The USCCB General Assembly: Day 2 and My Closing Thoughts
Today was the second and final day of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' General Assembly. Unlike yesterday's extended conversation about the McCarrick Report, the public portion of the today's meeting was shorter, with no direct references to the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
This afternoon's conversations about the Covid-19 pandemic and the issue of racism are outside of my area of expertise, but since I was watching anyway, I thought I might as well share a brief summary. (If you just want to hear my reflections on the meeting, you can skip to the bottom of this post to find those.)
What Happened Today
Tuesday's session began with prayer, then approval of three measures: the USCCB 2021-2024 Strategic Plan, a three-year extension of support and funding for the Ad Hoc Committee on Racism, and the USCCB budget for the next year.
Pandemic Response: The bishops engaged in an extended conversation about the Church's response to the pandemic throughout the United States. After the frustration of yesterday's discussions about the McCarrick Report, this conversation was honestly quite refreshing. The focus was on sharing creative ways of reaching out and meeting people's physical and spiritual needs. There were lots of good ideas shared, with a clear sensitivity to the needs of the poor, the elderly, the lonely, and those with limited acess to healthcare.
(Interesting to note, none of the same bishops who spoke yesterday during the McCarrick discussion spoke in response to this question. Just another reminder that this is a big group with lots of different opinions about lots of different things - and most of them never say a word at these meetings.)
Committee Against Racism: The second big agenda item for today was a discussion led by the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. I don't know anything about Bishop Shelton Fabre's response to abuse in the Church, but he's an impressive leader in this area. (Also note: this committee has been at work for several years, not just since the issue began getting more attention this summer.)
As a person who believes deeply in the importance of anti-racist work in our society and in our Church, I found it encouraging to listen to what some of these bishops were saying. I heard a real willingness to engage with hard questions and challenge Catholics to listen, learn, and be part of real social change. The men leading this committee on racism do seem to "get it." That doesn't mean every bishop does, but at least a few strong leaders have been given a mandate to engage with this issue and lead the Church in the right direction. I can't say how successful they will be, but it's something.
Closing: The meeting ended with personal comments from Monsignor Brian Bransfield, who is ending his long term as general secretary of the USCCB. (The bishops met in a private "executive session" later in ther afternoon, but I don't know anything about the agenda for that portion of the day.)
Archbishop Gomez closed the meeting with an announcement that a working group is being established to explore the "opportunities and challenges" of working with a new White House administration led by a president who professes the Catholic faith. (This was an interesting little speech, but I don't do politics on this page, so I'll let you look it up yourself.)
... And that's everything that happened at the USCCB General Assembly this year. I've learned that much of the real work of the USCCB happens in the commitees, but the entire body of bishops is scheduled to meet again in June 2021.
My Closing Thoughts
On "The Bishops": I know a lot of people reading this blog are not big fans of the United States bishops. I saw a lot of angry comments on Facebook in response to my summaries of their words yesterday, and I have plenty of my own angry thoughts as well. Frankly, I don't know anyone who is well-informed about these issues that thinks the USCCB has done a good job in responding to the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
But I will say that my experience watching the USCCB meetings over the past two years has made me less likely to think of "the bishops" as a monolith. When I watch these meetings, I see a big diversity of perspectives and experiences, a push-and-pull of conservative and liberal factions, some outspoken bishops and many more that we never hear from in these large meetings. I see some bishops who clearly don't "get it" and some who seem to be fighting as hard as they can to make the Church better. I don't have any confidence in the USCCB as a body to bring about the kind of change we need to see. But I do see individual bishops, mostly of the younger generation, that give me hope.
On Ulterior Motives: I think one of the things that frustrates me most, in both bishops and ordinary Catholics, is when people are clearly intent on using the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to advance some other agenda.
I understand that we all have a particular perspective on the Church and what we would like the Church to look like, and we're bound to bring that perspective into these conversations. But it makes me crazy when people seem more interested in winning an argument than seeking the truth. And when I see someone weaponizing the pain of victim-survivors to score points for their "side," I want to scream. Catholics, we need to stop doing that.
On Hope: One abuse survivor mentioned to me that she was feeling pretty hopeless after reading my summary of yesterday's discussion. I am really sorry that my writing made her feel that way, but I get it. It's hard to hear bishops saying such thoughtless things and perhaps even harder to see the lack of real action for change. It's painful to see so little being said and even less being done.
However, I don't sign out of this year's USCCB meeting feeling hopeless, and I had to reflect a bit to figure out why. On the most basic level, I suppose I have watched enough of these USCCB meetings to have a sense of how they work (or don't), so my expectations were low. Also, my hope has never been in the leadership of the USCCB as a collective body. I think it's pretty obvious that this is not where real change is going to come from.
I guess that's why I can remain hopeful. Because I see something else happening in the Church - the wider Church, which is much more than an assembly of bishops. I see survivors being empowered to speak out, I see ordinary Catholics paying attention, I see all of us working together for transformation and healing. I see small steps, but progress none the less.
Ultimately, I see the Holy Spirit at work. And that's why I have hope.
Please join me in praying for our Church.