2015: Stories To Keep Us Busy!

Yesterday, I looked at what I thought were the top seven stories about the Catholic Church in the United States during 2014. Today, let’s look ahead to 2015 and the stories I anticipate will be generating a lot of buzz and getting a lot of attention here at Distinctly Catholic.

1) In September, Pope Francis will be making his first ever trip to the U.S. The itinerary is still not decided, although we know he will be stopping in Philadelphia for the World Family Day celebrations. I have previously noted that the line-up of speakers for the Philly event, which spans several days, is not exactly the list I would have devised. And, the event will occur just a few weeks before the second synod on the family in Rome, so he will be speaking to the whole Church, not just the Church in the U.S. Still, in terms of emphasis, I am hopeful he will keep to his strong suit, the themes of accompaniment and reaching out to those at the margins, the Church as field hospital, and stay away from the kind of moralistic nastiness that will be on display from some of the other speakers.

It is anticipated that he will also make a visit to New York to address the United Nations: the General Assembly meets in September and given the Holy See’s long-standing support for the UN, you can bank on him making that stop. It is also likely he will come to Washington, D.C. Congress has extended him an invitation to address a Joint Session. I am still trying to decide if I think that is a good idea or a bad one: The setting is so obviously political, it might be jarring but, on the other hand, it would be great if he read them the riot act. His predecessors also came to Catholic University when they visited Washington to address Catholic educators and that would certainly, for me, be the highlight of the entire trip as it was for Benedict’s trip. The then-President of the university, then-Father, now-Bishop David O’Connell, got me a seat on the aisle and directed the pope to my side of that aisle as he left the room. I was able to kiss his ring and thank him for his ministry. It was nice.

It is unclear if the pope’s visit to the U.S. will be preceded by a visit to Mexico. If so, many of us hope that he will stop at the U.S. border and say a Mass for those who have died trying to cross that border, as he did at Lampedusa in 2013 and as a group of U.S. bishops did at Nogales, Arizona this year. If he were to make the stop, it would undoubtedly yield the emotional highlight of the entire trip and forcefully call attention to one of the most urgent humanitarian problems facing both the U.S. and Latin America. I can also think of no better way to call attention to the economic pressures many families face than to highlight the extreme pressures placed on family life by unjust immigration laws. If he does not go to the border, the bishops should recommend that the Holy Father stop somewhere in the U.S. with a substantial Latino population. That is the future of the Church, indeed, in many dioceses that future is already here. A Mass in Spanish for a largely Latino congregation would be a huge shot in the arm for all those engaged in Hispanic ministry. If the Southwest or Los Angeles is too far, Chicago is now majority-minority too.

When these papal trips are planned, there is a lot of advance consultation. It will be curious to see whom the pope and his advisors in Rome listen to in deciding what he should say and how he should say it. Given everything we know about his generous heart, I doubt he will denounce same-sex marriage as the most pressing threat to marriage today and, as some would have it, to civilization itself. I hope he will confront the spread eagle consumer capitalism of American society in at least one of his speeches, and I suspect he will, and the only question will be how strong his words are. And, if he addresses the U.S. bishops at some point, which is a staple of most such papal trips, it will be interesting to see if he is more encouraging or more censorious: As we saw in his address to the curia, the Holy Father is not shy about calling prelates to account. I would expect a mix of both admonition and encouragement.

2) The preparations for the synod is both a local and an international story. How extensive will individual bishops be in conducting their consultations? We know that Archbishop Cupich in Chicago has already asked his archdiocesan pastoral council, the archdiocesan women’s council, and the presbyteral council to work together on a plan for such consultations. Will others follow suit or merely go through the motions? Will the USCCB take a break from issuing its draconian statements against Obama and hire CARA to conduct some serious surveys?

The U.S. bishops are not used to this sort of synod preparation. In Latin America, meetings of CELAM are proceeded by two or three years of consultation with the lay faithful and the clergy. Pope Francis clearly thinks the CELAM approach has worked well and wants to break its methodology to the universal Church. But, some of the brethren are not in the habit of seeking advice outside a small circle of confidants, and most of those confidants already share their opinions. The pope has asked pastors to acquire the smell of the sheep and the preparation for the synod is a specific task that requires them to do it.  I hope the nuncio has a riding crop at the ready to prompt the bishops to get with the program.

3) The nomination of new bishops is always newsworthy and, in the coming year, we will find out if the appointment of Archbishop Cupich, in which the pope was personally involved, will become the norm or prove the exception. Archbishop Sheehan in Santa Fe is already past the age of 75. Next year two additional archbishops will turn 75, Archbishop Schwietz of Anchorage and Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl. +Wuerl is in better shape than I am and I suspect he will be asked to stay at his post for a few extra years.

Every diocese is important, but two large dioceses also have ordinaries who will turn 75 in 2015, Rockville Center, New York and Arlington, Virginia. Arlington is a special case because its clergy, dating back to the creation of the diocese in 1974, it has been a hotbed of conservatism. At the time it was broken off from the diocese of Richmond, any priest with more liberal inclinations stuck with Richmond. Bishop Paul Loverde is a lovely man and has, at times, stood up to the more extreme craziness in the diocese. At other times, such as lending his approval to loyalty oaths for Sunday school teachers, he has caved. Given the large number of federal politicians who live in the diocese, it is imperative that +Loverde’s replacement not be a bomb thrower.

How will we know if the changes Pope Francis is asking of the higher clergy are being manifested in the selection of new bishops? I would look for two things. First, if there are fewer candidates with time working in Rome on their resume and more time working in parishes, that would indicate things are moving in the right direction. Second, are new bishops being recruited from the ranks of directors of Catholic Charities and other social justice ministries or are miters still going primarily to men who served as secretaries to bishops or as seminary rectors. It is no slur against seminary rectors to point out that they engage the Church at its most self-referential. That goes with the turf. And, let me add, there are some wonderful seminary rectors who would make fine bishops. But, the mold has to be broken.

4) There might be, and should be, two other key appointments in 2015. Two bishops who are not yet 75, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City- St. Joseph and Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul have both lost the confidence of their flocks and their resignations should be demanded.

The two cases are different. Bishop Finn pled guilty in 2012 for failing to report child sex abuse, violating the Dallas Charter that the U.S. bishops agreed to in 2002. The Dallas Charter was a pledge by the bishops that they would never again look the other way in the face of charges of child sex abuse, and +Finn looked the other way. By the terms of that same charter, he would fail a background check if he applied to be a Sunday school teacher in his own diocese. Yet, he remains bishop.

In St. Paul, in addition to charges that +Nienstedt and his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn, also failed to abide by the Dallas Charter, there have been personal allegations of improper sexual conduct with adults leveled against +Nienstedt. A law firm was retained to investigate the charges. Towards the end of the summer, that investigation was concluded and…..nothing. In such situations, a person or organization can release the findings and throw oneself on the mercy of the people. Or, one can refuse to release the report and resign, making the report and its findings moot. What can’t be done is to fail to release the report and stay. Yet, he remains as bishop.

The two cases are also similar. Both +Finn and +Nienstedt had powerful patrons protecting them from any punishment. The defenders of both have said that removing a bishop denigrates the dignity of the episcopacy which is exactly wrong: Keeping bishops in place who have through failed leadership and violation of their own pledges lost the confidence of their clergy and the laity is what denigrates the dignity of the episcopacy. In Rome, the new Vatican Commission for Child Protection is up and running and +Finn’s case clearly falls within their mandate and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who leads that commission, has made it clear that holding bishops accountable for child protection policies will be a principal concern of the group. A separate apostolic visitation conducted by the Congregation for Bishops last year may beat the Commission to the punch. Either way, +Finn should go and go soon and the Congregation for Bishops should send a bishop who is not only deeply committed to the protection of children but who will help restore the confidence of the people of the diocese.

The +Nienstedt situation, in part, falls under the auspices of the new Commission because he mishandled a case of clergy sex abuse. The personal charges of improper sexual conduct probably do not. We have been told by the archdiocesan authorities that the investigation did not uncover any criminal wrong-doing. But, no one has been permitted to ask, and certainly no one has answered, a different question: Did the investigation uncover any violations of civil law, such as sexual harassment by a superior, or, just as importantly, any violations of canon law? Those questions deserve answers. Whatever those answers may be, the archdiocese is in meltdown and +Nienstedt is responsible for that. It is impossible to imagine he could repair the damage himself. A once vibrant archdiocese cannot be permitted to collapse in order to preserve the reputation of a failed leader.

5) In addition to the congeries of issues associated with the upcoming synod on the family, other issues are sure to challenge the Church’s leadership in 2015. I do not anticipate that the Republican controlled Congress will move legislation on immigration reform, which would be an enormously divisive exercise for them. But, I do expect they will take the budget-cutting ax to some programs aimed at assisting the poor and this should provide the USCCB and individual Catholics an opportunity to better explicate Catholic Social Teaching with the kind of firmness they have heretofore reserved for public discussions about same-sex marriage, religious liberty and abortion.

As well, in many states efforts are afoot to enact physician assisted suicide laws. Here is a real opportunity for the bishops to craft a different kind of political and cultural strategy. The issue of physician assisted suicide does not yet break down along partisan lines. Instead, people who have had experiences with hospice care, and those who suffer from disabilities and their families, have formed the vanguard of opposition to such laws. The Church’s leaders should highlight these groups and let the very human arguments they put forward shape the debate. The one way to lose the debate is to introduce canon law and moral absolutes into the debate: Our culture does not have the ears to hear those kinds of arguments, at least not when compelling personal stories are invoked by the advocates of physician assisted suicide. The bishops should, as a body, ask the bishops of Massachusetts how they successfully defeated a referendum on the issue in 2012, a textbook case of successful, prudent political action on the part of the bishops.

As mentioned yesterday, in 2014 the rise of libertarianism and libertarian-leaning arguments has caused consternation and the beginnings of a rebuttal in some Catholic circles, not least here at Distinctly Catholic. I anticipate that effort will continue. The Catholic opposition to physician assisted suicide is opposed by libertarian arguments as is Catholic opposition to cuts in Medicaid and Medicare. If the Church’s leadership, and especially the USCCB, were to re-examine all their socio-political activities through the lens of libertarian vs. Catholic approaches and ideas, the Church would at once be more coherent, less partisan and, I believe, more faithful to our tradition. This will mean however that the bishops no longer wink at associations with the Koch Brothers while decrying Planned Parenthood.

Analyzing contemporary political issues through this lens yields an additional advantage. The Church too easily puts a foot wrong when it gets too deeply involved in particular political machinations. And, the real danger of libertarianism is not, or at least not yet, explicitly political. People recoil if they read Ayn Rand or at least most people over the age of twenty do so. It is deeper. As a cultural phenomenon, our consumer driven identities smuggle libertarian attitudes and ideas into our psyches and, over time, they will find political expression. The Church is, I believe, at her best when addressing cultural realities with political consequences rather than political realities with cultural consequences.

6) Related to this last issue to look to percolate in 2015, I anticipate that the alliance between organized labor and the Catholic Church will take on new life and vigor in 2015. In the first place, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about workers’ issues in Italy, a fact that has been woefully undercovered in the U.S. Catholic press. Second, at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies’ conference last June, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism,” no one was more enthusiastic about the presentations than the representatives of organized labor. Listening to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka introduce Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez, it was clear that Trumka Catholic roots are as strong as any layman: His words were deeply moving as he recalled the parish priest protecting his dad from company thugs.

For several years now, Fr. Clete Kiley has been training labor priests each spring. The priests who attend must first obtain the permission of their bishop. This is no exercise in dissent, quite the contrary. Those priests leave the week long seminars with a stronger understanding of Catholic Social Teaching per se but also with what that teaching has to say about current socio-economic and political realities. A thousand  blessings on Fr. Kiley for this work.

One other reality suggests that the ties between labor and the Church will grow in the year ahead: Both organizations are ahead of the demographic curve compared to the rest of the country. For both labor and the Church, the Latino future is already here. Latinos, like previous immigrants, are exploited in low wage jobs. Latinos, like previous immigrants, are the most active members of today’s Church. One hundred years ago, many union locals held their first meetings in the basement of a local Catholic Church. One hundred years ago, there were no “think tanks” deriding Catholic Social Teaching or, worse, trying to baptize its opposite. There is work to be done to rebuild this once vibrant alliance. That work has begun. I hope and pray that work will flourish in 2015.

There are many other stories we can all anticipate watching in 2015, but these are the six that most intrigue me. None of us can foretell the future, and some new socio-cultural or political development may emerge that we had not anticipated. And, of course, soon the presidential nominating contests will begin and dominate the media, even while these deeper issues remain active. Whatever happens, you can rest assured it will be discussed here at Distinctly Catholic by me and in the comments’ section by all of you. And that guarantees a Happy New Year!





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