The credibility of the American episcopate is at a low ebb. Expectations are high, patience is running short. Amidst the outrage and anger, Catholics are pleading for shepherds who will stand up for them.
Our bishops were painfully aware of this as they convened last week for the annual general assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore. They were hoping to take some concrete steps toward accountability and regaining lost trust. As they gathered for a day of prayer and reflection on Monday, there was a palpable sense among the bishops themselves that something must be done.
Then came the surprise announcement from Cardinal DiNardo: at the insistence of the Holy See, the bishops would not be voting on proposed plans for addressing episcopal malfeasance –specifically, standards of accountability for bishops and lay-led review board for handling allegations against bishops – at least until after Pope Francis meets with the heads of the world’s episcopal conferences in Rome in February.
Taken in isolation, the unexpected delay might be brushed off. But it came on the heels of Pope Francis denying Cardinal DiNardo’s request for an apostolic visitation to investigate the McCarrick affair. And it’s no secret that Rome is furious over what it perceives as an inadequate response from the U.S. bishops to the Viganò testimony, not so much because it’s false but because he showed disloyalty in calling for the pope to resign.
And then there was the announcement  that Pope Francis was sending the preacher of the Papal Household to direct a week-long retreat for the American bishops and that Cardinal Cupich would have the honor of hosting the retreat. . .in Chicago. . .in January.
So when Cardinal Cupich appeared completely unsurprised by Monday morning’s announcement that the Holy See was forestalling the USCCB vote – indeed, he had a proposal for Plan B ready and waiting to go while the rest of the conference was still wondering what had just happened – the rest of the bishops took notice.
Noticing a pattern isn’t impugning motives, of course. And, for what it’s worth, Cardinal Cupich’s Plan B was relatively good: Given the urgency of the issue and the costs of delayed action, the bishops should proceed to vote on the action items, but as non-binding resolutions. That way the bishops could signal their collective intention to take definitive action as soon as possible without seeming to oppose Rome’s wishes. At the same time, a non-binding vote could give a clear mandate to Cardinal DiNardo, who will represent the USCCB at February’s meeting in Rome.
Even if one assumes the very best of intentions on the part of Rome, it is hard to see how humiliating the bishops – and whether that was intended or not, that’s what Monday was – helps the American flock. If Rome thinks delaying action by American bishops or weakening conference leadership is in the best interests of American Catholics, then they are gravely mistaken. The last thing American Catholics need right now is to treated as pawns in an ecclesiastical power struggle.
Our bishops, for their part, tried hard to make lemonade. Monday was scheduled to be a day of prayer and reflection, and the bishops had much to ponder. They heard from a representative of the National Advisory Council: hard words for the bishops. They heard from survivors of clerical sexual abuse: shame and sorrow from the bishops. There was genuine resolve among the bishops to do something.
By Monday evening, some bishops were floating the idea of moving into executive session on Tuesday morning. The conference’s executive sessions are closed, and the bishops would be able to speak frankly about what to do next without cameras and reporters watching their every move and dissecting their every word. That didn’t happen.
Instead, the bishops continued with the agenda, more or less as it had been planned, all through Tuesday. They debated the action items even though they knew they wouldn’t be voting on them. And to the bishops’ credit, the discussion was frank and open. There was a genuine spirit of urgency and candor. One seasoned veteran of these gatherings told me he had never seen bishops so willing to speak plainly with one another.
Rome may have stymied the bishops’ plans for a vote on their reform agenda (the vote was never taken) but as more than one bishop quipped, it had accomplished something else: Rome’s curveball had united the conference. By Wednesday, it seemed something might get done after all.
Even more than the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, the career of Theodore McCarrick represents the failure of the hierarchy to police itself. He is the reason everyone is asking: “Who knew what and when?” He is the reason for the Viganò testimony. Given that Rome is conducting an investigation into the McCarrick affair, why not convey a message from the united conference asking, not just for the conclusions of that investigation, but for the utmost transparency and the fullest disclosure of documentation possible?
It wasn’t much, but it was something. And something must be done.
So a resolution was drafted and put forward: “Be it resolved that the bishops of the USCCB encourage the Holy Father to release all the documentation that can be released consistent with canon and civil law regarding the misconduct of Archbishop McCarrick.”
Amendments were offered. Objections were raised. Concerns were voiced. In the end, the bishops finally got their chance to show their seriousness about reform. However toothless and symbolic the gesture, this was their moment to act.
Alas, it was not to be.
If Rome is worried about resistance from the American bishops, it shouldn’t be. Our obsequious shepherds voted overwhelmingly against their own resolution, 83-137, out of fear it might appear to be showing up the pope.
As the bishops return to face their flocks, they will have questions to answer: “Did you stand up for your flock? Did you gain for us what we’ve been pleading for?”
“Did you even have the courage to ask for it?”