The unsung committee shaping the USCCB

The Pillar [Washington DC]

December 13, 2022

By JD Flynn

New USCCB president Archbishop Timothy Broglio explains how its most powerful, yet underappreciated, committee works.

When Archbishop Timothy Broglio was elected president of the U.S. bishops’ conference last month, media attention landed on the bishop’s history in the Vatican, his views on sexuality and clerical sexual abuse, and whether he could be considered “anti-Francis” — a charge the archbishop has laughed off.

Amid the commentary on theological and political questions, very little attention was given to what happened after Broglio was elected — and what it demonstrated about the most powerful, yet underappreciated, committee in the U.S. bishops’ conference.

But the bishops’ Committee on Priorities and Plans shouldn’t be overlooked — if you want to understand where conference leadership comes from, or how the conference spends its money and allocates staff hours, you’ve got to understand the central role of the USCCB’s central planning committee.

While customarily the USCCB’s vice-president is balloted the conference president every three years, Broglio’s Nov. 15 election broke that mold — outgoing conference secretary Archbishop Allen Vigneron was too old to be elected president, which made the USCCB presidential race an unusually open contest, even while Broglio was the favorite to win it.

But Broglio was the conference secretary when he was elected president, which meant that bishops had to elect a new secretary to finish out Broglio’s term.

And since Archbishop William Lori, elected as conference vice-president, had been chairman of the conference’s pro-life committee, he too would need to be replaced.

That’s when Priorities and Plans swung into action — the committee met, nominated candidates, and presented names the next day, for both jobs, to the body of bishops.

Because the conference secretary also chairs the planning committee, Broglio chaired the ad hoc meeting choosing candidates to replace both Lori and himself.

How did it happen?

“Well, we went back to lists that were presented when I was elected secretary [in 2020], and when Archbishop Lori was elected to the pro-life committee,” Broglio told The Pillar last month.

“And we put all of those names on a list [for each open position]. And you eliminate those bishops that are going to age out, those that are ineligible because you’re either chairman of something else, or you’ve just been elected chair of something else.”

“Then with that reduced list, you vote within the committee. And the committee votes and votes and votes, sometimes, until we come up with two names. When we get to two that have the largest number of votes, they become your candidates.”

“And we chose at least two alternates, because the bishop can say no.”

The Priorities and Plans committee does not develop the nominees list for presidential and vice-presidential elections — but for other roles, including committee chairmanships, Broglio said the committee has to work hard to find bishops willing to do the job.

“I think it might be very useful for people to know that a lot of people say no — say ‘I won’t stand for election,’” Broglio told The Pillar. “For certain committees, you can go to your fifth or sixth alternate — of course, that depends on the committee.”

Broglio explained that the Priorities and Plans committee usually has time to conduct nomination proceedings, before which “bishops have the possibility to offer themselves as candidates to suggest others.”

But his own election as conference president, and Lori’s as vice-president, spurred a meeting where “we’re voting through these things at 7:00 last night, working to find candidates and also alternates,” the archbishop explained.

When the Committee on Priorities and Plans announced Nov. 16 Cardinal Joseph Tobin and Archbishop Paul Coakley as new candidates for conference secretary, several bishops remarked to The Pillar that each could be seen to represent a segment of the U.S. episcopate — Tobin more closely aligned with “progressive” bishops, and Coakley more often identified as a “conservative.”

Some bishops said the nomination of Bishops Shawn McKnight and Michael Burbidge to replace Lori as pro-life chair embodied a similar dynamic.

Broglio acknowledged that perception in remarks to The Pillar. But he said the committee does not set out to select candidates with different theological perspectives.

“No, that’s the way it comes out in the voting. Now, you might be able to look at the members of the committee and try to surmise how they voted, and how you might get to that kind of result,” the archbishop speculated.

Broglio acknowledged that the committee’s role in selecting candidates for USCCB committee and executive leadership positions gives it an outsize influence in the direction of the bishops’ conference.

“It’s a very significant committee, and it’s also a very hardworking committee,” Broglio said.

The work, the archbishop said, comes because of the committee’s broad set of responsibilities.

According to the USCCB’s policies, Priorities and Plans is responsible “for proposing and reviewing, coordinating, and evaluating the goals and objectives of the USCCB Strategic Plan. This includes proposing conference-wide priority issues for each planning cycle, coordinating the development of specific initiatives for the priority issues, approving special annual plans based on the goals and objectives, monitoring the implementation or revision of planned Conference activities.”

In short, the committee oversees the development and execution of the strategic plan that determines how the conference staffs itself, how it allocates staff, and how it spends money.

The strategic plan is the playbook for conference administrators to follow, and governs most of the USCCB’s day-to-day activity. And while all bishops have a chance to weigh in on the strategic plan – and vote for its approval – Priorities and Plans committee members play a much bigger role in developing it, and ensuring that the conference is accountable to it.

Since the bishops’ conference has an annual operating budget of tens of millions, that authority allows for members of plans and priorities to influence how a lot of work gets done — and to what end.

At the same time, the archbishop said, the members of the Priorities and Plans Committee make up more than half of the conference’s Administrative Committee — which sets the agenda for the USCCB’s plenary meetings.

In short, the portfolio of the Priorities and Plans committee touches most elements of the work of the USCCB – operations, staffing, agendas, and leadership – in significant ways.

But despite that influence, membership on Priorities and Plans requires only election as a regional representative — except for the conference secretary and treasurer, members are elected by the 15 regions of the bishops’ conference.

And it may well be surprising that despite the influence the committee exerts, it currently counts only one cardinal and two archbishops among its regional members.

Given its portfolio, it is not clear why more metropolitan archbishops, cardinals, and other senior-ranking bishops don’t pursue spots on the Priorities and Plans committee.

But the one cardinal who is a member – Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago – may well understand the influence the committee can yield over the conference. Cupich was elected by his region to the committee in 2020, according to the Official Catholic Directory, which lists USCCB committee membership.

In January 2021, the cardinal decried “internal institutional failures” at the USCCB, and promised to “contribute to all efforts” which might address those failures. For anyone bent on reshaping things at the USCCB – as Cupich pledged to do – the Committee on Priorities and Plans is a pretty good perch from which to work — especially for the lone cardinal in the group.

While high-profile bishops often fill the committee chairmanships of more visible committees – a path to more executive conference leadership roles – every one of those chairmanships goes through the meetings, and balloting, of the Committee on Priorities and Plans.

And as the conference predicts a few rounds of belt-tightening in the years to come, it will be the Priorities and Plans committee blazing the trail on decisions about what programs, offices, and initiatives get funded, and which might see dramatic cuts.

Further, it’s worth noting that the bishops’ conference is due for another “open-season” presidential election in three years — newly elected vice-president Archbishop Lori will be too old to run for president when Broglio’s term in the role expires. If the conference secretary or treasurer is elected president, or an influential committee chair gets the nod, the Priorities and Plans committee will swing into action again, shaping a leadership election on the fly.

On all of those issues, and more, the regional representatives who make up the Priorities and Plans committee will be hard at work. The outcome of that work will likely have more effect on the Church’s life in the U.S. than most observers – or bishops – would expect.