Last year, I spent two weeks in Rome. During my visit, I met with many interesting people from all around the world, from Church officials to Vatican journalists to clergy and seminarians working and studying in Rome. It was a fascinating experience, especially when speaking with Catholics who weren’t from the United States, but seemed both astonished and horrified by what they’d seen and heard from the US Church, especially from Catholic media and the US Catholic bishops.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of Church leaders who were familiar with Where Peter Is and were grateful for the work that we do. For them, WPI shines a light on an approach to the faith that is largely incomprehensible to them, but seemingly dominant in the US. A very high ranking Vatican official told me he thinks WPI is a “miracle” in the context of US Catholicism. And a question so many asked me was, “What is wrong with the Church in your country?”
Today in the National Catholic Reporter, Brian Fraga noted that the agenda for the upcoming June meeting of the US Bishops in Orlando does not make any mention of the three-year global synod currently underway. By contrast, Fraga wrote, “the U.S. bishops as a whole have devoted large amounts of time and resources for the eucharistic revival, planning various events at the diocesan and parish levels, working with sponsors to create tracts and ‘Eucharistic Procession tool kits,’ and organizing four pilgrimage routes from different regions of the country to the congress in Indianapolis.”
Retweeting Fraga’s article, Catholic journalist and author Rhina Guidos said that she had just returned from South America where she attended a conference for men and women religious, and “it was synod, synod, synod.” She then added, “And they clearly seemed to know of the dysfunction in the US church.”
But what do Catholics outside the US mean when they refer to dysfunction in our Church? Certainly we can point to reactionary figures, radical traditionalists, rogue bishops. and dissident media outlets like EWTN and One Peter Five. But I think that even deeper than the concerns raised by our more colorful and unconventional members is a fundamental difference in how we approach the Catholic faith and a laundry list of preoccupations that are not shared by the rest of the universal Church.
I have quipped that prior to Pope Francis, we US Catholics felt like we were more than 50% of the Church, and now we’re beginning to feel like the 6-7% that we really are. Part of this might be an inevitable cultural effect of having an Argentine pope and a French nuncio, both from countries that aren’t traditionally known for their enthusiasm for American exceptionalism. But I think a much more significant factor is Francis’s repeated calls to conversion, imploring us to move beyond self-absorbed religious perfectionism and broaden our view to the peripheries.
I think most US Catholics, even if they recognize the universality of the faith, see the Church through a lens that is unique to our culture, society, and experiences. Certain debates, such as on the death penalty, climate change, and the Latin Mass, are non-issues in the Church in most other countries. The most hotly contested issues in recent US Church history — such as the denial of communion to certain public figures or public health measures during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as vaccines and wearing masks — have very little interest outside the US. The more I learn about Catholics outside our country, the more I realize that the US is an odd duck in the global Church.
It is therefore disappointing that our bishops have made the global synod — an initiative that many have described as the Church’s most important since Vatican II — a low priority. Paired with the harsh and often absurd attacks on the synod by US media pundits, the gulf between the US and the rest of the Church seems poised to widen. Which is extremely disappointing if not surprising.
I don’t think most active Catholics in the US — at least those who consume Catholic media from mainstream conservative outlets — have a clue that the US Church is such an outlier. And I am certain that some US Catholics who do know this think we’re “better,” and believe the rest of the Church should share our priorities, not the other way around.
Maybe it’s for the best that the US bishops have opted to keep the global Synod at arms length. If the Synod is successful, we’ll have little choice but to learn about the faith from the rest of the world. We can pray for that result. And I think our 86-year-old Argentine pope and our over-75 French nuncio have a few more lessons to teach us as well.
Image: Adobe Stock. By JavierArtPhotography.