By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
BALTIMORE (RNS) In a dramatic break with tradition, U.S. Catholic bishops on Tuesday (Nov. 16) elected New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan as their next president, choosing a friendly but assertive leader over the more conciliatory front-runner.
Dolan defeated Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., 128 to 111 in the third and final round of voting. Kicanas has been vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, traditionally a stepping stone to the presidency, since 2007, when he defeated Dolan by two votes.
Tuesday's election marks the first time since the 1960s that a sitting vice president was on the presidential ballot and lost the election, according to church historians.
Noting that two conservative candidates led the voting for vice president, observers said the elections show that the bishops' conference is moving sharply to the right -- with consequences not only for Catholics but also for politicians who court a crucial swing vote.
"This is a signal that the Catholic bishops are going to be leaders in the culture wars," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an expert on the American church and a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the bishops' point man on defending traditional marriage, won the race for vice president, defeating another outspoken conservative, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, 147 to 91.
"This is a sign that the bishops want to shake off the era of moderate liberalism, which didn't seem to confront any issue with passion or conviction," said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the bishops who was in Baltimore observing the assembly. "Dolan is a real
leader, a man of conviction."
Nearly 300 Roman Catholic active and retired bishops are meeting here through Thursday for their annual fall assembly. Dolan, who was named archbishop of New York last February, will assume the helm of the bishops' conference at the conclusion of the meeting.
A bearish, ruddy, blackslapper, Dolan said he has not had time to ponder the significance of his surprise election -- but proposed that the deciding factor may have been a difference in persona, not politics.
"When you speak about the leadership of bishops, usually you're speaking about style," he said, noting that both he and Kicanas are orthodox advocates for Catholic doctrine.
Criticism of the soft-spoken Kicanas had been mounting in recent weeks as sex abuse victims accused him of failing to stop the ordination of a priest who was later convicted of sexually abusing teen boys. Conservative Catholic bloggers labeled him weak on abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues.
Chaput said he received a "huge number" of e-mails critical of Kicanas, especially his handling of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Both Chaput and Dolan, though, said bishops typically dismiss such orchestrated campaigns.
"The bishops usually bristle if they feel any outside pressure," Dolan said. "We take our autonomy very seriously."
In a statement, Kicanas said, "I respect the wisdom of my brother bishops in choosing their new president and vice president" and praised Dolan's "great wit" and "jovial spirit."
Privately, though, Kicanas is "disappointed," said a source close to the bishop.
Dolan's good humor was on display at his post-election press conference, as he teasingly called one veteran church journalist the "Catholic Helen Thomas," cheered news of a liberal magazine's budget crunch, and praised a former New York archbishop's "sidewalk savvy."
In keeping with tradition, Dolan is expected to be named a cardinal, but not in this weekend's consistory at the Vatican since his predecessor, retired Cardinal Edward Egan, still holds a vote in a papal election until he turns 80 in 2012.
While Dolan's election puts a friendly face front and center at the bishops' conference, Dolan is known as a strong advocate for church teaching, and has become more of a culture warrior since moving to New York, taking on The New York Times in particular over its coverage of sex abuse in the church.
His election reflects the bishops' desire for an assertive president, especially at a time when their leadership has been challenged from within by nuns, Catholic health care workers and
progressive political groups, according to church experts.
"This election is a great show of support for Archbishop Dolan, who is recognized as a very strong leader," said Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas.