By Greg Erlandson
A rather uneventful fall meeting of the U.S. bishops was shaken by the unexpected election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as the next president of the bishops’ conference. The earthquake was that the anointed candidate, the current vice-president of the conference, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, was defeated in three rounds of voting.
Until only a few days ago, the prospect of the election of Kicanas was seen as a given. One had to go back decades to find another occasion when the vice president was not then elected president. Indeed, noted bishop watcher Father Tom Reese, S.J., wrote a column last week that treated the elevation of Kicanas as a certainty, praising the bishops in advance for electing a bishop from a small diocese and thus showing that they were not as deferential to rank and size as he felt Rome is.
“Not to elect Kicanas would be an earthquake of monumental proportions,” Reese wrote in his “Dewey beats Truman” column.
The election was, if not an earthquake, at the very least a sea change for the conference. This sense of some dramatic tipping point having occurred was underscored by the subsequent vote for vice president. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput was runner up to Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, both of whom would be viewed as members in good standing of the conservative camp.
After several years where the balance of the conference seemed to tilt narrowly progressive in close votes, the election of Archbishop Dolan over Bishop Kicanas suggests that the majority of the conference is now tilting more conservative, though members of this voting bloc often reject the political labels of conservative and liberal. One bishop said that the “Bernardin era was now over.”
Archbishop Dolan is, of course, highly popular among his brother bishops, and is recognized as a genial conservative with a strong sense of Catholic identity and a willingness to engage robustly in the issues of the day.
It is also significant, and welcomed by many bishops, that the tradition of recent decades for the conference to automatically considering the vice president to be the next president has been broken. Younger bishops seemed particularly supportive of this change.
In a bit of irony that was much appreciated after the news broke, the story circulated of the National Catholic Reporter’s news alert that “bishops spurn tradition” in the Dolan vote. Wags suggested that, given the Reporter’s own track record of spurning tradition, this must mean that the liberal paper was supportive of the vote.
In terms of practical direction, there is not likely to be any significant change from the Cardinal Francis George presidency to the Archbishop Dolan presidency. The bishops seem resolved to reinforce and teach on traditional Catholic topics, to speak out on topical issues like physician-assisted suicide, but to avoid large-scale debates on very broad topics such as the economy. The intent of the majority of the bishops now seems to be to “right size” the bishops’ conference and more narrowly focus its public presence.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher, and filed this from the bishops' Baltimore meeting.