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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

Budgets, bishops and engagement with the world

In June 1989, when the U.S. Catholic Conference/National Conference Catholic Bishops moved into their new, five-story, state-of-the-art, $26.9 million offices in Northeast Washington, 292 employees took up residence. Nearly two decades later, if the budget cutting plans of the bishops’ administrative committee are accepted this November, there will be roughly 100 fewer staff at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (See story.)

There’s a story behind the statistic.

Part of it, a large part in fact, is financial. To listen to the bishops speak at their annual November meetings about conference budgets and plans is to hear a Joe Lunchbucket taxpayer revolt wrapped in ecclesial garb. Increasingly strapped for cash in their home dioceses, many frustrated bishops don’t see the value of the assessment each diocese contributes to conference operations. The assessment is a progressive tax -- wealthier dioceses pay more than poorer ones -- but it is increasingly viewed as a burden, not a benefit. According to this view, the bishops aren’t getting bang for their buck. Hence the proposal to cut the assessment by 16 percent.

Some sympathy for the bishops is in order here. For a variety of reasons (some of the bishops’ making to be sure), diocesan budgets are strapped. To a bishop forced to lay off local staff, to close a school or soup kitchen, to raise health insurance premiums on people who work in the chancery, the value of what happens a world away in Washington on a range of sometimes quite esoteric concerns that may never have an impact on a local parishioner is worthy of scrutiny. Fair enough.

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Another aspect of the discussion, however, is theological, or perhaps ideological. The post-Vatican II vision of national episcopal conferences sharing in the authoritative teaching mission of the church had its heyday in the 1980s. The bishops’ collective actions on war and peace, on the economy, on immigration, on the U.S. role in Central American wars, on life concerns such as abortion and the death penalty, on welfare reform, and on a host of other issues, had a real and measurable impact on the debate in this country and around the world.

Further, the intellectual infrastructure of the bishops’ conference, the bureaucracy if you will, made the more liberal-minded American church a welcome force to be reckoned with during John Paul II’s pontificate. The so-called “liturgy wars” were just one example; the mandatum (a license to teach, granted by a bishop to a theologian) was another.

The bishops’ collective action inspired a harsher reaction. Conservative voices in the church view the conference collective as a threat to the individual bishop’s role as shepherd answerable only to God and to Rome. Increasingly over the past decade, the bishops’ conference -- overwhelmed by the clergy sex abuse crisis, unsure of its standing within the universal church -- has failed to respond collegially to the challenges facing our church and our country. The budgetary crisis further serves the purpose of those who would neuter the conference.

In November, the bishops will meet and decide. Is it a good time, for example, to reduce their efforts toward interreligious dialogue? Should there be more or less funds spent on promoting a pro-life agenda? Will the bishops’ courageous advocacy of immigrant rights be lost in the shuffle? And so on and so on.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers. Budgets for large organizations are difficult instruments, where compromise and less-than-perfect results are the norm.

Last November, as some of these discussions were taking place on the floor of the bishops’ annual meeting, Sacramento, Calif., Bishop William Weigand raised a concern. The church’s “engagement with the world is getting short shrift,” he said.

That’s exactly what American Catholics should fear from this potentially shortsighted move to balance the books.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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