Pope Francis vs. the Bishops: An “Overblown” Narrative?

Writing in Crux, associate editor John Allen cautions against the “overblown” narrative of “perceived resistance from conservative American bishops to Pope Francis’ progressive agenda,” despite the very public pushback to Francis’ agenda from prominent American conservatives such as Archbishop Charles Chaput, and Cardinals Francis George and Raymond Burke. But his argument isn’t convincing in light of the recent history of the U.S. Bishops.

Allen’s argument rests largely on the fact that because there are a lot of bishops—some 450 if you count retirees—with differing opinions, “it’s almost meaningless to ask what the ‘American bishops’ think of anything.”

That’s true as far as it goes, and Catholic bishops are a famously independent lot on an individual level, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they also act collectively through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s the USCCB that’s been at the forefront of the culture wars, most recently through its Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, which leads the bishops’ opposition to same-sex marriage and the no-cost contraception under the Affordable Care Act.

For the past 30 years, a handful of conservative bishops like John O’Connor, William Lori and Timothy Dolan have used the USCCB as a vehicle to amplify the influence of conservatives by asserting that it speaks for the “church.” When one speaks of the “bishops” in the U.S., it’s usually more of a reference to the conference than to individual bishops.

It’s also true that the USCCB isn’t in open opposition to Francis. As the noticeable softening of Dolan’s rhetoric shows, that wouldn’t be politically wise. But what the conference does appear to be doing is staking out its conservative ground, battening down the hatches, and waiting for the Francis “storm” to pass so it can resume business as usual.

Among the actions that support this point of view is the fact that the conference declined last summer to decommission the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, even after Francis gave his famous interview saying that the church’s leadership had focused to much on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.

And while Allen notes that prominent moderates like Cardinal Sean O’Malley certainly aren’t “resisting” Francis, it’s also true that at their semi-annual meeting just a few weeks ago the U.S. bishops declined to send O’Malley as a representative to the next leg of the family synod and did choose to send Chaput, which was a clear statement that at least a majority of bishops plan to hold fast to in-your-face conservatism (although other Francis favorite Chicago Bishop Blase Cupich was selected as an alternative, presumably should Chaput be unable to fulfill his duties).

And at the same meeting, the bishops named Dolan the head of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities, a prominent culture-warrior post that will give Dolan a platform on an issue on which the bishops largely still have free rein because they have the support of Francis.

And it’s not just the bishops that constitute the tenor of the USCCB. The bishops all have day jobs, so the conference’s staff plays an outsized role in the policies of the organization and those policies have been taking an increasingly reactionary direction since conservatives elevated Dolan as head of the USCCB in 2010 over Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas, a moderate who was next in line for the job.

As Michael Sean Winters notes in the National Catholic Reporter, “since the 2011 USCCB elections, a stunning number of very talented people have left the USCCB” and many of their replacements have little experience with social justice policy but “a string of associations with different conservative outfits”:

Now, not to put too fine a point on it, but one wonders if Pope Francis could be hired to work at the USCCB today. He has no background in religious liberty litigation. He did not attend Christendom College or Ave Maria. He did not work with any culture warrior groups like the Family Research Council or the Alliance Defending Freedom. And, he has no prior association with the Church in Colorado during the tenure of Archbishop Charles Chaput.

Allen argues that popes have always run into political disputes with bishops, and that is true. He gives as an example the dispute that emerged in the 1980s when Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was stripped of some of his authority by Pope John Paul II for allowing the LGBT group Dignity to celebrate mass and for allowing some Catholic hospitals to perform tubal ligations.

There was a lot of push back from the American bishops over that move, but it was largely about protecting their autonomy as bishops, not disagreement over the core doctrine. While many lay Catholics, theologians and some nuns pushed back against John Paul’s doctrinal conservatism, it’s hard to think of any bishops who publicly, consistently contradicted him as strongly as some conservatives have Francis, with the exception of the ill-fated move during the 1980 Family Synod to reopen the issue of Humanae Vitae, which John Paul shut down immediately.

And yes, as Allen notes, Francis has invited open dialog about hot-button issues. But dialogue is not the same as dissent, which seems to be the direction that some of the U.S. conservatives are veering in.

In the end, Allen makes the best argument against his own argument when he notes, regarding American Catholicism:

Nowhere else is there such a strong Catholic infrastructure dedicated to defending capitalism, and nowhere else is clarity on the “life issues,” such as abortion and gay marriage, such a defining feature of Catholic identity.

Exactly. The U.S. bishops haven’t spent 30 years building the bishops’ conference into a conservative bulwark aligned with the Christian and fiscal right in the U.S. to cheerily acquiesce to what they see as Francis’ proto-socialist agenda. And while Allen is right that “having a popular pope makes their lives easier,” many of the bishops seem too blinded by their devotion to cultural issues to see it that way.