Pope Francis in St Peter's Square (Photo by Alfredo Borba | Creative Commons)

A recent two-day conference, co-sponsored by Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, brought some 70 bishops and theologians together for a candid conversation about the future of the United States Catholic Church and the existing opposition to Vatican II and, by extension, Pope Francis’ vision and pontificate.

“We would like to start a conversation that's ongoing, hopefully annually, between bishops and theologians to see if we can help the Church get over the hump of the culture wars that are being played out in the Catholic Church, as well as in the culture at large,” said Mark Massa, S.J., director of the Boisi Center and one of the organizers of the event. “We want to help figure out a way forward. Some bishops will not buy in, but we'll have enough that there will be a mainstream conversation where we could actually make some progress and not get bogged down in politics.”

Held at Loyola University Chicago on March 25 and 26, “Pope Francis, Vatican II, and the Way Forward” hosted four cardinals, four archbishops, and other church leaders, as well as theologians, journalists representing Catholic media, and Catholic philanthropic leaders. To encourage an honest and forthright dialogue, the conference operated under the Chatham House Rule: Participants are free to use information from the discussion, but not allowed to reveal who made any particular comment.

In addition to the Boisi Center, event co-sponsors were Loyola Chicago’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage and Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.

Joining Fr. Massa as co-organizers were Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage Director Michael P. Murphy and David Gibson, director of Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture. Also part of the organizing committee was journalist Michael Sean Winters, who first raised the idea of the conference with Fr. Massa last summer.

Mark Massa, S.J.

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life Director Mark Massa, S.J.

According to Fr. Massa, organizers were intentional about keeping the conference to a manageable size and inviting influential bishops who were seen as centrists and were willing to listen and talk to theologians.

“I think bishops have been talking to themselves in an echo chamber, and theologians have been talking to themselves in echo chamber,” said Fr. Massa, a professor in the Theology Department. “Now it's time to bring everyone together. We don't want echo chambers. We want real conversations. And that means people will be saying things we don't completely agree with, and we have to be willing to listen and figure out how we're going to do that.”

Fr. Massa said that while the group as a whole agreed on big topics, such as support for Pope Francis and commitment to synodality, there were varying thoughts on the details.

“When the bishops were talking, the theologians asked questions. When the theologians were talking, the bishops asked questions. The conversations were interesting, and when people disagreed, they disagreed respectfully.

“Like any group, the bishops are divided,” said Fr. Massa, “but a number did say that it was a better conversation than they normally have when the bishops meet.”

A church historian, Fr. Massa said there is precedent in conversations between bishops and theologians. “In the 13th century, it was the commonest thing in the world for bishops to speak to theologians and vice versa. When bishops had questions or the pope had questions, they would send a question to the theological faculty at University of Paris or University of Salamanca. And likewise, theologians would write to bishops and say, ‘What's your opinion on this?’”

The conference featured three keynote addresses and several panel discussions. Villanova University Professor of Theology and Religious Studies Massimo Faggioli, a church historian with expertise on Vatican II, spoke on “Opposition to Francis Rooted in Abandonment of Vatican II as a Source of Renewal.” M. Therese Lysaught, professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Care Leadership and the Institute of Pastoral Studies, Loyola University Chicago, gave a talk on “Reclaiming the Moral and Intellectual Tradition from the Culture Wars.” Archbishop Héctor Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte, O.F.M., president of the Latin American bishops council (CELAM) was called away, so his talk on “The Latino Experience of Synodality” was presented by Archbishop Roberto González of Puerto Rico.

Fr. Massa spoke at a panel titled “Distorted Receptions of Vatican II.” He used history to illustrate that Vatican II did not create the divisions in the U.S. Catholic; the divisions had been there for centuries.

“The debates within U.S. Catholicism regarding the degree of appropriate acculturation were present from the beginnings of Catholic life in the U.S.,” according to Fr. Massa. “In 1784, the 27 Catholic priests in the United States, 24 of whom were Jesuits, drew up the Whitemarsh Constitutions, which said the Mass should be in English, people should elect their priests, the priests should elect the bishop, and a lay vestry should own the Church property. But none of this was done.

“By the early 19th century, French priests fleeing the French Revolution were coming to the U.S. They were much more conservative. They saw what revolutions do to churches and therefore wanted no part of it. They were delighted that the Vatican had said no to the proposals of the Whitemarsh Constitutions.

“So already in the early 19th century, you had this division. What Vatican II did was simply float into that chasm and widen the walls of it. Vatican II didn't create the division. The division had been there a long time, but Vatican II suddenly allowed the lay people to be part of the debate.”

Another Boston College participant was School of Theology and Ministry Associate Professor Hosffman Ospino, who took part in a panel on “Pastoral-Theological Ideas for Affective Collegiality with Pope Francis and Receiving Vatican II.”

“Pope Francis has intentionally invited Catholics to embrace the Second Vatican Council with renewed spirit,” said Ospino. “There is much to do and to learn from the Council to be the type of church our world needs today. It was refreshing to be part of a conversation with bishops, theologians, and other Catholic intellectuals discussing how to do this in a spirit of communion and synodality.”

Fr. Massa noted that the informal moments between bishops and theologians at the conference—conversations over dinner and during the walk from the conference site to the hotel—were also beneficial.

National Catholic Reporter Executive Editor Heidi Schlumpf, who participated in a conference panel on “The Money, Media, and Networks that Oppose Pope Francis,” wrote about one such encounter. She was in line for lunch when a bishop introduced himself and spoke about a column Schlumpf had written about adoption last fall after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting.

“I braced for criticism,” she wrote in NCR. “But then he surprised me, by noting that [the] column…had really opened his eyes about the complexity of adoption.”

She added: “If I hadn't been standing in that lunch line, the bishop and I wouldn't have had that shared exchange. Perhaps if there were more opportunities for church leaders to hang out, in person, with everyday Catholics, we could better understand one another.”

Fr. Massa said he was hopeful about how the conference in Chicago went. He expressed gratitude to the team at the Boisi Center—Susan Richard, Zachary Karanovich, and Ann McClenahan—for their contributions to the conference, as well as to University President William P. Leahy, S.J., for financial support.

“We have started a conversation that's quite important, and a couple of bishops have already written to us and said they would like to see the conversation continued.”

“We’re all really energized and agree we should do another meeting again next year and not lose the energy,” he added.

Fr. Massa said the model, a two-day conference under Chatham House Rule, was fruitful and he would imagine future gatherings would be similarly designed and tackle issues important to Pope Francis, such as synodality and the environment.

“The Pope has called for synodality,” said Fr. Massa. “Synodality means returning Church power to the local level where representatives from laity, clergy, bishops talk about important issues and try to arrive at some conclusions about things. If we could help the bishops figure out how they how to do synods, on the ground, in their diocese, that will be a big step forward.”

Kathleen Sullivan | University Communications | April 2022