Inside the Bishops’ Conference, Part I: Why the American Bishops Lack Accountablity

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is often called powerful, hierarchical, and centrally organized. Actually, it’s none of these things. Nor is it accountable.

About three miles north of the U.S. Capitol, there’s a plain five-story building on a wide lawn. It sits a block south of The Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In between is a quiet, almost rustic four-lane road; on the northern end are two groves of 30- and 40-foot high trees. If you travel due south, you can’t actually see the building for another 200 yards. Then, in a clearing off to the left, past a large sea-green oxidized statue of Christ, is the drab thing itself. It looks like a huge cardboard box made out of glass, steel, and concrete. If not for the low, wide sign outside that reads “THE UNITED STATES CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS,” the building would be unidentifiable.

This is indeed the headquarters of the nation’s Catholic hierarchy, and the modesty of the building and its location are no accident. The USCCB is a modest organization. It has few formal powers and little actual authority. As John Carr, director of the Social Development and World Peace Committee, said when I asked, “What power? I wish we had some power.” Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, president of the USCCB from 1989 to 1992, likened the organization to a “union of independent grocers. It’s a confederation, a trade association…. It’s not a super-church. It’s not my boss.”

They exaggerate only slightly. Compared with its two putative competitors, the Vatican and each diocese in the country, the USCCB has little authority. It can’t hire or fire bishops; only the Vatican can do so. It can’t laicize or defrock a priest; only a bishop can remove a priest from ministry (although the actual process to make a priest a layman is much lengthier and more complicated). The USCCB’s bevy of committees (34 standing, 15 ad hoc, and five executive) don’t coordinate the activities of the nation’s 195 sees. Each bishop—by which I mean auxiliary and diocesan bishops as well as archbishops and cardinals—reports not to the conference’s leadership but to the Vatican.

This is not to say that the USCCB is, like Dickens’s Mrs. Nickleby, weak-kneed and purely deferential. It has stature. Its controversial pastoral statements on the nuclear arms race, the economy, and war have been much cited, and its lobbying shop takes credit for helping to pass congressional legislation on issues ranging from a $15 billion measure to combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean to a ban on partial-birth abortion. It has national reach and collectively represents 66.4 million American Catholics, according to the 2003 Official Catholic Directory. And provided that the Vatican and two-thirds of its members approve, it can mandate certain things. The national policy to handle priestly sexual abuse is the most recent example.

Additionally, the USCCB—or someone connected to it—has occasionally been able to use the media to its advantage. Witness the recent controversy over Mel Gibson’s upcoming film, The Passion. After getting their hands on an unauthorized advance script and using USCCB stationery, several staff members involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue took the opportunity to charge the film with possible anti-Semitism. While the bishops quickly distanced themselves from the statement, the damage was done.

Nevertheless, the USCCB isn’t what critics often claim: hierarchical, centrally organized, and powerful. Indeed, there’s a widespread view that the USCCB acts as the handmaiden of Rome, ramming the Church’s agenda down people’s throats. “The Catholic bishops have decided to try to impose papal authority in the United States through the abortion issue,” wrote John M. Swomley, an emeritus professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, in the April 1997 issue of Christian Ethics Today. “[S]ince 1966 the national conference has in effect articulated positions that all bishops are expected to follow and to which few fail to adhere,” James Hitchcock, a professor of history at St. Louis University, wrote in the November 2002 issue of This Rock. And there’s the additional liberal saw that, because most of the prelates are white, middle-aged men who’ve been appointed by John Paul II, they all think alike.

Only since last year have some critics realized the error of their ways. In many cases, the USCCB’s real problem isn’t too much power; it’s too little accountability. Priests and bishops commit crimes, and yet often the USCCB fails to stop or punish them. Witness the conference’s feeble handling of the sex-abuse scandal after 1992. Instead of issuing tough mandates, it released weak “guidelines.” As Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., editor of America magazine, said, “[After 1992], it’s much more questionable. They should not have made those mistakes again.”

This lack of accountability can be blamed partly on canon law (the USCCB has no canonical standing) and partly on the USCCB’s culture. Together they have begotten what you might say are the five laws of the USCCB: semi-autocracy, collegiality, secrecy, a mini-elite, and moral ambiguity.

Cutting Through the Myths

The history of the Catholic bishops in America has generally not been one of collective, national efforts. The few times the bishops have managed a united front have usually been in order to meet a pressing need. The most famous early effort produced the Baltimore Catechism, the religious handbook that taught generations of young Catholics about their faith (“Why did God make you?” “God made me to know Him, to love Him…”). In 1884 the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, a distant forerunner of today’s USCCB, wrote the document that, until it was dropped in 1969, was used in dioceses around the country. The bishops’ next effort was far less ambitious. In 1917 they created the National Catholic Warfare Council (NCWC), a direct predecessor of the USCCB, whose job was to ensure that Catholic soldiers in World War I had enough priests.

After the Great War, the NCWC—renamed the National Catholic Welfare Conference—continued for more than a decade on this modest path. Only in the early 1930s did that change, albeit in a major way. In 1934 Dennis Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia (1918-1951) forbade the city’s Catholics, on pain of serious sin, from going to the movies. When the city’s cinema theaters lost business, Hollywood studio moguls worked out a deal with the NCWC. The result was the Hays code (1934-1964), which restricted movies from showing sex, profanity, and violence. While the NCWC didn’t actually oversee Hollywood, the Hays code did represent a sweeping action, regulating the cinematic content of films seen not just by Catholics but by all Americans.

That, however, marked the zenith of the bishops’ efforts at centralization. Even their work after Vatican II (1962-1965) wasn’t nearly as sweeping. Renamed in 1966 as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference (NCCB/USCC), the organization implemented a number of reforms that applied only to American Catholics. Liturgies were now said in English; the requirement of meatless Fridays was eliminated, except during Lent; and many holy days of obligation were either dropped or transferred to Sunday. Though these reforms changed the religious practice and culture of American Catholics, they were similar to those instituted in other countries. Because Vatican II mandated that Mass was no longer to be said exclusively in Latin, each national church needed to devise a uniform liturgy.

Since then, such national reforms have been rare. The NCCB/USCC simply wasn’t designed in the mode of the modern federal government, which since the New Deal of the 1930s has intervened in areas ranging from retirement benefits to race relations. Rather, the USCCB is designed along the lines of the federal government before the early 20th-century progressive era, when it deferred most power to the states. In the same way, the USCCB defers to the Vatican and each bishop in his diocese. According to canon law 455, promulgated in 1983, episcopal conferences “can issue general decrees only in those cases in which the common law prescribes it, or a special mandate of the Apostolic See, given either motu proprio or at the request of the Conference, determines it.” The result is a surprisingly deferential organization. As journalist Charles Morris, the author of American Catholic (1995), put it, “Contrary to the popular impression of the Church as a more or less totalitarian monolith, it is actually one of the most decentralized large organizations in the country.”

The Diminishing Power of the USCCB

In some ways, the USCCB has actually lost power. On the drizzly June afternoon I went to its headquarters, I met Richard Doerflinger, the 50-year-old deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. We chatted in his office, and if there were one word to describe the place, it would be “paper.” All around us was an enormous amount of paper—journals and magazines and reference works, with titles such as the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics and the Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine. During our talk, he casually informed me that the pro-life office used to keep track of all pro-life legislation, including bills on euthanasia and the death penalty, in all 50 states. Why did it stop? He said, “I think it stopped [15 years ago] because most of these states developed strong state Catholic conferences.” I couldn’t imagine what his office looked like back then.

The powers the USCCB does have are modest; they’re comparable to those of an educated, politically adept man with money. It writes and releases pastoral letters and statements. It lobbies Congress on political issues. It leads pastoral workshops on various issues, which range from charismatic renewal to helping welfare recipients get jobs. It provides staff and money to otherwise ailing dioceses. It has a staff of roughly 350 (320 of whom work in Washington) and usually meets as a body only six or seven days a year. Its budget for 2003 is $130 million, an amount far less than the payroll of the New York Yankees.

There’s no question individual sees benefit from these services. Take the diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s rural and relatively poor; many of its 125,000 Catholics are farmers and ranchers. As such, the see has only 40 staff members. Of those, only two work full-time in its pro-life office. So when the diocese this year wanted to have an essay contest for its middle-and high-school students, it turned to the USCCB, whose pro-life office has eleven full-time staff members. The see received information packets about abortion and euthanasia to distribute to diocesan schoolchildren. “It would have been too costly and time-consuming if we had started from scratch,” Bishop Robert Carlson said in a phone interview.

Still, these are hardly major services. Indeed, it’s worth examining why the USCCB has so little influence—and even less accountability. Part of the answer lies in canon law, and part in the particular culture of the bishops.

The Five Laws of the USCCB

The first law: semi-autocracy. Critics often call bishops “autocratic,” implying that they wield dictatorial powers over their flock and force them to accept positions on issues, such as women’s ordination, that they would otherwise reject. In truth, each bishop is semi-autocratic. As I’ve mentioned, they must ultimately defer to the Vatican and, to a much lesser degree, to the USCCB itself.

Still, each bishop within his diocese is a kind of giant. He recruits priests and can remove them from ministry; starts, oversees, and closes down Catholic schools, hospitals, and social service agencies (soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, etc.); hires and fires staff; raises money; and oversees his diocese’s land holdings.

The basis for each bishop’s power lies in canon law. As Church documents make clear, the bishop is a successor to the apostles, as one of the Twelve. According to Lumen Gentium, a 1964 Vatican II document, “The bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.” Apostolos Suos, a 1998 pastoral letter from the Vatican on episcopal conferences, reiterated this position.

The downside to this arrangement is obvious: Some bishops are grossly negligent. Bishops have transferred priests who’ve committed sexual abuse; failed to stop top Church officials from stealing diocesan money (as in Marin County, California); and allegedly committed manslaughter while leaving the scene of a crime (witness Bishop Thomas O’Brien of Phoenix).

Barring some dramatic change in canon law, the USCCB can’t do much about many of these problems. The Vatican must ultimately handle them. However, the USCCB can impose national standards that each bishop must adhere to. The national policy on priestly sex abuse is the most recent example. Nevertheless, the conference is loath to do so not only because of each bishop’s exalted status, but also because of the second law of the USCCB…

The second law: collegiality. The bishops strive to reach consensus whenever possible to avoid provoking needless controversy. There’s no question the USCCB operates by this principle, as Father Reese pointed out in A Flock of Shepherds (1992), in which he examined the voting records of the 121 major statements issued by the conference between 1966 and 1988. Of those, all but 19 passed unanimously or with ten or fewer bishops dissenting. In a body with 281 voting members, that’s remarkable.

The basis for collegiality also lies in canon law. Lumen Gentium refers repeatedly to the “collegial union” of bishops who with the pope “represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love, and unity.” Apostolos Suos invokes the words “undivided,” “collegial spirit,” and “spirit of communion” in reference to episcopal conferences.

Unfortunately, collegiality comes sometimes at the expense of accountability. What happens when a small but substantial number of bishops are negligent or immoral? Collegiality can’t answer that question. And there’s evidence that the bishops have taken this principle to an extreme. In Dallas last year, Archbishop Pilarczyk told me that not one prelate called on a fellow bishop to resign over failing to handle the sex-abuse scandal. “I don’t recall that happening at all,” he said.

The third law: secrecy. To some extent, the USCCB works in secret. The actual wording of the questions about priestly sex abuse that were sent to bishops is private. And at least some of their annual meetings are held behind closed doors. At their recent June 19-21 confab in St. Louis, nine-and-a-half hours of the 16-hour conference were held in “executive session,” which means it was closed to the public. Before 1972, all of the conference’s annual meetings were essentially secret.

The basis for this appears to lie mostly in the USCCB’s particular culture. Of course, the Catholic Church is no democracy, but the USCCB appears to rely on confidentiality too heavily during its twice-a-year meetings. Said Russell Shaw, a contributing editor of Crisis and a spokesman for the conference from 1969 to 1987, “They put issues in executive session because they feel more comfortable doing so.” Others, like Father Reese, are more sympathetic to the bishops. In Flock of Shepherds, he points out that the bishops are talking about matters that might be personally embarrassing, could scandalize the faithful or create negative publicity for the Church, or simply are too sensitive for public discussion.

Raymond Arroyo, news director for the Eternal Word Television Network, agrees, saying that secrecy is sometimes necessary. “It allows for a frankness of discussion they otherwise wouldn’t have, because they want to seem collegial.”

Whatever the justification, secrecy undermines accountability. When the USCCB’s meetings on priestly sex abuse were held behind closed doors in 1992, it devised guidelines rather than mandates. And as we’ve since discovered, many bishops ignored them. But when most of their meetings were public, as was the case in Dallas last year, they drew up a national policy binding on all bishops.

The fourth law: a mini-elite. As is true of most institutions, a small elite governs at least part of the USCCB. To be sure, it doesn’t rule the conference or bark out orders to other bishops. But it does tend to assume the leadership positions. Members of this elite chair important committees (Social Development and World Peace, Ecumenism, Liturgy). They become presidents of the conference. Or they serve on the administrative committee, which meets four times a year and shapes much of the USCCB’s agenda for its biannual meetings. The 69-year-old Archbishop Pilarczyk is a good example: He was a former president, has served on a dozen committees, and has chaired five of them.

This mini-elite numbers about 30 to 40. According to Father Reese, from 1969 to 1992, 22 bishops had served for ten or more years on the conference’s committees. These are what you might call the “talented tenth.” Another third to two-fifths serves on only one committee. And a quarter doesn’t serve on anything at all. According to the USCCB’s 2003 Membership Photo Directory, 23 percent of the conference (65 bishops) didn’t participate in a single committee.

Staffers also make up part of this elite. They include the general secretary of the conference (a slot currently head by Monsignor William Fay), the general counsel (Mark Chopko), and the director of communications (Rev. Francis Maniscalco). There are also a number of influential aides, like Doerflinger and John Carr, the head of the Committee on Social Development and World Peace.

The presence of a mini-elite also works against accountability. Because the USCCB’s top leadership positions weren’t designed to be powerful, individual leaders can’t be held responsible for their actions. Take the job of the USCCB president. He’s elected to a three-year nonrenewable term. This means he can’t accrue power in the way that, say, senators and presidents can. According to Father Reese, “They want a representative rather than a creator.” Not exactly like Chicago under Mayor Richard J. Daley.

The fifth law: moral ambiguity. As close observers of the USCCB know, the bishops issue statements usually characterized by ambiguity rather than certainty. Even statements thought of as quite specific—such as those on the economy—really aren’t. As Archbishop Pilarczyk said, “We provide leadership but not specific directives, or at least not excessively specific directives.”

To be sure, the USCCB issues plenty of specific directives on federal legislation, on matters ranging from welfare reauthorization to debt relief, but its pastoral statements are fairly vague. (The conference, for example, would never call for taxes to be raised or cut by half, or that billions of dollars be spent on airport security.)

As a result, the conference’s statements allow for plenty of wiggle-room by individual bishops. Consider its November 13, 2002, statement opposing the U.S.-led war against Iraq. It didn’t say that Catholic soldiers are forbidden from fighting. Nor did it say that Catholic politicians were duty-bound to vote against the war resolution in Congress. Instead, it left these matters up to individual bishops, as well as the consciences of the laity.

The Need for a Change

Until 2002, few people cared about the structure of the USCCB. Scholars and the media didn’t pay attention; in Morris’s American Catholic, the organizational structure of the USCCB is accorded a mere five-sentence footnote. And the hierarchy and laity were happy and ignorant, respectively.

But the sex-abuse scandal has changed things. To an outsider, the USCCB doesn’t look as if it were operating according to the principles of collegiality and deference to Rome and individual bishops. It looks as if it were operating according to those common to Enron, Tyco, and the New York Times: incompetence, self-protection, and immorality.

Of course, this picture is distorted because most bishops are shepherds of the Church. But it’s also true that a significant number are not. This point is obvious enough. Nine dioceses or archdioceses have spent at least $7.5 million since 1992 to settle lawsuits from victims of sexual abuse. That list doesn’t even include that of Phoenix, where on June 21 Bishop O’Brien was arrested for allegedly leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident.

The USCCB needs to make these bishops accountable for their actions. When they commit evil or betray the Faith, they need to be punished. Making them truly accountable will probably require amending canon law, but that should be done anyway. The Church ought to adopt what could be called the Judas principle: the recognition that some of her apostles betray her. It wouldn’t have to be nearly as prominent as the principle of collegiality in Church documents, but it ought to be at least acknowledged. As one archdiocesan official said of the USCCB, speaking on condition of anonymity, “That’s one of the great questions for the Church: accountability. The priests are independent and the bishops are decentralized.”

The counterargument to this is that if the USCCB could do such a thing, the bishops would be at each other’s throats, calling for the heads of prelates they dislike. But is this really a serious concern? If so, the bishops’ presumed collegiality would appear to be awfully shallow.

After all, if in 1992 the bishops had adopted national laws governing sexual abuse, their much-vaunted collegiality would have been clipped modestly. But isn’t that a fair tradeoff? At least some prelates regret that they didn’t act more forcefully back then. When I asked William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore about this, he sounded almost winsome: “In retrospect, it’s a nice idea that we could have dealt in a national manner with that particular problem.”

  • Mark Stricherz

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.

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