When the U.S. bishops converge on Baltimore for their fall general assembly Nov. 13-14, they will spend time on the eve of the meeting taking note of a significant anniversary — the centenary of their own national organization. The occasion will be marked by the bishops at a concelebrated Mass on Sunday, Nov. 12.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops may not occupy a large place in the thinking of most Catholics, but the USCCB, like its counterparts in other nations, plays a key role in contemporary Church affairs.
And although the differences are many, there is real continuity between USCCB and its predecessor, the National Catholic War Council of 1917. Both represent the bishops’ commitment to collaborate at the national level in meeting the needs of the Church and the nation, as they were a hundred years ago in one case and as they are now in the other. The story of the Catholic War Council illustrates that.
Following America’s entry into World War I, Catholic groups responded to the emergency in various ways, and the bishops decided to establish a national structure to coordinate the efforts. Despite its militaristic title, the new “war council” concentrated on things like recruiting chaplains, providing recreational facilities for servicemen, and, via a women’s committee, helping displaced persons.
Pleased with the council’s results, the bishops decided to retain the wartime structure for collaboration after the war. In a letter to the Holy See, Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921) of Baltimore, venerable leader of the U.S. hierarchy, said the aim was “furthering those general policies which are vital to all.”
Most bishops supported the idea, but a few didn’t, and calling the new body a “council” raised hackles at the Vatican by implying authority it didn’t possess. Even so, Pope Benedict XV eventually said yes, provided the council became a “conference.” And so it was. The National Catholic Welfare Conference had been born.
NCWC began on a high note with a proposed Program of Social Reconstruction for postwar America. It was the work of Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945), a professor of political economy and moral theology at The Catholic University of America, who was to head the NCWC social action department for the next 25 years.
The document advocated socially progressive measures like minimum-wage protections, health and old-age insurance, wage equality for women and tough child labor and anti-monopoly laws. Much of this policy agenda would come to fruition with the New Deal.
NCWC had offices for education, legislation, social action, lay organizations, press and publicity, and immigration. Although it was sometimes said that NCWC stood for “Nothing Counts West of Chicago,” Archbishop Edward J. Hanna (1860-1944) of San Francisco was the first chairman and held the post for many years. Paulist Father John J. Burke, editor of Catholic World magazine, was general secretary.
In the decades that followed, NCWC established itself as a voice for Catholic interests. Its building on Massachusetts Avenue, with a futuristic statue of Christ the Light of the World out front, was a familiar landmark in downtown Washington, D.C. (Archbishop John F. Noll, founder of Our Sunday Visitor, raised the money to erect the statue.)
Advocacy on behalf of the policies outlined in the Program of Social Reconstruction occupied the organization from the start. In the 1930s, bishops, worried about the moral tone of movies, launched a film evaluation group called the Legion of Decency. (Its work continues today under the auspices of Catholic News Service media reviews.) The wartime years brought the establishment of Catholic Relief Services to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of the conflict. After the war, NCWC added anti-communist education and activism to its agenda.
The rise of conferences
Then came the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). This gathering of the world’s bishops, under the leadership of Pope St. John XXIII and, after his death, Blessed Pope Paul VI, warmly embraced episcopal conferences as important new bodies for collegial decision-making by bishops.
In its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops, Vatican II praised existing conferences and called for establishing them where they didn’t exist. The ecumenical council defined an episcopal conference as an “assembly in which the bishops ... exercise their pastoral office jointly in order to enhance the Church’s beneficial influence.”
But the U.S. bishops in 1966 established an unusual dual-conference structure.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) was the episcopal conference properly so-called, with committees and staff corresponding to the bishops’ pastoral office in areas like doctrine, liturgy, canon law, seminaries and priestly life. The new United States Catholic Conference (USCC) handled the Church’s engagement with the secular order in education, social justice and communication. An architect of the reconfigured organization was its first general secretary, then-Bishop Joseph L. Bernardin. He would later serve as president of NCCB/USCC (1974-77) while archbishop of Cincinnati and was cardinal archbishop of Chicago for 14 years before his death in 1996.
In the immediate postconciliar years, much of NCCB/USCC’s time and effort went into carrying out the agenda given to bishops’ conferences by Vatican II. The 1980s saw the adoption of two major pastoral letters, “The Challenge of Peace” (1983) and “Economic Justice for All” (1986).
Conservative critics unhappy with the bishops’ policy pronouncements sometimes accused the organization of being “the Democratic party at prayer.” But as abortion became a major national issue — especially following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision (1973) — the bishops became an important presence in the new pro-life movement.
In 2001, after several years of study, planning and discussion, the bishops scrapped the two-conference structure and combined the NCCB and USCC into the present U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Earlier, they moved their headquarters from downtown Washington to a new, larger building near Catholic University and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The statue of Christ still stands out front.
When the clergy sex abuse scandal broke in 2002, the bishops, under the leadership of then-Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, responded with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which sets a uniform national policy for safeguarding against and reporting child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions. The charter has since become a template taken up and applied by bishops of other countries. Archbishop Gregory now serves as archbishop of Atlanta and chairs the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship.
Policy is set for the USCCB at the bishops’ general assemblies, which take place every November in Baltimore and in June in rotating host cities around the country, as well as by a structure of committees chaired by bishops elected by the general assembly. Implementation of policy is the responsibility of a staff of 315 coordinated by a general secretariat. The current president and vice president, elected last year to three-year terms, are Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles.
The bishops’ current concerns include immigration, racism, religious freedom and — as has been the case for years — pro-life activities. A strategic plan for 2017-20 lists five priorities: evangelization, family and marriage, human life and dignity, vocation and ongoing formation, and religious freedom.
In a century’s time, specifics have changed a lot, but the bishops still hew to the vision of Cardinal Gibbons: “furthering those general policies which are vital to all.”
Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.