The first day of the USCCB meeting in St. Louis appeared somnambulant. The bishops might as well have been catching a nap, as no activity was required. They sat and listened to a series of reports, most of which had all the enthusiasm of a dentist explaining why that tooth must be pulled. The whole thing could have been done by email.
As reported by my colleague Brian Roewe, the second day witnessed at least something akin to a lively discussion when the subject of priorities and plans came up. The proposed priorities for 2017-2020 looked a lot like the last set of priorities the conference adopted. The five priorities identified by the drafting committee were: family and marriage; evangelization; religious freedom; human life and dignity; and vocations. Mind you, I do think the bishops, individually and collectively, should be concerned with all five items. But, like a few of the bishops who stirred themselves to go to the microphones, I am concerned that there is no mention of the poor on the list, no mention of immigration, no mention of ecumenism.
The absence of race from the list was ameliorated in part by the vote endorsing a statement by USCCB President Archbishop Joseph Kurtz on the subject of racism. In America, the peripheries to which Pope Francis has called the Church tend to be found in our inner cities, where a complex set of social forces from income inequality to failed schools to gentrification to the current criminal justice system all work to exacerbate racial tensions. I hope and pray that we will not have a long, hot summer in this country, but it was 97 degrees here in Washington yesterday, and I fear we will see more scenes like the ones we saw in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. The Church can and should be at the forefront of the struggle to provide healing, and not just when things explode, but to the underlying problems that beset urban America. That is one reason why the absence of poverty from the list of priorities was so glaring.
The other reason is, of course, Pope Francis. It seems not to have dawned on the drafting committee that within a matter of months, Pope Francis will spend a week here and while no one knows precisely what he will talk about, one can reasonably assume he will discuss the poor and call the Church to focus on the poor. It has been one of the central leitmotifs of his pontificate. It will likely be a major theme of his forthcoming encyclical. But, the bishops’ conference headquarters is more and more showing itself to be a “Francis-free zone.”
It is noteworthy that among the bishops inquiring about the absence of poverty from the list of priorities were those bishops who have recently been promoted by Pope Francis. Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego are the only two bishops Pope Francis has entrusted with a diocese of more than one million people, and both men asked about the neglect of poverty. Bishop Christopher Coyne, recently given his own diocese of Burlington, Vermont, also suggested the new priorities looked a lot like the old priorities, and that this might be a problem.
In a subsequent interview with Roewe, +Cupich also asked if religious liberty needed to take up all the oxygen afforded one of the five priorities. “It is a concern,” +Cupich said. “We need to make sure that religious freedom is protected, but whether or not it is above the status of poverty is I think something for further debate.” One bishop told me that in a casual conversation off the floor, with a diverse group of bishops, none of them had any plans to do anything relating to the “Fortnight for Freedom.” Few want to criticize the focus on religious freedom publicly, not least because it is the cause ne plus ultra of Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Maryland, and +Lori is the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus and no bishop knows when he might need to go to the Knights for a loan on favorable terms.
I also wish one of the bishops had manifested the courage to confront the sometimes offensive, sometimes bizarre comments of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, entrusted with the “defense of marriage” by the conference, especially when it came to the subject of transgendered people. Let us consider the state of our society. Transgendered people represent .00 X of the population. My heart grieves for what they must endure to be sure, although there was little sense of sympathy coming from His Grace of San Francisco. Maybe the picture of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair touched a nerve. (N.B. Jenner’s story may be bizarre, but the most obvious, deplorable sin he committed was marrying into that horrible Kardashian family, yes?) There are 11 million undocumented immigrants, most of them Catholic, most of them poor, most of them threatened daily by those who happily exploit their circumstance. Which is more important for the leaders of the Church to focus on?
A further question: Was the lack of discussion and debate at the meeting precisely what the planners desired? Think on that question for a long, long time.
We do not know what went on in executive session. I hope there, at least, someone echoed the admonition of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin who called for a “reality check” on the way the Church discusses human sexuality and specifically homosexuality. I worry about the kind of response to the forthcoming Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage we can expect from the conference. I worry they will dig deeper and deeper the hole they have dug for themselves. I worry there will be little in the way of humility and compassion. I worry that the religious liberty zelanti will frame the response as an enormous threat to the Church. Unsolicited advice to the entire bench of bishops: Use next week’s encyclical on the environment to change the subject.
I do not think meetings of the USCCB should be livelier so that we journalists have more to write about. I wish they would be livelier because the whole Church is excited by the words and the witness of our wonderful new pope. The USCCB meeting had its requisite tips of the biretta in the pope’s direction, but there was no sense of that excitement which exists outside the ballroom where there gathered. I recalled Cardinal Kasper, speaking at Catholic University last autumn, and saying some on the Church viewed this pontificate as a bit of bad weather, which they were hoping would pass soon, and I could not help thinking that among the “some in the Church” +Kasper had in mind were many of the men meeting in St. Louis.
I am a big fan of naps and my friends know not to call between 2:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon. Churchill took a nap every day during World War II. But, I am not a fan of USCCB meetings having all the excitement of an afternoon nap. And, when I wake up from my nap, I am refreshed. The bishops have until September to get excited by Pope Francis and realize that if they make his priorities their priorities, maybe some of that excitement will wear off onto them. Their people are excited. Plenty of non-Catholics are excited. But, if the last two days in St. Louis were any measure, we are in for one long, long nap at the USCCB.