Further adventures in labeling (bishops)

For the past day or so, I have been reading the coverage of the somewhat surprising election of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At this point, I have to admit that I am confused about the various labels that I am reading. It seems that all of the bishops agree that the care of the poor is essential, but they disagree on precisely how to accomplish that goal while also defending other core teachings of the faith that are directly linked to this first goal -- such as the protection of human life from conception to natural death.

Thus, many bishops are upset that some journalists have argued that the tensions in the USCCB are between a "social justice" wing and a traditionalist, pro-life, politically conservative wing. After all, if one believes that unborn children have a right to life, wouldn't working for that cause be a matter of social justice?

But I digress.

At this point, it appears that what we have here is an old, old journalistic template. It seems that our scribes have decided that this event was yet another collision between "conservatives" and "moderates." No sighting of "fundamentalists," at this point in time, although that noted progressive Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd has not weighed in -- yet.

This time around, let's examine some ink on America's left coast. Here is a sample from the day-after story in The Los Angeles Times, starting with the lede.

The nation's Catholic bishops bucked decades of tradition Tuesday to select Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York as their new leader, cementing his reputation as a star of the American church and prompting some commentators to suggest that the U.S. Catholic hierarchy may be turning rightward.

Dolan's election as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "signaled a clear ascendancy of the conservative bloc," the National Catholic Reporter said. Others, however, said it primarily reflected Dolan's personal charisma.

OK, most observers of the American Catholic scene would put the NCR on the left side of the spectrum of church life. But, moving right along, what does someone on the other side say about the defeat of Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, the hero of the "moderate," "social justice" wing?

"This was a big surprise," said Father Thomas J. Reese, a theologian at Georgetown University. "This is the first time that a vice president has been defeated for president, so it's unprecedented."

Kicanas is known as a moderate who is a strong opponent of Arizona's controversial new immigration law. Though he supports the church's rulings against abortion, he has not denied Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, as more conservative bishops might do, and has gained the enmity of some on the Catholic right. He also faced criticism for having ordained a priest who later pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of five children, although Kicanas denied reports that he had been aware the priest was a pedophile.

OK, we have "conservatives" competing against a "moderate" and Father Reese (surprise, surprise) is in the house. I am sure we'll get to that "traditionalist" or small-o "orthodox" commentator in a few paragraphs.

But now we get down to a very specific issue that is in play. Pay close attention.

Like Kicanas, Dolan has been willing to offer Communion to abortion rights supporters, but is considered more in line with Pope Benedict XVI's preference for doctrinal traditionalists. ...

Dolan "has emerged as a very charismatic figure," said Father Thomas Rausch, a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University. "He's fearless, he's not afraid to take on ... the New York Times and others who are, in his opinion, overly critical of the church. He's certainly a very intelligent spokesman for the church."

So Kicanas has not denied Communion to those who support abortion rights and neither has Dolan, but Dolan is more in line with the mood at the Vatican, which makes him a "conservative" in comparison to the "moderates"? What does that make the bishops who actually have advocated denying Communion to Catholics who have strongly opposed the church's teachings on this issue, which the Vatican has stated must be defended in every way possible?

By the way, Rausch is not a hero of the Catholic left like the omnipresent quote machine Reese, but he is clearly not a fan of the conservatives. So we are still looking for that articulate voice on the other side of this story.

Meanwhile, let's keep on trying to make sense out of the labels.

Rausch said he saw Dolan as a centrist, but Reese -- known as a liberal -- said he saw the election as a sign that the bishops were becoming more conservative.

OK, so if Reese is "known as a liberal," are there bishops that Reese supports? Yes, that would be Kicanas, clearly. But Kicanas is a "moderate," remember.

OK, then there are some bishops who are on the right, as in they are advocating that sacramental steps be taken to discipline Catholics who openly and consistently oppose church teachings on abortion (and other issues that Rome has raised to a similar level of doctrinal importance). Did you note that the story said that these traditionalist bishops "might" take this action, as in they are taking this step seriously but not jumping in with both feet? That's the "right wing" radicals.

OK, so who would be a "moderate" in this journalistic scenario? What would be the stance taken by a "centrist" bishop? We need to know the answer to that question in order to accurately describe the outcome of this election.

Did a "conservative" win, if we are talking about the hot-button issue of sacramental discipline? The answer is "no."

Did the candidate supported by Reese win, the man hailed as the best hope for the church's progressive, liberal wing? The answer is "no."

So the left lost and the right lost. Someone from the territory in between those two camps won. Thus, the shepherd with a "centrist" stance -- thinking logically -- would be someone who has strongly defended the church's abortion stance verbally, while declining to raise feathers by defending it with a strategy built on liturgical, sacramental discipline. That would be Dolan.

So a "moderate" defeated a "liberal," while the most "conservative" candidates lost.

Did I miss something somewhere in the Los Angeles Times story (other than an informed, articulate voice from the conservative side of the aisle)? Dolan is from the middle, correct? Has anyone read that lede anywhere?

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