By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – While the June meeting of the U.S. bishops is often considered to be the more lackluster of their two annual gatherings, at least in terms of news content, as they meet in Fort Lauderdale, Florida this week, major topics are on the agenda including healthcare, immigration, and religious liberty – all of which correspond to pressing issues on the national scene.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the bishops will discuss new revisions to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services. The guidelines, now in their fifth edition and last updated in 2009, have yet to be updated since the Affordable Care Act was put into place.
The proposed revisions revolve primarily around collaboration with non-Catholic healthcare providers, as mergers have become increasingly common. In 2014, the bishops voted overwhelmingly at their November meeting to make revisions to better reflect Catholic moral principles on cooperation with non-Catholic entities.
Just one week after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a baker who sought legal protections from baking a cake for a gay wedding in one of the most closely watched religious liberty cases in recent years, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who serves as Chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, will give an update on the work of the Committee.
The Committee for Religious Liberty was made a permanent committee of the USCCB following a vote at the meeting last June, and Archbishop Kurtz was elected in November to serve as its head.
His report will also come just days before the USCCB kicks off its annual religious freedom week, with this year’s theme dedicated to “Serving Others in God’s Love.” The week will be observed from June 22-29 and has been condensed into a one-week period, rather than the previously marked “Fortnight for Freedom.”
Looming over the entire meeting, however, will be the question of immigration, which has undeniably become the focal point of the USCCB since the election of President Donald Trump.
In particular, the bishops have worked to promote a permanent solution to the DACA program that protects qualified individuals who came to the United States as minors from deportation.
In late April, the U.S. bishops announced that they were supporting the USA Act, a bipartisan bill, which would provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers and would include border security initiatives.
Last week Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced that Republicans would draft “compromise legislation” on immigration to be voted on this fall. However it remains unclear whether he will fend off backlash within his own party from lawmakers demanding action sooner.
Along with a discussion on the national immigration debate, there will be an update on the “Share the Journey” campaign, launched last year by Pope Francis in an effort to promote greater global awareness of the plight of refugees and immigrants.
In addition to the pressing policy matters at hand, the bishops will be discussing three areas of pastoral concern: a response to the Asian and Pacific Island Catholics in the United States, the upcoming Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, and the V National Encuentro.
The Synod update will primarily serve as a briefing on the March 2018 pre-Synodal meeting of young people that took place in Rome, which resulted in a document that will contribute to the “Instrumentum Laboris” which guides the Synod discussions in Rome this October.
The V National Encuentro, which takes place this coming September in Grapevine, Texas, will serve as the capstone of a four year process of discernment and reflection for the U.S. Church’s Hispanic and Latino ministry.
And while the eyes of the world are on the Church’s ongoing response to clerical sex abuse as Pope Francis continues to respond to the fallout of the crisis in Chile, a vote will be taken on proposed revisions to the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The vote will take place as Church officials await the release of a much-anticipated Grand Jury report in Pennsylvania that has investigated six of the eight dioceses in the state and their handling of abuse cases.
The report will be the most extensive probe to take place in the United States and could have broad ramifications throughout the nation. Its release comes 16 years after the U.S. bishops first established their Charter at its 2002 June meeting in Dallas to combat the national crisis of clerical sex abuse – a reminder that while the summer meetings might not be as closely followed, they can still be consequential.