End Notes: Sizing Down

The recent elections spread distaste for the centralization of power in Washington as well ass for the corresponding effort to micromanage a longe the affairs of the nation. Far more than the arrogance of those too long in power, what irks many are those unelected bureaucrats who have come to exercise such dictatorial powers over an array of activities. Since these people cannot be removed by the voters, we can only hope that those we do elect will take a hard look at our unelected governors.

Thinking of such matters has turned my thoughts to an equally widespread discontent among Catholics of my acquaintance with the Washington bureaucracy of the Church. There are two entities. First, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and, second, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC).

The NCCB is a form of organization of our bishops that takes its inspiration from Vatican II. Bishops’ conferences figure in canon law as well and it would be presumptuous indeed for anyone to call into question the wisdom and point of their existence. Of course, there have been caveats expressed, notably by Cardinal Ratzinger, as to their precise ecclesial role. As I understand the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, bishops’ conferences have no peculiar or proper magisterial role. Moreover, their meetings reduce ordinaries to a vote among many and this, Cardinal Ratzinger suggested, might confuse us as to the magisterial role of each and every bishop as such. A bishop is the master of the faith in his diocese, not simply a member of a majority or minority at national meetings. His role as master of the faith links him to the Holy Father directly, not by any mediation of the national conference.

The USCC is a creature of the bishops which has taken on a life of its own. Its presence in Washington has given it the coloration it has—in many respects it resembles a think tank, in others it resembles an interest group. Located where it is, it seems governed by the common assumption of those inside the Beltway, the assumption that the heart and soul of America are to be found in the rarefied atmosphere of the nation’s capital. The massive structure that was built to house its activities was for many of us a revelation. Its opulence seemed oddly out of tune with chatter about the preferential option for the poor, but it was the quantitative enormity of the building that astounded. What in the name of God was all that space needed for?

Al Maguire once said that if you give a man a striped shirt and a whistle and fly him in from miles away, he is going to blow that whistle. So too, presumably, if you put someone in an office in that Washington edifice and provide him with a computer, he is going to produce documents. Several times in recent years, the question has arisen as to the provenance and status of documents emerging from the USCC. People hired by an entity founded by the bishops can hardly be called mere freelancers, but questions can arise as to by whom and with what authority statements are being issued as expressive of the view of the Church.

The time has come to think seriously about the need for the USCC. Arguments might well be formulated for some of the things it does, but it would be very surprising if good arguments could be found for all of them. I doubt that any defense could be made, architecturally, of the building in which it is housed, but it is a useful symbol of something bloated and running free. At the very least the defensible activities of the USCC should be relocated to some part of the country where bureaucrats are less likely to be out of touch with ordinary Catholics.

As for the NCCB, perhaps it should move with its current president. This would necessitate a stripped down form, somewhat along the lines of the disciples as Jesus sent them out.

One of the advantages of decentralization and removal from the District of Columbia might well be that the risible concentration on the alleged hurts of women might be replaced with concern for some of the real problems the Church faces in this country. Thank God, the notable battles to keep out the ideologically-charged language of the soi-disant woman’s movement from Scripture, the Catechism, and liturgical text, have succeeded. The political agenda of the left has for too long set the agenda for the USCC and even the NCCB.

While I am at it, I would suggest that the annual meeting of bishops be held somewhere other than a hotel. A few years ago, the meeting was held in a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. Perhaps that should be the rule rather than the exception. There is something dispiriting about pictures of a ballroom full of prelates all looking vaguely like CEOs. A monastic setting would concentrate the episcopal mind on things like preaching and disseminating the Catechism, leaving the liturgy alone for a couple of centuries, and communicating the message of the Magisterium.

As we know, there are some, though not in the ranks of the bishops, who feel that Pope John Paul II is out of touch and does not understand the American mentality, that he must be apologized for and the laity protected from his Neanderthal theology. Our bishops of course can be reassured of the opposite by dropping into any bookstore in the nation. The pope is a bestseller. He is read avidly. He understands the human heart and mind as few other bishops do. What a wonderful model for bishops and indeed for all of us.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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