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Vatican II: 40 years later

Crafting a vision of a bishops’ conference, then unmaking it


Forty years ago, alive with what he’d brought back from the Second Vatican Council, Detroit Cardinal John Dearden had a vision: A national pastoral council of laypeople, clergy and bishops that would share responsibility for developing church public policy positions.

In November 1966, he was elected the first president of the new National Conference of Catholic Bishops, NCCB, and the U.S. Catholic Conference, USCC. The NCCB would deal with internal church issues; the latter would promote peace and justice in the secular world.

“Iron John” -- as Dearden was known -- looked forward to the time when the USCC would evolve into the collaborative body of “shared responsibility” he saw as a true outgrowth of Vatican II. Until that day arrived, laypeople would serve on USCC committees -- social action, communications, and education among them -- participate in those deliberations as equals and vote at that level.

Most decisions, in fact, were reached by consensus, and all were subject to the approval of the bishops-only administrative committee or the full assembly of bishops.

The approach was in keeping with the prevailing interpretation of the October 1965 council decree Christus Dominus, which defined bishops’ conferences as an “assembly in which the prelates of a nation or of a territory jointly exercise their pastoral office in order to enhance the church’s beneficial influence to all men.”

Those words were widely received as a signal for a decentralized decision-making process, in harmony with Rome and the universal church, but providing avenues of participation previously closed to the nonordained. It was an approach eagerly embraced by the U.S. bishops of that era.

Fast forward 34 years to November 2000: After nearly a decade of deliberation and discussion, the bishops voted to abolish their dual structure and replace it with a single body -- the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB. Committee structures were realigned and roles in the organization redefined.

Significantly, laypeople could no longer serve as full members of a USCCB committee. They could serve as consultants -- have a voice, however muted -- but no vote. Unlike its predecessors, dating back more than 80 years to the founding of the National Catholic Welfare Council, the USCCB was to be unmistakably a bishops’ conference.

To some, Dearden’s vision was blurred beyond recognition -- the restructuring just the latest move in a series designed to curtail the world’s most influential bishops’ conference. To others, including some of the deceased archbishop’s closest allies in establishing the modern conference, the developments are not a repudiation of the founding president’s vision, but a recognition of changed times.

“The conference is alive and well and faithful to the vision of the council and of Cardinal Dearden,” said Louisville Archbishop Thomas Kelly, who as an associate general secretary to the bishops’ conference in the early 1970s, and later as general secretary, worked with Dearden and then-general secretary Joseph Bernardin to implement the council’s vision of a bishops’ conference.

Dearden and Bernardin “were absolutely determined to implement the council,” recalled Kelly, and “set an irreversible course for the conference of bishops.”

Irreversible, perhaps. But not immovable.

Retired Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley, like Kelly a former associate general secretary under Bernardin, sees a “swing” to “centralization of all authority.” It is a constant tension, said Hurley. “Do we gravitate to the center [Rome] because we need unity, or do we decentralize to acknowledge diversity?” Observers -- both those who promote an activist conference agenda and those who would prefer a body deferential to Rome -- point to three instances over the past decade that have shaped the current conference:

Apostolos Suos. Under this 1998 papal apostolic letter, bishops’ conference statements that seek to bind the faithful must be approved unanimously, or, with a two-thirds vote, submitted to Rome for approval. There is dispute on precisely what is covered under the letter. Some say, for example, that the U.S. bishops’ 1983 Pastoral Letter on War and Peace could not have been issued without Rome’s approval under conditions laid out by the letter; others say such statements fall outside the letter’s intent. “It’s almost humanly impossible to get 100 percent agreement,” said Hurley.

• The women’s pastoral fiasco. Rejected in 1992 after nearly a decade of work, the proposed pastoral letter is remembered less for its content than for the ferocity of the debate it engendered. It became a litmus test of solidarity with Rome, as Vatican officials objected to successive versions of the proposed letter.

“Since the failure of the women’s pastoral the U.S. bishops have simply not been involved in writing major pastoral letters,” said Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America and author of A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There’s a big fear that they’ll come into conflict with Rome if they undertake controversial projects,” said Reese. Said Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, also a former associate general secretary at the conference: “I don’t know if there is the interest, energy or the willingness to take the big risks on the issue of public policy and social justice as there was in the 1980s.”

• Rome’s agenda. “There’s been a more active involvement on the part of the Holy See in determining some of the agenda items,” said Euart. Vatican-generated initiatives -- ranging from norms on lay preaching to implementation of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter Ex Corde Ecclesiae -- have increasingly dominated the conference agenda. Ex Corde, a 1990 document whose title is translated “From the Heart of the Church,” calls for stronger Catholic identity -- and church laws to ensure it -- at Catholic colleges and universities.

The future? More focus on collaborative pastoral efforts is likely, said Euart, with continued emphasis on ecclesial issues. Altered priorities among individual bishops is likely, said Reese. “In the past a lot more people committed to spending time on bishops’ conference business. The presidents of the conference and people who worked on major committees spent up to one-third of their time on the business of the conference. Now, many would rather spend their time in their own diocese where they’re already overworked.”

Kelly meanwhile sees the glass more than half full. “The issues have changed” over the years and require a different response. But the bishops’ conference, he said, is “just as concerned about domestic justice as we have ever been.” And, as representatives of the church in the world’s sole superpower, the conference “is the most significant in the world.”

Whether that significance translates into influence at home and in Rome is one of the challenges of the next 40 years.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@nat cath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002