As the U.S. bishops conclude their retreat Tuesday near Chicago, a critical pastoral decision awaits them: How is their unity as shepherds of the flock to be manifest in responding to the sex-abuse crisis? Are divisions among the bishops to be avoided, or are they necessary for the work of episcopal accountability to be done?

That challenge was at the heart of the letter that Pope Francis — who asked the bishops to make a joint retreat as a necessary response to the sex-abuse crisis — sent to the bishops for their meditation at the beginning of the retreat.

The letter was a profound biblical meditation on how the Lord Jesus instructed the apostles to regard each other and their service to the Church. Lyrical and often moving, the papal letter brought to mind exactly how difficult it is for a bishop to be all that he is supposed to be and to do all that he is supposed to do.

In 2003, St. John Paul II published his apostolic exhortation on the life and ministry of bishops, Pastores Gregis. While widely praised for its comprehensive treatment of the apostolic office in the Church, the most common criticism was that it was impossible to find any man who could be and do everything that it was essential to be and to do. The same applies more than 15 years later.

In a wide-ranging eight-page letter, Pope Francis touched on many topics, one of which was the division occasioned by the sex-abuse scandals: God’s faithful people and the Church’s mission continue to suffer greatly as a result of abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse and the poor way that they were handled, as well as the pain of seeing an episcopate lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation.

That unity among bishops is better than division, reconciliation better than recrimination, is beyond dispute. But the question the U.S. bishops must have been wrestling with these last days is the kind of unity and the kind of reconciliation required.

The revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have exposed that there is a kind of unity — or at least apparent unity — that facilitates corruption. It is not true that “everybody knew” about Archbishop McCarrick, but there were many who did. Why did they not take more assertive action? Perhaps out of fear of repercussions, perhaps out of concern for the reputation of the Church. But another reason, perhaps, is because bishops and their senior officials put a very high value on unity, which is why they rarely criticize each other in public or correct each other in private.

The same phenomenon applies in presbyterates and in parishes; the unity of the diocese or the parish is often considered to be the greatest good to be preserved, with difficult matters that might give rise to divisions therefore not addressed.

Two recent examples illustrate that sometimes division is necessary.

A year ago, when the Holy Father made his visit to Chile, the Chilean bishops stood together with him in relation to Bishop Barros, whose transfer to the Diocese of Osorno had provoked widespread protests in Chile. That expression of unity turned out to make matters worse.

A turning point toward justice and healing came when Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, publicly criticized the remarks of Pope Francis. It was an unprecedented public division, with a key cardinalatial collaborator of a pope rebuking him in public. But it was needed.

A more consequential example was highlighted later in the year with the canonization of St. Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador.

Archbishop Romero did not enjoy the support of his brother bishops; indeed, all but one of them refused even to attend his funeral, despite the fact that he was killed at the altar during Holy Mass.

After the canonization last October, the celebrations in El Salvador included a public request for forgiveness from today’s bishops for the lack of support that St. Oscar received then from their predecessors.

The question of unity is easy to judge in hindsight.

In El Salvador, the unity of the bishops in 1980 should have been in solidarity with the saintly archbishop. But at the time, it was Archbishop Romero who was considered to be divisive, acting without the support of his brothers. That criticism remained for decades after his death in some quarters of the Church in Latin America.

How, then, should unity and division be judged in the present moment?

For example, if Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, were to demand that his predecessor, Archbishop John Myers, publicly explain why he agreed to settlements with victims of Archbishop McCarrick but did not take any public steps against him, it would certainly cause division in the archdiocese and among the U.S. bishops, to say nothing of the division it would cause between Cardinal Tobin and Archbishop Myers.

Would Cardinal Tobin then be guilty of the “finger pointing” that the Holy Father warns against, or would he be manifesting the “conversion of mindset” that the Holy Father encourages?

There is no easy answer to that. Not in the eight pages of Pope Francis now, nor in the lengthy exhortation of St. John Paul II back in 2003.

Unity among bishops is vital. But is it the most important good? That was certainly on the minds of the American prelates in Chicago this past week. How they answer that question will be evident in the months ahead.

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