What the +Cupich appointment means

The appointment of Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich to the Congregation for Bishops certainly caused a stir yesterday. I do not think I have spent so much time on my phone with so many different people in one day since +Cupich was appointed to Chicago in September 2014. There is nothing bland about the Archbishop of Chicago, nothing lukewarm, including the feelings people harbor about him. Personally, I think the choice is splendid. As a columnist, let me note today why it is consequential.

First, last month Pope Francis issued a motu proprio entitled "Come una madre amorevole," or "Like a loving mother" in which the pope decreed who has responsibility in the Vatican curia for holding bishops accountable if they neglect to protect children from being abused sexually by clergy, as well as from other forms of neglect in governance. There has been debate about whether that motu proprio was a step forward or not in the Church's effort to confront the scourge of clergy sex abuse, seeing as it gave jurisdiction in these matters to the four congregations charged with nominating bishops in the first place, rather than with a new tribunal at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as was originally planned. The congregation responsible for the vast majority of bishops is the Congregation for Bishops, and it will now have to develop procedures to conduct these investigations. The fact that +Cupich will be on that Congregation is a huge step forward for those who hope the oversight of bishops will be real and consequential.

It should be remembered that Archbishop Cupich chaired the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Protection of Children and has long been a champion for victims of clergy sex abuse. After many victims' advocates complained about the motu proprio, +Cupich published an article in which he challenged both those who criticized the new regulation and those who championed it, to look at the issue more broadly. He wrote:

My reading of this decree leads me to believe that the pope has a much more inclusive agenda than the punishment of bishops, convinced as he is that church leaders should be held accountable and punished as a matter of justice if they are negligent. There is ample evidence throughout the document that the Holy Father is more concerned with ensuring within the church the protection of the young and the vulnerable in a sustainable way. In other words, while a process of accountability that holds church leadership personally responsible at all times is an important first step, the pope is saying that the church also must approach the task of safeguarding the little ones in a systemic and holistic way. This is to happen on a number of levels.

Here is my second observation: This article is characteristic of the man, to expand a conversation rather than constrict it, inviting people whose prejudices lead them to conclusions rather too easily to look again and reflect more deeply. +Cupich is misunderstood if he is perceived merely as a culture warrior from the left. He is gifted at forging consensus which always requires people to look more deeply at an issue about which their views are discordant from the views of others, to seek some common ground upon to build a shared commitment.

This is vitally important because of the generational change taking place within the leadership of the Church. Cardinal William Levada turned 80 last month and, so, left the Congregation for Bishops. +Levada is no right-wing nut. He is not a culture warrior. He is extraordinarily smart. But, he was also ordained in 1961. Archbishop Cupich was ordained in 1975. That is too say, all of Cardinal Levada's seminary training happened before Vatican II and all of Archbishop Cupich's occurred after Vatican II. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the other U.S. prelate on the Congregation for Bishops, was ordained in 1966, and is only nine years younger than +Cupich. But, can one imagine a single nine-year period in which there was more change in the recent life of the Church than those nine years from 1966 to 1975? I can't.

Many of my conservative friends view the post-conciliar years as a time of unmitigated disaster for the Church: Mass attendance dropped, priests left the priesthood and nuns left the convent, the sexual revolution brought widespread divorce, the Supreme Court legalized abortion, and on and on. Yet, for all the pain of those years, the question remains: Was that the pain that comes with pulling off a band-aid? Might the pain have been worse if it had been left to fester and been more drawn out? And, now that we look back, we realize that the divorce rate started to tick up, and Mass attendance started to head down, in the 1950s, before the Council, complicating the narrative that it was the Council, or at least its reception, that was to blame.

Many of my liberal friends remain unwilling to admit that, yes, there were mistakes, that the rubber band understandably, but no less unfortunately, flew too far in the opposite direction in the years after Vatican II. They remain quick to make excuses for the excesses, to forgive themselves while holding others under the lash of judgment, to fail to see why tradition, our tradition, is vital and should be engaged not ignored. There really was a dearth of catechesis and the challenges of secularism are real, albeit different in scope and nature from the way conservatives tend to describe those challenges.

For the hierarchy, however, two things stand out to my mind. In the earlier generation, they stood together no matter what. They might disagree, indeed they did and often. But the bishops liked each other, and they policed each other unofficially. For good or ill, there was a degree of self-editing, of measured discourse, that grew in part out of desire not to ruffle the feathers of other bishops, to keep the great majority of the bishops on the same page, to speak with one voice. For all of the problems with clericalism, the sense of unity it produced was a benefit to the Church and it characterized both the more conservative and the more liberal bishops of that earlier generation.

It remains to be seen if the post-conciliar generation of bishops can forge that degree of unity among themselves and, frankly, I doubt it. I have never seen the bishops so divided. I have never seen bishops so willing to say things about the pope that they never, ever would have said about previous popes. I have never seen so many bishops willing to take the advice of laymen rather than seek the counsel of a bishop with whom they know they disagree. This is the challenge facing Cardinal Wuerl, who remains on the Congregation for Bishops, Archbishop Cupich and, as well, our new nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre: Can they select bishops who will place the unity of the body ahead of being proven right about every theological point of difference? Will they be able to identify bishops who will expand the conversation, rather than restrict it, delve deeper into an issue rather than digging themselves into a deeper hole?

The second thing flows from the first. It seems to me that the real differences within the hierarchy are only secondarily ideological; They are first and foremost temperamental. Last week, I linked to an article by Alessandro Rovati at Belmont Abbey in which he contrasted lament with witness. Many of the post-conciliar bishops think that it is enough to note the horrors of the world, and to lament them, perhaps to build strong walls to keep those horrors from harming the flock. They are prophetic in speech. They love those who, like them, feel the urge to resist the age and all its temptations and nastiness, which they are quick to denounce. They crave certainty and believe the Church can only flourish if its boundaries are distinct.

Others, and I would put +Cupich in this camp, reacted to the changes in the Church and in the culture by seeking to find out from people how God was active in their lives already, to look for the glasses that were half full and not half empty, to see the challenges of the post-conciliar years as opportunities for growth, especially growth in adult attitudes, and to seek new ways of witnessing to Christ's love in these changed and changing times. They love the world and the people in it, no matter the misdeeds and sins they encounter there, indeed, following the example of the Jesus, they see a call to love the sinners all the more. They tend not to invoke the mantle of the prophet and are more comfortable in the sandals of the pilgrim. They are not so concerned about distinct boundaries; They build bridges. 

I do not question the faith of either group of bishops. Indeed, it is vital to the future of the Church in the U.S. that we stop questioning each others' faith. The divergences noted above are rooted in conflicting sociological appraisals of the ambient culture and in different personal temperaments, not in anyone's ability to confess that Jesus is Lord. Some of us are born with liberal hearts and some with conservative hearts, and the Church needs both kinds of hearts, and, to paraphrase Maritain, the better part of wisdom is to learn to appreciate the insights given particularly to the kind of heart you were not born with. In Cardinal Wuerl and Archbishop Cupich, we see two men who have learned to cultivate a wide variety of relationships with people of all manner of opinion, background, and education, one reason they were both so important and effective at last year's synod. They are both men of obvious intellectual gifts. We see men who are first and foremost churchmen, not culture warriors.

A final thought, one that comes to me this morning after watching this television interview that +Cupich gave yesterday. Among the B-roll photos that accompanied the story is one from last year's synod. You see a row of bishops in their seats and only one is leaning forward, an eagerness evident even in his posture: +Cupich. Many of the churchmen, that is the non-culture warrior bishops, are getting on in years and are ready to retire. There is a discernible lassitude among those bishops who were schooled by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. They have fought for so long to keep the bishops' conference from careening even further into rightwing territory, and have so often lost those fights, that they sometimes sound like the ecclesiastical equivalent of those who suffer from battered wife syndrome. The fact that Pope Francis found the obvious leader of the next generation of churchmen bishops, one who still sits at the edge of his seat and has the energy and the intelligence to help shape the future of the Church in the U.S., this tells us a lot about how effective the pope's information gathering is. And, for those of us who believe the Church is not old and tired but always capable of renewal in the Spirit, always one converted sinner away from new life, always one hungry person away from a new experience of grace, one prisoner away from a deeper understanding of freedom, one homeless person away from a new experience of the Incarnation, there is hope, great hope, in that photo of the eager archbishop at the edge of his seat, chomping at the bit to go spread the good news and now, with this appointment, on the hunt for fellow workers in the vineyard.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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