After years of avoiding contentious discussions in public session, and holding debates behind closed doors in executive session, this year’s spring general assembly of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Indianapolis witnessed a return to the often heated debates of the 1970s and 1980s.
Leading the discussion were two of the three Americans made cardinals at last November’s consistory, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark - who last month welcomed an LGBT Catholic group to his Cathedral of the Sacred Heart - and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. “I was very pleased with the robust and mature discussion of complex issues like immigration, health care and religious liberty,” Cardinal Cupich told The Tablet in a phone interview at the conclusion of the public sessions. “There is a growing consensus on these issues as people are willing to grapple with their complexity.”
Cardinal Cupich has long been a force at meetings of the bishops’ conference, but his business-like interventions were more easily ignored when he was Bishop of Spokane, Washington.
Cardinal Tobin’s interventions meanwhile had a more prophetic quality, as he called his brother bishops to stand by immigrants at a time when fear has invaded the immigrant community. He questioned the “optics” of making the ad hoc committee on religious liberty a permanent, standing committee, while disbanding a working group on immigration. Indeed, so strong were the interventions, that USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo scrapped plans to disband the working group on immigration. Fifty-three bishops voted against making the religious liberty committee permanent, against 132 votes in favour.
The bishops also had a forceful discussion about health care. In 2009, the bishops’ conference opposed President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, but once enacted, they never called for its repeal. President Trump’s repeal proposals, currently making their way through Congress, would throw as many as 23 million people off the health insurance rolls and negatively affect the ability of Catholic hospitals to keep their doors open.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, said that the Obama health care law had “a lot of dishonesty”, repeating Republican complaints about the law. But, Bishop George Thomas of Helena, Montana warned of the “catastrophic effects” of the Republican proposals to repeal and replace the Obama-era law. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego agreed with Bishop Thomas’s warning, calling attention to the “breathtaking nature of the assault on a core principle of Catholic social teaching…that health care is a fundamental human right and government is its ultimate guarantor.”
PICTURE: Cardinal Tobin of Newark - pictured giving the homily during a Mass at which he took possession of his titular church of St Mary of the Graces in Rome on 29 January - lead the discussions