When the nation’s Catholic bishops gathered for their annual general assembly in Baltimore two years ago, they faced a thorny, high-profile issue: U.S. voters had just elected as president Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic who also supports abortion rights.
The expected clash between the conservative and progressive wings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over whether to censure Biden never broke into the open, as the clerics worked to hammer out a compromise statement that they finally released last year.
This year’s assembly, which starts Monday at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, promises no such headline-grabbing fodder for debate. But it could serve as one more testing ground for the ongoing back-and-forth between the liberal and traditionalist factions of the highest-ranking body in the Catholic Church in the U.S.
“This meeting doesn’t have the drama of the past two meetings, but it does have importance, as it will determine the leadership of the conference for the next [three] years and will help determine the approach the conference is going to take to politics,” said John Carr, a former official with the bishops’ conference who is co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University in Washington.
Among other items on the plenary agenda, the 300 or so bishops will choose the successor to the current president, Archbishop José H. Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, whose term ends Thursday at the close of the four-day gathering.
The bishops will elect their leader from a slate of 10, nominated by their fellow conference members. They include at least one notable traditionalist, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, 66, a longtime opponent of LGBTQ and abortion rights. He is the official who in May barred another high-profile Catholic abortion rights supporter, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, from receiving Communion in her home diocese.
At the other end of the spectrum are more liberal candidates such as Paul D. Etienne, 63, the archbishop of Seattle. While Etienne says he strongly supports the National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year, multimillion-dollar campaign within the U.S. church to deepen Catholics’ understanding of the importance of the Eucharist, he has firmly cautioned against allowing the process to become politicized.
Last June, Etienne joined a minority of bishops in opposing the creation of a teaching document on the Eucharist — the sacrament in which Catholics partake of bread and wine, which they believe have become the body and blood of Jesus — on those grounds. However, the conference’s committee on doctrine began writing it last summer, and a representative is expected to present a draft this week.
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The other eight candidates for president are seen as falling between Cordileone and Etienne on the ideological spectrum. They include such perceived centrists as Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, and Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas.
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, the de facto host of the annual fall assembly, is also on the list. Broadly viewed as a right-of-center figure for his years of work on religious liberty and pro-life initiatives, the 71-year-old prelate is seen by some as an appealing compromise candidate.
The candidate who garners the most votes becomes president, with the second-place finisher taking over as vice president, also for the next three years. Attendees will also select six new committee chairmen.
This year’s assembly takes place in the 20th year since a series of investigative articles in The Boston Globe famously uncovered widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. The reports led the bishops to develop the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, commonly known as the Dallas Charter.
The document established procedures for addressing abuse allegations, as well as guidelines for helping victims heal, promoting accountability, and preventing abuse. This week’s agenda calls for acknowledgment of the crisis and prayer, discussion and contemplation on the subject.
The assembly is also the first to convene since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this summer to overturn Roe v. Wade, returning the issue of abortion to the states. While the bishops are slated to take no particular action, Lori, who is chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, is expected to share that panel’s views on how the church can manifest what he has called “radical solidarity” with mothers and babies in the aftermath of the controversial ruling.
The bishops will vote on whether and how much to update Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, a document that conference members wrote in 2007 to help Catholics frame their views on politics and public life within church teaching. It was last updated in 2019; the bishops are expected to vote on a final version next year.
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Controversy attended last year’s general assembly as Baltimore City officials attempted to prevent St. Michael’s Media, a theologically ultraconservative Catholic organization, from staging a protest and prayer rally at MECU Pavilion, an open-air concert venue adjacent to the Marriott.
Attorneys for the city cited the anticipated presence of conservative provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, onetime adviser to former President Donald Trump, as reason to expect “violence,” “disruption” and possibly “loss of life.” A federal judge ruled there was no evidence for the claims, and the protest took place without incident.
A spokeswoman for Church Militant, an online publication for St. Michael’s Media, said the organization had no plans for a protest this year.
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But Dave Lorenz, Maryland director of the advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said his organization would picket outside the hotel Tuesday or Wednesday, as it has most years.
Lorenz said the group plans to use its protests to “address” the bishops’ assertion that they’ve “greatly benefited” from listening to the painful stories of abuse survivors since the passage of the Dallas Charter 20 years ago. Lorenz said he believes little has changed in that regard.
He said SNAP members are studying the conference’s presidential candidates with an eye toward figuring out which ones are most likely to take real steps on victims’ behalf. He promised his organization would share its findings during its protests.
“We’re going to give people our report card on what we think about how those guys check out,” he said.