The Archdiocese of Chicago announced on Saturday that Pope Francis has named Bishop Blase Cupich, a moderate bridge-builder with a history of supporting many progressive-leaning positions, as the next archbishop of Chicago. The Nebraska native will be replacing a highly political — and deeply conservative — bishop, and could potentially usher in a new era of American Catholic leadership that spends less time fighting culture wars and more time echoing the populist leadership of Pope Francis.
The move might not seem like much to a non-Catholic, but the elevation of Cupich represents a significant change in tone for the Catholic church in America. Politically and theologically speaking, the 65-year-old Cupich, who will be leaving behind his position as Bishop of Spokane, is notably different from his predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, on several counts. George, who is currently fighting cancer, has enjoyed prominence among Catholic conservatives for his hard-line stance against abortion and marriage equality, but has often stoked controversy for how he expresses his views: in 2011, George compared organizers of the Chicago Pride Parade to the Ku Klux Klan, and recently wrote that being a Catholic citizen under a pro-gay, pro-choice government is akin to living under Shariah law.
Cupich, by contrast, is the very embodiment of a Catholic moderate. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) publicly opposed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, he expressed skepticism about their confrontational approach, preferring a deeper dialogue with President Obama’s administration about the issue of Catholic institutions providing contraception to employees. Similarly, when serving as the bishop of Spokane, Washington during the state’s battle over marriage equality, Cupich published a pastoral letter that defended the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage while also condemning anti-gay bullying, saying it was wrong to “incite hostility towards homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity.” He has also frustrated many pro-life activists by reportedly privately asking priests and seminarians in Spokane not to pray in front of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics, arguing that such actions were unnecessarily provocative, according to Crux.
So why should anyone care that Cupich is the new head of the Catholic church in Chicago? From a practical perspective, Cupich’s promotion could signal a change in how the Catholic church in the United States impacts governmental policy. As a well-funded and highly organized messaging machine, the USCCB regularly wades into national policy debates, having weighed in on the aforementioned battle over the Affordable Care Act (they opposed it), various state-level votes on marriage equality (they’re against it), and the recent dust-up over comprehensive immigration reform (they’re for it). Lifting up people like Cupich, however, makes it far more likely that Catholic leaders in the United States will be proactive in following Francis’ lead — that is, avoiding most public culture wars, which Francis says the church is too “obsessed” with, and refocusing their profound resources on a broader understanding of “pro-life” that includes serving the poor and the marginalized.
“Pope Francis sent a clear message to an American hierarchy that has lost its way fighting the culture wars in recent years,” John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a progressive advocacy group in Washington, told ThinkProgress. “It signals that pastoral leadership, the search for common ground and a broader pro-life vision must be the new guideposts. The Francis agenda is now anchored in a city that has long been a powerhouse of American Catholicism. This could be a game changer.”
In addition, from a global Catholic perspective, it is well known that the most effective way for a pope to impact the future of the church is to appoint like-minded bishops. To be sure, Pope Francis, who has miffed some conservatives for insisting that the church shift its focus away from decrying abortion and same-sex marriage and towards issues such as poverty, climate change, and immigrant rights, has found a kindred spirit in Cupich. In addition to his moderate positions listed above, Cupich wrote in June that economic inequality is “a powder keg that is as dangerous as the environmental crisis the world is facing today,” and reaffirmed his position on immigration during his press conference on Saturday, saying, “I don’t want to dance around the issue that we need comprehensive immigration reform.” In fact, so obvious is the mind-meld between Francis and Cupich that Catholic news outlets are already referring to him as the “American Pope Francis.”
Thus, the more people like Cupich that Francis elevates to positions of power — and the more he fills the empty slots they leave behind with other bishops who share his views — the more likely it is that the Catholic church will carry on Francis’ vision long after he leaves the papacy. It is bishops (specifically Cardinals), after all, who usually become popes, primarily because they are the only ones eligible to vote for who gets the papacy. And it is popes like Francis that have profound impacts on global politics, including here in the United States.
Of course, it remains to be seen how Cupich will operate in his new position, and he’s faced with a steep learning curve: whereas his previous position in Spokane oversaw 90,000 Catholics and 82 parishes, the Chicago archdiocese boasts a whopping 350 parishes and 2.2 million Catholics. Leading such a huge institution will undoubtedly have its pitfalls, and Chicago is known for taking a toll on its leaders, be they political or religious.
Then again, no one expected that much from Pope Francis either, and it stands to reason that Cupich — and possibly others like him — are primed to be the new face of a more moderate, less antagonistic brand of American Catholicism.