WASHINGTON — The members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will assemble in Indianapolis June 14-15 for their annual Spring General Assembly. While typically not as comprehensive as their annual fall assembly in Baltimore, the spring meeting gives the bishops an opportunity to discuss pressing matters and to do some key preparatory work for the autumn session.
This year, the chief items on the agenda for the bishops are shaped largely by the policy proposals of the Trump administration and the new Congress, including the reform of the ACA, the Affordable Care Act — so-called Obamacare — immigration and religious liberty. The bishops are also starting to prepare for the upcoming Ordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome that is scheduled for fall 2018 on youth.
Health Care Reform
On May 4, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA), marking the next step in the complicated repeal and replacement of the ACA. The bishops will receive an update on these developments, although the conference has already expressed its concerns with some of the details of the bill that is on its way to the U.S. Senate.
In the discussions leading up to the bill’s passage in the House, the U.S. bishops urged Congress to honor key moral principles in health care reform, such as access for all people to comprehensive and affordable quality health care, coverage for pre-existing conditions, respect for life and conscience protections.
Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement immediately after the vote that called on the Senate to strip out what the bishops see as harmful provisions. “Even with efforts to improve the bill before passage,” Bishop Dewane said, “the American Health Care Act still contains major defects, particularly regarding changes to Medicaid that risk coverage and affordability for millions; it is deeply disappointing that the voices of those who will be most severely impacted were not heeded.”
The bishops are scheduled to receive a briefing from the conference’s working group on immigration, in what was already a major issue in the first months of the Trump administration. The bishops strongly opposed the president’s original Jan. 27 executive order and the March 6 revision, which prevented citizens from several majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States for a period of 90 days. Reacting to the March 6 revision, Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, said, “The revised order … still leaves many innocent lives at risk. We are disappointed that the revised order maintains the temporary shutdown of the U.S. refugee admissions program, continues the more than 60% reduction in the number of refugees who can be resettled into the United States this year, and still temporarily bars nationals from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”
Still, the bishops are trying to work with the administration where possible. On May 23, for example, Bishop Vásquez praised the Department of Homeland Security for its decision to extend Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for six months to some 60,000 Haitians living and working in the United States.
For many of the bishops, the issue of religious liberty at home and abroad has become a true crisis. On the international front, the bishops in Indianapolis will receive a presentation on religious persecution, genocide and human-rights violations in the Middle East by Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace.
The report comes at a time when Christians are under attack across the globe, especially in Egypt. In the most recent outrage, on May 26, Muslim gunmen slaughtered 29 Coptic Christian men, women and children on their way to Mass at the St. Samuel Monastery in Minya province, south of Cairo.
On the domestic side, the bishops greeted the May 4 executive order by President Trump pledging religious-liberty safeguards as a good start.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the bishops’ conference, who attended the White House Rose Garden signing ceremony, said in a statement that the order “begins the process of alleviating the serious burden of the HHS mandate. We will engage with the administration to ensure that adequate relief is provided to those with deeply held religious beliefs.”
The bishops will also vote in Indianapolis on whether to establish the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty as a permanent USCCB committee.
The current committee, chaired by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, was created in 2011 to provide a voice for the conference over what has become a mounting series of legal and social threats to religious protections and freedoms.
The 2018 Synod
In addition, the bishops will have a discussion on the 2018 Ordinary Synod of Bishops, scheduled to focus on young people, faith and vocational discernment. It will be led by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, chairman of the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
Given the controversy that surrounded the previous two synods in Rome on the family in the modern world in 2014 and 2015, there is expected to be considerable scrutiny of the preparatory documents and the agenda for the one next year.
Pastoral, Sacramental Issues
Beyond these concerns, the bishops will be considering several pastoral sacramental documents: the revised “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments With Persons With Disabilities,” a collection of blessings in Spanish (the Bendicional: Sexta Parte) and a new translation of the “Order of Blessing the Oil of Catechumens and of the Sick” and of consecrating the chrism.
Finally, the bishops will gather together on the evening of June 14 in Indianapolis to hold what is being described as “a moment of prayer and penance” in response to the call from Pope Francis for an international day of prayer to pray for the survivors of clerical sex abuse.
The Register will be covering the bishops’ meeting with daily updates online.
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