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Analysis: The end of business as usual for the USCCB?

By JD Flynn for CNA

Bishops listen to a speaker during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore Nov. 12, 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Denver Newsroom, Aug 21, 2020 / 01:23 pm (CNA).-

The U.S. bishops’ conference has canceled its in-person November meeting in response to the coronavirus pandemic, several sources have told CNA. Sources say that conference leadership is now considering whether to conduct an abbreviated virtual meeting in place of the canceled event.

If the bishops do conduct an online session, it will be their first meeting of any kind in a year; the June meeting of the conference was itself canceled amid the pandemic.

But there is a list of pressing issues facing the Church in the U.S., and many of them are unlikely to be addressed meaningfully in a virtual session. As a result, some bishops may push for an in-person gathering to be scheduled as soon as possible. But others may see the diminished capacity of the conference to gather as an opportunity, and take advantage of that opportunity in their dioceses.

Many conference staffers have told CNA they are eager for in-person meetings of bishops to resume, especially at the committee level. There is a push in the conference to ensure that priorities and projects are driven by bishops, not staff members. But in the absence of personal meetings with bishops in committees, it is harder for staff members to be sure their work reflects the intentions of the bishops, and harder for managers, and bishops, to hold staff members accountable to that mandate.

Still, there are a few items of business that the bishops’ conference would be able to conduct easily in an online November meeting.

The bishops will need to vote on several committee chairmanships, a strategic plan that has been in development for several years, and on some other procedural business.

The bishops will also have to elect a new general secretary, who functions as the executive director of the conference staff in Washington, DC.

The term of Monsignor Brian Bransfield, who is now conference general secretary, will expire in November. Bransfield, a priest of Philadelphia, has spent more than a decade working at the conference, the last five as general secretary.

His successor must be a priest or an auxiliary bishop (a theoretical possibility which seems highly unlikely). While candidates for Bransfield’s replacement have not yet been announced, many in the conference think the smart bet is on the inside candidate, Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, who has been Bransfield’s deputy since 2016.

Burrill, a Wisconsin priest, is generally regarded as theologically orthodox, intelligent, and pastoral. He has been described as a “common sense guy” by some conference staffers, who say that if elected, Burrill might seek to streamline and simplify some of the procedural and bureaucratic aspects of the conference’s day-to-day operations.

Whoever succeeds Bransfield will face a raft of issues, many of which will not be easily handled by bishops meeting virtually.

The first of those is a changing financial reality for the Church. Conference staffers have told CNA that the bishops’ conference has adopted numerous belt-tightening measures in recent months: a hiring freeze, and a moratorium on travel among them. Coupled with the savings realized by the closure of its DC headquarters amid the pandemic, and the conference may actually be under budget in its current fiscal year.

But the future may not be as rosy. Five U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy in 2020, and eight in total have done so since the McCarrick scandal broke in 2018. More dioceses face cash crunches after months of dramatically reduced collections, and it is likely that some will find themselves unable to pay their annual obligation to the conference, or disinclined to choose doing so while at the same time laying off employees. The conference may soon find itself needing to make do with much less cash than it is accustomed to, living on the return of its market portfolio and on diminished collections from dioceses.

Bishops will have a difficult time discussing, in any practical way, what offices and projects to prioritize in a dim budget forecast, if they’re asked to do so in a Zoom meeting.

They’ll also have a difficult time discussing the policy priorities of the conference in the immediate aftermath of a national election. There is also a growing problem that some Catholics hope the bishops will address: continued distrust on the part of many Catholics following the McCarrick scandal. That distrust has been exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic and protests of 2020, and by the growing influence of social media figures fomenting skepticism of their bishops among many young, practicing Catholics. Some bishops likely think the influence of such figures is exaggerated, but younger practicing Catholics, who talk with each other on social media and by text about the issues of the day, see the growing influence of those voices.

And, as a background to all of those things is that a declining number of people were practicing Catholicism before the scandals and the pandemic, and the mandate of evangelization remains the preeminent mission of the Church herself, and a mandate for all believers.

Bishops can’t easily discuss such matters online. It is difficult, in fact, to meaningfully discuss such matters at all, let alone in a Zoom meeting. Some discussion can be facilitated in regional meetings conducted by conference call or by Zoom, but if the USCCB wants to address meaningfully as a body the challenges and mission of the Church in the U.S., there is a certain urgency to resuming personal meetings.

But there are some bishops who hold that such discussions aren’t properly the prerogative of the USCCB anyhow. Some bishops hold that the conference really ought to meet only to address the limited range of issues it is empowered by canon law to act upon, and to coordinate some lobbying initiatives at the federal level on behalf of the entire Church. Still other bishops believe that the deliberations of the assembled conference are an exercise in rhetorical exhibitionism, but rarely influential on the actual pastoral work in their local churches.

Those bishops – who express frustration routinely with “mission bloat” at the USCCB – may take the pandemic, and its limitation on coordinated episcopal action, as an opportunity to strike out more vigorously on their own – to initiate projects and priorities of evangelization, catechesis, and pastoral care in their dioceses without the distraction of the bishops’ conference.

If that becomes the case, individual dioceses might function more freely as diverse settings for testing out new ideas and approaches, the best of which would be adopted at a broader level by imitation, not by compromise and consensus.

If bishops grow accustomed to handling only abbreviated business via online meetings, it may increase the number for whom the diocese comes into sharper focus as the principal locus of apostolic activity, and for whom the importance of the conference fades. A growing number of bishops may begin to ask, as Archbishop Charles Chaput did in 2019, if all pastoral offices of the conference are worth the investment. That shift could become the most significant event to shape the future of the USCCB.

It will be more than a year between meetings of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Whether that means a pause on business as usual, or the end of business as usual, remains to be seen.

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  1. … End the charade, it’s become a bloated, inefficient hippo in an already self-infatuated mr mccarrick microphone session..

    An adaptation of the great line: the road to hell is paved with the usccb’s mitres.. & wanna-he’s like bransfield jr

  2. It would be a good thing for the USCCB to go out of business. It violates the principle of subsidiarity. The purported work of the USCCB could be more effectively done at more local diocesan levels as needed. And besides,the USCCB has been weaponized as a political entity promoting leftist Democrat Party politics. Yes, let’s get rid of the USCCB altogether and stop its funding. It is a travesty that so much of its funding comes from the Federal Government. As a result it is more accurate to say that it has become an agent of the State than an agent of the Church.

  3. Often, the USCCB assists bishops by an expert, such as a canonist, explaining the new documents and directives by the Holy See. Violations of canon law and Christian virtue have continued by releases of lists of names of clergy “credibly accused” and permanently penalized and discarded with no more than the preliminary investigation, contrary to many canons and Vos Estis Lux Mundi and Vademecum, that is “avoiding or obstructing” the penal processes, itself a violation. Some personal or at least virtual meeting of all is greatly needed soon for truth and justice being done securely.

  4. Maybe we can return to ‘a poor church serving the poor,’ instead of all the high finance going on these days. Why would a parish priest be allowed to mail a fundraising letter for a multi million dollar rectory beginning with the phrase, “Do you love Jesus?”

    If the people cannot be evangelized because they aren’t coming in for the homily, then go to the people — that’s what the disciples were charged with doing. Why aren’t outdoors Masses encouraged now to sing the Psalms, as they were intended? Jesus certainly preached in the dust, and even spit on it to make clay to cure the blind man. Yet even pre covid, we had clergy who would not attend the sick or dying.

  5. The USCCB lives to perpetuate “The McCarrick Establishment.”

    It’s great legacy is the collapse of the Catholic Church in the US, and the conversion of 90% of formerly Catholic universities into “mind-of-McCarrick” factories.

    Behold their handiwork: in 1967, their mentor McCarrick and his “confrères-against-the-Truth,” including “Rev.” Hesburg of Notre Dame and fellow counterfeits at a fleet of “SJ” universities, published their “Land of Lakes Statement,” breaking their universities away from Catholic teaching on morality and theology.

    In 1990, Pope John Paul II tried to counter the McCarrick Establishment (etc) with his directive Ex Corde Ecclesiae, instructing Bishops that to safeguard Catholic universities for parents and their college-bound children, Bishops should issue and publish Mandatums for theology professors, certifying that those professors will teach faithfully.

    What did the USCCB do?

    They slow-walked “their implementation” for 9 years, and finally, in 1999, the USCCB “education” bureaucracy (guided by the sociopathic liar and sex offender and fraud McCarrick and his cohorts) they “promulgated” their document to “implement” Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the US.

    The result? In 2020, the Cardinal Newman Society publicly states that only 10% of the 200 or so “Catholic” universities in the US can be trusted to teach Catholic theology and morality. For a stark example, Fordham University has as its Chairman of The Theology Department a man, Professor Hornbeck, who is openly living in sodomy in a same-sex “marriage” with a male sodomy partner.

    If the USCCB is batting 10% for the Catholic faith, that means it’s members are, for all intents and purposes, batting 90% for “The Father of Lies.”

    McCarrick is pleased, because, in contrast to the St. Paul the apostle, who 2000 years ago declared that the Church “had the mind of Christ,” most of the USCCB apparently have “the mind of McCarrick.”

  6. The FIRST issue to be faced is: regaining the trust and respect of the rest of us, the ones who pay their salaries and look to them for guidance.

    Do that and everything else will take care of itself.

  7. I join a growing chorus of those who say: the Bishops must have only one item on whatever agenda they meet with and that is the salvation of souls. Everything else takes a distant second place. If they truly did this, the hope is that it would filter down to each Chancery and then to each Parish. Forget the meetings! Look to your people and the lack of holy bishops and priests that busy themselves with meetings and travel. The Bishops have an unprecedented opportunity to forget their self-important agendas and meet their people on Main Street, in parishes and in sacrifice and prayer. Good example is a powerful thing! And, that would definitely free them up for leading their people in outside Eucharistic processions, praying visibly at abortion clinics and taking a stand against the coming onslaught of statue destruction. Wake up, Bishops, and be the Spiritual leader and fighter your people crave and pray for!

  8. A shifted accent, and a pivot point: “individual dioceses might function more freely as diverse settings for testing out new ideas and approaches, the best of which would be adopted at a broader level BY imitation, NOT BY compromise and consensus.”

    This rather than collectively serving too often as apostles of Progress (or even as subcontractors mostly to the Democratic Party). Of such traps, the much maligned Second Vatican Council had this to say:

    “EARTHLY PROGRESS must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom. Nevertheless, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the kingdom of God [and] The role and competence of the Church being what it is, she must in no way be confused with the political community, nor bound to any political system. For she is at once a sign and safeguard of the TRANSCENDENCE of the human person” (Gaudium et Spes, nn. 39, 76, CAPS add).

    The original “paradigm” of the Good News: “The last [transcendence] shall be first,” only then without leaving undone the sometimes-possible “better ordering of society.” (“These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone,” Lk 11:42, Mt 23:23).

  9. Bureaucrats endlessly talking to other bureaucrats about things unrelated to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in order to divert their minds from their own corruption and perversity. The only possible way to end the “business as usual” would be to disband the USCCB, and put a good many of its members in prison, where they belong.

  10. I wouldn’t shed a tear if the USCCB went out of business, though one wonders if an effective counterbalance to big government and big business wouldn’t be useful. In the case of the USCCB, instead of being a counterbalance, it just seems to have been co-opted by both big government and big business to the point of being indistinguishable from either. A strong, counterbalancing bishop’s conference would have been a good tool to fight the unjust and unconstitutional lockdowns this year, especially church closures, but instead the weak, useless USCCB just went along with everything with nary a peep. We may as well defund it and be done with it for what good it does.

  11. As others already have said, the USCCB is the UselessCCB insofar as actually doing the work of shepherds, which is to help Christ save souls. All else is superfluous. The conference needs to be dissolved, period. Distribute to the parishes nationwide all its ill-gotten financial assets, mostly accumulated by making scandalous deals with the secular state and by robbing the parishes of the contributions of the faithful through their diocesan “tax,” and just disappear. The Church will be better for it.

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