From Across the Pond
Classical ecclesiology distinguishes between the Church’s relations within her bosom and those from without: The former, ad intra; the latter, ad extra. I think those categories might be useful for our monthly reflections.
Perhaps some readers of Faith thought I exaggerated potential problems for the Church in the United States, vis a vis, the new President. Well, it gives me no pleasure to be able to say, “I told you so,” but I told you so! Within days of Joseph Biden’s inauguration as the forty-sixth president, his now famous (or better infamous) executive orders took aim at numerous issues of great concern to the Catholic community.
Recognizing the imminent difficulties, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, in his capacity as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, took the unprecedented step of firing a shot across the bow at the very hour of Biden’s inauguration on January 20. It should be noted that Archbishop Gomez is not known as a warrior of any stripe, so that this action of his (at the behest of the leadership of the USCCB) takes on even greater significance. While expressing hope for a cordial relationship between the new Administration on areas of mutual agreement, Gomez proceeded to delineate areas of serious possible areas of conflict. His sally began thus:
As pastors, the nation’s bishops are given the duty of proclaiming the Gospel in all its truth and power, in season and out of season, even when that teaching is inconvenient or when the Gospel’s truths run contrary to the directions of the wider society and cultures. So, I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.
For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the “preeminent priority.” Preeminent does not mean “only.” We have deep concerns about many threats to human life and dignity in our society. But as Pope Francis teaches, we cannot stay silent when nearly a million unborn lives are being cast aside in our country year after year through abortion.
Gómez concluded his statement, hoping that “the new President and his administration will work with the Church and others of good will,” in order to “address the complicated cultural and economic factors that are driving abortion” and to “put in place a coherent family policy,” in “full respect for the Church’s religious freedom.”
This document must have sent shock waves through the Vatican’s Secretariat of State since it is such a departure from the bland and innocuous pulp of “diplomacy.” Even the veteran “Vaticanista,” Sandro Magister, devoted an entire column to the “Gomez Intervention” (as I am calling it) on his Settimo Cielo blog of January 26.
Sadly, the image of episcopal unity could not be allowed to stand as two of our cardinals (predictably, unfortunately) took exception to the Gomez Intervention: Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Newark. The former went on a rather unseemly rant against the document and claimed (incorrectly) that its issuance violated Conference rules. Interestingly, if one’s only source of information about things Catholic on the world scene were l’Osservatore Romano, one would never know any of this had happened!
January 22, 1973 lives in infamy in the minds and hearts of those who take seriously the right to life of the unborn as it was on that date that the United States Supreme Court struck down any and all state laws prohibiting abortion. The very next year (and every year thereafter – except for a “virtual” version this year due to the “pandemic”) witnessed tens of thousands of people con- verge on Washington, D.C. to protest that horrendous decision, which was not only an attack on the sanctity of life but also an exercise of raw judicial power. The gathering is populated largely by young people (most coming from our Catholic schools) as participants brave what is often a frigid day in the Northeast. Thankfully, with the passing years, Catholic opposition has been augmented by the presence of Evangelical Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Orthodox Jews. Every Republican President has “participated” by way of an audio or video message of support; President Donald Trump stunned everyone by personally appearing at the outset of the March last year.
No Democrat President has ever acknowledged the event. The Biden-Harris Administration, however, went a step beyond by celebrating Roe v. Wade and pledging ongoing support for the right to abort one’s child in the womb. This brought an immediate response from Archbishop Joseph Naumannof Kansas City, in his capacity as chairman of the Pro-Life Committee of the USCCB:
It is deeply disturbing and tragic that any President would praise and commit to codifying a Supreme Court ruling that denies unborn children their most basic human and civil right, the right to life, under the euphemistic disguise of a health service…We strongly urge the President to reject abortion and promote life-affirming aid to women and communities in need.
“Gender” issues have also taken on prominence as Biden’s executive order of January 20 even went beyond the Supreme Court’s Bostock decision (which ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act encompassed “gender discrimination”). This caused five USCCB committee chairmen to issue a joint statement in response:
Wednesday’s executive order on ‘sex’ discrimination exceeds the Court’s decision. It threatens to infringe the rights of people who recognize the truth of sexual difference or who uphold the institution of lifelong marriage between one man and one woman…We share the goal of ending unjust discrimination and supporting the dignity of every human, and we therefore regret the misguided approach of Wednesday’s order addressing Bostock.
That executive order has broad implications for the Church’s apostolates of Catholic schools, health care and Catholic Charities. It may surprise some to learn that the Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental provider of such services in the nation.
Biden’s assault on the unborn continued on January 28 as he rescinded a policy that prevented non-governmental organizations receiving U.S. funding from promoting abortion overseas. This policy, known as the “Mexico City” policy, began with President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Hence, yet another statement came forth from the USCCB through Archbishop Joseph
F. Naumann as chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace. The bishops called the presidential action “grievous” as it “actively promotes the destruction of human lives in developing nations.” They went on to assert that it “is antithetical to reason, violates human dignity, and is incompatible with Catholic teaching. We and our brother bishops strongly oppose this action. We urge the president to use his office for good, prioritizing the most vulnerable, including unborn children.”
The bishops concluded:
As the largest non-government health care provider in the world, the Catholic Church stands ready to work with him [Biden] and his administration to promote global women’s health in a manner that furthers integral human develop- ment, safeguarding innate human rights and the dignity of every human life, beginning in the womb.
Also weighing in on the matter was Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Defense and Education Fund, calling it “a deeply disturbing move, especially when the president says he wants national unity.” She then highlighted an oft-overlooked element in the debate, namely, that Biden’s action “goes against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Americans – in fact, consistent polling shows that 77 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer funding for abortion overseas.” She went on: “The government should never force taxpayers to fund abortions, either here or abroad, but should work to protect the inherent dignity of all persons, born and unborn.”
We hear an echo of Mancini in remarks of Representative Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-life Caucus: “U.S. foreign policy – and the foreign entities we fund with billions of dollars in grant money – should consistently affirm, care for, and tangibly assist women and children – including unborn baby girls and boys,” Congressman Smith is an indomitable pro-life legis- lator, a devout Catholic. He wrote a letter signed by at least 118 members of Congress calling on Biden to reconsider and reverse his decision on the Mexico City policy. Signers included Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming (the first two are also committed Catholics).
In point of fact, however, Biden has also said he wants to end the long-standing Hyde Amendment (in place since 1976), which prohibits federal tax dollars from directly funding abortion in the United States, except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is endangered.
Yet another assault on Catholic principles – and common sense – is the Biden Administration’s push for the so-called “Equality Act,” designed to do two things: amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the definition of sex and to override the existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which protects conscience rights for individuals and institutions). Catholic hospitals would be required to perform abortions since our refusal would be classified as “pregnancy discrimination.” Catholic schools would be faced with the absurdity of having to allow bio- logical males to play on female teams and to have access to female bathrooms, showers and locker rooms.
A fascinating article appeared in First Things on 2nd February, Somebody Needs to Be Dad (on the bishops as our “fathers in God”). Francis X. Maier (Special Assistant to Archbishop Charles Chaput) shares with readers some intriguing data culled from a major research project he is “pursuing in cultural and Church renewal with the Constitutional Studies program at the University of Notre Dame.” The project’s purpose? “If the Church seeks to be an agent of renewal in the life of a nation and its culture, then she herself must also be renewed.” In this first phase of the study, Mr. Maier interviewed bishops (33 were contacted, 31 from the U.S., and two from other Anglophone countries).
Firstly, the bishops indicated that “on average, Covid has done less immediate financial damage to many American dioceses than expected.” However, “Most bishops project between a 25 percent and 40 percent permanent fall-off in Mass attendance and parish engagement even after the virus is history.” I do not agree with that pessimistic prognostication. My own anecdotal data suggest that as parishes have re-opened to full capacity, attendance is very close to normal.
On the Church-State front, he reports:
Relations with civil authorities vary. One bishop, moved by Rome from an eastern diocese to one in the Midwest, compared the belligerence of his former state’s governor with the personal warmth and support of the governor in his new state. Overall though, “we’re generals without armies, and the civil authorities know it” was a common theme. Worry about the negative spirit and potential damage of the Biden administration was unanimous.
Regarding episcopal nominations, the bishops expressed general satisfaction with the consultation and vetting process. In this instance, we see how all too many bishops live in a bubble since very few priests share their sentiments, let alone laity. It is worth mentioning that unofficial information emanating from the Nunciature suggests that as many as one-third of potential candidates for a miter now turn down the invitation (reasons vary, from a lack of desire to work in a Francis pontificate, to lack of desire to clean up messes created by bishops going back forty and fifty years, to a fear that some disgruntled soul with a vindictive spirit could fabricate stories about one’s priestly ministry). The bishops did share one “worry”: “a recurrent theme – about interference with the selection process at the Roman congregation level. This typically involved an implied, and sometimes quite explicit, distrust of a particular American cardinal who will remain unnamed” (Blase Cupich of Chicago).
He also notes: “Several [bishops] voiced irritation with Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory for undercutting conference leadership on the issue of Communion and President Biden’s problematic sacramental status.”
What do the U.S. bishops think of Pope Francis?
The most sensitive matter in my various interviews involved bishops’ attitudes toward Pope Francis. All of the men I spoke with expressed a sincere fidelity to the Holy Father. Many praised his efforts to reshape the Roman Curia toward a more supportive, service-oriented posture in dealing with local bishops. But many also voiced an equally vigorous frustration with what they see as his ambiguous comments and behavior, which too often feed confusion among the faithful, encourage conflict, and undermine bishops’ ability to teach and lead. Francis’s perceived dislike of the United States doesn’t help. In the words of one baffled west-of-the-Mississippi bishop, “It’s as if he enjoys poking us in the eye.”
This assessment coincides with what I have heard from every bishop of my acquaintance. The American bishops, as a group, are not on the same wave-=length as Papa Francesco. That was made clear as he publicly castigated them during his pastoral visit to these shores in 2015. Many quipped that Francis seemed more comfortable with Obama than he did with them. Given the changes to the American hierarchy since the mid-1980s and the “John Paul II Generation of Priests,” our Church is essentially “conservative,” which just means we are a very “Catholic” community.
Which brings us to the next topic. What about our seminarians? Mr. Maier reports, with no comment, the following: “When pressed, none of the bishops I queried could report a single diocesan seminarian inspired to pursue priestly life by the current pope. None took any pleasure in acknowledging this.” Again, this parallels my own experience from lectures and retreats I have given to numerous seminarians. Perhaps most surprising is that seminarians of my acquaintance, many of whom had barely
made their First Holy Communion in the waning years of the John Paul years, name him as their model for priestly life and ministry; Benedict is likewise highly valued by our seminarians.
Maier concludes his essay thus:
I asked each of the bishops I interviewed a concluding question: At the end of the day, what worries and what encourages you the most? In case after case, a bishop gave the same answer to each question – young people. The greatest pain is the number of young persons exiting the Church. The greatest source of hope is the zeal and character of the young people who remain faithful and love Jesus Christ. And this is why, at some mysterious level, every bishop I interviewed was both vividly alert to the challenges he faces and simultaneously at peace.
The concern about youth and the Church is warranted, but it is a self-inflicted wound. When I was a boy, two out of every three Catholic children in our country attended a Catholic school. That figure has now dwindled to about one in four. Due to nonfeasance and malfeasance for over forty years on the part of bishops (who constantly assure all that they are totally behind our Catholic schools), the largest and most impressive Catholic school system in the history of the Universal Church has been reduced to a shell of its former self.
During the 1970s, all too many bishops were cowed into supporting the ridiculous alternative of religious education classes outside our own school structure; for the most part, bishops failed to build schools in the suburbs where the Catholic population was moving; even today, bishops have not taken account of the spiritual danger into which Catholic children are exposed by being subjected to the government schools’ program of secularism and immorality. These are also the very bishops who wring their hands about the drying up of the vocation well – even though all the data show that the primary source of priestly vocations has been – and still is – the Catholic school. Dioceses that have maintained their schools and have even built new ones, have no problems with priestly vocations or with the next generation of committed lay believers.
The good news in all this is that our hierarchy is, in the main, rather good and rather focused. My European friends observe, wistfully, that they cannot imagine any European conference of bishops taking the bold, even confrontational, stands against an anti-culture and an oppressive political regime. The U.S. bishops are far from perfect, but they are exponentially better than those I remember from my seminarian days. We ought not make the perfect the enemy of the good. That doesn’t prevent me from praying that more of them would show greater courage ad intra and ad extra.
Fr Peter Stravinskas is the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, Editor of The Catholic Response and publisher of Newman House Press.