Bishop Boyea on 100 Years of the USCCB

On November 12, 2017, Bishop Boyea presented to the Members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops a review of their 100 year history:  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1917-2017

Since histories of the first three decades of our conference already exist and since it is too soon to speak of “a history of our conference” when dealing with the most recent decades, this talk will focus on the middle years of our existence.  Even with that limitation, here we will deal briefly with only four incidents.  These are chosen to exemplify how our conference is American, Catholic, episcopal, and collegial.  These four characteristics are reflected in the names we have had over the years: The National Catholic Welfare Conference, The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

VIDEO:  Bishop Boyea discusses the history of the US Bishops


We Catholics have wanted to be seen as fully American.  As a national body of bishops our nationalism has been tested by the way we have related to our federal government.  For the most part, history portrays a cordial relationship.  However, when dealing with actual policy, our congenital distrust of over-reaching government has often created some tension.

Pope Benedict XV, in an April 10, 1919, letter to the American hierarchy, gave as one task to the bishops to determine “what movements, if any, either local or nationwide, [were] afoot for the control or the judicious restraint of which the wise direction of the Bishops [might] be helpful.”

The bishops, however, were not content with this merely negative or restraining approach to government. Rather, they were ready “to claim America,” seeing themselves “as the saviors of American idealism.”   This is the context in which the bishops saw themselves as at once Catholic and American.  This often led many Catholics, including the bishops, to view the enemies of the Church as the real enemies of America and to hold that what was good for the one was good for the other.  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.

The tension which the bishops continually confronted, however, arose from their own social teachings.  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. 

What seems to capture this tension the best was the growing tendency of the federal government to standardize education in the country, something the bishops maintained should not be pulled “out of the realm of home, family, and church….”   The bishops knew how important education for American citizenship was to the state but also how important the family was to the proper control of the education of their children. Here the bishops regularly warned of federal encroachment.  What the bishops did not emphasize was how dangerous a system of education without a spiritual or moral foundation and content would be to a society facing secularization.  However, such an approach would have involved a social criticism in which the bishops chose not to indulge. 

The bishops, in fact, were divided on how to confront the greater bureaucratization of the Federal Department of Education and the concomitant push for federal aid for education.  Archbishop John McNicholas of Cincinnati favored inclusion of Catholic schools in federal projects rather than blanket opposition to them.  Others simply wanted to limit the government’s reach.  Still others saw the role of government to be of aid to schools in need.  The matter was discussed at the annual November 1934 NCWC meeting which seemed only to end in confusion: Cardinal Hayes made a motion which was seconded and carried, but how the Secretary was able to recall accurately the motion and the sense of the body of Bishops, I cannot imagine.

These conflicting episcopal views were a few years later temporarily resolved when McNicholas, the chair of the NCWC Education Department, obtained the agreement of the NCWC Board to drop opposition to federal legislation as long as the rights of parents, conscience, and Catholic schools were protected.

The issue would not rest, however, and, unable to reach a common line of argument, the November 1944 assembly of bishops merely supported federal aid only aimed at helping poor localities to meet education standards.

Over time the bishops saw that the growth of the federal government was not something they could prevent and eventually their focus completely shifted to protecting and/or benefiting Catholic schools as their primary goal.  Their principled objection to overreach by the government was pretty much buried.


The second characteristic of the conference—that it is Catholic—was most manifest in the engagement of the American bishops at the Second Vatican Council. At the November meeting of 1959, one of the bishops suggested that the conference establish a committee to prepare questions of interest to the United States for the impending council.  The minutes merely record that another bishop responded that individual bishops had already sent in their concerns at the request of the Antepreparatory Commission.

What was remarkable about this episode is that a body, which had not been reluctant to discuss any manner of important issues—foreign and domestic, ecclesial and secular—did not see how they were to relate to an ecumenical council as a united conference.  This disconnect was most pronounced in the person of Archbishop Karl Alter of Cincinnati, who served on the Central Preparatory Commission of the council and was chair of the Administrative Board of the NCWC.  At the November 1960 meeting of the bishops, Alter made no reference to his conciliar activities.   The trend was that the American bishops would attend the council as individual bishops, not as members of a national conference.

Nonetheless, the Administrative Board in the name of the conference, on August 19, 1962, issued a statement on the upcoming council in the Vatican. The draft of this statement had elicited many comments from 67 bishops, revealing the tension between individual and conference participation in the Vatican Council.  Walter Curtis of Bridgeport was disappointed with the draft: “Its contents lack the depth and fervor that this topic warrants.”  He concluded, “Is there not also here a dangerous attitude that we come as an American block [?].”

Were they a block?  This issue was on the mind of many who commented on the draft.  For example, Bishop Leo Maher of Santa Rosa was grateful for the credit “given to the hierarchy for the vitality of the Church in America.”

But a number of other bishops opposed any boastfulness in the text.  Thus Joseph Mueller of Sioux City wrote: “Singing our own praise now and listing our achievements as possible sources of power, influence, prestige or whatever you wish to call it, may prove very embarrassing later after the Council terminates and the Hierarchy of the United States have not distinguished themselves in an outstanding manner.”

The tension between individual and conference participation in the Ecumenical Council was the desire of some bishops to highlight the American particularities in their August statement and others to keep the focus solely on the upcoming council in the Vatican.  Ernest Primeau, auxiliary bishop of Manchester, strongly supported a role for the conference hoping that the bishops would be able to “meet in caucus to arrive at substantial agreement on the more thorny subjects and to formulate an orderly and effective mode of action.”   While this intervention did not make it into the statement, it was prophetic about the future course of the behavior of the American bishops. 

The first assertion of a role for the conference was the decision by the bishops to hold their annual meeting in Rome in October 1962.  Archbishop Vagnozzi, the apostolic delegate to the United States, warned that the Holy Father did “not approve of meetings of national groups in Rome.”  However, because it was already scheduled, the meeting took place but with limits.  There was no publicity given to the meeting, “in either the Catholic or the secular press.”  It seems there was a fear that it might appear that the American bishops were caucusing.

Nonetheless, on the third day of that October meeting, Archbishop Francis Schulte and Bishop Primeau proposed regular meetings of the American Bishops during the council.  In fact, these continued up to the final session of the council. 

Archbishop John Dearden of Detroit, during the Administrative Board meeting in April 1963, no doubt pushing ideas of his friend and colleague Bishop Primeau, proposed that the NCWC meet to discuss the council.  It was agreed to hold this gathering in Chicago in August.  At the same board meeting it was agreed that Archbishop O’Boyle would petition the Presidency of the Council in the name of the American bishops for the restoration of the theme of Church and State to the agenda of the council.   The bishops, when pushed by the potential loss of a conciliar statement on Church-State relations, had decided that their only recourse was to act as a body.  Then 149 bishops met for two days in Chicago and discussed the various schemata and the die was cast.

Slowly, the bishops had united their activities as members of the NCWC and as members of the Ecumenical Council.  The strengths of their national organization were brought to bear on many schemata.  Fr. Fogarty describes their combined action on religious liberty during the second session, rescuing that topic from near oblivion.


A third characteristic of our history is that it has been episcopal, that is, it has been a ministry of teaching.  The prism through which this can be examined is the run-up to Humanae vitae. 

By the time Paul VI issued his encyclical on July 25, 1968, many had invested their very lives in an expected change in the Church’s teaching on the use of artificial means of birth control.  That such an expectation of change could have existed was not just the result of the suddenly permissive mores of the 1960s.  Rather, these expectations were also fueled by a lack of solid and consistent teaching on the part of the bishops prior to the issuance of this papal text.  To be fair, there was some doubt about the actual direction Church teaching would take.

The Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Vagnozzi, on February 20, 1964, relayed a Vatican request for information on the status of the birth control question in the United States as well as the opinions of the American bishops.

The subsequent survey brought responses from 105 bishops.  Eight bishops opposed any statement from Rome on the matter pending more information on the medical questions related to the pill.  The rest of the bishops, in fact, requested an authoritative teaching from Rome to clear up some of the confusion in this moral matter: 52 felt that the council should issue such a statement; 23 believed it should come from the Holy Father; and the rest pointed to other venues.  Vagnozzi, while thanking the conference for the report, added: “I might mention that His Holiness took personal note of these documents and highly commended the organizational effort that went into their preparation.”   Clearly, the American bishops were strongly behind the traditional teaching of the Church. 

During 1964 Paul VI determined that the Council would not study the matter and that the commission would be enlarged.  He also called for an end of public discussion of the issue pending the end of the commission’s study.   J. Michael Jones has summarized well the result of this papal directive: “The purpose of the letter was obviously to silence the dissenters.  The net effect, however, was to silence only those who were obedient to the Church’s position.”

While some few bishops and a larger number of theologians continued to speak on these matters, no formal statement of consensus was issued by the American bishops.  In September of 1965, a draft text was presented to the members and associates of the Administrative Board.  Of the five cardinals, all felt it was a good statement but inopportune pending a papal decision.   The other bishops largely agreed with the text but a significant number of them echoed the untimeliness of its publication.  Bishop Francis Shenk of Duluth put a fine point to this, noting that no statement would alleviate the confusion and that it would be better to await a word from the pope at which point the American bishops could affirm him.  He added that if Paul VI could afford to delay in this matter then “so can we.”  No statement was issued. 

The Administrative Board took up the matter again at their session in Rome focusing more on how to address, behind the scenes, governmental proposals to promote birth control.   The various federal legislative activities were then discussed a few days later.  The bishops chose to continue to work behind the scenes rather than engage the government in public opposition as that might have been viewed as posing an ecclesiastical veto in the pluralistic society of the United States.

By early 1966, some bishops urged a strong and united from on the part of the hierarchy.  Archbishop John Dearden of Detroit, now the chairman, believed that it would be sufficient merely to affirm that Church teaching remained the same.   The Administrative Board again discussed the opportuneness of a statement.  With no consensus, the board sought the advice of the Apostolic Delegate, who advised the bishops not to issue anything on the matter.

Bishop John Wright of Pittsburgh was completely dissatisfied with this silence: “I strongly feel that we should re-open this question with the highest [Roman] authorities lest the moral witness collapse as completely as the legal witness appears to have done.”   O’Boyle agreed finding the bishops’ behind-the-scenes activities had proven fruitless.  He also noted that many Catholic theologians were claiming that the bishops’ silence left people free to do “whatever one believes,” and cited the promotion of contraceptive services in Latin America by Senator Robert Kennedy.  He concluded:

“In view of the few facts presented, it is respectfully proposed that there is grave need for the American bishops to speak out and thereby to bear moral witness for the spiritual benefit of our faithful and also for the poor, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.  The poor who are recipients of government relief stand to be intimidated and coerced under these governmental procedures.”

Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York carried these concerns to Paul VI on July 1, 1966, and was then informed that the Holy Father did not mind a public challenge to the state’s authority to deal with these matters, but that the bishops should not “treat of the doctrinal question, which of course is still being studied.”   Wright, accepting these limits, began working on a statement in early August. 

On the first day of their annual general assembly, the bishops, after casting their first ballot for the president of the newly inaugurated National Conference of Catholic Bishops, took up Wright’s statement.  The document, dealing mostly with public policy matters, passed without comment.  At this point, Bishop Primeau rose and objected to the hurried manner of its approval and called for more study.  When Archbishop Ritter seconded the motion, it was put to the vote and defeated.   The resulting statement challenged the government’s authority to coerce the family in the matter of birth limitation as this was the role of the family; rather, government is to protect the freedom of the family and its privacy.  They also warned of the dangers in promoting a contraceptive way of life: “as a people lose respect for any life and a positive and generous attitude toward new life, they move fatally to inhuman infanticide, abortion, sterilization, and euthanasia…

While some few voices had urged an aggressive public stance, by and large, the American hierarchy resisted leadership in this moral frontier.  Perhaps the bishops did not view themselves as autonomous teachers, even as a body; they felt completely constrained by the delayed activity of the Holy See.   The conference has since learned the great value of a vigorous educational stance in the teachings about Right to Life and Religious Liberty.  Focusing more on the formation of the laity than on governmental activities has, in fact, led to greater lay awareness and action.


This brings us to our fourth and final story which manifests the truly collegial character of our conference.   On-going concern about the real authority of the conference has led to regular examinations of purpose and structure over the years.  The bishops were continually trying to get to the heart of how much the conference was a “concrete realization of the collegiate spirit” as the Second Vatican Council later termed it.  

The National Catholic Welfare Council was suppressed (and resurrected) in 1922 largely due to the objections of some bishops who feared a loss of their authority and autonomy.  It is not necessary to recount that history here.  The result, however, was that the conference ever afterwards lived under the shadow of this event.  “Voluntary” can best describe the conference’s self-understanding. 

The several re-organizations of the conference over the past 100 years have occasioned periods of reflection on the nature of the organization.  Proposed changes in 1934 brought two opposing reflections.  Bishop Francis Kelley of Oklahoma City felt that only ordinaries should vote and that cardinals should not hold any office except chairing the annual meeting; he believed that their leadership would have a dampening effect on the freedom of discussion.  He also hoped that besides increasing the conference committees that the Apostolic Delegate would attend the general assemblies since he should know those activities first hand.   Bishop John Cantwell opposed any increase in the bureaucratization of the conference, believing that just gathering the bishops annually was sufficient.

The general assembly in 1941 approved some slight changes to allow for better rotation of board members.   The experienced limits of the conference’s ability to legislate continued to bother some bishops who wanted a more energetic conference.  As a response there were calls in 1945 to hold a national Plenary Council particularly to deal with marriage matters and Church property.   In the long run the conference itself, though not able to legislate, provided enough structure, counsel, and solutions, to make a Plenary Council unnecessary.

This minor tinkering with the NCWC ended with the Second Vatican Council.  Now thoughts turned to a major restructuring. Fr. Tanner, the General Secretary of the NCWC, met with his department heads on November 20, 1964.  He urged them to “run a bit wild” in suggesting changes to help the NCWC meet the needs of the Second Vatican Council as well as to accommodate the growing bureaucracy of the conference.

At the April 1965 meeting of the board, it was decided to delay any reorganization until the end of the Council in order to accommodate any further actions of the Council.  In the meantime, the NCWC staff would submit a questionnaire to the United States Bishops for their feedback.

A summary of the responses to this questionnaire was presented in late 1965 to the Administrative Board by the General Secretary, Msgr. Paul Tanner.  The first area of inquiry was the relationship of the “coetus episcoporum” to the NCWC secretariat.  The coetus had been meeting annually in general assembly since 1922 with the approval of the Holy See.  The administrative board, elected by the coetus, was thus clearly subject to and dependent upon the coetus.  The board members then assumed roles as chairmen of the various NCWC departments, thus providing validity to the actions of the departments.   This part seemed clear.  However, the somewhat haphazard growth of departments and bureaus clearly needed a reorganization.  Some noteworthy majority opinions submitted in the 161 replies (67% of the bishops) included a rejection of possible membership in the conference for the major superiors of men and women. 

The majority also wanted the chair of the annual meeting not to be the senior (by precedence) member present, but an elected president, who would use Robert’s Rules of Order to govern the meeting.  There was also strong support for an additional annual spring meeting, but on a regional basis (with no clear consensus on how those regions should be constructed).  The bishops also favored elected regional representatives on the Administrative Board.

While study of the reorganization began in January 1966, it was the March issuance by the Holy See of the document, “Archetypon Statuti Conferentiae Episcoporum,” which impelled the process forward.   The newly ordained Bishop Tanner believed a change in nomenclature was now due:

“It would seem that despite its long and glorious history, the name National Catholic Welfare Conference has become obsolete.  First, the word ‘welfare’ has changed its meaning completely in the last forty years and now is regarded only in the sense of charity.  Secondly, there seems to be an implicit contradiction between ‘national’ and ‘Catholic.’”

There were other recommendations as well.  The Social Action Department believed that it needed to be reorganized more along the lines of Gaudium et spes, and that more needed to be done to make sure that lay and clerical activity were in unison.  They also recommended a theological commission of bishops, perhaps with consultants:

“This Theological Commission of Bishops would fulfill a function too often left in the hands of individual theologians speaking in their private capacities though in a public fashion and addressing themselves more often to the press or the general public than, in any structured and positive fashion, to the teaching Church itself.”

The Department for Lay Organizations called for a more structured dialogue between the laity and the bishops.  Archbishop Binz, making the report, thus did not like the possible change from the NCWC to the NCCB since it would not include the priests, religious, and laity “as taught in the Second Vatican Council, as a People of God, all sharing collegially in the total mission of the Church.”

The April 22, 1966, meeting of the Administrative Board accepted the recommendation of establishing a doctrine committee.  The discussion regarding the relationship of the conference to the various lay organizations was complicated by the question as to whether these organizations were mandated by the bishops and thus under their direction or whether they could be spun off as truly independent groups.

Bishop Tanner summarized for the bishops the board recommendations: to elect a president, to establish a Theological Commission, to allow the assistant bishops the right to vote, to clarify the authority of the general secretary, to clarify the relationship of the conference to the lay organizations, to dispense with the reading of so many reports at the annual meeting, and to change the name of the organization.  The United States bishops were then asked to vote by mail regarding the election of a president and vice-president and whether the conference would allow some matters to have the effect of law after confirmation by the Holy See.   The responses were practically unanimous in favor.

By July all was in order to propose the changes to the NCWC at the November meeting.  The cardinals had all exempted themselves from being elected president following a tradition established by Cardinals Mooney and Stritch in 1946.  Cardinal Ritter noted that cardinals should not even attend the administrative board as this could curtail freedom of discussion.   Cardinal McIntyre, while excluding himself, did not want a blanket denial for any class of bishops to be president.   Each bishop was then invited to nominate ten candidates for the office of president.

On October 4, 1966, the final organizational meeting took place in Washington.  Most of the earlier recommendations were accepted.  In addition, the Press Department was suppressed and the NCNews Service was to be independent.  The relationship to the lay organizations garnered a good amount of discussion; a committee of five bishops who would be in dialogue with them and bring their concerns to the entire conference was recommended.  Further discussion noted that the work of the laity is primarily that of virtue not of teaching, which is the episcopal mission.

All of this work reached its climax at the November 14-18, 1966, annual assembly of the United States Bishops.  Cardinal Spellman opened the meeting and called for elections of leadership.  On the third ballot, Archbishop John Dearden of Detroit was elected the president and on the very next ballot, Archbishop John Krol was elected the vice-president, having consistently come in second to Dearden in the previous ballots.  On the second day, Bishop Tanner moved and Cardinal McIntyre seconded the naming of the two branches—the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the coetus and the United States Catholic Conference as the secretariate—and the assembly passed this change.  Committees were established to study how to handle retired bishops and how the entire conference might be involved in proposing names for the episcopacy.  A committee was established to study the introduction of the permanent diaconate, though Bishop James Furey of San Diego wondered if this “would attract a strange type of population.”  The days were punctuated by votes to establish committees and elect chairmen.  On the 17th a number of liturgical requests were passed to be sent on to Rome for approval.  On that same day the statutes for the new NCCB were passed unanimously and the following day the new by-laws of the USCC also passed along with a statement on penance which included a change to the practice of abstinence on Fridays.  This whirlwind of activity ended with a decision to hold a Spring Meeting in Chicago in April 1967.

Cardinal Dearden has summed up this story in his remarks during the Bishops’ assembly in Collegeville in 1982:

“For a longer time than the bishops in most countries, we have had experience with the collaborative institution that is an Episcopal Conference.  Years ago we had faced up to the experience of justifying to the Holy See the existence of such a structure.  And at the same time, we had to reassure many of our bishops of its non-threatening character….”

But it remained true for many years that some bishops did not participate in the work of the NCWC.  The old shibboleth of “autonomy of the local bishop” did not die quickly.

Whatever uncertainties the past may have held are now dispelled by the Second Vatican Council.  Not only are bishops of a nation allowed to gather to share common pastoral concerns, they are strongly encouraged to do it.  The immediate motive is the collegial good-will; the deeper reality is the obligation that each bishop through his ordination has for the concerns of the Church beyond the limits of his own diocese.  And the at-hand instrument to live out this obligation in his own nation is the Episcopal Conference.  For this reason the structure is to be seen as a positive aid in meeting divinely given responsibilities.