For today's Common Good Forum, we feature an essay from our chairman Dr. Alfred Rotondaro on last week's United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in New Orleans and how the Church in the United States, led by our bishops, can be more responsive to Pope Francis's call to be a "poor Church for the poor."
With the excitement around the still relatively new papacy of Francis, this is an important time for the Church in the United States. There is a deep hope that the Francis Revolution can transform the deep moral crisis our country faces and the current decadence of our national politics.
A leader in this revolution must be the American bishops, but after their summer meeting this past week in New Orleans, it doesn’t appear they’re up to the task yet. It is almost as if the Bishop of Rome and the bishops of the United States are singing from different song sheets. Francis wants a “poor Church for the poor” that meets people on the existential peripheries of society and that isn’t obsessed with an important, but narrow set of social issues. But I’m not convinced the American bishops have gotten the memo.
While some of the meeting focused on the issues at the heart of the Pope Francis agenda, the bishops’ main thrust continued to be the three social issues that have dominated the conference for the better part of a decade: abortion, traditional marriage and religious liberty. Their focus on these three issues to the detriment of others that also affect millions of Americans on a daily basis has hindered their ability to be more effective voices of moral authority.
These issues—in particular, abortion—are important. But remember, life might begin at conception, but it doesn’t end there. To be truly pro-life, we must be willing to look at the total reality of human existence. In particular, the bishops must be willing to address the moral scandal of the economic crisis that is still plaguing working Americans.
My frustration with their unwillingness to speak more boldly on this situation spilled over last month when Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York made the inane decision to work behind the scenes with libertarian economist Larry Kudlow in producing a Wall Street Journal op-ed where Dolan claimed Pope Francis’s economic message isn’t really as radical as we think it is. This is the same Larry Kudlow who wondered out loud last summer if Pope Francis even knew a thing about economics. This might make Cardinal Dolan and Larry Kudlow uncomfortable, but the facts are clear: Pope Francis isn’t a fan of the trickle-down economic system that has dominated the United States for the past thirty-five years.
And neither were his immediate predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In particular, Benedict’s groundbreaking 2009 encyclical Deus Caritas Est was explicit in its critique of the speculative, free market activities that tanked the American and global economy the previous fall. But as might be true now, the American bishops then did not take the opportunity from the pope to address these issues in a truly meaningful way.
While the bishops’ meeting did not do a good enough job addressing these economic issues, there were a few bright spots. The University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox gave insightful remarks about the role the current economic crisis is playing in American marriages. He spoke of how economic inequality is affecting the abilities of couples to enter into sustaining and successful marriages. In short, Wilcox argued, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to have a failed marriage.
But these bright spots that percolated throughout various points of the meeting aren’t enough. The American bishops have got to take the Francis agenda more seriously. In particular, the bishops must take his ecclesiology to heart.
He said it well in his September 2013 interview with the Jesuit publications:
I can clearly see that what the Church needs today is the ability to heal wounds and warm the hearts of faithful. It needs to be by their side. I see the Church as a field hospital after a battle. It’s pointless to ask a seriously injured patient whether his cholesterol or blood sugar levels are high! It’s his wounds that need to be healed. The rest we can talk about later. Now we must think about treating those wounds. And we need to start from the bottom.
This too must be the vision of the Church of the United States. Our country is facing an inequality crisis that must be addressed from the bottom up. When the bishops come together this winter, this must be at the forefront of their conversation. And to address these issues in pertinent ways, the bishops must learn more fully how to engage parishioners in the pews. Instead of having academic lectures, the bishops should learn from the experiences of those who today are living the faith of Jesus Christ in the streets. To hear more of the work of women religious like Sisters Simone Campbell and Carol Keehan and labor priests like Father Clete Kiley would be a good starting point.
I love the motto of the state of North Carolina: to be, rather than to seem. The words that express that express the value of authenticity would be a good motto for us as we go forward. The American Church must show that we are truly responding to Pope Francis’s invitation to change, to grow and to become more converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this conversion to be real and substantive, it must transform everything. Let’s hope the Church of the United States—beginning with our bishops—responds generously to the invitation.