Conservative Roman Catholic bishops claimed the top spots in the church’s just-concluded U.S. leadership conference, angering moderates in the church but bolstering those seen as skeptical of the liberal reform agenda of Pope Francis.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB, met for its fall session this week in Baltimore, with meetings concluding on Thursday.
During their four-day session, the bishops elected Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, as president and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore as vice president. Both are viewed as conservatives, with Archbishop Lori having recently served as chairman of the group’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley was elected chair of the key Committee on Priorities and Plans, winning a 130-104 victory over Newark Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, who is widely viewed as a Francis ally. The Associated Press reported that Cardinal Tobin’s defeat was the second time since 2017 that a Francis-appointed cardinal was not elected to a key leadership position.
Arlington, Virginia Bishop Michael F. Burbidge was elected as chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities, the role Archbishop Lori had.
Katy Talento, a former Catholic nun and health care adviser to former President Trump who is now executive director of the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries, said the conservative victories are “heartening” for believers who value and defend the Church’s traditional teachings.
The new leaders might challenge “the beliefs of certain prominent politicians who call themselves Catholic” but whose political positions are “not necessarily” a reflection of Catholic belief.
Archbishop Broglio, 70, has expressed traditionalist views on such matters as gay marriage and abortion. He attracted national attention last year when he backed military service members asserting a religious objection to the Biden administration’s mandate to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
But in remarks to the press after his selection this week, the new USCCB head played down the political significance of his victory and said he would be happy to meet with President Biden if the opportunity arose.
“I don’t see my role as primarily political,” he told reporters Tuesday, “but if there is any way to insert the Gospel into all aspects of life in our country, I certainly will not miss any occasion to do that.”
He said he has met Pope Francis and described him as a “brother bishop,” adding, “I’m not aware that this [election] necessarily indicates some dissonance with Pope Francis.”
But more liberal elements of the Church warned the new leaders risked being out of touch with both Rome and believers in the pews.
“The leadership of the Catholic Church are bound and determined to drag the church in a completely opposite direction than both Pope Francis and the majority of Catholics are going,” said John Becker, press secretary of Catholics for Choice, a lay group that supports abortion and gay rights.
Mr. Becker said the elevation of conservative leaders “could not be a more blatant rebuke of Pope Francis,” and questions “the depth of the authenticity” of bishops who previously preached allegiance to the more conservative Pope Benedict XVI, whose 2013 resignation led to Francis’ election, and to Pope St. John Paul II.
“Now that there is a pope on the throne with whom they do not agree ideologically, the increasingly conservative U.S. bishops have become more and more publicly defiant of him,” Mr. Becker said.
An estimated 72 million Americans are members of the Catholic faith, according to a 2021 Pew Research study, and some see the election of new officials at the conference as an indicator of attitudes towards the leadership of Pope Francis.
Central issues include the question of abortion and Catholic politicians who support keeping access to the procedure legal, as well as the subject of same-sex relationships. Some argue that Francis has staked out more accommodating stances on both fronts. In turn, that’s generated pushback from several American Catholic leaders, some of whom have denied communion to pro-choice politicians such prominent Catholics as President Biden and outgoing House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
The Rev. Kyle Haden, a Franciscan priest and theology professor at St. Bonaventure University in St. Bonaventure, New York, said on Twitter that the USCCB votes were designed to strike back at Francis’ efforts.
“The USCCB has fired several shots across the Tiber, indicating their opposition to Pope Francis,” Father Haden wrote. “In my 25 years of priesthood, several under [John-Paul II and Benedict XVI], I was told by bishops that any opposition to the papacy was an act of disobedience. Hypocrisy much?”
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in New York City, rejected the criticism of the American bishops.
“The people who typically make that comment love to defend the dissidents within the Catholic Church, the dissidents being the ones who reject the teachings of the Catholic Church, particularly on sexual matters,” Mr. Donohue said in a telephone interview.
The conservative bishops are not “being dissident,” he added, but are “simply expressing their autonomy” in selecting USCCB leadership positions.
Mr. Donohue said, “That’s just the way it should be. Otherwise, we don’t need a bishops’ conference. We’ll just let the pope make all the decisions for them, which is precisely what this priest seems to want.”
Added Ms. Talento, “I hope that the coming days with new leadership at the bishops’ conference will help the world recognize that the faith is what it always has been. Catholic politicians should get on board with the faith or stop calling themselves Catholic.”