Archbishop Kurtz’s Election as New USCCB President Signals Ambiguous Direction for Conference

Archbishop Kurtz with Cardinal Dolan

America’s Catholic bishops have spoken. Yesterday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) elected a new president and vice-president for the first time since Pope Francis was elected, choosing Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston for the respective roles.

Observers viewed this leadership election as a sign of how the US hierarchy is responding to a pope noted for his mercy, welcome, and emphasis on the marginalized.

While pasts are not blueprints for the future, neither Kurtz nor DiNardo’s records leave LGBT advocates optimistic. Kurtz chaired the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage until 2010 and was one of three signatories on a letter to Congress opposing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. More locally, he has established a Courage chapter in Louisville while remaining distant from gay-friendly parishes. Kurtz did not support a local nondiscrimination bill inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity in 2012.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director, was on hand at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore where the election took place.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette captured his reaction to the bishops’ move not to choose a more LGBT-friendly leader:

” ‘[Pope] Francis is a game-changer,’ said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a national group advocating for gay and lesbian Catholics, one of several liberal advocates who spoke with reporters outside the bishops’ meeting area at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott. ‘The U.S. bishops seem to be playing by yesterday’s playbook.’ “

What signs of hope remain for Catholics who want a more inclusive Catholic community in the US? Whispers in the Loggia says of the two newly elected bishops:

“On the wider front, meanwhile, after two headstrong, high-profile presidencies in a row that exponentially amplified the body’s voice in the national public square, the duo now in place are decidedly more reserved and consensus-driven, and the impact of that shift on the conference’s level and tone of advocacy bears watching. Yet perhaps most intriguingly of all, both the new president and his deputy were parish priests upon and until their appointment as bishops… and it’s admittedly difficult to remember the last time that was the case.”

David Gibson writes at Religion News Service that the bishops did not choose a known culture warrior like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelpahia, but also sidelined bishops who more closely correspond with Pope Francis. He also reports that honest conversations on the USCCB’s direction in coming years will occur today and tomorrow:

“The real debates were expected to go on behind closed doors in sessions that will last through  Thursday. Church sources say the bishops are expected to have frank talks about contentious issues like their stance against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

“But they are also expected to discuss the larger direction of the hierarchy. The election of Pope Francis and his oft-repeated desire to push the bishops in a new, more pastoral direction have unsettled the bishops, who in recent years were already divided and often unable to agree on major statements or initiatives.

“Many of the bishops meeting here said the conference was in something of a holding pattern, waiting to see who Francis will name to leading U.S. dioceses and whether he can recast the U.S. hierarchy in his mold and perhaps leave it more unified.”

The election of the new president provided an insight into some of the lesser-known demographics of the bishops’ conference. Michael Sean Winters points out at the National Catholic Reporter:

“Three years ago, Chaput also ran for the presidency and vice presidency of the conference. And he lost then too, with almost the same number of votes. Turns out there is a significant number of bishops who like the culture warrior approach. And if the nuncio wants to know just how many bishops in the US do not really much like Pope Francis, he now knows precisely: 87.”

It is helpful to recall the papal conclave last spring, when many LGBT advocates and progressive Catholics expected another pope in the model of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Even after Pope Francis’ election was announced, ambiguity abounded on where he would lead the Church. Studying his actions in Argentina left many concerned with reforming the hierarchy’s positions sexuality discouraged.

However, the Spirit is alive and well with Pope Francis who has preached open doors, demanded non-judgement, and encouraged new ways of thinking about marriage and family issues. Will Archbishop Kurtz truly seek to “warm hearts and heal wounds,” as he offered in a press conference following his election today, or will it be more of the same?

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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3 Responses to Archbishop Kurtz’s Election as New USCCB President Signals Ambiguous Direction for Conference

  1. I realize that waxing philosophic can be viewed as non-action in the face of injustice, but allow me a moment of waxing please… I heard a little maxim the other day that has implanted itself (pun alert) on my heart. It said something to the effect of “one generation sows the seeds of trees, but the shade of those trees will not be enjoyed until the next generation.” I am paraphrasing, but that is the import.

    Heavy on the sayings this morning, I will add that my mom used to always say that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I suspect that it won’t be rebuilt in a day either, but renovations doe seem to be underway. It may take the conference a bit longer to catch up, for good or ill.

  2. […] Holy Hours for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty that were re-affirmed just last week at the bishops’ conference meeting in Baltimore.  Villareal observes that the moral and biological differences between abortion and same-sex […]

  3. […] was a question asked last November, and now again this spring by those like Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese: will America’s bishops […]

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