U.S. bishops aren’t as monolithic as many Americans seem to think. Just look to Rome this weekend

Cupich Scrum. The cardinal-designate is swarmed by reporters outside Rome’s Porta Santa Ana outside the Vatican. Photo by Michael O'Loughlin.

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.

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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.

RELATED: U.S. Bishops Express Concern and Cautious Optimism about Relations with the Trump Administration

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.

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Mary Flynn
1 year ago
My observation is that more church going lay Catholics endeavor to enact Pope Francis's vision as again the democratic nominee won the votes: therefore (by analogy) Vatican is to the Catholic Christians I know as the electoral college is to American elections. In both institutions patriarchy rules/control/debases which really needs to change in both Church and State, As the nuns stayed in communication and with grace survived the recent inquisition of the Vatican's misogyny --I pray we citizens will survive a Republican control of executive, legislative and judicial branches of our Government for 4 years. I have more hope in the institution of the Church that I do of my country. Hard times for many ahead. Your article emphasizes the "Good New" of social justice and Mercy. thank you.
Bill Mazzella
1 year ago
Trump has serious flaws. Yet the "Establishment" has seriously neglected the American worker. It really is intolerable that so many workers are making less than they did ten years ago doing the same work. The flippancy of companies telling workers they are lucky to have a job. If Roger Ailes can prey upon journalists trying to advance their careers how much more is it going on all over the place. If Trump corrects this it will be a good thing. Term limits is also a good thing. Already his own party is opposing him on this..The infrastructure is another thing. Maybe Trump is right that he is the only one who can do it. No one else has . It will create jobs too. FDR showed how to do this. As for Trump's absurdities the mayors are already signalling that they will not tolerate it. Called checks and balances.Our system will check Trump while maybe he will do what the establishment neglected. As far as the bishops they have been scoundrels for a long time. Erasmus devoted a whole oration: "The Lights of the World" to scouring them for their love of riches and privilege. They should get jobs like the regular Apostles. "These things, I say, did they but duly consider, they would not be so ambitious of that dignity; or, if they were, they would willingly leave it and live a laborious, careful life, such as was that of the ancient apostles."

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