Immigration leads agenda as U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops turns 100

The nation’s Catholic bishops, holding their annual fall meeting this week in Baltimore, will take up immigration, an issue on which they are in direct conflict with President Donald J. Trump.

“The urgent need to welcome and integrate new waves of immigrants continues unabated,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the No. 2 official at the Vatican, said at a Mass Sunday evening at the Baltimore Basilica. “At the same time, the Catholic community is called under your guidance to work for an ever more just and inclusive society.”


Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of a diocese with 800,000 Spanish-speaking members and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is also expected to focus on the subject in his opening speech Monday at the Waterfront Marriott Hotel. Later, the more than 300 bishops attending from across the country will hear a working group on immigration update the body on its activities over the past year.

The bishops’ position — and that of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church — is that immigration, legal or otherwise, should be understood and addressed first and foremost as a humanitarian matter, not a political or legal one.

Trump was elected last year on promises to build a wall on the Southwest border, deport more undocumented immigrants and ban the entry of Muslims. His Department of Justice has ended the Obama-era program that shielded people who were brought to the country illegally as children from deportation, and his Department of Homeland Security ended Temporary Protected Status last week for Nicaraguans who have been allowed to stay in the United States since Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America in 1999.

DiNardo, whose fellow bishops voted him their leader days after the presidential election last year, has repeatedly voiced the conference’s opposition to Trump administration actions on immigration.

“Today, our nation has done the opposite of how Scripture calls us to respond,” DiNardo and other conference leaders said in a statement. “It is a step back from the progress that we need to make as a country.”

The Trump administration’s recent decision to end Temporary Protected Status for Nicaraguans living in the country for nearly two decades has made life uncomfortable for some 20,000 Salvadorans living in Maryland under the same status.

Other items on the agenda for the two days of meetings include religious liberty, the right to life and racial inequality.

The bishops will elect chairmen to five major committees, including panels on cultural diversity in the church, doctrine and the right to life, and consider the cause for sainthood of Nicholas Black Elk Sr., a Lakota holy man and medicine man who converted to Catholicism in 1904 and became a Catholic teacher.

The bishops will also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the gathering that became the national conference.


It was in November 1917, that Cardinal James Gibbons, the longtime archbishop of Baltimore, prevailed on a network of bishops that had been meeting in town for several years to formalize their association.

The immediate purpose of the organization, then called the National Catholic War Council, was to enable U.S. Catholics to give financial support to servicemen stationed in Europe during World War I.

After the conflict ended, the group changed its name to the National Catholic Welfare Council. As it evolved over the next few decades, often with a Baltimore archbishop as president, it came to embrace its current mission, which Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori says is “to the engage the church of the United States as a whole with the Holy See, to talk about issues of common concern in fulfilling the mission that God gave to the church, and to manage our relationships with the government as well as the culture around us.”

Events honoring the anniversary will include a program for the bishops on formation, with presentations by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York on the founding of the 1917 council, and by Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich., on issues the U.S. church has addressed throughout its history — including immigration.

Bishops, priests, deacons, nuns and lay Catholics filled the historic basilica for the Mass Sunday to open the meeting. Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, told the bishops they faced the same responsibility to promote inclusiveness that they did when the conference was founded a century ago amid a large wave of immigration. The United States admitted more than14.5 million immigrants from 1900 to 1920, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Parolin commended the U.S. bishops for their work on important issues such as promoting adequate health care or everyone.


“I cannot fail to mention the responsible contributions made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the discussion of important social issues and political debates,” he said.

Parolin was sent by Pope Francis. He is a close friend and adviser to the pontiff. Church observers say his appearance in Baltimore is a major statement.

Rocco Palmo edits Whispers in the Loggia, a widely read insider news site about the church.

“The presence of the Vatican’s ‘prime minister’ in the chair of [founding Baltimore Archbishop] John Carroll is massive,” he says. “It certainly highlights the extraordinary significance of the moment.”

Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori announced Wednesday a statewide taskforce on racism that will help determine ways to combat racism in local diocese.

DiNardo leads the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which claims 1.7 million Catholics, more than half of them Hispanic. His vice president, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, leads the nation’s largest archdiocese, with 4 million Catholics, most of them Spanish-speaking.

Their elections as president and vice president last year were widely viewed as the bishops’ acknowledgment that the growing Hispanic Catholic population is crucial to the church’s future in America.

Lori says he always savors his role as host of the fall assembly. But he’s looking forward to this year’s proceedings with particular relish.

“Welcoming my brother bishops home is one of the great joys of being the Archbishop of Baltimore,” he says. “But the history behind this moment puts the joy on steroids.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. McDaniels contributed to this article.