When the U.S. bishops’ conference meets next month for its annual fall plenary meeting, the bishops will hold a leadership election that promises to be among the most interesting in more than a decade, as the USCCB vice president will not be the favorite, or even a candidate, in the conference presidential election.
Without the customary expectation that the sitting conference vice- president will win the presidency, November’s unusually open election of both the USCCB president and vice president will be an especially useful barometer of the concerns and perspectives of the American Catholic bishops.
While the bishops announced the presidential field Tuesday morning, the rest of the USCCB’s fall meeting agenda has not yet been announced. Conference observers can expect at least some of the usual business items for the fall meeting: a discussion of the conference’s budget and strategic plan, probably voting on segments of a Liturgy of the Hours translation project, a presentation of the synod on synodality, and discussion of the major catechist formation program underway at the conference.
Since this will be the first meeting since Roe vs. Wade was overturned in June, it seems likely the bishops will spend at least some time discussing their flagship pro-life initiative, Walking With Moms In Need. They will probably also discuss their work to adapt the liturgical “rite of institution” for catechists to the needs of the Church in the U.S.
Nothing on the agenda is likely to be especially controversial; there is nothing afoot among the bishops that comes close to the polemics over “Eucharistic coherence” which defined much of their engagement in 2021.
But the elections loom large - especially for a conference beset by open division in recent years, including a cardinal who in 2021 criticized the USCCB for “internal institutional failures.”
It is customarily the case that the sitting vice president of the bishops’ conference is elected for the next term of the presidency, which often gives the actual voting for president something closer to the feeling of a coronation than an actual electoral contest, while the real drama of the election is usually reserved to the election of the conference vice president.
The bishops’ custom of electing the vice president to the top job was last disrupted with the 2010 presidential election of then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who defeated Bishop Gerald Kicanas on a third-ballot runoff.
While Dolan told the New York Times he was surprised by the voting, most conference-watchers think the 2010 election outcome was actually the result of some careful planning, and a fair bit of politicking conducted by Dolan’s supporters.
In either case, Dolan was the most recent bishop to break the streak — his own vice president was elected president in 2013, as was his vice president in 2016, and his vice president was Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, who has led the conference since 2019.
Before Dolan, only two conference vice presidents were not elected to lead the conference. Archbishop Leo Byrne died in 1974, one month before he could be elected conference president. St. Louis’ Cardinal John Carberry was too close to retirement to be elected president in 1977.
The man now sitting in the vice president’s seat is Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who is 73, and unable to serve a term as president because he’ll reach 75 - the age at which bishops must submit their resignation - before the term expires in 2025.
That’s what makes for the open-season election the bishops will hold in November, as the bishops choose a new conference president, vice-president, and several committee chairmen.
So who are the candidates, and what might their election mean? Here’s a look at a few of the most likely frontrunners, and some other bishop-candidates to watch:
Archbishop Timothy Broglio
Broglio is head of the U.S. Archdiocese for Military Services, the personal ordinariate for military members, contractors, and their families. He now serves as the conference secretary.
Among the candidates for conference president, Broglio has thus far come closest to being elected to the job.
In 2019, Broglio came in second in the election of the conference vice president — and, if he had been elected, he would have expected to sweep into the presidency in the upcoming 2022 contest.
While Broglio lost in the vice-presidential runoff to Archbishop Allen Vigneron, he was quickly elected to fill Vigneron’s slot as conference secretary, giving at least a secondary vote of confidence to the military archbishop.
Broglio, as conference secretary, serves as the ex officio chairman of the USCCB’s underappreciated Committee on Plans and Priorities. Working mostly behind the scenes, the plans and priorities committee influences meeting agendas, the always-ongoing strategic planning cycle that shapes conference budget and personnel decisions, and the nomination process of conference committee chairmen candidates.
The archbishop, in short, knows his way around the conference. And some bishops will note that the archbishop is also based in Washington, DC — actually closer to conference headquarters even than Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory.
Some bishops and conference staffers have told The Pillar that even in a digital age, conference operations have been impacted in the last three years by a bishop-president headquartered on the West Coast, working with a three-hour time difference.
By contrast, Broglio has been by some bishops seen as well-positioned to pop by conference offices, keep his hand at the tiller, and develop personal relationships with senior staff members.
For a cadre of bishops, that availability might seem newly important at the conference, in the wake of sharp controversy among the U.S. bishops in recent years, and as the USCCB makes efforts to build fraternity among shepherds, and to prioritize prayer and common discernment in conference meetings and operations.
Some bishops will also note that Broglio has more Vatican experience than almost all U.S. bishops - the archbishop was trained as a papal diplomat, worked in the Secretariat of State, and was apostolic nucio to the Dominican Republic.
While Broglio has been out of Vatican service for 15 years, his experience might be perceived as helpful to the conference, as the USCCB navigates tensions with Rome on a number of issues - including the “Eucharistic coherence” drama of 2021.
In short - given his trajectory of elections in the conference - it’s likely a number of bishops will decide Broglio could be a steady and strong hand at the bishops’ conference, and help both to stabilize the institution after the Covid pandemic, and to focus their agenda on the business of the Church.
But if Broglio is elected president, the decision will not be unanimous.
The archbishop has been criticized for his years assigned as personal secretary to former Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who impeded Vatican investigations into claims of sexual abuse against high-ranking clerics, and is widely reported to have defended or enabled some priests and bishops accused of serial sexual abuse, including former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Association with Sodano will likely seem inappropriate in a conference president to some Catholics, including bishops voting for conference president. Supporters of the archbishop have argued that Broglio was assigned to the role, and has not been accused of complicity, or even knowledge, of Sodano’s machinations in the Vatican.
And some bishops will have ideological or theological objections to the notion of electing Broglio.
Dividing bishops between “conservatives” and “progressives” is often an unhelpful framework, but it is nonetheless common in the U.S. Church, and bishops themselves are not immune from making use of it. In those terms, Broglio has been criticized by members of the conference’s “progressive” wing as insufficiently pastoral, and unduly focused on the “culture war” issues that some bishops say are divisive in the Church - among them abortion and the appropriate pastoral response to LGBT Catholics.
Still - for the moment, at least - Broglio seems likely to be the bishops’ frontrunner when he heads to Baltimore in November.
Archbishop Paul Coakley
Close behind Broglio in the 2019 vice-presidential elections was Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the USCCB’s committee on domestic policy, which organizes the conference’s lobbying and political priorities. Before that role, the archbishop had a turn as chairman of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ massive global relief services agency.
Largely seen as a “conservative” - or, perhaps more accurately, as representative of the Church’s Communio school of post-Vatican II theological formation - Coakley has been in recent years a frequent opponent of the death penalty, especially in his state of Oklahoma.
Generally well-liked by his brother bishops, Coakley is likely to remain a front-runner in leadership conversations about the conference — even while at least some bishops will criticize the archbishop for his support of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s May decision to prohibit Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from the reception of Holy Communion.
If he is not elected to the top job, it seems reasonable to conclude that Coakley could again contend for the vice-presidential slot.
After a USCCB president is elected from the slate of 10 nominees for the job, the remaining candidates are put up for election to the vice-presidential position.
If no bishop gets a majority of votes in two rounds of voting among all VP candidates, the top two vote-getters face a runoff election.
Coakley got the third-most votes in 2019, and did not make it to a runoff.
But with a broad network of friends within the conference, Coakley may well advance further in the process in 2022. And given that the archbishop is somewhat reserved personally and seen often as fair-minded and civil, he might be seen by “progressives” as more appealing - at least as a public face for the conference - than other “conservative” candidates for a leadership post.
Archbishop Paul Etienne
The 2010 election of Archbishop Dolan as conference president was remarkable because it broke the custom of electing vice presidents to the role, but also because it broke a customary turn-taking practice of conference elections, which saw bishops alternating between the election of a “conservative” and then a “progressive” to their most senior leadership post.
The 2010 election was, by custom, the “progressive” turn for conference president, and Kicanas was expected to fill that slot. But Dolan, then universally regarded as a “conservative” archbishop, broke the customary cycle.
Since Dolan’s election, each bishop elected to lead the bishops’ conference can be categorized in the “conservative” camp - largely because, for at least the last decade, the majority of the U.S. bishops would themselves fall more readily under that broad label.
Etienne, the Archbishop of Seattle and an avid outsdoorman, is not regarded by any Church observer as a “conservative.”
The archbishop was outspoken during the 2021 debates in his opposition to the Eucharistic coherence document, and is generally regarded as adherent to same school of thought and ecclesial vision as Cardinals Blase Cupich and Robert McElroy - the most prominent voices in the Church’s “progressive” wing.
Of course, that group of bishops is a minority in the bishops’ conference - for now - so Etienne probably won't have the votes to become the conference president, or vice president.
But Etienne’s candidacy is interesting for conference-watchers, because while he's not the only “progressive” or “progressive-adjacent” bishop on the slate, the number of votes Etienne gets on the first ballot might be a pretty good indication of how many votes the Cupich and McElroy wing of the conference can muster — a number, by the way, that has grown in recent years, and is likely to keep growing, as Cardinals Cupich and Joseph Tobin, members of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, influence the appointment of bishops in the United States.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades
With an Eastern Pennsylvania accent that might have been lifted from HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” and an affable and personable demeanor, Bishop Kevin Rhoades has quietly garnered the respect of a growing number of U.S. bishops in recent years — especially for his work on the 2021 Eucharistic coherence document.
Rhoades, who is Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chaired until recently the conference’s doctrinal committee. In that role, he spearheaded the effort that eventually saw the surprise of a nearly unanimous November 2021 passage of “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.”
Rhoades attributed the eventual 228-8 consensus on the document to the Holy Spirit. Bishops largely agreed, with several giving credit to a decision to begin the November meeting with prayer and closed-door sessions, which many bishops described to The Pillar as “synodality” in action, and a new course for the USCCB altogether.
But bishops also credited Rhoades and his committee with doing extensive regional consultation on the drafting of the controversial document, and bishops told The Pillar that even if the document didn’t take up every perspective they might have offered, by the time it came to a vote, most felt they’d been heard.
Rhoades, who led both open and closed-door discussion of the Eucharistic coherence document - and helped ensure the regional consultation process - came out of the debate having helped achieve consensus, when only months before - in June 2021 - the bishops had engaged in protracted and often-ugly debate on the prospect of even drafting a text, let alone publishing it.
While the Eucharistic coherence proceedings revealed deep fissures among the conference - and probably left some with scars - it also, eventually, morphed into a very different way of doing business for the conference, and, in the process, probably raised Rhoades’ stock among a cadre of bishops.
Could that be enough to see him elected president? That’s not clear.
But if he’s not elected to the top job, Rhoades is probably among the main contenders for the vice-presidential slot. The bishop has also chaired the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth. And like Coakley and a few other candidates, the bishop is in his mid-60s, and would be eligible to serve consecutively as vice president and then president, well ahead of his eventual retirement as a diocesan bishop.
Archbishop William Lori
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore is the sort of consummate Catholic churchman who seems almost to have been baptized in a chancery office or USCCB committee room.
After holding a number of chancery positions in the Washington archdiocese as a young priest, Lori became a bishop at only 43, and has since then served as the head of several high-profile USCCB committees. The bishop is now the chairman of the conference pro-life committee, and also led committees on religious liberty, “defense of marriage,” doctrine, and Catholic education.
He served a spell leading the trustees at The Catholic University of America, and has been the visible Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus for more than 15 years.
Lori is regarded as “conservative,” but mostly as a man who gets things done — less a “firebrand” conservative, as it were, than an institutionalist, and a competent organizer and administrator.
In 2018, however, at the height of the McCarrick sexual abuse scandal, that man-of-the-institution reputation was not well-regarded by most Catholics.
Lori was heavily criticized as the man who, during the drafting of the 2002 Dallas Charter, explained to bishops that the charter’s drafting committee decided the document should not apply to bishops.
The drafting committee, Lori explained in 2002, “decided we would limit it to priests and deacons, as the disciplining of bishops is beyond the purview of this document. 'Cleric' would cover all three, so we decided not to use the word 'cleric.'"
Of course, the decision wasn’t Lori’s alone, and few bishops are likely to decide his role as a 2002 committee spokesman should preclude the possibility of his election to conference leadership.
But Lori is nevertheless not a frontrunner to become conference president or vice president. While he’s been a candidate in previous leadership elections, Lori has never garnered more than a few dozen votes for the conference’s top jobs.
And the archbishop is 71. If he were elected conference vice president, he would not be eligible to be elected president subsequently - giving the conference another “open election” in three years.
If Lori is elected the conference vice president, it would likely be as a kind of recognition for his decades of heavy lifting on conference committees, task forces, and working groups - and a recognition of his administrative and diplomatic skills among the bishops. But to some critics, the move might suggest a lack of imagination among episcopal leaders - a symbolic reliance on the “usual suspects” or the “old guard,” rather than a forward-looking choice for a different generation of episcopal leaders.
Bishop Frank Caggiano and Bishop Daniel Flores
While Lori is the most senior bishop-candidate for a top job, the youngest bishops among the candidates are Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville. Neither is exactly a young man - both are in their early 60s - but both have some profile in the conference as emerging leaders, occupying moderate theological and pastoral positions, and focused on both serving the larger Church and caring for their dioceses.
Caggiano, chairman of the bishops’ Catechism subcommittee, has garnered attention among bishops and U.S. chancery leaders for bringing energy to his mandate on catechesis, helping to shape a guidance program for catechetical textbook publishers, and a leadership training program for diocesan catechetical leaders.
While not a front-runner, Caggiano could make a decent showing in early voting, especially among bishops who would regard him as non-ideological figure.
Flores, chairman of the conference doctrinal committee, has been at the center of several high-profile issues in the Church in recent years. A scholarly Thomist and the Hispanic bishop of a border diocese, Flores is known both for his broad intellect and his pastoral work with migrants in the Rio Grande Valley.
The bishop attracted attention in May, after the Uvalde school shooting, when he offered an incisive analysis of guns in American culture.
Commentators will likely make much of Flores’ task - as doctrinal committee chairman - of coordinating the USCCB’s national synthesis document for the Church’s “synod on synodality.”
Critics of the document have suggested it is ideologically charged, and some argue that some bishops chosen to help with the document’s drafting - especially the outspoken “progressive” Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv.- are out of step with the majority of the American episcopate.
But most bishops are likely to take a more nuanced view of Flores’ work on the document, and will probably conclude that the bishop made efforts to ensure the “synthesis document” was a cogent summary of the diocesan and regional texts from which it drew.
A bigger question about Flores’ electability to a top leadership position is his reputation as an original thinker, who can’t easily be pegged into an ideological camp.
Flores was resoundingly elected to chair the doctrine committee in 2020. But it’s worth asking whether an original thinker with a keen intellect is what bishops actually want in a ranking conference leader, or if they’ll prefer to choose a candidate whose decisions, whatever they might be, will be more predictable.
Predicting elections is a tricky thing. No analysts - The Pillar’s included - predicted that Vigneron would emerge in the 2019 USCCB election as vice president. Another surprise election result could emerge from the conference in November.
Indeed, any of the bishop candidates might well emerge as frontrunning candidates for conference leadership - including those not addressed in this analysis: Bishop Michael Burbidge, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, and Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller.
But should readers doubt whether the election of conference leadership actually matters in the Church, consider that the conference leaders of the past three years shaped the Church’s response to the pandemic, the national reckoning on race of 2020, the election and inauguration of a Catholic - and pro-choice - president, and a country in the midst of serious economic and cultural changes.
They also led amid sharpening ecclesial conflict among bishops, ongoing fallout from the McCarrick scandal, the controversy of Traditionis custodes, the practical challenge of the synod on synodality, and the resignation of the conference’s top staffer in scandal.
Few would have predicted those things on the day Gomez and Vigneron were elected in 2019.
Whatever the next three years will bring, bishops in the U.S. likely realize that leading the USCCB is not an easy or insignificant job — and that they’ll have to consider carefully their choices, ahead of a big electoral moment in November.
Editor's note: This analysis initially identified Bishop Stowe as a member of the Capuchin Franciscans. In fact, His Excellency is a Conventual Franciscan. Imagine our embarassment to have allowed this error on the feast of St. Francis. We have corrected the mistake.