Catholic Bishops Signal New Militancy On ‘Culture War’ Issues

America’s Roman Catholic bishops have elected a staunch conservative as their new president, a sign that the leadership of the country’s largest denomination may be preparing to ramp up “culture war” issues.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan defeated Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson to become president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in November. The vote, 128-111, was something of a surprise. Kicanas had been serving as vice president of the USCCB, a position that traditionally leads to the presidency of the body.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., was elected vice president. Kurtz has spearheaded the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and is also viewed as a staunch conservative.

“This is a signal that the Catholic bishops are going to be leaders in the culture wars,” the Rev. Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, told Religion News Service (RNS).

Russell Shaw, a Catholic writer long associated with the conservative camp, added, “This is a sign that the bishops want to shake off the era of moderate liberalism, which didn’t seem to confront any issue with passion or conviction. Dolan is a real leader, a man of conviction.”

Prior to the vote, right-wing Catholic bloggers mounted a campaign against Kicanas, describing him as weak on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. While Kicanas was publicly conciliatory about his defeat, a source close to him described the bishop as “disappointed.”

The New York Archdiocese is known for having conservative leadership. From 1985-2000, it was led by the arch-conservative Cardinal John J. O’Connor. RNS reported that Dolan “has become more of a culture warrior since moving to New York.”

Added RNS, “His election reflects the bishops’ desire for an assertive president, especially at a time when their leadership has been challenged from within by nuns, Catholic health care workers and progressive political groups, according to church experts.”

Dolan was appointed to the spot in February of 2009. Since then, he has become known for sparring with The New York Times over its reporting on the sex scandals within the church. On his blog, Dolan has accused The Times of ridiculing Catholics. He has also lauded the writings on William Donohue of the far-right Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.