Handicapping the next presidential election—of the bishops’ conference, that is

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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2016 is still a long way off, but there’s another important election coming up in just a few short weeks: The vote to determine the next president and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In the past, this election was more a matter of procedure than political intrigue, as it was general custom for the vice president to assume the top position when the previous president ended his term. But the bishops surprised a lot of people when they elected the current president, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in 2010 ahead of then-vice president Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona.

Kicanas was mostly not a well-known national name nor a hardliner on the issues the bishops had placed atop their list of priorities, so the choice of Dolan signaled a very deliberate effort to put an outspoken, charismatic voice front and center. And from Dolan rubbing elbows with the U.S. presidential candidates to challenging the Obama administration on policy issues to appearing on The Colbert Report, they appeared to get exactly what they bargained for.

Looking at this year’s 10 nominees, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia seems to fit the same criteria. Though not as boisterous as Dolan, Chaput is an expert at dealing with the media and his move from Denver to Philadelphia in 2011 has put him in a more prominent national spotlight. Chaput is, perhaps most importantly, ideologically aligned with Dolan and has been outspoken on issues such as marriage and abortion, meaning he is right in line with the national voice of the bishops.

Also in the running is Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who has gained national fame (and a promotion from his previous post as bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut) as point man of the bishops’ efforts to defend religious liberty. Though Lori has an important role in the conference and his testimony on perceived threats to religious freedom has been a major focus for the bishops, I don’t see him as a frontrunner. The same is true for Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the current VP of the conference, who has made his name mostly for leading the bishops’ campaign against same-sex marriage.

Some candidates have gained some national exposure for particular stances, such as Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who made headlines by saying any Catholic who privately supports marriage rights for same-sex couples should not receive communion. The other names on the list have popped up in the news now and then, but mostly lack a strong national profile: New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond; Spokane, Washington Bishop Blase Cupich, Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, and Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. All have some good qualifications on their resume, but all are, I would guess, unlikely contenders for the presidency.

And then there’s the final candidate, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez. Like some of the other bishops on the ballot, he has mostly become known for a single issue—immigration. But the Mexican-born archbishop has a lot of the credentials necessary for the job: He heads the largest diocese in the country, he has a great understanding of the needs of the large population of Hispanic Catholics in the United States, he isn’t afraid to defend Catholic teaching, and he’s even taken a strong stand on addressing the church’s past failings when it comes to sexual abuse. That makes him a strong contender, and one who would certainly be a shift in tone from Dolan—though not a major departure on the core issues that the bishops have focused on.

We will of course have to wait until November to find out the winner, but in the meantime feel free to add your picks in the comment section (just imagine if the bishops actually let the Catholic faithful vote for their president—now that would be interesting).