This year’s general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which ended Wednesday, was supposed to be somewhat uneventful, especially compared to recent meetings. The challenge of combating the sexual abuse crisis, while not far from anyone’s mind, has not dominated the agenda this week the way it did last November, when the USCCB was dealing with this round of the abuse crisis as a body for the first time, or this past June, when they were finally able to take action on several measures to ensure greater accountability.
The (relatively) diminished urgency for further action from the conference on the abuse crisis has meant that other dynamics have bubbled to the surface. Garnering the most attention this week has been the long-simmering question of the relationship between the American bishops and Pope Francis.
The issue surfaced last week, before the bishops met, with the publication of a book on Pope Francis by Austen Ivereigh, which clumsily attempted to portray the USCCB’s general secretary, and one former general secretary, as part of a conservative attempt to sneak canonically dubious reforms past Pope Francis last November as part of the American bishops’ response to the abuse crisis.
To anyone who knows the men in question, the idea that they’re part of an anti-Francis cabal is laughable. The USCCB took the unusual step of issuing a sternly worded rebuttal – a sign that the bishops’ conference finds the narrative of Americans vs. Pope Francis increasingly tiresome.
Not surprisingly, many of the bishops themselves are growing increasingly tired of being portrayed as enemies of the Holy Father. One exchange on the floor of the conference this week showed this with particular clarity.
The bishops were debating amendments to a letter that will accompany the reissue of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a document which the bishops first published over a decade ago and have been tweaking ever since. Cardinal Cupich offered an amendment to the introductory letter. The drafting committee, which was instructed to keep brief, quotes part of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, and summarizes other parts. Cardinal Cupich wanted the summarized part of the exhortation to be quoted in full in the body of the letter.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego then rose, not only to agree with Cardinal Blase Cupich, but to speak against language in the document stating that abortion is a “preeminent priority.” Such a statement, McElroy argued, was not in keeping with the stated priorities of Pope Francis, and was “at least discordant with the pope’s teaching, if not inconsistent.”
“It is not Catholic teaching,” McElroy continued, “that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic Social Teaching. It is not. For us to say that, particularly when we omit the pope’s articulation of this question, I think is a grave disservice to our people if we’re trying to communicate to them what the Magisterium teaches.” McElroy wanted the word “preeminent” taken out, or the full quotation included so as to “at least give the pope a fighting chance.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia responded to McElroy by first observing that the full quote from Pope Francis was both beautiful and true. But Chaput continued: “I am against anyone stating that our saying [abortion is] preeminent is contrary to the teaching of the pope, because that isn’t true. It sets up an artificial battle between the bishops’ conference of the United States and the Holy Father which isn’t true. So I don’t like the argument Bishop McElroy used, because it isn’t true.”
Archbishop Chaput’s statement was met with spontaneous applause from the assembled bishops.
In the end, the bishops voted by a wide margin against Cardinal Cupich’s amendment. The lasting significance of the debate and vote was less about Cardinal Cupich or Pope Francis, and much more about the bishops bristling at the suggestion from one of their own that to prioritize defense of the unborn was to oppose Pope Francis. As one bishop told Catholic News Agency, “Bishop McElroy suggesting that by calling abortion what it is in our society we are against the pope is absurd.”
Pope Francis has put a great deal of emphasis on the importance of episcopal conferences, and on the exercise of collegiality and synodality. But if we are to place a premium on such collective discernment, then it makes little sense to cast the results of that discernment – as found, say, in the longstanding and widespread agreement among the American bishops that “[t]he threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed” – as an affront to the Magisterium of Pope Francis.
Collegiality and synodality cannot be of service to the Church if they are simply window dressing for the ecclesial groupthink which too often insists: “Do what we mean, not what we say.” That is precisely the kind of mentality that led previous generations of bishops to grossly mishandle the abuse crisis, projecting collegial unity while turning a blind eye to corruption and rot of the worst sort, even within their own ranks.
Over the next several months, American bishops will be making their way to Rome for their ad limina visits, their first of this pontificate. One can’t help but wonder how things might be different if the American bishops had been scheduled to make their ad limina five years ago instead of now.
For any bishops who are unhappy about the perception that they are opposed to Pope Francis, this is their best chance to make that case in person. Whether they will succeed is anyone’s guess, but if it is to happen it will take precisely the kind of parrhesia that Pope Francis so often calls for: not flattery or feigned affection, but a true willingness to listen and to speak truth in love.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.