The discussion of the U.S. bishops on the revised document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” during the second day of their annual fall general assembly revealed anew that the bishops continue to engage with the pontificate of Pope Francis. The pontiff has called the Church to proclaim God’s loving mercy to the world. How that is to be fulfilled pastorally on the local level of dioceses and parishes is still something of a work in progress, especially as the bishops offer very different interpretations.
Some bishops argued that the proposed version of “Faithful Citizenship” is inadequate as the political life of America is arguably different nearly a decade on. Others proposed that a new document instead of a revision would have been more fitting in order to reflect the pastoral priorities of this pontificate, with heightened stress on poverty and the environment. Still more — a clear majority given the final vote — preferred to keep the emphasis on abortion and the other issues that were so present in the 2008 election and that they believe remain among the most pressing crises for American Catholics in this decade. In their debate, bishops used the theological term “hermeneutic of continuity” to defend the revised text, arguing that the teachings of the social doctrine of the Church are still as relevant to the discussions today as they were in 2007, even as conversation continues as to how best to prioritize them in a bishops’ document.
Both groups of bishops offered the teachings of Pope Francis in defense of their positions, and both were trying in earnest to apply the papal vision not just to the document on helping voters form their consciences but to the whole approach to evangelization.
Some might see the debate as a fissure among the bishops, as though there is a split between supporters of Francis and opponents. A similar assertion was made during the synod of bishops by some in the media. More correctly, the bishops were fulfilling their duty to speak forthrightly among themselves regarding what they see as the best way ahead for the Church in the U.S. and not as a reflection of some “regime change” mentality, as one bishop lamented.
As it was, the revised statement was approved by a vote of 210 to 21, with 5 abstensions.
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