Saturday, February 11, 2017 - Updated: 1:00 pm
WASHINGTON — If the people aren't going to a Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington this year, then the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering is going to the people.
The annual event, typically held every February, was postponed a year to focus attention and resources on an invitation-only convocation sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Orlando, Florida, in early July that could draw as many as 5,000 people sent by the nation's dioceses and Catholic organizations.
One must-have element in the annual gathering are Capitol Hill visits to members of Congress to present the USCCB's position on key issues on the bishops' agenda.
To compensate for the lack of Capitol Hill visits this year, USCCB officials conducted a webinar Feb. 7 to prepare participants for visiting representatives and senators at their home-district offices.
And, instead of the policy issues briefings that are a part and parcel of the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, participants on the hourlong webinar got necessarily succinct overviews of the domestic and foreign policy issues deemed important. Handouts describing policy positions, another staple of the event, were available for download from a link embedded in an email.
But there was, in the webinar, elements of Washington, where "ask" is not only a verb but a noun, as in "here's the ask" for your congressional representative.
"For the bishops, the budget is a moral document," said Steve Colecchi, director of the USCCB's Office of International Justice and Peace, on the webinar.
One budget item he stressed was "poverty-reducing international assistance." Regardless of the fate in the courts of President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily restricting immigrant and refugee travel to the United States, "the needs are still going to be there," Colecchi said, especially with the estimate of 65 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide.
The order bars travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days and all refugees for 120 days.
"International assistance advances human dignity, it reduces conflict, it creates opportunities in our world in the place of hopelessness," Colecchi said. "It's not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. Poverty assistance makes our world more secure."
The uncertainty over refugee travel is "pretty much a topic of national discussion right now," said Ashley Feasley, policy director for Migration and Refugee Services, the USCCB agency that settles nearly a quarter of incoming refugees to the U.S. through its diocesan affiliates.
Last year, Barack Obama, who as president determined the number of refugees who could come into the United States, set a fiscal-year 2016 goal of 85,000 refugee placements here "with 10,000 specifically coming from the war-torn and impoverished nation of Syria," Feasley said.
Obama's resettlement target was 110,000 refugees for the 2017 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, 2016. But "it is the turn of the administration with which we're seeing a change," she added, referring to Trump's executive order of Jan. 27 suspending the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days and banning entry of all citizens from Syria and six other majority-Muslim nations.
His action, Feasley said, "eroded and displaced years of bipartisan work settling refugees." The order also capped the refugees entering the country at 50,000 for the current fiscal year, even though there is federal resettlement funding in place for 75,000, she added.
"This is very disturbing, because it undermines years of very important work that has been done by our government but also by the Catholic Church," Feasley said.
Mark Rohlena, a USCCB domestic policy adviser, said Congress is going to scrutinize federal health care in the year ahead.
He noted that St. John XXIII, in his encyclical "Pacem in Terris," declared that "medical care is a right." Pope Francis expanded the notion, Rohlena said, when the pontiff called heath care "not a consumer good, but a universal right. Access to health care services is not a privilege."
The U.S. bishops have advocated for universal health care for decades and they supported the general goal of the Affordable Care Act, which is under threat of repeal by a Republican Congress, but the bishops ultimately opposed the law because it expanded the federal role in abortion and failed to expand health care protections to immigrants.
"The Catholic bishops are not health care technicians, and they don't want to be," Rohlena said, but they want public policy to "uphold the dignity of life from conception to natural death."
The Republican majority in Congress has oscillated between outright repeal, repeal-and-replace, and repeal-and-repair of the law popularly known as Obamacare, with word coming in early February that a comprehensive bill might not be ready until 2018. "There's a lot of guesswork" as to how lawmakers would restructure health care policy, Rohlena said.
For those making congressional visits, the message that should be sent, according to Rohlena, is to "fix those aspects of the Affordable Care Act that needed to be fixed during the first go-round: Prohibitions on the federal government funding and facilitating abortion, (and a provision) that really focuses in on conscience protections for health care providers and individuals" who do not want to be a party to abortion.
At the same time, he added, citizen-lobbyists should press for a bill that "ensures access for immigrants and their families. Really focus on that five-year delay period for immigrants to access Medicaid and other programs. These are lawful permanent residents who pay taxes and contribute to the economy."
One potential drawback of the webinar was the number of participants, which topped out in the 180s — about one-third the number of Catholic Social Ministry Gathering participants. But the webinar was recorded and a link sent the next day to watch it for the first time, or for repeated viewing.
And the webinar announced not only the resumption of the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, but its dates: Feb. 3-6, 2018. Several agencies of the USCCB sponsor the gathering with 16 other Catholic organizations.