Over the weekend, the highest-ranking American prelate in the Vatican, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, who has been critical of Pope Francis and his attempt to liberalize elements of the Catholic Church, was demoted.
Burke, 66, who was the archbishop of St. Louis until 2008, had been the head of the Holy See's supreme court. He was named Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a largely ceremonial position overseeing a charitable arm of the church.
His strident discourse and preference of fancy, old-fashioned vestments contrast starkly with the informal, chatty tone and simple, almost Spartan style Francis has established for his papacy.
In the past, Burke has advocated denying Communion to Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion, and last month, he marshaled conservative criticism against the possibility the Vatican may loosen rules that ban Communion for people who have gotten divorced and remarried.
Francis has said that church hierarchy should not focus so much on abortion and same-sex marriage but instead concentrate on making the church a more welcoming place. Meanwhile, Burke has said to a Catholic broadcaster that "we can never talk enough" against abortion and same-sex marriage.
Recently, he told a Spanish magazine that the church "is like a ship without a rudder" under Francis.
He has also questioned Francis' denunciation of excesses of capitalism.
Burke’s demotion was widely expected, but it’s timing, just before the gathering of American bishops in Baltimore on Monday, seemed to portend a widening rift between the Vatican and the U.S. church, which has around 78 million members.
"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."
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said the recent debate at a global gathering of bishops at the Vatican last month to discuss the status of the family within the church and the bickering that followed, 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.
“It’s nothing new that some Catholics who disagree with the pope feel that they’re marginalized in the church,” the Rev. Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at Catholic University in Washington D.C., recently told Fox News Latino.
“What’s new is that it’s the conservatives who feel that way now,” he added. “It used to be the progressives who felt that way under Benedict and John Paul.”
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."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.