Why it is significant that U.S. bishops bucked tradition

As anyone who has been reading the Catholic press or various Catholic blogs now knows, a rather dull fall meeting of the U.S. bishops near the Baltimore waterfront was shaken by the unexpected election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as the next president of their conference. 

While the vote will not have much impact on the lives of ordinary Catholics, the impact on the U.S. bishops as a whole is rather more significant. 

There are three reasons for this: Tradition. Transformation. And Twelve. 

First, the tradition within the conference has been that the current vice president of the conference — in this case Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz. — is invariably elected president. Although there had been rumblings for months that some bishops might be seeking an alternative for Bishop Kicanas, it was not considered likely that he would lose the election. One veteran bishop watcher, Jesuit Father Tom Reese, went so far as to note in a column before the meeting that “not to elect Kicanas would be an earthquake of monumental proportions.” 

When it became evident on the first of three rounds of voting that Archbishop Dolan was attracting significant votes, there was an audible gasp in the room. And sure enough, history was made when he sur-passed the Tucson bishop on the second round and won an absolute majority on the third. 

The vote signaled a transformation in the conference that had been a long time in coming. While the conference is still closely divided on many votes (the final vote for president was 128-111), the moderate conservative bloc is now in the ascendancy, while the moderate progressive bloc is for the first time more of a minority vote. (I apologize for the political language, but it does, however inadequately, capture the shift taking place, even if political terms like progressive and conservative tend to distract from the bishops’ underlying unity on a wide variety of issues from pro-life advocacy to immigration reform to scriptural translation). 

Thus part of the transformation taking place is generational. While older bishops — generally — were mortified that one of their own was so pub-licly embarrassed (Bishop Kicanas was on the dais for all to watch as the votes were taken), younger bishops felt much less reluctance to make their desire for change known. 

Which brings us to Twelve, as in 2012. The recent (and upcoming) battles over abortion and physician conscience protection in the health care legislation, as well as the willingness of a major Catholic organization like the Catholic Health Association to buck the bishops and publicly endorse the same plan the bishops were criticizing, has clearly concerned a majority of the bishops, most especially the younger ones. 

The new president will be guiding the conference during the 2012 election in which all of these issues may be significant. Archbishop Dolan is seen as a gregarious but stout defender of the Church’s teachings, able to effectively project the bishops’ concerns to a national audience. Bishop Kicanas is respected, but at least some bishops felt they needed more firepower and a stronger public presence over the next few years. 

In the days leading up to the meeting, some lay Catholics conducted a campaign against Bishop Kicanas, accusing him of inadequately dealing with a troubled seminarian who went on to become an abuser priest, but the campaign struck most bishops I spoke with as unfair, and seemed to have little impact. 

For a majority of the bishops, this was not a vote about the past, but about the future. That’s why Archbishop Dolan won. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.