Joseph Fiorenza, Archbishop Emeritus of the 1.3 million-member Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, is a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (1998-2001). A leading social justice voice in the Church, Fiorenza spoke with Catholic Program Director John Gehring about the ways Pope Francis is setting a new tone and shaking up the Catholic conversation.
In your opinion, what has been the most important change Pope Francis has brought to the Church and why are most people responding to him so positively?
The Pope seems to want a Church that is inclusive and out in the world, a Church going to the peripheries, a Church that is involved in the truly human problems that are affecting so many, especially the problems of poverty. He is also demonstrating a desire to enter into dialogue with an open spirit, not only among Catholics, but all people of goodwill who want the world to be more fair and just and peaceful. And even with those who may be our opponents he wants to find points where we can agree. Even when we don’t agree we should show respect and dignity. Bishops have a lot to learn from him, especially his lifestyle. He has made a deliberate effort to distance himself from the imperial court of Rome. Bishops have to take a close look at ourselves to see how we can live more simply.
Pope Francis has faced criticism from some Catholic conservatives. The editor of First Things wrote that the Pope’s “naïve” and “undisciplined” rhetoric has been “used to beat up on faithful Catholics.” Bishop Tobin of Providence, RI expressed reservations that the Pope was not talking more about abortion. Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia acknowledged in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter that “the right wing of the church”…“generally have not been really happy about his (Francis’) election.” Why do you think he has faced this resistance?
The Pope’s very clear teaching condemning the “economy of exclusion” and the structures of sin that are involved strikes at the heart of some conservative Catholics who are so wedded to the unfettered free market that they think the Pope’s talk is naïve. Well, the Pope sees it as realistic. The poor of the world who suffer from that type of economic philosophy see it as realistic. The Pope is on a steady course. He is not naïve. He knows what he is doing.
Pope Francis makes it clear that he is opposed to abortion, but that can’t be the only thing we talk about. What he said early on in his papacy struck the heart of people who make abortion the whole agenda. The Pope is saying we have to oppose abortion but there must be a broader agenda. Some pro-life advocates don’t like to hear that and think if you take the focus off abortion you weaken your position. The Pope is saying you weaken your pro-life position when you don’t take a broader view of issues that attack human life. Some people think there are only sins that are intrinsic evil, but the Pope is saying the economy has built in a structure that strongly impacts against the humanity of people and that is an evil too. Some pro-lifers don’t want to hear intrinsic evil entering into the conversation when it comes to the economy. By broadening the focus, he is strengthening our preaching against abortion.
As someone who is a leading voice in the Church on economic justice issues, do you think we will see a more robust emphasis on economic justice from the U.S. hierarchy because of Pope Francis?
If you take the “Gospel of Joy” (the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium) as guidance, I can’t help but think that will cause the bishops of this country to be more sensitive to the problems of the poor than they have been. That will take a while because there is an element in the church… some of the bishops of my time see these things more clearly than some of the new bishops who have come along in recent decades. But I’m hopeful that with Pope Francis they will broaden their views about the many ways human life are under attack.
Bishop McElroy of San Francisco has written in America magazine that the “substance and methodology of Pope Francis’ teachings on the rights of the poor have enormous implications for the culture and politics of the United States and for the church in this country…These teachings demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.” Do you agree? Talk about what this “transformation” might look like?
I agree completely with him. He is a young bishop but a bright light in the conference, and we would do well to listen more carefully to what he is saying. There has been discussion about some limited revision of Faithful Citizenship. (the U.S. bishops’ political responsibility statement.) The last time it didn’t include enough about what Pope Benedict said about economic justice in Caritas in Veritate. Hopefully, we will begin to see in Faithful Citizenship more emphasis on what Francis is saying about the poor. That will be a sign of how well Francis’ influence is taking root among the bishops of the United States.
Over the past several decades, the late Cardinal Bernardin’s vision of a Church that is known for “a consistent ethic of life” seems to have diminished some as U.S. church leaders put greater emphasis on fighting issues like civil same-sex marriage. Research from scholars like Robert Putnam of Harvard University and others shows that young Christians have left organized religion in part because of the perception that Church leaders are too cozy with a narrow conservative political agenda. Do you see this as a challenge for U.S. Catholic bishops?
I think there is truth in that perspective. A lot of young people are far more attracted when they see the Church opposing the death penalty, for example, where we have seen great progress and much more so than in my generation. I also think when young people see we are in the streets working with the poor I think that will make a difference.
How is Pope Francis different from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the late Pope John Paul II?
I think he has a broader view. He comes from Latin America and has seen first hand the effects of globalization on his own people.
There is a lot of anticipation for the October Synod at the Vatican. Do you think there will be changes regarding the availability of Sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics?
We should be guided by the spirit of the Gospel in a way that upholds the dignity or marriage. Hopefully, there will be a consideration of ways to have a path that includes these people (divorced and remarried) in the life of the Church but in a way that is not in conflict with the Church’s teachings on marriage.
Pope Francis has fully embraced the teachings of the Second Vatican Council for the laity to take an active role in Church life. What role do you see the laity playing in implementing the Francis agenda?
I hope they will be up front and strong about implementing that agenda in their parishes and dioceses. The “Gospel of Joy” can be their diocesan plan. If that becomes the starting point I think lay people will make a very positive contribution.
Some Catholics have expressed disappointment that Pope Francis has allowed the oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to continue. Are you hopeful for a positive resolution in that tense situation between Rome and women religious?
I think if Pope Francis had stopped the process it would have been perceived as him disagreeing with Benedict so I’m not really surprised the oversight (of LCWR) continued. But my hope is there is much more dialogue going on, and I hope they have a chance to meet with Pope Francis. Hopefully, there will be more voices coming forward among bishops who want to get this issue resolved. The Church has grown and been strengthened in this country because of women religious. They have been doing what Pope Francis has been talking about in the streets of the world, in the prisons. They have done that far more effectively than anyone else in the church.
As someone who has been a Church leader for many years you can take the long view. Are you hopeful about the future of the Church?
I am hopeful as long as we continue to support what Pope Francis is doing and what he is trying to achieve. We have to take what he is saying seriously. We need bishops who reflect his style, and lay people 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.