U.S. Bishops Set to Elect New Leadership at Fall Meeting

Strategy to be reset amid Church-state tensions.

TOP SPOT. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Kentucky, left, is the outgoing president of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, shown at right, is the likely candidate for the post.
TOP SPOT. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Kentucky, left, is the outgoing president of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, shown at right, is the likely candidate for the post. (photo: 2015 photos, Mary Rezac and Bohumil Petrik/CNA)
BALTIMORE — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will hold its annual fall assembly Nov. 14-17 to select new leaders and approve action plans to advance strategic goals for the Church in this country.
The gathering in Baltimore will give Church leaders a chance to take stock of new challenges and
opportunities, as Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, marks the close of his three-year term and his replacement is selected.
In his final keynote address, Archbishop Kurtz will reflect on the highlights of his term, which spanned Pope Francis’ trip to the United States, the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the two synods of bishops on the family that debated proposals to change Catholic teaching on reception of the Eucharist for civilly-divorced-and-remarried Catholics.
“The first thing I will talk about is what it means to follow the lead of Pope Francis and have a pastoral heart,” Archbishop Kurtz told the Register, as he echoed one of the Pope’s key priorities for Church leaders.
While steering the conference during a period of significant challenge, the Louisville archbishop has called on Catholics to defend the truth with charity and mutual respect.
At the 2015 synod in Rome, he was among the U.S. delegates who maintained a calm, united defense of the indissolubility of marriage and pushed for transparency at press conferences that shared information about the deliberations.
“St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — Edith Stein — said, ‘Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth,’” said Archbishop Kurtz, when asked to reflect on his efforts to advance Catholic teaching.
“That is the antidote we, as Church, bring to the public square. When we are at our best, we witness to the sanctity of human life, respect for religious freedom and a desire to serve in ways that show deep respect and civility. We take the lead from Jesus: never to impose, but always to propose.”
During the Baltimore meeting, the bishops will decide whether they want a new conference president in the same mold.
In past years, the election has signaled the U.S. bishops’ general direction on a range of issues, from the defense of moral absolutes in the public square and catechetical and liturgical reforms to international and domestic advocacy for the poor and immigrants.
Presidential Nominees
The nominees for president are Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
If past voting practices are followed, then Cardinal DiNardo, the USCCB vice president, will be elected president. But some conference watchers have suggested that Pope Francis’ emphasis on dialogue and accompaniment as the best path for engaging secular culture and drawing alienated Catholics back to the Church could shake things up. Support could shift for a shepherd such as Cardinal-elect Blase Cupich of Chicago, who was recently appointed by Pope Francis to the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops, where he will influence U.S. episcopal appointments.
Russell Shaw, the Catholic author and commentator and a former USCCB spokesman, told the Register that he had been waiting to see whether the Chicago archbishop would be nominated for USCCB president.
“Cardinal-elect Cupich has been singled out by the Pope as his man in the hierarchy, and that counts for something,” Shaw told the Register.
Robert Royal, an author, television commentator and the editor of The Catholic Thing blog, wondered aloud whether the elections would yield a surprise winner.
“Almost all of the candidates for USCCB president are in the JPII-Benedict line, and even the ones that are not, like Archbishop Wenski, are very solid men who fall somewhere between the old and the new dispensations,” Royal told the Register.
“I myself would expect there not to be any great change in the top leadership — especially since the American participants in the synod hewed closer to traditional positions than several European and Latin American delegations,” he added.
The bishops will also select new leaders for key committees.
Bishops under consideration for the new chairman-elect of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis are Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, the noted author and host of the Catholicism television series and a newly appointed regional bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a well-regarded Church leader.
The likely choices for chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace are Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, a progressive prelate who has sparred with the conference’s recent leadership, and Archbishop Timothy Broglio, a former papal nuncio and currently the head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services. 
What’s at Stake
Coming in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, the USCCB elections will signal the direction of the U.S. hierarchy during a complex and increasingly perilous time for the Church and the nation.
At home, political and cultural changes have pushed the U.S. hierarchy to keep pace with emerging threats to the religious freedom of Catholic nonprofits and individual believers, matched by a steady decline in Sunday Mass attendance, especially among younger Catholics.
In Baltimore, the bishops will approve action plans to address these trends, as well as other matters of vital concern to Catholics, including improved marriage-preparation programs and help for struggling spouses.
“The Church needs to help parishioners live out the truth about marriage, by fostering a culture that makes marriage attractive, by preparing the unmarried in the virtue of chastity, and by providing concrete support to those facing challenges in their marriages,” said Ryan Anderson, the co-author of What Is Marriage? 
And as the nation begins to pull back from a brutal presidential election year overshadowed by sexual scandals, protests over police shootings of black men, hacked emails that exposed efforts to manipulate the Catholic Church and anger over U.S. immigration policy, the bishops also seek to offer a distinctively Catholic response to issues that have divided the nation.
The agenda in Baltimore will feature an update from the USCCB Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities, which will develop a pastoral letter on the problem of racism in American society and the Church.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who chairs the task force, could not comment on the work of the task force before the meeting.
But Archbishop Kurtz has already called on the faithful to bridge the racial divide thorugh prayer and personal outreach. Further, he has addressed the need for Catholics to use the Church’s institutional presence in embattled urban neighborhoods as a starting point for engagement with black residents who face injustice.
At the same time, the bishops have expressed respect for the sacrifices of police officers.
Election Outcome
The USCCB meeting agenda will also include an update on legal challenges to the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate, and Archbishop Kurtz told the Register that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome.
However, most legal specialists say the presidential election will likely decide these cases, with the winner nominating the ninth justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, so breaking the 4-4 deadlock that has stalled a number of cases before the high court and sent others back to lower courts.
Archbishop Kurtz made it clear that the bishops were prepared to work with a Democratic or Republican administration, along with lobbying Congress and providing amicus briefs in important cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In private meetings, the bishops will likely have a good deal more to say about the shifting political winds set in motion by a new occupant in the Oval Office.
For now, George Weigel, the Catholic author, suggests that the bishops ponder one key lesson learned during an unprecedented election year, courtesy of WikiLeaks’ release of hacked emails from the account of John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The emails disclosed efforts by Democratic operatives to establish self-styled “Catholic” groups that could influence public opinion and even change Church teaching on sexual ethics.
“If there’s a lesson to be learned from this WikiLeaks business for the difficult future that awaits the Church in the United States, it has to do with the bishops becoming more assertive guardians of the ‘Catholic’ brand,” argued Weigel in a column for First Things this month.
“When ‘Catholics for Choice’ takes out full-page newspaper ads asserting that ‘public funding for abortion is a Catholic social-justice value’ (as happened during this election cycle), the local bishop should be at the forefront of the public challenge to such lies.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.