As the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) concludes its annual meeting this week, it reveals itself as grossly out of touch with both grassroots Catholicism and with Pope Francis. While there were certainly some who objected, the strong majority of US Bishops set forth an agenda that has little to do with the Gospel of Jesus, is opposed by the majority of US Catholics, and will squander Church resources, even as parishes, schools, and service programs continue to be shuttered due to decimated diocesan budgets.
USCCB members voted 210-21 (with a handful of abstentions) to promote a Voters' Guide for Catholics that instructs Catholics to evaluate candidates based on their positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. In an even more lopsided vote (233-4), the bishops set their priorities through 2020 as:
• Family and marriage (including attempts to rollback same-sex marriage and support for government officials who refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples)
• Ending abortion and limiting access to contraception
• Vocations to priesthood
• Religious liberty
Wait a minute! Where is the emphasis on supporting immigration reform and assistance for refugees fleeing war and violence? As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, and as resources continue to flow to the few, why is ending poverty not at the top of this list? Do US bishops not believe our Church should be on the forefront of efforts to end climate change and its devastating effect on our one God-given planet? Where do efforts to end structural racism, misogyny, human trafficking, or terrorism fit among their concerns?
For more than a quarter century, surveys of American Catholics have revealed that concern for the poor and those at the margins of society is what they see as essential to their identity as Catholics. This is what those of us in the pews would support as Catholic legislative and public policy priorities. We understand the Gospel call to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and care for the orphaned and want to see a society oriented to protecting those who are most vulnerable. We hold a variety of positions on issues such as marriage equality and abortion, but majorities of Catholics disagree with the bishops on both. And no matter what we think of these as moral issues, four out of five Catholics don't look to the bishops for guidance on how we vote. Some reject their guidance because we disagree with their positions, and some simply believe we can make up our own minds on civil, as well as moral issues.
The US bishops' priorities also contradict the direction set by Pope Francis. During his recent visit to our country, the Pope repeatedly addressed the themes of care for the migrant, the poor, and the earth. Yes, he touched on religious liberty, but after the outcry about how Kim Davis' supporters tried to position her encounter with the Pope, the Vatican clearly rejected any attempt to position the Pope as endorsing efforts to ban same-sex couples from getting marriage licenses.
In announcing their intent to support government workers who oppose the Supreme Court ruling making marriage equality the law of the land, the USCCB has committed the resources of Catholics in this country to a futile fight that is opposed by most of the people they are responsible for shepherding, people who are in need of real, responsive ministries, and who continue to be dismayed by the dismantling of the service infrastructure our Church has maintained for decades.
The bishops are also signaling we will continue to see the firing of LGBT people who work for Catholic institutions, especially those who marry their same-gender partners or who reveal their gender identity. More dioceses will start requiring teachers and other employees to sign draconian contracts that demand public compliance with Church teaching--no attendance at Pride parades or same-sex weddings, no posting of challenges to teaching on abortion or birth control on Facebook, no living with a partner before marriage, or use of IVF to have a family. We will continue to see Catholics renounce their affiliation with the Church, as they find themselves or those they love subject to messages and actions that are rejecting.
At a time when so many Catholics are hopeful that the Pope's calls for renewed focus on the poor, his ecologically-centered theology, and his demands that bishops take their pastoral duties more seriously will restore credibility to our Church, the results of the USCCB's meeting reveal a startling level of defiance and willingness to threaten the Church's future. Tragically, it is the people of God who will suffer.