Analysis

USCCB meeting: What just happened, and what might happen next?

By Ed Condon and JD Flynn

USCCB meeting Nov. 2018. Credit: CNS photo/Bob Roller

.- During a holy hour Monday morning, two survivors of clerical sexual abuse spoke to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about their experiences, and their hopes for the future of the Church.

One survivor, Luis Torres, asked the bishops to make changes to ecclesial policies and culture that might ensure that sexual abuse or coercion by anyone in the Church, including bishops, is put to an end.

"I ask,” he pled, “that you inspire me and our community to faith and hope through your courage and your action, which is needed right now. Not in 3 months. Not in 6 months. Yesterday.”

The bishops had intended to take action at their fall meeting this week, voting on two policies they hoped would address the Church’s sexual abuse crisis: a code of conduct for bishops, and the creation of a lay-led panel to investigate claims of misconduct or negligence by bishops. Those policies were not without critics, but it seemed clear that the bishops, and conference administrators, viewed them as a necessary means of showing their commitment to reform.

But as the meeting began, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, announced that the Holy See had insisted that the bishops not vote on their own proposals, and instead wait until after a February meeting at the Vatican of the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world.

The announcement seemed to shock almost everyone in the room, with the notable exception of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who rose immediately to say that “it is clear the the Holy See is taking the abuse crisis seriously.”

Cupich suggested that the bishops take non-binding referenda votes on the policy proposals, to give themselves a sense of their own sentiments, and that they schedule a meeting for March at which the bishops could vote on new proposals, if appropriate. DiNardo said that the bishops could discuss that idea on Tuesday, when the meeting’s business is scheduled to get underway.

The bishops will have a great deal to discuss as the business portion of their meeting begins. Indeed, in the hallways and lobby of the conference hotel, they are already discussing what to do. Most are also wondering what exactly happened- how the Vatican decided to put their plans on ice, and why that decision was handed down at the very last minute.

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At a 12:30 press conference, DiNardo told reporters that the decision was communicated via a letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. USCCB officials later said that the letter might not be released to the public, citing ecclesiastical protocol. But DiNardo’s announcement has raised questions about how the decision was made at the congregation, and about what role might have been played in the decision by the two Americans who serve on it, Cardinals Blase Cupich and Donald Wuerl.

Cupich, some observers have noted, seemed prepared with comprehensive thoughts on the matter while most bishops, including DiNardo, seemed still to be processing the news.

Sources close to Wuerl have given CNA conflicting reports. One source close to the cardinal told CNA that he did not believe Wuerl had been involved in the decision. But another Washington source told CNA that Wuerl had advance notice of the decision from Rome.

Both cardinals will now face questions from their American peers about what involvement they had in the decision and what, if anything, they did to push back against it.  

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Why exactly did Rome decide to spike the policies? There are several theories circulating among the U.S. bishops and media observers.

In addition to their apparent desire for dialogue among global Catholic leaders before norms have passed, some observers have noted that the Vatican expressed reservations about some canonical aspects of the bishops’ proposals.

But USCCB sources have told CNA that the bishops’ conference consulted about the documents with Vatican departments in the lead-up to this week’s meeting, and that those concerns were not raised. And others have asked why the Vatican would not have permitted the bishops to vote on the documents, and then require amendments during a “recognitio” phase, in which the Holy See would either approve USCCB policies or make suggestions for their amendment, before they could take effect.

In 2002, policies on child and youth protection were debated and approved by the U.S. bishops before being sent to Rome. They were returned to the conference with amendments and notes which were then incorporated into the norms and adopted by the bishops. Many expected a similar scenario to play out in 2018. Instead the process has been put on ice.

It is certainly true that the draft proposal for the lay-led investigative raised a number of canonical questions. Several bishops arrived in Baltimore ready to debate the problems they perceived in the text. But it is not clear why the Congregation for Bishops decided to intervene to prevent that debate from taking place.
 
Even more puzzling is Rome’s decision to prevent a vote on the proposed Standards of Episcopal Conduct. The draft text of this document, circulated with the proposal for the independent commission, contained no clear canonical novelties beyond a reference to the independent commission itself.

Several officials who spoke to CNA about Rome’s intervention told CNA that while the Vatican was known to be concerned about the proposed independent commission, it was especially surprising that the Vatican’s veto-in-advance included the draft standards for episcopal conduct.

Asking the bishops to solemnly promise not to lead a sexual “double life” and to honor basic obligations of the clerical state seemed hardly controversial; most criticism of the code of conduct has been that it was insufficiently demanding. By spiking the document, the Congregation for Bishops seems to be discouraging the bishops from even having a discussion about their own behavior, or a promise to reform it.
 
Many of the bishops in Baltimore told CNA that they are angry at what they see as an attempt to stop them debating the sexual abuse crisis at all, and confused about the reasons for it. Already frustrated that their request for an Apostolic Visitation into the McCarrick scandal was denied, several bishops are asking why the Congregation for Bishops seems now to be discouraging them from even talking about the elephant in the conference hall.
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What the U.S. bishops can do now is unclear. They will likely still discuss the proposals on their agenda, and some bishops have told CNA they expect to take a non-binding vote on them before the meeting concludes.

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But several bishops have suggested to CNA that the American bishops might also draft a strong statement of concern, intended to express their solidarity with victims and their understanding of the urgent need for concrete action. Bishops are not usually comfortable signaling a rift between themselves and Rome, but, as one bishop told CNA today, a rift was formally announced by DiNardo himself.

Of principal concern to many bishops is that they take action in order to convey to Catholics that they find sexual abuse and coercion intolerable, and that they will not abide the presence of wolves in their midst. Bishops know they will need to return to their dioceses and explain what has happened. They know they will have to explain the Vatican’s decision to their priests, many of whom are hoping for reform. And they know that they have to explain to the Department of Justice and to state attorneys general, who are investigating them, that they are trying to address this problem in a serious way.

After a curveball almost no one saw coming, the bishops know they are short on explanations. The mood at the bishops’ conference is tense.

Some have suggested that the bishops could simply pass their agenda items as planned, defying Rome’s directive. But such a decision would be a refusal to comply with the pope’s own curia, and seems to many to be dangerously close to an act of schism. The bishops want to be obedient to the pope. But they also want to able to address the sexual abuse crisis.

To convince American Catholics that the Church is serious about addressing the abuse crisis, they seem to have no choice but to continue to express serious dissatisfaction with Rome’s directive, even while expressing their obligation to obey it.

There is, however, one improbable possibility the bishops could consider. The episcopal conference is not permitted to vote on their agenda items. But the bishops could try another procedural move: they could ask Rome’s permission to convoke a plenary council on the sexual abuse crisis in America- a kind of formal assembly of American bishops, significantly more powerful than the episcopal conference, and empowered not only to make laws, but also endowed with the executive authority to initiate a comprehensive investigation into the McCarrick scandal and those bishops who enabled it.

The last plenary council in the United States took place in 1884. The Vatican would almost certainly deny a USCCB petition for one. But there could be hardly any stronger expressions of an American commitment to American solutions to this problem than the petition itself.

It is unlikely the bishops will petition for a plenary council. But it is likely that they will raise their voices in frustration with Rome’s decision, and want to know how and why the Congregation for Bishops made the decision that it did. And American Catholics will likely raise their voices even louder.      

While many of the bishops are discouraged, and left to guess at the motives and intentions behind Rome’s surprise interventions, one thing is clear: they have no intention of changing the subject.

Tags: USCCB, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Catholic Analysis, USCCB Fall General Assembly 2018

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