U.S. Bishops and the Path Forward


As Pope Francis calling for a return to the "seamless garment," a term that sums up the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago’s proposal that opposition to legal abortion should not define Catholic advocacy in the public square?

During a 1983 address at Fordham University, Cardinal Bernardin stated that "the pro-life position of the Church must be developed in terms of a comprehensive and consistent ethic of life." The cardinal’s supporters embraced that message as an invitation to connect Catholic doctrine on the sanctity of human life with teaching on the death penalty, social programs for the poor and unemployed, immigration reform and the arms race.

Cardinal Bernardin would later refute any suggestion that the articulation of a "consistent ethic of life" effectively undermined Catholic commitment to the defense of the unborn and served to shield self-identified Catholic politicians who backed abortion rights but cited the Gospel when they voted against social spending cuts.

The debate over how bishops should authentically defend a range of moral teachings, while avoiding the politicization of their role as spiritual shepherds, has received new energy, as Pope Francis calls on Church leaders to build bridges to alienated Catholics and others who are turned off by the culture wars.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), was asked, during the Nov. 12 press conference after his election, if "the conference is moving back towards this consistent ethic of life, as articulated by Cardinal Bernardin, rather than simply focusing on the so-called non-negotiable issues of abortion, ‘gay marriage’ and contraception."

Archbishop Kurtz duly noted that the U.S. bishops’ conference had "spoken about immigration, the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of marriage, of robust religious freedom." That advocacy, he added, is a response "to movements that are going on within our culture."

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the newly elected USCCB vice president, dismissed the reference to the "seamless garment" as an "oversimplification" of the bishops’ ongoing response to emerging social needs. Then he threw down the gauntlet: "We’ll never stand down from our defense of the human person, particularly at the beginnings of life and at the end of life. That’s non-negotiable."

The exchange underscored the promise and peril of episcopal leadership in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Media sound bites typically capture remarks that appear to chastise Church leaders for focusing too much on controversial issues dealing with abortion or marriage.

We are still in the early days of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and, already, many are eager to define his message to their own liking. So how should our Church leaders approach this new chapter in Church history that stirs our hopes and fears?

One answer comes from the Pope’s own representative to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, who offered a brief but powerful address at the Nov. 11-14 U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. (See related story on page one.)

The address is striking both for what it does say and for what it leaves unsaid, suggesting that there can be no set formula for how the U.S. bishops must protect their flock as they navigate the shifting cultural landscape of 21st-century America.

Archbishop Viganò began his address with the following statement: "The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people. When, this past June, I met with him in his simple apartment at the Casa Santa Marta for a fruitful discussion, he made a special point of saying that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology."

The nuncio’s comments lit up the blogosphere, with speculation about whether he might be critiquing Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s battle with the Obama administration over the HHS mandate or the bishops’ material lifestyle.

The nuncio outlined several principles designed to guide the conference’s ongoing deliberations, and he began by presenting Pope Francis’ pontificate as part of the continuity of tradition, rather than a departure from it.

Further, the nuncio explained that a "pastoral" bishop ministered to all the needs of his flock, including their thirst for the truth of the Gospel. The bishops must be prepared to engage in the kind of spiritual battle that will require great discernment, holiness and unity with the Vicar of Christ. "We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church," said Archbishop Viganò, repeating a 1976 comment from then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

This is not the stuff of sound bites and catchy terms that serve as placeholders for a particular political strategy. Three decades after Cardinal Bernardin’s proposal for a "consistent ethic of life," Catholics’ engagement with the culture has weakened, the pews are less full, and the battle lines have sharpened. And what we know now is that the "non-negotiables" are irreparably linked to our freedom to serve the sick and the poor.

Without the free exercise of Catholic institutions, we will still be able to advocate for government-funded social spending and health care, but our ability to care for the needy through our own charities and universities will be severely limited.

Our spiritual shepherds must discern the path forward, guided by the Holy Spirit and inspired by our Vicar of Christ, so that, as Archbishop Kurtz stated in his goals for the conference, the Church can continue to serve those who are "voiceless and vulnerable," while also making sure that "faith enriches public life" through "robust religious freedom."

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