The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened its Fall Assembly in Baltimore Monday with an agenda of prayer and deliberations on dealing with bishop accountability in the face of the scandal surrounding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The agenda lasted only a few minutes before being upended by the announcement that no votes would be taken on several key items of reform at the request of the Holy See.

The decision by the Holy See — specifically the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops under its prefect Cardinal Marc Ouellet — asked the bishops not to vote on a new “Code of Conduct” for bishops and the creation of a lay-led board to investigate accusations of misconduct against bishops. The news came as a complete surprise to virtually all of the bishops in attendance, even as it raises significant questions about the prospects for finding solutions to the clergy sex abuse crisis and the McCarrick scandal and signals a blunt rejection of the U.S. bishops. 

Some might even go so far as to describe the Vatican’s decision and its timing a deliberate act of humiliation of the U.S. bishops at a time when they are trying in good faith to grapple with the greatest crisis in the history of American Catholicism.

“Let us begin by taking those concerns to prayer.”

The U.S. bishops were only a few minutes into their morning session when the conference’s president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, gave the news to his disbelieving brother bishops. The decision, he told them, was at “the insistence of the Holy See” and had been delivered to him only the night before the start of the fall meeting.

The surprise and anger were palpable in the room in the Marriott hotel in Baltimore, and Cardinal DiNardo himself went on to express his own disappointment.

“Brothers,” he said, “I am sure that you have concerns about this, as I do myself. Let us begin by taking those concerns to prayer.” In an address to the conference that had to be altered by the shocking news, Cardinal DiNardo stressed, “We remain committed to the program of episcopal accountability. Votes will not take place, but we will move forward.”

He again apologized to the victims of abuse and pledged to go forward.

In a news conference just a few hours later, he again urged Catholics to understand there is no lessening of their resolve.

“We have accepted these events [of the Holy See request],” he said, “we’ll keep pushing and moving until we get to a point until it becomes action. We are not happy.”

He explained further that the demand of the Holy See had come in the form of a letter from the Congregation for Bishops. The stated reason, the cardinal explained, was that the Holy See desired all votes on new measures related to the crisis be delayed until after the February meeting in Rome that Francis has called. That gathering will bring together the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences to discuss the global sex-abuse crisis.

While the stated reasons are defensible enough, the request short-circuited months of preparations by the officials of the U.S. bishops’ conference and the genuine desire of the bishops in Baltimore to take highly anticipated concrete steps both to make progress in the crisis but also to try and regain some of the credibility that had been lost in a summer of scandals, attorneys general reports and simmering anger among the faithful over disgraced Archbishop McCarrick. The shocking events also completely overshadowed what was supposed to be one of those steps in restoring credibility: a day of prayer and penance.

The original plan was to devote most of the first day to prayer and to hearing from abuse victims, as well as reflections on the Book of Daniel, Chapter 9, on sackcloth and ashes, and the great reformer St. Charles Borromeo who was willing to face assassination to bring authentic renewal to his archdiocese of Milan in the 16th century.

The day of prayer, penance and adoration followed by deliberations and votes was potentially doubly significant.

First, it would have anchored the subsequent deliberations in a proper spiritual context, tying the important reality of institutional reform to the need for a corresponding authentic spiritual reform. Second, it would have served as a first step toward the planned longer and presumably deeper reflection, prayer and penance in January that will take place at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.

Francis and Synodality

The notion of prayer had one additional facet. During their September meeting with Francis, Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the vice president of the USCCB, expressed their desire for the Holy See to launch a full investigation into the McCarrick scandal.

In reply, Francis encouraged them to cancel the fall assembly and have prayer and penance. The bishops took to heart the Pope’s suggestion but then also pushed ahead with the debate and vote on the plans to deal with the crisis. It was a compromise with the Pope’s recommendation, a down payment on the week of prayer in Chicago in January and a first step of offering the Catholic faithful a tangible set of proposals for the future.

The vote itself would have benefited from the credibility of action. They had a plan entering the assembly, and while it might not have been perfect and perhaps might not have passed the critical eye of the Congregations for Bishops and the Congregration for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was something the bishops could point to as a first concrete and transparent step.

Francis, however, wanted days of prayer and no votes. He apparently got his wish. But after asking frustrated and angry Catholics — many victims included — to wait for years for the bishops to begin holding themselves accountable, the idea of waiting months longer might seem intolerable to many. The Congregation for Bishops saw potential problems with the bishops’ proposals and acted firmly but with also painful timing.

To the bishops, of course, there is the requirement of obedience to the Vicar of Christ. At the news conference Monday, Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, the outgoing head of the Bishops’ Committee on Communications, both emphasized the importance of obedience.

Bishop Coyne said in answer to a question on why not just vote anyway, “Bishops by our very nature are collegial. ... We work in union with each other to come to a collegial place. So when the Holy See asks us to work in collegiality, that’s what we do.”

Cardinal DiNardo added, “We are Roman Catholic bishops in communion with our Holy Father in Rome and he has people in Vatican congregations, and we are responsible to him to be attentive. Given that attentiveness, of faith, when we receive this letter we respond.”

The demand of the Holy See and the response of the bishops also exemplified another major issue, one that also emerged out of seeming nowhere during the Synod on Youth: synodality. From the closing days of the synod to the first day of the bishops’ meeting, the definition of synodality has been debated and interpreted.

In his morning address, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, taught, “Pope Francis asks us to be a synodal and humble Church. A Church that listens. We need to listen once more to the voice of Christ.”

Synodality means, as the nuncio stressed, listening. It has also been described as a journeying together. Was what happened on Day One in Baltimore a moment of synodality or were the U.S. bishops treated to the sheer raw exercise of power?

When asked if he saw the action of the Holy See as synodal, Cardinal DiNardo described it as “quizzical,” theorizing that the Congregation for Bishops might have considered the U.S. bishops to have been too hasty in crafting their proposal.

“I’m wondering if they could turn the synodality back on us,” he added. “My first reaction was, ‘This didn’t seem so synodical.’ But maybe the Americans weren’t acting so synodically either. But it was quizzical to me, when I saw it.”

Over the next days, the bishops will discuss the most important approaches to the crisis, and while there may not be a vote, the bishops will likely have plenty to say. Look for a final statement and a series of resolutions to salvage something from the disastrous news that began their journey together in Baltimore. Will the road ahead continue to be a long and tortured one? Will Pope Francis be listening?

Pray for our bishops and pray for our Holy Father.