A fractious day began the June virtual meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference on Wednesday, with the promise of more fractious days to come. But while the U.S. bishops went on parliamentary maneuvers, and mused wistfully about ice cream and in-person meetings, apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre wanted to talk about Jesus.
As stark — though uneven — division framed the bishops’ debate, Pierre had a pointed question for America’s successors to the apostles.
Looking across the post-pandemic landscape, with the world radically changed, “we must ask ourselves,” Pierre said: “are we a Church that responds to the true needs of our people?”
Given the tone and substance of the bishops’ discussions on Wednesday, some Catholics might find themselves wondering whether their bishops have understood, or even really heard, the question.
Sayre’s Law holds that the intensity of debate is highest when the stakes are low. Observing the occasional melodrama of the bishops’ parliamentary exchanges, as compared to the real-world impact of the documents they produce, it is reasonable to see an application of the principle at the USCCB.
During the current session, for example, the bishops are locked in discussion about the possible content of a document on the Eucharist; if it should address (explicitly or implicitly) the reception of Communion by pro-abortion politicians, and what it can and should say if it does.
A similar debate looks set to occur today over a “pastoral framework” for marriage and family life, and whether it sufficiently captures the controversial opacity of a single footnote in Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
While these issues are treated with fierce earnestness by the bishops on the floor of the meeting, do any of them “respond to the true needs” of their people? Will any of them even touch the actual lives of the faithful at all? Pierre seemed to suggest the bishops need a broader scope.
Taking, for example, the debate underway about the reception of Communion by notoriously pro-abortion Catholics like President Biden, the doctrinal and canonical problems raised seem clear enough, as does, bishops have argued, the danger to the president’s soul and the power of the example he sets on the national stage.
But if the issue is serious, and the debate warmly contested, how high are the practical stakes?
Any document drafted by the bishops’ doctrinal committee on the subject is unlikely to say anything which wasn’t already said by the conference in 2006, or be any more binding on the bishops who choose to continue to allow the president to present himself at Mass.
Similarly, while the bishops might choose to debate the scope of their pastoral framework and Amoris Laetitia, and the advisability of “accompanying” Catholics in extramarital sexual unions to the communion rail, any final wording on the subject will likely be adopted or ignored as each pastor in each parish sees fit, assuming pastors read the document at all.
Stepping above the debate over doctrinal declarations versus frameworks for pastoral genius, Archbishop Pierre called the bishops back to their most fundamental mission as the heirs to the apostles: To announce the truth of Jesus Christ.
The nuncio quoted Pope Francis’ warning about the Church becoming “a religious supermarket” with Catholics parish-shopping according to their own preferences.
“It is as if religion is a product to be consumed,” said Francis, “very much linked to my tastes, and to a certain type of diffuse theism carried forward within the parameters of the New Age, where it is mixed a lot with personal satisfaction, relaxation, and well-being.”
“This,” said the pope, “is what I believe creates in the end the ‘religion a la carte.’ I believe that one has to recover the religious act as a movement towards an encounter with Jesus Christ.”
Pierre went on to explain that, for this recovery to happen, “rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of complicated theological concepts or in slick but superficial marketing campaigns, we must be bold like Simon Peter on Pentecost and proclaim Jesus Christ.”
This evangelical boldness, Pierre seemed to suggest, is not immediately obvious on the June agenda, and might be the reason for the bishops’ current factionalism.
Reiterating and quoting St. John Paul II’s call for a New Evangelization, Pierre cautioned the bishops against internal, often self-referential, cultural debates and instead urged them towards an outward-facing missionary footing:
“Jesus Christ is a person, not a concept,” the archbishop reminded the conference, making mention of both the more conservative and progressive tendencies among them.
Much of the media coverage of the U.S. bishops and their deliberations has been filtered through the secular lenses of political and social policies, something Pierre implicitly diagnosed as inevitable when the kerygma, “the joyful announcement that Jesus Christ is a living person to be encountered, who through His resurrection has defeated sin and death,” is absent.
“When Christianity is reduced to custom, to moral norms, to social rituals, it loses, sooner rather than later, its vitality and its existential interest for the men and women of our day, particularly for those who are looking for hope after the pandemic; for those seeking authentic justice after the racial strife we have experienced; or for those who have come here seeking a brighter and safer future,” said Pierre.
“When Christian morality asserts itself without Jesus Christ, even though the theological and philosophical conclusions might be correct, it does not penetrate the heart in a way that leads to conversion.”
With the bishops increasingly defined in the public consciousness, and indeed among themselves, by their stance on public policy issues, it is perhaps unsurprising if their conference discussions come more and more to resemble the partisan divisions and procedural chicanery of the Senate, and less and less the pentecostal zeal of the Cenacle.
What the nuncio called the American bishops to yesterday was a different kind of unity, not of political compromise, but of shared evangelical conviction.
“My brothers, it is our task to welcome our brothers and sisters with open arms and, with them, to be a synodal Church, a Church that walks together, toward our common goal, which is heaven,” he told them. “After all we have been through, we must begin to walk again.”
“We must begin again from Jesus Christ!” the nuncio concluded. Whether the bishops heard him, or will just pick up where they left off, is an open question.