updated 11/13/2006 4:27:57 PM ET 2006-11-13T21:27:57

America’s Roman Catholic bishops are focusing on the many Catholics who misunderstand or disregard church teaching, instructing them on beliefs about homosexuality, marriage, contraception and Holy Communion.

In a national meeting that began Monday in Baltimore, the bishops were to consider new guidelines on ministry to gay parishioners, explaining the theological underpinnings of the Catholic mandate that marriage must be limited to one man and one woman.

The prelates were also to take up documents on worthiness for receiving Communion and on the church’s widely ignored ban on artificial contraception. Surveys have found that only about 4 percent of Catholic married couples of childbearing age use natural birth control, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Top bishop: Sexuality debased
In an opening address, the leader of America’s Roman Catholic bishops called his colleagues to fight against a coarseness that he said was infecting the church and society at large, and to unite in promoting human dignity through faith.

Bishop William Skylstad said “debasing personal attacks” have replaced healthy public debate, and that popular culture and the news media have degraded human dignity with violence and vulgar depictions of sex.

“There is a mocking reduction of sexuality, debasing it from God’s beautiful gift of creation to little more than casual chemistry and inconsequential recreation,” said Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Sometimes it seems that people are no longer seen as children of God but as little more than a disposable commodity.”

Skylstad, of Spokane, Wash., said he has also detected a cruelty in discussions within the church, among people who “presume the worst of intentions or motivations of others.”

“The point seems to be not to seek the truth or to build up the Body of Christ, but to strive for a sort of victory by overcoming others, preferably by crushing those who disagree,” he said. “Our unity cannot simply devolve into an endless debate that would keep us from articulating our faith in a definitive way.”

Church troubles
The attention to core teachings comes as the 64 million-member American church faces a shortage of priests, low rates of Mass attendance and a massive influx of Hispanic immigrants.

Diocesan budgets are stretched thin. Bishops nationwide have been closing older parishes that are too expensive to maintain, while trying to cover rising costs for operating their schools. And several dioceses are still negotiating settlements in the millions of dollars over claims of clergy sex abuse. The cases of three of the four dioceses that have sought bankruptcy protection from molestation claims remain unresolved.

To adjust these pressures, the bishops this week will consider restructuring the conference’s Washington headquarters. Under the proposal, American dioceses would send less money to the conference, which would in turn cut jobs and committees.

Bishops have complained for years that the funds they turn over for conference work are badly needed in their home dioceses. Others consider the large conference staff unnecessary, a hangover from its heyday in the early 1980s when revered Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was guiding conference work and the prelates undertook such ambitious projects as the pastoral letter on nuclear war called “The Challenge of Peace.”

The bishops have proposed a new set of priorities for their streamlined conference through 2011, including an initiative supporting marriage, increasing the number of candidates for the priesthood and improving education for Catholics on church teaching.

The meeting runs through Thursday, but the bishops have decided to conduct more business than usual behind closed doors. This week, public sessions will end Tuesday. In previous years, the conference only held a half-day executive session at its fall meeting, but a spokeswoman said the extra time was needed for “prayer and reflection.”

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