Elections were uppermost in the minds of the U.S. Bishops as they assembled on Monday for day one of their three day annual fall assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, on Monday.

The shockwaves of the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States were still reverberating as the bishops began their deliberations, but the bishops had their own elections, for a number of new committee heads but above all for the offices of president and vice-president of the conference.  The two elections – for the bishops and America – converged in a providential fashion, and the very timing of the fall meeting provided America’s shepherd the chance to think, pray and discuss the vastly changed political landscape that the election of Trump has created.

Day One for the Bishops was marked, then, by a coming to terms with the changes.  The bishops, of course, are keenly aware of the serious divisions in the country that played out so dramatically on November 8 and that seem poised to linger for a very long time.

There was a tacit acknowledgement of this reality on the part of the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, in his first major address to the gathered U.S. Bishops since his appointment as papal ambassador earlier this year.  He focused on young people, but he also took the election as an important moment for Americans to find a way to come together under the theme of mercy:

Mercy is the "key" to understanding the Holy Father and his path for the Church. Mercy is not  an abstract idea but an experience of being looked upon and forgiven -of knowing the "caress" of God. Everyone here has experienced this special closeness of God in some way, at some particular time. It is this that the Holy Father wishes us to share, by word and deed, with the Church and the whole world.

May I add that  throughout the Year of Mercy, following the very long process which has led to the recent national election, I honestly think that mercy is what  this  country  needs to heal the wounds of division after a polarizing campaign. Many Americans have personally reached out  to me to voice their  frustration  with what has been happening. As Catholics and shepherds, we need to give witness to hope, to carry on through  the coming days, so that we can truly be "one nation, under God."

Archbishop Pierre was followed immediately by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, outgoing president of the USCCB, who delivered his farewell address to his fellow bishops after a three year term. He echoed the words of the nuncio, but he also added a term that we are going to hear extensively over the next months and few years as the bishops engage with the Trump Administration – “common good.”   Kurtz observed:

For sure there are many challenges on our doorstep:

  • Challenges that threatens our global community, especially as we stand up for those persecuted for their religion,
  • Challenges within our nation as we tirelessly promote the dignity of every person;
  • Challenges to unity in truth and charity within our church as we tirelessly announce the good news of Jesus Christ, to draw all to Christ and to walk with all toward conversion.

There's been unprecedented lack of civility and even rancor in the national elections just completed.  Now we are required to move forward with a respect for those in public office as we seek the common good based on truth and charity, without imposing but strongly proposing as we have done now for 99 years.  We enter dialogue with the Trump administration and leadership in both houses of congress – seeking as in the past concrete actions.

The Bishops face a very different set of political dynamics with a President Trump instead of a President Clinton.  There is a strong expectation that Trump will remain faithful to his pledges to Catholics and the Pro-Life Movement, and there is genuine hope that the HHS Mandate will be rescinded and that he will nominate a Pro-Life Supreme Court Justice to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

As Monday demonstrated, however, the bishops are sober realists when it comes to the continuing threats to religious liberty and freedom of religion. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the conference’s point leader on the religious liberty gave a report on the issue that has been of such great concern to the bishops over the last eight years. Lori had reason to be celebratory regarding the likelihood that the Little Sisters of the Poor would be triumphant against the government over the HHS Mandate, but he actually delivered a cautionary speech to his brother bishops about the on-going threats to liberty that extend beyond a government mandate to deeper issues of the LGBT agenda and aggressive promotion of secularism.

Lori quoted from a now infamous statement by Martin Castro, chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, who wrote, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.  Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others. However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see ‘religious liberty’ arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of ‘state rights’) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans. This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion never again be twisted to deny others the full promise of America.”

The task for the bishops in the coming years is no less daunting under a Trump Administration instead of the government of Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, the bishops will choose the leaders tasked with guiding the conference through those potentially treacherous political waters.