Catholics now make up about 20% of the US population – down from close to 24% in 2007 – but the American Catholic Church is still larger than any other single religious institution in the United States. Catholics in recent years, however, have faced a number of significant challenges: an ongoing decline in membership, a shortage of priests, major financial problems, and continuing revelations of clerical sexual abuse. The US Catholic Church has experienced a greater net membership loss than any other US religious group.

Like contemporary US society, American Catholics, are also highly — and often heatedly —  polarized. Edison Research exit polls estimate that 52% of all Catholic voters went for Biden this past November, and 47% for Trump. The Edison exit polls in 2016 showed a 46% Catholic vote for Clinton, and 50% for Trump.

US Catholic bishops, with just a few exceptions, have been strongly supportive of Donald Trump, and critical of Democrats and now President Joseph Biden. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who gave the invocation at his inauguration, has been a strong supporter of his “great friend” former president Donald Trump. Cardinal Raymond Burke, former Archbishop of St. Louis and a former Vatican official, is probably the de facto leader of the Church’s conservative wing. He calls Democrats the “party of death.” This past autumn, when interviewed on the conservative Catholic show “The World Over,” he described the then presidential candidate Joseph Biden, as involved in a “grave, immoral evil that is the source of scandal.” The former archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput (the first archbishop of Philadelphia since 1921, by the way, to not have been made a cardinal), said, in December 2020, that President-elect Joe Biden should be banned from receiving communion because of his support for abortion rights and same-sex relationships. On its website the Catholic far right Church Militant called President Biden “Phony Baloney.” The strongest Catholic words about President Biden have come from Fr. Frank Pavone, the national director of the Catholic anti-abortion group Priests for Life and an advisory board member of Catholics for Trump. In an angry tweet, later deleted, he denounced “this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party.”

I guess it was really no surprise then that even before President Biden’s inaugural  ceremony had finished, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — issued an extensive statement criticizing Biden for policies “that would advance moral evils,” especially “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”  Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, immediately pushed back on Twitter, calling the statement by Archbishop Gomez “ill-considered,” because it was drafted without input from the conference’s administrative committee. Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, told Catholic News Service: “What I don’t understand are people who use very harsh words and want to cut off all communication with the president…”  A senior Vatican official (as reported in America Magazine) called Archbishop Gomez’s statement “most unfortunate” and feared it could “create even greater divisions within the church in the United States.” I find it significant to note that the day BEFORE President Biden’s inauguration both Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal Tobin had put intense pressure on Archbishop Gomez to make NO STATEMENT, as did the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. 

On  January 21st, the American journalist, Michael Sean Winters, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, characterized the new Catholic president and the US Catholic divided house this way: “Biden did more in 24 hours to remind the American people that the Catholic Church can be a force for good in our country than the bishops’ conference has done in 10 years. His memorial service for COVID-19 victims was more pastoral than their repugnant statement. Biden’s inaugural address was a better articulation of Catholic ideas about governance than any recent document from the conference. He cited Augustine to help unite our brutally divided country. They turn to citations that exacerbate the divide. Biden has allowed himself to be enriched by the faith of others, Catholic and non-Catholic. Gomez seems stuck in his Opus Dei playbook.”

Since the late 1970s, in fact, conservative US Catholics and evangelicals have been allies in the “culture war” that has shaped US partisan politics. This has been due in no small part to the conservative “reform of the reform” of the Second Vatican Council undertaken by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the bishops they appointed to make it happen.

Yes. Today the US Catholic Church is a divided house and it is time for institutional reformation. A good project for Lent 2021 that begins on February 17th.  A change in mentality is certainly needed: one that’s more open and inviting, less restrictive, and less confrontational. We need better educated leaders, who have undergone a kind of pastoral renewal with updated historical and theological perspectives.

Ongoing theological education and formation has been a big part of my life. With men and women in ministry or preparing for ministry. Even with bishops. I remember a session – now a few years ago – with a small group of US bishops, whom I knew as friends. They were complaining to me that they felt “out of touch” with their clergy and lay people. After a few minutes the group fell silent. I looked at them and calmly and simply said “Gentlemen, with all due respect, you don’t have much credibility anymore. Your knowledge of church history is minimal. Your biblical perspective and understanding resonate more with the early 1950s, as does your understanding of human sexuality and gender.” No one became angry. No got up and walked out of the room. We had a very sincere and respectful discussion. A  number of those men later went on continuing ed. sabbaticals. Others began to seek out, to read, and to listen to well-respected theologians. It can happen.

We all need renewed perspectives. Progressives as well as conservatives. In the process we need to listen to each other with humility, respect, inquisitive minds, and compassionate understanding. No one has all the answers. All theologies – even the ones I like —  are provisional until a better explanation is found. We are all teachers and we are all learners. We are all believers…..We do need each other. A divided “Body of Christ” is neither life-giving nor Christian.

Sooner or later divided houses collapse, but they take a lot of innocent victims with them.


6 thoughts on “US Catholics a Divided House

  1. Jack, I feel every bit of the “conservative” politics at my parish, in Battle Creek, from our priests. Joe Biden had been President for no more than 3 days when one of our priests found a reason to denounce him at Mass. I am so tired of getting angry at Mass. Thanks for this writing of the deep systemic problem we have. I am am holding on by my fingertips.

    1. Yes Patti it is a serious problem. We need to be supportive if each other. Last week To my surprise and amazement I was denounced and condemned by a long- time Catholic friend who said “you are unfortunately a dangerously radical theologian who has fallen for evil Biden the Satanic president in DC.”

  2. Dear Jack,
    I am a contemporary of yours from the seminary days of Vatican II when the excitement of the liberation of the Council taught us a new way to live our faith. We seminarians marched in civil rights rallies, worked with migrants, helped refurbish homes for the poor, and taught catechism in parishes. Social justice and being part of the world was inbred and we loved being Catholic. This retrenchment is inexplicable and gut-wrenching as significant numbers of the faithful seek refuge in the “old time religion.” Patti, your other fan, and I belong to a small, informal resistance group in our parish called the POC’s (Pissed Off Catholics.) We participate actively in parish life but mentally scream whenever one of our good-hearted but, sadly, regressive clergy revert to the practices of the good old days. Do you suppose there is security and safety for many Catholics to be in a faith that is absolute and directive so that there is no confusion as to how to act in the world? How else can one explain the resurgence of a stifling conservative movement in the Church. As I look at the graying of our church and the slow decline of an expansive, vibrant community I am struck by the prescience of this quote by Thomas Merton: “….We cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to ‘the Law’ rather than a fee personal adherence by loving faith, to the risen and living Christ….” Who would have thought that in our lifetime we would have to explain which brand of Catholicism we espouse!!!
    Thanks for continuing to give voice to our concerns, Jack.

    1. Frank I resonate with you and Patti 100%. I still believe positive change is in the air but it will take time….one possible scenario is a totally new configuration of the church. Warmest regards my good friend. – Jack

  3. Jack, so good to hear your thoughtful and incisive comments. Put Annette and I in the POC group! If it weren’t for people like you and James Martin, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, Elizabeth Johnson (among many others) we would be lost! We have HOPE, at least!

    1. Dear Lee, I am very happy to hear from you and would love to be able to visit with you and Annette again some day…There are good reasons to have hope and hopeful people have to be mutually supportive. Warmest regards!

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