BALTIMORE — The mood was reflective, but hopeful, at the U.S. bishops’ annual conference, as Church leaders took stock of the 2012 election and outlined plans to tackle cultural, spiritual and moral challenges.
“Yes, we have ‘a lot on our plate,’” agreed Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, during a Nov. 12 address.
He acknowledged a growing list of urgent concerns, from Hurricane Sandy relief and New Evangelization outreach to sustaining the “prophetic challenge to our culture” on life and marriage, welcoming immigrants and defending persecuted religious minorities across the globe.
Just a week after the election, Church leaders heard updates on bishops’ efforts to overturn the federal contraception mandate and bar the redefinition of marriage in four states.
But Cardinal Dolan clearly signaled that the conference had more important work to do than lament Election Day setbacks on issues of central concern to the conference.
He suggested that the bishops, as the primary teachers of faith and morals, should lead the way for their own flocks by engaging in a more intense personal conversion to Christ. Further, he echoed the widely expressed judgment that more effective catechetical outreach was needed to address the moral confusion that led so many Catholics to dismiss the defense of life, marriage and religious freedom as personal priorities.
“We cannot engage culture unless we let him first engage us; we cannot dialogue with others unless we first dialogue with him; we cannot challenge unless we first let him challenge us,” said Cardinal Dolan in a statement that resonated for lay Catholics disappointed by the limited impact of their campaign against the Health and Human Services' mandate.
Noting the historic mission of the Second Vatican Council and the central goal of the XIII Ordinary General Synod of Bishops and the Year of Faith, Cardinal Dolan made it clear that the “effective transmission of the faith for the transformation of the world” — not election outcomes — remained the Church’s first concern.
“The premier answer to the question, 'What’s wrong with the world?' is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming. … None of these, as significant as they are,” the cardinal said. “As Chesterton wrote, the answer to the question, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is just two words: ‘I am.’”
However, the culture wars on display during the campaign season — from the partisan-inspired “war on women” to the furor provoked by the decision to invite President Barack Obama to the Al Smith Dinner — provided clarifying moments for Church leaders.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, told the Register that the election-year controversies revealed that pastors needed help to lay the foundation for a more sturdy faith among the laity.
A deeply partisan election year, he suggested, was not the ideal environment for guiding Catholics toward countercultural truths.
But Archbishop Lori celebrated the bright spots of a tumultuous election year, noting the rapid advancement of the bishops’ campaign for religious liberty and in the state of Maryland the passage of the Dream Act, which allows the qualified children of illegal immigrants to apply to local community colleges at in-state tuition rates.
During a report that summarized the wealth of catechetical resources and communication materials developed by the bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty, including a foundational statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” Archbishop Lori affirmed the bishops’ commitment to keep up the fight to challenge the narrow religious exemption contained in the HHS mandate.
He confirmed that the “solemnity of Christ the King on Nov. 25 would serve as the next opportunity to keep Catholics focused on defending the first freedom.” That feast day, he said, is “a natural moment to focus on religious freedom and an opportunity to offer encouragement and to send the signal that whatever setbacks occur the efforts to defend religious freedom are not going to go away.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston expressed gratitude for the help of many Catholic, interfaith and professional groups that contributed to the success of the campaign that opposed the Massachusetts ballot measure on physician-assisted suicide, but he signaled that this victory provided no room for complacency.
“Fear of tremendous pain is advanced as a reason to support physician-assisted suicide. In almost every instance, palliative care can suppress pain,” said Cardinal O’Malley.
“[We] must do more to promote good palliative and hospice care at the end of life,” stated Cardinal O’Malley during a Nov. 12 press conference.
Other signs of hope surfaced during a brief report on the status of U.S. seminaries by Archbishop Carlo Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States. The nuncio said he had visited a number of seminaries and expressed his confidence with ongoing efforts to bolster standards for screening candidates.
Archbishop Viganò urged the bishops to maintain those standards and to get to know their seminarians early in the process.
In keeping with Cardinal Dolan’s opening theme of spiritual conversion and renewal, Archbishop Viganò affirmed the need for holy future priests and noted the example of recently canonized Sts. Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope.
But during a long year punctuated by a number of clergy abuse scandals, the nuncio expressed the Vatican’s urgent concern that Church leaders continue to remain vigilant about retain high expectations for future priests, adding that it was more important to have “good priests than to have many priests.”
Don’t Pick and Choose
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who leads the USCCB's effort to engage the culture and advance Catholic teaching on marriage, noted during a Nov. 12 press conference that too many Catholics “view these issues politically rather than through the lens of the Gospel.”
He expressed the hope that Church leaders and local pastors would challenge the tendency to understand social justice in purely economic terms while ignoring the justice of Church teaching on marriage and life.
Indeed, lest any of his brother bishops lose heart in their efforts to challenge contemporary attitudes about marriage, Archbishop Cordileone highlighted the Holy See’s view that “marriage holds the key to advancing the New Evangelization.”
Archbishop Lori noted during a press conference, “It is never a good idea to pick and choose the Church’s social teaching.”
He also suggested that many Catholics failed to appreciate that when defending religious freedom and the sanctity of the family Church leaders were also fighting for one of the legacies of the American Republic — the important role of churches and other civic institutions that mediate between the individual and the state. Local relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy have highlighted the role of Church-affiliated groups like Catholic Charities and the Knights of Columbus, as well as family members and neighbors who often fill the vacuum left by larger relief efforts.
“Where you have people helping people at the more human level, that is how the Church plays an important role in serving the common good,” Archbishop Lori said. “One reason we are so dedicated to supporting marriage and the family is that this is a critical structure.
There was plenty of vigor on display during the formal conference presentations and at various press conferences featuring leading bishops.
“The political landscape is the same,” agreed Archbishop Lori, sounding a common theme during all the bishops’ statements.
He urged his brother bishops — and the laity, too — “to see ourselves not as part of a fleeting effort, but as part of a movement to defend ... foster religious freedom and marriage.”
A Sacramental Struggle
And as they marshal their forces to sustain a long battle, Cardinal Dolan reminded his brother bishops to embrace the sacraments, specifically penance, if they wished to save souls and transform the culture.
Quoting St. Bernard, Cardinal Dolan said: “If you want to be a channel, you must first be a reservoir.”
Cardinal Dolan appeared well aware that his call to spiritual conversion might provoke frustration or bemusement from Catholics still recovering from a daunting election, but made no apologies.
“With this as my presidential address, I know I risk the criticism. I can hear it now: ‘With all the controversies and urgent matters for the Church, Dolan spoke of conversion of heart through the sacrament of penance. Can you believe it?’” the cardinal said at the conclusion of his presidential speech. “To which I reply, ‘You better believe it!’ First things first!”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.