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Will Pope Francis hobble Christian nationalism in the U.S.?
U.S. Catholic bishops and cardinals have been a major force among Christian extremists, pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other discriminatory policies. But their days may be numbered.
Pope Francis meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at The Vatican in 2021.
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There was a lot of attention on Pope Francis’ statements in recent days that appeared to suggest support for church blessings of same-sex unions (even as he stated this would not be the same as the sacrement of marriage). And that came after it was reported last month that Francis called the leadership of the U.S. Catholic Church—an anti-LGBTQ leadership that unites with Christian evangelicals in the U.S. and supports GOP laws that restrict civil rights—"reactionary” and “backward-looking.”
But there’s been much less attention to the fact that Francis named 21 cardinals back in July, crossing a significant threshold, one that could have a great impact on dismantling the alliance between the Catholic leadership in the U.S. and the evangelical movement, destabilizing Christian nationalism.
As I wrote earlier in the year, my interest in focusing on the pope and the Catholic Church is not so much about its religious doctrine—and I’m not a practicing Catholic—but rather about the church’s power as a global political force (in addition to being a multinational corporation). The Vatican is a nation-state with a special status and presence at the United Nations and with ambassadors around the globe. It’s a tiny country whose head of state has outsized influence on the world stage, regularly meeting with other heads of state and government officials.
So when Pope Francis gave an interview to the Associated Press back in January of this year in which he not only called for ending the criminalization of homosexuality—67 countries criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, 11 of them imposing the death penalty—but also stated the church and its bishops should take the lead in pressuring governments, it was pretty big news, no matter what you think of the pope.
Whatever the pope thinks and says about sexuality, marriage, women’s rights, or gender identity, however, he cannot unilaterally change church doctrine on what is and is not a “sin” (which often leads him to odd clarifications and nuanced backtracking).
But the people Francis is putting in place throughout the church will have the power to make such doctrinal changes, and that can happen long after Francis, who is 86, is gone. Perhaps more important politically, however, he’s cleaning house in the influential U.S. Catholic Church while he’s installing cardinals globally who will vote for his successor.
There are 241 cardinals around the world, but only those under the age of 80 can vote for a new pope. That number is currently 137, including almost all of the 21 that Francis appointed in July—which brings the total of voting age that Francis has appointed to 99, almost 75%. This practically ensures that a cardinal with his reform priorities will be the next pope while the reshaping of the church leadership has already begun.
As the Associated Press reported in July:
Among the new cardinals was the controversial new head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Victor Manuel Fernandez, and the Chicago-born missionary now responsible for vetting bishop candidates around the globe, Robert Prevost.
Also entering the exclusive club were the Vatican’s ambassadors to the United States and Italy, two important diplomatic posts where the Holy See has a keen interest in reforming the church hierarchy.
Fernandez heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that makes doctrinal changes. It was headed by the former Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratizinger, when it notoriously deemed homosexuality “intrinsically disordered” in the 1980s. Benedict would go on to be a fervently anti-LGBTQ pope, railing against marriage equality and even traveling to countries like Spain that made same-sex marriage legal, trying to stop it.
As the National Catholic Reporter noted, the naming of Fernandez, Francis’s long-time Argentine collaborator, “marks the most consequential curial appointment of this 10-year-old pontificate.” Conservatives in the church went ballistic upon the announcement, as Fernandez has made public his appetite for liberal reforms, including recognizing same-sex unions. Last month, Fernandez slammed Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leader among the American right-wing cardinals, for stating Francis’ reforms are causing “grave harm.”
Fernandez, who is only 61 (a teenager in Vatican years), will be able to embark on doctrinal change for years to come under a succeeding pope.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, a radically conservative and horrendously anti-LGBTQ force in the American church, will see its ideological agenda—and its alliance with the GOP and the Christian right—under assault by one of Francis’s new cardinals and his new ambassador to Washington. The Catholic Church leadership in the U.S. is among the most conservative and anti-LGBTQ in the world—far more than in Europe, where the German Catholic Church is already blessing same-sex unions.
The USCCB weighs in on U.S. political matters and meets with anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ political leaders. And, like MAGA and the GOP, it’s only become more radical. In 2021, it threatened to withhold communion from President Biden, a devout Catholic, because of his support for abortion rights, despite pushback from the Vatican.
Last year, the USCCB joined evangelical churches and groups in attacking the Respect for Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Biden. That law was introduced after Clarence Thomas wrote that the Supreme Court should set its sights on overturning the Obergefell marriage equality decision after overturning Roe v. Wade.
The Washington Blade noted that the position on the Respect from Marriage Act “continues a years-long trend of the bishops' conference opposing any federal legislation that recognizes LGBTQ rights, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act.”
The USCCB is moving to stop gender-affirming care for transgender people of all ages at any Catholic hospital and has endorsed legislation targeting transgender athletes. It urged U.S. senators to halt the Equal Rights Amendment earlier this year because of LGBTQ concerns. And just three weeks ago, the USCCB went after the White House for a new Health and Human Services Administration rule that “protects LGBTQI+ people from discrimination in important health and human services programs.”
This is precisely what Francis was pointing out when he called the American church leadership reactionary and backward. And it’s clearly what he wants to change. Robert Prevost, the American-born missionary Francis elevated to cardinal, along with the Vatican’s ambassador to Washington, will oversee the committee that will replace retiring bishops—and, in time, the entirety of the USCCB itself. Per the Associated Press:
[Francis'] promotions of Prevost and his ambassador to Washington, French Cardinal Christophe Pierre, were clear signs that he has his eye on shifting the balance of power in the U.S. hierarchy, where some conservative bishops have strongly resisted his reforms. Between them, Pierre and Prevost are responsible for proposing new bishop candidates and overseeing any investigations into problem ones already in place.
There won’t be a massive change in leadership overnight, just as there won’t be a change in doctrine overnight, as the Vatican moves at a glacial pace. But the changes so far have actually been quite extraordinary in Vatican time, and they’ve now reached the point of no return. Even if something were to happen to the pope tomorrow, the wheels are in motion. The U.S. Catholic bishops will become less of a right-wing political force as they’re replaced.
And the new cardinals he’s named around the globe are more focused on Francis’s priorities of diversity, climate change, poverty, and welcoming migrants, and less focused on abortion and condemning homosexuality. Christian nationalism in the U.S. will no doubt continue to be a dominant influence in the GOP. But if the leadership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is removed from the alliance, it will lose a powerful force.