An Insider’s Perspective On the US Bishops
Bishop Emeritus Holds Discussion on the Inner Workings of the USCCB
The Center for Social Concerns hosted a lecture entitled “How Bishops Really Work: Behind the Scenes of the USCCB” as part of its Research Seminar Series on September 18. Featuring Bishop Emeritus Robert Lynch, the September 18 event focused on the American bishops’ work to promote peace through their 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace.
Dr. Clemens Sedmak, a Professor of Social Ethics and Advisor in Catholic Social Tradition, began the lecture by introducing Bishop Lynch and providing detail about His Eminence’s experience. Sedmak described the former bishop of St. Petersburg and General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an “important, influential, and lovely bishop,” who “is spending a semester here at Notre Dame.”
He then reminded the audience of the importance of bishops and their work. Although “the term bishop cannot be found in the gospels,” Sedmak said, “now we need them—we need many of them.”
Bishop Lynch first discussed how The Challenge of Peace was a “very visible, tangible by-product of a vision of Church that originated in the Second Vatican Council … because the writers felt the need to listen.”
“Our Church is not awfully good at listening or hasn’t been in the past,” he explained, “especially those of us at my level kind of think that with ordination comes infused knowledge that is really not there. This was an extraordinary moment,” he elaborated, “[because] this committee went all over the United States holding public hearings on the mind of the public relative to nuclear warfare and the potential for nuclear destruction.”
Next, Bishop Lynch described how the campaign rhetoric of Ronald Reagan spurred the U.S. bishops to focus on issues such as peace. “Episcopal conferences really had not yet come to full maturity after the [Second Vatican] Council,” explained Bishop Lynch, “because they were working on a lot of internal things, not external [ones].”
“The pledge that [Reagan] made in his campaign that he was going to match the Russian ability with nuclear weaponry,” he continued, “was what stimulated a number of bishops to begin to say that we are moral leaders and we ought to be thinking about this.”
The USCCB had to contend with numerous challenges though. “The regular administration was vehemently against the bishops of the United States writing a draft on something that they considered way out of our area of expertise and our area of knowledge,” explained Bishop Lynch.
“There were a number of interventions by the Secretary of State from the Holy See asking us to cease and desist,” he continued, “to temper, to show certain considerations … some of which our writing committee didn’t think were appropriate. So, there was tension there.”
A picture of Cardinal Joseph Bernadine, one of the authors of the pastoral letter, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine caused greater problems, however.
“That set Rome off,” Bishop Lynch said, “because they didn’t know how to handle a local church gaining the notoriety and gaining the legitimacy … That strained relationship [with the Holy See] has existed until five years ago and the election of Pope Francis. The pendulum has swung, but I’m talking to you about a time when the pendulum was swinging towards strong central power in Rome and a lesser role for episcopal conferences throughout the world.”
Despite these difficulties, the bishops’ letter was eventually issued and Bishop Lynch believes that “it energized the episcopal conference.” However, Bishop Lynch believes that the 34-year-old document may need to be updated for the modern world.
“Now, for example,” he argued, “with our situation with North Korea and our own president… it’s time to revisit The Challenge of Peace… and perhaps revise it a little bit.”
Bishop Lynch then discussed changes that have occurred in the priorities of the U.S. bishops since 1983. “It was not long after The Challenge of Peace,” he explained, “that they [the Holy See] began to change our hierarchy from socially active people to what I call… ‘internal navel gazers,’ people whose major issues… were not the economy, not the equality of women, not peace, but pro-life, just a lot of internal things.
“We have lost our zest and we lost our sense of responsibility to the vision of the council,” he lamented, “but I do think it is coming back. It is sometimes said of our episcopal conference, that we have become the ‘Republican Party of Prayer.’ I don’t know if that does apply to me.”
Bishop Lynch observed that the impacts of the USCCB’s efforts at peace building contained in the pastoral letter extended far beyond their actual subject matter. “That letter had a profound effect not just on polity, not just on the whole question of nuclear deterrence, and living in a just world and searching the path for peace” he concluded, “but it had a significant—a more significant—moment for Catholic life in the United States.”
Nicholas Gadola Holmes is a first-year political science major living in Keough Hall. His spirit animal is Michael Scott. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.