BALTIMORE — While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops dealt with a host of issues as part of its annual fall meeting in Baltimore, the news that the bishops parted with their tradition of electing the sitting vice president to the presidency dwarfed the conference’s other news.
In a historic upset, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was elected president over vice president Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., on the third ballot.
Previously, since the conference’s creation in 1966, no sitting vice president who had run for the presidency had ever been defeated.
The Nov. 16 election required three ballots to be completed. To win, a candidate needed to receive 50% of the vote, plus one. On the first ballot, Bishop Kicanas received 104 votes, Archbishop Dolan received 84, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver received 20, with a handful of votes for other candidates. On the second ballot, Archbishop Dolan received 118, Bishop Kicanas received 111, and Archbishop Chaput received four. On the third and final ballot, Archbishop Dolan received 128, and Bishop Kicanas received 111.
The election for vice president came down to a runoff between Archbishop Chaput and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., with Archbishop Kurtz winning 147-91 on the third ballot.
At a post-election press conference, Archbishop Dolan said he was taken aback by the results.
“This seems to be somewhat of a surprise,” he said. “I don’t know how to interpret it. You might interpret this as the bishops are tired of short and skinny presidents.”
The unexpected upset drew a variety of responses. Some described it as the Church’s “tea party,” while others called it a “sea change.”
Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, former editor in chief of America magazine and now a research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, described the election as an “ecclesial earthquake of monumental proportions.”
Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., said that while it was rare for the bishops to break with precedent, he was “pleased with the results.”
He echoed the sentiments of many who felt that the conference needed to break with its long-standing practice.
“I’ve long maintained that this kind of automatic vice president-to-president election is a mistake,” said Bishop Vasa. “This election represents a shift. I think it’s very healthy for the conference.”
While the election broke with the conference’s tradition, there were some who weren’t surprised by the vote.
“People forget that three years ago these same two men ran against each other and were separated by a small number of votes,” said Spokane, Wash., Bishop Blase Cupich.
After the vote, Bishop Kicanas released a statement that read, in part, “I respect the wisdom of my brother bishops in choosing their new president and vice president.”
The next day, the Tucson bishop was appointed by Cardinal George with Archbishop Dolan’s approval to succeed him as chairman of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency.
In other news, the bishops approved a request by the Committee on Pro-Life Activities to draft a brief policy statement on physician-assisted suicide. Committee chairman Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston explained that the committee felt that such a statement was necessary because of legislation in Oregon and Washington that’s likely to spread elsewhere.
During discussion of the draft, several bishops, including Bishop Michael Warfel of Great Falls-Billings, Mont., said that there’s an “urgency to the statement.” Others said that it was needed “yesterday.”
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said that while the Church already teaches against physician-assisted suicide, such a statement can be helpful.
“This is an action of the conference to offer tools to dioceses, bishops, clergy and the faithful,” said Father Pavone. “The bishops are responsible for restating teachings that might come under attack at particular times and circumstances. The statement will give priests a new item they can preach and teach on in their parishes, it will give the issue more media coverage, and it will help guide legislators, judges, those in the medical profession and voters.”
The draft is to be ready by the time of the bishops’ June 2011 meeting.
In addition, while the bishops approved a $180-million balanced budget for 2011, they voted twice to reject a proposed increase in the assessment on dioceses to fund the conference’s work in 2012.
The bishops also voted to approve the “Common Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Baptism” which was proposed by the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. That agreement between the Catholic Church and Reformed churches (Presbyterian USA, Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ) will mutually recognize and consider valid baptisms between those churches if administered with flowing water and if they are performed “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
An amendment was adopted, by the proposal of Auxiliary Bishop James Conley of Denver, to stipulate that sprinkling means “a generous application of water over a single individual that flows over his or her head.” This was added so that a sprinkling rite performed over a group — which Bishop Conley described as being performed by some churches — would not be considered valid.
Bishop Roger Morin of Biloxi, Miss., chairman of the bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) subcommittee, gave a report on efforts to review and renew the contested CCHD. In recent years, at least 10 bishops have decided not to participate in the annual collection due to complaints of lack of oversight and funds being used by grantees for purposes that conflict with Catholic teaching.
Among changes under way are the naming of theologian Capuchin Father Daniel Mindling as consultant to CCHD, a revised grant agreement and application form and a renewed commitment to ensure that CCHD funds will not be used to support any activity which conflicts with fundamental Catholic moral and social teaching, particularly in the areas of human life and dignity, and marriage and family.
Finally, Bishop Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, La., a member of the bishops’ Committee on Communications, delivered a report on utilizing new media, encouraging dioceses and bishops to make greater use of social media for communicating with the faithful. He compared social media as a fundamental shift as important as the printing press.
“It’s creating a new culture,” said Bishop Herzog. “Young people use it as their first point of reference. If the Church isn’t on [young people’s] mobile devices, it doesn’t exist.”
Tim Drake filed this story from Baltimore, Maryland.