U.S. Bishops Ponder Challenges Posed by Family and Poverty Issues

At their annual spring meeting in New Orleans, the U.S. Church’s shepherds discussed how to fulfill Pope Francis’ vision for evangelization in the 21st century.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (photo: CNA)

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 changes in family structure and the growing isolation of low-income Americans, who are now less likely to participate in the Church or the economy.

“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 venture into the trenches and accompany those in greatest need, the June 11-13 meeting featured an address on evangelization and charitable outreach and an update on new research charting the social and economic consequences of the nation’s troubling retreat from marriage and family life. Yet, even as speakers offered tough assessments of cultural and political trends that have raised the bar for effective evangelization, the broader message was that hopeful, prudent and loving engagement must prevail and discouragement is not an option.

“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.

Using a college education as the key indicator for upper-middle-class life, Wilcox reported that Americans armed with college degrees are more likely to marry before having children, to resist divorce and participate in a religious community.

Over the past half century, said Wilcox, “changes in the culture and changes in the economy” have resulted in a “growing marriage divide in America.” Today, “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. Thus, his presentation offered a clear mandate for the Church to help struggling 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, asks 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, Jesus taking on the suffering of those he loves, Jesus undergoing humiliation, placing himself in a circumstance of profound condescension," said Alvare. 

"Francis says 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. The assembly voted unanimously to re-authorize the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty for a second term.

Further, Church leaders signaled that they have no intension of altering their strong opposition to policies expanding abortion rights, though some media commentators argued that Pope Francis has pressed for such a change.

Some commentators viewed the bishops’ plans to update their election-year document, “Faithful Citizenship,” last published in 2007, as a litmus test of the Pope’s influence on the USCCB leadership.

Archbishop Kurtz explained the need for minor changes to the voting document, noting that “the 2007 document does not take into account the later magisterium of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or anything of the teachings of Pope Francis.”

However, during a press conference, 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,” said Cardinal DiNardo, who is the current vice president of the USCCB.

“But they would not take away from our very significant commitment to human personal life. It is not negotiable.”

Indeed, during their exchanges with reporters at press conferences throughout the meeting, various bishops often steered the discussion back to a holistic vision of Catholic faith and practice that resisted a 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.”


World Meeting of Families and Synod Preparations

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.

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.

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.

“The synod’s real document will not be words: It will be witness.”

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 he announced there will be scholarships to make it possible for poor families in the U.S. and beyond to attend.


Papal Invitation

Pope Francis has been invited to the meeting, though Archbishop Chaput said it is too soon to confirm whether he would attend.

“Obviously, a papal visit is never official until the Holy See confirms it,” he told the bishops. “But we do have good reasons to believe that Pope Francis will take part in the meeting, and we're planning to welcome him wholeheartedly.”

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.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.