Julie Asher, Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE —“Happy 100th anniversary, my brother bishops,” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said at a workshop on the centenary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 12.

The cardinal gave a detailed overview of how the bishops’ conference arose out of a Catholic response to a national crisis — World War I. He also noted this “collegial tradition” goes back to meetings of priests called in the late 1780s by then-Father John Carroll, who would become the nation’s first Catholic bishop.

The second speaker, Bishop Earl A. Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, reviewed “a menu of topics” of concern to the conference over the years.

The USCCB began as National Catholic War Council, founded in 1917 to coordinate Catholic response to the war, including recruitment of military chaplains and a focus on displaced people and child welfare.

Once the war was over, the bishops decided they needed a permanent presence in the nation’s capital to promote Catholic interests. In 1919, the war council became the National Catholic Welfare Council. In 1922, the name was changed from “council” to “conference.”

In 1966, the structure was revamped to form the U.S. Catholic Conference as the public policy successor to the NCWC and to create the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the episcopal conference called for by the Second Vatican Council. In 2001, after a reorganization process, the twin conferences were merged into the USCCB.

‘Legacy of working together’

“What we’re celebrating today just didn’t start in 1917,” Cardinal Dolan said. “We bishops of the United States have a long legacy of working very closely together. This collegial tradition that we relish actually antedated even the establishment of this premier see of Baltimore in 1789.”

“Even before we had a bishop … Father John Carroll invited his brother priests, about two dozen in number, to three meetings in White Marsh, Maryland — 1783, 1786, 1789,” he said.

Father Carroll, a Jesuit, “knew the value of us coming together to confront together pastoral problems,” Cardinal Dolan explained. “John Carroll of course was a quintessential American who believed that a common purpose and a plan hooked to some type of organization could provide the structure necessary to deal with most of our pastoral problems.”

Many of the issues on the agenda of those early meetings, he said, are still priorities for the U.S. bishops at their annual assemblies: “marriage and family; the duties we as Catholics have, like Easter and holy days; the disposition of parish funds and financial accountability; priestly vocations; religious education of our children.”

Seen as ‘fully American’

Bishop Boyea focused on “the middle years of our existence,” zeroing in on four areas: American, Catholic, episcopal and collegial.

“We Catholics have wanted to be seen as fully American,” he said. “As a national body of bishops our nationalism has been tested by the way we have related to our federal government. … The bishops truly saw their interventions in the political life of the nation not merely as warding off dangers to the Church, but as an advancement of America itself.”

But this was not without tension, the bishop said. “While encouraging increased activity of the federal government in some arenas, the bishops also reminded the government of the strictures of the principle of subsidiarity in other areas of society.”

The Catholic nature of the conference “was most manifest in the engagement of the American bishops at the Second Vatican Council,” Bishop Boyea said. The bishops as a body were not reluctant to discuss “foreign, domestic, ecclesial or secular” issues, but they “did not see how they were to relate to an ecumenical council as a united conference,” he said.

Then they decided to hold their annual NCWC meeting in Rome. Regular meetings of the U.S. bishops as a group continued until the final session of the council. Back home they discussed the work of Vatican II and gave their input on the urgent need as they saw, for example, for a conciliar church-state document.

Teaching and learning

The episcopal nature of the bishops’ conference is seen in the “teaching activity of the conference,” he said. As an example, he recounted various events that took place before Blessed Pope Paul VI issued his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” affirming the Church’s prohibition of artificial birth control.

As the Vatican studied the issue, Bishop Boyea said, the U.S. government expected a change in Church teaching on birth control, leading Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a Catholic, to promote contraceptive services in Latin America as one way to address poverty.

The U.S. bishops wanted to issue a statement supporting the teaching but a Vatican official advised against it, Bishop Boyea said. Then they were told the pope would allow a statement challenging the state’s authority to deal with these matters, but not addressing “the doctrinal question” still being studied.

So the U.S. bishops declared that a decision on birth limitation was properly the role of the family, not the government. “They also warned of the dangers in promoting a contraceptive way of life,” Bishop Boyea said.

But they felt “completely constrained” by the Vatican’s delay on the issue and the bishops’ conference “has since learned the great value of a vigorous educational stance in the teachings about right to life and religious liberty,” Bishop Boyea said. “Focusing more on the formation of laity than on governmental activities has in fact led to greater lay awareness and action.”