Next Week's USCCB Mtg, Part II

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

Yesterday, I looked at the internal, managerial, staff-related issues that face the USCCB in advance of their plenary next week. Today, I would like to look at the attitudinal, dare one say ideological, challenges facing the conference. And, to be clear, while I think the bishops must take the lead in resolving the managerial issues, the bishops need to take some long looks in the mirror if they wish to address the attitudinal issues I will discuss today.

I write "issues" and, indeed, there are discrete issues in play, but I think the basic challenge facing the USCCB at this moment is singular. For years, they have been acting on a model of the Church as a bastion or redoubt, confronted by a secular culture that only seems to grow more secular, and more hostile, by the day, bringing the faithful elect within the walls of the redoubt, drawing clear boundaries between the Church and the ambient culture, the washed and the unwashed, with clear sets of propositions to which all are expected to sign on without any troubling questioning, hurling anathemas, nurturing a sense of grievance, perplexed as much as anything by the speed and the comprehensiveness of the cultural changes all around them. It is the culture warrior vision at the heart of the essay by George Weigel that I called attention to yesterday.

Now, Pope Francis has proposed a different model for the Church. He sees the Church as a field hospital. Those who fault Pope Francis for his sunny personality and cheerful, joyful approach to evangelization sometimes mistake that joy for naivete, although the metaphor of a field hospital assumes a battle has been fought or is being fought, but it casts the Church not as a combatant, but as the mender, the healer. More to the point – and this may be the key point – for this pope, the Church as field hospital is not only a metaphor, there is more substance and reality to his vision than that. He actually wants the Church tending to the wounded, the scarred, the embittered, the lost, and tending with all the care of a good nurse. For Francis, as for Benedict, the Church is not a proposition, still less a checklist of propositions, but a way of life that embodies the beliefs we hold and, unlike Benedict, Francis has a knack for using gestures and simple language to communicate his vision to the unlettered, indeed to all. He leads with pastoral care, not with theology or philosophy and bids the Church to do the same, rooting our theology in our experience, not the other way round and giving preferential attention in all our experiences to the poor, not because they need our help but because we need theirs, for it is the poor who are closest to the Lord.

I looked at the agenda for next week's meeting. It is sleep-inducing. You would not know from that agenda that this is such an exciting moment in the life of the Church. There are virtually no new pastoral initiatives. They will discuss some liturgical items. They will, of course, hear reports from the ad hoc committees on religious freedom and defense of marriage. I do not see a lot, indeed anything, about the poor on the agenda. The big three issues that still dominate at the USCCB are religious liberty, same sex marriage, and pro-life concerns. I have no objection to this last, indeed given the rise of powerful interests advocating for physician assisted suicide, the Church needs to be very alert and pro-active in making it clear that we will stand by the elderly and the infirm in the face of this new threat. But, the lack of interest in poverty, in this pontificate, is stunning. There will be no "Fortnight Against Poverty." While the Church's work for the poor will continue, there is no real attempt to advocate for public policies that assist the poor beyond the occasional letter from a committee chair to members of Congress. And, we all recall the degree to which the anti-poverty street cred of the USCCB was compromised when Bishop Stephen Blaire, in his capacity as committee chair for Domestic Justice, wrote a letter voicing concerns about the proposed budget of Congressman Paul Ryan, only to have the USCCB President Cardinal Timothy Dolan write a glowing letter to Ryan that certainly diminished whatever efficacy +Blaire's letter was designed to achieve.

The bishops will be discussing the recent synod. I would invite them to look at the message the synod fathers issued – and which passed overwhelmingly. Not the relatio, but the message. Look at the emphasis it placed on the socio-economic pressures facing the family. Would a USCCB document have a similar emphasis? Defending traditional marriage was mentioned, but same sex marriage was not presented, as it is at the USCCB, as a civilizational threat. Fifteen years ago, the USCCB passed a document on outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics called "Always Our Children," which was, in a sense, a forerunner of the different approach to LGBT issues that emerged at the synod. Does anyone really think that "Always Our Children" could be produced by the USCCB staff today, or that it would garner a majority of votes on the floor?

The synod has prompted something else, something unprecedented in my lifetime. I am not surprised to see a priest here, or a layman there, voice dissent from the Pope, but I have never seen hierarchs engaging in this way. Cardinal Burke thinks that the Church is without a rudder. Archbishop Chaput thinks the public image of the synod was one of confusion and confusion is from the devil. Bishop Tobin (Providence, not Indianapolis) thinks the whole synod process is somehow Protestant. Next week, in Baltimore, the leadership of the conference must face these challenges to the pope from within the hierarchy. It is part of the culture of the USCCB, and always has been, that the first priority is always keeping the bishops united. (I note, in passing, that the Holy Father has warned against a false sense of quietude that masks points of difference.) But, as Catholics, there is no unity apart from Peter. The bishops must be prepared to state, clearly and unequivocally – are they with Cardinal Burke or with Pope Francis? The nuncio, Archbishop Vigano, should be quite clear in his opening address, that while the Holy Father has invited frank and open discussion, he has not invited bishops to undermine the processes for that discussion, not to cast aspersions on the pope himself.

At the June meeting, Bishop Robert McElroy pointed out that in re-drafting "Faithful Citizenship" the current focus on the category "intrinsic evil," which was always the wrong category, should be complemented with a consideration of structural evil or else Pope Francis's teaching about poverty in Evangelii Gaudium will not make any sense. +McElroy's suggestion was met with a notable lack of enthusiasm. That needs to change. There are bishops who are thoughtfully engaging the pope's words and his wonderful daily sermons and that engagement will require some notable changes to the bishops' document on voting.

I wonder if there will be any discussion of the Mass at the border, organized by the Committee on Migration. That was a huge success, getting tons of media attention, unlike the Fortnight for Freedom. The Mass at the border – which Weigel dismissed as "an act of political theater" – did not convince Speaker John Boehner to break the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration bill to the floor for a vote, but it told every Latino, on both sides of the border, that the Church stands with them no matter what. The bishops should pick up on Weigel's cue and ask how they can engage in similar acts of political theater! We need more of them!

I invite readers to go back and look at the Weigel essay about the end of the Bernardin era if you have not done so. There are two major problems in his analysis that lead to a third, more substantial problem, which encapsulates the challenge facing the USCCB next week. Weigel posits that Bernardin and those bishops who thought as he did, adopted an accommodationist stance to the culture when, in fact, they advocated a culture of encounter and accompaniment. And, Weigel heaps scorn on the bureaucracy at the USCCB, but bureaucracy is a consequence of complexity and the division of labor. I would submit that these two problems – mistaking accompaniment for accommodation and an allergy to complexity – yielded the kind of defensive posture the USCCB has adopted the past few years. Weigel, and the bishops who think like him (and there are many bishops who think like him), must wrestle with the fact that Pope Francis has blown that defensive posture to smithereens. The Holy Father has undercut the rationale for that posture and demonstrated a better way, and by better I do not just mean more popular but better because we see in this wonderful man someone who follows the model of the Master. We see in Pope Francis the father who embraces the prodigal. When Pope Francis denounces the economy of today, it is clear he is not afraid to be counter-cultural. When the pope says "Who am I to judge?" we see the humility and solidarity of a holy man, not a papal endorsement of relativism. I say "we" and I think most people in the pews see in this pope nothing but goodness. The question at next week's meeting is: Will the bishops allow themselves to see what the people in the pews see, will they embrace the excitement the pope has generated and think of ways to share it more broadly, or will they climb back into their defensive crouch, curl up with a copy of First Things, and think bad thoughts about the Successor of Peter?

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