A dominant meme appeared in the mainstream media leading up to the annual November meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore this week. War was at hand. The bishops, concerned with what they see as infringements on religious liberty coming from the Obama administration, were going to re-enter the culture wars, using religious liberty as a thinly disguised cudgel for beating up on Democrats on abortion and contraception.
But, a funny thing happened on the way to Baltimore. A few days before the bishops gathered, the president of the USCCB, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, had a meeting with President Obama. At a press conference on Monday, Archbishop Dolan said, “I found the president of the United States to be very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community. I left there feeling a bit more at peace about this issue than when I entered.” In his maiden speech as president of the conference, Dolan did not even mention the issue of religious liberty. And, when the chairman of the new ad hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, Bishop William Lori, addressed the bishops on that topic, the first example he gave had nothing to do with Obama or abortion or contraception. He voiced concern about a law passed by the GOP-controlled legislature in Alabama that would have required Catholic teachers and hospital workers to inquire about the immigration status of those they serve.
To be clear, the bishops are worried about the religious liberty issue, as well they should be. It is distressing that the Department of Health and Human Services declined to renew a contract with the USCCB for their work with the victims of human trafficking, citing concerns that the USCCB services do not include referrals for abortion and contraceptive services. For some, this shows the Church to be woefully out-of-date, still wringing their hands about contraception when the rest of the world, including the vast majority of Catholics, have moved on. But, the focus needs to be kept on the fact that the failure to renew the contract will primarily hurt the victims of human trafficking who were ably served by the USCCB programs.
One other aspect of the religious liberty issue that has not received enough attention is how the issue plays out in foreign affairs. This is of prime concern to the Vatican, which has looked at the attacks on Christians in the Middle East, China and the Sudan, among other places, with growing alarm. In these countries, the issue is not government contracts but violence against Catholics and other Christians and the most basic rights to worship.
Some criticized the bishops for not saying more about poverty. After all, the Vatican recently released a note on the subject that was bracing in its critique of laissez-faire economics of the kind the Tea Party has been championing. I confess that I wish the bishops had been more forceful in addressing the topic of rising poverty, but perhaps the thing they did that may most affect the Church’s anti-poverty efforts was the overwhelming vote, 147-30, to raise their own taxes. They agreed to increase the amount of money each bishop must pay to the USCCB itself and the USCCB staff has been leading the fight within the corridors of power to protect social programs that assist the poor from budget cuts.
True, the bishops could have issued another statement, but if you read their document on Catholics in political life - “Faithful Citizenship” – which the bishops reaffirmed, you will find that the passages on poverty and the common good are really strong. They wrote: “Pope Benedict XVI has taught that ‘love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel’ (Deus Caritas Est, no. 22). This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in our nation and beyond—unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression.” The bishops also wrote in that document, “Solidarity also includes the Scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us—including immigrants seeking work, a safe home, education for their children, and a decent life for their families.” Hard to imagine certain conservative candidates making a similar case.
Indeed, “Faithful Citizenship” takes a view that can scarcely be confused with the Ayn Rand-inspired social Darwinism that animates the Tea Party today. “Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype,” the document reads. “The Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable. The Catholic call to faithful citizenship affirms the importance of political participation and insists that public service is a worthy vocation.” In addition to the call for pursuing the common good and protecting the weak and the vulnerable, the affirmation of the importance of political participation and the worthiness of public service is a strong rebuke to those who denounce government as an evil, who seek to limit participation in the political process with egregious voter registration requirements, and who attack public service as somehow corrupt and less noble than, say, running a venture capital firm or a pizza chain.
One of the things that emerged from my many conversations with different bishops this week is the growing prominence of the immigration issue and how that issue inter-relates with the religious liberty concerns of the bishops. One of the brightest, younger faces in the USCCB is Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas. He was elected to chair the Committee on Cultural Diversity by a large margin and several of his brother bishops told me to keep an eye on him because his is a rising star. In a recent, well received and widely distributed speech, Flores spoke about the changing face of immigration in his diocese along the Texas-Mexico border. He said, “Immigrants do have rights and the Church has the ability to help organize ways in which the newly arrived can learn about their rights, their recourse and their resources. These grass-roots efforts are a service to justice and charity. And the Church, imbued with the Spirit, sees the dignity of the human person as a precious mystery that must be defended; for if we do not defend it, it will be trampled. We all must call upon our people to see the need to protect the rights of immigrants, and respond generously to the plight that afflicts them.” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, destined to become the first Hispanic cardinal in the U.S. hierarchy and a key actor in the USCCB, recently addressed the Knights of Columbus convention where he called for all Catholics to approach the immigration issue not as Democrats or republicans but as Catholics, people who recognize the dignity of all God’s children no matter where they were born or what their immigration status.
One of the most moving moments of the entire conference saw the issues of social justice and immigration linked to the central theme of Archbishop Dolan’s presidential address, the need for the Church to re-claim its credibility. Every year, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the USCCB’s principal anti-poverty program, holds a reception at which they present the Cardinal Bernardin Award to someone who exemplifies the ethos of CCHD, acting on behalf of social justice out of commitment to our Catholic faith. This year, they presented the award to Rosibel “Rosie” Mancillas Lopez, a law student at the University of San Diego. She works with a CCHD-funded group that helps immigrant communities. Mancillas Lopez fought back tears as she told her story of coming to this country without documents as a child, her love for the Church, and how her faith compelled her to speak out on behalf of immigrants and their rights. Archbishop Dolan said that Mancillas Lopez’s work was a perfect example of how the Church can re-establish its credibility and praised her for her service. It was a heartwarming, but also very telling, moment: the Archbishop of New York and President of the USCCB citing the efforts of an immigrant law student, not the work of a bishop, as a model for restoring the credibility of the Church. It was also telling that, despite the attacks from certain conservative groups who disparage the work CCHD does, it was one of the best attended of the events, with several cardinals and dozens of bishops applauding Mancillas Lopez while scarfing down canapés.
There is a lesson in all this, perhaps a more accurate meme if you will, about the changes in the USCCB over the years. It is unlikely the bishops will embark on the kinds of big teaching documents they issued on war and the economy in the 1980s. But, they do not want to see the Church sidelined so much as they want to see lay people like Mancillas Lopez carrying the Church’s teachings into the public square. That is not to say that the bishops want to diminish the role of the Church in society and culture, just the opposite. Some disparage the focus on the “New Evangelization” as a “mere” ecclesiastical concern, a turning in on ourselves, a step away from the Church’s engagement with the culture. But, the New Evangelization seeks to find new ways to proclaim the Gospel and, at the core of that Gospel are words that should certainly warm the hearts of progressive Catholics here at CACG: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim an acceptable year of the Lord.” (Lk 4:18-19)