During a video message presented to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life, an Opus Dei affiliated group in Madrid, Spain on Thursday November 4th, Archbishop José H. Gómez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, condemned the “new social justice movements” calling them “pseudo-religions” and “dangerous substitutes for true religion.”
A good friend described the Gómez message as an Opus Dei “call to arms.” Founded in Madrid in 1928, Opus Dei flourished under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. In 1947, a year after the organization’s headquarters was moved to to Rome, Opus Dei was given praise and approval by Pope Pius XII. Since the 1970s, Archbishop Gómez, has been quite active in the powerful far right Catholic organization. In 1999, he became the vicar of Opus Dei for Texas; and, in 2001, he became the first Opus Dei “numerary” to be appointed a bishop in the United States. (Numeraries are members who give doctrinal and ascetical formation to other members.) Archbishop Gómez has said that he is no longer a “member” of Opus Dei but follows Opus Dei spirituality.
Gómez is a well-known promoter of US Catholic polarization and a fierce critic of US President Joseph Biden. His statement on Inauguration Day in January 2021 was clear and direct: “Our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender.” Archbishop Gómez, quoting a US Conference of Catholic Bishops voter guide, stressed “For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘pre-eminent priority.’”
Not all US bishops agree with Archbishop Gómez, however. Bishop Robert McElroy, Bishop of San Diego and a vocal member of the minority of US bishops who diverge from the Gómez line, has continued to stress that abortion is not the US Catholic pre-eminent issue. “The pre-eminent issue for our country at this time” he said “is healing and coming together.”
Bishop McElroy’s observations, and those of Archbishop Gómez of course, reminded me that it is now close to twenty-five years ago that Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin announced his Catholic Common Ground Initiative: his call for dialogue among the US Catholic Church’s increasingly polarized believers. If only people had truly listened to him back then…But we can still listen to him today.
Bernardin was the Archbishop of Chicago from 1982 until his death in November 1996. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative was Bernardin’s final and most substantial effort to promote dialogue in an increasingly divided US Catholic Church. Beginning in 1992, Bernardin had grown concerned about polarization due to political issues and the implementation of the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). He began working to gather influential Catholic bishops and laypeople who were committed to dialogue and church unity, despite their disagreements. The Common Ground initiative challenged US Catholics to honestly discuss their views on the role of women in the church, about human sexuality, and about how the church should be governed.
Shortly before his death, Cardinal Bernardin hoped he would be leaving a gift to guide the church during a difficult period. But Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua (Philadelphia), James Hickey (Washington), Bernard Law (Boston), John O’Connor (New York) and Adam Maida (Detroit) came out strongly against Common Ground. Bernard Law captured the flavor of their criticisms when he said: “Dialogue, as a way to mediate between the truth and dissent, is mutual deception.”
Law of course was wrong. His life ended in disgrace. Bernardin remains the prophetic US Catholic hero. And Gómez remains a problematic prophet of doom.
We do not dwell in the past but we do learn from it, in our own ways, as I stressed two weeks ago in my “See, Observe, and Act” reflection. May we support people like Bishop McElroy and actively engage in a contemporary Common Ground Initiative.
Polarization takes people who basically have something in common. It then emphasizes their differences. Then it hardens their differences into disgust. Then it turns their disgust into hatred.
According to a 2021 Survey of American Catholic Priests, conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, priests on both sides of the US political divide are largely pessimistic about the state of the US Catholic Church and its future. Their pessimism is our call to listen, dialogue, collaborate, support, and move forward.
There is nothing Christian about polarization. Polarization, especially when promoted by highly placed religious and political leaders, is deadly.