New leader for American Catholics

This Catholic’s View By Thomas J. Reese, S.J. While most Catholic eyes are directed toward Rome where new cardinals will … Continued

This Catholic’s View

By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

While most Catholic eyes are directed toward Rome where new cardinals will be created on November 20, an important leadership transition is taking place in the United States where a new president will be chosen for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. While people in red hats tend to get noticed, the president of the bishops’ conference is the closest thing the American church has to a real national leader.

At the end of their meeting in Baltimore on November 18, the USCCB presidency will transfer from Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, one of the largest archdioceses in the U.S., to Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, one of the smaller dioceses.

Bishop Kicanas, currently vice president, will need to be elected as president during the meeting, but the bishops traditionally promote their vice president to president at the end of his three-year term. The only time their failed to do this was when the vice president (Cardinal John Carberry of St. Louis) was too old and would have had to retire while president. Not to elect Kicanas would be an ecclesial earthquake of monumental proportions. As a result, all eyes will be on the election of the new vice president, who everyone knows will become the president in three years. Will he be a moderate or a culture warrior?

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.

What kind of president will Kicanas be?

Kicanas will not try to impose his agenda on the bishops; rather he will support the priorities of the bishops themselves. He will spend lots of time listening and trying to build consensus. His style will be similar to that of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was his mentor. This is why the bishops elected him.

On substance, Kicanas will not stray from the middle of the bishops’ conference. He is opposed to abortion, but he does not support banning pro-choice politicians from Communion. During the controversy over President Obama’s visit to Notre Dame University, he called for the bishops and university presidents “to sit down and talk this through to come to some better understanding.”

And while he supported an Arizona ballot initiative banning gay marriage, he instituted a conversation in his diocese on how to minister to gays when he was criticized by gay rights supporters. Although he would not step back from church teaching on homosexuality, he did affirm that “we must challenge any attitudes, language or actions in the church and in society that demean people of same-sex orientation.”

Like Bernardin, Kicanas is committed to the full range of Catholic social teaching on justice and peace. On economic issues, like the pope, he would be to the left of the Obama administration. Unlike the tea party, he has no problem with a robust role for the government in supporting the common good. He supports comprehensive immigration reform and strongly condemned the Arizona law instructing police to go after undocumented immigrants. He has visited the Holy Land seven times and spoken in support of Christians there as well as for an end to violence.

Bishop Kicanas will not just listen to the bishops; he also takes seriously input from the laity. He has been involved with the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, an organization of business executives founded in response to the sex abuse crisis to help the church with their expertise. He also believes that the church has a lot to learn from the social sciences and has supported research on the life of the church by CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate).

Kicanas should also prove to be a good communicator. He is less abstract and rambling in his speeches than Cardinal George. He understands the church has a communication challenge to “keep the interest of people who have so many places to turn.” He is a blogger and suggested that the pope try it. He does not appear to be afraid of the press like most bishops. He said that one of the lessons he learned from leading his diocese through bankruptcy in 2004-2005 was the need for transparency and openness. Although not everyone was happy with the process, he was pleased that most, including victims, felt they were treated fairly and respectfully.

Kicanas will face many challenges as president of the bishops’ conference: a political atmosphere that appears willing to sacrifice the poor to deficit reduction; a controversial translation of the Mass that may go down poorly with the people in the pews; an exodus of young people out of the church and declining church attendance; a graying and smaller presbyterate. And then there will be the surprises that will test his mettle.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is a Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.

By Thomas J. Reese, S.J. | 
November 13, 2010; 11:34 AM ET

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  • usapdx

    The DARK AGE is long gone yet so many in the RCC administration want to turn the clock back. The RCC administration must change or there will be more empty pews in the old church.

  • areyousaying

    And how will Kicanas deal with the fact that there are still known ebephile priests who are shielded from civil prosecution?Could this be one of the reasons there is an exodus of young people out of the church and declining church attendance?

  • wlalor

    The Pope is to the left of Obama on economic issues?? False. It is a shame that Catholics who don’t know better are told such things by so many clergy. Read the Holy Father’s encyclical “God is Love” carefully. Far too many in the Church have willful disregard for her teaching on subsidiarity. The state that provides everything chokes off the personal love that must come from Christian charity.

  • thebump

    We need leaders who know that the Church’s mission is to save souls from eternal damnation, not “keep the interest of people who have so many places to turn” or find excuses for immorality. And yes, that means being a warrior against a depraved culture.

  • lastword

    The new president of the USCCB will not be the leader of America Catholics nor were any of the past presidents of the USCCB ever their leader. I am not surprised, however, that a Georgetown Jesuit theologian would suggest such a thing.Doctrine from the apostolic teaching authority of the Church, not some theologian’s intellectual wanderings and musings, are key to finding and following Christ who is the way, the truth and life.

  • pinecone

    And now, Father Tom, given this news

  • thebump

    Oops! Congratulations to Archbishop Dolan!

  • rml4254

    American Catholics need to consider their place in the univeral church. Direction from the Pope should be followed to the letter. No debate is needed.

  • Pisces1971

    I am sorry your predictions did not come true, Fr. Reese, and I’m also sorry for the disrespect shown by some of the other commenters. I want the Church to stand for more than “salvation from eternal damnation.” Jesus gave us teachings that if followed, with love, justice and compassion, could make Heaven on Earth. I fear Dolan will make the Church ever more irrelevant and out of touch with life as it’s lived in the here and the now. Let’s all pray for the best.

  • musculars1

    Excellent article Fr. Reese on the political makeup of the USCCB.

  • cornbread_r2

    Doctrine from the apostolic teaching authority of the Church, not some theologian’s intellectual wanderings and musings, are key to finding and following Christ who is the way, the truth and life. — lastword Since Transubstantiation, the Assumption, Limbo, Purgatory and the Trinity aren’t specifically mentioned in the Bible, who developed these doctrines — plumbers?

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