The first day of the 2018 plenary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — a meeting already hotly anticipated given the urgency of the bishops’ response to the revelations regarding clergy sexual abuse that have buffeted the Catholic Church this year — was upended almost immediately. Even before calling the meeting to order on Nov. 12, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, shared the news that the Vatican had requested, just the night before, that the bishops refrain from holding votes on action items intended to address the abuse crisis. These included lay oversight for allegations against bishops, a code of conduct for bishops and a hotline for complaints against bishops involving sexual harassment or misconduct toward adults, as well as abuse of minors.
It was a day of confusion for bishops and observers alike, as a moment of anticipated progress was seemingly stifled. There is much that is not known around the Vatican’s reason for delaying — whether the bishops’ proposals included concepts that the Vatican wasn’t prepared to have any episcopal body ratify, whether they found proposed solutions that might work in a U.S. context problematic for the Church in other parts of the world or whether Rome wishes to implement universal norms starting from a clean slate. The only reason provided in the letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal DiNardo said, was the previously announced global summit of episcopal conference presidents, to be held at the Vatican in February.
While the Monday delay was largely derided, it was clear even by the next day that the Church was not pulling the plug on reform. In Rome, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta as the adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a move that suggested this most-trusted Church authority on handling abuse cases would be taking on an even greater role in the Church’s universal response. And in Baltimore, the bishops continued wide-ranging discussions of the issue at various points in their agenda.
As the bishops joined their voices in discussion, the depth of the Church’s response came to light, and the urgency of preparing an ardent, comprehensive contribution to the February summit became apparent. Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, bemoaned that the events of the past day seemed to reflect that the bishops do not enjoy the trust of the Vatican, a relationship dynamic that must be remedied. Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, a canon lawyer, noted that the bishops had been, in effect, poised to sign a pledge that they bind themselves to, as opposed to a binding change to canon law. Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, compared the U.S. Church’s presence at the February gathering to that of U.S. cardinals at the Second Vatican Council who were the first to champion the teaching of religious freedom to the whole Church.
These discussions reflected that the Catholic hierarchy in the United States is changing its culture and pushing for further changes. These changes must ultimately be mirrored at the global level. With the bishops’ meeting having run its course, all eyes now will turn to February, hoping for definitive action from Pope Francis, acting in concert with the world’s bishops. As others have noted, the stakes couldn’t be higher — namely, the integrity of the Church’s witness in the world today and for the foreseeable future.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young