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. 

  • Jack

13 thoughts on “Polarization and US Catholic Bishops

  1. Once again I find your writing spot on. Your explanation of polarization turning to disgust helps me understand both the Church and US politics better. We have so much more in common than not, as a Church and s a society. Would that Gomez be knocked off his high horse along with a few others, conversion might occur.

    A recent letter to the editor of NCR suggested RCWP was a reform movement and should consider itself Protestant. I believe all of us called to continually reform and renewal. Praying that 50 years after Vatican II, we might continue to institute its reforms and continue to work for justice for all people through movements such as BLM and Earth Justice.

    Martha Sherman
    RCWP priest

    1. Thank you Martha for this insight. You are so correct when maintain your voice as Catholic and speak your own truth…I love this reminder, ” I believe all of us called to continually reform and renewal.” To that I say AMEN.

  2. Few are privy to the undue influence that began under Reaganism combined with the election of PJPII. With astounding speed, their “leadership” by appointment began the re-construction of democracy into autocracy in government-as the call to full participation in the gospel by the faithful was replaced by allegiance to church leaders in all matters of what they call faith.

    For the past 50 years, all institutions have been under the influence of invisible hands that re-built power in church through collaboration with the state….

    For the church-
    1. Only those bishops that signed a mandatum to follow the magisterium as defined by the pope alone would be appointed (thus the end of Bernardin’s Common Ground)-Francis is an enemy.
    2. Opus Dei became a floating diocese so that bishops and archbishops appointed reported not to the local church-rather the Vatican (how the church went from red to black)- Francis is Opus Dei
    3. Seminarians were “trained” not educated to participate in “obedience” to the head-to “carry out its mission” as defined by this narrow agenda,,,,for the most part, the hierarchical church is now an arm of the Republican Party waiting to receive multiple benefits for their collaborations.
    4. The movement to develop Offices of Religious Education hiring the best and brightest thinkers, planners and designers expanded to all dioceses nationwide and for the most part were staffed by lay men and women with higher level degrees in theology, religious education, pastoral ministry. Their growth became a grand threat to the narrow teachings that kept authority in the hands of the hierarchy. At one time more women than men attended seminaries and got their degrees from there.

    Rising from this awareness new/old versions of religious education through catechisms arose with armies ready to take over-Legion of Christ had their own self approved programs, new colleges and universities “trained” educators that would be appointed to these offices and everyone that worked in dioceses, schools and universities of higher learning was replaced…
    Approved schools of higher learning where the hierarchy could be assured there would be loyalty to the head were promoted- PJPII Institute-Regnum Christi-St Thomas University- Steubenville….etc…to name a few. Theologians were blackballed from teaching -many went to other universities and schools of learning.

    For Church and STATE
    5. An increasing dependence on Government money to keep Catholic Institutions operative followed with the movement toward “Religious Liberty”-free to discriminate laws as well as movement to gain access to vouchers for schools to keep tuition low. In many cases, Catholic institutions were responsible for the reinstitution of policies of segregation through their schools.
    6. Using the appointed “Cathoiic” USCCB as a cudgel to impede the progress made in expanding democracy, civil and human rights, protects the church from efforts to end the Statutes of Limitations, having to abide by laws of the nation for LGBTQ communities, taking responsibility for the harm caused to people of color in the past and present versions of their leadership. This is one reason they are not in favor of Biden’s Administration.

    1. On January 23, 2001, Pope John Paul II appointed Gómez auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver.

      On April 6, 2010, Gómez was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by Pope Benedict XVI. The following year he became Archbishop.

      Jack

    2. He became the fifth Archbishop of Los Angeles in 2011. He previously served as Auxiliary Bishop of Denver from 2001–2004 and as Archbishop of San Antonio from 2004–2010.

  3. Dear Jack,
    How sad that we must equate so many bishops with polarization of the wrong kind. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we “pew” Catholics could look at our all of hierarchy as true leaders who unite rather than divide. I was shocked and disappointed when you mentioned James Hickey, my seminary rector in Saginaw, among the those who was in the Bernard Law camp. I knew he was not progressive but didn’t realize his true political leanings, though I should have known on which side he would have fallen. I hope that as time passes that the hierarchy will become less out of touch than it already, sadly, seems to be.
    Peace,
    Frank

    1. All in all I am optimistic about the future. My old friend, Archbishop Jean Jadot, often said “It is winter now but spring will return.” A new reconfiguration of the church will come. If is already in process. I am getting older and may not see the full transformation. I just try to observe carefully and critically and to support those men and women who are our contemporary prophets and inspiration.

      As always my very warmest regards

      Jack

  4. Thank you for pointing out that Opus Dei is driving much of the division in the U.S. Church to the delight of GOP leaders and for your own excellent “call to arms” that we support the American bishops who want to bring healing to the commonweal.

    1. Yes. Far too many people are blind, wilfully or not, to the powerful impact of Opus Dei coming as well with strong support from high up in the Vatican.

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