Day 2 at the USCCB: Strategic Priorities

This story appears in the USCCB Fall 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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There is a question hanging over this plenary meeting of the U.S. bishops: Did Pope Francis come here two months ago? By the end of the proceedings on the first day, I was rubbing my eyes, wondering if I was in a dream, murmuring to myself, "Is Francis pope?" Whatever else yesterday’s meeting was, it was not an exercise in synodality if by synodality we mean important discussions and prayerful discernment: There were precious few interventions from the floor.

Yesterday, I wrote about the proposed text of "Faithful Citizenship" which is littered with unspecific quotes from Pope Francis but is, in fact, a retrenchment from previous documents in areas of concern that the Holy Father has made preeminent, especially care for the poor and the environment. The priorities and plans, which will be voted on today, and will guide the work of the conference until 2020, show a similar disconnect.

The first priority is evangelization and who can argue with that? In a sense, evangelization is at the heart of everything the Church does. But the words the pope uses in discussing evangelization -- accompaniment, service, humility -- are absent and, instead, we have talk of "a personal encounter and relationship with Jesus." Now, I am all for a personal encounter with Jesus, and I think Pope Francis is too. But, this formulation sounds more like the way Evangelical Protestants talk about evangelization than the ecclesial, communitarian, sacramental understanding of the encounter that we Catholics hold.

Concern for the poor is considered as a subheading of both the second priority on marriage and the third on human life and dignity, but it deserves a stand alone treatment. Again, there is no sense that it is the poor who evangelize the rest of us. "Make the advancement of healthy family life a central strategy for combating poverty and for the promotion of social justice, with special attention to the homeless, the poor and the immigrants," reads the first subheading under "Family and Marriage." There is indeed a relationship between stable family life and marriages and poverty, but this language is too ambiguous. I have heard the neo-conservatives at the Ethics and Public Policy Center talk about this connection in ways that are dreadfully condescending, as if those poor people wouldn’t be so poor if they led upright sexual moral lives like us neo-cons. And, of course, there is nothing about fighting for a minimum wage or for paid family leave or anything that might actually help poor families.

Religious Liberty gets its own place in the list of five priorities. The draft calls for building "a religious freedom movement within and beyond the Catholic community," but there is no mention of the group most obviously threatened by infringements of religious liberty, here and abroad, our Muslim brothers and sisters. I share many of the bishops’ concerns about religious liberty, but during the afternoon session yesterday, the call for religious exemptions for public officials from same sex marriage laws, a la Kim Davis, was downright crazy. How many times must we say it: Ms. Davis was not practicing conscientious objection. She did not go to jail for practicing her faith. She went to jail for forcing other people to practice her faith. Such distinctions appear lost on the likes of Archbishop Joseph Naumann, of Kansas City, Kansas, who urged the body to resist the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage with hopes of getting it overturned. If the bishops are serious about mounting a religious liberty campaign that is most known for its resistance to treating gay people decently, good luck with their effort to “inspire youth and young adults.”

We will see what today brings. The first order of business is the election of a new General Secretary. Normally, this is a pro forma decision to elevate a current Associate General Secretary to the top job.  But, this year, widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of the conference may make that contest more interesting as former USCCG staffer Fr. Shawn McKnight challenges current Associate General Secretary Brian Bransfield. Then, the bishops will discuss and vote on Faithful Citizenship and the strategic priorities as well as elect new committee chairs. Stay tuned to NCR throughout the day as we bring you the latest news.

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