Catholic bishops’ new president can help hierarchy pivot toward Pope Francis

November 20, 2013

BALTIMORE

After serving as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for the past three years, there was little surprise when Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., was elected this week to the top post in the American hierarchy. 

Yet the nearly 250 churchmen would have been hard-pressed to find a better president to help them pivot toward the new, more pastoral path set out in recent months by Pope Francis. 

Kurtz has earned his stripes with the hierarchy’s conservative wing thanks to his past work heading their campaign against gay marriage, but he was also molded by his early years as a pastor and his work in social justice — experiences he mentioned early and often when facing reporters after his election on Nov. 12. 

“The challenge for us in welcoming people and most especially serving people who are voiceless and vulnerable, spans right across the board from our work in immigration, our work in serving people who are poor” and in advocating for the “pre-born as well as the very elderly,” Kurtz said.

That wide-angle lens directly reflects Francis’ own approach, and it is one that Kurtz, 67, endorsed at every turn.

“One of the major challenges is what, really, our Holy Father has said over and over again: How can we warm hearts and heal wounds?” the archbishop said. 

While Kurtz is a polished public speaker who’s adept at deflecting thorny questions and also signaling a possible shift in the bishops’ agenda, those who have known him for years say such pastoral sentiments are genuine and not sound bites tailored for the moment.

“I do know he has very much been actively involved in a kind of ministry of presence, and going out to people on the margins,” the Rev. William Hammer, pastor of the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Ky., told The Associated Press

“I do think he brings a pastoral approach rather than simply an intellectual approach.” 

Friends say that orientation is rooted in Kurtz’s biography, forged in the hardscrabble mining town of Mahanoy City in eastern Pennsylvania. The grandson of Slovak immigrants, he was ordained as a priest in the Diocese of Allentown and served 12 years as a pastor at different parishes. He earned a master’s degree in social work, and led the diocese’s social services agency. 

“Being a pastor in a parish is perhaps the best kind of preparation for any kind of leadership in our church,” Kurtz said this week, calling that period the “most important” time of his life. 

Friends also note that Kurtz had a brother, Georgie, who was born with Down syndrome. Kurtz brought his brother to live in the parish rectory and then to the chancery when he was named bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., in 1999. 

“Georgie brought to the rectory an ease that became infectious,” then-Father Kurtz wrote in a moving 1990 column. “He became a co-worker.” Georgie Kurtz died in 2002, five years before his brother was named archbishop of Louisville.

“Decent” and “pastoral” and “genuine” were the adjectives that Tom Roberts, a longtime writer for National Catholic Reporter, used this week to describe Kurtz. He’s known Kurtz since his days in Allentown, and Roberts’ wife worked with Kurtz to open the diocese’s first soup kitchen. 

None of that means that Kurtz hasn’t had his critics, or that he will now stop speaking out on some of the hot-button culture war issues that he also believes in and that have dominated the hierarchy’s agenda in past years.

Kurtz is a staunch opponent of abortion and has led prayer protests at abortion clinics. Critics say he’s an outspoken opponent of gay rights, while abuse victims’ advocates say Kurtz was not active enough in reaching out to victims in Knoxville and Louisville. 

But he continues to win plaudits from those who say his personal style makes him easy to work with, and they say he is always eager to find common ground. Kurtz joked Tuesday about his middling Spanish — a work in progress — and he is one of the most active bishops on Twitter, with nearly 6,500 followers. 

Kurtz seemed intent on striking a new, less confrontational tone at his news conference, one perhaps more in keeping with the pope’s own wish that bishops would be more pastoral and less ideological. 

When asked about the bishops’ long-standing disputes with the Obama administration over mandating birth control coverage and expanding gay rights, Kurtz made a point of saying that “there is a great desire on the part of the bishops’ conference to have a good and healthy relationship with the White House and Congress.” 

“We always need to look for opportunities” to cooperate, he added. 

Kurtz also embraced the pope’s call for the need for dialogue and collaboration inside the church — skills that Kurtz will need as he tries to direct a U.S. hierarchy that has been fragmented for years. The bishops have been further unsettled by the sudden change in direction heralded by Francis, and observers say they need someone like Kurtz to help navigate the coming years of transition. 

For now, Catholic progressives — who have called the bishops’ priorities misplaced and partisan in recent years — seem ready to work with Kurtz. 

“He’s a man who is clearly capable of moving the bishops’ conference forward in the vision laid out by Pope Francis,” said Christopher Hale, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. 

“During this time of great excitement and fanfare for the universal Church, the bishops of the United States have a unique opportunity to renew the American church as a place of welcome for all God’s children and as a tireless protector of God’s gifts in the public sphere, particularly as a defender of the poor and the marginalized.”

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