US bishops debate issues
At their 15-18 November conference, the US National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) began considerations of an overhaul of the norms for design of churches in the United States. The Committee on Liturgy has produced a draft document entitled Domus Dei [God's house] in response to requests to overhaul Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), which has been the de facto standard since its promulgation in 1978.
While EACW appeals to Vatican II and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in many cases, it makes pastoral suggestions that go beyond what is contained in the official documents. However, many liturgists have taken the document to be binding, ordering the removal of statues and works of liturgical art from churches and the relocation of tabernacles from main altars.
The new document, not yet publicly available, as it is only a working copy, is being created to address these concerns. Over 30 Bishops spoke on the matter at the meeting, with Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe reporting that the congregation in one parish applauded when he asked them if they would like to have the Blessed Sacrament more present among them.
Not all the reactions have been so positive. In the 9 October issue of America, Nathan Mitchell, associate director for research at the Centre for Pastoral Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, praised the 1978 document and criticised the new one as being part of a movement "to reassert those ancient beliefs, liturgical rules, and devotional practices that once made Catholicism synonymous with certitude."
Domus Dei will not be published before there has been much discussion; but the effects will be felt in parishes throughout the United States. The vote on the new document should take place at next year's Bishops' meeting, in Autumn 2000.
Christianity in Britain
Latest statistics show further decline
Christianity in Britain faces a worsening crisis, according to two sets of figures published on 1 December.
The English Church Survey showed that Sunday attendance across all Christian denominations fell by 22 percent from 4,742,800 in 1989 to 3,714,700 last year. Only 19 percent of children under 15 now attend church, a decline from 25 percent a decade ago. And the number of older worshippers has increased from 900,000 to 950,000.
According to the Year 2000 edition of the National Catholic Directory, while the Catholic population has grown to an estimated 4.2 million, Mass attendance dropped by 30,000 over the last year to just 1,056,027.
The number of priests has also dropped to below 4,000 for the first time since 1950 and figures show an increasing reduction by "natural wastage" - elderly clergy dying faster than newly ordained are coming forward to replace them.
Bishop John Brewer of Lancaster, whose diocese includes the County of Lancashire - an area which remained Catholic throughout the Reformation and which has always been renowned for its large Catholic population - announced that churchgoing has almost halved in the last 15 years.
An editorial in the Catholic Times newspaper described the situation as "the worst crisis since the Reformation."
Third Rite norms issued
Rockhampton follows 'Statement of Conclusions' directive
A number of Australian dioceses in the lead-up to Advent 1999 - a liturgical period witnessing widespread use of the Third Rite of Reconciliation (general absolution) in recent years - issued guidelines on the Sacrament of penance. As with the document issued by Archbishop Faulkner of Adelaide last year, the new guidelines make clear that in normal Australian conditions there is no place for the Third Rite.
In the case of the Rockhampton Diocese, Bishop Brian Heenan circulated a document to his priests (dated 7 October 1999) titled Diocesan Norms concerning the use of the Sacrament of Penance in relation to the Third Rite (General Absolution). Similar documents were circulated in other dioceses, including Ballarat.
Bishop Heenan stated that "the existing practice in this Diocese fails to meet the criteria which are found in the Code of Canon Law" and which the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments had "now explained in greater detail."
The "sole ordinary means" for any Catholic "conscious of grave sin" to be "reconciled with God and with the Church" was through individual confession. Priests should ensure that "regular and frequently scheduled opportunities for confession are available in all parish churches ...". The social dimension of sin and reconciliation could be catered for during Lent and Advent with communal celebrations incorporating individual confession.
If "grave necessity" according to the requisites of Canon Law was thought to exist, permission for general absolution had to be sought from the bishop "on a case by case basis". This might include "wartime conditions", "danger of death", "a major disaster" or "isolated missions." The lengthy period of time a penitent might be denied opportunity for confession should exceed one month.
Bishop Heenan concluded: "All improvised and unauthorised practices must be resolutely set aside."
Catholic Church in Russia
Historic cathedral consecrated
In a historical event for Catholics in Russia, the consecration of the cathedral dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Blessed Mary took place on 12 December 1999. Cardinals and bishops from several European episcopates were present in the solemn ceremony, that constituted a significant landmark in the life of the Church in Russia.
Originally built in the year 1911, the cathedral was confiscated by Soviet authorities in 1936, divided and used as a factory and office building. Its condition was very dilapidated when it was finally returned to the Catholic Church three years ago.
The restoration was made possible thanks to the help of the Italian Bishops' Conference, as well as of diverse German dioceses and of the Bishops' Conference of the United States, together with individual contributions.
German bishops in Rome
Pope expresses his concerns
During a 20 November meeting with a group of German bishops, Pope John Paul II promised to use "clear and direct" language on a number of topics, including Church involvement in abortion counselling, the role of women in the Church, the distinction between laity and clergy, and the all-male priesthood.
The Pope fulfilled that promise in his discourse, which was delivered to the third group of German bishops making their ad limina visit. There were 15 bishops in this group, led by Cardinal Maximilian Sterzinsky of Berlin.
Addressing the Church-sponsored counselling agencies which serve women facing problem pregnancies, the Holy Father said that he hoped the German bishops would "very soon" find a "definitive" solution to their moral quandary. (The counselling centres have come under fire because they issue certificates which can be used, under German law, as a prerequisite for legal abortion. The Pontiff has repeatedly said that while the Church-sponsored agencies should continue counselling women, they should not issue certificates which could be used for obtaining an abortion.)
The Pope reiterated his belief that the Church should "encourage women in difficulty to not reject the new life they are carrying within themselves." At the same time he said: "It is essential that all the bishops of the Church maintain a unanimous and unequivocal witness against abortion."
Next, while conceding that some difficulties are caused by a shortage of priests, the Pope cautioned the bishops against "any steps to transform the lay state or the clerical state." He predicted that any blurring of the distinction between priests and laity would compound the decline in priestly vocations, thereby exacerbating the problem.
On the role of women, the Pope drew an important distinction: "Human and civil rights are different in nature from the rights, duties, and functions of ecclesial ministry." While men and women are equal before God, he continued, they may play different roles in the Church. Speaking particularly about the priestly ministry, he reminded the bishops that "the magisterium of the Church has made a decision" that the ordination of women is impossible, because it would be contrary to the mandate given by Jesus Christ, and that the Church "must obey the Lord's will."
Promoting religious life
APREL looks to the future
The annual meeting of the Association for the Promotion of Religious Life (APREL) was held at Randwick, Sydney, on 19 November, to elect office-bearers and discuss the present and future operations of the organisation.
Founded 15 years ago by religious and lay people, APREL aims "to promote, support and encourage communities of consecrated men and women to live their particular vocation in the Church authentically for the glory of God and the welfare of God's People."
APREL encourages prayer, sacrifice and "participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Adoration" in the cause of perseverence by religious men and women and for more vocations. Lay members are a reminder to faithful religious communities that their witness is valued.
The Association, with membership open to all, publishes a quarterly bulletin, and can be contacted via Sr M. Augustine Lane OP, Convent of Our Lady of the Rosary, Langham St, Ganmain, NSW 2702.
US Catholic universities
Bishops endorse tighter controls
The US Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved new norms for Catholic higher education on 17 November 1999 by a margin of 223-31. The norms are titled Ex Corde Ecclesiae: An Application to the United States (1999). Ex Corde Ecclesiae was the name given to Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution on Catholic colleges and universities, issued in 1990.
Despite the wide support for the norms among bishops, they remain controversial in the Catholic academic community. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee commented: "I believe passing this document now will create a pastoral disaster for the Church in the USA."
Most bishops clearly did not share his views. Supporters of the document argued that the norms are needed and have been sufficiently refined to deal with the most serious objections raised against earlier versions.
The document requires theologians teaching in Catholic colleges and universities to have a mandatum (or mandate) to teach from the proper Church authority, ordinarily the local bishop. It also calls on those institutions to declare their Catholic identity clearly in their governing documents and, where possible, to work towards having Catholics form the majority of their trustees and faculty.
The norms describe the mandatum as "fundamentally an acknowledgement by the Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is a teacher within the full communion of the Catholic Church."
Australian author's overseas recognition
On the abortifacient aspects of contraceptive pill
John Wilks is the author of the much-acclaimed book A Consumer's Guide to the Pill and Other Drugs, first published in 1996, with a revised edition published in the US in 1997.
In August 1999, an edited article by John Wilks was published in the (British) Catholic Medical Quarterly, in which he elaborates further on the abortifacient effects of the contraceptive pill. He describes the effects of the pill on the lining of the uterus, whether it is given once a day for so-called contraception, or in higher doses as "the morning after pill"
The full article will be published in the January 2000 issue of Ethics and Medicine, a US journal which explores bioethical subjects. The ethical aspect of the free use of these medications are quite complex. They encompass a knowledge of the physiological effects of the pill on ovulation and the cervical mucus, and on the integrity of the endometrium to facilitate implantation of a fertilised ovum, as well as the now well recognised effects on other organs of the body, that could imperil a woman's health or even her life.
Wilks' article focuses on ethical issues surrounding the latest scientific evidence on the unacceptable effects of such chemical substances.