Inside the USCCB: What’s in an election?

As a guide to the thinking of a group of people, nothing beats an election. In voting, people say a lot not only about the candidates but about their own attitudes and values.

Considered like that, two recent elections that were won by the same man, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap. of Philadelphia, appear to say something significant about two important groups of Catholic leaders — the world Synod of Bishops and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In both cases, the message appears to be roughly the same: at least in these circles, an outspoken, intelligent defense of traditional values relating to marriage and family life still counts for a lot.

Two elections

In the first of the two elections, participants in the Synod on the Family held in Rome in October chose Archbishop Chaput as one of 12 members of the council responsible for planning the next of these international meetings, probably in about three years. Vote totals were not announced, but people acquainted with the synod’s arcane voting procedures said that the Philadelphia archbishop had gotten more votes than anyone else.

In the second election, Nov. 17, bishops attending the fall general meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, held in Baltimore, chose Archbishop Chaput to chair the organization’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. He received 141 votes to 98 for Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, and will serve as chairman-elect for a year before taking over as chairman. The committee currently is developing a “pastoral plan” for the Church’s efforts on family life and marriage in the United States.

In settings like synods and bishops’ conferences, overt campaigning for office is a breach of  episcopal etiquette. But it doesn’t follow that when they vote, bishops don’t know for whom they are voting. Often, it’s just the reverse: they’ve attended the same seminaries, been students together in Rome, gone to the same meetings for years, and had many opportunities to size one another up. After all that, overt campaigning might be superfluous. It therefore seems safe to suppose that in both the present cases — the synod and USCCB — the electors were well aware of Archbishop Chaput’s stands on issues and, in voting for him, were implicitly expressing approval.

Taking a stand

During the synod, for example, he was among the first bishops to speak, presenting a forceful critique of the working document — the Instrumentum Laboris — prepared by the Vatican synod office for the bishops to discuss.

He accused the document of fostering “a subtle hopelessness” that gave rise to “a spirit of compromise” with sinful ways of life. Rather than that, he said, the synod needed to show “confidence in the Word of God, the transformative power of grace, and the ability of people to actually live what the Church believes.”

Significantly, he then was selected as recording secretary of his English-language small group besides being elected near the gathering’s close to the council that will plan the next synod.

Archbishop Chaput was one of three chosen to represent the Americas on that body. The other two are Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former Archbishop of Quebec and now prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, one of Pope Francis’ hand-picked group of nine cardinal-advisers. Overall, the dozen elected included nine cardinals, two archbishops, including Archbishop Chaput, and one bishop. Pope Francis later named three more — the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad and the Archbishops of Madrid and Brasilia.

It is unusual for bishops to disagree sharply with one another in public even when they disagree strongly. The desire to maintain episcopal unity — or at least its appearance — is very strong. As a result, their public exchanges tend to be models of gentlemanly decorum.

The Synod on the Family was a departure from this norm, with bishops publicly aiming barbed comments at one another on several occasions. Much of this was touched off by the leak of a letter to the pope signed by 13 cardinals — exactly which 13 is a matter of some doubt — in which they express concern about possible rigging of the synod to produce a predetermined result.

Around the time the letter surfaced, Archbishop Chaput published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal saying that the more some synod participants insisted they didn’t want to change any doctrines, “the more other synod fathers worry.”

At this point, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, a member of the synod’s drafting committee, gave an interview in which — naming no names — he strongly rejected the suggestion that the synod was being manipulated. “I wonder if some of these people ... just don’t like this pope,” Cardinal Wuerl told the Jesuits’ weekly magazine America. To which Archbishop Chaput, who in October had played host to the pope during the Philadelphia leg of his very successful U.S. visit, replied, “If the welcome we gave Pope Francis last month looked like opposition, people need a trip to a really good eye doctor.”

All this was part of the public record when the synod participants voted for members of the synod council and the U.S. bishops voted for USCCB committee chairmen. Although there’s no telling how much it mattered to either group, the fact is that Archbishop Chaput won handily both times. 

The Francis factor

As for how much influence — if any — either vote might have on Pope Francis as he weighs his response to the Synod on the Family, that is unknown. The drafters of the synod statement clearly prepared it on the basis of two fundamental principles for bishops’ statements: preserve the appearance of unity and don’t tie the hands of the pope.

Unity was ensured by a synod rule requiring a two-thirds vote for approval of each paragraph in the lengthy final document. The three paragraphs on the neuralgic issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics without annulments of their first marriages got their two-thirds, but with a substantial “no” vote. They outline a process for reintegrating the divorced and remarried who are distressed by their alienation from the Church.

The process stops just short of the point at which its logic would seem to point to giving such people Communion. Here presumably was where the second principle — not tying the hands of the pope — came into play, with the drafters leaving it to him to take that step. Will he? The most that can be said now is that Pope Francis has frequently indicated he leans that way.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.