Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption on Monday (Nov. 11) at the start of their annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Nancy Phelan Wiechec, courtesy Catholic News Service

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Monday (Nov. 11) at the start of their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. Photo by Nancy Phelan Wiechec, courtesy of Catholic News Service


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

BALTIMORE (RNS) As the U.S. Catholic bishops began their annual fall meeting on Monday (Nov. 11), they were directly challenged by Pope Francis’ personal representative to be pastors and not ideologues — the first step of what could be a laborious process of reshaping the hierarchy to meet the pope’s dramatic shift in priorities.

“The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., told the more than 250 American churchmen as he recounted a personal meeting in June with Francis.

The pontiff, he added, “made a special point of saying that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology,” Vigano said. That message was seen as an implicit rebuke to the conservative-tinged activism of the bishops’ conference in recent years.

Almost since his election in March, Francis has signaled that he wants the church to strike a “new balance” by focusing on the poor and on social justice concerns and not overemphasizing opposition to hot-button topics like abortion and contraception and gay marriage — the signature issues of the U.S. bishops lately.

While Francis’ new approach — which Vigano said must include “a noticeable lifestyle characterized by simplicity and holiness” — has captivated the wider public, some bishops and church conservatives have chafed at the pope’s shift.

Others, however, have welcomed the new agenda, or are adapting. The process of reorienting the hierarchy began as soon as Vigano concluded his remarks.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, center, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks at a news briefing on the first day of the bishops' fall meeting in Baltimore on Monday (Nov. 11). Bishop John Wester, left, of Salt Lake City and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, right, of Washington, listen on. RNS photo by David Gibson

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, center, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks at a news briefing on the first day of the bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore on Monday (Nov. 11). Bishop John Wester, left, of Salt Lake City and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, right, of Washington, listen. RNS photo by David Gibson


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

He was followed by the outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who used his final address to call on the bishops to take up the persecution of Christians in other countries.

That represents a fundamental change after years in which the hierarchy focused on culture war issues at home — such as gay marriage and the Obama administration’s contraception mandate — through their campaign on domestic religious freedom.

Dolan instead asked the bishops to “broaden our horizon” and recognize that their own domestic concerns “pale in comparison” to the suffering of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere “who are experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief.”

After cataloging numerous examples of brutality against believers, Dolan called on the bishops to make the fight against religious persecution abroad “not one good cause among others, but a defining element of our pastoral priorities.”

In a press briefing after the first sessions, Dolan said the bishops were not abandoning their own religious freedom cause but said it had become clear that their efforts would seem “hollow” unless they focused on the genuine sufferings of other believers.

“We don’t have tanks at our door or people getting macheted on their way to Mass,” the cardinal said. Dolan also dismissed as “rather apocalyptic” the views of some conservatives — including a number of outspoken bishops — that such oppression is imminent in the U.S.

The remarks by Vigano and Dolan represented the first salvos in what church observers expect to be an arduous effort to turn around the unwieldy national hierarchy.

The U.S. bishops have been so focused on social conservatism in recent years that they issued no collective statements on the economy — once a hallmark issue — during the recession. In fact, their agenda for this four-day meeting was focused almost entirely on small-bore internal issues, like liturgical translations, and on developing a statement on pornography.

Fred Rotondaro, left, head of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, speaks to reporters during a news conference on Monday (Nov. 11) about efforts to have the bishops focus on poverty issues, while Steve Krueger, right, of Catholic Democrats, listens on. RNS photo by David GIbson

Fred Rotondaro, left, head of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, speaks to reporters during a news conference on Monday (Nov. 11) about efforts to have the bishops focus on poverty issues, while Steve Krueger, right, of Catholic Democrats, listens. RNS photo by David Gibson


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“The bishops can be a moral force” for fighting poverty and wealth inequality, said Fred Rotondaro, chairman of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, one of several progressive church groups in Baltimore to lobby the bishops. Right now, he said on Monday, “they are failing the spirit of Pope Francis, and obviously failing the spirit of Christ.”

A few bishops tried to address those concerns. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, on Monday morning asked the bishops to issue a statement backing passage of the immigration reform bill. The bishops assented on a voice vote.

And Texas Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, also retired, appealed to the bishops to speak out on economic concerns and to answer Francis’ call to have “a church of the poor and for the poor.”

Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, who briefed the bishops on their long-range pastoral plans, said there was “great awareness” of Francis’ desire to highlight social justice issues but there were no immediate plans to issue a new statement or launch a new initiative.

A clearer sign of where the hierarchy may be heading could come Tuesday, when the bishops will elect new leaders to three-year terms. The 10 candidates on the slate for president and vice president include a number of vocal conservatives.

“The most important thing to come out of this meeting is for the bishops to show that they are on board with the priorities and approach of Pope Francis,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and analyst for National Catholic Reporter.

“Because that’s where the people are. They need to get out in front of the people. They’re not there now.”

AMB/YS  END GIBSON

24 Comments

  1. The problem–and it is a huge problem–is that the phrase “pastoral bishops” has, under Francis, become a none-too-subtle code for “bishops who keep their mouths shut in public when it comes to the issue of gay marriage.”

    And THAT is what Pope Francis clearly wants. It is not enough that he has waved the white flag of what he calls “non-interference” on this issue; he is calling on the US. Conference of Bishops to wave the same, and just as openly.

    And the bishops? If Gibson’s article is any indication, they’re going along for what appears to be a long, long ride. A clear tone of resignation is in the air.

    But there is no Scriptural reason why “pastoral” and “fighting poverty” must also mean “shut up and let the gay activists win this nation.” Will the bishops rise up or fall down?

    • @Doc Anthony: There is also no Scriptural reason for the Church to participate in state systems of inequality to wage a so-called “religious battle” to protect the so-called “sanctity” of this nation. There is nothing wrong with setting priorities. Should we be more concerned with gay marriage or the mass imprisonment of people of color and the criminalization of poverty?

      The Church also needs to be critical and reflective regarding the path it takes to reach political goals. Should the battle over homosexuality be about whether particular people have access to health care or not?

    • “bishops who keep their mouths shut in public when it comes to the issue of gay marriage.”

      Which would be a sane tactic to take.

      The RCC’s involvement on the issue has hurt its reputation, goes nowhere and takes time and resources away from more legitimate and pressing issues. The reason for the white flag is because ultimately embracing the bigotry and hatred you espouse doesn’t go well with trying to maintain some semblance of moral authority.

      Ultimately you sound like the Southern Baptists who fought tooth and nail to keep segregation for the spiritual sanctity of the nation. Someone annoyed that a group would be so “uppity” as to demand humane treatment from the majority.

  2. It’s refreshing that a religious leader, especially one of the Catholic persuasions, tries to lead their church in the direction of love instead of hate. However sad as it may be, based on the comment already here, it will be a tough road to hoe, as the message of hate is deeply embedded in the hearts of so many in this church, especially those that are older and set in their ways. Clearly this will be a monumental challenge, but one that everyone will be better off if won.

    • Earold, I suggest that what the pope has done is to ask all of us to back away from the heated rhetoric that must accompany discussion of basic Church doctrine. The pope has not said that same-sex unions will receive any sacramental confirmation; quite the contrary. He has said, however, in so many words that the Church and its members will do better by presenting a face that invites attention, which can lead to acceptance.

      More crassly put: We can lead a horse to water but we can’t make the horse drink. Right now, in the pope’s eyes, we’re not leading anyone to water, but we can do this, perhaps, by changing our focus to how we present ourselves in order to be able to influence them. I think this is what Francis is attempting to do.
      He seems to be making some headway in Italy. The task is greater here: We have fully half the voting Catholics casting their ballots for an executive who wants to change the country into something it has never been based on a philosophy of government that has had no success anywhere else in the world.

      I will add that the major disputes culturally within this country are not founded on hate. It is erroneous to suggest that people who fundamentally disagree with something someone else stands for are only acting out of hate. That judgment can be flipped to mean that those wanting substantive change hate everyone who doesn’t want it. It’s better that we avoid the “hate” label.

      • Duane,
        I would agree with your assessment of what your Pope is doing. It is obvious that the way your church has focused in the past so much on issues like birth control, abortion, and gay marriage, as well as how they have not focused enough on pedophilia is causing a drop in your followers. This Pope is trying to save your Church by changing the message the public sees; good PR move. But I have little doubt he would, even if he could without getting poisoned, change the dogma behind those issue.

        It is precisely some of the “heated rhetoric” I would define as hate, specifically hate speech, your posts excluded.

        • Earold, thanks. I’m not sure we can charge the Church today with failing to go after its pedophiles. Note that what we are finding in the case files in the various dioceses are instances and administrative actions that go back a number of years, even decades. I doubt we’ll find examples of pedophilia occurring these days that are not being vigorously pursued.

          It is possible we define hate speech in different ways. For me it is speech that threatens or intimidates gays because they are gay. Fierce defense of the definition of marriage that does not threaten or intimidate per se I would not call hateful. We have examples from these blogs of a person or persons having decided that anyone opposing a redefinition of marriage is hateful and desirous of denying human rights to gays. That is disordered reasoning. “Histrionic,” to use a term tossed at conservatives for their arguments.

  3. Ronald Sevenster

    If the Gay Marriage issue is the real point here, as some comments suggest, the Pope is riding the wrong horse. For if the Catholic Church and its leadership don’t show courage and determination here, they’ll not only be the losers of the debate, they’ll lose all influence on future legislation. This will have huge implications for religious freedom in the US. It would be a very mistaken approach to think that the Church can escape the dilemmas involved. If Gay Marriage is nation-wide accepted, the traditional Christian moral stance on Marriage will be impossible to uphold within the Church itself.

    The essential wrong thing in a pastoral approach that is not squarely based on Church doctrine is that it gradually suffocates and fossilizes this doctrine and all traditional culture based on it. Doctrine which is separated from praxis and no longer followed cannot remain relevant.

    • If you think it is the role of the Catholic Church to play a part in the issue, then they already lost. It is a fight they can never win. It just makes them look venal and petty.

      It is not their business how the laws that govern all people within a nation are set. At no point has ANY church been considered the arbiters of how a modern democratic society functions.

      Religious freedom has nothing to do with opposition to marriage equality. Cloaking bigotry in religious language does not change its nature into something acceptable in civil society. There is nothing moral about your stance of opposing the formation of families.

      Whatever a given Church’s stance on marriage is immaterial to its acceptance under the law. If Catholics don’t like gay marriage, their priests don’t have to perform the ceremony. Its adherents don’t have to have one. At no point does their religious belief on the matter mean a damn thing to how the rest of our society handles it.

      Marriage is defined by the state in all meaningful ways. It is not defined by religion, but by secular authority. If they don’t like that, tough luck. Its beyond the scope of their position.

      • “Marriage is defined by the state” you say. Then why the uproar about the way the state has been defining marriage since time immemorial?

        You define “bigotry” to mean failure to accept what you want.

        Religious freedom has plenty to do with opposition to “marriage equality”–by the way, all marriages are equal, but yours is a question of the very definition of marriage itself–when an individual or group of like-minded individuals are forbidden to follow through on the precepts of their beliefs, that is an infringement on religious freedom. Liberals will not agree to any changes in ENDA legislation, and that’s the reason the bill is dead in the House. Why not be plain and open about the agenda you espouse rather than resorting to meaningless drivel about opponents being bigots?

        Perhaps you’d prefer to have religion banished from the public square entirely, contrary to the First Amendment’s clearly stated prohibition of such banishment. I’ve dogged you on this matter a couple times already and you have decided not to take the bait. For good reason, I suspect.

        • I don’t say, our laws say. Marriage is a function of the state and defined by its laws. Always has been the case. One never needed religion for marriage. Still don’t. Religious concerns in marriage are never the province of our laws.

          ““Marriage is defined by the state” you say. Then why the uproar about the way the state has been defining marriage since time immemorial?”

          Because bigots are ignorant as well. Your statement is utterly false.

          Definitions of marriage have changed dramatically over the centuries. It was considered a commercial transaction or political tool for centuries. Polygamy was perfectly acceptable in the Bible as was child marriage or purchasing one’s spouse.

          If your argument is merely that marriage is being re-defined, you have to come up with something more. Such arguments are like those arguing for “tradition”. You have to come up with an argument why such definitions and traditions need to continue existence in of themselves.

          “when an individual or group of like-minded individuals are forbidden to follow through on the precepts of their beliefs, that is an infringement on religious freedom.”

          In plain English, when you aren’t allowed to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against others. Sorry, you NEVER had that right. Free Exercise always ended when it caused harm to others. If your religion forbids same sex marriage, they don’t have to have one or have it performed in their church. That is as far as we have to take Free Exercise of Religion on this subject.

          Neither I, nor our government has to give a flying crap what your religion says about the personal liberties of others. That’s part of freedom of religion as well. Our laws cannot be based on religious concerns. They must have a rational secular purpose to them.

          Bigotry defined as hatred of people for personal characteristics and a desire to discriminate against them under the color of law. I know you don’t like being called one, nobody does. But it is painfully appropriate for your position.

          • Larry, polygamy, etc. aside, marriage has always been about people of the opposite gender. You, Larry, have to come up with reasons why the traditional definitions should change. We don’t have to defend our position. You speciously refer to “rights,” but nobody is denying anyone the right to marry as marriage is still understood except in those places exhibiting crumbling civilizations. Acknowledging civil unions is an entirely different matter, something that do not oppose.
            You cannot claim that “free exercise of religion” regarding respecting traditional concepts of marriage is harmful to others. What you want is to change the definition to suit the emotional needs of a few, perhaps yourself included.

            I’ll take you one step further: Marriage has always been a union of people of the opposite genders even in societies where religion is practically non-existent.

            Your only justification for calling me a bigot is that I do not agree with your attempt to redefine marriage. Like all liberals, you feel you have the liberty to assign your own meanings to terms–and to redefine terms to suit your personal whims. There’s no surprise here, especially if you’ve been “educated” within the past couple decades or so. Your perspective is that everything centers on yourself regarding the establishment of right or wrong, appropriateness or inappropriateness. Fine. I now define “bigots” as those who hate everyone who oppose social stability and want change for no other reason than to suit their own narrow interests.

            You’ve yet to make an argument for your position. Saying that “we want this” is not an argument, it is only a clamor. Noise. Calling me a bigot is merely namecalling, something that should have been left back on the schoolyard. But then I realize “you gotta do what you gotta do.”

      • Then there was DOMA, affirmatively voted for by vast majorities in both chambers of the Congress. You will counter that SCOTUS threw that out. Yes, it did. A change in the bench could reverse that decision.
        Of course, who made SCOTUS the final arbiter? Certainly not the Constitution. It was only in 1803 in Marberry v Madison that the Court claimed this power for itself. Congress at certain times has passed legislation that included a prohibition of SCOTUS having anything to say about it.

        Given that what we are dealing with here is a power play, with one side choosing to overthrow what still is the majority opinion among the people regarding marriage, you can only use the de facto power of liberals to justify your position. You have no argument from history, from philosophy, or from anything else. Emotional ranting by spoiled twits, no matter how loud, will hardly count as “final authority.”

        Perhaps the mess that Obama has created for the country in these five recent years will portend the collapse of liberalism altogether. If so, you can be sure we’ll have a return to some sanity in government. Then, those who do personal harm to anyone can and should be brought to justice and punished for violating another’s true rights.

    • Mr. Sevenster, I would suggest that the great movement toward redefining marriage is one found only in societies that are demonstrating their decline as societies in other ways already. What is happening within a few of the more populous countries in the world, predominantely in the declining West, is hardly an indication that there will be anything resembling worldwide acceptance of this nonsense. I won’t even place a bet that this “redefining” phenomenon has legs here in the West.

      If people don’t believe that our own society is in decline, perhaps they’ve not been around as long as some of us. Or, perhaps, they’ve taken to redefining “decline” as well. Once someone considers it his business to redefine one concept, there’s no stopping at that point. There’s a stop only at the point where one’s personal values are at stake. Who knew!

  4. Right now, they need to speak out about human rights issues, that is, the fanatical persecution of Christians and other religious minorities primarily, but not exclusively, in the Middle East. We all know who is doing it, so to be politically correct it has to be handled with great care. The Pope also needs to become very engaged in this issue because bussing babies and touching one individual is not enough. Whole ranks of people are being assassinated because of their religion, and their churches and houses of worship destroyed.

  5. The tone of some of the responses above is quite misguided. The Pope wants the everyday folk to return to the church, a loving parental church. This is very good as united in love we truly become the “body of Christ”. That said, however with such love, there also comes the tough love of TRUTH. As any good charitable parent, love does not merely mean all hugs an without discipline. When Francis brings us all closer in merciful charity, he will eventually show us what true love means, as Christ said,”If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

    The hierarchical church has been given this gift of teaching since Christ himself told his apostles “teach(ing) them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Mere pastoral care without the passing this divine teaching and to keep His commandments is simply misguided charity… false charity.

  1. […] Vatican ambassador to U.S. bishops: Francis’ priorities should be your priorities. David Gibson reports that the message, ease up on the ideology guys, will play well with at least some. Cardinal Dolan, who heads up the U.S. bishops conference, seemed to strike a similar tone, imploring his club to focus attention on violations of liberty abroad. […]

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