Pope Francis on Saturday appointed Bishop Blase Cupich, a moderate who has called for civility in the culture wars, as the next archbishop of Chicago, signaling a shift in tone in one of the most important posts in the US church.
Cupich, of Spokane, Washington, will be installed in the Archdiocese of Chicago in November, succeeding Cardinal Francis George, according to an announcement by the papal ambassador to the U.S. The archdiocese has scheduled a news conference for Saturday morning which Cupich is expected to attend. George, 77, has been battling cancer and has said he believes the disease will end his life.
George is especially admired in the church's conservative wing as an intellectual who took an aggressive stand against abortion and gay marriage. Cupich has not been among the harder-line bishops and instead has called for a "return to civility" in conversations on divisive social policies. Francis has said he wants church leaders to focus more on mercy and compassion and less on hot-button issues.
Cupich is Francis' first major appointment in the U.S. and the clearest indication yet of the direction he wants to steer American church leaders. The Archdiocese of Chicago is the third-largest, and one of the most important, dioceses in the country, serving 2.2 million parishioners. Chicago archbishops are usually elevated to cardinal and are therefore eligible to vote for the next pope.
The Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said Cupich "will be a pastorally dedicated, theologically astute and visionary leader in line with Francis' transformative papacy." Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter who writes about the American bishops, noted that major appointments like the one in Chicago are made in consultation with U.S. church leaders.
"The cardinals of the U.S. church, and anyone else the Holy Father consulted, decided that it was important not only to send a bishop to Chicago: they wanted to send a message," Winters said.
Cupich, 65, is a native of Omaha, Nebraska, where he was ordained a priest. He holds degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian University and The Catholic University of America. In the 1980s, he worked on the staff of the Vatican embassy in Washington. He was appointed bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1998, and served there until 2010, when he was appointed to Spokane.
In a 2012 essay in the Jesuit magazine America, Cupich said the U.S. bishops "rightly objected" to the original narrow religious exemption in President Barack Obama's requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers contraception. But Cupich called for a "return to civility" in conversations about religious liberty and society.
"While the outrage to the (government) decision was understandable, in the long run threats and condemnations have a limited impact," Cupich said. "We should never stop talking to one another."
Cupich has also defended Francis' views on the economy and emphasis on fighting poverty, which some Catholics and others have criticized as naive and against capitalism.
"Instead of approaching life from the 30-thousand-feet level of ideas, he challenges policy makers and elected officials — indeed all of us — to experience the life of everyday and real people," Cupich said at a conference last June on the Catholic case against libertarianism. "Much like he told religious leaders, Francis is saying that politicians and policy makers need to know the smell of the sheep."
Cupich served as chairman of the U.S. bishops' child protection committee at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis and as church leaders were putting in place a toughened policy on disciplining guilty priests.