When a national conference of Catholic bishops habitually speaks with a common voice, does that undermine the leadership of individual bishops? The question has been raised ever since the Second Vatican Council gave those conferences official status and important although limited authority. It was raised in particular by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, who worried not only that such conferences could become a vehicle for nationalism but that their consensus statements might quell the uncompromising views of courageous bishops. He was thinking, of course, of the experience of Nazi Germany.
To my knowledge, neither the present pope nor any historian has yet offered evidence that a weaker conference of German bishops would have resulted in a stronger Catholic witness against the Nazi regime. But the question about the relationship between the collective and individual voice of bishops is a wider one. It has certainly been raised regarding the United States.
By most accounts, during the 1970s and 1980s the National Conference of Catholic Bishops here became a much more effective and influential presence in Catholic life and American society. Not everyone was pleased with this development, most visibly conservative Catholics unhappy with the major pastoral letters that the bishops’ conference issued on the morality of nuclear defense in 1983 and on American economic justice in 1986. One unhappy conservative at the time was George Weigel, who has recently claimed, “As the conference’s voice increased, that of individual bishops tended to decrease.”
Mr. Weigel, the quasi-official biographer of Pope John Paul II and a prominent commentator in both Catholic and secular media on things Catholic, made that claim last February in an article in First Things announcing that the nation’s bishops were at long last emerging from the grip of a “Bernardin Machine.” From 1968 to 1972, then-Bishop Joseph Bernardin served as general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops; as archbishop of Cincinnati he was president of the conference from 1974 to 1977; and as cardinal archbishop of Chicago he completed work on the conference’s nuclear defense pastoral and later articulated the “consistent ethic of life.” Mr. Weigel argued that the “Bernardin Machine” had condemned the church to a weak-kneed accommodation to the culture. His article, in my view, is a gross distortion of the past and a wrongheaded prescription for the future. I criticized its claims and not-so-covert political agenda in the May 20 issue of Commonweal.
Consider again that sentence, “As the conference’s voice increased, that of individual bishops tended to decrease.” The formula is catchy, but is it true? George Weigel provides no evidence—evidence that the voice of individual bishops actually decreased during Cardinal Bernardin’s heyday; evidence that, if it did decrease, the cause was the strengthening of the national conference. The claim, like others in his article, is pure speculation.
But the question he raises, even if polemically, is a good one. Is there an inverse relationship between the effective leadership of the bishops’ conference and that of individual bishops? Is this a zero-sum game, with only so much “voice” to go around? Or, on the contrary, is it possible that the stronger the voice of the bishops collectively, the stronger the voice of most bishops individually and locally?
What exactly is meant by voice, anyway? Credibility, moral authority, effective leadership? And how does one gauge whether it increases or decreases—not just for a few prominent bishops but for the great majority of the several hundred bishops, especially the heads of the nearly 200 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States? Measurement is not going to be easy.
Undoubtedly, the emergence after the council of a working bishops’ conference with its own elected officers diminished the special status of the nation’s handful of cardinals. And there is no question that various Vatican officials have lamented this fact. From their point of view, it is naturally appealing for the intermediaries between Rome and the American bishops to be individuals whom Rome had elevated rather than ones the bishops elected. Sometimes Vatican officials have also set themselves up as defenders of the individual bishop’s rights and responsibilities against the workings of the conference, and no doubt their theological concern was sincere. It is also possible to see in this defense something akin to a chief executive officer’s preference for bargaining with an individual worker rather than a union. Mr. Weigel’s formula seems to echo these views.
Gaining a Hearing
In A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (2003), I argued that during the period toward the end of the council and immediately afterward, the “voice” of the church was largely sounded not by bishops but by outspoken individuals, usually members of the clergy, who gained media attention for their highly visible roles in civil rights or antiwar protests, in opposing the reformed liturgy or in criticizing teachings on sexuality. The roster of these clergymen could include such different individuals as Hans Küng, Charles Curran, James Groppi, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Gommar de Pauw, William DuBay or even, in a far more establishment mode, Theodore Hesburgh.
During the 1970s and 1980s, however, as the bishops’ conference got its sea legs as an organization, it again placed the hierarchy at the helm of American Catholicism, opposing abortion, conducting nationwide hearings for the bicentennial year of 1976 and stirring national debates with those pastoral letters on nuclear armaments and economic justice. It was my impression that these developments, certainly in comparison with the preceding years, strengthened rather than diminished the “voice” of the vast majority of bishops locally as well as nationally.
Maybe I was wrong. Consider some preliminary work that one church historian has done on the impact on American Catholicism of controversial medical ethics cases during those crucial decades. James McCartin, a Seton Hall professor and author of Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics (Harvard, 2010), has been looking at cases involving decisions about end-of-life care, such as that of Karen Ann Quinlan in the mid-1970s and of Claire Conroy and Nancy Cruzan in the 1980s. Although local bishops offered measured “complex moral formulations” in such cases, those statements were drowned out by a pro-life movement roused by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) and viewing abortion and euthanasia as twin evils threatening American society. “A growing news media would make pro-life activists the predominant Catholic voice in public debates about terminal illness and dying,” Mr. McCartin said in a paper given recently; and eventually “as Catholic moral theology became swept up in the emerging culture wars of the 1970s, the authority of local bishops to pronounce on matters of crucial moral significance within their dioceses was significantly diminished.” Local bishops “would be made to cede public attention and authority to national organizations which frequently articulated moral positions lacking the characteristic nuance of Catholic moral reflection, positions that could be easily articulated to advance a point in the culture war.”
That, of course, is a very different narrative from Mr. Weigel’s; but it may not be the full story either. Bishops might have simultaneously lost “voice” in some areas but gained it in others. And how does one factor in developments like new attitudes and appointments from Rome under John Paul II or the mounting disaffection of much of the theological guild or the growth of aggressive and often well-funded organizations on both the left and the right that systematically denounced the bishops on questions of social policy, peacemaking, sexuality, abortion, ordination of women and married men, liturgical language, catechetics and so on?
I doubt that anyone would dispute that the sexual abuse scandal has done drastic damage to the voice of bishops over the last two decades. Before the scandal it would have been scarcely imaginable that a conservative Catholic state legislator in a highly Catholic state would defend budget cuts against a bishop’s complaint that they hurt the vulnerable by calling the bishop a “pedophile pimp.” Yet of the many causes of the sexual abuse scandal, one of them was certainly not that the bishops’ conference was too strong. Just the opposite. Efforts by the conference to address sexual abuse by clergy were consistently undermined by both the limits of the conference’s structure and authority and by the impediments raised by individual prelates. A more muscular conference two decades ago would probably have led to greater moral authority for bishops today.
The U. S. bishops’ conference appears weaker now than in the 1980s or even the 1990s. Its budget, staff, energy and confidence have been significantly reduced. This has indeed increased the visibility and influence of both the leading cardinals and of a few bishops who garner media attention by taking confrontational stances. But the idea that the voice of the episcopacy as a whole, whether collectively or individually, has been thereby strengthened is certainly questionable. So what does reinforce or erode their ability to gain a hearing among Catholics or the general public? I assume that the bishops are as interested in that puzzle as anyone else is. I hope they will make that a topic of serious study and not polemical opinion.
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