Beliefwatch: Bottom Line

he biggest surprise to come out of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ conference in Baltimore was not the bishops’ statements on birth control (against it) or homosexuality (sympathetic, but against it). The biggest surprise last week was a dry, 36-page document, titled “Strategic Plan,” which the bishops approved and which amounts to the biggest overhaul of the Catholic bureaucracy in America in more than 30 years.

The Roman Catholic Church has been called the oldest corporation in the world, and now, after four years of sex scandals–and soul searching and mea culpas –the U.S. division has agreed to what business analysts would call a “course correction.” Over the next year, the conference will trim its 350-person staff by about 20 percent. It will reduce its budget by nearly $2 million, with individual dioceses contributing 16 percent less to the national coffers. It will eliminate redundant functions in order to focus on these priorities: marriage, faith-formation, vocations, human dignity and cultural diversity, especially Hispanics. The committee that reaches out to Jews and Muslims, as well as to other Christians, lost staff members, as did the pro-life committee. Before the vote, Bishop Joseph Kurtz of Knoxville, Tenn., made a plea to spare the pro-life staff, but was roundly defeated. “The causes we’re close to, we get so passionate about,” he says. “We want to make sure the expertise is there.”

The Washington, D.C.-based conference oversees all aspects of church life, from training priests to marriage counseling, and it has, historically, been an unwieldy and dissent-filled group. Now, with some dioceses reeling from the estimated $1 billion cost of the sex-abuse crisis, and others feeling the pinch as people flee urban parishes, the bishops agreed that they needed to refocus. Progressives see the Strategic Plan as a play by conservatives to mute dissent. “The Bishops’ conference was another voice that was practically always in conformity with the Vatican–but it was another voice,” says Father Tom Reese, of the Woodstock Theological Seminary. “If the bishops can’t speak out, then who are you going to talk to, someone in a red hat?” Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., who spearheaded the Strategic Plan, says the new bureaucracy will be leaner–but not meaner. After Vatican II, he says, “a lot of people in the church felt that everything was up for grabs … Now there’s a greater commitment to the core values of Catholicism–and certainly that’s what Pope Benedict is concerned about.” If the church were a corporation, its stock would be up on the news.