Next Week's USCCB Meeting, Part I

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

by Michael Sean Winters

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Next week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will gather for their annual fall plenary in Baltimore. This will be their second full meeting since the election of Pope Francis and their first full meeting since the Holy Father gave us a particular glimpse of his vision for the Church in Evangelii Gaudium, as well as the first meeting since the recently concluded Synod on the Family.

The Holy Father has called the Church to become less self-referential, to go out to the peripheries of life, especially to the poor and the marginalized, so as to encounter Christ. His simplicity of life and the sheer authenticity of his words and gestures have electrified the world. Yet, the response to the exciting moment in the life of the Church from the staff at the USCCB might charitably be described as underwhelming.

Today, however, I wish to discuss what I perceive as the internal problems of the USCCB. This might seem in conflict with the pope’s vision, a bit too self-referential, but I would point out that Pope Francis is also setting about to reform the curia, which is a self-referential task as well. In the event, reforms in both organizations are badly needed.

In February 2011, George Weigel published an article in First Things entitled “The End of the Bernardin Era.” The article followed the unprecedented defeat of the incumbent Vice President of the USCCB, Bishop Gerald Kicanas, in his bid for the conference presidency. Cardinal Timothy Dolan was elected to the top spot. And, the bishops selected Msgr. Ronny Jenkins as the new conference General Secretary. At the time, many people at the USCCB were hopeful about Jenkins’ selection.  

It is always worthwhile reading Weigel: His articles are a window into the discussions among those prelates who share his views. I will hold off until tomorrow on what we might call the ideological thesis Weigel presented, but let’s begin this morning with an examination of these two sentences from Weigel’s article: “The Bernardin Era was one of institutional maintenance and bureaucratic expansion in which a liberal consensus dominated both the internal life of the Church and the Church’s address to public policy. It is not self-evidently clear what the post-Bernardin Era, just beginning, will turn out to be.” One of the things that “turned out to be” is a level of institutional dysfunction unprecedented in the conference’s history.   

You can always measure the health of almost any organization by looking at the amount of staff turnover. In the past few years, since the 2011 USCCB elections, a stunning number of very talented people have left the USCCB and I have been keeping a list. Of course, people leave their jobs for a variety of reasons, but as a rule, people do not leave if they are happy. And, when you look at the sheer number of people who have left, it leaves an impression.Here is a list of people who have left the USCCB, I am sure it is not entirely complete, but it indicates just how extensive the problem of staff retention is:

--Bruce Egnew, associate general secretary for administration (physical plant, security, etc.);

--Father Andrew Small, OMI, worked at both Justice, Peace & Human Development and on the subcommitte on the Church in Latin America;

--Teresa Kettelkamp, director, Child and Youth Protection since 2005;

--Father Allan Deck, SJ, executive director, Committee on Cultural Diversity;

--Rick McCord, executive director, Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth;

--Nancy Wisdo, associate general secretary for policy outreach and director of Government Relations;

--Marie Powell, executive director, Committee on Catholic Education, retired;

--John Carr, executive director, Justice, Peace and Human Development;

--Deirdre Dessingue, associate general counsel for issues pertaining to election law, non-profits, etc.;

--Sr. Eileen McCann, CSJ, coordinator of youth and young adult ministry in Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth;

--Terry Thames, associate director, Government Relations;

--Sheila Garcia, associate director, Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth;

--Father Tom Weinandy OFM Cap, executive director, Doctrine Committee;

--Patrick Markey, executive director, Committee on National Collections;

--Kathy Saile, director, Domestic Social Development;

--Msgr. Rick Hilgartner, executive director, Committee on Divine Worship;

--Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, director, Media Relations;

--Ambassador Johnny Young (his departure is expected by the end of the year), executive director, Migration and Refugee Services;

--Father Shawn McKnight (expected to depart within the year) director, Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

 Some of the people on this list retired. Others, like John Carr, took on new roles. But, no matter how you cut it, a lot of good and talented people, people you would want to stay in harness, have left their posts at the USCCB.

One of the ways you can discern if an organization if looking to move in a specific direction, it to examine the previous work experience of newly hired or promoted staff. This list is just as instructive as the list of those who have left.

--Msgr. Brian Bransfield, associate general secretary, formerly of John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia;

--Andrew Lichtenwalner, executive director of committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth,  a protege of Msgr. Brian Bransfield, youngest executive director in USCCB history;

--Anthony Picarello, associate general secretary for policy, formerly with the Becket Fund;

--Jayd Henricks, director of Government Relations, formerly associate director of that department and, before that, with the arch-conservative Family Research Council;

--Hillary Byrnes, staff attorney to Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, previously worked in Bush Justice Department and interned at conservative Alliance Defending Freedom;

--Melissa Silvers Swearingen, associate director, Government Affairs, and part-time spokesperson for Archbishop Kurtz, formerly worked in Congressman Chris Smith's office;

--Dan Avila, policy advisor, Promotion and Defense of Marriage, formerly of Massachusetts Catholic Conference; Avila’s tenure was short and came crashing down when he posted a commentary in the Boston Pilot suggesting homosexuality is Satanic in origin;

--Father Joseph Cazenavette, policy advisor, Promotion and Defense of Marriage, priest of New Orleans, 

--Jonathan Reyes, executive director, JPHD, formerly Catholic Charities of Denver, Colorado, first president of conservative Augustine Institute, and former professor at Christendom College;

--Father Peter Ryan, SJ, executive director, Doctrine Committee, formerly at Glennon-Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis and Mt. Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, member of the conservative Fellowship of Catholic Scholars;

--Mark Rohlena, director, Domestic Justice, previously with Catholic Charities in Central Colorado (Diocese of Colorado Springs), lawyer with background in religious liberty issues, almunus of Christendom College and Ave Maria Law School.

Now, not to put too fine a point on it, but one wonders if Pope Francis could be hired to work at the USCCB today. He has no background in religious liberty litigation. He did not attend Christendom College or Ave Maria. He did not work with any culture warrior groups like the Family Research Council or the Alliance Defending Freedom. And, he has no prior association with the Church in Colorado during the tenure of Archbishop Charles Chaput.

Pedigree is not destiny. When Jonathan Reyes was appointed, I spoke with a bishop and noted Reyes had taught at Christendom College. The bishop replied, “Well, that tells you all you need to know.” The bishop was wrong. I have gotten to know Reyes and he genuinely cares about the social teachings of the Church. He is not a right wing nut by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, when he took over the post, he did not know Washington. Jobs like this require some such knowledge, not so much the policy, because you could teach a monkey about the policy. But, you need to know who are the key players on a given issue, you have to have relationships with key staffers on Capitol Hill and in the White House. It is no fault of Reyes’ that he did not have that background and, when he arrived, he could rely on the able assistance of Steve Colecchi and Kathy Saile, his two principal staffers. But, when Saile left, the conference needed to hire someone who brought her expertise to the table. I have met Mr. Rohlena and he seems like a very nice man. Again, it is not his fault that he does not have long-standing relationships with key people on Capitol Hill. But, if you were looking to degrade the importance of the Domestic Policy arm of the conference, one way to achieve that result would be to hire people who lack, through no fault of their own, the backgrounds to be effective. This, at a time when poverty rates remain high and when the pope is calling the Church to focus on poverty.

One name not on the list is that of Kim Daniels. Kim was brought in as spokesperson for then-President of the conference Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Her appointment raised eyebrows, and not only because she, like most everyone on the above list, had a string of associations with different conservative outfits. No one in the Communications Committee staff was consulted about the appointment. I have gotten to know Ms. Daniels and think she is an exceedingly talented communicator, ideally suited for the job of spokesperson for the president of the conference. But, if you are going to hire someone with that kind of talent, and pay the kind of salary such talent commands these days, why would you roll it out in such a way that it was doomed to fail? Whatever your ideological inclinations, that was pure incompetence by the leadership of the conference.

After Daniels left, Melissa Silvers Swearingen became the part-time spokesperson for the conference. You would think that there might have been a press release letting those of us in the press know that this task was being added to her portfolio, but no such press release was forthcoming. Could this be because Ms. Swearingen is not a communications expert? Who came on board to work on religious liberty issues? I do not know Ms. Swearingen. She could be the most competent, talented spokesperson in the United States and the best Catholic on the planet. But, how are we in the press to even get a comment from her when no one on 4th Street even lets us know she is serving as a spokesperson? Again, the issue is not ideology but incompetence.

Father Cazenavette helped out at my parish two summers ago, celebrating the 10 a.m. Latin Mass. His sermons were so offensive, they pulled the plug after three Sundays and he was not invited back. I only heard one sermon and, yes, it was pretty offensive, a neo-Pelagian screed with dark warnings about sins of the flesh. One fellow parishioner called it “medieval” but I said such a designation was a slur against the Middle Ages. I assure you that the 10 a.m. Latin Mass is not what you would call a hotbed of liberalism.

Anthony Picarello is one of the smartest and one of the nicest people I have ever met. But, it is a mistake to have any person serving as both General Counsel and Associate General Secretary at the same time. There is an inherent conflict of interest. Sometimes, a policy person needs to be told by the legal staff that they can’t do something or the associate general secretary has to explain to the general counsel that whatever the legal complications, the leadership of the Church must move in a given direction. There should be a healthy tension between the two jobs, a tension that cannot co-exist in a healthy way within the same person. And, in my humble estimation, general counsels should have white hair and have worked at Xerox for forty years. Hiring a litigator as general counsel is an invitation to more litigation, to seeing litigation as a strategic option rather than as a consequence of a failed strategy, which ill becomes an organization like the USCCB. As mentioned, I like Picarello, and if I ever had to enter into litigation, I would like to have him as my lawyer. The problem is not whether one of likable or if one is talented. The problem is that if all new hires come exclusively from one side of the political and ideological spectrum, the advice the bishops receive will be slanted, the range of opinions solicited will be minimized, the resulting perspective will be skewed.

There are some very real problems at the USCCB. No one really knows what the budget is at any given time. Reimbursements come late. There are not a lot of important or exciting projects being undertaken. The “Fortnight for Freedom” is emblematic of a bad idea having resources thrown at it, yielding precious little in the way of results: There has been little if any effect on public discourse. Bishops complain that they do not receive materials in a timely way. The creation of ad hoc committees to address issues the conference leadership deems most important removes consideration of those issues from seasoned staffers with a sense of perspective: The embarrassment of the bishops not being able to pass a document on poverty two years ago is the most notable example. The bishops’ statement after President Obama issued an LGBT non-discrimination order this summer is another example: As I noted at the time, when bishops issue a statement that does not mention God nor quote from the Scripture, we have a problem.

The staff at the USCCB is demoralized: Losing so many colleagues will have that effect. They are also scared. No one wants to speak on the record about the problems and very few people will even agree to speak on background. It is up to the bishops to find ways to identify the problems and address them: This is not the kind of task that can be undertaken from within, not with the current leadership. The current leadership is the problem.

Tomorrow, I will look at next week’s agenda and what it does and does not say about the USCCB’s capacity for acclimating the message and mission Pope Francis has set for the Church and if such a tepid agenda has not, in the end, achieved the results Weigel seemed to want in his 2011 First Things’ article. 




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