Will American Bishops Follow Pope Francis’s Progressive Lead? We’re About to Find Out

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American bishops will decide this week whether to follow in Francis's footsteps or to push back. Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

Updated

This week, Roman Catholic bishops from the U.S. are gathering in Baltimore for the annual meeting of the General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). During the first two days of the meeting, which were open to the media, the bishops discussed “a number of liturgical items” and held “a handful of elections,” according to National Catholic Reporter. The second two days of the meeting are behind closed doors—and that’s where the important discussions and decisions will take place.

Among other things, the bishops will select four representatives to participate in a second meeting of bishops and cardinals in Rome, called a synod, scheduled to take place in October 2015. The subject of the synod will be marriage and the family.

The first synod on that subject, which took place in Rome in October 2014, generated international interest after the Vatican seemingly recognized the existence of loving and committed gay and lesbian partnerships in its midterm report summarizing ongoing discussions.

Many observers saw this as a softening in tone toward practices that have traditionally been considered verboten by the church—gay marriage, divorce, and remarriage—but the synod failed to come to agreement on those issues in the final report it produced.

The bishops will reconvene in 2015 to continue their debates, and to formulate a plan to address the issues facing families and marriages identified during the synod’s first meeting.

Some conservative members of the clergy seemed unhappy with the direction Pope Francis is steering the church. At the end of October, Cardinal Raymond Burke, a hard-line conservative and former archbishop of St. Louis, criticized Francis’s leadership, comparing the church to “a ship without a rudder,” as Religion News Service reported.

Following that remark, in what many interpreted as a demotion and a blow to conservatives in the church hierarchy, Francis removed Burke from his post as head of the highest judicial authority in the Vatican, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, and installed him as patron of the Knights of Malta—a largely ceremonial role.

Now, the American bishops have to decide how they will respond.

Which bishops they decide to send to Rome in 2015 will send a message—both to Francis and to the world—about which faction within the American wing of the church has the upper hand.

The archbishops of New York and Washington, Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Donald Wuerl, respectively, will both attend by dint of being the highest-ranking Catholic clergy in the U.S., but they don’t count against the four delegates.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, a moderate, will likely be chosen. “Given Archbishop Kurtz is the president of the conference and he attended the synod last month, it's likely he'll get the nod,” Michael O’Loughlin, a reporter who covers the Catholic Church for The Boston Globe's Crux told Newsweek. 

The other three slots are up for grabs, according to O’Loughlin. In theory, any of the U.S.’s 266 active bishops could be chosen. But some names are more likely than others to make the shortlist of 10, from which the conference of bishops will be asked to pick four.

Some strong candidates:

Blase Cupich, incoming Archbishop of Chicago

If the conference chooses Cupich it could be taken as a sign that the liberal faction has gotten its way. Francis hand-picked Cupich for the job, plucking him from Spokane, Washington, a diocese of about 10,000 Catholics, and placing him at the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the third largest body of Catholics in the U.S., which serves more than 2.3 million faithful.

Cupich is seen as a moderate. In the past, he has broken with the consensus of other American bishops on issues like the Affordable Care Act, which the USCCB opposes on the grounds that it provides funding for abortions.

Cupich was not timid in his criticism of his fellow bishops for covering up sexual abuse by clergymen. “Catholics have been hurt by the moral failings of some priests, but they have been hurt and angered even more by bishops who failed to put children first,” Cupich wrote in America, a magazine for Catholics. Unlike Burke, Cupich has also praised Francis’s new direction, calling him, “a game-changer,” as Commonweal Magazine reports.

Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia

If the conference picks Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia, it should be taken as a sign that the conservatives have carried the day. Chaput, an outspoken conservative, in 2011 assumed the top post in Philadelphia after 14 years as Archbishop of Denver. While in that post, Chaput campaigned against legalizing same-sex marriage in Colorado. And he has spoken in favor of denying Communion to Catholic politicians who endorse legal abortion, as The New York Times reports.

During the 2004 elections, the Times reported Chaput as saying that a vote for John Kerry would be “a sin that must be confessed before receiving Communion,” on account of Kerry’s support for abortion rights. (Chaput has since claimed the Times twisted his words and has refused to speak to any of the paper’s reporters for six years.)

In 2009, Chaput condemned Notre Dame for awarding President Barack Obama an honorary degree, because of his pro-choice stance on abortion rights. He hasn’t spoken publicly about Francis, but Chaput’s public statements indicate he probably preferred Francis’s predecessor, Benedict.

Outside the Box

The church might reach outside the Roman rite altogether and pick a clergyman from one of the Eastern Catholic rites—sects within the Catholic Church that are not Roman Catholic, often originating in Asia Minor, Eastern Europe and other areas where Latin was not the dominant language of the clergy. William Skurla, the archeparch (roughly equivalent to an archbishop) of Pittsburgh is a name that has been bandied about.

Even though the bishops cast their votes today, we may not know who they selected for some time. The names must first be approved by Rome before they can be announced. That process, too, happens behind closed doors. It is possible for Rome to decline a suggestion, it hasn’t done so since Pope Paul VI established the synod in 1965.

It is also possible that the conference will choose a mixed slate of conservative and moderate bishops, O’Loughlin told Newsweek.

“It wouldn't be surprising for bishops to elect representatives to the synod who encompass the range of Catholic ideology in the U.S.,” he said.

CorrectionThis article originally misstated the name of Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Some language describing Archbishop Chaput's positions has also been clarified.