Open thread: What’s up with bishops coverage?

OK, this is going to be a story that is buried in online debate about the labeling of the different candidates, including the winner, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York.

How do I know that? By reading the early coverage in the New York Times, of course. There’s even a one-word reference to the recent collision between the Times and the outspoken doctrinal conservative who leaders the Archdiocese of Denver. See if you can spot it. For a refresher course on that event during the Religion Newswriters Association meetings, click here for Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s much-discussed report.

Meanwhile, here’s the key passages in the first version of the Times story, which will surely have to grow since we are talking about the leader of Archdiocese of New York. Please help me watch to see if this hyperlink stays the same or if the editors simply retain this link for the updated reports.

In one key passage, the Times tells us:

The bishops passed over their vice president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, a prelate who represents the more liberal “social justice” tradition of the American church and is known for advocating dialogue between Catholic liberals and traditionalists. Archbishop Dolan is a moderate conservative who is willing to put his affable and outgoing demeanor in service of a more assertively confrontational approach to the church’s critics.

Notice, of course, that this is “social justice” vs. “traditionalists” or, in the case of the local archbishop who must be dealt with on a day-to-day basis, “moderate” conservatives. Will the Times present evidence that the key disagreements were over matters of poverty, immigration, serving the poor, etc.? At some point, someone will need to talk to some of the leaders of groups that speak on behalf of the victims of clergy sexual abuse, since this was another factor in the unprecedented efforts to defeat Kicanas, the current vice president of the bishops conference.

After dealing with the main election, the Times turns its attention to the race that is normally the most important — the selection of the new vice president, who is also, under normal circumstances, the next president.

The bishops also signaled that their conference will move in a decidedly conservative direction in their choice of a vice president to replace Bishop Kicanas. They elected Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who is chairman of the bishops committee on marriage and an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage. The runner-up was Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, also a strong theological and political conservative.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said: “The two vice-presidential finalists were the two most conservative on the ballot. That says something about where this conference is going.”

Yes, note the word “political.” The Times is not surrendering on that.

Chaput isn’t just a doctrinal conservative, he is a “political” conservative. Why? Because he has been one of those who has suggested that bishops must consider the option of withholding Communion from Catholics who consistently and publicly oppose the teachings of the church (even if they are political leaders). And so forth and so on. This issue has been debated at length in the press and in the comments pages of this weblog.

Oh, and raise your cyber hand if you are surprised that Father Reese makes an appearance in this early report. I wonder if he actually held a press conference on site in Baltimore. Where, one might ask, are the voices of the articulate advocates on the other side of the issues at the heart of this race? I am sure they will be featured in the follow-up reports.

Please use this as a thread on which to offer links to coverage in the mainstream press and even the Catholic blogosphere about this event. Again — focus on the news coverage. Please.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    “The Rev. Thomas J. Reese”

    Oh, there’s a surprise! Fancy going to him for a quote!

    Seriously, there should be a drinking game for every time we read Fr. Reese quoted in this kind of article :-)

  • Martha

    Well, as to coverage in the blogosphere, Rocco Palmo was all over it, and indeed, continues to be, with live coverage and everything:

  • jh

    First Things s has a good round up of links they are working on

  • Rod Dreher

    What a tiresome lede, but all too predictable. I had no idea that Kicanas was considered a liberal until I read on dotCommonweal that he was a Bernardin protege. Dolan is a conservative of sorts, but it’s my impression that he is more of a hail-fellow-well-met backslapper, not an ideological crusader. Perhaps church politics were involved in this, but it seems to me this was much more about the bishops not wanting to have to see headlines about what their new president did or didn’t do to discipline a seminarian who turned out to be a clerical child molester. I don’t believe Dolan comes with that baggage, though I could be wrong. I haven’t followed the Catholic bishops for years. I wish the Times reporter hadn’t assumed that this was a typical left-vs-right result, but instead explored that as one possible option. The abuse scandal legacy appears to be by far the more plausible explanation for this result, though I do think Grant Gallicho at dotCommonweal, who defended Kicanas’s candidacy, scored a solid against Catholic conservative bloggers when he asked why they didn’t complain when Cardinal George, a well-known conservative who hasn’t distinguished himself in the scandal, was elected USCCB president three years ago.

    Anyway, I found when I was writing about the abuse scandal from 2002-2006 that both the Catholic left and the Catholic right tended to go out of their way to defend the behavior of bishops each believed to be on “their” side.

  • Joel

    The WaPo had a line that kind of revealed their perspective:

    Victims’ advocates spoke out against Kicanas, but the more significant opposition came from conservatives, who considered him too moderate in tone.

    Too moderate/i>. Not too non-traditional, not too liberal, but too moderate. Because everyone knows that conservatives (doctrinal or political) can’t abide so much as a whiff of moderation.

  • Joel

    Woops! Sorry about the open tag.

  • Dan Crawford

    Is your argument that the newspapers incorrectly labeled Chaput and some of his colleagues “political conservatives”? That the media have incorrectly interpreted their statements and their public denunciations of politicians? In point of fact, those prelates described as “political conservatives” have done all they could – save explicitly demanding their flock to vote for Republicans – to ensure their election. …

  • tmatt


    Please focus your remarks on media coverage — including actual materials that might support your case, with URLs.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides
  • tmatt
  • Joel


    Terry’s point in bringing up “conservative” and “liberal” is that the bishops’ job cannot really be pigeonholed in political terms. Certainly some of them are politically vocal,, which is what gets the news coverage, but that’s really a very small slice of their actual work. They’re primarily pastors, not politicians.

  • tmatt

    This will be a shock to everyone:

  • Ben

    Re: Reese, it’s been said before here but a good part of his ubiquity is he picks up the phone and gives quotable analysis. If it’s an early report the odds are higher he will be there for that simple reason alone. Also, to an extent, he represents a faction of the Church that’s out of power, to use overly crude political language, so he is a balancer of sorts to the official Church decisionmaking and statements. As reporting continues, he obviously shouldn’t be the only voice.

  • Passing By

    This whole story seems a bit breathless and overblown. The bishop’s conference is not a legislative body, nor of any real ecclesiological significance. From the pope’s address to Brazilian bishops in September:

    Benedict XVI then highlighted that “closer co-operation with their brothers in the ministry helps bishops to accomplish their mandate more effectively, without abdicating their primary responsibility to feed – as the fitting, ordinary, immediate pastors of the flock of their particular Church.” He then spoke of the danger of the Episcopal Conference becoming “a parallel reality or substituting the ministry of each individual bishop; in other words, it must not change his relationship with his particular Church and with the college of bishops, nor become the intermediary between the bishop and the See of Peter.”

    It’s tempting agree with the media and see the USCCB as, primarily a political action committee set up to lobby for particular policies. Arguably, it’s sometimes acted like one (from which – possibly – derives some of the criticism of the CCHD ).

    In fact, it should be an venue in which the bishops can assist one another to teach the Catholic Faith in the American context. And that’s all.

    That Rainbow Sash link in #9 was odd: they kept referring to Bishop Kicanas as “Bishop Kansas”.

  • Lynn

    A reporter for the liberal magazine National Catholic Reporter blogged about “the ideological significance” of the elections. He says the issue was discussed by just about everyone, although I don’t know if that includes bishops or simply reporters and persons in-between.

    The article claims this was the consensus view: Archbishop Dolan was picked because he has a winning personality, and will make everyone feel listened to. The loss of Archbishop Chaput for the VP position indicated that the USCCB was not shifting toward a more conservative position.

  • Randy

    Discerning the “ideological significance” is very different from asserting an ideological cause. Sure Bp Dolan as president will make the USCCB more outspoken on abortion, gay marriage, etc. But was that the reason for the vote? For some bishops it was. For some the abuse cloud was big. Part of this is searching for a simple story when the reality is quite complex.

  • Chip

    This will be a shock to everyone:

    What is shocking is that Fr. Reese digs up a fact that everyone else missed:

    They expected Kicanas to be elected president this year, even though he had only defeated Archbishop Timothy Dolan, then of Milwaukee, by one vote.

  • Jeffrey

    It seems the Catholic World Report puts the decision in an interesting context: the death of the seamless garment approach.

    The more moderate Dolan is there to be a bridge between seamless garment liberals and pro-life only conservatives. As the Bishops have abandoned social justice and largely act as if abortion is the only issue that matters (take a look at their dismal performance during the health care debates), Dolan may be another nail in the coffin.

  • Donna

    >Bishops have abandoned social justice and largely act as >if abortion is the only issue that matters….

    IMHO, abortion is an issue of social justice, it being an inherent injustice for certain human beings in our society to be deemed non-persons because they are currently within the wombs of their mothers. As for putting other issues on the same plane, I keep thinking of the Flannery O’ Connor title, “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead”. You can’t demand health coverage when you’ve already been ripped limb from limb.

  • Rod Dreher

    It probably shows my own ignorance, but I don’t really understand what the practical significance of this election result is. Does the USCCB and its policies really matter in the daily life of dioceses and parishes? I’m asking honestly. From a newsmaking point of view, it could well be that this result is merely symbolic, and will not much affect the future of the US Catholic Church. If so, I would find it helpful if reports would point that out. And if it’s not true, then I would like to know what impact the Dolan election is likely to have on the actual running of the Church in America.

  • mattk

    I wish a reporter would describe exactly what the Conference of bishops is. Is it a synod? Is the president like a metropolitan?

  • Maureen

    Of course, the main influence of the USCCB is the staff, who all work in DC and aren’t elected or appointed, but hired. The leadership changes, but the staffers don’t. Who are they? Who knows?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Ben–does Reese pick up the phone or is he one of a long list of media favorites who get called????
    About 15 years ago I talked with a NY times reporter who was their religion reporter of the day. He was new and actually called me back after I had decided to call him at the Times to see what would happen (Would he return a call??). I asked him why his stories only had quotes from sources unfriendly to the pope and Catholic Tradition and teachings. He said he relied on the “rolodex” (Do they still have such things?) provided him by the Times as sources to go to for quotes. The list he had was apparently all leftward to radical. Not one had a public reputation as being orthodox or traditional or pro-papal. I gave him a few names to help balance his twisted list and–to his credit–based on later stories he wrote– I presume he called some I suggested for they were quoted and his stories on things Catholic began to have some genuine balance. But that seemed to end when he moved on. He writes books now.

  • Julia

    Here’s some things nobody is considering.

    In 1987, Archbishop Dolan was appointed to a five-year term as secretary to the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C.

    Dolan probably had a hand in making up the three-name lists of recommendations for bishops around the US. Some bishops named during that time might remember that, especially since Dolan probably was present for many of their ordinations as the Nuncio’s secretary.

    His later work, before becoming a bishop himself, was mainly in training priests – in his native St Louis and then in 1994 as the rector of the North American College in Rome (where US candidates for the priesthood live while attending various theological institutes).

    Because of that position at the NA College, most Catholic bishops traveling to Rome for whatever reason probably met him there. Either to check in on men from their own diocese or because it has such a great location cheek to jowl by the Vatican. Because of his personality, Dolan was probably gracious and helpful to the entire gamut – liberal, progressive, moderate, traditional, whatever.

    From his Rome position he was named in 2001 Auxiliary Bishop in St Louis. And in 2002 to lead the distraught Milwaukee archdiocese whose head had resigned in disgrace over paying off a gay lover with church funds. He succeeded in turning that situation around without ruffling feathers, I gather. Then he was recently named in 2009 to the New York post.

    The dates seem significant. He had been in Rome from 1994 to June of 2001. The dam broke in Boston in early 2002 over Cardinal Law’s handling of sex abuse cases. In other words, Dolan could not have any shuffling-of-sex-abusers baggage. Neither of the seminaries where he had authority were publicized as tainted and suspect.

    So – looks to me like part of it may be that the bishops are hoping to turn a page with a man from a new generation who has no negative baggage, in addition to the other qualities that have been mentioned.

    Here’s a pretty good bio and timeline from his former Archdiocese of Milwaukee.