BALTIMORE — In his first address to the full slate of American bishops as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville praised Pope Francis’ tone and style, but avoided specific mention of the hot-button cultural issues that roiled the Synod of Bishops meeting at the Vatican last month.
Kurtz defended the pope’s emerging “culture of encounter,” with its emphasis on mercy over judgment, embracing those not living in accord with Church teaching, and more directly assisting the poor and disadvantaged. He likened Francis’ philosophy to his own visits to the homes of parishioners when he was a pastor.
“When I’d come to someone’s home, I wouldn’t start by telling them how I’d rearrange their furniture. In the same way, I wouldn’t begin by giving them a list of rules to follow,” Kurtz told the nearly 400 bishops gathered in Baltimore.
During the synod last month in Rome, conservative and liberal bishops battled, sometimes publicly, over how the Church should promote its sometimes-controversial teachings. Liberal Catholics have praised what they say is Francis’ more open, welcoming tone, while conservatives fret that the pope is not placing enough emphasis on opposition to issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Kurtz defended Francis’ approach in Monday’s 15-minute talk.
“I would then invite them to follow Christ, and I’d offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way,” he said. “Such an approach isn’t in opposition to Church teachings; it’s an affirmation of them.”
Kurtz was preceded by the pope’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, who said that bishops must “continually learn to listen” and “must not be afraid to work with our Holy Father.”
The Church “must especially seek out those who suffer under the weight of the difficulties faced by families today, remembering to see the person first, walking with them, and pointing the way toward God,” he said.
The address given by Kurtz, his first since being elected to a three-year term at last year’s fall meeting, touched heavily on promoting what he called “St. John Paul II’s remarkable vision of marriage and family life as developed in his theology of the body.”
Notably absent from the address was a direct condemnation of same-sex marriage or even talk of threats to marriage, discussion of which had become a mainstay of the bishops’ group under Kurtz’ predecessor, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
The other hot topic during the synod was divorce. Various cardinals and bishops floated proposals from an easier annulment process to opening up Communion for the divorced and remarried.
Kurtz did not address these proposals explicitly, but said, “We know that lifelong, faithful, fruitful marriages are well within reach and lead to an abundant life; we see it every day among the families we serve.”
After the synod, Pope Francis instructed bishops to discuss the themes and questions posed in Rome in their own dioceses before the synod’s second meeting next October. Kurtz said this will happen in conversations with Catholics.
“I also anticipate we will each have opportunities to listen to and dialogue with families seeking to come closer to Christ,” he said.
Referring to the Church’s “Respect Life Month” in October, Kurtz thanked “pro-life leaders, pregnancy resource centers, Catholic Charities, [and] Catholic Relief Services,” apparently in a nod to those who believe the Church’s “pro-life” mission must extend beyond abortion.
He reiterated the bishops’ opposition to parts of Obamacare, vowing that the bishops will “continue to uphold religious liberty against government actions like the HHS mandate in order to protect our ability to fully witness to the Gospel.”
He thanked Dolan for bringing the issue of international religious liberty to the fore during the final year of his presidency, and said the bishops will continue on that front as well.
The bishops are gathered in Baltimore, which is celebrating its 225th anniversary. It was the first Catholic diocese in the United States, and bishops will hold a special Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Monday afternoon.
Next week, the Archdiocese of Chicago will get a new leader when Archbishop Blase Cupich replaces the ailing Cardinal Francis George, a former president of the group. Kurtz told the bishops that Pope Francis twice mentioned he was praying for George.
“I was eager to tell the Cardinal of our Holy Father’s concern, so I picked up the phone and called Cardinal George immediately,” he said. “I didn’t realize that I was calling before 7:30 in the morning in Chicago. Of course he answered graciously and was delighted to get the news.”
That was greeted with extended applause and a standing ovation from bishops gathered in the ballroom of the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.
Kurtz began his talk with an anecdote about meeting a man with special needs while in Rome last month. Kurtz has spoken in the past about his brother Georgie, who had Down syndrome and lived with Kurtz in a rectory in Knoxville until his death in 2002.
He said the man’s brother worried about who would care for Giovanni when he was no longer able.
“I remember that same fear myself,” he said. “As pastors, we accompany so many families who face their own fears and concerns, and who yearn to experience the love of Jesus in and through his loving family, the Church.”