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Will the bishops follow Pope Francis in New Orleans?

In November, when the U.S. bishops met for their annual meeting in Baltimore, they did not pick up on the themes that are the signature features of the papacy of Pope Francis: concern for the poor and marginalized, criticism of the capitalism, and the mercy and compassion of God. Rather, they continued to worry about gay marriage and the contraceptive mandate and voted to write a statement on pornography. (Spoiler alert: They are against it.)

It was truly embarrassing to watch the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in action in Baltimore, especially for those who remember the glory years when the bishops were prophetic voices with their letters on peace and the economy. It was as if they had missed the Francis memo.

This week, the bishops will have another chance to get on the Francis bandwagon as they meet Wednesday through Friday in New Orleans. Will they miss the bus again?

"Family issues" will again be front and center at the meeting in New Orleans. The bishops will get an update from their Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, chaired by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco. This is the committee that fights gay marriage.

They will also hear from Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who chairs the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, which is leading the fight against the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. 

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The focus on the family is inevitable because a report will be given on the upcoming extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family to be held Oct. 5-19 in Rome and another report will be given on the World Meeting of Families scheduled for Sept. 22-27, 2015, in Philadelphia.

It will be interesting to watch how much time is given to different family issues (birth control, decline in marriages, gay marriage, divorce, spousal and child abuse, Communion for divorced Catholics, gender equality, poverty, etc.). Pope Francis has raised the question of Communion for divorced Catholics. Will the bishops have the courage to discuss it in public?

Let's hope they pay attention to the responses from the laity to the Vatican questionnaire sent out in anticipation of the synod on the family. Laypeople should have input into these discussions on the family, as should sociologists who have spent decades studying American families. The last thing troubled families need is bishops quoting papal encyclicals to them.

The good news is that specially scheduled as part of this meeting is a presentation on marriage and the economy. Will the bishops finally recognize that poverty and unemployment are much greater threats to marriage than gay people getting married? Let's hope so. Poor people are less likely to get married, and families in poverty are more likely to experience stress, conflict and divorce.

Also on the agenda is a presentation on "the New Evangelization and Poverty."

There was a time when I thought that the new evangelization was the Catechism of the Catholic Church with a smile. Francis has shown what the new evangelization can be: an emphasis on God's compassion and love rather than on rules and guilt; an emphasis on solidarity with the poor rather than on self-righteous moralizing; an emphasis on service rather than navel-gazing; an emphasis on the Gospel rather than scholasticism.

That someone at the bishops' conference wants to play up the connection between evangelization and the poor is encouraging.

Finally, the bishops will get an update and vote on a proposal by the working group on the bishops' statement on political responsibility, also known as "Faithful Citizenship." A statement on political responsibility has been issued by the USCCB prior to every presidential election since 1976.

The first surprise is that this proposal is not coming from the bishops' committees on social development and international justice and peace, which were responsible for drafting the statements in the past, but from a special working group.

It is no secret that prior to the last presidential election, the bishops were divided between those who wanted to emphasize abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty (contraceptive mandate) and those who wanted the statement to cover the full range of Catholic social teaching, including emphasis on unemployment, poverty and immigration.

The bishops could not resolve this conflict by a simple majority vote because statements from the conference require a two-thirds majority. Instead, they punted and simply added a new introduction to the statement issued prior to the 2008 election.

Will the working group take sides in this conflict? Will it try to cover differences? Or will it have a plan for resolving the conflict?

Michael Sean Winters reports that "the fix is in" and the working group and the USCCB top staff are siding with the culture warriors rather than those supporting the consistent ethic of life. If that is true, then the progressive minority will again have to vote no and force the conference to reissue the same "Faithful Citizenship" document again.

With his emphasis on the poor and marginalized, there is little doubt how Pope Francis would vote in this debate -- just read Evangelii Gaudium. That the bishops are even hesitating shows that they are not yet on board with Pope Francis.

Some bishops are elated with Pope Francis, but some are disappointed with him and think he is leading the church in the wrong direction. These are not going to change directions. Many are simply confused and afraid to commit themselves. After all, how long is Francis going to be around? A few, like Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., are able to be just as enthusiastic about Francis as they were for Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. They can change directions with the confidence of skilled skippers who don't panic when the wind changes direction.

The bishops' meeting in New Orleans could be a turning point for the bishops, but will they sail with the Francis wind or will they buck the waves of change? 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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