Whether a pope who has recast the global image of the Catholic Church can also recalibrate the priorities of US Catholic leaders will become clearer this week as more than 300 bishops gather for a key national meeting.
The urgent challenges of economic exclusion, racial disparities, and climate change demand a more robust response from those with the persuasive power of the pulpit and the practical capacity to put institutional muscle behind addressing the root causes of injustice.
Nearly two months after Pope Francis made his first visit to the United States, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops will set its strategic plans for the years ahead and refine a presidential election-year message to Catholic voters. The Francis era presents an unprecedented opportunity bishops should not pass up if they want to reclaim a more effective voice in the public square. The pope’s focus on inequality and exclusion — in tandem with his desire to disentangle the Church from culture wars — should be the roadmap for an American hierarchy trying to navigate through bumpy terrain.
Catholic bishops meet at a critical moment.
Fights over same-sex marriage, contraception coverage in health care reform, and contentious debates over the nature of religious liberty have largely defined the Catholic political narrative in recent years. Church leaders are still reeling from dizzying cultural changes.
Not long ago, some Democratic politicians were leery of addressing gay rights; same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.
A growing number of people are disaffiliated from organized religion even as they express a spiritual hunger; 1 in 10 Americans is a former Catholic.
Millennials in particular are tuning out religious leaders who they see as fixated on a few hot-button issues.
In the face of these stiff headwinds, bishops should not be expected to simply throw in the towel and stop talking about Catholic teaching that is unpopular. The Church is not a political campaign driven by poll-tested messages. Pastors are called to preach a Gospel both inclusive in its embrace and countercultural in its demands.
Even so, Christian leaders in every age must rethink how to preach ancient wisdom with fresh insights and find new pathways or risk becoming irrelevant.
“Before the problems of the Church, it is not useful to search for solutions in conservativism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally,” Pope Francis said during a major speech in Florence this week.
It would be a missed opportunity for the American hierarchy not to learn from how Pope Francis is capturing the imagination of so many without editing one comma in the Catechism. The pope is right to warn that the Church will never win hearts and minds by preaching a “disjointed multitude of doctrines.” His call for a “Church of encounter” that goes to the margins and meets people in the messiness of life is a vision that inspires because it models the ministry of Jesus. It’s not liberal or conservative, but radically Christian.
This theology from below, grounded in the authentic experience of walking with those who are wounded, attracts those beyond the converted choir even as it energizes the faithful. The reduction of religion to a faceless legalism that puts rules before reality is a non-starter.
“The true defenders of doctrine,” Pope Francis said at the conclusion of a three-week global meeting of bishops at the Vatican, “are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas, but people; not formula, but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.”
Despite his detractors on the right who brood ominously about schism and heresy, Francis is serving up orthodox Christianity. He also embodies the Jesuit spirituality of finding God “in all things.” This stance looks outward rather than hunkering down in a defensive posture. Instead of seeking a false security, it risks the hard and uncertain work of being a “Church in the streets.”
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How might the Catholic hierarchy in the United States better reflect the expansive vision of Pope Francis and avoid the dead-end street of American culture wars? This question is particularly relevant heading into an election year, when Catholic voters in key swing states will be critical to the outcome, and debates over inequality, the family, abortion, climate change, and poverty all raise moral questions.
In recent years before the pope’s election, a vocal minority of bishops, conservative intellectuals, and culture warriors with narrow agendas often wielded disproportionate influence in shaping the political voice of US Catholicism. Many Church leaders surely groaned when one Illinois bishop challenged Obamacare’s contraception coverage requirements by comparing the president to Hitler and Stalin. Less sensationally, the argument made by some conservative Catholic leaders that only a few “non-negotiable” issues — including abortion and gay marriage — should take precedence in defining the Church’s engagement with politics too often meant treating issues of economic and environmental justice as peripheral.
Pope Francis rejects this reductive framework and is reviving the Church’s traditional consistent ethic of life. This includes situating what he calls “an economy of exclusion and inequality” — such an economy “kills,” the pope insists — along with a commitment to addressing racism and a changing climate that’s already hurting the most vulnerable, at the center of the Church’s commitment to defending human life and dignity. For the pope, challenging what he describes as a “throwaway culture” not only requires protecting life in the womb, but also the rights of the poor and the “common home” of our environment.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has made the case that the pope’s priorities “demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.” Church leaders meeting this week should do everything they can to assure that Faithful Citizenship — the US bishops’ political responsibility statement issued every four years — reflects the pope’s emphasis and priorities. Even more important, beyond the framing of a single statement, is the long-term work of investing in the social justice infrastructure needed to make real what Pope Francis envisions when he asks for a “poor Church for the poor.”
Bishops can start by doubling down on the Church’s commitment to ending the root causes of exclusion and inequality.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the bishops’ national anti-poverty initiative, funds local groups and community organizers fighting for living wages, affordable housing, and criminal justice reform. In Camden, New Jersey, for example, an affiliate of the PICO National Network — founded by a Jesuit priest and partly funded by the bishops — has led a coalition of churches in a “ban the box” effort to end barriers ex-prisoners face in applying for employment. Well-funded right-wing groups have ramped up efforts against the bishops’ anti-poverty initiative in recent years. Catholic leaders should not only continue to stand strong against these attacks, but also invest in expanding the campaign. Research shows that faith-based organizing empowers the marginalized, reinvigorates parish life, and helps people connect across racial and class lines.
At a time of spiritual seeking, racial tension, and rising inequality — and renewed excitement about the Catholic Church — US church leaders find themselves at a crossroads. Pope Francis is setting a clear direction. Bishops would be wise to follow.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” Richard L. Wood is a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, and a pro bono advisor to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. He is the author of “A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy.”