Inside a windowless hotel ballroom on the Baltimore waterfront on Wednesday, more than 250 American bishops were trying to pilot through the choppy waters of the increasingly contentious relationship between Pope Francis and conservative American Catholics, many of them in their own ranks.
But the most visible sign of that struggle was outside on the street, as a small crowd gathered to show support for Bishop Joseph Strickland, the bellicose Texas bishop fired by Francis over the weekend. Bishop Strickland has accused the pope of undermining the Catholic faith and represents an outspoken cohort in the church who view Francis as dangerously liberal.
Just steps from the hotel, Bishop Strickland’s supporters sang and knelt to pray with the deposed cleric. Most held rosaries, and some hoisted signs reading, “We stand with Bishop Strickland.”
Josiah Reffo, who converted to Catholicism less than a year ago, read about this week’s event on the right-wing Catholic site LifeSiteNews and drove from his home in Virginia to be there. He said he saw Bishop Strickland as a truth-teller opposing dark forces in the institutional church, including the pope and many other bishops.
The meeting of American bishops, which happens each year, typically does not make for great drama. Even the agenda for this year’s meeting — which ends on Thursday — did not look like the stuff of tumult. Action items included tweaks to a prayer book for the years when the traditional date of the Feast of the Epiphany happens to fall before the feast’s Sunday celebration; the reauthorization of a committee against racism; and the advancement toward sainthood of the 19th-century priest Isaac Thomas Hecker.
But under the surface and on the sidelines, there was friction over topics including the church’s approach to politics, and Pope Francis’s recent global gathering on the church’s future, which has rankled some conservatives. The meeting also came just days after Francis made clear that transgender people could be baptized and serve as godparents.
In the run-up to the meeting, one of the biggest potential conflicts came down to whether a new introduction to an existing document on Catholic engagement with politics should describe abortion as “our” top priority or simply “a” concern, among many.
The document passed overwhelmingly on Wednesday morning. It describes abortion as “our pre-eminent priority,” and also mentions gun violence, terrorism, the death penalty and “lack of justice for the poor.”
Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the pope’s representative to the United States, opened the public portion of the meeting on Tuesday with a call for unity.
He took a sharper tone in a recent interview with America magazine, in which he criticized the American Catholic Church for being well-organized but insular. “Almost nobody comes” to church anymore, he said in the interview. And he added that some young priests, a group that is overwhelmingly conservative, were in danger of retreating from the world rather than reaching out. Pope Francis recently lamented a “strong, organized, reactionary attitude” opposing him in the American church.
Talking with reporters on Tuesday, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, the bishops’ president, pushed back on Cardinal Pierre’s characterization of an isolated American church. “Our churches are not empty yet,” he said wryly, mentioning evangelistic efforts like a dayslong public event at a stadium in Indianapolis next summer focused on the Eucharist.
The bishops elected Bishop Daniel E. Thomas of Toledo, Ohio, to head the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, a surprise victory over Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, a high-profile conservative who repeatedly confronted Representative Nancy Pelosi, when she was speaker of the House, over her position on abortion.
Voters in Bishop Thomas’s state resoundingly approved a ballot measure establishing a right to abortion last week in the Ohio Constitution.
In an interview, Archbishop Cordileone said he was aware that some would interpret his defeat as a repudiation of his combative approach. He said the bishops ought to stay on the path they were on, supporting programs for pregnant women and encouraging adoption.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Bishop Strickland had not been mentioned from the stage in public sessions. Though he has been stripped of diocesan leadership, he retains his title of bishop and would theoretically have been allowed to attend the gathering as a nonvoting member.
The Vatican has not cited a reason for Bishop Strickland’s dismissal, which followed a formal investigation this summer into his leadership of the diocese.
Bishop Strickland said in an interview that Cardinal Pierre had asked him not to attend the meeting. Cardinal Pierre could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. Instead, Bishop Strickland opted to hover around the edges of the event, with attendees sharing sightings of him along the waterfront, at dinner with supporters at an Italian restaurant, and at the James Joyce Pub around the corner.
“I got in trouble for being honest,” he said on Wednesday, as his fellow bishops bustled around inside on their lunch break. He said a few of them had reached out to him in the last few days. But “they’re afraid,” he said. “They’re afraid that the same thing might happen to them if they speak up.”