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Cardinal O’Malley stresses work for the poor

Says US bishops must emphasize church programs

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, at the bishops’ meeting.

Patrick Semansky/AP

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, at the bishops’ meeting.

BALTIMORE — Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said American bishops should do more to highlight the church’s work on poverty in response to Pope Francis’s call to Catholics to be “a church for the poor.”

O’Malley, in an interview Monday during the annual gathering of US bishops, said the church is often seen as more engaged in “culture war” issues such as abortion and gay marriage than in caring for the impoverished. That perception — which O’Malley said may be driven by those who want to distort the church’s image — must be corrected, he added.

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“The US bishops’ conference is very engaged in all of these issues, in Catholic Relief Services, immigration [advocacy], Catholic Charities, but unfortunately those kinds of things fade into the background,” said O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston. “And so I think it’s very important for us to make them front and center in people’s minds. Because that’s what being a Catholic is all about.”

Speaking with a reporter for the first time since America magazine and other Jesuit journals published a blockbuster interview with Pope Francis in September, O’Malley said the pope’s compassion and outreach toward the suffering and marginalized have “caught people’s imagination and sparked a lot of enthusiasm.”

“The word he uses over and over again is ‘tenderness’ — so often, he talks about our need to take care of each other, that we have responsibility for each other,” he said. “In a world that’s grown so individualistic and so polarized, his message is the antidote to that.”

At the bishops’ annual fall gathering Monday, liberal Catholic groups called on US prelates to heed Francis’ call to emphasize the broader Gospel teachings of compassion and mercy rather than specific teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and contraception. Critics of the bishops say they have allowed those issues to eclipse economic and social justice in recent years.

Catholic Democrats and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good on Monday asked the bishops to hold a nationwide poverty awareness program, similar in scope to the bishops’ protest of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide access to contraception coverage. (The final rules exempt religious employers and provide an accommodation for religious nonprofits that object, but the bishops still have concerns.)

O’Malley said the idea of a campaign to raise awareness around poverty may be “something that the church needs to look at,” but the church has always been far more involved in health care, education, and social services than in constitutional issues.

He said he remains concerned, though, about the health care law. The bishops are trying to figure out what to do when the law takes effect Jan. 1.

A few bishops have suggested shutting down non-exempt Catholic organizations, but O’Malley — who ended Catholic adoption services in Boston rather than comply with a state law requiring the church to arrange adoptions for gay parents as well as heterosexual ones — said that “closing the institutions down is also an evil for us.”

And yet, he said, there is a danger in allowing any erosion of religious liberty.

“The government is interfering in our ability to run a Catholic institution,” he said. “If you’re telling us you have to provide [access to] abortion counseling, then what’s to stop them from next year saying . . . we want you to practice physician-assisted suicide, and to have abortions in your Catholic clinics?”

He said, in any case, the church should not remain silent about its moral teachings. Although some gay Catholics have urged the bishops to end their campaigns against gay marriage in light of Francis’ words, for example, O’Malley said the church should not stop opposing gay marriage. But he stressed that gay people are “always, always, always welcome” in church.

“We don’t propose that as a way of trying to diminish the dignity of a homosexual person, but we really see [heterosexual marriage] as very important for family and for society, and it’s the optimal way to do it,” he said.

O’Malley, as the blog Whispers in the Loggia reported, considered proposing the creation of a political action committee to help the church more effectively explain its teachings in the public square. But in Monday’s interview, he said he nixed the idea, saying the bishops could be seen as overly political. O’Malley said he hopes advocacy groups will do the work instead.

O’Malley has become an increasingly significant figure in the US church since the conclave to choose a new pope in March, when he captured the hearts of many Catholics as a dark horse papabile, or potential candidate for pope. Pope Francis signaled his trust in the Capuchin Franciscan friar by naming him to a council of eight cardinals to advise the pontiff on reforming church governance.

O’Malley is the only American in the group, which held its first meeting in Rome last month. Its first task is to rewrite the constitution of the curia, the bureaucracy of the Vatican, which has been plagued by scandal.

“Our great hope is that out of this, the central government of the Catholic Church will be more connected to the universal church, and more in the service of the bishops and dioceses throughout the world,” O’Malley said Monday. “It will be an effective way for the Holy Father to carry out his ministry, not an obstacle, but something that will help him.”

It was partly because of this new responsibility that O’Malley, who in addition to running a large archdiocese is also chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said he declined a nomination by his fellow bishops to be president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops will choose a successor to Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, outgoing president, by secret ballot on Tuesday.

Asked about Martin J. Walsh, Boston’s cardinal said he was happy that Boston’s mayor-to-be has a good rapport with minority communities and that Walsh had been “very supportive” of Catholic schools.

And, he added, “I like his Boston accent.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.
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