America is in crisis. Will - and should - the U.S. bishops issue another statement?

Analysis

Republicans and Democrats lined up Wednesday in the House chamber to give speeches that could be edited into campaign commercials, before participating in a vote on impeachment whose outcome was a foregone conclusion. That exhibition came a week after an incursion of protestors at the U.S. Capitol left at least five dead, an event which might be a harbinger of more political violence to come. 

Amid all of that, some Catholics have echoed a somewhat familiar refrain, asking when the U.S. bishops’ conference will issue another formal statement about what has been happening — a brief one was issued Jan. 6.

Soon enough, the bishops will issue a statement, on the impeachment of the president, or the continuing chaos in the nation’s capital, or both. They’ll do so in part to quell the inevitable clamor against them that comes when statements aren’t issued, conference sources suggest.

Ironically, whatever the substance of their statement, it will probably infuriate exactly half the Catholic chattering and social media classes, while the other half complains it does not say enough.

But for most Catholics, a USCCB statement may pass completely unnoticed. Most do.

Last year, the U.S. bishops’ conference issued 67 statements on legislative, administrative, political, or judicial issues. Along with those statements were at least 20 more on cultural issues, natural disasters, and other global events.

Each of those statements has a cost. Each is generated by conference staffers, at either their initiative or that of a bishop. Each is vetted by the bishop signatory, and by conference staff leadership, perhaps by a bishop’s diocesan advisors, and by conference communication staffers.

By the time that process is completed, the issue addressed by the statement has usually been already replaced in the news cycle by some new topic demanding a response.

Nevertheless, after it is published each statement is dutifully reported on by Catholic media, and then it stokes reactions among the sort of Catholic commentators and social media figures who pay attention to those kinds of things.

After all that, it’s not clear which of those 67 statements moved the needle on the issues the bishops wanted to raise. In fact, given the Byzantine process of drafting and approval by which conference statements are crafted and released, it’s not clear even that such statements have a real chance of effecting change. 

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Issuing formal statements with such frequency was a once popular press strategy for political campaigns or legislative offices, for whom staying in the news was interpreted as staying current, or staying relevant. That strategy seems mostly to have gone out of vogue in the social media era, though it remains the approach of the conference. 

Some USCCB staffers have asked whether issuing statements with such frequency dilutes the power of the bishops’ voice. And others have asked about the cost.

In 2019, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia raised concern about the cost of the bishops’ conference to each diocese — the archbishop said he had limited resources, and that he wasn’t sure the Catholics of Philadelphia were getting a worthwhile return on their investment in the bishops’ conference.

That concern was met by conference leaders with an assurance that belt-tightening was underway, and, true to that promise, recent conference budgets have reflected cost-saving initiatives and budget haircuts for many departments.

But the concerns about finance and return on investment have not resulted in any wholesale thought on what the bishops’ conference is really for, and what it does, and whether its purpose and actions are actually aligned — at least no such thought that has been shared with conference observers.

While both bishops and conference staffers have complained to The Pillar that the conference needs to adapt to the Church’s social and economic reality in the present moment, there has not been indication that conversations at the philosophic level are taking place within the bishops’ conference.

“While the world changes around us, we’ll keep doing what we’ve always done, because it’s the way we’ve always done it,” one conference staffer told The Pillar recently.

The Church’s looming fiscal crisis may change that — the bishops’ conference may adapt in a more systemic way in years to come because its financial reality forces it to do so. 

But there is no indication that even a dramatic fiscal shift will provoke systematic bishop-led introspection on what the conference is doing, what fruits that bears, and what it could be doing differently. 

In fact, it’s not even immediately clear who might be capable of launching a kind of system-wide reflection on the conference’s mission and identity: The USCCB, like many bureaucracies, is populated by well-qualified, well-intentioned, well-formed and hardworking people, but, perhaps by design, no single one of them feels definitively empowered to overcome the momentum of the whole. For both staff members and bishop leaders, that can become a source of great frustration and discouragement.

Nevertheless, the bishops’ conference is empowered to issue statements, and it likely will do just that in the next few days.

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Meanwhile, far from the spotlight, and far from the self-promotion and grandstanding of Washington, DC, some Catholics will find other ways to respond to the trauma of America’s compounding crises.

Among those Catholics are Sr. Norma Pimentel and Grace Williams. Both might have glanced at the television for a moment or two during the impeachment debate, but it would likely occur to neither to issue a statement.   

Sr. Norma is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley; she spends her days with asylum seekers, at tent cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, or dropping in on English classes, or food distribution centers, or job training programs. Sr. Norma is a much sought  voice on the rights and dignity of immigrants, but that’s because she has the dirt under her fingernails to prove she’s putting in the work — more concerned with living the works of mercy than with talking about them. 

Grace Williams leads Children of the Immaculate Heart - a California apostolate that helps women and girls forced into human trafficking and prostitution to escape their pimps and captors. The group offers such women a home, a place for treatment, and a chance for healing. Williams cuts through red tape, and new cultures, and funding challenges, because she believes that the Lord wants her to give refuge to women with no place to turn.

Sr. Norma and Grace are known not for their rhetoric or photo-ops. They’re known for doing hard and emotionally exhausting work with very little glamour, and with very little earthly reward. 

Women and men like Grace and Sr. Norma are the heart of the story of the Church in the United States. And for Catholics — at a moment of intense national conflict and uncertainty — they, and their work, are worth remembering.

And this week, while some Catholics wait for a USCCB statement, and staff are tasked with getting one out, Sr. Norma and Grace Williams will likely take in the extraordinary political theater of 2021, and then continue to go on loving the poor, in the name of Jesus Christ.