It is several miles past remarkable that if Pope Francis had asked a roomful of social justice Catholics whom he should make a cardinal, Blase Cupich, Kevin Farrell and Joseph Tobin would have been the names likely to emerge. Actually, I would not have recommended all three for fear of being tagged as piggy.
Let's not beat around the bush. The pope has sent his clearest signal yet about the direction he intends to take the church in the United States, and within that signal is an unmistakable rebuke to those whom I have long called the "culture warriors." The pope did not send a red hat to Philadelphia. He did not send one to Baltimore. He did not even send one to Los Angeles, and I do not think of Archbishop Jose Gomez as a culture warrior so much as he is someone who is a tad sympathetic to the culture warrior crowd. In a normal consistory, people would say, "Well, there wasn't room for another American." There was room when a hat is sent to Indianapolis. The pope not only chose these three, he did not choose others. This is not the list that would have been assembled by, say, George Weigel.
Another myth has been exploded. When a bishop is named a cardinal, he usually has a press conference and they say that this conferral of the red hat has nothing to do with him personally, that it is an honor to the local church. Of course, the fact that certain local churches traditionally discover that their archbishops end up as cardinals largely destroys any such distinction between the person and the place. They said that about this being an honor for the city because it allowed them to look humble. But it was always a lie. The cardinalate is a personal honor. He will be bestowing it on these men, not on their cities. Indianapolis is not on the periphery the way, say, Phoenix is or Gallup is. (There is a case to be made that the southside of Chicago is the periphery.) No, the pope wanted the selection of his successor, and the guidance of the universal church, to be entrusted to these three men.
And such men. These three bishops have long been recognized as among the most intellectually formidable bishops in the country. They are all three of them "smell of the sheep" kinds of pastors as well. Archbishop Cupich got his start as a bishop in Rapid City, S.D., a land of intense rural poverty, especially on the Indian reservations. Archbishop Tobin is one of the few Latin rite bishops I have seen go to the Catholic Worker dinner held during the annual USCCB meetings in November. And Bishop Farrell took over the Centro Hispanico here in Washington, a social service center run by the church, when friar Sean O'Malley was named a bishop. They are all in the mid-60s, which means they all received their seminary formation after Vatican II. All three are churchmen, which is the opposite of a culture warrior.
The naming of Archbishop Tobin also shows the degree to which Pope Francis is plugged into the concerns of women religious. During the twin investigations of women religious, Archbishop Tobin strongly opposed those who really wanted to take it to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious with a doctrinal investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He lost that battle and the CDF investigation went forward but, I am told, he retained the respect of Pope Benedict XVI. Once Francis came to town, that investigation was wound down with little attention, and a red hat is on its way to Indianapolis, not to Hartford or Baltimore.
Archbishop Tobin and Archbishop Cupich also bring international perspective to the U.S. bench. Tobin served a superior of the Redemptorists for years and they have houses all over the globe. Just last month, I met a Ukrainian bishop who is a Redemptorist, and he spoke movingly of how much the order misses his leadership. Archbishop Cupich has headed the Committee on the Church in Central and Eastern Europe for years, and has developed extensive contacts not only there, but with German and English bishops through various collaborations with their similar committees. Sometimes we Americans think we are the center of the universe, so it is vital that we have church leaders with a more global perspective.
It is a new day for our old church. At a time when the political life of the nation could scarcely be more depressing, these three churchmen step forward and a sense of hopeful direction emerges. Pope Francis demonstrates that he is very well informed about the personnel and the challenges facing the church in the U.S. This news is as happy as it is stunning.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]