This November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will set forth a new strategic plan. The notion of a unified national bishops’ conference addressing major issues is complicated, of course, because bishops remain independent actors in their own dioceses. Still, all organizations can be strengthened if they set clear goals and aggressively implement them. If the conference were to adopt some collective, achievable and useful strategic goals, what might those include? It is a thought experiment, to be sure, but here is a first attempt.
Develop 21st-century religious education tools. Ask any Catholic college president: our Catholic students arrive unable to list the seven sacraments. The students are reasonably confident that their Catholicism requires them to live a good life, perform public service, be charitable when asked and attend Sunday Mass with at least some regularity. They like the pope. But basic doctrine? Church organization? Our history? Nope. Methods of prayer? Catholic social teaching? Varieties of religious expression, from monasticism to charismatic? No again.
The truth is, our present methods of providing religious education fall short, and everyone knows it. We could, if we decided, develop powerful educational tools to enrich students’ knowledge and learning about their faith. Parishes could use those tools. Parents could homeschool with those tools. Catholics—from pre-school-age children to adults—would seek them out because they could be engaging and conveniently available in formats they desire and use.
Catholic publishers have made starts on this front, but every other sector of education seems to have more advanced online tools. If seed-funded by Catholic foundations and coordinated with Catholic publishers, the church in the United States could create something truly educational, sophisticated and even self-funding. If the bishops’ conference pulled everyone to the table, it could be a game changer.
Improve preaching.A study of former Catholic parishioners in Trenton, N.J., published in America (“Why They Left,” 4/30/12), identified poor preaching as the single most common complaint of Catholics who stopped attending church. And yet the solution is a relatively easy fix. The bishops should require eight semesters of preaching training—one each semester in the four-year seminary curriculum. That is what was required in my seminary. We were required to speak without notes from the first day and to view video recordings of ourselves with faculty feedback after every attempt. Eight semesters of feedback will raise the quality of preaching.
But then there is the matter of vacuous preaching. One does not always expect hard-earned wisdom from the newly ordained, but over time it is fair to expect real spiritual wisdom from one’s priest: insightful, soul-searing knowledge that recognizes the struggles within, gives language to them and shows one the growth opportunity that may be available in a faith context. One could hope that develops with experience, but that is not always the case. Years ago, feedback came mostly from the older pastor with whom young priests lived and worked. Young priests do not live with older pastors for very long anymore, though, and the feedback loop needs a new model. The conference could help provide some basic structure for ongoing feedback on preaching.
Strengthen ministry. While the bishops’ conference debates the future of ministry and how to provide sufficient numbers of ordained clergy, it would do well to improve the working conditions of the ministers already active.
This generation of diocesan priests loves their work, but they are feeling stretched. Salaries are low; retirements are challenging. Parish priests increasingly live alone and travel to multiple communities. They are worried that they have no recourse if an unfounded accusation is made in their direction. Non-native clergy and permanent deacons have admirably stepped forward to fill the church’s ministry needs. More than a few within those groups could benefit from well-designed programs to support them once they have been placed into ministry.
Lay pastoral ministry needs equal attention. Health care chaplains are generally paid a living wage, but campus ministers and high school chaplains less reliably so, and parish lay ministers, less still. All would benefit from some sort of educational loan program, which could be underwritten in connection with their work as chaplains in the years following their training. All would benefit from heightened status and attention, since they are now responsible for a great deal of the basic spiritual accompaniment the church provides.
Make Catholics proud.U.S. Catholics are proud of Pope Francis, but how about their U.S. church? Do they know that one out of six Americans get their health care from a Catholic institution, or that more than one out of five Americans living in poverty are served by Catholic Charities? Do they know Catholic schools are the largest provider of private K-to-12 education in the country, with almost two million students, and the largest provider of private higher education, enrolling nearly one million students? Or that the national Catholic school graduation rate is 99.4 percent of high school students? And that of these graduates, 84.9 percent go on to college, compared with 39.5 percent of public school graduates?
Do they know that the Catholic Church is the largest resettler of refugees in the country? That U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services serves nearly 100 million people in need in 93 countries? That the Society of St. Vincent de Paul serves over 14 million people in need in the United States each year?
The Catholic Church is the most important nongovernmental source of social good in the nation, and almost no one knows it. Honestly, the bishops’ conference need not do a thing but begin a more effective public relations campaign. It is time to show ourselves to ourselves—and to the nation—and build some pride.
Attention must be paid, of course, to those matters that embarrass churchgoers. At the moment, that includes a perceived lingering resistance when it comes to protecting children. We all understand that a bishops’ conference cannot compel a local bishop to rigorously implement the revised Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, but a conference can chide, pressure, refuse to appoint a bishop to any committees and withhold other benefits of participation in the conference if one of their own refuses to comply. It is time for the conference to step up and use whatever collective powers it has at its disposal to compel nonconforming bishops to step in line on this. Like it or not, when it comes to child protection protocols, 98 percent compliance should be considered a scandal, not an accomplishment.
Adopt good business practices. The financial reserves parishes once assembled for a rainy day have been whittled away in recent years, as parishes spend more than they generate to make up for thinning collections. Dioceses are finding themselves supporting ever more parishes but unable to continue this support because their own finances are stretched. Some dioceses are stopping the pretense of calling financial help for parishes “loans,” since few expect the parishes ever to pay them back. Worse, the occasional media stories of parish collections being misspent and unaccounted for are said to be more common in practice than is realized.
To respond, most dioceses send new pastors to training in business affairs, but these programs are uneven and often cursory. The National Leadership Roundtable for Church Management has a set of standards that is a simple and powerful way to make sure a parish’s financial and management practices are strong. The bishops’ conference could do a great deal of long-term good—and avoid a great deal of future scandal—simply by creating an agreement among themselves to implement these standards in every parish in the United States.
It is time, too, to create strong, centralized diocesan systems of Catholic schooling (or perhaps even a national one), so that costs can be lowered through group purchasing, so that best practices can be implemented broadly and quickly and so that the larger system can “carry” schools in the poorer areas. These small local operations simply cannot survive on their own.
Fund theological education.This might sound surprising, but in fact, it is getting harder to find young theologians as well trained as those just a generation ago. When priests and religious were studying theology at the doctoral level, their tuition was fully underwritten by their religious order or diocese. This permitted them the luxury of a broad core curriculum of Scripture, philosophical groundings, church history, sacramental theology and spiritual practice. This gave context and meaning to everything they studied and showed how that doctrine shaped and gave rise to people’s spiritual lives and practices. These fortunate students specialized in a particular matter for their dissertations but only after a full and broad introduction to theology in its entirety.
That broad education mattered for many reasons, and not only because those theologians were called on to teach broad survey courses to university students. Theologians serve as experts for the entire enterprise. They are the content experts for the history of our religious knowledge, bringing it to bear on the questions we raise as a people. They teach those who will be ministers how to bring the best thinking of the church to bear in ministry. They teach the chaplains and catechists. They write the books that everyone turns to when they realize their religious answers are no longer sufficient for the complexities of adulthood. They are critical to the church’s life.
Today, when universities go looking to hire theologians, they find many lay specialists whose education was not underwritten by the church and who may have needed to get through their programs as quickly as possible to pay their expenses and meet family needs. People in such situations are good people and may well be good theologians, but they also may have been forced to approach their discipline narrowly as intellectual history or the sociological study of religion. These are valuable, but they do not fully serve the purposes for which the church desperately needs them.
That could change if the national bishops’ conference creates a funding plan for the next generation of lay theologians. If nothing is done, this invisible development will continue, to devastating effect for the American church.
Rebuild political capital. Pope Francis has done the bishops a favor when it comes to the media and the church’s political influence. Just two years ago, the typical media story was a version of “the church at war with itself.” Balanced or not, fair or not, the press repeated it ad nauseam.
With Francis’ election, the nation has found someone who inspires them. The U.S. church, especially its leadership, has a rare opportunity to restore some of its political capital by echoing Francis’ message and rebalancing some of its political energies toward the issues the pope speaks about, like immigration reform and environmental stewardship. To be effective, though, the tone must change. Experts will doubtlessly advise the use of warmth and humility, combined with the skilled use of personal example, as demonstrated so effectively by the pope.
Restructure the U.S.C.C.B. Unfortunately, the conference’s committee system prevents the organization from accomplishing ambitious collective goals. Committees set an agenda and staffers are expected to make progress on those items between meetings. But committees meet only twice a year and have a life cycle of three years before they receive new chairs and set fresh agendas. That makes a total of six meetings in all.
The conference’s history has countless examples of projects that were set aside, pocket-vetoed or simply lost track of because the committee structure stifles the setting and accomplishing of ambitious goals. The situation grew worse four years ago when a cost-saving restructuring simply combined committees but added no additional meetings.
It is time to bring in a proper management consulting firm and reorganize. Bishops should play strong oversight roles similar to corporate trustees, and expert staff should be recruited specifically for the goals to be accomplished. Many standing committees should be set aside and project-based task forces should be substituted. A strong executive committee of bishops as well as the individual task force chairs could receive regular updates on the major projects, give feedback and enable the projects to move faster.
Several of these larger ideas require funding, but my experience is that the easiest money to raise is for ambitious and important ideas. In the end, the point is a simple one. A few ambitious strategies and a bit of restructuring could make the bishops, and the church in the United States, more efficient and effective.