Day two at the USCCB meeting

This article appears in the USCCB Fall 2014 feature series. View the full series.

In commenting on the synod on the family at the USCCB meeting yesterday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said there were two synods: the raucous, politicized, controversial synod portrayed by some, and the actual synod, which was a study in consensus, even a little dull. It is true that notwithstanding the comments of a few prelates, some who attended the synod and some who did not, they achieved a remarkable consensus at the synod. But the voices of the other prelates were loud and insistent, and we in the press did not make that up.

If I may borrow Cardinal Dolan's metaphor, there are two Catholic Churches in the U.S. today. One Church is thrilled by Pope Francis, glad not to feel that everything is their fault, happy that they no longer feel the lash of judgment because they cannot measure up to the moral standards articulated by certain conservative commentators, delighted to know that it is OK not to be obsessed exclusively by certain issues, even -- what was unimaginable for most just a short time ago -- proud to be Catholic again.

The other Church is meeting in the ballroom in Baltimore this week. There is no excitement. The agenda is very pre-"VatiLeaks". The obsession with abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage rolls on in dreary predictability. Everyone is "in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace," the very thing Pope Francis said would have worried him if it had characterized the recent synod. It characterizes the meeting of the USCCB so far. It is bizarre to me that the encomiums to Pope Francis are formulaic at best or absent entirely. So far as the public discussions go, you would not know that this is an interesting, let alone exciting, time to be a Catholic. The whole world knows. The cat is out of the bag. And the bishops seem to be asking, "What is a cat?"

Am I being too harsh? I don't think so. The poor did not get much of a mention from the podium, and even when they did, it did not ring true, as when Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone spoke about the relationship between poverty and the breakdown in marriage. There was no acknowledgement that people living in poverty have a harder time making marriages work. The acknowledgement was reversed, with the implication that maybe those people would not be so poor if they lived in the moral manner the bishops intend. +Cordileone always speaks with that air of moral superiority one encounters at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and over at The Catholic Thing.

And when did it become a sign of respect to refer to people in ways they do not, and would not, refer to themselves, e.g., "people who experience same-sex attraction"? In 2014, it is OK to say "gay people." In all my years working at Dupont Circle, I never heard someone say, "I am a person who experiences same-sex attraction." Who talks like this? It makes it seem as if the bishops say the word "gay," they will be infected somehow. And you do not have to be particularly morally sensitive to know that for people who were accused for centuries of the sin that "dare not speak its name," with all the ugly experiences of closeted life that flowed therefrom, refusing to say the word "gay" is exceedingly callous.

I was saddened that Archbishop Joseph Kurtz did not even mention the word "immigration" in his first presidential address. These texts are worked on by the staff, group-driven, and are rarely known for their eloquence, but they are usually comprehensive. The omission is especially strange seeing as concern for immigrants is not only an issue close to the Holy Father's heart, but because much of the summer, many of these bishops worked closely with their Catholic Charities to provide for the thousands of unaccompanied children coming across the border.

The omission is also bizarre because the bishops received some of their most powerful and positive media coverage in years on account of their care for the immigrant children. And earlier in the year, when several bishops traveled to the border near Tucson, Ariz., and said Mass at the fence, the images of Cardinal Sean O'Malley and Bishop Gerald Kicanas giving Holy Communion through the slats in the border fence were some of the most powerful images communicated to the Latino community, and to the rest of us, about the truth that in Christ there is no East nor West, no North nor South. The omission is glaring when you consider that a bipartisan immigration reform bill has been sitting on the desk the Speaker of the House for more than a year, and everyone knows the votes are there to pass it, but this Catholic politician need not fear any pressure from the bishops. How is one to interpret this omission? Was it a mere oversight? Or does it accurately reflect the priorities of the leadership of the conference?

I was not, at first, impressed by the nuncio's talk, but having reread it, it was better than I thought. His message was a very Pope Francis message, one of accompaniment. It was encouraging the bishops to be like Francis. I would have liked it better if he had been explicit -- as Catholics, still more as Catholic bishops, there is no unity apart from Peter. Still, he said, "Our young people today clearly are looking for a challenge, a goal, a purpose. They need to find meaning in their lives. They need to be attracted to Christ in positive ways by the example of so many declared and undeclared saints living in the Church today in the United States." You do not have to spend very long on a college campus to know that one way to make the attraction to Christ unlikely is to evidence an obsessive dismissal of the human dignity of gays and lesbians, yes? The nuncio speaks in diplomatic speak, but more than one bishop said they found his talk very inspiring and encouraging for a conference that is still struggling to understand what Pope Francis is about.

One notable exception to the un-Francis tone of the discussions came from Cardinal Donald Wuerl. In speaking about the synod, both in the meeting and at the press conference, he must have used the word "consensus" 25 times. His point was obvious -- the approach articulated by the synod, of accompaniment, of nonjudgmentalism: This was not merely a private peccadillo of the Supreme Pontiff. The approach commanded the assent of a decisive majority of the synod fathers. We all know which fathers were not in the decisive majority, those who resist the consensus. There is no need to marginalize them. They have marginalized themselves.

So we will see what today brings. I intend to take a nap when they are voting on some of the liturgical translations. I prefer the self-surrender of sleep to a sleep-inducing self-referential discussion. The elections will be interesting, especially the ballots for secretary of the conference and for communications chair. Already, Bishop William Murphy has withdrawn his name for nomination to the communications post, and it is not clear who might be nominated in his stead, but the smart money is that Bishop Chris Coyne, the first bishop to start a blog and to go on Twitter, will get the nod.

For the secretary's position, any bishop who has read Elisabetta Pique's wonderful new biography of Pope Francis will know that they probably do not want Archbishop Timothy Broglio representing the conference in meetings at the Vatican during this pontificate. Besides, Archbishop Gregory Aymond is a true consensus builder and is almost universally respected by the body of bishops.

Blog posts will continue through the day.

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