BALTIMORE (AP) — The nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday elected Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Kentucky to be their new president as they grapple with changing priorities under Pope Francis.
Kurtz, who leads the Archdiocese of Louisville, won just over half the votes in a field of 10 candidates during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He succeeds New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is ending his three-year term. The new vice president is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas.
The conference president is the main spokesman on national issues for the Catholic Church in the United States and acts as a representative of the American church to the Vatican and the pope.
Kurtz, 67, takes on the role at a time when the bishops are struggling with what direction they should take in the new pontificate.
Francis, elected last March, has said he wants pastors not ideologues, and an emphasis on mercy over divisive social issues. American bishops have made a priority of fighting same-sex marriage and abortion, saying they have been forced to do so in a society they consider hostile to faith. The bishops have vigorously fought the Obama administration over a requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers artificial contraceptives. Dozens of Catholic charities and dioceses, along with evangelical colleges and businesses, are suing for a broader religious exemption from the rule. The issue is expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a news conference after the election, Kurtz underscored the bishops' commitment "to serve the voiceless and vulnerable," including advocating for immigrants and the poor. But he also said they would continue to fight abortion and wage their religious freedom campaign. He noted many of the key legislative fights are happening on a state level, where bishops have Catholic conferences to work on public policy.
"The conference responds to the challenges that are presented to us," Kurtz said.
For the last three years, Kurtz has served as vice president of the bishops' conference. It is customary for the vice president to move on to the top job.
A Pennsylvania native, the archbishop earned a master's degree in divinity and another in social work, worked for more than two decades in the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., before becoming bishop of Knoxville, Tenn. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to lead Louisville in 2007. The Louisville archdiocese serves 200,000 Catholics.
DiNardo, whose archdiocese serves 1.3 million Catholics, was elevated to cardinal by Benedict in 2006. He has been especially active on immigration reform.
American bishops will continue to meet in Baltimore through Thursday, but only in private.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., said he anticipated a change in tone under Francis but no change in substance. He said the pope's call for compassion must be understood "in its entirety."
"Mercy presumes there's something to be forgiven. If same-sex marriage and abortion are not wrong then there's no need for mercy, no need for forgiveness," Paprocki said in an interview. "To the extent I've seen people using Pope Francis' words to justify being pro-abortion or to redefine marriage — I think they're very mistaken."
Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the only North American among eight advisers Francis appointed to help oversee the church, said the pope's emphasis on social justice and compassion is "obviously something the bishops' conference needs to be aware of."