By JD Flynn
Washington D.C., Jun 17, 2019 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- While the spring meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference has only just concluded, some bishops are already looking to the election of new conference officers at their November meeting. While the elections are still five months away, bishops are already discussing their options – particularly in light of the scandal the Church in the U.S. has faced in the last year.
It is widely expected that Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the bishops’ conference vice president, will be elected to succeed Cardinal Daniel DiNardo as conference president. Gomez has several factors working in his favor. Most notably is the sheer force of custom: With only one recent exception, the conference vice president has been elected president as a matter of course. That Gomez has served in the second slot for the last three years is likely sufficient by itself for him to secure the votes of most bishops.
Within the conference, Gomez is perceived to cut across traditional ideological and social lines. He was ordained a priest of Opus Dei, and he has a long history of leadership on pro-life and marriage issues. But, an immigrant himself, he is also among the most outspoken advocates for the conference’s call for just immigration reform and advocacy for the poor. He is, in short, difficult to pigeonhole into a partisan camp, and at a time when the Church is increasingly segmented by politics, many bishops see that as an important advantage.
Some bishops have also mentioned to CNA the symbolic significance of electing a Hispanic archbishop, a Mexican-American immigrant, in advance of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. While the bishops have a working relationship with the Trump administration on issues pertaining to abortion, marriage, and religious liberty, they remain strongly opposed to the president’s immigration policies, and if Trump wins a second term, they will likely be at odds with him over that issue throughout. Gomez is seen to be the right voice to lead advocacy on behalf of their immigration agenda.
If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, Gomez’ well-known advocacy on immigration could make it easier for him to gain a hearing from a Democratic administration, especially during the battles over religious liberty on gender and sexuality that would be sure to come.
Because Gomez, who leads the largest U.S. diocese, has not been made a cardinal, it is sometimes speculated that he might have a difficult working relationship with Pope Francis, or that the Holy Father might consider him to be too conservative.
This speculation seems to be grounded in particularly American misunderstandings of both men: characterictures of Gomez as a doctrinaire conservative and Francis as a freewheeling progressive work only if the frame of reference is the U.S. left-right divide. Those with experience in Latin and South America are far more likely to see the common threads running through the thought of both: especially a common concern for solidarity with the powerless and the marginalized, including both the unborn and the immigrant.
Ultimately, that Gomez is not yet a cardinal could reflect more about the hermeneutics of the Congregation for Bishops than about any actual division between Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Los Angeles.
Whatever the reason that Gomez is not a cardinal, the archbishop is not perceived to be ineffective in engagement with Rome. Gomez is seen to have successfully manned the point position in negotiating with the Holy See an approach to establishing sexual abuse policies that would be acceptable in both Rome and the U.S. The archbishop became an especially active figure in deliberations after the breakdown in communications that led to the cancelled votes at the bishops’ November meetings.
He does not seem most comfortable at a podium, presiding over the full assembly of bishops, though his aptitude in that role has grown over the course of recent meetings. While DiNardo leads the room with a poise that seems at once fraternal and efficient, Gomez is more reserved in a large public setting. But if this is seen as a liability by some bishops, it is unlikely to overcome both the archbishop’s personal reputation and the force of precedent.
Of course, in recent history, custom has been overcome in conference elections. In 2010, Cardinal Timothy Dolan was unexpectedly elected conference president ahead of Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who was then vice president. Dolan was elected through the work of a cadre of bishops who thought a Kicanas presidency would be out of step with the leadership and emphases of Pope Benedict XVI.
It is possible that Gomez could face a credible and organized opponent in November 2019. Most frequently discussed at the conference, and mentioned to CNA by a few bishops, is the idea that the newly-installed Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC, could challenge Gomez for the presidency.
As it stands, though, electing Gregory seems a very remote possibility. In the first place is, again, the sheer force of custom. For Gregory’s supporters to overcome that force would require a great deal of organization, and a good amount of time spent convincing bishops to make a change.
Making their task especially difficult is that Gregory was conference president from 2001 to 2004, and presided over the bishops’ conference response to the sex abuse crisis of 2002. Gregory was the bishop who ushered into being the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and the accompanying “Essential Norms.”
While the Charter is widely thought to have changed ecclesial culture for the better with regard to child and youth protection, it has been panned during the last year because it is understood to pertain to priests and deacons only, using language that explicitly delineates the exclusion of bishops from some norms.
The shortcomings of the “Dallas Charter,” are not Gregory’s fault, but bishops who want to convey that the Church is moving on from “business as usual” may be reticent to elect as president someone so directly connected to the Charter.
There is also Gregory’s task in Washington. The archbishop is 71, and is largely understood to have only a four-year mandate to begin the process of restoring trust among Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington, which has been the epicenter of the McCarrick affair, through which Gregory’s predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, lost a great deal of trust among his priests, and among ordinary Washington Catholics. This task, Gregory is known to understand, will require a considerable investment of personal and pastoral time, and for that reason, the archbishop may not find the prospect of running the bishops’ conference a temptation.
But if he does want the job, there is at least one thing Gregory could do to improve his chances of being elected: He could release from the Archdiocese of Washington’s files on Theodore McCarrick as many records as possible, and encourage other diocesan bishops to do the same. Gregory has the opportunity in Washington to establish a new paradigm of transparency in Church governance – a paradigm much discussed but not yet much demonstrated – by releasing as much as possible on McCarrick, his finances, his friends and protectors, and then encouraging the other dioceses where McCarrick served to do the same.
While Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark told CNA this week that he is precluded from issuing a full report on McCarrick by an attorney general’s investigation in the state, Gregory has not indicated that he is under any similar restriction. A comprehensive release of information from his archdiocese would do a great deal to restore confidence in Church leadership among practicing Catholics, and it would likely raise esteem for him considerably among the younger bishops in the conference, who have been calling for just such a release from Rome.
If that does happen, Gomez could face more of a challenge for election as conference president than expected.
Who will be elected vice president?
Some bishops have mentioned to CNA that Tobin could be a natural candidate for the position.
The Archbishop of Newark is affable and friendly to other bishops, well-known, and articulate. He has the experience of leading his own religious community, the Redemptorists, of a senior leadership position at the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican, and has led archdiocesan sees in both the Midwest and on the East Coast. As chairman of the USCCB Committee on Consecrated Life, Clergy, and Vocations, Tobin has played a prominent role in the Church’s response to the McCarrick crisis, and he presented one of the major policy documents on sexual abuse approved by the bishops at their November meeting.
The cardinal, in short, has considerable experience and qualifications that seem relevant to a leadership position at the conference.
But even if he were nominated as a candidate, Tobin might not accept the nomination. The cardinal withdrew from participating in the October 2018 synod on youth, which came just a few months after the McCarrick scandal began. At the time, Tobin recognized the havoc wrought by the McCarrick revelations on his archdiocese, which McCarrick led for more than a decade, and he explained the priority he placed on being present to the people of his own archdiocese, and especially to his priests.
Tobin is a cardinal, which means that he already has responsibilities taking him to Rome with regularity. Given his clear aversion to becoming an “airport bishop,” the cardinal might decline the possibility of adding even more frequent trips to Washington, DC to his schedule, especially as his archdiocese will soon grapple with fallout from the New Jersey attorney general’s investigation, and from the eventual release of Rome’s report on McCarrick.
If he were to stand for election, Tobin would face both episcopal support and criticism for his endorsement of “Building a Bridge”, a 2017 book by Fr. James Martin, SJ, who is a frequent writer and speaker on the topic of Church engagement with those who identify themselves as LGBT or LGBT activists. Bishops are divided on how best to approach that kind of engagement, and Martin’s work is at the center of that divide, because some bishops say that Martin’s work is not faithful to the teachings of the Church, while others actively promote it. While some bishops might be reticent to support a Tobin candidacy because of this, others would take Tobin’s position as a positive sign in the conference.
Tobin’s work on the U.S. implementation of Vos estis lux mundi is appreciated by bishops, as is his work on revisions to the national directory for deacons. But during the last year, Tobin has been the subject of rumors and questions about his personal life from some blogs and websites. The cardinal has denied rumors of misconduct, and scant evidence has turned up to support conjectures made about him. It is unlikely that Tobin would allow such rumors to keep him from serving the Church in whatever way he thinks himself to be called, but there are likely some members of the bishops’ conference who, given the sensitivities surrounding McCarrick and the Archdiocese of Newark, might judge this an inopportune time for the cardinal to stand for election.
Another frequently named possibility for conference vice president is Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City. Coakley has been a bishop for 15 years, and served a term as chairman of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ international humanitarian aid apostolate.
In his role at CRS, he is generally regarded as having addressed lingering issues pertaining to the Catholic identity of the institution and its partners, in part by bringing together a coalition of moral theologians and international development experts to work through thorny issues. Coakley is also thought to have capably overseen leadership transitions amid a complex period of expansion during his term as CRS board chairman.
Bishops also noted to CNA that Coakley’s archdiocese, Oklahoma City, is perceived to have handled safe-environment related matters well, and that Coakley is perceived to have prioritized recruiting lay collaborators for the administration of his archdiocese.
Though he has a relatively low public profile, some bishops told CNA that Coakley has a moderating voice, is calm under pressure, a clear teacher and an organized administrator. And Coakley is already set to begin in November 2019 a term as chair of the bishops’ influential Domestic Justice and Human Development committee.
While some bishops might prefer a bishop with more name recognition beyond the conference, others told CNA that because he is not seen to carry any “baggage” into the election, the choice of Coakley for vice president could be exactly the right move after the bishops’ year of scandal.
Other names that have been mentioned as candidates for conference vice president are Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis, who is well regarded for his work to heal an archdiocese deeply wounded by grave clerical abuse scandals.
Of course, none of these figures have yet been nominated to the slate. Nomination requires that diocesan bishops propose the names of the candidates they would like to see considered for the post; a process that will take place over the next few months. But bishops have already begun talking about the needs of the Church, and the needs of their conference. The results of their discussion will be clear in November.
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