Synodality, abortion and education: What to watch for at the U.S. bishops’ meeting
Catholic bishops will meet next week in Baltimore, the first time the full body of church leaders will gather since the completion of the first round of the Synod on Synodality in Rome, in which bishops, priests, women and men religious and lay Catholics discussed the future of the church. During the meeting, bishops will hear an update on the Rome proceedings, which will reconvene next year.
As is tradition, the plenary session of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will begin with an update from the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Cardinal Christophe Pierre. While his past addresses have featured generally friendly exhortations related to the pastoral prerogatives of Pope Francis, this year’s talk will be delivered on the heels of an interview the archbishop gave to America, in which he offered an unusually candid assessment of the U.S. hierarchy.
Speaking to Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell in October, Cardinal Pierre said it was incorrect to describe U.S. bishops as being overly conservative or liberal. Instead, he suggested, they are “struggling” to find ways to evangelize in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. The cardinal, 77, who began his mission to the United States in 2016, also expressed doubt about how seriously the U.S. bishops have taken up the pope’s call to become a missionary church.
“There are some priests and religious and bishops who are terribly against Francis as if he was the scapegoat [for] all the failures of the church or of society,” Cardinal Pierre said.
The cardinal’s address is expected to be delivered on the first day of the public session of the assembly, Nov. 14. The plenary session will take place Nov. 13-16 in Baltimore.
Meeting just a week after abortion rights received a big boost in several state elections, bishops will discuss and vote on a new introductory note to their voting guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The guide, which clocks in at more than 17,000 words, was last revised in 2007, which means that it lacks insight from Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Last year, bishops decided that rather than revising the document ahead of the 2024 election, they would instead tweak the guide, offering a new introductory note, create bulletin inserts and prepare social media assets.
Bishops will vote on the new introduction and inserts at next week’s meeting. Voting in the presidential primaries begins in just two months and the 2024 election is now less than a year away.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio, elected last year as conference president, will also give an address during the meeting and bishops will also vote for their new secretary, which could have implications for its future leadership.
Historically, the conference’s vice president has often been elected president, albeit with notable exceptions in recent years.
But because of rules that restrict U.S.C.C.B. leadership to bishops who will be 75 or younger during their term, the current vice president, Archbishop William Lori, 72, will be ineligible to run in the next presidential election.
A similar situation played out last year, when Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who was then the vice president of the conference, could not run for the top spot. Instead, bishops elected then-secretary Archbishop Broglio as president.
The vote for the head of the education committee could be crucial, as Catholic schools around the nation struggle with changing societal norms around sex and gender.
One nominee for secretary, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, who heads the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, is currently filling the remainder of Archbishop Broglio’s term as secretary. His challenger is Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, the archbishop of Portland, Ore., and a vocal defender of traditional Catholic practices like the Latin Mass.
Bishops will also vote for the heads of six U.S.C.C.B. committees, including education, communications, doctrine and pro-life activities.
The vote for the head of the education committee could be crucial, as Catholic schools around the nation struggle with changing societal norms around sex and gender. Several systems have implemented guidelines around gender identity, leading to protests from some parents of L.G.B.T. children and often negative local press.
The two bishops nominated to head the education committee are Bishop James D. Conley, of Lincoln, Neb., and Bishop David M. O’Connell, the former president of the Catholic University of America who now heads the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.
Last year, Bishop Conley wrote a column in which he defended the church’s traditional views on marriage and urged church leaders to fight against civil provisions aimed at protecting the rights of transgender people.
“Gender ideology harms individuals and societies by sowing confusion and self-doubt,” Bishop Conley wrote.
Bishop O’Connell, meanwhile, made headlines in 2015 when he said that Pope Franics “makes life difficult” for U.S. bishops because of the pope’s off-the-cuff style of speaking, though he released a pastoral letter in 2021 commending the Synod on Synodality.
Bishops will also hear an update about several new and ongoing initiatives, including the Eucharistic Revival and a new mental health campaign, and will vote to reauthorize their anti-racism committee and adopt a new strategic planning model.