Speculation before the fall general meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops largely focused on whether and how Pope Francis’ message and manner would lead to changes in the bishops’ agenda. Some of those who were doing the speculating apparently hoped for a softening of the bishops’ opposition to legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, along with even more emphasis than now on poverty and social justice.
In the event, Pope Francis truly was the dominant presence at the Nov. 11-14 meeting in Baltimore. And in that regard the gathering’s single most unusual event was the address by the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Departing from a tradition of bland remarks by Vatican representatives, he told the 262 bishops in attendance in effect to get with the program coming out of Rome. And what is that? Chatting with him last June, Archbishop Viganò reported, the pope made “a special point of saying that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology.”
If the bishops had a problem with that, they weren’t letting on. Most would probably say they’re already pastoral. Repeatedly, too, they cited Francis’ own charismatic style with appreciation, though some also privately admitted to feeling uneasy about his penchant for impromptu comments whose meaning is open to debate.
There was no indication of any backing-off on the so-called social issues — abortion, gay marriage and the rest. At most, the meeting seemed pointed to the likelihood of increased efforts by USCCB to make clear the pastoral dimension of what it’s already doing.
A small but telling instance was the bishops’ decision, by a margin of 225-9, to give the USCCB pro-life office a new staff position for liaison with Project Rachel and similar diocesan programs, without any lessening of its involvement in the law and public policy aspects of fighting abortion. Project Rachel provides pastoral help to women who have had abortions.
The bishops’ choice of a new USCCB president and vice president was consistent with this approach. Elected to three-year terms were two mainstream bishops commonly described as moderate conservatives — Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., and Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. Archbishop Kurtz, 67, succeeds Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, while Cardinal DiNardo, 64, follows Archbishop Kurtz in the No. 2 position.
All this may have disappointed people looking for immediate and dramatic change in the USCCB, but it should have come as no surprise even to them. There are compelling reasons why backing off on the social issues is, for the American bishops, simply not in the cards.
One is that their stands on questions like abortion and same-sex marriage reflect Church doctrines that aren’t subject to change. Nor is there any reason to think change is what Pope Francis — a self-described “son of the Church” on doctrine — has in mind. His frequently declared support for collegiality in Church governance also would seem to rule out direct intervention in the internal affairs of a national bishops’ conference such as the USCCB.
It’s likewise important to bear in mind that, despite complaints about the bishops’ conference supposedly investing too much time and energy in fighting the culture war, the two top items on the USCCB agenda for the past decade weren’t chosen by the bishops but were imposed by external events. They are the sex abuse scandal and the Health and Human Services mandate.
The bishops’ conference had been dealing with sex abuse since the late 1980s, but starting in 2002 the disclosure that some dioceses, ignoring conference policy, had practiced systematic cover-up turned it into a national issue. Since then adopting and enforcing tough new measures have been top priorities for the USCCB.
The HHS mandate — the government’s rule requiring many Church-related institutions to provide employee health coverage that covers abortifacients, contraception and sterilization — was a policy decision by the Obama administration as part of its implementation of the new health care law. Under Cardinal Dolan’s leadership, the USCCB has vigorously rallied opposition to the mandate as a violation of religious liberty and at the conclusion of the assembly, the bishops unanimously passed a special message on the HHS mandate.
As the Baltimore meeting underscored, though, the question of where the conference goes next has now become unavoidable — partly because of Pope Francis and partly because of developments in the United States. Some students of Church affairs believe that, without either quitting the culture war or dropping out of battles for social justice, the time has come for the bishops’ conference to give far more attention to the escalating pastoral crisis in American Catholicism.
Here the Catholic Church is hardly alone. Americans with no religious affiliation now number about 20 percent — up 5 percent in just a few years. Mainline Protestant churches have suffered devastating losses. American adults who say they’re Jews have declined from 4 percent to about 2 percent since the 1950s.
But the Catholic crisis is alarming in its own right, with steep declines not only in familiar categories like Mass attendance and confessions but now also extending to Catholic marriages, infant baptisms, confirmations and converts, as well as enrollments in parochial schools and religious education programs.
Quoting Pope Francis during a news conference after his election as USCCB president, Archbishop Kurtz said the bishops need to “warm hearts and heal wounds.” Francis might say that includes binding up some of American Catholicism’s own gaping wounds.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.