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On first day of bishops’ conference, a spectrum of Catholic thought

Inside — and outside — the first public session of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ fall gathering revealed increasingly politicized tensions between American clerics, the Vatican and lay Catholics.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its fall General Assembly meeting, Nov. 16, 2021, in Baltimore. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

BALTIMORE (RNS) — The first public session of U.S. Catholic bishops’ fall gathering included calls for unity, but rhetoric inside and outside the conference hotel hinted at an increasingly atomized spectrum of Catholic thought that overlaps heavily with political debates and manifests in tensions between American clerics, the Vatican and lay Catholics.

Evidence of disagreement between members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See was made clear on Tuesday (Nov. 16), in the opening address from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio who serves as the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S.

Although he appealed to “unity desired by Christ,” he also spoke directly to an ongoing disagreement between USCCB leaders and the Vatican.

“There is the temptation to treat the Eucharist as something to be offered to the privileged few rather than to seek to walk with those whose theology or discipleship is falling short, assisting them to understand and appreciate the gift of the Eucharist and helping them to overcome their difficulties,” Pierre said.

The nod to the Eucharist was in reference to a controversial document focused on Communion crafted by the bishops, which will come up for a group vote on Wednesday. The document was introduced this summer in a heated debate that included bishops suggesting President Joe Biden should be denied Communion because of his support for abortion rights.

Pierre appeared to be echoing Pope Francis, who has spoken similarly about the sacrament and who recently met with Biden at the Vatican.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its Fall General Assembly meeting, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Baltimore. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its fall General Assembly meeting, Nov. 16, 2021, in Baltimore. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

His message contrasted with the opening address from the USCCB president, Archbishop José H. Gomez, who heads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Gomez lamented what he described as the “breaking down” of America’s “story,” which he suggested was rooted in Christianity.

“For most of our history, the story that gave meaning to our lives was rooted in a biblical worldview and the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage,” he said. “It was the story of the human person created in God’s image and invested with an earthly vocation to build a society where people could live in freedom, with equality and dignity. This story underwrote America’s founding documents. It shaped the assumptions of our laws and institutions. It gave substance to our everyday ideals and actions.”

Gomez’s remarks echoed a controversial speech, delivered earlier this month, in which he bemoaned “aggressive secularization” in the U.S. and derided social justice movements as “pseudo-religions” that serve as “dangerous substitutes for true religion.”

On Tuesday, he argued that America’s faith-fueled story has been eroded by “secular society” but that it could be reclaimed through faith.

“We all need God to help us to make sense of our lives, so when we try to live without God, we can become confused,” he said.

As he closed, many bishops rose to their feet in a standing ovation.

But at least one bishop — Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington — was unsettled by Gomez’s remarks.

“I was disappointed to see a standing ovation for that, because I think it represents a real misunderstanding of U.S. history and its foundation,” Stowe told Religion News Service. He characterized Gomez’s vision of America’s founding as “very exclusive.”

When asked about criticism of his remarks in a press conference later that day, Gomez argued that it reflected his “personal understanding of the beautiful reality of American history,” adding that he believes “it’s clear” that the United States started with a Christian founding.

When pressed about deriding activist movements as “pseudo-religions” given that religious groups actively participated in many recent protest movements, Gomez said he wanted to “share with people or I see that is happening in our country,” but added that he also intended to “encourage — especially Catholics and Christians — to be more active in social justice.”

Meanwhile, another group amassed in an amphitheater next to the hotel where the USCCB was meeting. Organized by controversial Catholic media outlet Church Militant, the protest and prayer rally drew attention after the city of Baltimore sued unsuccessfully to stop it from occurring, arguing its planned speaker lineup — which included former Trump adviser Steve Bannon — could pose a risk of violence.

Activist Milo Yiannopoulos speaks during a rally outside of the Baltimore hotel where the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are holding its Fall General Assembly meeting, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Baltimore. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Activist Milo Yiannopoulos speaks during a rally outside of the Baltimore hotel where the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is holding its fall General Assembly meeting, Nov. 16, 2021, in Baltimore. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Ultimately, Bannon, who was recently indicted on contempt of Congress charges and appeared in court on Monday, did not appear on the rally’s program. But a crowd came out anyway to vent frustration with bishops on a variety of topics, ranging from abortion to clergy sex abuse, with some attendees waving signs that read “Monsters in Miters.”

Standing along the edge of the crowd was David Hermans, who held a sign that read “No Communion for Killers” — a reference, he said, to Catholic politicians such as Biden who support abortion rights.

He accused priests, bishops and Pope Francis of “not speaking out for the true teachings of the church.” Asked which issues he wished clerics would address, he noted “abortion, gay marriage, socialism — all the things that are against the teachings of our holy church.”

Frustration with Biden was a mainstay in the crowd: One man waved a flag that read “Let’s go Brandon” — an increasingly popular chant in conservative circles meant as a stand-in for the more lewd slogan “F— Joe Biden.”

The gathering eventually attracted a group of black-clad counterprotesters, who chanted their own slogans at the Church Militant crowd, including “‘Right to life’ — your name is a lie! You don’t care if people die!” and “Go home, bigots!”

The tone was reportedly less controversial — though no less strident — the day before, when a group of liberal-leaning Catholics held their own prayer session outside the hotel to deride what they described as the politicization of the Eucharist by some bishops.

“To use something so sacred to try to silence someone or try to intimidate them or bully them politically is a betrayal of the power in the mystery of the sacraments,” Catholics for Choice President Jamie Manson told local ABC affiliate WHAS. “It’s a betrayal of everything Jesus taught us, which, at its heart, was to feed one another.”

Gomez was dismissive that the creation of the document on the Eucharist was targeted at Biden or other politicians, saying, “the intention of the document since the beginning was to educate Catholics about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.”

Multiple bishops, however, have publicly suggested denying Biden the Eucharist — including during debate over the Communion document.

For his part, Stowe noted the Communion document was “more polarized” when first introduced this summer, but has since “taken a few changes.”

“There’s a real effort to be on the same page,” he said.

Even so, Stowe acknowledged the current environment makes outcomes difficult to predict.

“We’ll see what happens in the the actual debate tomorrow,” he said.