ANALYSIS: Meet the 4 most influential U.S. Catholic bishops

By David Gibson

RELIGION NEWS SERVICE (RNS) — As the final vote tally made clear that Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., was elected the next head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, outgoing president Cardinal Timothy Dolan turned  in mock seriousness and asked: “By what name will you be called?”

It’s the line typically asked of newly elected popes, and Dolan’s quip last Tuesday (Nov. 12) prompted laughs from the nearly 250 bishops, who all knew that Kurtz is not exactly the American version of a Roman pontiff.

As the public face of the American hierarchy for the next three years, Kurtz will in fact spend most of his time and energy on administrative matters and the time-consuming process of herding clerical cats.

Meanwhile, in quieter ways, four other churchmen may wield more influence where it counts most: in Rome with Pope Francis.

Cardinal Sean O’MalleyBISHOPS-LEADER111213a

When Pope Francis tapped the archbishop of Boston as the only American to be one of the so-called Gang of Eight cardinals to serve as an informal “kitchen Cabinet,” it immediately launched O’Malley into the ranks of the Catholic super-elite

The affinity between Francis and O’Malley – “the closest thing to a papal BFF,” as Amy Sullivan put it in National Journal – is natural. O’Malley is a Franciscan who is deeply orthodox but also deeply committed to serving the poor, which resonates with the pope, a Jesuit named after Francis of Assisi.

O’Malley, 69, also spent years ministering to Latinos and speaks fluent Spanish, and he can pick up the phone and cold call Francis for a chat in the Argentine pope’s native tongue – though email is said to be their preferred means of communication.

The only limit to O’Malley’s influence is his own reticence to play church politics. O’Malley, according to associates in Rome and the U.S., is such a Franciscan that he loathes dropping names or pressing his views on Francis. “O’Malley is, of course, the closest American to the pope,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran church-watcher and National Catholic Reporter columnist. “But he’s a saint. He’s not a politician.”OMalley-Mass1

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo

The archbishop of Galveston-Houston, on the other hand, may not exactly be a Chicago pol, but he does have the experience to make a difference where it matters: in appointing the bishops who will – or won’t – carry out Francis’ marching orders for a more pastoral, engaged church. That’s because DiNardo worked for six years at the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, the powerful clearinghouse for appointments to dioceses around the world.

While much of the focus in this week’s conference was on Kurtz, the real interest focused on DiNardo, who was elected vice president in convincing fashion. That means he will almost certainly be chosen as president of the hierarchy in three years.

At a relatively youthful 64, DiNardo has more than enough time to leave his mark; he still has more than 15 years until he’s forced into retirement and loses his vote in a papal conclave.

“It’s setting him up to be the kingmaker,” said Reese. “DiNardo knows the people and the process. Now he’s got the prestige and access to make it happen.”

“DiNardo has US-CARDINALS021313ebeen a sleeper,” agreed an American church official with close ties to the Vatican; he spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about such sensitive matters.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl

The archbishop of Washington is another churchman who knows the system and is increasingly being called on by Francis to help fix it.

Wuerl is in many ways a classic insider – a priest who was educated in Rome, rose through the ranks of the hierarchy and became familiar with every facet of church life along the way. He also has long experience with  Vatican synods, the periodic meetings of bishops that are held in Rome every few years.

The problem is that the synods have become an exercise in rubber-stamp futility for many bishops, and Francis wants to make it a genuinely collaborative experience as part of his quest for a more “horizontal” church. Wuerl, 73, who friends say has been unusually animated by Francis’ new direction, is part of that reform and is widely rumored to be up for a top spot in the Roman Curia.

Cardinal Raymond Burke

Burke has a reputation as an archconservative who can make enemies as well as allies, but he has several advantages, proximityRNS-KING-INTERFAITH being the most obvious: Pope Benedict XVI called the former archbishop of St. Louis to Rome in 2008 to head the Vatican’s canonical court system.

But it is his role as a member of the Congregation for Bishops that has given him a decisive voice in pushing through a number of key stateside appointments, sometimes against the wishes of U.S.-based bishops.

Church experts says the future cast of the U.S. hierarchy will depend in large part on whether Burke, 65, retains that post — and his influence over appointments — or whether Francis opts to replace him or rely on informal advisers as he names a new generation of leaders.

David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He is a national reporter for RNS and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.


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