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Coming soon: a necessary showdown in the US bishops’ conference

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 05, 2021

There’s a battle brewing within the US bishops’ conference, and it could be a boon to the faithful.

As our regular readers already know, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago was unhappy with the statement issued by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the episcopal conference, on the election of President Biden. Archbishop Gomez was polite, but unmistakably critical of Biden’s support for abortion. The criticism did not sit well with Cardinal Cupich.

Ordinarily American bishops do their best to keep their disagreements private. But Cardinal Cupich took to Twitter to decry the “ill-considered statement,” claiming that it “came as a surprise to many bishops,” and pointed to “internal institutional failures” in the bishops’ conference.

Cardinal Cupich also took his problems to Rome, and although Pope Francis has repeatedly said that he favors a decentralized approach to Church authority, the Vatican Secretariat of State intervened, urging the US bishops’ conference to hold off on publication of the Gomez statement until after Pope Francis had released his own uncontroversial message of congratulations to the newly inaugurated American leader. When news of that Vatican intervention broke, alongside the Cupich tweetstorm, the net result was to call more attention to the Gomez statement, and to the disagreement it had provoked.

But while Cardinal Cupich evidently found sympathetic ears in Rome, it is noteworthy that—as J.D. Flynn remarked on the Pillar site—“To date, not one US bishop has publicly supported Cupich’s shot at the Gomez statement or the process that produced it.”

Flynn made that observation on January 22. Two weeks later, Joan Frawley Desmond of the National Catholic Register reports that it remains true: “The tweets [by Cupich] were a call to arms for his brother bishops, but no other US bishops took up the gauntlet, at least not publicly.”

Undaunted, Cardinal Cupich traveled to Rome this week, where he met personally with Pope Francis, who has clearly chosen the Chicago cardinal as his favorite American adviser. Do you see the problem here? The Pope’s primary source of information about the welfare of American Catholicism is a prelate whose angry outburst drew no sympathy from other American bishops. Pope Francis frequently speaks of “synodality,” and leaving local decisions to local bishops’ conferences. In this case the Pontiff might not be pleased with the result of that approach.

While Cardinal Cupich made an unusual public attack on the leadership of the episcopal conference, it is noteworthy that the leaders did not return fire. No bishop made a public statement of support for the cardinal, but no bishop rebuked him for speaking out, either. The majority of the American bishops, it seems, are still playing by the old rules, keeping their differences private.

But how long will those old rules remain in place? How long will bishops continue to negotiate their increasingly serious differences, and issue compromise statements that—while they may placate everyone—truly satisfy no one?

Janet Smith asks that question, in a different context, in an important article appearing in Crisis this week. Her focus is on the lingering fallout of the sex-abuse scandal, and the pressure on each newly installed bishop to “go along” with others, to avoid criticism of their predecessors, to minimize the scandal, to let sleeping dogs lie and undiscovered files stay undiscovered. If only they will resist that pressure, she argues, “the Church will be purer and stronger and, most importantly, more faithful to Jesus.”

Janet Smith ends her piece with a plea, with which I think every faithful Catholic should join: “Please, basically good bishops, do the hard but right thing.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: nix898049 - Feb. 06, 2021 7:01 PM ET USA

    I read Dr. Smith's article before going to CC. God help us, if the case she describes is not hypothetical. I had the sickening feeling it isn't. What horrendous evil. And to end by begging these men to stop it. I fear they cannot or they already would have. They are not the answer. COME HOLY SPIRIT!!! Fill the hearts of the faithful!

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 06, 2021 10:48 AM ET USA

    Coming soon: a necessary showdown in the US bishops’ conference How I wish this was true but I am in agreement with Lee Podles who observed many years ago that confrontation has been bred out of the bishops. Very few ever express outrage or anger at the very heinous acts of abortion. I don't expect the leopards to change their spots. How I wish I was wrong. They have eaten too much Turkish delight.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Feb. 05, 2021 9:43 PM ET USA

    If only there were basically good bishops to be found. If the standard were shifted to weak willed and minimally Catholic then we might find a few bishops. At any rate it is high time for our bishop's yes to mean yes and their no to mean no.

  • Posted by: gregorywayland204298 - Feb. 05, 2021 7:40 PM ET USA

    A divided Church haa a divided episcopal conference. I was embarrassed as a reporter while covering the Boston sex abuse crisis when a victim attorney seemed triumphant at this cradle Catholic's ignorance of the Latin root of the word "pontiff." Shame on me. I believe the attorney thought the Church lacked a true "bridge builder." Right now I think you could turn a 360 and not finding any bridges or bridge-builders in the Church. Sadly, that seems to include -- our Pontiff.

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - Feb. 05, 2021 7:38 PM ET USA

    Isn't it interesting that the more despotic and controlling a leader is, the more he pretends to delegate authority. But I guess that characterizes all Leftism.

  • Posted by: Sciamej1913 - Feb. 05, 2021 6:56 PM ET USA

    In reading this article and as an active Catholic, I and some of my closest of friends, active in their respective local churches and dioceses are puzzled as to why there would be any division at all by the bishops of this country. There is a President of the Conference and it si fine to disagree when together, but we are all looking for unity. And yes, we are looking for the bishops to do the right thing, that is, the right thing/s that we were taught in our Catholic school education process.