BALTIMORE — The incoming leaders of the U.S. bishops’ conference voiced a commitment to reaching out in love to defend human life and dignity wherever it is threatened in the modern culture.
“We’re responding to where the need is,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Archbishop Kurtz and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo were elected by the body of bishops on Nov. 12. Their three-year terms officially begin at the conclusion of the bishops’ meeting on Nov. 14.
At a Nov. 12 press conference during the U.S. bishops’ annual fall gathering in Baltimore, he emphasized that the bishops must respond to “what is going on in our culture” and where the needs and energies of the Church are at a given moment in time.
The archbishop responded to an earlier message delivered on behalf of the Pope by papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, which he characterized as “primarily a call to be pastoral.”
Pope Francis is challenging the Church in the United States, Archbishop Kurtz said, to “warm hearts and heal wounds,” while serving the needs of the unborn, elderly, migrants and others who are “voiceless and vulnerable,” particularly in the American “culture of indifference.”
Archbishop Kurtz stressed that he “would be reluctant to fit us into a category” or any political or ideological camp, adding that issues of immigration, defense of marriage, a robust religious freedom and protection of human life are all part of the Church’s response to threats against human dignity in society.
He stated that American Catholics “are very much in solidarity with Pope Francis” on addressing poverty and noted that the bishops’ conference “has been a steady stream of funding programs that are lifting people up from poverty,” as well as “finding ways to change structures that hold them back.”
Of particular focus, the Archbishop Kurtz said, is an effort to “look at the disintegration of the family” and find ways to help strengthen marriage and family life in an effort to alleviate poverty. He noted that “one out of every five children are in poverty,” nationwide, and there are several studies linking poverty to a decline in “the solidity of the family.”
Upcoming synods on pastoral care and the family, scheduled for 2014 and 2015, will allow for a “robust consultation” on these topics, he explained.
The archbishop also addressed the Church’s efforts to defend religious freedom, saying that this is an essential part of the bishops’ “effort to support the dignity of the human person.”
“We know that faith enriches public life,” he explained. “Our effort is to have a robust expression of religious freedom in a way that acknowledges how important that is not only to the believer, but to the good of our nation.”
He said that every effort “to speak on behalf of the voiceless and vulnerable puts us in a position to potentially” open the door to a “good and healthy relationship” with the Obama administration and other branches and levels of government.
Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, vice president-elect of the bishops’ conference, added that the Church “will never stand down from our defense of human person, particularly at the beginning and end of life. That’s non-negotiable.”
At the same time, the U.S. Church will continue its “persistent” focus on fighting “the causes of poverty at the local levels,” and it will work to aid immigrants, he said.
On the topic of immigration, the cardinal explained that, while there are those “on both sides of the aisle,” the ongoing question is based on “a significant aspect of our respect for the human person.” He added that because “the tempo and interaction on this issue has picked up,” there will likely be a more visible emphasis on immigration within the next several years.
“The resolve of all of our bishops is clear on the role of the immigrant,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “It’s really a question of human dignity.” He added that the bishops’ conference will be expanding its efforts to educate the laity on “the reason for our interest in immigration.”
Archbishop Kurtz highlighted this work, in addition to peace efforts in the Holy Land and around the world, as additional ways in which the Church works to promote and defend human dignity in its teaching and actions.
To highlight the Church carrying out these activities, Cardinal DiNardo pointed to the Pope’s writings, speeches and actions during the Year of Faith, saying that they have placed an emphasis on “the credibility of faith, the encouragement of faith and the illumination that faith gives.”
“To my mind, that’s something that the conference wants to see happening in all places,” he said, encouraging his fellow bishops to emphasize “good teaching, good witnessing and good pastoring."