The leadership of Minnesota's second-largest Catholic diocese hangs in the balance following the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict.

The Diocese of St. Cloud is among eight in the U.S. waiting for a new leader to be appointed by the pope. St. Cloud diocesan officials said on Tuesday they've not heard from the Vatican as to whether Pope Benedict plans to appoint a successor for Bishop John Kinney prior to stepping down on Feb. 28.

"We just do not know," said Jane Marrin, communications consultant with the St. Cloud diocese. "There's no timeline that I'm aware of."

Catholic bishops are required by church law to submit a letter of resignation to the pope when they turn 75, and Kinney sent his letter this past June when he celebrated his 75th birthday.

Nearly six months later, the diocese is still waiting to find out who his successor will be, though Marrin said Kinney is still physically able to continue as bishop until his replacement is named. With nearly 145,000 Catholics, the St. Cloud diocese is second in size to the Twin Cities archdiocese in Minnesota, which has close to 800,000 followers. The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in Minnesota, with close to 1.1 million faithful.

Kinney was ordained an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese in 1977 before going on to serve as bishop of Bismarck, N.D., from 1982-95. He has served as bishop of St. Cloud since 1995.

The question of Kinney's replacement comes as Minnesota Catholics continue to express surprise at the pope's bombshell announcement Monday that he planned to resign, becoming the first pontiff to do so in 600 years.

"Like the rest of the church and the world, I didn't see this coming," said Bishop Paul Sirba of the Diocese of Duluth. "I first met the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when I was a seminarian at the St. Paul Seminary back in 1984. Little did I know that one day he would appoint me bishop. ... The holy father has led the church with the heart of a true shepherd. His resignation shows his courage and wisdom as a selfless leader."

Since becoming pope in 2005, Benedict has named 106 bishops, including four in Minnesota, who are members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to that group. There are 454 active and retired U.S. bishops.

Appointing bishops is one of the most important effects a pope can have at the local level in the Catholic Church, which has close to 1 billion followers worldwide. All bishops are directed to support church doctrine, but the issues they emphasize lead observers to characterize them as conservative, moderate or liberal.

In March, Pope Benedict told Minnesota bishops visiting in Rome that the preservation of marriage between a man and woman must be a top priority. Minnesota bishops became among the fiercest supporters of the state's proposed marriage amendment, which would have banned gay marriage. Voters rejected the measure in the November election. While conservative-leaning Catholics applauded the effort, liberal-minded Catholics heavily criticized the church's campaign.

Since becoming pope, Benedict has appointed like-minded conservative cardinals and bishops, and his successor is very likely to share those conservative leanings, according to religious scholars.

Sister Maureen Sullivan, an associate professor of theology at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, has written extensively about the papacy and church hierarchy. She said whoever replaces Benedict will need to address the growing rift between many U.S. Catholics and the church leadership over issues such as gay marriage, birth control, married priests and the role of women in the church. While the Catholic Church remains the largest denomination nationally and in Minnesota, its membership has declined sharply since 2000.

"There must be growth. There must be development," Sullivan said. "There must be the possibility to raise questions for truth to continue to be uncovered. In a conservative mindset theologically, that tends to close down that kind of challenge. We are in a changing world."

Rose French • 612-673-4352