I was in line for lunch when a bishop glanced at my badge and introduced himself. Then he said, “I read something you wrote and I want to tell you what I think about it.”
I prepared for criticism. But then he surprised me, noting that an article I had written after last year’s meeting of American bishops in November, which argued, “Don’t over-romanticize adoption in pursuit of pro-life goals,” had really opened his eyes to the complexity of adoption.
We continued to briefly discuss why adoption always begins with a loss and how adoptees often struggle throughout life, and why adoption, which can always be an overall positive experience, is not the simple answer to every unplanned pregnancy. I was able to share my perspective as an adoptive mother and as a birthmother who placed a child up for adoption when I was a teenager, and he gave me insight into the comments made about adoption during of the meeting of bishops.
It was one-on-one meetings like this that made the recent Chicago conference between some American bishops, theologians and journalists interesting — even if the selection of attendees and the secrecy surrounding the meeting raised eyebrows.
As reported by my colleague, Joshua McElwee, editor of NCR News, the March 25-26 conference, “Pope Francis, Vatican II, and the Way Forward,” was co-hosted by the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University Chicago, Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, and Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. NCR political columnist Michael Sean Winters also helped organize.
Keynote presentations and panel discussions focused on how the US Catholic Church can better support Francis’ agenda, especially as some members of the Church — including in the hierarchy — are actively doing so. do not support the pope.
The event was by invitation only for around 70 cardinals, bishops, theologians and journalists, and was held under ‘Chatham House rules’, meaning attendees agreed they could speak afterwards about the content discussions, but without revealing who had made a particular. comment.
I was invited to present as part of a panel on “Money, Media and Networks Opposing Pope Francis”. Drawing on NCR reporting on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), The Pillar blog, Church Militant, and other outlets, I pitted anti-Francis outlets and their backers against more reputable outlets that follow traditional journalistic and ethical practices.
One such journalistic principle is support for so-called “sunshine” laws, which protect the transparency of public meetings, debates and reports, usually from government agencies. I would have preferred, as a reporter, for the Chicago conference to be “taped”, as opposed to the Chatham House rule.
But private meetings are not uncommon, and journalists are learning to circumvent them. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets privately in executive session (and lately increasingly so) at its otherwise public biannual meetings. Its committee meetings are also private.
An equally private gathering of bishops and theologians was held in 2017 on the theme of Amoris Laetitiathe apostolic exhortation after the synods on the family, just like this February 2020 event on “co-responsibility” sponsored by the Leadership Roundtable.
That NCR was invited to these two events seems to testify to our journalistic credibility. (As National Correspondent at the time, I was not invited to either event.)
At least these meetings are clear on the rules beforehand — unlike a Napa Institute-sponsored “authentic reformation” event in 2018 after former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse revelations. Although reporters don’t normally pay admission to events they cover to avoid a financial conflict of interest, Napa not only insisted that I pay the $500 entry fee, but then announced that reporters had to leave the room when the panel of bishops began. Other reporters, from more “Napa-friendly” outlets, got up and walked out. I refused.
It’s understandable that those not invited to the Chicago event might feel left out, and the fact that such gatherings are few and far between reinforces the seeming importance of this individual event. Although the rules prevent me from naming the participants, I can say that most were familiar faces and the ethnic and racial diversity was noticeably minimal. I hope the organizers will rectify this at future conferences.
For a Religion News Service article about the conference, I told reporter Jack Jenkins that the synod on synodality was a hot topic, and that the event itself seemed like an example of “walking together”: “hierarchy , lay professionals – having conversations and talking about their hopes and dreams for the church.”
The next day, I attended the synodal meeting in person in my parish, which was sparsely attended and equally undiversified, despite significant ethnic and racial diversity in the parish. Still, a fruitful conversation has taken place and our comments – together with those collected during the regional virtual synodal meetings – will be forwarded to the Archdiocese.
As the editor of a national Catholic publication, I already have an outsized voice in church conversations. But if I hadn’t stood in line for lunch, the bishop and I wouldn’t have had this shared exchange. Perhaps if there were more opportunities for church leaders to spend time, in person, with ordinary Catholics, we could understand each other better. I vote for more conferences, more gatherings and more lunches together.