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U.S. Catholic Leaders Signal Resistance to Pope’s Agenda

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chose a conservative archbishop for a key post, signaling resistance to Pope Francis’s vision for the church among the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S.

By

Ian Lovett and

Francis X. Rocca

BALTIMORE—The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chose a conservative archbishop for a key post Tuesday, signaling resistance to Pope Francis’s vision for the church among the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, of Kansas City, was elected chairman of the committee on Pro-Life Activities. In a vote of 96 to 82, he defeated Cardinal Blase Cupich, of Chicago, who is seen as a liberal in the church and a close ally of the pope. 

The vote breaks a longstanding tradition of the position being held by a cardinal—an unusual lapse of deference in a highly rank-conscious body—and suggests that Catholic leaders in the U.S. remain largely resistant to the changes Pope Francis is trying to bring to the church.

Some experts said the slim margin of the vote shows growing support for Pope Francis’s agenda; others said it mostly reflected the tradition of a cardinal holding the post.

Like all the bishops, Archbishop Naumann and Cardinal Cupich are both strong opponents of abortion and euthanasia. Archbishop Naumann said that he would keep the committee focused on those two issues, as it has been in recent years.

Cardinal Cupich, meanwhile, indicated that he would have broadened the committee’s focus to include other issues like the death penalty, health care and poverty—a list more in line with the priorities of Pope Francis.

The cardinal is a clear favorite of Pope Francis, who appointed him archbishop of Chicago in 2014, then named him to the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops, which helps shape the next generation of the hierarchy. The pope elevated him to the rank of cardinal last year.

“It is clear since 2013 that a majority of them (the bishops) sees the message of Francis’ pontificate, esp. on life and marriage, as not adequate for the Catholic Church in the U.S.A.,” Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at Villanova, said on Twitter after the vote.

At the same time, the bishops also made protection for immigrants and refugees a theme throughout their annual meeting here, marking a point of unity between Pope Francis and the U.S. hierarchy.

Stephen Schneck, a former director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, said the pro-life vote indicated the continued resistance to Pope Francis among the U.S. bishops.

“This is obviously a break with tradition, in that it’s going to someone who’s not a cardinal,” Mr. Schneck. “But I think it’s a very accurate picture of where the U.S. episcopacy is in relation to the efforts we see coming from Pope Francis and Rome.”

After the vote, Archbishop Naumann acknowledged that it had been “a long time” since anyone other than a cardinal had held the post.

“It’s an honor that the bishops chose me,” Archbishop Naumann said. “I’ve been fortunate in my priesthood to work in the pro-life areas. I hope I can draw on that experience.”

The election will also have implications for domestic politics, where the Catholic bishops have been a powerful voice in the antiabortion movement.

In recent decades, abortion has led the Catholic church into an alliance with the Republican Party, said Patti Miller, author of “Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church.” That alliance might have been challenged had Cardinal Cupich won, she said.

“The Catholic bishops’ emphasis on abortion as the overriding social issue will serve to keep conservative-leaning Catholics aligned with the Republican Party—and by extension the Trump administration,” Ms. Miller said.

Another conservative who is outspoken on abortion, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., was elected chairman of the Committee on Doctrine. Last year, he chastised Notre Dame, a Catholic university in South Bend, for awarding Vice President Joe Biden an honorary doctorate despite his support for abortion rights.

However, Catholic leaders are hardly in lockstep with the Trump administration on immigration, and made a point of echoing the pope on the issue of welcoming migrants.

U.S. bishops asked the president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, of Galveston-Houston, to draft a statement, which he said would make clear that immigration “is actually urgent” to the bishops.

In addition, several of the bishops urged everyone in the room to contact their representatives in Congress on the issue, calling this year the best chance in more than a decade to pass legislation that would let people who were brought to the U.S. as children, known as “Dreamers,” stay in the country.

“It’s obvious that all the bishops are engaged on the issue” of immigration, said Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, an outspoken advocate of immigrant rights, and the vice president of the conference. He added that bishops need “to be very active and engaged with election officials.”

Write to Ian Lovett at Ian.Lovett@wsj.com and Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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