Recapping the USCCB meeting

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

by Michael Sean Winters

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Attending a USCCB meeting is a chance to observe one of the most particular, rarefied subcultures imaginable. The room is older and whiter and far more polite than almost any other similar convention gathering. Obviously, it is all male, as well. And very few conventions I have ever attended are punctuated by prayer the way a USCCB meeting is.

The bishops are company men, one and all, and I do not mean this as an insult. They dress alike. They speak alike. They use the same basic points of reference -- Scripture, tradition, recent papal pronouncements, previous USCCB documents -- in making an argument. Like the military or organized labor, those who have risen to positions of authority within the USCCB are all of them men who have dedicated their entire lives to the institution. This produces a trust among the body, even if, obviously, it also invites a limited vision of possibilities.

The politics of a USCCB meeting are also unique. To be clear, of course there are politics. Aristotle taught us that man is a political animal. But with the bishops, the politics are submerged even as they are obvious, as if it were the height of bad manners to admit what everyone can sense in the room. Gone are the days when the bishops debated issues like their pastoral letters on nuclear arms and the economy in open session -- and around the country -- and forged a consensus in plain view of all. Now, more and more of the important issues are addressed behind closed doors, in executive session. This year, I am guessing the executive session was fairly explosive because everyone has been very tight-lipped about it. Normally, you can rely on a chatty bishop or two to give you a broad outline of what transpired, but last night, working the phones, I could not find out very much.

I went into the meeting with a particular goal. I wanted to assess the validity of my estimate that 20 percent of the bishops are enthusiastic about Pope Francis, another 20 percent are dead set against him and adopting the view, as put by Cardinal Walter Kasper last week in his address at The Catholic University of America, that they must view this pontificate as a bit of bad weather and just wait for it to pass. I figured that there were another 20 percent who shared what I call the neoconservative narrative and a culture war approach to the situation of the Church in the modern world, but unlike the intransigents, they knew that it was somehow wrong to be in opposition to the pope and were profoundly uncomfortable. That left 40 percent who were either not particularly concerned with larger issues and just trying to be good bishops in their own dioceses or those who were simply too confused to be enthusiastic about the pope but not so attached to the neocon position that they feel in anyway drawn to opposition. From what I can tell, I was not far off, but my characterizations of the different groups need adjustment.

As many as half of the bishops are those who simply do not understand what Pope Francis is trying to achieve. Whether you like the pope or fear the pope, this pontificate is something of a roller-coaster ride, and very few bishops could be characterized as "thrill-seekers." They are conservative by nature and training, and in the past 30 years, they have seen issue after issue go from the "debated" category to the "decided" category. They value the security of knowing contentious matters are settled and are not sure why Pope Francis seems hell-bent on unsettling those matters. You see some of this sensibility on display in Cardinal Francis George's comments in yesterday's New York Times:

"He says wonderful things," Cardinal George said about Francis in an interview on Sunday, "but he doesn't put them together all the time, so you're left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do?"

These men think in such programmatic terms because they run lots of programs and manage large institutions. Whether you are a bishop in the Northeast overseeing the decline of the architecture and infrastructure of the Irish immigrant Church or a bishop in the South or Southwest trying to erect a new architecture and infrastructure, much of your work week is spent raising money, picking over budgets, deploying personnel. For such tasks, clarity is always preferable, even necessary, even if, in a very real way, these men know that they are overseeing a vineyard that was planted by the Lord and will come to full harvest only by God's grace. I have nothing but sympathy for these bishops who are wrestling with the still-new pope and his decidedly different approach to ministry and evangelization.

I suspect there are a full 25 percent of the body who are genuinely enthusiastic about Pope Francis. This is not merely a result of the fact that headlines about the Church are no longer exclusively about clergy sex abuse cases. Even in a group that is decidedly conservative by temperament and training, the human spirit and the Holy Spirit can both shake things up, and some bishops welcome that. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington are the two bishops most obviously identified with Pope Francis, and now they are joined by Archbishop-designate Blase Cupich of Chicago. The three are not what you would call knee-jerk liberals. In ways both different and similar from one another, all three are deeply conservative. But they are not threatened by the pope's invitation to re-assess how the Church evangelizes and embrace the future with all the confidence that a deep faith provides. More bishops than I had anticipated look to them to help explain what is going on in Rome these days. More bishops than I had anticipated really are as excited as the people in the pews and those beyond the walls of the Church by Pope Francis' style and substance.

I confess I cannot muster much in the way of sympathy for the 25 percent of the episcopate that is digging in, resisting the pope, hoping it will all blow over quickly. Nor do I have any sympathy for their cheerleaders. This morning, I see an article at The Catholic Thing by Jesuit Fr. James Schall on what I assume he considers the timely topic of "Heretical Popes." This is irresponsible and inflammatory. I hope every bishop in the U.S. will read it and recognize the danger Schall represents and recognize, too, that the only response to this danger is to seek even harder to embrace Pope Francis and his effort to renew the Church.

The architecture of a culture matters. The bishops are not wrong to be worried that if, say, they change the pastoral practice on an issue like Communion for the divorced and remarried, the doctrinal foundation might become unstable. They must consider such issues seriously and soberly to be sure. But if Pope Francis is trying to achieve anything, it is to restore some of the thrill to Christianity and to invite trust in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in Christ's Church. He is so clearly attuned to the obvious fact that ideology can impede evangelization not advance it, and that if we focus overmuch on the architecture the Church has devised in previous times, we may miss the ways the Spirit is inviting us here and now to shepherd the people of God and evangelize those beyond. When Pope Francis invites the bishops to be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit, I do not think that is pious verbiage. I think he means it. And nothing will make one deaf to those promptings like an overemphasis on the architecture of previous times. We should commend those who built before us. We should -- we must -- recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Still, we are called to walk.

Pope Francis seems less concerned to provide the Christian faithful with a kind of ideological or institutional or cultural GPS than his predecessors. No doubt he, like they, know that in the end, all was created in Christ and for Christ. But the pope is inviting the bishops to accompany the faithful, not just to lead them, but to be led by them, into some highways and byways that may not at first be apparent but which might prove fruitful for the Church. His comments at the general audience were on point. But these past few days, watching the bishops of the United States assembled, it is obvious that the U.S. episcopate has a long way to go before they embrace the Holy Father's vision and approach to Church leadership. There is a resistance among some and confusion among more. As they return to their dioceses, I hope they will heed the Holy Father's invitation to listen to and learn from the people of God. Most of us have no problem articulating our enthusiasm for Pope Francis. Most of us do not have difficulty understanding the exciting adventure of Christian life to which he is inviting us. Most of us are not scared because we may no longer have a cheat sheet with all the answers. We are just thrilled to have such an obviously holy pope trying to bring the healing and the hope of Christ to a broken world.  

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