DENVER — It is no secret that the pontificate of Pope Francis has been a challenge for Church leaders to navigate, and the bishops of the United States are no exception. A man often called the Pope of surprises, who has encouraged Catholics to “make a mess,” the pontiff’s spontaneity, new approaches and willingness to rebuff traditional consultative mechanisms has, more than once, seemed to catch American bishops off-guard.

But for the most part, America’s Church leaders have been careful to emphasize their unity with Pope Francis. The bishops have mostly expressed strong public support for Francis, even while offering widely differing takes on the meaning of his teachings, especially regarding the interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.  

Although some sitting American bishops have privately expressed reservations about the Pope’s leadership, none had deemed it appropriate to publicly correct the Pope.

Ecclesiastical culture emphasizes fraternity, harmony and the appearance of getting along, and the American bishops have seemed to stress those values during the Francis pontificate.
 
In 2013, Archbishop Charles Chaput told a reporter, “I’ve never been critical of the Holy Father and would never speak ill of him.” That sentiment might have been considered a universal commitment among America’s bishops.

At least until this weekend, when Cardinal Sean O’Malley issued a strong criticism of some recent comments from Pope Francis.

The criticism was a response to remarks Pope Francis made about a Chilean bishop, Juan Barros, who is accused of covering up acts of sexual abuse for his onetime friend, the disgraced Father Fernando Karadima. Bishop Barros has claimed to be innocent, and Francis has been a staunch defender. In 2015, he appointed him to lead the Diocese of Osorno, and, shortly thereafter, he told an official at the Chilean bishops’ conference that opposition to the appointment was “silliness.”

“Think with your head, and do not be carried away by the noses of the leftists, who are the ones who put this thing together,” the Pope told Deacon Jaime Coiro during a brief meeting in May 2015 at the Vatican.

Father Karadima was a prominent figure in Chile, and many Chileans have been critical of the Vatican for the handling of his case. Although he was found guilty of sexual abuse by a Vatican tribunal, he was not laicized because of his advanced age. Before Francis arrived in Chile, there were large protests in the country, and several churches were vandalized. The matter of Bishop Barros’ appointment was a part of the conversation.   

On Friday, Francis told a reporter that “the day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

Francis may have meant otherwise, and Bishop Barros’ situation is complicated, but the Pope was largely understood to be accusing Bishop Barros’ accusers, some of whom are Father Karadima’s victims, of calumny — slander or detraction.  

For many, this was a bridge too far.

Cardinal O’Malley’s statement called the Pope’s remarks a “source of great pain” for abuse survivors.  

“Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile,” Cardinal O’Malley’s statement read.

On his return flight from South America yesterday, the Pope apologized for his remarks and tried to clarify them, while continuing to express support for Bishop Barros.

Cardinal O’Malley’s statement praised the Pope’s support for abuse survivors, and it can hardly be called “speaking ill” of Francis. But it was certainly a direct criticism of his comments.
 
It is not surprising Cardinal O’Malley was unhappy with the Pope’s remarks. Cardinal O’Malley took over the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003, after the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, who was widely reported to have been negligent in his response to allegations of sexual abuse among the clergy. Boston was the epicenter of the “Long Lent of 2002,” which began the sexual-abuse scandal in the United States, and Cardinal O’Malley, arriving in the midst of the fervor, bore the brunt.

By many accounts, Cardinal O’Malley handled that responsibility admirably. He met with victims, engaged in complicated litigation, dealt with canonical and civil trials of priests, and, to his chagrin, oversaw the closure of some Boston parishes.

He became, in many respects, the face of the American Church’s response to the sexual-abuse crisis.

But Cardinal O’Malley was not alone. Since 2002, the leaders of the Catholic Church have worked, with a great deal of actual unity, to ensure safe Catholic environments for children and vulnerable adults. The 2002 documents guiding that work have led bishops to establish lay-led review boards, to implement background checks and abuse-prevention trainings, and to establish offices for child protection in their dioceses.

While some bishops have expressed concern about “mission creep” among child-protection professionals, or advocated for a stronger stated correlation between homosexuality and some acts of sexual abuse, the bishops have been unified in recognizing a problem and working to root it out.

Most American bishops have had the difficult experience of meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse and apologizing for their suffering.

The issue has not been characterized by ideological division. The current chairman of the bishops’ committee on child and youth protection, Bishop Ed Burns of Dallas, is widely perceived to be hardworking, non-political and collaborative. Most observers would say that those adjectives describe the character of the bishops’ approach to child protection.

And, for the most part, their efforts have had effect. Sexual-abuse-prevention policies have largely worked to screen potential predators from among the clergy, and the Church in the U.S. has begun to rebuild its credibility on the issue of sexual abuse.

Cardinal O’Malley’s statement emphasized the Church’s concern for victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to safe environments. While his concern for Father Karadima’s victims rang true, the statement may have also been motivated by a concern that the Pope’s remarks would be a step backward for the public credibility of the Church in the U.S., which has taken many painful steps in order to move forward.

Given the difficult work American bishops have done to address sexual abuse, it makes sense that Cardinal O’Malley offered a response to the Pope. But his statement was certainly outside the norm for American bishops in the modern era.

In the Church’s long history, criticism from bishops aimed at the Pope is not uncommon. But contemporary critique from American bishops is usually far less direct and far more veiled than Cardinal O’Malley’s statement. His statement may prove exceptional: a singular correction on a unique issue. Or it may pave the way for other kinds of statements.

Cardinal O’Malley’s concern was likely shared by other American bishops, but, since Pope Francis has apologized, it seems unlikely that there will be more statements from American bishops on this issue.

But other significant issues are looming.

This year, the Pope will lead a synod on vocations and young people, where some expect that clerical celibacy may be an issue for discussion. And during this year, the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, some predict debate on the encyclical’s interpretation.

Humanae Vitae, especially, is an issue that the bishops of the United States have stressed over the past few decades. Several American bishops have long-standing affiliation with natural family planning apostolates, and, especially since the 2012 HHS mandate, the USCCB itself has invested in a pastoral emphasis on the teachings of Humanae Vitae. If there was any perception that those teachings were at risk of being de-emphasized, American bishops might view that as a bridge too far, as Cardinal O’Malley did in this case.

And, given the work the bishops have done to promote priestly vocations over the past 20 years, they could be similarly concerned if they felt that Rome might give conflicting signals about clerical celibacy.

The American bishops might stick to their emphasis on unity and fraternity. But, with difficult conversations on the horizon, and with Cardinal O’Malley setting a new precedent, it’s possible that other bishops might feel empowered to offer more direct criticism, if they felt it was needed.

On those issues, of course, it is not clear whether the Pope would respond to criticism with a mid-flight apology.  

J.D. Flynn is editor in chief of Catholic News Agency and a canon lawyer.