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During the most significant debate of last week’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia rose to decry any suggestion that the American bishops are at odds with Pope Francis, “because that isn’t true.” That interpretation of the relationship between the U.S. and Rome “sets up an artificial battle between the bishops’ conference of the United States and the Holy Father which isn’t true,” he said. He rejected a brother bishop’s argument, based on that interpretation, “because it isn’t true.” 

In the space of less than 30 seconds, Chaput said three times that a popular narrative “isn’t true.” Was he stating a fact, or voicing a plaintive hope? Or was he protesting too much?

The perception of tensions between the USCCB and the Roman pontiff might be traced back to the pope’s remarks during an in-flight interview in September, when he told a New York Times reporter: “For me it’s an honor that Americans attack me.” (To be fair, the pope was not then referring to the American bishops; he was speaking about a new book, How America Wants to Change the Pope, in which author Nicolas Seneze posits an American media campaign to subvert papal authority.) Father Antonio Spadaro, the pope’s close Jesuit adviser, has on several occasions complained that Americans are leading the opposition to the papal agenda.

Or the tensions could date back to last year’s USCCB meeting, when the Vatican intervened at the eleventh hour to stop the American bishops from voting to hold bishops accountable for negligence in handling sex-abuse complaints—and then hinted to reporters, inaccurately, that the American prelates had not given the Vatican proper notice of their plans.

Or the tensions could reflect the “great frustration” that Cardinal Sean O’Malley reported last week, as he told his fellow Americans that the Vatican was still not ready to produce a long-overdue explanation of Rome’s involvement in the rise of Theodore McCarrick.

Then, on the eve of the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore, the leadership of the USCCB felt compelled to issue a highly unusual negative appraisal of a book about the pope. Wounded Shepherd, by Austen Ivereigh, “perpetuates an unfortunate and inaccurate myth that the Holy Father finds resistance among the leadership and staff of the US bishops’ conference,” lamented the USCCB’s administrative board. It is noteworthy that the same book was reviewed favorably by the Vatican News Service. 

Whatever their sources, those tensions between America and Rome formed the background for the USCCB meeting. They were almost palpable when Archbishop Christoph Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., rose to address the American hierarchy and asked the bishops to reflect on whether they had done enough to advance the projects most important to Pope Francis. “The pastoral thrust of this pontificate must reach the American people,” the papal representative insisted. The nuncio did not charge the U.S. bishops with resisting the pope’s leadership, but most of the reporters covering the meeting saw that message written between the lines.

On the second day of the USCCB meeting, the subject was finally discussed aloud, when the bishops took up consideration of an election-year statement. The draft submitted to the USCCB membership described abortion as the “preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.” Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, whose influence has soared under Pope Francis, proposed an amendment: a lengthy quotation from the pontiff, listing all the other public-policy issues that the pope considers important. More to the point, the papal quotation criticized those who suggest that “the only thing that counts is one particular issue or cause that they themselves defend.” The effect of the amendment would have been to soften the emphasis on abortion, and many bishops objected.

Then Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, another prelate closely aligned with Pope Francis, escalated the tensions, not only supporting the Cupich amendment but directly denying the “preeminent” status of the abortion issue. “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face,” he argued. That assertion touched off a more heated debate about the bishops’ commitment to the pro-life cause. McElroy said that without the Cupich amendment, the draft statement was “at least discordant” with the papal approach. By incorporating the Cupich quotation, then, the USCCB could show loyalty to the pontiff, making the sort of gesture that the papal nuncio had recommended. Thus the debate on the election-year statement became a discussion of the tensions, real or imagined, between the American bishops and the Vatican. In that context Archbishop Chaput issued his spirited threefold assurance that “it isn’t true.”

When the debate ended, the USCCB voted by a decisive 143 to 69 against the proposed Cupich amendment. So the U.S. bishops’ statement preserves the clear message that abortion is a “preeminent priority,” undiluted by the pope’s caution against a single-issue approach. Pope Francis, who has frequently spoken of his desire for decentralized decision-making in the Church, should not object to the American bishops’ assessment of how their message should be presented to the American people. But the larger questions about tensions between the USCCB and the Vatican are likely to linger.

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading his Flock

Photo by Zebra48bo via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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