Shake up in the bishops' conference

by NCR Editorial Staff

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Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., is pictured before the election of new officers at the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 16 in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The American anti-incumbency mood of 2010 hit the U.S. bishops’ conference this month when the group, for the first time in the history of the modern conference, declined to elect an eligible sitting vice president.

This year’s shakeup, in which New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan defeated Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., is telling in several respects. For starters, the defeat of Kicanas punctuated the end of the “Bernardin era,” a loose designation that honors the approach of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

Bernardin took a broad and generally progressive outlook on the big cultural issues and employed a conciliatory style within the church. One of the consistent hallmarks of that era was its strong advocacy for those on the margins. At the era’s most robust point during the 1980s and early 1990s, bishops were known to swallow individual disagreements so that the conference could present a unified face, whether toward the wider culture or the Vatican.

The end of the Bernardin era is the fulfillment of the late Pope John Paul II’s wish that the U.S. bishops’ conference’s influence be diminished and that the scope of its concerns be reduced. In recent years, during which a moderate conference has become increasingly conservative, the body has become splintered, often arguing over an agenda dominated by such in-house matters as liturgy and Catholic identity.

Episcopal activity in the public square has been focused almost exclusively on abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Just how deeply insular and inward-looking the conference has become was apparent in the fact that the agenda for this year’s meeting, conducted amid the greatest recession since the Great Depression, contained no mention of the poor, the jobless or the state of the economy.

It is impossible to say precisely why the bishops voted as they did, but several explanations emerged in private conversations.

One is that a number of bishops who voted for Kicanas three years ago have since retired, eroding his base of support. Another is that younger bishops resisted the system that automatically elevates the vice president to the top spot. Finally, some said that a number of bishops walked away from Kicanas after victims’ groups accused him of mishandling the case of an abusive seminarian.

If, indeed, some bishops feared getting the new leader tangled up in allegations before he even took over the job, Dolan may provide small consolation. While he did some admirable things when he took over the Milwaukee archdiocese from Archbishop Rembert Weakland, he also faces a bill of particulars on the other side of the equation that groups like Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (known as SNAP) and will be only too eager to list for the New York media.

The allegations against Kicanas, hyped just before the election by conservative groups that previously showed little interest in investigating clergy sex abuse, may have provided a convenient shield for those more concerned with ideological purity (Kicanas was viewed as a moderate in the Bernardin tradition) than with accountability.

The “heckler’s veto” against Kicanas, whatever its value in upending him, is one mark of how the conference has been shaped recently by the extremes. Another is the defense the bishops were forced to make of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a program that annually gives tangible expression to the heart of the Gospel the church professes. The program has been attacked relentlessly by a tiny, irrational but highly vocal camp of detractors.

In much the same way the Republican Party is paying a price for its courtship of the extremes by now having to deal with the anarchy of the tea party, the bishops are paying a price for their accommodation of some of the most unreasonable elements in the Catholic community. The splash back, they are discovering, can be toxic.

Notable for his absence at this meeting was soon-to-be Cardinal Raymond Burke, who gained distinction for excommunicating people while archbishop in St. Louis. Burke’s appointment to the Vatican’s high court means that he lost his conference vote.

Gone, too, is the mercurial former bishop of Scranton, Pa., Joseph Martino, whose rants against politicians, academics and others alienated a good portion of his diocese. We are left to our own conclusions about why he suddenly “retired” some 12 years ahead of schedule. Some insiders privately claim that the most vociferous and imprudent among the American hierarchy are being isolated and removed from center stage.

If, as Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese contends, this year’s election was a decision by the bishops to focus on the culture wars, they chose two of the happiest warriors in Dolan, who has a well-earned reputation as a hail-fellow-well-met, and his vice president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky. Both are amiable men who genuinely like people and are more interested in persuasion than in fighting.

They face two enormous challenges: unifying a conference that has fractured in many ways over the past quarter century and unifying a church that is bleeding members who are deeply suspicious of their leaders.

How Dolan and Kurtz use the relatively small amount of political and public relations capital the conference may yet possess will be important. Being elected leader of the conference at this point in history may be an honor, but it’s no easy path to glory.

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