Baltimore’s newly restored Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a fitting scene for the opening mass of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2006 annual meeting. Even as demonstrations by liberal and conservative groups raged outside, the clergy stayed inside discussing the interior church revitalization.
The demonstrations underscored the reality that the Church is still recovering from its abuse scandals and the politicization of its sacraments in 2004. But the newly renovated church building symbolized the possibilities for a much-needed renewal within the American Catholic church as a whole.
The Bishops intended to focus solely on deliberations regarding internal doctrine of the Church at this year’s meeting, and include an extra day in closed-session for sensitive internal discussions on issues such as homosexuality, contraception, and the clergy abuse scandals.
At the last-minute, a statement on the war in Iraq was added to the first day of the meeting. Archbishop Skylstad of Spokane wrote on behalf of the bishops: “Our nation’s military forces should remain in Iraq only as long as their presence contributes to a responsible transition. Our country should look for effective ways to end their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with this goal.”
Catholics identified the moral issues of Iraq as the most important issue to them in last week’s election, and 55 percent voted against conservative leaders supporting the war, pushing the Bishops into making a statement.
Stephen Colecchi, the Director for the Bishops’ Office for International Justice and Peace, told The Chicago Tribune that “The election pointed out how much this was weighing on the minds of Americans. There’s always a pastoral dimension for American people, for military and troops, for the people of Iraq, and particularly for brothers and sisters in the Christian community, which finds itself particularly vulnerable.” Rev. Thomas J. Reese, the former editor of America magazine and a 2006 conference attendee, similarly told The Baltimore Sun, “The bishops read the exit polls and saw that the voters felt the biggest moral issue facing the country was Iraq, and so they felt they needed to say something about it.”
The U.S. Bishops Conference is charged with the spiritual guidance of their American flock. It is therefore appropriate that they spend a significant portion of their time at the conference deliberating the internal spiritual matters of their church. But this agenda should not come at the expense of not responding to the Catholic laity’s call for clear moral guidance on today’s most important social, economic, and foreign policy issues. The majority of Catholics who voted last week for a change in America’s policy in Iraq can find encouragement in the Bishops’ decision to speak again on Iraq. Their principled call for pragmatic solutions and government that works towards a global common good exemplifies the non-partisan teaching tradition of the American Bishops.
In the same vein, the Bishops must also reflect on the wider political issues that have driven their congregants into the streets and to polling places across America in recent days. The Bishops’ statement on the war should be followed by continued advocacy on the most pressing issues of the day: restoring just wages for our workers, passing fair comprehensive immigration reform, and protecting the human dignity of those in American military detention.
Catholic candidates and Catholic voters made a powerful call last week for common good politics as an alternative to the politics of the rampant commercialized individualism engulfing America today. During the conference, and once they return to their home communities, the Bishops must continue to respond to their congregations’ recent votes on behalf of the common good with support and calls for justice.
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