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Twenty-five years ago this month, Pope John Paul II made his first pastoral visit to the United States, meeting the American bishops in Chicago. In his address to them, the former university professor used a style that was both innovative and pedagogically effective: he quoted from an array of documents and pastoral letters that the American bishops had issued on spiritual, moral, and pastoral matters; he affirmed their teaching and challenged them to continue and strengthen it; and, in the process, he shrewdly gave a papal benediction to the genius of the American hierarchy for working collegially, collaboratively, and in concert. It was as if the Successor of St. Peter was nodding in agreement with the observation of James Hennessy, S.J., that “ . . . the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States have perhaps the proudest conciliar tradition in the Church universal.”

My purpose is to look at the history of this tradition, and I begin with two caveats. First, in no way do I mean to imply that other national hierarchies lack a similarly collegial tradition. Prelates in France, Poland, and Spain, just to name a few, had been meeting in canonically approbated assemblies long before the Ark and the Dove brought Catholics to Maryland in 1634. While our legacy of national episcopal collegiality might be particularly consistent, effective, and exemplary, it is in no way unique.

Second, I admit that the word “conciliarism,” is loaded. In applauding the distinguished heritage of American hierarchical “conciliarism,” I do not mean what Brian Tierney has defined as a “catchword for theories asserting that a council is superior to a pope,” an idea that reached its peak at the Council of Constance in 1418, reappeared in the Febronian and Gallican movements, and was soundly condemned as heretical by pontiffs beginning with Pius II (1458-64), and by both Vatican councils. On the contrary, I use the term “conciliarism” to mean not a theological movement but a style of ecclesiastical polity in which bishops find it helpful and effective to exercise their apostolic office as a group, and not only as individual diocesan bishops.

The American conciliar tradition antedates even the establishment of the diocese of Baltimore, our premier see, in 1789. Father John Carroll invited his fellow Jesuits (actually, they were “former” Jesuits, the Society of Jesus having been suppressed in 1773) to three organizational meetings at Whitemarsh, Maryland in 1783, 1786, and 1789. These were collaborative assemblies of two-dozen or so clergy who discussed such matters as property, education, priestly formation, and eventually, the need for a bishop and a diocese.

As his biographer, Annabelle Melville, has observed, John Carroll was an amazingly talented, pragmatic, perceptive, and reluctant leader. What qualified him to assume a role of leadership in the nascent American Church was not only his name—belonging as he did to the most prominent, influential, wealthy, and impeccably patriotic Catholic family in the country—and not only his innate organizational abilities, but also his gritty pragmatism. Carroll realized that the developing situation in the new nation called for a Catholic Church with some homegrown characteristics. The American Church needed some distance from Europe, and it would need to get its act together if it were to survive and prosper.

It was very soon after his consecration as the first American bishop in 1790 that John Carroll again summoned his clergy—this time not to a voluntary organizational assembly, but to a canonical diocesan synod at St. Peter’s pro-Cathedral in Baltimore, from the seventh to the tenth of November 1791. The twenty-two priests at the meeting spoke of the dangers of mixed marriages, the Easter duty, the disposition of parish funds, priestly vocations, and the religious education of children—themes that would be discussed time and again at similar gatherings over the next two centuries.

In 1808, Pope Pius VII made Baltimore an archdiocese, with suffragan bishops in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, Kentucky. Three of the four new bishops were consecrated by Archbishop Carroll in the fall of 1810, and there followed two weeks of meetings in what was an unofficial provincial council. Among the resolutions was a request to the Holy See that future episcopal nominations be made by the U.S. hierarchy, not by European prelates.

As important as Carroll was to the formation of the American hierarchy, it was John England—a priest of Cork, Ireland, appointed first bishop of Charleston in 1820—who must be considered the real father of the conciliar tradition in the United States. According to his biographer Peter Guilday, England urged his fellow bishops to hold regular councils for three reasons: like John Carroll, he felt that the pastoral challenges of the Church in America demanded regular, formal meetings; he believed councils would show an often anti-Catholic culture that the Church was not the backward, secretive, undemocratic, and foreign-controlled institution it was assumed to be; and he considered Carroll a failure who needed to be prodded by initiatives from his fellow bishops.

England would have to wait until October 1829 for the First Provincial Council of Baltimore. Among the many topics addressed at this first council were trusteeism (the popular belief among some American Catholic laity that they had the right to hire and fire their pastors), clergy discipline (including dress, behavior, residence, and pay), and the need for a catechism.

Over the next seventy-five years, the American hierarchy would hold seven provincial councils and three plenary councils (with provincial councils and diocesan synods following each of the three plenary councils). The results and benefits of the tradition were clear. The bishops had developed cohesion based on a collegial structure and unity in governance. Consistent discipline and stable Church life had been established. Bonds with Rome had been strengthened, as the Holy See summoned the meetings, suggested agenda, and approved conciliar decrees. (Contrary to popular perception, Rome encouraged, even demanded, the American conciliar movement.) American society on the whole was impressed by the initiative and organization of the hierarchy and its openness to the democratic style of self-governance. And pastoral problems had been identified and confronted.

With the conclusion of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, a new pattern of conciliar style would develop and remain in effect until World War I—namely, an annual fall meeting of all the archbishops of the country. While the councils of Baltimore had worked well, they were by their very nature extraordinary (summoned as they were by Rome) and rather cumbersome in preparation and execution. The yearly meetings, by contrast, were to build on the assemblies that each province would hold before and, if necessary, after each meeting of the archbishops.

The annual meetings of the archbishops from 1884 to 1917 dealt with a host of controversial issues—the imperative of parochial schools, the temperance movement, ethnic tensions, the whole question of what has been called “Americanism,” (the so-called “phantom heresy” condemned by Pope Leo XIII). It is accurate to say that the American bishops through the end of World War I were overwhelmingly concerned with internal, pastoral matters of the Church. They did not see themselves as prophetic voices challenging society or culture, and they were scrupulous to avoid the impression of “meddling” in national political affairs. The bishops more or less viewed their national role as the one defined by John Carroll: to provide structure, organization, cohesion, and discipline to the internal life of the Catholic Church in America. In other words, they saw themselves as pastors dealing with ad intra issues (that is, issues internal to the Church): marriage and family, religious education, training and uprightness of the clergy, the question of new dioceses and the nomination of occupants for those sees, the proper celebration of the sacraments, and warning their flocks of dangers to the faith posed by the American setting, including mixed marriages, alcohol, religious indifference, and avarice.

The ad intra style of conciliarism made considerable sense at the time. The bishops had to devote their time to establishing parishes, promoting vocations, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and orders of women religious, erecting new dioceses, and assuring financial stability, not to mention welcoming thousands of immigrants to the country every day. There simply was no time to concentrate on political issues.

Another reason why the bishops focused on internal matters for so long was the ever-present danger of anti-Catholicism in American life. Long before Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., the bishops of the nineteenth century knew that this animus was “the deepest bias in American culture.” They did not want to draw attention to themselves and were forever sensitive to the charge that the Catholic Church would try to overthrow the First Amendment and “establish” itself in the United States.

Probably the most dramatic example of reticence with regard to ad extra issues (that is, issues external to the Church) was the timidity of the bishops when confronted by the issue of slavery. As Peter Guilday, the historian of the Baltimore councils, has observed about the meeting of the national hierarchy in 1852:

To the outsider, there was an added interest. Between 1844 and 1852, the Protestant Churches were splitting up into denominational and territorial divisions. The Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches were losing their unity over the abolition problem—a unity never since recaptured; and, with every social and religious institution in the nation straining and breaking under the dead weight of the slavery agitation, it was inevitable that to thousands of well-meaning men and women in the land, the question would arise: What action would the Catholic Church take in this crisis?

The answer, unfortunately, was None. Whether their silence was an act of prudence (as Guilday himself proposes) or one of cowardice is still being debated, but it is unquestionably a vivid example of the extreme reluctance of the nineteenth-century American hierarchy to pronounce on political affairs.

The American conciliar tradition would be dramatically expanded, and its focus shifted, during World War I. The main force behind the change was the Paulist editor of the Catholic World, John Burke, who had long argued for a national outlook and sense of unity among the country’s Catholics. Douglas Slawson, an historian of the formative years of the bishops conference, points out that the hierarchy was eager to show its enthusiastic support for the war effort. With the approval of the unofficial primate, Cardinal James Gibbons, Burke invited Catholic leaders to Washington in August 1917 to discuss Catholic support of the war, and the turnout was impressive. By the conclusion of the meeting, the National Catholic War Council had been formed. Its duties would include the promotion of Catholic participation in the war, through chaplains, literature, and care for the morale of the troops, as well as (for the first time) lobbying for Catholic interests in the nation’s capital.

When the entire hierarchy gathered at the Catholic University of America in February 1919 for a delayed celebration of the golden jubilee of Cardinal Gibbons’ episcopal consecration, they heard the legate of Pope Benedict XV, Archbishop Bonaventura Cerretti, challenge the bishops to be especially attentive to issues of education and social justice in the postwar years. That’s all that avid conciliarists such as Bishops Joseph Schrembs and Peter Muldoon needed to hear. Inspired by the challenge, they made two proposals: an annual meeting of all the bishops every fall in Washington, and a permanent administrative body in the nation’s capital to promote Catholic interests on behalf of the hierarchy. Over the protests of Cardinal O’Connell of Boston and Archbishop Messmer of Milwaukee, the bishops approved the foundation of the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) in September 1919. The NCWC institutionalized the American conciliar tradition, giving it a permanent bureaucracy. John Burke was appointed general secretary and five departments came into being: education, social action, laity, press, and missions.

Just how muscular the spirit of conciliarism now was would become clear two years later. Cardinal O’Connell, joined by Charles McDonald of Brooklyn, protested to the Holy See that the new NCWC smacked of Gallicanism and encroached upon the independence of the diocesan bishop. Rome, especially Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, an old friend of O’Connell’s, gave them a favorable hearing, and the Consistorial Congregation (the predecessor of today’s Congregation for Bishops) suddenly suppressed the NCWC.

This move would trigger what Elizabeth McKeown has termed “the most forceful protest to Rome in American Catholic history.” In two documents sent to Rome, the officers of the NCWC—Edward Hanna of San Francisco, Peter Muldoon of Rockford, Illinois, Austin Dowling of St. Paul, and Joseph Schrembs of Toledo—argued that a national structure of bishops was crucial and that, if the suppression of the council stood, the credibility of the bishops would suffer, the Holy See would look autocratic (thus vindicating Protestant and Masonic critics), and national Catholic unity would be ruptured. “Not to be nationally organized in Washington is to be without power in public life,” the bishops cautioned Rome, reminding the new pontiff, Pius XI, that America was now a world power, and that the bishops needed a voice in the capital. 

In the end, the conciliarists won. Rome cancelled the suppression, although Cardinal Gaetano de Lai noted that he feared the power of such a large episcopate, with a huge budget, and a permanent bureaucracy. To save face, Rome did insist that the word “be changed to conference, making NCWC stand for the National Catholic Welfare Conference,” so that it would be clear that participation was only voluntary and that the acta of the meetings would not have the force of law until they were approved by the Apostolic See.

It is this structure, more or less, that functions to this day as the vehicle of the collegial tradition of the American hierarchy. Francis Hurley would later observe that the NCWC was a resounding success as an example of structured collegiality, that it was the natural fulfillment of the vision of the episcopal collaboration dreamed of by John Carroll and John England, that it was vindicated at Vatican II, and that it serves as the model for other national hierarchies.

Be that as it may, it is clear that with the NCWC the bishops of the United States showed that they had lost their shyness and were willing and eager to begin focusing on ad extra concerns. If anyone had any doubts as to what direction the new structure would take, the matter was settled on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1919 with the publication of what was called the Bishops Program of Social Reconstruction, produced by the Social Action Department of the NCWC. This department was chaired by the moral theologian and social activist Monsignor John A. Ryan, who would later serve as unofficial chaplain to the New Deal. The Bishops Program, as Joseph McShane, S.J., reminds us, placed the bishops clearly on the side of Progressives in such matters as housing, minimum wage, social security, welfare, and unions. Apparently, the bishops were no longer hesitant to take controversial positions, and, unlike in 1852, silence on political issues was no longer considered a virtue.

The bishops found their voice, expressed through the NCWC, in other areas as well. They spoke often and firmly in defense of the persecuted Church in Mexico, warned of dangerous excesses in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, and, after the Second World War, consistently condemned communism. They engaged in a vigorous campaign to overthrow the overtly bigoted Oregon School Law and joined with the Knights of Columbus in opposing the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. In issues of public morality, they could be counted upon regularly to warn against divorce, birth control, and lewdness in movies—the latter concern leading directly to their creation of the effective Legion of Decency. Their progressive social action agenda reached a crescendo in the New Deal years, when, led by Monsignor Ryan, they spoke on behalf of unions, government programs of relief and reform, and even backed the National Industrial Recovery Act. Their “Labor Schools” and “Schools of Social Action” became legendary for the training of lay activists and, through their Rural Life Bureau, the needs of the farmer were not forgotten.

It is not that the bishops now ignored ad intra concerns, but they did seem to discover and relish the fact that people took them seriously and looked to them for guidance on issues of the day. Their annual meetings increasingly became reports of what the different departments and committees of the NCWC had done in their name since the last general meeting.

With the Second Vatican Council came increasing international respect for the American conciliar tradition. According to historian Gerald Fogarty, the debate at the council between Cardinals Frings and Ottaviani—as well as the debate among four American cardinals about the authority that should be extended to national conferences (with Francis McIntyre and Francis Spellman opposed to strengthening them and Joseph Ritter and Albert Meyer in favor)—were pivotal in bringing a new schema, “ . . . On the Pastoral Office of Bishops,” to the council floor. Christus Dominus, the council’s decree on bishops, would specifically mandate that every country have an episcopal conference. Although the American model was not specifically mentioned as a blueprint for what the council had in mind, the informal consensus seemed to be that in the NCWC the bishops of the United States possessed the paradigm for such conciliar governance.

Shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, Paul Hallinan of Atlanta and John Dearden of Detroit took the initiative in transforming the NCWC into a dual organization: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), which was the aggregate of all the bishops in the country and a permanent bureaucracy in Washington, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). The NCCB/USCC came into force in 1966, with Joseph Bernardine as general secretary.

For the next twenty years, the NCCB/USCC would sponsor two annual meetings a year of the entire hierarchy. These two decades were the heyday of American conciliarism, with the actions of the national conference considered normative for the dioceses of the country, and with the conference almost completely eclipsing the agenda of individual bishops. Developments that began in the days of the NCWC now became institutionalized. First and foremost, the conference became explicitly enthusiastic about ad extra concerns, setting itself up as a “prophetic voice” in American society, especially on domestic and international issues of social justice. War and peace, the economy, nuclear weapons, unemployment, labor issues, the environment, Central America, Africa— the conference eagerly issued statements on all of these complicated and controverted areas of public policy. At least partially as a result, the bureaucracy and budget of the NCCB/USCC mushroomed; before long, plans had to be made to construct a permanent facility near the campus of the Catholic University of America that would be five times the size of the conference’s former offices on Massachusetts Avenue.

In these years the conference also became the American hierarchy’s accepted and preferred way of working with the Holy See. As in the past, the Vatican expressed much satisfaction with the conference and the conciliar style of the Church in the United States. It thus trusted the NCCB/USCC on matters of liturgy, ecumenism, catechetics, and marriage and family—and for the most part it allowed the American bishops a significant degree of autonomy on episcopal nominations and diocesan boundaries. Far from viewing the conference as an “upstart,” the Holy See tended to consider it as a good example of what the Second Vatican Council had in mind in mandating national episcopal conferences. The NCCB/USCC was viewed as the proper and preferred engine of implementing the spirit and letter of Vatican II, and individual diocesan bishops were expected to follow the conference’s lead. Meanwhile, critics charged that the American bishops acted as if any problem in the Church or the world could be solved by the establishment of a committee, the issuance of a statement, and a national second collection.

It took more than two decades for the post-Vatican II honeymoon to come to an end. By the late 1980s, some prominent voices in American Catholic life began to wonder if the conference needed to be reigned in. Criticisms that had been heard from time to time began to become more frequent and pointed. The conference, it was said, was “staff-driven;” the bishops were mere spectators; the biannual meetings were more like political conventions than pastoral meetings; a “clique” of bishops dominated to the exclusion of others; theological leftists inevitably prevailed on everything from public policy to liturgy; the conference’s support staff leaned even further to the left; vast sums of money seemed to disappear into an ever-expanding bureaucracy. Several bishops and Catholic leaders rose to defend the conference against these and other charges, but over time the criticism had its effect.

As the 80s came to an end, it was clear that the cultural and political atmosphere in the country had changed in several ways. First of all, the demographics of the American Catholic population had shifted, with strong Catholic support for Ronald Reagan showing that Catholics in America had become more affluent, more politically conservative, and less enthusiastic about classical conference positions such as support for New Deal and Great Society social programs. In the mind of some bishops, their own aggressive promotion of “lay leadership” in the years subsequent to Vatican II had backfired as a new generation of lay Catholics—including such writers as Michael Novak, William Simon, George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, Russell Shaw, and Ralph McInerny—began to act as “ loyal opposition” to the conference.

Second, Pope John Paul II overshadowed the bishops of every country, including the United States. If one wanted to find out where the Church stood on a given issue, one hardly had to consult the bishops conference, since the Pope himself made the evening news more often than national prelates. This was a pontiff with a public vision, ubiquitous in his travels, indefatigable in meeting with his fellow bishops, tireless in issuing his own pastoral letters and statements, and enthusiastic about the conciliarism of world synods and extraordinary regional assemblies. John Paul himself would summon the archbishops of the United States to Rome to deliberate on the threats to life inherent in American culture. It was as if the Pope had stolen the thunder from conciliarists in America, doing for the Church universal what John England had set out to do for the Church in America. It was all the conference could do just to keep up with the Pope.

Third, among younger priests and bishops there was a shift toward a vibrant theological orthodoxy. While fully and enthusiastically committed to Vatican II, they longed for a return to ad intra issues as they worried about a loss of Catholic identity, moral laxity among lay Catholics, and generalized catechetical illiteracy. These so-called “John Paul II bishops” pointed to the threats American society posed to faithful Catholics, especially in the realms of marriage and family, chastity, and the sanctity of human life. Moreover, they seemed less willing to take their cues from the conference structure and more comfortable exercising local authority as bishops in their own dioceses.

There was an indication that the Apostolic See shared some of this unease about mega-conferences when, in 1998, Pope John Paul II issued Apostolos Suos, “On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences.” While affirming the necessity and theological validity of bishops conferences, the pontiff also stated that “the growing extent of their activities has raised some questions of a theological and pastoral nature, especially with regard to their relationship to the individual diocesan bishops.” It would be an exaggeration to say that this document was an attack on the American conciliar tradition, but it was a warning about the dangers of “excessive bureaucracy” and a firm reminder about a bishop’s independent authority in his own diocese. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger noted, “Episcopal conferences do not constitute per se a doctrinal instance which is binding and superior to the authority of the bishops who constitute them.” Even those who downplayed this document’s importance had to admit that it was at least a “corrective” and that American episcopal conciliarism was entering a new era.

Regardless of these trends, the fact remains that the vast majority of American bishops still trust the conciliar spirit and style that has characterized their polity since John Carroll. Even bishops who may be critical of the current conference structure want to work within it to bring about reforms. What some interpreted as an “anti-conference” initiative—the call by 108 bishops in 2002 to consider the summoning of a fourth plenary council in the United States—showed by its very nature a dependence upon, and trust of, the conciliar tradition of the American hierarchy. The bishops appear to be moving toward a consensus that the conference can “clean its own house” and lead the reform and renewal necessitated by the current crisis in American Catholic life.

In the end, financial constraints might contribute more than anything else to limiting the power and influence of the USCCB (the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—the conference’s newest name, given in 2001, when the former two-tiered structure of the NCCB and the USCC was terminated). With “bankruptcy” now a word on the lips of not a few bishops, and with every diocese burdened by bills brought about by the sex-abuse scandal, the current conference structure certainly cannot expand and will probably have to be curtailed.

Bishops seem to sense that a return to the John Carroll-John England style of leadership might be in order. Above all, these patriarchs were concerned with building the Catholic Church in the United States. Bishops today increasingly ask whether it is now necessary to rebuild the Church in America, through reform and renewal. They wonder if we need to start internally, concentrating first on pastoral issues such as widespread catechetical illiteracy, the collapse of marriage and family life, the restoration of a “culture of life,” genuine liturgical reform, a return to the sacrament of penance, a national commitment to obey the third commandment, and the promotion of authentic renewal in the lives of our priests and religious (as strongly suggested by the report of the National Review Board). Bishops today seem to prefer to do this prayerfully, patiently, and away from the blinding light of the media.

Of course, in today’s cultural context, the distinction between ad intra and ad extra issues is murky at best. As we learned very well during the recent presidential campaign, even a matter of internal sacramental discipline such as one’s worthiness to receive the Eucharist can have enormous public consequences.

However these issues are ultimately resolved, it is clear that the conciliar tradition of the American hierarchy is here to stay. Two recent documents from the Holy See—Pastores Gregis, the post-synod apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II, and the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops from the Congregation for Bishops—vigorously affirm the value and necessity of national episcopal conferences while refining and clarifying their proper role. The prelates of this country feel that they need conciliarism, they know that they enjoy it, and they believe that it can be transformed to serve their purposes. All have ideas about how its authority can be better exercised, and the very nature of the collaborative style common to our national ecclesiastical polity since the 1780s will guarantee that current criticism is heeded. It’s a long way from Whitemarsh, Maryland, to Washington, D.C., but the challenges posed by conciliarism remain remarkably the same.

Timothy M. Dolan is Archbishop of Milwaukee. This essay is adapted from the eighteenth annual Erasmus Lecture of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which was delivered in New York City on October 25, 2004.