Kurtz the choice for pragmatic prelates

The US bishops have made shrewd choices in their new leadership, writes Paul Keenan

A new chapter for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops began on November 12 when the 236 delegates at the prelates’ autumn meeting welcomed Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky as the preferred choice to replace Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as conference president.

In a landslide victory for the 67-year-old – he gained 125 of the total votes – Bishop Kurtz secured leadership of the conference for the next three years, with his nearest ‘rival’ for the top slot, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, gaining the vice presidency.


On a purely surface reading, the duo appears to be the best choice during the pontificate of an ‘orthodox yet understanding’ Pope Francis (it was pointed out across most reports last week that coming a poor third to Cardinal DiNardo – by 87 to 147 votes – was Philadelphia’s Francis Chaput, widely viewed as representative of a more right-leaning grouping in Church circles).

America and its faithful, of course, face far more challenges in the modern era than simply seeking to please the Bishop of Rome, and Archbishop Kurtz was quick to set out his stall in his first address as president-elect, making positive soundings on such topics as marriage, religious freedom and the protection of human life.

Abortion services

These three issues are what can only be described as ‘live’ in the United States today. The battle against the Obama administration’s drive to force paid provision of abortion services for employees, regardless of the employer’s religious ethos, via the contentious Health and Human Services mandate goes on, adding to the ongoing struggle against abortion, and the suddenly growing reality of same-sex marriage across the Union.

It is in these areas that the US bishops’ pragmatic reasoning in choosing their top men is perhaps best illustrated.

Take, for example, the same-sex marriage phenomenon. Coinciding with Archbishop Kurtz’s election was news that the island state Hawaii had passed votes in favour of gay unions, making it the 16th state to do so. How timely, therefore, that the American bishops have chosen a man who brings to his new role experience in the debate from his previous leadership of the US bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defence of Marriage and Family Life.

Gay marriage

Commenting on that earlier post, John L. Allen of America’s National Catholic Reporter pointed out: “In his role as head of the family life committee, Kurtz was often called upon to comment on debates over gay marriage, always staunchly defending Church teaching. In 2010, for instance, he said that legalising gay marriage would represent the same “stain” on America’s conscience as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision of the US Supreme Court legalising abortion.”


That latter subject, and the 40-year battle to roll back the ‘tide of terminations’ brings Cardinal DiNardo’s antecedents into the mix. The prelate comes to his new post as a former chairman of the US bishops’ pro-life committee, a post he left in 2012 after three years at the helm. In his own inaugural comments, the cardinal stressed that the Church’s position on life, at the beginning and the end remains “non-negotiable”.

On the same subject, one item perhaps of note to Irish readers in light of the recent debate around Communion for pro-abortion politicians, relates to Archbishop Kurtz’s own stance against some of his fellow prelates during a similar debate stateside when he refused to back a course of denial of the sacrament in favour of a belief that “the proper moment to deal with that is in personal conversation, giving that particular politician the opportunity to help shape his or her conscience”.

Strength and sympathy in a fine balance. Would the Bishop of Rome approve?