While most Catholic eyes are directed toward Rome where new cardinals will be created on November 20, an important leadership transition is taking place in the United States where a new president will be chosen for the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. While people in red hats tend to get noticed, the president of the bishops' conference is the closest thing the American church has to a real national leader.
At the end of their meeting in Baltimore on November 18, the USCCB presidency will transfer from Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, one of the largest archdioceses in the U.S., to Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, one of the smaller dioceses.
Bishop Kicanas, currently vice president, will need to be elected as president during the meeting, but the bishops traditionally promote their vice president to president at the end of his three-year term. The only time their failed to do this was when the vice president (Cardinal John Carberry of St. Louis) was too old and would have had to retire while president. Not to elect Kicanas would be an ecclesial earthquake of monumental proportions. As a result, all eyes will be on the election of the new vice president, who everyone knows will become the president in three years. Will he be a moderate or a culture warrior?
Electing as president a man who is not even an archbishop and is from such a small diocese shows that the Catholic bishops are not as deferential to hierarchy or even to Rome as one would think. After all, Rome appoints its favorites to large and important archdioceses. For the bishops to reach this deep into the bench shows that they do not judge each other with the same criteria as Rome does.
What kind of president will Kicanas be?
Kicanas will not try to impose his agenda on the bishops; rather he will support the priorities of the bishops themselves. He will spend lots of time listening and trying to build consensus. His style will be similar to that of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was his mentor. This is why the bishops elected him.
On substance, Kicanas will not stray from the middle of the bishops' conference. He is opposed to abortion, but he does not support banning pro-choice politicians from Communion. During the controversy over President Obama's visit to Notre Dame University, he called for the bishops and university presidents "to sit down and talk this through to come to some better understanding."
And while he supported an Arizona ballot initiative banning gay marriage, he instituted a conversation in his diocese on how to minister to gays when he was criticized by gay rights supporters. Although he would not step back from church teaching on homosexuality, he did affirm that "we must challenge any attitudes, language or actions in the church and in society that demean people of same-sex orientation."
Like Bernardin, Kicanas is committed to the full range of Catholic social teaching on justice and peace. On economic issues, like the pope, he would be to the left of the Obama administration. Unlike the Tea Party, he has no problem with a robust role for the government in supporting the common good. He supports comprehensive immigration reform and strongly condemned the Arizona law instructing police to go after undocumented immigrants. He has visited the Holy Land seven times and spoken in support of Christians there as well as for an end to violence.
Bishop Kicanas will not just listen to the bishops; he also takes seriously input from the laity. He has been involved with the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, an organization of business executives founded in response to the sex abuse crisis to help the church with their expertise. He also believes that the church has a lot to learn from the social sciences and has supported research on the life of the church by CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate).
Kicanas should also prove to be a good communicator. He is less abstract and rambling in his speeches than Cardinal George. He understands the church has a communication challenge to "keep the interest of people who have so many places to turn." He is a blogger and suggested that the pope try it. He does not appear to be afraid of the press like most bishops. He said that one of the lessons he learned from leading his diocese through bankruptcy in 2004-2005 was the need for transparency and openness. Although not everyone was happy with the process, he was pleased that most, including victims, felt they were treated fairly and respectfully.
Kicanas will face many challenges as president of the bishops' conference: a political atmosphere that appears willing to sacrifice the poor to deficit reduction; a controversial translation of the Mass that may go down poorly with the people in the pews; an exodus of young people out of the church and declining church attendance; a graying and smaller presbyterate. And then there will be the surprises that will test his mettle.