Though it may seem like small political potatoes, the U.S. Catholic bishops' elections for chairmen of their committees can indicate their outlook on sensitive topics. Sure, sometimes bishops get elected simply because they're better known than their opponents. But the nominating committee usually tries to offer a choice between bishops with different outlooks and styles.
The outcome of yesterday's elections suggest that the majority of bishops favor tact and diplomacy over confrontation and condemnation when they address difficult issues.
No committee has been more contentious over the past 15 years than the liturgy committee, now known as the Committee on Divine Worship. The ballot pitted Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, a champion of the more literal translations from the Latin that Rome has called for, against Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, known more for his skill in leading other difficult bishops' committees than for any stance on liturgical style.
Archbishop Aymond defeated Archbishop Vigneron 126-110, suggesting that the bishops may want someone to diplomatically convince Rome to continue tweaking a new English translation of the Mass that some bishops say is so faithful to the Latin that its English is awkward and ungrammatical. Archbishop Vigneron had been defeated for the same post in 2004, by Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, who was nominated from the floor that year.
Bishop Trautman is an outspoken critic of the new Mass translations. Yesterday he lost his last battle to prevent approval of the Mass translations, but was delighted with Archbishop Aymond's election.
"Bishop Aymond is very much a centrist and will be a very good leader," he said.
Another clear choice, with a more lopsided outcome, was between Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, who was just named to the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese where the University of Notre Dame is located.
Both are strong advocates of church teaching, but Archbishop Naumann is known for more confrontational tactics. When Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, was governor of Kansas, he publicly asked her not to take communion. In bishops' debates about issues related to abortion, he has favored very strong language.
Bishop Rhoades, a former rector of Mount St. Mary Seminary in, Maryland., is quiet on the floor of the bishops' conference. But he has earned respect from Catholics across the ideological spectrum for his gentle effectiveness at promoting the faith. He was critical of Notre Dame last May when it awarded an honorary degree to pro-choice President Obama. But when he was named bishop of Fighting Irish last week, he said it was time to put the controversy with the school behind and look toward the future.
Bishop Rhoades was elected, 145-93.
Theresa Farnan of Peters, a Catholic philosopher who was on the faculty at Mount St. Mary's during Bishop Rhoades tenure, and who he invited to teach about marriage and pro-life issues in the Diocese of Harrisburg, was thrilled that he will head the marriage and family committee.
"He's an absolutely wonderful scholar. And he is just so good, personally, at dealing with and understanding families in a very pastoral way," said Dr. Farnan, a mother of nine who now teaches part-time at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
At the seminary "he made a conscious effort to bring more families to the seminary as part of the faculty," she said. "When he was bishop in Harrisburg, he was having Masses for home-schooled families and making a point of going to different Catholic schools. He did a lot of outreach, and it was beautiful to see."