By Mary Wisniewski
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - U.S. Catholic bishops elected two centrist conservatives as new leaders on Tuesday, an archbishop from Kentucky and a Texas cardinal, both of whom expressed "solidarity" with Pope Francis' strong emphasis on the poor.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 67, of Louisville, Kentucky was elected to a three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, 64, of the Galveston-Houston diocese, was chosen as vice president.
Their election comes as Catholic bishops worldwide are being given new direction by Pope Francis, who has emphasized greater humility and more concern for poverty. The bishops oversee 69 million U.S. Catholics, or about a quarter of the country's population.
"I believe we are very much in solidarity with Pope Francis, and that is, his way of articulating clearly that we need not only to serve the voiceless and the vulnerable, but to be an advocate," Kurtz told reporters after his election.
Christopher Hale, senior fellow with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a progressive group that focuses on social justice issues, said he believes both Kurtz and DiNardo "will move the American Church in the direction Pope Francis desires."
Hale cited Kurtz's "long pastoral experience" and praised DiNardo as a "tireless leader on immigration reform. He knows firsthand the problems of a broken immigration system."
Kurtz's election was expected as he is finishing a three-year term as vice president. Known as a reliable conservative who is also well-liked, pragmatic and effective, he replaces New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, an outspoken and colorful conservative elected in 2010.
"It means consistency and with Kurtz a little more concern for the poor and with DiNardo a little more concern about immigration," said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter. Reese noted that Kurtz has a degree in social work and had cared for a brother with Down syndrome.
Dolan's term has been marked by a strong emphasis on opposing gay marriage, abortion, and the Obama administration's mandate that required Catholic schools and hospitals to carry insurance that provides birth control, forbidden by church doctrine, for free.
Bishops under Dolan also took stands for immigration reform and anti-poverty programs, but some liberal Catholics have expressed concern that the overall tone had become too far right.
In an interview published in September, Pope Francis said the church cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and must become more merciful.
In remarks to reporters, Kurtz discussed the bishops' support of the "sanctity" of traditional marriage, the protection of the unborn and the importance of helping the poor and immigrants. He also connected moving people out of poverty with the strength of the family.
DiNardo noted that U.S. bishops have been advocating for immigrants for decades.
"I think we're at a good time now where this can be handled," DiNardo said. "I believe there are those on both sides of the aisle, notwithstanding there's still some bitterness, who can work together. We hope to be able to be catalysts."
DiNardo, head of a heavily Hispanic archdiocese of 1.2 million, was the only cardinal of the nine nominees for vice president.
The new leaders are preparing for an "extraordinary synod" of bishops in Rome in October 2014 to discuss teachings related to the family. The Vatican has asked bishops and parish priests around the world about the local views on gay marriage, divorce and birth control ahead of the meeting.
Barbara Dorris of the group SNAP, which represents victims of clergy sex abuse, expressed disappointment with Kurtz's election, saying he had not joined the ranks of 30 U.S. bishops who have posted on their web sites the names of "proven, admitted and credibly accused child molesting clerics." SNAP is short for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Gevirtz)