by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

“Who is going to save our Church? It’s not our bishops… It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes and the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that the priests act like priests, your bishops like bishops…” ~Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, May 28, 1972

Prescient words from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a popular expositor of Catholic teachings during the mid-20th century era. One might take issue with his observations at that time. The post-Vatican II U.S. Catholic hierarchy produced two outstanding pastoral letters at that point in time: “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response” and “Economic Justice for All.” However, 50 years later Bishop Sheen’s warning is dead on.

This week the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered in Orlando for their spring assembly. A quick look at their agenda says much about the current state of the U.S. institutional Catholic Church. A listing here of their discussions and voting:

  • Advance the cause of the beatification and canonization of the Shreveport martyrs
  • Update on National Eucharistic Revival initiative and National Eucharistic Congress
  • Presentation of the report from the Catholic University study of priests
  • Approve the second edition of the Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests
  • Approve National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry
  • Approve ICEL liturgical texts for Saint Faustina Kowalska
  • Approve revised statutes of the International Commission of English in the Liturgy (ICEL)
  • Approve texts for the Liturgy of the Hours
  • Proceed with revision of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services
  • Proposal for a Pastoral Statement from U.S. Bishops Addressing Persons With Disabilities in the Life of the Church
  • Approve priorities for the 2025-2028 USCCB Strategic Plan

While it is easy and “politically acceptable” these days to criticize the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, we have to say they are not ill-willed men and Pope Francis’s words in another context apply: “Who are we to judge” [their motives]? Still, two critiques of their meeting stand out.

First, the agenda deals almost exclusively with intra-U.S. Church issues.

Where is there any mention of the bishops’ silence regarding the deep ruptures in U.S. society today? More specifically, do the bishops have any word to say about the current threats to our country’s historic rule of law? (It is interesting to recall that this June meeting took place not far from the Miami courtroom where a former president typically dismissed credible accusations as “witch hunts.”)

Did the bishops concern themselves with a public perception that in practice many of their number as well as priests and laity hold homophobic, anti-Christian convictions?

Are the bishops concerned — as is Pope Francis — over global inequities while the U.S. lifestyle is scandalous in a world of hunger, violence and global warming?

One could continue with the list of extra-U.S. Church issues neglected at this meeting and in the day-to-day priorities of bishops as well.

The second critique is even more concerning: the absence at the assembly of the words “synod” and “synodality”! With Pope Francis’s worrisome health situation, the success or failure of this once-in-an-era opportunity for the Catholic Church is at stake. For a conference of Catholic bishops to ignore this kairos moment and not at least alert us to the epic, and still uncertain, outcome of Pope Francis’s signature initiative, is unconscionable.*

Returning to the sentiment of Bishop Sheen, the hope for a “new Pentecost” in the U.S. Catholic Church lies with the laity. The “people in the pews” have “the minds, eyes and ears to save the Church.”

Finally, a caution. For lay organizations like Pax Christi to despair of the Church because of the bishops’ indolence would be a terrible error. Laity must take seriously their “sensus fidelium” and lead, hoping that the hierarchy will eventually follow.

*Full disclosure: the November meeting of the bishops will feature the Synod. However, the critique here stands.

Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

2 thoughts on “The laity must lead when U.S. church leaders ignore the signs of the times

  1. Thank you for a poignant and stirring reflection, as always, Brother Joseph. Across all sectors and faith communities we need The Leadership to give voice to our common concerns–per the clarion and compassionate charges of Pope Francis–but we at the grassroots must find our own authentic voice and make space for other voices if we are to rise in allyship to meet the challenges of our times. Franz Fanon said that every generation must discover, and then either fulfill or betray, its destiny. Across the generations, our common destiny is to love boldly, to spread peace, to find and reveal the Christ in every person we meet. All roads lead home.

  2. I will continue to pray that we the body of Christ become the light of the world as our Savior commanded us.

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