Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 67, is the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Allentown in 1972, and has served as archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky since 2007. Previously, he served as the USCCB’s vice president.
As he told CWR in 2011 Archbishop Kurtz sees the USCCB’s role as threefold: 1) to promote unity among the bishops and Holy Father, 2) to help the individual bishop in the care of his diocese, and 3) to provide a vehicle for the bishops to collectively address issues of the day.
In an interview with CWR on November 22, Archbishop Kurtz continued the discussion about the work of the USCCB, and shared his thoughts on the new pontiff, Pope Francis.
CWR: The Catholic bishops have opposed directives by the Obama administration that mandate Catholic institutions such as schools and hospitals provide their employees with health care coverage that includes contraceptives, abortions, and sterilizations. Where are you in your negotiations with the administration on this issue?
Abp. Kurtz: First off, in the larger context, the U.S. bishops remain firmly united in their opposition to the HHS [Health and Human Services] mandate. At the conclusion of our General Assembly in Baltimore on November 13, the USCCB issued a Special Message that was passed by a unanimous vote. It says, in part, “Pope Francis has reminded us that ‘In the context of society, there is only one thing which the Church quite clearly demands: the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide.’”
This is an excellent statement by Pope Francis. Our belief, and the belief of most people, is that when you look back in history, people’s faith doesn’t detract from public life. Instead, it enriches and motivates us to serve others. This is certainly true in providing health care. The Church has been a major provider itself, and an advocate of providing access to health care for all. However, when we do so, we do so in a manner consistent with our Catholic principles. So, the HHS mandate continues to be burdensome to us, and we will continue to oppose it.
I was pleased to see that a federal judge just granted an injunction to the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Diocese of Erie saying that they do not have to provide types of health insurance coverage which violate their consciences. We hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will understand and agree. If the decision goes against us, we will still remain united in our opposition to the HHS mandate, and look for other avenues to pursue that enable us to remain true to what we believe. We will never do something we believe to be immoral.
CWR: Since we last talked in 2011, nine states have legalized same-sex marriage, including three by a vote of the electorate (Maine, Maryland, and Washington). Does the trend seem to be going against those who believe in traditional marriage, and what is the best way Catholics can promote traditional marriage?
Abp. Kurtz: To reiterate our position, we believe marriage is the union of a man and a woman, in permanence, for the sake of their children. That is the primary reason why the state should be involved in marriage in the first place, for the good of the children.
Pope Francis has said that marriage and family are the engine of history and of the world. He has, in fact, called an extraordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 which will reflect on Church teachings on marriage and the family, how they are received and how they can best be communicated to the world. In his encyclical Lumen Fidei, the Holy Father lays out a great vision for what marriage between a man and a woman should be.
Public opinion in support of the Church’s view of marriage has been weakening. This can be a source of discouragement for us, but I think instead we should view it as an opportunity to better explain and defend our position. We have a lot of work ahead of us. And we need Catholic married couples who set examples for us by living out their marriages in faithful love.
CWR: Will the USCCB be issuing a statement on pornography, and if so, what do you think ought to be included in that statement?
Abp. Kurtz: We’re in the very early stages of the creation of such a statement. It would involve maybe two years of observation, discussion, and drafting of the document.
Widespread pornography use, I believe, is a sign that we live in a culture prone to addiction. We need to call people away from addiction into the fullness of life. Pornography turns us inward to ourselves, while our faith calls us to go outside of ourselves.
People involved with it need to understand that addiction is a pattern that is destructive, and that they need spiritual help to turn to virtue. I like Bishop Sheen’s counsel when it comes to vice: it is easier to crowd evil out than to drive it out. We need to fill our lives with positive recreation.
CWR: You’ve met with Pope Francis. What was he like?
Abp. Kurtz: I had the opportunity to speak with him for 35 minutes. He was gracious, engaging, humble, conversational, and holy. He’s a person of obvious strength and integrity, and determined to respond to God’s call to be a saint.
CWR: Some Catholics have been concerned about some of Pope Francis’ comments. What reassurances would you offer to them?
Abp. Kurtz: I’d encourage them to reflect on the words of the Holy Father himself, that he is a loyal son of the Church, and that he takes seriously his responsibility to pass on the teachings of Christ. He believes he must do this in a new way, one that gets the attention of the people.
I recently spoke on evangelization at the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine in Mexico City. One topic that came up was that what is crucial is not what is proclaimed, but what is heard. I think Pope Francis gets that. Thirty years ago Blessed John Paul II—soon to be St. John Paul—said something similar. When he described the New Evangelization, he said we must preach our faith with a new ardor, with new methods and new expressions.
Pope Francis has also described himself as a sinner, filled with gratitude and contrition. He is giving himself 100 percent to Christ and his people.
CWR: How would you assess the health of the American Church in regard to numbers of vocations, Mass attendance, children receiving a Catholic education, Catholic marriages, the influence of the Church on public policy, and other traditional barometers?
Abp. Kurtz: We live in a culture where many people are distant or alienated from faith. Some describe themselves as spiritual, but not tied to a religion. Many people are indifferent to religion, and are materialistic.
In 2008, the bishops contracted a CARA [Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate] study to take a scientific look at American Catholics and their faith. Some of the results were sad, others encouraging. Sadly, we learned that only 23 percent of Catholics go to Mass on Sundays. On a positive note, however, 77 percent said they were proud to be Catholic.
I think there are some positive signs of an awakening in the hearts of American Catholics. In Louisville, we’ve had an increase in vocations to the priesthood. We went from having three seminarians to 18. We ordain about three priests per year, and most are men who grew up locally. I believe more young men and women are considering religious life, too.
I’m encouraged when I see faith reflected in our young people. I’m about to participate in the 2013 National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis, which draws nearly 25,000. Six hundred will be from our Archdiocese of Louisville. I love to see their enthusiasm.
I’ve also been impressed with our Archdiocese of Louisville Catholic Men’s Conference, which drew 650 men seeking to become closer to Christ.
I’m pleased with these and many other evangelization efforts seeking to transform our country. When it comes to evangelization, there’s a simple formula I learned in Cursillo that stuck with me: make a friend, be a friend, and bring a friend to Christ.
CWR: You’ve been known for your support of the rights of the unborn. Tell us about your involvement with the promulgation last Mother’s Day of the Rite for Blessing of the Child in the Womb.
Abp. Kurtz: A priest in Knoxville, in eastern Tennessee—I was previously bishop of Knoxville—asked me if such a rite existed. We have rites for the child once he’s born, before baptism, and for a pregnant woman, so I assumed there must be one for the child in the womb. To my surprise, I discovered there was not.
I brought it to the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and they were very supportive about creating such a rite. It went to the Committee on Divine Worship, and the rite was created and approved unanimously by the bishops. It was approved by Rome, and was promulgated in 2012.
I see it as one way we can defend the child in the womb. The blessing is also about lifting up and promoting that gift of a child. It is especially valuable if the family is distant from the faith.
CWR: What do you hope to accomplish as USCCB president?
Abp. Kurtz: I want to serve the bishops, who will, in turn, serve the faithful in their dioceses. I also want to promote unity among those who serve Christ. However, I recognize that the conference has a limited role. As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has pointed out, there is no archbishop of the United States. The USCCB is called to serve, and many people, including the Holy Father, have thanked us for our work.
CWR: Do you believe the USCCB has a significant influence in the United States?
Abp. Kurtz: I’ll leave that for others to judge. I hope what we do, we do in humility, listening to others and seeking the common good. We want to make our contribution in sharing that rich tradition that is our faith, which has so much to offer this country and the world.