Editor's Note: This editorial is in the Nov. 12 issue, which went to press ahead of the USCCB meeting this week.
In September 2011, as Church leaders grappled with a surge of threats to religious freedom at the federal and state level, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), sounded the alarm.
“As shepherds of over 70 million U.S. citizens, we share a common and compelling responsibility to proclaim the truth of religious freedom for all, and so to protect our people from this assault,” said Archbishop Dolan in a letter to his fellow bishops.
The bold response to the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate and other “religious-liberty concerns” caught many U.S. Catholics off guard, and some argued that Church leaders had overreacted. But the USCCB leadership stayed the course, green-lighting legal challenges to the HHS mandate that won support from the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was an important teaching moment for the faithful and for the nation. And as our Church leaders celebrate the 100th anniversary of the USCCB, its role in guarding religious freedom underscores the value of a national conference that can, through focused, practical efforts and pooled resources, aid the bishops in their pastoral activity and teaching authority to secure a vital mission.
But the anniversary also arrives at a pivotal moment. Pope Francis has emphasized synodality in the Church and made moves that shift some responsibility away from the Vatican and into the hands of the bishops, who will now play an expanded role in the translation of liturgical texts, to take just one example.
And as Pope Francis’ plans for a decentralized Church take a more concrete form, past tensions over the scope and limits of the conference’s authority could resurface, especially if its leaders face pressure to re-examine liturgical translations or set a common national policy on matters of Church discipline, such as reception of the Eucharist for civilly-divorced-and-remarried Catholics.
The body of bishops has navigated a complex array of internal Church issues and external challenges since its inception. Established in 1917 as the National Catholic War Council, it was initially formed to help U.S. Catholics provide funds and personnel for the pastoral care of fellow believers serving in the armed forces. Soon after, it was renamed the National Catholic Welfare Conference and began to tackle issues like immigration and education, which still remain top priorities for the U.S. hierarchy.
In 1966, following the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on a more dynamic role for national conferences, two separate organizations were established: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), which amplified the pastoral activities of the bishops, and the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), which provided administrative support and helped the bishops focus on social issues. In 2001, the two organizations merged into one entity, the USCCB.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the conference’s public profile became closely associated with Bishop Joseph Bernardin, a charismatic and politically gifted administrator. He initially served as the NCCB’s first general secretary. Later in the 1980s, as archbishop of Chicago, he helped craft a pastoral letter on war and peace that challenged the morality of nuclear deterrence.
His high-impact activism put the Chicago archbishop on the cover of Time magazine. But critics argued that the bishops exceeded their competence as teachers of faith and morals when they heavily weighed in on specific foreign and domestic policy proposals that dealt with matters of prudential judgment. Meanwhile, individual bishops struggled to assert their own authority as the USCCB’s initiatives drew headlines.
“In the media, the authority of the bishops’ conference was far greater than that of individual bishops,” Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the USCCB and the author, most recently, of Catholics in America, told the Register. “What the conference said was news. What individual bishops had to say was on the back page.”
In 1998, Pope John Paul II clarified — and restricted — the authority of national conferences, issuing his apostolic letter Apostolos Suos. Excepting prescriptions of common law and a “specific mandate of the Apostolic See,” stated the Pope, “the competence of individual diocesan bishops remains intact; and neither the conference nor its president may act in the name of all the bishops unless each and every bishop has given his consent.”
This affirmed the authority of diocesan bishops as well as the conference’s role to assist the bishops in working together for a common goal. Then, in 2002, when the clergy sexual-abuse crisis demanded a strong, collaborative response from the bishops, the USCCB helped them take decisive action. Its leaders crafted new regulations designed to “restore trust” between the bishops and the faithful: the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and “Essential Norms.”
“The ongoing, landmark significance of the charter and the ‘Essential Norms’ is hard to overstate,” Msgr. Robert Oliver, the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told the Register.
The campaign to implement and oversee a national policy of zero tolerance for clergy facing credible accusations of abuse has likely been the most challenging and valuable task of the conference so far.
In the current moment, the USCCB faces another set of challenges. There is wide agreement, for example, that Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the USCCB president, will have to carefully navigate internal tensions within the body of bishops as he maps a response to recent papal initiatives relating to liturgy and marriage and family life, as well as immigration and pro-life issues.
These matters will be on the front burner when the U.S. bishops meet in Baltimore for their annual meeting.
For now, at least, conference watchers like Russell Shaw don’t expect a return to the heady activism of the Cardinal Bernardin era and a more dominant role for the conference.
Further, canonists note that if the conference opted to adopt Amoris Laetitia as a matter of disciplinary law, such a policy would be difficult to execute. “It is more complicated because the application of that law is left to the authority of the person on the spot — the pastor or bishop. Practically speaking, how are you going to impose this on individual dioceses?” asked Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar for canonical services at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Thus, as the U.S. bishops seek to embrace Pope Francis’ efforts, the USCCB can be expected to strike a balance that respects the authority of individual bishops and keeps the conference focused on assisting them with mission-critical issues. And those who envision a more robust role for the USCCB would do well to recall Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s defense of the authority of the bishop in his 1987 book-length interview, The Ratzinger Report: “No episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission: Its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.”