Draft of the June 1995
U.S. Bishops' Statement Calling the Vatican
Introduction to Hypertext version:
by Ingrid Shafer
In the June 30th 1995 issue of the National Catholic Reporter Robert McClory wrote: "Approximately 40 U.S. bishops have endorsed a 12 page document that challenges peers to take a less subservient, more proactive stance in relationship to the Vatican." The document was presented to an ad hoc committee at the annual spring meeting of the U.S. bishops held June 15-17 in Chicago.
In the media the document was subsequently linked to Archbishop Rembert Weakland as main author. This is not accurate. In a letter published in the July 14th issue of the NCR Weakland clarified the genesis of the document:
A small group of us met informally during the November 1993 NCCB meeting to see if we could find some way of addressing this. We decided to try to write an analysis of the problem, suggest ways of dealing with it and pass it on to the appropriate committee. Our document went through several drafts and was given to the NCCB committee in June of 1994.
Press reports mistakenly spoke of 40 who signed their names. Actually that number is too small -- more than 40 bishops have expressed their support for the substance of the document; there were, however, no signatures. It was meant to be a serious document, helpful to the NCCB committee, not a poll or a petition.
In his article, McClory specifically identifies the following nine bishops as supporters of the document:
In the July 28 issue of the NCR the entire report was published with the following introductory paragraph: "A dozen U.S. bishops formulated the following document over the past year, received endorsement from some 30 other bishops, and presented it to a National Conference of Catholic Bishops' ad hoc committee considering the restructuring of the NCCB and U.S.Catholic Conference, its administrative arm. Following NCR's report of this document in its June 30 issue, many readers asked to see it in its entirety. The document includes episcopal suggestions pertaining to the role of U.S. bishops and the need for dialogue with the Vatican. It includes a call for more openness in the church."
This document was made available for posting at the ARCC www site by Tom Fox, Editor and Associate Publisher of the NCR, and is posted here with permission of the copyright holder. [ Many Thanks, Tom Fox!] The document may not be reposted or otherwise further distributed beyond limited personal use without permission.
In the January 4, 1996 telephone interview with me the bishop (who prefers to remain anonymous) confirmed the fact that more than thirty additional bishops endorsed the report. He added that he was certain many of those bishops would have been willing to sign openly, but that "we did not ask them to do so." When I asked if there were any plans to do more with the document my source said, "Yes." When I asked if he could elaborate, he said, "No." However, he added "There will be a follow-up to it and it will be addressed to Cardinal Ratzinger."
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Church life was different back in 1966 when the [National Conference of Catholic Bishops] was founded. Parish councils were uncommon and diocesan pastoral councils nonexistent, as were presbyteral councils and finance councils. Diocesan offices were different, too, mostly because there were fewer of them. The world was different, too. The reality of change in our country and the world is challenging all institutions - nations, businesses, charities, schools, hospitals, governments, unions, families.
The NCCB has developed considerably in these nearly 30 years. One need only compare the agendas, procedures, structures and staff of 1966 to today. With the rest of the church, we've learned much about consultation and established structures and procedures that allow more openness. But the structures and procedures of any large organization can become so heavy that their weight works against what they were intended to achieve.
One senses a growing feeling among bishops that as a conference we aren't accomplishing what we need to accomplish. We work hard at our meetings, the agendas are well-planned and full, but we leave with a feeling that we haven't dealt with many of the pressing and important matters that face us. No one, of course, is really prevented from speaking, but we somehow miss the opportunity to have the open exchange that reflects the thoughts and feelings one hears privately among the bishops themselves and among the priests and other leadership people in our dioceses. Many people see us as a conference remaining silent on the real issues while pursuing minutiae.
We seem to lack a mechanism to confront urgent matters, breaking issues. If something pressing arises in the U.S. church after the agenda has been set, we can modify our agenda when the meeting begins, but often nothing has been planned in this regard - for example, ad hoc committee work, the presence of experts in the particular field, and so forth - and we return home without seriously addressing the issue. This has resulted in a loss of credibility with priests, religious and laypeople. Credibility gaps quickly become authority crises.
Why do major and pressing concerns seem so often to go unaddressed? Surely not for lack of nerve. Bishops are accustomed to confronting hard issues, saying things that are not popular, taking the heat. If we are not, as a collegiate body, dealing with the real issues or speaking honestly and openly about them, it is not because bishops are afraid to do such things. One might wonder if it has to do with the particular nature of the issues; for example, they often involve disagreement with the approach taken by curial offices. Our twofold role as leaders of a particular church and members of the college of bishops creates a unique kind of pressure that ought to be addressed. One might also wonder if it also has to do with the structure of the conference and the format of the meetings.
Collegiality and episcopal conferences
It should be of our nature to work together in dealing collectively with the important or urgent issues in the lives of our people and to deal with them in an open way. By our nature we are collegial.
Lumen Gentium presents the "college" of bishops as part of the very foundation of the church, forging strong bonds among all bishops, and in a special way with the Holy Father who is included within the college as its head. Collegiality is not reserved to exceptional moments (for example, an ecumenical council) when the college exercises its highest power. Collegiality is part of the nature of episcopacy and ought always to be active.
Episcopal conferences are one of the significant ways in which collegiality has been exercised concretely. After speaking of patriarchates, Lumen Gentium says that in a like manner (simili ratione), episcopal bodies today are in a position to put this collegiate sense into action (#23). Pope Paul VI, in his opening address to the 1969 synod, said he had "already given proof of his will to give practical increase to episcopal collegiality, both by instituting the Synod of Bishops and in recognizing the episcopal conferences."
Christus Dominus expands upon this:
The concern of individual bishops and bishops' conferences for the hole church deserves attention. Lumen Gentium spoke of this:
In his 1982 address to the NCCB on collegiality, Cardinal John Dearden spoke of the need to go beyond the focus upon the responsibilities immediately at hand in our own dioceses: "It is a subtle kind of self-deceit to hide behind the press of local responsibilities and to ignore one's role as a member of the college of bishops to the universal church."
Making room for the Spirit
In the Last Supper discourse, Jesus tells his disciples, "I have much more to tell you but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth" (Jn 16:12-13). After his death, resurrection and ascension, the church began a new stage in its existence. In chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation, a refrain is repeated six times: "Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
We are in essentially the same condition as the church at the time of the Acts of the Apostles: The Lord has died, risen and ascended. We seek to do the Father's will by listening to the Spirit. One of the ways of listening to the Spirit is listening to one another, which means that we should speak to one another from the depths.
Many bishops feel we should reexamine the present NCCB/USCC structure and process to allow this to happen. Imagine what it might be like if the bishops who gathered in conference were to exchange ideas and pursue issues in the light of questions such as, "What is the work of the Spirit in the church now? Where ought we bishops concentrate our efforts and our considerable influence in church and world?" One senses that our meetings would be different.
It is crucial that bishops be able to talk openly from a faith perspective about whatever affects church life. It should be possible to discuss any topic that concerns the faithful. Does the Spirit have something to say to the churches? Indeed it does. Does our current structure and process allow room for the work of the spirit? That is the question that has to be addressed.
One cannot speak of our structure and process without talking also about the need to take more fully into account the sensus fidelium. We have taken major and commendable steps to make it possible for people to hear through the media what we have to say at meetings. We now need to take steps to be sure what the people have to say to us - before we come to the meetings themselves. We are teachers, but teachers have to be good listeners. We come to conference meetings not simply as individuals, but as bishops collegially connected with one another and with the people we serve. In this regard it should be observed that do not seem ready to take seriously the work of the National Advisory Council.
If religion polls are correct, most people want to know and love God and find meaning in their lives. The same pools tell us that most people believe in God, are churchgoers and pray, many of them daily. The Catholic church is the largest religious body in the United States and its membership continues to increase. Furthermore, in contrast to their status for the first 150 years of our country's history, Catholics today are among the educated, the professionals, those with influence on the nation's history and destiny.
Nonetheless, it is evident that all is not well. Parishes and dioceses find diminishing numbers at Sunday Eucharist and disaffection among youth, women, Hispanics. Catholic bishops experience a credibility problem with many faithful people. There are vast numbers of "Sunday only" Catholics or, worse, Catholics in name only. We have succeeded in instructing Catholics in the basic truths, laws and practices of the church but not in handling our relationship in faith to a loving God.
The institutional church is not always where the people are. At times it is prophetic and ahead of the people, inspiring and calling them to a fuller understanding; at other times, the people lead, especially with regard to critical issues that concern the gospel call in daily life. We suggest that the NCCB needs to find a better way to connect with the church as it is being lived.
I. DIFFICULTIES OF PARTICIPATION IN OUR PRESENT STRUCTURE
1. Overall Structure
When reviewing the structure of the NCCB, the question always must be: What structure best provides the framework for us, under the guidance of the Spirit, to discern the needs of the church and respond to them.
There would seem to be much to recommend a bi-level structure, that is, interregional and national. We bishops need among ourselves something that is available to a presbyterate within a diocese. We need a chance to talk and plan from particular experience, shared at a regional level. Many bishops encourage their presbyterates and vicariates to assemble periodically to share their vocation and life as priests. At the parish level, councils, other commissions and committees frequently use discernment and consensus for their decisions. Bishops might benefit from the same sort of exchange on a regional and interregional level.
The large group general meetings, even when focused on reflection rather than conference issues, do not seem adequate. Interregional gatherings could be less threatening. They would encourage more open, spontaneous, and fuller discussion. The fact is, that while many bishops speak out frequently, many (perhaps 80 percent) speak very rarely or not at all.
Such meetings could also more easily include periti. Their presence would challenge us to have sound theological and pastoral reasons for our positions and enable us in some cases to base our decisions on more data.
2. Committee Structure
Present committee structure seems to be somewhat cumbersome and at times less effective than it could be. We offer the following observations and suggestions:
2. It appears that some committees are overactive, generating an excess of paperwork and taking up a disproportionate amount of our time. There is a general feeling that we receive too many written reports and statements f rom committees.
3. Some committee work is tedious and uninspiring, not inclined to engage faith or interest.
4. Some committees are perceived to be "prestigious" (for example, [ the committees on] pro-life, doctrine, liturgy, priestly life and ministry). Membership enhances one's standing. Such committees often have, in addition to bishop members, bishop consultants, yet it is difficult to become a member of or consultant to such committees.
5. One wonders if we could not make use of ad hoc committees to take up issues as they arise, rather than having so many standing committees that seem to have few pressing concerns. Ad hoc committees may also make it easier to set priorities.
6. Some committees deal with issues that could be solved in ways other than through the NCCB. We spend considerable time on things that would no t seem to require the attention of the whole conference.
7. There are questions as to who does and who should set the agenda of a particular committee. For example, how does the Committee on Doctrine decide its agenda? Should the conference have a say in this?
8. The journey of agenda items through the committee structure does not readily allow for spontaneous or urgent questions to surface. It often seems too difficult to get things through the committees.
3. The Administrative Committee
The Administrative Committee appears to be much too large. It is made up of chairpersons of all the committees (25 standing committees, five USCC policy committees, various ad hoc committees), elected members from the 1 3 regions and other elected members.
Reducing the number of committees, as recommended earlier, would reduce the size. Even if that step were taken, we need to reexamine the practice of having all standing committee heads serve ex officio on the Administrative Committee.
Committee chairpersons have valuable data to bring to the Administrative Committee meeting. On the other hand, they also can inhibit open discussion about their area of concern. There is a perceived obligation on the part of the committees and some pressure from staff to do so. One senses that the discussion might be more free if the committee chairpersons were not there.
If we moved toward a bi-level structure, then regional representation on the Administrative Committee could become more important and more effective. Membership elected from the regions would give a fair representation of bishops, and these could report back to their regions. Bishops would feel that they had more influence over the Administrative Committee. They might then review the material for the conference and contribute to the agenda more effectively. At the present time, most regional representatives or the Administrative Committee do not have a procedure for communicating with the bishops in their region before or after the Administrative Committee meetings. In effect they simply become individual members of the Administrative Committee.
Finally, the nature and purpose of the Administrative Committee needs to be spelled out and/or communicated more fully.
In this context one might also raise questions about the NCCB/USCC staff. What things should be reported to the full conference? How do USCC offices relate to their diocesan counterparts? Do we need a staff of this size or, to put it another way, must most diocesan offices have a counter part at the USCC level?
II. WHAT IS PROPER CONFERENCE AGENDA?
The agendas for general meetings need to be looked at carefully. Minor matters or "desk work" seem to take up too much time at full meetings.
A review of agendas and minutes indicates that a major focus of NCCB meetings is the conference's own institutional concerns. What if the Spirit wished to lead the church in a new direction, as happened in Acts, for instance? Where is the opportunity? Some have observed that there is little evidence in conference meetings, communication and documents that we as bishops have truly discerned the Spirit and the direction the Spirit is leading us on any issue.
Some of this relates to what was said about the committee structure and procedure, and some additional comments about committees are in order:
III. CONFERENCE DOCUMENTS
The ministry of the word is foundational and formative to all else that we do. The NCCB exercises this role largely through written documents. Given the importance of this ministry, this method of communication needs to be examined. A failure to connect successfully with our people contributes to the impression that we operate on a different plane and are part of a "different church."
Lengthy documents may be necessary during the stage of review and discussion by the bishops. But such documents, no matter how good the content, are not effective in reaching large groups of people. The NCCB could benefit from an analysis of how people find out things, and then work from this data to find better ways to communicate.
The bishops' teaching mode needs to be more in tune with the way people learn today -- more personal, dialogical, intuitive and interactive; not so abstract and didactic. Long, ponderous documents are read only by some theologians, a few priests and lay readers and bishops who read each other.
One of the most successful ways of communicating our messages is by developing them in a dialogical model. The way we fashion our position is sometimes criticized as being unrelated to what is taking place in the li fe of the church. We need a mechanism to listen to the people before we arrive at a conclusion. The model of having hearings seems to have been a good one and could be expanded or adapted.
Writing a document is only the beginning. There remains the major task of communicating it. Much of this responsibility rests on the individual bishop who must take it home and find ways to communicate it. Often, we don't realize how much of this responsibility rests upon each of us.
Conference documents, the result of very hard work, are generally communicated poorly beyond the conference itself to the rest of the church and to the general public. Would not documents that were few, brief and inspiring have more impact on the church and the world? These documents, if written in a popular style, could better engage the faith of the people. (Recent examples of this more readable and effective style would be the documents titled, "When I Cry For Help" and "Putting Children and Families First.") We should consider publishing the same document in different way s for different groups; for example, a brochure for mass distribution, Sunday bulletin inserts for participating Catholics, longer documents for teachers, and so forth.
IV. RELATIONSHIP OF THE NCCB AND PARTICULAR CHURCHES
We speak here of the relationship of the NCCB to dioceses, and the relationship of dioceses with one another. Some changes in our structures and procedures could help to bring about a much stronger relationship.
We come back again to interregional clusters. These could be the focus of much committee work and a major force for full conference agendas. They could also be helpful in publicizing the statements and pastoral letters that come out from the conference. At times it would be appropriate for them to generate their own documents.
The local churches in the United States were, earlier, made up largely of immigrants from Europe. Today the immigration is from the East and South. What are the new questions and problems for local churches? Surely, with the vastness of our country, the questions for the Southwest are different from those of the Midwest or Northeast. Do concerns about the "soft" institutions (families, single parents, schools, parishes) differ in these areas? These matters might not all be of interest to the full conference, though many topics would have larger dimensions than the regions and overlap with issues of the wider church. Regional pastoral plans might be more effective than national ones.
Occasionally we could convene bishops around a common concern or interest, rather than geography; for example, ministry to Hispanics, priestless parishes, urban ministry, dioceses with mostly one-priest parishes.
While on the topic of the relationship of dioceses to one another, one might also call to mind the advantage of bishops connecting with small groups of bishops from other countries. Among other things, this would help to offset the provincialism for which the United States is so often criticized.
V. THE NCCB/USCC AS A BODY RELATING TO OTHER BODIES
We need also to be conscious of the relationship of the NCCB to other bodies: its ecumenical relations with the other churches, or with the scientific community, those concerned with the environment, higher education, politics, the media, communications.
Committees directed to these bodies could act on behalf of the conference as such. An example might be the Ecumenical Committee. It would help conference members to "own" ecumenical endeavors.
On the subject of ecumenism, it might be observed that we sometimes seem to neglect consultation with the Orthodox; for example, on the age of confirmation, deacons, the Oriental code.
Finally, we need to have more contact with other episcopal conferences throughout the world. For example, there might have been considerable benefit in talking to the Mexican bishops and Canadian bishops at the time of [the North American Free Trade Agreement].
VI. RELATIONSHIP OF THE NCCB TO THE TOTAL OR UNIVERSAL CHURCH
It is at this level that U.S. bishops exercise more fully collegiality with the pope and all other bishops. Vatican II laid the foundation for significant changes in our working relationship with the whole church and with the Holy Father, changes we are still trying to understand and learn to put into practice. It is, understandably, a sensitive area.
In his presidential address to the conference in 1983, Archbishop [John] Roach touched on this question:
"It is also true that learning the practical meaning of collegiality involves some surprises; it is not all fun and games; it has concrete implications that were not grasped as long as collegiality was largely a matter of theory only; it involves doing hard things as well as easy ones. But it is necessary and good that we explore these practical implications as we go about making collegiality a functional principle in the life of the church. That is the price of maturation.
"... [W]e are entitled and even required to bear in mind that collegiality is a two-way street ... that increasingly collegiality is becoming a working principle in our relationships with one another, with other conferences of bishops and with the Holy See. If collegiality means anything, it means doing things together -- things sometimes difficult and sometimes even painful. Tensions of the present moment are best understood as the growing pains in a maturing relationship."
We need to discuss this as a conference (perhaps regionally first) because it is being discussed at other levels. We need to ask the questions so that we can have an approach that we share in common. Some of the specific concerns are:
Another area where we might take initiative has to do with concerns about the "reinterpretation" of Vatican II. There is a widespread feeling that Roman documents of varying authority have for some years been systematically reinterpreting the Vatican II documents to present the minority positions at the council as the true meaning of the council. The above-mentioned "Letter to the Bishops on the Meaning of Communio" would be a specific example. It interpreted communio on the vertical level, emphasizing the bonds between individual bishops and the pope, and de-emphasizing the collegiality of national conferences. This is a very particular interpretation or reinterpretation of Lumen Gentium (and other council documents as well) into a vertical ecclesiology.
The thinking of Roman theologians deserves some attention and response because, as we have said, without a response, their documents become unchallenged sources to quote and requote. The conference, it would seem, should do this, perhaps partly through the work of the doctrine committee. A concern here is the need to know what particular Roman theologians are responsible for various documents so that some open dialogue can ensue.
Another great concern is the development of a supra-collegial body, namely the cardinals. The increasing use of the College of Cardinals as advisers to the pope needs to be examined. From a practical point of view , it weakens the principle of collegiality. The "college" of cardinals is quite different from the college of bishops.
Finally, synods are one of the most ancient exercises of collegiality, and one of the important ways we relate to the bishop of Rome and the whole college of bishops. One hears concerns about the procedures relative to synods. There is a rule of secrecy imposed on the conferences and on the publication of individual interventions. For example, response to lineamenta by national hierarchies cannot be shared with one another. We don't know what other English-speaking conferences wrote in preparation for the last synod, much less other conferences. There is also some concern about the procedure by which delegates are selected. All this, it would seem, is appropriate material for a discussion at the conference level.
VII. OPEN DISCUSSION AND TRUST AMONG BISHOPS
Restructuring the conference and its procedures will be to no purpose if bishops are unable to speak honestly with one another. Open discussion of substantive issues will not be helpful if there is a fundamental and serious problem of distrust among bishops, a lack of openness and honesty in the way they think, feel and act. Even to identify the problems may be impossible in the large group if trust and openness are lacking.
What are the factors that inhibit open discussion [and] trust? Some bishops may fear to raise certain issues lest they be considered disloyal or cause scandal. They are aware of the great concern among some U.S. Catholics for loyalty, interpreted to mean a strict and undifferentiated application of all Roman norms, and the notion of the church as a multinational corporation with headquarters in Rome and branch offices (dioceses) around the world. One might be correct on an issue, but to speak out openly at this time is looked down upon as disloyal and dangerous to the faith of the community. It would help if we kept in mind that the bishops will not be in unanimity on all church issues. We have to deal with the question of minority reports, and not be afraid to admit that disagreements are an integral part of any process of maturation.
It would also help if we kept in mind that most of the things we deal with are not faith matters but pastoral and/or practical matters.
Sometimes the item we are discussing and voting on isn't the issue we are really dealing with. There is something beneath it.
Some bishops give the impression, consciously or unconsciously, that they speak for the curia and Rome, and know, in a way the others do not, the mind of the Vatican. There is a feeling that some bishops can deal directly with Rome on issues under consideration by the conference and exercise significant influence. Every bishop should have the right to deal directly with Rome, but one questions the attention Rome should give to the comments of an individual bishop when the matter is being taken up by the conference.
We generally operate at our meetings within the framework of parliamentary procedure, interpreted and applied with some flexibility, which everyone seems to appreciate. There are drawbacks, however, to the use of parliamentary procedure. It is subject to political maneuvering and can cover over differences among bishops or mask substantive disagreement. This can lead to passive-aggressive alternatives. We need to find ways to have wide open discussion and the occasional opportunity for some brainstorming. So me issues do not come to the floor at all because they are too sensitive and controversial, although they are vital to the church's life. Would it not be possible for us to gain skills in methods of conflict analysis and resolution, mediation and consensus-building -- skills that could be of service to the entire conference when touching upon sensitive issues?
The need to find ways to have more open discussion in a climate of trust is best illustrated by considering current issues in the church that we seem not to address openly. These would include: the priest shortage, priest morale, ecumenical issues, school funding, women and equality in the church, the relationship of youth and Hispanics to the church, better preaching, better liturgy, better relationships with the poor, the relationship of the conference with Rome, and the public face of the church on abortion, the annulment process, the loss of Eucharist, alliance of the right wing with some fundamentalist leaders, contraception, sexual ethics, the kind of candidates being attracted to priesthood, anti-Catholic feelings surfacing in the United States, the ordination of married men, rumors of a high percentage of homosexual men in seminaries and in the priesthood. In particular, the issue of pedophilia among priests continues to create a very serious credibility problem for the U.S. bishops because of our perceived unwillingness to address and explore the reasons for this terrible tragedy.
VIII. BISHOPS AS LEADERS
There are many different styles of good leadership, but one thing is certain: A bishop is called to be a leader. This needs to be reaffirmed at a time when crisis administration takes up most of our busy schedule, or at a time when some public leaders seem concerned with what the polls say and ascending the ladder of seniority. Bishops can be tempted to lapse into the role of functionaries or content themselves with maintenance. If this happens, leadership will pass to others, particularly those who have the financial backing to make sure that their partisan views go unchallenged and dominate through TV and print media.
It is undoubtedly a caricature, but there is a feeling afoot that among the criteria for selecting bishops, leadership qualities are considerably overshadowed by a concern for characteristics that would identify a candidate as "safe." Yet, a leader is precisely a person who will take risks and be creative and who is not afraid now and then to make a mistake.
We can look back in history to excellent examples of bishops in our country who exercised strong leadership. They were able to articulate a vision, inspire people and find ways to enflesh the vision in the realities of their day. Our memory of them can inspire us to do the same today
There is a need for a worldview, a leadership that can empower people, convene them, energize them to use their creative capacities to build a different world, society. The church is in a competitive arena to capture the minds and imaginations of people in building the future. Bishops, individually and as a conference, have a particular call to be transformative leaders, articulating a vision of the kingdom that attracts people, that deepens their relationship with God and encourages them to make real their love for God and others by their lives and ministries of service.
These reflections are set forth with a constructive intent and out of a deep love for the church. We are approaching the 30th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. It is timely to review the structures and procedures of our episcopal conference in the light of both affective and effective collegiality and find ways to exercise the leadership to which we have been called.
Edited for posting on the ARCC Web Site 3 January 1996 by Ingrid Shafer. Revised 13 January 1996.
Hypertext version (c) 1996 Ingrid H. Shafer