12 June 2014, The Tablet

US Church divided on how to 'read' Pope Francis

Divisions are emerging in public among the American bishops over how to interpret Pope Francis – a split which is likely to be apparent as the US bishops gather in New Orleans this week for their annual spring meeting.

Archbishop Joseph Tobin, of Indianapolis, speaking at St Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, warned against a “balkanisation” within the US Church as rival ideological camps try to enforce their points of view. He blamed the divisive nature of US politics for this trend but suggested that Pope Francis’ leadership style was contributing to these divisions.

“What I've seen is how disruptive Pope Francis has been within the hierarchy of the United States,” Archbishop Tobin told the annual assembly of the College Theology Society.

“I was talking to a couple of brother bishops a while back and they were saying that bishops and priests were very discouraged by Pope Francis because he was challenging them.” As reported by the US-based National Catholic Reporter, he added: “I think there was a particular image, perhaps, of what it means to be a pastoral leader in this country, and Francis is disturbing it. I think there is some resistance to a different way of doing the Gospel mission of the church.”

The archbishop paused, smiled, and added, “So, pray for Francis' health.”

Archbishop Tobin is a Redemptorist who for two years until 2012 was the number two official at the Vatican congregation responsible for Religious. In April Pope Francis named him as a member of the congregation. He is widely perceived as one of the more pro-Francis bishops in the US. Formerly the Secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Religious, he was instrumental in defusing a potentially combustible apostolic visitation of women's religious orders.

The divisions in the US Church were also apparent in the response of several prominent theologians to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Commenting on the Pope’s meeting with UN officials on 9 May, Cardinal Dolan wrote: “From media reports, one might think that the only thing on the Pope’s mind was government redistribution of property, as if he were denouncing capitalism and endorsing some form of socialism.” Cardinal Dolan claimed the Pope was advocating for “virtuous capitalism” and that concerns about the free market should not cause Catholics “to reject economic liberty in favor of government control”. He suggested that the Pope’s critique of contemporary economic arrangements had more to do with crony capitalism in developing countries – “an exploitative racket” - than with free market systems in the US and Europe.

However, leading US Catholics took issue with Cardinal Dolan. “It wasn't Argentinean populist economics, Eastern European crony capitalism, or African kleptocracy that threatened the world economy with the worst recession since the 1930s,” responded Fr Drew Christiansen, S.J., of Georgetown University. “It was no-holds-barred American capitalism that did that.”

Boston College’s Fr. David Hollenbach, S.J. said that “Cardinal Dolan’s stress on personal virtue as the solution to issues of economic injustice does not give sufficient attention to the structural causes of poverty.” Fr Hollenbach argued that individual ethical conduct by business people, as advocated by Cardinal Dolan, is not enough. “These structural issues have long been a major emphasis in Catholic Social Teaching, especially since Pius XI placed high stress on social justice as a reality that goes beyond the justice of individuals. Pope Francis is clearly aware of these structural issues when he argues that markets do not lead to justice by ‘trickle down’. The Pope's critique is another way of calling for structural change.” 

Above: Archbishop of Tobin listens to proceedings at U.S. bishops annual fall meeting in Baltimore Photo: CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec

  Loading ...
Get Instant Access
Subscribe to The Tablet for just £7.99

Subscribe today to take advantage of our introductory offers and enjoy 30 days' access for just £7.99