FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — After a robust 90-minute discussion during the second day of their bi-annual meeting, the U.S. bishops voted to advance a proposal to produce new materials to complement their official voting guidelines to better apply the teachings of Pope Francis to current issues in the United States.
The discussion and vote, however, revealed tensions within the body over both the current content and the medium in which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is seeking to influence public life, while ultimately resulting in a compromise outcome that will surely be subject to close scrutiny in the months ahead.
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility was first adopted by an overwhelming majority of U.S. Bishops in 2007. In 2015, the document was updated to incorporate “the wealth of papal teaching since the 2007 version of Faithful Citizenship, such as the later magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI and that of Pope Francis to date.”
However, on Thursday, multiple bishops raised concerns that the latest version of the document does not fully incorporate the teachings of Francis, particularly on issues related to climate change, immigration, and poverty.
A working group, chaired by Vice-President of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez, with representatives from the heads of the permanent USCCB committees, had recommended the production of a short letter “to inspire prayer and action regarding public life” and a video that would complement rather than revise the latest version of Faithful Citizenship.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago was the first to express concern with the proposal, noting he would be voting against it, as it would be a missed opportunity if a new document was not drafted that did not properly integrate the teachings of Francis.
Bishop John Stowe seconded Cupich’s concerns, adding that there was a need to address the urgency of the plight of undocumented young migrants, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and the nuclear arms trade.
In an intervention taking up almost every second of his five-minute allotment, Bishop Robert McElroy issued an impassioned plea for a new document to better reflect the “signs of the time,” noting that Catholics in the United States are living in a “radically different moment” than when the document was last updated.
“We live in a time in which children are afraid to go to school because they may be killed. We live in a time when we have the great challenge of bringing to the millennial generation an understanding that the instrumentalization of human life at the beginning of life and at the end is unacceptable and why laws should touch upon that,” he said.
“We need to speak to these questions and we need to speak as a collective body of bishops,” McElroy added.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey then took to the floor and suggested that Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate — which calls on the Church to recognize that those already born, including the poor and victims of human trafficking, are equally sacred with the unborn — is reason alone for a new draft of Faithful Citizenship.
Yet, as the conversation continued, the debate shifted from a discussion about the content to a debate over the most effective means of communicating the teaching of the Church on matters in public life.
Bishop Robert Barron, who served on the working group in his capacity as head of the Committee on Evangelization, said that the bishops on the Committee are “very aware of the Franciscan shift…and that something is happening” under Francis, but maintained that the proposal was concerned with how to best communicate those changes.
Due to his long-standing work in film and media, several bishops noted that Barron should serve as an advisor for the production of films that the Committee had recommended, while other bishops questioned whether there would be an opportunity for the bishops to provide input and approve the scripts for the films, noting that the films would, in effect, become official statements of the bishops.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the diocese of Brooklyn noted Faithful Citizenship was drafted to form consciences and today consciences are “formed not by us but by the media.”
While some bishops preferred tabling the discussion to the USCCB General Assembly in November — a suggestion first made by Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont — the bishops voted down that recommendation in a vote of 126 to 61.
In a final move, at the urging of Bishop David O’Connell, auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of Los Angeles, the bishops agreed in a vote of 144 to 41 to adopt the amendment, but with the addition of the language “to apply the teachings of Pope Francis to our day” to the amendment’s conclusion.
Capping off the hour and a half discussion, USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo finished the session by noting “this is going to be subject to much further and livelier debate as we move along, and rightfully so.”
“The point of view of the brothers are intensely held and logically held, I might add, on all sides,” he concluded.