Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is seen at the USCCB headquarters in Washington D.C., November 17, 2020 (CNS photo/Screen Grab).

The second Catholic president of the United States is the first to hold office in the midst of an American intra-Church crisis. John Kennedy never had to deal with the kind of conflict currently roiling the USCCB or the opposition of so many bishops to the papacy. But Joe Biden takes office just as the situation inside the U.S. Catholic Church becomes reminiscent of the Americanist controversy of the late nineteenth century. What divided the bishops then were the warnings put forth by Leo XIII in Longinqua oceani (1895) and Testem benevolentiae (1899)—namely, admonitions against embracing the “American” models of religious liberty and separation of church and state. New York Archbishop John Corrigan sided with the pope, against St. Paul Archbishop John Ireland and his allies, whom Leo ultimately disavowed for their “Americanist” views. The split had long-term effects on the Church.

One of the things that divides the episcopate now is Biden himself. Many have criticized his Catholicism and are opposed to his presidency (just as they have criticized and opposed Pope Francis). But the critics also seem to fear the beginning of a social revolution—taking an apocalyptic view of the moment, seizing on issues of sexual morality and abortion in particular as an anchor of continuity with the past. What happened on January 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration, reveals the degree of ecclesial turmoil. A statement signed by USCCB President José Gomez, offering pro forma congratulations to and prayers for the new U.S. president and his administration, quickly pivoted to abortion, once more highlighting it as the “preeminent priority.” The statement, which struck quite a different tone from the congratulatory message with which the USCCB welcomed Donald Trump four years ago—and from Pope Francis’s note of congratulations to Biden—would have appeared before Biden’s swearing in had the Vatican not intervened and delayed it. (One can only assume that the leadership of the USCCB has a nostalgia for the Trump presidency that the Vatican and many U.S. Catholics don’t.) Gomez’s statement drew quick and unprecedented condemnation from some of the conference’s own members, most notably Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, who that afternoon tweeted: “Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration.” He went on to criticize not only the content but also the process by which the statement had been crafted, reviewed, and released. Other bishops and cardinals, including Newark’s Joseph Tobin, were more discreetly critical.

No matter that the next day the USCCB issued formal statements praising Biden’s executive orders returning America to the Paris Agreement, reinstating DACA protections, and overturning Trump’s Muslim ban. The wrong note had already been struck, one far out of tune with the relief many people here and the world over, Catholic and non-Catholic, felt with the passing of the Trump presidency and its racism and political violence. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy had days earlier condemned the January 6 assault against the Capitol as  “the logical trajectory of the last four years of President Trump’s leadership of our country.” But the January 20 statement from the conference was one more indication that a number of U.S. bishops are indifferent to what happened in this country under Trump, and saw no reason not to support him a second time.

The conference is out of step not only with the new president, but also with many in the Catholic flock, as well as with the Vatican.

How many other bishops will follow Cupich’s lead? For now, it seems not many, at least in public. But no matter the allegedly “thundering consensus” within the USCCB, the conference as a whole is out of step not only with the new president, but also with many in the Catholic flock, as well as with the Vatican. Of course, a national episcopate is free, even obliged, to engage with and comment on the social and political issues of the country. But coupled with an estrangement from Francis it seems to revel in (an effort reaching dangerous levels over the past few years, especially with the attempted coup by Carlo Maria Viganò and his enablers in August 2018), the behavior of the conference is cause for concern. The internal dysfunction is also troubling; the conference more closely resembles a federation of episcopal committees than an ecclesial body. Right now, the USCCB is pretty much the opposite of synodality and collegiality between brother bishops, and between the bishops and the pope. Instead of behaving ecclesially, it has been behaving politically, and now it will be judged politically because it has lost the right to be judged ecclesially. On those terms, many Catholics (and non-Catholics) in the United States automatically dismiss whatever the bishops now say.

In other words, it’s a crisis of legitimacy, which is a problem for U.S. Catholicism but which also affects the Church as a whole. Pope Francis is not the only Church leader wondering what’s going on with the U.S. hierarchy. Catholic leaders worldwide who were beginning to take notice years ago now express their opinions about the USCCB publicly (for example, Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian bishops’ conference). On January 15, the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, released a statement about the assault on the Capitol that was stronger than the appeals for peace coming from the USCCB. Shouldn’t the American hierarchy be concerned about, or at least aware of, how the rest of the world is viewing its actions and behavior?

Amid the talk for national reconciliation, we also need to talk about religious reconciliation; the two are linked. But reconciliation is unlikely with an episcopal conference that is openly in conflict with itself, and whose authority is openly challenged by some of its members. For a few years now, the minority of pro-Francis bishops, out-voted and out-maneuvered, has largely given up on the idea of influencing the USCCB. As Robert Mickens recently noted: “Francis has been pope less than eight years, but none of the bishops he’s named has ever been elected to the top leadership posts in the USCCB.” There’s clearly a difference between being appointed by Pope Francis and being able to interpret Francis’s message at the institutional level of the U.S. Catholic Church.

So where does that leave things? What needs to be addressed is the lack of vision. When was the last time the USCCB or a cardinal or an archbishop laid out an ecclesial and theological vision for the Church in this country for the long term? A vision that does not pretend to have the power to change legislation on social issues through episcopal statements; a vision that is not limited to this or that issue in the portfolio of this or that episcopal committee of the USCCB? U.S. Catholicism could use a Joseph Bernardin right about now,  just to limit ourselves to the episcopate. The Americanist crisis of the 1890s brought about an end to periodic national councils, weakened efforts for national pastoral projects, and stifled intellectual and theological reflection for more than half a century—an era that came to an end only with the convening of the Second Vatican Council. Let’s hope the next fifty years don’t repeat that history.


For more on Joe Biden’s Catholicism, listen to the new interview with Massimo Faggioli.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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