I believe it is a safe thing to say, perhaps even self-evident, that for the average Catholic, there are only two Priests on their radar screen: their Parish Priest(s), and the Pope. Even though the Priest says the name of the local Ordinary in the Eucharistic Prayer everyday, I would say most Catholics, even those who regularly attend Mass, may struggle to know who their Bishop is beyond perhaps their first name.
The meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are admittedly extremely dull affairs. Compared with game shows and Daytime Soaps, most people who are at home during the day watching TV could be forgiven for not sparing two minutes, let alone two seconds, watching a bunch of hoary old men discuss matters of Church governance.
This time was different, though. It was the annual fall meeting after the summer of scandal, a difficult summer which has greatly tested the hearts and minds of good people throughout the world. The revelation (or simply re-presentation) of the failures of the episcopate once again appeared, wraith-like and demoniacal, before all the faithful, both Priests and lay people. Yet for all the tumult and protests outside the building, the men within remained strangely, almost eerily, serene and laconic. Their comments betrayed a near complete detachment from reality; although personally I agree in principle that a universal solution to the problem of episcopal corruption would be better than a merely local one, what was most outstanding was how relatively calm they were as the so-called Pope of synodality and dialogue casually suppressed any initiative on the issue.
There were strange, almost quixotic, remarks regarding a long-forgotten 1979 document on racism (which I never even heard of until a Bishop mentioned that 2019 is the document’s 40th anniversary) and near-shock that the Conference was not doing more to commemorate a document as dated in its verbiage as in its sociology. Again, the insufferably self-referential tendencies of the older generation of Bishops, with their quasi-hyperdulia of the slogan and the soundbite, was obvious as other younger Bishops from mostly “fly-over country” lifted their heads occasionally to acknowledge the contempt and horror which an engaged Catholic felt. The new viewers this time around may never have had the time or inclination before to watch the equivalent of Ecclesiastical C-SPAN, but the spotlight was certainly on the Bishops this November, and they seemed as unconcerned as Marie Antoinette before the guillotine. As Father Peter Stravinskas has noted, the costs to transport, feed and house these bishops is very conservatively in the ballpark of $650,000, and that is most definitely a low-ball figure.
The fact is that, unfortunately, for most Catholics, National Bishop’s Conferences are one of the most irrelevant features of the modern Church. It is exceedingly rare that anyone can name a single one of even their legitimate decrees or achievements. They are bodies across the world that try to instantiate the college of Bishops conceived in terms of language or nationality, but what I think has become obvious to most observers is that the current reality of Bishop’s Conferences is that they are far less a college, than a club. It has turned largely into a clericalism of the worst kind. Even the typically liberal Michael Sean Winters called the meeting “Amateur Hour“, regarding their lack of credibility; you know when the ecclesiastical left and right agree on something, it must be true.
In this vein, the comments of the disgraced Cardinal Roger Mahoney are the most puzzling, precisely because they echo earlier comments by Pope Francis that the devil is in the works attacking Bishops, attempting to divide and destroy them. Unfortunately once again these men are practicing the all too human defense mechanism of projection, choosing to project their own lack of leadership, and blame the anger people feel not on themselves, but on the devil himself. Cardinal Mahoney non-ironically tried to compare the work of the USCCB to the great and venerable St. Charles Borromeo during the Counter-Reformation in Milan. Although that assertion alone is risible, his “quote” of St. Charles is likewise apocryphal, if not an inexcusable exercise in historical eisegesis. He claims St. Charles said, “[we are] not bishops alone and separate. We belong to a college and we have a responsibility to the college.” I would be fascinated to know where he got that quote, because to hear a 16th century Bishop speak of a concept (that is, ‘collegiality’) not developed until the Second Vatican Council is fascinating indeed. I do not deny there may be loci theologici in the words of earlier figures, but to say that Charles Borromeo spoke of collegiality as Cardinal Mahoney understood it is as absurd as saying that St. Augustine spoke of the Eucharist precisely as St. Thomas Aquinas understood it. Furthermore, the life and deeds of St. Charles are precisely the opposite of collegiality, which is precisely why he was so successful as a reformer: he didn’t hesitate to implement the reforms of The Council of Trent, both formally and informally. Sure, Charles Borromeo had meetings, lots of them: but they were not meetings focused on endless discussion. St. Charles had a clear vision of the direction he wanted the Archdiocese of Milan to go, and he didn’t wait for his “brother bishops” to do anything: he forged ahead and did what he knew was right anyway. I wonder nowadays whether “collegiality” for some Bishops is just sanctified short-hand for the vice of human respect.
Moreover, St. Charles Borromeo led by example: after helping bring Trent to successful conclusion, he was appointed administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan before he was even ordained a Priest. His time in Rome under his uncle Pope Pius IV was not ill spent, as he had already reformed much of that city: coming to Milan, which had suffered from the negligence and absence of her previous shepherds, he set himself immediately to work. Above all, he knew, as I have argued before in these pages, that the root of the rot was the state of the education (in the fullest sense of the word) of the clergy, especially in the fields of morals, doctrine, liturgy, and ascesis. I believe it may be safely be said that if we had to accurately present St. Charles Borromeo’s mode of pastoral governance, it was precisely the opposite of collegiality as Cardinal Mahoney understands it, and St. Charles would have had as much use for the USCCB as he would for any other bloated, useless bureaucratic institution.
But all of this should not surprise any Catholic who really knows what’s going on in the “engine room” of the Church. Most of us who have for many years observed the behavior of Bishops at these meetings have either used the broadcast as a mild sedative or a light comedy of manners.
Sadly however, no one is laughing now.