Archbishop Kurtz: ‘Faith Enriches Public Life’

The new president of the U.S. bishops’ conference applauds his predecessor, outlines the conference’s current priorities, and discusses Pope Francis’s influence on the Church.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (photo: Addie Mena/CNA)

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at the 2013 annual meeting of the nation’s largest religious body. He served as vice president of USCCB from 2010-2013 during the presidency of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

Before coming to Louisville, Archbishop Kurtz served as a bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., from 1999-2007. Earlier, he was a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., for 27 years, with a special focus in social services.

On Dec. 13, Archbishop Kurtz spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about Cardinal Dolan’s legacy, his own commitment to the defense of religious freedom, and Pope Francis’ plans for expanding the role of episcopal conferences.

 

How would you describe Cardinal Dolan’s legacy?

It is early to talk about his legacy, but even at this point I can say that Cardinal Dolan has been a great leader, and his legacy shows that he is a man of the Church and a man of unity. He sought to unite the bishops in common cause, always grounded on love and service to Christ, service to the people, and Church teaching.

 

What are your most urgent priorities?

I worked so closely with Cardinal Dolan as vice president of the bishops’ conference and I want to provide the same energy that Cardinal Dolan brought to the New Evangelization, precisely where the rubber hits the road — where people’s lives are lived.

The Synod on the Family is a very specific next step concerning evangelization. Echoing the words or Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the Holy Father describes the family as “the engine of the world and of history.”

The Second Vatican Council called the family the “domestic church.”

In his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, on “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” John Paul talked about the family as the way in which civilization is passed on. Pope Benedict made similar points in his teaching.

Now, Francis’ emphasis on the family and the synod will give a framework for the work of bishops’ conferences over the next three years.

 

What other issues top the USCCB’s agenda?

Service to the very vulnerable and the voiceless, from the moment of conception to natural death, would be a second area that Pope Francis has addressed. And it would include immigrant families and individuals, and people living in poverty.

The third area of focus is a robust religious freedom. It fits with the first two. We are religiously free precisely so that we can serve the vulnerable, build the family and promote the public good.

Faith enriches public life. Even though there have been bumps on the road, we can point to great examples of faith in action.

 

Familiaris Consortio was published in 1981, and it identified powerful cultural forces threatening family stability. More than three decades later, 40% of U.S. women who gave birth last year were not married, and the number of sacramental marriages has sharply declined. What should we do?

Yes, there is a new urgency [to the] many trends addressed by Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio.

Pope Francis has highlighted two things. First, we need witnesses who are living their faith in such an attractive way they will invite others to imitate them.

Second, he has called for a solid anthropology that offers a full vision of who a man is and who a woman is.

In The Joy of the Gospel, he said very clearly, “Don’t make the mistake of defining the person as a consumer or as a producer. See the person first.”

Likewise, we must present the gift of sexuality as something that is not just to be used for recreation or simple relationships. We need to present a conjugal vision of the union of a man and woman for the bringing  forth of children.

We have to continue to find ways to effectively present our vision in the public square. At this point, it is not being heard and in some cases ridiculed. Families — husbands and wives, children — who are living that vision should be able to articulate it. 

 

How has Pope Francis influenced your view of what it means to be a Church leader in the 21st century?

I was captivated by his humility and his engaging way of being fully human. After his election, when he stepped out on the balcony and humbly said, “Good evening,” and asked for people’s prayers before he gave the blessing, I saw it as an act of great humility.

The lesson I took was that God calls each of us to be ourselves. The Holy Father would never ask anyone to do what he himself would not first seek to do. There is a disarming simplicity about this.

I have also been inspired by the way he focuses entirely on the person in front of him.

Pope Benedict said, at the beginning of his own pontificate: The Church is not just a list of ethical propositions, but an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. Francis has the capacity to present this message in a new way that engages others.

He reaches out and hugs the person with many handicaps and I am reminded of how Mother Theresa did simple things that also captured the attention of the world.

 

Pope Francis speaks about fostering a culture of encounter. How has your training and background in social work influenced your own engagement with others as a bishop and Church leader?

My 12 years serving as a pastor was probably the most helpful for my role as bishop, and, I suspect, as president of the bishops’ conference.

My family’s influence was more basic, but my encounters with people during my time as a social worker have given me a disposition to listen and observe.

As we move forward, we need to think about what is proclaimed, but also what is heard. Pope Francis says, “Let’s not proclaim Church teaching in a way that creates division. Let’s touch hearts, and thus open people to the vision that Christ has given us.

 

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis talks about the need for reconciliation and living an authentic witness of fraternal communion. Yet, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has a very sharp left vs. right divide, pro-life vs. social justice, when there really should be no divisions. How can you and other bishops use this new opportunity to change that equation?

Our Holy Father is giving us some marching orders that are very attractive. He wants us to go out, and not wait for others to come to us.

He also says that proclaiming the Gospel of Joy takes a great amount of patience. We Americans are good at putting people in categories. But the New Evangelization is saying, “See the person first, experience their needs.” That is really the pastoral direction of Jesus in the Gospel passages, and it is a great recipe for unity that is lasting.

 

One emerging issue for this pontificate is a stronger role for bishops’ conferences. What is your understanding of Pope Francis’ goals for episcopal conferences? How do you have an effective bishops’ conference while honoring the role of the local ordinary?

Our Holy Father has made it very clear that he intends to act in a collegial way. The way in which he exercises that collegiality will need time to unfold.

His efforts to work with the Council of Cardinals that he has formed will be instructive. The preparations for the coming Synod of Bishops in 2014, as well as the universal synod in 2015 will be vehicles.

In The Joy of the Gospel, he says that he is looking for ways to increase the [role] of episcopal conferences, and we will see how that plays out.

Our episcopal conference, for the last four decades, has participated in the universal life of the Church in areas regarding liturgy and the social teachings of the Church. The question is whether there will be new ways for such participation. We don’t know yet, but we need to prepare to participate as best we can.

We are now looking at the very important issue of pastoral care for families as the synod approaches.

In the archdiocese, I am engaged in a process of broad consultation to hear the priorities, difficulties and concerns of our people, and that will shape my approach in the 2014 synod.

 

Pope Francis has signaled that he is considering ways of addressing the pastoral needs of Catholics who have divorced and remarried. Can you speak about what changes may be ahead?

The Holy Father is looking at what ways we can ease burdens, within the context of the tradition of the Church. But he has not begun to talk about the pastoral solutions. That is why he has called the synod — so he doesn’t act in any abrupt way, but has the opportunity for genuine listening and discernment.

Our Holy Father is not limited to the synod process. But having said that, typically the synod process [generates] proposals that are often included in an apostolic exhortation.

 

The ACLU recently filed a lawsuit that blamed the U.S. bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services (ERDs) for negligent care suffered by a pregnant woman at a Michigan Catholic hospital. You have dismissed the claim as “baseless.” That said, John Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which advises the U.S. bishops on moral questions, noted that staff in Catholic hospitals must be adequately trained in implementing the ERDs. Your thoughts?

It would be the responsibility of each local bishop in his relationship with the local healthcare facility to deal with the implementation of the ERDs. They are a service given to each bishop to assist him in his relationship with healthcare facilities in his dioceses.

 

The Year of Faith closed on Nov. 24. Do you think it fulfilled its mission?

I see the Year of Faith as helping us launch future efforts to evangelize. We just had a very fruitful meeting of our presbyteral council, talking about what it means as pastors “to go out,” and to develop a “pastoral heart.”

I was inspired by the insights and directions of our priests, and, hopefully, these same discussions will occur on a regional level. Our priests want to engage lay leadership. They are not waiting for people to come to them, but going out to the people.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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