A Francis agenda for the US bishops

This story appears in the USCCB Fall 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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During the second week of November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet in Baltimore to consider a strategic plan to implement their priorities as a conference. Last November when the bishops set their priorities, some pointed out that those priorities seemed little influenced by the papacy of Pope Francis.

The priorities they selected were:

  • Evangelization: Open wide the doors to Christ through missionary discipleship and personal encounter.
  • Family and marriage: Encourage and heal families; inspire Catholics to embrace the sacrament of matrimony.
  • Human life and dignity: Uphold the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death with special concern for the poor and vulnerable.
  • Vocations and ongoing formation: Encourage vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, and provide meaningful ongoing formation to clergy, religious and lay ministers.
  • Religious freedom: Promote and defend the freedom to serve, witness and worship, in the U.S. and abroad. 

"While I couldn't find any real problem with the five priorities," said Indianapolis Archbishop and Cardinal-designate Joseph Tobin in spring 2015, "I thought that they were quite closely a restatement of the priorities that this body has adopted in the past. And I was concerned that the newness that Pope Francis is bringing to the church universal ... would not be reflected in the priorities."

In other words, there is nothing particularly wrong with these priorities, but they don't sound like they came from Pope Francis. They could have been written before he ever became pope.

Last year, I suggested that a Francis set of priorities would look more like this: 

  • A poor church for the poor
  • The church as a field hospital, a church of mercy and compassion
  • The practice of synodality at all levels of the church
  • The end of clericalism; the empowerment of the laity
  • The promotion of justice and peace and the protection of the environment

Or if the bishops wanted to have priorities in sync with Pope Francis, they could simply list the Francis documents they want to implement in the United States:

It is probably too late and too embarrassing for the bishops to change their priorities now, but it would be helpful if at their November meeting they passed a resolution stating their priorities and plans should be implemented in the spirit of Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si', Amoris Laetitia, and the pope's address to the American bishops.

This would go a long way in responding to critics who say that the American bishops are out of sync with Pope Francis. It would put them on record as accepting these documents, which are defining Francis' papacy.

Such a resolution would put a different spin on the meaning of "evangelization" and "marriage and family" in the USCCB priorities. It would mean that evangelization programs in the U.S. should reflect in content and tone Evangelii Gaudium. It would mean that programs on marriage and family should reflect the content and tone of Amoris Laetitia. All old programs and policies would have to be reexamined to see if they reflect these documents.

For Francis, evangelization "is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake." Francis also encourages a much more pastoral and less condemnatory approach toward people. How the church approaches and accompanies divorced Catholics, gays, and those who disagree with the bishops would therefore have to change.

Likewise, the priority "human life and dignity" would have different meaning in light of Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si'. Concern for the poor and marginalized and care for the environment would become signature features of this priority.

Pope Francis does not have a document on "vocations and ongoing formation," but he clearly sees this as important, since the 2018 synod of bishops will be on "youth and vocations." In the spirit of Francis, the American bishops need to encourage a conversation in the church in preparation for the synod, a conversation that should include youth of a variety of viewpoints, especially the large number of millennials who are alienated from the church.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego understands this and has indicated that his next diocesan synod will focus on young adults.

Nor does Pope Francis have a document on "religious freedom." As chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I am delighted to see the bishops concerned about religious freedom abroad. (Opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the USCIRF.)

The bishops' views on religious freedom in the U.S. are more controversial. Perhaps the words of Pope Francis to the bishops are helpful here as elsewhere:

The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. ... Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.

The November meeting of the USCCB is an opportunity for the bishops to get with the Francis program and to make sure that their conference is traveling along the same path as Francis. Simply rubber stamping the same tired programs will not be helpful. The bishops have to show that they understand Pope Francis and support his change in direction, a direction that includes more dialogue, more pastoral sensitivity, and more compassion.


[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org.]

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Previewing the USCCB meeting: Will there be a new direction? By Michael Sean Winters

Read all of NCR reporting about the Fall 2016 meeting here.

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