In "Bishops at a Turning Point" (Public Square, October 2004), Richard John Neuhaus offers a lucid and, as he might say, winsomely optimistic analysis of the American bishops' assembly in Denver last June. If the bishops, prodded by some of the younger and more tough-minded members of the hierarchy, are in fact learning how to work together more effectively to meet the real needs of the Church, it is good news indeed.
There is, however, an element of Father Neuhaus' prescription that I find deeply troubling. I mean the argument that the bishops must meet behind closed doors, without the unwelcome attention of the press, in order to be sufficiently at ease to do their work.
Speaking to bishops from Pennsylvania and New Jersey on their recent ad limina visit to the Holy See, Pope John Paul II said the following: "Within a sound ecclesiology of Communion, a commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation, and shared responsibility should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular 'democratic' model of governance, but an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority."
Accountability in ecclesial governance is a necessary part of the vision sketched out by the Pope, and transparency in regard to the process of decision-making as well as its product is a necessary part of accountability.
I do not suggest that the bishops must open all parts of all their meetings to the media to achieve this result. Occasional assemblies entirely in executive session, like the one in Denver, are undoubtedly helpful in certain circumstances. Similarly, the bishops might wish to experiment more freely with closed-door regional assemblies than they have done up to now. No doubt there are other possibilities. The aim should be to find a workable mix of meeting formats that involve both open and closed doors. By contrast, a retreat into a uniform policy of secrecy would be a step backward, with disastrous long-term results.
One further point. Ft. Neuhaus makes a common mistake in separating the episcopal conference from its "supporting institution," the bishops conference. In fact, the episcopal conference is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This entity has a staff, of course, and the relationship of bishops to staff is a legitimate topic for inquiry and, at times, criticism. Nevertheless, de facto and de jure the American bishops are the USCCB.