U.S. Catholic bishops on Tuesday elected an archbishop from Kentucky and a Texas cardinal known for his support of immigrants to head their leadership conference in a nod toward Pope Francis' emphasis on social justice.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 67, of Louisville, Kentucky and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, 64, of the Galveston-Houston diocese, were elected to three-year terms as president and vice president, respectively of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Their election comes as Catholic bishops worldwide are being given new direction by Pope Francis, who has emphasized greater humility and more concern for the poor. The bishops oversee 69 million U.S. Catholics, or about one-quarter of the country's population.
"We think these are the leaders who will move the American Church in the direction Pope Francis desires," said Christopher Hale, senior fellow with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a progressive group that focuses on social justice issues.
Hale cited Kurtz's "long pastoral experience" and praised him as a "tireless leader on immigration reform. He knows firsthand the problems of a broken immigration system."
Kurtz's election was expected as he is finishing a three-year term as vice president. Known as a reliable conservative who is also well-liked, pragmatic and effective, he replaces New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, an outspoken and colorful conservative elected in 2010.
"It means consistency and with Kurtz a little more concern for the poor and with DiNardo a little more concern about immigration," said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter. Reese noted that Kurtz has a degree in social work.
Dolan's term has been marked by a strong emphasis by the conference on opposing gay marriage, abortion, and the Obama administration's mandate that required Catholic schools and hospitals to carry insurance that provides birth control, forbidden by church doctrine, for free.
He was elected in a surprise move in 2010 over then-vice-president Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, who was considered more moderate.
In an interview published in September, Pope Francis said the church cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and must become more merciful.
DiNardo was the only cardinal of the nine nominees for vice president. He beat Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the next runner-up and an outspoken conservative, by 147 votes to 87.
Kurtz had served as bishop in Knoxville, Tennessee, before moving to Kentucky. He had spent most of his career in Pennsylvania parishes.
DiNardo was previously bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, and has chaired the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities. He also worked in Rome with the Congregation for Bishops.
Barbara Dorris of the group SNAP, which represents victims of clergy sex abuse, expressed disappointment with Kurtz's election, saying he had not joined the ranks of 30 U.S. bishops who have posted on their web sites the names of "proven, admitted and credibly accused child molesting clerics." SNAP is short for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
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