I’m going to touch on a few issues this morning. They all revolve around the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It should be noted at the outset that I have worked alongside many of these men, who I have come to believe are mostly good and faithful men, at least the ones I have had experiences with (Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Auxillary Bishop Joseph Estabrook of the Archdiocese for Military Services and Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Sante Fe are just a few names of folks I have worked with on a few occasions on a myriad of projects) and would even dare to say that I consider many of them close colleagues and friends.

Two of the men in the headlines yesterday I have had occasion to meet. The first is Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson who is a kind man, incredibly insightful and who cares immensely about the church and the people of his diocese. Bishop Kicanas was the driving force behind the document “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” the USCCB’s groundbreaking document on lay ministry in the United States. He is also an outspoken Bishop on the issue of immigration. Being in a boarder state, Bishop Kicanas has been a serious player in the state and in the conference on this issue and has been someone who has been able to elucidate Catholic teaching in order to make prudential judgements on serving the poor and those who seek to make a better life in these United States.

The second person is Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Archbishop Dolan is the new big cheese in New York, which has been a position long rumored to being taylor made for him. He’s been a breath of fresh air in New York. A midwestern backslapper who says the two things he’d like to write a pastoral letter denouncing are light beer and instant potatoes (I agree, BTW). Dolan is a man that many people like personally and who is a person who is media savvy enough to be “the face of the American Church.” Most of all, the Bishops in unison trust him. He’s well-regarded by men who are traditionalists in doctrine and by those who are more reformer-types. He listens to all but is also stern in his leadership. Younger men remember him fondly as their rector at the North American College in Rome where many of the Bishops in the college have attended.

Now that’s a lot about two different men. Two men who many will paint with the two broad strokes of “Kicanas, the liberal” and “Dolan, the conservative.” Neither are adequate. A better mantra might be “Dolan, the networker” and “Kicanas, the backroom worker.” One is larger than life and the other more low key, but a hard worker. One leads because it is his personality to do so, the other leads by example.

To use a word I hate, the “liberal” end of the church is bemoaning the fact that Archbishop Dolan was elected USCCB President over Bishop Kicanas, the sitting Vice-President. This is so because conservative watchdog groups started a smear campaign of Kicanas and it seemed to work, even stooping so low as to blame him for ordaining a priest who later abused children–something that we could hold nearly every Bishop in the room culpable of. But I think that this is overblown and gives the watchdogs way too much credit. Archbishop Dolan won because he retains the trust of both sides of the fence pretty easily, something that Bishop Kicanas has not been able to muster. Had the conference elected, say, Archbishop Chaput of Denver, a far more entrenched conservative than Dolan, I think they may have had a point to cry about. But the election of Dolan may just be what the conference needs, someone who can be the spokesperson and bring Bishops together and someone who nearly everyone trusts.

Now all that being said: The USCCB is a vastly divided entity. Nobody wants to tell one of their brother Bishops what to do. While factions exist to be sure, perhaps the rarer bird is unity amongst the Bishops. Rarely do all the Bishops decide to do something together. Each diocese is it’s own silo with the Bishop at the helm. Perhaps Dolan is able to change that?

One area that this is needed is in preaching to social doctrine of the church. When Glenn Beck says that people should run from churches that preach “social Justice,” where is the response from the conference? Abortion and embryonic stem cell research are the only areas that the Bishops often speak in unison on, providing pamphlets and talking points always to parishes.

Vincent Miller in America Magazine has a good take today on this:

Yet precious few bishops are willing to be as forceful on the rest of the church’s social doctrine. Callous lack of concern for the poor and unemployed; dismissals of the positive role of government in serving the common good; inflammatory scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims, or the poor—none of these elicit a high-profile ecclesial challenge. Yes, of course the U.S.C.C.B. secretariats issue press releases and testify before congress on a broad range of issues. Bishops and staff repeat the mantra that the church’s teaching does not conform to either party. But, absent a serious media strategy to have them be heard, these have almost no effect on public life or the faith of Catholics. The bishops are unwilling to directly confront policies and Catholic partisans who dissent on other points of social teaching.

The reality is that these aspects of Catholic teaching have been systematically sidelined by neoconservatives seeking to subordinate the church to their own program and by a mainstream media all too willing to accept conservative framing of religion. To break through this frame, to teach the Catholic fullness of the faith with effect, the bishops must be willing to be forthright and specific in their defense of all Catholic social doctrines. Names and policies should be named here as well.

Indeed. Read the rest and then pray for our Bishops, that they might be able to lead more effectively and regain some of the moral standing that they need to convert hearts to Christ. Also pray that cooler heads prevail and that men like Bishop Kicanas can be a force for reasoned thoughtful dialogue and that men like Archbishop Dolan can continue to work and speak with people of all stripes.

0 thoughts on “An Episcopacy Divided”
  1. Good post. However I do take issue with the comments of Vincent Miller in America Magazine

    First I think throwing the word “neoconservative” is non productive. It is often meant as a slur nowadays and the term has become basically meaningless.

    One thing the Bishops could do(United States Conference) is learn that less is better. Maybe there is no need to try to take stands on all sort of “social justice” related legislation and come off as proclaiming this is the Catholic Social Doctrine of the Church. They may not mean to do that but it comes off that way.

    One reason Glenn Beck can get away with what he says is because basically for about 30 years Catholic Social Justice has been dominated to the exclusion of others by people of one political bent. There has been no fruitful discussion in the Churches or in the Catholic Academy. That is unfortunate. We are now paying the cost of that.

    I also disagree with him that the Church has been silent on issues besides abortion and stem cells. What about immigration. As a Conservative Catholic I fought for immigration reform. The Church was doing a full out assault on trying to get that passed. Though in a irony many Catholic social justice groups were sending out emails demanding that people call the Congressmen to support things that we knew would kill it. The right hand did not know what the left hand was doing.

    I am all for the Bishops making Catholic Social Justice concerns a top priority. However the Bishops need to make clear where there can be some prudential matters of judgement in these matters and to pick their issues carefully with that thought in mind.

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