Report by Luke Coppen
THE US BISHOPS have approved new guidelines which set the standard for the design of churches in the new millennium.
The 108-page document is the first set of guidelines for the building and renovating of churches to be issued by the entire body of US bishops since the Second Vatican Council.
The guidelines state that all new churches must be designed in harmony with Church laws and serve the needs of the liturgy. They must also respect the local culture and "be beautiful".
The document incorporates updated rules on the place of the tabernacle contained in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Previously the Vatican had indicated a strong preference for placing the tabernacle in a side chapel. But the new instruction gives equal weight to placing the tabernacle in the sanctuary.
The importance the bishops attached to the new document, entitled Built of Living Stones, could be seen in the meticulous attention they paid to almost every phrase during their autumn meeting in Washington.
They submitted nearly 450 amendments to the text before and during meeting, over 300 of which were accepted.
The new text replaces the earlier guidelines, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, which were issued in 1978 by the bishops' liturgy committee.
It calls the process of building or renovating a church "one of the most significant and formative experiences in the life of a parish community".
Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Alabama, chairman of the committee, said that the new guidelines were timely and much needed. "The document is not perfect, but it is a good document," he said.
The bishops also debated rules for granting theologians a mandatum, or mandate, to teach in Catholic colleges.
America's liberal theologians have voiced concern over the rules which they see as an attack on intellectual freedom.
Their fears were expressed by Daniel Finn, of the Catholic Theological Society of America, who told the bishops that "the genius of Catholic colleges and universities" depended on a creative balance between faith and culture, which would be upset by the mandatum.
Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinatti, who is in charge of a committee preparing guidelines on the matzdatunt, said that the matter was so delicate that bishops needed to begin face-to-face talks with theologians to head off controversy.
He announced plans for a one-day national bishops' meeting next spring to reflect on local dialogues and make a final draft of the guidelines.
The bishops called on the US Congress and the new president to bring the nation's immigration laws and policies in line with the dignity and human rights of refugees. They urged the US to "revisit its historic roots" and re-examine its attitude towards new corners "in search of a better life".
"We believe the current configuration of our immigration laws combined with immigration policies pursued by our government in the last several years have had the negative effects of undermining the dignity of immigrants and dividing immigrant families," they said. The bishops made a fierce attack on the American criminal justice system, calling it "broken" and urging wholesale reform. They made their criticisms in a 48-page statement, entitled Responsibility. Rehabilitation and Restoration, which received their unanimous approval. The statement challenged the national trend to build more prisons, give stiffer sentences and increase the number of executions. It encouraged efforts to rebuild the lives of victims and offenders and to "reweave a broader social fabric of respect for life, civility, responsibility and reconciliation".
The bishops unanimously approved a statement accusing the Islamic regime of Sudan of "slavery, torture, executions, religious persecution [and] discriminatory laws" against its citizens.
"The violence and repression in Sudan cannot be allowed to continue," they said. "Sudan's political and military leaders must abandon their current path, which has only led to endless death and destruction."
For the first time ever the US bishops called for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, in a statement deploring recent violence in the Holy Land.
On the second day of the conference, more than 100 people were arrested in front of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in protest against the Church's teaching on homosexuality. The demonstrators claimed the Church was inciting "spiritual violence" against gays and lesbians. They had stood in silent vigil the day before as the bishops arrived for an evening Mass at the shrine.
For the full statements see www.nccbuscc.org