Friday, November 18, 2005

Holding the Chairs

One under-covered aspect of the just-concluded November Meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was the election of chairmen and chairmen-elect for eight of its committees. Organized by topic area, the groups handle a hefty amount of the national body's workload in dealing with the daily aspects of specific areas in the public policy outreach of the church in America.

The chairmanship elections are usually a reliable gauge of the sense of the body of bishops on the qualities the Conference seeks in the position in question, namely which kind of tack they seek to take on the relevant issues which arise in each opening. More to the point, the numbers often tell of the standing in which the bishops hold one of their own. In sum, Chairs matter -- and they take a keen interest in filling them. (Remember that, at last year's Meeting, Bishop Donald Trautman was nominated from the floor and won election to the Chairmanship of the Committee for the Liturgy, surging past the slated candidates, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland.)

While no one was nominated from the floor in this year's cycle, there seem to be messages in the results from earlier in the week.

The most prominent Conference chairmanship is, arguably, that of its Committee for Pro-Life Activities. Given the church's activism on human life issues across the board, the Pro-Life chair is the national point-man for US Catholicism's top public-policy issue, a visibility which culminates in his role as principal celebrant and homilist at the annual Mass for Life, which is nationally-televised every January 21 from the Washington National Shrine. In January, 2007, the task will fall to Cardinal Rigali -- the second Philadelphia archbishop in a row to hold the post -- who won election by a resounding margin (172-73) over Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.

The ever-increasing prominence of Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, already ten years a bishop and chairman of the Catholic University of America board of trustees at the relatively young age of 54, was further solidified by his confreres with his election to the chairmanship of the Committee for Doctrine, besting Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, OSB of Indianapolis, 130 votes to 117. Lori succeeds Archbishop William Levada, now Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

From an outsider's vantage, the biggest surprise would be the sizable defeat of Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston, easily one of the most recognizable members of the American hierarchy, for the top post on Latin American affairs. O'Malley is well-regarded among Latin American bishops; Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalapa attended his 2003 installation after O'Malley invested notable time and effort to support Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto of Orange defeated O'Malley 147-97.

Among other results:
  • It was an all-St. Louis showdown for the Chairmanship for Consecrated Life as former Rome of the West auxiliary Bishop Terry Steib, SVD, now in Memphis, defeated Archbishop Raymond Burke by a two-to-one margin.
  • Bishop Robert Carlson of Saginaw, who earned a sterling reputation for youth outreach and cultivating vocations over a decade as bishop of Sioux Falls, will be the point-man for Priestly Life and Ministry, outrunning Bishop George Lucas of Springfield.
  • The bishops' communications strategy will be guided by Bishop George Niederauer of Salt Lake City (still heavily tipped to succeed his good friend in San Francisco, by the way). A margin of 30 votes separated Niederauer from the bioethicist theologian Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm.