Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska at the 2014 Catholic Medical Association's annual educational conference in Orlando, Fla. (CNS photo/Jacque Brund)
Bishop James Conley is the ninth bishop of the
Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. The Midwestern diocese is home to 96,000
Catholics who attend 134 parishes and missions.
The bishop grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, a
suburb of Kansas City. His father was a building-materials salesman and his
mother a housewife; he has one adopted sister. The family was nominally
Presbyterian and attended church occasionally.
the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, Conley
studied the “Great Books”favorites included the Confessions of St. Augustine
and the writings of Blessed John Henry Newmanand converted to Catholicism at
age 20. He said his father was “not too happy” about his conversionhe told him
he’d given up the freedom of thinking for himself.
In 1977, Conley graduated from the University of
Kansas. Initially planning to be a farmer, Conley took part in Pope John Paul
II’s 1979 pastoral visit to Des Moines, Iowa, and responded to the pontiff’s
plea that young men consider the priesthood. He entered the seminary for the
Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, and was ordained a priest in 1985.
In 1991, Conley’s
father and mother both converted to Catholicism, and Father Conley received them into the Church.
Beginning in 1996, Conley served in the
Congregation for Bishops in the Roman Curia, returning to Wichita a decade later.
He was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Denver in 2008, and
became bishop of Lincoln in 2012, succeeding Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz.
He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: The Diocese of
Lincoln does well for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. What is
the secret to your success?
Bishop James Conley: We have
43 seminarians this year, including 10 new ones. We go back and forth with the
Diocese of Wichita as having the highest number of priests-per-lay-Catholics in
the country. Seven out of 10 of our priests are graduates of our high schools.
The secret of a
successful vocations program, I believe, begins with prayer. Vocations come
from God. We have two cloistered communities of religious women in our diocese,
our Carmelite Sisters and our Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, whom we call “pink
sisters” because of the color of their habits. [Both communities] pray for
Also key to
vocations is fidelity to Church teaching. That is one hallmark of the Diocese
of Lincoln. For the past 40-plus years, Lincoln has had stellar episcopal leadership,
and is unapologetic in its embrace of the Faith. Having the security of knowing
that the Diocese of Lincoln is 100 percent faithful to Church teaching on faith
and morals is very appealing to many young men considering the priesthood.
We also have an
active Newman Center at the University of Nebraska. About 100 of our 139 active
priests have had some affiliation with the Newman Center, and it helped
positively to influence their decision to enter the seminary. In fact, our
vocations director is pastor of the University of Nebraska’s Newman Center and we
run our vocations office from there.
Also, in 1999,
we had a great blessing in our diocese when Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz opened St.
Gregory the Great Seminary, a four-year Catholic college seminary, at a time
when many such colleges were closing. It’s been a great blessing for us, and
allows us to do our own formation of men discerning the priesthood. That is
important because we live in a time when more and more men are coming from
broken families. We are able to address a lot of “woundedness” early in their
CWR: Is it true that
Lincoln does not have a permanent diaconate program?
Bishop Conley: Yes. We
recruit men to serve as acolytes or lectors, but we do not have a permanent
diaconate program. I’m open to having such a program in the future, but our diocese
has not yet seen a need for it.
CWR: Why is that?
Bishop Conley: For the
size of our Catholic population we have many priests who are active in every
aspect of parish life. There hasn’t been a great need for deacons or an
interest in the diaconate.
CWR: What led you to
Bishop Conley: When I
graduated from college, I had a degree in English literature. But I was not
certain what I wanted to do. I traveled to Europe, and ended up at a
Benedictine monastery in France, Our Lady of Fontgombault. It is a cloistered
monastery, and it drew many Americans in the 1970s. Some entered and became
Some of these
monks came to the United States to found Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in
Oklahoma, which celebrates Mass in the Extraordinary Form. It began with 13
monks in 1999, and today has nearly 50.
CWR: One of the
things that has led to a decline in the number of Catholic children attending
Catholic schools is the cost. In Lincoln, a parent can send his child to a
Catholic school for a modest fee. How can you make this possible?
Bishop Conley: It’s
not easy, but it is simply a reflection of the faith of the people. Our
parishes have a tremendous investment in their parish schools, subsidizing them
through stewardship. It allows us to charge a small annual tuition: an average
of $640 for K-8 and $1,400 for high school. The cost per pupil is $5,200
annually, so the rest has to be made up through a parish investment. The parish
school belongs to the whole parish.
Both of my
predecessors, Bishops Flavin [1967-92] and Bruskewitz [1992-2012], were convinced
that our tuition had to remain affordable. They didn’t want our Catholic
schools to become elitist, serving only the wealthy.
I also give
great credit to our priests, who are really invested in Catholic education. All
of our religious classes are taught by priests and religious sisters; if you’re
ordained five years or fewer you can expect to teach full-time. And, all of our
schools are administrated by priests.
CWR: Your brother
bishop, Charles Chaput, recently penned a column stating he was unhappy with
both candidates for the presidency. What qualities do you think are important
in a candidate for public office?
Bishop Conley: Our
on faithful citizenship outlines some of the qualities to look for in a
candidate. For me, personally, I first consider the life issues. I was the
director of the Respect Life Office in Wichita for eight years. Human life is
as fundamental as you can get.
the beginning of life, which brings up the abortion issue, and the end of life,
which brings up euthanasia/assisted suicide. And everything that occurs in
between. I want to support candidates who uphold the sanctity of life, despite
its stage, and without consideration of disabilities, dependency, or lack of
If we don’t get
the life issue right, what else is there? If you’re not alive, no other rights
pertain. It is fundamental, and we have an obligation to respect those rights.
CWR: What other
issues are important?
Bishop Conley: Close in
importance to the life issue is the family. Life comes out of the family, and a
candidate’s understanding of marriage and human sexuality is crucial.
I give higher and higher priority to is religious freedom. This freedom is part
of our Bill of Rights; our freedom to live our faith with respect to our
conscience and all that follows from that. This just doesn’t mean a right to
worship in our churches, but to live our faith publicly without government
intrusion. It is what our country was built on. People came here looking for a
free land where they could worship God and follow their consciences, without
king or government interfering.
CWR: You have prayed
in front of abortion clinics, and have even gone to jail with Operation Rescue.
How do you think it is going on the life issue?
Bishop Conley: I
graduated high school in 1973, the year the Roe
v. Wade decision was announced. I recall seeing a newspaper headline that
said, “Supreme Court Puts an End to the Abortion Debate.” What a naïve headline
that was! Here we are, more than 40 years later, and it is still a hotly
Because of modern science, the pro-life movement
and American society in general understand in a clearer way the developing life
in the womb. The ultrasound gives us a window into the womb that we never had
before, and we can understand in a better way when life begins. Many don’t
accept this, but the science is on our side.
If we can see the sacredness of life in the
womb, I hope more people will say: what are we doing? How did we get to a point
where we destroy more than a million unborn lives a year?
CWR: For some,
abortion is the next step when artificial contraception fails. You’ve argued
that artificial contraception is harmful to both marriage and society.
Bishop Conley: I wrote
a pastoral letter on contraception when I first arrived in Lincoln, in honor of
Bishop Flavin, who wrote one in 1991. It’s integral to the life issue. Contraception
is an intrinsic evil, and it comes between God and the conceiving of human
life. If we don’t get that issue right, we won’t get abortion right. Abortion
is the backup for failed contraception.
The marital act
is a mutual act of self-giving. We can’t tamper with it; it is sacred ground. That’s
a fundamental truth.
CWR: A century ago,
non-Catholic Christians agreed that contraception was evil.
Bishop Conley: Yes,
until the 1930 Lambeth conference, everyone was with us.
experiencing today, Pope Paul VI predicted in his prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae. He said if contraception was widely accepted, it would lead
to widespread divorce, abuse of women, pornography, and state-controlled
population growth. It predicts demographic winters, and the aging of cultures. He
wrote these things in 1968; they’re all happening now.
CWR: The joke goes…in
1961, President John F. Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon. In 2016,
President Barack Obama pledged to put a man in the girl’s bathroom. You’ve
written on this topic; what is so wrong-headed in the so-called “gender
identity” debate occurring today?
Bishop Conley: It
starts with the fundamental understanding of the way we were created. There is
a small percentage of people who experience gender dysphoria. I pray for these
people. But it is a disorder, and needs to be cared for in a conscientious way.
But we cannot accept or condone the behavior of those who feel they are not the
gender they should be. It is irresponsible; we need to care for them and
accompany them. Studies have shown that 80 percent of people who experience
gender dysphoria, if left untreated, will return to the gender of their
gender reassignment surgery, which sterilizes a person, does not help him. It
has become a political issue, when it is really psychological.
CWR: How do you
think this and related social issues will affect the Church?
Bishop Conley: I think
absolutely the government will try to force institutions like the Catholic
Church to accept new definitions of marriage and gender. Whether it will lead
to active persecution, I don’t know.
But I have no
doubt the government will pressure us to change, even though we never will. We
can’t. We can’t change our understanding of marriage and gender; we can’t
change Church teaching. We will have to stand strong, and they’ll come after
considered a great virtue in our culture, unless you hold a politically
incorrect position. Then you will experience absolute intolerance. The
opposition will not tolerate a lack of compliance. We have to be prepared to
suffer. But, it’s not the first time the Church has suffered persecution. Look
at the martyrs in the early Church in Rome or in 16th- and 17th-century England
under Queen Elizabeth. Jesus warned us about this.
I expect it will
affect our social service agencies first. The less we can be dependent on
government, the better. In our Catholic social services in Lincoln, we have a
$6 million budget, 15 percent of which used to come from government sources. It’s
down to 7 percent now, and our goal is to completely eliminate any government
funding. While there’s been a great history of partnership with the American
government in charities, if it means compromising our fundamental beliefs, we
can’t take the money.
CWR: What is a basic
program of spirituality you recommend to your people?
Bishop Conley: We have
a rich tapestry of Catholic spirituality that is beautifully diverse. Whether
you prefer Ignatian spirituality or Carmelite spirituality or Benedictine
spirituality, there’s something for everyone.
But I would say
important components are the sacraments, particularly the Holy Eucharist. I’m a
big proponent of Eucharist adoration, and it should be at the heart of
everyone’s spirituality. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is important, as
is Sacred Scripture.
CWR: Who are some
Catholics you particularly admire?
Bishop Conley: I certainly
admire my two predecessors, Bishops Flavin and Bruskewitz. Archbishop Charles
Chaput has always been a hero of mine. When I first heard about him, I began
reading his writings. He encapsulates a true missionary disciple of Jesus. He
has the heart of the Good Shepherd, and is fearless, compassionate, and
absolutely faithful to Christ and His Church. He’s also a great guy.
been impressed with Blessed John Henry Newman. In fact, I took his motto as my
own: Cor Ad Cor LoquiturHeart speaks to heart.
I admire Pope
John Paul II, and can trace my vocation to the priesthood to him.
the canonization of Mother Teresa; she’s always been one of my favorite
Catholics. I remember meeting her for the first time when my parents were becoming
Catholic. I told her that and she immediately sat down and wrote a letter to
them. She welcomed them to the Catholic Church, and thanked them for the gift
of their son for the priesthood. She said to pray that he become a holy priest.
My parents framed that letter.
When I was in
Rome, it was my privilege to celebrate mass for the Missionaries of Charities
[the order Mother Teresa founded] on Fridays, and I also had the chance to
travel with them. Mother Teresa has been a huge influence on me.
CWR: Do you have any
big news in Lincoln?
Bishop Conley: We’ve
inaugurated the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at the
University of Nebraska’s Newman Center. It’s a program that studies the Great
Books and the humanities and also has a lecture series. We had our pilot course
earlier this year with more courses planned for the fall.
We also built a
new church in the middle of the campus; it’s a neo-Gothic, traditional church
that has the largest stained glass window installed in a Catholic Church in the
past 100 years. It is a beautiful monument of faith, and is right in the middle
of the campus.
of Catholics attend college at secular universities, which tells me I need to
focus my resources there.