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Candidates to lead the Catholic bishops — and what their election would mean

At the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' fall meeting, the prelates will elect a new president to replace Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez, who has served since 2019.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its Fall General Assembly meeting, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Baltimore. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

(RNS) — When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops convenes on Tuesday (Nov. 15) for the first public session of its annual fall meeting, the initial task before the prelates will be to elect a new president to replace Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez, who has served since 2019.

There’s no white smoke here: The organization doesn’t carry any formal ecclesiological power within the church. USCCB presidents instead have often been powerful voices in American politics. Gómez, considered a conservative, helped spark the national conversation about President Joe Biden and abortion after Biden, the second Catholic U.S. president, was elected in 2020. And while all the candidates for USCCB president support the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage, priorities matter, as a new president could impact how the USCCB expends its political capital — and where it attracts media attention.

Here are some of the leading candidates and what their election might mean to the bishops’ agenda:

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, Archdiocese for the Military Services

While not a hardline right-wing crusader, Broglio, who lost in a runoff to Gomez in 2019, has staked out some conservative positions. If he wins, he could be seen as something of a continuation of Gomez’ leadership.

Last October, Broglio defended the use of religious waivers for COVID-19 vaccines for his Catholic charges in the military, setting himself apart from even some fellow conservatives who rejected the use of waivers.

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In 2013, he issued rules that not only prevented Catholic chaplains from being forced to bless or witness a same-sex marriage, but barred them from participating in funerals that could “give the impression that the church approves of same sex ‘marital’ relationships.”

Broglio has shown himself willing to challenge liberal politicians: In 2011, he published a public letter urging then-President Barack Obama’s administration to drop its legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, Diocese of Arlington

When it comes to public statements on politics, Bishop Burbidge has popped up in a myriad of contexts in recent years — including moments where he fell under the more moderate or liberal umbrella. In 2018, he was one of several religious leaders who spoke out against racism ahead of a planned gathering of white supremacists in Washington, D.C. Three years later, he was among those who pushed for a ban on the death penalty in Virginia, citing Pope Francis’ statement that “all human life is sacred.”

But Burbidge released guidelines last year that barred priests in his diocese from using a person’s transgender name and pronouns. He is also among a small cadre of bishops, led by San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, who publicly declared this year that they will not offer Communion to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, citing her support for abortion rights.

Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, Diocese of Bridgeport

One of the younger candidates, Caggiano has been far less outspoken than others on the list of possible presidents. On LGBTQ issues, for instance, he has offered different kinds of statements: After the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2015, he condemned the targeting of LGBTQ people. Later that year, he spoke out against the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

More recently, Caggiano spoke out in defense of vaccines — although he did so in February 2020 during a debate over religious vaccine exemptions in Connecticut unrelated to the pandemic that would eventually force lockdowns across the country. He later expressed excitement about COVID-19 vaccines as well, however, and advised priests against writing letters in support of religious exemptions from vaccination.

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

Chair of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Coakley’s views on capital punishment and guns are well known. He may appeal to liberal prelates who strongly oppose the death penalty, which he has argued should be banned at both the state and federal level. He has also celebrated federal legislation designed to curb gun violence passed earlier this year.

But conservatives are equally as likely to find a kinship with Coakley, who applauded Archbishop Cordileone’s decision to prohibit House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from receiving Communion, calling the proclamation a courageous act. When he ran for the presidency in 2019, he finished third behind Broglio and Gomez.

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, Archdiocese of San Francisco

Cordileone would be a clear sign that the bishops were positioning themselves at the rightward end of the U.S. political spectrum — and setting themselves on a collision course with Rome.

The San Francisco cleric, a strident conservative in one of the country’s most liberal regions, has prompted outcry and protest vigils from local Catholics. He is best known for declaring in May that he would refuse the Eucharist to Pelosi and has suggested he would do the same for Biden. Cordileone drove a heated debate among the bishops in 2021 that ended with an order to produce a teaching document on the sacrament, which triggered implicit and explicit rebuke from Vatican officials.

Cordileone has also been at odds with the pope on COVID-19 vaccines, which Francis has supported as acts of love. The bishop has encouraged others to get the shots but acknowledged in 2021 that he is not vaccinated, justifying the decision by saying he has a “good immune system” and erroneously claiming that shots are “not really vaccines.”

Archbishop Paul D. Etienne, Archdiocese of Seattle

Seen as a relative liberal, Seattle’s archbishop was among the prelates who spoke out against the crafting of the document on the Eucharist in 2021, decrying it as “enmeshed in a conversation about politics.” He is also considered to be a moderate on LGBTQ issues; he created an archdiocesan committee on the topic that released a report last year.

Etienne was also one of many bishops who condemned the administration of former President Donald Trump for ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores, Diocese of Brownsville

Overseeing a diocese on the U.S.-Mexico border, Flores has also been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform — and for migrants themselves. When news broke that governors in Texas and Florida were busing and flying immigrants to liberal jurisdictions, Flores expressed righteous outrage on Twitter, saying the governors were treating migrants “like pawns in games of political showmanship.”

“Judgment on Christians who disrespect the poor will be most severe,” he added.

Flores would likely also energize the USCCB’s activism against gun violence. In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 people dead — most of them children — Flores passionately decried arguments made by many who oppose gun control legislation.

“Don’t tell me that guns aren’t the problem, people are,” he tweeted. “I’m sick of hearing it. The darkness first takes our children, who then kill our children, using the guns that are easier to obtain than aspirin. We sacralize death’s instruments and then are surprised that death uses them.”

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, Archdiocese of San Antonio

As a border bishop, García-Siller has been an advocate for immigrant rights during his time at the Archdiocese of San Antonio. In 2019, he participated in a summit that included Catholic bishops from both sides of the border and pushed back on claims by then-President Trump that the situation in the region amounted to a “national emergency.” In a press conference after the summit, García-Siller dismissed Trump’s characterization as “a lie,” then offered his own assessment.

“We were at the border yesterday,” García-Siller told reporters at the time. “The emergency is not here. The emergency is what people are going through to try and come here to have peace, to have understanding, to have respect and to have a genuine welcome.”

He also told RNS that he opposed the administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

And like Flores, he responded to the Uvalde shooting with outrage at the lack of gun restrictions, arguing people cannot be “pro-life” while supporting laws that allow such mass shootings to occur. He told RNS that a “corrupted political system” has for years “undermined human beings” on the issue.

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Archbishop William E. Lori, Archdiocese of Baltimore

Lori’s election would elevate the bishops’ opposition to abortion. Currently the head of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Lori roundly celebrated the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June and expressed support for a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, proposed in September by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey. Lori called it “a place to begin uniting Americans regardless of their views on abortion.”

Lori told Religion News Service in June that every women should be provided with the “support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love.”

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend

Rhoades attracted widespread media attention during the creation of the controversial Communion document. The chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine at the time, he intimated abortion should not be the only issue that could lead to denying Catholics the Eucharist, suggesting that white supremacist views and supporting human trafficking should be added to the list.

Rhoades also publicly challenged Notre Dame’s decision to offer then-Vice President Biden American Catholicism’s highest honor in 2016, citing Biden’s support for abortion rights.

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