The U.S.Church; on the verge of a split?

A brief summary on the current state of the U.S. Church

The Catholic Church in the United States has been deeply divided for many years now, but the election of Joe Biden as President has brought the divisions into the public domain in a new way. For those who are not familiar with the U.S. church, I will provide here a short summary of the issues and the main characters involved.

During the reign of John Paul and Benedict very specific criteria were used in the appointment of bishops, mainly to do with sexual issues, and in particular abortion, contraception and LGBT matters. This was true right across the world, but its impact was greater in the U.S. than elsewhere. The main body of bishops became known as ‘culture warriors’ who proclaimed that abortion was the ‘preeminent moral issue’. During all those years they were very much in tune with the message coming out of the Vatican. They also became close to some of the evangelical churches, and lost a great many of the catholic people.

The election of Pope Francis was a blow to them. He regularly speaks out against abortion, but always in the context of the whole range of ‘life’ issues. He began to appoint a very different type of person to episcopal positions.

The culture warrior bishops were great supporters of Trump. They seldom, if ever, criticised what he said and did, and even in their occasional mild criticisms they never used his name, but always referred to ‘the administration’. Shortly before the recent election a number of their senior people joined in a webinar with Trump, during which he declared himself ‘the greatest American catholic president’ with no demur from the bishops on the call.

While the Francis bishops are different, they are still in a minority, so all the positions of importance in the Bishops Conference are held by the traditionalists.

Then Joe Biden was elected, with the catholic vote split fairly evenly between himself and Trump. The president of the Bishops Conference, Gomez of Los Angeles, launched a strong attack on him on the day of his inauguration, with no compunction about naming him, in contrast to Trump. It was extraordinary, and it provoked the first public spat between bishops, when Cupich of Chicago stated that the statement was ‘inappropriate’. Over the next couple of days various voices were raised on both sides. Francis’ message to Biden was much more positive and conciliatory, and a Vatican spokesperson said that Francis was ‘unhappy’ with Gomez statement.

So there we have it; the split is out in the open, and who knows where it will lead.

Who are the main episcopal characters involved?

The heavyweight (in every sense of the word!) of the traditional group is Timothy Dolan of New York. Then there is Gomez as head of the Conference.

Other notables are Joseph Strickland of Tyler and Charles Chaput, retired of Washington, with Raymond Burke and Vigano on the more extreme end.

Most outspoken of the ‘Francis group’ is Blaine Cupich of Chicago. Significant supporters are Joe Tobin of Newark, (formerly Redemptorist Superior General), Wilton Gregory of Washington and Robert McElroy of San Diego.

There are six cardinals in the U.S. who will have a vote in the next conclave (unless Francis continues for many more years!). Four of these are likely to vote for someone who would continue along the lines of Francis;  Cupich, Gregory, Tobin and O’Malley of Boston. The other two, Dolan and Di Nardo would probably go for someone more traditional.

That’s the bones of it. It is an ugly and dangerous situation for the U.S. Church to find itself in, and it is very hard to predict how it will develop.