The private letter, dated July 18, was obtained last week by Crisis magazine, a monthly in Washington, and discussed in an e-mail sent Tuesday to 5,000 of its subscribers.
In the six-page letter, the eight bishops urge that the council be authorized at the hierarchy's November meeting and that firm plans be drawn up by next June. The letter does not propose a date for the council.
All of the U.S. bishops meet twice a year. However, a ``plenary council'' as proposed by the eight bishops would focus major attention on the issue of priests who molest children and would have broader participation. Besides all U.S. bishops, it could include lay members and representatives of religious orders and schools.
Crisis editor Deal Hudson said one of the signers provided the text, but he would not disclose the eight names. He said the group consists of four of the nation's 44 archbishops, three bishops who head dioceses, and one assistant bishop, but no cardinals. He said the eight represent ``a real spectrum'' of thinking within the hierarchy.
Hudson said he was releasing the information to promote such an event. His e-mail report said ``in 10 years or so, when this current crisis has hopefully faded away, we may look back on this letter as the event that triggered the renewal of the American Catholic Church.''
The letter has a conservative cast, since it says the bishops, in authorizing such a council, should affirm church teachings on birth control, sex and celibacy for priests. Liberal Catholics have said the church should respond to the crisis by reconsidering such questions.
According to the letter, the bishops' June meeting in Dallas was only a good start toward what needs to be done.
It says the council should ponder ``what has happened to the life and ministry of bishops and priests that makes us vulnerable to the failings that have humiliated us all,'' as well as how to preserve celibacy.
The last plenary council, in Baltimore, was noted for promoting the system of parochial schools.