Not long after the U.S. bishops’ special assembly in Denver in June 2004, a journalist asked the home office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., whether the question of holding a plenary council and/or regional synod to deal with the crisis of the church from the scandal of sexual abuse was still on the table. Before the fact, it had been announced that the closed-door sessions in Denver would focus on that matter, but it got no mention after the event.
A U.S.C.C.B. official sent this reply to the journalist: I am told that the current plan aims for a decision to come in November and that the alternatives remain open. This meant that when the bishops had their fall business meeting in Washington, they would debate the pros and cons of the plenary council and regional synod and take a vote.
They didn’t. There was no debate and no vote on this question at the U.S.C.C.B. meeting in Washington last November. The archbishop who chaired the committee set up to look into the matter simply informed the bishops that the council and the synod were dead. There was not enough interest in Denver last June, he explained.
In the annals of official obfuscation, this incident is small potatoes. It can, perhaps, be explained as a snafu rather than deliberate deception. That aside, the plenary council and the regional synod may not have been good ideas anyway. But whether they were or were not is not the point. The point is that the episode, taken as a whole, reflects a troubling fact about the drift of things at the national level in the church in these days. More and more, the attitude appears to be that the church’s business is the bishops’ business and no one else’s; openness and a desire to involve others in church affairs seem to have become passé. It is worth considering why.
Considered in the light of the sexual abuse scandal, the current trend surely is strange. When confronted with that disaster, the U.S.C.C.B. declared its commitment to transparency. And last year, in its groundbreaking Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States, the National Review Board established by the bishops to monitor their response to the scandal had this to say: The bishops and other church leaders must listen to and be responsive to the concerns of the laity. To accomplish this, the hierarchy must act with less secrecy, more transparency and a greater openness to the gifts that all members of the church bring to her.
With regard to the matter of sexual abuse, the U.S.C.C.B. may have taken that to heart; on other matters, apparently not. The fate of the plenary council suggests that.
The idea surfaced in the summer of 2002, at the height of the abuse scandal. Eight bishops circulated a letter among their brothers suggesting such a high-level, decision-making assembly of the hierarchy to address two areas of concern that they said were central to the underlying crisis of the church in America: sexual morality and the acceptance and authentic implementation of the Second Vatican Council.
Eventually, it is said, more than 100 American bishops signed on to the proposal, at least to the extent of favoring its consideration. Later the suggestion for a regional synod of bishops was added to the mix, either in place of a plenary council or as preparation for it. The synod, it was argued, would offer a smaller, more controlled setting in which to set the agenda and ground rules for the larger assembly.
There have been three plenary councils in the history of the church in the United States up to this time. All three set important guidelines for the growing 19th-century church. The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, which was held in 1884, took preliminary steps toward the creation of The Catholic University of America and the writing of the famous Baltimore Catechism, which was to be the norm for Catholic religious education in the United States until the middle years of the century that followed.
Plenary councils are held at the discretion of the pope, and their decisions are subject to papal approval. Canon law specifies that only bishops have a vote, but other members of the church community also can attend and take part. At the Baltimore council in 1884, fewer than 100 people, including the bishops, took part. By some counts, a plenary council in this day and age might involve participation by 1,000 or more priests, religious and laity as well as the bishops. Some people think this is just as it should be; others regard it as a potential nightmare.
In a series of meetings running from November 2002 through last June, the U.S.C.C.B. weighed the merits of this proposal. The substantive discussion took place behind closed doors. Journalists and observers were excluded. As far as is known, bishops talked only with bishops about these complex and sensitive matters affecting the entire church.
Various explanations are given for the bishops’ growing practice of closing the doors to outsiders when conducting U.S.C.C.B. affairs. Probably the most compelling rationale is that they feel more at ease and speak more candidly to one another when reporters and observers are not listening in. Very likely that is true. But it raises at least three questions.
Which is more important, that bishops be comfortable or that they be accountable? Taking public stands and then taking flak often comes with leadership today.
Where decisions have an impact on everyone, does not everyone have a need and right to know what is going on? In the church, this appears to be a necessary corollary of the fundamental equality of all the members.
Aren’t these principles central elements in effective and genuinely transparent pastoral leadership in the church today? If not, it would be difficult to say why they are not.
At the U.S.C.C.B. meeting last November, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, O.S.B., of Indianapolis, chairman of the ad hoc committee looking into the plenary council, first broke the news to the bishops that their lack of enthusiasm for the plenary council and the regional synod the previous June had scotched the idea. No bishop raised any objection to that. Archbishop Buechlein then walked the bishops through a series of nonbinding votes intended to give U.S.C.C.B. planners a feel for where (the plenary council and the regional synod having been jettisoned) the bishops wish to go next in their ongoing reflections on the crisis of the church.
Where they wish to go, it appeared from the votes, is back into more closed-door discussions, perhaps at another special assembly in 2006 or 2007. This question presumably will be chewed over again when the U.S.C.C.B. next meets in Chicago this June.
One of the interesting features of Archbishop Buechlein’s report was a change, not previously announced, in the themes said to need discussing by the bishops. Three years ago the idea was to talk about sexual morality and fidelity to Vatican II. Now these topics have vanished, replaced by things like developing the church as communion and the preferential option for the poor in dioceses. Archbishop Buechlein said this change, like the abandonment of the plenary council and the regional synod, reflected the bishops’ closed-door deliberations last June.
These are worthy topics, no doubt, but they also are topics that are easy to talk about without having to do much except talk. They suggest no special sense of urgency.
Although these developments came as a surprise, journalists and observers at the November U.S.C.C.B. meeting generally reacted with a yawn. Two years of largely closed-door discussions apparently had killed off whatever interest might have existed regarding the bishops’ plans for dealing with the crisis of the church.
Perhaps, though, there really is no pressing need for the bishops to tackle the crisis head-on. The crisis may simply solve itselfthough not everyone would care to bet it will. But even if that does not happen, it is far from clear what the body of bishops collectively can do. A high-profile exercise like a plenary council or synod of bishops, with lobbying by interest groups and pressure from the media, might only make things worse. Good episcopal stewardship of local churches may be vastly more important in the long run.
Granted all that, there is something troubling about the recent pattern of events in and around the U.S.C.C.B.: from decision-making to talk; from participation by the people of God to bishops-only; from open to closed. Is this what is meant by more transparency?