The 2019 fall gathering of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore lacked the drama of last year’s meeting, where a breakdown in communications between the USCCB and Rome on addressing the sex-abuse crisis was visible for all to see (an embarrassment for which the official explanation contradicts the well-documented history). This time around, the bishops avoided major public missteps and everything appeared to go according to plan. They approved the revised document on strategic priorities for 2021 to 2024 (evangelization, vocations, life and dignity of the human person, the protection of children). They elected the new secretary for the conference, as well as a chairman of the committee for religious liberty, and chairmen-elect of five additional standing committees. They tapped Bishop Andrew Cozzens to succeed Bishop Robert Barron as chairman of the committee for evangelization; Cozzens, the auxiliary bishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, is known for his sympathy toward the neo-traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and the Latin Mass in the pre-Vatican II rite. And there was the election of a new president: Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez, who becomes the first-ever Latino to hold the position. The new vice president is Detroit Bishop Allen Henry Vigneron, who, if elected president three years from now, would turn seventy-five during his tenure and would therefore have to submit his resignation to the pope.
The elections underscore the fact that bishops from the John Paul II and Benedict XVI eras remain the majority of the conference and its center of gravity. This was also apparent in the heated debate over preparation of the Faithful Citizenship guide for the 2020 elections. A small group of bishops, who like Francis believe that teaching on abortion should be presented in the larger context of life issues (including climate change and poverty), sought to include a paragraph from the pope’s encyclical Gaudete et exsultate expressing this idea. The proposal was rejected. Instead, the majority approved five short video scripts and a brief introductory paragraph identifying abortion as the “preeminent priority” for the coming election year. This is far out of tune with the political thinking of many voting Catholics, for whom the issues of immigration, the care for creation, and economic justice—not to mention the Trump presidency itself—also loom large. In some ways, the coming election is about just what kind of Christianity the U.S. Catholic church will choose to embody in a changing America. The majority of the bishops gathered in Baltimore seemed to evince no awareness of this.
Nor did they seem to appreciate the polite yet pointed criticism delivered by U.S. papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre in his opening speech to the conference. In encouraging bishops to honestly assess the progress of the new evangelization, he said the following: “While there has been a strong emphasis on mercy by the Holy Father, at times, paradoxically, people are becoming more and more judgmental and less willing to forgive, as witnessed by the polarization gripping this nation.” He made clear—in his diplomatic way—that it has not gone unnoticed that many U.S. bishops have largely ignored the two most challenging documents of Francis’s teaching: Amoris laetitia and Laudato si’. Their cool reception to Pierre seems another indicator of their unwillingness, or inability, to engage with our times.