In March, I wrote “Bishops’ Conference Should Look Toward Rome,” about the sad situation at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in their foolish attempt to browbeat President Joe Biden on the issue of abortion and their beyond foolish qualms about the Covid-19 vaccines. Their June meeting did nothing to restore confidence in their leadership.
People ask me all the time: “How did it get this bad?” The answer is not complicated, but it is multi-faceted.
The first and foremost reason is that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were poor judges of character and placed people in positions of authority who should not have been there. They also followed the old adage “promoveatur ut amoveatur,” or promote to remove.
The most critical person in choosing candidates for the episcopate is the apostolic nuncio. Pope Benedict sent Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to the U.S. as nuncio because he wanted to get him out of Rome. From October 2011 until April 2016, Viganò served in this critical role, screening new candidates and proposing the promotion of others. Nuncios do not succeed in getting all their nominees through the cumbersome process, but they get around 50%. And, as we all know, Viganò can charitably be called unhinged.
In addition, Pope Benedict XVI named Cardinals Raymond Burke and Justin Rigali to the Congregation for Bishops, and they helped promote some of the worst culture warriors to Metropolitan sees: men such as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in San Francisco and Archbishop Alexander Sample in Portland, OR. Earlier, Burke had been critical in the naming of Archbishop Joseph Naumann as coadjutor Archbishop of Kansas City, KS. So, the system by which bishops are selected was in the hands of culture warriors for many years.
If there has been little help from Rome, there has also been little help from the pews, and this is far less commented on. In the wake of Vatican II, there has been a push to include lay people in decision-making positions that do not require ordination. It is not uncommon to find a lay woman serving as chancellor or a layman serving as superintendent of schools. In the pre-conciliar era, when you walked into a chancery, it was staffed almost exclusively by clerics.
I am no fan of clericalism, but the problem is that in the years after the Council, the ideological makeup of these new lay staff shifted to the right. Many liberal Catholics left the Church, and fewer still ever thought of working for the various offices that comprise a chancery, at least when compared to the number of conservative Catholics who warmed to the prospect.
As well, bishops tend to be conflict-averse. There is an old saying: If your request will be met with a “yes,” you meet with the bishop, but if it will be met with a “no,” the Vicar General will deliver the bad news. Bishops know that if, for example, they were to appoint a communications director who had worked for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the right-wing, anti-abortion brigades would pummel them with phone calls and emails, maybe even a protest. But no one complains when they hire someone who worked for a Republican.
The Knights of Columbus was led for 20 years by Carl Anderson, who formerly worked as a Republican operative. His replacement, Patrick Kelly, served on the staff of President George W. Bush.
The executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, Christopher Healy, previously served as the chairman of the state Republican Party. Brittany Vessely is the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, but she is also part of the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life and she did a Publius Fellowship at the Claremont Institute.
It is not uncommon for a bishop to bring a neuralgic issue before his diocesan advisory board, a mix of clergy, religious and lay advisors, and it is the laity who are advocating for a hardline, culture warrior position. This has happened in many dioceses over issues such as accepting the children of gay parents into Catholic schools. The laity say “we don’t want those people in our school,” and the clergy are the ones who ask on what basis you deny a Catholic education to a baptized Catholic.
So, when bishops want to know what the laity think about an issue like denying communion to pro-choice politicians, and they ask the lay people who are closest to them, they tend to get the most conservative feedback imaginable. Combine that with the prominence of well-funded, right-wing organizations like the Napa Institute and the Acton Institute, which fly bishops in for conferences—and at Napa, the conference is accompanied by cigar and cognac receptions!—and you begin to understand how it is that USCCB can become such a mess.
Lay leadership is not the answer, at least not currently. I will take my chances with Papa Francesco and his current appointees to the Congregation for Bishops. But the changes we need won’t happen quickly and they won’t be sudden or sharp. Pope Francis has proposed synodality as a vehicle by which the Holy Spirit might return to our ecclesial decision making, but it is difficult to imagine today’s culture warriors engaging in a genuinely synodal process. We are in for some bad ecclesial weather for the next few years.
Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.