A Hopeful Sign Amid the US Bishops’ Failed Fall Meeting


National Catholic Register, 15 November 2018

COMMENTARY: While the annual gathering fell short, it may in fact have signaled a critical turning point on the road to reform.

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.

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