Resisting the division caused by hot-button church and political issues must be a priority for U.S. bishops, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told the group Monday morning.
“Ours is a diverse flock. People look, talk and even think differently from each other,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said in Baltimore. “This is a fact that the forces of division will use all the more.”
The cardinal, giving his first address as president of the U.S.C.C.B., said society has not been able to come to a consensus on a number of questions regarding fraught political issues, including “how best to care for the sick, the unborn, the poor, the immigrant and the refugee, the unemployed and the underemployed in cities and towns across America.”
Regardless, he said, bishops must “enter the public debate with civility.”
Cardinal DiNardo told bishops that the United States is “facing a time that seems more divided than ever,” citing “hotly debated” issues including “health care, conscience protection, immigration and refugees, taxes, abortion, physician assisted suicide, gender ideologies, the meaning of marriage and all the other headlines.”
“But our role,” he said, “continues to be witnessing to the Gospel.”
The bishops meeting comes at a time when internal divisions among U.S. Catholics have become public, including earlier this month when a theological adviser to the U.S. bishops conference released a strongly-worded letter of critique addressed to the pope. When that adviser, Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., resigned, Cardinal DiNardo took the unusual step of professing publicly that U.S. bishops “always stand in strong unity with and loyalty to the Holy Father, Pope Francis.”
The theme of division in the church and in society has been frequently invoked during the bishops’ deliberations this week.
Speaking to the U.S.C.C.B. Sunday night, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also picked up on the theme of division, telling bishops that a “spirit of unity is more than ever necessary.”
“Only through the unity that is forged from dialogue and encounter,” he continued, “will you find the wisdom to rise to the challenges of the coming century.”
When it comes to division within in the church, Cardinal DiNardo said in response to a question from America during a press conference that social media accounts and websites pushing divisiveness is an issue that bishops must grapple with.
“There is some division,” he said, but he also suggested that “some of it sounds more raucous than it actually is.”
He said bishops should make sure they have people on their staffs who can “quietly and with reason put all of these things into context” when people call dioceses after reading incendiary material online.
Bishop Christopher Coyne, the head of the bishops communications committee, said the U.S.C.C.B. has increased its rapid response media operation in order to combat divisive social media by “getting true facts out there.”
During Cardinal DiNardo’s address, he mostly avoided divisions within the church and instead focused on social and political issues that continue to divide Americans.
For example, he asked bishops to consider the issue of abortion in light of other social justice issues.
“If we cannot come to love and protect innocent life from the moment God creates it, how can we properly care for each other as we come of age?” he asked.
On immigration, he said “the system is broken” and he said that the United States should seek “border security in a humane way.” He also gave a word of encouragement to recipients of the D.A.C.A. program, which the Trump administration has begun to phase out, telling them to “keep on dreaming.”
He cited specifically the violence in Charlottesville, in which a young woman was killed while protesting a white supremacist gathering, saying “racism always destroys lives and it has no place in the Christian heart.”
The bishops gathered will hear an update later on Monday from working groups about racism and immigration.
Reacting to recent spates of gun violence in the United States and around the world, Cardinal DiNardo said that the “time is long past due to end the madness of outrageous weapons—be they stockpiled on a continent or in a hotel room,” a reference to the October mass shooting in Las Vegas that left nearly 60 people dead and hundreds injured.
He also highlighted the global persecution of Christians and announced a “Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians” to be held later this fall “to express our solidarity with those who are suffering.”
Despite the many challenges he highlighted, including recent natural disasters such as the hurricanes that battered Texas and Puerto Rico, Cardinal DiNardo sounded a note of optimism, telling the bishops that the “forces of division prey upon our fear.”
“But fear is not of God,” he said. “God does not divide; God united. And God, who is love, created us to love.”
This story includes updates.