"Dear Brother Bishops": The Chief's Farewell
With this post, the shot above is retired... and with it, a significant era of leadership in the history of the nation's largest religious body draws to a close.
Three years ago, we were preparing to receive the visit of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, to this country and to the United Nations. Well prepared by both church and civil authorities, his visit introduced the people of our country to a quiet and loving man, persuasive in his gentle presence and strong in his words, which echo those of Christ. The Pope’s visit to our country presaged similarly powerful visits to Australia and, this year, to the United Kingdom. While the preliminary stories are always of scandal and dissent and protest, the stories during and after such visits finally yield to the sentiments of the hundreds of thousands of believers who gather around him as successor of Peter and visible head of Christ’s Church on earth. He confirmed us in our faith and in our vocation as bishops of the Catholic Church.
A year later, with the election of the first African American to the Presidency of this country, a cultural shift was marked that, no matter where one is politically, can only be greeted as an event of historic importance, and it was so recognized by us and by the world. Our county, however, continues to struggle with how to address the plight of newcomers who cross our borders seeking a better life for themselves and their families, even as that better life for our own citizens is threatened by the downturn in the economy. Throughout these years, the political and social divisions in our country have challenged us in our vocation to keep the Catholic people united visibly around Christ in his body, the Church. We have re-organized our Conference to respond to the challenges to the Church’s mission more effectively and to be of greater service to our local Churches, particularly in finding means to pass on the faith to the young through regular sacramental practice and to strengthen and defend the institution of marriage. This unity of purpose has been evident in the bishops’ ongoing determination to keep the promise made in 2002 to purify the priesthood of anyone who has ever abused a child, a promise guarded by the National Review Board and guaranteed by the various audits, safe environment programs and victims assistance ministries in our dioceses. This year we have welcomed the modifications to the universal Church law on the sexual abuse of minors by priests and deacons; some of these provisions mirror or reinforce aspects of the essential norms that we asked the Holy See to allow us to use eight years ago in governing the Church here. In these three past years as President of the Conference, I have relied upon and am ever grateful for your good will, your cooperation and your prayers, and I have come to a deep appreciation of your pastoral expertise and fidelity to our common vocation as bishops in the Church. With all my heart, I thank you.
The renewal of the episcopal office in the Church and our greater unity of purpose and effectiveness in teaching and governing have not gone unchallenged by some who would either want to remake the Church according to their own designs or discredit her as a voice in the public discussions that shape our society. During this past year, the USCCB has been partner to the public debate on health care law. Our voice was that of the bishops of our country for the past hundred years: in a good society, everyone should be cared for, especially the poor. The goal of basic health care for all continues to be a moral imperative, not yet completely achieved, but it is not now and has not been up to the bishops to decide the means to realize that goal. We have only very cautiously entered into details of public policy, for this is more properly the work of lay people, as it has been in the health care debate. Universal health care can be delivered
using many means: everything publicly funded, everything privately funded or a mixture of the two. Any of these solutions could be moral, and it is up to lay people to decide which are the best means to see to it that everyone is cared for.
But once political leaders and health care experts decided to use government subsidized insurance as the vehicle, the means, for providing more universal health care, it was our moral obligation as teachers of the faith to judge whether the means pass moral muster, whether or not the proposed legislation uses public funds to kill those living in their mother’s womb.
Consistently, and ever more insistently since the sin and crime of abortion was legalized in the United States, our voice has been that of the bishops of the Catholic Church ever since the first Christians condemned the abortion practices of the ancient Romans. The act is immoral; and the laws that have permitted now fifty million children of our country to be killed in their mother’s womb are also immoral and unjust; the laws are destroying our society.
As you know, there are three basic issues in the recent public debate. The first is empirical: does the current legislation permit the funding of abortion beyond the restrictions imposed by the Hyde amendment, that testimony to a faithful Catholic politician from Illinois that has been the firewall keeping public money out of funding almost all abortions and out of insurance plans that fund abortion? What we have is legislation that, by vote, first in the Senate and then confirmed in the House, explicitly removed the Hyde amendment restrictions from this federal law. Lay people who carefully analyzed the contents of the legislation as it was being torturously crafted freed us, the bishops, to make the necessary moral judgments. Some have protested that the legislation is complicated and we therefore shouldn’t pretend to judge it. If you will excuse my saying so, this implies either that no one can understand or judge complicated pieces of legislation, in which case it is immoral to act until sufficient clarity is obtained, or it is to say that only bishops are too dense to understand complicated pieces of legislation! In fact, developments since the passage of the legislation have settled the empirical issue: our analysis of what the law itself says was correct, and our moral judgments are secure and correct. Throughout this public debate, the bishops kept the moral and intellectual integrity of the faith intact, and I thank in your name those who helped us in exercising our obligations as moral teachers in the Church.
The second issue is ecclesiological: who speaks for the Catholic Church? We bishops have no illusions about our speaking for everyone who considers himself or herself Catholic; but that is not our job. We speak for the apostolic faith, and those who hold it gather round. We must listen to the sensus fidei, the sense of the faith itself in the lives of our people, but this is different from intellectual trends and public opinion. The faith has its own warrants in Scripture and tradition, and we consult them and listen to the apostolic voices of those who have gone before us as carefully as we must listen to those whom the Lord has given us to govern on our watch, in our day, as they strive to work out their salvation in the midst of contemporary challenges. The bishops in apostolic communion and in union with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, speak for the Church in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them. All the rest is opinion, often well-considered and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion.
The third issue is practical: how should faithful Catholics approach political issues that are also moral? The debate made clear, to me at least, that, at a certain point, there were those who started with the faith in its integrity and all its demands and fit their political choices into the context of the fullness of the Church’s teaching, and there were those for whom a political choice, even a good choice, was basic and the Church was judged useful by whether or not she provided foot soldiers for their political commitment, whether of the left or the right. For too many, politics is the ultimate horizon of their thinking and acting. As we know, fidelity to Christ in his body the Church calls for two responses on the part of those who would call themselves his disciples: orthodoxy in belief and obedience in practice. In 1990, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quoted now Blessed John Henry Newman that, “the whole duty and work of a Christian is made up of these two parts, faith and obedience; ‘looking unto Jesus’ (Hebrews 2:9) and acting according to his will.” Orthodoxy is necessary but not enough; the devil is orthodox. He knows the Catechism better than anybody in this room; but he will not serve, he will not obey. There can be mistakes in our thinking, but there can be no self-righteousness in our will, for this is the sin against the Holy Spirit. We should not fear political isolation; the Church has often been isolated in politics and in diplomacy. We need to be deeply concerned, however, about the wound to the Church’s unity that has been inflicted in this debate and I hope, trusting in the good will of all concerned, that means can be found to restore the seamless garment of ecclesial communion.
Dear Brothers, the public discussion in the Church that we are called by Christ to govern will continue, even as we strive to keep everyone together in Christ with the authority given us by him. The tensions, while acute, are not completely novel, even in the history of the Church here. Perhaps we are living now a moment when, at last, Dorothy Day meets John Courtney Murray. They brought distinct Catholic voices to political debate. For ourselves, as bishops, we speak as best we can, from our weakness and our sinfulness; but we speak, through the invisible guidance of the Holy Spirit and the visible structures of the Church, with the voice of Christ, who hears the cries of the poor. The voice of Christ speaks always from a consistent concern for the gift of human life, a concern that judges the full continuum of technological manipulation of life, from the use of artificial contraception to the destruction of human embryos to the artificial conception of human beings in a Petri dish to genetic profiling to the killing of unwanted children through abortion. If the poor are allowed to be born, then the voice of Christ continues to speak to the homeless and the jobless, the hungry and the naked, the uneducated, the migrant, the imprisoned, the sick and the dying. Our ministry is consistent because the concerns of Jesus Christ are consistent. He is at the side of the poor. Each of us in his own way speaks with Christ’s voice, and each of us governs a particular Church that lives with the poor, who are the first citizens of the Kingdom of God. Ours is a consistent ethic of Christ’s concerns for all his people, especially the poor.
Finally, if you will permit me, because we are ordained as bishops with a particular title but also for the care of all the Churches, it is not only the poor of our own country who cry out to us. We are not a national Church; we resist being transformed into a purely American denomination. I therefore cannot depart this position or leave you today without speaking of our Catholic brothers and sisters in Iraq. Ever since the capture of Baghdad, it has been clear to anyone of good will that, while Muslim groups might be in conflict with one another, it was uniquely the Christians who were without protection in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq. Now, at the end of last month, on the vigil of the feast of All Saints, in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of our Lady of Deliverance in the city of Baghdad, many dozens of Catholics were killed as they gathered for Mass. Two were priests: one was killed at the altar and the other as he left the confessional. They are joined in death with hundreds of others who have died for their faith in Christ since the current conflict began. An American Dominican Sister, a friend of a friend, has written from that country: “Waves of grief have enveloped their world, surging along the fault lines created in Iraqi society by the displacement of thousands of Iraq’s Christian minority who have fled what is clearly a growing genocidal threat...One survivor was asked by a reporter, what do you say to the terrorists? Through his tears he said, ‘We forgive you.’...Among the victims of this senseless tragedy was a little boy named Adam. Three-year-old Adam witnessed the horror of dozens of deaths, including that of his own parents. He wandered among the corpses and the blood, following the terrorists around and admonishing them, ‘enough, enough, enough.’ According to witnesses, this continued for two hours until Adam was himself murdered.” As bishops, as Americans, we cannot turn from this scene or allow the world to overlook it.
Dear brothers, we have all experienced challenges and even tragedies that tempt us to say at times, “enough.” Yet all of our efforts, our work, our failures and our sense of responsibility pale before the martyrdom of our brothers and sisters in Iraq and the active persecution of Catholics in other parts of the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, in China and in Vietnam, in Sudan and African countries rent by civil conflict. With their faces always before us, we stand before the Lord, collectively responsible for all those whom Jesus Christ died to save; and that is more than enough to define us as bishops and to keep us together in mission. May the Lord during these days give us vision enough to see what he sees and strength enough to act as he would have us act. That will be enough. Thank you.