Top Vatican Official for Family Life Rebukes U.S. Bishops

Pope Francis’ top official for marriage and family issues criticized his U.S. colleagues this week for their failure to engage the pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia during their meeting. His criticism comes as larger questions are raised anew about the ongoing divide between bishops in the U.S. and the pope, and what the bishops’ direction will be these next few years.


Archbishop Kevin Farrell

Archbishop Kevin Farrell, the cardinal-designate tasked with leading the Vatican’s new Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life, made his remarks during the fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) this week.

Farrell directly rebuked Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and other bishops who have released pastoral guidelines on the exhortation, without broader consultation, telling Catholic News Service:

“I think that it would have been wiser to wait for the gathering of the conference of bishops where all the bishops of the United States or all the bishops of a country would sit down and discuss these things. . .[to ensure] an approach that would not cause as much division among bishops and dioceses, and misunderstandings.”

Farrell said that even though bishops must respond to their local contexts, “they need to be open to listening to the Holy Spirit and open to what the bishops of the world” discussed during the Synod on the Family. Asked specifically about Chaput’s restrictive guidelines, which, among other sanctions, ban gay and lesbian people in relationships from parish ministries and seek to deny Communion to some Catholics, Farrell said:

” ‘I don’t share the view of what Archbishop Chaput did, no. . .I think there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at — each case as it is presented to us.

” ‘I think that is what our Holy Father is speaking about, is when we talk about accompanying, it is not a decision that is made irrespective of the couple.’ “

Farrell said the church cannot be “closing the doors before we even listen to the circumstances and the people,” but must rather say the church will work and walk with couples outside a heteronormative framework “to bring them into full communion.”

There was almost no other mention of Amoris Laetitia during the USCCB meeting which concluded yesterday, reported the National Catholic Reporter. Incoming Conference president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, confirmed in a press conference that no national conversation or Conference initiative was planned for implementing the exhortation’s vision. He assured reporters that conversations and local programs were, however, happening.

An ad hoc committee headed by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia compiled a four-and-a-half page report on such diocesan-level responses, in which he includes, as a resource, his own highly-criticized guidelines.  The report will receive no formal attention during the meeting, said Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, a member of the Communications Committee.

At a recent speech delivered at the University of Notre Dame, Chaput presented a vision of the church which is very much at odds with Pope Francis’ more expansive vision. He told attendees they should “never be afraid of a smaller, lighter church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness,” reported the National Catholic Reporter. Chaput continued:

” ‘Losing people who are members of the church in name only is an imaginary loss. . .It may in fact be more honest for those who leave and healthier for those who stay. We should be focused on commitment, not numbers or institutional throw-weight.’ “

Chaput targeted Democratic politicians for, in part, their support of LGBT rights, suggesting that Vice President Joe Biden and others were “cowards” promoting “silent apostasy.” He praised now President-elect Donald Trump’s “gift for twisting the knife in America’s leadership elite and their spirit of entitlement, embodied in the person of Hillary Clinton.” Chaput also subtly attacked Islam, the accompaniment model for ministry preferred by Pope Francis, and even just being inclusive which he said was “not just lying but an act of betrayal and violence” if church teaching is not first upheld firmly.

Pope Francis himself provided a message to the USCCB meeting via video message which emphasized his more expansive vision for the church. Though ostensibly about the Fifth National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentro beginning January 2017, the pope’s words are applicable broadly for the Conference’s work if only the bishops would hear them. The pope said, in part:

“Our great challenge is to create a culture of encounter, which encourages individuals and groups to share the richness of their traditions and experiences, to break down walls and to build bridges.  The Church in America, as elsewhere, is called to “go out” from its comfort zone and to be a leaven of communion. Communion among ourselves, with our fellow Christians, and with all who seek a future of hope.”

Observers of the USCCB have noted for several years how distant mostU.S. bishops are from the pastoral vision of Pope Francis, championing opposition to abortion and LGBT rights above a more consistent ethic of life and the pastoral accompaniment of Catholics. Michael Sean Winters commented in the National Catholic Reporter about the Conference’s failed religious liberty campaign:

“In his update to the body on the work of the ad hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, Archbishop William Lori said they were making a difference. Are they? The centerpiece of their campaign, the ‘Fortnight for Freedom,’ garners little attention. In the popular press, religious liberty is now usually accompanied by scare quotes. In the popular mind, the cause of religious liberty is linked to discrimination against gays and lesbians, and not without reason. If that will be the faultline for religious freedom litigation in the years ahead, I shudder at the prospects for religious freedom.”

It is less clear what message the election of Cardinal DiNardo as USCCB president and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles as vice president sends about this divide between Rome and Baltimore. As Bondings 2.0 noted yesterday, they are more moderate choices from the given slate of candidates but they are certainly not positive voices for LGBT people.

But DiNardo told Crux that the election of a bishop who oversees a largely immigrant diocese and a bishop who is Hispanic, might be sending a message that the U.S. church stands with immigrant communities under a Trump administration. If this is true, we can hope it suggests a shift in the Conference away from its fixation on stopping LGBT rights to a much-needed focus on defending vulnerable populations who are far less safe than they were November 7.

Finally, activists have shown they will not stop pushing the USCCB on gender and sexuality issues. Earlier this week, DignityUSA members held a vigil outside the Conference to remember victims of the Orlando massacre this past June and call on bishops to use proper language for LGBT people. Elsewhere, former Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois raised a banner during the opening Mass, calling on the bishops to stop persecuting gay people. Bridget Mary Meehan described the action on her personal blog, writing:


Rev. Roy Bourgeois protests U.S. bishops treatment of gays, and he is joined by Rev. Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a Roman Catholic Woman Priest, who supported women’s ordination.

“[Roy’s face] looked angelic. He felt led by the Spirit, he said, to proclaim the message on his banner to the leaders of the US Church: ‘Bishops, Stop Persecuting Gays.’ He said he had to pull himself and the banner away from a security guard before making his way to the altar. There he bowed down and kissed it before holding up the banner to the bishops and turning it to the people of God. Then, he said, two priests tried to pull the banner away from him and he felt like they attacked him. He was surprised because they were priests. He had expected them to just allow him to walk out.”

From the Vatican (via Farrell) and the pews, it seems bishops in the U.S. are being asked to be more faithful to their office as shepherds and less eager to be politicians whose actions are corrosive to both ecclesial unity and people’s wellbeing.

Later this week, Bondings 2.0 will explore further responses which Catholic bishops have offered to Amoris Laetitia beyond the United States.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 17, 2016


13 replies
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    We face a grave situation in our country, with a white nationalist, surrounding himself with white nationalists and theocrats – about to be inaugurated as president.

    He is a man who has derided and abused women, who has called for the exclusion of Muslims, and has demeaned and mistreated African Americans and led a campaign to deny legitimacy to the first African American president, a man who has made fun of a man with disabilities, and has used name-calling and lies, who has defrauded countless people and mistreated his employees, who has denied climate change and lied incessantly and has done and said so many other outrageous things.

    And yet that danger, and this man’s actions are unaddressed. These bishops as a body appear to be clueless or cowards who cannot stand up together and address one of the greatest dangers this country and indeed the world face with the election of such a man.

    So many in this country are deeply disturbed that such a man with such behaviors is about to take office. And the party that now controls the Congress are planning on privatizing Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and planning on dismantling Obamacare, leaving millions of people in this country to suffer and die without health coverage. I could go on and on. We are at a crisis. Yet these men either cannot see or are complicit or are afraid to address this crisis and speak out?

    It is very difficult to see this body of leaders as spokesmen for Jesus or the Creator of this precious earth on which we all live. A sad day. There were once bishops who were giants. There may still be giants among them. But if this body cannot address the real issues of the day, they may as well disband and go back home.

  2. Vincenzo
    Vincenzo says:

    Finally … the Rebukers were Rebuked … their failure to focus on how they are going to accomplish a new programme of pastoral accompaniment for those who they choose to marginalize, disenfranchise and cast out to the peripheries is catastrophic! Cardinal-designate Kevin Farrell was right to let them know they have failed as shepherds … and that their failure is spectacular.

    It took some time for JPII to gut the USCCB … perhaps we need some patience as Pope Francis works to reshape the conference into a body of pastors … one retirement at a time.

  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    It sounds like the bishops are guilty of treason to Pope Francis as well as the words of Christ. Perhaps the US should be put under interdict until Christ’s love is acknowledged by the hierarchy.

  4. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    This is cause for dismay. Reading what Chaput said convinces me that the right thing to do is to stop supporting the church financially. Why should I?

  5. Bro. John Gleason, CSC
    Bro. John Gleason, CSC says:

    Kudos to Archbishop Farrell for calling out the Bishops. Archbishop Chaput’s statements, here and elsewhere, are frighteningly disturbing, yet remain unchallenged by our Bishops. Our US Bishops have failed us miserably. During the entire campaign, as we listened to racist rants and calls for exclusion, they remained silent. Their moral compass is askew. Long before this election, I lost all confidence in the American hierarchy, and I do not look to them for any moral leadership.

  6. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    i don’t know what piece of this article is the most disturbing. Between Chaput “praising trump” and priests physically forcing Fr. Roy off the altar, I am disgusted and sick. That is becoming a familiar feeling.

  7. John Raab
    John Raab says:

    Robert Shine:

    One good sign is that Archbishop Jose Gomez is very sportive of his own very pastoral Los Angeles Archdiocesan Catholic Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Persons and their families that was founded 30 years ago by the farsighted Cardinal Roger Mahony.

    You may want to google their website.


    Los Angeles


  8. miriamtf
    miriamtf says:

    Thanks for the news. I didn’t dream the usccb would go against the pope. Even so, we wish the pope had greater understanding still about LGBT matters. I wish I did too. God bless you.

  9. Pam phillips
    Pam phillips says:

    Jesus was inclusive and personalized God’s love for all his creation. How sad to see our American bishops losing God’s vision of unity and wholeness,


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  1. […] as yesterday’s post noted, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not formally discuss Amoris Laetitia during its fall plenary this week. Cardinal-designate Kevin Farrell, head of the […]

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