Of course, they'd originally been told by Rome not to meet in November at all, and to go on retreat instead. So the stifled vote shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, after all. The Vatican has a way, it seems, of expertly applying severe pressure to weak players. And the American bishops, collectively, are weak. Then allegations of a "Cupich-Wuerl plan" emerged, and whatever latent collegiality might have existed in shameful defeat suddenly vanished. Referring to the plan, Bishop Strickland of Texas wrote: "This crisis needs the strongest lay voice possible." (It's worth noting that, during the bishops' meeting, Archbishop Chaput supported the substance of Cupich's proposal, and hinted to reporters that it might be a better alternative, but that it had originally seemed infeasible.)
The bishops' lack of credibility isn't based on the number of votes they take or don't. Instead, it's a direct result of their endless doublespeak. And sadly, it's not just a corporate problem: it's one that stems from personal failures of leadership and accountability. Even in a world of political extremes and unhinged pragmatism, we still expect our spiritual leaders to be better men than us. And that means acting like thoughtful, decisive, sometimes even stern fathers instead of tyrannical children. This is something about which all the faithful could probably agree, even from among our fractured factions and various "tribes."
If there's doublespeak involved in playing curial politics to bolster metropolitans' status to handle abuse cases, it's also doublespeak to fan flames of rage among the laity into an indiscriminate, all-consuming inferno. The American Church is not a crumbling conservative bloc, it's the Body of Christ. Sometimes intense heat—radiation—is needed to treat a cancer, but not at the expense of the whole body. When the tumor is easily accessible (i.e., proactively turning over records to secular authorities for civil prosecution), better to just cut it out.
Instrumentalizing the laity could also be called "clericalism." And it comes in many forms. Obviously, when bishops lie or steal or commit sexual offenses they prey upon the faithful for personal gain. But the same is true if they shirk their responsibilities as successors to the Apostles—if they choose to let the lay faithful fight spiritual battles that are reserved for someone else. The full, present scandal in the American Church is not just that bishops and priests have done criminal things. It's that criminal justice has been habitually subverted by those with ecclesiastical power, and now the laity have been charged with finding ways to apply sufficient pressure to remedy decades of systemic abuse.
In some ways, the lay faithful are uniquely qualified to help. Criminal justice is neither the Church’s competency nor mission. It is that of civil society. If a Catholic sins seriously, they ought to have remorse in their heart, confess their sin, receive absolution, and do penance; that is the beautiful way of reconciliation. If a Catholic commits a crime, they should do the above and be reported to the competent civil authorities for prosecution and justice. The laity, in its de facto and overwhelming civic presence, should appeal to secular authority to root out the Church's criminal corruption at all levels.
But the onus for action is the bishops' alone to supply. And if American bishops want to restore any trace of the credibility that's been routinely dismantled now for months, they'll find new, better ways to show they mean what they lament about. We don't need more gatherings, meetings, synods (locally or universally), or votes. We need to insist that criminals be treated like criminals, and that priests, and especially bishops, who refuse to hand over those with credible allegations of criminal conduct to the police be treated like criminals in turn. I'm not a canonist, but as far as I know, each bishop could make particular law within his diocese that would support this type of serious, urgent duty with the threat of excommunication. Moreover, the American bishops could decide together—without any papal mandate—to suggest the same legal, medicinal penalty for the likes of Archbishop McCarrick. Instead, at least in McCarrick's case, laicization is the prevailing battle cry. But it reeks of a sort of Stockholm syndrome, whereby the lay state is once again diminished—in fact, instrumentalized—in favor of a false clerical exceptionalism. This just won't do.
I know some good, holy bishops, and many, many holy priests. They're a reminder to us all that ordained men can indeed signify the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. For all the failures of the American bishops, and the American Church at large, it would be foolish to suppose that bishops are anything less than successors to the Apostles, and that the Church is other than the mystical Body of Christ. But if we believe these things, we should vigorously demand them. We've seen the bishops, like the Apostles, dispersed by scandal, and cowering in a room wondering what to do. We still need apostolic bishops, who are willing individually to witness to hard truths. We've seen the Body of Christ pierced and battered, left lying naked along the side of the road. We still wish to see it immaculate and glorified, unified and whole despite the beatings and brokenness it has endured.