BALTIMORE — Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Pope Francis’ representative to the United States, were both on hand to help the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mark its 100th anniversary at the annual fall assembly Nov. 13-15 in Baltimore.

The three-day meeting resulted in a couple of notable decisions, as Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, was voted chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, was voted chairman of the now-permanent Committee on Religious Liberty.

The current shepherds of the U.S. Church grappled with a host of challenges facing the nation, from immigration to racism, that are no less urgent than the ones their distant episcopal brothers confronted a century ago.

In 1917, with the United States newly involved in the cataclysm of World War I, the U.S. bishops launched what was called the National Catholic War Council “to study, coordinate, unify and put in operation all Catholic activities incidental to the war.” From this was born what is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The 100th anniversary was the occasion for the official representatives of Pope Francis to address the body of bishops about the prevailing situation in the United States and the world and to offer some counsel from the unique perspective of the Holy Father.

In his homily for the opening Mass, Cardinal Parolin called on the bishops to speak courageously with one voice about the issues facing America and the world.

Later at a dinner in his honor, the cardinal stressed anew the theme of unity, telling the bishops, “The accomplishments of the past century were the fruit of a unity of faith and evangelical vision that made it possible for the Church in the United States to become a prophetic voice for social justice and human development at home but also worldwide.”

The very next day, Archbishop Pierre, the papal ambassador to the U.S. since 2016, amplified the need for a unified but permanent state of mission that must also be Christocentric.

“Evangelization,” Archbishop Pierre declared, “is not about us. It is about Christ, who lives and works in his disciples and who is passionately in love with his flock.”

 

Consensus in a Divided Age

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the bishops’ conference, continued the themes of unity and a Christocentric vision as he led the U.S. bishops smoothly through their agenda for the fall assembly with few fireworks.

“We are facing a time that seems more divided than ever,” he observed. “Divisions over health care, conscience protections, immigration and refugees, taxes, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, gender ideologies, the meaning of marriage, and all the other headlines continue to be hotly debated. But our role continues to be witnessing to the Gospel.”

The deliberations of the bishops that stretched across two days of public sessions included discussion on immigration, racism, family life and tax reform. The bishops received committee reports on immigration and racism and collaborated on the drafting of a statement on each of those issues. There was strong consensus on the need for concrete actions that give teeth to their formal statements.

On the second day of the meeting, what many saw as a potentially divisive issue of creating a national pastoral plan for family life and marriage to implement Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) proved strikingly uneventful. The bishops’ discussion emphasized the need to focus the plan, which is scheduled to be presented a year from now, on the totality of Amoris Laetitia in addressing the challenges of marriage and family life today. And it reinforced the palpable determination of the bishops to maintain a steady course for the conference and to find genuine consensus in the face of a divided country and at times a divided Catholic community.

That steady course was especially manifest in the vote to choose a successor to Cardinal Timothy Dolan as head of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities. The choices were between Archbishop Naumann and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, an election incorrectly framed by some in the media — including some in Catholic media — as a referendum on Pope Francis, as Cardinal Cupich had been named to Chicago in 2014 by Pope Francis and swiftly appointed to the College of Cardinals. One narrative widely circulated in the media positioned a vote for Archbishop Naumann as a deliberate rebuke of the Holy Father. A more likely reason for the selection of Archbishop Naumann — who won by a vote of 96-82, with a large number of abstentions — was the Kansas City archbishop’s long record of pro-life activism and that he was already a member of the committee.

In contrast, Cardinal Cupich has approached the pro-life cause  as one among many important social-justice issues, echoing the “seamless garment” formulation articulated by an earlier archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

One other significant vote was the election of Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville as the chair of the newly established Committee for Religious Liberty that replaced the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty as a permanent committee of the conference.

Archbihsop Kurtz had served as president of the bishops’ conference from 2013 to 2016 and noted that one of the most important aspects for the committee is the positive role to “clarify in an accurate and attractive way what the great gift of religious liberty is in our nation.”

“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,” he said, “but, rather, it is an opportunity consistent with your own religious belief and conscience to witness and to serve.” This includes aiding and praying for persecuted Christians and other victims of genocide around the world.

Unquestionably, the bishops were not unanimous on everything over the course of the two public days of sessions. But in all of their conversations, the shepherds were a public model for civil discourse.

As Cardinal DiNardo told the Register, “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.”

 

Looking to the Synod

On the last day of the assembly, the conference held closed-door meetings, and part of their work was to elect the representatives of the U.S. bishops to the 2018 Synod of Bishops in Rome on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” According to Catholic News Agency, the bishops reportedly selected Cardinal DiNardo, USCCB vice president Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and noted communicator Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles. All four are known for being capable leaders who have given much thought to the task of articulating the faith in modern culture.

Their nominations still must be approved by the Vatican.

The outcome of USCCB elections will be seen by many through an ideological lens. The bishops, however, are little concerned with insular ecclesiastical battles and ambitions. The pastoral problems are too numerous and too severe. The program for responding to all of these challenges in the coming months is now effectively set. But just as significant was the public tone of trying to find common ground to speak to the common good at a time when too many in the country cannot agree on either.

Matthew Bunson, a Register senior editor, reported on the USCCB meeting from Baltimore.