If the nation's bishops thought they were going to have a quiet get-together last week in St. Louis, Mo., the site of their annual spring meeting, they were quickly disabused of that notion. The resignation of Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma Governor who was chair of the Conference of Catholic Bishops' lay review board, reopened the festering controversy over whether the church has adequately dealt with the scandal arising from allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Comfort-zone topics, such as the training of deacons, were discussed in sessions open to the public. But behind closed doors, the bishops explored an ambitious idea to help heal the church's wounds: the calling of a plenary council, a gathering of Roman Catholics, lay and cleric, from across the U.S., to discuss the sexual-abuse issue as well as other topics relating to the church's identity and mission. A growing number of bishops think such a drastic measure is the only way to get their church (and themselves) out of its spiraling moral and financial crisis. The move would be historic. A plenary council has not been called in the U.S. since 1884. That meeting, among other things, mandated publication of a national catechism and established the Roman collar as obligatory clerical dress. Any such meeting today, however, would come with risks. The agenda, controlled by the bishops and the Vatican, could well be dominated by conservatives hostile to any reform, turning the gathering into another public relations nightmare and further dividing the church. Still, the idea has its supporters. "It's a risk worth taking," says Scott Appleby, professor of church history at the University of Notre Dame. "There's a desperate need for a healthy dialogue that is consultative and representative. Without it, the church will continue to drift." --By Marguerite Michaels