The New USCCB
By Russell Shaw
(From the issue of 11/9/06)
Nov. 14 this year marks a poignant anniversary for the Church in the United States. It will be just a decade since the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, in the estimate of many people the most influential member of the American hierarchy in the years after the Second Vatican Council.
By an ironic coincidence, the U.S. bishops will mark the occasion by reorganizing and drastically reducing one of the central elements of the Bernardin legacy—the national conference of bishops itself. In its heyday, from the mid-'60s to the mid-'90s, he served successively as general secretary, president, and chairman of several major committees, profoundly shaping the organization in the process.
Now, the main agenda item at the bishops' Nov. 13-16 meeting in Baltimore will be a drastic restructuring of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to make it, in the words of a news release, "more focused, smaller and less costly."
It remains to be seen whether the new USCCB will be more focused. Smaller and less costly it will surely be.
The number of committees, subcommittees, and task forces will drop from 68 to 34. Staff positions in offices affected by the restructuring plan will be cut from 260 to 197. These and other steps will result in a 16 percent reduction, totaling $1.9 million, in the diocesan assessments that provide the core of the operating funds for all conference entities except the few with funding of their own.
Critics of USCCB are pleased by these developments. Although to some extent they have reasons for that, in many instances they also are missing the point. National conferences of bishops aren't optional luxuries. These bodies are mandated in Church law. In the complex circumstances of today's society, the Church couldn't function without them.
In the last 40 years the USCCB (formerly, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference) had its high points and its lows.
By the measure of visibility, the biggest high was the bishops' 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace, prepared by a committee chaired by—who else?—Cardinal Bernardin. The lows included the 1976 Call to Action Conference, where church cadres rammed through a slew of outrageous demands, and the collapse in 1992 of efforts to write a pastoral letter on women's concerns after nine years of trying.
Acting under enormous pressure at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal in June 2002, USCCB, meeting in Dallas, succeeded in adopting a tough new policy and set of procedures which have restored a measure of stability to a chaotic situation and continue to provide the guidelines for the dioceses of the United States.
Over the years nevertheless there's been a groundswell of criticism—much of it coming from bishops themselves—that the “old” USCCB lacked clear priorities. One result has been a tendency to try to be all things to everybody, with a corresponding proliferation of staff and offices and an ever-rising budget.
The restructuring now envisaged includes mechanisms for dealing with that problem. Priorities proposed for 2008-2011 are marriage, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, "faith formation based on sacramental practice" (i.e., the decline in Mass attendance and reception of sacraments such as penance and matrimony), human life, and—perhaps—"cultural diversity in the Church" (the growing number of Hispanics, African Americans and Asians in American Catholicism).
Bishops say the aim isn't just saving money but making USCCB a more effective instrument for meeting the Church's pastoral needs. Clearly, Cardinal Bernardin would be in favor of that.
Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C.
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