NEW ORLEANS — Pope Francis has exhorted Church leaders across the globe to see the Church as a "field hospital" that will care for alienated Catholics and the needy at "the fringes."
At their spring 2014 meeting in New Orleans, in public addresses and conference initiatives, the U.S. bishops affirmed their desire to fulfill the Holy Father’s vision for evangelization in the 21st century, amid challenges posed by the growing isolation of low-income Americans, who are now less likely to participate in the Church and the economy — or to raise children with the benefit of two parents in the home.
"Pope Francis is saying, ‘Don’t wait for people to come to you. Go out to the frontier.’ We need to find ways in our parishes to reach out to couples and families," Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told the Register, as he reflected on the urgent task of serving the poor and helping families.
In keeping with Pope Francis’ insistence that Catholic shepherds must venture into the trenches and accompany those in greatest need, the June 11-13 meeting highlighted cultural, legal and political developments that have raised the bar for evangelization.
But the daunting assessments of missionary territory in the United States did not yield to discouragement. Rather, Church leaders emphasized the need for hopeful, prudent and loving engagement.
"People will disagree with us, but … it’s an act of love for us to always say where we stand, but to do it in a loving way," said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia during a June 11 press conference. "Being discouraged would be the worse thing we could ever do."
Two Related Challenges
Two invited speakers, Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and an expert on the nation’s changing marriage culture, and Helen Alvare, a pro-life leader and law professor at George Mason University, took up two distinct but related challenges to evangelization on the fringes.
Wilcox offered a disturbing portrait of low-income Americans, who he said are now less likely to work, marry or attend church than their peers in previous generations or than college-educated Americans today.
Wilcox said that a half century of rapid cultural and economic change hit working-class communities hard, and "men who don’t have college degrees are losing ground in our economy. When men are not stably employed, they are less likely to get married and stay married."
Yet his research also confirmed an abiding desire to marry that transcends class lines and educational attainment. Thus, his presentation offered a clear mandate for the Church to help low-income men and women fulfill their hopes for a "happy, stable married life."
Helen Alvare took up a distinct, but related concern: how to make the Church’s charitable outreach deeply Catholic, welcoming and effective in a secular age that no longer accepts the integral relationship between faith and service.
Recognizing the growing divide between Catholic teaching and mainstream culture, Alvare suggested that pastors need to "find the language to share our treasures with anyone who has ears to hear, within or outside Catholic environments."
At times, she said, prudence would dictate a reliance on Christian witness, like a joyfully lived vocation, the reading of the Psalms and compassionate service, rather than explicit Christian catechesis.
Pope Francis, said Alvare, has asked Catholics to convey, in all their interactions, a "humility and tenderness," which finds its source in the "love of Christ."
"When Francis says we should introduce people to Jesus, he means Jesus crucified and in poverty," she added. "When we openly embrace the cross ... we are testifying that our wealth is strictly God."
But she also reminded the bishops that Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have called for Catholic charities to deepen their religious identity and avoid the temptation to operate merely as a "compassionate NGO [non-governmental organization]."
Catholic Teachings Affirmed
Moving forward, as the bishops engage a culture that has become more skeptical and, at times, even hostile to the inconvenient truths of Catholic teaching on marriage, life and religious freedom, Church leaders will likely face intense pressure to dilute such truths and follow the path of secular nonprofits.
But during the New Orleans meeting, USCCB members signaled their support for Catholic teaching on marriage, abortion and the defense of religious freedom.
On the first day of the spring meeting, the assembly voted unanimously to re-authorize the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty for a second term.
During the brief time set aside for a debate and vote to settle the future of the high-profile committee — which is closely identified with the bishops’ vigorous opposition to the federal Health and Human Services’ mandate — Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle suggested that the problems the committee was created to address have not only "persisted, but even intensified." Shutting down the committee now, he said, would "send a bad message."
The bishops also showed that their clear opposition to policies expanding abortion rights remained unchanged, as they answered reporters’ questions about their plans to modify their election-year document, "Faithful Citizenship," last updated in 2007.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who led the review of the document, dismissed a reporter’s question suggesting that the bishops might reset their policy priorities and move hot-button issues to the back burner.
"We want to make sure that we speak very insistently about the role of poverty, about the economy," stated Cardinal DiNardo, the current vice president of the USCCB, during a press conference.
"But they would not take away from our very significant commitment to human personal life. It is not negotiable."
Indeed, during their public exchanges with reporters throughout the meeting, various bishops often steered the discussion back to a holistic vision of Catholic faith and practice that resisted what they clearly viewed as false choice between service to the poor and the defense of unpopular moral teachings.
Catholics seek to serve the poor in a way that "honors and is consistent with our faith," Archbishop Kurtz explained during one press conference, adding that the Church is a "home" for all, and every believer is a sinner in need of "conversion."
Archbishop Kurtz had several opportunities to highlight promising developments, like the preparations leading up to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, while Archbishop Chaput was given time to update his fellow bishops on plans for the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington confirmed that the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops will release a new document instrumentum laboris, which summarizes key issues identified through the October 2013 global survey of Church leaders and the faithful and is designed to stir further discussion. Cardinal Wuerl is a member of the synodal council that approved the instrumentum laboris.
Media coverage of the 2014 synod has focused on the possibility that the Church may change its teaching that bars Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. But Archbishop Kurtz, in his summary of the findings of a synod-related survey of U.S. Catholics, said responses revealed a hunger for better catechesis on marriage and family life, while the problems experienced by remarried Catholics were also an issue.
The survey, he said, found that Catholics appreciated the opportunity to express their views. But many said they did not know their faith well, and parents acknowledged that they were unable to share elements of the faith with their children due to a generational breakdown in the transmission of Church teaching.
During an address to USCCB members, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that people were yearning for the love and communion of family life.
"In a world where loneliness has been globalized, we Christians must globalize family love. The synod will bring forth a new spring for families, and their joyous witness can overcome the individualism that is poisoning our lives," said Archbishop Paglia.
Archbishop Chaput, for his part, invited conference members to spread the word about the 2015 World Meeting on Families, scheduled for Sept. 22-27 in Philadelphia. He said there will be a wealth of catechetical opportunities for families, and there will be scholarships to allow poor families in the U.S. and beyond to attend.
Pope Francis has been invited to the meeting. And though Archbishop Chaput said it was too soon to confirm whether he would attend, "we do have good reasons to believe that Pope Francis will take part."
For now, the Philadelphia archbishop wants to spread the word that everyone is invited to the global "celebration" of families — a sure sign that the Church has embraced Pope Francis’ blueprint for evangelization.
"Our goal is to exclude no one from the excitement of this meeting," Archbishop Chaput told the bishops. "Our goal is to offer the beauty of Catholic teaching about marriage and the family with confidence and a spirit of invitation to every person of goodwill."