I was unable to attend this year”s fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). All the same, I”d like to offer a few thoughts on the election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan as the new president of that body.
(1) Image may not be everything, despite the Andre Agassi commercials of the 90s. But it is very important, and Church leadership at home and in the Vatican has been notoriously inept when it comes to public relations. With this election, however, the U.S. bishops got it right. They bypassed the successor-in-waiting (USCCB VP, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson) and chose arguably the best communicator among current bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. To borrow from the song, he is “making it there” in the most prominent U.S. see, so there is every reason to believe that this gregarious, eminently likable prelate will project the right public image for the USCCB.
(2) Commentator John Allen of the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter likens Archbishop Timothy Dolan to a high octane, populist American version of Pope Benedict. So far, so good. However, from there he asserts that his election is not so much the victory of a conservative over a liberal, but rather a victory of the kinder, gentler “affirmative orthodoxy” of Pope Benedict over the harder edge of conservative ideologues. Those looking for a “no spin zone” may want to look elsewhere!
The main problem with Allen”s assessment is the fact that Archbishop Dolan”s main opposition was Bishop Kicanas, who is unmistakably on the “left,” and who had the distinct advantage of being the current VP of the conference, which usually signals victory. Archbishop Dolan is clearly more “conservative” than Bishop Kicanas. Plus, “conservative” here generally relates to degree of the prelate”s being in step with the Pope and curia. Any and all “conservatives” would vote for Dolan over Kicanas, and they did, despite the (very) small “t” tradition of simply voting for the VP.
(3) The clerical sex abuse issue still trumps just about everything. The bishops clearly were concerned about voting for Bishop Kicanas in light of the troubling revelations regarding Fr. Daniel McCormick, a sex abuser who was ordained under Bishop Kicanas” watch, despite indications that McCormick was engaging in homosexual activity while in seminary. The facts are still being sorted out, and perhaps the evidence will eventually show that Bishop Kicanas acted appropriately and in good faith. That’2012-04-24 18:33:15′s hardly a foregone conclusion, though, and in light of the Church”s already tarnished public image in that area (see pt. 1) the USCCB wisely went another route. Already activist groups like SNAP–hardly allies of the “conservatives”–are applauding the election of Archbishop Dolan.
(4) George Neumayr of Catholic World Report makes a strong case that the vote for Archbishop Dolan is in part a repudiation of the controversial “seamless garment” approach to life issues. As summarized at the CWN site, New York”s Cardinal John O”Connor pushed for a clear focus on the fight against abortion in the 1980s, while Chicago”s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin preferred the “seamless garment” approach, in which abortion was only one of a number of issues to be weighed in political discussions. For years the “seamless garment” approach has had the upper hand in USCCB discussions–reflecting the dominance enjoyed by the late Cardinal Bernardin and his allies. But now Bishop Kicanas, a Bernardin protégé, has been defeated by Cardinal O”Connor”s successor in New York.
(5) This isn”t like American politics, where the president gets to choose his VP. Still, the election of incoming VP Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville–a “centrist” who is now the odds-on choice to become Archbishop Dolan”s successor–deserves some comment. I”ve always liked Archbishop Kurtz, and I”m eternally grateful that he offered a Mass for my Mom in his cathedral the weekend she died.
What I like most about his election as VP, though, is that he is so forward-looking when it comes to the battle against same-sex marriage. We have to admit that we were asleep at the switch in the years immediately before Roe v. Wade dramatically shifted the landscape. Archbishop Kurtz has been a superb leader in building up Catholic marriage, and he is an able spokesman against contemporary attempts to redefine marriage.
We”ll see how all these points play out, but I think there are some solid grounds for optimism here.