At their annual fall meeting in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops voted to issue a new introductory note and make limited revisions to their quadrennial statement on political responsibility.
But while the vote was overwhelmingly in favor, it was not without controversy.
The 2007 voting guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” was among the subjects discussed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this past week.
Previously, the bishops had directed a working committee to make limited revisions to the document in order to reflect the magisterium of both the latter part of Pope Benedict’s pontificate and of Pope Francis’ whole pontificate. The changes would be limited and the original message of the 2007 document would be retained, however.
Some bishops voiced objections to this plan at the November meeting in Baltimore, saying that an entirely new document was needed to adequately address present-day challenges and accurately reflect Pope Francis’ teaching.
Other bishops disagreed, suggesting that the revisions to the text sufficiently address the issues that Pope Francis has called into focus in recent years. They cautioned against presenting the teachings of Pope Francis as opposed to that of previous Popes, saying instead that Church teaching is a continuity.
Ultimately, the bishops decided overwhelmingly to move forward with the 2007 document. The vote was 217-16 with 2 abstentions in favor of a new introductory note, and 210-21 with 5 abstentions for a limited revision to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”
In the discussions before the vote, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson acknowledged the “tremendous amount of work” put into revising the document, but said, “I think it was a mistake, really, to try to revise a document from 2007 when so much has happened since then.”
“I think the tone and the content needs to be looked at much more carefully if it’s to be teaching document,” he added.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego agreed, saying that the committee did good work in its revisions but “that original mandate, in retrospect, was a serious error” because it kept the original “structure” and “priorities” outlined in the original document.
“The problem is that we are not living in 2007,” he continued, claiming that “Pope Francis, in certain aspects of the social doctrine of the Church, radically transformed the prioritization of Catholic social teaching and its elements. Not the truth of them, not the substance of them, but the prioritization has radically transformed that in articulating the claims that fall upon the citizen as believer and disciple of Jesus Christ.”
“This document does not do that,” he said, calling it “gravely hobbled.”
He added that Pope Francis has elevated the importance of global poverty and care for the environment in public policy to that of life issues like abortion and euthanasia.
“Specifically, I believe that the Pope is telling us that alongside the issues of abortion and euthanasia, which are central aspects of our commitment to transform the world, poverty and the degradation of the earth are also central,” he continued. However, the voting guide “does not put those there.”
Other bishops, however, said that the current papacy must not be viewed as antithetical to those that came before it.
“Ours is a hermeneutic of continuity,” stressed Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston, vice president of the bishops’ conference.
“We think we’ve also read him [Pope Francis] correctly, and we also believe that the way we have organized this – admittedly in a structure that pre-existed, but with real attentiveness to the pastoral ministry and the magisterium of Pope Francis – that we have brought in those considerations.”
“I think we have brought to light an important dimension of what Pope Francis and the later ministry of Pope Benedict is,” he added.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. agreed that “we do have continuity of teaching” and of “Catholic social teaching.”
He said that given the “need for some document,” and the fact that that the bishops “attempted to introduce” new material, “I think we have a good working document.” The perfect must not be made the enemy of the good, he added.
Other bishops also showed their support for the document. “‘Faithful Citizenship’ is fundamentally a good document” that was adopted with “joy” and “consensus,” said Bishop Alexander Sample of Portland.
“I think it’s a good approach of laying out basic principles, our basic Catholic moral principles, and out Catholic social teaching, and then draw attention to issues that are pertinent to our day,” he said. “And I think there is a hierarchy of moral values that are truly present.”
He acknowledged that “there certainly is no doubt” Pope Francis “has brought renewed attention” to “certain aspects” of Catholic social teaching, but added “that social teaching has not fundamentally changed” and there has been no “revolution” in priorities of Church teaching.
“Pope Francis certainly has a dynamic and new insight that is given to us, a new challenge,” noted Bishop Leonard Blair of Hartford. “But whenever in the media or elsewhere an attempt is made to invoke Pope Francis to downplay or somehow repudiate the totality of the Church’s witness of hard teachings, I think we have to be careful not to be associated with that or to unwittingly be caught up in it.”
There is no radical break with the priorities of Church teaching in Pope Francis’ pontificate, he continued.
“I’m a little concerned,” he said, “there is a kind of rhetoric of regime change that’s going on in the Church.” He added that “we have to be very, very wary about that.”
As an example, he gave Pope Francis’ announcement of the Jubilee Year of Mercy that begins on Dec. 8.
“He [Pope Francis] said very clearly that the tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness as if it were not really realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails,” he said. “But immediately after, the Holy Father talks about granting all priests the ability to absolve this serious sin.”
“In other words, it’s upholding the teaching, not minimizing it, but at the same time exercising mercy. I think this is really the heart of Pope Francis’ message.”
The document “Faithful Citizenship” is ultimately “not about pastoral care of sinners,” but rather “about our witness that the laws of government are meant to uphold what is right and true and just in the face of today’s very serious moral challenges.”
Formation of conscience was a very important motivation behind issuing the document back in 2007, noted Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who also pointed to the articulation of the fundamental principles of Church teaching in the document.
“I don’t think that basis has changed,” he said.
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