Hundreds of Catholic bishops will gather in St. Louis this week for a national meeting to set priorities at a time when Pope Francis is shaking up the Church and sparking hope for a better values debate in American politics. A pope who puts poverty, economic inequality, and care for the environment at the center of his papacy offers a unique opportunity for US bishops to reclaim a more effective public voice.
Four months before Pope Francis visits the United States and becomes the first pontiff in history to address Congress, the Catholic political narrative in our country needs a serious reboot.
In recent years, Catholic bishops have focused on fighting civil same-sex marriage, contraception funding in Obamacare, and even federal non-discrimination measures to protect LGBT employees in the workplace. This casts an image of an embattled and isolated Church that is failing to win hearts and minds even with its own flock.
Compare this to the infectious joy Pope Francis has brought to his call for a “poor Church for the poor” that is “in the streets” grappling with the messiness of life. The pope’s pastoral and often disarming tone on prickly sexual issues — and his searing critique of an “economy of exclusion and inequality” — is energizing people around the world hungry for authentic moral leadership. His papacy offers bishops a roadmap back to relevance.
US Catholic leaders who once helped inspire New Deal reforms for workers’ rights and later challenged Reagan-era economic policies and the nuclear arms race have recently earned a reputation for being “firmly on the Republican side in American politics,” as Archbishop Emeritus John Quinn of San Francisco warned in the wake of the 2008 presidential election. A vocal minority of bishops — aligned with conservative intellectuals, Christian evangelicals on the right, and culture warriors who reduced Catholic identity to a few “non-negotiable issues” — often drowned out moderates in the hierarchy who never felt emboldened under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
There are signs a new era is dawning.
The pope’s pick to lead the influential archdiocese of Chicago, Archbishop Blase Cupich, is the consummate “Francis bishop” who regards the culture wars as a dead end street and describes economic inequality as “a powder keg that is as dangerous as the environmental crisis the world is facing today.” Bishop Robert McElroy, appointed by the pope in the spring to lead the San Diego diocese, writes that Francis’ teachings on poverty and inequality “demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the lone American on the pope’s elite council tasked with reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, has described economic justice and immigration reform as “pro-life” issues — near-heresy for some Catholic conservatives and Republicans used to owning the values narrative in politics.
This year is shaping up to be a potentially transformational moment for the intersection of faith and politics. In just a few days, Pope Francis is slated to release an encyclical about the environment that will address the moral dimensions of climate change. It’s likely to be a bold call to action that will make Catholic Republicans running for president and influential conservative Catholics in Congress lose sleep trying to explain away their woeful record of dithering and denial. Catholic bishops are prepping for that encyclical and will discuss plans this week. The pope is a unique messenger with a global pulpit and the moral gravitas most politicians lack. He can reach an audience far beyond the progressive choir. It’s easy for Republican leaders to dismiss Greenpeace, but thumbing your nose at the most compelling moral leader in the world? Well, that’s hubris of a different sort.
When the pope stands before Congress in September, expect a hopeful but stark challenge. Inhumane immigrant detention centers, scandalous levels of economic inequality, and mass incarceration are all grave threats to families, neighborhoods, and human dignity in this country. A pope who speaks frequently about exclusion and indifference will bring a timely, prophetic message to the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.
As Catholic bishops put together their game plan this week, they would be smart to steal a few pages from the Francis playbook.
John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. He is author of the forthcoming The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield).