A Battle for the Soul of the American Catholic Church


A major, largely overlooked triumph of the right took place days after abortion rights and pro-choice Senators prevailed in America’s 2022 mid-term election. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) elected a new leadership, spurning allies of Pope Francis and picking bishops who echo positions of MAGA Republicans in America’s culture wars.

The new president of the USCCB is Archbishop Timothy Broglio, a former Vatican diplomat and archbishop for U.S. military services. Broglio opposed military recognition of same-sex marriages.  He has supported exemptions on religious grounds from COVID-19 vaccination. He has argued there is “no question that the crisis of sexual abuse by priests in the USA is directly related to homosexuality,” a position which has found no support in studies of abuser priests.

The vice president will be Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who has decried President Biden’s support of choice as “gravely wrong” and has said a recent Biden executive order on abortion access “seeks only to facilitate the destruction of defenseless, voiceless, human beings.” During the Obama Administration, Lori fought against a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires employers in their health-care plans to offer contraception coverage to women.

In its leadership election, the bishops’ conference spurned prelates named by Pope Francis: Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin was defeated in the contest for secretary of the USCCB, and Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne, appointed by Francis, had his name put forward but was not elected to a committee chairmanship.

The USCCB’s choices underline growing disconnect between dominant conservatives in the American Catholic hierarchy – largely appointees of Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II — and Pope Francis and bishops and cardinals he has named.  These divisions have broken into the open.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, outgoing USCCB president, describes abortion as the church’s “preeminent” concern. On the day Biden took office, Gomez issued a snarky statement accusing Biden of pursuing “certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”

By contrast, Pope Francis warmly welcomed Biden.  The Pope greeted America’s second Catholic president pledging cooperation toward “building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable, and those who have no voice.”

In naming new cardinals, the Pope has bypassed Gomez, Lori, and now-retired Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, whose dioceses have traditionally been headed by a red hat.  Instead, as princes of the church, he has tapped Tobin, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, Washington, D.C., Archbishop Wilton Gregory, and Chicago Archbishop Blasé Cupich, formerly Bishop of Spokane.

Cardinal Cupich delivered a rare, sharp, public rebuke to Gomez over his denunciation of Biden. “Today, the USCCB issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration,” Cupich wrote. “Aside from the fact that there is seemingly no precedent for doing so, the statement, critical of President Biden, came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released.”

The disconnect is on public display. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a self-described “devout Catholic,” is a parishioner in the diocese of arch-conservative San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.  Cordileone announced this spring that Pelosi would no longer be allowed to receive the eucharist due to her support for legislation that would enshrine abortion rights.

Weeks later, the Speaker and her husband Paul Pelosi were pictured in Rome being received by Pope Francis.  President Biden continues to receive holy communion in his home Delaware diocese and with Cardinal Gregory’s backing in Washington, D.C.

Supporters of Pope Francis are openly impatient with the narrow, partisan posture of the culture warriors. Reacting to the Pelosi communion ban, Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque noted that abortion and capital punishment are “life issues,” but added: “Protecting the earth, our common home, or making food, water, shelter, education and health care accessible, or defense against gun violence . . .  these are life issues, too.”

As well, lay people in – and leaving – the pews have become estranged from what they see as clerical error.  Attendance at mass is declining.  Dioceses are closing parishes, with the American church hit by a sharp drop in priestly vocations.  A group of lay leaders in the Archdiocese of Seattle recently warned Archbishop Etienne that young people are leaving the church in large numbers.

In national polls, Catholics voice support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage in the same percentages as those of other or no-faith traditions.  A majority believe priests should be allowed to marry. Surveys have revealed that a large majority of Catholic women have embraced contraception, despite church opposition.

The news from the ballot box carries a message.  Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, told National Catholic Register that he felt “living in a strange land” as Michigan voters enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution.  Catholic dioceses in Kansas spent more than $3 million in support of a ballot measure to remove protection of abortion rights.  It lost by a 59-41 percent margin.

California and Montana voted for abortion measures earlier this month.  Kentucky voters turned down a measure that would remove protections. Choice became a key reelection issue for such lawmakers as Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, and Govs. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Tony Evers in Wisconsin.

The USCCB is due shortly to suffer another setback.  It is resisting the federal Respect for Marriage Act, which would guarantee recognition of same sex and interracial marriages, seen under threat after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling that reversed Roe v. Wade. The legislation won in a 63-37 procedural vote in the Senate last week, with backing even from the Mormon Church.  The Catholic bishops claim infringement on “religious freedom” and that the bill “could lead to discrimination against individuals who hold to a traditional view of marriage.”

Los Angeles’ Archbishop Gomez delivered an angry valedictory this month, warning his fellow bishops that “traditional norms and values are being tested as never before,” with American society moving “hard and fast to uncompromising secularism” and coming to be dominated by a “noisy, distracted media culture.”

So tied are they to discipline and dogma that bishops fail to recognize criticism coming from their way from people of faith. The U.S. laity is no longer docile. Gospel-quoting Eastside Catholic High School students surrounded the archdiocesan chancery to protect the removal of a vice principal who married his gay partner.  With same-sex marriage on Washington’s 2012 ballot, a protest at church opposition drew 500 people to the streets outside St. James Cathedral.  A similar crowd showed up for a “Support the Sisters” rally after the Vatican started investigating “feminist tendencies” and too much social activism by the nation’s largest organization of nuns.  That probe was headed by Seattle’s then-Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.

The progressive tradition of the Seattle Archdiocese dates to Archbishops Raymond Hunthausen and Thomas Murphy in the 1980s and 1990s. Two diocesan bishops joined in a 2018 immigrants’ rights march from St. Mark’s Cathedral to St. James.  Archbishop Etienne has won praise for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis — shutting churches, putting the mass on TV screens, and boosting vaccination.

Elsewhere in the West, Pope Francis has elevated McElroy and installed pastoral bishops in Phoenix and Las Vegas.  The right still rules in many other places. For instance, bishops in Spokane and Baker, Oregon, have backed Cordileone in refusing the eucharist to Speaker Pelosi.  The bishop of Santa Rosa has delivered a no-communion instruction to the pastor of a parish near where the Pelosi family owns a winery.

The Catholic right even has an influential lobby in the California-based Napa Institute.  It draws Republican politicians, bishops critical of Francis, and messaging experts to an annual $2,700-a-person conference at the high-end Napa Meritage Resort and Spa, owned by cofounder and wealthy businessman Timothy Busch.

A kind of Bling Wing of the American church, participants can enjoy wine tastings, gourmet meals, and cigar bars, and have their choice of more than 100 masses including many in Latin.  Seminars carry such titles as “Liquid Gender and its Consequences,” and “Staying Awake in a Woke Church.” The marquee attraction this year was ex-Attorney General William Barr, speaking on the topic “Strangers in a Strange Land: How do Catholics Live as ‘Resident Aliens’ and Faithful Citizens at the Same Time.”

Napa has reached out, underwriting a lecture by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the University of Notre Dame, and a speech in Rome by court colleague Samuel Alito, author of the Dobbs opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade.

The pushback against Pope Francis is serious, fueled by a feeling that the influence of religion is eroding in a society beset by moral decay.  As Napa conference speaker L. Brent Bozell III put it this past summer, “There is chaos in our streets. There is repugnance in our schools.  The Judeo-Christian tradition is being thrown away as is the very history of the United States.”

Archbishop Chaput warned of enemies in high places.  He ticked off Church contributions of schools, hospitals, and social services to American society, but said “none of this matters. None of it, to political leaders and lobbies that hate what the Church teaches.”

It can safely be said that Pope Francis is in a battle for the direction and very soul of the Catholic Church in America.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. You give AB Etienne a pass on conservative Catholic dogma. The September closure of N. Capitol Hill’s, 100-year-old St. Patrick Church, a self-sustaining parish of 200+ active families was preceded by a deceptive manipulating parade of actions that led the ‘flock’ to believe one thing, while the AD plotted another…closure of the Parish and likely sell-off of St. Pat’s $15M (est.) real estate. Oh, I forgot to mention St. Pat’s active engaged LGBTQ community or Deaf/Deaf Blind Ministry or its social justice bent or its welcoming of married-again Catholics and others. I will continue to love my faith, but not so much my Church. Similarly, love my country, but not so much my government. Nuff said.

  2. Just as all religions, the Catholic Church exists to impose its will on others, and to collect money to do this work. Lately, particularly in North America and Europe, this hasn’t been working so well. The problem may have begun with near-universal literacy.

    And hey, these guys presently have two CEOs, two Vicars of Christ on Earth. And The Curia, where the real money and power is dealt. Who you gonna’ believe?

    Downsizing, selling off assets, that’s a smart move. The human infrastructure is dwindling. They can maintain power a little longer. But over time I’m guessing more of the faithful will keep their own counsel. Empty pews mean empty collection plates.


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