BALTIMORE — Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, in his final address as president of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops, on Monday called on them to take up the cause of Christians who are persecuted and killed for their faith in other countries, such as Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and India.
It was a notable shift in priorities. For the last two years the bishops have poured their time and resources into a campaign to fight what they saw as serious threats to religious liberty in the United States. Their prime concern has been a provision in President Barack Obama's health care overhaul that would force even some Catholic employers to provide contraception in their insurance plans, when Catholic teaching prohibits the use of artificial contraception.
But Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said the struggles over religious liberty in the United States "pale in comparison" to the persecution of Christians abroad.
"Now we are being beckoned — by history, by our Holy Father, by the force of our own logic," he said, "to extend those efforts to the dramatic front lines of this battle where Christians are paying for their fidelity with their lives."
The shift in emphasis was the clearest sign that eight months after Pope Francis was elected, his priorities were beginning to trickle down to the organization that Dolan leads, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Francis provoked widespread discussion in the church with an interview published in September in which he said that the church should not be so "obsessed" with issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception — but should instead lead with the Gospel's message of love and mercy.
He has said the church must be "for the poor," and has visited with refugees and washed the feet of juveniles in prison, cameras in tow.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, told the bishops he had met with Francis in June in the pope's simple apartment in the Vatican, and that Francis "made a special point of saying that he wants 'pastoral' bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology."