e-mail us
First black voted conference vice president

NCR Staff

The nation’s Catholic bishops took a symbolically bold step recently by electing their organization’s first black vice president, a position that historically has led to the top leadership position.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, 50, of Belleville, Ill., told NCR his election “hopefully is a sign that the bishops are serious and committed to living our Catholicism in its fullness.”

For most of their annual four-day meeting in mid-November, however, members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops treated themes that are echoes of past conference initiatives or restatements of past positions. Among items approved was a document that ups the ante in the abortion debate, telling Catholic voters and officials that opposing abortion is the most important issue when considering candidates for election or when voting on leglislation.

The choice of Gregory sends a clear signal to African-American Catholics who long have complained that they are kept on the margins of the church and that blacks are rarely selected for or appointed to leadership positions.

But there are other messages in his selection, and one of the most apparent is that the conference has deliberately chosen to retain moderate leadership although some of its major powers and many of the bishops appointed during the past 15 years are considerably more conservative.

Moderate leadership seems to be the expectation for the next three years under Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, who was elected president during the recent meeting. Having served as vice president, he was expected to take the top spot.

Marching to Selma

Fiorenza, who as a young priest joined the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1965 during the March to Selma, Ala., is known for a strong record on social justice issues and a deep concern for the poor and for immigrants. He also has a reputation for building consensus as a method of leading.

The same reputation holds for Gregory, a Chicago native who served there as an auxiliary bishop under the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, who has written extensively on the American hierarchy and is currently editor of the Jesuit order’s America magazine, said Gregory “will be a good consensus-builder.”

“This is not a case of affirmative action,” Reese said. “This is a very talented man, very highly respected by the bishops, a good listener and a good speaker.”

Even so, said Reese, “the fact that the bishops elected a black vice president shows that the Catholic church is not just a white European club but wants to welcome everybody into the community.”

Reese said he considers it significant that the conference is willing to entrust the future to a protégé of Bernardin, who was a major figure among those American bishops who believed strongly in the concept of collegiality or shared responsibility. Bernardin was known for his ability to mediate disagreements.

It is significant, too, that Gregory, on the final ballot, defeated St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali, a high-profile conservative.

“I think this shows that the spirit of Bernardin is still alive in the bishops’ conference,” Reese said.

What was unspoken during the conference was the difficulty even the best leader might face in developing any new initiatives or major statements among the bishops.

In recent years, the bishops have seen two major endeavors reversed by Vatican officials -- one involving translation of scriptural texts used at Mass and another involving a way to apply canon law on higher education to Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. The bishops had spent years developing consensus on the issues with the help of scripture scholars and presidents of Catholic colleges and universities. Both measures, in final votes in the conference, were approved overwhelmingly.

‘We haven’t finished’

NCR asked both Gregory and Fiorenza how the recent actions by Rome, apparently sound rejections of the process used by the American bishops, would affect their leadership styles.

“We have to keep dialoguing with the Holy See,” said Fiorenza. When asked if the bishops had not already discussed both matters at great length with Rome, he responded, “We haven’t finished. We have to keep being patient,” adding that the Vatican’s rejection of the two projects “won’t change dynamics” within the conference.

Gregory said he would not necessarily agree with the assumption that Rome does not have a high regard for the way the U.S. bishops conduct their busines.

On both issues in question, he said, “negotiations took place between conference members and the Holy See because the conference leadership encouraged that.”

He said he hopes that in the future discussion on points of disagreement occur earlier in the process “so we don’t give the impression that we are two adversaries meeting. The bishops don’t see themselves as adversaries,” he said.

If the bishops have to worry about disagreements with authorities in Rome, they also are concerned about divisions within the church at home.

In his last address as president of the conference, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland spoke of a loss in the church of a sense of the need for leadership. Some, he said, “are unwilling to accept a role for authority in the church. They endlessly debate the decisions of their pastors on issues great and small, extraordinary and routine. They appear to live either in a past or in a future of their own imagining but not in the present in which their pastors must make these decisions.”

Eugene Kennedy, a long-time commentator on the American church, said in an interview that Pilla’s speech shows the bishops “are unfortunately trying to serve two masters when it comes to the idea of authority.”

The bishops are caught, he said, between the hierarchical model of governing the church, which Pope John Paul II wants to see restored, and collegiality, “the original form in which Jesus related to his apostles.”

“The awkwardness cited by Bishop Pilla is not a sign of rebellion in the ranks,” said Kennedy, who with his wife, Sara Charles, co-authored the book Authority: The Most Misunderstood Idea in America. “In general, Catholics are happy to cooperate with their pastors. The answer cannot be a renewal of a species of blind obedience. That demeans the true religious and moral authority that the church possesses and that few if any Catholics would contest,” he said.

The abortion initiative, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” urges Catholic elected officials who privately say they oppose abortion but do not oppose it publically “to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin.”

The statement also says political officials should take the risk of losing an election for their antiabortion convictions.

“Our worship on Sunday should shape our work on Monday,” Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., as he introduced a proposed statement on everyday Christian living for adoption by the U.S. Catholic bishops.

The statement, adopted by the bishops, challenges U.S. Catholics to meet “the demands of discipleship in the pursuit of justice and peace in everyday activity.”

“Catholics are called by God to protect human life, to promote human dignity, to defend the poor and to seek the common good,” it says. “This social mission of the church belongs to all of us. It is an essential part of what it is to be a believer.”

In other business the bishops:

  • Approved a 12-point statement of principles on how the church should welcome and treat persons with disabilities.
  • Discussed but did not vote on a set of national standards for admitting seminary candidates who have left seminaries in the past.
  • Discussed a new document that would set U.S. norms for implementing canon law dealing with Catholic colleges and universities.
  • Began what Coadjutor Bishop George V. Murry of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, called an “opening discussion” on racism.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998