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Jayd HenricksNovember 26, 2022
usccb-fall-meeting-2022-cnsBishops attend a Nov. 15, 2022, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

America recently published an interview with Bishop John E. Stowe, O.F.M. Conv. of the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., in which he raised a number of critical questions about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops following the election of its new president, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese of Military Services of the United States.

I am not qualified to speak to all of Bishop Stowe’s claims, but I am qualified to address his argument that the U.S.C.C.B. is disproportionately focused on issues that are not the Holy Father’s public policy priorities. By this, it seems Bishop Stowe means that the U.S.C.C.B. spends more time on “cultural” issues, meaning pro-life, marriage and religious liberty, rather than the issues traditionally defined as social justice.

Unfortunately, Bishop Stowe is propagating a common misconception of the U.S.C.C.B., and along the way trivializing the important work of the U.S.C.C.B. staff.

Unfortunately, Bishop Stowe is propagating a common misconception of the U.S.C.C.B., and along the way trivializing the important work of the U.S.C.C.B. staff.

For six years (2011-2017), I was the executive director of government relations at the U.S.C.C.B., the second-highest lay position within the conference regarding public policy. This perch gave me insight and experience regarding the policy work of the U.S.C.C.B.

In this role, every year I performed an audit of our policy letters and statements (every public policy statement had to go through my office) to determine how our work was distributed over the course of that year. Contrary to Bishop Stowe’s claim, every year the majority of our statements came from the social justice wing of the conference, meaning the offices of Domestic Social Development, International Justice and Peace, and Migration and Refugee Services. In fact, those three departments consistently accounted for two-thirds of all of our policy statements.

It is worth noting that in 2017 a Jesuit priest and journalist, Thomas Reese, S.J., came to a similar conclusion in the pages of the National Catholic Reporter, where he wrote: “the strong language of the bishops on immigration, refugees and health care for the poor does not get the attention it deserves.”

Social justice issues, including climate change, consume not only the majority of our public relations, but also our staffing resources. Pro-life, marriage and religious liberty each respectively had one policy person designated to each of those offices, whereas domestic had three, international had three, and immigration had two, not to mention the additional staff for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and the many good folks at Migration and Refugee Services. Further, only the social justice offices had U.S.C.C.B.-sponsored lobbying days on Capitol Hill, which was a major feature of the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. It is hard to measure exactly the comparison of policy resources distributed among the offices, of course, but it was strongly in favor of social justice. This is simply a fact.

I can understand that impressions might be different, but impressions are not reality and are often determined by our own biases. It was always amusing to me how I, as a representative of the bishops, was received on Capitol Hill. Republican offices considered the U.S.C.C.B. a tool of the Democrats, while Democrat offices thought the U.S.C.C.B. was in the back pocket of the Republicans. Bishop Stowe seems to make the same mistake. But unlike people working on the Hill, he really should know better. He is, after all, a part of the U.S.C.C.B. Whatever the reasons for misperceptions of the U.S.C.C.B., a U.S. bishop should not contribute to that problem.

I hope Bishop Stowe will reconsider how he describes the work of the U.S.C.C.B. He does the U.S.C.C.B., including its lay staff, his brother bishops and the church in the United States an injustice by propagating this narrative.

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