BALTIMORE — When Pope Francis was elected, the change in tone was as sudden as it was dramatic. From the moment he stepped onto
the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and asked the people to pray for him, the new pontiff’s humility and warmth signaled an intention to remake the church’s image and, possibly, to transform it from within.
Francis’s effect on American bishops is emerging more gradually. The deeply traditionalist body of more than 250 voting prelates has been consumed in recent years with fighting gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers provide access to contraception coverage. Critics say the bishops have alienated gay Catholics and progressives while using relatively little of their political firepower to battle rising poverty.
Still, in the bishops’ annual general assembly in Baltimore this week, unmistakable signs emerged that change is afoot.
In his address to members, the outgoing president, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, tacked away from the theme that his dominated his three-year tenure, the contraception mandate, which bishops view as an assault on religious liberty at home. Instead, he talked about Christian persecution abroad.
Later, a retired archbishop stood and asked whether the bishops could add addressing poverty to their stated priorities for the next three years, given Pope Francis’s urgent calls to Catholics to become “a poor church for the poor.” The other bishops burst into applause.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, an influential traditionalist who has been critical of Francis’s lack of outreach to conservatives, surprised observers when he said he would put online a Vatican questionnaire dealing with controversial topics such as gay relationships, remarriage, and contraception.
The Vatican’s detailed request for wide input, itself unusual, is in preparation for worldwide bishops’ synods on family and marriage in Rome in 2014 and 2015.
A number of bishops said they did not have enough time to collect feedback from the people in the pews. But Chaput said placing the survey online would help him hear from as many parishioners as possible.
“I have several e-mails coming in telling me people expect to do this because the Holy Father wants it,” he said. “So I think there’s an expectation on the part of our people to be able to respond.”
Rocco Palmo, who writes the widely read church insiders’ blog Whispers in the Loggia, said Chaput’s remark at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting caught his attention.
“I’ve never heard anything like that” at a bishops’ conference, he said.
Palmo, noting that many bishops quoted Francis in their spontaneous remarks and questions on the floor, said he could not recall another bishops’ meeting so dominated by the specter of the pope.
Francis “has been so rapturously received, not just in the wider world and in the press, but it’s making an impact on the life of the church at the ground level,” Palmo said.
And so, Palmo said, it is no surprise that the bishops are reacting.
Indeed, in an interview Wednesday on “CBS This Morning,” Dolan gushed about the “Francis effect” on the church.
“I can’t walk down the streets of our beloved New York without people coming up to me saying: ‘Thanks for Pope Francis. You guys did a good job. We love him,’ ” Dolan said. “And I hear from our parish priests. They’re telling me the crowds at Sunday Mass are up, the confession lines are longer, inquiries about the Catholic faith are more abundant, and even the collections are going up.”
The bishops have hardly had a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus style conversion to the more populist, expansive view of the church that many Catholics see as Pope Francis’s vision.
While some of the prelates decided to put the synod questionnaire online, not all thought it was necessary or feasible to do so.
And the bishops put out a statement Wednesday expressing disappointment about Hawaii’s legalization of gay marriage.
Leaders of the conference made plans to take up a special collection for typhoon victims in the Philippines, but did not focus on how they could more fully embrace the “poor church for the poor” that Francis envisions in the coming years.
Wednesday afternoon, the bishops reaffirmed their opposition to the contraception mandate, vowing to continue fighting it in Congress and the courts.
The bishops said an accommodation for religious nonprofits is inadequate.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said it usually takes a while for a new pope to have a significant effect on bishops’ conferences.
“If you look at it historically, it took John Paul II at least five years before he had an impact on the bishops’ conference, because it takes time to appoint new bishops who reflect the new pope’s priorities,” he said.
“The people who still want to make abortion, gay marriage, and contraception the nonnegotiable priorities of the church are just not going to change,” he said.
The bishops returned to their tradition of choosing as president the sitting vice president, following a stunning aberration three years ago when they picked Dolan, a genial culture warrior with a larger-than-life personality, over the vice president at that time, who was seen as less fiery.
The new president — Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, who holds a master’s degree in social work and spent years leading the Catholic Charities affiliate in Allentown, Pa. — paraphrased the pope in his first press conference, saying the bishops’ great task would be to “warm hearts and heal wounds.”
Kurtz, former chairman of the US bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage and Family Life, is hardly a liberal. A recent profile in the Louisville Courier-Journal noted he has prayed outside abortion clinics and disappointed progressives by failing to support state legislation prohibiting antigay discrimination.
But he may be more in tune with Francis’s sensibility than some prelates. He lives in a walk-up apartment next to the city’s cathedral and regularly visits the homeless, according to the Courier-Journal.
Michael Sean Winters, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter and The Tablet, said Kurtz is aligned with no ideological camp within the bishops’ conference.
“He did get his start doing social justice ministry as a priest in Allentown, so I think he will be conversant in that language in the way some of the others may not be, or have chosen not to be,” Winters added.
Christopher Jolly Hale, senior fellow with the social justice group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said Kurtz’s election heralds a shift in the bishops’ sensibility, albeit a slight one. He pointed to a subtle difference between the answers Dolan and Kurtz gave to reporters in separate press conferences this week when asked what more the church could do to address poverty.
Dolan said the church could always “tweak” its approach, but that the church is already doing plenty to help the poor.
Kurtz said the bishops were “very much in solidarity with the pope” on addressing poverty, adding, “Can we do more? Of course we can; there isn’t a question about that,” he said.
“I think it’s the beginning of a journey — this isn’t an answer we would have gotten three years ago,” Hale said.