Last week’s meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Baltimore was almost derailed after the Vatican issued a directive prohibiting votes on two key agenda items. Yet despite the meeting’s shortcomings, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo insisted it was “a sign of hope” for him. The gathering also raised further questions about whether Cardinal Blase Cupich (pictured) or Cardinal Joseph Tobin leads the “Francis Party” in the USCCB.
The meeting was supposed to centre on two proposals for addressing the sexual abuse crisis: new standards of conduct for bishops and the creation of an independent investigative commission to look into bishops allegedly violating anti-abuse standards.
On day one, DiNardo, president of the USCCB, announced that he had received a directive from Rome insisting that the assembly refrain from voting on the proposals. The Holy See reportedly wanted to wait for the conclusion of February’s meeting in Rome, which Pope Francis called to address the crisis, before allowing votes on measures such as those on the USCCB’s agenda.
Writing for Crux, John Allen observed: “If the February summit was already high-stakes, those stakes have now grown exponentially.” Indeed, American Catholics were expecting practical actions, especially in the wake of the McCarrick revelations. Allen rightly observed that “the February meeting better deliver something dramatic, or, at least in this country, there will be blood in the water”.
It is possible that the Vatican put a hold on the votes because the bishops’ proposals posed challenges to Church law, or because Francis has a broader vision for action which he plans to introduce in February. But whatever the reason, American Catholics will have to wait at least a few more months for new, significant actions confronting abuse.
According to the National Catholic Register, some bishops found the vote prohibition puzzling, while others more plainly said they felt “ambushed” or “betrayed”. Cardinal Cupich, however, argued that the decision was a sign of “how seriously the Holy See takes the matter”.
Cardinal DiNardo moved forward with two other actions related to the sexual abuse crisis. He established a task force to examine mishandling of abuse reports. The task force will consist of him, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Archbishop Wilton Gregory. It will report at the bishops’ meeting in June.
The USCCB’s president was less successful in trying to get through a motion to “encourage” the Vatican to share documents pertaining to the McCarrick investigation. Specifically, the resolution urged the Holy See “to release soon all documentation that can be released consistent with canon and civil law regarding the allegations of misconduct against Archbishop McCarrick”.
Cardinals Cupich and Tobin challenged the measure. Cardinal Tobin referred to an October communiqué from Francis, in which the Pope announced an investigation into the Holy See’s archives on McCarrick and promised to “follow the path of truth wherever it may lead”. He suggested publishing a collective statement of support for the investigation. Cardinal Cupich appeared to find the measure redundant. “So we’re voting on asking the Holy See to do what they already said they’re going to do?” he asked. “The Successor of Peter has said he’s going to be truthful about this, and it seems to me we need to take his word at it.” The proposal failed, with 137 bishops voting against and 83 voting in favour of it.
Cardinal Cupich, especially, played an active role at the meeting. As Fr Raymond de Souza noted in the Register, the Archbishop of Chicago praised the Vatican’s decision to prevent any votes “within seconds” of Cardinal DiNardo making the announcement. Some news outlets suggested that the cardinal was prepared in advance by the Congregation for Bishops or other Vatican officials, yet he denied this on Monday. He also rejected reports that he had worked with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who recently stood down as the Archbishop of Washington, DC, on an alternative proposal. This so-called “metropolitan model” would make diocesan bishops responsible for policing each other, instead of authorising lay investigators.
Still, it was Cardinal Tobin who was selected to deliver a keynote address at a Villanova conference earlier this year organised by self-described “national champions of Pope Francis”. Moreover, Cardinal Tobin appears to be a leading candidate to replace Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington, DC.
After opening the bishops’ meeting with the unexpected news from the Vatican, Cardinal DiNardo closed with a message of hope. The bishops, he said, would “take the strongest possible action at the earliest possible moment”. He added that he was convinced that the Church would act “decisively” after February’s meeting. “I am sure that, under the leadership of Pope Francis, the conversation that the global Church will have in February will help us eradicate the evil of sexual abuse from our Church,” he said.
He and the rest of the American bishops should hope for a fruitful meeting next year. The limits placed on November’s assembly make decisive action in February essential if the bishops are to win back credibility in the eyes of the faithful.