At the same time, some bishops have said that while the pope's apparent reticence to commit to a particular plan is concerning, it is also important that such a serious matter be addressed wisely and prudently, so that policies implemented hastily are not subsequently revoked.
For many American Catholics, however, the Vatican's reticence to allow action seems to reflect a so-called paralysis of analysis. Some worry that episcopal malfeasance will go on unaddressed long after the February meeting-- that while the pope seeks global consensus, reform in the U.S. will remain at a standstill. Some note that while talks are on hiatus, bishops accused of negligence or misconduct, among them Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo and Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, do not seem to be the subjects of ecclesiastical inquiries into their status.
This situation, they say, will lead to increasingly diminished confidence in the Church's capacity to reform itself, and increasingly stronger support for the intervention of civil authorities.
These critics note especially that there has yet been little evidence of a canonical process for McCarrick, a situation to which global media outlets have remained attentive.
It is frustration about McCarrick that seems to have fueled much of the criticism from lay Catholics of the U.S. bishops. While the stalled policy reform can be attributed to the Vatican, many Catholics have expressed discouragement at a perceived lack of commitment from bishops to press for answers on McCarrick.
Commentators and some bishops seemed especially frustrated that the USCCB failed to pass a resolution encouraging the Vatican to release all legally permissible documents related to McCarrick's alleged misconduct.
During debate, some bishops said the resolution was unnecessary because the Vatican had already pledged to release a summary report of its own internal investigation of documents related to McCarrick. One bishop said the resolution could be interpreted as an expression of distrust in the Vatican. Some bishops seemed uneasy about seeming to publicly pressure the Vatican, especially since previous efforts to that effect by conference leadership had been rebuffed.
But one bishop told CNA that debate over the resolution got "lost in the weeds," and lost sight of the symbolic importance of the resolution to Catholics hoping to see an act of solidarity and leadership from their bishops, a collective affirmation of the importance of the McCarrick investigation. After the Vatican's suspension of policy votes, the bishop said, Catholics wanted to feel that their bishops continue to press for answers, that they are not afraid of what might be discovered.
The resolution, however, failed by a wide margin.
These are unpredictable times in the life of the Church, shaped by events with little precedent. But four points seem clear about the months to come.
The first is that the February meeting is unlikely to conclude with the adoption of reform policies. Cupich has said the meeting will be the start of a process- given that the meeting is scheduled to last for only three days, it seems impossible to expect any policies to be adopted or promulgated. This will probably enflame a new round of frustration among U.S. Catholics, and many U.S. bishops, who perceive an urgent need to debate and decide on reform policy.
While a slower process might indeed lead to better, more well-constructed policies, there will be a price to pay for the pace, and it will be measured in the costs of civil investigations, lawsuits, and possible indictments, and in the number of disaffected Catholics who lose faith in the Church while they wait.
The second is that the episcopal conference now seems unlikely to remain the principal method of communication between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops. The pope has rebuffed several public requests from conference leadership for an apostolic visitation into McCarrick, and publicly rebuffed, at the very last minute, their plan to vote on reform policies. And it is telling that Francis appointed Cupich, who is not a part of the conference's elected leadership, to help plan a meeting for the elected leaders of conferences around the world, and to represent the U.S. in the planning group.
The pope has previously appointed Cupich to accompany elected U.S. representatives to Vatican meetings, including the 2015 synod on the family and the 2018 synod on the youth. The pope has again affirmed his trust in Chicago's archbishop, who, in light of that trust, and his appointment to February planning committee, will be more frequently seen as an unofficial but important bridge, and interpreter, between Rome and the U.S.
Next, it seems obvious that Catholics will continue to call for action from the U.S. Church's leadership, as will civil authorities. Their call is likely to grow more impatient. Calls to withhold financial support from diocesan apostolates are likely to continue, although few observers expect such calls to have a serious impact on the bottom line for most dioceses. Far more likely to have serious financial and operational impact on the Church will be the decisions of the U.S. Attorney and state attorneys general-- indictments or litigation could have both domestic and Vatican consequences.
Finally, there is one positive development worth noting. During the recent bishops' meeting, DiNardo offered several opportunities for bishops to speak candidly about the sexual abuse crisis and their experiences. Some bishops spoke very personally about their own needs, their concerns, their shortcomings, and their hopes. Cardinal Joseph Tobin spoke earnestly, as did Archbishop George Lucas, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, and several others. Some bishops told CNA they sensed the Holy Spirit prompting a more fraternal exchange, a new openness to more human engagement, and even disagreement, on the floor of the meeting.
It would be a strange development if the sexual abuse crisis ushered in a new era of episcopal candor, and a more discerning mode of operation for the bishops' conference. But as the past few weeks have demonstrated, "strange developments" are the ordinary course of affairs for the Church. What will come next remains to be seen.