There is little question about the importance of this fall’s plenary meeting of the USCCB. For one thing, the conference’s vice president, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, will not be the favorite in the presidential election because he won’t be a candidate: at seventy-four, he, like all bishops, would be expected to present his resignation on reaching seventy-five. For another, it’s the first plenary since the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Finally, the new leadership will be at the helm through the 2024 U.S. presidential election, when we may learn how much American Catholic support there is for American democracy.
But this bishops’ meeting is important on a deeper level as well. It comes as the Catholic Church is on its way to being, in some ways, a “post-episcopal” Church—no longer a bishops’ Church. And that will likely have a dramatic impact on how Catholicism may influence and interact with American social and political values.
The situation arises from the precipitous drop in vocations. We still have bishops, priests, and deacons, of course, but there’s no way to imagine a Church in which there’s a priest for every parish—except by importing clergy from other countries. Meanwhile, a recent study from the Catholic University of America shows a notable drop in the levels of trust and confidence that priests have in their bishops. This “organizational” schism would be cause for concern in any organization, but especially in a religious one.
Almost two years ago, Pope Francis opened the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte to women, but that has failed to capture the attention of most women who already serve in the Church or would like to. Among bishops, it has sparked even less enthusiasm. The same could be said for the creation of the instituted ministry of catechist by Francis in May 2021. In an evangelizing Church that wants to be all-ministerial, the very idea of ministry is still identified with ordination.
The predicament is even more pronounced for the ministry of bishops. The post-conciliar crisis of the priesthood and religious orders is not surprising, given the perfunctory treatment Vatican II and its final documents gave to those ministries and their role in the Church. But the bishop situation is surprising. Vatican II was not just a council made by the bishops but also in some sense for the bishops: it offered them episcopal collegiality, a new language for local pastoral ministry, more control over diocesan clergy and, especially, over religious orders in their dioceses. The very celebration of Vatican II was evidence that from thereon the episcopacy would not only exist but matter.