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.
By sheer force of personality, the gregarious, often combative archbishop seems destined to play a more prominent role in public affairs than his predecessor, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. He joked after the election that he was surprised, but that perhaps "the bishops are tired of short and skinny presidents."
Dolan, 60, has been archbishop of New York for slightly less than two years. He was elected president of the bishops' conference in a third-round upset over Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, who had been vice president for the last three years. Since the organization was established in 1966, vice presidents have routinely moved up to the conference's presidency. The only exceptions were a vice president who died before the next election and another who retired.
"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.
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. He has gained national prominence in part through his vigorous defense of the church's handling of sexual abuse cases, especially his denunciations of the New York Times for its abuse investigations.
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."
In remarks to reporters after his election, Dolan was quoted as saying that his major priority as president "would be to continue, with all the vigor that I can muster, what's already been put in place. It's not like — thanks be to God — we're in crisis. Things are going well."
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. Other indications, Reese said, could be found in the agenda of the bishops' annual conference in Baltimore.
"I mean, we're in the middle of the biggest economic downturn since the Depression, and these bishops had nothing to say about that," Reese said. "They did have a lot to say about the defense of marriage, and about their concerns about the healthcare bill funding abortion. … I think the elections indicate that the bishops want to continue to be leaders in the culture wars."