SO WILL the charismatic Pope Francis actually make any difference in the structure of a Catholic Church in which almost every bishop was appointed by his two very conservative predecessors? In no nation has the hierarchy shown its colors as a force for reactionary politics more than the United States, where something over 400 bishops have, as a group over the last decade, practically served as a branch of the Republican Party. That is why the leadership elections held in Baltimore last week at the annual meeting of the US Catholic Bishops Conference are so telling. The so-called Francis effect was showing.
In Rome last June, Pope Francis gave a decisive speech to a meeting of the Apostolic Nuncios, the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. One of the most important duties of these papal representatives is to recommend priests for promotion to bishop. The pope was explicit in saying what sort of men he wanted. “Be careful,” he said, “that the candidates are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers; that they are gentle, patient, and merciful; animated by an inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord, and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life; that they do not have the psychology of ‘princes.’ ” Pope Francis warned, in particular, against men who are “ambitious,” who “seek the episcopate” — the ecclesiastical climbers whose eye is always on the next rung up.
One of the nuncios who heard that address, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican ambassador to the United States, gave a talk of his own last week, speaking to the American bishops. Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash., characterized the nuncio’s message for The New York Times: “Pope Francis doesn’t want cultural warriors, he doesn’t want ideologues. That’s the new paradigm for us, and it’s making many of us think.”
The next day, the bishops voted for new officers. They elected as president Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who was already serving as vice president. The choice of Kurtz was a return to the tradition of elevating the number two officer, a tradition the bishops violated three years ago in choosing Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, one of the fiercest culture warriors in the hierarchy. With Dolan, the bishops escalated their confrontation with the Obama administration; they focused intensely on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage as all-trumping questions.
That is precisely the concentration Pope Francis famously criticized as an obsession in the interview that appeared in America magazine in September. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the pope said. “We have to find a new balance, otherwise the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”
Last week, it was in the election of the conference vice president that the American bishops showed they were listening. They elevated Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, but the paradigm shift showed itself in whom they did not choose: The finalist whom DiNardo beat was Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia. He first came to national attention when, as archbishop of Denver during the 2004 presidential campaign, he raised the issue of whether prochoice John Kerry was unworthy of communion, and whether even voting for him would be sinful. If the Tea Party had a Catholic offshoot, Chaput would be its head.
Also passed over for the position was Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, whose former status as an up-and-comer among the bishops had been signaled by his selection to lead the so-called “Religious Liberty Campaign”— the frontal assault on Obama administration policies, including the Affordable Care Act. In collusion with right-wing fundamentalist Protestants, the Lori-led effort upended the real meaning of religious liberty. It sought to recast advances for gay people and women as an infringement upon the faithful. Most astonishingly, the campaign reignited the long-settled public issue of contraception as a political flashpoint.
In electing new leaders, US bishops signaled a shift away from an intense focus of opposing contraception, abortion, and gay marriage.
The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope has already shown itself to be a Catholic turning point. Far more than a lovable figure who is good with children, concerned for the poor, and compassionate toward the disabled, he is quietly proving to be a savvy institutional leader, too. That the American bishops have changed course, setting their compass to his, is another reason to be hopeful. The house of cards is a little steadier.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.