BALTIMORE – New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was elected president Tuesday of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a surprise win that underscored the bishops' shift toward a more aggressive defense of orthodoxy.
Dolan defeated Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who was known for his conciliatory style and served for three years as vice president. It is the first time since the 1960s that a sitting vice president was on the ballot for conference president and lost. For the next vice president, the bishops chose the prelate who led their campaign for traditional marriage, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky.
"This is an indication that bishops are going to continue to be leaders in the culture wars," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of a book on the American bishops and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
The vote came at the bishops' fall meeting. Chicago Cardinal Francis George finishes his three-year term as president this week.
Dolan, a favorite of theological conservatives, won the election 128-111 in a runoff with Kicanas in the third round of balloting. Kurtz also was elected in a third-ballot runoff, winning 147-91 over Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput.
A faithful servant of Rome who can disarm his critics with self-deprecating wit, Dolan was installed just last year as archbishop of New York, one of the most influential posts in the American church. Earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Dolan to investigate seminaries in the Irish church, which is reeling from revelations of physical and sex abuse by priests. Now, as president of the U.S. conference, Dolan will become the voice of the bishops on national issues from health care to abortion to gay marriage.
In a news conference after the vote, Dolan committed to continuing George's approach, echoing the outgoing president's assertion that bishops are the authorities on interpreting the faith for Catholics.
"We're teachers," he said, "and not just one set of teachers in the Catholic community, but the teachers."
Kicanas, a native of Chicago where he was ordained a priest and became an auxiliary bishop, was closer in style to the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who built a reputation as a consensus builder with an emphasis on social justice and was beloved by liberals.
In Arizona, Kicanas urged Catholics to vote against gay marriage and protested abortion rights, while becoming a leading advocate for humane policies toward immigrants. His diocese borders Mexico and is one-quarter Latino.
On controversies that have polarized Catholics in recent years, Kicanas took a more moderate approach than some of his fellow bishops. He hasn't denied Communion to any Catholic politicians and rejected calls to punish the president of the University of Notre Dame for honoring President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights. Kicanas favored dialogue instead.
Dolan also does not outright deny the sacrament to dissenting Catholic lawmakers, but he is seen as a more outspoken upholder of church teaching. Last year, he signed "The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience," an influential statement that united evangelicals and Catholic leaders in fighting abortion and gay marriage and pledging to protect religious freedoms.
Dolan said he was surprised by the vote but noted it was not a "landslide" victory.
"I don't know if it would be accurate to read something deeper or more serious," into the election, he said.
Kicanas was pilloried in the days leading up to the vote by conservative Catholic bloggers, who urged readers to send protest faxes and leave messages for bishops at the Baltimore hotel where they are meeting. Kicanas defended his record, saying he was a strong advocate for Catholic teaching. After his defeat, he issued a short statement saying he respected the choice of his fellow bishops and praised Dolan for his "exceptional leadership qualities."
Several bishops said the outside lobbying had no impact on the vote. They noted that Dolan and Kicanas had competed for the vice president position at the last election three years ago and that Kicanas won by two votes.
The vote comes after changes in the U.S. hierarchy that began years ago with appointments to dioceses by Pope John Paul II. The U.S. church has seen a wave of retirements that has swept out leading liberals. The clergy taking their place are generally more traditional and willing to take a harder line against disobedient Catholics. The conference, once known for its sweeping statements on nuclear war and poverty, is now focused on abortion and marriage.
Robert George, a Princeton University scholar and an influential conservative Catholic voice, said the vote Tuesday showed that only a minority of bishops were likely worried that the church had been too vocal about its views in the public square. The bishops lobbied hard against Obama's health care plan and how it handled taxpayer funding for abortion, and faced a backlash by critics for their activism.
George co-authored "The Manhattan Declaration" and noted that Dolan's work with people of other faiths will help build coalitions on social issues such as marriage.
"It means the bishops have decided to opt for a confident Catholicism," George said. "They had a choice, and they chose the boldest, most outspoken bishop. You wouldn't choose him as your leader unless you thought what he was doing in the capital of the world (New York) is what we want the church to represent."
Associated Press Writer Eric Gorski in Denver contributed to this report.