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U.S. bishops’ report to Vatican shows a Catholic Church split by politics

A mass is held in Damascus, Md., last year, when Pope Francis launched a global discussion about issues facing the Catholic Church. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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VATICAN CITY — 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 across the country ordered by Pope Francis.

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

Francis launched a global discussion in 2021, 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.

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

In a section titled “Enduring wounds,” the bishops wrote that Catholics have brought divisions born in the political arena into the pews. A controversy about whether President Biden and other Catholic, pro-abortion-rights politicians should be allowed to receive Communion at Mass, for instance, has fractured Catholic communities in recent years and led U.S. bishops to launch a three-year, $28 million process to “restore” and “revive” the Eucharist.

And Francis’s decision last year to strongly restrict the celebration of the Latin Mass, 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.

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The polarization also has affected the church hierarchy, with the divisions among bishops — and sometimes between bishops and the pope — becoming “a source of grave scandal,” it stated. “This perceived lack of unity within the hierarchy seems to, in turn, justify division at the local level.”

The report emphasized calls by many Catholics for the church to become a more welcoming and open space. Among the groups most marginalized, it suggested, were migrants, ethnic minorities, the unborn, the poor, members of the LGBTQ community, divorced and civilly remarried couples, and women, whose voices it called “frequently marginalized in the decision-making processes of the Church.”

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“Concerns about how to respond to the needs of these diverse groups surfaced in every synthesis,” the report said.

The question of LGBTQ Catholics was especially troubling, with “practically all” consultations stating that the lack of welcome was at least in part responsible for the hemorrhage of young people from the church. The church condemns homosexual acts as a sin and considers gay individuals “intrinsically disordered.”

“The hope for a welcoming Church expressed itself clearly with the desire to accompany with authenticity LGBTQ+ persons and their families,” the summary stated.

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American Catholics additionally asked for a greater involvement of lay people, again singling out women. 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 divisions and politics tearing at the Catholic Church in the United States are taking place against the backdrop of “the still unfolding effects of the sexual abuse crisis,” the report 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.”

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.

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

— Religion News Service