In confidential interviews, Catholic bishops talk COVID, Joe Biden, Pope Francis

By Kevin Jones for CNA

A bishop’s pectoral cross. (Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.)

Denver Newsroom, Feb 24, 2021 / 03:23 am (CNA).- A series of one-on-one interviews with more than two dozen bishops has revealed significant concern among the Church leaders over the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic and political tensions.

The interviews, conducted by longtime Catholic commentator Francis X. Maier, show the bishops largely united in concerns about the presidency of Joe Biden, while also combining sincere support for Pope Francis with frustrations over his papacy.

“The place of religious faith in American culture has been diminishing for several decades. COVID and the increasingly toxic nature of our politics have accelerated that trend,” Maier told CNA Feb. 22. “Most bishops are aware of that sea change and are trying their best to find fresh ways of surviving and evangelizing in that new environment. That’s an important story.”

Maier is currently a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and  a senior research associate in constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame. He has served as an advisor for Archbishop emeritus Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.

As part of a project for the University of Notre Dame Constitutional Studies program, for which he is a senior research associate, Maier sought to interview more than 30 bishops from the English-speaking world, most of them in the United States, to discuss topics related to Church renewal. Maier summarized the survey of bishops in a Feb. 22 essay “Somebody needs to be dad,” for the First Things website.

“On average, COVID has done less immediate financial damage to many American dioceses than expected,” Maier said. Most bishops said their dioceses’ revenue declined by 4% to 8%, though poor parishes suffered the most.

However, most bishops voiced worries about “the decay of long-term lay involvement in Church life.”

“Combined with already-existing trends in sacramental decline, this suggests a smaller, leaner future for many dioceses, sooner than many planned,” Maier said.

Many bishops told Maier that young people are also a particular concern.

“The greatest pain is the number of young persons exiting the Church,” he said. “The greatest source of hope is the zeal and character of the young people who remain faithful and love Jesus Christ. And this is why, at some mysterious level, every bishop I interviewed was both vividly alert to the challenges he faces and simultaneously at peace.”

The election of President Joe Biden as the second U.S. president to be a practicing Catholic is also a matter of concern. While the president has in part embraced public displays of faith, he has moved towards a strong pro-abortion position, strongly backs LGBT political and cultural causes, and tends to downplay or ignore the domestic religious freedom concerns of Catholics.

On the day of the president’s inauguration, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles put out a statement outlining areas of agreement but also disagreement on important areas like abortion. This move drew some criticism from Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who in a rare public split claimed the statement was “ill-considered.”

CNA asked Maier if his survey of bishops actually shows a large divide regarding Biden.

“Disagreements are a natural part of the terrain in any leadership body as big and diverse as the American bishops,” Maier said. “But on fundamentals of the faith, the sanctity of life, the nature and dignity of marriage, family, and human sexuality, and concern for the poor and immigrant, there’s a high degree of unity. Noise to the contrary from a minority of voices within the conference doesn’t change that.”

“Most bishops expressed satisfaction with the state of the U.S. bishops’ conference,” Maier wrote in his First Things essay. However, several bishops “voiced irritation with Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory for undercutting conference leadership on the issue of Communion and President Biden’s problematic sacramental status.”

“Worry about the negative spirit and potential damage of the Biden administration was unanimous,” Maier reported.

He said that the quality of bishops’ relationships with civil authorities can vary by region. A bishop who moved to the Midwest from the east found his governor to be warm and supportive compared to the “belligerence” of his previous state’s governor.

The cultural and political weaknesses of the Catholic Church gave rise to a common sentiment from bishops, in Maier’s phrasing: “we’re generals without armies, and the civil authorities know it.”

In Maier’s view, bishops enjoy many fewer privileges and face many more demands than they once did.

“The abuse scandal of the last 20 years, the hostility of today’s cultural and political environment, and the toxic nature of criticism within the Church herself have led many men—some claim as many as a third of candidates—to turn down the episcopacy when offered,” Maier wrote. “Mediocre, incompetent, and even bad men still do become bishops. The remarkable thing is how many of our bishops, the great majority, are good men doing their best, and doing it well, as a ‘father and pastor’.”

“The extraordinary fact of Catholic life in the United States is not the few bishops who humiliate us so bitterly, but the many who do the job so well,” he said.

Bishops said that when they first took office, the administrative burdens of their new position in the Church were among the greatest surprises.

“These have a serious crippling effect on their ability to connect intimately with their people,” Maier said. “Doing a bishop’s work well leaves little room for rest, and most outsiders are oblivious to the personal cost. All acknowledged their reliance on the collaboration of lay advisers and staff, and the growing need to develop lay leaders.”

Maier found some frustration with Pope Francis, whose sometimes unconventional approach to his office has generated both enthusiasm and criticism.

“All of the men I spoke with expressed a sincere fidelity to the Holy Father. Many praised his efforts to reshape the Roman curia toward a more supportive, service-oriented posture in dealing with local bishops,” he said. “But many also voiced an equally vigorous frustration with what they see as his ambiguous comments and behavior, which too often feed confusion among the faithful, encourage conflict, and undermine bishops’ ability to teach and lead.”

“Francis’s perceived dislike of the United States doesn’t help,” said Maier. He quoted a western U.S. bishop who said “It’s as if he enjoys poking us in the eye.”

The influence of Pope Francis in inspiring vocations to the priesthood is also a matter of discussion.

“When pressed, none of the bishops I queried could report a single diocesan seminarian inspired to pursue priestly life by the current pope. None took any pleasure in acknowledging this,” he said.

Seminarians tend to be “strongly motivated men.” They come from various home backgrounds and states of religious formation, which Maier said makes a seminary’s propaedeutic or spirituality year “vital” for seminary education.

Maier said one recurring criticism from the bishops he spoke with was alleged interference with the selection process of bishops at the level of Rome’s Congregation of Bishops.

“This typically involved an implied, and sometimes quite explicit, distrust of a particular American cardinal who will remain unnamed,” Maier said.

Still, most bishops said they are “deeply satisfied” with their ministry and think the selection process for bishops is “sound.”

While opposing “democratization,” the bishops voiced support for “a wide, confidential consultation in the nomination of bishops involving more well-informed lay faithful.”

Maier aims to hold similar interviews with clergy and religious, then with Catholic laity.


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24 Comments

  1. Boldness at this stage of the game is really the option for awakening the laity to the reality of our faith’s eternal life eternal death consequences. Bishops united in concerns about Joe Biden and frustrations with Pope Francis are certainly aware, unless entirely dense of the link between Biden’s egregious assault on Catholicism while claiming Catholicism and this Pontiff’s admonitions, suggestions, ecclesial literature since 2013. As I noted in response to “German Catholic Bishops call for change to Catechism”, the Pontiff’s appointments of Cardinal Kevin Farrell prefect for the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, and Archbishop Vicenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life both vocal advocates for homosexual normalization. Jeffrey Sachs, a globally acknowledge proponent of abortion, contraception, homosexual rights was invited by the Vatican to the Amazonia Synod as well as its Dicasteries related to marriage and family. Bishop Marcelo Sorondo chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences [who lauded China’s enforced abortion contraceptive population control as an enlightened policy that parallels Catholic social doctrine] stated the academy had featured Sachs with such frequency at Vatican conferences, because he integrates the magisterium of the Church and of Pope Francis. Commentator Maier said a recurring criticism was interference with the selection process of bishops by another Am Cardinal. We can name at least three Cupich, Farrell, Tobin and throw in already named Gregory for undercutting USCCB policy on communion for Apostate Biden. As Cardinal Sarah wrote, the time is late, darkness descends. Indeed was it Mao Zedong who said, It is always darkest before dawn. At this rate of quibbling and extending the agony with the inconsequential dawn may catch us all unaware perhaps unprepared for Judgment.

    • Additionally on a significant perhaps the most in response to a cohesive faithful Catholicism is Maier’s, We’re generals without armies, and the civil authorities know it. That’s a myopic wishful assessment. The reason is the opposite is the truth, That we’re armies of the faithful without generals, that is real leaders. What we’re afflicted with are bishops [except for a very few] who are unwilling to face challenge to Apostolic Tradition, both from the Vatican and from Government. Although Maier has good intentions it’s the bishops who have both authority and responsibility to address the truth without fear of intimidation from either the Vatican or Government. It’s too late and evident from experience that the normal protocol and political correctness assuring the Pontiff how devoted they are to him and to Biden how proud they are of his faux Catholicism will not have the least positive effect. It simply reinforces the charade.

  2. Great article from an a-one writer.
    “[W]e’re generals without armies, and the civil authorities know it”.
    I look forward to the report on the laity (erstwhile armies).

  3. We read: “Maier said one recurring criticism from the bishops he spoke with was alleged interference with the selection process of bishops at the level of Rome’s Congregation of Bishops. ‘This typically involved an implied, and sometimes quite explicit, distrust of a particular American cardinal who will remain unnamed,’ Maier said.”

    The long shadow of McCarrick and (in the incomplete McCarrick Report) his unnamed proteges. Can’t help but wonder if grave matter under the Eighth Commandment applies to such games. Eucharistic coherence? But, who am I to judge?

    • Was McCarrick ever a member of the Congregation for Bishops? There is only one American cardinal currently serving on the Congregation for Bishops, and it isn’t McCarrick.

  4. I found this statement particularity telling but not surprising:

    “When pressed, none of the bishops I queried could report a single diocesan seminarian inspired to pursue priestly life by the current pope. None took any pleasure in acknowledging this,” he said.

    For those keeping score at home, this is after eight years as pontiff.

  5. When you have a Pope whose public statements and documents need constantly to be explained (often rather tortously), you have a problem. Although I realize that we are all supposed to bow down before Vatican II, the simple fact is that the Church has been in decline ever since. The more you “modernize,” the less relevant you become to the profound human need for stability, ritual and continuity of doctrine,
    that is nowhere to be found in the 21st Century. Man is a creature composed of body and soul. There was a time when the Church, whatever its flaws, could satisfy man in all of his needs, could appeal to his soul and his senses. New this and the latest that, however, just do not endure.

  6. As a faithful member of the lowerarchy, my question has been and remains, “Why don’t the bishops stand firmly against those in public service (not power) who proclaim “devout” Catholicism and act contrary to Church teaching?

  7. “Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory for undercutting conference leadership on the issue of Communion and President Biden’s problematic sacramental status.” Why don’t Cardinal Wilton Gregory provide sacramental counseling to Catholic President Biden? Cardinal Wilton Gregory may have watched the Capitol incursion by criminal Trump loyalists and apparently did nothing. He and Trump could have made an appearance on the steps and may have stopped or mitigated the destruction of our symbol of democracy. The church may “reprimand” the Cardinal, but they are complicit when throwing their support to a madman, Trump!

    • Fake leftist accusations to the contrary, Trump did not orchestrate an “insurrection, nor approve of it. Three guys who never shot their guns and people wearing costumes like face paint and horns does not constitute an insurrection,no matter WHAT the media propaganda mill says.Meanwhile the capitol is still ringed with barbed wire like this is WW2. The left is the primary haunt of the godless, those who support not only abortion on demand but infanticide. Many of us are tired of hearing about how “nice ” Joe Biden is, for he is Catholic in name only, using our religion as a political chip, when it suits him.He is a major supporter of abortion, something VERY contrary to church teaching. There are worse things than being abrasive like Trump . Being incompetent like Biden is one of them. Nothing good for the church can come from more secularism and laxity.Stick with the truth. Those who have ears let them hear.

  8. I certainly didn’t know that any Catholic commentator was interviewing our bishops. I think that is healthy. I also didn’t realize the tremendously “tied down” effect the administrative work had on a bishop. Being a parent and grandparent, I think our young people treasure us for clearly standing for what we believe in, not watering it down for their age. I pray our bishops will stay true to the Gospel and all that the Church teaches. The Christian life is one of commitment and loving service.

  9. “Most bishops expressed satisfaction with the state of the U.S. bishops’ conference. […] In Maier’s view, bishops enjoy many fewer privileges and face many more demands than they once did. […] The remarkable thing is how many of our bishops, the great majority, are good men doing their best, and doing it well, as a ‘father and pastor’. […] Most bishops said they are ‘deeply satisfied’ with their ministry and think the selection process for bishops is ‘sound.’”

    It’s all about them! And these gentlemen – these poor victims of the “abuse scandal” – are quite satisfied with themselves, with the terrific job they are doing, and with their response to everything. Plus, they are merely “frustrated” – but very supportive – with a Pope who, by their own admission, has not fostered a single vocation. The complete inability of these feckless, faithless bureaucrats to see beyond the tip of their nose… just incredible!

  10. So, the interviews were confidential. Then, confidentially, they are “concerned about the presidency of Joe Biden.” And, these are the “many who do the jobs so well.” Forgive me for not being impressed.
    I just reviewed the headlines on the USCCB web site. I will list the following:

    1. U.S.Bishops’ Domestic Chairman Expressed Support of Executive Orders Protecting the Environment

    2>USCCB Migration Chairman Welcomes Administration Actions to Rebuild Immigration System, Restore Due Process, and recognize Human Dignity of Immigrants and refugees

    3. Bishop Chairmen Express Support for Additional COVID-Relief Package, Lay Out Priorities to Help those Most In Need

    4 U.S. Bishop Chairmen Welcome Administration’s Racial Equity Actions on Housing and Prisons

    5. U.S Bishop Chairman Grateful for Administration’s early Actions to Address Urgent Food and Housing Needs

    6. USCCB Chairmen Affirm Administration’s Order ensuring All Persons Included in Census and Apportionment

    and finally,
    7. Bishops Decry Executive Order that Promotes Abortion Overseas

    I think that the Biden administration will easily see where the bishops put their emphasis.

    • Informative post. Apparently the most important task of their teaching office, that of the salvation of souls, missed the list. Most of these prelates have bamboozled their own minds with issues that sidestep the responsibilities of their office—-while the hungry, thirsty flocks wander alone to find their own food. Priorities are completely upside down. When the laity are properly formed (fed) in the faith, the country thrives, because right order under God brings truth and justice.

      Thank you to few the bishops that take their office seriously.

  11. http://preghiereagesuemaria.it/DV-inglese/Divine%20Will%20prayer%20book.pdf

    A surprise find on line just the other day and hoping that the richness of the treasures through such would get taken in more all through – having become familiar a bit with such , even as one knows how putting same to use can be challenging 🙂 . The peaceful manner of the Holy Father , a good give away that he very likely knows how to live in His Will , with gratitude and love .
    The power of one living in the Divine Will , to bring its blessings into generations even .. The Holy Father possibly also having willed to take up the sufferings of The Lord and His Mother ,to make reparations for the very little perceived value given to sufferings in most lives and thus the frantic efforts to avoid same – news the other day about 23 tons ! of cocaine headed for Netherlands -land rich in material blessings , yet the deep pain of emptiness in not seeing the dignity extended from The Lord who in His humility even desires the dignity for us miserable creatures to bring Him compassion in His sufferings …
    May His Presence be there ever more in all our lives to help in the desert experiences of every life as well .

  12. Secular society has had a much greater effect on Catholic Bishops, clergy and the laiety, than the Bishops and clergy have had on our secular culture.

    When 75% of Catholics don’t honor the Sabbath by attending Mass, and are even less inclined to raise their children as Catholics, the Bishops have more than “administrative” problems.

    Since Vatican II, the church has tried to be everything to everybody and has failed miserably to the point that even marginal Catholics — about 50% of those in the pews on Sundays — are best described as Protestants who make the sign of the cross.

    I suspect most Bishops would agree that the average Catholic has a Third Grade understanding of our Faith. It’s time to become a smaller, more devout Church and abandon this “touchy-feely” approach. Even Jesus said, ‘if they won’t listen, shake the dust off your sandals and move on.’ What could possibly be clearer than that?

    PS note to Bishops and Priests: let’s start by making our churches places of worship, reverence, and holiness, by putting a stop to the social gathering and yacking of many parishioners before and after Mass. “The coffee clatch meets in the church hall after Mass; please confine your gossip to whomever will listen over doughnuts and coffee.”

    PPS: Put ALL nuns back in their habits and require them to live in community. Living on their own in civilian clothes has secularized too many of them.

    Thank you!

  13. It has been clear for a long time that the bishops are very satisfied with themselves. I don’t know what I find more irritating, their mediocre liberalism or their oblivious complacency in the face of an ongoing catastrophe. They seem content to preside over their rapidly shrinking fiefdoms as long as they continue to enjoy the perks and privileges associated with their office. Sure, they express “concern” about problems that have been growing unchecked for years, but they never take any action that might actually be effective in combatting them. If any priest attempts to confront people with the reality of their sinfulness, the hammer falls hard on them immediately. The case of Fr. Zuhlsdorf, thrown overboard by a “conservative” bishop, is perhaps only the most recent travesty. The example this week of the high school teacher in Columbus suspended for questioning the official account of the death of George Floyd shows how the laity who deviate from the line of the USCCB are treated.

    • “They seem content to preside over their rapidly shrinking fiefdoms as long as they continue to enjoy the perks and privileges associated with their office. Sure, they express “concern” about problems that have been growing unchecked for years, but they never take any action that might actually be effective in combatting them. If any priest attempts to confront people with the reality of their sinfulness, the hammer falls hard on them immediately.”

      In a nutshell! The hammer does not fall swiftly on the likes of Martin, Jeannine Gramick, Biden, Pelosi, Durban, Murkowski, to name a few. Nor does the hammer fall on the Dolan (court Hilary, Obama) unholy fund raising dinners, nor on the profane modeling of priestly vestments at the museum show, with clergy applauding and grinning like primates. Again the list goes on and on.

      When will the majority of prelates take on responsibility, for those to whom much was given, much will be expected, as the bible puts forth to us.

  14. The American bishops’ suspicion that Francis despises them (with the exception of his pets) is correct. That this lackluster bunch engenders so much ideological hostility tells us something very alarming about this Pope.

  15. This is too much for me. During the confusion of COVID, riots, quasi-elections, etc., I thought the Church was one place I could go to get “orthodoxy” without the plural truths, self-centered opine as gospel, and current trends changing doctrine. If I wanted all that, I would have stayed Protestant. At this point, my conversions appears to have been misguided. I am so disappointed to have lost my compass. Heck, with the shifting tides WITHIN the Church, I don’t even know what to pray for any more. Many of us converts feel this way. Betrayed. Yes, we talk amongst ourselves and it’s not good.

    • Take Courage, friend.

      https://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA/Pentecost/AProp29.html

      Christ the King
      Year A
      BCP
      Ezekiel 34:11-17
      1 Corinthians 15:20-28
      Matthew 25:31-46
      Psalm 95:1-7

      The Collect

      Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

      Old Testament

      Ezekiel 34:11-17
      Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats:

      The Psalm

      Psalm 95:1-7 Page 724, BCP
      Venite, exultemus
      1
      Come, let us sing to the LORD; *
      let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.
      2
      Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
      and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
      3
      For the LORD is a great God, *
      and a great King above all gods.
      4
      In his hand are the caverns of the earth, *
      and the heights of the hills are his also.
      5
      The sea is his, for he made it, *
      and his hands have molded the dry land.
      6
      Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
      and kneel before the LORD our Maker.
      7
      For he is our God,
      and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. *
      Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!

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