Who Will Be the Next USCCB President? Assessing the Field
NEWS ANALYSIS: With the previous term’s vice president ineligible to serve as president, there’s more in play in this year’s election than usual.
WASHINGTON — The election of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president is typically not a very suspenseful event: The general expectation is that the concluding term’s vice president will be elevated by his confreres to lead the conference over the following three-year term. For instance, outgoing USCCB president Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles served as conference vice president from late 2016 to 2019 prior to his own election to the presidency.
But for the first time since 2010, this pattern will not repeat when the bishops gather Nov. 14-17 in Baltimore for their general assembly. Unlike in 2010, when the bishops surprisingly tapped Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York instead of the sitting USCCB vice president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, for largely theological reasons, the cause of this year’s inevitable break from precedent is far less dramatic: The USCCB’s vice president over the past three year-term, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, will turn 75 years old during the upcoming term and is therefore ineligible to serve as conference president.
As a result, there’s a sense that this year’s election is wide open, with no shoo-in. And with significant challenges and opportunities facing the USCCB — including shoring up the Church’s response to the sex-abuse crisis and addressing the rift it has reportedly created between priests and bishops, carrying out the National Eucharistic Revival, participating in the ongoing Synod on Synodality, and discerning how to engage with a Catholic president who openly flouts some of the Church’s fundamental moral teachings — the man the bishops select to lead them from this relatively open field will say a lot about the direction the episcopacy wants the conference to take.
The 10 candidates nominated by their brother bishops are: Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services; Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia; Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma CIty; Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco; Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle; Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas; Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio; Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
The candidates represent a variety of perspectives, both in terms of their theological emphases, but also regarding their style of leadership and pastoral priorities. Notably, no recently created cardinals are among the nominees, perhaps an indication of a gap in priorities between the bishops to whom Pope Francis has given the red hat in recent years — such as Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego — and the body of U.S. bishops writ large.
The Register reached out to each of the USCCB presidential nominees to ask what they see as the most important issues facing the Church and American society, but, as is typical pre-election etiquette, none were willing to comment. Here are the 10 candidates, in alphabetical order, with a brief analysis of their candidacy and what their election to the USCCB’s presidency could mean.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio
Archdiocese for the Military Services, since 2008
Motto: Quaerite Regnum Dei (“Seek God’s Kingdom”)
Biographical: born and raised in Cleveland; a graduate of both the Holy See’s diplomatic academy and the Pontifical Gregorian University’s doctoral program in canon law
Key experiences: current USCCB secretary and previous chairman of both the Committee on International Justice and Peace and the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance; apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic and apostolic delegate to Puerto Rico (2001-2007); served as chief of cabinet for Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state to St. John Paul II
Analysis: Archbishop Vigneron may be ineligible to run, but as the runner-up in 2019’s vote for USCCB vice president, Archbishop Broglio may be the next closest thing to a “likely successor.” As USCCB secretary, he brings significant familiarity with the inner workings of the conference; plus, with the Archdiocese for the Military Services’ homebase in Washington — less than a mile from the USCCB offices — he may be poised to offer a unique level of on-the-ground involvement at the episcopal conference.
A reputation as a theologically sound, practically minded leader, Archbishop Broglio may be seen as a candidate who can bring a degree of stability to a conference that has been embroiled in internal conflict in recent years. Additionally, his experience in Rome and as a part of the Holy See’s diplomatic corps may make him well-suited to heal the perceived rift that has grown between the USCCB and the Vatican during the pontificate of Pope Francis. As head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Archbishop Broglio has tackled two issues that may also have wider appeal in terms of USCCB priorities: promoting vocations and confronting instances of government violations of Catholics’ religious liberty.
Bishop Michael Burbidge
Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, since 2016
Motto: “Walk Humbly With Your God”
Biographical: A native Philadelphian; holds a doctorate in education and is experienced as both a high-school teacher and seminary faculty member and rector.
Key experiences: Previous chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations and the Committee on Communications; bishop of Raleigh, North Carolina (2006-2016); rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary (1999-2002)
Analysis: If elected, Bishop Burbidge is likely to follow the example of Archbishop Gomez in at least one key respect: challenging President Joe Biden over his policy positions that are antithetical to the Catholic faith. In June 2022, Bishop Burbidge called upon Biden to repent of his advocacy for legalized abortion this past June; and just last week, the Northern Virginia bishop condemned Biden’s plan to codify abortion access into federal law. As the bishop across the Potomac from DC, where a sizable concentration of those working in national politics reside, Bishop Burbidge’s willingness to publicly criticize the president’s support for abortion takes on added significance.
Bishop Burbidge has shown a willingness to lead in addressing other thorny topics. In August 2021, he was the first ordinary to publish a catechetical letter on the Church’s teaching related to transgenderism, calling for charity while also discouraging practices like gender “transitioning” and using gendered pronouns disconnected from someone’s sex. On the other hand, he has also gone ahead of many of his brother bishops in carrying out a rather strict implementation of Traditiones Custodes, significantly restricting the traditional Latin Mass within his diocese (though it’s been speculated that this had as much to do with focused Vatican pressure as it did the bishop’s own liturgical convictions). Whatever the issue, his brother bishops likely know they would be getting someone unafraid to be out in front if they choose to make Bishop Burbidge the next USCCB president.
Bishop Frank Caggiano
Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, since 2013
Motto: “Jesus Christ Is Lord”
Biographical: Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Italian immigrants; attended Yale for political science before entering seminary and eventually earning a doctorate in theology
Key experiences: Current chairman of the USCCB’s Subcommittee on the Catechism; president of Catholic Relief Services’ board of directors; synod father at the 2018 Synod on Youth
Analysis: Bishop Caggiano has made a name for himself primarily in the areas of evangelization and youth engagement. He has led the USCCB’s efforts to launch a National Catechetical Institute and also participated in the 2018 Synod on Youth, where he said that the Church would fail to attract young people unless it confronted the sex-abuse crisis with transparency and authenticity. He has also been a frequent speaker at World Youth Days.
One of the youngest of all the nominees for USCCB president, Bishop Caggiano may best represent the kind of emphasis on encounter and accompaniment that Pope Francis has lauded. For instance, he drew attention to the “the power of the table” in evangelization long before the Synod on Synodality was announced. He may be too junior to go straight to the top, but if Bishop Caggiano receives significant support, it may be an indication that the bishops are eager to not only talk about the new apostolic age that’s upon us, but elevate a bishop poised to lead the U.S. Church amid the challenges of such an era.
Archbishop Paul Coakley
Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, since 2010
Motto: Duc in Altum (“Put Out Into the Deep”)
Biographical: Born in Virginia, but raised mostly in Kansas; an alumnus of the University of Kansas’ famed Integrated Humanities Program; obtained doctorate in Christian spirituality from the Gregorian
Key experiences: Current chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; chairman of Catholic Relief Services’ board of directors (2014-2016); bishop of Salina, Kansas (2004-2011)
Analysis: Archbishop Coakley’s advocacy priorities are a compelling instance of Catholicism’s ability to transcend the cramped “conservative/liberal” paradigm often imposed by the media. On the one hand, he was among a handful of bishops who signaled his public support for Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s decision to bar U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Communion over her public advocacy for abortion. On the other, the Oklahoma archbishop and head of the USCCB’s domestic policy efforts has been described as “a tireless advocate” for ending the death penalty, and has also actively called for enhancing gun control.
Archbishop Coakley’s consistently Catholic ethic, plus his more serene and spiritual style of leadership, may not make him the flashiest of options for USCCB president; but these qualities may make him an optimal candidate if the bishops are looking for someone who can build consensus and help the conference operate in the more restrained public relations style it has been trending toward in recent years.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone
Archdiocese of San Francisco, since 2012
Motto: In Verbo Tuo (“In Thy Word”)
Biographical: Native Californian; completed his theological formation at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he later returned to complete a doctorate in canon law
Key experiences: Current chairman of USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; bishop of Oakland, California (2009-2012); auxiliary bishop of San Diego (2002-2009)
Analysis: Archbishop Cordileone succeeded Archbishop Charles Chaput as chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth in 2018. He has also arguably succeeded the former Philadelphia archbishop as one of the American episcopacy’s most outspoken cultural commentators. The San Francisco archbishop first came to prominence as auxiliary bishop of San Diego, when he became known as the “Father of Prop 8” for his leadership in the successful effort to amend the California constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In fact, Archbishop Cordileone continues to decry same-sex civil marriage long after it has become legally and culturally accepted. And, of course, the California cleric made waves this past spring for prohibiting Speaker Pelosi from receiving the Eucharist in his archdiocese, a move that some of his confreres supported, while others criticized as a violation of the consensus the bishops had reached in their decidedly noncontroversial 2021 Eucharist document.
In fact, Archbishop Cordileone is more nuanced than the simplistic “conservative cultural warrior” label some in Catholic media affix to him: he has spoken out eloquently against racism and has long advocated for just immigration reform. But simple perspectives stick, and for this reason, it’s unclear if the archbishop’s appeal is widespread enough in the USCCB to be elected its next president. However, the number of votes he earns in the first round, when bishops are more likely to vote for a candidate who best represents their views before shifting to a consensus pick, may be a good indication of how influential the approach of cultural commentators like Archbishop Chaput remains in the American episcopacy.
Archbishop Paul Etienne
Archdiocese of Seattle, since 2019
Motto: Veritas in Caritate (“Truth in Charity”)
Biographical: Indiana native who worked for the USCCB in between college and major seminary; has two brothers who are priests and a sister who is a Benedictine nun
Key experiences: Previous chairman of the USCCB National Collections Committee; archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska (2016-2019 ); bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming (2009-2016)
Analysis: Archbishop Etienne is widely considered to be a part of a distinct minority group in the USCCB, led by figures like Cardinals Cupich and Tobin. He joined these prelates, for instance, in vocally opposing drafting a document on Eucharistic coherence in June 2021 out of concern that it would politicize the Eucharist. The document moved forward, but opposition from Archbishop Etienne and others likely led to a more muted text, which the Seattle archbishop eventually supported.
Bishops with similar views to Archbishop Etienne may be influential in Rome, but they remain a minority among the U.S. bishops as a whole. Because of this, the Seattle archbishop almost assuredly won’t have the votes to become USCCB president this November. But the amount of support he garners will be a telling sign of how significantly the U.S. episcopacy has been remade with Cardinals Cupich and Tobin serving on the Vatican’s influential Dicastery for Bishops. And if Archbishop Etienne doesn’t break through to USCCB elected leadership this time around, at only 63 years old, he’ll likely have several more opportunities to do so.
Bishop Daniel Flores
Diocese of Brownsville, since 2010
Motto: Verbum Mittitur Spirans Amorem (“The Word Is Sent Breathing Forth Love”)
Biographical: Born into a South Texas family with roots on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border; holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and taught seminary for five years
Key experiences: Current chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine; previous chairman of the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church
Analysis: Many candidates for USCCB president can claim a Roman pedigree, but only Bishop Flores holds a degree from the Angelicum, the Dominicans’ pontifical university. This helps explain the Brownsville bishop’s reputation as a serious Thomistic thinker, capable of reflecting deeply and critically on anything from gun violence to the theology of pets. He’s the USCCB’s current doctrinal head for a reason.
In addition to his wide-ranging intellectual engagement, Bishop Flores has also gained respect for his pastoral heart, perhaps most evident in his outreach to immigrants crossing the Southern border. He did oversee the USCCB’s national synthesis for the Synod on Synodality, which has received criticism for being unduly optimistic and therapeutic in tone, and continues to lead the U.S. Church’s involvement in the controversial process, but it seems just as likely that his brother bishops will see his involvement in the Synod as a moderating influence, rather than as a cause of its shortcomings. The youngest of all candidates, Bishop Flores’ wide appeal and sharp intellect may make him a dark horse possibility in this year’s election—or a favorite in years to come.
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller
Archdiocese of San Antonio, since 2010
Motto: Ven Holy Spirit Ven (“Come, Holy Spirit, Come”)
Biographical: Born in Mexico, the oldest of 15 children; joined the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit and was sent to the U.S. in 1980 to minister to migrant workers in California; became a U.S. citizen in 1988
Key experiences: Auxiliary bishop of Chicago (2003-2010); major superior of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit in the U.S. and Canada (1999-2003); rector of Mount Angel Seminary (1996-1999)
Analysis: A former religious who is himself an immigrant, Archbishop García-Siller offers a distinct voice among the slate of candidates, and is becoming known for his frequent and often impassioned interventions into social and political issues in the U.S. This past year, for instance, he forcefully called for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre, which took place within his archdiocese. He has also criticized recent tragedies involving migrants crossing the Southern border as a product of the “culture of death” and an inhumane immigration system.
At times, however, the archbishop has been criticized for blurring the line between issue advocacy and engaging in partisan politics and even apologized for a tweet that implied then-President Trump was a racist. While his bold calls for justice for migrants and others at the margins of society are likely appreciated by his brother bishops, it seems unlikely that Archbishop García-Siller’s confrontational style is what the USCCB’s members are looking for in their next president — but only time will tell.
Archbishop William Lori
Archdiocese of Baltimore, since 2012
Motto: Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”)
Biographical: Grew up in Kentucky, but was originally ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington; earned a doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America and served as theological adviser to Cardinal James Hickey
Key experiences: Current chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for Pro-Life Activities; former chairman of the committees for religious liberty and doctrine; Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut (2001-2012)
Analysis: A longtime contributor on the national ecclesial scene, Archbishop Lori has played a leading role in some of the Church’s most noteworthy initiatives in the U.S. in the past two decades. In 2002, he helped draft the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” (including its now-controversial exception of bishops from disciplinary measures). As chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, he issued “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the USCCB’s comprehensive document on religious liberty, and led the charge against President Barack Obama’s HHS contraception mandate. And just last week, he spoke out as the USCCB’s pro-life committee head to criticize Biden’s pro-abortion agenda. Seemingly with a hand in everything, Archbishop Lori’s archdiocesan webpage lists the senior prelate as a current member or consultor of seven separate USCCB committees, including the influential Administrative Committee.
In fact, Archbishop Lori seems to have held every position at the USCCB except that of president, though he has been a candidate multiple times. At 71 years old, this will be the last election in which he is an eligible candidate. He has the experience, but has his window already passed? If so, the bishops could take a page out of their 2019 playbook, when they surprisingly elected Archbishop Vigneron as USCCB vice president, choosing Archbishop Lori for the No. 2 spot not as a springboard to an eventual presidency, but as an acknowledgement of his contributions to the conference.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades
Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, since 2010
Motto: Veritatem in Caritate (“Truth in Charity”)
Biographical: Raised in central Pennsylvania; completed his theology formation and a licentiate in canon law at the Gregorian University; longtime experience in Hispanic ministry
Key experiences: Previous chairman of the USCCB’s Committees on Doctrine and Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (2004-2010)
Analysis: Bishop Rhoades’ most recent accomplishments include leading the discussion and drafting of the USCCB’s Eucharistic coherence document, published in 2021. While many Catholics felt that the final document was watered down to a mere theological reflection that avoided the uncomfortable pastoral topic of denying pro-abortion politicians Communion, the Indiana bishop gained the respect and appreciation of many of his confreres for delivering a final document that overcame bitter infighting and was passed nearly unanimously.
But Bishop Rhoades has also shown a willingness to take a strong stance when need be. In 2016, he criticized the University of Notre Dame, which lies in his diocese, for honoring then-Sen. Joe Biden and has also critiqued the university two years later for including “simple contraceptives” in its student insurance plans. And whatever the USCCB document said, Bishop Rhoades made clear as recently as this month that he thinks withholding the Eucharist from pro-abortion politicians is sometimes a needed pastoral intervention; he has also made a point of prominently highlighting the National Eucharistic Revival in his diocese. Bishop Rhoades’ combination of consensus-building capacity paired with strong doctrinal discipline may make the Indiana bishop an appealing candidate come mid-November.