America's Catholic bishops have departed from normal practice in choosing their new president by overlooking the current vice-president and instead choosing a man seen as more outspoken on family and life issues. It was the first time a vice-president who had appeared on the ballot wasn't automatically elevated to president of the conference.
Voting 128 to 111, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) selected New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who heads one of the nation's most important dioceses, to be its president for the next three years.
He defeated Tucson (Arizona) Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who had been vice-president but was facing recent criticism over his handling of a serious clerical child abuse case. Further opposition had come from many Catholics who saw the Bishop as too accommodating.
The election of Archbishop Dolan seemed to indicate an overall desire by a conference majority for more aggressive, outspoken leadership in the face of growing secularist pressures to marginalise Christian values in political decision-making.
The position of vice-president went to Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, who heads the bishops' subcommittee set up to strengthen traditional marriage and oppose gay "marriage".
These two new national spokesmen for the US bishops and Catholic Church generally are clearly leaders with the courage of their convictions and impressive track records.
While both bishops downplayed the obvious significance of their elections for the public profile of US Catholicism, Archbishop Dolan said he planned to continue the work of his predecessor as president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, citing the Cardinal's strong stance during the 2010 health-care debate in opposition to federal funding for abortion.
Archbishop Dolan has had experience serving in Rome as Rector of the Pontifical North American College and written a book, Priests for the Third Millennium, which has been influential among clergy. His position as Archbishop of New York (since 2009) places him at the centre of America's news capital, while earlier, as Archbishop of Milwaukee, from 2002-2009, he cleaned up some of the spiritual devastation left behind by his predecessor, the disgraced Archbishop Rembert Weakland.
The new vice-president, Archbishop Kurtz, said he saw his election as possibly related to his work to strengthen marriage and oppose same-sex "marriage", saying it pointed to a commitment to that cause by the body of American bishops.
On 15 November, during the latest bishops' conference that elected him, he warned that "today is like 1970 for marriage," and urged his fellow bishops to look at the challenges to traditional marriage as if they could see Roe v. Wade on the horizon.
His comments were made as chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Defence of Marriage, which was later upgraded to a subcommittee of the Bishops' Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
At the same time he briefed the bishops on various projects to reinforce the Church's teaching about the sanctity of marriage, including the release of new multimedia materials and active work in battling legislative efforts to change legal definitions of marriage in order to legalise same-sex "marriage".
He likened the situation for laws about marriage to the period just before Roe v. Wade legalised abortion in 1973. "If you had seen Roe v. Wade coming three years out, what would you have done differently?"
Archbishop Kurtz added that 4,500 copies of a DVD Made for Each Other, and its accompanying education materials, had been distributed around the country, and other materials were in development aimed at teaching children.
During the conference discussions, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz of Anchorage, Alaska, said he had notified the subcommittee of his interest in the bishops declaring a Marriage Sunday, much like the annual Respect Life Sunday, observed on the first Sunday in October.
Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico, said the American Catholic Church should build more bridges to "churches that agree with us on marriage and family life," particularly evangelical churches. "The mainline churches have abandoned the traditional teaching on marriage and family life," he said, "but the evangelical communities, along with the Roman Catholics are strong."
Archbishop Sheehan pointed to the Manhattan Declaration, a joint statement signed in November 2009 by more than 140 Christian leaders, many evangelical and Catholic, pledging renewed zeal in defending the unborn, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and protecting religious freedom. The document also mentioned the possibility of civil disobedience, if necessary, to defend beliefs.
Overall, following recent episcopal appointments, an increasing proportion of America's Catholic bishops are demonstrating stronger leadership on doctrinal and moral issues.
As in Australia, the culture wars have intensified, with increasing polarisation between the secularist elites and various Christian churches over issues such as euthanasia, abortion on demand, same-sex "marriage" and religious freedom. More than ever, the Catholic Church in both countries needs leaders ready to stand and be counted and for like-minded Christian churches to show solidarity in the face of a common foe.