One of the deepest rifts in the Church today is that between Rome and the United States. As with most strained relationships, there is no single cause but many. It is difficult to say precisely when divisions emerged, but it was not long after the election of Pope Francis in 2013. By 2018 the strains had become impossible to ignore. That was the year that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Apostolic Nuncio to the US, published his “testimony” accusing Francis of failing to root out corruption. The Vatican was dismayed that so few US bishops sprang to the Pope’s defence and, indeed, some sided publicly with the archbishop.
A few months later, the Vatican ordered the US bishops not to vote on measures intended to tackle a new abuse crisis triggered by the disclosure that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had molested youngsters. The Pope summoned the bishops to a retreat at the start of this year and wrote them a long letter, noting that they were suffering from a “crisis of credibility”.
Now, a new act in this ecclesiastical drama is beginning. On Monday, bishops from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont started their ad limina visit in Rome. They are the first of 15 sets of US bishops to do so. All groups will have a freewheeling discussion with Pope Francis, who has allotted what Vatican-watcher Rocco Palmo calls “an extraordinary two and a half hours” for each encounter. The ad limina visits will end on February 22, 2020, when the bishops of Eastern Catholic Churches in the US conclude their trip.
According to canon law, every bishop must undertake a pilgrimage ad limina apostolorum (“to the threshold of the Apostles”) every five years, visiting the tombs of Ss Peter and Paul. They combine the pilgrimage with meetings with curial officials and the Pope.
But the growth in the number of bishops has upended this schedule. The last pope to receive the world’s bishops individually every five years was John Paul II. When he was elected in 1978 there were 2,423 dioceses, prelatures and vicariates worldwide. Today, there are 3,017. Benedict XVI began meeting prelates in groups and Francis has followed this custom. This explains why the US bishops’ last ad limina was seven years ago in 2011-2012.
This is the best chance that Pope Francis and the US bishops are likely to get to overcome their mutual incomprehension. We should be praying for this now and until the end of February, for the breach has had harmful consequences.
Consider the McCarrick case. It remains a mystery how a man of such perverse character could have risen to become Archbishop of Washington and exercise a global diplomatic ministry on behalf of the Holy See. In his “testimony”, Archbishop Viganò claimed that the Vatican held documents which explained the remarkable trajectory of McCarrick’s ecclesiastical career. Under intense pressure, the Holy See promised that it would conduct its own investigation. A year on, we are still waiting for an official explanation of how McCarrick was able to rise unimpeded. If US-Rome relations were warmer, then perhaps this information would already be in the public domain.
In recent years, outspoken supporters of Pope Francis have relentlessly goaded American conservatives. For example, Fr Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, co-wrote an essay accusing US Catholics of joining Evangelicals in an “ecumenism of hate”. Others have fostered a conspiracy theory that wealthy American businessmen are seeking to depose Francis and replace him with a theologically conservative pope. Francis himself acknowledged this strain of thinking in September, when he offered an impromptu endorsement of a book by a French journalist entitled Comment l’Amérique veut changer de pape. “It’s an honour when the Americans attack me,” he said, adding that the book was “a bomb”.
Meanwhile, US influence within the Roman Curia and the College of Cardinals has waned since 2013. The Pope has repeatedly passed over archbishops of major American sees when distributing red hats. And Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the lone US member of the Council of Cardinal Advisers, appeared to fall out of favour after he criticised the Pope’s handling of the abuse crisis in Chile.
Let’s hope that the ad limina visits will begin to heal these wounds. For if the US episcopate and the Vatican continue to drift apart, then it is the Church’s mission that will suffer.