Catholic bishops deliver shocking upset

Genuinely shocking news out of Baltimore, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a new president and it isn't the mainstream progressive candidate, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tuscon, the sitting vice president. The Associated Press already has a short story out on this and GetReligion will be following the coverage. The winner? It's hard to argue with New York City's mass appeal. But there were some culture wars overtones here, as shown in this NPR report by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Yes, it is linked to conservatives being critical of how Kicanas handled of a key clergy sex-abuse case (and other big questions, as well).

If anything, the lede on this AP report is soft. Here is how the omnipresent Rocco Palmo of the influential Whispers in the Loggia website described this election, in a quick bulletin:

For the first time in the history of the US bishops, a vice-president standing for the presidency has been denied the top post, losing a stunning election to the archbishop of New York.

In contrast, here's the top of the AP report:

In an upset, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan elected president Tuesday of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, defeating a vice president who had been widely expected to win the job.

It is the first time since the 1960s that a sitting vice president was on the ballot for president and lost. It follows protests by some conservative Catholics against the vice president, Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas.

Dolan received 54 percent of the vote to 46 percent for Kicanas on the third round of balloting. Kicanas has served as vice president for a three-year term which ends this week. Dolan's surprise victory comes at a time when church leaders are divided over how best to uphold Roman Catholic orthodoxy. A growing number of bishops have taken a more aggressive approach, publicly denying Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, warning Catholic voters they should never vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights under any circumstances and reining in prominent dissenters in their dioceses.

The report then goes on to say that Kicanas basically advocated dialogue, not punishment, with Catholics -- including public leaders -- who openly oppose Catholic teachings on several hot-button doctrines. Dolan is not a hardliner, but has been much more outspoken in defending the church's doctrines.

For a full-scale sermon in favor of Kicanas, click here to read a Washington Post "On Faith" post by Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese -- the most powerful Catholic media source here in Washington, D.C. As Reese noted:

Not to elect Kicanas would be an ecclesial earthquake of monumental proportions. ... Electing as president a man who is not even an archbishop and is from such a small diocese shows that the Catholic bishops are not as deferential to hierarchy or even to Rome as one would think. After all, Rome appoints its favorites to large and important archdioceses. For the bishops to reach this deep into the bench shows that they do not judge each other with the same criteria as Rome does.

That's loaded. Read it again.

Meanwhile, it also didn't help that Kicanas was endorsed by the Rainbow Sash Movement, one of the most vocal gay-rights groups active in protesting against Catholic moral teachings on sexuality.

However, this early AP report stresses that the key to the shocking election of Dolan is that conservative bloggers "pilloried" Kicanas before the election.

Once again, one cannot overemphasize the degree to which debates about marriage and family issues, especially abortion, continue to drive the hottest debates in mainstream religious groups. This includes Catholicism, a flock in which the church's teachings are clear -- but debates rage on how to defend them in pews and public life.

To further illustrate that point, please click here and check out this informative and, for the most part, quite balanced Religion News Service report by Daniel Burke that notes how the abortion debates have, in recent years, invaded another issue in public life in which Catholic teachings are crystal clear -- the care of the poor.

It's impossible to read this story and not sense the tensions between the American Catholic left and the pro-Vatican right. It's clear that many on the doctrinal left simply do not think that it is absolutely necessary to cut all ties with groups that support abortion. Meanwhile, many on the right are determined to dig out as many financial connections between Catholic offering plates and liberal social-action groups as possible, no matter what. Here's a sample, then read on, please:

For four decades, the U.S. Catholic bishops have maintained a nationwide program designed to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty. And for just as long, fierce critics have tried to kill it.

Proponents of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) say it exemplifies Jesus' preference for the poor and downtrodden; opponents, including several bishops, say it funds left-wing activists, some of whom undermine church doctrine on homosexuality and abortion.

As the nation's 200 or so Roman Catholic bishops prepare for their annual meeting in Baltimore ... the CCHD has become yet another battlefield in what some Catholics lament is an increasingly polarized church. As the U.S. bishops' flagship anti-poverty program, the CCHD is funded through a special collection taken up each year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Since 1970, the program has disbursed $290 million in grants, according to CCHD officials.

But the program's practices and guiding philosophy have been sharply attacked by conservatives armed with Internet-enhanced research, a sharp nose for malfeasance, and a deep apprehension for anything that sniffs of socialism.

Socialism? The story never quite delivers on that Glenn Beck-esque salvo, but does show that conservatives believe that the CCHD works more comfortably with the political left than, if not the right, with Catholic groups that believe the church should be as directly involved with the poor as possible, as opposed to looking to secular groups and the government as the best conduit for financial aid.

In other words, the debates here are real. Like I said, read on. There are strong and informed voices on both sides in this RNS story.

And help us watch for the best mainstream coverage of this already eventful meeting of the U.S. bishops. More headlines to come, I am sure.

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