The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops finds itself in a difficult position. For decades, the principal culture warriors of American Church leadership were commanded from the Tiber to take on the assaults of modernity, moral relativism, the cult of consumerism, so-called reproductive rights issues and to do so in an uncompromising way. But now they find themselves exhorted by a deeply pastoral and immensely popular pope to listen and not to condemn, to choose the way of dialogue over oracular utterance, to befriend society and not to excoriate it.
Quite the shift. And many have been unprepared for it. After all, as the National Catholic Reporter observed in its editorial of December 2:
The Conference is still top-heavy with bishops
formed by or conforming to the expectations of
Pope John Paul II, whose ecclesiological preferences
were largely unchanged during the reign of Pope
Benedict XVI. John Paul favored loyalty of the sort
that raises no questions or challenges. The church
under John Paul became a highly juridical exercise
with strictly drawn lines, a tick list of orthodoxies
and “non-negotiables.” Under that regime, it was
easy to detect who was inside or outside the
institution, and that distinction was held as highly
important. John Paul had no tolerance for
questions that he alone deemed out of bounds.
The rigidity of that neat and tidy church, a high-
employment zone for canon lawyers, was its
Many American Catholics will be annoyed by the disrespectful tone of the editorial; hardly the right way to address our newly-sainted pontiff they will thunder. Many other American Catholics, likely the majority, will agree with the editorial’s assessment and recognize that being a saint does not imply divine perfection.
There is no question that Pope Francis is changing the church, and every spin to suggest otherwise is disingenuous, uninformed or naïve. Hermenuetical discontinuities and ruptures aside, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is engaged in no less a radical redirection of the church than his canonized predecessor, Pope John XXIII—perhaps even more revolutionary in design and scope.
Francis is not indifferent to dogma, doctrinal formularies, canonical requirements and liturgical conventions. He is not intent on sundering the tradition. He just has different priorities, pastoral priorities, radical priorities. As radical as the Gospel.
And he wants bishops who share that Gospel radicality, who are genuinely open to dialogue, who are prepared to risk the discomfort that comes with being pioneers of the Spirit rather than the Spirit’s custodians. Francis does not underestimate the resistance people in power have to relinquishing their privileges, nor the opposition he will continue to encounter as he tries to implement a pastoral vision that is charged with a fevered passion for God’s word.
The U.S. Conference gives small evidence that as a corporate body it has “bought into” the Franciscan vision. It still labours in the twilight of the papal ancien regime, addressing national issues of moral import according to the previous hierarchy of truths, deeply suspicious of an American president whom they see as the primary architect of an emerging post-Christian morality. The contorted ambivalence many of them must have felt when Obama and Bergoglio met in Washington in the fall, sharing a national spotlight devoid of reprimand and rich in deep fraternal feeling, can only be surmised. But their recent Baltimore meeting gives very little evidence that they have been inspired by the Bergoglio model of leadership.
In a stunning conversation between President Obama and the leading “theological” novelist in the United States, the brilliant and much-celebrated Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead, Home, Housekeeping), in two installments in The New York Review of Books, provides wonderful testimony to the imaginative and spiritual questing instincts of the nation’s commander-in-chief and to the sapiential insights of a prophetic Protestant writer.
Robinson at one point notes:
I believe that people are images of God.
There’s no alternative that is theologically
respectable to treating people in terms of
that understanding. . . .it’s being human that
enlists the respect, the love of God. . .
Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—
“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think
properly understood means your neighbor is
as worthy of love as you are, not that you are
actually going to be capable of this sort of
superhuman feat. But you are supposed to
run against the grain. It’s supposed to be
difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.
Robinson’s grasp of the essential Christian message can’t be gainsaid. Francis, too, grasps what it means to “run against the grain.” Time for the U.S. bishops to catch up.