I found the headlines covering last week’s meeting of the U.S. bishops in New Orleans to be fairly amusing: According to some reports, the bishops were shifting their agenda due to the “Pope Francis effect” and trying to match the tone now coming out of the Vatican; according to others they were “ignoring Pope Francis” by voting to stay the course on cultural issues like contraception and same-sex marriage.
As is often the case with such things, the reality is somewhere in the middle. The bishops are a large and diverse group, and I don’t think anyone realistically could have anticipated a radical shift in the conference’s overall agenda. Some bishops have surely been taking the pope’s words to heart and thinking about how that impacts their work, while others are much less concerned with what’s being said in Rome than they are with what is happening in their own backyard. And the media knows that people are going to be a lot more interested in a story about the bishops if they can tie it to the popular pope in some way, even though efforts to attribute major change to Francis have proven a bit premature.
If you want a more measured look at what Francis means for the bishops and their agenda, read the interview with retired Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, a former president of the bishops’ conference and archbishop emeritus of Galveston-Houston, Texas. In a conversation with Faith in Public Life’s John Gehring, Fiorenza puts the pope’s words and actions in context and offers some ideas of what bishops, and the church at large, can learn from Francis:
“We have to take what he is saying seriously. We need bishops who reflect his style, and laypeople have to be involved so that this Francis era is not just a passing moment but salt and light for our church for many years to come.”