Origins of the U.S. Bishop’s Conference

CRUX ran an interesting article claiming “U.S. bishops’ conference arose out of a national crisis a century ago.” The “conference” is like no other. It is actually the governing body of the American branch of the Roman Catholic Church. Wikipedia says, “it is composed of all active and retired members of the Catholic hierarchy (i.e., diocesan, coadjutor, and auxiliary bishops and the ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter) in the United States and the Territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands.” And while CRUX suggests it started a century ago, Wikipedia says it was founded in 1966. Things gets even stranger.

A century ago, the U.S. entered World War I. At the time, the Catholic Church was not popular in America. Many Americans viewed Catholics as loyal to a foreign ruler, the Pope. A few years later, America would adopt new immigration laws designed to keep out Catholics and Jews. (Back in those days, it was common for job ads to say “Irish and Jews need not apply.”)  

According to CRUX, “the Catholic Church sought how to best serve both its own people and the larger national community at a time of great need.” Its answer - the National Catholic War Council. While Christ blessed the peace-keepers, the Church had other ideas. Supporting the war effort was a popular move, plus the council got involved in “recruiting military chaplains, promoting recreational services for servicemen, and, via a women’s committee, encouraging war-related activities focusing on displaced persons and child welfare.”

The Vatican liked the War Council, in part because it centralized and strengthened their authority over the American Church. When the war was over - and along with it the purpose of the War Council - CRUX claims “the bishops decided to continue and expand their collaboration on the national level.” With the approval of Pope Benedict XV, the cardinal in charge of the Council headed “a unified force … directed to the furthering of those general policies which are vital to all.” They renamed it the National Catholic Welfare Council. Didn’t even have to change the initials; the transition from “war” to “welfare” was trivial.

CRUX omitted an important fact. At the time of the War Council, the Church also took control of the Knights of Columbus (here). The Knights of Columbus were a popular organization that represented and lobbied for American Catholics. They became the quasi-official outward facing representatives for the Church, while the War/Welfare Council was predominantly inward facing, and also had control over the Knights of Columbus.

The Council relinquished its control over the Knights of Columbus, which was a much more effective lobbyist outside the Church. But the Knights still contribute a great deal to the Vatican, and it is not clear what official and non-official ties persist. In any case, the Knights of Columbus is also the largest funder of CRUX, and I can’t help thinking that its omission from this story was not purely accidental. The Church spins a very tangled web.

 

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