SMITH | With eye on pope's agenda, U.S. bishops set their own - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SMITH | With eye on pope's agenda, U.S. bishops set their own

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BALTIMORE -- U.S. Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved their internal and political agendas for the coming years — but only after a vocal minority of bishops appointed by Pope Francis questioned Tuesday whether bishops really were following the pontiff’s dramatic focus on mercy, the poor and the planet.

More than 90 percent of bishops supported revisions to a document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” first published in 2007 to guide Catholics in evaluating issues before heading to the polls.

While the revisions include several quotations from Pope Francis and his call for care for the poor and the environment, some still saw it as overly focused on such issues as opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

“A lot has changed since 2007,” said Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky. He cited Pope Francis’ statement that “nothing in the church’s preaching and witness can be lacking in mercy” and said he doubted “that’s how this document will be received in the current climate.”

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who like Bishop Stowe is a Francis appointee, said the document “does not take into account [the] fact that Pope Francis ... radically transformed the prioritization of Catholic social teaching and its elements — not the truth of them, not the substance of them, but the priorities of them.”

He said the pontiff has placed “global poverty” and the “degradation of the earth ... at the very center and core of Catholic social teaching as priorities for us in every public-policy position.”

But Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who oversaw the committee that revised the election-year guide, argued against calls to overhaul the document entirely. One aim of approving it now rather than in the election year of 2016 was to avoid even the perception it was shaped by the platforms and candidates of the moment rather than on timeless principles.

“I think we have a useful document that does recognize newness that has come with Pope Francis,” said Cardinal DiNardo, formerly a priest in his native Diocese of Pittsburgh. “It does, however, represent continuity.”

While popes and bishops have consistently supported a wide range of values, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the bishops they appointed have often put the accent on opposing abortion and homosexuality. Pope Francis has upheld such positions while making conciliatory overtures toward gays and those who have had abortions. He frequently has emphasized needs of the poor, migrants and the environment in settings such as his September visit to America and his landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si.

Hartford, Conn., Archbishop Leonard Blair, however, said the transition hasn’t been as revolutionary as often stated. He lamented “a rhetoric of regime change” used to describe the 2013 election of Francis to replace the retired Pope Benedict XVI.

He cited Benedict’s emphasis on using the “hermeneutic [lens] of continuity,” seeing a consistency of the church’s teachings even if its leaders have different emphases.

“Faithful Citizenship” says bishops would not endorse candidates but offer guidelines for evaluating them.

“Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote” and therefore need “a well-formed conscience,” it says. “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, or racism, or marriage redefinition if the voter’s intent is to support that position. ... At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.”

The bishops almost unanimously approved a five-year plan placing priorities on evangelization, marriage and family, human life and dignity, vocations (recruitment of priests and religious brothers and sisters) and religious liberty.

An earlier draft had drawn criticism as failing to reflect Pope Francis’ priorities, but Bishop George Thomas of Helena, Mont., said he was grateful that the new version “gives the poor not just a place but a preferential place.”

They also approved by a near-unanimous vote a document, “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” that laments the rapid spread of pornography in the electronic era. It calls for those exploited by the sex industry or addicted to pornography to seek help and calls on those who produce pornography to repent and make amends.

(Contact Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416)

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