U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are gathering at a moment of turbulence for them and the American church, as Pope Francis moves toward crafting new policies for carrying out his mission of mercy — a prospect that has conservative Catholics and some bishops in an uproar.
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. "To a large degree, the U.S. bishops have lost their bearings. 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, Rhode Island, 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, although several blamed the way information was released from the Vatican or reported by the 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.
Through the bishops' religious liberty campaigns, church leaders have sought expansive exemptions for religious objectors to a range of laws and policies, including recognition for same-sex marriage and workplace protections for gays and lesbians.
Ahead of the midterm elections, the Catholic Conference of Illinois, representing all the state's bishops, said in a voters' guide that abortion and related issues had far greater moral weight than immigration and poverty — issues Francis has said are at the center of the Gospel and at the core of his pontificate.
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.
Bishops have been asserting themselves as the sole authorities in their dioceses and as the arbiters of what would be considered authentically Catholic. Following the lead of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who appointed nearly all the current U.S. bishops, the prelates saw this approach as critical to defending orthodoxy.
At their national meetings, U.S. bishops have conducted an increasing amount of work behind closed doors in recent years. The sessions they opened to the public featured little debate. Thavis said the gatherings had come to feel like meetings of a "politburo."
By contrast, the pope opened the Vatican meeting on the family last month by telling the participating bishops to speak boldly. "Let no one say: 'This you cannot say,'" the pontiff said. In the months leading up to the gathering, Francis distributed a 39-point questionnaire to bishops' conferences around the world, seeking input from ordinary Catholics about their acceptance of church teaching on a host of issues related to Catholic family life. Francis then invited Catholic couples to talk about marriage at the meeting to give bishops a sense of the issues families face.
"This was real discussion, real debate, real engagement," said Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University. "They brought these issues and put them on the table, which has never really been done in this way before."
According to the schedule the U.S. bishops released for their Baltimore assembly, the meeting will concentrate on issues they've been prioritizing since before Francis' election: religious liberty, upholding marriage between a man and a woman, and moral issues in health care. A conference spokesman said a briefing is expected from church leaders who participated in last month's Vatican gathering, or synod. And the schedule can be changed at the last minute.
Still, Michael Sean Winters, an analyst with the liberal National Catholic Reporter news outlet, called the schedule "sleep-inducing."
"You would not know from that agenda," Winters wrote, "that this is such an exciting moment in the life of the church."