Pope Francis urges bishops to teach Catholics discernment on voting and politics

Pope Francis talks with clerics during a meeting with U.S. bishops from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas making their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican Jan. 20, 2020. The bishops were making their "ad limina" visits to report on the status of their dioceses to the pope and Vatican officials. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Sometimes the political choices people face can seem like a choice between supporting a "snake" or supporting a "dragon," but Pope Francis told a group of U.S. bishops their job is to step back from partisan politics and help their faithful discern based on values, said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

Meeting the bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas Jan. 20, Pope Francis mentioned how, in an election, "you sometimes seem to be caught, you know, are you going to vote in one sense for a snake or you going to vote for a dragon?" Cardinal DiNardo said.

The pope's advice to the bishops was "teach your people discernment by you stepping back from the sheer politics of it" and focus on the values at stake, Cardinal DiNardo told Catholic News Service. "If you try to step back and say, 'but here are the major moral issues that we face,' that's what is most important."

[Don’t miss the latest news from the church and the world. Sign up for our daily newsletter.]

The region's 26 bishops, including auxiliaries and retired bishops, spent about two-and-a-half hours talking with Pope Francis in English and Spanish. The pope responded in Italian so his aide could translate the responses into English.

The topics were wide-ranging and included the clerical sexual abuse crisis, migration, the challenges of a media-permeated culture and forming Christian consciences, especially in a time of deep political divisions.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, one of four Texas dioceses on the border with Mexico, said all of those issues were important, but for him the key was listening to the pope and being listened to him by him.

Citing the "whole host of issues" they discussed with Pope Francis, Bishop Edward J. Burns of Dallas said, "I am really looking forward to sitting, digesting, reflecting and praying over the conversation we had this morning with the successor of St. Peter."

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

"It was exciting. It was exhilarating," he said.

Pope Francis is attentive to and knows the pastoral challenges posed by modern social media and their pervasive presence in many people's lives, said Bishop Flores, a daily Twitter user. But the pope has "a calmness about how we address that," mainly by remaining true to the identity as pastors, proclaiming the Gospel and encouraging people to act according to it.

Bishop Flores said all the bishops realize they must learn "how to be a pastor in a media world where you keep justice and charity and a steady focus on the Gospel."

The "ad limina" visits are "very important for deepening our sense of personal communion" with the pope, the successor of Peter, he said. "It's not just the office, it's the affection for your father spiritually that we need to cultivate, because it is part of the gift that is the communion of the church."

"The narrative" that Pope Francis and many of the U.S. bishops "are on different pages," he said, is "overblown."

Sometimes that impression may arise when a bishop reacts to a news or social media report about something the pope has said. "It is our responsibility to hear him in his own words and to resist the temptation that sometimes hits across the spectrum of the church to jump to a conclusion because of some line that was quoted here or there."

Even in the fast-paced world of social media, "we can afford to be judicious and thoughtful," he said. "It's part of our intellectual responsibility."

Cardinal DiNardo said the pope and the bishops recognize the value and importance of media. However, he said, some on social media "may represent only a small number of people, but they make a lot of noise, and we try to sift through that," both in what is said about the pope and what is said about the church and bishops.

Bishop Flores said he was surprised by how much Pope Francis knew about the life and witness of Blessed Stanley Rother, the Oklahoma native martyred in Guatemala in 1981. After his name appeared on a death list, Blessed Rother went back to Oklahoma, but refused to stay.

"It was very moving to hear the Holy Father, the successor of Peter, recount to us a story we all know so well," the bishop said. It showed the pope's awareness of "that missionary spirit and how it is alive in the United States."

"He talked about the importance of pastors who accompany their people," Bishop Flores said. "I found that encouraging, because they are the unsung heroes who accompany their people, day in and day out."

Pope Francis also encouraged the bishops to be pastors, in a real sense, spending time with their faithful "not just at confirmations and on the big feast days," he said. The pope said, "The people have a nose for the deep reality of the church, and that is that where the bishop is, there is the church."

The pope's words were "profoundly pastoral, profoundly theological and ecclesial -- a sense of church" -- as well as obviously flowing from a deep spirituality, Bishop Flores said.

On migration, Bishop Flores said the pope was clearly knowledgeable about and grateful for the decades of work the Catholic Church in the United States has done to welcome migrants and refugees and was encouraging of what the bishops are doing now, especially to speak of "the dignity of the immigrant and the just treatment" of them.

Cardinal DiNardo said the conversation also touched on the fact that "some people think when you deal with those issues that's not church teaching, you know, that's politics."

Pope Francis, he said, encouraged the bishops to spend time reflecting on and sharing with their people the difference between "politics as ideology and Catholic social teaching, which stresses the human person and how we are always called to be at their behest."

"We need to be voices for the immigrants" who do not have a voice, "pushed as they are by many different sides," the cardinal said. The question of migration policy is complicated, but Christians must come down on the side of "the poor and those who are in need. The immigrants, at one point he mentioned, they really represent to us the face of Christ suffering. The suffering Jesus."

Bishop Burns was among the Texas bishops who voiced their opposition to Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement that the state would no longer resettle refugees.

The church as a mother takes care of people in need, he said. "And while every country has a right to protect its border, every person has a right to a better life."

What really is needed, he said, is immigration reform. "It's taking all too long."

- - -

Contributing to this story were Cindy Wooden, Carol Glatz and Junno Arocho Esteves.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Pope Francis.]

The latest from america

A flare-up of sciatica has caused Pope Francis to cancel several appearances in the coming days.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 23, 2021
If Mr. Biden is really listening, he will understand the value of preserving the abortion funding bans that have stood for decades. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
A ban on taxpayer funding of abortions began as a bipartisan policy and remains popular, writes Charles A. Donovan of the Charlotte Lozier Institute. President-elect Biden should keep it in place.
Charles A. DonovanJanuary 22, 2021
Registered nurse Nikki Hollinger cleans up a room as a body of a COVID-19 victim lies in a body bag labeled with stickers at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has eclipsed 400,000 in the waning hours in office for President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
It is as though there are two parallel universes co-existing here, one hopeful and “normal for now,” the other overwhelmed by suffering.
Jim McDermottJanuary 22, 2021
Two sisters reflected for America on the experiences of faith and grace they have found in the midst of a profoundly challenging time for their community.
Mary Andrew BudinskiJanuary 22, 2021