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Next Week's USCCB Mtg & the Future of "Faithful Citizenship"

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its spring meeting next week in New Orleans. Sometimes, the spring meeting carries a light work load, with an emphasis more on the bishops getting together for a sort of retreat. But, this year, there are some real agenda items facing the bishops.

I am glad they are meeting in New Orleans, the least Calvinistic city in the United States. I remember attending Mardi Gras once and I asked my host what was the purpose of collecting beads? Was there a prize for whoever collected the most beads? He looked at me like I had three heads. “We collect the beads because it’s fun,” he explained. And so it was. In a culture of strivers and achievers, where the American Dream has been denominated into 2.3 cars and a house in the suburbs, in which everything that I dislike can, more or less, be traced to the Calvinism that has been the default understanding of religion in American public life, meeting in New Orleans seems like an act of providence.

Two agenda items are of special concern to those of us who are enthusiastic about Pope Francis’ continued, repeated ability to hold up the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. The bishops will decide how they want to proceed with their quadrennial text on the responsibilities of Catholic voters, known as “Faithful Citizenship.” And they will decide whether or not to continue the ad hoc committee on religious liberty. I will deal with this latter issue tomorrow and, today, focus on the future of Faithful Citizenship. 

This will be the first time the USCCB has re-drafted Faithful Citizenship since John Carr left the conference. That alone has had many social justice advocates in the Church worried because, in the past, it was always the two committees whose work Carr directed that drove the drafting of the text, the committee on domestic policy and the committee on international policy. Carr’s replacement, Jonathon Reyes, has proven himself both very able and very committed to promoting social justice as a constituitive part of preaching the Gospel. But, it is unfair to compare Reyes’ throw weight after eighteen months on the job to the throw weight Carr brought to the task after 25 years.

Still, even I was surprised to learn that the re-drafting of the document was pulled from the two committees that have traditionally handled it, with wide consultation with the other offices in the USCCB, and handed over to a “working group” led by the fifth floor, where the lead administrative offices are located, and answering to Houston’s Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who is now the vice president of the conference. “The fix is in,” a former staffer told me. Repeated requests for an interview with a staffer working on the re-draft were not met.

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The concerns about the fifth floor are many. No one will confirm, but many will whisper, that there really has not been a budget at the conference for several years, so all the staffers trying to allocate resources have the sense that they are budgeting with Monopoly money. The highly confrontational approach to the Obama administration has been led by the fifth floor, and they do not have a lot to show for that approach yet. And, finally, in the past few years, the conference leadership has been unable to stem the falling morale within the conference, as tried and tested key staffers depart, and the sense of camaraderie that once pervaded the offices on 4th Street gives way to an embittered, squabbling, dysfunctional operation. Fifteen years ago, when I first started covering the conference, it was clear that while there were differences of opinion among the staffers on many issues, they all deeply respected each other and expressed the conviction that they were all on the same team. Now, one hears words like “sinister” to describe colleagues and, especially, superiors. I do not know if these larger problems will be confronted, still less effectively addressed, this side of the eschaton, but I am deeply worried that the fifth floor seems to be driving the cart on the re-draft of Faithful Citizenship. And, I am perplexed that Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who chairs the domestic policy committee, and Bishop Richard Pates, who chairs the international committee, were unable to protect their turf, a turf that has already been eroded by the appointment of ad hoc committees for religious liberty and the defense of marriage. I cannot think of any other committee which has suffered a stripping away of responsibilities. (More on the problems of ad hoc committees tomorrow.)

Four years ago, the decision was made to leave the underlying text of Faithful Citizenship as is, and draft an introductory note that addressed those concerns which had manifested themselves in the intervening years. That underlying text remains a strong one. Of one wanted to strengthen the part about poverty, it would be tough to do because the section on poverty is strong. The same could be said for the section on abortion and life issues. The text is balanced, non-partisan, and rooted in the Church’s social doctrine. The document’s most counter-cultural element, at a time when many people are deeply suspicious of government, is its strong endorsement of the moral potential, and moral necessity, for government to serve the common good. Evidently, that approach – keeping the text, and drafting an introductory note – was abandoned this time. A new text, with significant edits from the previous one, is anticipated.

What should those changes look like? Let me state this very clearly at the beginning: If the new document sounds like the most important thing to happen in the last four years was the HHS mandate or the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and not the election of Pope Francis, and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, the conference will be a laughing stock. Indeed, since the last time the text was re-drafted, we also have Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, to integrate into any re-draft. Both texts celebrate the Church’s social doctrine and provide an undeniable counter-point to the libertarian-inflected politics of the U.S. at this moment in our nation’s history. Both texts contain much to challenge all political actors in the U.S.

Evangelii gaudium provides a very useful context for evaluating all the issues typically addressed by Faithful Citizenship. Pope Francis calls for a culture of encounter in which the joy of the Gospel shines forth to all, and he forcefully denounces the opposite of such a culture, a culture of exclusion. And, he does not mince words. Our modern, spread-eagle, neo-liberal capitalist system is condemned by Pope Francis precisely because it excludes so many and Pope Francis does not exactly soft peddle his condemnation: “This economy kills.” I would like to see our friends on the fifth floor of the USCCB cite that quote in their re-draft.

The call for a culture of inclusion touches on political as well as economic and social realities. Many states have sought to restrict the franchise in recent years, and the USCCB has said very little about this. It should say more. The USCCB has said a lot the HHS mandate but very little about those states which have declined to expand Medicaid in their states, excluding millions of fellow citizens of access to basic health care: Any re-draft should forcefully call on all states to increase access to Medicaid or by an equivalent state-level program. As well, the USCCB should forcefully stand by the integrity of our Catholic institutions, especially our social service providers, which do so much good and are sometimes constrained by government rules that seek to operate in ways that are not consonant with our values and our teaching. This applies not only to the HHS mandate but to the issuance of government contracts to Church efforts to assist the victims of human trafficking and to help children in need of adoption. The political desires of NARAL should not exclude the Church’s ministries from doing work that is, at the same time, beneficial to society and therefore worthy of government funding, and the Lord’s work, and therefore work that we must undertake in light of our many beliefs about God’s guidance.

Last year, Bishop Robert McElroy, the auxiliary bishop of San Francisco and widely seen as a rising star in the U.S. hierarchy, wrote an article in America magazine. The entire article should guide the bishops as they deliberate the kinds of changes they wish to make in Faithful Citizenship, especially his explanation of the limited usefulness of the concept of “instrinsic evil” when discussing public policy. Indeed, the USCCB might scrap the “working group” and simply ask +McElory to do a draft. Here is +McElroy’s conclusion:

The teachings of Pope Francis on “a church for the poor” not only speak to the centrality of addressing poverty as an imperative for Catholics in the public order, but also call us to look anew at the nature of the common good in society and how we seek to achieve it. We are called to see the issues of abortion and poverty, marriage and immigrant rights, euthanasia and war, religious liberty and restorative justice, not as competing alternatives often set within a partisan framework, but as a complementary continuum of life and dignity. We are called to create a Catholic political conversation that proclaims the greatest problems of our day can only be solved with a vision rooted in the transcendent dignity of the human person. For in the end, the very purpose of Catholic political conversations is to help our nation see human suffering and human striving not through the lens of politics but as God sees them.

I would even go further. There is a methodological aspect of Pope Francis’ way of speaking and writing about issues of political significance – and indeed, of all issues. He reminds us Catholics that the Gospel should bring joy. The “Francis effect” is, I believe, attributable not only to his remarkable personality but because the people of God are so hungry for joy. Too often, Catholics in the public square, including some of our bishops, sound like scolds and sourpusses, as Pope Francis has said. Any re-draft of Faithful Citizenship that repeats the now thoroughly discredited gloom-and-doom style that has stalked Catholic public discourse should be avoided. Whatever else the bishops decide, they need to draft a text that communicates the joy of the Gospel.

Note to Readers: Again, today, this will be my only posting as I have a wraparound meeting relating to yesterday’s conference on libertarianism. I will be back tomorrow with links. 

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