“Who speaks for the American bishops?”

That question was put to me by a senior member of the inner circle of Pope Francis when I was in Rome in October. The plenary meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week in Baltimore did not clarify that, and in fact, may have made the question more obscure.

The U.S. bishops elected their president and vice president: Archbishops José Gomez of Los Angeles and Allen Vigneron of Detroit. But who speaks for bishops is not determined by official office.

In January 1984, St. John Paul II made clear who he wanted to speak for the Church in the United States when he appointed Bernard Law to Boston and then John O’Connor to New York two weeks later. At the time, the joke was that the Pope wanted a little more “Law and Order” in the United States. He created them cardinals together the following year. (Cardinal Law was the first U.S. cardinal born in Mexico; his father was in the military and posted outside the U.S. If Archbishop Gomez is ever created a cardinal, he would be the second.)

“Law and Order” did speak for the U.S. bishops — Cardinal O’Connor, principally — for the next 16 years. Upon Cardinal O’Connor’s death in May 2000, the mantle was passed to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who eventually would become USCCB president, but spoke for the bishops both before and after his official term.

He died in April 2015. Who has succeeded him?

It was clear who was supposed to succeed. In 2016, Pope Francis created Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis (transferred to Newark, New Jersey, a few weeks later) cardinals together. Both elevations were personal choices of Pope Francis, and, since then, Cardinals Cupich and Tobin have been favored with papal appointments.

Most notably in November 2018, when the USCCB was preparing proposals for dealing with misconduct by bishops, the Holy See worked through back channels with Cardinal Cupich to advance an alternative approach. Cardinal Cupich was later appointed to lead the Vatican sex-abuse summit in February 2019, in which the “metropolitan model” he first advanced at the November meeting was adopted worldwide.

Despite papal favor, though, Cardinal Cupich seems unable to get the hearing within the conference, and in the wider country, that Cardinals O’Connor or George had. This week’s plenary meeting seemed to confirm that.

In discussion of a letter accompanying the bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” guide for elections, Cardinal Cupich wanted the drafting committee, led by Archbishop Gomez, to include an entire paragraph from the Holy Father’s exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world, Gaudete et Exsultate.

Cardinal Cupich argued that the entire quotation put abortion into its proper context, as one priority among many, and not the “preeminent” priority. The drafting committee included an excerpt, but not the entire paragraph. Cardinal Cupich went to the floor to persuade the bishops as a whole to adopt his amendment.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego — another recipient of papal favor, recently having been appointed to the Pan-Amazon synod — vigorously supported Cardinal Cupich, flatly objecting that abortion should be described as “preeminent.” When Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, following Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, rose to disagree with Bishop McElroy, the assembled bishops broke protocol to applaud his intervention.

Cardinal Cupich’s amendment failed badly. It was clear that even on the issue about how best to present the teaching of Pope Francis, Cardinal Cupich does not speak for his brother bishops.

There is no little irony here. Cardinal Cupich was objecting, in fact, that the drafting committee was giving the relevant paragraph the Amoris Laetitia treatment, in which quotations and footnotes in Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation were used to misrepresent and even undermine the very teachings cited. It is not evident that the drafting committee actually intended or did that, but it is not possible to praise Amoris Laetitia and also object to a selective use of citations.

It is possible that Cardinal Cupich was emboldened in his venture for leadership by the address to the bishops given by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio.

Archbishop Pierre’s address was reported as a reprimand, in that he bluntly told the bishops that “the pastoral thrust of this pontificate must reach the American people.” The clear implication is that it wasn’t, or at least not in the ways that the nuncio thought necessary, and that the bishops bore responsibility for that.

That the nuncio’s address might be a bit tough, even aggressive, was expected by the bishops. Many of them were aware that, when addressing superiors of women religious earlier this year, Archbishop Pierre began his address with the question: “Do you know who the Holy Father is? Do you know the name of the Pope?”

It was widely reported among the bishops that the address was received as both caustic and patronizing, and more than a few wondered if they would get the same treatment. In the event, the address to the bishops was more diplomatic and left the insults aside.

There is an irony here, too. The U.S. bishops, noting the nuncio’s address, evidently considered that they knew best how to interpret the pastoral needs of their own flock. For much of the past few months, dominant voices in Rome have been suggesting that decentralized pastoral priorities are exactly what is needed, whether in Germany or the Amazon.

Baltimore provided a new USCCB executive. But who the leader of the U.S. bishops will be remains an outstanding question. During the ongoing ad limina visits, it might be a question to which Pope Francis will seek an answer: Why aren’t the bishops following Cardinal Cupich as they did Cardinal O’Connor 35 years ago?

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.