The annual bishops meeting in Baltimore next week is already notable for a few reasons. It is the last meeting that will be led by outgoing President New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan. A new president will be elected, widely expected to be the conference Vice President Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz. Generally speaking the U.S.C.C.B. tends to move the vice president up to the top spot every three years. Of course, Cardinal Dolan himself represents a break with that tradition—voted in over then vice president Gerald Kicanas in 2010—so Archbishop Kurtz no longer has a lock on the job.
The meeting agenda may not reflect anything too out of the ordinary, but the powwow in Baltimore marks the first general assembly since the election of Pope Francis and may be an early test of the "Francis effect" on the priorities and future public deportment of the U.S. bishops. Francis has emphasized a pastoral approach to perpetually neuralgic church/culture clashes over issue like same-sex marriage and abortion and his personal style has reflected a sincerity and humility that has captured the global public's attention—Catholic and non-Catholic alike. The national attention received by the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis in America and a recent, widely-discussed article by San Francisco Bishop Robert McElroy ("A Church for the Poor"), also published in America, have raised expectations that there may be more to hope for from this gathering than the pro forma schedule suggests.
Seizing on that expectation, more than 50 prominent Catholic leaders—including former ambassadors to the Vatican, retired bishops and past executive directors of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign—are urging the U.S. bishops to use the upcoming meeting as a platform to redouble their commitment to economic justice initiatives.
Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, has gathered them together as signatories of an open letter that will be published on Nov. 11 in the Baltimore Sun, which challenges U.S. bishops to take inspiration from Pope Francis and "stand strong" in the face of attacks on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the bishops’ anti-poverty umbrella agency, which funds community based organizations that focus on building economic and social justice in low-income areas. "Critics of CCHD misuse the Catholic principle of moral cooperation by distorting it into a blanket rejection of working for the common good with those with whom we disagree on other issues," according to the statement. "In contrast, Pope Francis challenges us to the difficult fidelity that does not seek the purity of isolation, but risks working in the world—'in the streets'—to advance the Gospel."
Faith in Public Life recently produced a report defending CCHD from these active, the authors called them "relentless," critics of CCHD. These web-based, self-appointed doctrinal watchdogs find connections, often at some length, between the community service and empowerment groups funded by CCHD with other organzations that support social policies that are contrary to church teaching. Some of the same entities have broadened their attacks in recent months to include Catholic Relief Services and individuals within the U.S.C.C.B. itself they deem inattentive to church teaching and funding guidelines.
According to the letter, “Serving the common good sometimes requires Catholic-funded organizations to work with others who are not in agreement with Church teaching on every issue. In fact, CCHD advances the Church’s mission to defend human dignity precisely by building diverse coalitions that have led to living wages for workers, quality health care, better schools and stronger communities.
“Well-funded groups relentlessly attack CCHD and pressure you to withdraw from these effective coalitions,” the letter continues. “We urge you to resist this pressure and redouble your commitment to social justice ministries that lift people out of poverty. We can affirm the Catholic identity of CCHD without backing away from essential partnerships.”
Signers of the letter include: Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, the retired bishop of Las Cruces, N.M.; two past executive directors of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development; Thomas P. Melady, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See in the first Bush administration; Miguel Diaz, a theologian at the University of Dayton and past U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See; the presidents of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas as well as the Justice and Peace Director for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.