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A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops
by Thomas J. Reese
Sheed & Ward, 406 pages, $19.95 paper.

Over the past decade, Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, has become perhaps the most dogged, and certainly the most prolific, Catholic bishop-watcher in the United States. Collecting and retailing stories about bishops has a long history, of course, and one sometimes gets the sense that, in the clerical culture of the American presbyterate, the lines between fantasy and fact have gotten even more blurred in recent years than they were in the glory days of the Irish Catholic hegemony. But Father Reese, who quite understandably wants to be regarded as something other than an elegant clerical gossip, works out of a different tradition from that of the Hibernian fabulists. A doctoral graduate of the University of California (where he studied political science under the eminent Aaron Wildavsky), Reese is an exponent of the view that modern social science can illuminate the work of the Church in ways that more traditional analyses often miss. 

Thus in his 1989 book, Archbishop , Father Reese tried to use “social science methodology and theory to gain a greater understanding of church organization and decision-making.” The result was a major disappointment for readers who, perhaps seduced by the book’s alluring subtitle (“Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church”), expected some juicy revelations of The Secrets. Instead, Father Reese (who, as a working journalist, knows full well that his access to men who value confidentiality would be instantly cut off by a lapse into kiss-and-tell), gave his audience a straightforward and craftsmanlike answer to the question, “What does an archbishop do for a living?” Archbishop also explored the process by which bishops are selected, and Reese’s detailed portrait of the actual operation of an American archdiocese doubtless opened many eyes (and perhaps raised a few eyebrows) among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

As a result of Archbishop , and of his regular reports in America magazine on the major meetings of the American hierarchy, Father Reese has become the Norman Ornstein”the regnant quotemeister”of American Catholic commentators on matters Episcopal: the man to whom the secular press instinctively turns for a sound bite at the end of a bishops’ meeting, or in the course of miter-centered controversy (e.g., the long-running soap opera of the pastoral letter on “women’s concerns”). And Father Reese’s reputation as a close student of the American hierarchy will doubtless be enhanced among the fourth estate by his current book, A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Like Archbishop , A Flock of Shepherds presents itself not as “inside” information but as mainstream social science. Reese’s purpose is “to examine the NCCB/USCC [the canonical bishops’ conference and its public policy agency, the United States Catholic Conference] as a legislative assembly using social science methods that have been applied to political legislatures for many years.” The author is not, he argues, taking sides in any of the disputed questions about the ecclesiological status of the conference or the wisdom of its (voluminous) public policy pronouncements. Rather, he writes, he “wants to understand how the conference works and what it has done.” 

At this rudimentary level of description, A Flock of Shepherds largely succeeds. Father Reese capably describes the demographics of the bishops’ conference, and explains once again the complex process by which bishops are chosen; in this book, special attention is paid, naturally, to the conference’s Committee on Selection of Bishops and its efforts, unsuccessful to date, to play a larger role in the appointment process. Reese then traces the historical antecedents of the present NCCB/USCC: the nineteenth-century provincial and plenary councils of Baltimore (a unique expression of Catholic conciliarism and Episcopal collegiality in that period); the annual meetings of the nation’s archbishops, which began in 1890; the formation of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in the wake of World War I and its subsequent control by the great Midwestern troika of Cardinal Edward Mooney (Detroit), Cardinal Samuel Stritch (Chicago), and Archbishop John T. McNicholas, O.P. (Cincinnati); and the transformation, in response to the Second Vatican Council, of the old NCWC into the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference. 

Father Reese then pens brief portraits of the agendas and management styles of the eight NCCB presidents to date (Cardinals John Dearden, John Krol, and Joseph Bernardin; Archbishops John Quinn, John Roach, John May, and Daniel Pilarczyk; and Bishop James Malone) and the five general secretaries of the conference (Bernardin; Bishops James Rausch and Thomas Kelly, O.P.; Monsignors Daniel Hoye and Robert Lynch). There is a short discussion of the process and dynamics of NCCB elections (full of interesting psephological nuance), and an all-too-brief mention of the study done for the bishops by the management consultant firm of Booz-Allen & Hamilton, which led to the basic structuring of the NCCB/USCC dyad in 1966. (Perhaps understandably, Father Reese does not mention that Cardinal Dearden, the NCCB/USCC’s first president, chose Booz-Allen & Hamilton because he admired the firm’s work in redesigning the management of the . . . auto industry.) In his discussion of the presidents and general secretaries, Reese gives appropriate pride of place to founding father Dearden (of Detroit; thus the Booz-Allen & Hamilton/Motown connection) and its first general secretary, then-Bishop and now-Cardinal Bernardin. By the end of Dearden’s tenure as president, “the conference” had established itself as a focal point of the bishops’ attention in a far more intense way than had ever been envisioned under the old NCWC. And it was Bernardin who, by personal style and bureaucratic ability, defined the “consensus” model of decision-making (and the atmospherics that went along with it) that have dominated the conference ever since. 

A Flock of Shepherds then analyzes, in somewhat numbing detail, the activities, management, and deliberative procedures of the sixty-two committees of the NCCB/USCC (whose concerns span the range from pro-life activities to oversight of Montezuma Seminary). Here, Reese also examines the key role of the Administrative Committee/Board, which sets the agenda for full meetings of “the body” and acts in the name of the bishops between those meetings, and the less-than-key role of the bishops’ “National Advisory Council,” which began as the prototype for a National Pastoral Council (of bishops, priests, religious, and laity), got shunted aside in the wake of the shenanigans at the 1976 bicentennial “Call to Action” conference in Detroit (an official NCCB/USCC-sponsored event at which primarily lay-activist participants voted the deconstruction of American Catholicism with glee and abandon), and now limps along on an annual budget of $77,000 (which, in 1991, 41 percent of the bishops wanted to cut even further). Father Reese then discusses the process by which the bishops’ conference adopts key statements and documents, the conference’s role in the public policy arena, and the relationship between the NCCB/USCC and the Holy See. On these issues, A Flock of Shepherds will cause no heartburn within the conference leadership or its powerful staff, for Father Reese shares the views that prevail in those quarters (or, perhaps better, the views that are regularly propounded from those quarters): namely, that the consensus procedure works well; that charges of staff hegemony are wildly exaggerated; that the bishops, in their address to the worlds of politics, are essentially nonpartisan centrists who challenge liberals and conservatives equally; and that things are really quite fine between the conference and its staff on the one hand, and the Holy See on the other, reports to the contrary being the work of disgruntled conservatives. (More on those orthodoxies in a moment.) 

Reese concludes his book with a chapter on the bishops’ conference’s finances (tight, and getting tighter), and offers a series of recommendations for the modest refinement of certain conference structures. The book also includes a series of useful appendices: here we find the five-year (1991-1996) “Mission Statement of the NCCB/USCC” (interesting, but also a monument to the overpowering influence of management theory and jargon”“co-lead agents,” etc.”on the bureaucratic operation of the conference); an index of the 119 “major statements” of the NCCB/USCC between 1966 and 1988; and a list of the conference’s seventy-seven “legislative priorities” in the 102nd Congress (1991-1992). 

All of this represents a great deal of research on Father Reese’s part, and the mastery of an enormous amount of detail. But this reader, at least, came away from A Flock of Shepherds with the unsettling sense that the book never engaged the really serious, and really interesting, issues involved with the very fact of the NCCB/USCC: which is, after all, a rather dramatic innovation in a Church that did its local business else wise for almost two millennia. 

Part of the difficulty here is Father Reese’s position as a confidant of key bishops and staff, and his commitment to the notion that the NCCB/USCC, as presently structured and operated, is a Good Thing. The book simply assumes, as a given, that the NCCB/USCC is an institutional innovation with staying power (an assumption powerfully reinforced, it must be conceded, by the bishops’ recent move into a state-of-the-art, $29 million office complex near the Catholic University of America). Father Reese tries throughout the book to show some scholarly distance from his subject(s). But the game is given away early: on p. xi, to be precise. There, in the acknowledgements, Reese thanks “those bishops who leaked me documents that I could not get from the NCCB/USCC staff,” including “some confidential minutes of NCCB/USCC Administrative/Board meetings and of executive [i.e., closed] sessions of the NCCB/USCC assembly.” Access to such materials, under such circumstances, doubtless enhances Father Reese’s standing among fellow journalists as a commentator on the conference’s affairs. But it does little to suggest that his is a disinterested account of the NCCB/USCC. Leaks, ecclesiastical or political, are not acts of supererogation. 

Reese’s historical reconstruction and contemporary analysis are thus cast within a set of assumptions that reflect the views (and as a political scientist would insist, the interests) of the NCCB/USCC staff and the bishops who have been the major players in the conference since its inception. There is nothing untoward or unsavory about this, of course. But it does give the book the flavor of a house dressing. Father Reese tells us that he interviewed “all the living presidents, vice presidents, and general secretaries of the conference, as well as many committee chairs and staff.” All well and good. But there is no evidence in the book’s extensive notes that Father Reese interviewed any of the more thoughtful critics of the conference’s theological justification, its structure, its modus operandi , or its pronouncements. The book’s focus is held firmly on the bishops with the large conference staff kept discreetly in the background (save for some cameo appearances of senior staff members during which they explain that the bishops are really in charge); but while this may be good internal ecclesiastical politics, it is not a very useful way to analyze a “legislative assembly” according to “social science methods.” Imagine analyzing the structure, operations, and product of the Congress, or even of the smallest state legislature or city council, without a careful study of the functions and political philosophy of the relevant staff. The net result is a book that is interesting and useful, not so much as a dispassionate analysis of the NCCB/USCC, but as reflection of what it is those with a vested interest in the current structure and operations of the conference think they are doing. 

Part of what they’re doing, of course, is trying to be “players” in Washington. And it is this public function of the NCCB/USSC”the bishops’ major statements on the morality of great public issues, and the USCC’s lobbying efforts on behalf of those numerous “legislative priorities””that has been the conference’s most controversial feature, in both the Church and the wider society. Father Reese is a stalwart defender of recent conference practice on this front. But surely, in the early 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, a different judgment on the bishops’ accomplishments as public moral teachers is at least worth discussing. 

Take, for example, The Challenge of Peace , the 1983 NCCB pastoral letter that provoked intense controversy at the time of its preparation and that Father Reese, reflecting the views of the letter’s principal authors, describes as a “high point” in the history of the NCCB/USCC. Why does TCOP seem so utterly dated a mere nine years after its adoption? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the trajectory of recent history. Nobody in 1983 could have anticipated the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and of the Soviet Union itself. But TCOP was not just overrun by events; the history in question falsified, empirically, the political and strategic analysis of the letter. The policy prescriptions of TCOP were based on the strategic judgment that the central problem in the Cold War was the fact of nuclear weapons themselves; and the political assumption (reflecting the orthodoxies of arms control mandarins like McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Paul Warnke, and Gerard Smith) was that nuclear weapons could be “detached” from the ideological struggle between East and West and dealt with as a kind of independent variable in world politics. Thus the “threat of nuclear war” could be minimized irrespective of the nature of the regime that aimed its weapons at us. This, of course, was to get the matter precisely backwards. The “threat of nuclear war” has been dramatically diminished, not because of “arms control,” but because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the death of European communism. Where the “threat of nuclear war” still exists today, it exists, once again, because of regimes and their ideologies. (No Frenchman loses sleep over the British nuclear force; but a lot of people in Seoul, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv are justifiably worried about a nuclearized Kim Il-Sung or Saddam Hussein.) 

The bishops’ conference was also mistaken in its reading of the struggle for peace, freedom, security, and prosperity in Central America. From the late 1970s through the 1980s, and under the influence of two key staffers, Father J. Bryan Hehir and Thomas Quigley, the conference testified before the Congress and lobbied on behalf of an analysis which minimized (to the point of obscuring) the role of communist ideology and communist forces in the region, and which stressed that weapons”especially U.S. weapons”were the cause of the turmoil in El Salvador and Nicaragua. History has, yet again, proven the inadequacies of this analysis. There is today a modest improvement in the situation of those countries. And it has everything to do with three facts: the collapse of the Moscow-Havana connection to the region; the electoral victory of the democratic resistance in Nicaragua; and the resilience of the fragile democracy inaugurated by Josea Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador. It cannot be said that the positions taken by the bishops’ conference in the 1980s anticipated, or very clearly supported, these outcomes”and the policies that made those outcomes possible. 

The other major pastoral letter of the bishops during the 1980s, the 1986 document Economic Justice for All , had an even shorter shelf-life than The Challenge of Peace . It has been, if not contradicted, then largely superseded by John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus , which is a far richer (and considerably shorter) theological, historical, and practical reflection on the free society in its economic, political, and moral-cultural dimensions. 

Where the bishops have been far more influential is in their steady commitment to moral teaching and policy advocacy on a host of “life issues” across the spectrum from abortion to euthanasia. Indeed, it is fair to say (although Father Reese doesn’t say it) that, absent the initial leadership of the bishops’ conference in the immediate aftermath of Roe v. Wade in 1973, the right-to-life movement might well have been stillborn. When the New York Times said, on January 23, 1973, that the abortion issue had been “settled” by the Supreme Court, only one major institution in the United States got up and openly challenged that widely shared judgement: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The right-to-life movement may be largely sustained, today, by the energies of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. But that was not the case at the beginning. And the bishops and the relevant staff deserve full marks for their accomplishment in this field. The bishops’ conference has also been an influential force in resisting the manias of the Hemlock Society and its campaign for the legalized dispatch of the inconveniently elderly and ill; working largely behind the scenes, for example, the conference made a significant contribution to the stunning defeat of a euthanasia initiative in November 1991 in Washington State, a bastion of lifestyle libertinism. 

Why has the NCCB/USCC been rather more successful in its address to right-to-life questions than to issues of foreign policy and the structure of the U.S. economy? It is not, I think, because the bishops have been more “conservative” on the former issues, at a time when a right-of-center tide was running high in American public life. It is true, and no amount of official or semi-official obfuscation can alter the fact, that the USCC is widely (and accurately) perceived, throughout the worlds of Washington journalists and lobbyists, as a supporter of “progressive” causes. And the general drift of our politics over the past dozen years has been away from Great Society patterns of governmental activism. But I suspect that the real reason for the disparity of impact here has far more to do with theology than with politics. 

The bishops have been able to sustain their right-to-life position, in the face of the opposition of virtually every other culture-forming institution in the country, because that position is rooted in a well-developed body of biblical and theological doctrine and reflection from which policy applications can be fairly easily drawn. That was not the case with TCOP , the Central America testimony, or Economic Justice for All . Here, the doctrinal and theological foundations were far weaker (or more controverted), and certain political assumptions thus took over the analysis and the prescription. 

For example: when the committee charged with drafting TCOP first began its work, then-Archbishop Bernardin told the committee members that the one thing they would not consider was unilateral nuclear disarmament. Well, why not? If the analysis was to be primarily driven by theological and moral considerations, then surely there could be no foreclosing of potential policy outcomes”even if it was understood that the Holy See would have looked askance at a proposal for the unilateral nuclear disarmament of the United States. But in fact the analysis was driven in no small part by a commitment to keep the letter “in play” in the worlds of public policy, where radical unilateralism was understood as a species of mental illness. 

Father Reese is right, in one sense, in his claim that the bishops’ conference does not fit altogether comfortably into the standard ideological categories. But whether that is because the bishops are “centrists” who have taken their positions on the basis of a theological analysis that transcends partisan fashions, or whether it is because the conference’s overall “progressive” reputation has been “tarnished,” in some circles, by its firm opposition to abortion-on-demand and euthanasia, is at least an argument worth engaging. (It should be noted, in this context, that the bishops have recently authorized an increase in the budget of their Pro-Life Secretariat, while holding constant, or cutting, other “advocacy” budgets.) 

Then there is the question of the relationship between the bishops’ conference and the Holy See. Father Reese catalogues and briefly discusses some of the points at which the Vatican and the NCCB have disagreed on internal Church matters: the sequence of first confession and first communion for children, the canonical procedures for the annulment of marriages, the age of confirmation, lay roles in the liturgy, the sale of church property, and the relations between bishops and theologians. Some of these questions have generated real tension; others have been more easily resolved. But the subtext of this part of Father Reese’s exposition is the implication that the Holy See has been anxious, ever since the Council, to rein in the NCCB/USCC: a reining in that Reese, like his sources, finds a bit stuffy (to say the least). 

It should be conceded, in all candor and with all due respect, that there are offices in the Holy See where the situation of the Church in the United States is not all that well understood: where America is viewed as Western Europe blown up to ten thousand diameters. This is a miscontrual both of the complexities of American culture and of the lived situation of the Church at the grassroots level in the United States. If there are things that Rome is obliged to teach America from time to time, it is also true that there are things that Rome can learn from the American experience of Catholicism. 

It is not surprising that Father Reese has rather more to say about the latter than the former. But it would have amplified his analysis had Reese devoted more than passing attention to several interventions by the Holy See that have had a decisive impact on the NCCB/USCC “process””and on tempering some of the bishops’ more adventurous enterprises. The January 1983 consultation that took place between the second and third drafts of The Challenge of Peace is dealt with rather cursorily, and strictly according to the exegesis of the drafting committee’s chairman, Cardinal Bernardin (i.e., the consultation was useful, but made little difference in the final text). But the fact remains that the third draft of TCOP was considerably altered from the second: it was more serious theologically, less influenced by anti-nuclear apocalypticism, and discernibly tougher (at least by its own standards) on the realities of totalitarianism. These alterations coincided with the key points raised during the Vatican consultation. Nor does Father Reese mention the fact that the synthesis of the meeting’s discussions and conclusions, which the Pope had ordered sent to each of the American bishops, was accompanied”without the prior knowledge of the Holy See”by a cover letter from NCCB president Roach and committee chairman Bernardin giving what might be called the “American Authorized Version” of the contents of the synthesis, its significance, and its relevance to the bishops’ future deliberations. (The conference took a similar hermeneutic tack toward Centesimus Annus . Its press advisory, which featured a synopsis of the encyclical, made a rather creative use of ellipses at one key point where the encyclical seemed to challenge Economic Justice for All on the matter of the state’s obligation to guarantee a right to employment.) 

Even more recently, there can be no doubt that a Vatican intervention, in the form of a June 1991 international consultation held at the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, fundamentally altered the theological, anthropological, and pastoral perspective of the so-called “women’s pastoral,” and in ways that were not congenial to the responsible NCCB drafting committee. 

Father Reese suggests that the Vatican’s concerns about the NCCB/USCC have to do in part with the “public consultative process” the bishops have adopted in the preparation of major pastoral letters: a phenomenon that is, to be sure, unique among the Episcopal conferences of the world. (Whether that “consultative process” makes a discernible difference in the perspective that the bishops’ staff brings to the drafting of these documents is another question left unexplored by Father Reese.) But beneath what is often presented as a political power struggle between Rome and the new Episcopal conferences there is a theological issue of great moment: namely, the method of discernment and decision-making appropriate to a religious community and a religious community’s leadership.

The leadership and senior management staff of the NCCB/USCC pride themselves on the “consensus” model of decision-making that has been a hallmark of their enterprise since the general secretaryship of then-Bishop Bernardin, and on the “process” that informs the shaping of the “consensus.” But there may well be serious flaws with both the model and the modus operandi , flaws that are simply not explored in A Flock of Shepherds

One possible problem is the confusion of debate according to Robert’s Rules of Order (which governs the functioning of the bishops’ general assembly), and genuine discernment and deliberation. “Women for Faith and Family,” a conservative group that has been highly critical of the so-called “women’s pastoral,” recently published the transcript of a part of the debate on the third draft of that letter, held during the bishops’ meeting last June at Notre Dame. To read the transcript is, in truth, to weep. Not only is the level of discourse almost pathetic in its thinness; there is no real discussion. And because of that, there is no real deliberation. Bishops speak in terse statements, which frequently have nothing to do with the statements that preceded them. A traffic light, with red, green, and amber fixtures, governs the rhythm of the “debate.” (Really.) 

But even this exchange of prepackaged dicta constituted a modest improvement over what took place at the May 1983 special meeting of the body that finalized The Challenge of Peace . Even with a third draft before them, the bishops had to consider hundreds of proposed amendments. The procedure for doing so was devised by the general secretary, Msgr. Hoye (who remarked prior to the meeting that “the time for making speeches is over”), and Father Hehir. Proponents of amendments were given two minutes to make their case; the drafting committee had thirty seconds to respond; a maximum of four seconders or opponents, within similarly draconian time restraints, was permitted. Throughout the process, Cardinal Bernardin, assisted by Father Hehir, offered a running commentary on the proposed amendments, not least to keep them in line with the agreements reached at the Vatican consultation five months before. 

At one point, the bishops had to reverse gears dramatically, within an hour, on the crucial question of the morality of any possible use of nuclear weapons (first denying the possibility, then leaving open a millimeter of ambiguity). In the midst of the seemingly interminable process, the business got almost silly. Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans, a former airborne chaplain, had offered numerous amendments that had been consistently rejected by his brethren. Then Archbishop Roach, who was chairing the meeting, said, of one innocuous Hannan proposal, “I know this is way out of line, but Archbishop Hannan’s a great guy, let’s give him this one.” This may be a gesture appropriate to a Rotary Club, perhaps even a stockholders’ meeting. But, for all that this was intended as a kindness, it was utterly out of place in the counsels of a body of religious leaders deliberating an issue of the gravest moral and political consequence.* 

The issue of deliberative models also touches the question of the NCCB/USCC staff and their influence on the bishops (or, as some of Reese’s more insouciant sources would have it, their lack thereof). Bishops are very busy people. They have large organizations to run, and many of those organizations are riven with conflicts and divisions. The bishops’ ability to focus on the mounds of material prepared for NCCB general assemblies, and for various committee meetings, is necessarily limited. So is their knowledge, particularly on matters of public policy. In these circumstances, it is simply preposterous to suggest that the NCCB/USCC is not an agency in which staff is very, and perhaps determinatively, influential. No doubt there are many capable and dedicated people working at the NCCB/USCC, often for salaries considerably below what they could command in the marketplace. But whether a decision-making process that is necessarily so influenced by staff-and particularly by a staff that tends to be self-perpetuating in terms of its intellectual perspective and ecclesiological vision-is congruent with the processes of discernment and deliberation appropriate to a national body of bishops is not self-evidently clear, Father Reese and his sources notwithstanding. 

The NCCB/USCC structure and process detailed by Father Reese is quite probably something of a watershed in the history of Catholicism in the United States; but not the watershed that the conference and its proponents imagine. For the NCCB/USCC, with its bureaucratization of religious leadership, may be the most striking contemporary example of what appears to be a virtually inexorable dynamic in American Christianity: the process of “denominationalization.” It was once thought that Catholicism would be immune to this dynamic, at least in its more extravagant expressions. But in the American Catholic context, the NCCB/USCC has been crucial in accelerating the transformation of religious leadership, with its distinctive charisma of authority, into bureaucratic managership. It is a process that has been replicated in virtually every diocese in the country, as a brief glance at almost any bishop’s appointment calendar will attest. That bureaucratization has had many effects, some of them arguably salutary. But it is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the bureaucratization of the Church at the national diocesan level has been paralleled by the deliquescence of those movements of which the Church in America was once justifiably proud: the Catholic Family Movement, the Catholic Youth Organization, the Young Catholic Workers, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the various Catholic Action groups, and so forth. The decline (and in some cases, disappearance) of those movements has many causes. But the bureaucratization of American Catholic life is surely one of them. The bureaucracy tends to absorb everything into itself: not out of malice, but just because that is the way bureaucracies function. And only a half would believe that leaders”even leaders who conceive their leadership as being divinely mandated”are immune to that process of absorption. We know with reasonable certainty where this process of denominationalization/bureaucratization leads: for the path ahead (so to speak) has been scouted by the now-moribund churches of mainline/old-line Protestantism, the pioneers of both the staff/leadership relationship and the “process”/”consensus” decision-making model now displayed at the NCCB/USCC (and in many dioceses). Perhaps Catholicism is not inexorably set on that path; it has theological resources and a Roman leadership that could help apply the brakes before the bottom of the slippery slope is reached. But however things work out in the short term, there is an enormous irony in the portrait of bureaucratic Catholicism so ably painted by Father Reese: all of this, beginning with the Booz-Allen & Hamilton study, has been done in the name of implementing a Council that laid renewed stress on the evangelical nature of the Church and the sacramental distinctiveness of the local bishop. In fact, the very title of Father Reese’s book raises the fundamental question that the book and the bishops’ conference do not face. Shepherds lead flocks. When shepherds become flocks, is something in the nature of being a shepherd irreparably damaged? 

* The Roach/Hannan episode also illustrates another dimension of the NCCB that goes unexplored in Reese’s book: namely, the NCCB as men’s club. Happily and appropriately, the NCCB has promoted a greater sense of solidarity and collegiality among the bishops. But the current organizational model, with its related passions for “consensus” and “process,” has also fostered a club atmosphere that makes confrontation very, very difficult. Which explains, in part, why some of the recent disagreements among the bishops, as on their AIDS statement, have left rather a lot of bruises. The disagreement was not just about substance; to disagree sharply (and, in some cases, publicly) with the draft statement (which proposed to cite condom usage as a morally tolerable public health measure) broke the unwritten club rules. 

George Weigel is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. His most recent book, The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, was published last November by Oxford University Press.