Francis warns US bishops against ‘divisive’ language

Published 9:56 am Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis told U.S. bishops on Wednesday they should avoid “harsh and divisive” language and create a church with the warmth of a “family fire” as he laid out a vision for American Catholicism far from the defensive stands on social issues that have put church leaders at the center of the culture wars.

At a prayer service at Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Francis told the bishops he was aware that “the field in which you sow is unyielding” and that there’s a temptation “to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.”

But he urged the bishops to find ways to reach people “with the power and closeness of love,” which he said “counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.”

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“Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor. It has no place in his heart,” Francis said. “Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

The pope’s comments were the latest of his exhortations to throw open the doors of the church to all, no matter a person’s beliefs and behavior, using the metaphor of a field hospital that healed wounds first before addressing other problems. But the talk Wednesday took on special emphasis, coming on the first full day of the pope’s first U.S. visit, with the nation’s bishops assembled before him.

Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey, said the pope “just took the war out of the culture wars.”

Many U.S. bishops have been unsettled by Francis’ approach. Nearly all had been appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who prioritized guarding orthodoxy against what they saw as an onslaught from secularism and doctrinal confusion sown by Catholics the bishops considered disloyal to the church.

While bishops continued to aid the poor and immigrants through their massive network of social service agencies and schools, they increasingly put resources into high-profile fights against gay marriage, abortion and insurer-provided birth control. The bishops said they had no choice, given the advance of government policies they found immoral. As leaders of the largest denomination in the country, they became torchbearers for religious conservatives across faith traditions and became embroiled in polarizing political fights.