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.
The U.S. Bishops concluded the public session of their annual fall meeting on Tuesday with a series of votes on new committee chairs and a notably uneventful discussion on a pastoral plan for family life and marriage implementing Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The day showed that the bishops have chosen to maintain a steady course for the conference and are striving to find genuine consensus in the face of a divided country and at times a divided Catholic community.
A great deal of time, ink and digital attention was paid to the election of new officers for several committees and the post of the conference’s general secretary with most of the energy focused on the chairmanship for the Pro-Life Activities Committee. The vote to find a successor to Cardinal Timothy Dolan as head of the committee was between Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, and Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, and it had been framed by some in the media – including some in Catholic media – as a referendum on Pope Francis. Cardinal Cupich, named to Chicago in 2014 by Pope Francis and swiftly appointed to the College of Cardinals was deemed the Francis candidate, as though a vote for Archbishop Naumann was some deliberate rebuke of the pope. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Nearly five years into Pope Francis’ reign as leader of the Catholic Church, theologically conservative Catholics around the world are growing more outspoken in opposition to his agenda. The U.S. has been a major hub of resistance.” The Journal then openly cast the vote as a barometer of papal approval among the bishops of the United States.
As Joan Desmond, Register Senior Editor wrote before the vote, “The clarity and consistency of Archbishop Naumann’s pro-life activism will likely make him the front-runner in the election for a new chair of the Pro-life Activities Committee. And given the strength of his legacy, Church insiders would strongly challenge the Journal story’s first point: That Cupich’s defeat should be seen as a rebuke to the Pope.”
Desmond was proven correct. Archbishop Naumann won narrowly, by a vote of 96 to 82, with a large number of abstentions. Predictably, some tried to perpetuate the election as an attack on Pope Francis, ignoring the spectacular record of Naumann in the Pro-Life cause.
Archbishop Naumann, for example, was already a member of the Pro-Life committee, was public in speaking out against pro-abortion Catholic politicians and active in starting the Project Rachel ministry, the post-abortion healing ministry in the archdiocese.
In the other elections, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit was elected as secretary-elect for the USCCB; Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville was elected as chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington was elected chairman-elect of the Committee on Communications; Bishop Nelson J. Pérez of Cleveland was elected chairman-elect of the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church; Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend was elected chairman-elect of the Committee on Doctrine; and Bishop Joseph R. Cistone of Saginaw was elected chairman-elect of the Committee on National Collections. As is conference custom, the secretary-elect and the five committee chairmen-elect will serve one year before starting a three-year term at the end of the bishops’ Fall General Assembly next year.
The notable exception is Archbishop Kurtz, elected to be the Chair of the newly established Committee for Religious Liberty. In June, the bishops approved what had been the six year old Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty as a permanent committee of the conference, and so Archbishop Kurtz began his term immediately.
Kurtz has previously served as president of the Bishops’ Conference from 2013-2016 and brings immense experience as a leader within the conference to the one of the most high-profile of committees. In speaking to the Register after the vote, the archbishop expressed his admiration for the important work undertaken by his predecessor in the role of committee chair, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the only chair over the six years of the existence of the Ad Hoc Committee during a time of intense concern over the HHS Contraceptive Mandate and other growing threats to religious freedom at home and abroad.
The question of religious liberty will not be going away, and Archbishop Kurtz noted that one of the most important aspects for the committee is to “clarify in an accurate and attractive way what the great gift of religious liberty is in our nation. I think religious liberty is something that is good for America. Part of that clarifying is to be able to say that the gift of religious liberty is really meant to be first of all not a special privilege but rather it is an opportunity consistent with your own religious belief and conscience to witness and to serve.”
Beyond helping Americans to see the positive value of religious liberty, the archbishop is also keenly aware of the challenges confronting religious liberty today. One of those challenges, he said, is in “the people who underestimate how important their religious sentiment is. And that is going to be an important part of the work, in order to make sure that that first freedom is something that is never taken for granted.”
Looking globally, Archbishop Kurtz declared that the “heart cries out” at the anguish faced by Christians around the world enduring persecution. He credited the important effort of the Knights of Columbus in drawing attention to the situation as well as the voice of Pope Francis in raising global awareness.
The bishops also devoted time in their deliberations to two major topics: tax reform and the proposed Renewed Pastoral Pan for Marriage and Family Life Ministry and Advocacy in light of Amoris Laetitia. Much as with the vote for the chair of the Pro-Life Activities committee, there had been some speculation that some bishops might use the discussion on the pastoral plan to push for the conference to focus attention on the most controversial aspects of the exhortation – namely the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
The argument never happened. Rather, the bishops took up the question of the pastoral plan – scheduled for the draft to be completed in time for the 2019 bishops’ meeting – with a heartfelt desire to fortify marriage and family life in an era of immense difficulty. There is still an immense amount of work to be done on the plan, but the bishops expressed a broad consensus for its need.
Similarly, the bishops heard a report from the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development on the current effort by Congress and the White House to enact tax reform and its potential implications for average people. Again, the bishops were together in their support of helping Catholics and people of good will to appreciate the Catholic principles involved in any reform of the tax system.
Unquestionably, the bishops were not unanimous on everything over the course of the two public days of sessions. But in all of their discussions, the bishops were a model for civil discourse. As conference president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, said to the Register in the afternoon, “We have to be able to – as the classic line goes – disagree without being disagreeable. We need for people to be able to state where they are coming from…and people who disagree with them can still argue but argue agreeably.”
On Wednesday, the conference was to hold closed door meetings. The program for the coming months is now effectively set, however, but just as significant was the public tone of finding consensus and common ground to speak to the common good.