Friday, March 20, 2009

Debunking Another Conspiracy Theory

In the spring of 2008, the bishops of the United States voted to change the wording of a problematic statement on page 131 of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (see our write-up here). As the Catholic News Service (CNS) reports:

The proposed change -- which would replace one sentence in the catechism -- was discussed by the bishops in executive session at their June meeting in Orlando, Fla., but did not receive the needed two-thirds majority of all members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at that time. After mail balloting, the final vote of 231-14, with one abstention, was announced Aug. 5 in a letter to bishops from Msgr. David Malloy, USCCB general secretary. (LINK)

Robert Sungenis noted this fact by putting an erroneous spin on events and by floating a baseless conspiracy theory:

This tells us, of course, that the decision to excise the erroneous statement was not a slam dunk. If in June 2008 two-thirds (or 66%) of the USCCB’s bishops were not on board, it means that less than 162 bishops were in favor of excising the statement on page 131. What made the vote suddenly climb from less than 162 to 231 (or 93% [sic]) of bishops in favor of excising the statement is anyone’s guess. Perhaps there were not enough of the bishops present during the executive session. Or, perhaps in the privacy of a mail-in ballot the bishops could not only think more clearly about the issue but could voice their opinion without any peer-pressure from fellow bishops giving them a jaundice [sic] eye in a public meeting. (LINK)

One will notice that Sungenis made a few unsupported assertions in this statement. He read the CNS statement that the motion, “did not receive the needed two-thirds majority of all the members” to mean that there was sufficient opposition to the measure that it could not garner the needed votes at that meeting and that something caused the allegedly flagging support for the measure to "suddenly climb." This conclusion is not warranted by what the CNS reported, nor is it in line with the facts. In the next sentence, Sungenis touched on the truth: “Perhaps there were not enough of the bishops present during the executive session.” This was correct. But then, unfortunately, Sungenis went on to add a gratuitous surmise that perhaps some number of the bishops were just afraid to vote for the change publicly. Ultimately, this is another troubling pattern found in Sungenis' writings over the past several years. Rather than doing the kind of basic, sound research that could provide firm answers, he is content to present rash theories if they align with his preconceptions and agenda.

As will soon become evident, contrary to Sungenis’s assertion, when one considers the actual facts – including the 94% (not 93%) approval - this vote does indeed look like a “slam dunk.”

More recently, a Sungenis supporter at a Catholic forum ratcheted up the rhetoric, claiming, "That vote had to be done by a secret ballot" and "considering that only 14 bishops voted to keep the heresy in our Catechism, we can see that a number of them flip-flopped when they got back home and voted in secret" (at his request, we have removed his username from this blog post). Now, with these additional unsubstantiated assertions we’ve degenerated into full-blown conspiracy mode.

In light of this development, it seems appropriate to help set the record straight. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, these conspiracy theories can take on a life of their own and degenerate over time. And as we also have learned from experience, very few people have the inclination to confront and refute the committed conspiracy theorists who tirelessly propagate such stories. All too often, when the conspiracy theorist is confronted with his errors, he simply moves on to new accusations and "proof". Conspiracy theorists tend to be "true believers" and nothing - including facts - seems to get in the way of their dark suspicions.

But for those who are interested in facts, the following is the relevant information we accumulated on this matter:

1) According to the USCCB website, there were 268 active bishops as of January 2008 and 260 active bishops as of March, 2009 (2008, 2009). If these are all voting bishops, then depending upon the exact number of bishops who were active as of the vote in Orlando, between 173 and 179 (two-thirds) were necessary for passage.

2) The Orlando meetings were held over three days, from June 12-14, 2008 (
link). Agenda: link.

3) The number of bishops present varied from session to session and from day to day. The record illustrates that on the 12th and 13th, as as many as 192, but as
few as 141 bishops were present to vote on any particular item (link). The 141 recorded for a vote during one session was well short of the number needed for a two thirds majority of the whole conference. There may well have been even fewer bishops than 141 present on Saturday, June 14th.

4) According to a USCCB official who attended the Orlando meeting:

a. The vote on the U.S. Catechism took place on Saturday morning (June 14th) at the end of the meetings and after many of the bishops had left because of various commitments. Even Archbishop Wuerl, who headed the committee in charge of the U.S. Catechism, had to leave for ordinations scheduled that same Saturday. Public evidence of this fact may be found here:

b. The use of mail ballots around the June meeting is common because fewer bishops typically attend it. Several items required a mail-ballot (not a more sinister-sounding “secret ballot”), not just the vote on the U.S. Catechism for Adults (USCCA). Even the simple, uncontroversial National Directory for Catechesis required a mail ballot.

c. Those bishops who voted in Orlando were
not sent mail-ballots. Only those bishops who missed the initial vote in Orlando were sent mail-ballots. Therefore, the theory that some bishops changed their votes ("flip-flopped") in favor of the change once they were safely out of the public eye is baseless.

d. After the initial presentation was made on the need to change the sentence on page 131 of the USCCA, there was relatively little discussion and no one stood up to oppose it.

The bottom line is that the sentence on page 131 of the USCCA needed to be changed, the bishops voted overwhelmingly in favor of that change, and there is no ground upon which to weave these conspiracy theories.

We do acknowledge that Sungenis also wrote, “perhaps there were not enough of the bishops present during the executive session”, which happened to be the truth. But he should have left it at that. The fact that he even publicly floated his baseless conspiracy theory is irresponsible. For obvious reasons, it would be to his advantage were his conspiracy theory to stick in people’s minds. And perhaps in the case of his supporter at the previously mentioned Catholic forum, he was successful in accomplishing just that outcome. We hope that this information helps to set the record straight.

Sadly, Sungenis’s multiple conspiracy theories – whether about his own bishop (link 1 and link 2), the Jewish people, or a number of other things continue to bear bad fruit. To review some of the many other conspiracy theories espoused and propagated by Sungenis, read Sowing Confusion, Distrust and Conspiracy Theories.

Note: Subsequent to the publication of this posting, Adoremus Bulletin printed the following in its September, 2009 issue, which provides further corroboration of the facts:

Majority Vote at USCCB June Meeting?

On all liturgical action items, 2/3 positive vote of all the eligible bishops is required, not merely a majority (or 2/3) of those present and voting. Thus, because none of the action items presented at the June meeting received the required 2/3 of the total number of active Latin-rite bishops, even though a majority of those present approved them, an absentee ballot was required.