The most dramatic meeting of the U.S. bishops since 2002 ended in failure. Except that it did not entirely fail. It may in fact have signaled a critical turning point on the road to reform.

The failure was evident. For months the leadership of the U.S. bishops have declared that the November plenary assembly was the time when concrete actions regarding accountability for bishops would be taken, a complement to the measures taken in 2002 regarding priests and deacons. Less than 24 hours before the meeting began, the Vatican relayed the decision of Pope Francis, through the Congregation for Bishops, that the American bishops not vote on their proposals at all and wait instead to act after the Vatican summit on sex abuse in February 2019, when the Holy Father will meet with the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences in the world.

The shock was palpable when Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the USCCB president, relayed the news to the bishops at the beginning of the meeting.

Publicly, some bishops spoke of finding the decision of Pope Francis “quizzical” and confessed their “disappointment” and “frustration.” Privately, others were blunt, speaking of being “ambushed,” “blindsided,” even “betrayed” and “deliberately humiliated.”

Contrariwise, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago immediately said that he welcomed the decision as a sign of “how seriously the Holy See takes the matter.”

With actual votes off the table, the bishops discussed the content of their proposals for a “Code of Conduct” for bishops and for an independent lay commission to review allegations of misconduct or negligence by bishops, as well as the need for investigations into the career of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. A motion “encouraging” the Holy See to release all of its documents about McCarrick failed.

Amid the torrent of news, herewith are the key developments regarding the crisis at the November meeting.

 

Senior Bishops Step Back

Aside from those senior bishops who had presentations to make on proposed reforms — Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, Michigan — it was remarkable who was not speaking. The most senior bishops in the country did not speak at all, or limited themselves to brief interventions on secondary points. The vast majority of the substantive comments from the floor came from bishops of smaller dioceses and more junior prelates — quite the opposite of what would be expected at such a momentous meeting.

How to explain that? Did the senior bishops feel chastened, if they were contemporaries of disgraced Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and therefore lacking credibility to speak? Alternately, after hearing the Holy See’s injunction to stand down, did they do just that and more or less “check out” of the meeting? Do the younger bishops simply have different mindsets? Whatever the explanation, it was a notable departure from the usual experience.

 

Cardinal Cupich

The most outspoken prelate of the entire meeting, returning to the microphone repeatedly, was Cardinal Cupich. Indeed, within seconds of Cardinal DiNardo making the shocking announcement in the first minutes of the meeting, Cardinal Cupich was on his feet, praising the decision of Pope Francis and proposing a new approach not only for the remainder of the November meeting, but a path through the next six months.

The timing of the intervention — while, in fact, Cardinal DiNardo was still giving the news — was apparently intended as a manifestation of influence and assertion of power. The president of the USCCB may have only found out the day before about the Vatican decision, but Cardinal Cupich had been informed by the Holy Father or his advisers ahead of time so that he would be prepared.

Indeed, the very next day, Cardinal Cupich proposed an entirely different alternative to the independent lay commission, one that placed the principal responsibility on metropolitan archbishops like himself, or like Cardinal McCarrick used to be when he was abusing seminarians. It is implausible that such a detailed, canonically vetted proposal would have been developed at the last minute.

It would stand to reason that, if the Holy See entrusted the Chicago archbishop with the news that the U.S. bishops were to be blocked in their reform proposals, Cardinal Cupich’s proposals also originated in the Holy See and are a preview of the path the Holy Father intends to take in February 2019.

 

Trusting the Holy Father

Cardinal Cupich made the most remarkable statement of the entire meeting. Not his fine distinction between “sexual abuse of minors” and “clerical misconduct with adults,” which, he noted, could be “consensual” or even “anonymous.” That latter mention raised a few eyebrows in the hall. No, it was his statement regarding the proposed — and eventually defeated — motion “encouraging” the Holy See to release its McCarrick documents.

“We are going to be asked to vote on asking the Holy See to do what they’re already going to do?” he said, arguing against the motion. “The Successor of St. Peter has said that he is going to be truthful about this. And it seems to me we need to take his word on it.”

Has a statement like that ever been made in public by a U.S. cardinal? To his brother bishops in plenary assembly? Has it ever been thought necessary to make such a statement?

The proposed motion was described by Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming, as a “statement of distrust” in the Holy Father. The motion failed, 137-83, but it is remarkable that Cardinal Cupich would feel compelled to argue, in effect, that Pope Francis is entitled to the benefit of the doubt as to his truthfulness, or that Bishop Biegler would entertain publicly that a third of his brother bishops don’t trust Pope Francis.

 

Frank Talk

All of this points to the good news out of Baltimore, namely that the bishops spoke to each other and in public in a manner more honest and frank than has long been their custom.

Proposals and policies are — despite the hard work involved in drafting them — relatively easy to establish. Changing a culture — the culture that enabled Archbishop McCarrick in particular and sexual abuse in general — is much more difficult, and much more important. That bishops were openly saying what they thought, more than what they thought they should say, is not an insignificant step.

To be sure, the old culture of deference and false collegiality is not entirely gone, as when retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles took to the microphone and — splendidly oblivious to his shredded credibility on this issue — spoke at length about enhancing the bishops’ “affective” relations with each other. That is tolerated now; a new culture may be emerging when Cardinal Mahony will simply no longer be welcome to speak, and he himself will know why.

 

New Dynamics

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and other victim groups conducted protests at the meeting, but they were rather small affairs.

The most vigorous and numerous protest was organized by Church Militant, whose leader, Michael Voris, excoriates the bishops for tolerance of both heterodoxy and homosexuality. That the fiercest protest would be coming from the self-consciously conservative as opposed to the self-consciously liberal is a new dynamic.

Several bishops acknowledged just that in their interventions. It is the most faithful Catholics who are the most hurt and the most angry.

“The faithful are becoming more faithful,” said Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix. “The others are turning away.”

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.