NEW YORK – For many U.S. bishops, the virtual nature of this year’s annual fall meeting actually made it more efficient and productive than a typical year.
Over the course of the two-day Zoom meeting there was discussion about the Holy See’s report on laicized ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and racism.
And in an unscheduled final address, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops president, said president-elect Joe Biden’s pro-choice abortion stance and other policies cause “confusion with the faithful.” He also announced Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit will chair a new working group to navigate the relationship with the second Catholic president.
Bishop James Wall of Gallup and other bishops called the message to Biden an important first step in the new relationship. Now, he hopes Biden’s Catholic faith will lead him to change.
“Hopefully, he’ll repent, which he should do. Hopefully, he’ll turn back to the gospel for truth. Hopefully, he’s a man of high character and morally defines all life,” Bishop Wall told The Tablet Nov. 19. “That’s what I’m hoping and praying for.”
Like Archbishop Gomez, Bishop Wall points to the confusion Biden causes with his stances on certain issues. Biden puts forward the Catholic faith as important to him and quotes St. Pope John Paul II on the campaign trail, but then promotes the “culture of death” with his abortion stance, Bishop Wall said.
Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City told The Tablet that there are challenges with every administration, it just so happens that Biden will be the second Catholic president. In the realm of politics, he wants his fellow bishops to stay away from partisanship on the right and left.
“We need as a Church to be clearer that we don’t represent a party. We represent values and issues and engage in public conversation about what’s good for society,” he said. “We encourage people to vote within their well-formed Catholic conscience, but in actually prescribing what the Catholic vote is, that is not the role of the Church.”
Bishops Wall and McKnight also described the scheduled discussions on the McCarrick report, COVID-19 and racism as quality first steps. In fact, Bishop Wall said he thinks the virtual format enabled the bishops to be more honest in their comments.
“When you’re in a big room it can be a bit intimidating to get up in front of 350 of your brother bishops with the camera on you. I think people felt a little more comfortable in terms of honesty,” Wall said.
They both pointed to a further involvement of lay people in the vetting process for bishops and investigations into matters of sexual misconduct as an important next step. Bishop Wall suggested people with expertise in certain areas and other “good faithful Catholics” be involved.
Bishop McKnight added that it’s important for archbishops to publicize the processes, procedures and that they’re using lay expertise in these matters to give them credibility both when someone is found guilty and when they are found innocent.
Another common theme of the McCarrick discussion was a call for prayer and penance. Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth told The Tablet that can’t be taken lightly.
“There’s no substitution of a very integral spiritual life and that also the sense of there’s no better sense of accountability and authentic fraternity directly centered on and anchored by Christ,” Bishop Olson said.
The McCarrick report was the focus of day one. On day two – before the unscheduled comments by Gomez – the discussion on racism took center stage. Many bishops spoke frankly about the need for tough conversations to move forward.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said people may think they’re not racist and don’t need to have those conversations, when the reality of the situation is different. Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso said it’s important to remember that words matter.
“Words that denigrate immigrants and other people of color really matter and feed into these ways of thinking,” he said.
Bishop McKnight, though he didn’t speak at the conference, looks back at a time he invited several deacons of color from his diocese to speak at the priest institute about their experiences with racism both in the community and within the Church. Those types of situations, he said, is the most powerful way to get people to understand.
However, the used the words “tough conversations” for a reason. Bishop Olson said the biggest challenge is getting people who might not experience racist behavior to buy into the project.
“The challenge living in both a modern and postmodern world, which tends to be very egocentric, there’s a mindset of, ‘if it’s not happening to self, it’s not really happening. The Church has to lead those discussions,” Bishop Olson said.
The focus of the discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic was the desire of parishioners to worship through the pandemic. Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe talked about the difficult balance they have to find between allowing people to worship and keeping everyone safe.
He and other bishops talked about the importance of the at home church as the best way to worship until the pandemic is over. Others also focused on ways to make sure parishioners continue to worship after the pandemic.
Auxiliary Robert Barron of Los Angeles suggested they create a national campaign, “bring someone back to church” in an attempt to get people to bring someone with them once churches completely open again.
The one thing Bishops Olson and McKnight lamented about this year’s meeting was lack of comradery because of the virtual format. However, they both, along with Bishop Wall, can see a virtual format utilized for certain events in the future because it was efficient and cost effective.