US Bishops’ Conference Plans Fall Assembly

Elections, faithful citizenship and priestly formation are on the agenda.

Bishops from around the United States ride an escalator during the fall meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Bishops from around the United States ride an escalator during the fall meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (photo: 2006 photo, Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The election of a new president and vice president will top the agenda at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall assembly.

Meeting in Baltimore Nov. 11-13, the bishops will also vote on seven action items, which include supplementing documents on faithful citizenship ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election and voting on changes for a sixth edition of the “Program of Priestly Formation.”

Russell Shaw, a Catholic author who served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987, told the Register it “would be a great surprise” if the current USCCB vice president, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, were not elected president. Since 2016 the archbishop has served alongside the current USCCB president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who is retiring from the post at the completion of his three-year term. “The bishops almost always elect the vice president as president,” Shaw noted, “so I just take it for granted that Archbishop Gomez will be the next president of the bishops’ conference — and a very good one, I’m sure.

“The interesting question then becomes who will be elected vice president, with a good chance of being elected president three years from now; and there, I think, it’s really a toss-up.” 

The 10 archbishops and bishops listed on the USCCB’s presidential ballot are: Archbishop Gomez, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, and Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit.

Once a new USCCB president is elected, the assembled U.S. bishops then choose from among the remaining nine candidates for the position of vice president.

Veteran Church analyst George Weigel told the Register that it “seems virtually certain that Archbishop Gomez will be elected president.” He didn’t speculate on the vice president.

Shaw explained that when nominating their fellow bishops, the bishops were likely looking for “a personality that would suit the leadership position in the conference of bishops, as it operates largely on the basis of consensus. Someone who has a sense of consensus, if you put it that way, is able to build consensus among a group of people and respect the wishes and dealings of the membership.”

Weigel said that “solidity of doctrine and serious pastoral ability” were likely factors that the bishops were taking into consideration in their nomination.


Conspicuous Absences

Regarding the list of those nominated for president and vice president, some have noted the absence of the names of three prelates who are perceived to be closely aligned with Pope Francis’ vision for the Church: Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego.

“I can only say while they are certainly prominent in the American hierarchy, they still have yet to establish their particular presence within the conference of bishops,” Shaw said. “It takes time; you don’t get to be president or vice president of the bishops’ conference quickly. The feeling, I’m quite sure, among the bishops is that they want a man who has been a member of the conference for some years and who has served on committees.”

He added that he did not see the absence of their names as a “put-down or repudiation of Pope Francis. The American hierarchy is intensely loyal to the papacy, and always has been, so the bishops are not taking a sort of unspoken shot at the Pope or the Vatican or anything like that.”

Weigel said that it seemed “fairly obvious that whatever support these men enjoy in Rome is not matched by the support they enjoy among their brother bishops, but that’s nothing new.” 


‘Faithful Citizenship’ Videos

Bishop Paprocki spoke with the Register about some of the other significant action items that the bishops will address at the assembly, including approval for the scripts of a video format for their “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” teaching document.

Bishop Paprocki explained that at the bishops’ general meeting in June 2018, “The decision was made that rather than trying to do a revision of the document ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,’ we wanted to focus more on doing a video or videos. The discussion then was that we spent a lot of time, it seemed, writing and revising documents that we wonder: How many people read them?”

“For example,” he continued, “I’ve noticed when I travel, I rarely see people reading books anymore. They’re all on their cellphones or tablets or they’re watching videos and movies. We thought we would have a greater impact and reach more people if we would do videos.”

“What we’re looking at is not really so much the content or any change in the content,” Bishop Paprocki emphasized. “It’s more to try to make our message more accessible to a greater number of people.”

The bishops will be considering for approval a short letter that would supplement “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” and the scripts for five videos taking themes from the document.

Bishop Paprocki said that the first video is “Catholics Participating in Public Life” and has the theme of the importance of participation in political life. The second video is on Catholics protecting human life and dignity, he said, noting that “that would refer to, of course, the unborn, abortion, women, migrants, the elderly, disabled, persons in poverty,” and “the spectrum of issues involving human life and dignity.”

The third video is “Catholics Promoting the Common Good,” Bishop Paprocki said, since “a major theme in Catholic social teaching is common good and the dignity of every human being.” The fourth video will be about Catholics loving their neighbors and “solidarity and subsidiarity: how we organize society to work together and fight problems and to respond to people’s needs.” He said that the fifth video is “Faithful Citizens Work With Christ as He Builds His Kingdom” and is “about how we as Catholics then work in our society to try to build a better world.”

Bishop Paprocki emphasized that these videos will be short — the shortest is roughly 90 seconds, and the longest is 5-6 minutes — so that Catholic viewers can see these issues discussed in a concise way. The bishops will be “looking at the text, just as in the past we would look at documents and revise documents.”

“I really don’t see anything that would be a matter of debate,” Bishop Paprocki said regarding what he anticipated from the discussion. “These are matters of Catholic principle of Catholic social teaching, so we tend to speak more in terms of the principles like the common good, the dignity of the human person, and then in terms of specific issues. These are things that would’ve been pretty much a mainstay of Catholic teaching. There’s a teaching against abortion, promoting the rights of migrants, the poor. There are general categories like that, rather than getting into specific policies, and certainly not taking partisan sides in this.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register regarding the discussion of faithful citizenship that “while there has been movement in different directions on different issues over the past four years, the issues themselves remain pretty much the same.” 

“I anticipate that there will be no major rewriting of ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,’” he said, “only some modifications. We will see, though, where the sense of the body of bishops takes us.”

But Shaw said that given the upcoming U.S. presidential election, he couldn’t be sure there wouldn’t be a debate on the faithful-citizenship material. “If even one bishop feels strongly about that, then there will be a debate,” he said, while noting that the bishops have historically reached some consensus on these matters.


Priestly  Formation

Another item the bishops will be considering is a vote to approve the sixth edition of the “Program of Priestly Formation.” The Register asked Bishop Paprocki if this discussion might touch on the recent scandals in the U.S. Church, particularly involving now-laicized former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct with seminarians and allegations of a homosexual subculture in some seminaries (see story on page 2).

Bishop Paprocki, who was on the collaborative committee that worked on the changes, said that “seminary formation, in at least the last decade, if not longer, I think, has taken that into account.”

“There are psychological evaluations that are required before a man is even accepted into the seminary, and then there is continued psychological work that is being done while they’re in the seminary,” he pointed out. “The ‘Program of Priestly Formation,’ sixth edition, is not saying that we need to radically change the seminaries because we have a current problem. I think what we’re saying is the seminaries have done a very good job, at least in the last 20 years, of addressing the previous problems, and this is really just trying to strengthen it.”

“It would be naïve to think that we’ve eliminated all the problems, but I think it’s a question that perhaps we’re more vigilant or even better at diagnosing the problems,” he concluded on that matter. “In the past maybe the problems were present and they were allowed to continue or even fester, whereas, now, I think problems, if they are present, they are more quickly identified and then dealt with.”

Weigel thought the issue “should be” discussed, although, in his opinion, “a lot of that problem has been resolved.” He added that “the real formation issue now is less a question of ‘culture’ than of the availability of gay-dating apps.”

Shaw said that a discussion of a homosexual subculture is “a rather remote possibility.” However, he added that “this latest updating of the ‘Program of Priestly Formation’ could encourage some of the bishops to strongly suggest a close study of the issue. If they did advocate that, I would think it quite a reasonable thing to do. This is rather early in the game to make any broad, sweeping statements about the issue.”


The Propaedeutic Stage

Bishop Paprocki anticipated, regarding the priestly-formation discussion, that debate will occur over the stages being added to the current program, which are “described in a document that came out from the Holy See called the  Ratio Fundamentalis, the basic foundation for priestly formation for the universal Church.” The four stages they talk about are “the propaedeutic stage, the discipleship stage, the configuration stage and the vocational synthesis.”

“The area where there will be the most debate is this propaedeutic stage,” he predicted. “What that refers to is asking for a full year for a new seminarian to spend time really getting to know the Church better and Catholicism better before they enter major seminary.”

“What we’re finding is we’re getting more candidates that are coming to the seminary right after college and in some cases are recent converts,” Bishop Paprocki explained.

“So they’ve converted and then have felt the call to become a priest, but they are, in a sense, learning how to be Catholic; and so this propaedeutic stage is to give a little bit more foundation before they enter into their seminary studies.”

“If you don’t go to a college seminary, it would be a year for the propaedeutic stage, two years for philosophy, and then four years for theology, so it could add a year to that program,” he said. “That probably will get some discussion because there’s a need there, but then it’s also adding another year to the seminary formation.”

Archbishop Cordileone was in agreement with Bishop Paprocki that the propaedeutic stage will be “a major area of focus.”

“The propaedeutic stage can be fulfilled in different ways, and I think bishops will want to know how to make sure it is done well, without adding a burden of more time required of seminary formation beyond what it already is,” he said.

Addressing the question of sexual misconduct and alleged homosexual subcultures in seminaries, Archbishop Cordileone said that “this early stage of formation places a heavy focus on human formation, which gets to the heart of the issues which you ask about. I think an effective program at the propaedeutic stage can get seminarians off to a good start in understanding and living affective maturity, provided that is continued throughout their seminary formation.”

Register staff writer Lauretta Brown writes from Washington, D.C.