In her history of the Church in the United States, American Catholics (Yale University Press), Leslie Woodcock Tentler recalls that the country’s Catholic bishops met in three plenary councils in Baltimore in 1852, 1866 and 1884. After the third, however, they did not gather as a group for another 35 years.
Tentler, an emerita professor of history at the Catholic University of America, explains the hiatus like this: “For many of the intervening years, the U.S. hierarchy was riven by conflict, principally but not exclusively over the question of just how accommodating of American values the Catholic Church in the United States could be.” And, she adds, “various players in this ongoing drama. . .bypassed their brother bishops entirely, as they pursued their disparate goals, cultivating allies in Rome.”
Sound familiar? History doesn’t literally repeat itself, but there are obvious likenesses between the situation Tentler describes and the divided state of our bishops today.
The latest illustration of episcopal division was a semi-secret meeting in Chicago attended by 35 members of the hierarchy and 35 academics, figures from the philanthropic world, and reliably friendly journalists. Those present included Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio in the U.S., Sister Nathalie Becquart, an official of the Vatican synod office, and Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago, Joseph Tobin of Newark, Sean O’Malley of Boston, and Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras – the latter two members of the small group of cardinals who meet regularly to advise the pope.
The smattering of reports by compliant journalists made no mention of the presence of any officer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, so presumably none was there. While decrying divisiveness, and – according to reports “naming names” of donors, journalists, and publications allegedly “opposed to Pope Francis” – the gathering seems to have served to advertise and even heighten the divisions in the hierarchy
The meeting was organized by campus think tanks at three Jesuit universities – Loyola of Chicago, Boston College, and Fordham. Under house rules, participants could report topics discussed but not attribute specific remarks to any speaker without permission. Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga told the National Catholic Reporter that the discussion focused on “the ‘opposition’” to Pope Francis. The opponents, he said, are “trying to build walls, going backwards – looking to the old liturgy or maybe things before Vatican II.”
NCR also published several conference talks. These were notable mainly for name-calling and apocalyptic hysteria typical of the Catholic left (“neoliberal idolatry. . .Catho-capitalists,” “unprecedented, rebellious challenges. . .to the legitimacy of the bishop of Rome”). Few American Catholics would recognize themselves or their Church in these heated depictions.
The Catholic right, of course, dreams apocalyptic nightmares of its own. Is it asking too much to hope both sides, left and right, wake up and address the real problems of a Church in crisis – things like declining Mass attendance, doctrinal ignorance, failure to transmit the faith to children, a growing shortage of competent clerical and non-clerical personnel, and survival in a toxic secular culture?
Michael J. O’Loughlin, national correspondent of America magazine, chaired one of the sessions and in a report for that Jesuit publication quoted Father Mark Massa, S.J., of Boston College saying the meeting’s organizers hope gatherings like this “will become an annual or semiannual event.” Nothing was said about the attendee list and the apparent lack of a USCCB presence in Chicago.
That differences exist among the American bishops is not new and is hardly a secret. Tensions within USCCB have simmered near the surface for several years. Among the causes are conflicting views on the relative importance of life issues and social justice, as well as intangibles of personality and style. The tensions erupted into the open in 2021 over whether a proposed statement on the Eucharist should declare President Biden, a Catholic, ineligible to receive Communion because of his support for abortion.
In early April last year, Cardinals Cupich and Tobin flew to Rome to meet with Cardinal Luis Ladaria, S.J., prefect of the Congregation – now, Dicastery – for the Doctrine of the Faith and seek his intervention in the argument. The result was a Ladaria letter saying the bishops shouldn’t speak only about politicians, shouldn’t give the impression that abortion is the only issue the Church cares about, and should maintain unity among themselves.
Heated debate over the proposed statement then followed during USCCB’s spring general assembly in June. In the end, 55 bishops voted against any statement at all, and 168 voted to proceed. This was an exceptionally large split in an organization that prizes consensus. When the bishops met again in November, the USCCB doctrine committee presented them with a lengthy draft document that, while speaking of worthiness as a prerequisite for receiving the sacrament, did not name Biden or anybody else. It passed overwhelmingly.
The next big test for the bishops’ unity will come next November when they must elect a new president of USCCB to succeed Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, whose three-year term will be expiring. Over the years, the bishops have almost always chosen the vice-president to succeed the president. But the present vice-president, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, turns 75 in October next year, the age at which bishops are required to submit their resignations. That could make him ineligible for the presidency.
If so, it is anybody’s guess who the next president of USCCB will be. Bishops don’t campaign publicly for offices like this, either for themselves or others, but there will be many quiet (or not so quiet) conversations on this interesting subject before and during the USCCB meeting. No matter who is elected, the deep-seated tensions in the bishops’ national organization are not going away, and will play a key role in the outcome. Maybe history does repeat itself after all.
*Image: The Second Plenary Council Meeting of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church is meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, 1866. [House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College]
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Stephen P. White’s A Beginning by the Bishops, Not the End
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