The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will meet in Baltimore next month (November 11-13) for their general assembly. This will be their third meeting in Baltimore since the tsunami of the McCarrick case and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report washed over the American Church last summer. The abuse crisis will undoubtedly loom over the conference once again, but the frantic urgency of the moment will be lessened.
The bishops cannot afford to fall into complacency, thinking that between Pope Francis’ May motu proprio on handling abuse, Vox estis lux mundi,  and their own directives passed in June, that the whole unpleasant episode is behind them.
If the pressure coming from angry flocks has diminished somewhat, there are still plenty of attorneys general out there to keep the bishops’ attention on the issue of clerical sexual abuse.
At the same time, the bishops can’t ignore the fact that, even before last summer, the Church in the United States was facing some very serious challenges. Those problems – daunting enough in their own right – haven’t gone away just because the bishops had to spend most of the past year doing damage control.
Take, for example, the grim trends found in recent numbers  from the Pew Research Center. Catholics are declining as a share of the population nationally and in every region, not just the rust belt and northeast. For the first time, fewer than half of Hispanics in the United States say they are Catholic.
These trends are being driven by the youngest Americans, which suggests very strongly that they will continue or accelerate going forward. While no one I have spoken to thinks the abuse crisis has done anything but exacerbate these trends, the flock was already shrinking well before last summer.
The bishops will each have to address these problems in their own dioceses, but the USCCB will have a role to play in shaping, supporting, and coordinating those efforts. And the conference leadership will have to figure out how to solve the tricky problem of staying focused on catechesis and evangelization – and all the ministries that are encompassed by that work – while also making sure that redress of the abuse crisis doesn’t slip into the background.
A large part of the challenge of balancing multiple priorities will fall to USCCB leadership. As it happens, the bishops will be selecting a new Conference president next month in Baltimore. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s three-year term is ending, and his successor’s term will begin immediately upon the conclusion of the November meeting.
The presumptive favorite to succeed DiNardo is Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. For one, he is the current vice-president: only once (in 2010) has a sitting conference vice-president not gone on to be elected president. He also happens to head the largest diocese in the country, where he inherited more than his share of the mess owing to the failure of his predecessor (Cardinal Roger Mahony) to address clerical abuse.
Gomez has been at DiNardo’s side during much of the tumult of the past year, including in high-level meetings in Rome. Gomez even stood in for DiNardo for a while after DiNardo suffered a stroke in March.
Much has been made of the fact that Archbishop Gomez – a Mexican-born prelate who has been outspoken and evenhanded on immigration and who heads a diocese with the world’s 4th largest Catholic population – has not been made a cardinal. Taking that for whatever it’s worth, Gomez’s election would be seen as a vote of confidence from the American bishops
If Gomez is a pretty safe bet to succeed DiNardo, the roster of nominees for the next vice-president (or president if Gomez is not elected) is a little surprising. Here’s that list:
- Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Military Services
- Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport
- Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City
- Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco
- Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville
- Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee
- Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois
- Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend
- Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit
I say the list is somewhat surprising for the simple reason that it lacks a clear “progressive” candidate. None of the usual names mentioned as “Francis bishops” is there.
This shouldn’t be taken as slight to Pope Francis (any more than it was a slight to the pope when Archbishop Naumann was elected chair of the pro-life committee over Cardinal Cupich a few years ago). But it might indicate something of a consensus about where the conference needs to go – or at least where it ought not to go.
It is given to the bishops to teach, sanctify, and govern which means the Big Problems facing the Church are the bishops’ problems. Their choice of leaders from among their own ranks will tell us something about how they see the challenges before them.
Ultimately, though, the most fundamental work of the Church, the work of evangelization in word and deed, is not theirs alone. Their mission is to teach, sanctify, and govern precisely so those they serve can fulfill the mission to the rest of us, who are called by baptism to proclaim the Gospel.
It matters who becomes the next president of the USCCB. But if we’ve learned anything from the past year it should be this: no matter who our bishops are – sinners or saints – we can’t expect them to do our job for us. We’re disciples, too.
*Image: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, c. 1432 [Saint Bavo’s Cathedral , Ghent, Belgium]. This is the center panel of the Ghent Altarpiece in which the figures in the lower right are popes and bishops.