“Francis Bishops” Question U.S. Church’s Priorities, But Is This Real Change?

Bishops gathered in St. Louis, MO

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.

Bishop Robert McElroy

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.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 11.26.24 PM
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone

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 faithNCR 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

12 thoughts on ““Francis Bishops” Question U.S. Church’s Priorities, But Is This Real Change?

  1. poolgirl2 June 14, 2015 / 8:27 am

    Why meet to rehash the same stale rhetoric? I wonder how much was spent on this conference, travel, lodging, meals, brochures, etc. that could have done more in the communities where help is needed. Probably would have paid off ALL of our Parish debt and built us a Family Life Center and classrooms. Maybe even a good start on a school. They just continue to dig in their heels, wag fingers, and say, ” Because I said so.” As a Catholic, I am torn to stay stay one and keep contributing to these fiascos.

  2. paulaczech@comcast.net June 14, 2015 / 9:08 am

    We need more “Francis Bishops.”

  3. paulaczech@comcast.net June 14, 2015 / 9:09 am

    We need more “Francis Bishops.” Perhaps if we had a list of the present ones we could write letters of encouragement to them to pursue and persevere? Paula Mattras

  4. Sister Lea June 14, 2015 / 11:20 am

    “Catholic social service providers may halt operations serving the poor if LGBT rights become law” ???
    How sad any Catholic bishop would even think this…and sadder still that so many do not even recognize the gravity and depravity of such a position.

  5. Jim Taszarek (aka Taz) June 14, 2015 / 4:37 pm

    Why are our “sheperds” so concerned about what happens in one room – the bedroom – and so less concerned about what happens in empty kitchens, streets full of homeless, (in the midst of plenty), lack of opportunity for the poor? What if Jesus was sitting in that conference. What would be his opinions?

    • Friends June 14, 2015 / 9:25 pm

      Slam dunk, Jim! But we HAVE Jesus’ own opinions on the subject. They’re called “The Beatitudes” — a/k/a “The Sermon On The Mount”. Our bishops should Google the Gospel citation, to refresh their memories of the authentic teachings of Jesus Himself. I wonder if Archbishop Cordileone and his sexually-paranoid confreres have ever taken these teachings seriously.

    • Yvette Sheble June 17, 2015 / 4:36 pm

      Good query, Taz…

      I imagine Jesus would probably say the bishops have become lobbyist for the wealthy and remind them
      He once stated, “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall,…. As leaves in autumn, which are withered and dry. To trust in riches is to trust in uncertain things; things not to be depended on, being here today and gone tomorrow; it is like leaning upon a broken staff, which giving way, the person falls: and so the fall of Babylon will be, while she is trusting in and boasting of her riches and grandeur”, Revelation 18:7

      If the Bishops paid attention to the violation of the innocent children as they do to LGBT their care of upholding Jesus’ principles would be more believable.

      If their righteousness and politically made opinions rule them rather than the Pope’s edicts it is time for them to leave the church, and pursue a career in political lobbying..

      • poolgirl2 June 17, 2015 / 6:12 pm

        So true. Politics rules the Catholic Church, not following Christ.

  6. Yvette Sheble June 17, 2015 / 3:45 pm

    It seems pretty simple..return to feeding the poor, caring for the disenfranchised, being of use to the spiritual needs of your flock, and stay out of politics. If you don’t like the way the Pope is going there is always a circus tent of various right wing zealots willing to take an ex bishop or two…..or more.

    Thank God for Pope Francis, literally!

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