ST. LOUIS – The nation's Roman Catholic bishops engaged Thursday in a rare public discussion about whether their priorities properly reflect those of Pope Francis, with one church leader urging an emphasis on helping immigrants that's at least as energetic as the bishops' focus on religious freedom.
The issue arose at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' mid-year assembly in St. Louis, where church leaders considered their programming through the end of the decade.
In recent years, American bishops have channeled significant resources toward securing religious exemptions from laws they consider immoral such as gay marriage, seeking carve-outs for the church, its massive network of charities and individual for-profit business owners. Francis, elected in 2013, has a far different focus, dedicating his pontificate to the poor and most marginalized, from immigrants to the elderly.
In the morning session Thursday, Archbishop Blase Cupich, chosen by Francis last fall as Chicago archbishop, noted the effort U.S. bishops have made on behalf of "individual employers, secular employers," with religious objections to some laws. He argued church leaders should give equal ranking to changing U.S. immigration policy in their planning for the years ahead.
"The only time the word 'advocacy' was used in the priorities was with regard to religious freedom. We are facing in this country right now a broken immigration policy. That has an enormous impact on family life and marriage," Cupich said about the proposed document. "I find it stunning that the priorities only used the word 'advocacy' when it came to religious freedom."
The bishops in charge of writing the proposal said the document contained significant language on aiding the disenfranchised. But Bishop George Thomas of Helena, Montana, said he was disappointed in the draft, and urged American church leaders to "throw our collective weight" into fighting on behalf of the poor and unemployed.
"I think there needs to be much greater visibility to the plight of the poor," Thomas said.
The discussion provided a glimpse into how U.S. church leaders are grappling with the new emphasis under Francis.
The overwhelming majority of American bishops were appointed by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who made upholding Catholic orthodoxy paramount. Francis has urged an emphasis on mercy over doctrinal purity and divisive social issues. While he has upheld church teaching on marriage as a union between man and a woman, he hasn't emphasized it nearly as frequently as his two predecessors — even in a year in which he has focused the church's attention on family issues.
Archbishop William Lori, who spearheads the bishops' religious freedom advocacy, said in an interview he found the discussion Thursday "helpful." Lori said there is a link between religious liberty and the church's mission on behalf of the poor. If the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage in its ruling this month, Lori said the church's social service agencies, which employ thousands of workers and provide them benefits, may not be able to continue operating if they are compelled to recognize same-sex couples.
"In the crosshairs is the ability of the church to serve," Lori said. "We need the freedom to do this according to our teachings."
Revisions on the priority-setting document will continue through next year.
Archbishop Thomas Tobin of Indianapolis said the draft plan presented Thursday closely reflected "priorities that this body has adopted in the past" instead of "the newness of Francis." He suggested adding language to the document on "the preference for the marginalized."
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., said the bishops have done extensive work on behalf of the poor, "but I think it's very important that we put it in writing," especially ahead of the pope's first visit to the U.S. in September.
"If we do all these wonderful things, and don't obviously remember the poor, we're losing the star moment of this extraordinary Holy Father," McCarrick said. "Don't forget the poor. That's really the keyword."