Bishops' meeting lacks passion, leadership

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

by Thomas Reese

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A lack of passion and leadership marked the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week in Baltimore. Their agenda was stale and did not reflect the excitement that Pope Francis' papacy has generated.

The pope has caught the imagination of the world with his emphasis on God's love, compassion, and mercy toward us and our need to respond by loving one another, especially the poor. But most of the bishops' meeting was devoted to mind-numbing housekeeping actions and reports.

The action items dealt with minor liturgical translations, which got some of the bishops excited, but no one else. Should it be "children of Adam," as the committee recommended, or "children of men," or "sons of men"? The committee won. And does the bishop really have to preach while seated with a miter on his head and crosier in hand at the dedication of a church as required by the rubrics?

Meanwhile, nothing was said about the economic plight of the American people, gridlock in Washington, or the wars in which America is engaged. They practically ignored immigration and only gave a few minutes to the topic because the media kept asking why the bishops were silent on the hottest political issue of the day.

There is a significant faction among the bishops and the USCCB staff who do not want these issues emphasized lest they distract from their core agenda -- opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and the contraceptive mandate.

The bishops heard reports on gay marriage and religious freedom, but even these reports lacked the passion that marked these issues in the past. It is clear even to the bishops that they will lose on gay marriage unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, but the political action machine cranks on.

And while there were a couple of new horror stories on religious freedom (a pastor having his sermons subpoenaed and a wedding chapel threatened with fines for not performing gay marriages), it was also acknowledged that in both instances, the local authorities quickly backed down. Meanwhile, the administration and the bishops conduct trench warfare over the contraceptive mandate.

The reports from U.S. bishops who attended the synod on the family were brief and unexciting except for that of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who took the opportunity to attack the media for their coverage of the synod. According to Dolan, everything was hunky-dory at the synod without a disagreement expressed. The media's coverage was nothing like the meeting he attended, he declared.

It appears to be a mortal sin to admit in public that bishops might disagree with each other and argue over church teaching and practice. Needless to say, this ham-handed spinning does not help the bishops' credibility. Dolan got a generous round of applause after his presentation and was elected chair-elect of the USCCB pro-life committee.

More than a year and a half into the papacy of Pope Francis, the U.S. bishops still appear like deer in headlights, not knowing which way to jump. There are no leaders in the tradition of Joseph Bernardin, John Roach, John Quinn, or James Malone who can articulate a vision for the conference in light of the new papacy.

There are no liberals among the bishops, and the moderates are a minority. The conservative majority is divided into two groups: the ideologues and the pastors.

The ideological conservatives make up 10 to 20 percent of the conference, and they are convinced that Francis is sowing confusion in the church where certitude and stability should be the marks of the church. Francis' statement that "facts are more important than ideas" is incomprehensible to them; they believe reality must bend to their theological ideas.

The pastoral conservatives, on the other hand, are simply confused. They were raised in conservative families, went to conservative seminaries, don't pretend to be intellectuals but are loyal churchmen who never questioned anything under the last two papacies. They like Francis, but they are not sure what he is doing. They are in need of a leader who can reassure them and point them in the right direction.

The election of delegates to next year's synod of bishops reflected the makeup of the USCCB.

Archbishops Joseph Kurtz and Daniel Dinardo, the USCCB president and vice president, were elected as expected. Also elected were Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Jose Gomez of Los Angeles. Chaput had been critical of the confusion surrounding the synod. He will also host next year's international conference on the family. Elected alternates were Blaise Cupich, newly appointed by Pope Francis to Chicago, and Salvatore Cordilone of San Francisco, the bishops' point man on gay marriage. 

If the bishops were totally behind Pope Francis they would have elected as delegates his best friend in the American hierarchy, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, and Archbishop-designate Cupich, his first major appointee. 

A big part of the trouble with the American hierarchy is that the bishops have no one to consult. The conservative theologians, who have been advising them during the last two papacies, are as upset as the ideologically conservative bishops. Since progressive theologians were labeled heretics, kicked out of seminaries, and shunned like Ebola patients, bishops have no one to explain to them how to thrive with the discussion and debate being encouraged by Francis.

Sadly, few bishops would feel comfortable inviting theologians from the local Catholic college over for dinner and conversation, yet that is exactly what is needed.

The Second Vatican Council was a four-year continuing education program for bishops, most of whom came to Rome with no agenda but listened to progressive bishops and theologians. If the chasm between American theologians and bishops is not bridged, the bishops will remain in confusion, and Francis' papacy will fail. 

There were a few bright spots at the two days of public sessions. Perhaps there were more in executive session, but that is not what I hear.

We learned that the chairs of two USCCB entities wrote to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, asking him to use his authority "to protect undocumented individuals and families as soon as possible."

The letter was sent Sept. 9 by Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chair of the Committee on Migration, and Bishop Kevin Vann, chair of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, but the conference issued no press release to announce it.

This letter puts the bishops solidly behind President Barack Obama in his dispute with congressional Republicans, who oppose any executive action by the president on immigration.

Another report that should have caused fireworks at the meeting came from Bishop Oscar Cantu on the bishops' prayer pilgrimage for peace in the Holy Land. By the Tuesday evening press conference, the reporters had run out of NoDoz tablets and weren't paying attention when he sided with the Palestinians against the Israelis.

While he acknowledged that there were injustices on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "the reality that we saw on the ground as we visited with both Israelis and Palestinians was that the injustices were primarily on the side of the Israelis." In the recent Gaza war, Cantu said he believed "there were many more injustices on the part of the Israelis" than the Palestinians. He criticized the American media as being "heavily pro-Israeli."

I am not sure the conference as a whole would endorse his comments, but he certainly did not pull any punches. 

The final gem at the meeting was the Mass on Monday evening celebrating the 225th anniversary of the founding of the Baltimore archdiocese. The choir was spectacular, even if the music would have been more appropriate in the 1950s. The bishops concelebrating took up almost half of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which has been beautifully restored.

But the high point of the Mass was the first reading from the letter to Titus (1:1-9), which told the assembled bishops to "appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children, who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious."

Now there is an agenda item for the next meeting. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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