In an unprecedented upset at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ November general assembly in Baltimore, a “surprised and humbled” Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York displaced the conference vice president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, to become the next president of the U.S.C.C.B. It took three rounds of voting before Archbishop Dolan was elected, 128 to 111. The shock in the hall after the vote was palpable.
The surprise victory was the first time in decades that a sitting vice president on the ballot did not win the election for the three-year term as president. In only two other elections since the reorganization of the conference in 1966 did circumstances prevent the vice president from ascending to the presidency. In 1974 Archbishop Leo C. Byrne of St. Paul and Minneapolis died less than a month before his term as vice president ended. Three years later, Cardinal John J. Carberry of St. Louis declined to run for the top spot because he was 73 years old and due to retire.
Elected vice president was Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who won in another third-ballot runoff, 147 to 91, over Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., of Denver. The two votes suggest the U.S.C.C.B. will continue to take a role in U.S. culture wars over gay marriage and abortion. The results could also mean a stronger conservative voice in the voters’ guide that will be published in preparation for the 2012 national elections.
In the weeks leading up to the election, conservative Catholic bloggers and news sites were demanding the defeat of Bishop Kicanas, and e-mail messages and faxes to that effect were apparently piling up in the bishops’ hotel rooms in Baltimore. The Tucson bishop has been attacked by both advocates for survivors of sexual abuse by priests and from Catholic conservatives. The latter perceived him as too conciliatory to pro-choice Catholic politicians.
A handful of bloggers also suggested he had been negligent as rector of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary in 1992 when incidents were reported about Daniel McCormack, then a seminarian. Years later, as a diocesan priest, McCormack molested a number of children. Bishop Kicanas made a vigorous defense of his supervision of McCormack, but according to one conference observer, the media campaign was enough to create doubts among some bishops.
Archbishop Dolan brushed aside concerns about outside agitation around the election, noting that bishops do not “run for office,” but are chosen by their brother bishops. He suggested that in any event few bishops would be moved by such efforts.
“We take our autonomy very seriously,” Archbishop Dolan said. “I think the bishops bristle usually if they feel any undue pressure from outside.” He added that it was an indication of how seriously the bishops appreciate their responsibility at the general assembly that they did not wish to vote a “shoo-in” into the job as conference president. Bishop Roger P. Morin of Biloxi, Miss., agreed that the election marked an attempt to change the process. “There’s been some question as to whether the vice president should automatically be elected,” he said.
Archbishop Dolan said that he intended no dramatic redirection for the U.S.C.C.B. “Our positions and priorities are basically inherited,” he said. Archbishop Dolan added that pundits like to classify bishops according to their attentiveness to social justice issues or a keener interest in abortion and gay marriage. “But we bishops see those as part of a package deal and we don’t feel that cleavage between the two.” On the “essentials” of the faith, he said, all the bishops agree.
In a statement released after the election, Bishop Kicanas said that he respected the wisdom of his “brother bishops in choosing their new president and vice president.” He added, “Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been a longtime 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.”
Bishop Kicanas has been selected by the outgoing U.S.C.C.B. president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, to succeed Archbishop Dolan as chairman of Catholic Relief Services, a position the archbishop had to vacate upon his election.