Though the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore this week has not produced anything substantial in terms of policy, the news coming from that gathering focused on the split reaction that bishops have had to Pope Francis’ call for a more open church.
Of course, not all bishops fear the pope’s new approach. In fact, some seem to be emulating his style, as I will point out later in this post. First, I’d like to examine the tension that appears to exist in the bishops’ conference with regard to Pope Francis. Such an examination may be fruitful because the same dynamic of tension exists in the discussion of LGBT issues in the church.
A New York Times article entitled “U.S. Bishops Struggle to Follow Lead of Francis” contained quotations from two different bishops which showed, I think, some of the underlying assumptions that guide responses to Francis.
Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich
Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich, who will soon lead the archdiocese of Chicago said:
“The pope is saying some very challenging things for people. He’s not saying, this is the law and you follow it and you get to heaven. He’s saying we have to do something about our world today that’s suffering, people are being excluded, neglected. We have a responsibility, and he’s calling people to task.”
But a few paragraphs later, the former archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, had a totally opposite evaluation of the pope:
Cardinal Francis George
“He says wonderful things, but he doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do?”
Those two quotations sum up a lot for me. While Cupich emphasized that the pope is not ordering people to follow rules, George’s response is a question which asks the pope to provide the bishops with definite direction. To me, that distinction underlines a difference in the church between people who are more comfortable with discussion and discernment versus those who are more comfortable with authority and obedience.
The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters estimates that “As many as half of the bishops are those who simply do not understand what Pope Francis is trying to achieve.” He thinks 25% “are genuinely enthusiastic about Pope Francis,” and another 25% are “digging in, resisting the pope, hoping it will all blow over quickly.”
In a Religion News Service article by David Gibson, church observer Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia blog, described the distinction between the bishops’ camps using different language:
“The prelates know they can’t go back to the way things were, said Palmo, who was covering the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which runs through Thursday.
“But, he said, they are still trying to figure out how to adapt Francis’ flexible pastoral style to their local situations. ‘When you come from an institutional mindset,’ as Palmo said many American bishops do, ‘that’s going to create some apprehension.’ ”
Many of the news reports seem to focus on the fact that many of the U.S. bishops fall into the “authority and obedience” camp. But other reports have been sprinkled with quotations showing that some bishops are following Pope Francis’ lead.
Bishop Thomas Tobin
For instance, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, who a few weeks ago referred to the synod as “rather Protestant,” and who has been a strong opponent of marriage equality, seemed to acknowledge past errors in pastoral practice. Michael O’Loughlin of CruxNow.com, interviewed Tobin at the meeting :
“As for his letter condemning same-sex marriage, Tobin acknowledged that gay Catholics seek ‘a sense of welcoming’ in the Church. He said that he believes the Church is open to them, but ‘have we always expressed that very clearly? I’m not so sure.’ ”
In a second article, O’Loughlin of CruxNow.com reported on Archbishop Joseph Kurtz’ presidential address to the conference:
“Kurtz defended the pope’s emerging “culture of encounter,” with its emphasis on mercy over judgment, embracing those not living in accord with Church teaching, and more directly assisting the poor and disadvantaged. He likened Francis’ philosophy to his own visits to the homes of parishioners when he was a pastor.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz
“ ‘When I’d come to someone’s home, I wouldn’t start by telling them how I’d rearrange their furniture. In the same way, I wouldn’t begin by giving them a list of rules to follow. . . .’
“ ‘I would then invite them to follow Christ, and I’d offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way,’ he said. ‘Such an approach isn’t in opposition to Church teachings; it’s an affirmation of them. . . .’
“Notably absent from the address was a direct condemnation of same-sex marriage or even talk of threats to marriage, discussion of which had become a mainstay of the bishops’ group under Kurtz’ predecessor, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.”
Kurtz did seem to be playing both sides of the coin, however, since in the same address he also heavily praised “St. John Paul II’s remarkable vision of marriage and family life as developed in his theology of the body.”
And Peter Smith, reporting for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, noted:
“Bishops, however, maintained they would continue opposition to legalized same-sex marriage and linked the issue to their outspoken campaign for religious liberty, which they say is being challenged by gay-rights legislation.”
As I mentioned, this same dynamic exists in the debate about LGBT issues in the church. Should we be a church of welcome or of rules? Which is more important: “discussion and discernment” or “authority and obedience”? “A flexible pastoral style” or “an institutional mindset”? A ministry of accompaniment or Theology of the Body?
It comes down to a simple dichotomy that Catholics have been noting for decades regarding LGBT issues: social justice or sexual ethics? Which of these moral traditions should govern how the Church approaches LGBT persons? Pope Francis has elevated that distinction to the front and center of the church’s discussion on marriage, sexuality, and the family.
I hope and pray for a Church where social justice and concern for individuals is primary. I will watch with continued interest to see how this debate, now amplified, will play out.
This year’s bishops’ meeting may not have delivered anything memorable in terms of statements or policies, but it sure did help to make apparent this important tension in our Church.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry