US Catholic leaders urge global harmony at Baltimore gathering

Catholic leaders called for peace in a war-torn world and unity amid strife within their own clerical ranks on Tuesday, as U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting.

The meeting came soon after two actions by Pope Francis that illustrated the divisive challenges facing the Catholic Church – removing one of his harshest conservative critics from his role as bishop of Tyler, Texas, and releasing a document conveying a more welcoming stance to transgender people than the official positions of the U.S. bishops.

In his opening address Tuesday, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed empathy for those in conflict zones, from Myanmar to the Middle East.

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“We recognize and defend the right of Israel to exist and to enjoy a place among the nations,” said Broglio, who heads the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.” At the same time, we know that the Palestinians … have a right to a land that is their own. The Holy See has long advocated for that right.”

The Baltimore meeting comes on the heels of an unprecedented meeting in Rome, where Catholic clergy and laypeople gathered for 25 days last month to discuss the future of the Catholic Church, including its stances on women and LGBTQ Catholics.

Cardinal Christophe Pierre, who as papal nuncio is Pope Francis’ diplomatic representative to the United States, acknowledged tensions over the recently concluded synod but took a positive tone.

“We may have had serious anxieties about the synod, especially if we are focusing on the particular agenda or idea, whether negative or positive,” Pierre said. “But this is not what synodality is all about.”

Pierre emphasized dialogue, saying church members need bishops to show ″how our diversity, harmonized, displays the beauty of the church and of the Catholic faith.”

The bishops plan to amend their voter guide ahead of an election year where abortion rights are expected to drive turnout.

The bishops elected Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas over a more prominent cultural warrior, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, as the new head of their committee on pro-life activities. The committee’s chair serves as the conference’s point-person in efforts against abortion, a top priority for the bishops.

Jamie Manson, head of Catholics for Choice, called it an ironic choice, given that Thomas serves in Ohio where Catholic groups “just spent more than $12 million fighting a losing battle against abortion access.” Ohio voters enshrined abortion rights by ballot amendment last week.

Manson said in a statement that “the Catholic bishops are doubling down on their losing abortion strategy through 2024.”

In a news conference, Broglio affirmed the bishops would maintain their efforts even as the political landscape on abortion has shifted.

“Ending innocent human life is simply not acceptable,” Broglio said. “We’ll continue to do whatever we can to influence those who go to the polls to vote.”

The polarized synod process is ongoing, and leaders will reconvene in Rome next year. On the left are those who support Pope Francis’ vision of a more welcoming, inclusive church. On the right are conservative critics of Francis’ agenda, including many U.S. bishops, who say it’s essential to hold the line on current teachings in areas such as gender and sexuality.

In the wake of the synod, Pope Francis has made decisions in recent weeks that put him at odds with some of his conservative critics.

In late October, Pope Francis moved the church closer to welcoming transgender people. A Vatican document said trans people could be baptized as well as serve as godparents under certain conditions.

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Then, just days before the annual U.S. bishops’ meeting, the pope removed Bishop Joseph Strickland, an outspoken papal critic and voice against LGBTQ inclusion, from his diocese in Texas. Strickland on Sunday posted a video on X, formerly known as Twitter, of himself speaking out against homosexuality five years ago at the U.S. bishops’ meeting.

“My voice has been removed from these gatherings but I hope someone, anyone will take up the message,” he wrote.

Strickland was seen Tuesday praying with people outside the conference hotel in Baltimore.

A rally in support of Strickland is scheduled for Saturday in Tyler.

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