Bishops’ meetings won’t heal the U.S. church. We need a Fourth Plenary Council involving all Catholics.
The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore concluded in December 1884. Among its results was the standardized catechism known to generations of Catholics as the Baltimore Catechism. This meeting was the last of 13 councils of different kinds that took place in Baltimore between 1829 and 1884. These 13 councils made the United States one of the most conciliar places in the Catholic Church during that time—rooted, in part, in the country’s own democratic experiment.
Given all the challenges facing the Catholic Church in our country, we are far overdue for a moment in which the bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful of our country can discern together how to be the people of God in our time and place. It is time that we as a church convoke a Fourth Plenary Council of Baltimore. Given the work of practical preparation and spiritual conversion needed for such an event, it should be held in 2029, the 200th anniversary of the First Council of Baltimore in 1829. That will allow us to walk together in dialogue about the pastoral needs of our church.
It is time that we as a church convoke a Fourth Plenary Council of Baltimore, to allow us to walk together in dialogue about the pastoral needs of our church.
The most prominent of the many challenges before the church in the coming decades is the issue of clerical sexual abuse of minors and the enabling of that abuse by bishops, religious superiors and other church leaders. We have yet to acknowledge fully and address these sins, both past and present. Nor have we appropriately addressed the ongoing responses to survivors of clerical sexual abuse and other forms of sexual harassment and misconduct.
In recent years, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and too many other African Americans at the hands of police officers have finally begun conversations and raised people’s awareness of how deeply the institutions of the United States, including the church, are formed by histories of white supremacy and racial injustice. We have yet as a church to address collectively the structures of systemic racism and its effects upon all people of color, who either are or soon will be the majority of Roman Catholic Christians in the United States. Many of us have had our eyes opened to how white Catholics, who predominate in the leadership of dioceses, Catholic universities, parishes and other Catholic institutions (I include myself here as a white Catholic theologian), control major conversations and narratives, neglecting to listen to to the voices of Black, Latino, Native American, Middle Eastern and Asian–Pacific Islander Catholics in our country.
The church is also encountering significant demographic changes, met so far with haphazard responses or paralyzed inaction in many places. Institutions rooted in the Euro-American immigrant communities of the Northeast and Midwest are declining, and the growing voice and size of Catholic populations in the South and West offer challenges and opportunities for the church. Related to this is the broader question of how to evangelize, how to organize and structure our ministries and how to move forward in service to the Gospel of the reign of God in a United States whose politics, economy, social structures and norms are very different from the time of the last plenary council in 1884.
We sorely lack the space to discuss, with charity and generosity, the major issues and experiences that divide us.
A third issue calling for attention is the status and treatment of women in the church. Catholics in the United States are divided on questions regarding women’s ordination to the presbyterate and episcopate. But the questions of women’s ordination to the diaconate and the lack of women’s voices at the level of decision-making in our church urgently need to be addressed. A plenary council could open space for Catholic women to talk to each other, and to the church as a whole, about their hopes and fears for the future of the U.S. church and their involvement.
A fourth issue, implicit in the other three, is the way in which we are divided as Catholics. We sorely lack the space to discuss, with charity and generosity, the major issues and experiences that divide us. We need to voice our disagreements regarding gender, sexuality, politics, economics and environmental responsibility. We need a space wide enough to include Catholics often living on the margins of the church, from divorced and remarried Catholics and L.G.B.T. Catholics on one side to the self-identified “traditional” Catholics on the other. We need to hear from former Catholics why they chose to go elsewhere, and from new Catholics why they chose to join us. And we need to think through—with members of other Christian churches, members of other religious traditions and with all people of good will—how we can contribute to the common good of the church and of our common home.
We have yet as a church to address collectively the structures of systemic racism and its effects upon all people of color.
Why a Council?
Why have this conversation through a plenary council, rather than through some other institution? After all, we already have the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which regularly brings together the leaders of our church to determine ecclesiastical policy and pastoral plans. How would this be any different and not just another form of clerical body?
Even longer than we have had popes and primates in the church, we have had councils, or meetings of Christians for common discernment, dialogue and decision-making. Theology names the principle of this form of collective discernment “synodality.” While the clunkiness and unfamiliarity of the term suggest how little a role it has played in our church in recent centuries, a recent Vatican document stated that “synodality is an essential dimension of the church,” and Pope Francis has suggested that synodality is “what God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” And while many Catholics are aware of the “ecumenical” or “worldwide” councils of the church like Nicaea and Chalcedon, Trent, and the Second Vatican Council, fewer are aware of the practices of diocesan, regional and national councils that have marked our history.
Even longer than we have had popes and primates in the church, we have had councils.
As defined in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, a plenary council provides some advantages that other institutions, like the episcopal conference, do not. First, just as at the Second Vatican Council, bishops form the nucleus of the council, and they alone possess the right to a deliberative vote upon its final decrees. This makes the teachings of the council an official exercise of their collective teaching magisterium—unlike statements of the episcopal conference, which under current law are nonbinding on any particular bishop in his diocese.
Second, unlike the meetings of the U.S.C.C.B., a plenary council is a much wider gathering of people concerned with church issues in a particular region. Some members of the church must by law be invited to participate in the council: vicars from all the dioceses; representatives of the major superiors of religious communities, both male and female; heads of Catholic universities and faculties of theology and canon law; representatives of the heads of seminaries; and representatives of the presbyteral councils and pastoral councils of every diocese. In addition to these required participants, other invited members of the church—priests, deacons, religious, theologians and the lay faithful—may also be invited to join in the work of the council, as well as observers, like ecumenical and interreligious guests (Code of Canon Law, Canon 443).
It is true, though, that those who are not bishops do not have a “deliberative” vote, meaning that they do not vote to approve or reject particular documents; it would be difficult within current Catholic ecclesiology for the decrees to have the teaching authority they do without this limitation. But what canon law defines as the “consultative” vote or, better, “voice” of the other invitees gives them the ability to share their experiences and their knowledge with the council as a whole. Such participation potentially exceeds even that at Vatican II, when non-bishop speakers were generally few and far between. A gathering in which representatives of the breadth and depth of the Catholic clergy, religious and laity of the United States are present would be a unique opportunity for discerning the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, together with our bishops on the past, present and future of our church.
Councils are first and foremost a sacramental reality—they establish the communion of the church in a particular place and in real time.
Finally, and perhaps most important, councils, whether local or ecumenical, differ from other ecclesiastical and secular meetings in that they are first and foremost acts of prayer. The primary verb used of a council is not organized or convened or held, but celebrated. Decrees, decisions and documents have always been issued from councils, but unlike episcopal conference meetings or meetings of secular legislatures, councils are first and foremost a sacramental reality—they establish the communion of the church in a particular place and in real time. Rather than being a deliberative body at which some prayer occurs, they are a prayerful body at which some deliberating happens.
How Would a Council Work?
It is obvious just from the list of potential participants that such a meeting would not be an easy undertaking, as councils rarely have been in the history of the church. First, the council must not be an empty exercise in approving a set of outcomes predetermined before the participants arrive in Baltimore. Rather, if it is to be a real moment of collective discernment of the Catholics in the United States, it will need to begin with preparatory processes of dialogue and discernment within the dioceses, parishes and other communities of the United States.
In ecclesiological terms, the authority of the bishops teaching together in a council comes not only from their wisdom as individuals, with their own ideas and priorities, but as embodiments of the faith, life and witness of the Catholics in their own local church, their diocese. As the theologian Richard Gaillardetz has argued, embodying that faith requires bishops to be not only teachers but learners, who listen to the faith, experiences and questions of their own people. Doing this will require time, organization, episcopal and clerical commitments to a renewed way of exercising their ministry and, most of all, patience on all sides.
A pre-conciliar synodal process, done well, has catechetical potential for the faithful and for their pastors to learn how to talk to each other and to learn from each other. It might provide a chance for the renewal in form and function of diocesan presbyteral and pastoral councils, as well as parish pastoral councils, with more democratic engagement. If conducted with transparency and fairness, treating all the members of the church as stakeholders rather than consumers, as coworkers rather than children, preparation for a national plenary council could be a moment of growth and mature co-responsibility throughout the U.S. church.
A pre-conciliar synodal process has catechetical potential for the faithful and for their pastors to learn how to talk to each other and to learn from each other.
Another set of challenges involves the execution of the council. Councils have always operated with the expectation of consensus or virtual consensus rather than of a simple majority vote. While we may be less likely to see the eruptions of spontaneous unanimity described in the records of the early councils of the church, historians of Vatican II have noted how hard the church fathers worked to craft documents that would be acceptable to the vast majority of the members, and they usually made their decisions with the expectation of a two-thirds vote. Unfortunately, finding consensus through dialogue is not a skill set particularly well exercised currently in the United States, in or outside of our church. Sad evidence of this was just given at this June’s meeting of the U.S.C.C.B. Preparatory processes, including diocesan synods or regional councils, might help us start relearning synodal habits and practicing conciliar dialogue in the years leading up to the plenary council.
We also can look to other experiences of synodality, both positive and negative, for wisdom. The theologian Bradford Hinze, in his work on dialogue in the church, highlights the successes and failures of the most recent attempt at something like nationwide Catholic discernment, the Catholic Call to Action meeting of 1976, as well as the postconciliar experiences in collective discernment and decision-making pioneered by women’s religious communities. The five Encuentro processes of U.S. Hispanic Catholics since 1972 provide perhaps the most robust example of a national conversation begun at the local level, gathered together at the national level, and then returned for reception in local parishes, ministries and dioceses. Women’s religious communities in the United States have longstanding, hard-earned wisdom on consensus-based methods for leadership and collective discernment.
Like an injured athlete who has been in recovery, we have not exercised our synodal muscles in a long time.
In addition, national Catholic churches have experience in meeting together; German Catholics are meeting in synodal processes and the Australian Catholic Church will soon hold its own plenary council. Protestant communities that meet regularly in conferences or conventions, despite differences in structure and theology, provide helpful resources and longstanding experience for best practices in collective discernment. Learning from the successes and the failures of all these various experiences would assist in the plenary council’s execution.
Consensus-based synodical processes need open space to hear the voices of all, including the young and those whose voices have been less heard for a variety of reasons. A key safeguard here would be the selection of the invited participants of the council. On the one hand, many should be representative of the faith, life and witness of their local churches. At the same time, careful selection of invited participants from current and historically marginalized identities and from distinct communities of experience, including those most potentially challenging to the status quo, will be integral in preventing slippage from a pursuit of consensus to the feeble ratification of the status quo. Perhaps most important, given the predominance of male, white voices in the assembly led by our current bishops, the preferential selection of women and of Catholics of color as attendees would seem to be a requirement for the credibility and authenticity of a council.
Finally, the execution of a national council will require time for consideration, judgment and reception. While a plenary council is meant to be an event rather than a standing body or legislature, there is no law that requires that its business all be completed in one week or one weekend. Like Vatican II and the recent deliberations of the universal Synod of Bishops, meeting in several sessions, separated by a year for reception and feedback back in the local dioceses, might increase the value, authenticity and effectiveness of the council’s final results.
Consensus-based synodical processes need open space to hear the voices of all, including those whose voices have been less heard for a variety of reasons.
Why Baltimore? Why 2029?
One reason for holding a council in Baltimore in 2029 is the obvious symbolic resonance of returning to the place of the first plenary council two hundred years later to restart our life together as a synodal church. But while such symbolism might be important, that alone is not a sufficient reason.
Baltimore itself would provide an ideal crossroads of some of the major issues we need to talk about. It is not only the historical “first see” of the U.S. Catholic Church, it has also been historically a center for Black Catholics in the United States—in part because of the large numbers of their ancestors enslaved by Catholic laypeople, clergy and institutions. Baltimore is where Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015, and the intersection there of race, class and poverty make it a place where the church’s participation in systemic racism cannot be ignored. Baltimore is also a city facing many of the challenges found in Catholic dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest—challenges and opportunities for new ministries in the face of changing demographics, decreasing numbers of priests and seminarians, increasingly expensive infrastructure, increasing wealth inequality and financial hardship, and all the other realities of being a Catholic Church in a secular age.
Why wait until 2029? The answer, beyond the symbolism of the anniversary, is that we simply are not yet ready for such a meeting.
But the plenary council need not take place only in Baltimore. In addition to all of the preparatory work that would take place around the country, a council that had multiple sessions might continue the following year in another part of the country. One possibility might be to move to the often-forgotten original home of Roman Catholicism in what is now the United States, the American Southwest, where Spanish-speaking Catholics were already living and handing on the faith in the early 17th century. It would place our conversations with Hispanic and Native American Catholics in a wider perspective beyond the Euro-American story of U.S. Catholicism.
One might ask: If these issues are so pressing and the need so obvious, why wait until 2029? The answer, beyond the symbolism of the anniversary, is that we simply are not yet ready for such a meeting. Like an injured athlete who has been in recovery, we have not exercised our synodal muscles in a long time, and are likely to further injure ourselves and others without a bit more intense, graduated ecclesial therapy. A plenary council held before its time could lead to superficial, ineffective responses, to deeper conflict without consensus, to a clericalist rubber-stamping of proposals disconnected from the realities of Catholics in this country, or, if Twitter is any guide, to simply a whole lot of yelling at one another.
Beyond the need for much practical preparation, the deepest need for a successful council is a conversion of minds and hearts to synodality. If we simply import our political motivations of majority rule and power plays into a council or, conversely, maintain an entirely hierarchical conversation closed off from the input of the entire people of God, the council will fail, and fail spectacularly.
The calling of a plenary council is to remember that every council is an act of faith, hope and love.
“Synodality,” the Theological Commission wrote, “is not simply a working procedure, but the particular form in which the Church lives and operates,” as well as “a method of communitarian and apostolic discernment which is an expression of the very nature of the Church.” Growing spiritually into a recovery of that vision will take as much time and effort as practical considerations.
There are of course many reasons not to have a plenary council: the expense of the undertaking, the dangers of further division and schism, the potential for a failed council causing further damage to the life of the church, the risk of a poorly run process further marginalizing or disempowering laypeople or already marginalized stakeholders in our church. More arguments could probably be adduced. It could all go wrong so easily.
On the other hand, the challenges themselves are not going to go away, and addressing them collectively and synodally, with input from the widest possible range of the faithful and with the particular advantages that the mechanism of a plenary council provides, seems a better way of addressing them than ignoring them entirely or continuing to address them only within the structures currently in use.
Most fundamentally, the calling of a plenary council is to remember that every council is an act of faith, hope and love: faith in the God whose people we are; hope in the Holy Spirit’s guidance; and love of Christ and of those who Christ has made our sisters and brothers. It is also an act of faith in, hope in and love for the church and for one another, in this time and in this place. Councils are rarely called when things are going well. As in past times of ecclesial malaise and uncertainty, the risk of a council of this sort might be worth the potential of a new outpouring of grace for U.S. Catholics, now and for our future. It is time to celebrate another Council of Baltimore.