While bureaucracies, committees and other organizational structures are often regarded as obstacles to change and flexibility, this week's meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops in San Antonio showed that this is not necessarily the case.
First came the early intervention in the meeting when USCCB President Cardinal George asked if there were any amendments to the proposed agenda and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles stood up and said yes, as a matter of fact, there were. Mahony proposed that, meeting in a border state, perhaps the meeting would be a good opportunity for the bishops' to reiterate their support for comprehensive immigration reform. After approval both for the motion and then, the next day, for a text adapted by Cardinal George from a proposed text by Cardinal Mahony, this was the quick end result.
Cardinal Mahony's intervention on the agenda wasn't the only example of a single bishop causing the proceedings to seemingly turn on a dime this week. Even more striking was the change that grew out of a question/comment by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska during the debate on the liturgical items before the body of bishops.
Up to this point in the meeting, the bishops had been cruising along nicely with their electronic voting system, approving the long-gestating Mass in Thanksgiving for the Gift of Human Life and its subsequent adaptation into the U.S. missal.
But when the next action item, Masses and Prayer for Various Needs and Intentions -- part of the ongoing work of completing a new English translation of the Mass -- came up for a vote, the screen that had projected the earlier vote totals, complete with colorful bars, remained blank.
The vote, it was announced, had been inconclusive. That is, the item had failed to achieve the necessary approval of two thirds of the Latin church bishops and would therefore be sent to the bishops absent from the meeting to complete the ballotting by mail.
It was at that moment that Bishop Bruskewitz stood and, even admitting that this was probably an exercise in futility, asked why it was that the bishops were not permitted to see the inconclusive vote totals. He included the observation that the USCCB staff get to see the results (though this writer is certainly not one of those special few). Were they somehow trustworthy, he speculated, while the bishops themselves were not?
Msgr. David Malloy, General Secretary of the USCCB, noted that there had never been a leak from the USCCB staff on a vote total and that the policy of not releasing an inconclusive vote was done to preserve the integrity of the balloting process. The bishops present at the meeting vote on a measure without knowing its prospects for passing or not passing. Bishops absent from the meeting should receive the same treatment, lest they be swayed by the knowledge that their vote might be critical or futile, one way or the other, whatever the case may be. If memory serves, he also suggested that there was a fear of inappropriate lobbying for the votes of absentee bishops, should it be public knowledge that a vote is very close.
From there, a lively debate ensued, with it quickly becoming apparent that more than a couple bishops were also interested in knowing the inconclusive total. Questions were raised as to whether absent bishops would receive minutes of the meeting or summary of the debate preceding the vote -- such as Bishop Donald Trautman's unambiguous declaration that he felt the new translation was unproclaimable and not ready. Msgr. Malloy said absent bishops receive documentation but not minutes.
Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, after discouraging the cumbersome prospect of sending whole debate transcripts to absentees, said he saw Bishop Bruskewitz's point and moved that the inconclusive total be made known. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia seconded the motion.
Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit then stood up and said that he didn't favor such a sudden and sweeping change in Conference procedure without its going through the proper channels. On those grounds, he opposed the motion.
At this point, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Vice President of the USCCB, asked if this motion applied to all inconclusive vote totals or merely the one currently before the bishops. Archbishop Pilarczyk clarified and said his motion would be for all of them from here forward.
With that, Bishop Blaise Cupich of Rapid City, S.D. opposed the motion on the earlier grounds of making the mail vote different from the original vote.
Other points that were raised included Cardinal Mahony citing that he had absent auxiliaries who would find the vote count helpful and Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo noting that essentially all bishops have cell phones, e-mail, etc., that they weren't somehow disconnected from what was going on with the conference simply by missing a meeting or not being provided with a vote count.
Ultimately, the motion passed, 122 to 65. From there, each liturgy vote, all but one of them inconclusive, splashed across the screen, providing an erstwhile unseen perspective on where the bishops as a whole stand on the particular issue of liturgical translations.
And while this whole affair could be chalked up to mere procedural matters, voting on voting, as it were, it still offers an interesting glimpse of one bishop expressing a sentiment that, by his own admission, might have gone nowhere, but instead ended up changing the protocols of the organization on the spot. Bolder people would make comments about the Spirit, but this writer will stop at saying this is yet another instance of the U.S. bishops wrestling with that mysterious concept talked about at Vatican II called collegiality, that is, the collaborative and collective exercise of their authority in governing and ministering to the church.