US Catholic bishops’ report to the Vatican shows a church split by politics

The results of discussions ordered by Pope Francis' Synod on Synodality.

Clergy attend the fall General Assembly meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Nov. 17, 2021, in Baltimore.(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Catholics in the United States are deeply divided over issues as disparate as LGBTQ inclusion, clerical sexual abuse and celebrating the liturgy, according to a summary of consultations carried out in dioceses across the country in recent months as part of Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality.

“Participants felt this division as a profound sense of pain and anxiety,” the U.S. bishops wrote in a summary released Monday (Sept. 19) to the public after being sent to the Vatican last month.

In 2021, Francis launched a global discussion, requiring parish churches and a host of other religious organizations to gather their congregations to talk about how they view the hierarchy and issues facing the church. The discussion would inform a summit of bishops at the Vatican scheduled for October 2023 on the topic “For a Synodal Church: Participation, Communion and Mission.”

Bishops’ conferences were tasked with collecting comments made at the parish level and sending them to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who produced a report for the Vatican.

To collect the information from the over 66.8 million Catholics living in the United States, bishops divided the country into 15 administrative regions, including one representing the Eastern Churches. Contributions by Catholic organizations and individuals were grouped into a 16th region.

A total of 290 documents were sent to the U.S. bishops to summarize.

In a section of the document titled “Enduring wounds,” the bishops wrote that Catholics have brought divisions born in the political arena, including views on the Eucharist and the celebration of Mass, into the pews.

A controversy about whether Catholic pro-choice politicians, including President Joe Biden, should be allowed to receive Communion at Mass has fractured Catholic communities in recent years and led U.S. Bishops to launch a $28 million three-year process to “restore” and “revive” the Eucharist.

Francis’ decision last year to strongly restrict the celebration of Mass in the Old Latin Rite, which the pontiff believed had become a rallying cause for conservative dissent, has led some Catholics to lament “the level of animosity” and “feeling judged” in the church, the USCCB report said.

The polarization has also affected the church hierarchy, with the divisions among bishops — and sometimes between bishops and the pope — becoming “a source of grave scandal,” the summary stated.

“This perceived lack of unity within the hierarchy seems to, in turn, justify division at the local level,” the document said.

Connected to the topic of polarization was “marginalization.” The report emphasized calls by many Catholics for the church to become a more welcoming and open space. Two groups most marginalized, it suggested, were those who lack social or economic power and those whose lifestyle is condemned by church teaching.

Migrants, ethnic minorities, the unborn and the poor belong in the first group, according to the document, which also included women, “whose voices are frequently marginalized in the decision-making processes of the Church.”

The second group included members of the LGBTQ community and divorced and civilly remarried couples. “Concerns about how to respond to the needs of these diverse groups surfaced in every synthesis,” the document said.

The question of LGBTQ Catholics was especially troubling, with “practically all synodal consultations” stating that the lack of welcome was at least in part responsible for the hemorrhage of young people from the church. “The hope for a welcoming Church expressed itself clearly with the desire to accompany with authenticity LGBTQ+ persons and their families,” the summary stated.

American Catholics also asked for a greater involvement of lay people, again singling out women. “There was a desire for stronger leadership, discernment, and decision-making roles for women — both lay and religious — in their parishes and communities,” the report stated.

Catholic teaching forbids women from becoming deacons, priests, bishops, cardinals or popes and limits their role in the liturgy, interpreting Jesus’ and his disciples’ masculinity as sanctioning an all-male liturgy and clergy. The church also condemns homosexual acts as a sin and considers gay individuals “intrinsically disordered.”

The divisions and politics tearing at the Catholic Church in the United States occur in the context of “the still unfolding effects of the sexual abuse crisis,” the document said. “The sin and crime of sexual abuse has eroded not only trust in the hierarchy and the moral integrity of the Church, but also created a culture of fear that keeps people from entering into relationship with one another and thus from experiencing the sense of belonging and connectedness for which they yearn.”

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Despite these challenges, the bishops said, Catholics shared a desire for more church activities, especially for families, to be experienced together and demanded better formation of seminarians and a greater focus on how to translate homilies into action.

The report relayed to the Vatican the “skepticism and suspicion” that hung over the synodal discussions as the process got underway. But once faithful embraced the listening spirit of the discussions, the bishops said, the meetings were embraced as a “seed of renewal” to mend the fractures in the community.

“The synodal consultations around the enduring wounds caused by the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the pandemic, polarization, and marginalization have exposed a deep hunger for healing and the strong desire for communion, community, and a sense of belonging and being united,” the bishops wrote.

The U.S. bishops’ summary, along with those of hundreds of bishops’ conferences around the world, are currently being studied at the Vatican, which will release a document in the coming weeks to guide the discussions of faith groups and organizations divided into seven “continental groups.”

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