Meeting earlier this week, U.S. bishops voted to develop a document on marriage and family in a delayed response to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. But overall the meeting was largely a continued rejection of the pope’s vision. National Catholic Reporter explained:
“The bishops’ pastoral plan — scheduled to be ready in November 2019 — would propose ‘a pastoral plan, not the pastoral plan,’ said Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, a member of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, who presented the proposal to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 14 at their fall meeting in Baltimore.
“Malone, stepping in for committee chair Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who was unable to attend the meeting, said the bishops’ statement and pastoral plan could provide ‘broad contours and considerations’ in light of Amoris Laetitia, ‘not attempt to address every area of pastoral ministry in detail.'”
This vote reverses the U.S. bishops’ collective silence on Amoris Laetitia, which was not taken up at last fall’s meeting. NCR reported Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said at the time that there would be no document about implementing the exhortation.
But several bishops at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting proposed that the 2019 document be linked to the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae rather than focus on Amoris Laetitia:
“At their meeting Nov. 14, bishops raised issues of marriage preparation, same-sex marriage, marriage enrichment, and contraception as issues to be included in the document and pastoral plan. . .More than one bishop mentioned the anniversary of Humanae Vitae, including Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who is also chair of the bishops’ subcommittee for the defense of marriage. . .
“Bishop Robert Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, agreed, noting that Catholics today ‘live in a culture where marriage today is basically what people want it to be,’ he said.
“The bishops need a practical pastoral plan to counteract such cultural influences, Conlon said, citing as an example a couple who visited him recently and who felt that the marriage, ‘so to speak,’ of their daughter and another woman was ‘perfectly legitimate.'”
The bishops also rejected Pope Francis’ vision in two other actions. First, their appointees to the upcoming 2018 Ordinary Synod of Bishops, which is taking up the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, are a who’s who of conservative voices. The four delegates are Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles. Second, the bishops broke from tradition of having a cardinal head the Pro-Life Activities Committee and elected Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas rather than Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who was appointed by Francis and mirrors his pastoral approach.
In a final note, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville was elected chair of the new Committee on Religious Liberty.
Commenting on the plans for the 2019 document, Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter said “[i]t was nice to see someone finally mention the document” and the bishops seemed to recognize they could not ignore a magisterial document. But he cautioned “the devil will be in the details,” writing:
“The most important takeaway from the U.S. bishops’ plenary meeting this week in Baltimore is that they as a group remain determined to resist the pastoral impulse and approach to which Pope Francis is calling the church. Just as it took Pope John Paul II years to take the conference in a more conservative direction, it will take the bishops who champion Francis a few more years before they have the votes to take the conference in a new direction.”
Despite hopes of some observers, including me, that the U.S. bishops might shift course to Pope Francis’ vision for the church, resistance in the U.S. episcopate remains strong. Where Pope Francis is opening conversations, even if his handling of LGBT issues is mixed, these bishops are perpetuating old, closed conversations. If they approach contemporary questions of marriage and family through the lens of Humanae Vitae the result will be misguided, and the document will immediately be deemed irrelevant by most Catholics, should they know about the document at all. For now, as we wait, let us pray for something better.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 17, 2017