U.S. bishops' rejection of Bishop Kicanas has got to hurt

I find myself thinking about Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., and how he must feel at this time. What’s going on inside him, really going on – despite the good face he has put on to the world in the wake of the surprise, historic, and unprecedented rejection by his fellow U.S. bishops.

As most who follow church matters know by now, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops earlier this week rejected conference vice-president Kicanas to be its next president. The bishops broke with four decades of precedent and essentially threw the Tucson bishop out. Such a move had never happened before. Each vice-president to this time served three years and then became president. The bishops have chosen their presidents by choosing vice-presidents. The three years was considered to be a learning period.

No longer.

It’s being said that this all represent a move to the right by the conference. I think this is true. It’s also said the bishop they chose to be their president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, will be a strong public figure, a good leader. Perhaps. I have no reason to think otherwise.

At the same time, I cannot help but feel that the bishops hurt a good man along the way, and in the process revealed some things about themselves - at least the majority in their ranks did - that is less than admirable.

In their apparent haste to assert strong leadership they walked over a fellow bishop, by most accounts a decent man, no less or more able (or vulnerable) than others in their midst.

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Frankly, their vote, especially considering its unprecedented nature, lacked a sense of civility and even perhaps charity.

Through the ages, our church has taught that ends never justify the means. When it comes right down to it, even using the bishops’ own explanation of their action, they used a bad means to achieve what they hope will be a good end.

In this case our bishops hurt a man and his sense of place in the church. They probably did in a career as well.

They bishops say that politics were not involved. If so, what was involved? Simple expediency? Strip away politics and you are left with the human dimension. Isn’t this the dimension we are supposed to care about most?

Three years ago the bishops thought Kicanas was good enough to be a future president of the conference. The bishops elected him vice-present. He served well by all public accounts, by the words of the bishops themselves.

I suspect that up until only days ago he was quietly planning how he might lead the conference.

Then came an unprecedented anti-Kicanas movement from some on the right. Some of the anti-Kicanas momentum worked its way into the conference itself. The opportunity was given to go with a bigger and better figure.

I’ve been reading that Dolan of has a good wit and keen ability and will probably make a good president. But he arrives with a tarnished garment. I wish he would have told his fellow bishops, as the movement for his election was growing, that he was not available, that he was willing to wait his turn, that he could learn in the next three years, just like all his predecessors. He would have been a fine vice-president.

And you know what? He would have taught us all a lesson in thoughtfulness and civility. It was a teachable moment. Instead we learned our bishops act most other ends oriented men in other political organizations.

In a posting on the Tucson diocesan Web site, Kicanas has put the very best face he can on the abrupt downturn. He wrote: “Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been a long time friend since our seminary work together. I know of his great wit, jovial spirit, keen ability to relate to people in a deeply personal way and his exceptional leadership qualities. These will certainly serve the conference well as he begins his term as president.”

Strong upper lip.

I think Kincanas is the one who comes out the winner – the lost presidency aside.

Oh yes, he has been appointed head of Catholic Relief Services, an olive branch of sorts. No doubt he will serve well, and say nothing public about the hurt he must feel. Some of it will pass. But history has been written and that won’t change.

As for the bishops and those who are very pleased Dolan will have an even greater immediate voice, when the cheering dies down some of us will continue to wonder what it is, after all, they are trying to teach us.

For more coverage of Archbishop Timothy Dolan's election as head of the U.S. Bishops, see:

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