Reflections on the USCCB Meeting, Part I

This story appears in the USCCB Fall 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Today, in Baltimore, the bishops go behind closed doors in executive session and so we reporters will head for the exits. Looking back over the last two days of public sessions, four moments stand out, two of which demonstrate what is good and healthy about the bishops’ conference and two of which highlight what I continue to think are very real problems that must be addressed at some point but were not really addressed this year.

The first moment was the intervention yesterday by San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy in the discussion of Faithful Citizenship. My colleague Tom Roberts wrote about +McElroy’s intervention, and the response it elicited here and we are waiting for the USCCB to post the on-demand video. The bishop was very impassioned and his eloquence matched his emotions. It goes without saying that on issues relating to the intersection of public policy and Catholic moral theology, there is no one brighter than +McElroy. And, his speech was all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he had been on the administrative committee that reviewed the document, acknowledged the hard work all had put into it but, in the end, concluded that the text was insufficient and should be rejected.

The body of bishops did not agree with +McElroy and the text was adopted. But, whether you agreed with him or not, and I did agree with him, it was a stunning moment and it recalled for me an exchange in the correspondence between Fr. John Courtney Murray SJ and Msgr. John Tracy Ellis.  In 1953, reflecting on the changes within the American hierarchy, Ellis had written to Murray, “Something fine and bracing has gone out of the American Church and it is difficult to see how it can ever be regained.” Listening to +McElroy yesterday, I thought to myself, something fine and bracing has returned to the U.S. Church and it is +McElroy’s rare combination of intellectual heft and pastoral sensitivity, so evident in the person of Pope Francis too, that has regained that admirable quality.

The second moment came shortly thereafter when Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl addressed the bishops on the same topic. +Wuerl urged the bishops to adopt the text, noting that it was not perfect but arguing that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, and he had two specific goods in mind: the need to preserve some semblance of unity among a deeply divided body and the need to offer teaching to the people of God in the U.S. +Wuerl’s talk drove a stake through the heart of the effort to reject the document, but his words were the words of a churchman, not a culture warrior. There is a reason +Wuerl may be the most respected member of the conference and even if one disagrees with him on this issue or that, like +McElory, +Wuerl’s combination of intellectual power and pastoral sensibility is remarkable.

The cardinal’s intervention recalled another moment in the history of the Church. On Oct. 12, 1899, the archbishops of the Catholic Church in the United States gathered for their annual meeting. It was the first such meeting since Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Testem benevolentiae, which had condemned the heresy of “Americanism. In reply to the encyclical, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore had written to Rome to assure the pope that no one in America held the doctrines condemned, that they were the fevered imaginings of Europeans hostile to American ways. Archbishop Frederick Katzer of Milwaukee wrote to Rome, suggesting that those who denied the heresy were really Jansenists. Katzer's letter was a direct affront to Gibbons. When the archbishops met, Katzer was not present. Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, one of Gibbons' closest allies, urged a resolution from the archbishops in opposition to Katzer and denying the errors condemned in the encyclical existed. The vote was tied until Gibbons was called upon to cast the tie-breaker. It was his reputation the resolution was designed to defend. Here is how Ireland reported the event: “[Archbishops Riordan, Kain, Christie and I] tried to get a joint protest against the idea of existence of errors. Philadelphia almost joined in but Baltimore [Gibbons] cried ‘peace, peace -- death for the sake of peace,’ and nothing was effected.” +Wuerl’s intervention was a Gibbons’ moment, a cry for peace within the conference that transcended the issues at hand, a plea for unity that exemplified the unity sought. I should note that, like most Church historians, I am continually in awe of the great Cardinal Gibbons and, as a current observer of the Church today, I am similarly awed by Cardinal Wuerl.

The other two moments were less happy. During the same discussion of Faithful Citizenship, Hartford Archbishop Leonard Blair said that he was worried about “rhetoric of regime change in the Church.” I do not remember anyone actually using that horrible term - “regime change” - in describing the changes we all have witnessed in the past two and one-half years of Francis’ pontificate. There is something about the use of the word “regime” in American political parlance that suggests a whiff of illegitimacy, or at least something more ephemeral than the word “government” implies. I would note, however, that there is truth in +Blair’s observation: There is enormous continuity between the recent papacies, at least when it comes to Church doctrine, even though there is no denying that there have been significant changes too. Issues that were once considered taboo were openly discussed at the two recent synods on the family. Archbishop Blase Cupich now hangs his hat in Chicago not Spokane. Bishops who demonstrably failed to protect children or lead their dioceses effectively have been removed from office well before the mandatory retirement age. Those are some pretty significant changes.

+Blair referenced the Christmas address to the curia delivered by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, noting that the Holy Father, in interpreting the Second Vatican Council, had rejected the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” that is associated with the Bologna school of history and, instead, called for a “hermeneutic of continuity.” The problem, as I noted yesterday, is that Benedict never said “hermeneutic of continuity.” That phrase was quickly adopted by Benedict’s more conservative American champions, but he never said it and the change in wording evidences an agenda. Here is the relevant paragraph from that 2005 address:

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The “hermeneutic of reform” includes elements of both discontinuity and continuity, as Benedict explained, and assessing the pontificate of Francis requires both, as does a proper assessment of the Council. I am left wondering what “hermeneutic of continuity” would explain the fact that the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, undertaken by +Blair, was determinedly consigned to the history books by Pope Francis. And, to the point at issue in the debate yesterday, Bishop McElroy was very clear about the consistency between the content of Church teaching between the current and previous pontificates, but equally clear about the changed priorities. I am sure that more conservative bishops like +Blair are tired of being told they are not in sync with Pope Francis. But, the remedy is not to misquote Benedict XVI. The remedy is to get in sync with Francis.

The fourth and final key moment was, of course, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s immediate response to Bishop McElroy. It was a rude put-down, betraying the same petulance that inspired +DiNardo to sign that terrible letter to Pope Francis at the recent synod, questioning the integrity of both the synod process and the ten-member drafting committee for the final relatio. Instead of admiring +McElory’s evident passion, he dismissed the “rhetorical flourishes” of his brother bishop. +DiNardo, like +Blair, misquoted Benedict XVI on the “hermeneutic of continuity.” He claimed the document reflected the magisterium of Pope Francis but the quotes from Francis in the text were unspecific at best and certainly lacked the trenchant quality of the Holy Father’s indictment: “This economy kills.” You might say that +DiNardo’s response was un-fine and bracing.

All last night and again this morning, I have searched my memory banks for an historical analogy to +DiNardo’s rude response, but I have come up empty. There are disagreements among the bishops at every meeting, but these are always voiced in respectful terms and spoken of with charity. I am all for open disagreement among bishops, even on important matters, as we saw at the synod and as we saw yesterday. Adults can and should disagree at times. But, rudeness? Petulance? This time next year, the bishops will be electing a new president of the conference and, with one recent, regrettable exception, the norm is for the vice president of the conference to ascend to the top spot. The bishops have one year to reflect on whether or not they wish to bestow the chair on someone whose prickly personality may impede consensus rather than nurture it.

Tomorrow, I shall offer additional reflections on the USCCB meeting. But, for the moment, these four interventions illustrate the divisions within the body in the clearest of terms. Navigating those divisions in the years ahead will be an enormous challenge but similar divisions have always found expression in the life of the Church and the bishops have always found a way to maintain an essential unity. We live in a different time from the days when Gibbons and Ireland did battle with Corrigan and Katzer. For one thing, the divisions today are witnessed on livestream. But, these four moments also show two different styles of leadership, one exemplified by +McElroy and +Wuerl, fully capable of navigating those divisions, and one on display in the interventions of +Blair and +DiNardo, that bode ill for the USCCB’s ability to chart a way forward, relying as they do as a mischaracterization of Pope Benedict and a readily apparent resistance to Pope Francis. Some bishops are betting on a short pontificate, and hoping that afterwards things can go back to the way they were. But, there is no going back. The sooner the conference realizes that, the healthier these debates and the future of the Church in the U.S. will be.




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