The assembly, which starts Monday in Baltimore, comes less than a month after Francis ended a dramatic Vatican meeting on how the church can more compassionately minister to Catholic families.
The gathering in Rome was only a prelude to a larger meeting next year, which will more concretely advise Francis on church practice. Still, the open debate at the event, and the back and forth among bishops over welcoming gays and divorced Catholics who remarry, prompted stunning criticism from some U.S. bishops.
“Many of the U.S. bishops have been disoriented by what this new pope is saying and I don’t see them really as embracing the pope’s agenda,” said John Thavis, a former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service. “I think, up until now, they felt Rome had their back and what they were saying – especially politically – would eventually be supported in Rome. They can’t count on that now.”
Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former St. Louis archbishop and leading voice for conservative Catholics, said the church “is like a ship without a rudder” under Francis. Burke made the comments before the pope demoted him from his position as head of the Vatican high court, a move he had anticipated.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., said the debate and vote on a document summing up the discussion in Rome, which laid bare divisions among church leaders, struck him as “rather Protestant.” Tobin referenced a remark Francis had made to young Catholics last year that they shake up the church and make a “mess” in their dioceses.
“Pope Francis is fond of ‘creating a mess.’ Mission accomplished,” Tobin wrote.
Other American bishops said the meeting sowed confusion about church teaching, though several blamed the way information was released by the Vatican or reported by media.
“I think confusion is of the devil. I think the public image that came across was confusion,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. Next year, Chaput will host the pontiff on his first U.S. visit for the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-organized event that draws thousands of people.
Francis is pressing U.S. bishops to make what for many prelates is a wrenching turnaround: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and individual church leaders have dedicated increasing resources over the years to the hot-button social issues the pontiff says should no longer be the focus. The bishops say they’ve been forced to emphasize these issues because of the growing acceptance of gay relationships and what they see as animosity toward Christians in America.
Dozens of dioceses and Catholic nonprofits have sued the Obama administration over the birth control coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act. The administration has made several changes to accommodate the bishops’ concerns, but church leaders say the White House hasn’t gone far enough.
But the challenge Francis poses extends beyond specific issues. His emphasis on open debate and broad input from lay people stands in stark contrast to how the U.S. prelates have led the church for years.