US Bishops Focus on Family, Religious Freedom at Spring Meeting

Bishops present unified front on current challenges to faith, freedom, and family.

The family, marriage, religious freedom, and evangelization were linked in the discussions and action items of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their Spring General Assembly, held in New Orleans June 10-13. 

Only three public sessions on the first two days were open to the press, and the bishops’ agenda was packed. A Mass was celebrated at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica on Wednesday afternoon.  The bishops also met in regional meetings both days and in executive session on Thursday afternoon and Friday.

On June 10, the bishops heard a report from the National Advisory Council, a group of lay people from all the regions in the US Church who recommend issues for the conference’s attention. They heard from Dr. Francesco Cesareo, the chairman of the National Review Board, which advises and collaborates with the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People on policies and practices, and from Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, who presented an update on activities of Catholic Relief Services, notably the CRS response to the deadly typhoon in the Philippines.

Hartford Archbishop Leonard Blair presented an update on the activity of the Subcommittee on the Catechism. The subcommittee has the task of reviewing catechetical texts, voluntarily submitted by publishers, to determine their conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and to list any changes to the texts that may be required. Archbishop Blair stressed that the declaration of conformity of a catechetical text does not guarantee a favorable endorsement of the text, and that the overall quality of the text and its effectiveness is beyond the scope of the subcommittee’s review.  Furthermore, the process in place cannot review all catechetical resources because there are too many. Another challenge is the many digital resources are also impossible to review, at present. At present the conformity review only applies to printed texts or unalterable digital texts. Despite the challenges, he said that since 1996 there has been “significant improvement” in the production of catechetical texts.

Marriage—a Gospel witness

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, updated the bishops on the catechetical work of the subcommittee, including videos and the website Marriage: Unique for a Reason.

He outlined the current legal landscape, and called attention to the serious legal challenges that have arisen since the June 2013 ruling of the Supreme Court that a federal definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman (in the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA) is unconstitutional, leaving the definition of marriage up to the states. Archbishop Cordileone said that the bishops are supporting the ability of states to uphold marriage as a union between a man and a woman in a proposed State Marriage Defense Act, which would require the federal government to honor the state law.

Also, he said, “we have endorsed the House resolution calling for the Marriage Protection Amendment to the US Constitution,” which, the archbishop explained, “is the only remedy in law against judicial activism that may ultimately end with federal judges declaring that the Constitution required states to redefine marriage. We are at a critical point in this country when it comes to the promotion and defense of marriage in the law.”

How do we respond to these challenges? “Challenges exist to be overcome!” said Archbishop Cordileone, quoting Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (109). So we must “share this beauty [of the family] with the world,” the archbishop said.

“We keep in mind that our culture has been wounded by the erosion of an authentic vision of love, sexuality, and marriage over several decades,” he said, and that this challenge to the truth requires our response. Recalling Pope Francis, the archbishop said, “the Church seeks not to impose the truth, but to appeal to freedom and our witness should be marked by joy, encouragement, and liveliness.” The good of society is served by prayer, he pointed out. 

Archbishop Cordileone concluded by mentioning both the Extraordinary and Ordinary Synods on the Family, the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015, and the March for Marriage, to be held June 19 in Washington, DC. He also mentioned the positive response throughout the country to the USCCB’s “Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty” initiative.

Synod on the Family

USCCB president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville briefly reported on preparations for the Extraordinary Synod on the “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization,” to be held at the Vatican October 5-19, 2014. Next year, the Ordinary Synod of Bishops will have the same theme.

Archbishop Kurtz summarized responses to the consultation that had been sent to bishops’ conferences around the world.  “We know there is a need for greater, effective teaching on key tenets of the faith, such as the indissolubility of marriage, the importance of sexual difference for marriage, the natural law, and the married couple’s call to be open to life,” the archbishop noted.

Archbishop Kurtz introduced Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, a member of the permanent governing council of the synod, who reviewed for the bishops the council’s preparatory activities so far.

Cardinal Wuerl said that there have been six meetings of the synod council, and that Pope Francis has attended all of them. This extraordinary synod will last only two weeks instead of three, as in the past. The pope intends an intense focus on family issues at both the extraordinary and ordinary synods. The preparatory document for the synod, the Instrumentum Laboris, is near completion, and it should be translated into major languages and distributed to the bishops’ conferences very soon, Cardinal Wuerl reported.

World Meeting of Families 2015

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia reported on progress in planning the World Meeting of Families, to take place September 22-27, 2015, shortly before the Ordinary Synod on the Family.

“The World Meeting of Families 2015 comes at a time when the Church in the United States urgently needs an opportunity for joy and renewal,” Archbishop Chaput said. “It’s also a time of great confusion about the nature of marriage and the family…. 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 good will. That is the heart of our theme: ‘Love is our mission; the family fully alive.’” The archbishop mentioned that Pope Francis has been invited to attend, and he introduced Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, who has overall responsibility for the World Meeting of Families.

“We must globalize family love,” Archbishop Paglia urged in his message to the bishops, so that “all in the world [will] see in marriage, and in the family it produces, the perfection of our humanity and of society.”

Concerning the Philadelphia meeting, Archbishop Paglia stressed, “I also want our meeting to include Eastern Catholic and Orthodox families, and all communities of Christians—evangelical, Protestant, and unaffiliated—as well as families from the world’s other religions: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and nonreligious families of good will. My brother bishops, please make that happen!”

Archbishop Paglia’s message continued:

The moment, my brothers, is ripe, not because the joy of the Gospel comes easy, but because the Gospel is always the only answer to the crying need, all over the world, for love.

The Gospel of Jesus, and of the Family, must overcome the loneliness that excludes real love and that is suffocating humanity today. Please believe, and preach to your flocks, that it is most surely in the family that we see that our destiny is not loneliness but rather love, mutually sustaining and fruitful — growth, hopeful and wise, and joy, earthly and eternal.

My hope for Philadelphia 2015 is not only that the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia will ring out a new spring for families, but also that in nearby New York the United Nations will hear that sound and realize that lasting peace will be found only if nations believe that all peoples of the world truly are one human family.

On religious liberty and faithful citizenship

Three agenda items required the bishops’ vote; all of these quickly passed by unanimous voice vote at the Wednesday afternoon session:

1) Renewal for another five years of the conference’s directory for formation for the diaconate, proposed by Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations;

2) Continuation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, headed by Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, for another three years;

3) Updating the bishops’ Faithful Citizenship document, which highlights issues that involve core Church teachings that Catholics are obliged to uphold in political elections.

In his explanation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, Archbishop Lori commented on the origins of the committee, appointed in 2011 by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, then-president of the USCCB, in response to the unanticipated promotion by the US government of civil laws that would force Catholics to violate conscience or face large penalties. A more formal structure was needed to defend religious liberty, Archbishop Lori noted, adding that the renewal of the committee is “at least as great as when it was started.” Misunderstanding of the meaning of religious freedom as outlined 50 years ago in the Vatican Council’s document Dignitatis Humanae has continued and intensified.  (The archbishop noted that the Supreme Court’s review of the Hobby Lobby case would occur during the upcoming Fortnight for Freedom.)

After the bishops’ unanimous voice vote to continue the religious freedom committee for another three years, Archbishop Lori suggested that the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae provides an excellent opportunity for more intense catechesis and formation on religious freedom.

Closely related to the religious freedom issue, and also unanimously approved by the bishops, was the proposal to revise and update the Faithful Citizenship document.

Originally published in 2007 before the 2008 presidential election, the document outlines fundamental moral teachings that must be observed by Catholic voters. Updating is needed to include in the document recent changes and the later teachings of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston is the vice-president of the USCCB and heads the working group of bishops that will produce the revised version. He said that the new Faithful Citizenship document will be presented for approval of the bishops at their November meeting, with the intention of publication in 2015 in order to be useful for the 2016 election.

At the press conference following the bishops’ meeting, a reporter asked Cardinal DiNardo if the new version of Faithful Citizenship would downplay controversial life issues like abortion and contraception, and highlight poverty, as Pope Francis has stressed.

“We want to make sure that we speak very insistently about the role of poverty, about the economy,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “But they would not take away from our very significant commitment to human personal life. This is non-negotiable,” he said emphatically.

Addresses reflect bishops’ unity

Two addresses on Thursday morning emphasized the unity of the bishops’ focus on faith, freedom, family, and evangelization at this meeting. These topics are not only interrelated, but are, in fact, inseparable. Both addresses at the final public session of the spring meeting were presented by lay Catholics who have particular professional and academic expertise on these topics—from the perspective of both law and sociology.

The first address, “Poverty and the New Evangelization,” was by Helen Alvaré, a professor at George Mason University School of Law and a former spokesman for the USCCB’s Pro-Life Committee who recently began a political initiative, Women Speak for Themselves. She is also a nationally known author of articles on women and family issues and editor of a recent book, Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves.

In her talk, Professor Alvaré—frequently quoting both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis—addressed the necessity to “marry” the Gospel of Life with the “charity, essential to our mission, [the] bond between faith and service to the poor.” Essential to our evangelical effort is to convey effectively to people the truth and love of Jesus and that the Gospel is grace.

The second speaker was Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, scholar at the American Enterprises Institute, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, who has authored books and many articles on family life. Dr. Wilcox’s presentation, “Marriage, Separate and Unequal,” focused on the effect of different levels of education or class on economic status and family stability.

Both addresses and other conference presentations are accessible on the USCCB web page for the June meeting (“Speeches and Documents” section, in the right-hand column).

Each of the two addresses was followed by a period of discussion by the bishops, with questions and suggestions about how to promote Catholic teaching on marriage.

It was most encouraging to see the unity among the bishops on key topics of concern to Catholics, particularly in the face of today’s serious challenges to the Christian faith—and to living that faith—that people encounter in daily life. Our bishops’ focus on the way forward to overcome these challenges, in prayer and in action, is a positive sign of hope.

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About Helen Hull Hitchcock 0 Articles
Helen Hull Hitchcock is editor and publisher of The Adoremus Bulletin and of Voices, the journal of Women for Faith & Family. She and her husband, historian James Hitchcock, live in St. Louis.