The nation's Roman Catholic bishops took a step Tuesday toward aligning themselves with Pope Francis, selecting as their next president Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky. — a man who built a career on a foundation of personal faith and service to the poor.
Kurtz, 67, was the overwhelming choice of the nearly 300 prelates on hand for the annual fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Waterfront Marriott Hotel in Baltimore.
The Pennsylvania native received 125 of the 236 votes cast to easily outpoll the second-place finisher, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, for a first-ballot victory.
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, one of 10 candidates for the position, finished tied for a distant fourth place with 15 votes. DiNardo was elected vice president.
Kurtz and DiNardo, who take office at the close of the conference Thursday, are to serve through 2016.
The choice of Kurtz comes as the Catholic church has been struggling to define its collective stance on a variety of contentious issues within the United States.
The bishops have made clear their opposition to provisions in President Barack Obama's health care law that call for some Catholic-based institutions to pay for contraceptive services. They've also asked Congress to hasten changes to the nation's immigration laws.
But when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis last March, he made clear his desire that the worldwide church begin to focus less on secular politics and more on faith and charity.
The pontiff's representative to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, used a speech to the bishops Monday to emphasize the point.
"The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people," said Vigano, the apostolic nuncio in Washington. "When this past June I met with him in his humble apartment … he made a special point of saying that he wants 'pastoral' bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology."
In Kurtz, observers say, the bishops found a man in keeping with those views.
One of only four active American bishops with a master's degree in social work, he first made his name as the head of Catholic Charities in Allentown, Pa., where he was ordained a priest in 1972. He went on to become the bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., a position he held from 1999 through 2007 before being chosen archbishop of Louisville.
"He knows firsthand about service to the poor," said the Rev. John J. Conley, a professor of theology and philosophy at Loyola University Maryland.
Friends and parishioners, who know him as "Bishop Joe," say he has built much of his reputation on the sort of acts of charity Pope Francis favors.
He served as principal caretaker for an adult brother with Down syndrome, according to Rocco Palmo, the author of the widely read church insiders' blog Whispers in the Loggia.
"His kindness is a huge strength," said Lori. He said he and the other bishops were not surprised at the election results.
Kurtz, asked to articulate his priorities for the next three years, cited the pope's stated goals.
"There's a call from the Holy Father to be pastoral," he said. "How can we warm hearts and heal wounds? The challenge for us is in welcoming people, reaching out to those who are voiceless, poor and vulnerable."
Those goals, he said, align with those the bishops are already supporting, including their push for immigration reform on humanitarian grounds, their commitment to human life from conception on, and the quest for "a robust expression of religious freedom," which he called "important to believers, but also to our nation."
Kurtz's election to the top spot signals a return to a long-standing tradition in the organization. For 54 years starting in 1956, every vice president who stood for the presidency was elected.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, now the departing president, broke that string in 2010 when he was elected over then-vice president Gerald Kicanas, the bishop of Tucson, largely on the strength of Dolan's media profile.
"Dolan is ebullient, an extrovert. It seemed as though every time you turned on '60 Minutes,' there he was," Conley said. "Kurtz is a quieter sort. He'll approach will be more low-key."
The president-elect himself had a chuckle at the contrast. In the end, though, he said the two might not be as different as they appear.
"I hope to be as approachable as Cardinal Dolan. And I hope to lead the way he has led: Be yourself and let Christ bring out the best in you," he said.