American Catholicism is being poisoned by factionalism

Cardinal Donald Wuerl (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

In February 2016, Pope Francis set off a media firestorm when he took an unprecedented shot at then presidential candidate Donald Trump. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the Holy Father told Mexican journalists. “This is not the Gospel.”

On November 9 – the day after Trump’s election – Cardinal Raymond Burke granted an interview to the National Catholic Register, in which he responded directly to the Pope’s criticism. “I don’t think the new president will be inspired by hatred in his treatment of the issue of immigration,” he said. “Charity is always intelligent; it demands to know: exactly who are these immigrants? Are they really refugees, and what communities can sustain them?”

The following month, rumours surfaced that the president’s controversial (and devoutly Catholic) counsellor Steve Bannon had met Cardinal Burke in 2014. The encounter was arranged by Benjamin Harnwell, a conservative Catholic activist whose influence can be felt as far afield as America, Britain, Rome and Lithuania.

A remarkable coincidence, no?

Harnwell denied the existence of a “Bannon-Burke anti-Francis axis”, asserting their loyalty to the Holy Father. And no doubt that’s true. But the American Church is rife with factionalism. Given that there are 70 million Catholics falling under some 450 bishops, it simply can’t be avoided. Power-players forge such alliances as a matter of course. Even if you don’t have enemies, it can’t hurt to have friends.

And by no means are Burke and Bannon the first such alleged spiritual-temporal alliance. In his new book The Political Pope, George Neumayr recalls the relationship between Barack Obama and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Neumayr writes that Bernardin directed his priests to work with Obama, who was then employed as a community organiser at Holy Rosary parish on the South Side of Chicago. (He and the parish priest, Fr William Stenzel, used to sneak up to the roof for smoke breaks.) The network of liberals in the American Church came to be known as “the Bernardin Machine”, and it remained dominant in the US bishops’ conference for decades. Pope John Paul II appointed the arch-conservative Francis George to replace Bernardin in Chicago in 1996, which earned George the nickname “Francis the Corrector”. Yet it wasn’t until Cardinal Timothy Dolan defeated Gerald Kicanas (a Bernardin disciple) for the bishops’ conference presidency that George Weigel could declare in First Things that “the Bernardin Era is over”.

Liberals have found a new leader in Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC. The bishops’ conference is still dominated by conservatives, but Wuerl took the ascent of Pope Francis to mean that liberalism is now the reigning orthodoxy in the global Church. He has likened conservative “dissenters” among his “brother bishops” to Cardinal Louis Billot, who resigned his office in 1927 after Pope Pius XI condemned the reactionary movement Action Française. In March, Wuerl told the Jesuits’ America magazine: “There are some whom I think just feel very uncomfortable; everything was quite secure and safe and now that’s being challenged.”

This is when diversity devolves into partisanship, and debate becomes mere sniping. Any organisation so large and centralised must be able to tolerate a degree of diversity in opinion. That’s impossible if there’s bad faith between the two camps. When we dismiss conservatism as “discomfort” or liberalism as “worldliness”, it’s not long until the “Catholic” in the Catholic Church is a mere formality.

Rumours of schism are certainly exaggerated, but they speak to a bitterness that’s poisoning American Catholicism. And when prelates recruit politicians into their factions, lay people can’t help but wonder who our princes serve: the City of God or the City of Man.

This article first appeared in the July 14 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here