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Fr. Reese’s analysis of Catholic bishops election

November 16, 2010

Father Tom Reese is such a thoughtful critic of his church. I fear we are losing voices like his among the Catholic clergy.

Reese, a Jesuit priest and  senior fellow, Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, writes the column This Catholic’s View for the Washington Post faith Web site. His latest column looks at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ presidential election. I posted it in full here because, as of 10:34 p.m. CT, it was not online. And in any case, it’s worth reading every word.

Catholic Bishops Tilt Right

At their meeting this week in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops signaled that they are going to continue their conservative tilt in both the church and American politics.

This rightward tilt became evident six years ago when Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was elected vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The election of vice president is important because the bishops traditionally elect the vice president as president at the next election in three years.

Prior to his election as vice president, George had executed the coup d’état at ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy) that got rid of those who opposed a literal word-for-word translation of the Latin Mass. He, more than any other bishop, will be responsible for the new English translation that goes into effect in Advent of 2011. This year, as president of the bishops’ conference, he led the attack on President Obama’s healthcare bill, which he claims will fund abortions even though the Catholic Health Association disagrees.

Moderates were fooled into thinking that the bishops had returned to the center three years ago when they elected Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson as vice president at the same time that Cardinal George was elevated to president. They expected Kicanas to be elected president this year, even though he had only defeated Archbishop Timothy Dolan, then of Milwaukee, by one vote.

Dolan’s victory over Kicanas at this week’s meeting is unprecedented. The bishops have always elected the vice president when he was on the ballot for president.

On paper, there is little difference between the two bishops. Both would claim to support orthodox doctrine and the full range of Catholic social teaching. As one bishop told me, “Kicanas is a liberal moderate, and Dolan is a conservative moderate.” The substantive differences are not that great.

The difference is in style and emphasis.

Kicanas is a quiet conciliator who prefers to resolve conflict through dialogue & conversation. He once taught a course in conflict resolution. Dolan is more extroverted and willing to be aggressive and confrontational when he thinks it is necessary. He has an ongoing fight with the New York Times. The bishops obviously want a strong, vigorous voice in the public square.

At the press conference after the election, Archbishop Dolan praised Cardinal George’s stance on the healthcare bill. He also said that the late Cardinal John O’Connor was his model on how to be a bishop. Kicanas would undoubtedly point to his mentor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. That says it all.

Bernardin and O’Connor were frequently at odds while they were alive, with Bernardin wanting to emphasize the whole range of Catholic social teaching and O’Connor wanting to stress abortion as the preeminent issue. If Cardinal Bernardin were alive today, he could not be elected president of this conference, nor could previous presidents like John Quinn, James Malone or John Roach. The bishops’ conference has been radically changed by the bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II. This is not going to change in the foreseeable future.

The conservative tilt of the bishops’ conference was shown even more clearly by the election for vice president. After two votes, the final runoff was between the two most conservative candidates of the eight bishops on the ballot: Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who wants to ban pro-choice politicians from Communion, and Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, chair of the bishops’ committee on the defense of marriage—the committee assigned to fight gay marriage.

That the leading voices on these two issues were in the runoff is telling. This is a clear signal that the bishops want to be active participants in the culture wars.

All of the bishops would claim to be committed to the full range of Catholic social teaching, so you have to focus on what they say, what they emphasize and what they do.

What is most remarkable about this meeting is that it took place in the middle of the most devastating economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the bishops said nothing about it. It was as if they did not know that almost 10 percent of their parishioners are unemployed, that the new Congress is going to take aim at programs helping the poor and that now is the time to speak out for social justice. Their silence was deafening.



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