BALTIMORE — At their fall assembly in Baltimore earlier this week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops elected Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles as their new president to succeed Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston on Nov. 14. Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit succeeded Archbishop Gomez as vice president of the body.

The Nov. 12 election of Archbishop Gomez, 67, was widely expected, since the vice president of the USCCB traditionally is elected president. He was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and is the first Latino to head the conference.

Archbishop Vigneron, 71, was elected by a narrower margin from among nine candidates the assembly voted on to succeed Archbishop Gomez in the No. 2 role.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register he was “very pleased” with the elections’ outcome, saying the USCCB was in “good hands.”

“I was expecting Archbishop Gomez, of course, to be elected, and I’m very happy about that,” he said. He called Archbishop Vigneron a “veteran as a man of the Church, as a bishop and archbishop,” who has “great intelligence and sensitivity” and is a “unifier.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, told the Register that the conference “chose some very good leaders.”

“I think we’ve been blessed with a leadership of Cardinal DiNardo over the past three years. Archbishop Gomez has served very well as vice president, and so I think he’ll also do very well as president,” Bishop Paprocki emphasized. He added that Archbishop Vigneron will be a “very good vice president” and has “served the conference well” as conference secretary and as chairman of its Committee on Doctrine.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told the Register regarding the election of Archbishop Gomez that he was “grateful to God that the Church has a Hispanic as the leader of our bishops’ conference,” because “that’s very important: to show the whole Church the significant role that Latinos play in the Church now in the United States.”

 

Pro-Life Remains ‘Preeminent Priority’

The bishops also approved five video scripts and a short letter to supplement their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. That vote prompted a debate over the mention of abortion as a “preeminent priority” in the letter, language that was ultimately backed by the majority of bishops, despite concerns voiced by Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.

The debate began when Cardinal Cupich asked to include Paragraph 101 from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad) in the letter, which included part of the passage — which emphasizes that protecting the lives of the poor and marginalized is equal in importance to defending the unborn — but not all, for reasons of brevity.

That paragraph reads: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.”

Bishop McElroy defended Cardinal Cupich’s proposal and took issue with another part of the letter that called the abortion issue a “preeminent priority.”

“It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face in the world of Catholic social teaching,” he claimed, saying to teach otherwise would provide “a grave disservice” to the faithful.

Archbishop Chaput contested Bishop McElroy’s assertion that naming abortion as a preeminent priority was at odds with the Pope’s statement or Church teaching, and Archbishop Chaput was greeted by loud applause from his fellow bishops.

“I am certainly not against quoting the Holy Father’s full statement. I think it’s a beautiful statement. I believe it. But I am against anyone stating that our stating it [abortion] is ‘preeminent’ is contrary to the teaching of the Pope,” he said. “That isn’t true. That sets up an artificial battle between the bishops’ conference of the United States and the Holy Father.”

“I think it’s been a very clearly articulated opinion of the bishops’ conference for many years that pro-life is still the preeminent issue. It doesn’t mean the others aren’t equal in dignity,” Archbishop Chaput explained.

Ultimately, Cardinal Cupich’s attempt to add the full quote from Pope Francis to the letter was voted down 143-69, with four bishops abstaining from the vote.

Following that vote, Bishop McElroy told the Register why he did not want abortion to be named as a “preeminent priority” in the letter.

“My own view is that there are three preeminent issues in American public life today for the Catholic faithful citizen: one is abortion, one is the environment, and one is immigration,” he said. “That, I think, better reflects what the Pope’s quote was talking about.”

When asked about Archbishop Chaput’s reply to him that naming abortion as preeminent was not discordant with the Pope’s quote, he replied, “That quote from the Pope talks about all those things in balance, and to say there’s one preeminent issue, I think, is discordant with what the Pope was saying in that quote. He [Archbishop Chaput] differs on that.”

Archbishop Cordileone told the Register that he agreed with Archbishop Chaput that prioritizing abortion as “preeminent” is “not contrary to the teaching of Pope Francis.”

“The reason abortion is preeminent, besides the extreme gravity of tearing babies apart limb by limb, is the fact that if there’s no right to life, then all other rights fall,” he explained. “It’s the first right; it’s logically the first right. People have to have a right to life before they can have access to other rights.”

Bishop Paprocki told the Register that the majority of bishops had a reason for prioritizing the abortion issue in the letter.

“Bishop McElroy expressed a concern that by calling it preeminent people will all seize on that and say, ‘Well, then the other issues aren’t important,’” he said. “My concern, the concern of Archbishop Chaput, as he mentioned it, and I think the body of bishops, ultimately, was that if we don’t say it’s a preeminent issue, then people will be inclined to say, ‘Well, abortion is just one issue among many, and we shouldn’t give it any special attention,’ so it would actually be devalued. The overwhelming majority of bishops sided with that opinion.”

“The Pope’s teaching speaks for itself,” he added, agreeing with Archbishop Chaput that it was not in contradiction with the letter. “We don’t need to have lengthy quotes in our own document. The bishops of the United States should speak for themselves, and that’s what this letter intended to do, along with the videos that will accompany it.”

 

McCarrick Scandal Update

On the first day of the assembly, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, requested that an update be added to the agenda regarding the status of the Vatican’s report on the scandal of now-laicized former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was credibly accused of sexual abuse of seminarians and children. Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston later informed the bishops that the report will be released “soon,” possibly as early as December or January. That report would be a formal accounting of which senior Church leaders, in the U.S. and in Rome, knew about McCarrick’s misconduct yet failed to take action.

Cardinal O’Malley, who recently arrived back in the U.S. from an ad limina visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican, said he was shown a “hefty document,” which is being translated for presentation to the Pope with an expected publication in early 2020.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin “assured” Cardinal O’Malley’s delegation of New England bishops that the Vatican had intended to publish its response to the investigation prior to the bishops’ fall meeting, Cardinal O’Malley advised, but the scope of the investigation and large quantity of the findings warranted a later publishing date.

Prior to Cardinal O’Malley’s update, Bishop Boyea told the Register that he had requested an update because many people were wondering about the report. He said he wasn’t looking for information about the contents at this point, but just wanted to hear “where the stage of this report is right now.”

Bishop Paprocki said he understood why the review of the documentation has been such a time-consuming process. “It’s my understanding that the Holy See wants to be thorough about this and not be issuing documents piecemeal,” he emphasized. “I think they want to make sure that the search for these documents is complete before they issue them.”

 

Third-Party Reporting System

The assembly also discussed the implementation of Pope Francis’ new set of Vatican norms for the Church’s handling of sexual-abuse cases contained in his apostolic letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World). This included a discussion of their national third-party reporting system for reporting abuse, approved during their June assembly, that the Holy See required they have in place by May 2020.

Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the bishops Nov. 13 that a contract had been finalized for the system and it could be ready by February 2020, just ahead of the deadline.

Bishop Paprocki told the Register that he thought this aspect of implementing Vos Estis was “moving along very well.”

“We should be ahead of schedule on that,” he said. “I think just to have this mechanism in place, that’s one of the key features of making it known, if people have a real complaint where they should bring that.”

Bishop Boyea explained to the Register that since the contract is in place “now each province has to arrange some kind of receiver reporter so that if something happens nationally on this national line it then gets forwarded to the appropriate province, and those are still all in the process of being formed.”

Bishop James Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, who was elected Nov. 12 as the new chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, told the Register that he believes the implementation of Vos Estis in the U.S. overall is “going well.”

“We’re at a point where every province where every metropolitan and senior suffragan, and really the bishops in every province, are having to make some specific choices that pertain to their province,” he explained, “identifying the right people and addressing just sort of the nuts and bolts, if you will, of how you’re going to pay for it.”

 

Program for Priestly Formation

Another agenda item was the bishops’ approval for the sixth edition of the “Program for Priestly Formation” (PPF), which added a “propaedeutic stage” to seminary formation. That means an additional, introductory year to seminary formation in the U.S. for some seminarians. However, the document still needs a recognitio, or approval, from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy before implementation.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, introduced the document and said it “allows latitude for individual dioceses, provinces and regions” for bishops to “adapt this to individual circumstances.”

“The PPF’s focus is on benchmarks — the outcomes that must be achieved by the seminarian before advancing to the next stage in his formation, rather than on chronological times,” he emphasized. “New weight [is] given to stages rather than years.”

Bishop Boyea, who was involved in drafting the document, explained to the Register that “our aim is to try to be as flexible as possible because we’re such a diversity in our country, and I think we’ve achieved that in the ‘Program of Priestly Formation.’ We’ll have to see if the Holy See agrees with us.”

The document also recognized the revelations of sexual misconduct and abuse that included seminarians in recent years.

“The scandalous and criminal behavior of some clergy who have used minors and engaged in sexual misconduct with adults, including seminarians, has caused great suffering for the victims and damaged the Church’s witness in society,” it says. “This has resulted in a loss of credibility for the Church and an overall lack of respect for religion. Both the nation and the Church are summoned to renewal and to a real integrity of life.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.