But by most expert accounts, the norms of Vos estis lux mundi represent a manageable and practical approach to addressing the issue of episcopal misconduct and neglect.
The bishops will also vote on a document of episcopal standards - a kind of episcopal code of conduct - and on a set of guidelines for how they should treat bishops who have been removed from office because of misconduct or negligence.
The measures the bishops have developed this year, in an often rocky partnership with the Roman Curia and Pope Francis, are, despite the challenges in the process, widely considered to be good tools, and many experts have told CNA they expect they will help to manage and address the problems of episcopal misconduct and coverup.
But the neat efficiency of those measures is likely to be seen, by some Catholics, as a symbol of a broader problem.
Writing this week in National Review, Kevin Williamson observed that “conservatives believe ...that most problems are to be managed rather than solved, that we should aim at mitigation rather than transformation, that we are better positioned to assuage than to conquer, that things are what they are and must be dealt with on that basis.”
As a result, he said, conservatives very often are a disappointment to “the utopians of the Left and the utopians of the Right.”
The observation might well apply to the situation of the Church.
Bishops, very often, and especially when working through the episcopal conference, seem inclined mostly to manage problems, especially those tied up with the intractable reality of evil.
Bishops, at least contemporary American bishops, tend to address problems through new policies or processes, which are unlikely to have dramatic or immediately visible effect.
Their approach does have advantages. Few would dispute that the policies advanced after the abuse crisis of 2002 have fostered a cultural change in the U.S. Church on the issue of child and youth protection. Many argue that over time, they’ve made the Catholic Church one of the safest places for children in America. But they are wonky, technical, bureaucratic, and the cultural shift they foster takes time.
But angry and discouraged American Catholics have not spent the last year calling for policies. They’ve called for dramatic symbols of contrition and resolution for change. They’ve called for prophetic voices, and maligned their bishops for not seeming to measure up.
Catholics of all backgrounds, viewpoints, and perspectives have demanded a sign that things in the U.S. Church really will be different, and they don’t feel they’ve been heard.
The issue is that the bishops are working toward reform, while most of the Church is calling for renewal.
Reform comes often through new disciplines, policies, processes, and agreements. Renewal rushes in like fire, bringing new energy and vitality, bringing new freedom and hope. Both are important, and both are needed now.
The U.S. bishops can’t make a renewal happen. At least not in their committee meetings and floor debates. To win the trust of Catholics, it seems they would do well to acknowledge that.
If the bishops in Baltimore express that their efforts at reform are intended to address specific problems, and will have limited effectiveness, Catholics may be comforted by their candor. And if they express that for an ecclesial culture that seems fundamentally broken, the renewal that’s needed can come only through the Holy Spirit, their humility might help them to reestablish bonds of solidarity with their flocks.
And if the bishops spend their time praying for the Holy Spirit to bring renewal to the Church, and inviting other Catholics to do the same, they might be surprised by the results.
Renewal doesn’t usually come from the top. It doesn’t usually come in familiar shapes, or recognizable programs. It often comes through outsiders- through eccentric prophets or weird ascetics. Figures like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Hildegard of Bingen, Blessed John Henry Newman, or Dorothy Day.
Reform can gradually shift culture. Renewal can upend it. And the bishops, if they wish to be candid with U.S. Catholics, might consider admitting the limitations of their reforms, and then begging the Holy Spirit to renew the Church.
On Sunday, the Church will celebrate Pentecost.
In the year since last Pentecost, the Church has faced the McCarrick revelations, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the specter of federal and state investigations, allegations of abuse or neglect on the part of more bishops and cardinals, police raids in chanceries, the Vigano letters, the disappointing November USCCB meeting, the Zanchetta scandal, the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, allegations of grave negligence on the part of USCCB president Daniel DiNardo, and now the Bransfield report.
There has not yet been any substantive release of information on McCarrick. There have not yet been answers to the straightforward questions about his finances, his allies, and his protectors.
Those things have demoralized faithful, practicing, sincere Catholics. They point to the need for reform. But they also point to the need for divine intervention.
As the bishops begin their meeting, there may be no more important plea on their lips than: “Come, Holy Spirit!”