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How the U.S. Bishops Are Changing—and Why

The American hierarchy is changing. And the change involves much more than new faces.

Last January the Catholic News Service, the news agency for the Catholic press in the United States, put out an updated version of a story it runs every year—how many U.S. bishops will turn seventy-five in the coming twelve months and be required by Church law to submit their resignations to the pope. The number in 2005 was twenty, plus another three who had reached retirement age already but remained on the job. For those who follow such things, the story was unremarkable.

Or was it?

Start with the fact that the year-in, year-out turnover in the ranks of the hierarchy isn’t news in itself. In any particular twelve months, a couple of dozen American bishops will leave the scene by resignation or death, and a similar number of newcomers will be named bishops by the pope.

Here’s an example. On the day this was being written, the U.S. bishops’ conference in Washington issued a news release announcing Pope John Paul II’s choice of a fifty-year-old priest to be the new bishop of Wichita, Kansas. Things like that happen all the time.

But something else has been occurring lately—something that happens only now and then. Consider the new bishop of Wichita, Most Rev. Michael O. Jackels. Bishop Jackels spent the early years of his priestly ministry in important posts—director of vocations, director of religious education, co-vicar for religious—in Lincoln, Nebraska, a diocese widely known as a bastion of Catholic orthodoxy, with a corps of priests reflecting that. From 1997 until last January, furthermore, he was an official of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the formidable Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

To people experienced in reading a curriculum vitae like that, Bishop Jackels sounded, sight unseen, like a man steeped in the doctrines of the Catholic Church and not at all shy about teaching and defending them.

If that is the case, he isn’t alone. He fits a pattern that’s become increasingly apparent to bishop-watchers in the United States in the last several years: the appointment or promotion of men for whom the teaching and defense of Catholic doctrine have a significantly higher priority than they did for bishops of a previous generation.

When Bishops Disagree

The practical implications of this were conspicuous during last year’s presidential campaign, when the question of giving communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians such as John Kerry produced a deep and highly visible split in hierarchical ranks.

With some exceptions, older bishops who took a public position expressed various degrees of unhappiness about the situation, but they tended to take the view that if pro-abortionists such as Senator Kerry chose to receive communion, there wasn’t much they could do about it. By contrast, some younger bishops, and some of those more recently promoted to the hierarchical upper ranks, spoke out strongly against what they saw as a serious abuse of the Eucharist. Among those who were particularly outspoken were three relatively new archbishops: Raymond Burke of St. Louis, Charles Chaput of Denver, and John Myers of Newark.

In case there’s any doubt, it is neither new nor surprising for bishops to disagree.

To speak only of the United States, Irish-American and German-American bishops engaged in sharp, continuing infighting during the nineteenth century over the pace and manner of integrating Catholic immigrants into the Church and secular society—as well as the power and prerogatives of each group. And on a veritable host of issues, liberals such as James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul waged fierce behind-the-scenes power struggles with conservatives such as Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York and Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester. Their remarks about—and occasionally to—one another make blistering reading today.

But despite these precedents, it has been a relative novelty in the United States for Catholic bishops to air disagreements as they did during last year’s political campaign. So, what’s happening now?

The explanation for it seems to have much to do with the new, tougher sort of bishop being named or promoted these days.

End of the ‘Pastoral’ Bishops?

Reshaping the hierarchy according to a master plan—if indeed that’s what has been going on—has happened before. As a matter of fact, many of the bishops who are leaving the scene by retirement or death were themselves named to the hierarchy as part of a similar process that began after the Second Vatican Council and continued for the next couple of decades.

In his biography of Pope Paul VI, the late Peter Hebblethwaite says that the Roman authorities after Vatican II were anxious to put in place “a new type of bishop for the U.S., less like top executives who can read a financial statement, more enabling pastors with enough theology to know what implementing the Council meant” (Paul VI: The First Modern Pope, Paulist, 478).

According to Hebblethwaite, this project shifted into high gear with the naming in 1973 of Belgian-born Archbishop Jean Jadot as apostolic delegate to the United States. Jadot held this key post until 1980. His recommendations powerfully influenced the choice of scores of the new-breed members of the hierarchy commonly described as “pastoral” bishops.

But beware. Generalizations will take you just so far in trying to understand the American bishops. By no means do all of those who’ve retired lately or soon will do so conform to the pastoral bishop model. Still, there are real similarities among many.

“It would be wrong to say we had unorthodox bishops before and are getting orthodox bishops now,” a Church official close to the process of bishop-naming remarked to me recently. Certainly that’s true. But it is also true that for some bishops of the last three or four decades, orthodoxy in doctrine sometimes took a back seat to openness to change, tolerance of dissent, and being up-to-date regarding the latest ecclesiastical fads. In practice, this seemed to be the essence of being “pastoral.”

The current Vatican representative in the United States (since the establishment of U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations in 1984, he’s been called “nuncio”) is Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, a Colombian by birth and a veteran of the Vatican diplomatic service. As it happens, Montalvo turned seventy-five last January and is expected to step down fairly soon. But there is some question whether the change in episcopal appointments and promotions in the last few years is his doing or someone else’s—and if the latter, whose. This is one of those deep mysteries that only people at the upper reaches of the hierarchy in the United States and Rome know much about.

There’s an obvious objection to all this of course. It’s the pope who names and promotes bishops, is it not? So why all this talk about the role of the nuncio or anybody else?

Fair question. But surely no one seriously supposes that the pope personally knows all the bishops he appoints. In regard to these crucial personnel decisions the Holy Father must rely on information and recommendations from a variety of sources, including other bishops and the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. Papal diplomats are an important part of the mix.

Teach, Govern, Sanctify

But here it’s helpful to pause and consider a fundamental question: What do Catholic bishops actually do?

The office of bishop goes back to the apostles. The meanings of the New Testament terms episkopospresbyter, and deacon aren’t entirely clear, but the apostles plainly chose successors to head the infant local churches they founded, and the successors had successors, and so on down to the present day. Vatican II says that bishops “have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church” (Lumen Gentium 20). The first epistle to Timothy says that anyone.aspiring to be a bishop “desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1).

The term bishop includes cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, coadjutor bishops, and auxiliary bishops. The pope is also a bishop—the bishop of Rome. In this broad sense, there are about 4,700 Catholic bishops in the world. Approximately 2,700 of these are “ordinaries”—bishops in charge of dioceses. Another 1,100 are retired. The rest are coadjutors, auxiliaries, officials of the central administrative offices of the Holy See, or some other kind.

The episcopal hierarchy in the U.S. comprises approximately 435 cardinals, archbishops, and bishops (the numbers are constantly changing) of whom about 110 are retired. The ordinaries among them preside over thirty-five archdioceses, 151 dioceses, and two eparchies, diocese-like jurisdictions of Eastern Catholic churches.

Their responsibilities fall under three broad headings: teaching, governing, and sanctifying. The Code of Canon Law sums up their job like this: “Through the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, bishops are the successors of the apostles by divine institution; they are constituted pastors within the Church so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and ministers of governance” (CIC 375).

The well-being of the people of God requires that bishops do a good job in all three areas, but teaching comes first. According to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, their duties as teachers of Catholic doctrine have “pride of place” for these men.

Bishops, the Council added, are “teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people assigned to them, the faith that is destined to inform their thinking and direct their conduct . . . and with watchfulness they ward off whatever errors threaten their flock (cf. 2 Tim. 4:14). Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman pontiff are to be revered by all as witnesses of divine and Catholic truth” (LG 25).

To say the least, that’s no small job. And in recent times, it arguably has become more difficult than ever, with the complex problems of modern life, modern society, and the modern Church all piling up on your typical bishop’s desk.

Bishops’ Big Bureaucracy

But since Vatican II another factor has entered the picture: the national conference of bishops—the episcopal conference—mandated by Vatican II as an instrument through which the bishops of a nation or region should “exchange views” and “jointly formulate a program for the common good of the Church” (Christus Dominus 37). In this country the episcopal conference is called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Measured by staff and budget, the USCCB is one of the biggest bishops’ conferences in the world, if not the biggest. With headquarters in a large and gleaming modern building in the northeast section of Washington, D.C., near the Catholic University of America, it operates with a 2005 budget of $129,387,217. (In fairness, much of that astronomical sum represents government contracts for immigration-related programs, while many millions more come from national collections disbursed in grants to outside programs and groups.)

The USCCB staff of more than 350 priests, religious, and laypeople labor in a beehive of departments and offices corresponding to the bishops’ similarly complex network of standing and ad hoc committees. The multitude of areas in which the USCCB is involved range from lobbying and litigation to liturgy and doctrine. Social justice and world peace, communications, and education get generous helpings of personnel and funds, as does the office for pro-life activities.

Following Vatican II, the bishops used their new episcopal conference to reach joint decisions and carry on programs required to implement the Council’s decrees. But over time the conference took on a life—and an agenda—of its own, launching into high-visibility projects such as writing lengthy collective pastoral letters on peace (published in 1983) and economic justice (1986). This expansionist, activist phase came to a screeching halt with the failure of a long-running project to write a pastoral letter on women’s concerns that would please everybody from feminists to anti-feminists. (To the surprise of no one except the bishops, it couldn’t be done.)

Starting some time after 1985, much of the time and energy of the bishops’ conference went into discussing clergy sex abuse. Unfortunately, most of the effort to get a handle on this poisonous situation took place behind closed doors—thus setting up the bishops for later accusations of ignoring the problem. Since early 2002, when the lurid facts of abuse and cover-up started pouring out in the media, the bishops’ conference has had to devote more attention to this mess than anything else.

The USCCB is now in transition. “The conference as we know it today is likely to be a much different conference five or ten years from now,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory remarked last November as he stepped down following three crisis-plagued years as president of the USCCB. People who know the organization and the bishops have no doubt he’s right.

Faced with growing financial pressures and sensing they’ve lost control over their own agenda, the bishops are moving to remake the episcopal conference into an organization with a limited number of programs reflecting well-defined priorities and served by a leaner, more flexible staff.

These changes underline a fact that sometimes has been overlooked in the last four decades: What bishops do in their local churches—the dioceses—is vastly more important than what they do in and through the USCCB. And, as the changes in the hierarchy make clear, at the level of the local churches, too, change is now in the air.

The ancient three-part episcopal role—teaching, governing, and sanctifying the people of God—hasn’t changed and won’t. But how those things are done has changed often before and now appears to be changing again. A new breed of tough-minded bishops committed to upholding the orthodox doctrine of the Church has been coming on board in the United States and is making its presence felt.

Many Catholics would say it can’t happen too soon.


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