By JD Flynn
Like a lot of people, U.S. Catholic bishops are spending a great deal of time in Zoom meetings these days. In fact in less than two weeks, their annual fall meeting will be a virtual one.
The U.S. bishops’ conference has compressed its November meeting, which is usually a four-day affair, into two afternoon sessions, scheduled to take place Nov. 16 and 17. Because they cancelled their June meeting, the November virtual sessions will be the first time the bishops have met since last year, and the agenda for the meeting will be packed.
But while the bishops have several items of business, it is likely to be what’s said or not said about Theodore McCarrick that gets attention from Catholics during the meeting.
The bishops have done some homework in advance of the meeting, voting on candidates for seven committee heads and on a candidate to replace outgoing General Secretary Msgr. Brian Bransfield, whose term as administrative head of the conference will come to an end at the meeting. Bransfield is expected within the conference to be succeeded by Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, who has been Bransfield’s deputy since 2016.
The race for chairman of the Catholic education committee is likely to garner attention among bishops concerned with religious liberty challenges in Catholic schools. The candidates are Spokane’s Bishop Thomas Daly, who is known to be outspoken about Catholic teaching on cultural and moral issues, and Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer of Atlanta, who in 2015 called the Obergefell Supreme Court decision, which found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, “primarily a declaration of civil rights.”
Bishops have told CNA they expect Bishop Christopher Coyne is likely to win the chairmanship of the communications committee – the win would be his second term, as Coyne held the same seat from 2014 to 2017. Some bishops have also told CNA they expect Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville – a bilingual Thomist and a Tolkien fan – will be elected to lead the doctrine committee.
Apart from committee races, bishops will vote on a motion to reauthorize their ad hoc committee on racism for another three years, that motion is sure to pass. Also certain to pass are votes on the 2021-2024 strategic plan, which sets the goals of the conference’s staff, and the 2021 budget.
The budget is worth giving attention.
The conference will not project a budget deficit in 2021, but only because the bishops narrowly approved a revenue increase in January, voting for an increase of the amount each diocese must contribute to the USCCB. Without that increase, the conference would have otherwise run a deficit budget or been forced to make deep cuts.
The bishops’ conference was on uncertain financial footing before the financial crisis associated with the pandemic. And last November, Archbishop Charles Chaput objected to increased diocesan funding to the USCCB.
“I don’t think that some of the work of the USCCB is essential to the mission of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” he said.
“I don’t have this kind of money to keep increasing it [the assessment],” Chaput said. “We have huge expenses because of the sexual abuse issue and related circumstances.”
Chaput’s comment did not dissuade the bishops from passing a diocesan tax increase.
A virtual meeting may limit the degree to which bishops can raise questions or concerns about the conference budget. But with Church revenues impacted by decreased Mass attendance, even as the stock market recovers, more bishops may begin to raise questions about the viability of the conference budget, even while they are likely to pass it.
The bishops have reportedly also allocated time for some discussion of the issues that have dominated headlines in recent months: the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s burgeoning issues surrounding racial disparities and tensions. While those discussions will be seen as important to have, Catholics will also likely expect bishops to discuss the Vatican’s report on Theodore McCarrick, which will have been released just six days before the meeting begins.
It will be the McCarrick Report that has dominated Catholic headlines in the days leading up to the bishops’ meeting, and there will be an expectation among Catholics that it be a topic of import at the bishops’ meeting. When Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., addresses the bishops, he will be expected to address it. When Archbishop Jose Gomez, USCCB president, addresses the bishops, he will be expected to address it. And when bishops conduct a press conference after the first day of the meeting, it will be the topic journalists want to hear about.
In the two years since Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse and misconduct became known by American Catholics, the U.S. bishops have had varied responses.
At times the bishops have seemed to be looking for answers on McCarrick; at times they have been unwilling to press the Holy See for those answers. At times they have promised transparency, and at other times they have declined to answer questions.
The Archdiocese of Washington has not yet released information about McCarrick’s discretionary accounts, with which he reportedly gave lavish gifts to American bishops and to curial officials. The Archdiocese of Newark has not yet released its files on McCarrick’s beach houses (he had two during his tenure in Newark), and on its records of what went on there.
Catholics have asked that basic standards of accountability be applied to the McCarrick case: That those who ignored, enabled, or covered-up for McCarrick’s criminal behavior be held accountable. They have asked that Church leaders be held responsible for their roles in the McCarrick affair in the same way most laypeople expect to be held accountable for breaches of professional standards of conduct.
Angry Catholics have sometimes demanded more than is reasonable to expect, and in some cases their rhetoric has become systemically anti-clerical. That approach is not helpful, but it does not reflect the mainstream. Most faithful Catholics have said they just want to see their leaders held accountable, because they want their Church to be holy.
The McCarrick Report may be the first step to ensuring that kind of accountability. If it is, the bishops will be expected to address that. But if the McCarrick Report does not answer the questions that Catholics have been asking, many Catholics will be looking to their shepherds to stand up for them, and for their hope that the Church would protect them, hold wrongdoers responsible, and work for truth, and for justice.