[Editors note: This is part two of Crux national correspondent Christopher White’s look back at the U.S. Church in 2017. In part one, he examined the Church’s engagement in the public square over the past year.]
NEW YORK — While the Church’s engagement in the public square is often what attracts major headlines — and 2017 did not disappoint as yesterday’s recap chronicled — the behind-the-scenes internal workings, and indeed, controversies, of the U.S. Church are equally important to remember.
These machinations help illuminate larger trends in Church life, and often inform and shape the Church’s external focus — and in that regard, 2017 proved to be a similarly critical year for life in the U.S. Church.
The Joy of the Gospel – American style
In July, more than 3,500 delegates from around the country met in Orlando, Florida for a four-day long Convocation of Catholic Leaders focused on Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) in the American context.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Florida later called the event “a watershed moment for the Church in the United States” and some participants labeled it a “World Youth Day for adults.” While more than 150 bishops and 300 priests attended the event, the primary contributors were lay people and the discussion revolved around Francis’s call for a Church driven by missionary discipleship.
At the fall meeting for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the working group on the Life and Dignity of the Human Person who organized the convocation, provided a final report and noted that the overwhelming response was one of success, and that it was now up to the delegates to return to their home parishes for implementation of the ideas and strategies that were discussed.
A debate over books
Several major books factored heavily in the discussions over what the Church’s pastoral response should be in engaging the modern world.
Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land and Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, both released within a few weeks of one another, explore the rise of secularism, and according to both authors, the hostility to those that maintain traditional Christian beliefs and values. While Dreher is Eastern Orthodox, his book was much debated among Catholics for his advocacy of a withdrawal from the mainstream and a renewal of Christian counterculture. Meanwhile, Chaput argues that Christians cannot withdraw, but urges caution in making peace with modernity and a deeper reliance on the power of beauty to save the world.
In June, Jesuit Father James Martin published Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, which sparked a divisive debate over Martin’s proposals for how the Church can better engage the LGBT community. The controversies surrounding his book resulted in a series of high profile speaking engagement cancellations after an online social media campaign from far-right Catholic groups.
While critics — including Vatican Cardinal Robert Sarah — accused Martin of failing to comprehensively present Church teaching on same-sex relationships, the book received high praise from several other high ranking cardinals, including Cardinal Kevin O’Farrell, the head of the Vatican office for laity, family, and life.
Requiescat in pace
Three major giants of the U.S. Catholic Church died during the past year: Cardinal William Keeler, Archbishop John Quinn, and Cardinal Bernard Law.
Keeler, who led the archdiocese of Baltimore for nearly twenty years, died at the age of 86 this past March. Keeler was known for his pro-life activism, as well as his ecumenical work with Jews, and was widely heralded for his response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. In September 2002, he released a list of the names of 56 priests who had been accused of sexual abuse within the archdiocese of Baltimore. For many observers, his transparency was seen as a much-needed change in the Church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations.
Quinn, the former archbishop of San Francisco, passed away in June at the age of 88. During the last quarter of the 20th century, Quinn was one of the most consequential figures in the U.S. Church, having served as head of the U.S. bishops. He was known as a strong champion of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
And lest anyone missed the news of recent weeks, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston — who became synonymous with the clergy sexual abuse scandal — died on December 20 in Rome. Law, who resigned in 2002 following the Boston Globe’s unmasking of decades of abuse cover-up, was given a funeral mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, per Vatican protocol, which included the participation of the pope. Law was once the most celebrated prelate in the U.S. hierarchy, and while the U.S. Church has taken great strides to implement a zero tolerance policy for sexual abusers, his death forced many to once more reckon with one of the most painful periods of Church history.
Another Amoris debate
In November, Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy made public a letter he wrote to Francis accusing the pontiff of sowing “chronic confusion” within the Church, particularly in light of his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, allowing for a cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Weinandy was the former chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a consultant to the same committee when he published his letter. Following backlash over his letter, Weinandy resigned from the committee and the president of the USCCB, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, issued a statement that “the work of the committee is done in support of, and in affective collegiality with, the Holy Father and the Church in the United States.”
DiNardo went on to add that such debates – particularly the ones over Amoris Laetitia – have often lacked the charity that is needed, and in particular, loyalty to the pope.
“We must always keep in mind St. Ignatius of Loyola’s ‘presupposition’ to his Spiritual Exercises: ‘…that it should be presumed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.’”
“This presupposition,” DiNardo said, “should be afforded all the more to the teaching of Our Holy Father.”
While many observers viewed DiNardo’s statement and the swift response from the USCCB as an effort to align the U.S. bishops more closely with Francis, the Weinandy affair illuminated the divided factions within the U.S. Church over Francis — tensions that will most likely continue to make news as Francis heads into the 5th year of his papacy in March 2018.