A virtual meeting may limit the degree to which bishops can raise questions or concerns about the conference budget. But with Church revenues impacted by decreased Mass attendance, even as the stock market recovers, more bishops may begin to raise questions about the viability of the conference budget, even while they are likely to pass it.
The bishops have reportedly also allocated time for some discussion of the issues that have dominated headlines in recent months: the coronavirus pandemic and the country's burgeoning issues surrounding racial disparities and tensions. While those discussions will be seen as important to have, Catholics will also likely expect bishops to discuss the Vatican's report on Theodore McCarrick, which will have been released just six days before the meeting begins.
It will be the McCarrick Report that has dominated Catholic headlines in the days leading up to the bishops' meeting, and there will be an expectation among Catholics that it be a topic of import at the bishops' meeting. When Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., addresses the bishops, he will be expected to address it. When Archbishop Jose Gomez, USCCB president, addresses the bishops, he will be expected to address it. And when bishops conduct a press conference after the first day of the meeting, it will be the topic journalists want to hear about.
In the two years since Theodore McCarrick's sexual abuse and misconduct became known by American Catholics, the U.S. bishops have had varied responses.
At times the bishops have seemed to be looking for answers on McCarrick; at times they have been unwilling to press the Holy See for those answers. At times they have promised transparency, and at other times they have declined to answer questions.
The Archdiocese of Washington has not yet released information about McCarrick's discretionary accounts, with which he reportedly gave lavish gifts to American bishops and to curial officials. The Archdiocese of Newark has not yet released its files on McCarrick's beach houses (he had two during his tenure in Newark), and on its records of what went on there.
Catholics have asked that basic standards of accountability be applied to the McCarrick case: That those who ignored, enabled, or covered-up for McCarrick's criminal behavior be held accountable. They have asked that Church leaders be held responsible for their roles in the McCarrick affair in the same way most laypeople expect to be held accountable for breaches of professional standards of conduct.
Angry Catholics have sometimes demanded more than is reasonable to expect, and in some cases their rhetoric has become systemically anti-clerical. That approach is not helpful, but it does not reflect the mainstream. Most faithful Catholics have said they just want to see their leaders held accountable, because they want their Church to be holy.
The McCarrick Report may be the first step to ensuring that kind of accountability. If it is, the bishops will be expected to address that. But if the McCarrick Report does not answer the questions that Catholics have been asking, many Catholics will be looking to their shepherds to stand up for them, and for their hope that the Church would protect them, hold wrongdoers responsible, and work for truth, and for justice.