The Disappearing Bishops

The U.S. bishops, once collectively a voice to be reckoned with in the

corridors of U.S. power and in the ornate halls of the Vatican, are

withdrawing from the national stage and from any meaningful engagement with


Bishops once bristled at the prospect of becoming, in their words,

branch managers or errand boys. They are now only too willing to take orders

and leave the questions to others.

What we witnessed in Washington this month during the annual meeting

of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was one of the sadder and maybe

one of the final chapters in the devolution of the U.S. bishops as a

national body. Rome has been after the bishops for years to diminish the

significance of the conference, and they have gradually capitulated,

snuffing out the once noteworthy contribution of lay experts and signaling

their intent to avoid the burning issues of the day. More deliberately than

ever they are turning inward to problems of no interest to the wider world

and of little interest to most of the faithful from whom they continue to

grow distant.

Why the retreat?

The causes are numerous and complex, but certainly one primary reason

is that the hierarchy in the United States showed that it had the clout --

the cohesion as a group and the intellectual wherewithal and resources -- to

challenge some Vatican assumptions. It was beginning to show that a church

could have a national identity and that it could seek solutions and answers

that grew out of the American democratic experience.

In 1980s documents such as those on the economy and on war and peace,

the assembled bishops showed that they could conduct robust debates that

tested, in a real way, what it meant to be both citizen and Christian. Their

words provided instruction and challenge to Catholics and to the wider


Rome clearly feared such freewheeling discussion and the power

inherent in that way of doing business. More than two decades of episcopal

appointments by the late Pope John Paul II assured that the thinking and the

behavior of the conference would change dramatically.

Sacramento, Calif., Bishop William Weigand perhaps put it best when he

said from the floor that the new emphasis on in-house issues means

"engagement with the world is getting short shrift."

We are watching the disintegration of a once great national church,

the largest denomination in the United States, into regional groupings bent

on avoiding the spotlight and the big issues.

Perhaps what we are seeing is inevitable, given the massive internal

problems facing the church, chief among them the ongoing sex abuse crisis.

Internally, the bishops have been battered by their own mishandling of the

crisis, a problem about which they speak with little honesty or authority.

At their June 2002 meeting in Dallas, and many times subsequently, the

bishops pledged "transparency" in their treatment of the issue. At a

subsequent meeting, the bishops pledged to act in a spirit of "fraternal

correction" -- to challenge their brother bishops when they failed to

protect children or deal with credibly accused priests.

It's now clear those pledges were a futile public relations campaign

meant to blunt the outrage that had surfaced at the time. There is painfully

little transparency and, short of an aggressive district attorney, no


The bishops may have decided simply to withdraw with whatever moral

capital remains in the till.

In the meantime, they have little to say at the start of the 21st


An ill-conceived and ill-executed war rages in Iraq; the United States

stands accused of torture and of whisking away alleged combatants to prisons

that do not even officially exist; Congress is poised to reduce health care

coverage and food stamps to hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans,

and the bishops have nothing to say.

Fresh clergy sex abuse reports out of the Los Angeles and Philadelphia

archdioceses, and diocesan bankruptcy proceedings in Portland, Ore., and

Spokane, Wash., demonstrate a church still deeply in the grip of crimes and

cover-ups; the priest shortage has reached the point where approximately 20

percent of U.S. parishes have no pastor; the Vatican is preparing release of

a statement on gays and the priesthood, a significant document in a country

where a sizeable percentage of the clergy is gay; and a band of modern

inquisitors is conducting a strange inquiry into the nation's seminaries.

And the bishops are silent.

Forty years ago last month, in the Second Vatican Council decree

Christus Dominus, a bishops' conference was defined as an "assembly in which

the prelates of a nation or of a territory jointly exercise their pastoral

office in order to enhance the church's beneficial influence to all men."

Today, the "church's beneficial influence" is evident in many places:

in parishes that live the faith, in the work of those who carry out the

corporal works of mercy, in the hospitals and schools that heal the sick and

educate the next generations of Catholics, in the vast array of social

ministries and works of justice inspired by the faith.

Not much of that influence results from a national meeting of the

country's bishops. The retreat into silence and closed meetings may be the

best course at this time. It may be the only move left, the unavoidable end

of a progression of forces and decisions made in past decades.

Still, it is a sad day.

Our bishops have nothing to say to us. And they know it.

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