Since his election as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz has kept busy. Last month alone he traveled to Rome and to the Philippines — and was appointed by Pope Francis to the Congregation of Oriental Churches.
In a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Archbishop Kurtz said the USCCB’s mission is to create and foster collegiality with other bishops’ conferences, in union with Pope Francis; to support local bishops with resources; and to address vital issues of the day. Archbishop Kurtz shared his thoughts on many of these issues, mapped out priorities of the U.S. bishops for the next three years and reflected on his perspective-changing trip to Southeast Asia.
Our Sunday Visitor: What are your priorities for the USCCB for the next three years?
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz: The first is the work of the new evangelization. It’s a very important role primarily in the efforts we do to help support and serve the local bishops who in turn, of course, are serving and giving leadership to the local Church within each diocese. Don’t we have a great model in Pope Francis, as the evangelizer par excellence?
The second area of priority is an area in which I would say we, as good citizens, seek to serve the poorest and the most vulnerable within our society. Now, this involves the dignity of every human person, from the moment of conception to natural death. It involves the efforts we’re making in reaching out to support immigrant families. It involves our efforts to work together in helping people who are living in poverty lift themselves out of poverty.
The third area fits together with them, and that is to be able to cultivate a robust religious liberty.
The synod on the challenges of the family, both in October of this year and October of the next year, will set the stage for much of our pastoral efforts in reaching out in evangelization. And then the second area of poverty, you could look at all of the priorities and advocacy that we have done on the national level, and they fit into that notion of seeking to support the most vulnerable and the voiceless within our nation.
In some ways the notion of religious liberty can be summed up basically to say that faith serves public life. Our faith is not a detriment to public life, but actually is necessary. We can see it in history, in the way in which faith has made people good citizens and made us aware of the common good. And we have to make sure that, as Pope Francis said, we defend religious liberty so that the Gospel can be preached in its entirety and lived in its entirety.
OSV: What effect do you see Pope Francis having on the conference?
Archbishop Kurtz: I would say that Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention, not just the Church, but he’s captured the world’s attention in a number of ways — in very simple ways of saying God’s mercy touches the lives of everyone. Then he says, ‘let us see the person before we see the rule.’ He quickly adds that he’s a son of the Church; he desires very much to do his duty of passing on to others what he has received as St. Paul says to the Corinthians. He’s not wanting to tamper with the timeless teachings of the Church, but rather to find new strategies in reaching out.
One of the things that Pope Francis has said, and I’m so grateful for this, he really wants to exercise a robust collegiality. He wants to listen, and he wants to involve the participation of others as he seeks to serve in his role as the Vicar of Christ on earth. We’ll be able to uncover what that will mean.
OSV: The recent questionnaire posed by the Vatican regarding family issues caused quite a stir among Catholics and non-Catholics. Do the U.S. bishops have any plans to release the responses from U.S. Catholics as other conferences have done?
Archbishop Kurtz: I would honor what Cardinal (Lorenzo) Baldisseri (secretary general of the Synod of Bishops) has asked us to do. And he has said that our responses are really meant to be material for the work of the synod. What I’m eager to receive is that working document that the delegates will use at the synod, that will be developed by the synod based on what they have received, obviously within the context of Church teaching. That has always been a public document, and I’m eager to have that to share with others.
OSV: What influence do you think those responses will have on the discussion?
Archbishop Kurtz: I think it will have a great influence. The synod itself, our Holy Father has said, is not meant to investigate changes in Church teaching but rather creative ways of looking at the pastoral strategy. I think it’s all in that word “creative.” What are ways in which we can be creative?
The new evangelization at its core is not so much what is said but what is heard and what is received. So I imagine that the focus of the synod will be very much on the synod delegates delving into: How are Church teachings being received so that people can be alive in their faith in Christ? How can they live the Christian faith? I think that the voices that come through will be very valuable in helping to shape what that means.
OSV: The bishops have been quite forcefully outspoken regarding the HHS mandate. How will the bishops respond should the court cases in progress not be decided how the Church would want them to be?
Archbishop Kurtz: We’re actually optimistic on the many decisions that are being made with regard to a number of the lawsuits, because we continue to believe that a common sense religious liberty is good for our nation — not just good for the Church, but good for our nation.
Obviously the bishops are not going to do something that’s morally wrong, and so as individual bishops will seek various strategies. The bishops remain united in wanting to continue to serve others in health care and in so many other areas and to do so in a way consistent with the Church. There are actually some very, very good signals that are being given that a common sense religious liberty will remain a part of our nation’s heritage.
OSV: Legalized same-sex marriage continues to make strong headway in the United States, and many of the Church’s younger members are advocating for it. What can or should the bishops be doing to assist in catechesis in this area?
Archbishop Kurtz: In many ways our nation will depend very much upon our ability to articulate what Pope Francis has called a very solid anthropology. We believe very strongly in our faith that every human being has great dignity, and that message has to be very clearly given, not just with our words but with the way we treat people. And that would be people regardless of what particular sexual attraction people might have or sexual orientation.
Having said that, the gifts of the time-honored gift of marriage as the union of a man and a woman open to life built into our nature is not a gift that we can change. So I think that the bishops will need to continue, as I hope many of the faithful are doing, in promoting ways to understand what the language of sexuality is all about. People who have been promoting the theology of the body are doing wonderful work in being able to explain that.
I will admit that the challenges are, nevertheless, very, very great. I look also to the two synods that are coming up as we look at challenges to the family, to help in the ways in which we look at (this) solid anthropology, one in which we see the dignity of every human person, but also see the gift of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.
OSV: You recently traveled to the Philippines with Catholic Relief Services to observe the damage from Typhoon Haiyan. What prompted you to go?
Archbishop Kurtz: It was really to be an emissary of hope. To simply be able to be in solidarity with the bishops and the faithful in the Philippines. We had a chance to meet with a number of the bishops and of course the bulk of our work was walking hand in hand with people who have experienced terrible devastation.
One of the purposes was to be able to come back to the people in the United States, especially the Catholics, and say thank you to them for their generosity. I’m told that the freewill offering amounted to close to $11 million and the majority of that money of course is going directly to be used by Catholic Relief Services for humanitarian purposes.
But there is also a portion, not through CRS, but in our direct work with the Filipino Conference of Bishops, that will be able to serve and help with some of the church rebuilding, and that is so needed.
OSV: What surprised you the most?
Archbishop Kurtz: I didn’t realize how much hope in the midst of difficulties the Filipino people themselves already had. I think I learned something about the way tragedy can bring out great love and great sacrifice. The people in the Philippines were concerned for one another and not just for themselves, and that was very admirable.
One of the things (Cardinal Tagle) said to us in our meeting, he said, “Please know that the people of the Philippines are not victims.” And that impressed me so much. He said, “We are a resilient people, and even though the devastation and the tragedy is great, we want to work hand in hand in the recovery.”
OSV: What stood out to you about the Filipino people?
Archbishop Kurtz: The Filipino people are just such a warm and wonderful people. You learn a lot about a family by looking at the children, and I saw such great hope and energy, and already a desire to rebuild.
I saw a little basketball court that was constructed out of rubble, and I thought, “Well, we need to play. We need to play in the midst of all the work that has to be done.” And that’s part of the human community.
There were many things that made me come home a better person. I intended to go there to help others, and I found that I learned an awful lot.
OSV: What will stick with you the most from that trip?
Archbishop Kurtz: I suspect it’s the experience of being in contact with individual people and families. It’s one thing to see devastation from a helicopter or from a distance. It’s another thing to enter into the houses of people or in some cases the temporary shelters, and be able to talk to people. That was a very great blessing.
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.