Shrinking the Bishops’ Conference

When 250 or so American bishops travel to Baltimore in mid-November for a sentimental jour­ney into the Catholic past, they may find more comfort in looking back than looking ahead. But look ahead they must. Their national organization, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has come to a historic turning point.

Since the USCCB has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., the usual site of the hierarchy’s fall general as­semblies is a pricey, dismal hotel at the foot of Capitol Hill. The Baltimore convocation will be a one-time spe­cial event celebrating the renovation and reopening of the city’s Basilica of the Assumption. Completed in 1818, it’s the work of British-born architect Benjamin Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol and other notable buildings.

This will be a time of ritual and rhetoric. There may be self-celebrating talk about the achievements of the Ameri­can hierarchy. And in fact the bishops may need some such shoring up to see them through the business portions of their November 13-16 meeting, where the principal agenda item will be the unavoidably distressing process of shrink­ing the bishops’ conference in program, budget, and staff.

By a notable coincidence of timing, the shrinking co­incides exactly with the tenth anniversary of the death of the man who more than anyone shaped the episcopal con­ference in its now indisputably overextended form—Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

Born in 1928 in Columbia, South Carolina, to Italian immigrant parents, Joseph Bernardin was a 40-year-old aux­iliary bishop of Atlanta in 1968 when he was selected as general secretary of the new National Conference of Catho­lic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference (the NCCB/ USCC became today’s USCCB more than a decade ago). He held the position until 1972, then became archbishop of Cincinnati. From 1982 until his death from pancreatic can­cer on November 14, 1996, he was archbishop of Chicago.

At various times he also served as president of the bishops’ organization and chairman of some of its most important committees. A man with a genius for consensus, he combined collegial manner with political shrewdness to dominate the NCCB/USCC in the years after the Second Vatican Council, molding it into a high-profile, frequently controversial body.

Predictably, though, the structure Cardinal Bernardin built eventually started showing signs of age. Lately the bishops’ conference has been battered by fallout from the crisis of clergy sex abuse. Growing financial problems make it clear that something will have to give.

From Gaudium et Spes to Lumen Gentium?

Speaking last December at the American seminary attached to the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, Bishop William S. Skylstad, the organization’s current president, said the hierarchy was in “a period of assessing how best the conference structure can be of assistance to the bishops and the local churches.” Then Bishop Skylstad, whose diocese of Spokane, Washington, is in bankruptcy due to the cost of sex-abuse claims, got down to cases. “Such an assessment is a sobering experience,” he confessed, “because it reminds us both that our resources are limited . . . and that the needs we have responsibility for are . . . seemingly capable of stretching us well beyond our capacity.”

There are two options in such situations: Increase re­sources or take another look at needs to determine which are really needed and which aren’t. Recognizing the truth of that, the bishops several years ago set in motion the restruc­turing scheduled to come to a head in Baltimore.

There’s a lot more at stake here than a routine shuf­fling of boxes on an organization chart. Whether the pro­cess does or doesn’t breathe fresh life into this now visibly weary episcopal conference—which in recent years has of­ten appeared to be going through the motions, with no zest and no new ideas—will have consequences for American Catholicism for years to come.

“It’s a shift from a Gaudium et Spes conference to a Lu­men Gentium conference,” a veteran member of the staff ex­plained, using insider jargon to express certain large-scale changes also occurring elsewhere in the Church. Gaudium et Spes was Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Lumen Gentium its dogmatic constitution on the Church; thus the formula signifies a move away from the priorities of the bishops’ conference in the Bernardin years, when the hierarchy was free with its advice on social and political issues, to a serious engagement with the many problems from within that now face the Church.

In the last years of his life, 1992 to 1996, Cardinal Ber­nardin himself chaired a bishops’ committee on restructur­ing, but the results were trivial compared with what’s envis­aged now. To appreciate the significance of the blueprint the bishops will be looking at in Baltimore, it’s necessary to know something about the history of their organization in the last 40 years—a history best organized by three key dates: January 22, 1973; May 3, 1983; and June 15, 2002.

The Impact of Roe v. Wade

As every pro-lifer knows, January 22, 1973, was the day the Supreme Court handed down its disastrous decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, companion cases that dissolved le­gal restrictions on terminating pregnancy and opened the floodgates to a tidal wave of abortions that is still underway.

Although bishops had fought efforts to “liberalize” abortion laws in a number of states for years, the Supreme Court rul­ing caught the NCCB/USCC asleep at the switch. It was a failure of legal intelligence that stands as a permanent blot on the organization’s record.

The bishops acted quickly to recoup, establishing an effective advocacy program that ran through the confer­ence’s new pro-life office. In the years immediately after Roe v. Wade—a crucial period when Protestant evangelicals hadn’t yet joined the fight—the pro-life movement in the United States was largely a creature of the Catholic bishops and their national organization. It would be hard to think of anything the bishops have devoted more time, energy, and resources to ever since.

Still, critics on the Catholic right claim that the bishops’ conference hasn’t done enough. In a way, they have a point. In 1983 Cardinal Bernardin unveiled his consistent ethic of life (the “seamless garment”), intended as an umbrella for a broad coalition in defense of life. Instead, social activ­ists cool to the anti-abortion cause and pro-choice Catho­lic politicians exploited the new rationale as an excuse for moral equivalency. Quadrennial statements published by the bishops’ conference before national elections as guides to Catholic voters have lent support to this unhealthy de­velopment by declining to set moral priorities among the many issues identified as being of concern to the Church.

The Challenge of Peace

The second landmark date is May 3, 1983. Gathered in a special assembly in Chicago, the bishops adopted the fa­mous pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace. The vote was 238 to 9. Not many people read The Challenge of Peace now, but in the early 1980s it was intensely debated, not only among Catholics but also in the secular world.

The timing was exactly right. The United States and the Soviet Union were well into a threatening new round in their seemingly endless nuclear competition. With its strong condemnation of the arms race, its opposition to America’s first use of nukes, and its grudging acceptance of deter­rence (as long as progress toward nuclear disarmament was taking place), the peace pastoral evoked heated reactions.

The process of putting the document together capital­ized brilliantly on this excitement, involving as it did high-visibility public hearings by the drafting committee at which representatives for various points of view, including officials of the Reagan administration, dialogued with bishops. The drafting committee itself was a journalist’s dream. Members included the U.S. hierarchy’s best-known hawk, John Car­dinal O’Connor of New York—a rear admiral and former navy chief of chaplains—and best-known dove, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit. Presiding over this extravaganza was—who else?—Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. His efforts landed him on the cover of Time. By the measure of public exposure, The Challenge of Peace was far and away the high-water mark for the NCCB/USCC.

It was downhill after that. The collective pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, prepared by a committee headed by now-retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., of Mil­waukee, got respectful attention when it came out in 1986 but made nowhere near the splash of its predecessor. The decline accelerated dramatically in 1992, when the bishops’ conference abandoned a nine-year struggle to write a pas­toral on women’s concerns. The fiasco showed that on cer­tain sensitive topics, women and the Church among them, it isn’t possible for bishops to say something useful that will make nearly everybody happy and nobody very mad.

The collapse of the women’s pastoral also signaled something else. The age of the dinosaurs—overstuffed, staff-written bishops’ documents that attempted to cover the waterfront—was over. For the Church in the United States, something new was already slouching toward center stage: The clergy sex-abuse scandal had arrived.

The Impact of the Scandal

The overview’s third date is June 15, 2002. As the bishops gathered in Dallas for their spring general meeting, disclo­sures of episcopal cover-up of sex abuse by priests—not only in Boston but in dioceses throughout the country—had been spilling out in the press since January. With 700 journalists on hand to serve as a media lynch mob, the US­CCB (as by then it was called) was under intense pressure to act. The result was a tough new zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse—in essence, the policy that’s now in place.

In fact, though, the bishops had been struggling with the problem of sex abuse since the late 1980s. In 1993 they adopted a sound set of guidelines for dioceses to follow in dealing with the issue. Unfortunately, like most things the conference did then and does now, compliance by diocesan bishops was voluntary. Many bishops followed the guide­lines, but some did not. Nearly all kept things under wraps. Had they told their people what was going on, it’s unlikely the crisis that erupted nine years later would have been the disaster it turned out to he. Here was a case where the Church would have been well-served by a stronger bishops’ conference empowered to knock episcopal heads together, not a weaker one.

Even as matters stood, without the USCCB the bish­ops in 2002 would have found themselves in worse straits than they did. Lacking a national organization, they would have had no mechanism for hammering out a joint policy and negotiating its acceptance by the Vatican. The notion that the Holy See somehow would have saved the day has little to recommend it, considering its head-in-the-sand approach to sex abuse for years before the crisis blew up. Framing a policy on sexual derelictions under intense pres­sure may not be quite what the Second Vatican Council had in mind in saying bishops’ conferences were needed for “the common good of the Church,” but this illustration of the USCCB’s fundamental usefulness will do until a better one comes along.

The Rush to Restructure

Besides coinciding with the current effort to restructure the bishops’ conference, the sex-abuse scandal helped bring it about. There are several ironies here.

One early reaction to the scandal in 2002 was a sug­gestion floated by several bishops to convene a new plenary council—the fourth in U.S. Church history and the first since 1884—to take a searching look at American Catholi­cism. Clerics, religious, and lay people would have been the bishops’ collaborators. The hierarchy pondered that pro­posal for more than two years, mostly behind closed doors, then quietly gave a collective shrug of indifference and dropped it. Instead, they pushed ahead with the restructur­ing of the USCCB via an introspective process involving no one but themselves. Although the Church in the United States badly needs transparency in decision-making at ev­ery level in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal, the bishops evidently want no part of it.

The genesis of the restructuring goes back to the eve of the scandal. At the USCCB general meeting of November 2001, bishops complained that even though money prob­lems were forcing them to cut spending in their dioceses, spending by the USCCB remained untouched. As a result, $464,000 was trimmed from the organization’s 2002 budget.

The tokenism wasn’t enough. In late 2003 the bishops created a Task Force on Activities and Resources chaired by Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, then-bishop of Pittsburgh and now archbishop of Washington, D.C. The task force produced an influential November 2004 report whose mes­sage was that the bishops needed to start doing less and do­ing it better. The most important recommendation was to set clear priorities and take on only new projects that fit them. Simple as that sounds, lack of such an obvious rule of thumb in the past repeatedly led the episcopal conference down the primrose path of trying to be all things to everyone.

At that point responsibility passed to the USCCB Com­mittee on Priorities and Plans. Its chairman is Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, who as an assistant general secretary of the NCCB/USCC in the early 1970s served under the general secretary of that day—Joseph Bernardin; the vice chairman is Bishop Dennis M. Schnurr of Duluth, Minnesota, conference treasurer, who was general secretary from 1995 to 2001.

A Plan Without a Vision?

Several things have happened since then. Acting at the rec­ommendation of the Sheehan committee, the bishops last year approved four USCCB priorities: marriage and family; “faith formation for all” that emphasizes “the sacraments and Mass attendance”; priestly and religious vocations; and pro-life activities. Those are hardly the only areas in which the USCCB of the future will be involved, but they’re meant as guidance in allocating resources.

The budget also has been changing, with more change to come.

The 2006 USCCB budget calls for $131,177,251 in spending, but the figure is misleading inasmuch as $41 mil­lion is government funding to the conference migration of­fice for resettlement work, while another $57 million rep­resents the intake from national collections that’s disbursed to needy dioceses and presumably worthy projects. The core of the operating budget is $11,857,771 in money that bishops take from diocesan funds. The figure hasn’t risen in three of the last four years, a circumstance that required withdrawal of $1.8 million from conference reserves to pay the bills this year.

Since drawing down reserves is a self-limiting practice, and the bishops, financially hard-pressed back home, aren’t about to raise the ante in Washington, that means cutbacks ahead. Further guaranteeing that is a proposed 16 percent reduction in the diocesan assessments. Current figures for some of the LISCCB’s higher-visibility offices include So­cial Development and World Peace, $2,759,081; Pro-Life, $2,336,283; General Counsel, $1,909,800; and Government Liaison, $993,895. The Child Youth and Protection Office and the National Review Board established to monitor im­plementation of the bishops’ policy on sex abuse operate on $759,021; the bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People gets another $67,528.

An essential part of the restructuring is to unravel the web of bishops’ committees that grew up over the years and now feeds confusion, duplication of effort, and waste. The plan before the bishops in Baltimore calls for cutting pro­gram committees from 35 to 14, with 16 ad hoc committees eliminated entirely. This cutback is to happen largely by combining committees now operating in the same general area into one.

Staff numbers are also on the way down. Exclusive of the migration office and Catholic News Service, which have outside funding sources and relatively large staffs, the plan envisages a reduction from 240 positions to a new total of 175. The USCCB’s current general secretary, Msgr. David J. Malloy, is under instructions to bring the bishops a detailed staffing plan next spring. Along with a money-saving reduc­tion in the number of salaried employees, the aim is to fos­ter flexibility by making it possible to shift personnel from task to task as needed instead of allowing staffers to hunker down in their narrow-purpose bureaucratic cubbyholes.

What does it all mean for the conference of bishops and the Church? Episcopal conferences aren’t optional—they are mandated in Church law. But no law says they have to get as bloated and self-important as the American confer­ence became over the years, when it sometimes seemed to consider itself a kind of super-diocese giving orders to dio­ceses and acting as a counterweight to the Vatican. (Still, those who may rejoice to see the USCCB getting its come­uppance should bear in mind that when push came to shove in the greatest crisis of American Catholicism in modern times—the sex-abuse scandal—not only did the USCCB step forward and clean up the most visible part of the mess but, given a stronger hand much earlier in the game, it might actually have prevented a lot of the grief.)

As some see it, though, there’s a basic problem with the USCCB restructuring plan: lack of vision—for the confer­ence of bishops and also for the Church. Had the bishops decided to convene a plenary council, that project, like many another of the last 40 years, might have turned out badly; but with a lot of luck and the involvement of the Holy Spirit, it could have supplied the institutional Church in America with something it desperately needs—that inde­finable entity George H. W. Bush once famously called “the vision thing.” Add that to your list of what-ifs.

The main hope of conference insiders is that that vi­sion will be forthcoming when Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, USCCB vice president and widely regarded as the brightest member of the American hierarchy, succeeds Bishop Skylstad as president two years from now. The great imponderable in that scenario is the cardinal’s health: He had surgery for bladder cancer last summer.

The USCCB veteran quoted earlier sums up the situa­tion like this: Sobered by the sex-abuse scandal, the Ameri­can bishops are chastened and worried. Things they worry about these days include the decline in Sunday Mass at­tendance (two out of three Catholics in the 1960s, one out of three today); a similar drop-off in sacramental practice, with penance and matrimony especially hard hit; the grow­ing shortage of priests; the religious illiteracy of the laity; the immense challenge of integrating a huge number of Hispanic newcomers into the Catholic community—and ever so much else, “They don’t want it said that American Catholicism collapsed on their watch,” this person said of the bishops.

Even without a clear vision, restructuring the USCCB could conceivably help prevent that by making the confer­ence more of a resource to local churches in their efforts to meet escalating pastoral needs. Better late than never if it does. Meanwhile, on to Baltimore.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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