Bishops strike notes of unity, independence

In a fall general assembly largely devoted to updating them on programs carried on under their aegis, the U.S. bishops heard report after report showing that, on matters from immigration and racism to abortion and the religious education of youth, their national organization either has policies and projects in place or at least is working on getting them.

There was, however, one issue about which, publicly at least, nothing was said during the semiannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: the ongoing controversy centering on Pope Francis that is now roiling elements of the Catholic community in the United States and other countries. Conceivably this issue, too, was discussed in a Nov. 15 executive session following two days of open discussions. If so, the bishops weren’t saying. Instead they repeatedly cited the pope as an authority and quoted him at every stage of their assembly.

Barque and bite

On the eve of the meeting, this papal presence in absentia was embodied in the presence of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, one of Pope Francis’ closest collaborators. The cardinal presided at a Mass marking 100 years since a remote predecessor of today’s USCCB called the National Catholic War Council was established during World War I.

Speaking to the bishops at a dinner following the Mass, Cardinal Parolin called the invitation to him to be present for the occasion “a sign of our communion cum et sub Petro [‘with and under Peter’].” And when the bishops got down to business the next day, USCCB president Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston undoubtedly spoke for many of his brothers when he said in his opening address “united with our Holy Father, we are indeed a family, always there for one another.”

Against this background, the assembly’s biggest surprise may have been its choice of a chairman-elect of its Committee for Pro-Life Activities. By a vote of 96 to 82, they opted for Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas over Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago.

Cardinal Cupich was the pope’s handpicked choice to head the Chicago archdiocese and to participate in the 2015 Synod of Bishops. He is a strong supporter of the “consistent ethic of life,” linking abortion to other issues. Archbishop Naumann is an outspoken abortion opponent along traditional lines. During last year’s election he called Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) a “cafeteria Catholic” after Kaine described himself as a practicing Catholic who supported his party’s pro-choice stand on abortion. Earlier this year, he severed his archdiocese’s ties with the Girl Scouts for the group’s support of what he called “troubling trends” in society, including support for abortion.

Also at the Bishops' Meeting
The bishops also approved at their Nov. 14-15 general assembly in Baltimore:

Synods and committees

The same tendency to independent thinking could be seen in the reported outcome of an executive session vote for delegates to next fall’s world Synod of Bishops, which will discuss the Church’s ministry to young people.

Subject to Vatican confirmation, the four elected delegates were, per some outlets, Cardinal DiNardo, USCCB vice president Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia and Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles. Archbishop Chaput is a member of the synod’s international planning body, while Bishop Barron has earned a reputation as an expert on using media for evangelization.

Absent from the list are the names of any bishops considered to be protégés of the pope, but he has the authority to name additional delegates of his own choosing.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit was elected USCCB secretary. Other bishops elected to head conference committees were Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, communications; Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Cleveland, cultural diversity in the Church; Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, doctrine; Bishop Joseph R. Cistone of Saginaw, Michigan, national collections; and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, religious liberty. Archbishop Kurtz’s term begins in the immediate wake of the meeting, replacing Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori. The others will assume their chairmanships after one year, at the close of next year’s fall meeting.

In and of the family

The bishops overwhelmingly approved, 223 to 12 with two abstentions, a proposal from their Committee on Marriage, Family Life and Youth for a formal statement and “pastoral plan for marriage and family life ministry and advocacy.” The proposal was presented by Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, New York, filling in for Archbishop Chaput, who was in Rome for a synod planning session.

Bishop Malone said a new pastoral plan would be an appropriate step to take in implementing Pope Francis’ document on marriage and family Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), which the pope published in 2016 in response to the synod that took place the previous years.

Other bishops who joined the discussion agreed, with several complaining the significance of the papal document had been missed due to what one called “media distortion” arising from single-track concentration on what the document says, or seems to say, about giving Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages are still valid in the eyes of the Church.

But to some extent this may have been a case of blaming the media for a problem that has its origin elsewhere. Just two weeks before the Baltimore assembly, a prominent American theologian, Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., resigned as a consultant to USCCB after releasing the text of a letter he sent Pope Francis last summer saying the pope was a source of “chronic confusion” in the Church.

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The Weinandy affair was only the latest in a series of events during the last 18 months centering on Amoris Laetitia and its theological rationale for giving Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics. Critics of the document say the line of argument developed in it is in conflict with traditional moral teaching, but its defenders insist it is a legitimate “development” in continuity with Tradition. Up to now, Pope Francis has replied with silence to people seeking a clarification of his meaning.

Historically, a strong emphasis on union with the pope has always been a hallmark of the U.S. hierarchy, as well as a typical feature of the bishops’ national meetings. This time, though, the appeals for unity had the unintended consequence of calling attention to some recent, contentious events that the bishops in Baltimore, observing the family spirit cited by Cardinal DiNardo, chose — perhaps wisely — not to talk about with others listening in. In his presidential address, the cardinal prescribed the practice of “civility and love” in responding to problems in today’s Church and society, and concluded by urging the bishops to “follow our Holy Father ever more closely.” In Baltimore, they appeared to be doing their best to do both things.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.