Vatican autocracy and the U.S. bishops

What happened to the “synodality” and “collegiality” that were supposed to characterize the Church under Pope Francis?

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 14. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

As the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore on the weekend of Nov. 10-11, it seemed certain that, after a day of prayer, penance, and reflection on the Church’s sexual abuse crisis, they would take two important steps toward reform. An episcopal code of conduct, holding bishops accountable to the standards applied to priests in the 2002 Dallas Charter, would be adopted. And the bishops would authorize a lay-led mechanism to receive complaints about episcopal misbehavior, malfeasance, or corruption; allegations found credible would be sent to the appropriate authorities, including those in Rome.

Then, at the last minute, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB], received an instruction from Rome stating that the Vatican did not want the U.S. bishops to vote on these two measures. The lame rationale given with the instruction was that any such decisions should be made after the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences meet in Rome in February, to discuss the abuse crisis in its global dimensions.

What happened to the “synodality” and “collegiality” that were supposed to characterize the Church under Pope Francis? What conceivable meaning of “synodality” or “collegiality” includes an autocratic Roman intervention in the affairs of a national bishops’ conference that knows its own situation far better than the Roman authorities? And spare me the further excuses about Roman concerns over canon law. If there were canonical problems with the U.S. proposals, they could have been ironed out after the bishops had done what they had to do and what Rome effectively prevented them from doing — demonstrating to furious U.S. Catholics that the bishops are firmly committed to addressing the episcopal dimensions of the abuse crisis and the meltdown of episcopal credibility it had created in its wake.

(And while we’re on the subject of Church law: By what legal authority did Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, instruct the USCCB not to vote on matters the conference membership thought of the gravest importance? A sliver of justification for that intervention might be extracted from Canon 455.1, on the authority of bishops’ conferences. But given the insouciance about canon law demonstrated by Rome in recent years, not to mention a seemingly endless series of strictures against “legalism,” such concerns over canon law ring hollow. In any event, and according to Canon 455.2, any legal fine tuning could have taken place after the U.S. bishops had done what they deemed essential to restoring trust in this critical situation.)

I recently spent almost five weeks in Rome, during which I found an anti-American atmosphere worse than anything I’d experienced in 30 years of work in and around the Vatican. A false picture of the Church’s life in the United States, in which wealthy Catholics in league with extreme right-wing bishops have hijacked the Church and are leading an embittered resistance to the present pontificate, has been successfully sold. And in another offense against collegiality, this grossly distorted depiction of American Catholicism has not been effectively challenged or corrected by American bishops enjoying Roman favor these days.

Honest disagreements — about, say, Amoris Laetitia and its implications for doctrine and pastoral practice — are one thing. A systematic distortion of reality, which tramples on the presumption of an opponent’s good will that should guide any internal Catholic debate, is quite another. Those involved in this anti-American-bishops calumny might also reflect on its disturbing genealogy. For one of those who injected this toxin into the Roman bloodstream was a serial sexual predator specializing in the abuse of seminarians under his authority — Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington.

Mainstream media reporting on the bishops’ recent Baltimore meeting generally got it right: the U.S. bishops tried to do the right thing and got bushwhacked by Rome, which Just Doesn’t Get It on sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance. But the story cannot be allowed to end there. Nor can the Church afford to “wait until after February.”

Cardinal DiNardo and the majority of the bishops are determined to get to grips with the awfulness that has come to light, for the sake of the Church’s evangelical future. The bishops’ challenge now is to temper their ingrained deference to “Rome” and get on with devising responses to this crisis that are within their authority, and that address the legitimate demands of the Catholic people of the United States for reform.

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About George Weigel 478 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Thank you for writing the truth,George, about the corruption and perversion of the Vatican. One bishop addressed this Peronist Papacy by pointing to the fact that bishops are not corporate managers with the CEO headquartered at the Vatican. They are the shepherds of their flocks (in some cases, they are shepherds who have fed the sheep to the wolves).

  2. Yes, indeed.
    McCarrick has yet to be charged with anything by the Vatican.
    It is unlikely he will ever stand trial under Canon Law. McCarrick knows to much. He is being protected.
    Francis plays for keeps. Bet on it.

  3. Maybe I missed it, but in what way is cardinal dinardo demonstrating that he is determined to come to grips with the Scandal in the American Church? For example why didn’t he put to a vote the demand from Rome that the Bishops not consider the two proposals? Why didn’t he show some leadership and make exactly the response outlined here: that the proposals were entirely within the authorities of individual bishops and therefore of the bishops as a group and any needed corrections could be made after the fact. We are being led by men who are either commited to nefarious goals or are unwilling to resist.

    • Precisely, Donna. I would like to see Cardinal DiNardo’s response to your questions. Further, I would like to see our bishops make a united stand against the heavy-handed tactics of the Pope. Its long past time someone called his bluff.

    • You are correct. DiNardo folded immediately. Diddn’t want to piss off the Capo di tutti capi.
      Victims? Their families? Truth? Justice? Please don’t make me laugh.
      The real head of the American bishops is Cupich, not DiNardo.
      And Cupich is very much the pope’s man. Bet on it.

  4. “Cardinal DiNardo and the majority of the bishops are determined to get to grips with the awfulness that has come to light, for the sake of the Church’s evangelical future.”

    Given the votes – for Cupich as pro-life USCCB Chair (2017: 44%) and for urging Rome to come clean (lost 2-1), this assertion is unsubstantiated and, rather than being hopeful, is excessively optimistic.

  5. Until the Bishops and Rome talk about the sexually active homosexuals in the ranks of the clerics who sexually abuse anyone they can later silence, no one is listening. Collegiality is a code word used for over 40 years by the Bishops, now Pope Francis, to hush up any talk about homosexual predatory behaviors by clerics. Vigano broke rank and talked, and the whole world listened.

  6. Love Hate affects Italians like the rest of us. Especially the educated and those in position my experience of eight years. We can be assured Fr Spadaro SJ Francis’ confidant already known as an anti Am bigot is part of that elite Vatican company of haters. We were slapped down twice Cardinal Di Nardo [taking the direct slap downs] reflecting dismay rightly accounted by George Weigel in an excellent article. And Weigel savvy of Roman machinations as he is knows the Am Hierarchy do have an ingrained deference to Rome. After all it’s what we’ve been for 2000 years, a Church centered on Papal authority. This time the center of faithful adherence to Christ and the Gospels is no longer. The opposite is true and is what the US bishops – the many faithful good ones not the pontifically planted scotch guard are struggling with. The Laity must support Di Nardo, Olmsted, Morlino, Thomas absolutely not Joseph Tobin [the latter a plant aligned with others subservient to the higher echelon Vatican] the rest according to a preeminent journalist Diane Montagna living in “terror”. This time the Am scapegoat is metamorphosing into a Ram ready to but heads with the Apostates.

    • I should have wrote Scots Guards or the King’s personal guards known to keep lesser military in line. At any rate G Weigel anticipates Cardinal Di Nardo and other prelates taking a more vigorous stand against Vatican intransigence on McCarrick and investigation of ecclesial homosexual networks. To achieve that they must override Scots guards Cardinals Cupich, Farrell, Tobin, and Wuerl who still has influence.

  7. @Donna Bethell, Cardinal DiNardo Is inclined to address the scandal in a meaningful and responsible way but probably feels outgunned and resigned to defeat. Cardinal Cupich is the de facto American Primate of Pope Francis’ choosing. Most American bishops cannot contemplate rebelling against Pope Francis because they cannot bring themselves to believe that in him we may have a destroyer rather than a shepherd. That doesn’t make them bad persons, just unequpped for our extraordinary times. Pope Francis talks out of both sides of his mouth when he is not being vague or ambiguous, so those who wish to give him the benefit of the doubt can always do so. Many Catholics would rather punish the boy who says the Emperor has no clothes than admit the ugly truth. See Vigano. Look at what Pope Francis’ proxies have done to him. It may take a combination of damaging state prosecutions and a nosedive in donations from the lay faithful before the average bishop (apart from members of the lavender mania) will be emboldened enough to challenge and push back against a papacy that has lost its way.

    • Prior to his election, Jorge Bergoglio condoned certain same-sex sexual relationships and thus same -sex sexual acts, that he defined as private because they were not called marriage and children were not involved, rejecting Genesis and thus The Sanctity of all human life, and The Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

      The question is, how can our Holy Father, Benedict, possibly be safe within The Vatican, when the wolves have entered like a thief in the night?

      The Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual morality, as Revealed by The Word Of God, serves out of respect for the inherent Dignity of every beloved son and daughter.

  8. “…temper their ingrained deference to “Rome…”
    It appears deference to Rome is only exhibited by cowards.
    With certitude we can say Jesuits promoting rectal intimacy between men experience no need to give deference to “Rome,” if by “Rome” we mean as we always have the perennial Magisterium of the Church.
    Any bishop who provides deference to a Rome which does not embody the perennial Magisterium of the Church is not functioning as a Catholic bishop. If “Rome” does not see fit to call to order clerical promoters of homosexuality in contradiction to its responsibility as the living Magisterium to promote and preserve the perennial Magisterium — does “Rome” even exist? When idle chatter in “Rome” includes the denial of the existence of Hell and the immortality of the soul, does “Rome” hold any credence?
    What goes on here and when will I hear a bishop — American or otherwise — articulate this question?
    ““These most crafty enemies have filled and inebriated with gall and bitterness the Church, the spouse of the immaculate Lamb, and have laid impious hands on her most sacred possessions. In the Holy Place itself, where the See of Holy Peter and the Chair of Truth has been set up as the light of the world, they have raised the throne of their abominable impiety, with the iniquitous design that when the Pastor has been struck, the sheep may be.”
    — Pope Leo XIII, excerpt from his prayer to Saint Michael

  9. I appreciate the author’s sense of the outrage growing in the U.S., However, given the dismal outcome of the one vote they did take, I wonder if the first two would have passed. To me, Quellet acts like a mafia mouthpiece. But, in the end, I wonder if he actually gave the bishops exactly what they wanted.

  10. I simply do not understand what is wrong with the ruling powers in Rome, nor the Bishops in America who don’t have the courage to take the obviously needed actions to clean up their own house. As a Clinical Psychologist, I’ve dealt with people’s behavior for over 45 years. The sad fact is that all the people involved in this Kabuki dance are not able to change their behaviors at this late date in their lives. The Church as we knew it will not survive into the next century.

    • Tom, I prefer to take Jesus at his word. He said: “ I will never leave you or forsake you”. We will survive! This is a mess but He is still in control and the Holy Spirit is still in charge of the Magisterium.
      But, what I don’t get is George’s comment about: “Rome just doesn’t it on the sexual abuse crisis “. Is that meant to be a joke?

  11. Every morning I wake up with great trepidation that I will read a news headline from Rome along the lines of “Pope Francis wavers on the authenticity of the Resurrection”… am I alone in my weariness? Is there a clerical voice in the US wilderness with enough moral heft to lead us through this mess?

    1. Advent would be a great time for the US Bishops to exercise EXTRAORDINARY leadership:
    a. Publicly announce (without prior permission from Rome) that Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston (and an appropriate level lay person) will lead the US efforts to investigate the sexual abuse crisis and any financial diocesan irregularities associated with it.
    b. The investigation will entail every diocese in the US.
    c. No Archbishop/Bishop will interfere. Bishops will argue Canon law prohibits XYZ without Papal authorization. Maybe. But US Bishops need to explore ways to restore the confidence of American Catholics even if it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.
    d. The investigators will have unrestricted access
    e. A timeline for the investigation will be completed by, and publicly disclosed to US Catholics, before the beginning of the February meeting in Rome
    f. If the Vatican attempts to stop or otherwise influence or interfere with the investigation, ALL US Bishops must be prepared to resign — Immediately with no exceptions. American Catholics are fed up. If the prevailing attitude in Rome is that this is a vast right-wing conspiracy, the Bishops — our leaders —- must be willing to stand up and testify otherwise. Who better than Cardinal O’Malley?
    g. The Pope is the Servant of the Servants of God — Jesus said, “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve…” Matthew 20 Is there a US Bishop diplomatic and bold enough to deliver this reminder to the Pope without fear of retribution?
    h. Pope Francis himself said, “Who am I to judge?” So why should he judge US Bishops who are serving the flock that demands action?

  12. Anti-American sentiment in the Vatican has been the rule, not the exception, since our Nation was founded. Dimmed under Francis’s sainted predecessors, the embers became inflamed by the innate Anti-American prejudice of the new South American socialist custodian of St. Peter’s chair.

    It is an unfortunate reality that the South American dream of democracy, so effectively sought by “El Libertador”, Simon Bolivar, so rapidly degenerated into one or another form of dictatorship. Pope Francis is encapsulating that South American phenomenon during his “reign”.

    In my opinion, the behavior of Alexander VI laid the seed of the Reformation. The behavior of Francis in tolerating the Lavender Mafia, speaking of “synodality” while practicing a form of monarchical autocracy, teaching doctrinal and moral relativity while practically ignoring episcopal and sacerdotal sexual predations is leading to an ecclesial break even more serious than the Reformation: our people are leaving us, and their destination is not another form of recognizing Christ, but rather secular materialism.

  13. The correct order of reality is 1) Homosexuality, 2) Pedophilia. Child “abuse”, as horrible as it is, is not the center of clerical and episcopal dread. I am convinced that it is the degree of Sodomy in clerical life which may be exposed. Faithful people, who have eyes to see for the last 50 years, have reluctantly observed the growing presence of uncomfortably mannered clerics. This leads us to the possibility of exposure for many in the Roman establishment. Why is Rome stonewalling? Why is there no trial for McCarrick or Danneels? The true answer may be both reasonably assumed and awful to contemplate..

    • I agree with you, Sir, but that reality that you speak of will NEED to be addressed if we are to get our Church back. After all that has happened now Cardinal Cupich is to lead the February gathering of bishops!!!! I find it interesting that right in the middle of the sexual scandals in South America and the United States, Francis would issue Episcopalis Communio! You can see an analysis of it in the National Catholic Register Sep 30-Oct 13 edition, in effect, “shifting” papal authority of synods. This is not what Christ said! He gave the keys of Heaven to Peter, His Vicker on earth, not to synods of bishops! If fear the Church is in for some changes disagreeable to most of us. I love the Catholic faith, I love the Pope and pray for him each day as I pray for those poor souls afflicted with same-sex attraction. But I love God more.

  14. For 50 years Bishops and Priests have preached (either actively or through complicit silence) that one does not need to follow church teaching on sexual morality. (contraception).
    You are reaping a whirlwind.
    Jesus is purging His Church.

  15. You can tell a lot about a man by the friends he keeps. Look at Francis friends,Baldisseri,Cocopalmieri,Wuerl,Cupich,night night baby Tobin and the list goes on.

  16. I had hoped that the bishops would have still gone ahead and created a strong position paper–but in obedience, held the vote in abeyance until Feb. The contrast between the two positions (USCCB and Rome) might have forced this evil to be dealt with finally by Rome.

  17. When Jesus promised: “The Gates of Hell will not prevail against it [the Church].”(St. Matthew, Chapter 16) I take Him at His word. But perhaps, just perhaps, he was referring to the invisible Church made up of truly orthodox and faithful Catholic believers and not the visible Church headquartered in Rome headed by Francis. Perhaps, just perhaps…

    • CWR and Joseph Fessio are leading you to Hell without any help from anyone else while charging you a subscription fee no less.
      Good riddance

  18. it was John Paul who set the patterns for denial and refusing to meet with victims, making it almost impossible for bishops to laicize priest-perpetrators, and, of course, the serial promotions of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Alas, Weigel again displays he has no such intellectual integrity.

    You could have a field day comparing what Weigel wrote then about the relationship of national bishops’ conferences to Roman authorities to what he writes now. “What conceivable meaning of ‘synodality’ or ‘collegiality’ includes an autocratic Roman intervention in the affairs of a national bishops’ conference that knows its own situation far better than the Roman authorities do?” he asks now. I do not recall him asking a question like this during the 27 long years of his hero’s reign, do you?

    Or this: “Honest disagreements — about, say, Amoris Laetitia and its implications for doctrine and pastoral practice — are one thing. A systematic distortion of reality, which tramples on the presumption of an opponent’s good will that should guide any internal Catholic debate, is quite another.” After the publication of, say, Veritatis Splendor in 1993, was there an affirmation of “honest disagreements” coming from Weigel and his ilk?

    If irony were gold, Weigel would be a rich man in this pontificate of Francis. But this kind of intellectual — and moral — whiplash is unbecoming and unserious. If he has had a conversion, let him explain his conversion. Otherwise, his writings are mere evidence of hypocrisy.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Vatican-US Bishops Dust-up: The Role of “the Pope’s Men” – pgryansblog
  2. Interesting – The American Catholic

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