Bishops debate proper place for poverty, Francis in future priorities

This story appears in the USCCB Spring 2015 feature series. View the full series.
Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis speaks Thursday during the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in St. Louis. (CNS/St. Louis Review/Lisa Johnston)
Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis speaks Thursday during the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in St. Louis. (CNS/St. Louis Review/Lisa Johnston)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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A robust discussion broke out here Thursday morning as U.S. bishops wrestled with how their priorities going forward might reflect those set forth in the first two years of Pope Francis’ pontificate.

One of three votes on the agenda of the bishops’ spring gathering, the priority vote maneuvered from presentation to discussion to pushback to eventually passage of a draft with the intention of building upon it.

That was the plan, said Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, chair of the Committee on Priorities and Plans, who along with New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond emphasized that the proposed conference priorities for 2017-2020 -- a result of several surveys of bishops -- represented at this stage a draft outline. The final vote on the priorities will come at the 2016 general assembly, held in November in Baltimore.

“Precisely what happened today is what I expected,” Sartain said during a press conference. “... What we saw in action today was the planning process itself,” with further consultation to come in committees and future meetings.

On their face, the five priorities presented -- family and marriage; evangelization; religious freedom; human life and dignity; and vocations -- appeared much the same as those emphasized by the bishops’ conference in recent years. But the bishops stressed that the newness lay in the details, that each priority was purposefully broad with specific emphases associated with each point.

For instance, on family and marriage, the emphasis areas addressed inviting young couples to the sacrament of marriage, providing formation for those married in the church, and to reach out to struggling and broken families. In the evangelization priority, the committee quoted Francis, using the phrase “missionary discipleship.”

Related: Check out the @NCRonline Twitter feed to view the proposed priorities in full and their respective emphases areas

“For us, I think the way we understand what we did before was not that this was going to be changed, but it’s going to be a clearer explicitation of what we intended all along,” Sartain said.

Even with that explanation, one by one, numerous bishops voiced concern with the perception and direction of the priorities.

First was newly named Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., who expressed concern that, as presented, the priorities looked as if “we’ve been doing the same thing we’ve always done.” Coyne, chairman-elect of the Committee on Communications, suggested that the priorities be presented with their emphases to “give a real understanding of what we’re doing.”

Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis echoed his former auxiliary bishop.

“While I couldn’t find any real problem with the five priorities, 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," he said.  

"Now, I’m not sure how the points of emphases work, but I would argue that the newness of Francis should condition in a very visible way the priorities as such, so it’s clear that we take him seriously and we’re accepting his pastoral guidance,” Tobin said, adding he would suggest a preference for the marginalized be given clear priority.

Helena, Mont., Bishop George Thomas was more forthright: “I want to express my disappointment. I really do believe that there needs to be much greater visibility given to the plight of the poor, the economic disparity that so many families feel, rural poverty, joblessness, the struggle of the working poor. And I’d like to think that as these priorities evolve, that there would be much greater visibility and emphasis in the conference, and the body of bishops would throw our collective weight behind a voice of advocacy for the poor in America.”

When it appeared that discussion would be cut short to keep the meeting moving, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich asked for the time for a full discussion. Cupich in his own comments said he found it “stunning” that the priorities’ only use of the word “advocacy” came in regard to religious freedom, and he raised the immigration issue as another area where advocacy is warranted.

“We are facing in this country right now a broken immigration policy,” he said. “That has an enormous impact on family life, on marriage. It seems to me that we should be able to reflect in our priorities some aspect of that advocacy for those people and for the poor.”

He also voiced agreement with San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, who earlier stressed that the priorities should clearly reflect Catholic understanding of religious liberty, that it is “nuanced” and essentially three tiers: the individual conscience, religious communities and secular employers.

Speaking to NCR after the session, McElroy, a member of the priority and planning committee, said while steps were taken to reflect Francis’ pontificate in the priorities, “those need to be amped up in the refinement.”

He said he believes that the issue of poverty either needs to be made more prominent or made a separate priority of its own.

“I think it’s that important for this moment in the history of the church in the country and the world, and particularly global poverty,” he said.

Aymond said during the press conference that the committee didn’t anticipate expanding beyond five priorities. He said the committee would prefer to limit it to the five they presented, “yet weaving in the nuances and the concern that we believed in the first draft that was a great emphasis and reaching out to those who are in poverty and poor. We need to be more specific, we need to be more direct.”

Cupich told NCR that he felt the bishops were maybe moving in the direction of giving greater prominence to the poverty issue. He said he thought they might also want to consider whether religious freedom should be a singular priority or better fit within the scope of evangelization.

“It is a concern. 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,” he said.

On the freedom of religion, Bishop Yousif Habash of the Syrian Catholic Church in Newark, N.J., expressed concern that the bishops would continue to talk about religious freedom without addressing religious persecution, particularly of Christians in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.  

“I am burning. Christianity is burning,” he said.

Other bishops voiced in the open-floor debate a preference for emphasizing poverty in the coming years. Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., described it in terms of his region’s mining communities. Retired Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said he was “very happy” when the poverty discussion began and that the “buzzword” of Francis’ papacy has been the poor.

“And I think that when the Holy Father comes here, and he reads what we’re talking about and he sees what we’re planning, it would be great if somewhere there would be a line that we are not going to forget the poor,” he said.

Asked how the upcoming papal encyclical on the environment might influence the priorities, Aymond pointed out that the first emphasis area of the human life and dignity priority states, “Form joyful disciples willing to proclaim the sanctity of human life and God’s creation.” However, he said, it is an example of one area that could require rewording to give it more attention. 

Sartain said in addition to the encyclical, the coming ordinary Synod of Bishops on the family and the Holy Year of Mercy will also have an effect on the final iteration of the plan. Cupich told NCR he hoped the themes from the encyclical would emerge in the bishops’ priorities. 

“I think the pope is speaking about issues of the day in a way that raises the level of discussion ... I’m looking for a document that really is going to set our sights high, and we will have to take that into consideration,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.] 

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