America News Analysis

The US bishops’ conference rejects a ‘myth’ about resistance

The US bishops are making their ad limina visits this month, the pilgrimages bishops must make every five years “to the threshold of the Apostles” – particularly Peter and Paul – during which they pray at the tombs of the first Bishop of Rome and the great evangeliser of the Gentiles.

These days, ad limina visits are filled with rounds of meetings with various dicasteries of the Roman Curia, in which bishops discuss the reports on the states of their respective dioceses, as well as the general situation of the Church in their countries. There’s also almost always a meeting with the Pope.

There’s a good deal of talk in some circles about how the US bishops are corporately ill-disposed to Pope Francis. Writers of significant reputation have accused some of them of plotting against the reigning Pontiff. A few have said there is a sizeable segment of the US Church – including bishops – who are in “de facto schism”. Now, there may be some grain of truth to the first and perhaps even the second, but that last is plain silly. The manifest silliness of a claim, however, has never stopped a pundit from making it.

So, here we are.

Speaking of narrative, the Vatican’s official media outlet recently published an interview with Austen Ivereigh, author of a new book about Pope Francis, Wounded Shepherd, which “takes the reader on a journey though some key issues and episodes that mark this papacy’s reform in Rome and in the wider Church”. Portions of the interview appeared in multiple languages under the Vatican News banner. The English version of the interview is dated October 22, two weeks ahead of the book’s official release.

Ivereigh, who wrote a biography of Pope Francis entitled The Great Reformer, is not shy regarding his admiration for the Argentine Pontiff. “I have no doubt about his greatness,” he told Vatican News. “Certainly he will be seen as one of the great popes of this era.”

Wounded Shepherd opens with Ivereigh’s recollection of an intense and powerfully moving conversation with the Pope, in which Francis had some criticism of Ivereigh’s past work. “I think you are too kind to me,” Ivereigh recalls Pope Francis telling him.

The US bishops did not take kindly, however, to some of the characterisations of them and their relationship with the Pope in Wounded Shepherd. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops took the unusual step of releasing a statement last week, directly addressing the matter. “[Wounded Shepherd] perpetuates an unfortunate and inaccurate myth that the Holy Father finds resistance among the leadership and staff of the US bishops’ conference,” wrote the USCCB’s chief communications officer, James Rogers.

The USCCB accused Ivereigh of misrepresenting the US bishops’ attempt, in late 2018, to address the leadership crisis in the wake of revelations regarding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington, who was convicted earlier this year after a canonical process on multiple counts of aggravated child sexual abuse, for which his punishment was to be made a layman.

The US bishops drew up special and particular norms for episcopal accountability, which Rome effectively put on hold just as the US bishops were gathering to vote on them. Ivereigh said the US bishops drew up the norms “before Rome had a chance to see them first”, and planned on voting and presenting Rome with a done deal.

“The author disparages the general secretary and a consultant on canonical affairs particularly by suggesting they drew up documents in October that were then deliberately excluded from Rome,” the USCCB statement claimed. “This is false and misleading.”

Ivereigh rejected the criticism. “It’s a defensive statement that doesn’t in any way dispute the facts on which my account relies, while seeking to give an alternative interpretation of that account,” he told the Tablet.

There could be more than a little truth to the surmise about the US bishops’ strategy, but it would be hard to prove that the US side deliberately sought to keep Rome in the dark until after the fact.

In any case, the politically astute move would have been for the Vatican to let the norms pass and then alter them afterwards, but that ship has sailed.

As of Tuesday morning, Vatican News in English hadn’t posted the USCCB statement criticising Ivereigh’s narrative. Normally, one wouldn’t think much of the papal media machine failing to note a statement from the USCCB.

Whether something from the conference gets posted is a question that usually turns on how much work there is to do and how many hands there are to do it. In this case, however, the statement was responding directly to assertions made in a book the Vatican communications outfit previewed. It’s just one of those things that make you go “Hmmm…”