Reports out of the Fall USCCB assembly have been mixed, to say the least. News outlets and social-media sources have effectively reported on some of the more controversial statements, discussions, proposed texts, and documents to be the subject of consideration in Baltimore in recent days. To be fair, not everything has been negative. Take, for example, the USCCB’s interest in social media and internet presence of the church. On Sunday the USCCB hosted a gathering of significant Catholic bloggers that allowed for the bishops and those who were providing online content in a variety of forms to interact. The event included a panel discussion with clergy and laity who are actively engaged with social media today. The reports about this event from colleagues has been generally positive (by way of full disclosure, I was invited by the secretary for communications to participate in this event, but had to decline due to pastoral ministry obligations).
However positive the initial steps to explore social media and internet presence as modes of evangelization might have been, the news chatter has been preoccupied with some more disconcerting reports. The first was related to Cardinal Dolan’s presidential address in which he called for a more concrete sense of penance. Citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, Dolan asserted that the Second Vatican Council’s call for penance has, rather than being taken up wholeheartedly, seems to have diminished from sight. He said:
What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance.
He rightfully challenges us as members of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, to be aware of the need for consistent penance and, as we recall at the start of every Eucharistic liturgy, to be mindful of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” He continued:
And so it turns to us, my brothers. How will we make the Year of Faith a time to renew the Sacrament of Penance, in our own loves and in the lives of our beloved people whom we serve? Once again, we will later this week approach the Sacrament of Penance.And we’ll have the opportunity during this meeting to approve a simple pastoral invitation to all our faithful to join us in renewing our appreciation for and use of the Sacrament. We will “Keep the Light On”during the upcoming Advent Season!The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources for catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of confession. Next June we will gather in a special assembly as brother bishops to pray and reflect on the mission entrusted to us by the Church, including our witness to personal conversion in Jesus Christ, and so to the New Evangelization.
For the most part, this is a welcomed attempt to draw our attention the perennial need we have to be aware of our own individual sinfulness. Yet, what is more absent than present is the admittance and call for continual awareness of our collective sinfulness.
Contrary to Francis of Assisi’s powerful expression that human beings are to be reconcilers and peacemakers (see Canticle of the Creatures) — and Francis is of course the paradigmatic model of Christian penitence — this exhortation for the faithful to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year seems to miss the mark.
What the Cardinal does not seem to consider is the individualistic quality of such an act, one in which unity might be seen as ghettoized superficiality rather than an expression of genuine solidarity. My understanding of the lifting of the mandatory abstinence from meat throughout the year in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) is rooted in this very fact. Instead of something as trivial as dietary abstinence, the faithful was simultaneously challenged and empowered to engage in more constructive, solidarity-building, and meaningful forms of good deeds and penance.
It’s hard to see how the reinstatement of meatless Fridays will effect the spirit of penance Dolan genuinely and legitimately sees as part of the spirit of Vatican II.
Furthermore, what makes this suggestion controversial is that, some have argued, it is not the “people in the pews” who are in most need of renewed emphasis on penance in their Christian lives — God knows (literally) how difficult it is to live authentic Christian discipleship today in light of the various pressures from all sides and conflicting narratives that both come from within and without the Church — BUT, there is a need for our ecclesiastical leaders, especially the bishops, to demonstrate their embrace of penance.
There are manifold ways in which we could offer a litany of the things our bishops have “done and have failed to do” in the last decades and in recent years. The model of the Archbishop of Dublin and our own Cardinal Séan O’Malley in the penitential act seeking forgiveness for the abuse cover-ups in Ireland some years back is a good start. Yet, the US bishops have failed to do something similar.
Then there is the controversial text that, thank God, was not approved this week (despite it still garnering a plurality of bishop support). The proposed statement, “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times: A pastoral message on work, poverty and the economy,” was a pathetic shadow of the true depth, richness, and challenge of Catholic Social Teaching. This was made most clear by the retired Archbishop (and former USCCB President) Joseph Fiorenza. According to an NCR article, Fiorenza publicly decried the draft text and noted that it “did not have a single reference, even in a footnote, to the bishops’ landmark 1986 pastoral letter, ‘Economic Justice for All,; which the bishops developed after years of consultation with economists and other experts. The letter addressed a full range of applications of Catholic social teaching to economic policy and practice in the United States.” The article continued:
“I am very disappointed, and I fear that this draft, if not changed in a major way,” will harm the U.S. bishops’ record on Catholic social teaching, he said.
“The title of this document is about work, and it seems you only gave one sentence to our social teaching … on the right of workers to unionize,” he said.
“One sentence,” he added. “It’s almost like it was an afterthought. But when you look at the compendium of the social teachings of the church, there are three long paragraphs on the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike.”
Those kinds of rights are “at the heart of our social teaching” on the rights and dignity of workers, he said.
Indeed this is most troubling. That the bishops would even consider a text containing such an oversight bespeaks some serious problems. On the one hand, it might be symbolic of the shift in the US episcopacy toward a political engagement with so-called “conservative” views that have been extraordinarily hostile to organized labor and the rights of workers in recent years. On the other hand, it might be symbolic of the general ignorance of the USCCB’s textual history and Catholic Social Teaching more broadly on the part of recently appointed bishops in recent years and decades.
That 134 bishops would still vote to pass such a text is halting. (The text failed to gain the necessary votes even with 134 yes; 84 no, and 9 abstentions).
The NCR piece continued:
“Why don’t we address [in the proposed statement] the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots, beginning with Paul VI in Populorum Progressio [his 1967 encyclical letter, "On the Progress of Peoples"] and John Paul II, Benedict XVI: They speak about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots and the right to a redistribution — redistribution has become a dirty word, yet the [recent popes] have said that this must take place,” he said.
“There’s not a word about this” in the proposed new statement on the economy, he said.
“I fear that this will not be an effective instrument” for the bishops to address the current woes in the U.S. economy or the people suffering from those problems, Fiorenza said.
What is striking, and fearsome at the same time, is that the most vocal critics of this new direction are the retired bishops. Where are the current bishops who should know better? When the retired auxiliary bishop of Hartford, Peter Rosazza, asked the chair of the drafting committee whether an economist had been consulted — the disturbing answer was that none had! How did these bishops responsible for drafting a document on the economy propose to do so without consultation of economists, ethicists, and theologians?
These two issues to come out of the Fall USCCB meeting are indeed troubling, but we must not get too carried away with concern just yet. What this signals to me is the need for the Church in the United States to collectively and genuinely reconsider its priorities. What is important? What are the signs of the time? and How do we read these signs in light of the Gospel?