USCCB meeting: The curtain rises

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

by Michael Sean Winters

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Team NCR arrived in Baltimore for the USCCB meeting last night and this morning. As I mentioned last week, the agenda appears pretty sleep-inducing, but already, one has the sense that the bishops are not thrilled about the public perception that they are hostile to Pope Francis or, at least, not able to grasp the direction in which he wants to lead the Church or, in any event, not doing much to implement that vision.

I am sure we will hear a lot of prelates blaming this perception that the U.S. bishops are at odds with the pope on the press. It would be a mistake to do so, as blaming the media will only give us in the media the chance to recount all the many instances when bishops have dissed or diminished or otherwise stepped away from what Pope Francis has been saying, at the very least, and with the most generous interpretation, saying things that are not helpful to the goal supporting the pope as he sets a new course for the Church.

The record is not limited to Bishop Thomas Tobin's and Archbishop Charles Chaput's recent comments about the synod. There is the USCCB statement about President Barack Obama's plans for an executive order on nondiscrimination against LGBT Americans, which is neither "welcoming" nor "providing for" fellow human beings. There are the recent statements from Archbishop George Lucas and Bishop Kevin Rhoades about Catholic universities in their dioceses extending health care benefits to same-sex partners of university employees. Again, not welcoming or providing for fellow human beings. There is the relative indifference to the positive aspects of the Affordable Care Act compared to all the time and money spent confronting the HHS contraception mandate. There was the failure of the bishops to even pass a statement on poverty a couple years back. Shall I go on?

Nor will the media, or the people of God, be put off with empty phrases about how much the bishops support the pope. The USCCB exists to coordinate national action on the part of the hierarchy. If they cannot turn this instrument into effective deeds that support the pope, the meeting will have failed.

What might some of those ways be?

The bishops will be discussing the redrafting of their quadrennial document on voting, "Faithful Citizenship." That document was last substantially redrafted eight years ago, so apart from the new directions the pope has indicated, the political culture has changed. I do not recall efforts at voter suppression to be a real worry eight years ago, but several states have now enacted measures that make it more difficult for poor people to vote. When the pope denounces a culture of exclusion, surely this is the sort of thing he is talking about. Will the bishops add a paragraph opposing these voter suppression efforts? The whole issue of religious liberty has blossomed in the last eight years; will the bishops address that issue in measured terms or in hysterical terms? (When it comes to religious freedom in some parts of the world, there is room for some hysteria!) And, most importantly, while the section on poverty in the last "Faithful Citizenship" document was strong, it did not contain the structural analysis of sin that is so evident in Pope Francis' writings and talks. It is too much to hope for that the bishops will drop the use of "intrinsic evil" in the text, even though it was always the wrong category for analyzing voting.

There will be much discussion of the synod and how the bishops should prepare for next year's synod, including a vote on whom the bishops wish to send as delegates to the synod. I think almost everyone sees the direction the Holy Father wants to point us in. Will the bishops help him soften the ground for whatever changes will be forthcoming, or will they use their influence to frustrate those changes? Will they explain the difference between "changing doctrine" and "developing doctrine" or discuss ways to help the people in the pews understand the difference between adapting the application of doctrine in changed cultural circumstances? And who will they elect to represent them at next year's synod? There are several bishops who owe their current positions to Cardinal Raymond Burke. Choosing one of his protégés would not send a signal of support for Pope Francis.

Additionally, the bishops need to ask why the USCCB is not generating any renewed effort to confront poverty, both at home and abroad, seeing as this has become such a central focus of the universal Church in this pontificate. Each of them, through Catholic Charities in their diocese, undertakes the work of the Church for the poor, but the USCCB exists to coordinate stances on national issues. The unwillingness of either party to talk very much about poverty is more than troubling, but worse, there are policy proposals that will affect our society's ability to promote the common good and the interests of the poor. Will the bishops look the other way when the incoming Congress tries to cut programs that assist the poor just because the Republicans in Congress side with the Church on the HHS mandate?

So here are a few of the things to be looking for in the next few days. Are the bishops willing to engage in some real discussion and debate on the issues before them, or will they aim for the kind of low-impact agenda that has characterized their last couple of meetings? Or, put differently, will the deliberations this week reflect the Holy Father's comment about the synod: "I would be very worried ... if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace"? Part of the purpose of these meetings is to generate unity among the bishops, but that unity cannot be superficial nor be bought at the cost of a stunted discussion that masks real differences.

I will be blogging from the ballroom to keep readers up-to-date on any developments. This morning, the nuncio and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz give their talks, and those talks will be the big news of the day -- or they won't. If they are not big news, an opportunity will have been lost.

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