There is little doubt about the importance of the USCCB plenary meeting this fall. On the one hand, the vice-president of the conference, the archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron, will not be the favorite of the presidential election because he will not be a candidate: at seventy-four years old, he should, as all bishops, submit his resignation on attaining seventy-five years of age. On the other hand, it is the first plenary since the cancellation of the Supreme Court deer. Finally, the new leadership will be at the helm until the 2024 U.S. presidential election, when we can learn how strongly American Catholics support American democracy.
But this meeting of bishops is also important on a deeper level. This comes at a time when the Catholic Church is on the way to becoming, in a way, a “post-episcopal” Church, and no longer an Episcopal Church. And it will likely have a dramatic impact on how Catholicism can influence and interact with American social and political values.
The situation stems from the dizzying fall in vocations. We still have bishops, priests and deacons, of course, but there is no way to imagine a Church in which there is a priest for each parish, except by importing clergy from other countries. Meanwhile, a recent study from the Catholic University of America shows a notable drop in the level of trust that priests have in their bishops. This “organizational” schism would be worrying in any organization, but especially a religious one.
Nearly two years ago, Pope Francis opened the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte to women, but it failed to capture the attention of most women already serving in the Church or who would like to do so. Among the bishops, it arouses even less enthusiasm. The same could be said of the creation of the ministry instituted as a catechist by Francis in May 2021. In an evangelizing Church that wants to be entirely ministerial, the very idea of ministry is still identified with ordination.
The situation is even more pronounced for the ministry of bishops. The post-conciliar crisis of the priesthood and religious orders is not surprising, given the superficial treatment that Vatican II and its final documents gave to these ministries and their role in the Church. But the situation of the bishop is surprising. Vatican II was not just a council made by the bishops but also in a certain sense for the bishops: it offered them episcopal collegiality, a new language for local pastoral care, more control over the diocesan clergy and, above all, over the religious orders in their dioceses. The very celebration of Vatican II was proof that from then on not only would the episcopate exist, but question.