The Mostly Ambivalent Responses by U.S. Bishops to Pope Francis

For more than two weeks, my email inbox has been swamped with messages from folks sending me links to articles and essays responding to Pope Francis’ Jesuit magazine interview, in which he chastised church leaders for being too obsessed with gay issues.    Early on, we tried providing you with some of the best of the responses, and you can read those here, here, here, and here.

But as I sifted through all these emails, one group that has remained pretty silent on the matter have been the U.S. bishops themselves.  Now, I admit that I did not do a major web search for every U.S. bishop to see what he might have said about the interview.  Yet, their remarks did not seem prominent in most of the news stories that I saw on the topic.

What is more surprising is that while almost everyone else in the U.S., Catholic and non-Catholic alike, were pleasantly surprised and astonished by what they detected as a new tone from the papacy, the few bishops who did make public responses tended to downplay any innovation on the part of Pope Francis. Their responses reflect a strong ambivalence about the pope’s new direction.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan 3

Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was one of the first bishops to respond.  As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he is the spokesperson for the conference, and so many media outlets were interested in what he had to say.

In a New York Times  interview, he called the pope’s words “a breath of fresh air,” yet then went on to stress continuity, not change, in the papal message:

“ ‘One of the lines that nobody seems to be paying attention to was when he said I’m a loyal son of the church,’ he said. ‘He knows that the highest and most sacred responsibility is to pass on the timeless teaching of the church.’ “

What’s odd is that most people saw as more significant Pope Francis’ admission of himself as a sinner, which he described as the most “accurate” description of himself.   Furthermore, while Dolan sees the pope’s job as passing on “timeless teaching,” Pope Francis in the interview emphasized the development of church teaching through history.

And  while most commentators noted the compassionate and merciful tone in the pope’s words, Dolan seemed to see some sort of loophole for church leaders to continue to criticize:

“What he’s saying is that we have to think of a more effective way to do it, because if the church comes off as a scold, it’s counterproductive. If the church comes off as a loving, embracing mother, who periodically has to correct her children, then we will be effective.”

Dolan also tried to shift the reason why bishops speak so much about abortion and homosexuality to the media.  On Top Magazine reported that Dolan mentioned the following in a television interview, responding to a reporter’s question about whether bishops were obsessed about these topics:

“I wonder if we all spend too much time talking about that. I mean you guys would admit that’s usually the things you ask me about, right? So, I don’t know if it’s just the church that seems obsessed with those issues. It seems to be culture, society,”

Cardinal Francis George

Cardinal Francis George

Like Dolan,  Cardinal Francis George of Chicago also seemed to want to shift the cause for “obsession” to the general society, not to the bishops.  In The Chicago Tribune, he stated:

“If the society is obsessed with those issues, then the church will respond. If the society doesn’t bring them up, the church won’t respond.”

Also like Dolan, George wanted to retain some form of judgmentalism for church leaders.  He stated:

“Everybody is welcome,but not everything we do can be acceptable. Not everything I do, and not everything anybody else does. . . .

“His position was, ‘Don’t judge a person.’ It wasn’t anything about saying, ‘Don’t judge an action as moral or immoral.’ It was taken to say we shouldn’t judge the activity.”

Bishop David O'Connell

Bishop David O’Connell

Bishop David O’Connell tried to downplay any change that might be reflected in the pope’s words.   In a CNN interview, he said:

“I think it is a slight departure .  .  .  .This was an interview. This was not an instant of papal pronouncement or teaching, . . .This pope is accustomed to speak off the cuff, and to speak in a very common way with people, and I think that’s what you saw in this interview.

“He really was just sharing some of his thoughts and reflections.”

Madison, Wisconsin’s Bishop Robert Morlino offered perhaps the most stubborn refusal to recognizing any change in the papacy.  In an email sent to Channel 3000, Morlino stated:

Bishop Robert Morlino

Bishop Robert Morlino

“The Pope is clearly offering his good pastoral counsel about our being, first and foremost, ministers of Jesus’ love and mercy. This is something that every member of Christ’s Church should take to heart and make part of their evangelization efforts. Given the confusion about Pope Francis’ statements that has emerged from the media coverage to date, I think it’s inopportune to offer extensive observations which will probably be subjected to like misinterpretation. I think that, analogous to the “spirit of Vatican II”, a distorted “spirit of Pope Francis” is being concocted which is equally, if not more misleading. For me, it is not prudent to respond further to the Holy Father’s remarks at this time.”

Bishop Thomas Tobin

Bishop Thomas Tobin

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, was enthusiastic in his praise for the pope’s comments, though some wondered about the sincerity of his praise since only a short time before the papal interview, he had written in his diocesan newspaper that he was “a little bit disappointed” in the new pope for not mentioning abortion enough.  Tobin told The Providence Journal:

“I enthusiastically welcome the balanced and inclusive approach our Holy Father is bringing to the pastoral ministry of the church. . . .

“Being a Catholic does not mean having to choose between doctrine and charity, between truth and love. It includes both.”

Archbishop William Lori

Archbishop William Lori

Perhaps the most genuine response from a bishop came from Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Maryland.  Lori, an ardent and vocal opponent of marriage equalitly, who is also the U.S. bishops’ point person on religious liberty, told the Associated Press:

“Every time I make a statement about one of these things, I will certainly take another look at it and ask, ‘Does this really lead people back to the heart of the Gospel?’ “

I consider this response most “genuine” because it alone acknowledges that bishops may not have been considering this question about the gospel before uttering statements in the past.

John Allen, a Vatican analyst for The National Catholic Reporter, recently commented on why it might take a while before Pope Francis’ “imprint” will be seen among the American bishops.  He posits that Pope Francis seems to be taking his time making changes in the Vatican administration, which could influence the type of bishops appointed.  Additionally, since few American bishops are at or near retirement age of 75, it might take a while before Pope Francis has an opportunity to replace them.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

7 replies
  1. duckman44625
    duckman44625 says:

    I have in recent years – as I have grown in wisdom (as well as developed wrinkles, sags, etc. LOL) to attend not to the Church as the sole source of Truth – as the hierarchy are human – like us – fallible and prone to the temptation of self-preservation – especially of power and prestige. Five years ago – in the fifth year of my diaconate training (having passed a canonical vote and toted as a “good” candidate by all my instructors, pastor, program director, etc.) I was summarily dismissed as “not being able to be formed further” because I was assaulted by my son after class as a result of his homophobia. Reason: I had discovered I was gay six months before – came out to my beloved wife of 35 years – who stated she had always known but accepted me as a loving/devoted g=father/husband. Yet the dismissal was owing to concern – what would people think if they saw my family had discords and other problems. My answer was that I like they – have some dysfunction within our family – we work on it. The dismissal (without benefit of Canonical Hearing) was devastating. With time – wounds were soothed – but I was forced out of my parish into a truly loving gem of a Faith community. The reason I have related all this drama is this: I have learned to place all my trust in the Holy Spirit Who was ever present with me during these times and past times of hardship (and joy). He/She has never lead me astray nor abandoned me – even as ministers of the Church judged me and cast me away. So, too, must be my – and our – attitude towards the American Catholic Bishops in their failure to observe and follow Francis’ lead – instead they chip away at truth he speaks by lessening the impact. They have taken a vow of obedience to him – therefore, if they can not attend to him – then in humility (that is the crux of their problem – they are pompous, power mongers), they should refrain from commenting. we, the Faithful, must attend to Francis’ words of pastoral care and love. If I – a gay/partnered man – can accept that Francis assures me of the love of Christ in my situation – and believe this – despite the teaching of the Church – because CHRIST EMPHASIZES THE PERSON AS PRIMARY – then WE must ignore and forgive the short sightedness – and yes, hard-heartedness of our Bishops and clergy who need to beat with a rod of iron rather than an embrace of Divine Love. Namaste

  2. Dan Lopata
    Dan Lopata says:

    Their responses are not ambivalent if you look at their actions. We still have Bishops across the country lobbying against marriage equality, and we have Bishops asking the House of Representatives to shut down the government over contraception. This is exactly the type of “obsession” the Pope was talking about, focusing so much energy on minor issues at the expense of the church’s greater teachings, like helping the poor, which is tough to do when you shut down all of the government programs that help the poor because you don’t agree with one provision in one law.

    These actions are far from ambivalent, Their speech may be, but that is only to cover their actions. If there is any more talking to be done here, it should be from the Pope directly to his Bishops, because they are clearly not interpreting what he is saying to the press the same way everyone else in the world is.

  3. dakini
    dakini says:

    Cardinal George will become extinct — but the radiant love, wisdom and compassion of Pope Francis will reverberate into eternity!


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