The bond between Rome and local churches around the world has always been crucial to the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself as universal. From the time of the Council of Trent especially, the ad limina apostolorum—the periodic visit of world bishops “at the thresholds of the Apostles” in Rome—has been one of the ways the church works to ensure the strength of this bond. In a few days, the ad limina visit of the U.S. bishops will begin, and by the time it wraps up in February, we might have a fresh sense of just what the bond between the Holy See and the American episcopate is made of.
After all, it’s not as if there isn’t controversy attending the bishops’ visit. In the course of Francis’s papacy, the dynamic between the U.S. church and Rome has grown increasingly fraught. The case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the subsequent “manifestos” of former nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò brought relations between American bishops and the papacy to a new low. That two dozen bishops came out in support of Viganò, without bothering to defend the pope against his unsubstantiated claims, will long remain a stain on the U.S. church. And given that a significant number of American bishops continue to ignore or actively reject key aspects of Francis’s pastoral priorities—from “Who am I to judge?” to Amoris laetitia to Laudato si’—it’s hard to know whether a meaningful rapprochement will be achieved anytime soon.
The format of the ad limina itself might offer insights into what could transpire. It has changed over time, even just in the decades encompassing the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Where once a national or regional contingent of bishops visited every five years, that has now become every seven or eight. Under Benedict XVI, personal one-on-one meetings between the pope and visiting bishops were dropped in favor of group sessions involving about ten bishops at a time (though some cardinals and archbishops could still get individual meetings). Benedict also departed from the style of his predecessor in favoring dialogue rather than using the ad limina as a forum for Vatican officials to lecture visiting bishops. Francis does not meet bishops individually; instead, he spends ninety minutes or more with each group, answering questions and offering advice. Nor does he deliver a formal speech—although he does provide the text of a speech. Similarly, the bishops also prepare a formal speech but only provide the text of it. No official papal transcript of the conversations is prepared, so the only accounts of what gets talked about come from the press.
It might also be helpful to look back on the topics of conversation at the two previous ad limina visits, with John Paul II in 2004, and with Benedict XVI in 2011–2012. In 2004, the American church was already engulfed by the sexual-abuse crisis and had promulgated the Dallas Charter. Yet in the exchange between the pope and the bishops, the crisis was not treated or discussed as something that would in fact come to define for our age the perception of the church in the United States. In 2011–2012, Benedict’s speeches reflected the U.S. bishops’ new emphasis on religious freedom, as demonstrated by the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty in September 2011 and congressional testimony on the topic by American bishops in October 2011. He touched on a number of the key topics, from conscientious objection on “life issues” to same-sex marriage. But he also addressed intraecclesial issues, such as dissent from the magisterium. He also condemned the failure of Catholic colleges and universities to comply with church requirements, saying that Catholic theology teachers must “have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.” There is also some historical backdrop worth keeping in mind: at the time, U.S. women religious were the target of two investigations by the Vatican, and the new nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, had just arrived in Washington.