The U.S. flag is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his arrival to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis Meets the American Catholic Church

The church that Pope Francis will encounter in September is diverse and varied but also highly enthusiastic for his leadership. The American Catholic bishops will be the principal hosts for the pope, and so their perspectives are worth exploring. Naturally, with over 270 bishops, multiple reactions to Pope Francis prevail. The mixed responses arise from many factors, but four of them are key to explaining why most bishops are enthusiastic about his leadership, some are in a “wait and see” mode, and a minority are confused or opposed to what Pope Francis is advocating.

The first reason for the diverse responses to Pope Francis is that he has dislocated authority. He has changed the style and the very nature of papal authority. He has begun a shift away from increasing centralization and has started to devolve authority and decision-making to local bishops and to regional conferences of bishops. He is shifting the center of the church from Rome out to the periphery—to the whole world. The great majority of bishops welcome this recognition of their own pastoral authority within their local churches.

Another reason is that he takes the Second Vatican Council for granted. He signals that the battle for meaning over the council is done and is urging more direct assimilation of the teachings of the Council.

The third reason is that the American bishops have been under siege. They have faced major internal crises, including the fallout of the earthshaking sexual-abuse scandal. The American bishops have also been divided by an artificial and unfortunate distinction between “Vatican II priests” and “John Paul II priests.”

Fourth, the American bishops’ pastoral agenda has largely had a different priority from that of Pope Francis. They have identified the erosion of religious liberty as a major threat in a world of rampant secularism. They have expended considerable political capital trying to roll back a secularist culture and to change the legal basis for abortion, which many maintain is today’s number-one moral issue. Francis certainly supports these efforts, but he has signaled that the church should not be exclusively occupied with them. Hence, he has significantly shifted the focus of pastoral concern away from hot-button topics such as abortion, birth control, marriage between only a man and a woman, and the ordination of women to the abundant compassion and mercy of God, continually poured out to sinners and to the neglected, with a special regard for the poor.

Related to this difference in pastoral agenda may be some degree of American exceptionalism, by which we mean the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. This assumed uniqueness often leads to national hubris and to a greater emphasis on one’s well-being over and above the common good or social welfare of the whole society. It has led most Americans to embrace democratic capitalism as the only viable organizing principle for society. So some American bishops may be personally and institutionally challenged by the call of Francis that we become a humble church of and for the poor.

These four dimensions suggest a matrix for interpreting the American Catholic Church and its bishops.

1. Dislocating Authority

Francis has brought an end to the monarchical style of the papacy. From the moment of his election he has simplified the papal dress, the manner of speech and his mode of travel, and he has enlarged the church’s engagement with all people. He has not just advocated the preferential option for the poor, he admirably lives it. This sudden shift certainly caught some bishops off guard.

Of course, many American bishops had already opted for simpler quarters over the last decades. They had given up episcopal mansions, which in the 1920s and 1930s had symbolized the political and social arrival of the American Catholic church into the mainstream. The need to garner funds for sexual-abuse settlements precipitated the sale of some of these mansions.

In a homily to the cardinals gathered in Rome last February, Pope Francis admonished them not to become a “closed caste” of prelates who do not turn to the outcast or those in need. Some American Catholic bishops may feel a sense of betrayal, believing that the pope’s critique about clericalism, insularity and narcissism are indications of his disapproval of their leadership.

Early on, Pope Francis announced that far too many issues are routinely referred to Rome for a decision. Many of these are more appropriately handled at the local level. In a word, he does not argue about dismantling centralization, he simply does it. He assumes the diversity of a world church, he believes in appropriate subsidiarity, and he urges that many decisions be made locally in accord with local custom, local language and local context.

New Cardinals Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Bangkok, Thailand, Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, and Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento, Italy, pray the Our Father during Pope Francis' Mass with new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

New Cardinals Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Bangkok, Thailand, Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, and Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento, Italy, pray the Our Father during Pope Francis’ Mass with new cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A significant sign of how Pope Francis has dislocated authority was his appointment of new cardinals from the far-off reaches of Tonga, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Myanmar and Cape Verde, skipping over traditional sees like Turin and Venice. Francis assumes that all the local churches have significant contributions to make to the universal church. The periphery can illuminate the center.

Having been formed and shaped as a Jesuit by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Pope Francis has used a consultative, discerning style of authority typical of the Jesuit order. He often describes how the whole church needs to enter into a period of discernment, of deep listening, so that the sense of the faithful (sensus fidelium)—that is, how the Holy Spirit is acting in and through the whole church—might be determined. He says that by virtue of their baptism, the People of God carry within them an instinct of faith “which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” Pope Francis’ model of consultation and discernment constitutes a much different model of leadership from what the American bishops and faithful had grown accustomed to under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Both of them were at home with a strong, centralized authority. Most bishops welcome the new shift; it has given them more authority for their own pastoral instincts.

Pope Francis has also given greater authority to the Synods of Bishops on the Family (2014-15) by urging vigorous, open dialogue. He announced, “Everyone needs to say what one feels duty-bound in the Lord to say: without respect for human considerations, without fear. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and welcome with an open heart what the brothers say.” He added that the bishops should not be afraid of contradicting the pope. We need all the opinions and best thinking, he said, if we are going to engage in genuine discernment.

This stance of openness is radically new. The church in the United States has not seen it in action since the Second Vatican Council and the first decade following the council. Most American bishops, though supportive of the pope, are cautious.

As most everyone is aware, the strongest, most public opposition to Pope Francis has come from Cardinal Raymond Burke. In an interview with the Spanish Catholic weekly Vida Nueva (Oct. 30, 2014), Burke said, “At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder.” Many in the church are feeling seasick, he said. Burke insisted he was not speaking out against the pope personally but raising concerns about his leadership.

“Resistance is now evident,” Pope Francis told La Naciόn after the synod. “And that is a good sign for me, getting the resistance out into the open, no stealthy mumbling when there is disagreement. It’s healthy to get things out into the open, it’s very healthy.”

2. Taking Vatican II for Granted

Francis is the first pope formed as a priest and ordained (in 1969) after the Second Vatican Council had concluded. In his discourses the pope does not refer a great deal to the Council. He simply takes it for granted. He does not enter into the disputes on interpretation of the Council that had occupied Pope Benedict. He is not concerned whether to interpret the Council with a hermeneutic of continuity or a hermeneutic of discontinuity. The interpretive lens of Francis is: “Is the church becoming a church of and for the poor?” “Are we binding up the wounds of those who are hurting?” “Have we broken out of a self-centered clericalism and narcissism?” And, most all, “have we embraced God’s mercy and manifested the divine mercy to others?”

The mission of the church is not to itself. Rather the church needs to be a “field hospital,” to go out to where the people are hurting. As the pope has said, Christ is knocking on the door, but sometimes he’s knocking to get out, not to come in.

Traditional Catholics and some bishops are treating this papacy as a period of pain that has to be tolerated. They willingly admit that reforms were needed in the Institute for the Works of Religion (the “Vatican bank”) and that the Roman Curia needed to serve the bishops rather than to be severe supervisors over the bishops. So these reforms are all well and good. But Pope Francis has moved far beyond this limited agenda. He has changed the culture. He has changed the symbols accrued to the papacy. He has changed the role and mandates for the bishops themselves.

Pope Francis attends the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis attends the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

American bishops clearly perceive that these changes challenge their own leadership roles, and that they too might be expected to open up a free-ranging, brainstorming, loving discernment and evangelical dialogue among all the faithful. Many welcome this shift to a publicly more compassionate church. But it’s going to get messy.

Ironically, Thomas J. Tobin, bishop of Providence, R.I., affirmed just this. He wrote that the Synod on the Family struck him as “rather Protestant” because it had bishops voting on doctrinal applications. He also wrote that Pope Francis was fond of “creating a mess” and added, “Mission accomplished.” (See blog, Diocese of Providence website, Oct. 21, 2014.)

3. Bishops Under Siege

The American Catholic Church has been undergoing its first major crisis of soul, perhaps the most severe in its young history. The sexual-abuse scandals, including the way bishops dealt with them, “left the church shaken, humbled and humiliated,” Father Ron Rolheiser has said. “It’s a dark hour, a painful dark night of the soul.”

The sexual abuse by clergy and then the defensive protectiveness by bishops, still ingrained in a clerical cultural, severely tested the credibility of the church and its leadership. The Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (2002), which sought to build a firewall against further abuse, effectively suspended some of the traditional, canonical protections for priests accused of malfeasance, but it gave the bishops a solid fortress from which to rebut its critics. It also has caused a fracture between the local bishop and many of his priests.

Blase Cupich, then bishop of Rapid City, S.D., and earlier chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, addressed the heart of the crisis: “The injury to victims is deeper than non-victims can imagine. Sexual abuse of minors is crushing precisely because it comes at a stage in their lives when they are vulnerable, tender with enthusiasm, hopeful for the future and eager for friendships based on trust and loyalty” (America, May 10, 2010).

The U.S. bishops paid out close to $3 billion in settlements over the past 12 years. The financial drain has been enormous. Twelve dioceses and the provinces of two religious orders declared bankruptcy. Bishops have been beleaguered.

The increasing shortage of priests has been another major headache for the bishops. In 1965, there was one priest to every 780 Catholics. Today there is one priest to every 2,000. The rapid expansion of lay ecclesial ministry has been a godsend, but it is not always embraced by the bishops who pine for the “good old days” of abundant priests. Bishops have responded to the shortage by appointing priests who have been ordained just one or two years as pastors. They have welcomed a large number of priests from Africa and other countries. And they have closed or combined many parishes, leading to angry confrontations with lifetime parishioners. Well-educated Catholics have become increasingly disaffected by some of the leadership in the church. Some have left. People wearied of simplistic homilies, of scolding by priests from the pulpit, and of inappropriate homilies such as condemnations of abortion and birth control during a wedding Mass.

For this reason, U.S. Catholics full-heartedly support Francis and welcome his warmth, his exuberant joy and his message of mercy and compassion. Protestants and Jews are likewise buoyed and much more optimistic about the possibilities of a religious revival in the United States. In a Pew Research Survey conducted in February 2015, Pope Francis enjoyed a 90 percent favorability rating among U.S. Catholics.

Hispanics make up about 35 percent of Catholics in the United States, although the percentage ranges from under 10 percent to over 80 percent depending on the diocese. In contrast, only 15 percent of U.S. priests are Hispanic, and they tend to be concentrated in a few dioceses. Importing priests from Spanish-speaking countries is not the answer because Hispanic Catholics in the United States have already developed their own culture, assimilating their traditional customs and language with an American worldview.

Another painful wound in the church is the theological and cultural differences among different generations of clergy. Older priests were steeped in the vision, style and energy of the Second Vatican Council. They were relieved that the liturgy was no longer celebrated in Latin and that the multiplicity of rules in the church had given way to a culture of hospitality, dialogue and mercy. Many younger priests seem to subscribe to a narrow orthodoxy and a revivalist mentality. They seem to adhere to an uncompromising defense of the church’s timeless teachings.

4. The Bishops’ Pastoral Agenda

In the 1970s, when Archbishop Jean Jadot was the apostolic delegate, Pope Paul VI appointed a series of American bishops known for reforming attitudes and a strong concern for social justice. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago most clearly typified this cadre of bishops. A generation later, Pope John Paul II appointed a series of bishops devoted to a strong defense of Catholic tradition and teaching, committed to fending off the secular culture. Cardinal Francis George, Bernardin’s successor in Chicago, was often seen as one of the hierarchy’s sharpest minds and most outspoken advocates for orthodoxy on issues such as abortion, contraception and the Catholic liturgy. Now that Pope Francis has appointed Blase Cupich as the new archbishop of Chicago, the church can expect that he may be representative of a new generation of bishops—those who mix with the people, listen to their joys and sorrows, and are enthusiastically committed to a church known most of all for its mercy and compassion.

Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago talks with Inez Wilson, Cecilia Hernandez and Robert Jefferson during a Thanksgiving dinner put on by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago Nov. 27 at the St. Vincent Center. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago talks with Inez Wilson, Cecilia Hernandez and Robert Jefferson during a Thanksgiving dinner put on by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago Nov. 27 at the St. Vincent Center. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago talks with Inez Wilson, Cecilia Hernandez and Robert Jefferson during a Thanksgiving dinner put on by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago Nov. 27 at the St. Vincent Center. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)The American bishops appointed by John XXIII and Paul VI flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. Many of these bishops had experienced the transforming effect of the Council and were schooled in the latest theology, scriptural exegesis and pastoral leadership because during the Council they mixed daily with all the bishops of the world and the leading theologians at the time. For instance, Raymond Hunthausen, bishop of Helena (1962-75) and archbishop of Seattle (1975-91), said to me once, “I could not have had a better tutorial and training as a bishop than to have had the great privilege of attending the Council. Over dinner and afterwards on the steps of a church, we bishops along with key theologians often discussed how we were going to bring back the spirit and impact of the Council to our people.”

These same American bishops as a united body wrote three groundbreaking pastoral documents that affirmed the great promise and achievements in American culture, but they also offered a harsh critique of institutional racism, American militarism and the unjust distribution of goods within American capitalism. Their prophetic stance certainly echoed and supported the call to peace and a just world voiced by all the popes over the last 50 years. But this kind of unity in the National Conference has not occurred again in almost 30 years.

Today the bishops’ voice as a body has been muted—with the exception of their teaching on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.

A shift in the American bishops may, however, be occurring. They are clearly supportive of Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’,” the bold papal initiative for the care of the planet with special regard for the poor. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a warm, welcoming statement:

“With an open heart and gratitude I, along with my brother bishops in the United States, welcome Laudato Si’. In this beautiful and extensive treatment on the care of our common home, the Holy Father calls all people to consider our deep and intertwined relationship with God, our brothers and sisters, and the gifts that our Creator has provided for our stewardship” (June 18, 2015, USCCB).

In fact, the encyclical has received almost universal praise from every quarter, especially from young people for whom care for the environment is an urgent need and a source of inspiration for action on behalf of justice.

The cardinals in conclave picked Francis to accomplish reforms of a curia and a clerical culture that had become so distorted that some leaders brazenly betrayed the community and the Gospel. Crises ranged from the horrors of sexual abuse of children to more prosaic financial scandals. The cardinals got more than they bargained on. Francis has shaken up the curia, begun extensive reforms of the Vatican financial system, removed incompetent officials and started to appoint new and younger men to drag certain church institutions into the 21st century. But even further, he has changed the conversation, he has brought hope to those who had given up, he has revived interfaith and ecumenical interests, and he portrays the beaming face of Christ, the God of mercy and compassion.

Patrick J. Howell, S.J., is professor of pastoral theology at Seattle University.