On November 16, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops elected a new president. He is the Most Reverend Timothy Michael Dolan, 60, the tenth and sitting archbishop of New York. And this was just plain not supposed to happen.
Catholic bishops are like appellate judges: they are fond of precedents. And precedent is that when the president of the USCCB finishes his term, the vice president is always, always elected to succeed him. The last time it didn’t happen that way was in 1974, when the vice president was John Cardinal Carberry of St. Louis, and he was simply too old: he would have had to retire before the term was up.
But in 2010, Timothy Dolan was not the VP. Gerald Kicanas, bishop of Tucson, was. True, they didn’t go for Dolan in a landslide: Dolan had 128 votes to Kicanas’ 111, about 53.6 percent of the vote in a very small pool. That’s not the story. The story is that Kicanas lost at all.
Not that Kicanas was otherwise a brilliant choice. He fell on his face in the sexual abuse scandal. As rector of Mundelein, the feeder seminary for the Chicago archdiocese, Kicanas approved Daniel McCormack for ordination despite warnings about his sexual activity. In 2007, McCormack went to prison for molesting boys. Victims’ rights groups duly protested the Arizona bishop’s advancement to the president’s chair.
But adroitness in handling sexual abuse is hardly a governing factor in internal hierarchical politics. If it were, the now infamous Bernard Cardinal Law would not have been promptly rehabilitated as archpriest of St. Mary Major in Rome after his resignation from Boston. Kicanas had to have another problem, something enough bishops just could not tolerate.
This is what did it: when it comes to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, Kicanas is a moderate. He does hold to the official teaching. But, according to a coworker of mine who is familiar with Kicanas, he also believes in dialogue. And that is simply not where the USCCB wants to go right now.
You can tell that not just from the choice of Dolan, though he is certainly an outspoken conservative with the right pedigree (Dolan is a former rector of the North American College, the American pontifical seminary in Rome and alma mater of many bishops). The real clincher is the new vice president. After all, they needed one of those, too.
Given a run-off between Archbishops Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and Charles Chaput of Denver, both conservative, the bishops went for Kurtz. He chairs the bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life. Promoting one-man-to-one-woman is a frontline goal of that committee.
Now step back a moment, and consider the overall context. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is on the table. California’s Proposition 8 recently collapsed under judicial challenge. There was Archbishop John Nienstedt’s tragicomically clumsy DVD campaign against gay marriage in Minnesota, which turned into an art project. We’ve had the recent rash of gay teen suicides, and a responding phenomenon of “It Gets Better” online videos, with heavyweights like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton among the contributors.
In the middle of all this, nothing could be more pointed than the U.S. bishops leaping over the barricades to wrestle down a shoo-in who was far from being a liberal, all so they could haul in two guys who are even further from liberal than that.
I think of how far they’ve fallen. These used to be the people who pronounced prophetically on the great issues of the time. Peace-and-justice-niks still cite the great pastoral letters of the 1980s, like The Challenge of Peace, which condemned the nuclear arms race, and Economic Justice for All, which slammed laissez-faire capitalism. The bishops were on the side of the angels, “calling things by their right name,” to use John Paul II phraseology.
Now we live amid even greater urgency. The Main Street economy is imploding like a dying star. Global warming and other environmental indicators suggest that judgment upon our petroleum addiction is near. Young people are killing themselves because their sexuality does not fit the assigned prefab box. And the apparent priority of the USCCB is to elect officers who will remind us of who is in and who is out.
The tragedy is not simply those who are excluded, as infinitely precious as they are. The tragedy is also the bishops themselves. They could be, and used to be, so much more.