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If US bishops change their tune, don't blame Pope Francis

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 13, 2013

“Pope Francis doesn’t want cultural warriors, he doesn’t want ideologues,” Bishop Blaise Cupich of Spokane told the New York Times in an interview held during this week’s USCCB meeting. Well, if you put it that way, of course; the Pope doesn’t want ideologues. What sort of bishops does he want?

Over time, the Pope will presumably get the sort of bishops he wants, because ultimately the Pope is responsible for the appointments of new bishops. But sooner or later a new Pope comes along, with somewhat different priorities. What should bishops do then?

Should diocesan adjust their policies to support new initiatives from Rome? Absolutely. Should they take their cue from Rome, so that the universal Church speaks in harmony? Sure. But a good bishop doesn’t change his personality, or radically alter his pastoral style, just because a new Pope has taken charge. The task of the Pontiff is to bring unity amid diversity; the bishops supply the diversity.

The Roman Pontiff undoubtedly exercises his influence over the entire Catholic Church. But bishops, in their own dioceses, are not branch managers for a global corporation. They are leaders, too, with all the authority they need to minister to their particular Church.

This week we have seen scores of media reports suggesting that the American bishops will be changing their tune, especially on political issues, because of new signals from Rome. They needn’t, and probably shouldn’t, do so. Pope Francis has much good advice to offer to the world’s pastors, but he’s not an expert on how American Catholics should respond to questions in American public life.

Let’s apply this logic with a concrete example: the USCCB response to the HHS mandate, the subject that has caused the greatest friction between the American hierarchy and the Obama administration. If the US bishops back away from their promised defense of religious freedom, they’ll be acting on their own decision. Don’t blame Pope Francis; it’s the American bishops’ call.

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