By Carol Zimmermann
NEW ORLEANS (CNS) — The U.S. Catholic bishops June 11 unanimously approved by voice vote a three-year extension of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, a proposal for a limited revision of their quadrennial statement offering guidance for election decisions and to continue to use current guidelines for permanent diaconate formation.
The votes came on the first day of the bishops’ June 11-13 annual spring assembly in New Orleans.
To keep down costs, especially since they had only three items requiring a vote, the bishops did not use electronic voting but simply expressed “ayes,” and in this case, no “nays.”
Prior to the vote about extending the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom for three years, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, the committee chair, compared the body’s work to the “humble beginnings of the pro-life movement.”
He noted that the March for Life, which began a year after the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, was initially a small gathering and now is the “largest pro-life march in the world.”
Organizers of these initial efforts, he said, didn’t expect changes overnight, but are now seeing shifts in opinion on abortion, especially as polls show how “young people are more pro-life than their parents.”
That effort, he said, has taken a lot of hard work in building bridges, policy work and teaching with pastoral sensitivity about the value of life.
“We find ourselves in a comparable situation with religious freedom,” he said.
Although the ad hoc committee was formed in 2011, the “need for its sustained work is at least as great as when it started,” Archbishop Lori told the bishops.
He noted it has gotten “off to a good start, but there is more work to be done.”
In a question-and-answer period, bishops voiced their support for the ad hoc committee. Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle said that to stop it would “send a bad message to our own” and to those who oppose its work.
Others said the ad hoc committee’s efforts, particularly through materials it provides to dioceses, have been helpful. One bishop pointed out how lay Catholics have gotten behind the issue of religious liberty and hoped the momentum would continue.
For the U.S. church, chief among threats to religious liberty is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that most employers provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs.
Another item the bishops passed was the vote for a limited revision of their quadrennial statement offering Catholics guidance for election decisions and drafting a new introductory note for it. The most recent iteration, in 2007, is called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.”
The revision and draft will be presented to the U.S. bishops at their annual fall assembly in November.
The introduction to the current statement on political responsibility reminds Catholics that some issues “involve the clear obligation to oppose intrinsic evils which can never be justified,” while others “require action to pursue justice and promote the common good.”
Since 1976, the Catholic bishops have issued a quadrennial statement linking church teachings to political responsibility. In October 2011, the bishops issued a new introduction to the document.
A note in the 2011 introduction clarifies that the document “does not offer a voters’ guide, scorecard of issues or direction on how to vote.” Instead, it “applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues and warns against misguided appeals to ‘conscience’ to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological or personal interests.”
Nine bishops’ committees: pro-life, migration, education, communications, doctrine, domestic justice, international justice and peace, cultural diversity, and laity, marriage, family life and youth are weighing in on the document signed by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the chairmen of these committees.
In asking bishops to consider revising the document, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the USCCB’s vice president, noted that to do nothing to the document would leave out the magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis and to start from scratch on a new version of the document would fail to acknowledge the work that went into the 2007 version.
The cardinal proposed a limited revision of the 2007 document, which the bishops unanimously approved. He also recommended the drafting of a new introductory note that would be submitted to the general assembly for possible approval. The bishops unanimously approved of that decision as well.
The bishops also voted to permit the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations to seek a renewal of Vatican approval, or “recognitio,” for the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. Vatican approval would be for another five-year period.
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