FORT WORTH, Texas — When Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky served as President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), he had to oversee a closely watched papal visit to the United States and serve as a representative at the high-stakes 2015 Synod on the Family in Rome, making for an incredibly demanding three-year term. Little did he know, however, the looming storms that awaited his predecessor, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.
Kurtz spoke with Crux during the Encuentro — a major summit of Hispanic Catholics that took place in Texas last week — on a range of issues, including the connection between immigration and religious liberty, the sexual abuse crisis, and his friendly advice to the current leadership of the USCCB as they attempt to weather the current storms facing the U.S. Church.
Crux: One of the things that many feared ahead of the Encuentro was that the sex abuse crisis would overshadow it. Could it be the case that instead what the bishops have found here is energy, liveliness, and joy among Hispanic Catholics at precisely the time in which you all are in need of that and welcoming new ideas and new solutions to today’s problems?
I like to use the image of a family here. Whether we’re talking about sexual abuse or abuse of power or even the terrible inaction of bishops, I see this as something that has marred our family. I think most people are not going to go to a family cookout and pretend nothing has happened. This has been the case for me in the archdiocese of Louisville and that’s certainly been the case here.
The fact that we can come together and still celebrate faith but with the truth of what lies ahead for us — the need for us to remain strong, to be able to even strengthen areas or discover new areas needed for bishop accountability — this gathering will bolster it, and I think like any family, we see the Church alive, and we see the Church growing, and it’s not a Church that is ignoring problems, but it’s a Church that says Christ needs to be our anchor. I come away uplifted and maybe I needed that as much as anyone else.
There’s great hope that this Encuentro is not just one long weekend in Texas, but something that continues back in home dioceses. How are you working to make the happen?
I want the archdiocese of Louisville to be able to really lift up the gifts of the Latino presence and the Latino community, and to lift up the presence in a way that is integrated in the life of the entire Church. I already see the blessings. The leadership and confidence that they bring back I think is going to be a joy. It puts Latino ministry on the map. Having the Encuentro gives us the chance to say at Archdiocesan pastoral council meetings, priest council meetings, and say “let us give a report on the Encuentro” and let’s talk about how this has been a help to the entire Church, not just to the Latino families who are already there.
You’re the head of the USCCB’s Committee on Religious Liberty. One of the things you’ve talked about in recent years is that religious liberty has a lot of implications for our immigration debates in this country. How would you assess the sense that religious liberty concerns are on the radar of Hispanic Catholics?
One of the topics that is front and center in our Committee is the language that we use and the question of “Is the language we use compelling?” Now when it comes to religious freedom, I think it’s largely a supporting role, meaning I play second fiddle. If the issue is the ability of a nurse to be able to live her faith and be employed without participating in an abortion, then we’re second fiddle helping them. If it’s an issue of immigration policy and even the capacity of the Church to act without separating children from their parents, then we need to be able to act. We’re a supportive role in this sense.
One of the things I’ve been preaching is that religious liberty means that we need to make space in our culture for people of faith to serve with integrity of faith. Now, what does that mean? It means in the case of immigration services to provide care for families who are immigrant and coming into the United States, it means to treat everybody with dignity, and it also means that we’re not in a position to misuse our service for a wrong purpose. For example, we’re not agents of the government when we provide care. People don’t have to know that we’re working on trying to provide space for people to practice their religious faith as long as that space exists. I don’t think people have to say, “here’s how religious liberty has helped me.” We’re in a sense, the infrastructure.
Now the second thing that we do with religious liberty is to say that we have a responsibility to inspire a culture. This means that in the effort that seems to be part of our culture to privatize everything, to say that I’m free to believe what I want to believe, but I’m not free to take it into the public square, well we’re promoting not just the right that people have, but the responsibility they have to do that.
To use your example of the Church’s responsibility of families who are immigrating, we have a responsibility to welcome the gifts of those families into our culture. Our nation if we just closed in ourselves and said no one else is welcome, it’s going to affect the kind of family our nation is. Religious liberty tells us we need to inspire the culture to say there are certain qualities of a good culture that tends to be generous and open and when that leaves us, that culture is going to shrivel up.
There’s an underlying concern that due to the crisis the Catholic Church is going through right now, it’s going to lose its moral voice. In past years, the bishops have been a very important voice in support of migrants and the destitute in the United States. Are you worried that you won’t be able to be that prophetic voice that you’ve had in recent years?
I would always be concerned about that. Remember that it’s the baptismal call that is the prophetic voice so the baptismal call means that people, even if the bishop in a particular circumstance is not listened to, because people say you’re no longer credible in this area, the voice of the Church still comes in many different ways.
There was a book published looking at the effects of the 2002 sexual abuse revelations on state Catholic Conferences, and one of the findings was that even though bishops and priests were suspect at that time, many of the bishops and priests state Catholic Conference directors that were involved in legislatures had their own personal relationship with people and they had built credibility over the years. I think we have to look at the baptismal call that everyone of us is called to be prophetic, to get informed prayerfully, and be guided in actions that are prayerful, courageous, and compassionate, and secondly, who are the people that have a credible voice in a particular area? I already felt that in matters related to the family that we need to raise up married couples who are living their faith as the most credible voices. I would have said that five years ago.
You’re the former Vice President and then President of the U.S. Bishops. This is a delicate moment in the U.S. Church — what sort of friendly advice would you offer to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Archbishop Jose Gomez as they seek to lead the conference at this time?
I don’t know that they need my friendly advice; I think they’re doing a good job themselves. However, I think we need to be grounded in a trust and faith in Christ. I think we have to be grounded in a humility that has us identify and always be open when we listen to maybe things we have not known. And I don’t think we have to be afraid of that. I think in every age, when the Church gets involved in the public square, it’s both an opportunity to proclaim the truth and to be engaged and ground the truth of the gospel in the reality in both the joys and grief and suffering of real life. The words of “Be Not Afraid” and the words that “Christ is with us” as we seek to uncover the truth whatever the situation is, is good advice. I’m glad they’re leading us.