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Paperwork, votes weakening fraternal episcopal bonds

NCR Staff

It was almost two decades ago, during the "activist" days of their conference -- the late 1970s and '80s when the U.S. bishops wrestled down huge public issues like war and peace and economic justice -- that the bishops first realized that even noble work could overwhelm them. So they instituted a spring meeting designed to be a kind of retreat and informal getaway.

Twenty years later, "we've become a paper mill," said Bishop Joseph Sullivan, auxiliary of the Brooklyn, N.Y, diocese, referring to the mountains of documents generated during their Nov. 11-14 meeting that might be kindly characterized as uneventful.

"We leave these meetings exhausted and we should leave energized," he said.

Sullivan was getting at two points that surfaced in interviews here with bishops across the ideological spectrum: The sessions so deluged them with business that they have no time to meet one another informally and to speak as fellow shepherds.

Worse, they say, much of the business agenda is irrelevant to real concerns they experience back home.

Despite increasingly divisive ideological splits in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops -- splits highlighted by recent public disagreements among some of the most powerful churchmen in the country -- what the bishops really need and want, according to those interviewed, is to spend more time together.

Said Sullivan, "Conservative, liberal, all the appellations fall away when you sit down to talk together and realize we all have a pastoral concern for the church."

No one is suggesting friendly chats will somehow melt all divisions for there exist among conference members fundamentally differing views of how the church should operate.

Deep differences were clear in the reaction of some against Archbishop John R. Quinn's June speech at Oxford University (NCR, July 12) urging church reform, and in the reaction of others against the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's Catholic Common Ground initiative (NCR, Aug. 23 and succeeding issues) advocating dialogue on issues vital to the church.

There is a sense, too, that an unusual amount of edginess has crept into the conference, its discussions and debates. "At the beginning of the 1980s, we recognized the need to meet another time during the year to help strengthen fraternal ties among bishops," said Bishop James Malone, retired bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, and former president of the conference. Little by little, however, even at the spring session, relaxation gave way to business creep. "We started saying, 'This is okay for one day, but let's get down to business." And soon, the spring retreat became an interim business meeting much like the annual November gathering.

Even at this meeting, when no major or socially controversial projects are in the conference pipeline and agenda items focus almost solely on in-house matters, business still tends to expand to fit the time.

"Any idea of a second meeting strengthening fraternal bonds" got lost, said Malone. So, in the spare atmosphere of Roberts Rules of Order, bishops can feel somewhat alienated, or at least unfairly labeled.

Bishop Charles Chaput of Rapid City, S.D., for instance, is one who feels frustrated by the lack of time for deeper conversation and reflection.

"I am very much aware that the church that I am now a part of as a bishop is less strong and self-confident and clear in its proclamation than the church of my youth," said the 52-year-old Chaput. "That doesn't mean I want the church to go back to being the church of my youth. But I want the church now to be as strong, confident in its proclamation of the gospel and a home, as it was for me as a youngster.

"I find that what's disabling to the church of our time is in some ways the bitterness of the debate between the right and the left where, just because I don't always agree with the left, for example, I would be labeled as somehow a reactionary. That doesn't answer my questions," he said.

Chaput believes, with others, that the conference is in a period of transition. In some ways, this period is affected by the number of large sees that are or soon will be vacant: Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Denver. In some ways it is also related to the age and health of the pope and the sense of waiting for an inevitable change at the top in Rome.

And in yet other ways it is related to the appointment of bishops who are more eager than some senior members of the conference to please the Vatican.

But, as bishops across the ideological spectrum kept saying, the transition is also part of an urgency to relate in ways other than as a gathering of executives at a corporate meeting. All of them held hope that a proposal for restructuring the conference, with its emphasis on small regional meetings, would provide a structural answer to the problem.

Chaput and Sullivan both agree the conference is too big for any deep discussions of pastoral matters confronting bishops; it generates too much paperwork and there is little chance for any real theological reflection when considering issues being voted on. Both give it high marks for allowing bishops from small and rural dioceses the same voting weight as cardinals and archbishops from large urban areas.

"We have to regroup and we have to think in smaller groups in order to discover new ways of proclaiming the gospel in our time," said Chaput.

In his eight years as a bishop, he said, the conference has done little that directly affects his diocese. "It's kind of irrelevant to the church in South Dakota. My problems are local."

That sentiment is shared by Bishop Anthony G. Bosco of Greensburg, Pa. "We are more and more perceived as irrelevant to the life of the people," he said. Becoming relevant would not necessarily involve another round of major pastorals on societal issues.

He wishes there was time to listen to fellow bishops, to hear of programs that work in other dioceses and to hash over pastoral approaches to the local concerns -- unemployment; downsizing; women's concerns; the problem of evangelizing, especially youth -- that he terms are the worries of most bishops.

His confreres, he believed, have to begin speaking outside their own circles with those in the church who are "angry, frustrated or apathetic."

Bosco, ideologically middle of the road, carries a deeper worry about the conference. With the news of Bernardin's passing intruding on many of the proceedings, Bosco wondered aloud about how and when new leadership would emerge. "You don't groom a Bernardin. You don't replace him," he said.

It is necessary to restructure the conference, he said, "but it's not the skeleton of the conference that concerns me. It's the heart of the conference I'm worried about."

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996