Analysis: At USCCB meeting, will words speak louder than votes?

USCCB 6 11 Wide shot of assembly 1 Bishops at the USCCB General Assembly in Baltimore, June 2019. | Kate Veik/CNA

Today the bishops of the United States will debate and vote on three documents aimed at implementing the new universal laws promulgated by Pope Francis last month.

While the ostensible purpose of Thursday votes is to establish Vos estis lux mundi in the life of the Church in the U.S., the bishops gathered in Baltimore are aware that they are really voting to restore their own credibility among faithful and discouraged U.S. Catholics.

The laity have figured heavily in the bishops' discussions, with many using Tuesday's sessions to insist on establishing a clearly defined role for non-clerics in handling accusations against bishops.

The open sessions of the conference are being broadcast live, and the message many bishops appear to be sending is "We know you're watching and we want you to know we are talking about you."

Yet many Catholics are less interested in what the bishops have to say to them, and more about what the bishops have to say about one another.

The recent publication of a report into Bishop Michael Bransfield, formerly of Wheeling-Charleston, was the latest in a year of scandal and setback for the American hierarchy.

Although Bransfield looms large in the minds of the faithful and bishops alike, his name has yet to be mentioned at the bishops' meeting. Similarly, although Theodore McCarrick was mentioned by the lay representatives of the National Advisory Council and National Review Board, his influence on the conference proceedings has passed largely unspoken.

One of the documents upon which the bishops will vote today is titled "Acknowledging Our Episcopal Commitments." The text includes several expressions of collective failure and contrition.

An act of corporate responsibility and renewed dedication can certainly be a useful tool in communicating with the faithful across the country. But, many would argue, too much solidarity can actually work against them in the battle to win back trust.

There is a fine line between expressing a meaningful collective remorse and giving the impression that the sins of the few are common to all bishops.

During the November meeting last year, Bishop Liam Carey of Baker noted the "shameful residue" left on all the bishops by McCarrick's long presence among them. The recent Bransfield report has only strengthened the impression among some Catholics that the bishops are all the same.

If the goal is to truly heal the breach of trust, the bishops might find it effective to speak directly about the failings of their brothers, and the outrage it has caused among their own ranks.

There is a widespread perception that bishops cannot - must not - be trusted to police themselves. The bishops have, at times, said as much themselves. That impression is, inadvertently, reinforced when the hierarchy appears more comfortable voicing collective responsibility for the misdeeds of their colleagues than vocally sharing the outrage of their flock.

Privately, many bishops are furious at the scandals which have rocked the Church thanks to a minority of their number, and they are acutely aware of the damage done to their own credibility. The corporate commitment to passing procedural directives for Vos estis is solid, somber work, but it strikes many of the faithful as more of the bloodless progress of bureaucratic consensus, against which Pope Francis explicitly warned the bishops ahead of their January retreat in Mundelein.

While some laity are looking for the bishops to speak to them, many more want to see the bishops speak to and about each other with candor.

To many of the hierarchy, the language of "we bishops" speaking to "you faithful" is a natural expression of collegiality. But, when the subject is the egregious fault of a few of their number, it can seem reminiscent to Catholics of a clerical culture in which the virtuous shepherds instinctively stand with the vicious few, before thinking to align with the faithful of their own flocks.

The final day of open session will come with considerable scope for debate. The opportunity is there for the bishops to separate the sheep from the goats in their own ranks, and to offer the kind of personal leadership and vision which some of the people in the pews have almost lost hope of seeing.

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Some may take the opportunity to speak with zeal and prophetic vision, others – maybe the majority – will remain silent, hoping that an anonymous vote will suffice for leadership.

There are many good bishops in Baltimore who recognize nothing of themselves or their ministry in the actions of Bransfield and McCarrick, and those who kept them in place for so long. But if they do not rise to say so out loud, will the faithful know they are there?

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