The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will be meeting in Indianapolis over the next two days. This General Assembly meeting is yet another opportunity for the bishops to embrace Pope Francis’ vision for the church. Until now, many U.S. bishops have resisted the pope’s call for a church that is “home for all” and for the poor. Could there be a shift this time?
As the bishops meet, they might consider listening to Pope Francis’ warning about spiritual worldliness (Evangelii Gaudium 96). Spiritual worldliness is the prioritization of temporal gains for oneself at the cost of the church’s mission, and it is too frequently veiled behind devotion to God and to the church.
The bishops’ collective action in recent years has been strikingly partisan and seemingly aimed at pursuing their own agendas; it reflects spiritual worldliness. Highlights include championing “right to discriminate” laws under the pretense of religious liberty, silencing voices who threaten bishops’ false notions of ecclesial purity, and ignoring real matters of social justice while focusing on opposition to LGBT rights. The bishops can be known by the fruits of a U.S. institutional church now all too wedded to what Pope Francis called “adulterated forms of Christianity” (Evangelii Gaudium 94).
Today, I offer three suggestions for the bishops on how to move away from spiritual worldliness to be of greater service to the people of God, especially LGBT people, and others too often excluded from the church.
First, the bishops should reframe for themselves what loving the church means. Foregoing a dated fixation on institutional power, loving the church could mean supporting Catholics and their communities as credible witnesses to God’s presence in the world. Prestige and power are acceptable only in their furtherance of the church’s mission to accompany people, especially those persons whom the bishops themselves have marginalized. Loving the church presently must involve being honest about and removing ecclesial obstacles that impede God’s grace as much as it involves building up institutions.
Second, evangelical fervor must be restored. The U.S. bishops are perceived as being oppositional and authoritarian, and rightly so. With a focus on “sanitizing” the church, too many bishops and the pastors under them have rested content with an image of a purer, smaller church. These church leaders have chosen to remain far from the people they serve, especially LGBT people who have sometimes been violently excluded by the institutional church. Bishops must instead follow Pope Francis’ example: lead joyfully; create fertile soil in their relationships with Catholics; speak to reality and end their voices’ impotence in preaching Good News; open wide church doors to welcome all, including the presently excluded Holy Spirit who disturbs the complacent and soothes the afflicted.
Third, bishops should renew their self-understanding about themselves and the office of bishop. Bishops must remember their roles foremost as pastors and teachers who accompany the People of God, rather than acting as political authorities. A constant re-focusing on why bishops truly exist will invest church leaders with the necessary humility and vulnerability to be among the people, to listen empathetically, to be challenged when necessary, and to cast off spiritual worldliness in all its forms. This includes their own personal conversion back to Christ, recalling why they wished to serve God and the people of God in the first place, as Pope Francis exhorted Curia officials to do in his 2014 Christmas address.
The plague of spiritual worldliness presently affecting the U.S. episcopate is deeply damaging to the church. Catholics are being driven away and then kept out, diminishing faith communities’ abilities to welcome all and to serve one another.
To shift course, bishops should turn to colleagues like Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, and Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv. of Lexington for lessons on how to lead in the footsteps of Pope Francis.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 13, 2017