Inside the USCCB: An Interview with Jayd Henricks

Published August 22, 2023

What We Need Now

Jayd Henricks is President of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal. He served for 11 years at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), six as the Executive Director of Government Relations. He has written extensively on the Church in America. He shares his thoughts about the USCCB, faith, and politics in this WWNN interview with Francis X. Maier.

Tell us a little about your service as Executive Director of Government Relations at the USCCB.

It was very unique work. On paper my primary responsibility was to oversee the public advocacy work with the federal government on behalf of the bishops of the United States. That meant constant meetings with congressional offices, the White House, federal departments, and like-minded advocacy groups. In this respect, I was a lobbyist on behalf of the bishops. Of course, the job also involved many internal discussions about policy. Nothing would go public without first extensive internal consultation with policy offices and bishops. It was one of the great professional privileges of my life to serve the Church in this way.

It was an interesting time (2006 to 2017) to be on the job. My time went from the George W. Bush administration, transitioning to Obama then to Trump. Needless to say, each of those periods had their challenges.

I was also in that role during both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. That change is still playing out in a whole host of ways, including public policy work.

How much real influence does the Church actually have on Capitol Hill?

Roughly 25% of Congress identifies as Catholic and, of course, we have a nominally Catholic president, so it seems like the Church would have a lot of influence. My experience, however, is that the number of Catholic elected officials who are truly influenced by their faith is very small. On both sides of the aisle, I found that most Members of Congress identify first with their political party and only then with their faith. There are some noteworthy exceptions, but politicians, perhaps not surprisingly, are much more concerned about the politics of an issue than with what the Church teaches. So the moral influence of the bishops is, frankly, quite limited. There was even a certain condescension that came from many Catholic politicians, as if they had a better idea of what the Church teaches than the bishops. Of course, their understanding of the faith coincidentally served their politics.

The voice of the bishops on public issues is still important, although more so as a mode of speaking prophetically to the faithful than in directly shaping public policy.

Why do you think the bishops aren’t more successful in shaping public policy?

There are all sorts of reasons but let me mention two in particular. First, the American Church has lost moral credibility due to the moral failure of some of its leaders. The abuse crisis, while largely perpetrated in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, is playing out in deep ways still today. When men like Rembert Weakland and Theodore McCarrick were the public voice of the bishops on so many issues for so many years, it’s no wonder public officials have a hard time taking the voice of the bishops seriously.

Second, and this is something that flies under the radar but has a huge impact on the influence of the bishops, there are powerful voices within the Church that work against the bishops. I saw this play out very painfully with respect to conscience protections during the debates around the Affordable Care Act. The largest Catholic hospital systems, Catholic Health Association in particular, lobbied against the bishops. And when a politician is looking for a way to justify a vote against his church’s leadership, the hospitals often provide it. I saw this countless times over the years.

Until the bishops get serious about taking on the hospitals, universities, and other major Catholic institutions who work against the bishops, their political influence will be neutered. It is my opinion that if the bishops are serious about influencing public policy, then it would be best if they spent most of their energy dealing with dissent from within the Church.

A positive example on this front is how Catholic Relief Services (CRS) works closely with the bishops regarding public policy. While tensions exist, I never saw hostility, and the good work of CRS was advanced more effectively by CRS being united with the bishops. The same cannot be said regarding many other groups within the Church.

The USCCB is a big institution, but few Catholics know exactly what it does. Can you help us understand what the USCCB is and how it operates?

The USCCB is the formal organization by which the bishops of the United States interact with each other, recommend policy, advocate on behalf of the Church with the federal government, assist dioceses pastorally at the local level, formally engage the Holy See, provide financial assistance to churches in need around the world, and offer an opportunity for bishops to interact with each other.

I’ve heard it described by two major categories: effective and affective. By this it is meant that the USCCB is a way for the bishops to: 1) be more effective in their ministry and; 2) relate to other bishops, their episcopal brothers. Without the USCCB, bishops simply wouldn’t have resources that are needed for key aspects of their work, and they wouldn’t have opportunities to interact with their brother bishops, which is essential for the spiritual well-being of bishops. Both of these things are a real service to the Church.

The USCCB brings the bishops together twice a year in person, and there are many committee and other smaller meetings throughout the year that bring subsets of bishops together. Without the USCCB, it’s likely bishops would be even more isolated than they are. Getting the bishops together for work, social, and spiritual interaction is a great benefit the USCCB provides to the Church. Perhaps it can be run more efficiently and more scaled down, but the essential work is very important.

Of course, there is the danger that the USCCB is too much of a bureaucracy and that the staff actually run things, but that generally wasn’t my experience. Staff have the advantage of being involved in the work on a daily basis, but it is the bishops who set the policies and priorities.

I should also note that due to the very nature of the USCCB, a bureaucratic institution, there is always the danger that its work drifts heavily into the programmatic. I didn’t work with the pastoral side of the USCCB but, on the policy side, the spiritual side of the work could get lost. Too much reliance on lawyers at times and not enough on prayer. Lawyers are needed, absolutely, but so is “faith in the baby Jesus,” as one of my USCCB colleagues would remind me. A good meditation for me during my time there was whether Christ was at the center of my work. That is a good meditation for anyone, but absolutely necessary for Church employees.

How involved is the Vatican in the work of the USCCB?

Very involved in the sense that the Vatican appoints bishops, but otherwise Rome generally respects subsidiarity and allows the local Church to govern itself. There might be implicit pressure to prioritize one thing over another, but rarely would the Holy See directly insert itself into the affairs of the USCCB. For me, there was one painful exception to this when I was told to change how I did my job because, as it was explained to me, there were three unnamed Cardinals in Rome who thought I was being too soft on President Trump. They wanted the USCCB to take a position during the congressional budget process regarding an important but very small program. What they failed to understand was that it’s in the appropriations process, not the budget process, that these sorts of details were worked out, which it was. If I’d done what they wanted, it would have made the bishops look incompetent. But for the first time I was being told by Rome how to do my job for what seemed like ideological reasons. That’s a significant reason why I left the Conference.

You worked with bishops closely and I presume you got to know some of them on a personal level. What’s your impression of bishops?

For the most part bishops are men who love the Church and are making great sacrifices to serve her. They all come to their work with different talents and personalities, but they see the Church as Christ’s bride, at least the bishops that I know. To watch these men pray and silently suffer for the Church inspired me every day.

There are others, a minority, who are careerists and CEOs more than pastors. They seem to like the perceived “power” of the office, to the limited degree such power exists. Again, there aren’t many of them, but they do exist.

But aren’t there some deep divisions among the bishops?

Let me just speak to my experience here in the United States. Yes, there are deep divisions among the bishops, but they’re isolated and come largely from the small liberal wing of the bishops. They’re few in number, maybe 20–25 out of roughly 270 bishops, so less than 10%, but they are aggressive and seem to have the backing of the Holy See. There are more bishops who are less ideological but lean left. They fit well within the character of the wider body and provide an important balance. It’s the smaller, contentious group that are out of step with the body and yet try to force their will on the Conference. That being said, they don’t define the Church here in the United States and have little influence over the body. They may have influence in Rome, but the Church qua Church exists more in the parish and the diocese than in a dicastery or committee.

That’s a professional hazard for someone like me who worked as a Church bureaucrat: the institutional work of the Church can eclipse the spiritual work of the Church quite easily. This is why anyone who works in the Church must pray, a lot. Without prayer the Church becomes a professional environment, not the Mystical Body of Christ.

One of the great privileges my time at the USCCB afforded me was access to the private chapel of the bishops during their meetings. There were many bishops who offered good parts of their busy day to prayer. It was inspiring. Whatever divisions exist fade away when you see so many of them in prayer.

If the Church is primarily a spiritual reality, why are the bishops involved at all in public policy debates?

The Church is not just a mystical reality; she’s also a community of people, and Christ should be the heart of this community. But the Church is rightly concerned about human welfare. Justice is a virtue that should be pursued, and history tells us that it is people of faith who have been most effective in moving society in a more just direction. That being said, there’s the very real danger of reducing the Church to social justice. True social justice is the fruit of conversion. And I don’t mean a change in worldview, but the transformation of the soul that only comes through grace. This is the main work of the Church: to sanctify the soul and from that to transform the world. If her policy work is not preceded by a call to conversion then she becomes just another NGO with a religious veneer.

I suspect you were involved with the drafting of Faithful Citizenship, the bishops’ document on voting issued every four years. What are your thoughts on Faithful Citizenship?

I was involved in the staff work but I want to stress that it’s a document by the bishops. It is not a staff-driven document.

That being said, I’m not a big fan of the document, and it wasn’t helpful for my work on Capitol Hill. Maybe it served the purpose of forming the faithful, but I suspect very few Catholics have read it, and it’s written in such a way that it tries to satisfy everyone. It tries to do much, so it ends up doing very little. It’s a classic example of a document written by committee. For my money, Living the Gospel of Life, a USCCB document from 1998, is a much better articulation of how to approach questions of public policy and politics. It’s very readable; simultaneously simple, clear, and comprehensive. It’s a document that’s not well known but should be.

I sense a debate brewing over the next version of Faithful Citizenship with Cardinal McElroy hoping to lead an effort to take away the “preeminent” language around abortion. This is a debate that will be worth paying attention to. It gets to the heart of two very different ideas about the moral life. The first supports the tradition of the Church as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor, as well as many other places that recognize some acts as intrinsically evil and foundational. The second is very different, and ultimately defective, because it treats the moral life as simply an act of the individual conscience, which places issues like climate change as proportionately more important than other issues like abortion. We’ll see how this plays out, but the debate will surface important divisions that do exist among bishops.

Any final thoughts about the Church in the public square?

Too much of everything today has become politicized. This is true also for the Church. I guess I would say that to the degree Catholics are praying, living a sacramental life, and pursuing a life of authentic charity, then the Church will have influence in the public square. When we get away from that, then the Church becomes one voice among many, and on the wider cultural stage, it’s obvious those other voices are louder, more aggressive, and better resourced. We should be less concerned about what the President of the United States is doing, and more concerned about the Church being who she is. If Catholics pray more and become more conformed to Christ, then politics will take care of itself. There’s a reason why we have a self-described Catholic president who works so vigorously against the teachings of the Church and the truth of the human person. The American Church failed to properly teach and witness to the faith for a long time. We’re reaping what we sowed. We need to sow something different if we want different political outcomes. What we need now is to form individual lives of holiness, such that one day we’ll have a country where American Catholics are on fire with the love of God and vibrantly living their faith.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Photo via Chris // Flickr

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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