Monday, November 04, 2013

For "Fall Classic," A Premier Preview

Good Monday morning, folks – as today brings up the curtain on these parts' "Running Season," a couple bits at the outset.

First, even if the full USCCB plenary in Baltimore doesn't begin until a week from now, the action begins in earnest this Thursday with the start of the committee meetings. Either way, though, several showdowns are already on the map... yet only one features on the public agenda – the rest will be hashed out in the hallways and executive sessions.

Among the latter, two items stand out: seven weeks until the HHS mandate for contraceptive coverage in benefit plans is slated to take effect for faith-based entities that don't meet the government's criteria for exemption, barring a further extension, the closed-door portion of this Fall Classic will set the Stateside church's line on whether the Federal "accommodation" will suffice, or the bishops move to close or curtail the significant Catholic presence in social-services and healthcare.

Needless to say, emotions are high on all sides. Led by the head of the third-largest diocese, Cardinal Francis George OMI, conference conservatives are determined to hold a line of noncompliance, with the shutdown option remaining "live" for at least some. On the more progressive side, meanwhile, several prelates have quietly indicated that, to one degree or another, the current form of the regulations is something they can work with, and facing the specter of either hefty financial penalties for defying the policy or the public outcry likely to come should Catholic Charities or hospitals – in no shortage of places, the largest private provider(s) of care for the sick and needy (albeit a work often heavily underwritten by public funds) – move to close, a desire to accommodate the "accommodation" has increasingly crept into the center of the body.

Among other related concerns to be sorted out is the degree of the hierarchy's continuing push on behalf of private, lay-owned businesses whose Catholic owners object to the mandate on grounds of conscience. Dubbed the "Taco Bell" scenario, one of its more prominent examples returned to the fore last week as EWTN filed a fresh suit seeking relief from the final rule, this time joined by the mega-broadcaster's home-state of Alabama. (Despite its mission and profound ecclesiastical ties, EWTN has had no formal canonical standing since Mother Angelica spun off the network's control to its mostly-lay board in 2000 as a means of safeguarding her creation from the machinations of its enemies in the hierarchy.)

As the roughly 100 cases filed in Federal courts nationwide by church or church-related entities have garnered disparate results, the likelihood of Supreme Court arguments on the question during the current term are perceived to be high. Still, should SCOTUS take the case, no decision will be had in time for the mandate's compliance deadline of January 1st – five months past its originally intended enforcement date. Yet even as Washington's timeline looms ominously enough on its own, the ticking clock is even more pressing on the ecclesial front; as Cardinal Timothy Dolan has quietly conducted the delicate backchannel negotiations with the Obama administration on the bench's behalf, the end of the Gotham prelate's presidency at the meeting's close will place the discussions' home stretch into the hands of his successor.

Of course, the next president and the body could delegate Dolan to keep at the task. In any case, one thing that everybody seems to agree on is that a "patchwork" of different approaches is best avoided – a mindset that, in the end, will likely require sacrifice from all sides... and the kind of compromise that, regardless of who's next at the helm, perhaps only the departing Chief can smoothly forge.

Elsewhere, what might seem like another matter might not end up being one in isolation. Over the last several months, a proposal has quietly circulated for the establishment of a USCCB-supervised national fund – in essence, a 501 (c)(4) political action committee – whose resources would reportedly be employed to advocate and defend the church's teaching and prerogatives where these are deemed to be actively under threat in the public square at whatever level.

In theory, the plan – said to have been floated by no less than "Super-Cardinal" Seán O'Malley OFM Cap. at September's Administrative Committee meeting – is the kind of idea that would attract broad support, as well as heed Pope Francis' historic conviction that the church's engagement on issues is best handled collegially by means of the episcopal conference. As with so many things, however – especially the polarities at work among the body – the devil's in the details; for example, what would constitute an "assault on the church" in, say, Providence might not meet the standard in Stockton, or vice versa. (Random examples, surely.) Put another way, with the church's public approach to state recognitions of same-sex marriage spurring some to question the effectiveness of the prevalent strategy employed to date, the proposed entity's choice of issues to combat and the means of response – not to mention the mechanism used to determine these – is bound to spark notable differences of opinion. At the end of the day, the agreement to forming an action fund could just wind up being part of the resolution to the mandate dispute.

Elsewhere, it bears noting that for the fourth meeting of the current presidency – and, indeed, the third one in a row – 11 years after Dallas, the bishops will convene as the shadow of damaging assertions of clerical misconduct and its coverup have cast a cloud over yet another local church.

Following Philadelphia at the June 2011 plenary in Seattle, Kansas City at last November's gathering and Newark at the June retreat, this time it's the Twin Cities, where a raft of reporting by Minnesota Public Radio (much of it culled from the archdiocese's former canonical Chancellor) has left Archbishop John Nienstedt severely embattled.

An influential figure on the wider scene, while the Detroit-born prelate – a onetime staffer at the Secretariat of State – has responded by creating an independent review panel, delegating all handling of cases to a newly-named episcopal vicar, replacing his vicar-general and pledging to "restore trust" while defending his staff's protocols in a written interview, the storm served to eclipse even last month's appointment of a new auxiliary for Minnesota's 850,000-member lead church. 

A veteran rock-climber and onetime college-campus evangelist with an inspiring story to tell, the naming of Bishop-elect Andrew Cozzens, 45, was not accompanied by a press conference, making it the first time in nearly a decade that a US prelate didn't face the cameras on his Appointment Day – and the last time it happened, in late 2005, the intended presser in Reno was only canceled as Bishop-elect Randy Calvo was prevented from making the trip due to a blizzard.

In the story's latest development, the archdiocese announced over the weekend that two priests have taken voluntary leaves of absence after admitting to unspecified "prior misconduct." According to the Chancery statements, neither case involved a violation of the Dallas Norms (2011 rev.), whose provisions remain particular law for the US church.

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And then, of course, there is the Presidency. With eight days 'til the vote, there'll obviously be more on this over the week to come... but for now, one thing sticks out.

We've been talking for a long time here about the staggering demographic shift of this Stateside church – the kind of movement we haven't seen in some 170 years, since the waves of Famine-striken Irish arrived to transform a minority band of mostly (and often warring) English and German faithful into the nation's largest religious body. This time around, the forces are twofold – an ethnic earthquake that, today, has Hispanics comprising a plurality of the nation's pews (and nearly two-thirds of the entire membership younger than 30), and non-Anglos together forming the operative majority of 70 million American Catholics... while on the other curve, there's the epochal swing of the ecclesial center of gravity away from the traditional hubs of the Northeast and old Midwest toward the energized, booming, resolutely post-Concilar and distinctly "evangelical" hotspots along the Gulf and Pacific coasts.

As never before, both of these factors – but especially the second – are reflected on the 10-man slate for "America's Next Top Bishop," only one of whose finalists this time is an Old Guard thoroughbred. Then again, lest anyone forgot, the handover from the caucus representing the "precedent" of American Catholic life to that of its "promise" was already afoot last year, when each of the four votes that pitted Northeast vs. South/West prelates for committee chairmanships were swept by the latter.

Accordingly, almost irrespective of who wins what, in the same place where the project began 225 years ago next April, the sweeping change out in the trenches reaches the pinnacle next week as the church on these shores enters a new era – one in which its leadership is drawn and driven less from its fading empires than the rising beacons of the road ahead.

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All that said, to everyone who's lent a hand over the weekend to keep these pages going, a thousand thanks and more – like everything else, this brief look ahead is only made possible through your support.

Gratefully, the hope of having a workable Year-End Budget has become a lot less gut-wrenching than it was... still, it doesn't mean we're out of the woods just yet. In any case, while the funding might secure the practical part of getting the job done, humanly speaking, the joy of finding the names and notes this scribe wouldn't otherwise see make for the even more priceless gift of feeling a lot less alone, and that keeping at things this way in this place hasn't been in vain.

Then again, gang, that's what "being Church" is... and to those who've sent that grace this way over these last almost nine years, just know how, more than any other, that's been the thing that means the world. Again, all thanks.