by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
As the annual conference of U.S. Catholic bishops begins November 17 in Baltimore, the bishops find themselves more and more at odds with their nominal leader Pope Francis.
Although he still clings to traditional Catholic doctrine on sexuality and the family, the Pope has put his bishops in an uncomfortable position. His predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI - who appointed every serving Catholic bishop in the United States - were social conservatives who backed up the bishops in their pronouncements on hot-button issues like Gay rights, contraception, and divorce.
Francis, in contrast, has challenged them to stop scolding their parishioners and open their churches to different points of view - even, as he put it, to 'make a mess' in the diocese.
The bishops did not take kindly to that message.
'Pope Francis is fond of 'creating a mess.' Mission accomplished,' Providence, Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin wrote, describing the Pope's recent special synod on family relationships.
The debate at the synod, which exposed deep divisions among the church's leaders, struck Tobin as 'rather Protestant,' he said - about the worst thing a Catholic synod could be, from a bishop's point of view.
Other U.S. bishops said the synod sowed confusion about church teaching.
'I think confusion is of the devil. I think the public image that came across was confusion,' said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former St. Louis archbishop and leading spokesperson for conservative Catholics, charged that the church 'is like a ship without a rudder' under Francis.
Burke has been twice demoted by the Pope - once just before the special synod, when he was removed as head of the Congregation of Bishops, and a second time on November 8, when he lost his job on the Vatican's religious appeals court.
'Many of the U.S. bishops have been disoriented by what this new pope is saying and I don't see them really as embracing the Pope's agenda,' John Thavis, a former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, told The Associated Press.
Francis's predecessors wanted U.S. bishops in the front lines of the fight against liberal social policies, and the bishops have continued on that course even though the current Pope wants them to back off.
In fact, the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which represents every bishop in the state, flatly contradicted the Pope in a pre-election voter's guide. The Illinois bishops told their parishioners that abortion and family issues had far greater moral weight than immigration and poverty - the issues Pope Francis says are 'at the center of the Gospel.'
'It used to be your career in the church could be advanced if you took a hard stance on issues,' the Rev. James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College, told the Boston Herald. 'Pope Francis wants people who are more bridge builders instead of bridge burners.'
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, one of the most political of the U.S. bishops, publicly rejected the synod's moderately liberal draft report, but is now walking back his opposition to the Pope.
'What I heard and read, the real synod was divisive, confrontational, partisan, and dwelt only on same sex-marriage, cohabitation and divorce,' Dolan said on November 10. 'In fact it was plodding, even at times tedious, but it was a synod of consensus.'
In spite of Dolan's spin on it, the synod's initial draft report, which identified many positive aspects of Gay relationships, was rejected by conservative bishops with Burke and Dolan in the lead. The synod eventually considered a watered-down version, but failed to reach the required two-thirds majority even on that.
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