In 1992 Jesuit Father Thomas Reese dubbed the then 75 year old National Conference of Catholic Bishops "Flock of Shepherds" in a book of that title in which the Jesuit sociologist surveyed some of the history as well as the composition and activity of the episcopal conference of the United States of America.
Last week, gathered in Baltimore for their annual Fall Assembly, the bishops of the same conference, but with a new name -- the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ---- met to carry out their responsibility for the Church beyond their local churches and marked the conference's one hundredth birthday.
The centennial observation was low key with presentations on various aspects of its history presented by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan. Both have degrees in history and so brought their professional historians' view to their brother bishops. Spokane's retired Bishop William Skylstad, a former president of the USCCB, reflected more about the importance of the collegial activity of the bishops.
Pope Francis dispatched his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin to celebrate and preach at the centennial Mass in the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. A festive dinner followed at a local hotel, the evening prior to the actual "work" of the conference.
Episcopal or bishops' conferences existed prior to the Second Vatican Council. However their usefulness as expressions of the sacramental bond between and among bishops, as well as the opportunity the conference provides for the bishops to address issues on a national level, were green lighted at the council.
As with any gathering of leadership of organizations, especially high profile ones like Catholic bishops, there is an amazing amount of interest on the part of the media, both Catholic and secular. And as varied as the interests, so varied the reports and emphases in the reporting.
Prior to this meeting there were questions raised about the "thin agenda," a not too subtle reference to the lack of so called "hot topic" issues. There is the usual questioning of the expenses of the conference -- facility, travel, lodging. Then there are the observers who are looking for any wedge among and between members and an especially driven agenda of some who delight in promoting the picture of the conference at odds with the pope.
This last matter is a constant as some issues or discussions demonstrate (at least in some minds and pens) the chasm, gulf, or divide between this or that bishop or group of bishops and whoever the current Bishop of Rome may be.
All episcopal conferences are governed by the Code of Canon Law, but more by the respective statutes of each conference, all of which much be approved by the Holy See. While there is a lot in common among the statutes of the various conferences; there is also a wide variety of determination of membership, voting rights, speaking possibilities; as well as conferences' offices and officers.
"Our" conference is well organized, with a large and competent staff at its Washington offices. The staff is overwhelmingly laywomen and men, but there are also women and men religious, priests and deacons in the staff directory. The staff always tells you "we're here to serve the bishops" and through them they serve us, the Church in the United States.
All conferences are multi-dimensional regardless of their size. However, there are two aspects that are key to having a sense of what a conference is and therefore what it is not. Those two are the promotion of the "affective" and "effective" collegiality of the bishops in their service to their respective dioceses; to the Church in the United States and across the globe.
It is the second of these -- the "effective" that tends to garner the most attention, before, during, and after the meeting. The effective is best reflected in the "agenda" or the "action items." There is a process of proposing ideas, composing proposals, and putting this into a document form. There follows discussion, sometimes tense, but quite respectful and sincere. This is where it sometimes looks like the floor of a congress.
Sometimes an issue has to be remitted to one or more conference committees for review and revision and it is brought up again for discussion prior to voting. Conference statutes provide details about who may vote on an issue; whether a simple majority or two thirds or unanimity is needed to pass.
There is an executive session in which matters more confidential are to be discussed. These are usually less than one-third of the schedule of the conference; all the rest being open to the media and covered "gavel to gavel" by television outlets.
It is that "affective" dimension of a conference and especially the USCCB that is not either so easily or well reported.
The annual agenda has plenty of time during which bishops meet informally at breaks, for lunch or for evening dinners. It is here where that more elusive "affective" dimension happens.
Bishops get together at these informal events based on a variety of shifting and developing relationships. Bishops know each other because they are seminary classmates (one class from Rome's North American College has eight members in the USCCB); or they may have attended the same seminary and are contemporaries. Sometimes it is their native diocese that is the draw. Others may have pursued graduate degrees in theology, philosophy or canon law at one or the other of the pontifical universities in Rome or The Catholic University of America.
Still some know each other from membership in professional associations; or because they have been or are serving with one another on one or the other of the committees of the conference. Another obvious reason is that they serve in the same geographical area. Not infrequently, bishops are shuttled form one assignment to another so that a bishop from California could be serving in Washington; or a bishop from Pittsburgh, or two, serving in Texas.
Another contributor to the affective is the Program for New Bishops sponsored annually in early September at Rome for all bishops appointed across the world in the previous 12 months. You might ask a bishop from New York how he knows a bishop from Mississippi and he'd say "I was with him at 'Baby Bishops' School.'" That's the nickname the program was dubbed with years ago and has stuck with it ever since.
Since BOTH of these fundamental dimensions of an episcopal conference are important both to its proper function and its general effect in areas of responsibility; both need to be considered in any accurate reporting about activities in the conference and specifically in the USCCB.
An episcopal conference is not simply a congress. It is an expression of the collegial nature of the bishop members and their responsibility for the Church. The bond is sacramental and a bishop shares both the affective and effective dimensions from the moment of his episcopal ordination.
The whole story of any one meeting cannot be reduced to its agenda or its effective dimension. Accurate and fair reporting requires seeing the unseen or better unreported activity which is the result of the affective relationships in and between the members of an episcopal conference.