Associated Press
Bishop Kevin Vann, left, of Fort Worth, Texas, congratulates Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York after Dolan was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Tuesday in Baltimore.

BALTIMORE — In a surprise move, the bishops that lead the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, elected Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York to be their president on Tuesday, rejecting the conference's more liberal vice president. It was the first time in history that the bishops had not voted to elevate the vice president to the president's post, affirming a conservative turn among the bishops.

The vote, which was close, cements Archbishop Dolan's prominent profile in the leadership in the American church. He is already the prelate of the nation's most visible diocese, is comfortable in the news media spotlight and was selected by the Vatican to help conduct an investigation of the church in Ireland, which has been devastated by a sexual abuse scandal.

The election consolidates the gradual shift in leadership and priorities for the bishops conference. From the 1970's through the 1990's, the conference was a center for progressive Catholicism in a distinctly American guise, releasing ambitious teaching documents on issues such as economic inequality, workers rights, the environment, peace and war. While the bishops still do take up issues such as immigration and poverty, they are far more focused on shaping public policy to stop abortion and prevent the legalization of marriage between same-sex couples.

Archbishop Dolan said in a news conference after the vote that he was surprised to be elected, and that he would continue with the same priorities that the bishops conference had set under his predecessor as president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Cardinal George led the bishops' forceful opposition to the health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama, saying that it would permit expanded government funding for abortion.

"My major priority would be to continue with all vigor I can muster what's already in place," Archbishop Dolan said. "It's not like we're in crisis, it's not like all of a sudden we need some daring new initiatives. Thank God for the leadership of Cardinal Francis George, things are going well."

Archbishop Dolan also signaled that he would not countenance other Catholic leaders and organizations taking public positions that contradict the bishops — which is what happened this year when some groups representing Catholic hospitals and nuns came out in support of the health care bill, despite the bishops' opposition.

"We're pastors and teachers," Archbishop Dolan said of the bishops' role, "not just one set of teachers in the Catholic community, but the teachers." He emphasized "the."

Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and an advisor to some bishops on political and moral issues, said, "You could imagine a different approach where the bishops would say, this guy is too combative. We need someone more conciliatory. They didn't do that."

George, a member of the Deseret News Editorial Board, pointed out that Archbishop Dolan helped convene the meetings that produced the "Manhattan Declaration," a manifesto issued last year by prominent evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders in order to reignite and unify the opposition to abortion, gay marriage and what they see as threats to religious liberty. Mr. George helped to draft that document and Archbishop Dolan was one of the original signers.

Archbishop Dolan has led the church in New York only since April of 2009. Before that he was archbishop of Milwaukee, where he served for seven years. In New York, he has a full plate of challenges, including a major reorganizing effort that is resulting in the closure of dozens of churches and parishes.

He was chairman of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops' charity arm, and traveled to Haiti after the earthquake to view the church's relief efforts there. As president of the bishops conference he will step down as the leader of the relief agency.