Pope Francis faces diplomatic decision amid U.S. bishops' division

Analysis: USCCB

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, turned 75 last week, reaching the age at which papal representatives are expected to submit their resignation to the pope. 

Whether Pierre is replaced, and by whom, could be a signal of how Pope Francis reads criticism from some U.S. bishops over the engagement of the bishops’ conference with the administration of a Catholic and pro-choice U.S. president.

After the dramatic intervention of the Vatican Secretariat of State on Inauguration Day, an attempt first to halt and then to delay a statement on the incoming Biden administration from USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez, a few American bishops have been on maneuvers — positioning themselves to influence the bishops’ conference’s voice and emphasis during the Joe Biden presidency. 

Most prominent among them is Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who broke ranks last month to publicly condemn Gomez’s statement as “ill-considered,” and who pledged himself to resolve “institutional failures” he believes exist at the bishops’ conference. 

Addressing those “failures” means the cardinal will be trying to exert greater influence at the conference, where Cupich does not hold an elected position of leadership among his brothers.

Cupich went to see the pope on Saturday. While his audience was announced in the daily bulletin to the Vatican press corps, the subject of the meeting has been kept private.

In support of Cupich’s preference for conciliatory engagement with the Biden administration, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego insisted at a panel discussion on Monday that opposition to abortion, which ends more than 800,000 lives a year in the United States, cannot become a “de facto litmus test for determining whether a Catholic public official is a faithful Catholic.”

At the same time, several bishops have spoken out in support of Gomez’ approach, which added to its call for common ground a critique of the administration’s commitment to advancing greater legal protections for abortion.

Some bishops have also said there is a need to correct prominent Catholic politicians, like Biden, who are leading such efforts, or to apply measures of sacramental discipline, which McElroy called on Monday the “weaponization” of the Eucharist.

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Amid this difficulty, Pierre has been reportedly working behind the scenes to defuse the tension: reassuring Gomez that he does not face threat of sanction or backlash from Rome, even while Cupich received an audience with the pope and the public cachet that comes along with it. 

Pierre is a diplomat, and has been praised by some U.S. bishops for his ability to quell disagreements, and to develop relationships among bishops of divergent ideological perspectives. 

Nuncios always have a difficult role. The pope’s diplomat is responsible for representing the Holy See to the country’s secular government, and for serving as the pope’s man on the ground for all matters ecclesiastical.

For Pierre, that has meant the challenge of representing the pope during the unusual presidency of Donald Trump, and during one of the most difficult times in recent memory for the U.S. Church — two years after he arrived, the McCarrick scandal began a period of tumult, disagreement, and difficulty. 

With Pierre already engaged in the situation, Pope Francis may be inclined to leave the archbishop in his post, and count on him to resolve the public criticism of Gomez’ leadership from Cupich.

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But if a change is due, the pope has options.

He might choose to bring a candidate primarily concerned with winning the confidence of the majority of the U.S. bishops, especially after a tense intervention from the Holy See last week over Gomez’ statement, and some lingering frustration with the Vatican’s intervention in the 2018 McCarrick affair, along with the highly controversial public interventions by Pierre’s predecessor as nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

Such a figure would likely plan to focus on dialoguing first with the bishops themselves, and would probably take his cues on engagement with the Biden administration from the conference..

On the other hand, if Francis chooses to appoint a member of the diplomatic corps who seems mostly focused on building common ground between the Holy See and the White House, without calling out differences on abortion, gender ideology, and religious liberty, it will be taken by most bishops as an endorsement of Cupich’s desire for a conference taking the same mostly uncritical tone. 

That move would make it easier for Biden to campaign on his Catholic identity and closeness to the pope, and it would put into a bind those members of the conference who feel most obliged to speak forcefully on abortion.  

Thus far, the pope has not tipped his hand. In fact, since the ecclesiastical tensions of Inauguration Day, the pope has seemed concerned not to appear to be taking sides in the disagreement between Cupich and Gomez. 

After he met with Cupich over the weekend, Francis singled Gomez out for praise on Monday. 

During an audience with USCCB communications staff working in Rome, the pope named Gomez and Bishop Mark Seitz in appreciation for the work of the Church in the U.S. on immigration and education.

“A divided Church is not the Church. It’s not the true Church,” Francis said in the same remarks, urging the need for American Catholics, including bishops, to “reason together and seek the path of fraternity.”

The apostolic nuncio will play at least some role in pointing the direction of that path, especially since the Secretariat of State has played a relatively active role in the activities of the U.S. bishops, especially as compared to countries like Germany, in which the nuncio is fairly hands off, despite frequent clashes between the country’s bishops and Rome over the ongoing “binding synodal process.” 

All of this means one thing: Those interested in understanding the pope’s take on American politics and Catholic engagement should keep their eyes out for a moving truck at the apostolic nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue. 

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