As Chicago archbishop, Cupich may face culture war mentality

This article appears in the Cupich to Chicago feature series. View the full series.

Challenges facing the Catholic church in America require leaders to be "real" and not "get caught up in living in our own little bubble of an idea," newly appointed Chicago archbishop Blase Cupich told NCR in an interview Sunday.

The 65-year-old pastor's ascent to the Chicago archdiocese -- the nation's third largest and historically one of its most important -- has captivated the Catholic world in the United States and represents a potentially important shift in the direction for the U.S. bishops' conference, observers say. One privately called it an "ecclesial earthquake."

Indeed, on the hot-button cultural issues that some have faulted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for "obsessing" over since the time of Pope John Paul II, Cupich has earned a reputation for offering calm, cool, caring commentary.

Additionally, he has shown an ability to communicate Pope Francis' messages on economic markets and to balance the full sweep of Catholic social teaching.

"This is a Pope Francis bishop," said Georgetown University's John Carr, who for 20 years served as director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the USCCB. He said Cupich has "humble ways, a powerful commitment to the poor, a collaborative style, [and is] nonconfrontational."

Carr, who attended seminary with Cupich in the late 1960s and early '70s, described a man who believes in the power of dialogue and seeks to understand people where they are in the world.

"He has experience with Native Americans in South Dakota, he has experience with migrants in eastern Washington -- that's a part of him now," Carr said. "He has always been smart, always a leader. He's principled. He listens, he learns, he reads, he prays, he leads."

So it comes as no surprise that Cupich's ascension has energized progressive Catholics who want to see Pope Francis' style permeate the American church. The feeling in the air is that he represents a new day.

But what will it take to break past the culture wars within the bishops' conference?

A compare-and-contrast between Cupich and the man he is replacing, Cardinal Francis George, who was president of the bishops' conference from 2007 to 2010, gives a sense of what the new archbishop may be up against.

On the culture war issues of abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty, both men agree in principle, but differ substantially in style and focus.

Cupich has repeatedly insisted on the need to strike a balance when wrestling with the nation's diverse social justice concerns.

During the 2008 presidential election, for instance, when some U.S. bishops were saying that abortion is an intrinsic evil and that people should not vote for then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Cupich wrote in the pages of America magazine that elements of public racism surrounding Obama's candidacy were intrinsically evil, too.

"We cite the taking of innocent human life as one example of such intrinsically evil actions," he wrote, referring to the U.S. bishops' "Faithful Citizenship" document, a quadrennial reflection on Catholic civil engagement. "Racism is another."

By contrast, in 2008, George wrote that "one cannot favor the legal status quo on abortion and also be working for the common good."

Cut to 2012 and the fight between the U.S. bishops and the Obama administration over the Health and Human Service's contraception mandate.

To advance the church's position, Cupich argued for "a return to civility," not the all-out war that resulted and which continues to this day.

Leaders, he wrote, "should always be leery of letting a situation escalate to an undesirable degree, particularly if it has the potential to bring lasting harm to both the church and the nation, and even worse, disproportionately affect the least among us."

By contrast, in a column titled "What are you going to give up this Lent?" George wryly wrote:

This year, the Catholic Church in the United States is being told she must "give up" her health care institutions, her universities and many of her social service organizations. This is not a voluntary sacrifice. It is the consequence of the already much discussed Department of Health and Human Services regulations now filed and promulgated for implementation beginning Aug. 1 of this year.

George continued:

Theoretically, it is argued that there are Catholic voices that disagree with the teaching of the church and therefore with the bishops. There have always been those whose personal faith is not adequate to the faith of the church. Perhaps this is the time for everyone to re-read the Acts of the Apostles. Bishops are the successors of the apostles; they collectively receive the authority to teach and govern that Christ bestowed upon the apostles. Bishops don't claim to speak for every baptized Catholic. Bishops speak, rather, for the Catholic and apostolic faith. Those who hold that faith gather with them; others go their own way. They are and should be free to do so, but they deceive themselves and others in calling their organizations Catholic.

Back to Cupich. In a 2012 pastoral letter on an upcoming Washington state same-sex marriage referendum, which he opposed, Cupich wrote:

When addressing issues of depth and passion -- indeed, most importantly at such times -- we should be committed to the proposition that our public dialogue must be marked by civility and clarity, and that it should generate light rather than heat.

And though he opposed the measure, Cupich wrote: "I also want to be very clear that in stating our position the Catholic Church has no tolerance for the misuse of this moment to incite hostility towards homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity."

By contrast, on same-sex marriage, George has written: "Society has brought social and legislative approval to all types of sexual relationships that used to be considered 'sinful.' Since the biblical vision of what it means to be human tells us that not every friendship or love can be expressed in sexual relations, the church's teaching on these issues is now evidence of intolerance for what the civil law upholds and even imposes. What was once a request to live and let live has now become a demand for approval. The 'ruling class,' those who shape public opinion in politics, in education, in communications, in entertainment, is using the civil law to impose its own form of morality on everyone."

Now, Catholic progressives are wondering if a long-dormant voice within American Catholicism may be waking from its slumber.

"The seamless garment is back," tweeted John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, in reference to the consistent ethic of life theory of Catholic social teaching that embraces a full gamut of pro-life issues, including abortion, poverty, war, discrimination and capital punishment. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who presided as archbishop of Chicago from 1982 to 1996, is identified as the chief proponent of this theory.

University of Dayton theology professor Vince Miller, who talked recently with NCR about the effects of the culture wars, said, "[Cupich] is a bishop who saw clearly the costs that culture-war polarization posed to the full mission of the church and who had the courage to say so when it was out of season."

The hope of progressive Catholics is that Cupich will help break the hold of the culture wars on the U.S. hierarchy. But how is this done "in reality"?

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

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