Faith-based

Why the Pope Won’t Rein In the Renegade American Bishops

Pope Francis waves as a crowd of people reach for him and take photos.
Pope Francis greets the audience at the Vatican last week. Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images

Last week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops drew an immediate uproar with a vote about an inoffensive-sounding issue: By a margin of 168 to 55, they favored drafting a document on the sacrament of Holy Communion.

The subtext was crucial: The vote was part of a campaign by conservative bishops to deny Catholic politicians who support abortion access—most notably, President Joe Biden—the Eucharist, one of the most central and sacred elements of the Catholic faith. While some bishops have argued that this debate was simply about clarifying the understanding of the sacrament, several of their colleagues undermined that point during the meeting by directly referencing Biden. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City supported the vote by raging against “a Catholic president that’s doing this, the most aggressive thing we’ve ever seen in terms of this attack on life.”

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Pope Francis does not like any of this. The Vatican has quietly voiced concerns that such an alignment with partisan politics could be degrading for the church. In May, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put out a letter warning the bishops that such a debate could “become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States.” The cardinal who penned the letter warned that it would be “misleading” to characterize abortion and euthanasia as “the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching.” The U.S. bishops forged ahead anyway.

None of this was all that surprising to many observers of the U.S. church, even if liberal critics shook their heads at the outcome. But it left many non-Catholics wondering: Why couldn’t Francis force these bishops to back down? Isn’t the whole point of the pope to make these calls?

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The answer has to do with Francis’ own efforts to reimagine the shape of the church. If Francis really wanted, he could have already stopped these bishops. The pope has no formal checks on his power—“one of the few absolute monarchs” in the world, according to Patrick Hornbeck, a professor of theology at Fordham University. Francis could remove a bishop “from pastoral care,” and previous popes have done just that in times when their bishops have strayed too far. (In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI fired an Australian bishop for suggesting the church should consider ordaining women and married men.) But Francis could not fire these bishops for a simple reason: There are too many of them. The lopsided vote would require him to sweep out some three-quarters of the church leadership in the U.S.

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The less nuclear option—simply command the bishops to stop debating the topic—is one Francis could certainly use, even as it would involve layers of bureaucracy. But Vatican politics are as complicated as any state’s, and Francis is managing different factions and the implications of a bold move into the conflict. Such a heavy-handed approach would bolster beliefs in some corners that Francis is forcing liberal orthodoxy onto the church. Francis has faced an organized opposition from the start, based in large part out of the U.S. He has at times acknowledged this resistance. In 2017, the New York Times reported that shortly after being elected, Francis told his ambassadors he was aware that the U.S. was “where the opposition is coming from.” Speaking to reporters on the papal plane as it headed to Mozambique in 2019, Francis said it was “an honor that the Americans attack me.” But he has held back on more severe rebukes. Even when he faced serious challenges, such as when the conservative Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accused Francis, with little evidence, of covering up sex abuse, the pope largely stood by to watch the discourse play out. “I would imagine that if he were to respond, it would make it a bigger story than it is,” Hornbeck said.

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On another practical level, Francis does not want to alienate American Catholics, many of whom are conservative. (Catholics overall are politically split in the U.S., but white Catholics—and in particular, highly engaged Catholics—favored Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.) Francis has advocated for a “big tent” approach to the church, which has angered many conservatives who argue for more defined boundaries to what it means to be a Catholic. So while he has tried to promote compassion for gay and divorced Catholics, and welcomed some of the folkloric traditions from non-Western regions, he has also at times pointedly held back on challenging some of the traditionalists, who show a fondness for ornate dress and strict orthodoxy.

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More importantly, though, even a one-time command would undermine the central philosophy of Francis’ papacy. To outsiders, the Catholic Church may seem like an immutable force, but the reality is that even today, there is little agreement internally over how, exactly, the church should be structured. A lot of that has to do with ongoing debates over how to implement the vision of Vatican II, the major reform the church underwent in the 1960s. According to Joseph Mudd, a professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, Francis has staked his position in that debate by going all-in on compressing the hierarchy and pushing back against those who want a top-down, highly centralized church.

In May, the pope announced that he was converting the meeting of the world’s Catholic bishops from an occasional event into a process involving regular Catholics in conversation. Some believe this will shift the church toward a more popular approach to controversial matters. These synods are not legislative or in any way democratic—the pope is still the pope—but more than Benedict and John Paul II, experts say, Francis seems to want to work alongside his bishops and empower the clergy at the local level to decide what’s best for their communities. Catholic academics think that Francis genuinely believes in the idea of spirited and open debate. To meddle too much in the U.S. bishops’ affairs would be to undermine that effort.

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For liberal Catholics, this can all be very frustrating. “Catholics tend to appeal to the pope when they want their way,” Mudd said. “Everyone wants the pope to be in charge. Francis is resisting that.”

In this case, Francis still has the ability to block any actual bold measures. So far, the bishops have only voted to authorize a committee to draft a document on the Eucharist; they haven’t voted on any such document itself. If the document ends up saying that pro-choice politicians cannot receive the Eucharist, the bishops would need a unanimous vote to finalize it, which won’t happen. The document then would have to go to Rome for approval, where Francis can simply ignore it.

Is there an interesting story happening in your religious community? Email tips to molly.olmstead@slate.com.

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