For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
Day Two of the spring meeting of the U.S. bishops gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana, included several major votes on the celebration of the Sacraments, but the focus was squarely on religious liberty and persecution of Christians around the globe and a vigorous discussion on how the conference should approach the on-going health care debate.
The Bishops were concerned by many aspects of the Affordable Care Act (so-called ObamaCare), and now in a different political season, they have reservations regarding the health care reform put forward by the Congressional G.O.P. leadership and the White House, the American Health Care Act, the AHCA. As Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB noted, “Our Catholic teaching has much to offer this debate.”
Bishop Frank J. Dewane, head of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development gave a report on health care reform and reiterated both the key principles for the bishops that need to be part of any discussion of reform and the chief areas of unease for the conference for the proposed AHCA. The key principles are: respect for all; access for all; true affordability; comprehensiveness; and no repeal without replacement. The chief worries in the current proposals include care for individuals and families in poverty; protection of Life; proper care for migrants; and robust conscience protections.
The subsequent deliberations by the bishops revealed a wide variety of perspectives and an awareness of the gravity of the changes being proposed.
Bishop George Thomas of Helena said bluntly that the bishops' silence or indifference in the healthcare reform debate would be tantamount to complicity.
Bishop Dewane added that the bishops have concerns over proposed structural changes to Medicaid that could leave people uninsured and that the proposed AHCA bill does not provide any conscience protections.
Likewise, Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas expressed worry for the state of health care for those in rural areas, noting that three Catholic hospitals closed in his archdiocese under ObamaCare. Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit similarly encouraged the bishops to strengthen collaboration with Catholic hospitals.
The heart of the work for the bishops, however, on day two was religious liberty and the staggering persecution of Christians around the world. As was anticipated, the bishops were asked to vote on the proposal to make the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty first founded in 2011 a permanent Committee of the conference. The archbishop also reminded the bishops that the new committee would be funded independently of the conference and hence budget neutral and that its sphere of concern would be both domestic and international.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee, expressed the rationale for making the committee a permanent fixture. “Religious liberty remains under challenge,” he said, and “these challenges will intensify in years ahead.” And to those who might propose that recent executive orders from President Trump on to guarantee religious liberty and solve the controversy over the infamous HHS Contraception Mandate that would force religious employers to provide employers with contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, Lori pointed out, “The end may be in sight, but victory is not assured. We have to stay the course to ensure that this heavy burden to our ministries is lifted...even if the new regulations are enacted, they may be only a temporary reprieve."
What was not entirely expected was that Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington would all express a negative view of the proposal. Cupich questioned the long-term funding, while Tobin and Coyne said that they considered the “optics” to be poor as the conference at that point was bringing to a close the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on migration. Tobin suggested that to create a permanent committee on religious liberty might send the wrong message about the bishops' priorities.
Notably, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville – the latter two former USCCB presidents – all supported the proposal. And it was pointed out that while the working group on migration might be ending, there would still be an effort on that front through the Committee on Migration.
In the end, the bishops voted to approve the new committee 132-53, with 5 abstentions.
Notably, in the afternoon after the deliberations on the new committee, Cardinal DiNardo announced that he was extending the life of the working group on immigration, in recognition of “the continued urgency for comprehensive immigration reform, a humane refugee policy and a safe border.”
The vote did not end the attention on religious liberty, as Bishop Oscar Cantú, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, presented an oral report to the full body of bishops on the situation of religious discrimination and persecution, in particular in Asia and the Middle East.
“Tragically,” the bishop lamented citing statistics from the Pew Research Center, “religious persecution and harassment is not limited to one or two regions in our world…Christians are harassed in the largest number of countries, 128, followed closely by Muslims in 125 countries. This is partly due to the fact that Christians and Muslims are the largest religious groups in the world.”
He went on to document some of the worst situations across the globe, including in Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Malaysia. He described the brutal oppression of Christians in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, as genocide, terming it “a crisis within a crisis.”
The bishop further highlighted both the valiant work of the Church in Iraq to partner with Caritas Iraq and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to provide aid and relief and a set of recommendations for the U.S. government: providing assistance to refugees and displaced persons, including through faith-based organizations like CRS; assisting in the resettlement of refugees, including victims of genocidal actions and other vulnerable families; encouraging central and regional governments in Iraq and Syria to strengthen the rule of law based on citizenship, to insure the protection of vulnerable minorities; and improve policing, judiciary and local governance with the help of U.S. assistance.
The bishops also devoted time to a series of votes on a set of documents that will impact directly on the sacramental lives of Americans. The revised Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities were approved by a 180-1-0 vote. They also voted 178-3-0 in for a new translation of the Order of Blessing the Oil of Catechumens and of the Sick and of Consecrating the Chrism that is used each year at the Chrism Mass. It will next require recognitio, or confirmation, by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Also, the bishops voted 171-2 with two abstentions on the Bendicional: Sexta Parte, a collection of blessings in Spanish for use in the United States, that will complement English texts already included in the Book of Blessings. As it fell short of the required two-thirds vote of the Latin Church members, voting will be completed by mail and, if approved, will still require recognitio by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.