Today, the cultural division between the Catholic Church and Western society—especially on moral issues—is as wide as it has been since the rise of Christendom. The dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict XVI decried in 2005, which “does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires,” has fallen and been replaced by a new societal orthodoxy holding new doctrines that are often incompatible with long-established teachings and traditions of Christianity. Today’s progressives aren’t “relativists” because they subscribe to moral dogmas just as strongly as Catholics do, and some of these beliefs are very much at odds with traditional Catholic ideas, especially regarding women’s and LGBT rights.
In his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Saint Paul VI reminded us that the Church “exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace” (14). Later in the encyclical, he explained the importance of changing our approach to evangelization when situations require it. He wrote, “This question of ‘how to evangelize’ is permanently relevant, because the methods of evangelizing vary according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture” (40).
Successful evangelization today must respond creatively to unprecedented changes in the world, and should be mindful of the unique obstacles in each society. In the West, the evangelization challenge for the Church is to show that Catholicism is not an obsolete religion filled with superstitious bigots and conspiracy theorists. If we are unsuccessful, sharing the Gospel will be impossible. In the developing world, the evangelization challenges are to inculturate the faith and to liberate the oppressed. Failure to do this will lead the people to seek God elsewhere. Where the Church is tiny and persecuted, including China and parts of the Muslim world, the challenge is to show these societies that Catholics can live in fraternity as neighbors despite differences in belief, and can help work toward the common good of all. Failure to rise to this challenge means they will be crushed.
The declining Church in the West has suffered serious blows to its moral credibility in recent decades. This has resulted in declines in its ability to witness in the public square, its influence in halls of power, and its capacity to evangelize the culture. Historians and sociologists will research, write, and debate what caused the fall of Christendom for ages to come, but we Christians today don’t have the luxury of centuries to take stock of what went wrong if we want to survive this crisis. More importantly, if we fail to recognize how the Church is perceived by the wider society, our beloved faith will be reduced to little more than an afterthought by the prevailing culture in a generation or two.
This is the key challenge facing Church leaders today, and it is something that Pope Francis has consistently tried to address. He has faced strong resistance in these efforts, mostly from within the Church. Many times during his eight-year pontificate, Francis’s progress has been hindered. His initiatives have been blocked repeatedly by other Catholic leaders who promote more reactionary, ideological approaches to the faith. And this has cost valuable time. Unless our Church leaders can quickly learn how to be serious voices of social and moral truth on the world stage, Catholicism will soon drift into an age of cultural irrelevance.
Back in April, I explained why dissent on the Catholic right presents a unique danger to the Church. Unlike dissenters on the Catholic left, who usually express their disagreements with Church teaching openly, dissent on the right presents itself as doctrinal orthodoxy. Dissent on the left often leads Catholics to defect from the Church, whereas those on the right typically don’t plan to go anywhere.
Since 2013, particularly in North America, reactionary dissent from the right has almost always involved strong anti-papal sentiment (including accusations that even Pope Francis himself is a heretic). More recently, it has led well-meaning Catholics into doctrinal error and the embrace of dangerous ideologies, including forms of nationalism, populism, and integralism that are incompatible with the Catholic faith. Catholics in this group are prone to accepting conspiracy theories like QAnon, Covid-19 denial, and anti-vaccine propaganda. Many have even started accepting white nationalism, dubious end-times prophecies, unapproved apparitions, and SSPX talking points.
This chaos all seems to stem from a rejection of the Living Magisterium. After unmooring themselves from the teaching authority and coherence that comes from unity with the pope and the bishops in communion with him, these Catholics have sought out alternative religious leaders. Such figures are easy to find because they typically have a strong presence on the internet and social media. Others, like Fr. James Altman, are not on social media but are promoted widely online by their enthusiastic supporters. Additionally, some of the most reactionary members of the clergy—deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals—are given international platforms through friendly outlets. By exploiting the modern means of mass communication, these “mini-popes” have demolished the voice of the average bishop—who still seems to lean heavily on his weekly column in the diocesan newspaper and an occasional press release as the primary ways to instruct his flock.
I doubt a large percentage of the US bishops have themselves been drawn into extremist and conspiracist ideologies. In fact, as far as I can tell, their awareness of these problems in the Church—and often their understanding of the culture at large—is as out-of-touch as their communication strategies. Certainly, they should know better. Pope Francis has been warning them about this and calling upon them to address this crisis since his election. Yet for whatever reason, many of the US bishops haven’t gotten the hint. Our culture is evolving rapidly. New heresies and errors have emerged in our ever-changing Church, yet the bishops seem to think fighting the same culture wars in the same way they’ve fought them since the 1990s and early 2000s is right where the US Church needs to be.
There are many reasons why this is problematic, but ultimately this is a crisis of credibility.
The sex abuse crisis, especially in 2002 and 2018, severely damaged the US Church’s reputation. It didn’t only damage trust. Yes, clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up absolutely made Church leaders look like massive hypocrites who didn’t practice what they preached. But perhaps the more lasting damage was the way it led many Catholics (and even non-Catholics) to reconsider the validity of the Church’s claims on moral authority.
This should have become evident to the US Catholic bishops long ago. Polls continue to show that the number of Catholics who practice the faith and agree with the Church on social and moral issues is in steady decline. Unless the Church validates the things they already believe, most Catholics in the West don’t care what it has to say about abortion, divorce and remarriage, sexual morality, bioethics, contraception, and gay marriage. Additionally—in the US, anyway—many conservative Catholics disregard the bishops’ views on immigration, the death penalty, climate change, poverty, racism, healthcare, refugees, education, and most other teachings seen as “liberal” in the contemporary American political ecosystem.
Perhaps the faithful’s increasing disregard of episcopal authority, obligatory rules, and doctrinal teaching is the inevitable result of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The Church in other Western countries has declined even without major sexual abuse scandals. But the Church in the United States has historically been something of an outlier, with higher levels of religious practice and Mass attendance than many other nations. This remains the case, because we do still have a sizeable conservative religious minority that’s not going away soon. Unfortunately, many of the Catholics in that minority have succumbed instead to the dangerous, post-reality mindset typically associated with Protestant fundamentalism. They also seem to have greater allegiance to capitalism and political leaders than to Catholic social teaching and magisterial authority. In other words, they’ve also drifted away from the Church, just in a different way.
Massimo Borghesi recently described the cultural pseudo-Catholicism of this branch of the Church as “Conformism and Manicheism,” calling them “the two pillars of today’s Catholicism.” He goes on to observe, “Confronted with this perspective, the continued emptying of churches and the distance between young people and the faith are not surprising.”
Not only is this driving people to walk away from the Church, but the ideas and rhetoric of culture warriors have led many lapsed Catholics to conclude that the Church is an evil institution that promotes immorality and bigotry. In recent decades, the moral assumptions in Western culture have undergone a concrete shift. Much of the conservative Catholic world seems to believe confrontation, condemnation, and entrenchment are appropriate ways to respond.
In the first decades of the sexual revolution, it was easy to portray the loosening of sexual and religious mores as hedonistic, exploitative, selfish, and possessive. And in many ways this was the truth. Those times were characterized by the “Summer of Love,” free love, rebellion against cultural norms, “finding your own truth,” drugs, and other kinds of social experimentation that were often as arbitrary and risky as they were shocking to the older generation.
During this era, Christians were often stereotyped as uptight, dogmatic, and old-fashioned. Meanwhile, the “silent majority” of cultural conservatives with strong ties to traditional Christian morality and American patriotism could be counted on to stem the tide and blunt the influence of the more vocal and visible progressive minority. This is no longer the case. In recent years, Western progressives have moved away from a relativistic outlook and have succeeded in establishing a new set of moral doctrines in mainstream society. Many of these doctrines are adapted from Christian principles (such as respect for human rights and dignity, welcoming migrants and refugees, care for the environment, and the importance of science and education), but others diverge in crucial areas (such as human sexuality and questions about the beginning and end of life).
Reactionary and traditionalist Catholics certainly know they’ve been demonized, but they apparently haven’t figured out (or don’t care) that their militant and belligerent style of attack against people and ideas has only fueled the fires of division. Not only do they focus their attention on areas of disagreement, but they often reject the Church’s teachings in areas of agreement with the wider culture (such as care for the environment, support for immigrants, rejection of the death penalty, and the preferential option for the poor). Meanwhile, they’ll attack any Christian who pursues open dialogue about contested issues with members of the wider society or who seeks to work together with them on areas of common ground. In fact, they often champion their divisiveness because for them that just means standing up for the truth. They will quote Jesus saying, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). But they aren’t Jesus and no such model of evangelization can be found in the Bible.
Communities in North America have become more insulated, polarized, and divided. We’ve self-selected our own closed communities of like-minded people. We don’t understand those who think differently than we do, nor can we empathize with them. That this is also happening in the Catholic Church is a travesty.
This is certainly not the approach favored by Pope Francis. As he wrote in Fratelli Tutti, “At a time when various forms of fundamentalist intolerance are damaging relationships between individuals, groups and peoples, let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions, practices and even sins” (191).
In his address to the US bishops last year, Archbishop Christoph Pierre (papal nuncio to the US) stressed the urgent need to heal “the fragmentation and polarization of society, marked by vicious attacks and attempts to spread despair and discouragement to create a situation of permanent confrontation rather than healing.” Later in the speech, referring to the pope’s teaching in Fratelli Tutti on social friendship, he then challenged the bishops with an implicit critique and some pointed questions:
“Could we as a Church identify how to follow the Holy Father in promoting this social friendship? As an episcopal conference, you are acutely aware of the challenges and have addressed them, including migration, racism, abortion. But how could the response be more effective? What the Holy Father suggests is moving from seeing someone as a neighbor to viewing them as a brother or sister.”
The bishops of this country apparently fail to realize that they no longer have the standing in society to be taken seriously on ideas, morals, or cultural values. Some of this was beyond their control, but in other ways they bear great responsibility for their own irrelevance. And the longer they assume a posture of confrontation against the prevailing culture, the more quickly the US Church will collapse.
In the past, perhaps the Church could still credibly claim the moral “high ground” against an increasingly hedonistic society. Today, that type of appeal rings hollow. The culture doesn’t see the Catholic positions (particularly on sexuality and women) as uptight or strict; they are viewed as immoral and oppressive. In light of the abuse crisis and the endless revelations of sexual abuse of both children and adults, the Church is also seen as hypocritical.
Despite this, much of the Catholic right and many of the US bishops are still naively operating under the notion that appealing to a culturally obsolete moral code is a constructive way to advocate for Catholic teaching in the public square. Many also don’t seem to realize or care that being harsh, condemnatory, and dismissive contributes to the image of the Church as morally reprehensible, turning off potential converts—those who might be interested in exploring the Catholic faith.
In these sectors of the Church, many seem to think listening is capitulation and empathy is weakness. This perspective seems to motivate much of the reactionary opposition to Pope Francis, who constantly exhorts Catholics to engage in listening, dialogue, empathy and openness.
In recent months, many have commented on the tension within the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) over their approach towards President Joseph Biden. Back in January, several of the bishops clashed over USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez’s Inauguration Day letter to the president. More recently, there has been discussion about the USCCB’s plan to draft a statement on “Eucharistic Coherence,” which prompted a cautionary response from the Vatican. Quite a few bishops have weighed in publicly on the question, and the conference looks determined to move forward on the statement despite the intervention of Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
While I very much oppose President Biden’s position on abortion and honestly can’t comprehend how he tries to reconcile it with his Catholic faith, the bishops’ approach to his presidency suggests that they somehow missed the last 20 years and everything that’s happened in the Church and society since. Not only that, but many of them are outspoken on a national level about culture war issues while doing very little or nothing about reactionary extremist clergy in their own dioceses.
Perhaps the most conspicuous current example of a bishop who seems less interested in tending his own flock than in publicly opining on national and global affairs is Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila. First, in April, he penned an opinion piece in America in favor of denying communion to politicians who advocate policies that contradict Catholic teaching on abortion and euthanasia. He followed this with an article on April 18 in Catholic World Report that critiqued a private letter he received from a brother bishop who disagreed with him on the issue. Four days later, on April 22, the Colorado-based Pillar website extended the controversy by revealing the private letter was written by Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, and speculated that America had leaked Aquila’s letter to Cupich in advance. And just yesterday morning, Archbishop Aquila appeared on EWTN radio to discuss the issue once again.
Archbishop Aquila certainly has the right to speak freely on issues of importance to the Church. Yet his priorities don’t appear to align with his primary responsibilities. Aquila has shown persistence in repeating his position on the issue of denying Communion to pro-choice politicians from his Denver perch. Yet as archbishop of Denver, is his presence at the forefront of this issue necessary? After all, the clear target of this push, President Biden, spends most of his time in Washington, DC, and Delaware, not Colorado.
Meanwhile, the Denver archdiocese is home to at least three of the most controversial dissenting priests on the Catholic right: “diocesan hermit” Fr. Dave Nix, Fr. Chad Ripperger, and FSSP priest Fr. Daniel Nolan. All three priests have been outspoken against Covid-19 public health measures. Additionally, Fr. Nix (who recently dined with sedevacantist actor Mel Gibson and Fr. James Altman) has suggested multiple times that Francis’s election to the papacy is invalid. For example, in 2019, he wrote that Rene Gracida, the bishop emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas, “is a great hero of mine for publicly questioning the valid resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.” Fr. Ripperger has spread pseudoscientific claims about Covid and has openly defied the CDF on the moral liceity of the Covid vaccine. Fr. Nolan received attention last year for telling parishioners in a video uploaded to YouTube not to wear masks and describing Covid as a “scamdemic.” He said, “I encourage everybody not to wear a mask. And I am telling you: disobey your bishop, disobey your governor.” Catholic News Agency reported that the archdiocese would do a “review of the situation,” but it does not appear that any significant disciplinary action was taken. All three priests, based on their listing in the online archdiocesan directory, appear to be in good standing with Archbishop Aquila.
More recently, Archbishop Aquila took to the global stage, publishing “An Open Letter to the Catholic Bishops of the World,” commenting on his concerns about the “Forum 1” document produced by the German Church’s Synodal Path. The German synodal process has been the target of much criticism from the right in the US Church. Aquila’s letter is the most recent of many critiques of the German Church by prominent American Catholics following Pope Francis’s answer to a reporter’s question in an in-flight press conference. The reporter asked him if he feared a schism in the US Church based upon the relentless criticism from the Catholic right. In his response, the pope publicly acknowledged the danger of schism posed by reactionary and radical traditionalist US Catholics. Immediately thereafter, his critics have responded with a barrage of articles insisting that the “real” threat of schism is coming from Germany.
In his open letter, Aquila writes, “An attentive reading of the Fundamental Text in its entirety makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Synodal Assembly hopes to bring about a Church that, far from being prepared to suffer the world’s contempt for her fidelity to Christ, will be preeminently conditioned by the world and comfortably accepted by it as one respectable institution among others.” Personally, I’ve read about 30 pages of the 50-page Forum 1 document. Certainly, much of it came across as too deferential (and even wishy-washy) for my American sensibilities. It certainly lacked the degree of doctrinal assertiveness to which I am accustomed. But from what I have read so far, I don’t see a Church that is looking to capitulate to the world as much as I see a Church that is searching for something to say to a world that has given up on listening. It’s as if the German bishops are trying to walk the line while looking for openings that will help make Catholicism more palatable to their culture. In other words, whatever the shortcomings of the document, they’re clearly seeking opportunities to evangelize that will be more effective in their cultural context.
Much of Archbishop Aquila’s letter contains eternal truths and makes many salient, sound points. That he frames it as a critique (or even an accusation) of the German bishops, however, exemplifies the disconnect between the US episcopate and the vision of Pope Francis. This letter seems to suggest that Aquila thinks allowing people to raise concerns, listening to people talk about the issues they care about, and engaging in dialogue about them are equivalent to abandoning the true faith and capitulating to the world. Perhaps this is another example of a US bishop who suffers from an inability to “read the room,” or maybe he simply isn’t picking up on the nuance in the German document.
The German bishops lay the problem out clearly in their document: “In many places, the surrounding society can no longer understand and comprehend the Church’s order of power. Yes: The Church is publicly suspected of using its own legal order to discriminate against certain segments of the population, to undermine democratic standards of process, and to immunize herself against critical inquiries about her teachings and organizational structures. The Synodal Path relies on theologically grounded reforms and concretely modeled changes to address legitimate accusations, rebuild trust in the Church, and make room for belief in the God of life” (p. 4, emphasis mine). To put it bluntly, many in Western society have come to see the Catholic Church as a hate group.
Does Archbishop Aquila not realize that the prevailing view in Western culture (including a majority of US Catholics) thinks the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, and specifically same-sex marriage, is in opposition to civil rights? Do the US bishops not realize that the average person in the West thinks the Church’s teaching on the ordination of women is based in discrimination and the notion that women are inferior to men? Many Catholics are well-aware of the theological arguments on both issues but find them inadequate and unconvincing. Some Catholics (including myself) assent to the Church’s teachings on these matters but can easily understand why many think the Church’s official justifications are lacking.
In response to the prevailing view on women’s ordination, the German document proposes re-opening the dialogue in the Church: “Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stated that the Church has no right to ordain women to the priesthood. However, due to new insights into the witness of the Bible, into the developments of Tradition, and into the anthropology of gender, the coherence of his argumentation and the validity of his statement are often questioned. It is necessary to reconnect again the witness of Scripture and Tradition with the signs of the times and the sense of faith of the people of God. Forum 1 proposes that the church in Germany, during the Synodal Path, should also give a reasoned vote on the question of the admission of women to ordination, which includes an invitation to the universal Church and the Apostolic See to study anew the questions raised, and to find solutions” (emphasis mine).
While an underlying desire for the ordination of women seems evident in this passage, the paragraph amounts to a formal request for the Church to study the issue. Archbishop Aquila is having none of it: “The approach adopted here seems calculated to undermine the definitive and permanent character of the Sacrament of Holy Orders” (p. 5). He says that the Synodal Path, in its “desire to democratize the Church’s governance and entertain the possibility of admitting women to the priesthood, the essential distinction between the priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood—clearly affirmed at Lumen gentium §10—is implicitly called into question” (p. 3).
But assuming that Bishop Georg Bätzing, the chairman of the German Catholic bishops’ conference, is telling the truth, what is the problem with discussing women’s ordination again, perhaps at a deeper level? He insisted in a recent interview, “It is absolutely clear that there are matters that we can only discuss at the level of the Universal Church. We will contribute from Germany with our reflections.” Here he is indicating the German bishops’ intention to remain obedient to the Church, even if they don’t receive their desired outcome. Unless they receive a “no” from Rome and proceed to ordain women anyway, I don’t see how this approach can honestly be described as “schismatic.”
Why is Aquila resistant to the opportunity to enter into dialogue about this challenging teaching? It’s no secret that many Catholics would like to see women in ordained ministry in the Church. They don’t believe this because they want to make God angry or destroy the Church. For such Catholics, it is a matter of justice and upholding the equal dignity of women. These are two values that the Catholic Church upholds. Yet in light of those principles, many find the Church’s answers on the question inadequate. What’s wrong with returning to the subject to address these questions comprehensively?
Yet many Catholics on the right appear deeply offended by those in the Church who want to discuss the issue again in a formal setting. Why? If we believe that the Church is truly guided by the Holy Spirit and protected from doctrinal error, then it will never teach contrary to the truth.
We can all certainly agree that historically the Church often came up short in its approach to and treatment of women. Why not look for opportunities to improve? Pope Francis has started this by opening the door to official roles for women in Church ministry and governance.
Yet whenever Pope Francis or a bishop publicly advocates for dialogue and openness with those who dissent from or challenge the status quo in the Church, the Catholic right responds with anger and condemnation. What good will that do? They seem to think they have power over the situation. They don’t.
This is why I’m so concerned by the confrontational approach taken by Archbishops Gomez and Aquila and other bishops.Why are they fighting an unwinnable war in the US political arena? Shouldn’t they by now have realized that this approach is counterproductive? Isn’t it obvious that it’s time to reevaluate what we have that we can offer to the world?
In Ecclesiam Suam, St. Paul VI wrote, “A vivid and lively self-awareness on the part of the Church inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged it, His holy and spotless bride, and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today” (10). Christ tells us in John’s Gospel, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Have those entrusted with the stewardship of the US Church considered taking a step back to evaluate the image of the Church that they present?
Pope Francis has a plan. The US bishops are either oblivious to his message or have consciously rejected it. They want to keep defending the fortress, but the walls are coming down. Pope Francis is begging them, “get in the boat and come with me.”
My colleague Rachel Dobbs described our situation well. “Where do we find the Church? Is she dry docked at a cozy harbor? Is she in a fortress? Or is she sailing the ocean, in calm seas and hurricane-force winds, tossed about as rogue waves threaten to capsize her as she casts her nets far and wide, searching for fish?”
We have two choices: we can retreat further into our collapsing fortresses (with groups like the Veritatis Splendor community or other traditionalist enclaves) and cling to a self-referential concept of the Church, or we can get in the boat with Peter, Pope Francis, and venture out into the wider world, riding on the choppy waves, seeking out a new future for the Church.
 I am aware of the arguments against using the terms “left” and “right” to describe Catholics. I opted to use these terms because (a) I am describing forms of dissent from Catholicism, not the true Catholic faith, and (b) despite the criticism of using these terms, most readers have a sense of what they mean in this context.
Correction: Evangelii Nuntiandi is an exhortation, not an encyclical, as this article originally stated.
Image: Adobe Stock
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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.