U.S. bishops break precedent in electing Archbishop Dolan as president

By choosing Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York as president of their national conference for the next three years, the American bishops made an important symbolic break with their past and moved in a strongly countercultural direction. The Nov. 16 vote at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore was remarkable in several ways. 

For the first time since the bishops’ conference was created in 1966 after the Second Vatican Council, a vice president running for president was defeated. In a head-to-head runoff, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., a moderate liberal dogged by a controversy over a sex abuser priest, received 111 votes to 128 for Archbishop Dolan. Three years earlier he had bested the New Yorker for the vice presidency by 22 votes (although Archbishop Dolan recalled it as a one-vote lead in a widely reported conversation with reporters). 

‘Like 1970’ for marriage 

Archbishop Dolan, 60, has headed the New York archdiocese since 2009. An outspoken moderate conservative, he may be best known for charging The New York Times with anti-Catholic bias. His previous positions include staff member at the Vatican embassy in Washington, rector of the North American College in Rome, auxiliary bishop of St. Louis and archbishop of Milwaukee. 

Hardly less noteworthy was the voting for USCCB vice-president, in which Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., defeated Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver in another head-to-head runoff, 147-91. 

Archbishop Kurtz chairs the committee spearheading the organization’s opposition to same-sex marriage. The day before the vote he warned the bishops that “today is like 1970 for marriage” — meaning the Supreme Court in the next few years may deliver a decision on same-sex marriage with impact on that issue comparable to its 1973 decision legalizing abortion. 

As for Archbishop Chaput, before the Baltimore meeting his outspoken conservatism had placed him outside the USCCB mainstream. In 22 years as a member of the hierarchy, he has never been elected chairman of a conference committee. To be in the running for the organization’s No. 2 job now was vindication for him and a big change for the body of bishops. 

Observers familiar with the USCCB saw these events — above all Bishop Kicanas’s defeat — as a break with a 30-year period that historians are likely to label the American hierarchy’s Bernardin era. For two decades before his death in 1996 — and since then as well — Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago exerted a profound influence on the policy, style and personnel of the episcopal conference, which he served as general secretary and president and in other leadership posts. 

Retaking control 

Bishop Kicanas, as a former rector of the Chicago archdiocesan seminary and former auxiliary bishop of Chicago, was viewed as a protégé of the late cardinal. 

In years past, that would have been an asset in seeking the presidency of the USCCB. Now, it seems, a new generation of bishops is in charge, with other ideas about what to do and how to do it. 

Above all perhaps, the shift may reflect change in the bishops’ relationship with the USCCB itself. 

A high-ranking member of the hierarchy remarked privately that with Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago as president in the last three years, the bishops were learning to take ownership of their own national organization. The voting results were a dramatic illustration of what that meant. 

Apparently contributing to Bishop Kicanas’ defeat was an episode dating to the early 1990s when as a seminary rector he gave a green light for the ordination of a man named Daniel McCormack. As a priest, McCormack was accused of abusing more than 20 boys. Convicted and laicized, he is now in prison. 

Bishop Kicanas said he had no reason to think McCormack was a potential child abuser and wouldn’t have approved his ordination otherwise. But he admitted knowing of homosexual incidents in McCormack’s past — an investigation called this immature sexual experimentation — along with a drinking issue for which he received counseling. For bishops eager to shake off the sex abuse albatross, that was enough not to elect Bishop Kicanas president. 

Withdrawn funding 

In another sign of changing times at USCCB, Bishop Roger P. Morin of Biloxi, Miss., chairman of the committee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, outlined new, tighter policies and procedures of the bishops’ anti-poverty program in funding projects by outside groups. 

The CCHD was accused of giving money to organizations linked in one way or another — especially, through coalition memberships — in advocacy for abortion and same-sex marriage. In the past year, it withdrew funding from five such groups, while 10 bishops declined to take up the CCHD collection in their dioceses. 

Private venting 

In public, the bishops seemed content with the remedial steps. But the issue also was on the agenda of the closed-door part of the meeting, perhaps allowing them to ventilate privately about what has become a continuing embarrassment for them. As has been the custom in the last 15 years, half the USCCB meeting was held in executive session. 

The bishops voted 225 to 5 to accept a $180 million budget in 2011. But, reflecting the economic downturn and the cost of settling sex abuse cases, they rejected raising the rate at which dioceses are assessed for core operating costs of theUSCCB. During the debate Bishop Robert Brom of San Diego asked, “Can we proceed as if we haven’t been devastated” by abuse-related costs? 

For now, the answer was no. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Highlights (sidebar)

During their Nov. 15-18 annual meeting, the U.S. bishops also: 

◗ Affirmed a historic agreement with four Protestant communities of the Reformed tradition that will allow mutual recognition of baptisms performed in Catholic or Reformed churches. 

◗ Authorized the drafting of a brief policy statement on assisted suicide, to be voted on in June 2011. 

◗ Elected Msgr. Ronny Jenkins as USCCB general secretary, with his five-year term to begin in June. 

◗ Heard a report on the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Defense of Marriage, which was elevated to a subcommittee. 

◗ Heard a lengthy update on relief and reconstruction efforts after the January earthquake in Haiti. 

◗ Were reminded of the need to embrace social media to effectively evangelize the “digital continent.”

◗ Affirmed a letter from Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, outgoing USCCB president, to President Barack Obama urging greater U.S. efforts to protect Iraqi citizens, especially religious minorities. 

◗ Heard a review by Cardinal George of the debate over health reform and the “wounds to the Church’s unity” caused by differences over the legislation. 

◗ Heard a plea from Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio for more chaplains to serve the needs of the military. 

◗ Approved new guidelines for financial support of retired bishops, to $1,900 monthly.