WASHINGTON (July 2, 2001) -- When the Bishops merged their two national organizations into the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on July 1, 2001, it marked the latest chapter in the evolution of the bishops' national structure which was established 82 years ago in the aftermath of the First World War.
Like its immediate predecessors-- the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and United States Catholic Conference (USCC)--the USCCB is an organization staffed by lay people, priests, and members of religious orders, but whose members are the bishops of the United States, and it is the bishops who direct its activities.
Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston is President of the USCCB while Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, is Vice President. They will complete their three-year terms in November.
The concept of the Bishops acting together on matters of mutual interest can be traced back to 1919 when, in their first national meeting since 1884, they agreed to meet annually and to form the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) to serve as their organized voice on the national scene. The word "Council" was replaced by the word "Conference" in 1922.
In 1966, following the Second Vatican Council, NCWC was reorganized into two parallel conferences. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops--sometimes referred to as the
canonical arm--would deal with matters connected to the internal life of the Church, such as liturgy and priestly life and ministry. The U.S. Catholic Conference--in effect the civil arm--would represent the bishops as they related to the "secular" world, in areas such as social concerns, education, communications, and public affairs.
During the period from 1992 to 1996, a Conference committee on mission and structure, headed by the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, led the bishops in extensive consultation on restructuring. A primary purpose of this undertaking was to provide more of the nation's approximately 300 bishops with an opportunity to be directly involved in the work of the Conference, which operates primarily through a committee structure.
In 1997 the bishops voted to combine NCCB-USCC into one conference, to be called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They decided that in the future only bishops would be voting members of committees, but non-bishops could serve on some committees as consultants or advisers. A new committee on statutes and bylaws, headed by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, which was formed to lead the rest of the reorganization process, completed its work last year. The new statutes and bylaws were subsequently approved by the Holy See.
It is unlikely that persons outside the Bishops' Conference will notice any immediate difference in the new structure. Many of the same concerns that motivated the Bishops in 1919--like the welfare of immigrants, communicating through the Catholic press, and defending the legal rights of the Church-- are still pressing today, as evidenced in the departments which carry out these functions, though many others have been added as well. In a May 23 letter sent to organizations which have dealings with the Conference, its General Secretary, Monsignor William P. Fay, said the renaming "will not affect any change in the activities or programs of the Conference but simply how the Conference is identified."
The address and phone numbers at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will remain the same. www.usccb.org replaces www.nccbuscc.org as the Conference Web site.