In the United States, the episcopate has never ceased replaying the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns. With an American flavor, as it should be. Latest episode, March 14, 2023, saw the election of the Archbishop of Portland (Oregon) to the executive committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the body which helps the head of the episcopate in his government.
It is an election that makes the most progressive prelates cringe. Bishop Alexander Sample is indeed considered a conservative in the line of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in other words closer to Evangelium vitae than to Amoris Laetitia.
For some observers, this is a – rather successful – demonstration of force by the most conservative part of the episcopate which intends to show that its influence remains intact within the USCCB, despite the discordant voices of several progressive high prelates widely reported in the media.
Last January, Cardinal Robert McElroy, Archbishop of San Diego, a high prelate who could not be more Bergoglian, published an op-ed in America Magazine, where he openly defended the most heterodox clichés: access to communion for divorced-remarried and homosexual couples, place of women in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, etc.
A few weeks later, Msgr. Thomas Paprocki, conservative bishop of Springfield, Illinois, attacked his colleague for bringing up “unorthodox opinions which, not so long ago, would have been professed only by heretics.”
A reaction that infuriated Cardinal Blaise Cupich. The very liberal Archbishop of Chicago saw fit to come to the aid of his colleague from San Diego, calling on the American episcopate to react as it should to the bishop of Springfield’s remarks.
The response of the USCCB, by electing Bishop Alexander Sample to its executive committee, therefore came across like a snub of the bishops close to Pope Francis.
A setback that is all the more bitter for the Archbishop of Chicago since, more than a year ago, the latter undertook to remedy what he describes as “the institutional failures of the episcopal conference,” meaning: to undermine the influence of conservative prelates who do not intend to let go of natural law, nor Christian marriage, nor the traditional discipline of access to sacramental communion.
It should be remembered that the USCCB, structured into sixteen commissions, meets twice a year, in November and June. Between these two meetings, the conference is governed by an administrative committee and an executive committee, on which sit ex officio the president of the conference, the vice-president, and the secretary.
In addition, several members of the administrative council are elected to the executive committee: this is the case of Bishop Sample who now has the difficult task of advising the president of the USCCB in all important appointments, and in the various works of the conference of bishops.
A way for the USCCB to recall that on the other side of the Atlantic, the bishops do not really recognize themselves in the priorities of the host of St. Martha’s house: the cause of migrants, climate change, or the fight against the Traditional Mass cannot prevail here over the fight for traditional values such as life, family, or marriage between a man and a woman.
But the conservative wing of the episcopate cannot claim victory, because another fact must be taken into account: by 2025, thirty-four diocesan seats are due to be renewed in the United States.