What would happen if the USCC suddenly ceased to exist? Imagine that, somehow, the building at 1312 Massachusetts Avenue simply vanished, complete with all its inhabitants. Imagine, further, that no mention of the disappearance appeared in the news. How quickly would ordinary Catholic Americans notice that something was missing?
No, this is not simply an outburst of wishful thinking. One way of appraising an organization’s impact is to consider what might happen in the absence of that organization. Some institutions would collapse almost immediately without central direction; others would continue on for some time before the strains began to show. Which sort of organization is the USCC? Within the USCC itself, which operations are vital, and which are expendable?
One point should be clear from the outset. Certainly the Catholic Church could survive without the USCC. Priests could still celebrate Mass, hear confessions, preside at weddings and funerals. In the overwhelming majority of American parishes, life would not noticeably change. CCD programs would continue uninterrupted; parish social events would proceed as usual; new monthly missalettes would appear in the pews on schedule. Nor would things be much different at the diocesan level. Bishops would continue to ordain, and to confirm, and in general to govern their dioceses. The sacramental life of the Church (and is anything else nearly so important?) would go on unimpeded.
Still, it would be going too far to say that the bishops’ conference has no useful purpose. Presumably the Vatican Council had some reason for encouraging (in the decree on bishops’ pastoral role) the development of such conferences. And while the Conciliar document is a bit vague as to what exactly episcopal conferences should do, the new Code of Canon Law makes explicit provisions for them. Clearly, the universal Church sees a need for these groupings.
What is that need? The conciliar document Christus Dominus makes it reasonably clear that the episcopal conference exists to stimulate cooperation among the bishops of a nation: “Thus, when the insights of prudence and experience have been shared and views exchanged, there will emerge a holy union of energies in the service of the common good of the churches.” Each episcopal conference is directed to convene the member bishops at least once annually for this purpose.
So the first and least controversial function of the USCC is to set up meetings of the American bishops. As I write this column, our bishops are packing for their annual meeting in Collegeville, Minnesota. Surely bishops can learn a great deal from each other, and Collegeville provides the opportunity for them to do so. But the Collegeville meeting does not happen by itself; staff people handle all the logistics. If the USCC disappeared, the Collegeville meeting would not take place. Perhaps ordinary parishioners would not notice the difference, but bishops would.
But that one task—planning one or two annual meetings—doesn’t justify the existence of an organization the size of the USCC. What other vital functions does the USCC fulfill? Taking the bull by the horns, I visited 1312 Massachusetts Avenue (the building has not vanished), and spoke with Russell Shaw, the USCC’s public-affairs director. What, I asked, would happen if the USCC disappeared?
Mr. Shaw paused for only a few seconds, then speculated that if the USCC vanished today, the bishops would begin reconstructing a similar organization tomorrow. Why? Because the USCC performs important functions for the bishops. When I pressed for a list of those functions, Mr. Shaw too began with the task of arranging meetings for the bishops. Along the same lines, he noted that if Pope John Paul decides to visit our country again, some central organization must be ready to handle the welter of logistical problems that such a visit provokes.
But Shaw continued: if one admits that the bishops might want to issue a joint pastoral letter, then some staff members will be involved in preparing and publishing that letter; if one admits the value of a national catechetical directory, some group must administer that program as well; if one admits the need for a nationwide charitable campaign, some agency must collect and distribute the funds. The Vatican Council anticipated that episcopal conferences would help administer social programs on a national level; again, the USCC would seem the logical agency. And so on.
Fair enough. On some other occasion we could debate the virtues of the staff contributions to the pastoral letters, or the catechetical directory, or the bishops’ charitable campaigns. For now, I wanted to press Mr. Shaw on a different sort of question: How long would it take ordinary Catholics to notice the USCC’s disappearance? After some discussion, we agreed that the first evidence would turn up in diocesan newspapers. Most local Catholic papers rely heavily on National Catholic News Service for their reporting; without that service (which comes from 1312 Mass. Avenue), many diocesan papers would be reduced to only a few pages’ worth of news. (Since he is an honest man, Shaw also pointed out that perceptive Catholics might also notice a drop in the number of special collections taken up at Sunday Mass.)
Very few Catholics, I suspect, would begrudge the bishops their right to have a national staff. Journalists can vouch for the importance of the National Catholic newswire, and countless reporters (including this one) appreciate the fact that the USCC public-affairs department is ready to answer queries. Without question, the USCC can be a great convenience.
But a convenience is not a necessity. And to say that some USCC operations are worthwhile certainly does not mean that all divisions of the clerical bureaucracy are vital. If any bishop is interested in reforming the USCC, he should keep one comforting thought in mind: If a few, staff aides—or a few offices—disappear from USCC headquarters, most ordinary Catholics will never notice the difference.