'The Social Teaching of the Church Can’t Just be in a Book': An Interview with Bishop Stephen Blaire

This week in the print magazine Jim McDermott, S.J., writes about the unique character of the "The Church in the West." As part of that project he had the opportunity to interview a number of bishops about their experiences in their own dioceses and within the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. This article is one of a series of six presenting those interviews.

Bishop Stephen Blaire, 73, has been the bishop of Stockton since 1999. Originally from Los Angeles, Bishop Blaire has served as chairman of a number of committees of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference, including Domestic Justice and Human Development and Pastoral Practices, and was nine years as an auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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Located in the San Joaquin Valley region of central California, Stockton is a diocese of 1.3 million people, 217,000 Catholics, some 60% of whom are Hispanic. The area also boasts the largest population of Azorean Portuguese outside the Azores.  

What are some of the main issues of your diocese?

Probably poverty is the very strong issue. The national unemployment rate is around 5% but here it’s still hovering around 9 or 10%. So we’ve got a lot of unemployment, underemployment. We still have many farm issues, labor issues. And education, the drop out rate in our diocese in some of the public schools is still very high, maybe 30, 40%. We’re trying to strengthen our own Catholic schools to handle some of those issues.

The other very big issue is violence, gang violence. There’s a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development that embraces a number of dioceses including ours to address local violence issues. So we’ve been trying to address those in our parishes.

Another one of the things that we’ve been doing in our diocese is we’ve been really trying to form and educate our people. We did the Renew program a few years ago, now we’re doing Good News and La Brota on the social teachings of the Church. We’re trying to form our people so that we don’t have just these little social justice groups in parish but a much wider community embrace of the social teaching of the Church. And we want to bring together these people that are being formed in the Catholic social teaching and connect them to the people that are more involved in community organizing so that even those in community organizing will be more formed. We’re trying to work together so that people are formed and at the same time involved in community organizing. It’s very much the idea that it’s not just a matter of helping the poor but helping the poor to help themselves.

How do you find the national conference understands the issues of the Western Church?

I would say that while the national conference has its committees that try to deal with the areas that affect all of us, there is a good sense that at the same time issues have to be addressed locally. It’s probably true that the bishops know the issues in their own areas better than maybe those of some other parts of the country, and less about what’s happening in other parts of the country, unless it appears in the national press. (For instance I think all the bishops know about SB 128 [the assisted suicide legislation] in California.) And I would say the camaraderie among the bishops is good in terms of respecting each other’s particular diocesan needs.

The Conference has struggled over the years with this idea of how to strengthen regional gatherings, so they’ve increased the time allotment at the national meetings for regional meetings to try to give that more attention.

We also have a very strong California Catholic Conference. The bishops here have always had a strong conference to deal with the issues that we’ve had to face over the years – when we were dealing statewide with the sexual abuse crisis, now we’re dealing with SB 128, the physician assisted suicide bill. We deal a lot with prison issues, restorative justice, environmental issues now. I’ve always felt that the CCC has been a very effective gathering for the bishops of our state. We’ve had excellent leadership in the staff.

The particular issues here, I’m not sure they’re not important in other parts of the country. Sometimes they begin here in California or are a preview of what might happen elsewhere. But even the priorities that the Bishops’ Conference addresses as a national conference often take on a particular modality in a local area or region. The issue of poverty, for instance. There are an awful lot of dioceses that are mission dioceses, and they have their own meeting I think every other year.

What’s your overall sense of the national conference today?

I’ve been a bishop 25 years. The flavor of the conference shifts, there are different points of emphasis at different times, different leadership at different times. A number of times the conference has been reorganized. Now they have five top priorities, which they never had in the past; they had priorities but they weren’t always spelled out. As bishops come and go, the leadership of the conference shifts. Some committees during one period are stronger than at another period, then other committees emerge. Whoever is elected has a great impact.

The question always arises as to what are the priorities of the Conference, are we too heavily laden with administration. They’ve cut back a lot over the last few years on staff, and reorganized and created a lot of these subcommittees. Sometimes the question is, Is it any different than it was before? I don’t know. I’ve always felt the Conference can always be streamlined more. I think having priorities is a help but sometimes like in any organization, you plan your priorities but what happens in the real world happens without too much planning. So sometimes you’re dealing with issues of the moment, national pastoral issues of the moment.

Three-year terms are an interesting thing. It’s probably good that the President of the Conference has a three-year term, and we’re all bishops of a diocese before being chair of a committee. But when I was I chair of Domestic Policy I felt I had just gotten to know the players when my term was up. That may be good or that may be bad, I don’t know. When I was in Ecumenical Affairs I already knew a lot of the players, so that was a bit easier. I didn’t have so much of a learning curve.

I do think it’s always a challenge for the bishops to manage the Conference because sometimes you depend so much on staff that it’s easy to get a little bit of distance between the bishop and the staff.  It’s always important to keep that good relationship. I’ve never been involved in the highest level, I’ve always just been chairman and I’ve always had excellent relations with the staff that I had.

You talked about the “flavor” of the Conference shifting over the years. What would you say is the flavor right now?

There’s been a lot of emphasis on the issue of religious liberty, though it has leveled.  A lot on the state of marriage and family life. There hadn’t been so much emphasis in recent years on the issues of poverty, but with Pope Francis that is reemerging again. I think there’s going to be no doubt when the Pope issues his encyclical on the environment Domestic Policy is going to take a kind of leadership on that issue. Ecumenical and Interreligious Issues was much more prominent than it is now, though it remains an important committee.

I would say at the moment the International Committee certainly stands out as one of the most crucial, especially because relations between the United States, Israel, the Vatican, all that’s going on in the Middle East. So I’d say that one’s much more on the radar at the moment.

There are these issues that the Holy Father has raised up for the coming year—the Year of Mercy, which is going to lift up again the Second Vatican Council. And certainly we have in Evangelii Gaudium, I don’t know if we’d call it a charter but it’s the Pope’s program (that might not be the right word). The encyclical on the environment, that’s certainly going to demand attention here in California, where we’re facing the drought.

And then the Synod on the Family – I think there’s great interest in how are we going to strengthen family life and at the same time address some of the pastoral concerns for people that find themselves in kind of difficult situations with the Church. How does the Church reach out to those people who are in those challenging or difficult situations, while maintaining strongly our teaching and the development of the family? 

I can’t speak for the Conference but in my own mind I have to say that these issues have to affect us. I will find it fascinating how the Year of Mercy plays out in the Conference. The Pope or his secretary said that there’s not going to be a “program for mercy”, but instead it’s going to be about how our understanding of our God as a merciful God and Jesus as the face of God’s mercy, how that affects and impacts everything that we do as the Church. This is interesting. And how it all falls out is always interesting.

Are there certain issues you find yourself particularly passionate about?

Personally, I think at the national level the church has to always be a voice for legislation that protects the poor. Right now in the budget several of the programs that have been cut are programs that have been successful in helping the poor. So I think we have to keep our eye on legislation and not be afraid to voice our concerns and support for legislation that helps the poor. I realize that different people have different political perspectives and I think it [speaking out] does present a challenge to the Church because we want to bring the Gospel message, we don’t want to become political in the sense of favoring one political party over another.

But we certainly do have to bring our concerns for the poor. And we have to bring it down to where the tire hits the road: we have to call for good legislation or when we see legislation that isn’t so good we have to make it known that it is going to hurt the poor.

The social teaching of the church can’t just be in a book. We have to attempt to apply it and sometimes that is going to create differences of opinion. We can’t be afraid of that. We cannot. We have to be prudent, and we have to be fair, but we also have to be clear. We don’t write the laws, but we certainly can comment on them.

You’ve been chairman of a number of USCCB committees. Is that a challenge when you live in California?

When I was the chair of Domestic Policy, it was difficult being out here, because most of the work of that committee was in Washington. It went well because I had a good staff, but often you’re hampered because there are certain meetings where they call and say Oh, if you could be up on Capitol Hill tomorrow or at the White House...well, when you’re in California you can’t do that. But that’s not so much about the Bishops’ Conference, that’s just the fact that the government operates out of Washington.

So being a chairman of that kind of committee does present some challenges in terms of building day-to-day relationships; in that committee there’s a lot of interaction with other Christian groups in addressing the issues of poverty. Often they would have a meeting and your staff person would go but you couldn’t be there. When you have a diocese in California and a lot of these issues are happening back here, it’s just difficult.

What advice would you have for other Western bishops about becoming chairs?

I think you can make it work; we’ve had a lot of bishops of the West who have been chairmen of committees and so on. Right now Bishop Soto [of Sacramento] is chair of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The important thing is you have to be in constant communication with your staff at the Bishops’ Conference.

But this is also where other bishops on your committee help you. One time there was a big meeting on poverty with President Obama that I could not attend, so I asked one of the other bishops to go. It works. Sometimes you yourself can’t be there.

 

 

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