Voice Lessons: Weighing the moral authority of bishops

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.

Listen to an interview with Peter Steinfels.

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Andrew Russell
7 years 8 months ago
I cannot imagine any bishop that I am familiar with cringing in a corner because he does not want to appear to disagree with his peers, or agreeing with something so that he can fit in with the other bishops.
Michael Cassidy
7 years 8 months ago
Thanks to Peter Steinfels for a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of this important topic.  My own opinion — and it is nothing more, not backed by empirical evidence beyond my own experience and observation — is that the sexual abuse crisis has undermined not only the moral authority of the USCCB AND of individual bishops, but also the moral authority of the Pope and of bishops around the world.  In the vast majority of cases, no one in public life any longer cares what a bishop, or the nation's bishops together, have to say about any moral question.  To put it bluntly, in the aggregate, their credibility is shot. 

But I think there may be another phenomenon at work, too.  At most elections these days, we see polls which ask how people view Congress, and the results are almost universally dismal.  At the very same time, often in the same polls, people are asked about THEIR Congressperson, and the results are usually quite positive.  It may be —and I have only anecdotal evidence— that the same applies to many bishops.  Those who are locally well-respected continue to enjoy substantial moral authority in their own locale; while those who are viewed unfavorably (for whatever reason) have much less moral authority. 

This leaves unanswered the question of the relationship of individual bishops to their national conferences, but it seems that Peter has raised the right questions to be investigated here.  For the sake of the bishops and of the future of the Church, I hope that someone undertakes that research. 
Michael Cassidy
7 years 8 months ago
An afterthought:  Other religious denominations have bodies analogous to the USCCB.  However, I do not ever recall anyone raising the question about those bodies which George Weigel posed about our Bishops Conference.  In other words, it seems on the face of it that no else seems to have the problem of individual bishops (or their equivalent) feeling their authority is reduced by the existence of a national body.  This may have something to do with the nature of the decision-making processes used by other denominations, in contrast to our own.  Another research question. 
Michael Barberi
7 years 8 months ago
This issue with authority is not with individual bishops but with what constitutes true consesnsus of authority.

During the papacy of JP2, the authority of local conferences of bishops were curtained. Any public statement must be reviewed and approved by Rome.

At the conclusion of the 1980 Synod of Bishops, JP2 announced that all the bishops in the world speak in one voice that Humanae Vitae is the absolute moral truth (close, but my words). However, when some of the exchanges of bishops were made public, it was clear that many bishops were seriously questioning this encyclical. Many pointed to the significant gulf between obedience and disagreement among the laity. Many pushed for more consideration of the opinion of the sensus fideli. However, these remarks were largely ignored. Was the press statement by JP2 correct, or did many bishops remain silent in light of the will of JP2?

Given the unpresidented dissent to HV among bishops, priests, theologians and lay Catholics during the period 1968 and 1980, it is hard to imagine the all the bishops in the world were speaking in one voice at the conclusion of the 1980 Synod of Bishops. Credibility of such a statement was the issue and it remains so today.

Clearly the sex abuse scandal put a nail into a coffin that was already build called Authority. However, there is hope. History has taught us that the Catholic Church does survive these types of storms. Unfortunately, it takes decades or centuries for reform.

With respect to transforming authority from a ruler to aa servant of the people, and the true consensus of bishops, is to keep the converstaion moving in the right direction. This means choosing the right tone and words, least we fail to follow the example of Christ.

There are many bishops, theologians, priests and lay Catholics that work for the reform of authority. This means not only its structure and administration, but the content and meaning of what is presented as authoritative.
Jerry Slevin
7 years 8 months ago
BISHOPS AUTHORITY WAS MORTALLY WOUNDED AT VATICAN II. -(A) The only chance the bishops had for any real say died with John XXIII in June 1963. As must be clearly inferred  from John O'Malley's outstanding 2008 history of Vatican II,  Ratzinger's mentor, Frings, stung Ottaviani at the begiining of the 1st session in the fall of 1962. Frings, to the overwhelming cheers of the bishops, told Ottaviani in effect to dump the curia's draft proposals. When Ottaviani's old curial colleague, Montini, needed votes nine months later to become Paul VI in mid-1963, Ottaviani had the last word to Frings by helping his old colleague to get elected. Montini thereafter thwarted full collegiality and real curial reform. Wojtyla and Ratzinger made sure the collegial concept never breathed again. -(B) Typically, it takes you to the 12th paragraph to get to the elephant in the room, the abuse scandal. Even if some bishops really wanted to address clerical sex abuse, Wojtyla, Ratzinger and the curia's directives precluded this and still do. The US bishops' conference functions mainly as a social gathering of minor branch managers that does as the curia directs them to. Four months after the disasterous Philly Grand Jury Report, the US bishops made their first official response through the head of their child protection committee. At the Jay Report press conference a few days ago, Kupich astonishingly indicated he doesn't know what happened in Philly. He is waiting for Rigali to let him know! -(C) Separately, Richard McBrien signals in his recent NCR article that Wuerl, head of the US bishops' doctrinal committee, did not check with Dolan, the NY bishop, before Wuerl theologically mugged your Fordham colleague, Elizabeth Johnson. Now Wuerl is ignominously retreating. The US bishops at times seem less like a bishops conference than the clerical "keystone kops". -(D) The only hope is that some brave bishops will join in open discussions with other brave bishops, like Morris of Australia, about renewing our Church to a Church like the one the Apostles left behind. That Church had a collegial and democratic structure that discerned the infallible sense of the faithful. All bishops, not just curial bishops, are successors to the Apostles. Bishops must now come out of the shadows and take back our Church from a curia that has hijacked it. Archbishop LeFebvre showed how much the curia pays attention to valid ecclesiastical competition. -(D) I am disappointed neither you nor your wife deigned to reply to any of my e-mails last Spring. Perhaps, we could have advanced the dialogue sooner.   
Michael Barberi
7 years 8 months ago
Of course, the essay was about authority, not a dissertation on the crisis in the Church. Any blog comment will not do justice to the broader topic, but a I offer a few thoughts.

While Vatican II was a watershed moment in the Church, it lacked any type of definition, explanation or guidance on a theology of culture. This was particuliarly important in light of Gaudium et specs. The Church has been struggling ever since to reconcile the relationship between theology and culture. In the papacy of JP2, the split between theology and culture became the dichotomy between the culture of love/life and the culture of death. Modernity was another name for liberalism, religious indifferance and relativism. However, JP2 offered no explict analysis of the relationship between the truth of liberalism and the rise of religious indifference, and the climate of secularism and eithical relativism.

Human beings exist and are influenced by culture. They express themselves in a culture that is complex and multi-dimensional. Modernity is also relative. Why should one period of time be any more reflective of the truth than another? This is why it is important to understand culture and its relationship to theology.

Today, it is not an exaggeration that Catholics are Catholics in faith but Protestian in culture, especially with respect to sexual ethics. What the Church does not realize is the obvious. While the majority of Catholics disagree with many sexual ethical teachings, there is an equally large divide within the Church itself inclusive of priests, bishops, theologians and the wider laity. How can the Papal Magisterium condemn those who disagree as belonging with the culture of death, when many of its own heirarchy are in the same boat? 

We need a re-thinking of the meaning of authority, as well as a re-thinking of a theology of culture.

Craig McKee
7 years 8 months ago
Another case study best left to the experts and pundits:
Following both Steinfels' and Weigels' polemics, how then, might we situate/interpret the actions and writings of Erie Bishop Trautman with his highly competent and professional critique of the New Roman Missal Vox Clara translations and the subsequent treatment he received by the "rubber stamping" USCCB under the leadership of Cardinal George?
Keyran Moran
7 years 8 months ago
The moral authority of the RCC overall has-since 9-11-2001-sunk further and further on the most important issue of our time: the despotism of Israel-its slave-holding and murder of children, 410=meaning the destruction of 410 families.

And both John Paul and Benedict have become honorary Zionists-especially the second in his Ravensburg words.... when he followed the Israel line that hostility has a long history in Islam!

The RCC has been uniformily silent on Greater Israel's humiliation, torture, murder of the Palestinians, etc.. and the making of murder respectable.

The RCC from top down shares the shame of making murder respectable by its fear of Israel and the Lobby,

A friend of mine Ray Schroth, SJ,  received in these pages 93 slime letters for the most moderate suggestions for a one-state solution. But not a word of protest from the magazine or from the bishops.

But for not saying a word about Gaza is probably the most shameless cowardice in the RCC-comparable to the shamelessness of PM Livni,  who ordered the tanks and planes to go "wild" and to practice "pure hooliganism."

James Sheehan
7 years 8 months ago
The article poses an important question, what impact or authority do the bishops have in our American culture?   The answer is becoming clearer, they really have no credibility or authority.  The sex abuse crisis, and recent revelations on how review boards have ben bypassed, may be the final nail in the coffin.  Just look at how many dioceses have changed the names of their annual appeals from the "Bishop's Appeal" to the "Catholic Ministries Campaign" or to another name that hides that the money is going to the bishop.  People do not trust their bishops, and many people do not like their bishops.

I believe the bishops can only gain credibility again once their selection process is changed.   How can we honestly believe that this church is serious on reforming itself when Cardinal Law sits on the committee to select new bishops.  We need to go back to our roots when the members of the diocese, clergy and laity, had a more active voice in the selection of bishops.   Presently, we have men who fawned over and adored JPII and Benedict.   These men serve the pope and do not shepherd their people.  The new translations for the mass were a prime example of how they have no regard for the pastoral needs of their flock; their only concern is to please Rome.  How anybody can still respect them is beyond me.
Michael Barberi
7 years 8 months ago
What is most disturbing to most Catholics is that their voices are rarely heard. Case in point. I recently spoke to my Bishop's theologian about reviewing an essay I wrote regarding re-thinking contraception. I wanted to ensure the essay was balanced and reflected the Church's teachings, and another point of view. This theologian was not only annoyed with my request, but abruptly asserted "the book has been closed to the debate on contraception". End of discussion.

When an issue or doctrine of the Church is closed to debate, it is the same as saying the doctrine is infallible and non-reformable. If this position was followed by the Church in history, usery, slavery, the ends of marriage, captial punishment, torture (the inquistion), etc, would be with us today! Of course, along the way, the Church would have imploded.

In the past, sexual intercourse was only for procreation, intercourse during menstruation was a mortal sin, intercourse during pregnancy was forbidden, and intercourse had only one licit position. These beliefs were once common opinions of theologians and Church Hierarchy but had since been abandoned. Is our understanding of moral absolutes, like contraception, more conscious, more universal, and more complete than these obsolete principles?

Today we have significantly more serious issues where the Church's position hurts, rather than guides the faithful. Consider the Phoenix Case where a pregnancy was terminated to save the life of the mother when both the fetuse and the mother faced certain death (a sister was excommunicated because she approved of this decision that the local bishops insisted was abortion); the millions of serodiscordant couples where the HIV positive spouse wants to use a condom to protect the other spouse from this deadly disease (forbidden by the Church; the couple must practice celibacy); millions of divorced and remarried Catholics are refused receiving in the body of Christ through Eucharist Communion; homosexuals must practice a life of celibacy; couples with fertility problems cannot use in vitro fertilization and have a family; the list goes on and on.

The fact that the Church Hierarchy has lost all credibility with the laity, goes unanswered, leaving the informed Pilgrim with his or her conscience and God. We can only pray and work within the Church of Christ for respectful reform.
Timothy Ross
7 years 8 months ago
Interesting article. I also tend to think, that for the time being anyway, the credibility of the USCCB is "up in (holy) smoke". The long term question remains however, "What are the nature, origin and meanings of authority in the Church". That's a huge issue, and as it is answered, or not, in months and years to come, as the faithful grapple with their questions about how we got to this point, it will certainly be a "sticking point".  As Mr. Cassidy says above, (and as "politcs" are said to be), "It's always local". 
The elephant in the room here, is, (which Mr. Cassidy's second paragraph above speaks to), is that modern mostly educated people, are simply no longer culturally accomidated, in 2011, to being dictated to. Until, and unles, the Church returns to it's origins and accept that authority ultimately comes from the working of the Spirit, UP, not DOWN, through the members of the Body of Christ, the Midieval paradigm is going to be seen, and accepted, as an anachronism. There simply is no structure in place today that allows that to happen.
What we need to see is some courage, even by a few, who are willing to step out of their "occupationally obligated" lines, and let us know they are thinking for themselves.
Vincent Gaitley
7 years 8 months ago
What erodes the bishops' ability to get a hearing before Catholic laity and the general public?  Are you kidding?  Let's see, criminal negligence for one; suppression of dissent and complaint, for two.  Beyond that is the common and dreaded third reason...the utterly irrelevant and self-serving stupidity that passes for current teaching authority.  Not one of the Bishops is worth his miter, let alone his voice.  We are not listening, and we won't until the voices-and the throats speaking-change.
7 years 8 months ago
Anyone seriously interested in thetopic should also listen to Mr. Steinfels podcast now available at this website.
He is careful(in more ways than one perhaps) and quite perceptive,
I wish the author of the podcast had asked him about the inability of the Bishops to finish the pastoral on women, a topic he devotes some interest to in "A People Adrift," and what significance that had in the historical development of the question(s) he poses.
Dorothy Stein
7 years 7 months ago
Yes, it's true that Rep. Bettencourt, the Minority Leader of the NH House, posted a comment on his Facebook page calling Bishop John McCormack a "pedophile pimp."  The Bishop should have seen this coming, and should have sent a representative to speak for the Church's Social Justice Concerns.  Mr. Steinfels failed to mention that Rep. Bettencourt apologized publicly and privately to the Bishop and the Catholic community.  The far bigger problem is this entire region's history of scapegoating the Catholic Church for a social issue that has spiraled out of control.  For a vivid example, Google (with quotes) "Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?"


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