BALTIMORE, Maryland — At the end of the first public day of the fall general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it’s hard not to feel that one has attended the church’s version of the Iowa caucuses. All the heavy hitters of both parties are gathered in one place at one time, and journalists are not far behind.
However, to get a more complete picture of the Church in the United States, it’s healthy to leave the Waterfront Marriott Hotel where they are meeting and just walk around the corner: In a span of a few yards one can find a rally organized by Church Militant, that had originally scheduled former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon as keynote speaker, and a woman dressed in purple and wearing a Santa Claus hat tired of having religion “mansplained” to her.
Here, then, is a sampling of the sights and sounds of the groups and protesters who surrounded the USCCB 2021 fall general assembly.
On Monday, the Catholic Organizations for Renewal – a coalition of lay-led Catholic progressive groups opposed to the politicization of Communion – held “a prayerful witness calling for ‘Bread, Not Stones’,” on behalf of the U.S. Catholics who “oppose orthodoxy tests at Jesus’ table,” according to their press release.
Kate McElwee, Executive Director of the Women’s Ordination Conference said that they wanted to “urge the bishops to be the ‘listening church’ Pope Francis calls us to be and heed the calls of their people who long for pastoral care and spiritual nourishment. We pray that the bishops take this opportunity to choose unity over division, pastoral care over political projects, and to model Jesus’ inclusive ministry above all else.”
Early on Tuesday, you could see Robert Hoatson, co-founder and president of Road to Recovery, a sexual abuse victims’ advocacy group that he says has helped over 5,000 abuse victims and their families in the past two decades. He showed up with signs saying over 50 bishops have been accused of abusing minors.
“Cover up happened because the bishops were abusing minors themselves,” he said.
Hoatson told Crux that “my faith has never been stronger, but by religion has never been weaker.”
Outside the Marriott you could also find Mrs. Paul Owczarek, who wrote the 2018 book Men Explain Religion to Me: (Subverting God to Promote Paganism, Rape, Murder, Homophobia, and Pedophilia Or How ISIS Won the White House).
A 50+ year old engineer who grew up in the Bible Belt of the Midwest, she’s been dutifully protesting against the Church hierarchy for several years, with this year’s being her third time at the doors of the assembly. She told Crux that, even though she prefers to stay at a hotel “in the other side of town,” she’s staying at the Marriott this time around because it gives her the opportunity of running into some bishops in the elevators. Though she only gets a few seconds each time this happens, she said she’s used to making them count, taking into consideration that as a female engineer, she’s used to “being a woman in a man’s world.”
Tuesday also saw a rally organized by Church Militant, a conservative Catholic news outlet known for its criticism of Pope Francis, its opposition to vaccination mandates and its claims that the church is too tolerant of homosexuality. Towards the end of the event, George Neumayr, author of The Political Pope: How Pope Francis Is Delighting The Liberal Left And Abandoning Conservatives, who accused the bishops of being “faithless,” producing as a result “faithless faithful.”
He also said that “Joe Biden is a monster of [the bishops] making, and that Biden’s infidelity to church teaching reflects the infidelity of the bishops.”
The Michigan-based outlet won a legal battle with the city of Baltimore to allow the “Bishops: Enough Is Enough” rally to take place after the city argued that the event posed a public safety threat with a speaker lineup that included far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos.
The rally went for several hours, with some 1,300 people in attendance, many from out of town. One of them told Crux that Bannon, who had to skip the rally after turning himself in to the FBI on Monday, following an indictment, can be considered “as the most practicing Catholic in the U.S. today, even if he is not a Mass going Catholic.”
Also around the hotel – but moving throughout Baltimore – was the movement that’s working to “Save the Latin Mass.” The group of Catholic laity from around the U.S. have united “in a shared mission to prevent the elimination of the Mass of the Ages,” and have a moving banner on a truck calling for “God to save the traditional Latin Mass.”
This movement, according to their website, is supported by the Coalition of Canceled Priests, the Lepanto Institute and Regina Magazine.
Yet not all those who were on the “sidelines” of the assembly are actively against the hierarchy, defying Pope Francis’ or challenging Church teaching, but actually hoping the bishops will join them in their causes. Such is the case of the prayer walk with clergy abuse survivors in honor of the International Day for Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Prevention, Healing, and Justice, that will take place at 7 a.m. on Thursday.
The walk is in fact co-organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who’s expected to attend the walk.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma