USCCB 2020 Fall Meeting: Day 2 Recap
On the final day of the fall meeting, bishops touched on the 2020 elections, religious freedom amid the coronavirus pandemic, riots and anti-Catholic vandalism.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) concluded the public portion of its annual Fall General Assembly Tuesday, discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, and preparations for a Biden presidency.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, led the meeting, which was held virtually Nov. 16-17 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Archbishop Gomez announced that the conference is creating a bishops’ working group to assess a Joe Biden presidency.
“The president-elect has given us reason to believe that his faith commitments will move him to support some good policies. This includes policies of immigration reform, refugees and the poor, and against racism, the death penalty, and climate change,” Archbishop Gomez said.
“He has also given us reason to believe that he will support policies that are against some fundamental values that we hold dear as Catholics,” he continued. “These policies include: the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and the preservation of Roe vs. Wade. Both of these policies undermine our preeminent priority of the elimination of abortion.”
The archbishop added religious freedom concerns and gender identity policies as potential threats in a Biden administration. He said the bishops have long opposed policies that run counter to the common good, and will continue to do so.
“But when politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them, there are additional problems,” he added. “Among other things, it creates confusion among the faithful about what the Church actually teaches on these questions.”
“This is a difficult and complex situation,” Archbishop Gomez told the bishops. “In order to help us to navigate it, [the conference] will appoint a working group, chaired by Archbishop [Allen] Vigneron [of Detroit, vice president of the USCCB] and consisting of the chairmen of the committees responsible for the policy areas at stake, as well as the committee on doctrine and communications.”
The bishops created a similar committee four years ago to prepare for the incoming Trump administration.
The coronavirus pandemic was another main discussion topic for the day. Bishops discussed pastoral strategies and the movement of the Holy Spirit during the pandemic, noting the challenges facing their dioceses, but also the great desire for the sacraments on the part of many Catholics.
Bishop James Wall of Gallup explained that his diocese is located in two states with a primarily Native American population, where high levels of poverty have compounded other challenges.
“For example, on the Navajo Reservation, 30% of the people do not have running water,” he said, and getting water requires a trip into town. This, coupled with weekend-long “lockdowns,” has made basic health practices like frequent handwashing “very difficult.”
Despite the hardship, he said he sees a “greater love for the Eucharist” among his flock and hopes to soon be publishing a pastoral letter on the Eucharist.
Several bishops lauded the sacrifice made by both priests and laity in responding to the pandemic and working to make church services safe.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston praised the priests on his COVID ministry team, who volunteered and were given special training to go into hospitals and provide spiritual care for the sick.
“Not one of the priests got sick during this time,” said Cardinal O’Malley. “We’re certainly grateful for the generosity and it was a great consolation for the whole community to know that they have access to the sacraments at the end of their lives.”
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, thanked those who were willing to do extra work to disinfect entire churches after every Mass, baptism, and funeral.
“In the midst of Eucharistic absence, we could say, many people have stepped forward to make sure that we could experience, once again, the Eucharistic presence,” he said.
He recalled seeing Catholics kneeling outside the diocesan basilica, some crying, when churches were closed. He said their devotion moved him, and he believes this love for the Eucharist will sustain the Church moving forward.
Other bishops also discussed the future of the Church in a post-pandemic world. Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, suggested a national campaign urging Catholics to bring someone with them when returning to Mass, as a means of evangelizing those who might fall away from the faith during the period in which churches have been closed.
Also on Tuesday, the conference announced the results of the previous day’s votes on several actions items, including the approval of the proposed 2021 conference budget and 2021-2024 Strategic Plan, as well as the reauthorization of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism for three years.
The ad hoc committee was established in August 2017 in the wake of increasing racial tensions and white nationalist activism. Its work has included resources on prayer, a press conference at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, and the creation of an award-winning children’s book on healing and reconciliation.
The committee has been led since May 2018 by Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, La. It was previously led by Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, who resigned in 2018 due a recurrence of leukemia.
On Tuesday, Bishop Fabre led a discussion on racism, during which the bishops shared their experiences in their home dioceses. Several bishops said they had held listening sessions or set up task forces to better understand the local situations.
Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland said the riots and violence in his city throughout the summer hijacked the “righteous and lawful” protests that had been taking place for racial equality.
He added that Asian-Americans in his diocese had faced scapegoating over the coronavirus pandemic.
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, said that the deadly mass shooting at a WalMart in his diocese last year, committed by a white nationalist, “really brought home the fact that white supremacy is not a harmless fringe ideology, but that it is a death-dealing ideology.”
Several bishops warned that words that demonize immigrants or other races can have deadly consequences.
The bishops also discussed the Black Lives Matter movement, and how to guide Catholics in thinking about the slogan and the organization affiliated with it.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore noted that he had written an article seeing “Black Lives Matter” through Catholic social teaching, saying it was helpful to see how the Church can speak on the issue.
Archbishop Sample warned about Catholics aligning themselves with “simple catchphrases” and “movements,” saying that “we need to speak from our own tradition” on race.
Bishop Fabre said the efforts to promote encounter, dialogue, and reconciliation are bearing fruits, even if the process is slow.
“Hearts are being changed, and we have seen the power of the Holy Spirit at work,” he said. “The work is hard. The work is slow. But the work is being done.”
Concluding the public portion of the meeting, outgoing USCCB general secretary Monsignor Brian Bransfield concluded the public portion of the meeting by offering reflections on suffering and endurance in the spiritual life.
He said he has been moved by the bishops’ compassion and faith, especially in the face of the sexual abuse crisis.
“I have seen you leaning only on Christ. And that leaning on Christ, that deeper endurance...transforms trials into hope. And hope is the hallmark of the Christian...the only way to transform pain into hope is by shouldering it,” Monsignor Bransfield said.
“I will be rooting for you, praying for you, and I will continue to be grateful to you for your sacred ministry,” he said.