BALTIMORE — The U.S. bishops elected as their new president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., previously the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), ending months of speculation about the future leadership of the nation’s largest religious body.
Archbishop Kurtz will serve a three-year term. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston was elected the USCCB vice president, a move that signaled, in part, the growing prominence of dioceses located in the burgeoning Southwest, where Hispanics increasingly constitute the majority of Catholics.
Archbishop Kurtz, 67, has worked closely with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the outgoing president of the USCCB, whose decisive leadership during a period of deepening church-state tensions earned a standing ovation from his brother bishops after the election results were announced.
“Archbishop Kurtz has been a very active vice president. I am sure he is prepared to assume the responsibilities now,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston told the Register.
Echoing the commendation of many bishops gathered for the annual USCCB meeting, he applauded Cardinal Dolan’s knack for minimizing polarization within the assembly.
“The USCCB president has a lot of power. If he is not careful, he can discourage dissent and disagreement, but that was not Cardinal Dolan’s approach," said Cardinal O'Malley.
"He is respectful of people who disagree with him. He would not take it personally if someone doesn’t accept his policy. We need leadership that allows people to talk together in a constructive way.”
Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans noted that the new USCCB president has a distinctive legacy in social work that should prove helpful in his new post.
“Archbishop Kurtz obviously comes at things in a very spiritual and theological way,” Archbishop Aymond told the Register.
But his academic training and experience with social work foster a gift for “listening, collaboration and empathy, and I think he will bring those gifts with him to this important ministry.”
Meanwhile, the USCCB’s new vice president, Cardinal DiNardo, “brings a depth of theological knowledge. And he has worked in Rome for a long time, so he brings an understanding of the Holy See and the work of the Vatican,” said Archbishop Aymond.
“He has been very appropriately strong on issues like immigration and on issues of religious freedom. And I think he will represent that well as the vice president.”
Cardinal DiNardo was elected vice president on the third-ballot, with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia coming in second.
During the press conference following his election, Archbishop Kurtz signaled the USCCB’s ongoing commitment to a “robust” defense of religious freedom, as Catholic nonprofits face a January 2014 deadline for compliance with the HHS mandate.
When a reporter asked if he would look for new opportunities to mend fences with the Obama administration, Archbishop Kurtz offered an answer that presented the Church as an equal partner in the nation’s policy debates.
“Faith enriches public life, so, naturally, there is a great desire on the part of the bishops’ conference to have a relationship with the administration, Congress and the Supreme Court,” said Archbishop Kurtz.
“Our efforts to speak on behalf of the voiceless and vulnerable put us in a position to do great good.”
Further, the new USCCB president signaled that he would take his cue from Pope Francis, who has urged Church leaders to welcome both the poor and alienated Catholics.
Pope Francis has called for “pastoral bishops,” and he has described the Church as a field hospital that must care for persons damaged by sin and social marginalization. And Archbishop Kurtz said the conference was concerned with a range of pastoral and policy issues linked to the flourishing of human dignity.
“How can we warm hearts and heal wounds?” he asked during the press conference.
“When I became a bishop, I knew the most important part of my life was my 12 years being a pastor. [This was the] most important preparation for being a leader in our Church.”
“There is a culture of indifference,” he said, reflecting on the need to defend the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, as well as the needs of the poor and of undocumented workers.
Archbishop Kurtz and Cardinal DiNardo both expressed regret that proposed legislation to secure comprehensive immigration has stalled on Capitol Hill, thus far.
However, they said the conference would continue to push for legislative solutions to address the plight of an estimated 11 million undocumented workers and their families.
Cardinal DiNardo observed that “the tempo and interaction” on immigration reform “has picked up” in Washington, and he expressed gratitude for the work of Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who has spearheaded the bishops’ effort to secure passage of legislation offering immigration reform.
Nod to Precedent
The election of Archbishop Kurtz was a nod to precedent: In the past, USCCB vice presidents took the top job after the president completed his three-year term. However, the 2010 election of Cardinal Dolan as the conference president upset that pattern.
This year, 10 nominees were on the ballot from which the bishops elected the Louisville archbishop.
Archbishop Kurtz was born in Mahanoy City, Pa., in 1946. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in divinity from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and holds a master’s degree in social work from the Marywood School of Social Work in Scranton, Pa.
He served as bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., from 1999-2007. Before that, he was a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., for 27 years, with a special focus in social services, diocesan administration and parish ministry.
He served as the director of the diocese’s Catholic Charities affiliate from 1988 to 1998 and was an executive director of the diocese’s Catholic Social Agency and Family Life Bureau.
Archbishop Kurtz is the vice chancellor of the board of the Catholic Extension Society and an adviser to the Catholic Social Workers National Association.
He is also on the board of directors of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and on the advisory board to the cause for the canonization of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
Tough Act to Follow
Archbishop Kurtz displayed no signs of trepidation when he confidently stepped up to the podium to accept his election as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, but his gifts for leadership will be measured against the prominence and personality of his predecessor, Cardinal Dolan.
The New York archbishop used his closing address as president on Nov. 11 to urge the assembly to defend persecuted Christians around the globe.
Remember how the “prayers for the conversion of Russia at the end of Masses a half century ago shaped our sense of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain?” Cardinal Dolan asked.
He called for a “similar culture of prayer for persecuted Christians today, both in private and in our liturgical celebrations,” and for media reports about their plight and advocacy on their behalf in the corridors of power.
“Our good experience defending religious freedom here at home shows that, when we turn our minds to an issue, we can put it on the map. It’s time to harness that energy for our fellow members.”
Cardinal Dolan’s last address as the conference’s president was another reminder that the USCCB’s top post can be a great bully pulpit and that the assembly of bishops — and the faithful too — will look to Archbishop Kurtz to sustain and advance Cardinal Dolan’s work.
“The fact that the U.S. Catholic bishops have focused so intensely on religious freedom, both at home and abroad, has been in no small part the result of Cardinal Dolan’s determination to elevate this issue,” said Thomas Farr, the executive director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center.
“This is religious freedom American-style at its best. All Catholics — and all Americans — owe a debt of gratitude to Cardinal Dolan for his leadership.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.