Previewing the USCCB meeting: Will there be a new direction?

This article appears in the USCCB Fall 2016 feature series. View the full series.

Yesterday, I wrote about the good the U.S. bishops conference is capable of achieving, and made the case that those who are tempted to give up on the conference should think twice. Today, I would like to look at why some Catholics are so tempted, namely, the fact that the conference has been largely pursuing a culture warrior agenda that has served the church very badly.

The forthcoming plenary meeting in Baltimore will mark the end of the tenure of Archbishop Joseph Kurtz as President of the USCCB. It has been an unhappy tenure. From his first presidential address three years ago, which managed to neglect any mention of the need for comprehensive immigration reform which was then before Congress while managing to mention the "theology of the body," to his unfortunate statement and video three weeks ago about the Wikileaks emails, Archbishop Kurtz has thrown in his lot with the culture warriors.

The conference has continued to make their priority a crusade for religious freedom that has damaged the brand in ways their enemies could not do. The fight over the HHS contraception mandate was built on an insanely narrow theological understanding of what constitutes cooperation with evil. After the administration offered a workable if not an ideal compromise, the conference dug in its heels instead of declaring victory and going home. They have since wedded the fight for religious liberty to efforts to discriminate against LGBT Americans, further damaging the cause by associating it with bigotry and alienating millions of young Catholics in the process.

Under the leadership of USCCB Vice President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo the USCCB cobbled together an unwieldy version of "Faithful Citizenship" the bishops' quadrennial guide to the formation of consciences before voting. Sadly, the moderates in the conference found they could live with the remnants of balance in the text, while the culture warriors have rendered highly tendentious and selective interpretations of that document in recent weeks, all but endorsing the candidacy of Donald Trump. The letter read at Masses in the diocese of Rockville Center this past weekend from Bishop William Murphy was shocking. The video from Bishop Thomas Paprocki was appalling. The moderates, wisely, have stayed out of the partisan fray while reminding Catholics of the values and the virtues that can and should form their consciences.


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Then there was the recent speech at Notre Dame by Archbishop Charles Chaput. It could be read as a more or less direct rebuttal of what Pope Francis told the U.S. bishops last year when he addressed them at St. Matthew's Cathedral. The Holy Father counseled against the use of harsh language, and the archbishop delivered invective. The pope mentioned a host of important issues, not just one, but the archbishop speaks as if the only issue that really matters is abortion, and as if a vote against the Democrats is going to significantly change the political and legal culture on the right-to-life, which is a debatable proposition at best. The Holy Father called for a church that is engaged, especially with the poor, unafraid to get its hands dirty, and the archbishop said we should not fear a smaller and holier church.

Let's remember exactly what Pope Francis said to the bishops at St. Matthew's. He warned against precisely the kind of worldly perspective the culture warriors adopt: "Woe to us, however, if we make the cross a banner of worldly struggles" he said, and further warned against the "temptation to give in to fear, to lick one's wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition." The pope said that adopting a worldly model raises a different prospect, that the bishops would "fail to realize that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed (Phil 2:1-11)."

Pope Francis offered a different approach to ecclesial leadership from that offered by the culture warriors: He called for a culture of encounter based on dialogue. "Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the one who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, event at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Matt 20:1-16)." The Holy Father indicated that dialogue was essential to evangelization, for if it is not followed, "we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor. It has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing." If there is a more concise, firm rebuke to the culture warrior approach, I do not know it.

Let's hope all the bishops read the pope's talk again before they check in to the hotel in Baltimore. Pope Francis is astute and well-informed about the state of the church in the United States. The directness with which he spoke to the bishops last year was a measure of both his concern for the manner in which the U.S. bishops have been conducting themselves and his confidence in their ability to chart a better course. If they choose to ignore what he tried to teach them, Pope Francis has shown he is quite willing to repeat the lessons he is giving.

So, what will it be? Three more years of culture war? The bishops will be holding elections. I suspect that there will not be enough votes to prevent the current Vice President, Cardinal DiNardo, from ascending to the top spot, but the bishops will regret doing so. DiNardo's nastiness towards Bishop Robert McElroy in public session last year left many bishops shaking their heads. I asked some bishops if the outburst was uncharacteristic: We all are allowed a bad hair day after all. I was told it was quite in character. Still, precedence says the vice president moves up to the top spot. Only once in recent years was this precedent broken, when Bishop Jerry Kicanas was not elected president six years ago. That is another thing about the culture warriors. They think it is okay to break precedents when it suits them but invoke those same precedents when they work in their favor, knowing that the moderates are less inclined to play hardball.

Once the bishops elect a new president from the slate of ten candidates, they then select their new vice president from the remaining nine. There are plenty of culture warriors to choose from on the list of nominees, Archbishops Chaput, William Lori and Allen Vigneron most prominent among them. I wonder if Archbishop Chaput can even stand for election given his age: He will turn 75 before the term would be over and last year, Bishop William Murphy declined to be nominated for a post because the term would extend beyond his retirement age. Archbishop Gregory Aymond is smack dab in the center of the conference: He has some culture warrior moments but is essentially a churchman. Archbishop Thomas Wenski shares the pope's radical commitment to the poor and to migrants, but he also can don his culture warrior garb when inclined to do so. Archbishop Jose Gomez is a gentle pastor, but he gets himself involved in conservative projects that help keep the culture wars going, such as a new media platform with Crux and Catholic News Agency. Look at the line up of writers and ask me if you think that will be balanced or even friendly to Francis?

Some of the contests for committee chairs do not portend an ideological divide one way or the other. The Committee on Child Protection has two outstanding candidates in Bishop Joseph Tyson and Bishop Timothy Doherty. The International Justice and Peace Committee nominees are Archbishop Timothy Broglio and Bishop Robert McElroy: Both are exceedingly able, although I was surprised Archbishop Broglio was nominated for this particular committee. He leads the Archdiocese of the U.S. military and some countries with which that committee chair will deal have ambivalent feelings about the military.

The most interesting contest will be between Bishop Robert Barron and Bishop Frank Caggiano to lead the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. I do not know much about Bishop Caggiano, but Bishop Barron produced this strange vocations video called "Heroic Priesthood" that has lots of footage of seminarians playing basketball, jogging, in the pool, in the weightroom, and boxing and several times highlights a priest celebrating the Mass virtually alone. But only twice, for six seconds starting at 3:26 and for four seconds at 9:04, do you see the seminarians doing what we would consider ministry, the first time apparently moving things at a food pantry and the second speaking with a homeless man. I suspect Pope Francis would produce a very different vocations video.

There will be discussions of issues at the meeting, although the agenda looks thin. Sadly, in recent years, the most interesting and important conversations are held behind closed doors in executive session, where bishops can say whatever they want and not be accountable to anyone. Look for a push for more public discussions, but look for that push to be frustrated by the current leadership.

So, the question is whether the conference will chart a new course, one more consistent with the vision articulated by Pope Francis, or will they stay in culture warrior mode? Will they celebrate and continue the good work the conference does and seek to do more, or will they continue to let their actions and views be informed by the Catholic alt-right? I suspect the verdict in Baltimore will be mixed but the culture warriors will try and hold on to the institutional real estate they hold within the church. No one should be sanguine about the antipathy towards Pope Francis. Electing culture warriors to leadership of the conference is a direct refutation of the guidance offered by Pope Francis and we all know it.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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