It’s been an interesting few years for Vatican-U.S. relations—ecclesially, theologically, and politically. In 2017, a new categorical wrinkle was added: the diplomatic one. Together these have led to a certain asymmetry in how the two “parallel empires” interact. And it’s unclear how this will impact the relationship in the years remaining of Francis’s papacy and Donald Trump’s presidency.
On the ecclesial front, changes in the relationship between the pope and the American Catholic Church were evident upon the election of Francis in 2013; he was a problem for the U.S. bishops and clergy even before the first synod on the family in October 2014. There were hopes that Francis’s visit to the United States in September 2015 might make for something of a “reset” in relations between the institutional arms of the U.S. church and Rome, perhaps even resulting in the kind of warm interactions the pope enjoys with many ordinary Catholics and the American people. It didn’t happen. From the reactions to Laudato si’ and Amoris Laetitia and more, it’s hard to think of another time in American Catholic history when the hierarchy so openly resisted a pope’s teachings. The bishops clearly had difficulty adjusting to a theological, ecclesial, and magisterial language so clearly different from that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. True, the appointments and emergence of charismatic new voices like Cardinals Blase Cupich and Joseph Tobin and San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy have signaled some movement toward a church more in keeping with Francis’s approach. But the overall situation really has not changed (witness most recently the bishops’ vote for Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann over Cupich as head of the USCCB’s pro-life committee).
Then, in 2016, the political relationship changed, thanks of course to the campaign and eventual election of Donald Trump, and the support he soon gained from the Republican leadership supposedly reluctant to back him. Francis had already signaled his concern (if not the entire Vatican’s) at Trump’s rise, with his statement in February 2016 that “building walls” between nations was not demonstrative of Christian character. Like almost everyone else, the Vatican was surprised by Trump’s victory that November. After all, at the time of Francis’s U.S. visit just a year earlier, there had been little sign of the forces that would propel Trump; the pope had spoken to a president, congress, and political establishment that showed no awareness of the approaching wave of anger. (It’s interesting to think about Francis’s speaking to Congress after the election of a Donald Trump.) Post-election, there was a hardening of the moral-political gap between pope and president, encompassing more than abortion and the Middle East—the usual tension-inducing issues. This rift acted to compound the ecclesial/theological one that had emerged in the previous two years.