BALTIMORE -- The nation's Catholic bishops on Tuesday declined to approve a message on the economy that many of them felt ignored critical causes of poverty on the same day that they unanimously endorsed sainthood for Dorothy Day, a 20th-century advocate for the poor who founded the Catholic Worker movement.
The more than 200 bishops "looked for the best words and way to address [economic woes] in terms of a statement. ... But whatever we have to say on the economy has to be clearly stated in action. And Dorothy Day is a perfect example of that," said Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif.
The one public policy statement to emerge during the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was from Archbishop Jose Gomez, chairman of their committee on migration, urging presidential leadership and bipartisan cooperation on comprehensive immigration reform next year.
"We have witnessed family separation, exploitation, and the loss of life caused by the current system," he wrote. "As a moral matter, this suffering must end."
Along with urging the canonization of Day, the bishops approved formal prayers for the Oct. 5 feast day of Blessed Francis X. Seelos, who spent the bulk of his ministry in Pittsburgh.
Their proposed message on the economy was drafted in haste, so that few bishops saw it until shortly before their annual fall meeting. Many bishops harshly criticized it, saying it neglected major concerns of Catholic social teaching on matters such as the impact of federal spending cuts on the poor, while bringing in issues that were marginal to the economy.
For instance, a passage of the original draft -- eliminated in a Monday night rewrite -- linked same-sex marriage to a breakdown of the family that was associated with poverty.
Retired Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, a former president of the bishops' conference, urged them to reject it. "There are many issues which are very important to us, but they really are not pertinent to this particular document," he said.
Although the document received a majority, it fell 18 votes short of the required two-thirds majority, failing by 134-85.
"Something was missing," Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said later. The outcome "shows that the bishops all took this very seriously. We didn't want a statement for the sake of a statement. I hope the bottom line is that people will see how concerned we are about the hardship they are suffering. This wasn't because we aren't sensitive to their situation but because we wanted to speak sensitively to their situation."
A few hours later some of the bishops offered their personal testimony of meeting or working with Day, who died in 1980, giving unanimous endorsement to the work toward her canonization. She passed a preliminary step in 2000, but church law requires a group of bishops to affirm that there is widespread devotion to the candidate.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York presented her cause, noting at a news conference that she has faced opposition. Some right-wing Catholics have opposed her canonization because she was a fierce social critic of the American system and some left-wing Catholics have opposed her because she was very traditional in her faith, he said.
Some non-Catholic commentators have suggested that the church won't canonize a woman who had an abortion, as she did before her conversion and later wrote of it with deep regret.
But many bishops said all of that is what makes her so appealing a saint.
"Of all the people that we need to reach out to, all the people who are hard to get at, the ones who are street people, the ones on drugs, the ones who had abortions ... she was one of them," said retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. "What a tremendous opportunity we have to say to them, you cannot only be brought back into society and into the church, you can be a saint."
The bishops gave preliminary approval -- Vatican approval is required -- to formal prayers for the feast day of Blessed Francis X. Seelos, who spent nine years as a pastor in Pittsburgh. After the Civil War, he went to New Orleans where he died at the age of 48 from yellow fever, which he caught while caring for victims of an epidemic.
"He was a model of what it means to be completely devoted to your ministry," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., who was bishop of Pittsburgh when Seelos was beatified in 2000.
Cardinal Wuerl was also the creator of "The Light Is on For You," a program to encourage the sacrament of Confession, during his Pittsburgh tenure. Its centerpiece is to have one night a week when every parish simultaneously has a priest waiting to hear Confession. The bishops are now promoting it nationally in a brief statement they wrote urging Catholics to return to the widely neglected sacrament.
Bishop Zubik believes the program led to a lasting increase in Pittsburgh confessions.
"I'm hearing that from a number of pastors," he said. "Father [Kris] Stubna at the cathedral talks about the phenomenal number of people who go to Confession, especially young people and college students."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.