Ideological rifts among U.S. bishops are in the spotlight ahead of momentous Vatican meeting

Sep 24, 2023, 5:28 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — Early next month, the Vatican will open an unprecedented gathering of Catholic clergy and laypeople from around the world. The synod is intended to be a collegial, collaborative event, though the agenda includes divisive issues such as the role of women in the church and the inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics.

If there’s Exhibit A for how elusive consensus might be, it’s the United States’ participation. In effect, there are two high-level U.S. delegations widely viewed as ideological rivals — six clerics appointed by Pope Francis who support his aspirations for a more inclusive, welcoming church; five clerics chosen by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who reflect a more conservative outlook and more skepticism of Francis’ priorities.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York, worries that the synod, which starts Oct. 4, might widen rifts among U.S. Catholics rather than narrow them.

“The polarization of the country has infiltrated the church in such a way that I worry we can’t see our way out of it,” she said.

“The synod is supposed to be about listening, and humility, and willingness to change, but that’s not what clergy are trained to do,” she added. “There’s this unwillingness among much of the clergy to be taught anything, and that’s going to be a real problem.”

Francis himself recently evoked the resistance he faces among some conservative Catholic leaders in the U.S. At a meeting in August with Jesuit priests in Portugal, he assailed the “backwardness” of some of those conservatives, saying they have replaced faith with ideology.

“The vision of the doctrine of the church as a monolith is wrong,” he said. “I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless, and they must understand that there’s a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.”

Some conservative American clerics vehemently disagree, saying high-level discussions of such issues as women’s empowerment and LGBTQ inclusion could tear the church apart.

In a forward to a recent book calling the synod a “Pandora’s box,” American Cardinal Raymond Burke warned the synod was part of a “revolution” to radically change what the church has always taught. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas – critiquing the synod on social media — said, “It is a travesty that these things are even proposed for discussion.”

”Regrettably, it may be that some will label as schismatics those who disagree with the changes being proposed,” Strickland added in a public letter in August. “Instead, those who would propose changes to that which cannot be changed seek to commandeer Christ’s Church, and they are indeed the true schismatics.”

The synod, which will run through Oct. 29, follows a first-of-its-kind two-year outreach in which bishops and other clerics around the world met with lay Catholics to learn about their hopes for the church’s future. There will be a second session of the synod in October 2024, when participants will vote on a final document to be submitted to Pope Francis for his consideration.

For many conservatives, there are multiple reasons for concern — not only the hot-button issues on the agenda, but the novelty of having laypeople, including women, entitled to vote alongside bishops on the final document.

The U.S. synod delegates selected by Francis include three of the men he has appointed as cardinals — Archbishops Blase Cupich of Chicago and Wilton Gregory of Washington, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego.

McElroy has been one of the most prominent voices expressing hope that the synod will expand the roles women can play in the church and broaden the acceptance of LGBTQ Catholics.

In an essay in March, he said the church should eliminate barriers to women in the leadership of parishes and dioceses, allowing them to preach and to serve as deacons.

Within the Catholic LGBTQ community, McElroy wrote, there is “anguish” at the perception that they are condemned by the church and some of its leaders.

“It is clear that the Church in the United States must transform its outreach to LGBT+ persons if it seeks to be a truly welcoming presence in the world,” McElroy wrote.

McElroy’s writings were assailed by conservative Catholics. One bishop, Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, suggested the cardinal might be committing heresy.

Francis’ synod selections also include the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who — through his writings, public appearances and other activities — has been advocating over many years for greater LGBTQ inclusion in the church. He says critics of the synod’s attention-getting agenda miss the essential purpose of the gathering.

“The first step is to invite people to listen to the voices of LGBTQ people and others who feel ignored, rejected or excluded by their church,” Martin said via email. “For me, conversion happens mainly through encountering the stories of those considered to be ‘other.’ And that is a reasonable goal for the synod — to listen.”

“At synods, all voices should be welcome,” he added. “Does the Holy Spirit speak only through cardinals, archbishops and bishops? That’s a very strange theology of the Spirit.”

Bishops appointed by USCCB include its president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, as well as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; and Bishops Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas; Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota; and Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.

Barron, who has developed a large following with a global media organization called Word on Fire, conveyed relief at Pope Francis’ assurances that the synod will not be a forum for changing church doctrine. Barron also has taken note of the differing outlooks of the synodal delegates selected by the USCCB and those chosen by Francis.

“The American delegation, if you look at the whole thing, kind of balances out ideologically. So I think that’s what the pope seems to like,” Barron told Fox News Digital.

Imperatori-Lee, the Manhattan College professor, had a different take on the ideological split.

“This is how American Catholics are starting to see the Church: You’re either for Team Francis or for Team Strickland and Barron,” she said. “That’s not a healthy situation.”

Cathleen Kaveny, a Boston College professor who specializes in the relationship of law, religion, and morality, looks back historically and observes, “The Church has never been one big family.”

As for the upcoming synod, she says, “The conservatives are worried that it’s going to change doctrine on the hot-button issues. The liberals are worried that it won’t change doctrine on these issues.”

Francis seems intent on taking the rifts in stride.

Aboard the plane taking him on a recent trip to Mongolia, reporters asked Francis about the angry reaction of U.S. conservatives to his “backwardness” remarks. “They got angry,” he replied. “But let’s move on.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

United States News

Associated Press

3 Columbia University administrators put on leave over alleged text exchange at antisemitism panel

NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University said it has placed three administrators on leave while it investigates allegations that they exchanged unprofessional text messages while attending a panel discussion about antisemitism on campus. The university said the administrators work for its undergraduate Columbia College, which hosted the panel discussion “Jewish Life on Campus: Past, Present […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Man charged in shooting that critically wounded Philadelphia officer, police say

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A 36-year-old Philadelphia man was charged Sunday with attempted murder in connection with a shooting that critically wounded a police officer after a traffic stop, police said. Ramon Rodriguez Vazquez also faces charges that include aggravated assault and home invasion, police said. The 31-year-old officer and his partner stopped a car carrying […]

6 hours ago

Associated Press

California boy, 4, who disappeared from campground found safe after 22 hours alone in wilderness

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A 4-year-old California boy who wandered away from a campground in the Sierra National Forest was found safe after spending 22 hours alone in the wilderness, authorities said. A search-and-rescue team of about 50 officers and volunteers set out around 11 a.m. Thursday after the child was reported missing from the […]

8 hours ago

Associated Press

One man died and five others were hospitalized in downtown St. Louis shooting

ST. LOUIS (AP) — One man is dead and five others have been wounded in a downtown St. Louis shooting, police said. Police believe women were fighting in a park when men interfered and drew firearms, according to social media posts from the agency. The man who died was in his mid-twenties, police said. Five […]

8 hours ago

Associated Press

Michigan sheriff’s deputy fatally shot pursuing a stolen vehicle in Detroit

DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan county sheriff’s deputy was fatally shot while pursing a suspected stolen vehicle in Detroit, the Oakland County sheriff’s office said Sunday. Bradley J. Reckling, who was on duty in an unmarked car, was following a 2022 Chevy Equinox Saturday evening after the vehicle was reported stolen earlier in the day […]

9 hours ago

Associated Press

Triple-shooting suspect captured after intensive search across Colorado farmland

ALAMOSA, Colorado (AP) — The suspect in a shooting that left one person dead and two others with critical injuries was captured Sunday following an intensive search across a huge area of southern Colorado. Officers went door to door as aircraft searched overhead for Henry Corral, 44, who authorities said had taken off on foot […]

9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinic visits boost student training & community health

Going to a Midwestern University Clinic can help make you feel good in more ways than one.


Sanderson Ford

3 new rides for 3 new road trips in Arizona

It's time for the Sanderson Ford Memorial Day sale with the Mighty Fine 69 Anniversary, as Sanderson Ford turned 69 years old in May.


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.

Ideological rifts among U.S. bishops are in the spotlight ahead of momentous Vatican meeting