Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz became the new president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday. While his election was no surprise — Kurtz became the organization's vice president in 2010 — it should clarify some confusion over the American Catholic Church's direction following Pope Francis's call to shift the church's emphasis towards social justice. Kurtz, the new head of an organization that more or less sets the agenda for the U.S. Catholic leadership, used to run its advocacy against same-sex marriage. Kurtz's three-year term will follow that of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Until 2010, Kurtz was the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage. Among other things, he spoke out strongly against an earlier iteration of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, a bill recently passed in the Senate that would protect gay and transgender Americans against workplace discrimination. The anti-abortion LifeSiteNews also notes that Kurtz was behind a 2012 blessing issued by the Vatican offering prayers for developing fetuses in the womb. Among those opposed to same-sex marriage, Kurtz received particular praise for his statement of praise following the New Jersey Senate's failure to pass a same-sex marriage bill:
Preserving marriage between one man and one woman is a matter of justice; indeed it is one of the premier social justice issues of our time. It does not deny but rather supports basic human rights—especially the rights of children,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “The recent New York Senate vote and the vote in New Jersey witness to this fact.”
In electing Kurtz, bishops passed over a handful of more progressive candidates, along with Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. If elected, Gomez would have been the first Latino in the organization's upper ranks. The bishops selected Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston as vice president. Both are generally safe choices, as Religion News Service's David Gibson notes, in that neither man seems likely to radically change the USCCB's agenda. DiNardo and Kurtz are moderately conservative, as opposed to hard-liners. And they both have a history of involvement with what has arguably been one of the organization's top priorities in recent years: advocacy for church's conservative position on hot button social issues like gay marriage, abortion, and contraception. Those issues are the same three Pope Francis encouraged Catholics to emphasize just a bit less in favor of a focus on an anti-poverty, Gospel-oriented agenda.
That doesn't mean it's fair to say that Kurtz is entirely out of line with Francis's hopes for the church. For one thing, the Pope never asked the church to change its doctrine — or to stop advocating — on the social issues he singled out. It's a change of balance, not belief. Then again, the pastoral statement emerging from this year's conference seems to suggest that the organization isn't jumping at the opportunity to demonstrate its enthusiasm for Francis's new direction.
In a statement released Tuesday, the USCCB announced that the conference had approved a pastoral statement on "the effects of pornography on marriages and families, while attending to all those harmed by pornography use and addiction." And those hoping to see the American church's message fall more in line with that of the Pope's recently saw more evidence of just how difficult that task will be. Earlier this month, Francis appointed the Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair as the new Archbishop of Hartford, Connecticut. Blair is largely seen as a "careerist" bishop recently notable for leading the church's investigation into the activism of American nuns.