Francis’ priorities vs. the priorities of the U.S. bishops

Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans, center, and other prelates listens to a speaker during the 2014 annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS/Bob Roller)
This article appears in the USCCB Fall 2015 feature series. View the full series.

As the U.S. bishops gather in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting this week, they will be deciding their priorities until the end of this decade. Will these priorities sync with those of Pope Francis or will the bishops continue on as if the pope is not taking the church in a new direction?

At their spring meeting in St. Louis, the bishops approved a working draft of the bishops’ conference’s strategic priorities for their 2017-2020 planning cycle by a vote of 165 to 14 with three abstentions. Although the draft was approved overwhelmingly, some bishops from the floor questioned whether these priorities were consistent with those of Francis.

The drafters promised that input shared by the bishops would be provided to the various committees as they write the final version. The resulting draft will be presented for approval by the full body of bishops at their meeting Nov. 16-17.

The draft priorities approved last spring are: 

  • Family and marriage
  • Evangelization 
  • Religious freedom
  • Human life and dignity
  • Vocations and ongoing formation

To those who have followed the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, these priorities sound very familiar. They sound like what the USCCB has been doing for decades before the election of Francis.

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“While I couldn’t find any real problem with the five priorities,” said Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin last spring, “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.”

There is no question that Francis supports family and marriage, evangelization, religious freedom, human life and dignity, and vocations and ongoing formation. Who doesn’t?

But when you think of Francis, are these the issues you think of? Is this the way he expresses himself?

Francis has been very clear in laying out his priorities in his talks and writings. His 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 and the empowerment of the laity
  • The promotion of justice and peace and the protection of the environment

If you presented these two lists of priorities to a random selection of people, I am willing to bet that the second list would be identified as closer to Francis than the first.

A poor church for the poor

From the moment of his election, Francis has made the poor a priority in his concerns. He constantly talks about the poor and the marginalized, the immigrants and refugees. He has called on Christians to serve, accompany, and protect the poor.

Serving the poor is the traditional work of charity — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, etc.

Protecting the poor is done through working for justice so that the poor are not exploited or marginalized but have access to jobs and dignity. It means changing economic and social structures that handicap the poor.

Accompanying the poor means welcoming them into our churches and communities, sitting down with them, listening to their concerns, and becoming their friends.

The church as a field hospital

 For Francis, the church is not a country club for the blessed, it is a field hospital that cares for the wounded.

The first words of evangelization, he says, must be about the mercy and compassion of God, not a list of rules and regulations, let alone words of condemnation. This is why he speaks of the Eucharist as food for the weary not a reward for the perfect.

Francis wants a pastoral church, preaching a gospel-based message of love, compassion and justice — not a nagging church wagging its finger at people.

Francis believes that “we have reduced our way of speaking about mystery to rational explanations, but for ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.” As a result, “we lose people because they don't understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people.”

In other words, the church needs to preach the gospel not the catechism. For too many U.S. bishops, the new evangelization is presenting The Catechism of the Catholic Church with a smile.

Synodality

At the 2015 synod on the family, Francis did something extraordinary. He urged the attending bishops to speak boldly, to even disagree with him.

He invited the church to return to the open discussions and even arguments that marked the Second Vatican Council. He reopened the window that had been opened by Pope John XXIII and closed by Pope John Paul II.

“Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow,” he said. “That doesn't frighten me. What's more, I look for it.”

Elsewhere he has encouraged people to try new things. “I prefer a church that makes mistakes because it is doing some-thing to one that sickens because it stays shut in," he said. 

For Francis, synodality, open discussion in the church, is essential to its life. It is not something only for synods of bishops, it is necessary at every level of the church.

“The path ahead,” he told the bishops in Washington, “is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society.”

Can the U.S. bishops imitate Francis and urge their priests and people to speak boldly and listen humbly? Can synodality be brought to dioceses and parishes?

End of clericalism

Francis’ harshest words are against clericalism and careerism in the church. He sounds like Jesus denouncing the scribes and Pharisees. He insists that leadership is for service. That shepherds must smell like their sheep. And that priests and bishops are at the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.

As he said to the American bishops in Washington, “Be pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbors and servants.”

And just as the scribes and Pharisees hated Jesus, many clerics do not like Francis, who they see as undermining their authority. Sadly, this anti-Francis attitude permeates too many U.S. seminaries where both faculty and students hope his reign will be short.

Francis also wants to empower the laity to take up their role in evangelization and in reshaping the world according to Gospel values.

As he asked the CELAM bishops in Brazil

  • "Do we make the lay faithful sharers in the mission?"
  • Do diocesan and parish councils, "whether pastoral or financial, provide real opportunities for laypeople to participate in pastoral consultation, organization and planning?"
  • Do we give the laity "the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?"

Justice, peace, and the environment

Francis, like the popes before him, believes that Christians should be active in the world, working for justice and peace and protecting the environment.

No one can read his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, without becoming aware of his radical critique of the current economic and political system that worships the golden calf of money and power. He freely criticizes capitalism and globalization for not helping the poor.

His encyclical, Laudato Si’, has also inspired Christians and non-Christians to be concerned about our common home, Mother Earth. Protecting the environment is not an optional aspect of Christian experience, according to Francis, it is essential to the Christian life of virtue in the 21st century.

Francis, like Pope Benedict XVI, believes that there is a robust role for government in the regulation of the economy and promotion of the common good, especially in promoting jobs for the poor.

We have also heard his call for international reconciliation and witnessed his efforts to promote peace.

In speaking to the bishops in Washington, he reminded them to be concerned for “the innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature.”

Francis signaled his priorities when he picked the name Francis. Like Francis of Assisi, he is a reformer who lives poorly, loves the poor, works for reconciliation and peace, and cherishes God’s creation. Will the U.S. bishops embrace these priorities or will it be business as usual at their meeting in Baltimore?

[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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