OVER THE past year or so, the American Catholic bishops have begun to worry about their own morale and mental health. In part, this grew out of their rising concern about morale among their priests, who are increasingly overworked in the wake of a continuing priest shortage.
The bishops face the same problems of overwork, stress and loneliness as their priests. They face additional stress because they catch it from both a pope who wants a more conservative church and a laity who want a more open one.
Morale wasn't on the agenda of the bishops' general meeting Nov. 12-15. But the meeting in Washington offered a dramatic picture of the state of the bishops' morale -- and it isn't good.
One incident was a vivid example of the growing ideological tensions within the church. Much of the coffee break conversation centered on Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, a leader of the progressive bishops.
Weakland was scheduled to receive an honorary degree from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, but the Vatican blocked it because of Weakland's criticisms of the anti-abortion movement. Catholic News Service quoted Vatican sources as saying the Vatican had done so after pressure from unnamed American bishops.
Two comments during floor discussion of a comprehensive statement on sex education also reflected tensions. One of the liberal bishops, Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, said his diocesan pastoral council had criticized the section on the church's teaching against birth control. Noting that the paper urged dissenters to listen to church leaders, he said church leaders should also listen to dissenters.
Then one of the most theologically conservative bishops, Austin Vaughan, a New York auxiliary, urged the bishops to table the sex ed statement for more consultation with parents. He said the bishops were celibate and aging and weren't parents and didn't know very much about either sex or children.
The bishops also seemed strained by the fact that they had delayed a vote on a controversial pastoral letter on women that has been in the works for seven years. Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill., chairman of the drafting committee, said the pastoral is "alive and well." But he acknowledged that there was "a great deal of uncomfortability on the part of the all-male bishops trying to write a pastoral on women. If we aren't done by 1999, we all quit," he said.
Two themes which ran through the meeting -- shortages of priests and shortages of money -- also seemed to be taking a toll on the bishops. Pilarczyk said the church is "in a time of testing" for the priesthood and made an apparent reference to the resignation of Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta after his admitted involvement with a woman there.
"Our priests are fewer and more is being demanded of them than ever before," he said in his presidential address. "Suspicions have been raised about their faithfulness to their commitments. There have been sad lapses, publicly known, touching even our own bishops' conference. There are consequent morale problems among some of our priests, perhaps even among some of us."
The emphasis of the just-concluded World Synod of Bishops on support for priestly identity led to the surprise defeat of a proposal to allow lay people to lead funeral services in the absence of a priest. The Vatican has said dioceses may do this and given national conferences power to make a blanket judgment. But Bishop Elden Curtis of Helena, Mont., chairman of the bishops' vocation committee, argued that establishing a national policy would create the impression that the bishops endorsed "priestless parishes." A number of other bishops agreed with Curtis and opposed the plan because they said it would weaken the priest's identity. The measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass, but didn't even get a majority; it lost 136 to 113. Money was a factor at the meeting in several ways. The bishops launched a new national collection to aid the church in Eastern Europe and a new fund-raising campaign for Catholic schools. The bishops rejected a proposal to divert some of the funds from their annual collection for Latin America to domestic Hispanic ministry.
Nothing that happened during the meeting suggests that there is anything on the horizon to lessen the pressures of money, manpower and divisiveness facing the bishops.