USCC Watch: New Appointments

All winter long the rumor mills were churning. When the Pope appoints a new bishop or archbishop, there are no primary elections or party caucuses for Vatican-watchers to follow; there are only rumors. So dozens of self-appointed experts were offering their speculations about the likely candidates for the vacant episcopal seats in Boston and New York. Some of the rumors probably developed out of tidbits gleaned from “inside” sources in the Vatican or the American hierarchy. Other rumors clearly were floated by people trying — a bit absurdly — to pique interest in their own favorite candidate. In any case, most of the rumors were false. Now that the results are in, a bit of clear-headed analysis might be useful.

Of course, not all of the rumors concerned the two appointments. Last fall, when many of the U.S. bishops made their scheduled ad limina visits to Rome, some American reporters noticed a certain distinct frostiness in relations between the Vatican and the American hierarchy. Certainly the published version of Pope John Paul’s remarks to the visiting Americans conveyed a stern tone. But the unpublished reports were much juicier. (Since these are, after all, rumors, I will not mention individuals’ names.) According to the rumors — too numerous to be dismissed — the Pope gave more than one American bishop a good old-fashioned, desk-thumping recitation of the riot act.

At the November meeting of the NCCB the outgoing President, Archbishop Roach, assured his colleagues (and the assembled press) that the Pope’s message “is not harsh criticism . . . it is fraternal encouragement.” Well, maybe. But the last time some bishops received such “fraternal encouragement,” it probably came from their fathers, rather than their brothers. And the encouragement probably was• administered at the woodshed.

Even Time and Newsweek had trouble swallowing Archbishop Roach’s explanation. Both magazines carried stories about the growing tension between Rome and the American bishops. Both magazines also helpfully explained that the ruckus was caused by the feisty Wanderer, whose readers were writing letters to Rome complaining about their local bishops. Of course, Time and Newsweek continued, the Wanderer readers were only a tiny disaffected minority within the Church, and their complaints were mostly inaccurate. Still somehow the dour old bureaucrats in the Roman Curia took them seriously.

Well, again, maybe. But if the complaints came only from the Wanderer crowd, and if they were all so easily dismissed, then why were a few American bishops being subjected to full-scale canonical investigations? Archbishop James Hickey (of Washington, D.C.) traveled to Seattle to delve into the affairs of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, and Archbishop John May (St. Louis) looked into Bishop Walter Sullivan’s diocese of Richmond. In each case, the investigating committee obviously did not come on the scene unprepared. All the usual proprieties were observed, and no one made rash public statements. But, according to witnesses interviewed by the committees, the investigators were very well informed about the affairs of the diocese even before the interviews began. Obviously they had done their homework. And obviously they were working with something more than vague rumors.

Meanwhile, Archbishop John Quinn (San Francisco) was conducting a study of religious life in the United States, at the behest of the Vatican. And Bishop John Marshall (Burlington, Vermont) was investigating seminary life. And persistent rumors suggested that Seattle and Richmond were not the only dioceses under scrutiny. Clearly the Vatican was taking a new, critical look at the American Church.

Against this dramatic background came the two new appointments. First, the Vatican passed over several better known candidates to make Bernard Law the Archbishop of Boston. Then, before anyone had had time to analyze that appointment, came the blockbuster: Bishop John O’Connor was plucked out of his newly acquired diocese in Scranton and was installed in the most visible position in the American hierarchy. If anyone had lingering doubts about the Vatican’s new approach to this country, that appointment should erase them.

To be sure, the new Archbishop’s name had been included in all the early speculations about the New York see. But from the outset, everyone admitted that he was the long-shot candidate. After all, he had only recently been promoted from the Military Vicariate and given his own diocese in Scranton. Bishops are rarely transferred after such a short tenure (about eight months), especially when they are doing a good job. And Bishop O’Connor is not a young man. When a bishop over 60 is ensconced in his own diocese, the odds are against another transfer. Evidently, the Pope saw good reason to override those normal considerations. This was not a question of business-as-usual. Without question, the appointment was carefully considered.

What makes the new Archbishop stand out? Well, Bishop O’Connor was best known for his work on the committee which drafted the Peace Pastoral; he consistently encouraged his fellow bishops to take a more moderate stand, steering clear of partisan politics. He is also known for his outspoken opposition to abortion. On issues that generate less public attention, Bishop O’Connor is resolutely orthodox. In his few months in Scranton, he had been urging priests to spend more time hearing confessions; he had been upholding Humanae Vitae; he had been calling for a more balanced approach to teaching the Peace Pastoral. Although he had often found himself in the minority at NCCB meetings, he had earned the respect of his brother bishops; he had recently been elected to chair the USCC Committee on Social Development and World Peace. Armed with two graduate degrees, and having spent most of his career in the military, he has both the intellectual and the diplomatic skills necessary to advance his causes.

Nobody denied that Bishop O’Connor is an extraordinary man. But not everyone welcomed the news of his appointment. In the ubiquitous (and misleading) parlance of the secular press, he is a “conservative” bishop. Since many more “liberal” bishops were more likely candidates for the New York vacancy, his appointment sends a clear signal to the other American bishops. Any day now, Cardinal Manning will retire, leaving the Los Angeles diocese open; Philadelphia’s Cardinal Krol will follow several months thereafter. The appointment of Bishop O’Connor leaves no doubt about the sort of bishops the Vatican will be considering for those powerful new openings. Gaudeamus igitur.


Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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