Lots of Politics, Little Legitimacy

A national episcopate is free, even obliged, to engage with and comment on the social and political issues of the country. But coupled with an estrang

Feb 06, 2021

By Massimo Faggioli
A national episcopate is free, even obliged, to engage with and comment on the social and political issues of the country. But coupled with an estrangement from Francis it seems to revel in (an effort reaching dangerous levels over the past few years, especially with the attempted coup by Carlo Maria Viganò and his enablers in August 2018), the behavior of the conference is cause for concern.

The internal dysfunction is also troubling; the conference more closely resembles a federation of episcopal committees than an ecclesial body.

Right now, the USCCB is pretty much the opposite of synodality and collegiality between brother bishops, and between the bishops and the pope. Instead of behaving ecclesially, it has been behaving politically, and now it will be judged politically because it has lost the right to be judged ecclesially. On those terms, many Catholics (and non-Catholics) in the United States automatically dismiss whatever the bishops now say.

In other words, it’s a crisis of legitimacy, which is a problem for U.S. Catholicism but which also affects the Church as a whole. Pope Francis is not the only Church leader wondering what’s going on with the U.S. hierarchy.

Catholic leaders worldwide who were beginning to take notice years ago now express their opinions about the USCCB publicly (for example, Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian bishops’ conference).

On January 15, the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, released a statement about the assault on the Capitol that was stronger than the appeals for peace coming from the USCCB. Shouldn’t the American hierarchy be concerned about, or at least aware of, how the rest of the world is viewing its actions and behavior?

Amid the talk for national reconciliation, we also need to talk about religious reconciliation; the two are linked. But reconciliation is unlikely with an episcopal conference that is openly in conflict with itself, and whose authority is openly challenged by some of its members.

For a few years now, the minority of pro-Francis bishops, out-voted and out-maneuvered, has largely given up on the idea of influencing the USCCB. As Robert Mickens recently noted: “Francis has been pope less than eight years, but none of the bishops he’s named has ever been elected to the top leadership posts in the USCCB.”

There’s clearly a difference between being appointed by Pope Francis and being able to interpret Francis’s message at the institutional level of the U.S. Catholic Church.

So where does that leave things? What needs to be addressed is the lack of vision. When was the last time the USCCB or a cardinal or an archbishop laid out an ecclesial and theological vision for the Church in this country for the long term?

A vision that does not pretend to have the power to change legislation on social issues through episcopal statements; a vision that is not limited to this or that issue in the portfolio of this or that episcopal committee of the USCCB?

U.S. Catholicism could use a Joseph Bernardin right about now,  just to limit ourselves to the episcopate.

The Americanist crisis of the 1890s brought about an end to periodic national councils, weakened efforts for national pastoral projects, and stifled intellectual and theological reflection for more than half a century—an era that came to an end only with the convening of the Second Vatican Council.

Let’s hope the next fifty years don’t repeat that history.--Commonweal

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