Several months into the era of a new pope with a flair for disarmingly dramatic pastoral gestures, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops begin meeting in Baltimore today to elect their own new leadership, with several candidates for top positions hailing from Pittsburgh and other parts of Pennsylvania.
This will be the first major gathering of the bishops since many of the headline-making actions of Pope Francis, such as his denunciations of clerical privilege; his literal embrace of the poor; and his interviews with media outlets, both secular and religious, in which he has called for a poorer, more pastoral and less combative church.
Francis, while calling himself a "son of the church" upholding its traditional teachings on sexuality, has said in interviews the church should not be "obsessed" with such battles and that he would not judge someone who is gay but also seeking God and acting in good will.
And yet the American bishops continue to find themselves in what they consider major struggles over religious freedom as they fight an increasingly rear-guard battle against provisions of the Affordable Care Act as well as same-sex marriage -- which Illinois lawmakers voted to legalize, making it the 15th state to do so along with the District of Columbia.
In fact, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik will interrupt his participation in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops general assembly to return to Pittsburgh for a deposition scheduled Tuesday in the diocese's lawsuit seeking to block the Affordable Care Act's requirement that faith-based social services provide health insurance to employees that would give them access to contraceptives. The lawsuit argues that the law coerces faith-based employers into violating their own religion by providing such access.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan -- who in 2010 was elected president of the conference without first serving as vice president in defiance of long-standing custom -- is wrapping up his three-year term.
If bishops revert to form as expected and elect their current vice president as successor, their new leader will be Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky.
Archbishop Kurtz was formerly a longtime priest and monsignor in the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., and was an active board member in the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which advocated for church positions on public policy matters statewide. He formerly served as the bishops' point man in speaking against same-sex marriage, but he also has adopted Francis' stated goal of approaching gays and others estranged from the church by seeking to "see the person first" even when disagreeing on policy.
Archbishop Kurtz, however, is among 10 nominees for either president or vice president.
Among the others who could out-poll him -- or get elected vice president as the presumptive next president in 2016 -- is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston in Texas, who grew up in Castle Shannon and was a pastor in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Other Pittsburgh natives in line for major positions are:
* Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, Alaska, the former rector of St. Paul Seminary in East Carnegie, who is a nominee to chair the bishops' Committee on Child and Youth Protection.
* Newly appointed Newark, N.J., Coadjutor Archbishop Bernard Hebda -- who formerly worked in pastoral ministry in the South Side and as a Slippery Rock University chaplain -- nominated to chair the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance.
The bishops are scheduled to meet in open sessions Monday and Tuesday and closed sessions Wednesday and Thursday.
Peter Smith: email@example.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.