Last year I wrote a piece that respectfully argued that the Holy Father does not understand the Church in the United States. I wish I could say I was wrong, but the piece has held up. Pope Francis does not seem to understand the Church in the United States, especially its relationship to Vatican II. A recent interview from his diplomatic representative to the United States, His Eminence Cardinal Christophe Pierre, appears to shed some light on the Holy Father’s misperceptions.
In a recent interview with America Magazine, Cardinal Pierre claimed, “there are some priests and religious and bishops [in the United States] who are terribly against Francis as if he was the scapegoat for all the failures of the church or society.” He went on to say, “We are in the church at a change of epoch. People don’t understand it. And this may be the reason why most of the young priests today dream about wearing the cassock and celebrating Mass in the traditional [pre-Vatican II] way.”
Earlier in the interview he focused on the experience of South America, especially as expressed in the Aparecida document that forged a new way for the Church to evangelize, which Cardinal Pierre said was “invented” not by then Cardinal Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), who was the president of the drafting committee, but by the Holy Spirit. Cardinal Pierre claimed the bishops of South America and Mexico “developed a kind of dynamic of working together and looking for solutions together, to evangelize better, which is what the synod [on synodality] is all about. Nothing else: Better evangelization. And they accompanied the people in their suffering, in their difficulties, and their challenges.” He went on to claim that the bishops of the United States were wholly ignorant of this extraordinary development occurring south of them, implying that the Church here in the U.S. is less evangelical than in Mexico and South America.
The cardinal then made the extraordinary claim that “almost nobody comes [to church] anymore [in the United States] . . . so Pope Francis said, ‘Go out of the church.’ But we still remain in the church.”
He disparaged how the Church in the United States welcomes immigrants. “They knock on the door and they are rejected because America today is not an America that receives people, because there is a crisis here. . . . The church provides Mass for them, but then what? Do we as church help them to make a transition, say, from being Catholic in Mexico to being Catholic in the United States?”
He then claimed the U.S. Church isolates herself and is against Pope Francis. “Is it a refuge? Is the church a refuge? If you look at it as a refuge, you isolate yourselves. The church is missionary. It’s not a reserve of people who feel well together.” He goes on to say, “The problem is that journalists, even in the States, continue to speak about divergent doctrine, they speak just about homosexuality and the marriage of priests, and so maintain the ambiguity. But this is not what we are talking about. I’ve said that for seven years to the bishops.”
He claimed that the bishops are closed in on themselves. He encouraged the bishops of the U.S.: “Don’t have only meetings about administration. Listen to one another. Look at the reality. Pray together, discern and decide.” And, finally, with respect to the Holy Father, “He’s the man the Holy Spirit wanted for this time. He’s the pope the Spirit wanted for this time.”
Where to begin?
First, if the Church is called to go out to the margins, then hopefully I can be included in that category as a voice for some of the Catholics in the pews who feel marginalized. I am also not ignorant of the Church's situation in the United States. I have lived in eight states, in many different cities and towns. I have traveled to all but one of our fifty states, worked in and around the institutional Church for decades, come from a distinctly non-traditional Catholic environment, hold advanced degrees in theology, and remain happily engaged in modern culture.
It is simply false that there are bishops who use Pope Francis as a scapegoat for the ills of our culture, as Cardinal Pierre alleges. I don’t know of a single bishop who claims this. The cultural crisis we face is not one of the pope’s making. To suggest that there are bishops who claim this, much less state it explicitly, is unfair to the U.S. bishops. How disheartening it must be to read what their representative from the Holy See thinks of them.
The claim that most young priests are enthusiastic about the cassock is also plainly false; it is the exception, not the lived experience of the typical young priest. It is odd to focus on this when there are more pressing concerns facing the Church (like the clericalism that still protects predator priests or expensive meetings that deplete limited Church resources, to name just two).
His Eminence states that “almost no one comes to church anymore” in the United States. This is also disconnected from reality. Yes, numbers are down, but there are many vibrant parishes around the country that are growing. I have seen it, and I don’t know why the nuncio seems unaware of this. It makes me sad, especially since in his backyard the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington have plenty of examples of thriving churches. Perhaps he should go to fewer meetings and more parishes. I’d be happy to have him accompany me incognito.
These comments from His Eminence come with more than a little irony, considering the mass exodus from pews in Europe and South America—notably France and Argentina, to say nothing of Germany. If the evangelization efforts inspired by the Aparecida meeting, which in turn inspired the synodal way, is the path forward, then why are the local churches in South America doing worse than those in the United States? (Curiously, shortly after the 2007 Aparecida meeting, the number of priests in South America began to decline sharply, a trend that continues today.) By many metrics, the Church in South America, including in Argentina, is sclerotic and doing dramatically worse than the Church in the United States. Your Eminence, please explain.
Here in the United States, there has been a measurable increase in vocations over the last twenty years. We have evangelization initiatives that exist nowhere else in the world, like the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, Christ in the City, and Creatio, among a dozen others just in my home archdiocese of Denver. We have small Catholic colleges and universities that are actually forming students in the faith, as well as vibrant student centers on secular campuses. The bishops have largely reformed the seminaries, cleaning up the theological and moral dissent that was common for a generation. We have charitable organizations that take care of the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society, with tens or maybe hundreds of millions of non-government dollars and countless living saints driving this charitable work. We have Catholic schools serving Catholics and non-Catholics alike, providing an alternative to the woke education now common in public schools. We have a vibrant Catholic press that is forming the faithful through books and media that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. I am tempted to go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The Church in the U.S. is far from ideal, but it is not the arid, dying institution Cardinal Pierre portrays.
With respect to the question of immigration, I don’t know of any country more generous than the United States. Our arms (and borders) are open to the refugees, immigrants (legal or otherwise), and those who are seeking a better life. It is a calumny to suggest we are a closed society or a closed Church. Take a walk around any major city and it is a melting pot of cultures with Catholic churches welcoming everyone. The bishops themselves run major immigration and refugee services and partner with others. They should be celebrated for this, not belittled.
And this notion that American bishops are fixated on sexuality is also false. It is the leaders of the Synod on Synodality and many of the papally-appointed delegates who are focused on homosexuality, marriage, and priestly orders. The major priority of the USCCB is the Eucharistic Revival, which seeks to draw Catholics back to the very heart of Catholicism. Hardly a fixation on sex.
Many bishops here are tired of Fr. James Martin and others forcing the LGBTQ discussion on them, especially in a manner that does not include thoroughly Catholic apostolates like Courage. My reading of the diocesan synodal reports suggests that the national and continental synodal documents magnify these issues disproportionately, given how little they are discussed at the parish level. Shame on those who use the synodal process to foist upon the faithful divisive efforts to accommodate heterodoxy and then suggest it is the bishops of the United States who are fixated on sex.
Finally, I cannot help but comment on the ecclesiology espoused by Cardinal Pierre and the growing number of ultramontanists who hold that everything emanating from the Holy Father is of the Holy Spirit. History teaches us otherwise, and it is dangerous to advocate such an uncritical posture to the Holy See. As I understand it, synodality demands discernment, including recognizing where the Holy Spirit is working and where he is not. I am told that this should apply to all things Catholics, which presumably means the Holy Father, as well as to bishops and the faithful.
I find no joy in writing this article. But comments like those from His Eminence cannot go unchallenged. It is a matter of justice to the bishops of the United States, the many priests and religious who live their vows faithfully and evangelically, and the countless lay men and women who make heroic sacrifices to advance the faith here. May the Holy Spirit be with them and all the faithful, and may he open the eyes of the Holy See to the reality of the Church in America.
Jayd Henricks is the president of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal.
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