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 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,”
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 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:
“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 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.”
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