Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Bishops’ Advisory Council provides ‘snapshot’ of Catholic life in the U.S.
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the March 20, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Dr. Rob McCann, Director of Catholic Charities in the Spokane Diocese, serves on the U.S. bishops’ National Advisory Council. (IR photo)
Two years ago, Dr. Rob McCann, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Spokane, was appointed to serve a four-year term as one of 56 members of the U.S. Bishop’s National Advisory Council (NAC).
Since its inception in 1971, NAC has held four-day meetings in November and June in to review issues and offer recommendations to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Recently, Dr. McCann was named one of six officers of the Council, with the position of Proactive Chair. “This,” he said, “means that I could end up serving for six years. About a month before each meeting, the executive board goes to (Washington) D.C. and plans the whole meeting. The bishops get together and give us what’s called ‘the green book,’ which is a collection of documents they use to chart the course for their own agenda when they have their own meetings.” As a sort of “church in miniature,” Dr. McCann said, NAC reviews and comments on the topics the bishops will address at their own meeting.
Dr. McCann explained that new members of NAC are given a talk about “how you’re not supposed to talk specifically” in public about the NAC discussions. However, he said, “we talk about all the big issues that the bishops cover at their meetings” and offer comment.
One of the first items on the agenda at national bishops’ meetings, Dr. McCann said, is a report from NAC. That presentation by NAC’s chair and vice-chair to the entire body of bishops takes about 25 minutes. The bishops also receive a written copy of the report.
Before NAC reports to the bishops at their national meeting, however, the whole NAC group must agree on what they want to say. “That takes hours and hours,” Dr. McCann said, “and sometimes (the discussion) is heated. In fact, more often than not it’s heated, because there is a diverse set of opinions in the room.” Among NAC’s members are bishops, priests, women Religious, and laity. “It takes a long time to agree on what we want to say as a group. When you’re talking about euthanasia, or stem cell research, or any kind of hot button issue, sometimes it will take hours of discussion and collaborative dialogue – if that’s what you want to call people arguing. At the end of the day, when you get to the end of the four-day meeting, when the whole group has given its blessing to this report, it has taken a lot of work to get to that point.”
Sometimes NAC needs input from experts prior to their discussion of a particular issue. “Say the issue is assisted reproductive technologies in the Catholic Church,” Dr. McCann said. “Well, that took four hours, and they had to bring in somebody from (the USCCB) in D.C. to brief the group. So we got nationally-known people who flew in to brief our group before we started talking about it.”
Dealing with issues and topics sent to NAC by the bishops takes about half of each four-day meeting. The other two days NAC spends generating its own topics and issues which they believe the bishops should address, he said.
In his new role as Pro-Active Chair, Dr. McCann is in charge of fielding and coordinating these new ideas. “Every one of the more than 50 members of NAC comes in with five or six ideas,” he said, “because of what people in their home dioceses told them. So my job is to get all those ideas and topics and facilitate narrowing them down to the five, or six, or eight, that we’re going to actually pitch to the bishops.”
Over the years, Dr. McCann said, “topics that have come up again and again are things like, ‘Why can’t women be priests?’ ‘Why aren’t priests married?’ – all the things that we all talk about around here, that every Catholic in the country talks about, they come right up to the surface at these NAC meetings. We try to find ways to craft the language so the bishops will take note of it. Part of the process is that the NAC gets to discuss and gets to at least say, ‘We want you do know it’s important to us.’”
For example, he said, “After Hurricane Katrina, the NAC had a whole bunch of resolutions about how the U.S. Catholic Church should immediately do X, Y, Z to help in New Orleans. The bishops got those documents (from NAC) and said, ‘Yep, we’re going to do it,’ and they called Catholic Relief Services, they called Catholic Charities, they funneled a bunch of money down there, and boom, it happened. A lot of stuff that we work on actually happens, which is kind of cool to see.”
No matter what happens to recommendations from NAC in the present, however, future historians will be able to discover what was discussed and recommended from its very beginnings. “There are official minutes of every NAC meeting,” Dr. McCann said, “and those minutes are a part of every agenda at the bishops’ meetings. At their national meetings, one of the things the bishops do is approve the minutes from NAC meetings, and they accept our report. All these documents are kept in archives at the USCCB offices in Washington, D.C. You could come back in 100 years and read what we talked about, and what the bishops did about what we said, in March of 2008.”
Dr. McCann calls NAC “a great group, and it gives you a real snapshot of the Catholic Church (in the U.S.); it’s a good opportunity to hear a variety of opinions on many topics, and these are all topics that affect all of us as Catholics. It’s an interesting process, it’s a lot work, and a lot of time.
“I really feel like the bishops care about our opinion,” he said. “It’s not just lip service. They really, honestly want to know what we think, and in fact they don’t make any decisions until they hear what we think. The report from NAC is one of the first things they hear in their national meetings. It’s good that in an otherwise bureaucratic church structure, the voice of someone from the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., can get right up to the microphone at the bishops’ meeting. And that’s what happens at every bishops’ meeting.”