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Ideological rifts among US bishops are in the spotlight ahead of momentous Vatican meeting

The synod is intended to be a collegial, collaborative event, though the agenda includes divisive issues such as the role of women in the church and the inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.Alessandra Tarantino (AP)

Early next month, the Vatican will open an unprecedented gathering of Catholic clergy and laypeople from around the world. The synod is intended to be a collegial, collaborative event, though the agenda includes divisive issues such as the role of women in the church and the inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics.

If there’s Exhibit A for how elusive consensus might be, it’s the United States’ participation. In effect, there are two high-level U.S. delegations widely viewed as ideological rivals — six clerics appointed by Pope Francis who support his aspirations for a more inclusive, welcoming church; five clerics chosen by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who reflect a more conservative outlook and more skepticism of Francis’ priorities.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York, worries that the synod, which starts Oct. 4, might widen rifts among U.S. Catholics rather than narrow them.

“The polarization of the country has infiltrated the church in such a way that I worry we can’t see our way out of it,” she said.

“The synod is supposed to be about listening, and humility, and willingness to change, but that’s not what clergy are trained to do,” she added. “There’s this unwillingness among much of the clergy to be taught anything, and that’s going to be a real problem.”

Francis himself recently evoked the resistance he faces among some conservative Catholic leaders in the U.S. At a meeting in August with Jesuit priests in Portugal, he assailed the “backwardness” of some of those conservatives, saying they have replaced faith with ideology.

“The vision of the doctrine of the church as a monolith is wrong,” he said. “I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless, and they must understand that there’s a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.”

Some conservative American clerics vehemently disagree, saying high-level discussions of such issues as women’s empowerment and LGBTQ inclusion could tear the church apart.

In a forward to a recent book calling the synod a “Pandora’s box,” American Cardinal Raymond Burke warned the synod was part of a “revolution” to radically change what the church has always taught. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas – critiquing the synod on social media — said, “It is a travesty that these things are even proposed for discussion.”

“Regrettably, it may be that some will label as schismatics those who disagree with the changes being proposed,” Strickland added in a public letter in August. “Instead, those who would propose changes to that which cannot be changed seek to commandeer Christ’s Church, and they are indeed the true schismatics.”

The synod, which will run through Oct. 29, follows a first-of-its-kind two-year outreach in which bishops and other clerics around the world met with lay Catholics to learn about their hopes for the church’s future. There will be a second session of the synod in October 2024, when participants will vote on a final document to be submitted to Pope Francis for his consideration.

For many conservatives, there are multiple reasons for concern — not only the hot-button issues on the agenda, but the novelty of having laypeople, including women, entitled to vote alongside bishops on the final document.

The U.S. synod delegates selected by Francis include three of the men he has appointed as cardinals — Archbishops Blase Cupich of Chicago and Wilton Gregory of Washington, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego.

McElroy has been one of the most prominent voices expressing hope that the synod will expand the roles women can play in the church and broaden the acceptance of LGBTQ Catholics.

In an essay in March, he said the church should eliminate barriers to women in the leadership of parishes and dioceses, allowing them to preach and to serve as deacons.

Within the Catholic LGBTQ community, McElroy wrote, there is “anguish” at the perception that they are condemned by the church and some of its leaders.

“It is clear that the Church in the United States must transform its outreach to LGBT+ persons if it seeks to be a truly welcoming presence in the world,” McElroy wrote.

McElroy’s writings were assailed by conservative Catholics. One bishop, Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, suggested the cardinal might be committing heresy.

Francis’ synod selections also include the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who — through his writings, public appearances and other activities — has been advocating over many years for greater LGBTQ inclusion in the church. He says critics of the synod’s attention-getting agenda miss the essential purpose of the gathering.

“The first step is to invite people to listen to the voices of LGBTQ people and others who feel ignored, rejected or excluded by their church,” Martin said via email. “For me, conversion happens mainly through encountering the stories of those considered to be ‘other.’ And that is a reasonable goal for the synod — to listen.”

“At synods, all voices should be welcome,” he added. “Does the Holy Spirit speak only through cardinals, archbishops and bishops? That’s a very strange theology of the Spirit.”

Bishops appointed by USCCB include its president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, as well as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; and Bishops Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas; Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota; and Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.

Barron, who has developed a large following with a global media organization called Word on Fire, conveyed relief at Pope Francis’ assurances that the synod will not be a forum for changing church doctrine. Barron also has taken note of the differing outlooks of the synodal delegates selected by the USCCB and those chosen by Francis.

“The American delegation, if you look at the whole thing, kind of balances out ideologically. So I think that’s what the pope seems to like,” Barron told Fox News Digital.

Imperatori-Lee, the Manhattan College professor, had a different take on the ideological split.

“This is how American Catholics are starting to see the Church: You’re either for Team Francis or for Team Strickland and Barron,” she said. “That’s not a healthy situation.”

Cathleen Kaveny, a Boston College professor who specializes in the relationship of law, religion, and morality, looks back historically and observes, “The Church has never been one big family.”

As for the upcoming synod, she says, “The conservatives are worried that it’s going to change doctrine on the hot-button issues. The liberals are worried that it won’t change doctrine on these issues.”

Francis seems intent on taking the rifts in stride.

Aboard the plane taking him on a recent trip to Mongolia, reporters asked Francis about the angry reaction of U.S. conservatives to his “backwardness” remarks. “They got angry,” he replied. “But let’s move on.”

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