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Monday, October 24, 2016

WASHINGTON — Leaders can make decisions that signal big changes in the political, religious and ethical landscape. In naming Bishop Blase Cupich as the new archbishop of Chicago, Pope Francis did just that.

Cupich, now the bishop of Spokane, has been described in media accounts as a “moderate” within the Catholic Church. Temperamentally, this is exactly what he is, an advocate of dialogue and civility. He’s also wise about rejecting labels. Parrying at his first news conference after his appointment was announced on Saturday, he offered this response when asked if the moderate tag fit him: “I am going to try to be attentive to what the Lord wants. Maybe if there is moderation in that, then maybe I’m a moderate.”

Those nicely reticent double “maybes” shouldn’t fool you into believing that Cupich avoids speaking his mind. He has been a courageous voice inside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops against a culture-war approach to evangelization and politics that pushes so many away from the Gospel.

He has also been as tough as any prelate in his candor about the Church’s profound failures during the sex abuse crisis. “Catholics have been hurt by the moral failings of some priests,” Cupich wrote in 2010, “but they have been hurt and angered even more by bishops who failed to put children first.” He knows the Church will never get beyond this scandal until it’s obvious to the faithful that the hierarchy understands how deeply Catholicism was marred by institutional sin and not only by individual crimes.

His appointment will have an impact beyond the Catholic Church because it tells us a great deal about the role Pope Francis wants the Church to play in American life. Cupich played this down, too. “I think he sent a pastor, not a message,” he told reporters.

But in his case, the pastor is the message. Because of appointments made by Pope John Paul II and, to a lesser degree, Benedict XVI, the bishops’ conference has moved to the right over the last quarter-century. Many conservative bishops have expressed uneasiness or even skepticism about Francis’ leadership — notably his rejection of the idea that issues such as abortion and homosexuality take precedence over economic justice and care for the marginalized. Francis has also caused discomfort by insisting on a Church that accompanies people on their journeys rather than expending most of its energy condemning and judging them.

Of the four most politically potent posts in the American hierarchy — the archbishops of Boston, New York, Chicago and Washington — Chicago was the first to come open since Francis’ election. In naming Cupich, the pope sent the strongest possible hint that he wants the American Church to move in his direction.

Cupich is a Francis Catholic through and through. He was one of the first Church leaders I know who immediately and fully understood the meaning of this pope’s election — Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, was the other — and in an email Wednesday, Cupich embraced the pope’s commission in explaining his priorities.

“I keep going back to the Holy Father’s call for the kind of serious ongoing conversion that all of us are called to,” he wrote, “on the issues of accompaniment, non-judgmentalism and the throwaway culture of exclusion.”

Asked which aspects of the American Church needed to be preserved and safeguarded, he offered a list that made his priorities clear. Note what he put first: “our outreach to the poor, the participation of laity in the liturgical life of the Church, the vitality of the new immigrant groups, the heroism of parents who sacrifice for their children because of their faith, and the continuing witness of priests and religious women.”

As for American politics, Cupich has emphasized dialogue rather than confrontation with the Obama administration over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. While many bishops declined to help the uninsured sign up for coverage under the ACA, Cupich asked Catholic Charities in eastern Washington to join in the effort on the basis of a long-standing Catholic principle. “We consider health care a basic human right,” he said.

The refrain of a popular hymn goes: “They’ll know we are Christian by our love.” Not, it should be noted, by our politics or our dogmatism. That sounds a lot like something Cupich once wrote. “Ultimately,” he said, “it is only the witness who convinces people, not the teacher.” Chicago is the new testing ground for this proposition.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Fast for Families via Flickr

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  • Dominick Vila

    The Catholic Church has been moderating its rhetoric, and softening its position on some social issues, for decades. Slowly, but surely. However, it will be a very long time before this icon of conservatism can be labeled “Liberal”, regardless of what Pope Francis and his spokesmen say.

    • TZToronto

      I beg to differ, somewhat. I get the feeling that contraception and homosexuality have been put into the category of “it’s up to the individual, who will untimately have to answer to God.” Condemnation is counter-productive when you’re trying to convince people that Christ is the key to salvation. So if the Church is moving in the direction that so many Catholics have already gone (e.g., using contraception), removing the barriers to enabling Catholics to practice their faith without fear of condemnation can only be good for the Church. So maybe the Church is just beginning to catch up to its members. I think the leftward direction of the Church will continue as the old guard are forced to retire as they age.

      • Allan Richardson

        In this respect, the Catholic Church under Pope Francis is far more “liberal” than comparably conservative Protestant sects (the Christian Taliban). The latter have not yet realized that LEGISLATING church doctrine, even if you have the power to do it, is not the best way to win converts. This may be due to the fact that their true believers are converts from what they call the “godless life” (even if they were previously devout, law abiding Presbyterians or Methodists, they portray the life outside their churches as pagan, criminal and despicable), and converts have a tendency to be the most fanatical members of any religion, diet, or political party.

      • Dominick Vila

        I understand, and agree. Fear of damnation has been one of the greatest tools used by religious zealots to control their flock…and one of the reasons for my agnosticism.

        • TZToronto

          Part of the problem comes from a reluctance on the part of the Church’s hierarchy to reconcile dogma with science and logic. It took hundreds of years for the Church to apologize to Galileo (a bit late), and they just can’t bring themselves to accept, for example, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice and should not be considered sinful. There’s also a huge reluctance to give in to logic. If they want to keep the faithful, find new members, draw people to the clergy, and, in general, propagate the faith, they can’t restrict the priesthood to unmarried men for much longer. There are still a lot of Catholics, of course, who feel that the Mass should be conducted exclusively in Latin and that only choral music and organs are appropriate for services, but that cohort is dying off. There are a lot more “liberal” and secular Catholics than there were when I was growing up, and people who cannot accept the irrational restrictions placed on Catholics by the Church would rather leave the Church than live their lives in unhappiness.

        • highpckts

          I left the Church because I had a Priest tell me I ask too many questions! They do not accept that. They want blind “faith” in everything! Too many “believers” are ignoring what they don’t like but are too afraid to leave! Fear does rule!! I am always amazed at some of my family that go to church religiously, mouth all the appropriate responses and sit in the back row so that they can leave first! They go because of fear!

  • Paul Bass

    At least the church is no longer using social wedge issues to “purify” the believers.

  • howa4x

    If the Church doesn’t give up it’s cultural war it risks alienating an entire generation of younger people who feel the message against pre marital sex, contraception, and LGBT rights is out of date. Young people are more concerned with social and environmental justice and want to see religious institutions move to the forefront. Pope Francis understands this challenge, now we will see if the rest of the Church hierarchy responds.

  • John Simpson

    When the church embraces the gay community and admits that it has been wrong on this topic like Pope John Paul I, was going to do, I will not run back into its arms. They killed him to prevent it and I fear for this Pope’s life if he goes to far to the middle.

  • Peter LaMarck

    While deceit is the primary strategy of evil, lies, half-truths, and conscious omissions of truth are the day-to-day tactics.