The U.S. Bishops and Vatican Heartburn

Note: Robert Royal continues his reporting from Rome and the Amazon Synod. Read his latest report, “Wheels within Wheels?”, by clicking here.

“I expect this will cause a bit of heartburn at the Civiltà Cattolica,” a man who writes about Church affairs recently remarked to a colleague.

He meant the list of candidates for president and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The bishops will vote on the candidates at their fall general assembly in Baltimore next month. La Civiltà Cattolica is the Rome-based Jesuit review, edited by Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., a confidant of Pope Francis who has publicly deplored what he sees as a rightward drift in American Catholicism.

And indeed that list of ten bishops nominated by their peers for the top offices in the bishops’ conference will be probed for its meaning by people who’ve been following the twists and turns in the relationship between Rome and the Church in the United States. Things have reached the point that even the pope has spoken as if an American schism were a real possibility.

In an article last month bearing the title “A Schism in All But Name?”, Christopher Lamb, Rome correspondent of Britain’s liberal Catholic weekly The Tablet, approvingly quoted an analysis by Massimo Faggioli, an Italian Catholic Church historian. Faggioli teaches at Villanova University while writing dyspeptic commentaries on American Catholicism that appear in a variety of journals: “The theological culture and background of Francis, and a certain evolution of American conservatism in the direction of neo-traditionalism: these two ingredients have radicalized the opposition against him.”

Against this background, the list of candidates to head the USCCB will come as unwelcome news to people who share the paranoid view of the Church in America as, together with Evangelicals, forming an “ecumenism of hate.”

But the list’s most striking feature isn’t the names that are there but the names that aren’t. Missing are the three members of the American hierarchy generally regarded as closest to Pope Francis – Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Newark, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego.

Barring a surprise, the bishops next month are expected to follow their usual practice and elect the current USCCB vice president, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president for the next three years, succeeding Cardinal Daniel Dinardo of Galveston-Houston. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, and a naturalized U.S. citizen, Archbishop Gomez is a low key pastor best known outside his diocese for advocating generous treatment of migrants.

Supposing Archbishop Gomez becomes president, attention then will turn to choosing a vice president (likely to succeed to the presidency in three years) from among the nine remaining bishops. Here one finds views on social issues that reflect an emphasis different from that prevailing in Rome these days.


Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City last year published a column in the diocesan newspaper celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Saint Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae. He pointed to birth control as helping cause ills that include the rise of same-sex marriage, an “explosion of pornography,” and a “demographic winter” in countries with low birth rates. “It is sinful,” he wrote of contraception.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco is an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage who has strongly affirmed the Church’s right to make conformity with Catholic teaching on sexuality a condition for employment in its institutions. Last year he called Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former papal nuncio in the United States, a man of integrity whose claims that people high up in the Church were aware of former-cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct “must be taken seriously.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. has declared that Catholic politicians who  have “cooperated in evil and committed a grave sin” by supporting abortion shouldn’t seek to receive communion in his diocese. During a controversy over legalizing gay marriage in Illinois several years ago, he publicly read an exorcism rite.

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind. three years ago tangled with the leadership of the University of Notre Dame for giving its prestigious Laetare Medal to then-Vice President Joe Biden despite his pro-choice stance and his support for gay marriage. In honoring Biden, Bishop Rhoades said, the university gave scandal by implying someone can be a “good Catholic” while rejecting fundamental moral principles taught by the Church.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, as an auxiliary bishop in 2002, was one of eight bishops who circulated a letter within the hierarchy calling for a U.S. plenary council to get at the causes of the moral failings of some priests and bishops, which led to the sex abuse crisis. Over a hundred bishops expressed interest in the idea before it was quietly dropped. Last December, he said he was “surprised and concerned” about a papal directive the month before, telling the bishops to delay action on a plan for holding accountable bishops guilty of abuse or cover-up.

Abortion, gay marriage and sex abuse, are hardly the only issues on which these and their fellow American bishops have taken stands. The U.S. hierarchy has a solid record on justice concerns like immigration and poverty. But it’s a fact that the bishops have spoken out often on the social issues, since this is where the Church’s convictions are most often attacked by America’s secular establishment.

Purveyors of the myth that American Catholicism is moving toward schism may consider the USCCB ballot as evidence that it is. But others, more realistic, will take it as a sign that the bishops are tired of being second-guessed by people with a different agenda, who don’t know much about the American scene, but apparently have the ear of the pope.


*Photo: Archbishop Jose Gomez [Daniel Ibanez/CNA]

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.