Nation's Catholic bishops, in Baltimore, to choose their own new president in wake of divisive U.S. election

Nation's Catholic bishops to celebrate Mass at African-American church in West Baltimore

The nation's Catholic bishops return to Baltimore next week for their annual fall assembly — their first such gathering since a presidential election that split the church as it divided the nation.

It's unclear whether or how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will address the election of Donald J. Trump.

The Republican appealed to traditional Catholics with his opposition to abortion and promises to protect religious organizations from government directives that would violate their teachings.

But his rhetoric against Obama administration policy on refugees drew criticism from church leaders, and his signature policy — a promise to build a wall along the southern border to curb illegal immigration — drew an implied rebuke this year from Pope Francis.

Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton on Tuesday with 52 percent of the Catholic vote, according to exit polls. The details reveal church divisions along ethnic lines: Trump won the support of 60 percent of white Catholics, but Clinton won 67 percent of Hispanic Catholics.

Now, leaders and observers say, the prelates will look for ways to move the church forward together.

"The bishops will not do a postmortem on a presidential election in the way one might see on CNN or read in The Baltimore Sun," Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said. "The bishops will certainly look at the results through the lens of our social teaching. We anticipate there will be some bright spots but that there will also be some challenging spots in the [election] outcome.

"There will also be things we simply don't know, because our new president does not have a governing track record."

The bishops conference has held its annual assembly in Baltimore, the first diocese in the United States, since 2006.

It calls together all active and retired bishops in the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands — nearly 300 members from more than 170 dioceses.

The church leaders will convene on Monday and attend four days of meetings at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Harbor East. Topping the agenda: choosing a new president, vice president, and key committee chairs.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and the current vice president of the conference, is expected to ascend to the presidency, by tradition. Should that happen, other candidates, including Lori, will be considered for vice president.

The bishops rarely deviate from the overall goal of the conference, which is to share what's going on in their dioceses and to ensure unity on possibly divisive matters.

The conference generally avoids making headline-grabbing policy changes.

"To be perfectly honest, they come together and continually do the same thing," said Chad C. Pecknold, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, "which is to ask: 'How can we coordinate our efforts to make the church's witness beautiful and believable in the world?'

"There will be disagreements. We'll see that next week. But to every bishop in that room, there will be the sense that 'We want to communicate a common message.'"

That said, this year's message will contain new elements.

For the first time, the bishops will hold their opening Mass at a historically African-American church, St. Peter Claver in West Baltimore. And for the first time, the slate of 10 presidential candidates will include two Hispanic bishops.

Observers say the decision to hold the Monday afternoon service at a predominantly black parish in Baltimore reflects the bishops' interest in furthering the priorities of Pope Francis, who has said the church should be "a house of comfort" for all people.

"This is the first time in memory they're not holding that service in a cathedral or the largest church in the city," says Rocco Palmo, the editor of the insider blog Whispers in the Loggia. "Part of the formal business of this meeting will be really drilling in on a task force that has been working on the issue of 'peace in our communities.' As far as optics go, that's huge."

Palmo believes the decision reflects the priorities of DiNardo, who is known for working closely with African-American Catholics, a group of 4 million people Palmo says have at times felt marginalized within the church.

And the inclusion of Jose H. Gomez, the archbishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles, and Daniel E. Flores, the bishop of Brownsville, Texas, among the presidential candidates, Palmo said, reflects a church embracing the influence of its rapidly growing Hispanic population.

The bishops nominate candidates during the summer preceding an election. The 10 who garner the most nominations are added to the slate.

Gomez, 65, and Flores, 55, have long emphasized church teaching on welcoming immigrants. Trump won a majority of Catholic voters, and the election, in part on promises to build the border wall, step up deportation of people in the country illegally, and cut federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities.

Bishops and priests are expected to remain above secular politics their charge is to form consciences, not take up for candidates — but the contentious 2016 campaign drew some in.

In one incident that drew headlines, a parish in Southern California asserted in church bulletins that it's "a mortal sin to vote Democrat." Clinton and other Democrats support abortion rights; the church opposes abortion.

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy sent a message to his 100 parishes that while church leaders are obligated to discuss how the teachings of the faith are relevant to public policy, they should eschew partisan politics.

"We must not and will not endorse specific candidates, use parish media or bulletins to favor candidates or parties through veiled language about selectively chosen issues, or engage in partisan political activity of any kind," McElroy wrote.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia drew criticism when he said Catholics, including Vice President Joe Biden, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy — all supporters of abortion rights — had transferred their deepest loyalties from Catholic teaching to "the new 'church' of our ambitions and appetites.'"

National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters said Chaput's statements flew in the face of the recent admonition by Francis that church leaders should guard against being "argumentative or aggressive" in their ministries.

Chaput is one of a handful of perceived traditionalists on the presidential ballot. Others are Lori, who chairs the conference's Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, and Archbishop Allen Henry Vigneron of the Detroit Archdiocese. Perceived centrists such as Archbishops Gregory Aymond of New Orleans and Thomas Wenski of Miami are also on the slate.

The churchmen will cast their presidential votes Tuesday. The first candidate to gain a simple majority is to take over for current president Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., at the close of business Thursday.

They'll then use the same method to elect the new vice president from the remaining nine names.

That leader will likely be the one to take over in 2019, at the end of a three-year term.

To Lori, there could be no better venue for choosing those leaders than the assembly, an event he says always concludes in a way that amplifies the values of the Catholic Church.

"Are there differences of opinion, legitimate differences of opinion, on many fronts? Certainly," Lori said. "But my experience is that the conference works very well together, that we are striving to embrace the priorities and the spirit of Pope Francis.

"This is not a conference that is against a lot of things. It's a conference that is for many good things. I think that whatever else happens next week, we'll be working very, very hard."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
48°