More than 200 men in black suits sit in a conference hall in a Baltimore hotel. On folding tables in front of them hundreds of pieces of paper are scattered and pitchers of water are placed at regular intervals. Two tables raised in the front are lined with people apparently in charge, each with a microphone. Everyone has a name tag, hung around his neck on a green lanyard. At a glance, you might think it’s a regional gathering of some professional association of paper salesmen, hotel managers, maybe even low-caliber lawyers. Only a careful look at their collars will show that these men are the apostolic shepherds, more or less, of the Catholic Church in the United States.
One steps up to a portable podium and offers a brief opening prayer. There is a pull-down projector screen behind him lit up with an image of the crucified Christ; one can’t help but think that a better setting might have some permanent reminders of why these men are here — or permanent anything, for that matter. Folding tables, a moving podium, a temporary stage (though why a stage is necessary at all in a gathering of bishops is beyond me), all in a neutral (not to mention, thoroughly secular) location, every exit neatly marked by red-lit signs — the bishops look ready to pick up and run at the first hint of trouble. Call it a sign of the times.
A woman begins to bang out a hymn on one of those plug-in electric keyboards. Another impermanence tic. It’s turning into a compulsion, a reflex against that hideous horror, tradition — or, worse, aesthetics. As the keyboard jumps and jolts along and the bishops sing (each out of tune in his own way), you can’t help but feel nostalgic for the grand organs that once made music worthy of the Church and for the simple, ancient chant that even Blase Cupich could sing without sounding like a character out of VeggieTales.
When morning prayer is ended, though not before one more grating hymn is scraped out, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, reminds them of the reason for this assembly: “To further the sacred work of rooting the evil of sexual abuse from our Church.”
That would be great. But it quickly becomes clear that combating evil is not their primary concern — or that, if it is, they have no idea how to do it. Forty-five minutes into the proceedings, the first substantial mention of the issue finally appears, as a chargé d’affaires from the office of the Holy See’s nuncio to the United States, reading a message from the nuncio himself, tells the bishops that “there can be no hesitation in responding vigorously as a matter of justice.” And therein lies the problem: for the bishops, everything is about responding.
A procedural crackdown is necessary, to be sure. But a plan and an institution that are by nature and habit reactive cannot possibly meet the challenges that face the USCCB. Does anybody seriously believe that clearer guidelines for reporting abuse after the fact will solve the problem? Does nobody recognize the moral and cultural rot that has brought us to this point in the first place? It is probably no coincidence that the peak of the crisis (from the late 1960s to the early ’80s, roughly) accompanied one of recent history’s most dramatic shakeups in Church culture, and that abuse declined dramatically with the restoration of order and tradition after the post-conciliar dust had settled. The Church, especially in America, has progressed by leaps and bounds on this issue in recent years, but this has largely been a result of careful cultural adjustments and increased standards and formation in seminaries. The major procedural reforms (e.g., the Dallas Charter) have mostly been ineffective and highly controversial. That may be because the problem, and consequently its solution, have never been about procedure.
Nevertheless, over three days that feel as long as the two millennia these men seem desperate to forget, the bishops debate meticulously on the ins and outs of the new guidelines for reporting, investigation, and accountability. “Meticulously” is the right word, though not in any positive sense. It’s like watching the proceedings of a struggling student government or a small-time city council. They even have a parliamentarian, though he’s had trouble with his flight and has to show up late. His name is Schnurr (Dennis Schnurr, archbishop of Cincinnati), a bit of onomatopoeia that must give voice to general public feelings toward the USCCB.
Some of the questions might raise some eyebrows. (One bishop seems particularly concerned that sexual improprieties between a bishop and a consenting adult should not be treated too harshly.) Most of them are just procedural. (How will the proposal to apply the Dallas Charter to bishops work, since we can’t write letters of suitability for ourselves? Will mandating the participation of lay experts in investigations nationwide solve the problem? Are we allowed to do that?)
Discussion has been droning on for hours into the second day, mostly over the precise wording of various documents, directives, programs, etc. (all of which say more or less nothing), when one bishop finally stands up to say something worthwhile. It’s Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., and he seems to have had enough:
I just want to especially point out that the NAC [the National Advisory Council to the USCCB] did strongly emphasize “cultivating an ever-deepening spirituality of chastity and virtue,” and I hope we can find ways to really articulate that further. Just a general observation: I notice the name Jesus Christ hasn’t been mentioned in the course of this. . . . It might not hurt to throw that in there somewhere. . . . Hopefully, somewhere, his name could be mentioned.
The response: “And what I’d — just to get back to the genre that we’re dealing with, uh, one of the advantages of having this as an ‘emphasis area’ is it doesn’t just become the work of one committee, but we hold ourselves to the agenda of cross-committee collaboration in all of these areas.”
For one thing, Archbishop Henry Vigneron, of Detroit, was so thrown by the mention of Jesus that he couldn’t even string together a coherent sentence. And what concrete ideas, if any, can be gleaned from his gobbledygook, which reflects only the hollow, secularized bureaucracy that has taken hold of the institutional Church in America? Bishop Baker’s suggestion that assaults on our most deeply held beliefs should be treated as just that, rather than as matters of procedure to be ironed out, is entirely ignored. Maybe the implications — that there’s a problem deeper than enforcement here, that there might actually be something fundamentally wrong with the direction we’re taking — are too terrifying to grapple with.
The USCCB, in preparation for this general assembly, reached out to the laity multiple times with questions such as “If you are a young Catholic who is still Catholic, what has made you stay?” To say nothing of the insane formation of that question and the point we must have reached to even ask it, the answers were surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) uniform. Catholics stay in the Church because they love the Church and believe in the truth and beauty of her teachings. But they’re all but done with churchmen. If there’s one thing that’s tempted even the most faithful of Catholics to leave the Church, it’s the manifest incompetence of her leaders. There are certainly good bishops left — Bishop Baker is a prime example — but the USCCB as a whole is in serious trouble, mostly owing to the actions and inactions of many of its members.
It might have something to do with their desperate, delusional desire to mimic their secular counterparts, to be men of the world. Business suits with Roman collars in place of the ancient cassock. Hotel conference rooms in place of a monastery, or even a cathedral. (The Second Vatican Council held its proceedings in St. Peter’s Basilica.) Everything ready to be packed up and forgotten at the end of the assembly, leaving no trace of the successors of the apostles.
Making the rounds in Catholic circles: Mater si, Magistra si. Episcopi, hell no.
Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its initial posting.