A Look Into What Drives the Conservative Public Policy of the USCCB

Tony Spence’s forced resignation from his position as editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service is indicative of a greater disturbing trend at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  That’s the claim made by John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. In a Commonweal article, Gehring lays out the USCCB’s recent trend of digging deeper into culture war battles, just at the time when Pope Francis has been calling church leaders to put aside such strident partisan involvement in favor of a method which engages culture and differing opinions.

Tony Spence

Spence left his job a little over two weeks ago, primarily because tweets he sent out from his personal Twitter account in which he criticized some state legislative battles involving LGBT issues and religious liberty.  The USCCB, which owns Catholic News Service, forced him to submit a letter of resignation.

Gehring spoke with Spence after his sudden departure and reported that the former editor has observed much anxiety and tension among Catholic leaders.  Spence told Gehring:

“I think it’s a very tense time in the American church and some things are off limits for discussion in any kind of rational way. It’s difficult to talk about religious liberty, sexuality, women’s issues. But we don’t live in a Catholic bubble. We’re a country of 320 million people.”

Spence observed that the USCCB’s agenda would often creep into the editing of Catholic News Service pieces, which traditionally had editorial independence from the bishops.  Spence said:

“When you reported on positions that politicians took on health care or issues of sexuality even neutrality was seen as an implied endorsement. We really had to be careful about the language we used and how we wrote things. Eventually you start to do that so much you look up and you’re self-censoring and you almost don’t realize how you got there. There was never any direction from the leadership of the conference not to report on something. We had editorial freedom, but there were a lot of battles fought over it.”

Through research for his book The Francis Effect, Gehring interviewed a number of high-ranking conference staff members who gave him a picture of what he calls “the larger, systemic changes at the USCCB in recent years.”  Moreover, many of those interviewed “lamented the all-consuming focus on religious liberty fights, and expressed concern that a hunkered-down approach is limiting the bishops’ effectiveness.”  Not surprisingly, LGBT issues are often at the center of these battles:

“Whether it’s decrying as “extreme” President Obama’s 2014 executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, comparing American disputes over religious liberty to the persecution of Christian martyrs, or publicly opposing the bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act for including LGBT protections, the conference often seems determined to box itself into a corner.”

Citing Cathleen Kaveny, a legal scholar, Gehring notes that the U.S. bishops agenda is in opposition to the new agenda which Pope Francis is trying to set for the church, described as “a clear desire to recalibrate the Catholic public voice in a way that doesn’t reduce those moral teachings to a short list of hot-button sexual issues.”

John Gehring

One of those interviewed was Dolores Leckey, the first head of the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth.  Leckey told Gehring:

“There is now a kind of unspoken test, and if anyone has a perceived taint of not being on target with every single element of Catholic doctrine, it just doesn’t fly. The church gets cut out of all kinds of effective partnerships. It’s crimping our ability to make a difference.”

Gehring also examines the handful of conservative Catholic websites who have had undue influence on the USCCB, including prompting the ouster of Spence.  Among those mentioned is “Church Militant,” anchored by Michael Voris, who has been notoriously anti-gay in many of his commentaries.  Gehring points out an interesting development about Voris’ personal life:

“. . . [Voris] last week acknowledged for the first time that in the past he had been in sexual relationships with men. He accused the Archdiocese of New York of preparing documents to publicly discredit him, a claim the archdiocese denies.”

Spence acknowledged that these conservative groups often have an immense amount of influence at the USCCB and on individual bishops.  He told Gehring:

“What blows my mind is these groups are given so much credibility and have influence. They are destructive. We’re only talking about a few hundred people in a very big church, but church leadership sometimes doesn’t have confidence in its own voice and these shrill challenges make them jump for cover.”

Gehring’s article is well worth reading in its entirety, and you can do so by clicking here.  He offers many more examples of the culture war mentality at the USCCB.  The stories show that it will take much work and prayer for Pope Francis’ proposed reforms to take root in this institution.

Still, of all the chilling examples he offers, for me the idea that I find the most dangerous is the one that Spence himself warned against:  “self-censorship.” In days gone by, silencing by the Church was accomplished by imprisoning people, exiling them, and, in the worst cases, execution.  Today, silencing is achieved by instilling an atmosphere of fear in church officials, lay leaders, and people in the pews.  The best way to prevent such self-censorship is through overcoming the fear that motivates it.  The best way to overcome fear is through contemplative prayer.

In order to change the culture of the USCCB, we need to keep speaking out truthfully and courageously, and we need to continue to pray to overcome our own fear and to ask that others are able to overcome theirs, too.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



0 replies
  1. Will
    Will says:

    This is all so sad.

    It would be good to hear more sensible reporting on this website about these conservative Catholic groups that seem to thave all the bishops running scared. Some hard facts about their real size and representation – and the regular disinfectant of sunlight on their views and actions.

    For eample the Catholic League’s recent agitation to try to stop the proposed removal of the statute of limitations on child abuse blaming it all on an anti-catholic agenda.


    Not only do these small groups scare the feeble bishops into unjust actions but their disproportionate noise creates animosity to the wider church. Check out some of the reports about the above Catholic League advert – and look at the comments underneath: some real hurt at the hands of some clerics is now directed as rage against the whole church. The actions of these groups have consequences for moderates in the church – and especially those of us who still linger, however tenuously these days, on the outskirts of Rome.

  2. paularuddy
    paularuddy says:

    Francis, thanks for this. The point about the bishops’ not having confidence in their own voice so that they depend on reactionary groups is interesting. I was thinking they are concerned for the family in a sexually permissive society and using legislatures and courts to coerce behaviors they want coerced. Whichever, it is very sad. The men who have confidence in their own voices are probably overcome with work in their dioceses. Thanks for continuing to speak out. We have to call forth the leadership we need.

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    Well and powerfully said…one of your best-ever commentaries…and bang on target. But (FYI) the “here” link to access Spence’s article is not clickable. Bottom line: the Catholic hierarchy — especially in the United States (as opposed to newly-enlightened places such as Ireland) — has got to stop behaving like the Soviet Kremlin of the pre-Gorbachov decades. Their thuggish behavior has become a moral and spiritual atrocity.

  4. Thomas smith
    Thomas smith says:

    Surely, as Scripture states, “fear drives out love.” We obey our Holy Father and stand in the ground of LOVE. We must stand in our Truth, speak it to Power as we can, and as Sr. Jeannine said, “refuse to cooperate in in our own oppression.” Enough kids have killed themselves, enough priests have been forced to leave the institution, enough hatred and Intolerance has been espoused by our so-called leaders. Enough is enough.

  5. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    Every chance I get, I comment on church injustice to LGBT people. I truly believe that if we say we are Catholic but ignore the elephant in the room–intentional injustice by the church–that we are part of the problem. The bullies in the church must come to realize that they cannot fire, marginalize, malign, and isolate LGBT people with impunity. The faithful must stand up and say NO! No, no, no. We must demand justice and dignity for all. Firing, marginalizing, isolating, and denying rights are not behaviors that go with dignity. Love and inclusion go with dignity. Accepting all in the Body of Christ is what we must do as Catholics. The small group of bullies in the church must not be allowed to go unchecked.

  6. Sisters Lea and Consilia
    Sisters Lea and Consilia says:

    Reblogged this on CATHOLIC, Non-Roman Western Style and commented:
    Roman Rite Catholicism has always operated out of a monarchy of overarching fear of God/authority with its rewards/punishments system of order. Vatican II changed that scenario and so will always be unacceptable except for those statements in the Vatican II documents which reinforce RC traditions.

    Roman Rite Catholicism is merely protecting the theology it considers to be God’s Will and the Church’s identity as it sees it.

    Vatican II Catholics have two options:
    (1) Fight exceedingly well-organized, well-connected and well-supported entities like Opus D e i which are not going to allow their Rite to meld into a Vatican II mold no matter how patiently we hope and pray otherwise, no matter how hard Good Pope Francis tries to bring them around to Vatican II “innovations”.

    (2) The other option for Vatican II Catholics is to take this “now quiet but still strong” rejection of Vatican II on their part as the work of the Spirit, calling us forth to stand as strongly confident in our position as they do in theirs. Maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something we don’t want to hear…something even Pope Francis doesn’t want to hear…that we need both a Roman Catholic AND Vatican II Rite within the fold of the Universal Church.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Excellent suggestion about creating a “Vatican II” Rite — and it’s been made before. The RCC already has several alternate Rites within the fold — such as the Maronite Rite — and I believe that some of these Rites even allow for a married priesthood. In fact, I recently sent Frank an item about an active Roman Catholic priest — a former Episcopal priest — who is married, with three kids, and a fourth on the way! So there are NO theological barriers at all. The main resistance is cultural and institutional, and it is particularly vehement in the American branch of the RCC. If this Pope (or the next one) is not willing to push the cultural envelope, it’s clear that our young college-age Catholics are having none of this nonsense, and will soon be drifting away in droves. And I say this as an active member of a university-based Cardinal Newman Catholic Community. Then where will we be?

      • Sisters Lea and Consilia
        Sisters Lea and Consilia says:

        Young Catholics would be very interested in the “subversive nature” of a Vatican II Rite that is a rupture in status quo versions of how we view God, self and world. Check out the elder wisdom of John D. Caputo’s book, THE WEAKNESS OF GOD.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] three years, the USCCB has defied the pastoral agenda of Pope Francis with little attention to the signs of the times on LGBT rights and many other […]

  2. […] Bondings 2.0:  “A Look Into What Drives the Conservative Public Policy of the USCCB” […]

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