Election results missing from bishops' public meeting agenda
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of a subcommittee on marriage.

If you’re looking for the elephant in the living room, here’s a tip: he’ll be in Baltimore Nov. 12-15 at the U.S. bishops’ fall general meeting. But you won’t be able to see him if the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has anything to say about it. 

Coming as it will barely a week after Election Day, the USCCB assembly is an obvious occasion for the nation’s bishops to discuss the Church’s political concerns. This year the concerns center especially on the impact that the presidential election is likely to have on the bishops’ battle with President Barack Obama’s administration over the mandate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will require numerous Church-related institutions and programs to include coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization in employee health plans or else pay cumulatively huge fines. 

Numerous dioceses and Catholic institutions, including Our Sunday Visitor, as well as some non-Catholic ones, are challenging the mandate in court cases across the country.

On the agenda

All this constitutes obvious material for the first general meeting of the bishops since last June. But you wouldn’t know it from the public agenda released by the USCCB office. 

Instead, the USCCB announcement says the bishops will vote on documents on the economy, preaching, the Sacrament of Penance and the “teaching ministry” of bishops in the digital age. Stressing the immediacy and speed of new media, the latter document says they present bishops with “new difficulties” together with “powerful new tools” for teaching Church doctrine. 

According to USCCB, the bishops also will hear reports on the Church in Haiti, on national collections and on the new jurisdictional entity called an “ordinariate” established last January to assist Anglican communities that want to join the Catholic Church. 

In addition, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of a subcommittee on marriage, will make a report on promoting and defending marriage.

Executive session

Make no mistake, these items — along with business like voting on a new strategic plan and budget and electing a treasurer and committee chairmen — add up to a busy agenda. But what about the election and the HHS mandate? Publicly, they’re nowhere to be seen. 

That doesn’t mean the bishops won’t be considering them, though. For one thing, the agenda calls, as usual, for the bishops’ president to deliver a public opening address. The current president is Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who has been the bishops’ point man in dealings with Obama. Most observers would be surprised if Cardinal Dolan missed the opportunity to toss the press corps a little raw meat by way of comments on the Church’s post-election prospects. 

As for the other 250 bishops present — they also will almost certainly get a chance to speak their minds. But not in public. 

Following the custom of the last 20 years, the four-day USCCB meeting will have two distinct parts — on Monday and Tuesday open sessions followed by news conferences morning and afternoon, on Wednesday and Thursday executive sessions behind closed doors. 

Religious liberty

This is where the bishops apparently will get their chance to talk about the election results and the pending court challenges to the HHS mandate. 

Also a likely topic for episcopal review in executive session is the national campaign launched last year by the bishops to promote public understanding and support for the principle of religious liberty. 

In recent months, as the legal challenges to the mandate have worked their tortuous way through the courts, not a few Catholics have been heard to ask what was going on and what had become of the great crusade for religious liberty in which they’d been urged to enlist many months earlier. 

The USCCB meeting is a natural opportunity for an answer to such questions. But as long as those meeting room doors are closed, the bishops may get answers, but other Catholics won’t. Some other time perhaps? 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.