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U.S. bishops push for voter guide to emphasize Pope Francis’ new direction

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida, June 20, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) -- The U.S. bishops opened the door for revision of their quadrennial voting guide last week and voted overwhelmingly to integrate the teaching of Pope Francis into its implementation.

Action Item #06 at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Spring General Assembly called for approval to consider an updated approach to disseminating Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship for the 2020 election.

Instead, it prompted nearly an hour and a half of concerted discussion and some debate on the document’s contents and relevance in the age of Pope Francis and President Donald Trump.

The latter was never mentioned by name in the discussion. There was also no mention of the historic strides and unprecedented overtures made by the Trump administration in support of life and religious freedom, and likewise no mention of Trump’s groundbreaking efforts toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and its implications for world peace.

There were, however, ample expressions of such things as “a radically different moment,” a “different context,” “the signs of the times,” “this very difficult moment” and “the toxicity of the moment.”

A number of bishops called for the end of Faithful Citizenship at the Bishops’ meeting. Other bishops defended the document and the work that has gone into its creation and maintenance.

The bishops have produced a voting guide every four years since 1976. The current Faithful Citizenship was promulgated in 2007; a new introduction was written in 2011 and revised in 2015.

Critics have said it leaves open loopholes for Catholics to vote for pro-abortion candidates.

A group of Francis appointees and others prompted an open clash at the fall 2015 USCCB meeting with their calls to rewrite the document then to better reflect Francis’ priorities and give issues such as poverty and the environment equivalence to the life issue.

The purpose of the 2015 update was to refocus policy with consideration for cultural developments since the document’s 2007 inception, and to clarify some areas of Catholic social teaching. The update incorporated the later teaching documents of Pope Benedict and all of those to date from Pope Francis, including 25 new quotes from Francis on issues such as the environment, immigration, religious liberty, and poverty.

Among the bishops calling for a more Francis-centric voter guide and/or a reordering of the primacy of issues in 2015 were San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, Bishop Gerald Kicanas, then head of the Diocese of Tucson and since retired, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, and Chicago Cardinal Blasé Cupich.

The initial call to scrap Faithful Citizenship at the Spring 2018 bishop’s meeting was generated from predictable corners, as was assertions from some prelates that certain prudential issues are on the par with life and for Catholic teaching to somehow adapt to this moment in time.

That Faithful Citizenship needed an overhaul was articulated throughout the 2018 meeting, though.

One of the biggest points of consensus in the discourse was that the document is too long and hardly anyone in the pews read it.

A 2011 CARA study said just 16 percent of Catholics had used Faithful Citizenship.

Furthermore, there was agreement, not just among more liberal bishops, that Pope Francis and his “new body of teaching” must factor distinctly into future efforts to instruct Catholics on civic life.

The bishops ultimately voted by more than three-fourths to green light production of two new components to Faithful Citizenship: “a short letter to inspire prayer and action regarding public life,” and a short video and other secondary resources – “to complement, rather than to replace,” the existing Forming Consciences for Citizenship document, and also “to apply the teaching of Pope Francis to our day.”

The original action item had said the two new efforts would neither revise nor replace, but the mention of revision was removed – to now allow for possible revision - and the specific application of Pope Francis’ teaching was added in.

The bishops try to have the document ready the year before an election, and it generally takes about a year to get it from the original draft to final approval. Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the USCCB president, said that given there had been lots of sentiment expressed last time he had instigated the process earlier for the 2020 election.

The process was the same as prior years, with an administrative committee having begun work in March and a working group developing a proposal with an overall direction for the bishops to approve and then pursue in the months to come. DiNardo said this was the beginning of the process, not the end, and the finished product would not be ready for a final vote until November 2019.

The working group is chaired by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez as USCCB vice president and consists of the elected chairman of 12 USCCB committees and subcommittees whose mandates intersect with the issue of Catholics in civic life.

Much of the discussion also touched on the process of developing a document, whether new or revised, taking too long.

The proposed new letter would stress faith over partisan politics, Archbishop Gomez said, reminding that Catholics are called to be faithful citizens at all times and not just in election years, and that political discourse should reflect civility.

In the end, Archbishop Gomez said the working group would take the bishops’ discussion that day into account in drafting the supplemental letter. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, chair of one of the involved committees, recommended using the November meeting “well” in the next step of addressing the document.

Cardinal Cupich kicked off the comments by lobbying to replace Faithful Citizenship and for adding in Francis’ priorities.

‘A new body of teaching’

“I think it would be a missed opportunity and a big mistake not to move forward with an entirely new document,” he said. “First of all, there is a new body of teaching that we have in the Church offered by Pope Francis on a whole host of issues from climate change to poverty, immigration, and the way that he presents those topics seem to me to be a body of teaching that we need to integrate into what we’re talking to our people about.”

Archbishop Gomez reminded Cardinal Cupich that a new document would entail “a very long process.”

“First of all, I think the document that we have is very good, theologically,” the archbishop said, saying the bishops had already worked to incorporate the teachings of Pope Francis in 2015 and the proposed accompanying letter would address many of the issues Cupich raised.  

‘Even though our teachings don’t change, the context changes and the priority of issues change’

Bishop Stowe said he was only partially opposed to the proposal because he liked the idea of a shorter letter and videos accompanying the document.

“I would argue for a new document, however, for many of the reasons that Cardinal Cupich has already elaborated and principally because of the different context that we find ourselves in after the last national election,” Stowe said.

Examples he listed were the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, “aggressive” rollback of environmental policies, immigration issues and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement.

“I didn’t see much in the current Faithful Citizenship document about gun control,” said Stowe, and healthcare issues are also need greater consideration.

“The priorities as they are presented in Faithful Citizenship are going to looked at in a new context, a new environment,” he added, “so I think it needs to be completely reworked, the document itself, even though our teachings don’t change, the context changes and the priority of issues change.”

Great Falls-Billings Michael Bishop Warfel said he echoed much of what had been said to that point and that Faithful Citizenship had not been well received in Montana because it is viewed as stale.

“I would like to see at least some updating with the new context that we’re facing that has just been outlined by Bishop Stowe and Cardinal Cupich,” he said. “There’s not much in the document of the thought of Pope Francis. I think it really needs to be something that is more incorporative of the magisterium of Francis.”

Bishop McElroy advocated getting rid of Faithful Citizenship altogether, lamenting a lengthy host of current ills he felt were not adequately addressed by the document or the proposed update in approach.

“We are living in a moment in which we witness the greatest assault on the rights of immigrant peoples of the past 50 years,” said McElroy. “We live in a nation with the racial and geographic and regional divides in which people of color feel victimized by institutional prejudice and violence, and many white working class men and women feel dispossessed.”

“We live in a time in which children are afraid to go to school because they may be killed,” he added, and spoke of challenge in bringing the millennial generation to understand that instrumentalism of human life at the beginning and end of life was unacceptable.

McElroy said that legal and political institutions were being “distorted and atrophied” and the bishops need to speak to those things and also speak as a collective body. He said that with many elements the proposal had no comprehensive statement by the bishops as a whole.

“And I believe we are living in a moment when there should be a comprehensive statement from us a whole,” McElroy continued, “from the whole of the body reflecting upon the signs of the times we are in.”

“Now some have suggested we use the 2015 Faithful Citizenship to make that statement, that it still endures,” he said, “and yet we’re in a different moment, a radically different moment.”

Poverty, immigration and the environment ‘are not secondary’

The San Diego bishop then said poverty, immigration and environmental concerns are top-tier issues, and that Faithful Citizenship undermines Pope Francis’ teaching via a questionable application of the concept of intrinsic evil.

“Faithful Citizenship has two great defects in (the) 2015 (version),” said McElroy. “One, as Cardinal Cupich indicated, it does not reflect the full body of teaching of Pope Francis, specifically Gaudete in Exsultate - the declaration that the issues of poverty, migration and the environment are not secondary - but are among the primary issues of claim upon the conscience of the leaders in public policy.”

“Our document doesn’t do that,” he went on, “and it undermines that teaching through its tendentious use of intrinsic evil. But even more fundamentally the reason the 2015 Faithful Citizenship cannot be the foundational document for us moving forward in this election cycle is that it cannot be engaged with the signs of the times of the moment we are living in that Bishop Stowe mentioned.”

Bishop McElroy criticized Faithful Citizenship for being silent on the rescission of DACA and the shootings in Charlottesville and Parkland, Florida.

“Faithful Citizenship of 2015 cannot be our response to the moment we are living in,” he stated. “It cannot engage with the signs of the times, it can only engage with the signs of the past.”

‘Catholic teaching as it is now’

The bishops should have a statement as a whole, said McElroy, and “it should be embedded in Catholic teaching as it is now and in the signs of the times of this very difficult moment of turmoil in our country that we are living in.”

Archbishop Gomez explained again that what some bishops were suggesting would mean an entirely new document. He believed that there are a number of good things in the document and to add the new challenges would make the document too long, which is why the working group chose the approach it did of supplementing it.

The archbishop said these were good points worth discussing.

Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin opposed the proposal and agreed with the need for new content laid by previous speakers.

Tobin said Pope Francis could lead us in an integral view of holiness that was put out in Gaudete in Exsultate, and that in his opinion the apostolic exhortation alone probably argues in favor of a new document.

This ‘Franciscan shift’

Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop for Los Angeles and member of the group working on the document, said, “We are very aware of what I call this ‘Franciscan shift,’ that something really different is happening, and we have to reflect that.”

The concern was that the document was too long and read by very few people, he said, and the hope with the supplemental videos was for “something new, something really fresh,” something more likely to be taken in, especially with those under age 45.

“So we very much want to reflect this great Franciscan shift in emphasis,” Barron said. “Our fear is that we have to retain a lot of the things in Faithful Citizenship, which are very well presented, well argued, we’d just be making a much longer document, that was the concern.”

Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, questioned whether videos short enough to keep people’s attention would effectively correct or supplement the document, and he suggested rethinking the document but do something like the videos and other things in the meantime to least help people make informed decisions.

Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto said he went along with a lot of the thoughts presented, and obviously the teaching needs to remain consistent and firm, but that “We’re in a new moment and perhaps we have to look at a new paradigm as to how best to present that.”

“And I would offer that Pope Francis, particularly in Laudato si, when he speaks about integral human ecology, offers us a moment of challenge (in) the political process itself.”

Francis offers ‘both substance and style’

Las Vegas Bishop George Thomas said the document was lengthy, cumbersome, and misses the mark in reaching people.

“We have a very teachable moment with the present Holy Father, who, I believe, is offering both substance and style that need to be captured,” he said. “Under substance the Holy Father is connecting worship and compassion, sacristy and service, liturgy and justice, always with his high on the preferential option for the poor.”

“Under style,” Thomas continued, “and especially given the toxicity of the moment, the political climate, this Holy Father is teaching us to prefer dialogue over diatribe, persuasion of polemics, invitation over invective, and always, accompaniment over alienation.”

We would do well to take his example

“I think we would do well to take his example,” he added, “take the content of his teaching and create a shorter, user-friendly letter that will reach the hearts of our people at a time when they need us most.”

Archbishop Gomez clarified that the working group has intended to incorporate into the supplemental letter all of the issues talked about at the meeting, “especially everything that has to do with Pope Francis’ theology and ministry,” as well as address the issues in the videos.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell said he had thought for a few years now that the bishops need to take some time to think about how Pope Francis’ teachings inform their pastoral practice.

Bishop John Michael Botean, of the Eparchy of St. George in Canton, Ohio, for the Romanians, said the Catechism doesn’t get revised every time there’s a cultural shift, and it may be time for Faithful Citizenship to “pass into the history” of Conference documents.

Whatever the Conference produces should be a “forceful and strong statement” that is in a sense “a call to repentance on the part of all of us,” he said.

More Francis needed

While he understood the process to either replace or revise the document would be long and involved, Botean said, “It’s a dangerous public statement to make to say that they are satisfied with Faithful Citizenship as it is.”

Bishop Eusebio Elizondo said he thought it would be “absolutely fantastic” to incorporate the teaching of Pope Francis.

The Conference is not silent and in speaking in a timely fashion on issues, said Bishop Victor Balke of Crookston, Minn, but the effectiveness of how that’s done should be evaluated, and something else was needed.

“I do think that we need something to succinctly express the newness of the approach of Pope Francis,” he said, “and I don’t think we can take for granted that people know it.”

What people get from Francis’ encyclicals they get from the media, Balke said, so, combine all of the USCCB’s pertinent statements and letters “and look at those in light of Pope Francis teaching and approach of mercy and compassion, you might have something to offer.”

Amid ongoing discussion and myriad proposals of how to proceed, at around an hour and 16 minutes into the discussion the bishops voted on tabling the item as it was, with 61 in favor, 126 opposed to tabling it and two abstaining.

Auxiliary Bishop Mark O’Connell of Boston then proposed to remove the term “revise” from the action item to allow for the possibility of future revisions to Faithful Citizenship.

Bishop McElroy promptly moved to remove any reference to Faithful Citizenship from the action item, saying, “If we’re going to a new moment, if we’re going to new ways of presentation, I think it’s important not to have any sense we’re reauthorizing the 2015 Faithful Citizenship.”

The working group did not accept McElroy’s amendment.

Bishop O'Connell suggested adding after the Faithful Citizenship reference “and to apply its teaching and the teaching of Pope Francis to the issues of our day.”

The working group accepted the proposal as a friendly amendment.

The bishops voted for the action item on the process for Faithful Citizenship as amended: 144-Yes, 41-No, 2-Abstain

Cardinal DiNardo said the issue would be “subject to much further livelier debate” as the process moved along.

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