Rare public controversial discussions erupted at the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in St Louis this past week, as newly appointed prelates questioned whether the bishops’ recent priorities aligned with Pope Francis.
Particularly criticized was the U.S.bishops’ religious liberty campaign which is at the forefront of their opposition to LGBT rights.
Although these discussion are a hopeful sign for progress in the church, other events raises questions about whether the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is really changing.
A Thursday morning discussion about conference priorities for 2017-2020 prompted a flurry of concerns, causing Chicago’s Archbishop Blaise Cupich to request a full discussion of the various items. Committee on Priorities and Plans Chair Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle claimed this unusual debate was planned, but the National Catholic Reporter observed:
“Even with that [Sartain’s] explanation, one by one, numerous bishops voiced concern with the perception and direction of the priorities.”
Bishops questioned whether they had focused sufficiently on poverty and economic justice, along with issues championed by the pope like immigration, climate change, and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Some bishops wondered aloud why, in the age of Francis, the Committee had not proposed newer and bolder priorities. Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, who said they appear to be “the same thing we’ve always done.” Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianpolis said the drafted priorities “were quite closely a restatement of the priorities that this body has adopted in the past.”
Overall, their comments revealed a growing disillusionment with previous agendas that were largely limited to opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. It was during this part of the discussion where the criticisms of the religious liberty campaign as a response to LGBT equality initiatives arose.
San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy, expressing his desire for Francis’ priorities to be “amped up” in the U.S., said a clearer and more Catholic articulation on the topic was necessary. He requested an understanding of religious liberty “that is ‘nuanced’ and essentially three tiers: the individual conscience, religious communities and secular employers,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.
In addition, Archbishop Cupich added his own comments on the priorities:
“Cupich in his own comments said he found it ‘stunning’ that the priorities’ only use of the word ‘advocacy’ came in regard to religious freedom, and he raised the immigration issue as another area where advocacy is warranted. . . He said he thought they might also want to consider whether religious freedom should be a singular priority or better fit within the scope of evangelization.
“It is a concern. We need to make sure that religious freedom is protected, but whether or not it is above the status of poverty is I think something for further debate.”
Yet, the three-day meeting also included troubling signs that many U.S. bishops were clearly disregarding Pope Francis’ exhortations and stuck on opposing LGBT justice.
The bishops heard from right-wing couples about improving pastoral care around marriage. There was no acknowledgment of same-gender relationships in this discussion, an issue which Cardinal Walter Kasper has said should be the “central issue” at the synod this fall.
Those present also heard from embattled Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, addressing the conference in his role as chair of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. Noting the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision, Cordileone stated:
“Nothing the court says can change what marriage truly is, and we will continue to promote and defend it…We may have to suffer this lie about marriage in the law, but we must not participate in it or keep silent about it.”
This line received sustained applause from those gathered, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Cordileone also warned about alleged discrimination anti-LGBT people will face as marriage equality expands and promised to continue pressing for broad religious exemptions, including yet another Fortnight for Freedom this year. Attempting to claim Pope Francis for his cause, Cordileone cited the pontiff’s critiques of yet undefined “gender ideology.”
Archbishop Kurtz praised Cordileone for “courageous leadership,” ignoring the thousands of Bay Area Catholics who have protested the archbishop’s leadership in recent months, most recently for attacking trans* people as undermining faith. NCR columnist Michael Sean Winters questioned the other bishops’ silence around Cordileone’s controversies, writing:
“I also wish one of the bishops had manifested the courage to confront the sometimes offensive, sometimes bizarre comments of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, entrusted with the “defense of marriage” by the conference, especially when it came to the subject of transgendered [sic] people…My heart grieves for what they must endure to be sure, although there was little sense of sympathy coming from His Grace of San Francisco.”
Little compassion came from Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore as well who said, in a post-meeting interview, that Catholic social service providers may halt operations serving the poor if LGBT rights become law, reported Crux.
I have several reactions to this news from the bishops’ meeting. First, I am thrilled to see bishops openly critical of the narrow and misguided priorities dictating the bishops’ conference activities in recent years. Pope Francis is providing cover for bishops pushing the American hierarchy to be in greater solidarity with the poor and the marginalized, setting aside cultural issues like LGBT rights about which the conference has obsessed. If the Supreme Court rules for nationwide marriage equality, the bishops should drop their campaigns quickly and take up the actual Gospel work towards which the pope and his appointees are calling the USCCB.
Second, it seems that this is an uncertain moment. The priorities are not settled and conservative bishops controlling the process seem ill-inclined to make the radical shifts for which some are calling. Cordileone’s statements about Christians being persecuted in America are demeaning to those actually suffering for their faith in other parts of the globe. It is sadly disappointing that Lori does not see how devastatingly unjust and shameful it is each time the church shutters social services to the poor because LGBT employees or clients seek equal protections under civil law. Even though some of their peers interject with fraternal corrections, it is unclear where the wider conference would ultimately line up.
Still, slow as it may be emerging, this minor debate in an otherwise mundane spring meeting is proof the much celebrated “Francis Effect” may finally be breaking into the American hierarchy.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry