The U.S. bishops’ conference on Tuesday announced the candidates for the leadership of six standing committees, and for the officer position of secretary, to be voted upon at their November plenary meeting.
The conference has been roiled by serious debate in recent years — and more debates over politics, healthcare, and finances are coming.
But the nominees announced Tuesday for officer and committee posts indicate much more about the cohesion of the U.S. bishops’ conference than about its divisions, suggesting that while the conference has been the locus of fractious debate in recent years, the debate has been lopsided, with the majority of bishops seeming to adopt a similar theological worldview.
The nominations also suggest that some U.S. bishops may have disengaged from their conference — and that in the years to come, the bishops’ conference could face a mounting challenge to its central role in the life of the Church.
It is reductive to impose upon bishops the paradigms of “conservative” and “liberal,” drawn from the crude divisions of secular politics, because the modes of thinking and acting in the Church are very different from those of political partisanship.
And it is immensely unhelpful to categorize — as some do — a set of bishops as “Pope Francis bishops,” because that rhetoric has been used by some prelates to suggest that they have claim to make authoritative interpretations of the pontiff and his ministry.
Nevertheless, there are times when terms like “conservative” and “progressive” can at least point to the rough contours of perspective or approach among American bishops.
And it is clear that there is division among the U.S. bishops, as exemplified by the positions they’ve taken on the recent Eucharistic coherence debate, on revising their “Faithful Citizenship” document, and on issues related to priestly formation and other issues.
But those divisions are mostly not reflected in the nominees for committee chairmanships announced this week.
With only a few exceptions, the bishops nominated this month to committee and officer positions can be seen to embody similar theological and ecclesial approaches, influenced by a similar set of theologians, by the theology of Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and largely driven by a similar set of priorities.
That marks a change from the meetings of recent years, in which several chairmanship races featured pronounced differences of theological outlook or pastoral approach.
What to make of that?
First, that while there the 2021 Eucharistic coherence debate revealed sharp division among the bishops, it’s not a 50-50 split, and not likely to be in the years to come — nominations reflect that the majority of the conference maintains a common theological approach.
Second, in the wake of conflict at the conference, it seems increasingly clear that the cadre of bishops affiliated with Cardinals Blase Cupich, Robert McElroy, Joseph Tobin, and Wilton Gregory has turned its focus away from the bishops’ conference, and more on building other avenues of influence in the life of the Church.
Cupich, of Chicago, has an interesting recent history with the USCCB.
In January 2021, Cupich raised objections at the Vatican to a planned statement from conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez, which the Vatican intervened to spike, before it was eventually released.
Later that year, Cupich reportedly encouraged the Holy See to intervene in the bishops’ deliberations on a statement on the Eucharist, while at the same time, he helped to organize a letter to Gomez urging that the topic be dropped from the conference agenda. Sixty bishops were initially listed as signers of the letter, although some later said they had not agreed to put their names on it.
And in 2018, after the Vatican intervened to stop a USCCB vote on a proposed sexual abuse policy, Cupich quickly submitted an alternative plan to the bishops, which he had allegedly presented to Vatican officials along with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, even before the conference’s own proposal was spiked — although the cardinal said that account of things was false.
But while the cardinal lamented “internal institutional failure” at the conference in 2021, and pledged to “contributing to all efforts” to “address” its reform, it now seems likely the cardinal has turned his attention to other areas — given that efforts to see like minded bishops elected to leadership positions have not been successful….
From the Pillar