Today’s news about the minimal approval for a subsidy hike for the USCCB merits reflection. The Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States—as in other countries—is funded by assessments on each diocese. These assessments are controlled and imposed in the United States by a two-third majority vote of all of the bishops, which I presume to be typical. Proposed increases do not always pass, but in this case, a three percent increase failed inconclusively at the annual November meeting among those present.
In other words, while the two-thirds majority was not quite achieved at that time, it was still thought to be possible if all the absent bishops could cast votes. As it turned out, the more complete vote conducted by mail resulted in exactly the number of “yes” votes to ensure passage—130 in favor, 62 against, and three abstentions. The measure required a minimum of 129.9987 votes to pass—in other words, 130.
The question here is not so much who did the counting of the ballots. The question is why it was so hard to get the increase in funding approved. And the answer to that questions is almost certainly three-fold:
- The toll taken on diocesan finances by sex abuse settlements: This is widely acknowledged on all sides. A diocese unsaddled with the costs of litigation and damages is rare, and no few are in bankruptcy or facing bankruptcy.
- The constraints on diocesan fiscal health as local priestly vocations have declined, as Catholic populations have aged and shifted, and as Church participation itself has declined. Causes range from increased secularization in the culture as a whole to particular failures in many dioceses to show a decisive difference between the Church and the larger culture.
- A growing discontent among significant numbers of bishops with the nature of the collaborative model that is the national episcopal conference.
It is the third issue which concerns me today.
The Episcopal Conference Model
In olden times (before the twentieth century), there was relatively little bureaucratic structure to coordinate the activities of bishops in a given region. Archbishops presided over very large dioceses, offering a measure of coordination among the other bishops within a particular territory. A “metropolitan” see is the chief see of an ecclesiastical province, and its bishop is a metropolitan archbishop with one or more suffragan dioceses under his general authority. But while there is always a pecking order from Rome down, either through office or influence, most bishops operated relatively independently of their neighbors.
When joint action was required to address a problem throughout a region, local bishops would join together in regional synods to take common positions on challenging questions—very often confusion over Church teaching or widespread material suffering. But as far as a permanent bureaucratic institution is concerned, the episcopal conference is a relatively modern development. In the United States, it began with the National War Council in 1917, which was established to collect funds for the spiritual support of Catholic soldiers in World War I. Two years later, Pope Benedict XV asked the bishops worldwide to assist him in promoting labor reforms and similar improvements to the general welfare, and this request triggered the formation of the National Welfare Council headquartered in Washington, DC.
Almost immediately, there were dissenting voices in this approach to common action, and under the new Pope Pius XI in 1922, the American bishops staved off a threatened elimination of the NWC by making representations to Rome and changing the name to the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and adjusting its purposes to support reforms in education, immigration and social action generally. There things rested until the Second Vatican Council called for the establishment of episcopal conferences as formal ecclesiastical bodies, to which Pope St. Paul VI gave shape with a motu proprio in 1966.
In response, the Church in the United States established two organizations, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and a companion organization for secular affairs, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). Over time, it is fair to say that the USCC appeared to become too secular and too divorced from direct episcopal oversight, and so the two were combined by the American bishops in 2001 into the single organization we have today, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
What is the Problem with the Model?
What had evolved, as everyone now recognizes, was a permanent institution with offices working on nearly every aspect of the Church’s spiritual and social mission, in effect a permanent bureaucracy which significantly influences the priorities and activities of bishops in each diocese. It is understood that each bishop is the vicar of Christ in his diocese, and has ultimate responsibility for the care of his flock. But by convention it is commonly thought desirable to do things largely the same way throughout the whole national region, and so a significant part of the episcopal agenda is set at the conference level, buttressed by the full-time employees who advise the bishops and develop and circulate the resources designed to guide them in their responsibilities.
It is worth mentioning several particular side-effects of this bureaucratic embodiment:
- It is now very common for the various Conference committees, or their episcopal chairmen, to issue central statements from Washington on socio-political-economic questions which are often only tangentially related to episcopal authority and competence.
- The general priorities mapped out by Conference activities can overshadow the very real responsibility of individual bishops to take decisive ecclesiastical action against problems and abuses in their own dioceses.
- Put another way, there is a general tendency to mirror Conference priorities at the diocesan level, which can easily blur the prioritization the local bishop should give to pressing spiritual and moral issues.
- There is a temptation to elevate Conference politics (pushing for this or that position or priority at Conference meetings) over individual episcopal responsibility.
- Inter alia, the sense of the unique and irreplaceable nature of the bishop in each diocese is almost inescapably eroded. This is a sacramental presence, a presence created to teach, rule and sanctify, and it is easily diminished by the very implementation of comprehensive “programs” that develop a life of their own.
Bishops who no longer know how to be bishops
This assessment is not entirely negative. One can see without difficulty that problems common to large regions should be addressed jointly and consistently by the various bishops in those regions. One can also see that particular bishops might need the support, example, and even pressure of other bishops in a region to rank ecclesiastical priorities properly and to find the courage to be countercultural in a distinctively Catholic way. Clearly, much can be gained when bishops exchange ideas and experiences, so that each might clarify his thinking, and so find the most effective solutions.
Just as clearly, however, to discuss and exhort is one thing, but to vote to establish a program which represents the lowest common denominator is another. Similarly, to establish a priority is one thing, but to bureaucratize the implementation of that priority is quite another. In both cases, the decisive witness of each particular bishop is often muted, and there is a tendency to attempt to discharge the episcopal responsibility in programmatic ways. Too frequently, the bureaucratic methods chosen serve only to address generalities.
In other words, the bishop does not personally ignite the purifying flame of the Spirit (“I came to cast fire upon the earth and would that it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49). Nor does he personally and publicly address scandal (“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6, Mk 9:42).
The recent bare-minimum vote to increase the diocesan allocations in support of the USCCB ought once again to prompt deep thought among Catholics about the wisdom of episcopal conferences. When you look at the number of sub-divisions listed at the bottom of the USCCB’s website you will see immediately how easily a local bishop—and the US Church as a whole—can be overshadowed by the sheer weight of the Conference:
Canonical Affairs and Church Governance
Catholic Campaign for Human Development
Catholic News Service
Child and Youth Protection
Children and Migration
Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations
Cultural Diversity in the Church
Domestic Social Development
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
Evangelization and Catechesis
International Justice and Peace
Justice, Peace and Human Development
Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth
Migration and Refugee Services
National Religious Retirement Office
New American Bible
World Youth Day
Now breathe. And try to imagine your own bishop’s ability to breathe.
Some of these offices no doubt make some things easier for individual bishops to address. But the sheer bureaucratic weight of the modern episcopal conference tips the scales in other very important ways. Whatever the precise solution, it can scarcely be questioned that major changes here are an important step in the authentic Catholic renewal for which we all yearn. And by major changes, I mean the dramatic reduction of the “Conference”, so that priority and accountability are once again seen by all to reside in the individual bishop—indeed, not to exist at all apart from him.
For make no mistake: Authentic renewal depends on the grace-filled ministry of bishops who have no doubt about their direct personal responsibility. It is each bishop, and none other, who will answer for the faith and life of every soul in the particular church entrusted to him by Christ.
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