BALTIMORE (CNS) — The 2010 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was devoted primarily to internal matters — the election of new conference leaders, discussion of how their own statements should be produced, budgetary and structural questions and information about how they can better integrate new media into diocesan structures.
They also affirmed an historic agreement to recognize baptisms in four Protestant church communities.
Public sessions made up the first two days of the Nov. 15-18 assembly, with the bishops spending the remainder of the meeting in executive session.
The last public action the bishops took was a nearly unanimous vote Nov. 16 to approve the preparation of a brief policy statement on assisted suicide, which they will debate and vote on at their spring assembly in June.
Before the afternoon vote Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, outlined the “increasingly urgent threat” posed by the wider use of assisted suicide in the United States.
The one surprise of the meeting came Nov. 16 when the bishops voted for new leaders of their conference. Breaking with precedent, the sitting vice president, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., was not elected to succeed Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, who was completing his three-year term as president.
Bishop Kicanas lost to New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan 128-111 in third-ballot voting.
It marked the first time since the bishops’ conference was reorganized in 1966 following the Second Vatican Council that a sitting vice president who sought the presidency did not win election. In two elections, in 1974 and 1977, circumstances dictated that the vice president did not rise to lead the conference.
“I’m surprised, I’m honored, I’m flattered and a tad intimidated,” Archbishop Dolan told Catholic News Service shortly after being elected.
In a statement, Bishop Kicanas said he respected the wisdom of his “brother bishops in choosing their new president and vice president. I greatly appreciated their expressions of thanks to me for my service as vice president.” He said that being vice president was “a marvelous experience” and he now looked forward to focusing on the needs of his own diocese.
During the executive session Nov. 17, Cardinal George named Bishop Kicanas chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency. Archbishop Dolan held the post but had to vacate it upon his election as president.
In other voting Nov. 16, the bishops also chose treasurer Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., as vice president and Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., as treasurer. They also selected chairmen-elect for six committees. Archbishop Kurtz and Bishop Bransfield took office at the conclusion of the meeting, while the chairmen-elect were to be in charge their committees beginning in November 2011.
The election of officers and chairmen-elect took place by electronic voting, with the results of available almost instantaneously. But the bishops used a secret ballot to pick the next general secretary of the USCCB. They chose Msgr. Ronny E. Jenkins, a USCCB associate general secretary since 2006.
A priest of the Diocese of Austin, Texas, Msgr. Jenkins will succeed Msgr. David Malloy at the close of the bishops’ spring assembly in June.
The other candidate for general secretary was Msgr. David Kagan, vicar general of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill.
In other action Nov. 16, the bishops, by a 204-11 vote, affirmed the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism.” It was drawn up over the past six years by a team of scholars from the Catholic-Reformed dialogue group, made up of representatives of the USCCB, Christian Reformed Church in North America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, called the bishops’ vote “a milestone on the ecumenical journey.”
The bishops approved a $180 million balanced budget for the USCCB in 2011, but they refused to agree to an increase in the assessment on dioceses to fund the conference’s work in 2012.
The bishops also agreed, with little discussion, to an extension of the conference planning cycle for one year to provide time for evaluation of the 2007 conference reorganization and a revised policy on the issuance of USCCB statements and publications. The extension was approved 218-9 and the new guidelines on statements and publications by a vote of 219-3.
Five USCCB offices — Catholic Education, National Collections, Pro-Life Activities, Justice, Peace and Human Development, and Migration and Refugee Services — had requested exceptions to plans submitted earlier, and the Committee on Priorities and Plans had approved them.
The bishops approved changes for the first four offices a 214-15 vote and then in a separate vote, after some discussion, approved the changes for MRS.
Cardinal George opened the first day of the meeting with his farewell presidential address. In it he criticized those who define the church’s usefulness by whether it provides “foot soldiers for a political commitment, whether of the left or the right.”
He devoted much of his talk to reviewing the debate over health care reform earlier this year and the “wound to the church’s unity” caused by differences over the final legislation.
In discussing health reform in his address, Cardinal George said “developments since the passage of the legislation” have confirmed that “our analysis of what the law itself says was correct and our moral judgments are secure.” He did not specify what those developments were.
The USCCB opposed passage of the final health reform legislation, saying it would permit federal funding of abortion, inadequately protect the conscience rights of health care providers and leave out immigrants. Other Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association and many orders of women religious, said the final bill and an executive order signed by President Barack Obama would exclude any possibility of federal money going to pay for abortions under the health plan.
Cardinal George said the debate also raised the question of “who speaks for the Catholic Church.”
“The bishops … speak for the church in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them. All the rest is opinion, ” he said.
The cardinal addressed several other issues in his outgoing speech, among them concern for Christians in the Middle East. He said Christians were “uniquely … without protection in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq.”
“As bishops, as Americans, we cannot turn from this scene or allow the world to overlook it,” Cardinal George said. The bishops also affirmed a Nov. 9 letter he sent to President Barack Obama, urging the U.S. government to “redouble its efforts to assist Iraqis” in providing safety for its citizens, especially religious minorities.
The bishops heard reports on the record donations by U.S. Catholics for reconstruction in Haiti; preparations for World Youth Day in Spain in August 2011; the need for the bishops to embrace social media to effectively evangelize the “digital continent”; and the work of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage to promote traditional marriage in the face of legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. The committee also was upgraded to be a subcommittee of the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
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Contributing to this roundup were Nancy O’Brien, Patricia Zapor, Mark Pattison, Carol Zimmermann and Julie Asher.
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