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

A_bishops_pectoral_cross_Credit_Daniel_Ibanez_CNA A bishop's pectoral cross. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/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.

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“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.”

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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.