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Three issues need to be addressed at bishops’ November general conference

The Church in the U.S. is in a multidimensional crisis that includes vocations, education, marriage, baptism, and religious communities.

A bishop looks over paperwork during a Nov. 17, 2021, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In mid-November the American bishops, gathered in general assembly, will choose a successor to Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles to serve a three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A new vice president and chairmen of several conference committees also will be elected during the meeting.

Except by the bishops themselves, plus a handful of habitual bishop-watchers, the USCCB elections will probably not be much noted. But there are several issues of major importance for the future of the Church that need to be on the bishops’ agenda, and the results of the upcoming vote could go a long way to determining whether they make it there.

Three issues in particular stand out.

First, giving new direction to the Church’s involvement in prolife issues in the wake of the Supreme Court decision last June overturning the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

While the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was a huge prolife victory, far from being the end of the struggle, it marked the start of a new phase for which the prolife movement was apparently not well prepared.

What now? Fifty years ago the bishops adopted a Pastoral Plan for Prolife Activities that provided guidance to dioceses in advancing the prolife cause while hoping for what Dobbs has now accomplished—returning the abortion issue to the states.

In the post-Dobbs world the Church’s response needs to be comprehensively prolife, including support for women with problems in pregnancy, tax relief and other assistance for struggling families, rational gun control, immigration reform, abortion laws that have broad public support, and educational efforts that counter pro-abortion propaganda with attractive, fact-based messaging.

Second, exploring and explaining the meaning of synodality in a synodal Church.

Writing in America, Father Louis J. Cameli, a coordinator of the synod process in Chicago, cites the “immense formational task” required to prepare people for this new ecclesial environment.

He couldn’t be more right. Many lay Catholics aren’t ready for the role abruptly being thrust on them by the Church’s current movement toward synodality. Without serious remedial action, it’s possible that—as seems already to have happened in Germany—synodality will fall prey to a minority eager to manipulate the process on behalf of their agenda.

Third, sketching elements of a master plan for allocating institutional and human resources in the new era of closures and contraction in which the Catholic Church, like other churches and religious groups, now finds itself.

Over the past half-century the bishops’ conference has issued innumerable statements about all manner of political and social issues, but it has yet to address the crisis now confronting the Church. Indeed, it was almost a novelty for the bishops two years ago to launch a “Eucharistic Revival” project to address the decline in faith in and appreciation for the Blessed Sacrament (a problem that polling had already identified a full 30 years earlier).

Now American Catholicism is in a multidimensional crisis that includes steep declines in priests, students in Catholic schools and religious education, couples entering Catholic marriages, and infant baptisms, the slow-motion disappearance of most women’s religious communities, and much else besides. Cold comfort indeed that non-Catholic churches in America face similar issues.

I don’t expect USCCB to wave a magic wand and solve these problems. For canonical reasons, many can only be addressed at the diocesan level. But the episcopal conference has a role to play in information sharing, planning, and coordination. November would be a good time to start.

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About Russell Shaw 271 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. For the three issues, three suggestions:

    FIRST, regarding post-Dobbs evangelization, reaffirm the Catechism and Veritatis Splendor regarding moral absolutes.
    SECOND, regarding the “synodal Church, be clear that “synodal” is only an adjective, not a noun.
    THIRD, regarding contraction of the number of parishes, refrain from using the secularizing term “human resources”, and recall instead the expansive meaning of the Real Presence in each Mass and in every single Eucharistic host. As human persons, we are members of the worldwide and Mystical Body of Christ, neither a bunch of congregational churches nor atomized inputs or functionaries.

    And, regarding Fr. Louis Cameli, I recall his presentation at a Marian Conference in Lacey, Washington, in 1993. He explained that the Holy Spirit can act in EVERY situation, that He acts in very CONCRETE ways, and that He acts in his own TIME (never late, but never early either!).

  2. My own pew-sitter’s perspective is somewhat different.

    The Church has lost its institutional credibility and no amount of “synodality” (whatever that means) or plans for political/social action will help.

    We started losing credibility years ago when the Church was completely unable (unwilling?) to corral prominent pro-choice, nominally Catholic politicians. We all know who they are; their children continue to afflict us. The situation is little changed today. Bishop Cordileone attempted to rope one particularly active filly but was bush-whacked by several of his fellow hands; she got away.

    The two sexual abuse crises did more damage. One was bad enough, but two?!

    Our flaccid response to the COVID lockdowns did yet more damage. I was able to go to a bar for a drink or to a store to buy a whole bottle of them or to Walmart for a six pack but not to my parish church for Holy Eucharist. If we really believe what we say we believe then I would have expected a more (trying hard to keep this polite) “vigorous” engagement of Caeser’s minions. I will remember to my dying day watching Mass on my computer while the church’s inner circle had the privilege of actually participating in the holy sacrifice. Was this really the best we could do?

    We give little appearance of taking ourselves seriously. Why do we expect others to do so?

    I don’t know what the answer is but I am certain that more of the same is not it.

      • Yes, great comment! I’m sure Mike and many readers had this in mind, but it’s worth specifying a particular, recent incident. On May 20, 2022 Archbishop Cordileone publicly barred Nancy Pelosi from receiving the Eucharist within the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Barely a month later Rep. Pelosi was photographed with a beaming Pope Francis and it was widely reported that she had received communion at St. Peter’s Basilica. Really, what are we “pew sitters” supposed to think?

        • What are we supposed to think? By their actions we know who has our back and who doesn’t.

          Take the USCCB seriously? Shirley you jest.

        • Agree also about Mike’s comment and yours as well, Jack. The photo of Pope Francis and Nancy Pelosi beaming at each other is just very hard to stomach. Francis clearly joined in the bush-whacking of Archbishop Cordileone

    • AMEN, you absolutely hit the nail on the head! For awhile I sent complaint after complaint to the USCCB, nothing in return. Why is it more important to criticize the traditional Catholics who have a great devotion to the Latin mass when the immorality in the clergy and hierarchy has run rampant. I stopped my donations a year ago after spending years researching the last sexual abuse crisis which continues to unfold. No money to Rome, very little to the Archdiocese and I research long and hard for the right parish church, seminaries and missions to support. Stop the flow of money to USCCB and Rome and then lets see what happens. The synod is a setup! Francis is packing the court with his gender fluid buddies.

    • From this convert’s perspective, it is as much the average pew-sitter as the hierarchy: just because the hierarchy does not talk about fornication/abortion/contraception/divorce etc does not mean that anyone need participate in those activities. Just because NFP classes are not readily available and the local doctors (the Catholic ones as well) push the Pill, IUD, or vasectomy at the first (second, third) well-baby check does not mean anyone take them up on it.
      Just because the Vatican says that vaccines manufactured with the use of fetal cells is morally (problematic but) acceptable, does not mean the laity need to join in the chorus to defend the practice.
      I could go on.
      A solid chunk of the hierarchy appears to be showing up only for the paycheck (meager as it may be, but at least they are housed and not at all starving). A solid chunk of the laity seems to show up mostly from habit.
      Maybe the laity have the hierarchy they deserve as much as the hierarchy has the dwindling parishes (and therefore income stream) they deserve

  3. The thrust of this article seems to be , how are the bishops going to direct the pro-life movement in the post Dobbs era? The fact is the pro-life/anti-abortion fight has been fought over the past 50 years primarily by the laity. The recently elevated to Cardinal McElroy, along with other clergy, has stated that climate change is a greater threat than abortion. Not helpful to the pro-life cause, and definitely not leadership in the pro-life cause.

    Shaw indicates that the pro-life movement was not well prepared for the post Dobbs world. If that was the case, how did we wind up with so many states having anti-abortion laws passed that would go into effect if Roe was overturned. No group knows the militancy of the pro-abortion crowd more than pro-lifers.

    What does Shaw mean by having abortion laws with broad public support? There are those who support the murder of unborn babies and those who oppose that murder. This is a moral war. I don’t see a middle ground.

    As for Synodality – I recently saw it defined as, Faith and Morals by Polling.

  4. Conscience, its misconception regarding responsibility is a major cause of intransigence by clergy in response to the underlying issues raised by Russell Shaw’s 3 needs.
    Humanae Dignitatis omitted reference to the responsibility of Catholics in professing the faith. Impression given was that we’re free to follow what we don’t wish to, or find difficulty in assimilating intellectually. Conscience became the arbiter of truth, whereas conscience or con scientia meaning acting with knowledge of itself does not imply that the knowledge we acquire or assent to is the arbiter of truth. Rather, reasoned inquiry and acquisition of knowledge is the measure of truth. Truth, therefore, is the rule. As such it is self evident in its apprehension by the intellect. And we have a responsibility to assent to that truth as it is revealed in the inherent capacity to choose good and avoid evil.
    Clergy, prelates and presbyters because of this misunderstanding of a conflated concept of the inviolability of conscience remained in a state of transient, doubtful commitment to addressing faith issues. Consequently, the legitimate three ‘needs’ outlined by essayist Shaw are unresolvable with a large number of clergy who follow the rationale of Cardinal McElroy, or those who hold to the truth but are inhibited to address it with conviction due to their own questions of conscience, and a presumed respect for the conscientious position of others. What is required is a thorough and concise revision of Humanae Dignitatis.

  5. Thanks again, Mr. Shaw, for your lucid observations. My usual rant: I served a 3-year term as a USCCB Lay Advisor in the early 90s in preparation for the Int’l Year of the Family. I was very disappointed that the M&F Committee was commissioned to write yet another document instead of formulate action for the already well documented issues impacting the domestic church. Though “Follow the Way of Love” ended up being used well in small group formats, it could not get at what continues to be, IMHO, the foundational pastoral crisis in the Church – adequate formation for the mission, office, vocation, and Sacrament of Marriage.

    My one hooray! for Pope Francis is his call for a “catechumenate” for marriage. I’ve not read a lot of commentary on that, but most of what I have read are the 7 last words of the Church: we’ve never done it that way before. The emotional, spiritual, economic, and social costs of divorce continue to deeply scar children and weaken the fabric of our parish communities. I’ve been in marriage preparation for 30 years. It is woefully underserving the dignity of the sacrament. I may miscalculate, but it usually takes 20 to 30 hours to prepare an engaged couple for the OTHER Sacrament at the Service of Communion (CCC 1534; 1601). Several years are required to form a priest for Orders. I don’t believe the Church would knowingly ordain a man today who has the nominal faith and incomplete grasp of the Sacrament that characterizes most engaged couples. Why cannot a better formation for marriage be devised consummate with its mission and organic role in growing the Church?
    My cynical answer is: the 8th capital sin – expediency. Which brings me to infant baptism. Most 1 or 2-session programs underwhelm young parents, reinforce the notion that the church has nothing to offer them, and most importantly, miss the evangelization opportunity that is there. It is in the first 10 years of marriage that bad habits can take root, lukewarm faith festers, and couples often start to drift apart (thus too, empty nest divorce). You can teach the Rite and meaning of Baptism in an hour. Baptism promises are solemn, and they build on the marriage vows. As with marriage preparation, parishes generally do not prepare parents in a manner consummate with the foundational faith importance of baptism or cultivate parents’ mission to make disciples.

    This cannot be done just by talking at couples. Out of 922 program evaluations from 3 central Texas parishes (What Do You Ask of God’s Church?, 4 two-hr sessions), only 15 said it was too long. To impact couples for both sacraments, an engaging methodology, solid content, and the courage of time allotment is required to impact couples.

    True, we need a Eucharistic revival. We need a holy Priesthood. (Not sure about synodality). But without fostering healthy, happy, on-the-path-to-holiness couples and parents in mission, we just continue rearranging the deck chairs. A catechumentate for marriage, with baptism preparation as “mystagogy,” can renew the domestic and parish churches, and foster ALL vocations. That’s what I believe, and I’m sticking to it. + AMDG +

    • “But without fostering healthy, happy, on-the-path-to-holiness couples and parents in mission, we just continue rearranging the deck chairs.”

      …”fostering healthy, happy, on-the-path-to-holiness couples and parents in mission…”
      You just poured the footing necessary for building the only successful structure in which civil and church entities can function to bring the world back to sanity and sanctity!

      Bishops, write it in caps and read it right after your opening prayer at your November meeting.


      —and please, when you order the concrete for the footing, ask for a minimum of 5 sack cement in the mix!

      Alert all attendees to bring their leather gloves, hard hats and overalls. There’s fervent prayer and work to be done! This is a turning point–attendees, please stay ON point and on task! No chairs will be provided.

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