The nation's Roman Catholic bishops agreed today to make the recommendations of last October's controversial grass-roots Call to Action conference the basis for a five-year action program in the American church.
But a 4,500-word formal statement of response by the bishops to the unprecedented Call to Action consultation rejected any challenge to traditional church doctrine and discipline in such areas as birth control, married priests and ordination of women.
By their action today the bishops formally committed themselves to a continuing process of consultation with lay men and women, priests, nuns and religious brothers in deciding church affairs.
"Shared responsibility is in," Bishop James S. Rausche of Phoenix said in reply to a request to summarize the significance of today's action.
Bishop Rausch - until last March the general secretary of the hierarchy - was a strong supporter of the Call to Action conference, which itself completed a two-year process of consultation and soundings in communities throughout the country.
The Detroit Call to Action conference, attended by 1,304 delegates from all levels of the church, produced 182 recommendations for action, ranging from a call for opening the priesthood to women and married men to demands that the church support government efforts in such diverse fields as housing, international affairs and human rights.
The bishops voted to assign each recommendation to appropriate committees of the hierarchy for study and possible implementation.
In addition, they adopted their formal statement of response to the Call to Action, which, among other things, establishes an ad hoc committee of the hierarchy to make sure the Detroit recommendations are not swept under the rug.
In their statement the bishops disposed of the Call to Action appeal for women priests by "affirming" the Vatican's January statement precluding that.
An amendment by Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy of Baltimore, acknowledging the "fact that many persons find difficulty with the reasons for that decision" and pledging continued study of the issue, was defeated.
Any commitment to study the issue "will be used as a side-door entrance to reopen the question of ordaining women," complained the Most Rev. Abel Caillouet, retired auxiliary bishop of New Orlanes. "There is a group [of women] that simply wants what they want regardless," he said.
While the bishops rejected attempts to ease their Vatican-backed stand against women priests, they did accept an amendment by Archbishop William Borders calling for "further study and clarificiation of these issues" which he suggested "might allay some of the anguish felt by many whose love for the church is unquestioned."
On birth control, today's bishops' statement says, "We have frequently expressed our fidelity to the churches' teaching on birth control . . . we have urged and urged again prayerful reflection concerning the necessity to live according to this teaching."
The bishops also concurred "with the long-standing view of the church" upholding the rule of celibacy for priests.
The bishops made it clear throughout the statement that it is their responsibility to interpret chuch doctrine for the faithful. Bishops, they say, "are teachers endowed with the authority of Christ. . . ."
Any conflict "between a few of the recommendations and what the church teaches," they said, "underlines our responsibility to express this teaching more clearly and effectively. As bishops we cannot compromise Catholic teaching."
This bishops' debate on the role of women was interrupted briefly when a piece of accoustic tile felt from the ceiling of the Palmer House hotel ballroom where they were meeting. It narrowly missed Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego, who tangled with feminists several years ago when he refused to give communion to women in his congregation who belonged to the National Organization of Women.