BALTIMORE -- From their opening prayer, Roman Catholic bishops at their semiannual meeting took pains Monday to align themselves with Pope Francis' call for a more pastoral church and to say it harmonized rather than clashed with their ongoing battles over same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act and religious liberty.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched its four-day, meeting, with Pope Francis' ambassador to the United States imploring them to unite behind the pope, "trusting in the way he sees best to live out his mission to mankind."
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, warned that the church's health depends on the bishops' credibility, just as America's political polarization "began as Americans lost confidence in their leaders."
"The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people," Archbishop Vigano said. "... He wants 'pastoral' bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology." He quoted Pope Paul VI that "modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers." However, he also quoted Pope John XXIII, seen by many progressive Catholics as a champion akin to Pope Francis, as saying the best way to be pastoral is to promote the church's teachings.
Leaders of the conference said they embraced the pope's vision, with conference vice president Joseph E. Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville, Ky., opening with a prayer affirming Pope Francis' mission to "rebuild the church" and bring "mercy and love to the entire world."
And Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York spoke of Pope Francis as offering a change in tone rather than substance, saying popes offer different "cues" -- with Pope Francis' call for a humbler church complementing his predecessors' calls for a "new evangelization" to reach estranged Catholics.
"Without stopping that [new evangelization], let's put on the glasses of the poor church" working on behalf of the poor, Cardinal Dolan said.
Cardinal Dolan, completing his three-year term as president of the bishops conference, used his final address to raise attention to the deadly persecution of Christians in countries such as Syria, Nigeria and India.
Bishops in recent years have protested what they see as encroachments on religious liberty in the U.S. via same-sex marriage -- citing cases of wedding-industry vendors being required legally to provide services at same-sex weddings even if they morally disapprove of them -- and the Affordable Care Act's mandate that many employers provide insurance that covers contraceptives.
Cardinal Dolan said this situation "pales in comparison" to global persecution. "We don't have people being macheted on the way home from Mass," he said.
Nevertheless, he said, Christians overseas have encouraged bishops to uphold the United States' historic constitutional freedoms. These, they tell him, are "a beacon to the world, and if that religious liberty crumbles in the United States, we're going to be worse off."
The bishops used part of their conference to continue their protests against same-sex marriage. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the bishops it was important to keep emphasizing the issue as part of the "life-affirming message of the gospel" and as serving the "common good of the country."
Responding to those who say the bishops are trying to impose their values on others, Archbishop Cordileone said, "Those who disagree with us are trying to impose their views on us."
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. -- a native of and former bishop of Pittsburgh -- said Pope Francis' dramatic gestures to the poor and to estranged Catholics harmonize with the stronger emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy by his predecessors, such as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.
"We're a 2,000-year-old institution," Cardinal Wuerl said. "The teaching in the Apostles' Creed hasn't changed," only the ways of expressing it.
He said he has friends who long have been inactive in church life telling him they are returning to Mass due to the witness of Pope Francis, saying "he sounds like the church should sound."
Other people, Cardinal Wuerl acknowledged, are asking him whether the new pontiff is "saying what we always believed."
"It's the same teaching," he said. "It's just being said in a way that is more approachable. When we were growing up, the rules that my mother and father laid down were the same. They sounded better when my mother was saying them."
Some 262 bishops -- 33 of them retired with rights to speak but not vote at the meetings -- are gathered at the conference at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront.
Bishops are scheduled to elect new officers today. Archbishop Kurtz, a native of the Allentown, Pa., diocese, is considered the likely next president because usual precedent is for the incumbent vice president to be elected president.
Two representatives of liberal religious groups spoke outside the conference hotel, calling for the bishops to elect a different candidate, citing Archbishop Kurtz's past role as the bishops' point man opposing same-sex marriage and his vocal support for the bishops' Fortnight for Freedom campaigns. The groups, Faithful America and Catholics United, said they had 32,000 signatures on petitions calling for leaders more like Pope Francis.
Many Catholics, said James Salt of Catholics United, have been "stretching paychecks" while their bishops are "talking about contraception and gay marriage."
Archbishop Kurtz has said he follows Pope Francis' example of affirming "the sacred traditions of the church, but in doing so, always seeing the person first."
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412- 263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.