(Reuters) - U.S. Catholic bishops will choose new leaders at an assembly in Baltimore this week and possibly signal a new direction for the American church under the influence of Pope Francis.
The conference begins Monday and all eyes will be on whether the new leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continue vigorous opposition to gay marriage and to Obamacare's contraceptive mandate, or increase their push to help the poor and immigrants given Pope Francis' emphasis on social justice issues.
The new leaders also will be preparing for an "extraordinary synod" of bishops in Rome 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 October 2014 meeting.
"Bishops have been stuck in a bunker fighting the culture war," said John Gehring, who was once in the conference's communications office and is now Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group. "Pope Francis has said we can't just be known by what we oppose."
In an interview with a Jesuit journal 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 or risk falling "like a house of cards."
Russell Shaw, a writer on Catholic issues and a former spokesman for the conference, said he doesn't think the bishops will back off on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, just as Francis has reiterated church teachings on these subjects. But they may shift their approach.
"They may make a greater effort to couple what they say about issues like that with messages of having a more pastoral tone, putting what they say about the questions of same sex marriage in a context of authentic and pastoral concern for same sex couples," Shaw said.
The bishops' conference has taken stands for immigration reform and anti-poverty programs under the leadership of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan the past three years.
But it has been extremely vocal on "religious liberty" - protesting the Obama administration's mandate that required Catholic schools and hospitals to carry insurance that provides birth control, forbidden by church doctrine, for free. The push concerned some Catholics, who felt the church's leaders had become too aligned with the political right.
"What's been in the foreground has been their campaigns on gay marriage, abortion and their concerns on the contraceptive mandate," said Father Thomas Reese, a writer who is, like Francis, a Jesuit.
The conference broke with tradition in 2010, electing the outspoken conservative Dolan to a three-year term as president of the U.S. bishops group over then-vice president Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, who was seen by some as more moderate.
Conference observers believe bishops will follow tradition this time and choose the current vice president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky. Kurtz is viewed as a reliable conservative who is well liked and effective.
The vice presidency is a more open field, though Reese believes Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, a Mexican-born cleric may have an edge in part because he can speak Spanish, enabling him to speak to Francis without a translator.
Reese said Gomez also would prioritize immigration reform, which should please moderates, and is conservative enough for conservatives.
Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chair of the group that has fought the healthcare mandate, and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who is known to ride a motorcycle and is considered strong on poverty and immigration issues, also are on the list.
(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)