Tomorrow, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops will meet in Baltimore for its General Assembly.
This will be the bishops’ second gathering since former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s disgrace. As before, they will discuss mechanisms for improving accountability among their own ranks, though this time with a marked drop in expectations among the faithful.
Indeed, compared to the high-stakes atmosphere of last November, the tone leading up to this meeting has been one of exhaustion and resigned disappointment before-the-fact. At the last meeting, an intervention from Rome forestalled the American hierarchy from voting on new measures to answer the acute crises of McCarrick, the Viganò allegations, and the Pennsylvania grand jury report. This time, Rome has released its own framework for episcopal discipline which carves out scope for the conference to act. Yet despite drafts for implementing Pope Francis’s motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi with new guidelines for bishop-on-bishop investigations and dealing with disgraced or discredited former diocesan leaders, even the most decisive votes are unlikely to break through to an increasingly cynical faithful.
Recent days have seen the release of an investigation into former Wheeling-Charleston bishop Michael Bransfield, detailing apparently extensive financial and sexual abuses. The report offers a glimpse into a pattern of personal largesse with Church funds which suggests an incentive for his personal predations to be overlooked—much as with McCarrick. Conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo arrives in Baltimore hobbled by health concerns and questions about his own leadership in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Meanwhile, there has been a resolute silence from McCarrick’s former dioceses of Metuchen, Newark, and Washington on their own findings concerning their former leader.
The cumulative impression of the months since the last Baltimore session is that the American bishops have offered the faithful new scandals rather than answers to old ones. In such an atmosphere, the bishops may find themselves with the unwelcome privilege of addressing the last group of American Catholics disposed to believe they can produce something meaningful—themselves.
What, then, can they do?
Policies, procedures, joint statements of resolution or regret are the natural language and tools of a bishops’ conference. But these are likely to fall on deaf ears. To win back the attention and trust of the faithful, the bishops must, as a body of apostles, abandon the mentality of managed reform in favor of radical renewal. Within the octave of Pentecost, the fiery wind of the Holy Spirit would indeed be a welcome guest at what is otherwise likely to be a tepid gathering.
But Apostolic zeal is a poor vehicle of consensus, and personal sanctity wins few committee chairs. Last November, Bishop Liam Carey of Baker asked the assembly what the faithful were to make of the conference’s collective silence as they failed to agree even to “encourage” the pope to release what information he could about McCarrick. Carey also noted that, in failing to police their own number, the bishops had acquired a “shameful residue” from McCarrick’s long presence in their midst. “How do we lead our brother to the mercy of God if we leave unspoken the demands of his justice?” he asked.
While McCarrick is no longer among their number, if the U.S. bishops wish to speak the demands of justice to each other, they have no shortage of topics to choose from.
For example, few are the bishops queuing up to denounce the continued presence of Cardinal Roger Mahony at conference meetings or major liturgical events. In November, Cardinal Donald Wuerl received a polite hearing as he opined about transparency and personal accountability, but none of his brothers called on him to lead by example after he sat down. But the bishops could, if they were serious about transparency, call upon Wuerl's newly-installed replacement, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, to release Washington’s audited records of McCarrick’s infamous Archbishop’s Fund, though such a report would likely make the Bransfield revelations pale in comparison.
When the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples at Pentecost, it found them locked together in a room in fear of the people. The Church was built not upon what they said to each other in that room, but what they did when they left it.
Two thousand years later, it remains to be seen if eleven of their successors will speak with fire in their conference hall, let alone rush forth from Baltimore with the zeal to act prophetically.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and DC bureau chief for Catholic News Agency.