This week: The US bishops test relations with Rome

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 15, 2019

For a welcome change, our top headlines of this week do not involve scandals in Rome. The annual meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) produced the most interesting news developments, at least for American Catholics. Yet the turmoil in Rome was still visible in the background, because the 3-day meeting of the American bishops in Baltimore provided several clear indications of tensions between the US hierarchy and the Vatican.

Before the meeting began, the USCCB had taken the highly unusual step of criticizing a book about Pope Francis. The USCCB statement complained that Wounded Shepherd, by Austen Ivereigh, “perpetuates an unfortunate and inaccurate myth that the Holy Father finds resistance among the leadership and staff of the US Bishops Conference.” It’s certainly understandable that American bishops would be tired of that narrative. But bear in mind that the narrative has been advanced by some of the Pope’s closest advisers, notably including the Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro. And Ivereigh’s book won a highly favorable review from the Vatican News Service. So clearly there is some resistance in the US hierarchy—if not to the Pope’s leadership, at least to the rhetoric being churned out by papal supporters.

And then Archbishop Christoph Pierre—who as the apostolic nuncio in Washington is the Pope’s representative to the American bishops—complicated matters with an address to the USCCB urging the American bishops to be more supportive of the Pope’s priorities. “The pastoral thrust of this pontificate must reach the American people,” Archbishop Pierre insisted. Was the papal diplomat hinting that he, like Ivereigh, perceived some resistance to the Pope’s leadership? Was he urging them to back off questions about Vatican problems?

The most interesting episode of the USCCB meeting also touched on relations between the American bishops and the Roman Pontiff. In debate on the draft of an election-year statement that referred to abortion as a “preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself,” Cardinal Blase Cupich proposed an amendment that would have inserted a long quotation from Pope Francis, in which the Pope cautioned against a single-issue focus. The intent of the Cupich amendment, as everyone in the room understood, was to soften the emphasis on abortion—to highlight the “seamless garment” approach that lists abortion as one of many issues involving respect for life, along with capital punishment and immigration reform and welfare funding.

The US bishops have been discussing the nuances of the “seamless garment” approach for decades now, and have regularly found ways to negotiate their differences. But this year Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego raised the stakes immeasurably by launching a direct attack on the pro-life primacy. “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face,” he said. That claim drew sharp rebukes from more conservative prelates, led by Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. Although the description of abortion as a “preeminent” issue was not directly in question—the Cupich amendment would have left that wording intact—the debate quickly became a contest between those bishops who saw abortion as their top public-policy challenge and those who, like Pope Francis, preferred to draw their political program with a broader brush.

When the matter came to a vote, after some spirited debate, the pro-life forces won handily; the Cupich amendment was rejected. Still a substantial minority—69 bishops—voted to incorporate the passage from Pope Francis. It is not true (as some reporters suggested) that these 69 bishops had voted against describing abortion as a “preeminent” priority—again, that particular language was not touched by the proposed amendment. Yet if they did consider abortion the preeminent issue, it is difficult to see why bishops would have supported the Cupich proposal.

The other major news to come out of the Baltimore meeting was the election of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles as president of the USCCB. That choice was expected; Archbishop Gomez was ending a 3-year term as vice-president, and traditionally the bishops have moved the #2 man up to the top spot. Archbishop Gomez becomes the first Hispanic leader for the bishops’ conference. While he has riled political conservatives with his advocacy for immigrants, his theological orthodoxy is unquestioned. Yet, like so many other “personally orthodox” bishops, he allows wide latitude for critics of traditional Church teaching. For example, the notorious Father James Martin will be a featured speaker—again—at the Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles next year.


In other headline news this week:

  • Australia’s top court gave Cardinal George Pell leave to appeal his conviction on abuse charges. When the case is heard sometime next spring, the cardinal’s lawyers will argue that an appeals court erred by placing the burden of proof on the defendant rather than demanding that the prosecution provide some evidence of a crime (there was none, save the contested testimony of a single accuser). The Vatican issued a cautious statement voicing its “trust in the Australian justice system.”
  • Pope Francis appointed Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, general counsellor of the Society of Jesus, to be Cardinal Pell’s successor as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. The Spanish Jesuit will have his hands full immediately, coping with the fallout from recent financial scandals.
  • Finally, the reverberations of the abuse scandal are still heard loud and clear: in Rome, in the US, and around the world:
  1. In England, two bishops told an investigating panel that Cardinal Vincent Nichols had urged them to remain silent about abuse, because public statements could tarnish the image of Pope Francis.
  2. Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, in Rome for his ad limina visit, denied reports that he would resign. But the reports continued to circulate, as the bishop’s critics pounded away at his handling of abuse charges. To complicate matters, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who conducted a Vatican-ordered inquiry into the Buffalo diocese, was himself hit with an abuse charge—which he emphatically denied.
  3. Is it any wonder, then, that Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s top specialist on sex-abuse cases, has warned Catholics that they should brace themselves for shocking new revelations?

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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  • Posted by: Retired01 - Nov. 18, 2019 2:26 PM ET USA

    If so many personally orthodox bishops allow wide latitude for dissent, why are they seen as resisting Pope Francis? Is it because they are personally orthodox and not openly promoting dissent?