Tony Spence, editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service (CNS) for more than a decade, abruptly resigned last month at the request of an official at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The reason? Spence had posted tweets about legislation to protect religious liberty passed in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee, which would deny legal protections to LGBT people. “Stupid evidently contagious,” Spence wrote in one tweet that linked to a Reuters article about a Tennessee law allowing mental health counselors to refuse treatment to patients on religious grounds. In response to Spence’s tweets, self-appointed Catholic watchdog groups that in the past have targeted other conference officials unleashed a flurry of blog posts accusing the editor of “promoting the LGBT agenda.” This proved too much for the USCCB, which has made religious-liberty issues a priority in recent years and puts significant institutional muscle into promoting its annual anti-Obamacare “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign.

“That was the only imprudent tweet,” Spence told me in an interview last week. “I was so upset because Tennessee was my home state. The legislature lost its mind. But it’s not imprudent to say what has been happening in North Carolina. LGBT rights and other rights just went out the window. It’s just a fact.”

Spence, who in 2010 won the top award given by the Catholic Press Association and has been a consultant in the past to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said he was “shocked” to be forced out and told to immediately leave his post without the chance to address his colleagues. “I’ve heard from staff and from people all over creation. There’s been a lot of support,” he said. The former editor has observed a growing tension and anxiety among some Catholic leaders. “I think it’s a very tense time in the American church and some things are off limits for discussion in any kind of rational way,” Spence said. “It’s difficult to talk about religious liberty, sexuality, women’s issues. But we don’t live in a Catholic bubble. We’re a country of 320 million people.”

The forced resignation of a widely respected journalist with a long history of serving the Catholic press raises questions about the larger, systemic changes at the USCCB in recent years. Interviews with former conference officials confirm that a shift in culture and priorities at the Washington, D.C., headquarters has taken place, and the changes have been especially notable in the midst of Francis’s reform-and-renewal papacy. The pope’s major U.S. appointments—Archbishop Blase Cupich in Chicago and Bishop Robert McElroy in San Diego—signaled a desire to nudge the American hierarchy away from the culture wars. Some leaders at the bishops’ conference seem resistant to this new way forward. 

Whether it’s decrying as “extreme” President Obama’s 2014 executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, comparing American disputes over religious liberty to the persecution of Christian martyrs, or publicly opposing the bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act for including LGBT protections, the conference often seems determined to box itself into a corner. Pope Francis, of course, also cares about religious liberty, challenges a “throwaway” culture that includes abortion, and isn’t changing church teaching on marriage. But as Cathleen Kaveny recently noted in Commonweal (“Bookending a Culture War”), Pope Francis’s call for “a new balance” in how the church articulates its teachings includes a clear desire to recalibrate the Catholic public voice in a way that doesn’t reduce those moral teachings to a short list of hot-button sexual issues. But many in the U.S. hierarchy don’t seem eager to follow this example.  

 

OVER THE PAST DECADE, a new generation of conservatives replaced longtime conference staff forged in the heady afterglow of the Second Vatican Council and inspired by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” framework. As these younger staffers began to fill leadership positions, the prioritization of issues at the conference has tacked in a different direction—one that also diverges from the new pope’s priorities. Perhaps the clearest sign of these changes is the bishops’ inability to effectively address what Francis calls “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” While the bishops’ domestic justice office sends letters to Congress on budget issues and is part of an ecumenical “Circle of Protection” campaign to protect the social safety net, the conference has not spoken boldly on these matters since its 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All.

In 2012—not long after launching a national religious freedom campaign in protest of Obamacare’s contraception mandate—the bishops ditched an effort to release a letter on the economy. The draft, The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Times, provoked an unusually testy debate during a public session of the bishops’ national meeting in Baltimore. The document’s demise underscored generational and ideological fissures in the hierarchy. Older bishops, many of whom grew up in working-class families with strong union ties, panned the statement for its failure to address— through the lens of traditional Catholic social teaching—the structural causes of poverty or offer a compelling response to growing inequalities and assaults on workers’ rights.

Some “Francis bishops” have emerged to challenge the conference to more fully embrace the pope’s call for a “poor church for the poor” and prioritize addressing income inequality. Bishop Robert McElroy, appointed to lead the San Diego diocese last spring, acknowledged in an interview with Vatican Insider that this will require realigning political priorities. “In recent years, the conference of bishops has labeled abortion and euthanasia as the preeminent issues in the political order, but not poverty,” he said. “This has had the effect of downgrading the perceived importance of poverty as a central focus for the church’s witness.” McElroy has argued that Francis’s emphasis on global poverty and inequality “demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.”

During interviews with former senior conference staff for my book, The Francis Effect, many lamented the all-consuming focus on religious liberty fights, and expressed concern that a hunkered-down approach is limiting the bishops’ effectiveness. “There came a point when you could not distinguish between the agenda of the Becket Fund and the bishops’ agenda,” said former America editor Drew Christiansen, SJ, who led the U.S. bishops’ office of international justice and peace for seven years in the 1990s and is a professor at Georgetown University. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents the Little Sisters of the Poor and other plaintiffs challenging the Obama administration in a case currently being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The fund also represented the evangelical owners of the chain of retail arts and crafts stores, Hobby Lobby, who won a controversial victory at the Supreme Court when they sued for an exemption from Obamacare. In that case, the justices ruled for the first time that for-profit corporations have religious conscience rights. A former legal star at the Becket Fund, Anthony Picarello, was named general counsel of the bishops’ conference in 2007 and later promoted to associate general secretary for policy and advocacy, a position that gives him a powerful role in shaping the bishops’ strategies. 

Further details about the changes at the bishops’ conference come from Dolores Leckey, who spent two decades at the conference before retiring in 1997. The founding director of the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth, Leckey worries that the conference has embraced a narrow view of Catholic identity that draws stark dividing lines instead of approaching politics and public policy as the art of the possible. “For most of the time I was at the conference we could get someone from the government to come and give a talk, but there came a point when there was almost no woman in Congress who could pass muster with the pro-life office,” Leckey said. “There is now a kind of unspoken test, and if anyone has a perceived taint of not being on target with every single element of Catholic doctrine, it just doesn’t fly. The church gets cut out of all kinds of effective partnerships. It’s crimping our ability to make a difference.”

Frank Monahan, the longtime director of the bishops’ government relations office, noticed that same mood of suspicion. He points to the 2004 presidential election as a tipping point. A Catholic who endorsed abortion rights, Sen. John Kerry sought the Democratic nomination in the face of public criticism from some bishops—including those who implied they would deny him Communion. “Kerry was just not seen as acceptable,” said Monahan, who retired from the bishops’ conference in 2007. “I think that was the beginning of a serious effort on the part of some in the conference’s leadership to say the conference is being run by liberal staff, and it’s time to rein everyone in.”

Spence also watched the atmosphere at the bishops’ conference grow testier in recent years. The tension was palpable when Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 and even more so when, a year later, bishops publicly denounced the University of Notre Dame for inviting Obama—by then the sitting president—to give its commencement address. The honoring of a pro-choice president sparked outrage among some prominent conservative Catholics. Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, refused to attend the graduation ceremony to receive the Laetare Medal, one of the U.S. church’s most prestigious awards.

This mood of division and suspicion raised particular challenges for a Catholic news entity, Spence said. While CNS is an office of the USCCB, it’s also a wire service that is financially independent of the conference and provides content to both secular and religious news outlets. “Catholic News Service always prided ourselves on covering things fairly, and we wanted to give Democrats and Republicans an even playing field, but the focus on pelvic issues sent all that askew and it became very difficult,” Spence recalled. “When Obama ran it was a challenging time. It almost became impossible to cover that election in a decent way. He was so vilified. When you reported on positions that politicians took on health care or issues of sexuality even neutrality was seen as an implied endorsement. We really had to be careful about the language we used and how we wrote things. Eventually you start to do that so much you look up and you’re self-censoring and you almost don’t realize how you got there. There was never any direction from the leadership of the conference not to report on something. We had editorial freedom, but there were a lot of battles fought over it.”

Along with internal shifts at the conference over the years, Spence also watched an increasingly emboldened group of activists use blogs, websites, and social media to pressure bishops and conference staff. In fact, he might be still editing CNS if not for an aggressive network of right-wing Catholic activists that has been relentless in going after individuals for expressing supposedly heterodox views. 

The Lepanto Institute, Church Militant, and LifeSiteNews.com, all three of which kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism against the editor, perceive themselves as guardians of an embattled church. The Lepatano Institute, for example, describes itself as “a research and education organization dedicated to the defense of the Catholic Church against assaults from without as well as from within.” They warn on their website that “whether in the form of armies, heretics, or traitors, the church has always faced enemies seeking her destruction.” Church Militant, which has challenged Pope Francis, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, and the Knights of Columbus, used to be called Real Catholic TV—that is, before the Archdiocese of Detroit challenged the organization’s right to call itself Catholic under the Code of Canon Law. LifeSiteNews.com frequently covers content produced by far-right pressure groups, and describes its mission as providing “balance and more accurate coverage on culture, life, and family matters than is usually given by other media.”

These same groups that targeted Spence launched a campaign to fire Rick Estridge, the former vice president for overseas finance at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), because he is in a same-sex marriage. The Lepanto Institute included screen grabs of Estridge’s Facebook page and published a copy of his Maryland marriage license. CRS consistently defended Estridge, who is not Catholic and worked in a specialized finance position. In the wake of those attacks, he resigned last June after sixteen years at the agency. Michael Voris, who leads Church Militant and inveighs frequently against homosexuality and gay rights, last week acknowledged for the first time that in the past he had been in sexual relationships with men. He accused the Archdiocese of New York of preparing documents to publicly discredit him, a claim the archdiocese denies.

Other church employees targeted in recent years by watchdog groups include John Carr, who directed the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice portfolio for more than two decades before leaving in 2012 to launch The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought & Public Life at Georgetown University. The American Life League denounced Carr for being part of “a systemic pattern of cooperation with evil” because he once served on the board of the Center for Community Change, which the American Life League views as a “pro-abortion” organization.

While these fringe groups are far to the right of many other conservative Catholic organizations, the networks are having an impact on the American church. A consistent target of theirs has been the U.S. bishops’ anti-poverty effort, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). A “Reform CCHD Now” coalition, launched in 2009 by the American Life League, includes many of the same groups that agitated for Spence’s ouster. The coalition—which exists to document CCHD funding allegedly going to organizations that promote abortion, gay rights, and contraception—produces reports, videos, and websites that are sent to bishops. Even as the bishops’ conference has dismissed these groups for having “clear ideological and ecclesial agendas,” the pressure campaigns have led to effective organizations losing church funding. This is rarely because these organizations directly advocated for a cause at odds with church teaching; more often, they were faulted for being part of broad coalitions that included non-Catholic organizations that do oppose some church teachings. This kind of guilt-by-association hurts the church’s credibility in a pluralistic public square, undermines effective partnerships that help the poor, and erodes faith-based community organizing that has long been a powerful instrument for putting Catholic teaching into practice.

“What blows my mind is these groups are given so much credibility and have influence,” Spence told me. “They are destructive. We’re only talking about a few hundred people in a very big church, but church leadership sometimes doesn’t have confidence in its own voice and these shrill challenges make them jump for cover.”

The bishops’ conference, and the American hierarchy more broadly, face a crossroads. Culture warriors are digging in. Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy will only grow more emboldened now that they can claim another scalp. There is nothing joyful, inspiring, or authentically Catholic about any of this. Catholics on the left and right don’t have to agree on everything to recognize a better path is possible. The ideological purity tests and ugly character assassinations that sicken our secular body politic should be a cautionary tale for our church.

Published in the June 3, 2016 issue: 

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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