New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan agreed on Monday with Pope Francis' call for a heightened concern for the poor, but disputed the idea that U.S. bishops haven't paid enough attention to the issue.
"That's been a constant, constant concern of the conference of bishops since our founding in 1917," said Dolan, the outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is meeting this week to pick new leaders.
But Dolan told reporters he agreed that Pope Francis is asking leaders to be even more "vigorous" on this issue.
The conference of bishops, which oversees 69 million Catholics in the United State or about a quarter of the population, has been criticized by some liberal Catholic groups for being less concerned with social justice issues such as poverty than with attacking gay marriage, abortion and contraception.
The bishops' actions are under new scrutiny given the concern for the world's poor expressed by Pope Francis, elected this year. In an interview published in September, Francis said the Church cannot focus only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and must become more merciful or risk falling "like a house of cards."
He also said the Church had "locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules" and should not be so prone to condemn.
In his address to the bishops on Monday, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, said Francis wants bishops in tune with their people, "'pastoral' bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology."
The pope was also calling on bishops to maintain a lifestyle "characterized by simplicity and holiness" who live what they preach, Vigano said.
During the meeting, retired Galveston-Houston Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza asked the conference to "be on record as trying to achieve what Pope Francis has put before us, to be a church for the poor and of the poor."
St. Petersburg, Florida, Bishop Robert Lynch said the conference's attention has focused in recent years on questions about how to translate the mass and religious liberty issues, such as requirements that Catholic hospitals and schools carry insurance that provides birth control, which is forbidden by church doctrine.
"I think there have been occasions in the past where the domestic poor were much more in our focus than they have been in the last decade," Lynch said in an interview with Reuters. "Having said that I think the poor is very much in our organization's DNA."
The conference will elect a new president and vice-president to three-year terms on Tuesday. Conference observers believe bishops will choose the current vice president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, as the next president, as is customary. Kurtz is viewed as a reliable conservative who is well liked and effective.
Among the candidates for vice president is Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, a Mexican-born cleric who has been outspoken on immigration reform.