U.S. bishops will gather for their fall plenary this coming week, the outcomes of which will clearly indicate whether they are finally ready to affirm Pope Francis’ agenda or pursue more of the same. Either way, decisions made in Baltimore will impact LGBT Catholic issues in this country for the next several years. So what is at stake?
First, bishops will vote on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ strategic priorities through 2020.
The discussion around these goals may be the “most explosive” debate of the entire meeting, observed Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. The current five priorities are: family and marriage; evangelization; religious freedom; human life and dignity; vocations. In one sense, all of these topics touch, in varying degrees, upon LGBT issues.
A draft of new priorities during their June meeting received heavy criticism, with Burlington’s Bishop Christopher Coyne saying it was “the same thing we’ve always done” and other Pope Francis appointees–Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego–added their own sharp criticisms.
With marriage equality a settled matter politically, will the bishops keep this issue and potential opposition to other LGBT advances, like nondiscrimination protections, at the top of their priorities? With a refugee crisis abroad and economic injustices rampant at home, will bishops continue prioritizing opposition to LGBT rights? Answers to these questions and the broader agenda-setting conversation will have a major impact, directing the USCCB’s significant resources and setting a public tone for ecclesial leadership.
Second, the bishops will vote on key positions in committee leadership.
There is “a real choice” in these races, according to Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter. Four of Pope Francis’ personal appointees are in races and almost all contests are between a bishop more in the style of Francis and a bishop who is less so.
Most relevant is the election for chair of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth between Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bridgeport’s Bishop Frank J. Caggiano. Chaput is a noted culture warrior, whose city hosted the World Meeting of Families in September and who is fresh off the Synod on the Family where he showed few signs of prioritizing mercy and inclusion. Alternatively, Caggiano believes “that which unites us is greater than that which divides us.”
The chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development is contested between Venice’s Bishop Frank J. Dewane and San Diego’s Bishop Robert W. McElroy. Dewane has been publicly criticized by his own priests, while McElroy has been hailed as a leader of a more welcoming Catholic Church. Other elections include the chairs for committees tasked with Catholic Education, Divine Worship, and Clergy, Religious Life, and Vocations.
With LGBT issues rapidly increasing their visibility in the church as well as the world, these committees could impact how the U.S. bishops respond to the persecution of LGBT people globally, the firing of LGBT church workers, or the acceptance of openly gay priests. Who is elected will, ultimately, be a referendum on whether the U.S. episcopacy wants leaders focused on mercy and encounter or those focused on legalism and confrontation.
Third, the bishops will vote on minor revisions to their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which outlines political engagement for Catholics and is released before major elections.
This document has been criticized for its overemphasis on “culture war” issues, including opposition to marriage equality, while downplaying more pressing social justice issues. Unfortunately, the expected changes to this document will be minimal, according to Stephen Schneck of U.S. Catholic. Noting this document was last revised in 2011 before Pope Francis was elected, Schneck wrote:
“Faithful Citizenship, as it has come to be called, reads like something from another age. . .Its tone is juridical, and does not convey the merciful and pastoral message of His Holiness. In form, it is an un-Francis-like assemblage of pronouncements for judging citizens, politicians, and officeholders. . .
“Our bishops should be reminding Catholic voters and officeholders of the church’s insistence that government itself (and not just charitable individuals) has a responsibility to address poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and to provide for a moral economy. Our bishops do a disservice to their flock if American Catholics imagine that the church’s teachings for citizenship and government are restricted to matters like abortion, marriage, or religious liberty.”
From his earliest interviews, Pope Francis has criticized certain Catholics’ “obsession” with issues like same-sex marriages. Marriage equality is now legal nationwide without any realistic challenges for its reversal. The U.S. bishops should not just make limited changes, but totally overhaul Faithful Citizenship to reflect both Pope Francis’ agenda and the political realities of the nation in which they minister–particularly climate change.
Were the Bishops Listening to the Pope in D.C.?
Finally, there is the broader question of how the U.S. bishops will relate to Pope Francis and his agenda moving forward. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter recalled Pope Francis’ words addressing the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, DC, during his papal visit, writing:
“There, [Francis] confronted the dominant culture warrior approach the USCCB too often has displayed, most notably this year in their reaction to the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage. The pope said, ‘Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.’ “
Pope Francis added a strong appeal for dialogue, and at this upcoming meeting, in Winters’ estimation, the U.S. bishops have an “opportunity to demonstrate that they heard the Holy Father” or choose to remain “out of touch with their own flocks” about which Winters wrote:
“The sad and regrettable fact is that the USCCB of late has acquired only the smell of the neo-conservative, upper middle class Catholic sheep and the Republicans for whom they vote.”
But Pope Francis’ criticism of the U.S. bishops, and his call for them to restructure their priorities, did not end in September. The pontiff’s particularly strong words about change in the Catholic Church earlier this week make the U.S. bishops’ choice next week all the more meaningful. Winters suggested:
“When the session opens on Monday morning, the bishops should set aside the agenda, read this entire talk, pray over it, maybe have small group discussions of it, and then return to their agenda in the afternoon. How do they evaluate their ministry, individually and as a conference, in the light of the pope’s remarks? The Holy Father said this morning, ‘We are not living an era of change but a change of era.’ Will that change of era be manifest in Baltimore next week?”
In recent weeks, both at the Synod and and in the wake of Vatican financial scandals, Pope Francis has made clear that little will stop his reform agenda for the Catholic Church. He has said, “Today is a time of mercy!” and that he wants a church that is “home for all.” The question in Baltimore next week is whether U.S. bishops will agree with these words and evolve, or clarify their resistance to Pope Francis and double down on their anti-LGBT obsessions.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry