Action Alert!

Does Pope’s representative hope to silence US bishops’ questions?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 11, 2019

“The pastoral thrust of this pontificate must reach the American people,” Archbishop Christoph Pierre said today in his address to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Believe me, the impact of this pontificate has reached the American people—but not in the way the apostolic nuncio has in mind.

When the US bishops met in Baltimore one year ago, the American people were clamoring for effective action on the sex-abuse scandal, which had erupted anew last summer with revelations that Pope Francis had known of, and done nothing about, the criminal history of Theodore McCarrick. The USCCB membership was poised to hold bishops accountable for that sort of negligence, and to demand a Vatican investigation into the charges made by a former nuncio, Archbishop Vigano. Then at the eleventh hour the Vatican intervened, asking the American bishops to postpone those items, and promising a thorough explanation of the McCarrick affair.

Now, a year later, American Catholics are still waiting for that explanation, still waiting for bishops to be held consistently accountable—and now also waiting for an investigation into the financial scandals that have re-emerged this summer, bearing new evidence that this pontificate has failed utterly to produce reforms.

But more than that. American Catholics have been shaken by the massive confusion generated during this pontificate: by the reports of shocking papal statements, the questions about fundamental doctrinal teachings, and most recently the furor over pagan symbols at the Amazon Synod. The American faithful have more and more questions; the Vatican has been providing fewer and fewer answers—in fact provoking still more questions.

Yes, we have felt the thrust of this pontificate. But to illustrate the confusion here, let me quote that full sentence from the speech by the Pope’s representative:

The pastoral thrust of this pontificate must reach the American people, especially as families continue to demand of dioceses and parishes the accompaniment envisioned by Amoris Laetitia.

Here, I’m afraid, Archbishop Pierre’s perception departs from reality. American Catholics are making many demands of their bishops these days, but they are not shouting for implementation of Amoris Laetitia. In fact, when that controversial papal document first appeared, it was generally acknowledged that it would not have a particularly strong impact here in the US, where annulments are already granted so routinely that very few Catholics need worry about the ban on Communion for those who are divorced and remarried. But Archbishop Pierre is promoting the myth that surrounds and sustains Pope Francis: the myth that he has introduced an era of reform and a regime of merciful pastoral care.

Worse, the papal nuncio is also implicitly endorsing another myth: that the American bishops have undermined the Pope’s reform efforts. Just last week the USCCB leadership issued an extraordinary statement, rejecting the thesis of Wounded Shepherd, a new book by Austin Ivereigh, which (as the USCCB put it) “perpetuates an unfortunate and inaccurate myth that the Holy Father finds resistance among the leadership and staff of the US bishops’ conference.” Ivereigh—taking cues from Father Antonio Spadaro, the Pope’s Jesuit adviser—advances the conspiracy theory that criticism of Pope Francis comes only from entrenched American political interests, underwritten by multinational corporations. It’s a wild theory: a desperate effort to explain away the many legitimate questions that have been raised about current Vatican leadership. Insofar as Archbishop Pierre’s speech is influenced by this theory, the American bishops should usher him back to reality.

As a matter of fact the American bishops should do their utmost to steer the entire Vatican leadership back toward reality. As they report to Rome for their ad limina visits, they should show their loyalty to the Holy Father by informing him honestly about the crisis that faces the Church. They should remind the Pontiff that it is not subversive to seek clarity, nor is it pastoral to allow confusion.

Many American bishops are concerned about the direction this pontificate has taken, and have voiced their concerns—in most cases quietly, avoiding even the hint of public discord. Apparently the Pope hears the rumblings of dismay, and he and his aides are determined to keep them quiet. Veteran Catholics journalists hear the rumblings, too, because we carefully monitor the messages circulating on the clerical grapevine.

But ordinary faithful Catholics do not hear the rumblings, and they wonder whether their bishops are doing anything to address the crisis of faith that is so evident all around us. They wonder whether their bishops are troubled—as they are—by the stream of disquieting messages from Rome. If the effect of Archbishop Pierre’s address is to persuade American bishops that they should swallow their concerns and stifle their questions, that would be a grave disservice to both the Pope and the faithful Catholics of the US.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: nix898049 - Nov. 17, 2019 1:12 PM ET USA

    Again I must thank you for your clear summation of this situation. I, for one, am grateful to learn there ARE rumblings on the clerical grapevine. Listening to R. Arroyo's interview with the bishop of Tyler, TX it seemed Strickland was speaking so carefully as if the avoid a stampeding of the sheep. Sorry, losing patience with this approach.

  • Posted by: adeodata - Nov. 13, 2019 9:44 PM ET USA

    👍 Excellent.

  • Posted by: Foundas - Nov. 13, 2019 7:49 PM ET USA

    Few if any bishops will have the guts to speak openly and honestly to Pope Frank. They follow blindly even to the point of preaching apostasy if that is what is asked of them.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Nov. 12, 2019 9:05 PM ET USA

    I understand that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that we have a duty to correct in charity those whom we believe are not saying the right things.

  • Posted by: Sed contra - Nov. 12, 2019 8:24 PM ET USA

    An excellent analysis, Phil. Thank you so much for sharing your observations with us.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Nov. 12, 2019 10:17 AM ET USA

    Is Pope Francis the victim of bad advice, or is he, indeed, one of the main proponents of its faulty (to put it gently) outlook? We will probably never know for certain in this life, but what we can clearly see are the evil consequences of it.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 12, 2019 8:23 AM ET USA

    Ultramontanism

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 11, 2019 10:08 PM ET USA

    Spot on analysis. This article would be the perfect Bishops' reply to the Nuncio. Unfortunately, the "pastoral thrust of this pontificate" heavily frowns upon any sort of sincere concern for the Church voiced by the clerical underlings.