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“Only in the Deep Valleys Can You Appreciate the Majesty of the Mountains.”

Last month’s plenary meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops invited that sentiment. The conference’s central “accomplishment” was the adoption of a thoroughly anodyne document reflecting a pre-conciliar understanding of the Eucharist. This was a kind of nadir: The bishops’ conference that once produced remarkable documents on nuclear weapons and the economy could only manage a text that was even less interesting than the catechism.

But at least it was an off-ramp, a way to bring an end to the fruitless year-long effort by some culture warrior bishops to get the conference to urge, even demand, that President Joe Biden be denied communion. The zealots lost.

There also were signs of hope at last month’s meeting if you know how to read the tea leaves. The most obvious was the presentation on synodality by Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas. Flores is among the most intellectually gifted bishops in the country, a man who inhales literature and culture. A Latino, Flores catches many of Pope Francis’ literary references that the rest of us miss. His time leading a border diocese has marked him as a Pope Francis bishop too: His flock is on the margins. Not only did Flores help his brother bishops better understand what synodality is all about, he became the chair of the Doctrine Committee at the end of the meeting. (The bishops elected him last year and he served as chair-elect the past year.) That is a reason for hope.

Another important change took place when Baltimore Archbishop William Lori assumed the leadership of the Pro-Life Activities Committee. He replaces Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann. Lori is the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, the leadership of which has been taken over by Republican Party operatives in recent years. Still, the Knights are a far cry from the American Life League and Lepanto Institute which were the groups that shaped Naumann’s approach to pro-life issues. Lori is conservative but compared to Naumann, he is the embodiment of sweet reasonableness.

The election of new committee chairs this year showed signs the pro-Francis bishops are getting closer to the day when they will constitute a majority of the conference.

For example, Bishop James Cecchio of Metuchen defeated Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle in the race to become treasurer of the conference, 135-106. Cecchio is a more conservative type, a former rector of the North American College in Rome who roped in conservative donors like Tim Busch, founder of the rightwing Napa Institute, to fund new projects at the seminary. Etienne is more obviously a bishop in the mold of Pope Francis, beginning a series of listening sessions last year designed to help forge a pastoral plan from the ground up.

There was a bit of what statisticians call “noise” around this result. Cecchio’s ten years as rector meant that he had hosted many of the bishops when they came to Rome, so his significant margin of victory was not necessarily a referendum on whether the body of bishops wanted to more closely align themselves with the pope.

The strangest election was for the chair-elect of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, the USCCB’s point person for a raft of important public policy issues. The bishops selected Ukrainian Archbishop Borys Gudziak, despite the fact that he had spent most of the past decade working in France. Most bishops barely know him. Why did he win? Because the alternative was the culture warrior par excellence, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. That was a bridge too far.  

Another election showed the degree to which the conference is still not willing to go all-in with Pope Francis. Bishop Steven Lopes of the Anglican Ordinariate defeated Archbishop Mitch Rozanski of St. Louis to become chair-elect of the Liturgy Committee by a single vote, 121-120. Rozanski marked himself as a pro-Francis bishop during an intervention at the June USCCB meeting. Lopes is more conservative but he also leads an ordinariate that was created precisely so the former Anglicans could keep a different rite. The closeness of the margin indicates that it is not too long before Team Francis has the votes to select new leadership more aligned with the pope, but they are not there yet.

Next year, the bishops will elect a new president to replace Archbishop Jose Gomez, whose tenure as leader of the USCCB has been one disappointment after another. Between now and then, Pope Francis will likely name another fifteen or twenty bishops, perhaps more. There may be enough votes next November to decisively steer the conference in a new direction.

The Catholic Church is like an aircraft carrier. It doesn’t change course on a dime but it does change. The committee chair elections in the past two years were baby steps to be sure, but they move the U.S. Church closer to that day when its conference headquarters is not known as a “Francis-free zone.” There is a long way to go, but things are moving in the right direction.

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.


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