They are rethinking what kinds of houses they live in, and what kinds of cars they drive. They are wondering whether, in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election, they need to rewrite their advice to parishioners to make sure that poverty, and not just abortion, is discussed as a high-priority issue. And they are trying to get better about returning phone calls, reaching out to the disenchanted and the disenfranchised, and showing up at events.
Fifteen months into the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States find themselves unsettled in ways large and small, revisiting both how they live and what they talk about in light of the new pope’s emphasis on personal humility and economic justice.
Over the last several days as the bishops gathered here for their semiannual meeting, they grappled with the substantive and stylistic implications of a still-new papacy.
After several of their colleagues faced recent criticism for lavish houses, several bishops said in interviews that they were paying new attention to their own spending, mindful of the pope’s decision to eschew the apostolic palace for a small suite in a Vatican guesthouse, and aware that their parishioners are concerned about how the church uses its money.
“They have a justifiable demand that we not spend extravagantly on ourselves, but that we share those goods with others, and he’s really forced that issue,” said Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash. Bishop Cupich noted that he owns no furniture and lives in a room at a seminary, and he said he is re-evaluating his diocesan budget to make sure it emphasizes assisting the poor.
Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson said he, too, thinks about Francis as he shapes his agenda, which, he said, now focuses on poverty, homelessness, addiction, violence and immigration. And, he said, he is mindful of his own spending.
“We have to have a home, have to have a car that’s not going to fall apart in the middle of the desert, but within reason we have to live simply,” he said. “The Holy Father is such a model of trying to live with simplicity, and that is working its way into the lives of bishops.”
Spending was clearly on the minds of the church’s leaders, some of whom live in grand homes and preach in landmark churches built decades ago as testaments to Catholicism’s acceptance and success after a period of discrimination in the United States. Asked a general question about the pope’s impact on bishops, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, responded with a defense of the upscale hotel where the bishops were meeting, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.
“We have to meet at a hotel that’s big enough to hold us,” he said. “We have to meet at a hotel that’s big enough to allow media to attend.”
The shift in tone at the Vatican has been disquieting for some bishops. The archbishop of Indianapolis, Joseph W. Tobin, recently told a group of theologians, “What I’ve seen is how disruptive Pope Francis has been within the hierarchy of the United States,” according to The National Catholic Reporter. “I was talking to a couple of brother bishops a while back and they were saying that bishops and priests were very discouraged by Pope Francis because he was challenging them.”
But the bishops are clearly watching with interest. “Priests and bishops are paying close attention to what he’s saying, and reading it,” John Garvey, the president of the Catholic University of America, said in a telephone interview. Mr. Garvey said he was struck by how often church officials mentioned to him something the pope had only just said. “I don’t remember hearing that in the past about Benedict and John Paul.”
The business of the bishops’ meeting — presentations about clergy sexual abuse and assistance to victims of flooding in the Philippines, as well as about the church’s battles against same-sex marriage and in favor of religious freedom — was planned months ago.
But on Thursday morning, the bishops also spent several hours discussing poverty and the relationship between marriage and economic well-being, both topics chosen to reflect the pope’s priorities. Helen M. Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University, told the bishops that the Francis papacy was “an inflection point in the life of the church.”
The bishops’ willingness to adapt their agenda to reflect that of Francis will most likely be tested next year, when they must decide how to update their quadrennial guide for Catholic voters. The American bishops, almost all of them appointed by Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict, are a conservative group who have emphasized opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion in recent years and have been unable to reach a consensus on economic issues. On Wednesday, they began a discussion, which will continue through next year, about whether and how to incorporate the priorities of Francis in the 2016 version of the guide, which is called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”
“We need to keep talking about the hot-button issues that we’ve been talking about for a long time, but not just those issues,” Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans said in an interview. He added, “We don’t, perhaps, at times talk enough about the poor, about the economy, and we don’t perhaps talk enough about reaching out to those with disabilities, those whose voices are not heard.”
Archbishop Aymond said he has tried to address this in one small way himself, by returning phone calls and letters, and by reminding himself, “people shouldn’t always have to go through several others to get to us.”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the gathering that, if the voters’ guide is not revised, “it will not include anything of the teachings of Pope Francis.” And Bishop Robert W. McElroy, an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco, suggested that the document’s discussion of evil, now focused on abortion and racism, should be revisited in light of the pope’s description of economic inequality as a social evil.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Houston, who has been leading the bishops’ effort to consider reworking “Faithful Citizenship,” said the document would not shy away from the abortion issue, which he called “very important, crucial, significant, one of the chief issues” and “nonnegotiable.” But, he said, to reflect Francis’ agenda, the bishops would also “want to make sure we speak very insistently about the role of poverty, about the role of the economy.”
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia is leading the bishops’ most Francis-friendly effort — to persuade the pope to visit that city next year, when a large gathering of Catholic families is planned there. Archbishop Chaput said he already had “good reasons to believe” the pope would come to the event. But just in case, the entire bishops’ conference agreed to send a letter to Francis, inviting him to attend, and, in the process, to make what would be his first trip to the United States as pope.