A Catholic bishop recently became the first member of the hierarchy known to have met with Kim Davis. According to her account, the bishop thanked her for her courage, told her to “stay strong,” assured her of prayers, requested hers in return, and gave her and her husband rosaries. A few days later, in a press conference, that bishop repeated that, while he didn’t know the particular circumstances of every case, the right of conscientious objection is a human right and enters into every human right, for government officials and for everyone.
Was this one of the American “culture war bishops,” as commentators have termed them, that collection of prelates driven by hate, anger, and power? The “warrior bishops,” they said, stand opposed to Pope Francis, who is gentle and progressive. Unlike Francis, these bishops over-emphasize abortion, advocate bigotry under the guise of “religious liberty,” and care more about political battles than the care of souls.
But it wasn’t an American who met with Kim Davis. It was Pope Francis. And instead of furthering the wedge narrative during his visit, Francis came and killed it. That’s not to say that Pope Francis is exactly like many American bishops, or that he is a secret culture warrior. However, it is striking that he worked so hard to underscore his unity with the American bishops and his appreciation for their hard work fighting for the Gospel and living it out. He could have done otherwise. One thinks of his scalding addresses to the Curia, or his sermons at Santa Marta that excoriate modern Pharisees.
It began in front of the White House, in the third paragraph he delivered on our shores, speaking about religious freedom: “That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” In his address to Congress, he supported the bishops in their calls for the abolition of the death penalty. Later that evening, Francis made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, whom the bishops continue to support in their lawsuit against the HHS mandate.
In his address to the bishops that afternoon, Francis thanked them for their unity with the Apostolic see and for “the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit.” He continued:
I am also conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the Church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice. Nor have you been afraid to divest whatever is unessential in order to regain the authority and trust which is demanded of ministers of Christ and rightly expected by the faithful. . . .
Reading over your names, looking at your faces, knowing the extent of your churchmanship and conscious of the devotion which you have always shown for the Successor of Peter, I must tell you that I do not feel a stranger in your midst.
Francis immediately situated himself as one of them, not one opposed to them. A man capable of sharp criticism said he came as a brother, not to criticize. Was that simply rhetoric? Were the remarks that followed deep indictments? Unlikely. Francis acknowledged that “the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.” He called the bishops to reject ‘harsh and divisive’ rhetoric in favor of dialogue. This might be critical of some reactions of some bishops. But, as John Allen, the dean of American Catholic journalists, noted, “that does not imply, however, that he believes the substance of their concerns is mistaken, and by meeting both the Little Sisters of the Poor and Davis he drove that point home.”
While meeting with bishops taking part in the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis again stressed the pastoral method of accompaniment. He began his address by noting a bishop whom he thinks has demonstrated the pastoral method of accompaniment: “I have just met with a group of persons abused as children, who are helped and accompanied here in Philadelphia with particular care by Archbishop Chaput. . . .”
Whenever anyone wants to criticize “warrior bishops,” Chaput is first on the list, the anti-Francis extraordinaire. Why, then, was he the only one singled out by name for his accompaniment?
Perhaps it’s because he and Francis are more similar than many pundits would admit. Years before Francis’s election, in 2011, Archbishop Chaput had put Philadelphia’s bishop’s palace on the market. It was one of the first things to go in his long-standing campaign to streamline the church for evangelization.
Chaput’s reform of Philadelphia is similar to Francis’s reforms in Rome. Both combat clericalism. Both want a church focused on living and spreading the gospel, not maintaining buildings and institutions. These should be downsized or shed as necessary because the gospel and the cure of souls take precedence above all. When Chaput said that attending Catholic school “no more makes them a Catholic than being in a garage makes them a car,” he was making a typically Franciscan point with typically Franciscan sharpness: Showing up is not enough. We need to believe and live out our faith as disciples of Jesus.
In a polarized church, it can be easy and satisfying to give in to division and hatred. A friend of one of the journalists pushing the wedge narrative remarked to me, “Sometimes he hates conservatives more than he loves the Church.” The same could be said of some conservatives, mutatis mutandis. Love for the Church and love of the truth compel us to resist such narratives. Petty hate should merit our pity, but not our assent. By his words and deeds, John Allen concluded, Francis has “debunked impressions of a rift with the American bishops when it comes to the ‘wars of culture.’” He is correct. We should view Pope Francis and the American bishops through the pope’s own lens. As Francis has clearly indicated, they may have some differences, but those do not eclipse their greater unity.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.
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