BALTIMORE — 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.
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.
“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.”
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