Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, a seasoned communicator viewed as a staunch defender of the right to life, was elected chair of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee Wednesday.

The bishops, meeting in Baltimore for their annual fall assembly, chose Burbidge over Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, by a vote of 174-63.

The pro-life chair was one of several high-profile leadership decisions the bishops have made this week. Taken together, the moves signal that there will be no dramatic policy shifts within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for the next several years.

On Tuesday, by wide margins, the bishops elected a new conference president and vice president: Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, whom Burbidge will succeed as chair of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

Both Broglio, 70, and Lori, 71, will serve three-year terms, commencing after the bishops’ meeting ends Thursday.

In other key elections Wednesday, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley was elected USCCB secretary over Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark (130-104), and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, was tabbed as the next chair of the Committee for Religious Liberty over San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (165-77).

In other USCCB committee chair election results:

  • Canonical Affairs and Church Governance: Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, 147-91, over Bishop Alfred A. Schlert of Allentown, Pennsylvania

  • Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs: Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, 128-111, over Bishop Peter L. Smith of Portland, Oregon

  • Evangelization and Catechesis: Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson, 149-90, over Bishop William D. Byrne of Springfield, Massachusetts

  • International Justice and Peace: Bishop W. Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, 148-95, over Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Perez 

  • Protection of Children and Young People: Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, 127-114, over Bishop Elias R. Lorenzo, OSB, auxiliary bishop of the Newark Archdiocese

Outspoken abortion opponent

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Burbidge, 65, who has led the Arlington Diocese since December 2016, is regarded as an experienced teacher of the faith who has not shied away from weighing in on hot-button issues, including abortion.

“Bishop Burbidge has been outspoken in his commitment to making pro-life issues a centerpiece of the activities in the Arlington Diocese and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Olivia Gans Turner, president of Virginia Society for Human Life, said in a statement to CNA.   

“I have had the pleasure to know Bishop Burbidge since he was bishop of Raleigh,” she continued. “We met while we were both speaking at multiple pro-life events there. I knew he would bring that same dedication and compassion to protecting all innocent human life with him to Virginia. 

“It has been exciting to see him expand pro-life efforts in Northern Virginia. Pro-lifers of every faith and no faith congratulate him,” Turner added. “The USCCB has made a good selection for this important position.”

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia CNA
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia CNA

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, called Burbidge “a joyful and energetic leader for life.”

“His dedication to evangelizing the dignity of every life and working for the protection and care of unborn children, their mothers, and their families resonates with clarity and conviction in the Diocese of Arlington, in Virginia, and well beyond,” he said in a statement to CNA. “I was excited to learn that he has been elected to chair the USCCB’s pro-life committee.”

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In August 2021, Burbidge was the first U.S. bishop to publish a catechetical letter on the Church’s teaching related to transgenderism, calling for charity while also discouraging practices such as gender “transitioning” and using gendered pronouns disconnected from someone’s sex. 

More recently, in May of this year, Burbidge issued a Communion ban against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Arlington Diocese because of her pro-abortion stance. His action extended the ban Cordileone issued in San Francisco, her home diocese.

In October, Burbidge denounced U.S. President Joe Biden’s stated intention to codify a national right to abortion should Democrats win control of Congress, saying, “The role of Congress is to pass laws that serve the common good — and yet this priority of the president only brings about pain and death.”

Burbidge fills the chairmanship that Lori is vacating due to his new role as USCCB vice president. Burbidge will serve the remaining two years of Lori’s term.

The other chairs elected Wednesday will serve as chairmen-elect of their respective committees for one year, beginning at the conclusion of this week’s assembly. After that they will serve three-year terms as chairs.

Secretary-elect’s views on abortion, Pelosi’s ban

Coakley, the secretary-elect, has been an outspoken foe of the death penalty and has sought clemency for prisoners condemned to execution. In his role as chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development he has joined calls for stricter gun-control laws.

Like Burbidge, the 67-year-old Oklahoma City bishop has voiced support for Cordileone’s ban on Pelosi receiving Communion.

“I applaud the courage of Archbishop Cordileone and his leadership in taking this difficult step,” he said. He asked for prayers for the archbishop, for Pelosi, for the protection of the unborn, and for “the conversion of hearts and minds.”

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley preaching during Mass in the cathedral in 2021. Archdiocese of Oklahoma City
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley preaching during Mass in the cathedral in 2021. Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

Another distinguishing feature of Coakley’s episcopate in Oklahoma City, which began in February 2011, has been his response to Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditiones custodes restricting the Traditional Latin Mass.

Coakley initially granted temporary permission for priests currently celebrating the old Mass to continue to do so, pending further study. In August 2021 he said he understood that the pope’s document aimed to give bishops “the ability to address divisions or a lack of unity caused by the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy in some places.”

“I have not found that sort of division to be evident in parishes of our archdiocese,” he said. He determined that Masses at specific parishes “may be retained.”

In 2014, Coakley’s archdiocese filed a lawsuit to stop Satanists from using a stolen host in a “black mass” in Oklahoma City. The event organizers returned the host after the lawsuit was filed.

A new voice in defense of religious liberty

Rhoades, the chairman-elect of the Committee on Religious Liberty, is fluent in Spanish and able to celebrate in Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, and English. He has led the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese since January 2010.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, was tabbed as the next chair of the Committee for Religious Liberty on Nov. 16, 2022, in Baltimore. Shannon Mullen/CNA
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, was tabbed as the next chair of the Committee for Religious Liberty on Nov. 16, 2022, in Baltimore. Shannon Mullen/CNA

Rhoades, who turns 65 on Nov. 26, hasn’t shied away from public comment on the actions of pro-choice politicians. In 2016, he said it was wrong for the University of Notre Dame to honor then-vice president — now president — Joe Biden with its honorary Laetare Medal, which honors a Catholic with achievements in the arts and sciences.

“I believe it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any ‘pro-choice’ public official with the Laetare Medal, even if he or she has other positive accomplishments in public service, since direct abortion is gravely contrary to the natural law and violates a very fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching: the inalienable right to life of every innocent human being from the moment of conception,” Rhoades said at the time.

In 2012, Rhoades said it was an attack on religious freedom for the Obama administration to mandate that all employers, including religious, must offer coverage of sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception.

Jonah McKeown and Joe Bukuras contributed to this story.