What to Watch for at USCCB Meeting

Could 'Francis Bishops' Shift the Dynamic?

Just days after Donald Trump won the presidency in a stunning and jolting rebuke to the political establishment, hundreds of Catholic bishops are gathering in Baltimore in this week for their annual fall assembly.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued a statement calling for unity. “Now is the moment to move toward the responsibility of governing for the common good of all citizens,” he said. “I believe God will give us the strength to heal and unite.” The bishops’ conference, Kurtz noted, “looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning to its natural end.” The archbishop also said the bishops stand “firm in our resolve that our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees can be humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security.”

Trump won Catholic voters overall, 52 percent percent to 45 percent. His victories in Catholic-heavy Rust Belt states—Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—proved critical. Latino Catholics, who are asserting more influence in the church and politics, rejected Trump decisively: Clinton won 67 percent of their vote. But she also lost ground rapidly with Catholics as the campaign drew to a close, a swift turnaround from summer and even fall polls that showed her with a lead.

The national convening will be the first time bishops have come together since the election. The meeting offers another opportunity for the bishops’ conference to get on board with the Francis agenda, and ditch a style of culture-war Catholicism that has failed to persuade even many of the faithful in the pews.

The main event will be the election of a new president to lead the USCCB. The slate of candidates reflects a conference that is still wrestling with what the Francis era means for the leadership of the church in the United States. There are bishops who recognize the pope’s pastoral approach and priorities are exactly what is needed to begin re-calibrating the church’s voice in the public square. Other bishops seem more comfortable doubling down on an agenda that has failed to inspire many, and that risks reducing the church’s broad commitment to life and dignity to a handful of issues that align with one political party.

Here are some things to watch for to get a sense of whether the politics of the conference are shifting and of what a new administration might portend.

Are “Francis Bishops” poised to shift the conference dynamics?  
When the bishops gathered in Baltimore in 2008, days after Barack Obama won the presidency in a historic election, the mood was anxious at best and grim at worst. Several bishops took to the floor with rhetorical right hooks at the president-elect over issues of abortion and contraception. “This body is totally opposed to any compromise,” one bishop said. “We are dealing with an absolute,” said another, “there is no room for compromise.” Others called for a “war” against abortion, and urged the church to adopt a “prophetic” voice. (It might be worth revisiting Commonweal’s November 2008 editorial in response to these outbursts, “The Bishops & Obama.”)

A then-relatively unknown Blase Cupich, the Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, rose to offer a warning. “Keep in mind a prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin,” Cupich told his brother bishops, “and it seems to me what we need is a prophecy of solidarity, with the community we serve and the nation that we live in.” Five years later, Pope Francis was elected pope, and that obscure bishop from a tiny diocese is now one of the most influential leaders in the church. Not only is Cupich the Archbishop of Chicago, one of the most powerful and storied pulpits in the country, but Pope Francis recently named him a cardinal and appointed him to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, giving him a major role in helping the pope select new bishops and a significant hand in shaping the leadership of the U.S. church in the coming decades.

The rise of Archbishop Cupich reflects the headline story of how Pope Francis has impacted the politics and priorities of the church in the United States. But other bishops are also trying to write a better narrative for the church in the Francis era.

Few bishops have embraced the pope’s vision for encounter, accompaniment, and the need for a “new balance” in how the church articulates her voice in the public square more than Robert McElroy, appointed by Francis to lead the San Diego diocese in the spring of 2015. “Both the substance and methodology of Pope Francis’s teachings on the rights of the poor have enormous implications for the culture and politics of the United States and for the church in this country,” Bishop McElroy has written. “These teachings demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation.” Speaking to Vatican Insider, McElroy was even more direct: “In recent years, the conference of bishops has labeled abortion and euthanasia as the preeminent issues in the political order, but not poverty. This had the effect of downgrading the perceived importance of poverty as a central focus of the Church’s witness.”

McElroy, who just led his diocese through a synod process on implementing Amoris laetitia with lay Catholics and clergy, is up for election next week to chair the bishops’ international justice and peace committee. When the USCCB met in Baltimore last year, he was vocal in his call to update the conference’s Faithful Citizenship document, a reflection guide for Catholic voters the bishops issue before every presidential election.

“If I understand Pope Francis correctly,” McElroy said at the meeting, “the issue of poverty, particularly global poverty, with all of its victimization of men and women across the world, and children, the global poverty and degradation of the Earth, which threaten the whole of our humanity, that these two issues lie at the very center and core of Catholic social teaching as priorities for us in every public policy position. And that is not reflected in this document.”

The current version of Faithful Citizenship, which has not been substantially revised in nearly a decade, “keeps to the structure of the worldview of 2007,” McElroy went on to argue. “It tilts in favor of abortion and euthanasia and excludes poverty and the environment.” This was not warmly received by the vice president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. Visibly frustrated by McElroy’s argument, he defended the content of the document, and retorted that “ours is a hermeneutic of continuity here, bishop.”

It’s worth watching how an informal “Francis caucus” of bishops who want a clearer expression of the pope’s priorities speak out at this meeting and whether they continue to insert more influence on the conference.

How will a new Conference president lead?
Cardinal DiNardo is likely to be selected president. Only once in recent memory (2010), when Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York beat out then-vice president Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, has a sitting vice president not been elected to the top slot. Still, to put it bluntly, Cardinal DiNardo isn’t the first person that comes to mind when you think of U.S. church leaders who embrace Pope Francis’s vision.

Along with strongly resisting Bishop McElroy’s urging his fellow bishops to update the conference’s election reflection document, DiNardo signed a letter last year during the Synod on the Family in Rome that was perceived as challenging the pope. The letter, signed by thirteen cardinals (including DiNardo and Dolan), was leaked to the press by Sandro Magister, a prominent writer on Vatican affairs who is often critical of the pope. In particular, the signers expressed concern that “a synod designed to address a vital pastoral matter—reinforcing the dignity of marriage and family—may become dominated by the theological/doctrinal issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.” The disgruntled cardinals argued this raised “more fundamental issues about how the church, going forward, should interpret and apply the Word of God, her doctrines and her disciplines to changes in culture.”

Pope Francis’s response was as quick as it was unambiguous. He cautioned the bishops meeting at the Synod against a “hermeneutic of conspiracy” which, the pope said, “is sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful.” At the risk of understatement, it’s not an ideal situation to have the presumptive favorite to lead the U.S. bishops’ conference associated with past efforts to undermine the pope. In an interview with John Allen of Crux four months ago, DiNardo sounded lukewarm about the impact of Pope Francis. He acknowledged some Catholics in Texas he meets “think the pope’s too vague.” He addresses those criticisms by making a clear point. “We have to walk with people in difficult situations,” he said, “but there’s a difference between accompanying people and approving everything they do. I think that’s what Pope Francis is trying to tell us.” On some level, yes, this is part of the pope’s message, but DiNardo’s framework starts from a very different place than a pope who insists that we can’t simply act as if the church’s moral laws are “stones to throw at people’s lives.”

How will the bishops respond to a Trump presidency?
The high-profile battles between the Obama administration and bishops over issues of religious liberty, contraception funding in health care, and the scope of religious accommodations after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage hung over a potential Clinton administration. A Trump presidency, while highly unpredictable, offers potentially friendlier terrain for bishops and conservative religious leaders. The president-elect has vowed to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, and in generic terms has pledged to protect religious liberty. “With one stroke of a pen, Donald Trump can get rid of the HHS mandate and fully and finally protect the Little Sisters and many others,” tweeted Ryan Anderson, a prominent Catholic commentator with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

During public sessions at the conference, when bishops make comments from the floor, it will be interesting to see how much discussion there is about Supreme Court justices, contraceptive coverage, and religious-liberty issues more broadly. At the same time, bishops also support comprehensive immigration reform and the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The prospects for any path to immigration reform seems hard to find given Trump’s promise to build a border wall and a GOP-controlled House. His victory also cast doubt on the United States’s role in combating climate change. Trump has said he would revoke the American pledge to decrease carbon emissions as agreed to in a major United Nations climate treaty signed in Paris in April. News reports this week also indicated that Trump has selected a well-known climate skeptic, a lobbyist from the energy industry, to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

A “field hospital” for the wounded?
Beyond any policy issue, bishops should think deeply about how they can respond as pastors to a country not only divided along ideological and political lines but increasingly balkanized into tribes that rarely speak to or understand each other. Pope Francis wants a church that acts as a “field hospital for the wounded.” There are now many wounds to bind in the wake of this disorienting election. The anger, pain, and brokenness festering in a post-industrial age where the bright promise of globalization has not materialized for many Americans amounts to an existential, even spiritual crisis. Nationalism and white identity politics, stoked by Trump’s skillful demagoguery, has won a disturbing victory. Pastors have a vital role to play in doing all they can to beat back these dark forces—forces that once put Catholics in the crosshairs of hate and suspicion. Trump’s America is a nightmare for Muslims, immigrants, and others on the margins.

Will Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders rise to meet this moral test?

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.

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