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A day at the races: Predicting the USCCB elections

When the USCCB meets next week, the bishops will elect chairmen for several committees, and a new secretary.

Coverage of USCCB elections has occasionally been criticized as the sort of political “horse race journalism” that is not appropriate for reporting about religion. Of course, there is no complete comparison between the prayerful discernment of bishops about leadership positions in the Church, and the excesses of secular electoral politics.

USCCB elections are not horse races.

But what this analysis presupposes is: What if they were?

To consider that scenario, The Pillar brings you: 

A day at the races

It’s racing season, sports fans! And while most eyes turn to Kentucky in November, discerning Catholic punters and odds makers are looking to Baltimore next week, where a slate of contests will set the leadership for several U.S. bishops’ conference committees.

With six chairs open, and 12 bishops running to fill them, each winner will serve a year as chairman-elect and then a three-year turn at the head of their committee table. 

The stakes are high, and the weather is set for a good day’s racing when the USCCB gathers for its annual fall assembly Nov. 15-18. 

So let’s take a look at the race card, as The Pillar brings you a complete guide to the runners and riders, the form and the odds, and our picks for who will cross the finish line at the annual Episcopal Committee Derby Day.


Race 1: Conference Treasurer-elect, Committee on Budget & Finance 

Bishop James Checchio of Metuchen vs. Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle

Ed’s prediction: Checchio
JD’s prediction: Checchio

Ed says:

Everyone loves a good old fashioned East Coast vs West Coast head-to-head, and more than a few of the bookies will set their odds to favor the big city archbishop from the northwest. 

But don’t be fooled: the scrappy young runner out of New Jersey has some serious pedigree, and an engine under his hood. 

Checchio served as rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome for a decade, getting to know bishops from all across the country. Since landing back home in the Garden State in 2016, he’s had to drag his see out of the long shadow cast by its first diocesan bishop, one Theodore McCarrick. Checchio’s widely won praise for level-headedness and plain-speaking along the way. 

Crucially, Checchio has also had a lot of experience in doing more with less, and he might draw a lot of support from bishops in smaller dioceses feeling the financial squeeze and looking for a value-for-money bet ahead of the next round of talks over diocesan contributions to the conference. I’m picking Checchio for the winners’ circle here.

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JD says:

Just five years ago, Etienne packed up his things from the episcopal ranch out in Wyoming, and headed to the great Frozen North, becoming the Archbishop of Anchorage after seven years leading the Diocese of Cheyenne. 

After fewer than three years in America’s Last Frontier, Etienne headed to Seattle, the Emerald City, where first he was coadjutor, and then became the city’s archbishop in September 2019. Things have moved quickly for Etienne, who is known as a pastor with an emphasis on ministerial presence and simplicity, over these last five years — and the archbishop has clearly moved up the rungs of increasing ecclesiastical responsibility.

But Etienne is not known especially as an administrator, or to have a particular nose for numbers. 

Checchio, on the other hand, who had an 11-year stint as rector of the Pontifical North American College, is known to be attentive to the books, and the bishop spent several years of his early priesthood working to oversee the administration of his native diocese of Camden.

This race, though, might come down to politics as much as skill, especially because the USCCB treasurer is a member of the conference’s central executive committee. While Etienne has been praised as a “forward-looking” choice by “progressive” commentators, Checchio is more circumspect about his ecclesial/political leanings. And that might be enough to put him across the finishing line.

My prediction: Checchio crosses the finish line first.

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Race 2: Chairman-elect, Committee on Divine Worship 

Bishop Steven Lopes of the Anglican Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter vs. Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis

Ed’s prediction: Rozanski
JD’s prediction: Lopes 

Ed says:

A race notable for the oddness of the matchup and handicaps on both runners, pitting a bishop who doesn’t usually say Mass according to the ordinary Roman Rite against an archbishop whose most public sacramental intervention was ruled invalidating by Rome and the committee he’s now looking to lead.

Lopes will certainly come into this as a dark horse; right out of the gate, he has not spent much time in the conference as a bishop at all, and the fact that his Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, caring for former Anglicans, has its own liturgical patrimony to consider but without the physical church footprint of a diocese, won’t likely mark him out as a man well-versed in the daily liturgical concerns of the bishops. 

On the other hand, his presence in the race at all might suggest how open the field is, and how little enthusiasm there is among bigger beasts in the conference for the job. If ever there was a lane for an outsider, this would be it.

Rozanski starts with odds lengthened by his controversial pandemic directive, allowing, effectively, for lay people, even non-Catholics, to administer the holy oil in the anointing of the sick. While the policy barely lasted 24 hours, the lapse in judgement could linger among the bishops when voting begins. 

That said, he’s a sitting metropolitan archbishop and has form at the conference level, previously leading the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. I’m betting on Rozanski by a nose.

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JD says:

My colleague has made much hay — get it? — out of the fact that Lopes, who leads the Anglican ordinariate for the U.S., doesn’t ordinarily celebrate the ordinary form of the Mass.

That’s true, enough, I suppose. But Lopes certainly learned a thing or two about liturgy during his years working at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, especially since a big part of his job had to do with developing the “Anglican Use” — a project that involved some fairly intense study of the Church’s liturgical norms and praxis. So I think that concern is a bit of a red herring.

On the other hand, Rozanski did indeed have to walk back a controversial liturgical decision early in the pandemic, which — for better or worse — does not make him entirely different from many of his brothers, who were scrambling to decide how sacramental ministry would work in the early stages of COVID-19.

Different about Rozanski is that the Vatican weighed in on a decision he made, and the bishop had to make a very public course correction.

How much will that be a factor in decision-making? I’m not sure it makes a major difference at all. But my gut tells me that Lopes picks up the win — and I tend to trust my gut. Lopes, but it could be close.

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Race 3: Chairman-elect, Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations 

Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing vs. Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver

Ed’s prediction: Aquila
JD’s prediction: Aquila

JD says:

Bishop Boyea was rector of the Josephinum seminary, sits now on the committee he’s running to lead, and is the episcopal moderator to the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. So he knows his way around the track, and he knows what he’s talking about. 

Aquila was himself a seminary rector, and is known to take keen interest in priestly formation. And he’s on the committee as well. 

I think Aquila, who leads a large metropolitan see and has a large circle of friends among the bishops, probably carries the day.

The men in the race, though, see eye-to-eye on the issues at hand. If Aquila wins, expect him to ask Boyea to stay on the committee. If Boyea wins, expect he’ll extend the same invite to Denver’s archbishop.

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Ed says:

The number one issue on the docket for this committee in the coming years is — bar none — getting the bishops’ newest version of their Program for Priestly Formation approved by Rome. 

That draft document has repeatedly stumbled at the starting line with the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, hobbled by disagreement over how to implement Rome’s desire for a propaedeutic year for incoming seminarians. 

As proud proprietor of a successful seminary spirituality scheme in Denver, one which already has such a program in place, Aquila looks set to make all the running here. Expect him to win at a canter.

Phoenix Park Race Track, Dublin. Credit: Homer Sykes / Alamy Stock Photo

Race 4: Chairman-elect, Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development

Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia vs. Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois

Ed’s prediction: Paprocki
JD’s prediction: Gudziak

JD says:

Gudziak is a wild card in the race, a runner who hasn’t often been seen on the track. An American by birth, Gudziak has spent most of the last three decades living in the Ukraine and in Paris, where he was bishop of a growing Ukrainian eparchy. The archbishop, who is a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, defies the conventional labels often applied to American churchmen: He can’t easily be identified as a “liberal” or “conservative,” in part because, as an Eastern Catholic, he manages to avoid some of the issues from which those labels are derived, especially debates about liturgy.

Paprocki, on the other hand, is rather decidedly placed in the “conservative” camp — being outspoken in recent debates, for example, on the question of sacramental discipline for pro-choice politicians. Paprocki has indeed been framed as a torch-bearer in that debate — which means that bishops voting for Gudziak will be those who know or support the archbishop themselves, and those who oppose the election of Paprocki. 

Is that enough Gudziak to get elected? It could be. I’ll be surprised if he wins, but I won’t be especially surprised to be surprised. So if I’m laying down a bet on a longshot, this is the one.


Ed says:

Archbishop Gudziak is an up-and-comer on the U.S. scene following his appointment as Archeparch of Philadelphia for Ukrainian Catholics and Metropolitan for the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the U.S. Widely seen as a talented, thoughtful, and clear-eyed leader, and one with a uniquely global perspective and experience, he is probably a lot of punters’ favorite for a flutter in this race. His pedigree is solid, and his form is good, but, up against Bishop Paprocki, he’s in the running alongside an entry with a deep well of personal support in the conference, and someone with a proven record of speaking his (and the Church’s) mind on tough issues.

I suspect a lot of bishops will eye the prospect of Paprocki taking a more forward role across a range of justice issues, and decide he’s the horse to back.

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Race 5: Chairman-elect, Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth

Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary of Los Angeles vs. Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas

Ed’s prediction: Burns
JD’s prediction: Barron

Ed says:

This race is a real clash of resumes. On the one hand, Dallas’ Bishop Burns is the ultimate conference candidate, having worked there for nearly a decade as a priest, and carrying on in different roles as a bishop since his consecration in 2009. He once chaired the Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, no small task in itself.

In the starting gate beside him is Bishop Barron, the LA auxiliary and Catholic media impresario straight outta Compton, or at least LA’s Santa Barbara Pastoral Region. It’s a race of opposites, and probably at even odds.

OK, Barron has the star power and media presence to get the message out and onto the screens of Catholics, but if I have to pick, I’ll say Barron’s relative internet savvy grabs him a few ‘likes’ come voting time, but not enough to close out Burns. It’s a big brief, expect them to give it to the guy who knows the ropes better.


JD says:

Bishop Burns is, to put it directly, a helluva nice guy, with a lot of experience at the conference, who is well-liked by many bishops and generally regarded as a good administrator with a pastoral touch.

But Bishop Barron, who until recently led the conference’s committee on evangelization, is perceived by many bishops — when it comes to media, messaging, data-driven research, and understanding the youths —  to operate on something of a different plane.

That’s why, when he led the committee on evangelization, the bishops gave him ample floor time to discuss the research, initiatives, and methodology of the Word on Fire universe. Among the episcopate, the bishop is not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but he is seen admiringly by many as The Bishop Barron™, and I expect he’ll carry the day.  

Race 6: Chairman-elect, Committee on Migration

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso vs. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami

Ed’s prediction: Seitz
JD’s prediction: Seitz

Ed says:

Probably the closest race of the bunch, it could come down to a photo finish; indeed in Wenski’s last race in 2019, he finished in a 121-121 tie with Bishop Murry of Youngstown for chair of the religious liberty committee. Wenski lost that race on the tie-breaking criteria of seniority, and then, after Bishop Murry’s sad death a year later, Wenski led the committee in his stead.

The Miami arch has done good work since then, and been a notable voice of strength and clarity on an important policy issue for the bishops. Running out of Magic City, he’s more than well-versed in the migration brief.

Seitz, on the other hand, is the dictionary definition of a border bishop, making frequent, public, and prayerful appearances at the U.S.-Mexico line. Given where the focus of the issue of immigration is, and is likely to stay for the next four years, I’d expect the Lone Star state candidate to take the race, unless he loses a tie on seniority, which could happen. 

JD says:

Wenski speaks a couple of languages, is known to be close to the Haitian, Cuban, and broader Hispanic community in his archdiocese, and is not generally afraid to say what he thinks. But Seitz has been the bishops’ man at the border for several years now, as a prominent pastoral voice of their call for humane immigration reform. I suspect Seitz’ association with the conference’s efforts on that front will be the thing to put him over the finish line. 

Get ready for a great day at the track, race fans!

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