indeed, they singled out one group who referred to them as "wolves in sheep's clothing." That group, of course, would be us.

Well, their response is very revealing, I think. We'll have our own comments on it in the next e-letter. I promise, you don't want to miss that one.

* Mea Maxima Culpa. In the last e-letter, I referred to Nostra Aetate as a papal encyclical. Obviously, it was a document of Vatican II, not an encyclical. I type these out quickly and occasionally make mistakes. I do appreciate your corrections.

* An additional update on the last e-mail... William Cardinal Keeler, the head of the subcommittee that released the recent Jewish/Catholic reflections, now seems to be stepping back a bit from the document. He said Wednesday that the reflections do not represent the official position of the U.S. bishops. Nor do they even represent the position of the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

It appears that some bishops were none-too-pleased with the confusing document. I'm glad. As I commented in my last letter, while there may be some good points in the reflections, they're buried under a lot of unhelpful and ambiguous language. As a former college professor, I know that an effective teacher must learn to communicate complex subject matter clearly. In teaching us, the bishops need to do the same.

* And speaking of Catholic/Jewish relations, we were recently contacted by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. They held a program this week in New York -- a joint seminar sponsored by both the museum and the Archdiocese of New York. We had hoped to plug the event ahead of time (it featured several speakers, including two Holocaust survivors who had been saved by Catholics). Unfortunately, there were some delays here and we were unable to get you the dates in time.

Nevertheless, you should certainly visit the museum if you get the chance. The late and wonderful John Cardinal O'Connor was a big supporter and was present at the building's dedication. You can find information and directions at the organization's website:

Alright, as promised, here are the 7 Things You Need To Know About The Plenary Council. As you know, a few weeks ago, we told you about the secret letter sent by 8 bishops to their colleagues, calling for a plenary council. You may very well have questions about that (as I did myself). Hopefully, you'll find the answers here.

It seems all the more timely to be discussing the council now, given that the Vatican may not ratify the bishops' zero-tolerance document from their June meeting. The bishops need to start looking for other ways to deal with these current problems, and it looks more and more like a plenary council might be the best way.

I'll talk to you soon,


P.S. The September issue of CRISIS is in the mail right now. It features a blockbuster article on the abortion-breast cancer link...and the mainstream medical cover-up that keeps this link from being publicized. If you're already a subscriber, check your mailbox for this issue. If you're not yet a CRISIS reader, we'd love to have you on board. You can find out more here:

7 Things You Need To Know About The Plenary Council

1. What exactly is a plenary council?

In canon 439, a plenary council is described as "one [council] for all the particular churches of the same conference of bishops." It's different from a universal council for the obvious reason that it doesn't concern the universal Church. For example, Vatican II was a universal council affecting the Church everywhere; the plenary councils held in Baltimore in the 19th century affected only the Church in America. Plenary councils have quite an old history, however, being traced back as early as the fourth century. In those days, plenary councils were called for bishops of a certain region or kingdom that had common interests and concerns. For example, it was at the Councils of Milevis and Carthage in the fifth century that the heresy of Pelagianism was condemned.

2. How is a plenary council different from the bishops' biannual meetings?

The difference between these two types of meetings is in their focus. The bishops' conference defines its purpose on its website: "To unify, coordinate, encourage, promote and carry on Catholic activities in the United States; to organize and conduct religious, charitable and social welfare work at home and abroad; to aid in education; to care for immigrants; and generally to enter into and promote by education, publication and direction the objects of its being." In other words, the bishops' meetings are concerned more with the "administrative" details of carrying out these goals.

Plenary councils are broader in their approach and focus on teaching rather than implementation. Other topics of concern are discipline, reforming abuses, and "the progress of the Catholic cause." The letter to the bishops states that the aim of the proposed plenary council is "solemnly receiving the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium: 1) on the identity, life and ministry of bishops and priests, 2) on matters of sexual morality in general, 3) on celibate chastity, as an authentic form of human sexuality renewed by grace and a share in Christ's own spousal love for His Church."

Interestingly enough, it was a plenary council that first called for regular meetings of bishops. At the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866, it was decided that there should be "theological conferences of the priests, which will preserve the rudiments of the sacred science in the minds of all, promote a healthy and uniform method for the direction of souls, dispel mental inertia, and afford an opportunity for eliminating abuses." The Baltimore councils were a way to assess the problems of the Church when it wasn't yet an established American institution.

3. What is needed for a council to be held? Who convokes it?

First of all, the bishops' conference would have to vote on whether they want a plenary council. This vote would happen at a meeting of the bishops' conference; the letter recently circulated to all the American bishops asks that they support the movement to vote at their upcoming meeting in November. If a majority of bishops vote in favor of the idea, they'd then submit a request to the Holy See for permission to convene a council.

Usually after the Holy See grants permission, it's the responsibility of the bishops' conference to convoke the council. The letter to the bishops asks that the archbishops in particular be in charge of arranging the council. They'd determine where in the United States the council would be held, how long it would last, when it would be, and the agenda and questions that would be addressed. The bishops' conference would also select a president for the council (who must be approved by Rome).

4. How long would the council last? When would it be?

Experts we talked to said the council could last as long as the preparatory committee deemed necessary; there's really no telling. The preparatory committee would also be in charge of selecting a date, though it seems unlikely that it would happen before June 2003. If the conference decides to request a council, the preparatory committee would take the next six months to arrange the details of the meeting. They'd then present the date and final agenda proposal at the June 2003 bishops' meeting.

5. Who would attend the council?

ALL the people summoned to a council are required to attend. Those summoned include all bishops and archbishops of the U.S., diocesan administrators, representatives of cathedral chapters, abbots, and in some cases visiting bishops, provincials of religious orders, rectors at major seminaries, and even some priests who would serve as theologians and canonists. The council can also invite ordinary religious members, both men and women, and lay people, although they'd have a consultative vote only.

6. How binding are the decisions of a plenary council?

Since the council is seen as a "teaching council," its goal is to set forth the doctrine of the Church as it applies to a particular area at a particular time. In other words, their decisions would have the weight of Church teaching but wouldn't be considered infallible. Most likely, they wouldn't advocate specific legislation; their goal is to reaffirm traditional Church teaching.

The Holy See must recognize the decisions of the council before they can be promulgated. As I mentioned, they carry the weight of Church teaching, but a universal council or decision of the pope could overturn these decisions at a later date.

7. What are the chances that an extreme group of bishops could "hijack" the meeting to encourage their own agenda?

Some people have been skeptical of the idea of a plenary council because they fear that some bishops might take advantage of the opportunity to advance ideas that are out of line with Church doctrine. This is certainly a valid concern, and one that seems more likely if the conference at large is allowed to determine the direction of the meeting. However, the eight signatories of the secret letter called for the American ARCHBISHOPS to be in control of the meeting's agenda. Such a thing would make a "takeover" a lot less likely.

Whoever ends up arranging the council will be responsible for preparing and selecting the topics for the agenda. If the agenda is solid, the council will be as well. That's why we have to keep our eyes on the preparations. That will tell us a lot about the council's direction, even before it starts.


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Please forward this letter to anyone you think might benefit from it.


Crisis Magazine DC, US
Deal Hudson - Publisher, 202 861-7790




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