USCC Watch: Demise of the USCC?

This is probably my last USCC Watch column. If the proposal of Cardinal Joseph Bernadin’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Mission and Structure of the NCCB prevails at the June meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, there will be no USCC to watch.

The United States Catholic Conference, created in 1967 to serve as the “public policy arm” of the national ecclesiastical and juridical body, NCCB, may be laid to rest — sort of. Discussion, debate, and vote on the Bernardin plan will be added to the agenda for the bishops’ three-day meeting in Chicago — an agenda already overloaded with massive revisions of the Liturgy (Segment III of the Roman Missal and 13 key variations).

The most striking feature of the plan is to reduce the number of NCCB Standing Committees from 28 to 15, while transplanting into them the USCC’s five “Departments” (Campaign for Human Development, Communications, Education, Domestic Policy, and Foreign Policy). Both entities already share staff, offices, as well as identical Administrative, Executive, Budget and Finance, Personnel and Priorities, and Plans Committees.

All NCCB committee members, of course, are bishops as are all chairs of USCC committees. But about half of the USCC committee members are non-bishops. To offset this, the new plan would add to committees of bishops, subcommittees comprised of non- bishops (clergy, religious, laity). It would also limit any bishop’s membership in conference committees to two (one, if he is chairman).

The Bernardin proposal would include two bishops, instead of one, as representatives of the thirteen regions; and suggests that the June NCCB meetings be regional sessions. The National Advisory Council, consisting of bishops, priests and religious, and lay men and women from the 13 regions will continue to advise the Administrative Committee on overall operations and plans. The secretariats of all NCCB committees are permanent staff members. None is a bishop. This, obviously, would not change.

What is the objective of reorganization? One suggestion is that more bishops would become involved in the work of the conference. It has often been noted that many bishops rarely if ever speak at the NCCB meetings. In 1994, a total of 69 bishops did not serve on a committee or as a Regional Representative. However, among those non-members were headline-grabbers, Bishops Kenneth Untener (Saginaw) and Thomas Gumbleton (auxiliary, Detroit).

Reducing the number of committees by more than half would not ordinarily be expected to result in a multiplication of members. Each of the 15 reorganized committees would have to include more than 20 bishop-members if all are to serve on a committee. Most NCCB committees now consist of a chairman and 6 members. Some also have bishop consultants or advisors (Pro-Life Activities has 9; Hispanic Affairs has 16).

Will our top-heavy national bureaucracy be streamlined? It’s hard to see how, if each committee also includes a subcommittee of, say, 10 non-bishop members, plus consultants, and staff. Some committees already share staff. Dolores Leckey, for example, has been Executive Director of three NCCB Committees (Women, Laity, and Marriage and Family) for years. Under the present system there is no regular review of the permanent staff, so the executive power and influence of the staff can often be greater than that of the bishops, whose membership terms are limited to three years.

Will the new plan save money? Unlikely. Key committees, such as Doctrine and Liturgy, may have several meetings during the year in addition to the semi-annual national conferences. If committee membership is tripled, the cost of transportation and expenses for these meetings would surely be tripled also.

Who will choose sub-committee members and the National Advisory Council? Several serious questions might be raised about this. At present the bishops elect committee chairmen, and each chairman selects the members. Thus the chairman’s bias is reflected in the committee membership. In the present state of deep internal divisions within the bishops’ conference, can it be assured that the selection of non-bishop committee members will not be politicized?

An even deeper question: Why does a “democratic” body such as the bishops’ conference have greater juridical and ecclesiastical authority than the hierarchy selected by the Holy See? The pope carefully and presumably with divine inspiration chooses as cardinals those prelates whom he deems best fit to lead the Church.

Yet of the seven U.S. cardinals only four are currently serving on the Administrative Committee of the NCCB/USCC (Keeler, Hickey, Maida, Mahony); and while one is also a member of seven committees and chairman of another (Mahony), two are mere members of only one committee each (O’Connor and Bevilacqua). Since 1974, when Cardinal Bernardin, then Archbishop of Cincinnati, succeeded Cardinal Krol, no president of the U.S. bishops’ conference has been a cardinal during his tenure until the recent elevation of Cardinal William Keeler.

What does it mean to be a hierarchical Church if it is not guided by the hierarchy?


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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