‘The Church Must Be Political’

An interview with Bishop John Stowe
Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, September 25, 2019 (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv., was ordained as the third bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, in May 2015. The following interview was conducted by email.

John Gehring: What would you like to see come out of the upcoming meeting of the U.S. bishops?

Bishop John Stowe: My hopes for the USCCB meeting are probably unrealistic, but I would love to see us as a conference modeling the synodal path that the Church has embarked upon. I would like to see real discernment, serious discussion, and prayerful listening before publishing a letter as important as a teaching document on the Eucharist. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, which has diminished and even temporarily halted the public celebration of the Eucharist. Now that we have some experience of what many parts of the world experience regularly, a hunger for the Eucharist, and as we have seen the eagerness for gathering in community after a time of absence, the direction of a letter on the Eucharist should be primarily about the Body of Christ gathered in celebration of the Body of Christ, the meaning of the paschal sacrifice of Jesus, and the necessity of his life-giving sacrificial love, which the Church is called to incarnate in the world today.

JG: Some bishops think that President Biden and other Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to abortion should be denied the Eucharist. How do you see this issue?

Bishop Stowe: As some other U.S. bishops have correctly pointed out, there is no disagreement among the bishops about the immorality of abortion or the desire that the extinction of life in the womb not be protected as a constitutional right. But it is a complex issue for a responsible Catholic officeholder who recognizes the law of the land and must survive within the dynamics of a political party, believing what the Church teaches, but unclear as to how that should relate to the law. That would be true for someone who supports access to legal abortion, or supports capital punishment, or supports the cruel exclusion of refugees and desperate migrants.

I am not alone in the view that the Eucharist should not be weaponized in a political battle, nor should it be received carelessly or as though it has no connection to one’s public stances. The Church calls bishops to be in ongoing dialogue with our members who are politicians and to listen to them before presuming their reasons for supporting policies that are objectively immoral.

JG: Environmental justice is a major priority for your ministry. But a recent study by Creighton University scholars that examined 12,000 written pastoral communications from bishops from mid-2014 to mid-2019 found less than 1 percent even referenced climate issues. Given the pope’s emphasis on the environment, especially in Laudato si’, why do we see such silence from U.S. Church leaders?

Bishop Stowe: I am not sure that a survey of written newspaper columns or pastoral letters is the best way to determine how much the bishops are saying about the importance of climate change and the care of creation. Our own diocesan publication comes out ten times a year, but I hope I am speaking and teaching about the climate far more frequently than that—even if every one of my columns is not on that theme. There are opportunities for preaching, prayer services for the care of creation, promotion of solar panels, and efforts to use green energy and conservation efforts going on as well. But at the same time, I do believe that climate issues are not getting enough attention among the Church’s leadership. Specifically, I think we bishops need to help people connect their personal and communal faith to the importance of reverence for creation and the necessary conversion away from personal comfort to the sacrifices that will need to be made for the survival of the planet and for the common good. The pope has effectively led the way, but I still do not see the urgency of climate matters being discussed at the USCCB gatherings or in enough dioceses.

I have always believed that the Church must be political.

JG: There is an organized, well-funded movement of Catholics in the United States opposed to Pope Francis and his pastoral priorities. The pope has even acknowledged this. What can Catholics, and specifically bishops, do about it?

Bishop Stowe: It seems to me that the bishops of the United States need to collectively accept and integrate the magisterium of Pope Francis and defend his role as the universal shepherd from those who publicly work against him. Some of his opponents act out of a failure to understand the gospel as his motivation or because of a preference for their political agenda above the teachings of Christ. Others want the Church to have the kind of authority and obedience of a previous era with unquestioning allegiance. The pope has often said that he learns from his critics and he welcomes other viewpoints in the proper environment, but not in social media where comments are often without context and socially inappropriate. If the pope is commissioned to promote the unity of the Church, those who resist his teachings and insult his person are sowing division.

The first responsibility for Catholics, including the bishops, is to read what the Holy Father actually says rather than someone’s characterization of it. Secondly, we should trust that the pope is right-intentioned and not involved in some sinister plot to undermine the Church, but takes his mandate to preach the Gospel in its fullness very seriously. Bishops should correct the distortions about papal teaching and his pastoral priorities and try to explain how the universal perspective of the pope will not always be in sync with the priorities of the United States.

[Like what you're reading? Support our work today!]

JG: You were one of only a few bishops who specifically challenged Donald Trump during the election, even saying that “for this president to call himself pro-life, and for anybody to back him because of claims of being pro-life, is almost willful ignorance.” Why did you speak out?

Bishop Stowe: I have always believed that the Church must be political; Pope Francis talks about the politics of love and the noble profession of politics and public service. We do a disservice to our membership if we call for an apolitical Church, because that would be a Church that is aloof to the concerns of the human family and just the opposite of how the Church is described in Gaudium et spes. At the same time, I also believe that the Church should be nonpartisan. Catholic theology and even Catholic social teaching does not align neatly with any political party. The Church is conservative insofar as it is steeped in tradition and believes in handing on its ancient teachings to new generations in new circumstances. Catholicism is also liberal in the sense that Christ frees us from constraints and empowers human beings to flourish and advance. But the Church cannot be captive to a particular party and its quest for power or an ideology. Because of that distaste for partisanship, it was very hard to speak out clearly about the former President of the United States. Yet to speak only in generalities would have been a failure to communicate at a critical time. When as a candidate or in office he was brashly demonstrating his disregard for the truth; spoke of immigrants in dehumanizing language; treated women as objects for sexual pleasure and disregarded their equal dignity; suggested that white supremacists marching in hate included very good people; had no difficulty bragging about never needing forgiveness; expanded the use of capital punishment; undid decades of progress for care of the environment; dismissed the concerns of labor and behaved in so many ways that are antithetical to what the Church teaches about the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life, I felt compelled to point out that these words and actions were completely opposed to being “pro-life” as the Church understands it. Catholicism has thrived in the United States, and with its form of democracy; when the exercise of that democracy is under attack and violence is promoted, it is well outside the limits of normalcy and the Church has a responsibility to speak out for the common good.

JG: Kentucky voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Is it sometimes challenging to be a bishop of a red state given your focus on Catholic social justice issues more conservative Catholics reject?

Bishop Stowe: I’m unapologetic about promoting social justice because that was and is the mission of Jesus. Kentucky certainly is a red state, but it is a state where there is great poverty, where there is insufficient access to healthcare, where educational funding is always reduced and threatened, where drug abuse is rampant—it is where the radical message of Jesus is truly needed. When Jesus paid attention to the poor and demonstrated mercy to sinners, the powerful rejected him and plotted to destroy him. There will always be a tension between those who are concerned about the voices not being heard, the rights not being respected, the dignity not being upheld and those who are satisfied when they are making a profit, living comfortably and becoming indifferent to the needs of the majority of people. I don’t see it as a question of red or blue, but a question of whether or not we take Jesus seriously.

Of course I would advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons and promote their dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God.

I don’t know that I will ever understand those who think that they can follow the teachings of Jesus and idolize Donald Trump; it is a fundamental contradiction. There was a time when “conservative” Catholics complained of “liberal” Catholics being selective about the teachings that they followed. Now it seems that the reverse is more likely. How can you follow Jesus and be unrepentant about systemic racism, unwelcoming to the alien and stranger, unmoved by the needs of the poor or uninterested in the common good? I simply fail to understand that. Even to argue that Trump opposed abortion overlooks his attitude and treatment of sexuality and women reveal a worldview that results too often in abortions.

JG: You’ve been a strong advocate for the dignity of LGBTQ people. Over the summer, you even offered a public apology to a former religious education director at a Catholic school who was fired in 2015 because of her marriage to a woman. Do you see a path for the Church to bless or in some way formally recognize the union of same-sex couples?

Bishop Stowe: Faith-filled LGBTQ persons whose Catholicism is just as much a part of their identity as their sexual orientation have made a profound impression on me. I have spoken to too many individuals who have questioned their self-worth, questioned whether or not they are loved by God, questioned why they are alive at all, or questioned why they are uncomfortable in their own flesh to believe that sexual orientation is a choice or that God has somehow excluded them from his love. Of course I would advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons and promote their dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God. I struggle to understand why treating such persons with respect and taking their stories and struggles, along with their joys and accomplishments, seriously is such a threat to straight Christians.

I also struggle to understand why when we call for respect for LGBTQ persons, there are judgmental Christians who automatically accuse me of promoting a lifestyle. Sometimes it sounds like these critiques believe that all heterosexual persons in the Church are living perfectly chaste lives! I don’t advocate for a change in the sacrament of marriage nor deny the place of the complementarity of the sexes in the divine plan, but I do believe that we can support LGBTQ persons who need the same legal protection and rights for their committed relationships as marriage provides.

JG: You gave a speech in August entitled “Why Black Lives Matter: A Catholic Perspective on Racism.” How do we convince more white Catholics to recognize the persistence of racism in both the Church and our nation, and then to take some action to address it?

Bishop Stowe: I sure wish I knew how to convince more white Catholics to be interested in dismantling racism and recognizing its presence in the Church and world. I was encouraged by the multi-racial participation in the Black Lives Matter protests after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other African Americans by law enforcement. I don’t know how engaged Catholics were overall, nor do I think the Church seized the moment sufficiently to address the need for change. The test will be now, to see if we can take a real inventory of our benefit as an institution from slavery, its legacy and the systematic racism that continues to exclude people of color. Understanding terminology is very important. I used to worry that even using the word “racism” creates tension and puts white people on the defensive; then I was challenged by none other than Fr. Bryan Massingale as to why the comfort of white people should be more important than justice for people of color.

I do have to say, I have been encouraged by the participation of many whites in sessions about the Church and racism where they have been willing to listen to uncomfortable truths and have moved beyond feeling personally attacked and insulted. I have been deeply moved by the stories of Black Catholics who are willing to tell us one more time how they have been treated by a Church that doesn’t seem to want them, but who are faithful.

JG: Only a handful of Franciscans are U.S. bishops. How does being a Franciscan influence how you think about your episcopal leadership?

Bishop Stowe: Being Franciscan is just part of my identity. Francis of Assisi’s love for Christ crucified and his ability to see Christ in the leper is a great inspiration for me. His freedom from the life of upward mobility that he inherited from his family and his embrace of voluntary poverty in imitation of Jesus who became our brother is very attractive to me. A desire to be in fraternity with all creation and discover God in the interconnectedness of all life is quite timely at this moment in history. Life in community, with communal participation in decision-making, the very holistic and broad experience of Church that we friars receive in religious formation, as well as being members of a global fraternity, have all expanded my understanding of Church, which I believe is beneficial to my role as a bishop. I hope that the ability to lead as a brother, a lesser brother as Francis would put it, helps me exercise leadership in a meaningful way. I like having the example of a Jesuit pope named Francis to connect to our founder and make his message evident today.

JG: What do you think St. Francis would tell bishops if he could show up as a speaker at your national meeting?

Bishop Stowe: I would love to see St. Francis show up at a USCCB meeting today, but after venerating his stigmata, I am not sure that those bishops who fail to understand Pope Francis would be able to capture what St. Francis was really saying. He would tell us to love each other as brothers. He would tell us to share the Gospel joyfully. He would encourage us to get out in the streets and live among the poor. He would tell us to celebrate the marvels of creation and teach everyone to appreciate it. He would sound an awful lot like his namesake on the Chair of Peter.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Also by this author
Necessary Bluntness

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Books
Books