On Monday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will convene for its 2018 Fall General Assembly—a meeting that may be one of the most important in the history of American Catholicism.
The American bishops are the subjects of federal and state investigations into sexual abuse and cover-ups. Some are accused of sexual abuse and coercion, others of standing by as priests and fellow bishops engaged in abuse. Some bishops could face indictments, or charges of a criminal conspiracy that reaches all the way to the Vatican.
As a body, the bishops are accused of failing to police themselves, failing to keep their pledges, and failing to take seriously the teachings of their own faith and the responsibilities of their offices. By their own admission, they have lost credibility with the shrinking cohort of Catholics who actually practice the faith.
The bishops hope to use the Fall General Assembly to restore trust among Catholics who are sickened by the Church’s “summer of hell.” They also want to persuade criminal investigators that they are part of the solution to problems they say were caused mostly by their predecessors.
Those are ambitious goals.
Neither the bishops nor lay Catholics should expect too much from a single three-day meeting. On the agenda are modest but sensible policy proposals: The bishops intend to establish an independent board of lay experts charged with investigating allegations of coercion, malfeasance, or neglect on the part of bishops; they intend to pass protocols limiting the activity of bishops who have been removed from office; and they plan to publish a code of conduct governing all bishops. (The final point is for now the most nebulous, even to the bishops, but it at least suggests a recognition that bishops must be held to clear, objective, and transparent standards.)
The passage of those measures is important, but by itself it is unlikely to restore trust, or quell the anger of many Catholics. And no one should expect this meeting to produce radical solutions, or radical deviations from the proposed accountability measures the bishops have already discussed. More important than the measures passed at this meeting will be the manner in which the deliberations take place. The bishops must demonstrate sobriety, responsibility, and candor—qualities that have thus far not characterized their response to the crisis.
Unfortunately, there are many ways in which the bishops could ensure that their meeting is an abysmal failure, and none of them is difficult to imagine.
First, the bishops could allow their debate to become a referendum on Pope Francis. They are deeply divided over the pope, who is accused of ignoring reports of the alleged misconduct of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and has rebuffed public requests from conference leadership for an investigation into McCarrick’s rise and influence in the U.S. Church. At least some bishops will be tempted during floor debate to call for a resolution asking the pope to order an apostolic visitation to the U.S. And others will be inclined to insert debate over the infamous Viganò letters into floor debates about proposed reforms.
The bishops should resist those temptations. Nothing said at their meeting will change the pope’s mind concerning the apostolic visitation. In fact, public debate might entrench a papal position that some bishops already describe as intransigent. Moreover, debate over the pope would encourage bishops to revert to their customary ideological camps, rather than tackle issues that are actually within their control.
If the bishops don’t waste their meeting in a debate over Pope Francis, they may fall into the opposite trap. Modern episcopal culture is allergic to public conflict. It is easy, and commonplace, for bishops to conceal division behind the appearance of collegiality, or to publish statements so vague or toothless as to allow for nearly contradictory interpretations, even in adjacent dioceses. This tendency is exaggerated by the presence of cameras, and much of next week’s meeting is scheduled to be livestreamed.
At some point in their meeting, the bishops will likely discuss a series of studies and reviews that could be commissioned subsequent to their meeting. That discussion will be important—what they choose to study in depth will indicate how they intend to frame the Church’s crisis. And in the question of framing is where much of their disagreement lies.
The bishops disagree with one another about whether homosexuality is pervasive in the priesthood, and about whether “homosexual subcultures” create or exacerbate the conditions that allow for sexual abuse. They disagree about how to interpret Vatican guidelines regarding homosexual applicants to the seminary. On a basic level, they disagree about what “transparency” means, and about how to handle allegations of sexual misconduct involving clerics and other adults. They should debate these points and achieve some consensus, before they determine what studies and processes to commission.
Since accusations against McCarrick were made public in June, Catholics have decried what appears to be a bureaucratic and privileged culture in which few bishops take personal responsibility, and apologies are couched in corporate and impersonal legalese. The bishops must not begin or conclude their November meeting with more slick-sounding defenses or prepackaged mea culpas.
In this respect, the spotlight will be on the leadership of the US bishops: the officers of the conference, and the American cardinals. As the meeting commences, at least some bishops will likely continue to minimize and obfuscate, to give the appearance of having the problem under control. Those bishops might express concern about “rabbit-holes” and wasted time.
The conference and its leaders should oppose those voices. If the Catholic Church is to have any future preaching the good news in this country, it must begin with bishops’ being willing to tell the truth.
J. D. Flynn is editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency.