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Don ClemmerOctober 14, 2021
Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago is pictured with children in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy John H. White)

As with most major events, the meetings of the Catholic bishops of the United States have not taken place in person since before the Covid-19 pandemic. But that has not kept the bishops from conducting the business of their semiannual general assemblies. Nor has it kept the meetings that have occurred—over Zoom—from becoming the object of heated focus and debate.

In June, the chairman of the doctrine committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., presented a proposal for his committee to draft a document on the Eucharist. Aimed at promoting a “eucharistic revival” among U.S. Catholics who have spent much of the pandemic away from the sacraments, the document originated as a recommendation of a conference task force set up in response to the election of Joe Biden, the second Catholic U.S. president and a supporter of legal abortion.

While Bishop Rhoades stressed that the document was not about any one person or group, the perception that the bishops were moving forward with a document that could be used to justify barring Mr. Biden and other Catholic politicians from Communion drew heavy pushback. The narrative that the bishops, amid a global pandemic, were now staking out and escalating an adversarial position with a new president over long-standing disagreements in policy was at odds with what had preceded it. The U.S.C.C.B. had adopted an engagement-driven approach to President Donald Trump, with cardinals even appearing in a White House photo op to celebrate an executive order on religious freedom, despite Mr. Trump’s bigoted rhetoric and harsh anti-immigrant policies. (Full disclosure: I served in the communications department of the U.S.C.C.B. from 2008 to 2016.)

“This last meeting was not quite, but approaching the Dallas meeting in terms of the notoriety and the attention,” said Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, N.M. “We really need to listen to the people.”

The meeting mentioned by Archbishop Wester was the June 2002 general assembly, at which the bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” commonly known as the Dallas Charter, in the wake of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

The proposal to draft the document on the Eucharist also proved volatile among the bishops themselves, with some 60 of them voting no. The conflicts surrounding the document made national headlines in the secular press. The following month, a survey sponsored by America in partnership with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that the U.S.C.C.B. was the least trusted group in a list of nine in terms of offering guidance on faith and morals. (The survey was conducted prior to the bishops’ meeting.) Only 35 percent of respondents who attend Mass weekly or more rated the group as “very trustworthy” in such matters. Women religious and parish priests were described as “very trustworthy” by 56 percent of the same demographic.

At their November general assembly, where the bishops will presumably vote on the next stage of the document on the Eucharist, they will also chart the next step on a path forward in their engagement with both the Biden administration and the culture at large. The meeting is likely to be closely followed by many Catholics, and the stakes appear to be high.

The bishops are heirs to a conference structure that has stood for over a century and amassed a significant track record in terms of Gospel-centered advocacy and action. The conference has also suffered more than its share of wounds, many of them self-inflicted. Now, in addition to policy questions, the bishops face questions about whether those structures still serve their purpose and the people of God. The bishops must answer for themselves the question many Catholics are already considering: Do the bishops have the capacity to achieve the unity needed to leverage the witness of the conference toward the common good?

Spirited Foundations

To establish a way forward, it helps to look back first at the origins of the bishops’ conference. While officially started in 1966 in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for the establishment of national bishops’ conferences, the history of the bishops’ conference and its accomplishments date back a century, to 1917 and the formation of the National Catholic War Council (later the National Catholic Welfare Conference). The formation of this council was spurred by the recognition among many bishops that they could be much more effective working cooperatively rather than singly in their dioceses. Operating in the devastating footprint of World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic, one product of this embryonic effort of Catholic humanitarian relief was a document called the “Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction” (1919).

To establish a way forward, it helps to look back first at the origins of the bishops’ conference.

Composed largely by Msgr. John A. Ryan, an influential Catholic social reformer and longtime staff member at the N.C.W.C., the bishops’ plan offered a guide for overhauling the nation’s social and economic policies that was based in part on Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” Among the plan’s defining features was a call for government intervention as an effective means for combating poverty, with proposals including pensions for senior citizens and unemployment insurance. It would eventually result in a sweeping reordering of American society when Msgr. Ryan reached out to the newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt and offered the bishops’ document as a blueprint for the New Deal.

In its postconciliar incarnation, the restructured and renamed National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference benefitted from the leadership of bishops like Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit (the new conference’s first president), Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco. “When he spoke at one of the plenary meetings, you could hear a pin drop,” said Archbishop Wester of his mentor Archbishop Quinn. “You didn’t even have to be president to have that kind of influence.”

“They set the conference off to a very strong beginning through their leadership. I would contend that they were highly inspired by the council,” said Bishop Richard Pates, retired bishop of Des Moines, Iowa.

“When I came into the conference, we were still close enough to Vatican II, so the prophetic words of ‘Gaudium et Spes,’ for example, were still ringing in our ears and touching our hearts,” said Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, retired bishop of Las Cruces, N.M., who was ordained a bishop in 1981. “The conference was deeply influenced then by the civil rights movement.”

Fruits of this early period included the bishops’ domestic antipoverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, started in 1970, which supports grassroots community organizing and economic development efforts to address root causes of poverty, as well as two major pastoral letters: “The Challenge of Peace” (1983) and “Economic Justice for All” (1986), which challenged the arms race and the unbridled capitalism of the Reagan era.

When you’re involved in helping the poor, involved in peacemaking, involved in a prophetic voice, you can’t help but rejoice.

“Those documents still stand, I believe, in terms of documents that really have a lasting influence,” said Bishop Pates. “Those were very, very exciting and really joyful times, because when you’re involved in helping the poor, involved in peacemaking, involved in a prophetic voice, you can’t help but rejoice,” said Bishop Ramirez. “We listened to a lot of voices...[and had] wonderful debates. We really listened with respect to one another.”

Prophet of Unity

As the bishops sought to respond to the signs of the times, their most storied efforts and accomplishments are still associated with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who served as the conference’s first general secretary (1968-72) and its third president (1974-77), and as archbishop of Chicago from 1982 until his death in 1996. Those who worked with Cardinal Bernardin cite his deep commitment to working toward unity among the bishops, a quality he wove into the fabric of the bishops’ conference.

Canon 447 of the Code of Canon Law, which addresses episcopal conferences, speaks of bishops who “jointly exercise certain pastoral functions” for the faithful of their territory “to promote the greater good.” Sharon Euart, R.S.M., a canon lawyer who served the conference as secretary for planning (1988-89) and as associate general secretary (1989-2001), notes, “The word ‘jointly’ is very important, [as is] the promotion of the greater good that the church can offer. I think those are two things that can sometimes get lost in the debate.”

Sister Euart and several bishops with whom I spoke recall Cardinal Bernardin and his conference staff working to engage in dialogue and incorporate the concerns of bishops like Cardinal John O’Connor of New York and Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans, who had concerns about the peace pastoral. “Cardinal Bernardin was always anxious to hear differences of opinion and to try to mold out of those differences an understanding of how to move forward,” said Bishop Gerald Kicanas, the retired bishop of Tucson, Ariz., and vice president of the U.S.C.C.B. from 2007 to 2010. Bishop Kicanas served as an auxiliary to Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago for the last two years of the cardinal’s life. “That’s what the conference is supposed to be, a place for dialogue and a place where working through those differences can take place.”

That’s what the conference is supposed to be, a place for dialogue and a place where working through those differences can take place.

“He loved the church. He was an eminent churchman. He was a man who was very prophetic,” Bishop Ramirez recalls of Cardinal Bernardin. “To me, he’s one of the great prophets that came out of the bishops’ conference.”

The Bernardin model of engagement also shaped other efforts of the conference, including foreign policy and interfaith dialogue. “Our credibility rested on the fact that the church is on the ground,” said Stephen Colecchi. Prior to his retirement in 2018, Mr. Colecchi served as director of international justice and peace, the lead staff person to one of the committees served by the U.S.C.C.B.’s sprawling Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. In that role, he accompanied the bishops both in their deliberations around global moral issues and in their engagement—often in person—with the church in countries across the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

“There’s a lived experience of walking with the people who will be impacted by policies,” said Mr. Colecchi, who cited policies like the renewal of the PEPFAR AIDS program in Africa and the agreement on a new START treaty regulating nuclear arms between the United States and Russia as moments where the witness of the bishops made a difference. “We went to places where there was conflict, where there was poverty, where there was disease. That’s where the church was on the front lines.”

Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis, Mo., who chaired the bishops’ecumenical and interreligious affairs committee from 2014 to 2017, similarly sees the good that the U.S.C.C.B.’s ethos and framework offer the world.

“Our ecumenical and interreligious work is a way of modeling how we can disagree with one another, but we can still work together—and civilly work together. And I think that’s a great model for the rest of society,” he said. “I would hope that for the church, we, clergy and laity alike, do not fall into that trap [of toxic polarized discourse], because it paralyzes the work of the kingdom.”

Cardinal Bernardin’s legacy of leadership has extended to his two immediate successors in Chicago: Cardinal Francis George and Cardinal Blase Cupich.

Cardinal Bernardin’s legacy of leadership has extended to his two immediate successors in Chicago: Cardinal Francis George, who served as conference president from 2007 to 2010, and Cardinal Blase Cupich, who embraces the Bernardin mantle of engaging the church’s entire teaching on the dignity of human life, as opposed to singling out abortion. Bishop Pates sees Cardinal Cupich as “trying to call us to a relationship of unity at a deeper level with the Holy Father.”

As the bishops prepared to debate the Eucharist proposal at the June meeting, a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, S.J., prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, urged the bishops not to rush the process, to discuss widely among themselves and to dialogue with members of civil society and episcopal conferences of other countries before drafting a document.

Bishop Pates understood this move to be the Vatican’s way of saying “think about the unintended consequences” and “see the ramifications beyond the local politics of the United States, because we are one church.” This, he says, will require more than a majority vote from the bishops; it will require a deep, authentic unity forged among their members. “How do we get together and achieve a common mind in the unity of the Spirit? I think the process is probably as determinative as the issue itself.”

Bishop Kicanas said he believes that the bishops must include voices from outside the conference. “Lay input is extremely important.... That’s who we’re trying to revive the Eucharist with,” he said. While Bishop Kicanas says the goal of reviving the Eucharist is admirable, “It’s hard to see how the general public...is going to receive this [document] in any other way than ‘Biden can’t go to Communion.’ I don’t know if it’s recoverable.”

Mark Brumley, president of the board of Guadalupe Associates and chief executive officer for Ignatius Press, notes that objections that were once raised to the bishops’ advocacy on peace and economic justice, such as “politicizing religion” and “politicizing the bishops’ ministry” are now hurled against the document on the Eucharist, “even though that document isn’t likely to focus on abortion.” The value Mr. Brumley sees in such a document would be to “provide pastors and other leaders something as a basis for renewing the conversation and for focusing attention and mobilizing support. To a large extent, it depends on whether the statement/document is faithful, pertinent, clear and practical. And whether conferences, dioceses, parishes, and lay faithful are mobilized to get behind it.”

Wounds on the Body

Throughout its years of existence, the U.S.C.C.B. has weathered blows from outside and within. One moment of crisis that had a significant negative impact on the influence of the bishops’ conference was the the crisis in 2002 over sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, which brought to light how, for decades, the U.S. hierarchy failed to protect children and young people from sexual predators among the clergy and often returned abusive priests to ministry. Bishop Kicanas asserts that the abuse crisis compromised the moral voice of the bishops. “I don’t think we can pretend that isn’t the reality,” he says.

The abuse crisis compromised the moral voice of the bishops.

But this experience also allowed the leadership gifts of others to shine, as the church hierarchy navigated the crisis. Now-Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington served as an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Bernardin for a decade. The high regard in which he is held among his brother bishops can be traced to the early 2000s, when as bishop of Belleville, Ill., he was elected U.S.C.C.B. president and led the bishops through the creation of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” at the meeting in Dallas in June 2002.

“He faced it directly.... It was a very progressive move. The church was in extraordinary, difficult times,” said Bishop Pates. “It was imperative that we have someone at the time that was able to marshal the troops, set a direction.... That’s going to sustain us for a long time.”

In 2019, after a 14-year tenure in Atlanta, then-Archbishop Gregory was appointed by Pope Francis to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, a role with proximity to the conference. In his new role, Cardinal Gregory has taken positions in tension with the prevailing direction of the U.S.C.C.B. under its current president, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. One disagreement that became public appeared in a letter signed by Cardinal Gregory and 66 other bishops earlier in 2021, asking Archbishop Gomez to delay any document from the bishops on the reception of the Eucharist.

External criticisms of the conference have often taken the form of attacks from fellow Catholics who take issue with the bishops’ postconciliar vision of their public witness. These have included criticism of the conference’s longstanding policy positions—such as those in favor of health care reform and comprehensive immigration reform—as well as charges that the Catholic Campaign for Human Development funded groups that advocate for abortion and same-sex marriage. But Bishop Pates, for one, says, “There always will be sideshows trying to exercise influence, because they may consider themselves principal recipients of the Holy Spirit,” says Bishop Pates. “It’s part of human nature.”

There always will be sideshows trying to exercise influence, because they may consider themselves principal recipients of the Holy Spirit.

But suspicion or outright rejection of the Bernardin approach to the bishops’ public witness has not been limited to lay Catholics. It was also reflected in the more doctrinaire style of bishops appointed by St. John Paul II in an effort to rein in what he saw as an out-of-control U.S. hierarchy.

Thomas Reese, S.J., author of a book on the conference, A Flock of Shepherds (1992), cites the failure of a third major pastoral letter, one on women, in the early 1990s as an inflection point for the conference.

“That was when Bernardin failed to hold the center for the first time,” Father Reese said. The bonds of unity that allowed for “The Challenge of Peace” and “Economic Justice for All” appeared broken—or at least greatly weakened.

The Road to Today

The structural functions of the U.S.C.C.B. remain more or less constant, but each generation of bishops faces the challenge of claiming and taking ownership of them. A defining moment in that regard occurred in November 2010, when the bishops at the Baltimore plenary meeting broke from their longstanding tradition of electing the conference vice president as their new president. The conference elected then-archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, passing over a Cardinal Bernardin protégé, Bishop Kicanas.

“The bishops’ conference is a product of the bishops themselves, plus the church environment that they’re existing in, and who gets appointed bishops has a tremendous impact on what the bishops’ conference ultimately does,” said Father Reese. “The defeat of Kicanas showed that enough appointments had been made to change the body of the bishops’ conference, so that the Bernardin people were simply pushed out of any leadership role or influence. That era was over.”

The ensuing era saw the bishops intensify their efforts to prevent same-sex marriage from being enshrined in U.S. law, as well as increased opposition to other protections for members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, as part of a new prioritization of religious freedom for the conference.

The conference has historically had a good capacity for self-correction.

Archbishop Wester said that the conference has historically had a good capacity for self-correction, but that “in the last 5-10 years that’s changed somewhat.... It’s not quite as quick to move back to the center again in some respects.” However, since Pope Francis’ election in 2013, the conference has seen a number of appointees who share his emphases on mercy, care for creation and accompaniment of people on the peripheries of both society and the church.

“Now we see a new pope with a different agenda, but it takes a long time to change the makeup of the U.S. episcopacy,” says Father Reese, noting that Francis has had eight years to name new bishops, while John Paul II and Benedict XVI had a combined 35. “It takes more than 10 years to turn around a bishops’ conference.”

During Francis’ papacy, the conference has come under fire—sometimes by bishops themselves—for insufficiently incorporating initiatives of Pope Francis, including his Year of Mercy, his apostolic exhortation on family life in 2016, “Amoris Laetitia,” and other efforts to emphasize the synodal process.

“There’s always that tension in the church between the centrality and the synodality,” said Archbishop Wester. But the irony is that the central authority—the pope—is now pushing the bishops to engage each other candidly amid their differences in a more collaborative fashion.

Collaborating in a public forum comes with additional challenges. The bishops’ process is by definition deliberative and seeks consensus, which tends to result in careful statements that reflect a majority opinion among the bishops, which in turn can be overwhelmed or ignored in a culture that needs a quick (and possibly hot) take on every issue. A deliberately worded and carefully distributed public statement faces an uphill battle for attention in a 24-hour news cycle.

“It’s difficult to understand the processes of the U.S.C.C.B. if we’re just looking at sound bites,” says Archbishop Rozanski, who made waves during the bishops’ June meeting with a motion that every bishop who wanted to weigh in on discussion of the proposal be given the time to speak. Archbishop Rozanski resists oversimplifying the dynamics of the U.S. hierarchy.

“Certainly, when you get that many bishops in a room, there is a diversity,” he says, noting that even if the bishops are of one mind, “We don’t share the same brain!” He adds, “When people say ‘You bishops!’ I kind of bristle, because I know it’s not a reality.”

There are many ideas on how the conference might move forward together.

But Father Reese is direct in drawing the contrast: “If we still had the bishops today that we had 30 years ago, we’d see them much more vocal on climate change, on racial justice, on those kinds of things.”

There are many ideas on how the conference might move forward together. Bishop Kicanas sees a new era in which statements without engagement are not effective.

“As a conference, there’s great need for humility,” Bishop Kicanas said, “Were [Cardinal Bernardin] in the conference today, he would be making a concerted effort to try to encourage bishops to spend time talking together and trying to learn together how we can bring about a renewal and a revival of the faith.... That doesn’t mean it’s going to be magically successful. But it’s a different way.”

“We’re not just a megaphone. We’re also an earpiece. We have to listen to the People of God,” Archbishop Wester said. “Let that guide much of what we do.”

Bishop Ramirez cited the witness of the bishops on immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border as a sign of hope; the issue of justice for migrants, he noted, still enjoys strong support in the conference.

Bishop Pates sees unity as the key issue—with the pope, among the bishops and with the worldwide church, working with the successor of Peter to implement Vatican II.

“In my experience, that’s where the manifestation of the Holy Spirit is most evident,” he said. “I’m very hopeful.”

Sister Euart’s hope is rooted in the lived experience of the conference working for the common good, but she cautions that it’s not something that happens automatically. “It’s not the structure that’s going to make it work,” she says, but rather the intentional choice of the bishops to invest in the hard work of unity—of engagement, trust, setting aside agendas and rediscovering the ability to dialogue with one another and get the assistance they need to address issues adequately.

That unity existed during the Bernardin era; it may be possible for it to exist again in the future. “I think the conference can work,” said Sister Euart. “I saw it work. I lived through it working and making a difference.”

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