• Bree A. Dail

Paradigms, Synodality and the New "Francis Effect": An Assessment of the Letter to the USCCB

With the Thursday Morning release of Pope Francis’s 8-page letter to the US Bishops, a portion of whom are currently in attendance at a retreat in Mundelein, faithful may have finally been given a glimpse of applied “synodality”. In his letter, the Roman Pontiff notably opens that his recommended retreat would be a time of “prayer and discernment…a necessary step toward responding in the spirit of the Gospel to the crisis of credibility that you are experiencing as a Church.” He continued, “In recent years, the Church in the United States has been shaken by various scandals that have gravely affected its credibility. These have been times of turbulence in the lives of all those victims who suffered in their flesh the abuse of power and conscience and sexual abuse on the part of ordained ministers, male and female religious and lay faithful.”


As Cardinal Burke explained, in a LifeSite Exclusive, bishops have always been called to aid the Roman Pontiff—as clear Head of the Church Universal-- in finding ways of “how to teach the Faith more effectively and how to promote a more faithful Christian life in accordance with the discipline of the Church.” In his letter, however, the pope would admonish, “The programmatic aspect of our activity should be joined to a paradigmatic aspect that brings out its underlying spirit and meaning. In a word, a new ecclesial season needs bishops who can teach others how to discern God’s presence in the history of his people, and not mere administrators.” He would continue that addressing the crisis at the spiritual roots, or through practical application would risk the bishops becoming “Kantian transcendental”: Worse, it could risk turning God into an “idol” for one particular group…. The catholicity of the Church cannot be reduced merely to a question of doctrine or law…”

With the Pope’s opening emphasis in his letter to the US bishops, he seems to place emphasis that the current sex abuse crisis—and resulting “crisis of credibility”—is isolated to the United States, laying the responsibility of it solely at the door of the US Bishops—and not on himself as Supreme Head. This would confirm the concerns of Cardinal Burke, in the “ecclesiastical deconstruction”, a part of the “paradigm shift” being placed front and center—namely, “that the Catholic Church has now become some kind of democratic body with some kind of new constitution”.


The Sex-Abuse crisis, however, has made international news throughout the last year, as has the Pope’s unwillingness to engage in addressing it. During his trip to Chile at the beginning of 2018, in response to victim’s claims that Bishop Juan Barros had covered up abuse by one of his priests, Pope Francis infamously stated, "The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I'll speak out. There is not one shred of proof against him. It's all slander. Is that clear?" The only retraction came, after uproar from the faithful in Chile spread to the International community—including a stern public rebuke by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Later, with revelations of additional abuse and cover-up by Chilean clergy, the entire Bishop’s conference offered their resignations to the Roman Pontiff.

In August, after Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s Grand Jury Report into the 2-year Investigation of Child Abuse and Cover-Up by the Catholic Church, reports of abuse from Italy, Germany, Australia broke. Even the closest advisor to Pope Francis, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, has been riddled with both supporting his Honduran deputy, Auxiliary Bishop Juan Jose Pineda Fasquelle, while overlooking and covered up continuing abuse in his own see.

When Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano revealed, however, that Pope Francis knew of the allegations against former Cardinal and accused pederast abuser, Theodore McCarrick—having him reinstated from sanctions imposed on him by Pope Benedict XVI-- it seems the dam broke on what the Pope labels in his letter as “the crisis of credibility”. At this, Pope Francis would exclaim, “I will not say a single word”, later only veiling comments on the person of the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.


In his statement to the US Bishops, Pope Francis lamented the disunity of the USCCB, “The hurt caused by these sins and crimes has also deeply affected the communion of bishops, and generated not the sort of healthy and necessary disagreements and tensions found in any living body, but rather division and dispersion (cf. Mt 26:31)…Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander in the pursuit of a path of prayerful and contrite acceptance of our limitations and sins, and the promotion of dialogue, discussion and discernment.”

The pope would continue that the crisis offered a chance at a new way of management, that “Loss of credibility calls for a specific approach, since it cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts.” He continued, “This collegial awareness of our being sinners in need of constant conversion, albeit deeply distressed and pained by all that that has happened, allows us to enter into affective communion with our people…This approach demands of us the decision to abandon a modus operandi of disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold in our relationships…It will also aid in the search for suitable measures free of false premises or rigid formulations no longer capable of speaking to or stirring the hearts of men and women in our time.”


The pope’s statements, read aloud today, come after an intervention by the Vatican calling for a delay in a vote addressing the sex abuse crisis, during the USCCB Conference in Baltimore this past November. This direct intervention seemed a surprise for many of the bishops in attendance—including its President, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who was visibly flustered while reading this directive aloud. Cardinal Blase Cupich, however, responded to the Vatican’s call with what seemed to be prepared statements. Such a prescience, if true, indicates a fissure in the unity of the US Bishops council—one clearly recognized by the Holy See.


With little addressed by Pope Francis on direct clerical accountability—or even origin of the sex abuse crisis in the Church, the question now stands, what—if any—practical results will come from the February Summit on Sex Abuse, in the Vatican?

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