US bishops' vote likely to be seen as referendum on Pope Francis

US bishops’ vote likely to be seen as referendum on Pope Francis

US bishops’ vote likely to be seen as referendum on Pope Francis

U.S. bishops at the General Assembly 2015 Fall Meeting held in Baltimore. (Credit: Photo courtesy of the USCCB.)

Beyond Trump v. Clinton, the other race of keen interest to American Catholics in 2016 is the mid-November election of new leadership for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, with the results certain to be read as an index of where the American hierarchy stands vis-à-vis Pope Francis.

As it turns out, the Trump v. Clinton showdown isn’t the only election of interest to American Catholics this fall.

The U.S. bishops are also going to be voting for their own new leaders in mid-November, and in some ways their choices are almost certain to be read as a referendum on how the American hierarchy wants to position itself vis-à-vis the new winds blowing in the Church under Pope Francis.

By tradition, a slate of ten candidates is nominated for the presidency and the vice-presidency of the conference, and they select both positions from among those nominees. The new president will replace Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who’s served the usual three-year term.

Also by tradition, though not an inviolable one, the current vice-president is considered the front-runner for the presidency. Right now that’s Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

On Friday, the USCCB released the slate of nominees for the top two jobs, with voting set for the bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 14-16.

The nominees are:

  • Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans
  • Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., of Philadelphia
  • Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City
  • Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston
  • Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville
  • Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles
  • Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore
  • Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit
  • Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami
  • Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe

If one were to open a betting line right now, I suspect a DiNardo/Gomez ticket would attract a lot of money, but of course that’s why we hold elections rather than letting bookmakers and pundits settle things – because anything can happen.

Gomez not only is seen as doctrinally solid but basically non-ideological (he’s a CPA by training, and an imminently practical figure), he also puts a face and voice on American Catholicism’s burgeoning Hispanic wing and has been among the leaders of the American bishops on immigration reform.

One immediately striking point is that none of Pope Francis’s recent picks for new American cardinals are on the list.

In the case of Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, that’s explicable by the fact that he’s moving to Rome to take up a new Vatican position as head of the pope’s department for Family, Laity and Life, meaning he’ll no longer be a residential American bishop.

With Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, however, they’re remaining in the States and theoretically would have been eligible to hold office in the conference.

These nominations were largely compiled before Pope Francis announced his new cardinals Oct. 9, but to the extent that was a factor, it might have hurt Cupich and Tobin rather than helped them. Though it’s not automatic – Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, for instance, was once elected president of the conference, and DiNardo may well be this time – in general some American bishops believe cardinals already have enough prominence, and prefer to elect someone else.

Scanning the list, Aymond, Wenski and Wester all generally would be perceived as fairly “Francis-friendly” prelates, while names such as Chaput, Lori and Vigneron would typically be seen as more conservative counter-points. (How fair or complete those perceptions are is, naturally, an entirely different conversation.)

Should one of those latter figures prevail, some media outlets and church-watchers may be tempted to style the result as a protest vote by the American bishops against the broad direction of Catholicism under Francis.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that’s not the only way to read things. Historically speaking, there’s also a grand tradition in Catholicism of local bishops trying to embrace what they see as the strengths of a given pope, while also doing what they can to remedy perceived weaknesses and to plug holes in his agenda.

For instance, bishops in earlier centuries who saw a particular pope as a terrific governor but a weak evangelist might try to step up their own missionary efforts, in order to pull some of the weight themselves – not because they didn’t like the pope’s governance, but because they were trying to help him out where they thought he needed it.

When Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York defeated Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson for president of the U.S. conference in 2010, it was seen as victory for conservatives, and certainly that was part of the picture. On the other hand, I spoke to several bishops at the time who had a different outlook. Because Benedict XVI was seen as a great theologian but not necessarily a terrific evangelist or pitchman, they thought it might help to have an extrovert at the top of the U.S. conference.

Even if perceived “conservatives” win, therefore, it doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a Brexit-style pullout from the Francis experiment, but perhaps as a vote for balance and, to use a churchy term, “complementarity.” The thinking might be that since Francis is an excellent pastor and a determined reformer, we could use some other folks in leadership disposed to ensure that the doctrinal baby isn’t tossed out with the bathwater.

Rules stipulate that the president is chosen by a simple majority vote. Following that, the vice-president is elected from the remaining nine candidates. In either case, if a candidate does not receive more than half of the votes cast on the first ballot, a second vote is taken. If a third round of voting is necessary, that ballot is a run-off between the two bishops who received the most votes on the second ballot.

During the meeting, the bishops will also elect new chairs of the following committees:

  • Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance
  • Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
  • Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis
  • Committee on International Justice and Peace
  • Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People

For all kinds of reasons, the results will be closely scrutinized for an indication of what America’s Catholic leadership is thinking now, and what their priorities are likely to be going forward.

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