The U.S. bishops met in Baltimore earlier this week for their annual fall gathering, where they engaged in some admittedly humdrum formalities: hearing committee reports, debating budgets and electing new leaders.
Even the elections failed to generate much suspense.
As expected, the bishops chose as president the current vice president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, who emerged as something of a dark horse for the presidency, was picked for the number two spot, which means he will probably take the top job in three years.
Of course, given that just days before the bishops met, the United States wrapped up a bizarre election season, one that resulted in the win of an unorthodox candidate, there were some sparks in Baltimore about what to expect under President-elect Donald J. Trump.
Some bishops expressed optimism—albeit with a healthy dose of caution.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the U.S. hierarchy’s point man on religious liberty, said he is hopeful that the Trump administration might roll back some parts of the Affordable Care Act that bishops find objectionable. But he said he found other proposals from Mr. Trump to be worrying.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami noted the recent softening of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, and he expressed hope “there will be some doors in that wall he wants to build.”
For his part, Cardinal DiNardo, the new president of the conference, hedged a bit, saying it was too early to tell what the country would face in the coming years. Still, he promised that church leaders would be willing partners with the new administration in areas of shared concern.
When Americapublished a wrap-up of the meeting on Tuesday afternoon, some commenters on Facebook and Twitter slammed “the bishops,” for among other things, not denouncing Mr. Trump, not standing up to racism and for placing their trust in a perceived autocrat intent on subverting the U.S. constitution for personal gain. Several said they wished the bishops would be more like Pope Francis.
Some of that criticism may be warranted, but using too broad a brush to paint any group of people is rarely a good idea, including a hierarchy composed of hundreds of individuals.
Indeed, at the same meeting, the head of the conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, did not mince words when he told families worried about deportation under President Trump that the church stands with them.
Another prelate, Archbishop Joseph Tobin, who will soon take over the Archdiocese of Newark, urged his brother bishops to promote the pope’s message on climate change more robustly given Mr. Trump’s sour views on environmental regulation.
On another front, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta said the bishops must denounce racism in the election’s wake.
The point is, criticizing—or praising—“the bishops” fails to grasp that, while it is not always obvious at first glance, within the American hierarchy there exists a range of worldviews, ecclesiology and even political ideology.
Perhaps one of the best pieces of evidence supporting the argument that U.S. bishops represent a range of opinions can be found in the decision bishops faced for the head of their International Justice and Peace committee.
Bishops had two choices. One was Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who heads the U.S. Archdiocese of Military Services and who has vocally fought proposals from the Obama administration related to contraception and rights for same-sex couples. The other was Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, a native of San Francisco who has written passionately about economic justice issues and called for more inclusive language in how the church talks about L.G.B.T. people.
Perhaps not appreciating the irony of electing a military man to lead their peace committee, bishops elected Archbishop Broglio over Bishop McElroy 127-88.
One seasoned church observer told me in Baltimore that the vote is perhaps the clearest indication of where bishops break down along the traditionalist-reformer spectrum. That is, a majority of American bishops appear to align with bishops who hold traditional views. Their picks for conference leadership show that. But the relatively high number of votes for prelates described as “Francis bishops” shows the body is not as monolithic as many American Catholics might believe.
For some examples, look to Rome this weekend, where Pope Francis will create a batch of new cardinals. The pontiff, whom many Catholics of a certain political persuasion have cheered on for a few years now, has found three American bishops to serve as his advisors and help elect his successor.
Archbishop Tobin, the one who spoke up about the environment in Baltimore and who defied Vice President-elect Mike Pence in order to defend Syrian refugees last year, will get a red hat. As will Bishop Kevin Farrell, previously the head of the Dallas diocese who now leads a Vatican department about family life. He said of the church in a recent interview, “Perhaps we have emphasized rules and regulations to excess.”
And finally, Archbishop Blase Cupich is also in Rome to become a cardinal. Handpicked by the pope himself to serve as archbishop of Chicago, Archbishop Cupich talked to a gaggle of reporters outside the Vatican on Thursday afternoon. He was asked by one to talk about the pope’s video message to U.S. bishops in which Francis urged U.S. Catholics to get out of their comfort zones.
“We really have to make sure that we don’t organize our lives, or the church, for our own comfort, for our own needs,” Archbishop Cupich said. “But rather we have to be willing to be those missionary disciples and the kind of church that is a field hospital for the world.”
The image of a field hospital has been used frequently by the pope, and it is one that Archbishop Cupich thinks might be starting to get through to the U.S. hierarchy.
“I know that many bishops did take that to heart as we spoke in the conference following that message,” he said.
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.” Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.