We’ve finally reached the point where it’s become impossible to ignore the dissonance between Pope Francis and the leadership of the US Catholic bishops. For years, many leading US bishops—aided by a cadre of allies in Catholic media—have been bound and determined to paint USCCB leadership as closely aligned with the pope, even when abundant evidence has suggested otherwise. These are who I referred to as “false friends” of the pope in my article last week.

Some US bishops are finally beginning to give up the ruse. And they don’t seem happy. Besides the two examples we’ve pointed out before—Bishop Joseph Strickland’s promotion of a YouTube video that made offensive and incendiary statements about Pope Francis and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s icy message of “congratulations” upon Bishop Robert McElroy’s appointment to the college of cardinals—we can now add Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas.

In an interview with the German newspaper Die Tagespost, Naumann expressed displeasure with some recent actions by Pope Francis, saying, “It’s sad how he behaved toward both President Biden and Nancy Pelosi. I don’t think the Pope understands the US, any more than he understands the Church in the US. His advisors and the people around him have completely misinformed him on that. Of course we have to be pastoral. However, it is not pastoral to tell someone that he is a good Catholic and can receive communion as a matter of course, when that person has committed a grave evil. The fact that the Pope received Pelosi was politically exploited. In doing so, Francis is doing exactly what he warns others not to do.”[1]

Later in the interview, Naumann also stated that he doesn’t agree with the claim that the US bishops are out of step with the pope. “I think the US bishops have shown great respect to Pope Francis,” he said. “They have mostly applauded his actions and what he advocates. The bishops in this country also overwhelmingly welcome his focus on helping the poor and migrants. Otherwise, again, I think the pope has been ill-informed in many ways.”[2]

The words, “have shown great respect,” are indicative of the dynamic between the US episcopate and the pope. Although many US bishops clearly desire to show respect to and unity with Pope Francis, something simply isn’t snapping into place. For example, American bishops will often invoke the pope’s name while speaking about their own programs and initiatives. When doing so, they’ll awkwardly throw in papal buzzwords like “accompaniment,” “synodality,” “pastoral,” and “mercy.” From time to time they even make sense when doing it. It is as if they think, “I’m supposed to say these words now,” but without having a clear idea of how they should be used.

Certainly, the US bishops have picked up on the fact that many young people, lapsed Catholics, and people outside the Church have taken a liking to Pope Francis. That’s a good thing, of course. It’s something they can work with—as long as Francis doesn’t do anything that gets in the way of whatever they’re trying to accomplish. In other words, they don’t see the pope as someone who has been trying for nine years to teach them a new way of evangelization and a radically new approach to pastoral leadership. Instead, for many US bishops, Pope Francis is more like a bag of tricks. Sometimes he says things they like, which they use to their advantage. Other things he says and does require a little more creativity, but can be adapted. Some things get left in the bag, and more than a few things get tossed out altogether.

The most glaring recent example of this has been the US bishops’ handling of the question of denying Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who support and promote legal abortion. Even though both the Vatican’s doctrine office and Pope Francis gave numerous clear public signals that the Holy See did not want the USCCB to proceed in the direction it was taking, many of the bishops remained resolute in their commitment to implement policies barring figures like President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the Eucharist. Some bishops, aided by friendly media outlets, even tried to create the illusion that Pope Francis supported their approach.

Eucharistic Coherence

This dynamic was on full display throughout 2021 and dominated coverage of the June and November bishops’ meetings. The most conspicuous example of their conscious efforts to connect their campaign to Francis’s pontificate was their association of the term “Eucharistic coherence” with their efforts to implement policies to publicly deny communion to pro-choice politicians. Prior to this campaign by the USCCB, the term “Eucharistic coherence” was unknown in the US Church. It was taken from paragraph 436 of the 2007 Aparecida document from the Latin American Bishops’ conference.

Their idea was that because then-Cardinal Bergoglio served as the head of the drafting committee for that document, and because many people close to Pope Francis have said that it reflects his thought and was the inspiration for his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, that he was clearly on board with what the US bishops were trying to do. In fact, the Pillar—one of the media outlets that has worked hard to advance the USCCB narrative—explicitly tried to make this argument. In May 2021, editor JD Flynn attempted to rebut the idea of “an unspoken implication, sometimes even said explicitly, that Pope Francis would oppose an admonishment on the subject, or a prohibition of Holy Communion for Catholic politicians supporting expanded legal protection or federal funding for abortion.” He then asserts, “If Aparecida really captures the vision of the pontiff, then its text would seem to rebut that notion,” followed by the text of paragraph 436.

There are two difficulties with this argument, however. First of all, paragraph 436 says nothing about Canon 915, the Church law that is used to justify the denial of communion. In fact, the paragraph says nothing at all about bishops or priests denying the Eucharist to politicians. Rather, it asks the politicians themselves to “be conscious that they cannot receive holy communion” when they support immoral policies. It concludes by saying, “This responsibility weighs particularly over legislators, heads of governments, and health professionals.” In other words, it places the burden on the individual, not on the minister. This seems to more closely resemble Canon 916, which states that “Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not … receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess.”

Secondly, as Michael Sean Winters has pointed out, “Eucharistic coherence” was first used by Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo at the 2005 Synod of Bishops. Trujillo was a very influential cardinal, and he was also a participant in the Aparecida conference. There is a very good chance that he was responsible for the inclusion of the term “Eucharistic coherence.”

Neither the bishops nor the Pillar, however, has been terribly interested in revisiting those facts, of course. The real issue was making sure they would move forward with the document at their June meeting and get it approved at their November 2021 General Assembly. Fact-checking would only slow things down.

Cardinal Ladaria’s letter

Even when the Vatican intervened directly, the bishops weren’t going to let that slow them down either. In May 2021, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Vatican’s Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez denying his request to incorporate then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 letter to the US bishops into their proposal. Ladaria wrote, “This Congregation respects Cardinal Ratzinger’s stipulation that ‘these principles were not intended for publication.’ The letter was in the form of a private communication addressed to the bishops. Insofar, therefore, as these principles are not published by the Conference, they may be of assistance in the preparation of the draft of your document.”

Ladaria then proposed that if the bishops were still determined to move forward, that they engage in multiple stages of dialogue prior to any vote. He also stated that politicians as a group should not be singled out by any policy, and he advised that the USCCB consult with other episcopal conferences before moving forward. Ladaria also suggested that no document should be put forward unless a true consensus among the bishops was reached.

The spin doctors worked overtime to frame this letter as supportive of the bishops’ proposed course of action. Rather than interpreting the letter as urging dialogue about whether the document should be drafted at all, they treated it as if Cardinal Ladaria was giving suggestions about what the letter should contain. The Pillar’s Ed Condon gave a masterclass in creative reading comprehension, writing, “Far from being a refutation of a plan by the USCCB, Ladaria makes it clear that formulating a ‘national policy’ was suggested by some individual bishops during their ad limina visits to Rome — not by Gomez.” He went on to say that “The cardinal merely restates canonical facts of which the conference is already well aware: while the bishops can and should discuss controversial topics among themselves in order to preserve unity, it remains beyond the scope of the conference to produce a policy binding on individual members.”

Condon’s take on one section of Ladaria’s letter is particularly interesting. He writes, “rather than proposing that they drop the subject, Ladaria actually suggests that the bishops’ ‘extensive and serene dialogue’ should begin with an affirmation of basic principles.”

What does Ladaria’s letter actually say? First, the prefect writes that after the “serene dialogue” takes place, the USCCB “would face the difficult task of discerning the best way forward for the Church in the United States to witness to the grave moral responsibility of Catholic public officials to protect human life at all stages.” In other words, the dialogue was advised as a way to help the bishops determine whether drafting a document was the best way forward.

Second, Condon’s reference to “basic principles” appears to refer to a passage further down in the paragraph:

“The Congregation advises that any statement of the Conference regarding Catholic political leaders would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful, rather than only one category of Catholics, reflecting their obligation to conform their lives to the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ as they prepare to receive the sacrament… It would be misleading if such a statement were to give the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics.”

Perhaps I’m reading it incorrectly, but it appears to me that Cardinal Ladaria is saying that any policy or statement on worthiness to receive communion should neither single out specific people nor moral principles. In other words, he basically puts the Vatican brakes on any initiative to focus on politicians specifically for their views on abortion. Instead, he advises taking a much broader view of worthiness to receive communion in light of Catholic teaching as a whole.

Like Condon, US bishops also quickly adopted novel interpretations of Ladaria’s letter. Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila issued a statement that echoed Condon’s analysis, writing, “There have been some who have misrepresented what was in” Ladaria’s “letter, but it was clear from it that the USCCB’s plan to discuss and debate this important issue is warranted and encouraged.”

Archbishop Cordileone chose not to focus on the fact that Cardinal Ladaria rejected Gomez’s request to cite the 2004 Ratzinger letter in their document. Instead, he focused on the positive: “Cardinal Ladaria advises the US bishops to use as a guide in discerning how to address this situation the principles laid out in a private letter in 2004 from the then-Cardinal Ratzinger.”

The Conference even advanced this narrative on an official level, posting a Q&A about the issue on their website, including the question, “Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?” The answer given was, “No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.”

Pope Francis weighs in

Pope Francis was asked about this controversy on the return flight to Rome from Slovakia in September of last year. He provided a lengthy response, making two key points. The first was that abortion is a serious evil (“Abortion is more than a problem. Abortion is homicide. Abortion…without being ambiguous: whoever has an abortion kills”). His second point stressed the need for bishops to be pastors rather than politicians.

On this latter point, he warned against the dangers of taking a hardline stance, saying, “the problem is not the theological problem—that is simple—the problem it is the pastoral problem: how do we bishops deal with this principle pastorally? … What must the pastor do? Be a pastor. Be a pastor and don’t go around condemning, not condemning… If you say: can you give or not give [communion]? This is casuistry, what the theologians say.”

Although he does not give a direct yes or no answer to the question, he does essentially say that to give a yes or no answer amounts to “casuistry.”

Not everyone read it that way, however. The Pillar’s response began with a primer on their interpretation of Canon 915. They then quoted the 2004 Ratzinger letter at length and declared that it “seems to be consistent with the pope’s remarks on Wednesday — namely, that the issue should be addressed between a pastor — which can include a diocesan bishop, the chief pastor of his diocese — and a particular Catholic.” They also once again invoked the Aparecida document, claiming that the pope’s response was also “consistent with a 2007 document from South American bishops, which was mostly written by Pope Francis.”

In the end, the bishops moved forward, there was a great deal of acrimony, and ultimately a document was approved that avoided the most contentious issues. Still, the issue remained a live one. These bishops may not have gotten their national policy, but they were determined to do what they could within their own jurisdictions—and Pope Francis would support them, whether he wanted to or not.

Archbishop Cordileone and Nancy Pelosi

In May, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone declared that he had decided to bar US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Holy Communion. Throughout his official statement to the faithful he refers to Pope Francis as the inspiration for this decision. He declares, “Pope Francis, as much as any pope in living memory, has repeatedly and vividly affirmed the Church’s clear and constant teaching that abortion is a grave moral evil.” Although this is certainly true, it’s another thing to suggest that Pope Francis would support his course of action.

During a recent round of interviews, Pope Francis has been asked about this issue, specifically regarding Archbishop Cordileone and Speaker Pelosi. In his interview with Reuters Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella, he repeated the same point he made on the airplane in September: “When the Church loses its pastoral nature, when a bishop loses his pastoral nature, it causes a political problem … That’s all I can say.”

He spoke in greater detail more recently, during a wide-ranging interview with the Spanish-language network Univision. On President Biden receiving communion, he said, “I leave it to his conscience and that he speaks to his bishop, his pastor, his parish priest about that inconsistency.” He went on to reiterate his point about focusing on the pastoral, rather than the political, “When a shepherd leaves pastoral care aside, or does not have a mature pastoral care, it creates a political problem. That is where all the confusion lies.”

Regarding Speaker Pelosi, when asked about her receiving Communion in St. Peter’s, the pope mentioned that she also continues to receive in Washington, DC. He then returned to his original point, “When the pastoral dimension is lost, it creates a political problem. And it is not easy. But for me that is the great answer: When the pastoral dimension is lost, it creates a political problem.”

The pope’s recent comments seem to have been the last straw for some US Catholics. They are what led to Archbishop Naumann’s public expression of exasperation at the pope. This was all foreseeable, however, to anyone who has been watching Pope Francis. From the beginning of the controversy, he clearly had no interest in being pulled into the conflict between the US bishops. Sadly, the relentless insistence of USCCB leadership and their media cronies that Francis supported their plan has resulted in more division and more acrimony in the US Church.

This issue is extremely emotionally-charged for US Catholics. Now that there is no longer any question where Francis stands on the issue, many feel betrayed or let down by him. After all, many Catholics were led to believe that the pope and the US bishops were on the same page.

In my next article, I will explain the reasoning behind Pope Francis’s position, and why he believes that it will ultimately benefit the Church and society.


[1] Translation from the original German: “Es ist traurig, wie er sich sowohl gegenüber Präsident Biden wie auch Nancy Pelosi verhielt. Ich denke, der Papst versteht die USA nicht, genauso wenig wie er die Kirche in den USA versteht. Seine Berater und die Leute in seinem Umfeld haben ihn da völlig falsch informiert. Natürlich müssen wir pastoral sein. Es ist jedoch nicht pastoral, jemandem zu sagen, er sei ein guter Katholik und könne selbstverständlich die Kommunion empfangen, wenn diese Person doch ein schweres Übel begangen hat. Dass der Papst Pelosi empfing, wurde politisch ausgeschlachtet. Damit tut Franziskus genau das, wovor er andere warnt.“

[2] The original German: “Ich denke, die US-Bischöfe haben Papst Franziskus großen Respekt gezollt. Sie haben seinem Handeln und dem, wofür er plädiert, meistens Beifall gespendet. Auch seinen Fokus auf den Einsatz für Arme und Migranten begrüßen die Bischöfe hierzulande mit überwältigender Mehrheit. Ansonsten denke ich auch hier, dass der Papst in vielerlei Hinsicht schlecht informiert wurde.“

Image: Archbishop Joseph Naumann, Scott Maentz, CNMC 2011 212. https://flic.kr/p/as7YFf. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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