Dolan's election overshadows bishops' meeting

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for Mass at the start of the bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 15. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

BALTIMORE -- The U.S. bishops broke long-standing precedent during their fall meeting here when they rejected a sitting vice president and instead elected New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan to head their organization for the next three years.

The vote was the first time in the modern history of the conference that an eligible sitting vice president, in this case Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., had not been elected president.

The surprise election created a flurry of interest in what otherwise would have been a routine meeting devoted largely to internal matters.

Though the public agenda of the Nov. 15-18 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was short, the bishops discussed persecution of Christians in Iraq, the ongoing post-earthquake crisis in Haiti, health care reform and same-sex marriage issues in the United States, church use of the new social media, the renewal of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and other concerns.

With their dioceses still facing the effects of the battered economy, they froze the 2012 assessment on dioceses for bishops’ conference operations at the current level, after rejecting successive proposals to raise it 3 percent or 2 percent.

They approved a “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” between the U.S. Catholic church and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ.

They gave a warm sendoff to Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, the only bishops’ conference member about to be made a cardinal. Wuerl attended the opening session of the Baltimore meeting then left to travel to Rome for a hectic week of ceremonies surrounding his elevation to the rank of cardinal.

Dolan, whose three-year term of office as conference president began at the close of the meeting, is arguably one of the best communicators among the bishops, at ease with the media and able to address even the most difficult issues in a positive, upbeat way.

See John Allen's accompanying story: Dolan invites with BBQ and a beer

Kicanas, conference vice president for the past three years, had generally been considered the more likely successor to the presidency by outside observers, and he led among the 10 nominees for president in the first ballot with 104 votes, 20 ahead of Dolan’s 84. But the election requires a bishop to get a majority of all bishops voting, not a plurality, and scattered votes for the other eight nominees on the ballot left him short of that majority.

On the second ballot Dolan — who three years ago lost the vice presidency to Kicanas on a runoff by a vote of 128-106 — picked up momentum as most of the bishops who had voted for other candidates shifted to him. In Round 2 Dolan got 118 votes and Kicanas 111, with scattered votes still going to some of the other nominees.

On the third ballot — by bishops’ conference rules a runoff between the top two candidates — several more bishops shifted to Dolan and he won, 123-111.

It was unclear to what extent, if any, the bishops’ voting may have been affected by a conservative blogging campaign, just days before the meeting, accusing Kicanas, in his years as a seminary rector in Chicago, of having knowingly approved a child molester for ordination. Kicanas countered the blog reports at length, denying that he knew about any child abuse accusations against the seminarian.

More important, perhaps, was the fact that each year about a dozen bishops retire — losing their right to vote in elections or other conference business — and a dozen or so new ones are appointed. Kicanas, an auxiliary bishop under the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, is generally considered part of the once-dominant but now dwindling Bernardin wing of conference membership. Dolan, more conservative, is more representative of the center-right bishops that have come to dominate the conference in recent years. So of the roughly 30-40 new bishops since 2007 who are Pope Benedict XVI appointees, a good number probably gravitated toward Dolan, while corresponding retirements in the intervening years have reduced the support for Kicanas.

Dolan succeeds Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president since November 2007.

By conference rules, no conference officer or committee chair can hold the same post for two successive terms, so Kicanas was eliminated from the remaining nominees for vice president and the election was held from among the remaining eight.

With 53 votes on the first vice presidential ballot, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., held a narrow lead over Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver with 45, and Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans with 44. No one else on the ballot came close to the top three.

On second ballot it was Kurtz 85, Chaput 67, and Aymond 50. In the third-round runoff between Kurtz and Chaput, Kurtz easily won, 147-91.

In what many interpreted as a conciliatory gesture to forestall speculation of division within the bishops’ conference, at least among its major leadership, Kicanas was appointed to succeed Dolan as chairman of the Catholic Relief Services board of directors. While George made the appointment, a conference news release noted it had “the full support of USCCB president-elect Archbishop Timothy Dolan.”

The bishops chose Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., as treasurer.

To succeed Msgr. David Malloy, a Milwaukee priest whose five-year term as conference general secretary ends June 30, the bishops elected Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, a canon lawyer and priest of the Austin, Texas, diocese who is currently an associate general secretary.

See NCR's editorial: Shake up in the bishops' conference

In his final presidential address to the bishops, George touched briefly on a wide range of current church and social issues but focused more than half his talk on last spring’s bitter debate over health care reform and the “wound to the church’s unity” in Catholic divisions over that legislation.

He said the bishops were consistent and acting as teachers of the faith in calling health care reform a moral imperative, but at the same time insisting that they could only support a bill with language that contained a clear “firewall keeping public money out of funding almost all abortions and out of insurance plans that fund abortion.”

The bishops opposed the legislation that eventually passed because it did not have the kind of Hyde Amendment language they considered essential to maintaining that firewall.

“Throughout this public debate, the bishops kept the moral and intellectual integrity of the faith intact,” George said.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, said in an e-mail to reporters shortly after the last public sessions of this year’s meeting, “What is most remarkable about this meeting is that it took place in the middle of the most devastating economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the bishops said nothing about it.”

“It was as if they did not know that almost 10 percent of their parishioners are unemployed, that the new Congress is going to take aim at programs helping the poor and that now is the time to speak out for social justice,” Reese added. “Their silence was deafening.”

[Jerry Filteau is NCR Washington correspondent.]

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