But the future may not be as rosy. Five U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy in 2020, and eight in total have done so since the McCarrick scandal broke in 2018. More dioceses face cash crunches after months of dramatically reduced collections, and it is likely that some will find themselves unable to pay their annual obligation to the conference, or disinclined to choose doing so while at the same time laying off employees. The conference may soon find itself needing to make do with much less cash than it is accustomed to, living on the return of its market portfolio and on diminished collections from dioceses.
Bishops will have a difficult time discussing, in any practical way, what offices and projects to prioritize in a dim budget forecast, if they're asked to do so in a Zoom meeting.
They'll also have a difficult time discussing the policy priorities of the conference in the immediate aftermath of a national election. There is also a growing problem that some Catholics hope the bishops will address: continued distrust on the part of many Catholics following the McCarrick scandal. That distrust has been exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic and protests of 2020, and by the growing influence of social media figures fomenting skepticism of their bishops among many young, practicing Catholics. Some bishops likely think the influence of such figures is exaggerated, but younger practicing Catholics, who talk with each other on social media and by text about the issues of the day, see the growing influence of those voices.
And, as a background to all of those things is that a declining number of people were practicing Catholicism before the scandals and the pandemic, and the mandate of evangelization remains the preeminent mission of the Church herself, and a mandate for all believers.
Bishops can't easily discuss such matters online. It is difficult, in fact, to meaningfully discuss such matters at all, let alone in a Zoom meeting. Some discussion can be facilitated in regional meetings conducted by conference call or by Zoom, but if the USCCB wants to address meaningfully as a body the challenges and mission of the Church in the U.S., there is a certain urgency to resuming personal meetings.
But there are some bishops who hold that such discussions aren't properly the prerogative of the USCCB anyhow. Some bishops hold that the conference really ought to meet only to address the limited range of issues it is empowered by canon law to act upon, and to coordinate some lobbying initiatives at the federal level on behalf of the entire Church. Still other bishops believe that the deliberations of the assembled conference are an exercise in rhetorical exhibitionism, but rarely influential on the actual pastoral work in their local churches.
Those bishops - who express frustration routinely with "mission bloat" at the USCCB - may take the pandemic, and its limitation on coordinated episcopal action, as an opportunity to strike out more vigorously on their own - to initiate projects and priorities of evangelization, catechesis, and pastoral care in their dioceses without the distraction of the bishops' conference.
If that becomes the case, individual dioceses might function more freely as diverse settings for testing out new ideas and approaches, the best of which would be adopted at a broader level by imitiation, not by compromise and consensus.
If bishops grow accustomed to handling only abbreviated business via online meetings, it may increase the number for whom the diocese comes into sharper focus as the principal locus of apostolic activity, and for whom the importance of the conference fades. A growing number of bishops may begin to ask, as Archbishop Charles Chaput did in 2019, if all pastoral offices of the conference are worth the investment. That shift could become the most significant event to shape the future of the USCCB.
It will be more than a year between meetings of the U.S. bishops' conference. Whether that means a pause on business as usual, or the end of business as usual, remains to be seen.