Now that Pope Francis has confirmed his trip to the United States next September, heading to Philadelphia for a Vatican-sponsored meeting of families and probably also to New York and Washington, American media outlets are already beginning to gear up for saturation coverage.
One narrative seems destined to loom steadily larger the closer we get to the trip: perceived resistance from conservative American bishops to Pope Francis’ progressive agenda.
Seeing that coming, I’ll launch a preemptive strike here, trying to explain why the “US bishops v. the pope” riff can easily be overblown. I’m under no illusion that my thoughts will have much effect on how the trip is covered, but at least something will be on the record.
To begin, the impressions are not based on thin air.
The pope’s host in Philadelphia, for instance, will be Archbishop Charles Chaput, seen as a champion of the church’s conservative wing, who recently said media coverage of the pope’s Synod of Bishops on the family in October had created “confusion.”
Chicago’s retired and ailing Cardinal Francis George, who remains a key point of reference, ticked off some questions he’d like to ask Francis in a recent interview with Crux, including if the pope realizes he’s created an impression that Church teaching is up for grabs.
“I don’t know whether he’s conscious of all the consequences of some of the things he’s said and done that raise doubts in people’s minds,” George said.
In general, American Catholicism poses two unique challenges for a pope who’s an economic populist, and who’s vowed to dial down the rhetoric on the wars of culture. Nowhere else is there such a strong Catholic infrastructure dedicated to defending capitalism, and nowhere else is clarity on the “life issues,” such as abortion and gay marriage, such a defining feature of Catholic identity.
Yet there are still four good reasons why the “American bishops vs. Francis” narrative has to be taken with a grain of salt.
First, there are a lot of bishops in this country, and they don’t all think alike.
The United States has 195 dioceses, archdioceses, and other jurisdictions, which comes to just under 200 bishops. Adding in auxiliary bishops and those who are retired, the total rises to around 450.
As a result, it’s almost meaningless to ask what the “American bishops” think of anything. One has to specify which bishops we’re talking about, and the answers will vary widely.
For instance, does anybody really believe that Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in Boston or Archbishop Blase Cupich in Chicago – one a member of the pope’s kitchen cabinet, the other his hand-picked nominee in the Windy City – are “resisting” Francis?
Second, Pope Francis is the 267th pope, depending on how one counts, and he’s also probably the 267th to have run into problems with some of his bishops.
Those tensions go back to the New Testament, and a famous clash between Peter and Paul over the requirements for gentiles who became Christians.
More recently, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both encountered strong internal resistance, including in America. When John Paul stripped liberal Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in Seattle of some powers in 1986, the president of the US bishops’ conference had to organize a kiss-and-make-up session between American bishops and papal aides, for fear that animosity might mar John Paul’s trip to the States in September 1987.
Whatever the blowback to Francis may be, it’s nothing new.
Third, Francis has called for an open debate about issues in the Church. At the beginning of the synod in October, he read aloud a letter he’d received from a cardinal saying some prelates were muzzling themselves out of fear the pope had a different opinion, and Francis begged them not to do that.
It’s thus disingenuous to blame bishops for stoking “resistance” to the pope every time they voice their opinion on something. One could just as easily say they’re practicing obedience, not defiance.
Fourth, no matter what some American bishops may privately think, they have a powerful incentive to see Francis succeed. That’s because having a popular pope makes their lives easier.
Not long ago, when the typical bishop went on American TV, the questions were about sex scandals, crackdowns on nuns, and bruising political fights. Today, they’re more likely to be softballs about the church’s rock-star pope.
When bishops go to parishes, people are more likely to be elated than angry. It’s easier to get favors from lawmakers today, because no politician wants to be on the wrong side of this pope. When a bishop enters a restaurant or gets into a cab, the first thing he’s likely to hear is something positive about Francis.
That boost from the “Francis effect” will be on display in September by the massive crowds and adoring coverage he’s likely to attract everywhere he goes.
For those reasons, be wary of overheated commentary styling the US bishops as the leaders of the church’s anti-Francis opposition. There are tensions, sure, but a new American revolution isn’t in the cards.
Papal silence on Asia Bibi
There’s disturbing news out of Pakistan this week about Asia Bibi, the Catholic mother of five sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 for the crime of “blasphemy,” allegedly for insulting the prophet Mohammed. She remains in prison while her final appeals make their way through Pakistani courts.
On Wednesday, her lawyer, Mushtaq Gill, was in Italy to drum up support for Bibi’s cause. However tiring the trip may be, Gill undoubtedly feels good about being away from his country for just a while, since defending Pakistanis accused of blasphemy is decidedly hazardous to one’s health.
In May, for instance, a lawyer and human rights activist who had taken up the defense cause in a separate blasphemy cause was shot dead by two gunmen in his office. An unsigned pamphlet claimed he met his “rightful end” for trying to “save someone who disrespected the Prophet Mohammed.”
Gill reports that Bibi, who’s in her early 40s and has been held in near-total isolation for five years, is “in ill health, with a high fever and strong headaches, and has lost hope.”
That’s despite the fact, according to Gill, that there’s actually a chance the Pakistani Supreme Court may annul her sentence, since those justices “are less subject to pressures from local radical groups.”
Gill said his message for the international community boils down to, “We need you.”
“We need international support,” he said. “You should put pressure on our government to eliminate this law. It’s become a weapon for persecuting minorities, above all, Christians.”
In August, a veteran Italian Vatican writer put the Bibi case on his list of Pope Francis’ “strange silences,” suggesting the pope had missed opportunities to supply the kind of international pressure to which Gill referred.
One assumes, of course, that Francis wants to see Bibi released. However, popes and Vatican officials always have to weigh their words carefully, out of fear that saying something provocative may make matters worse.
Back in 2011, Benedict XVI said something interpreted in Pakistan as a call for scrapping the blasphemy law, which set off demonstrations and brought scathing replies from political leaders along the lines of “stay out of our business.”
With that as context, one appreciates why the Vatican might prefer to operate behind the scenes.
Recently, however, Francis has sent signals that he’s less willing to be driven by diplomatic caution. At the end of his trip to Turkey last week, he used an airborne press conference to issue a direct challenge to Muslim leaders to be clearer in their condemnations of terrorism, beginning with ISIS.
Perhaps Francis will also decide this is a moment to push back a bit more forcefully on the Bibi case, calculating that his three well-received trips to Muslim nations and his break with the Western powers last year on Syria has bought some political capital he can now cash in.
Pakistan has had diplomatic relations with the Vatican since 1961 (for the record, 23 years longer than the United States). Perhaps Francis and his aides will conclude that, especially in light of Bibi’s deteriorating health, now is the time to put those ties to the test.
The divorce debate continues
In the past week, interviews with two influential bishops from different parts of the world have appeared, the upshot of which has been predictions that no change will be forthcoming on the church’s rules barring divorced and civilly remarried Catholics from communion.
Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, widely seen as one of the intellectual leaders of the European bishops, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera “I can’t see adequate reasons for a position that on the one hand affirms the indissolubility of marriage as beyond discussion, but on the other seems to deny it in the facts.”
Scola warned that allowing communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry without obtaining an annulment — a declaration that their first union was not a marriage under Church law — risks “almost a functional separation among doctrine, pastoral practice and discipline.”
“How can we say to young people getting married today, for whom the idea of ‘forever’ is always difficult, that matrimony is indissoluble, if they know that there’s always a way out?” Scola asked.
He said he believed that position was “by far the most followed” stance at the recent Synod of Bishops on the family, and predicted that Pope Francis will eventually decide to uphold the current practice.
Instead of allowing the divorced and remarried to receive communion, Scola said he supports speeding up the procedures for granting annulments.
In a Crux interview, Archbishop Anthony Fisher said something similar, playing down expectations of change. Fisher is the recently appointed Archbishop of Sydney, a protégé of Australian Cardinal George Pell, the pope’s powerful finance czar, and a Dominican who’s seen as one of the best minds on bioethics among the English-speaking bishops.
“The pastoral goal is to see how we’re we going to help people who are hurting,” Fisher said. “In this way things will change, and hopefully we’ll find some ways to help them.”
“But in the end, we’re not going to say ‘No, God got it wrong,’” he said, predicting that “after a year of discussion, we’re still going to say what Christ said.”
That echoes a line from Pell at a Crux forum in Rome in October.
“Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn’t,” Pell said. “And I’m sticking with him.”
None of the means the debate over the divorced and remarried is closed, but it’s certainly a clear indication that the opposition to any change hasn’t gone away in the wake of the October synod. If anything it’s become emboldened, meaning it’s likely destined to be a bone of contention when the bishops gather again for a second synod on the family in October 2015.
If that synod fails to produce a broad consensus one way or the other, then at the end of a year-long process of reflection Catholicism will be back to where it all began. The $64,000 question will no longer be what the bishops think about opening up communion to the divorced and remarried, but what Pope Francis will do.
On that score, and with due respect to Scola or anyone else who thinks they know the answer, I’ve long said that this pope ought to come with a label like a pack of cigarettes.
The message would be, “Warning: Predictions are hazardous to your health.”
A bulletproof finance czar
Speaking of Pell, shortly after he was appointed the pope’s new Secretary for the Economy last February, I sat down with him for an interview and asked point-blank if within a year, he would be able to say exactly how much money the Vatican has.
His answer: “I’m never confident about the future, but things are already much clearer than they were six or seven months ago, and I’m sure they will be clearer still in 12 months’ time.”
It seems Pell is beginning to deliver on that promise, based on an article he wrote for Britain’s Catholic Herald that appeared on Friday.
The gist is that Pell and his team have discovered “hundreds of millions” of Euro in specific accounts of various Vatican departments that never made it onto the overall balance sheet, meaning that the Vatican is actually in better financial shape than originally thought.
Pell wasn’t suggesting any criminal activity, but simply that many departments had their own way of tracking funds and in the absence of a centralized accounting system, some funds never registered anywhere else.
Departments long had “an almost free hand” with finances, Pell wrote, and “very few were tempted to tell the outside world what was happening, except when they needed extra help.”
By the “outside world,” Pell clearly meant other Vatican agencies, too.
“It was impossible for anyone to know accurately what was going on overall,” he wrote, insisting that it’s changing now under the new financial regime decreed by Pope Francis.
From an insider’s point of view, what’s most interesting about Pell’s article is that he specifically singled out the Secretariat of State for keeping its money problems “in house.”
Not so long ago, the head of any other Vatican department would have been loath to point the finger at the Secretariat of State for anything, because it was once the 800-pound gorilla of the Vatican jungle, and people would have feared retribution.
The fact that Pell felt free to call out the Secretariat of State suggests one of two things, and quite possibly both.
First, that Pell is fearless, willing to call it as he sees it, regardless of consequences.
Second, given the unqualified support Francis has shown Pell, he now feels bulletproof, and he doesn’t have to sweat the reaction in other circles.
Anyone who’s known Pell over the years will have no problem believing the first point, and anyone who’s tracked the Vatican’s internal politics over the last 12 months probably will find the second plausible, too.