Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, September 08, 2005

Reflections on the Reform of the Episcopal Conference, Part II of III 

The call for a reform of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is not itself controversial, as this call has been voiced many times by the leadership of the Conference itself. Many agendas for such reform have been offered, often by episcopal members of the Conference. A Committee has even been established, the Committee for Priorities and Plans, which has as its sole purpose the establishment of a program to reform the conference structure. In fact, I intend to propose little in this post that has not already been proposed by a member of the Conference itself.

One of the instigations of this reform, in fact, is the aforementioned document Apostolos Suos, which many Americans took to be directed specifically at the USCCB, and which was not altogether uncritical in its tone. I will first point out several observations on the need for reform, and conclude with reflections on the means by which they reform can be brought about.

The need for reform can be seen from several different perspectives, which tend to reappear in nearly every proposal.

First, nearly all recognize a need to reduce the bureaucratic structure of the conference, which necessarily means a reduction in the number of staff. The USCCB currrently claims a staff of '350 lay people, priests and religious' (source) in Washington alone, excluding additional offices in New York and Miami. Given that the number of active U.S. bishops is just shy of 300 (including auxiliaries, with retired bishops bringing the number up to 450), many have expressed concern that the support staff might outnumber, and overshadow, the bishops whom they serve. Although cuts are already being made, the general consensus holds that a more serious reconsideration of staff needs is necessary for an authentic reform of the Conference.

Second, the operating budget of the USCCB, by all accounts, borders on the unjustifiable. Although incoming revenues (through publishing services, government grants, etc.) help to absorb most of these costs, a significant amount inevitably falls upon individual dioceses and their faithful, both in direct contributions and in annual 'second collections' which go to specific offices (CNS, Communications Campaign, etc.). Given the budget crunch that most dioceses are feeling these days, complaints from bishops have been not been lacking. Last November, the bishops of the Conference overwhelmingly voted to reject a proposed increase in these contributions to the Conference, leaving the latter even more strapped for funds. It has been noted that a curbing of the Conference's budget is no longer a hypothesis, but an inevitable fact of life.

Third, a perception exists among many theologians and bishops that the Conference has, both in general and in several specific instances, stretched its own juridical limits in ways that threaten to impede the authority and liberty of local bishops. This has already been noted as a major theme of Apostolos Suos, viz. that the Episcopal Conference cannot susbstitute for, or transgress upon, the sacred responsibility of a bishop for his own territorial flock. Complaints have occasionally arisen from local ordinaries who, although personally unsatisfied with a conference document, nonetheless feel pressured or even compelled to comply with it.

Fourthly, according to the operating description of Episcopal Conferences by Apostolos Suos, the structure of the Conference itself may require re-envisioning in light of the demands of canon law. These demands, in sum, mandate that the Conference and its staff exist to serve the bishops and not vice versa, and that the conference only exercises its authentic teaching authority in plenary sessions, not in its committees or offices. This last dimension, in my opinion, has been insufficiently noted.

As for proposals for reform, I will begin with the more general and proceed to the more concrete.

I. A Return to Ad Intra

Archbishop Dolan's April 2005 First Things article, "The Bishops in Council," skillfully narrates how the formative years of the American Episcopal Conference (then identified by the awkward acronym 'NCCB/USCC') were fueled largely by what he calls 'ad extra concerns':

First and foremost, the conference became explicitly enthusiastic about ad extra concerns, setting itself up as a "prophetic voice" in American society, especially on domestic and international issues of social justice. War and peace, the economy, nuclear weapons, unemployment, labor issues, the environment, Central America, Africaconference eagerly issued statements on all of these complicated and controverted areas of public policy. At least partially as a result, the bureaucracy and budget of the NCCB/USCC mushroomed.
As a result, the vast majority of staff of the USCCB are devoted to these sorts of ad extra concerns. For example, the USCCB's Office for Migration and Refugee Services currently boasts 75 staff, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has 20, Catholic News Service over 30. Doctrine, however, has four; Liturgy, six; Priestly Life & Ministry and Priestly Formation have two apiece.

Besides its effects on bureaucracy and budget, the Conference's eagerness to engage in ad extra issues resulted in a profound shift in Conference structure, giving immense significance to the work of episcopal committees and administrative offices (who oversaw and engineered such activities) and turning the plenary sessions into simple 'rubber-stamp sessions', where the full body would vote (overwhelmingly) to approve and advance nearly every policy or document proposed by a Committee or office. Archbishop Dolan reports much the same:

Their annual meetings increasingly became reports of what the different departments and committees of the NCWC [i.e., the Conference staff] had done in their name since the last general meeting.
Once the Committee reports were done and their work approved, the sessions would disband, giving the general impression that the plenary sessions served the offices and committees, and not vice versa.

The relative inattention paid to internal issues - such as addressing widespread catechetical illiteracy, marriage and family life, liturgical reform, the renewal of the priesthood and religious life, etc. - have now returned full force as urgent priorities of the American Church. The rising generation of bishops now seeks to return the Conference's focus to these internal issues:

Above all, these patriarchs were concerned with building the Catholic Church in the United States. Bishops today increasingly ask whether it is now necessary to rebuild the Church in America, through reform and renewal.
If carried through effectively and seriously, a reform with this goal in mind would not only reorient the vision of the Conference, but would have a serious impact on staff size and budget as well.

II. Re-tracing the Line

After the Second Vatican Council, the Episcopal Conference of the United States was officially restructured and re-established as the NCCB/USCC. Its identity as a dual organization was clear by the awkwardness of the title: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), which was the aggregate of all the bishops in the country; and and a permanent bureaucracy in Washington, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). The clear distinction between the American episcopacy and their non-episcopal support staff was, and is, seen as an essential characteristic of the Conference's identity.

In 2001 the Conference was renamed the 'United States Conference of Catholic Bishops', a single and monolithic identity which, while easier to pronounce, lacked the dual character of the previous moniker. This change, it must be noted, was purely nominal; in its actual structure the clear distinction between bishops and staff remained clear and functional. No one, inside or outside the Conference, seems confused about that distinction in itself.

Yet, due to the aforementioned developments in the structure of the Conference, the importance of non-episcopal staff (formerly the USCC) ballooned. Motivated by external concerns and economic/social issues (on which few bishops are thoroughly educated), the Conference came to rely more and more upon 'experts' in these fields. Episcopal documents in the 1980s tended to nearly all be written by outsiders, often laypersons, and in some notorious cases, even non-Catholics. Staff of the 'ad extra' offices swelled with those properly trained and licensed in the appropriate fields, and (at least on lower levels of administration) many who lacked a Catholic identity, if they were Catholic at all. Every Bishops' Committee received several non-episcopal 'Consultants' from relevant national bodies, who offered consultative input to the bishops on the areas within their competence. While all formal deliberative authority remained within the episcopacy, much day-to-day business of the Conference was handled by staff.

Every Bishops' Committee is, as is necessary, staffed by a permanent office in Washington. Although these offices exist solely to serve the Committees, most of them carry out routine affairs as well. The staff of these offices see their role not only as facilitating the decision-making capacities of the bishops they serve, but also as communicating the bishops' decisions and policies to other, external bodies. In this fashion, other national organizations are able to understand and implement the decisions and policies of the American episcopate. This facet of the staff's work, however necessary and beneficial it may be, obviously entails a significant amount of time, expense and resources. This function of the Conference staff may need to be re-examined in light of new priorities of the Conference.

The role of the Episcopal Conference as a whole is to respond to pastoral problems which occur on the national or territorial level, or at least those pastoral problems which require a collegial response. In addition, Episcopal Conferences have significant authority in responding to initiatives and tasks delegated to them by the Holy See. The latter might include the writing of catechisms of the translations of liturgical texts, for example. These twin focii - responding to pastoral problems on a national level and to those tasks entrusted to it by the Holy See - must remain at the forefront of all Conference activity. The Conference cannot, in light of its own identity, see itself as a source for creative and innovative ventures or policy-making, unless these are required by serious pastoral needs which have a national scope. Nor can its commitees see themselves as responsible for, or as having juridical oversight of, all local activities which relate to its subject.

III. Lessons in Downsizing

'Downsizing' is now, for the USCCB, not only a purposeful methodological decision, but also a necessary economic one, given budgetary constraints. I offer two suggestions of my own in this regard, simply for the sake of conversation. They may be more or less helpful, as the case may be.

First, learn to outsource. For the sake of convenience, the USCCB has, over the course of recent decades, progressively made decisions to incorporate many administrative functions as 'in-house' tasks. Hence, the USCCB includes a mailroom, a print and copy shop, a travel agency, a publishing office, a news agency, a technology office, a legal counsel, and several other 'support' offices. Several of these offices it is difficult to imagine the bishops living without. The USCCB, it seems, would of necessity need its own mailroom and human resource office. Others, however, could feasibly be outsourced without excessive inconvenience to the Conference mission. Certainly, there are reasons for keeping them in-house, as this generally reduces the cost and adds to the efficiency of the Conference mechanism. Yet one may wonder if a slight increase in expenses would be a small price to pay, literally, for a strong reduction in bureaucratic size. Also, there are inevitable downsides to in-house support offices, as the staff of the Conference are generally not given the option to use alternative, external resources, even when these are found cheaper and more desirable than in-house operations.

Second, 'embrace the apostolate'. One of the rich gifts of the Catholic Church is the expansive diversity of effective apostolates which function at the local and national levels. When these apostolates prove themselves to be faithful to the magisterium, obedient to the episcopate and effective in producing quality work, there would appear to be little reason not to delegate certain tasks to them. Ignatius Press, for example, would seem well-suited to handle the publication of USCCB materials, and thus enable the downsizing of the massive USCCB Publication office. It is difficult not to see the Bishops' foundation of Catholic News Service as an attempt to establish competition with EWTN, albeit through different mediums (the lamentably poor relations that have often troubled the USCCB and EWTN need not be addressed here). The proliferation of solid and effective Catholic apostolates in other areas, especially in the areas of human development and social justice, need hardly be noted.

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity also holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. Of course, the question of whether and to what extent this principle applies to the Church is an ongoing discussion, but to raise it here at least brings some elements into focus. Clearly, many activities of the Conference, such as the solemn exercise of teaching and pastoral practice, cannot possibly be delegated to others. Nothing which concerns the collegial action of the episcopacy can, in fact, be delegated to a non-collegial level.

Yet at the same time, some activities of the Conference do not properly fall within the proper scope of this collegial activity, and might be best suited to an appropriate apostolate. A Bishops' Committee on Migration and Refugees would certainly be necessary, given the need for clear teaching and pastoral action on what is fast becoming a central issue for the Church (and a teaching that is often ignored). Yet the actual, concrete resettling of refugees and migrants, it would appear, is not something that requires the direct action of the bishops themselves, nor their staff. With competent and faithful organizations such as Catholic Charities, which already work closely with the bishops, there would seem to be no good reason why much of the USCCB staff which work to resettle migrants could not be turned over to these apostolates, while doctrinal teaching and ultimate pastoral oversight on this issue would be the prerogatives of the Conference.

IV. Reform the Plenary Session

The plenary session is, according to Apostolos Suos, the only structure by means of which the full body of American bishops can act and/or teach in a manner that is, theologically speaking, 'authentic'. Yet, as mentioned above in regards to Archbishop Dolan's observations, the overweening importance in past years given to permanent offices and committees has tended to diminish the significance of the plenary session, which has often functioned as a mere means of collectively affirming and ratifying the work of the commitees and offices. Apostolos Suos has these words regarding the priorities of the Conference:

Such aims, however, require that an excessively bureaucratic development of offices and commissions operating between plenary sessions be avoided. The essential fact must be kept in mind that the Episcopal Conferences with their commissions and offices exist to be of help to the Bishops and not to substitute for them. (AS 18)
If this mandate is to be effectively implemented, it would mean that a permanent committee or office would be justified solely to the extent that it served the bishops, and that in their plenary session. This would require more than merely reporting on an office's activities or accomplishments, and more than merely issuing an occasional, token document to celebrate this or that occasion. While it is easy to imagine committees on Marriage, Ministries, or Doctrine putting forth serious items of pastoral concern for the consideration of the plenary session of bishops, it is difficult to imagine this for other offices. The Office for Aid to Catholics in Eastern Europe, for example, serves mainly to gather and distribute financial aid to Catholics in this region: there is little doubt that this aid is much-needed, but it is worth asking what a fund-distribution office might bring to the plenary session that the bishops would find worth talking about (the 'embrace the apostolate' theme might come in handy here). Of course, this entity's incorporation into the Conference certainly helps to facilitate its charitable income, and hence its aid to those in need, but more serious, overriding considerations may take priority.

On another matter, the structure and programming of the plenary sesion itself has been recognized as being in need of reform. Father Neuhaus' 2004 First Things column, "Bishops at a Turning Point", encapsulated and gave voice to the gratitude of many bishops that these reforms were already on the way.

Above all, the bishops desire plenary sessions with less staff and media present, a looser and less predetermined agenda, and more substantive discussion between bishops. In short, they want to meet as bishops, to discuss what concerns them as bishops. They are often frustrated by rigid regulations about who gets to speak when and for how long, and by the harried pace of the meeting agenda itself, which actively discourages lengthy, substantive discussion between members, and lends itself only to brief, curt and pre-written presentations by heads of committees, with a quick 'up or down vote' by the full body, with as little discussion and debate as possible between.

This is difficult to avoid, of course. The meetings already last up three days or more, and the number of issues on the table, as well as the sheer number of members present, make real discussion and conversation impractical. Radical measures, like expanding the meetings over 4-5 days, or closing larger sections off from the staff and media, would be unpopular with most parties, but perhaps necessary. I like, for my own part, to envision a whole week with bishops residing in a hotel or residence together, with no staff or media alllowed, with only the afternoons reserved for meetings. The mornings would have no agenda, but only open coffee bars and round tables for bishops to meet, mingle and discuss what is on their minds. The media, staff and chanceries would hate it, of course. But I have a feeling the bishops would love it.

# posted by Jamie : 4:46 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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