BALTIMORE * The U.S. bishops broke long-standing precedent during their fall meeting here when they rejected a sitting vice president and instead elected New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan to head their organization for the next three years.
The vote was the first time in the modern history of the conference that an eligible sitting vice president, in this case Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., had not been elected president.
The surprise election created a flurry of interest in what otherwise would have been a routine meeting devoted largely to internal matters.
Though the public agenda of the Nov. 15-18 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was short, the bishops discussed persecution of Christians in Iraq, the ongoing post-earthquake crisis in Haiti, health care reform and same-sex marriage issues in the United States, church use of the new social media, the renewal of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and other concerns.
With their dioceses still facing the effects of the battered economy, they froze the 2012 assessment on dioceses for bishops' conference operations at the current level, after rejecting successive proposals to raise it 3 percent or 2 percent.
They approved a "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism" between the U.S. Catholic church and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ.
They gave a warm sendoff to Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, the only bishops' conference member about to be made a cardinal. Wuerl attended the opening session of the Baltimore meeting then left to travel to Rome for a hectic week of ceremonies surrounding his elevation to the rank of cardinal.
Dolan, whose three-year term of office as conference president began at the close of the meeting, is arguably one of the best communicators among the bishops, at ease with the media and able to address even the most difficult issues in a positive, upbeat way. (See accompanying story.)
Kicanas, conference vice president for the past three years, had generally been considered the more likely successor to the presidency by outside observers, and he led among the 10 nominees for president in the first ballot with 104 votes, 20 ahead of Dolan's 84. But the election requires a bishop to get a majority of all bishops voting, not a plurality, and scattered votes for the other eight nominees on the ballot left him short of that majority.
On the second ballot Dolan--who three years ago lost the vice presidency to Kicanas on a runoff by a vote of 128-106--picked up momentum as most of the bishops who had voted for other candidates shifted to him. In Round 2 Dolan got 118 votes and Kicanas 111, with scattered votes still going to some of the other nominees.
On the third ballot--by bishops' conference rules a runoff between the top two candidates--several more bishops shifted to Dolan and he won, 123-111.
It was unclear to what extent, if any, the bishops' voting may have been affected by a conservative blogging campaign, just days before the meeting, accusing Kicanas, in his years as a seminary rector in Chicago, of having knowingly approved a child molester for ordination. Kicanas countered the blog reports at length, denying that he knew about any child abuse accusations against the seminarian.
More important, perhaps, was the fact that each year about a dozen bishops retire--losing their right to vote in elections or other conference business--and a dozen or so new ones are appointed. Kicanas, an auxiliary bishop under the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, is generally considered part of the once-dominant but now dwindling Bernardin wing of conference membership. …