Adrift and alone — the US Bishops meet, and miss the point

The November 2019 gathering of the US bishops in Baltimore lacked the drama of last year’s meeting. A breakdown in communications between the USCCB and Rome took place when addressing the sexabuse crisis.

Nov 29, 2019

By Massimo Faggioli
The November 2019 gathering of the US bishops in Baltimore lacked the drama of last year’s meeting. A breakdown in communications between the USCCB and Rome took place when addressing the sexabuse crisis. It was visible for all to see (an embarrassment for which the official explanation contradicts the well-documented history).

However, the US papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre in encouraging bishops to honestly assess the progress of the new evangelisation, he said the following, “While there has been a strong emphasis on mercy by the Holy Father, at times, paradoxically, people are becoming more and more judgmental and less willing to forgive, as witnessed by the polarisation gripping this nation.”

He made clear — in his diplomatic way — that it has not gone unnoticed that many US bishops have largely ignored the two most challenging documents of Francis’ teaching: Amoris laetitia and Laudato si’. Their cool reception to Pierre seems another indicator of their un willingness, or inability, to engage with our times.

The USCCB also ignored the remarkable, and remarkably important, speech that San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy delivered at St Mary’s University in Texas a week prior to the Baltimore gathering. That speech was nothing less than the US equivalent of the “magna carta” of synodality that Pope Francis delivered in October 2017 on the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Bishops’ Synod by Paul VI.

McElroy made the most powerful case so far for the establishment of a synodal process for the US Church, basing it on his stark diagnosis of the state of the ecclesial communion.

“It is my reluctant conclusion that the church in the United States is now adrift on many levels,” he said, “and that a fundamental moment of renewal is needed. A synodal pathway would be an opportunity to set that type of renewal in motion,” said McElroy. At the same time, McElroy expressed hope that such renewal is possible, citing the “significant dialogical process” demonstrated at  last year’s Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry. “Such a synodal pathway is not foreign to the church in the United States, nor is it beyond our capacities,” he said. We can stick with the status quo, he said, or choose a new approach. “The great danger is that our ecclesial life is becoming like our political life — polarised, distorted, and tribal. That is why a deep and broad process of synodal dialogue within the Catholic community in the United States could empower an alternative pathway forward.”

Synodality has been seen on the local level in the United States — in San Diego in 2016, for example —and in June the Archdiocese of St Paul-Minneapolis began a two-year synodal process leading toward a final celebration on Pentecost weekend in May 2021.

But otherwise the US Church is far out of step with other churches in the west. Just the idea of a national synodal process, or even of a national plenary council, seems inimical to most US Catholic leaders. And it’s not just a problem of  politics. There seems to be a lack of familiarity with the theological concept of synodality itself. (Consider, for example, comments from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in a recent interview, “I don’t think anybody has a clear idea because there’s no definition of [synodality]. There’s no Church documents in the West that explain it. It’s really an Eastern Church concept more than one that we’re familiar with…”) But it’s not as if American theologians are experts either. Search online for books or monographs on synodality in English, and only a handful of articles in specialised academic journals turn up. This is one of the prices to pay when a generation of Catholic lay professional theologians turns away from the study of ecclesiastical institutions in favour of anthropological, sociological, and cultural studies.

Under Francis’s leadership, the Amazon Synod became the place for ecclesial and theological tensions to meet head-on and be brought into synthesis, through a celebration of synodality and the Eucharist, in a  spiritual setting. There was no livestream of the proceedings, and only limited press access.

By contrast, the Baltimore meeting perfectly embodied the poisonous, deeply damaged ecosystem of online American Catholicism: livestreamed, unfolding “transparently” according to a carefully conceived communications strategy meant to generate commentary and reward the “loudest” Catholic voices online.

The Church is no longer torn between the old monarchical model and the modern democratic model; now, it’s split over living synodally in real places with real people, and adherence to a media and communications model meant to help preserve the status quo.

The dominant impression left by the Baltimore meeting? That in spite of occasionally sincere, sometimes ritualistic, expressions of communion with Rome, the effort to neuter Pope Francis’s message in the United States continues. The American Church is not only adrift, but also increasingly alone in the world. --Commonwealmagazine

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