‘Ill-Considered’? Cardinal Cupich’s Tweets Get Few ‘Likes’ Among Bishops

While the tweets criticizing the USCCB’s Inauguration Day statement confirmed his preference for finding common ground with Catholic politicians like Joe Biden, they also revealed a willingness to openly confront his brother bishops.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, attends a closing Mass during ‘The Protection of Minors in the Church’ meeting at the Regia Hall on Feb. 24, 2019, in Vatican City. Last month, he tweeted his criticism of a Jan. 20 USCCB  statement.
Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, attends a closing Mass during ‘The Protection of Minors in the Church’ meeting at the Regia Hall on Feb. 24, 2019, in Vatican City. Last month, he tweeted his criticism of a Jan. 20 USCCB statement. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty)

CHICAGO — The series of tweets from Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago began shortly after the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden, a historic event also marked by a statement from the U.S. bishops framing the new Catholic commander in chief’s advocacy of abortion and related policies as “moral evils.”  

“Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration,” read Cardinal Cupich’s first tweet.

In three additional posts, the cardinal asserted that there was “no precedent” for a USCCB statement criticizing a new U.S. president and that its release revealed “internal institutional failures that … must be addressed.”

He said he looked “forward to contributing” to that reckoning, so that the bishops could return to the work of building up “the unity of the Church” and “healing our nation in this moment of crisis.”

The tweets were a call to arms for his brother bishops, but no other U.S. bishop took up the gauntlet, at least not publicly. 

Indeed, while the cardinal’s intervention on social media confirmed his preference for finding common ground with Catholic politicians like Biden, experts told the Register that the tweets also revealed a tendency to confront brother bishops who disagreed with his views — a pattern that has earned the Chicago archbishop few episcopal allies. 

“He is outside the mainstream,” said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference who has charted the progress of conference leaders and the author, most recently, of Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity

“No doubt, there have been other bishops over the years who have shared his sentiments about reforming the conference, but I can’t think of anyone who has so consistently felt he was called to share his feelings with the rest of us, taking to public media to express himself on these matters.” 

“It suggests frustration, maybe, or a kind of blind spot,” Shaw told the Register.

Some scholars and commentators take a more sympathetic view of Cardinal Cupich’s recent social-media activity.

“I can understand Cardinal Cupich’s frustration,” said Kate Ward, a Marquette University theology professor who was selected by the cardinal to address the pastoral implications of Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in a series of episcopal seminars. 

“The language of ‘preeminent priority,’ which Archbishop Gomez uses to describe abortion, is not the language of moral theology or Catholic social thought,” Ward told the Register in an email message. “If he’s saying that this is where the USCCB has chosen to focus their efforts, that’s his right, but I wish he had considered that people may read this statement as a distillation of the Catholic Church’s views.”

 

Contrast With His Predecessors

Yet even as some of Cardinal Cupich’s supporters in the academy and the media defend his intervention, he has yet to emerge as a trusted leader in the conference. In contrast, his two immediate predecessors from Chicago, Cardinal Francis George and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, were both elected conference presidents and exerted enormous influence, in part through their remarkable personal qualities.

“Cardinal Bernardin was from Charleston and had this Southern cordiality,” said Mary FioRito, who served as the cardinal’s pro-life director and later worked in an advisory role with Cardinal George.  

“Cardinal Bernardin tried to build consensus, but not in a politically manipulative way. He was genuinely open to hearing the concerns of other people. It wasn’t that he didn’t have run-ins with other bishops, but he made the attempt to work with a diverse conference and draw out consensus.”

FioRito also recalled the striking qualities of Cardinal George, a brilliant and genial shepherd.

“When he rose to speak at the conference, everybody listened,” she said, remarking on his distinctive virtues of “kindness and compassion.” 

The Register reached out to Cardinal Cupich for comment, but had not received a reply at press time. However, Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, the newly elected chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education, offered a broader perspective on the standard for leadership within the conference.

“True leadership makes its presence felt through the practice of humility,” Bishop Daly told the Register.

“Humility leads to gratitude, especially to God for his many blessings, including being a shepherd of his people. When one is humble and grateful, one is generous. And generosity of heart requires sacrifice,” added Bishop Daly, who succeeded then-Bishop Cupich as Spokane’s shepherd in 2015 after Pope Francis appointed the future cardinal to replace Cardinal George as archbishop of Chicago.

“What matters most to the bishops is a commitment to teach what the Church believes, especially on the truths of our faith.”

Bishop Daly remembered his first fall meeting of the bishops’ conference in Baltimore in 2011. There, he met Cardinal George for the first time and described him as “a man not afraid to speak the truth, who struck me as a man of deep prayer and kindness, and a true shepherd, whose actions reflected a deep wisdom.” 

“At that meeting, we heard that the Obama administration had approached the conference leadership, and there was some mention about not wanting a fight with the U.S. bishops before his reelection,” Bishop Daly recalled.

“Cardinal George addressed the body of bishops and warned us” against becoming “useful idiots” for the administration, thus posing a threat to the integrity and survival of the Church’s institutional legacy.

“He spoke about those who wanted the Church to be out of health care, social services and education,” the bishop said. “There was obvious concern about the Church getting too close to elected officials.”

 

Aligning With the Pope 

A decade later, Cardinal Cupich seeks to play an equally commanding role within the conference, though his style and priorities are very different. He does not hold any leadership position within the USCCB, however, and lost a 2017 bid to head the conference’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities — a post usually held by a cardinal — to Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas. 

But Pope Francis’ decision to name Cardinal Cupich as one of his personal delegates to the Synods on the Family and on Youth, along with his appointment to the powerful Congregation for Bishops, has raised Cardinal Cupich’s profile as a Church leader who has secured Francis’ trust and thus should be listened to as an authoritative interpreter of this pontificate.

Indeed, just 10 days after the cardinal’s tweets registered his disagreement with the bishops’ conference, he was photographed during a private audience with Pope Francis, while at the Vatican for a meeting with the Congregation for Bishops.  

No official explanation was offered for the papal audience, but Cardinal Cupich’s presence gave rise to speculation that Francis sided with the Chicago archbishop in his dispute with the USCCB leadership.

This conclusion fits with Cardinal Cupich and his supporters’ previous efforts to frame his preference for “dialogue” with Catholic lawmakers like Biden as a response to Francis’ own teaching. 

In 2019, when Cardinal Cupich rebuked Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, for issuing a decree that barred from Holy Communion in his diocese all Catholic lawmakers in the state who voted for the Reproductive Health Act, which legalized taxpayer funding of abortions, the cardinal’s move was defended in a Chicago Tribune opinion column by a Catholic studies professor at DePaul University as a reaffirmation of Francis’ pastoral practice. 

And during the same year, as the U.S. bishops debated the language of a letter that would accompany the reissuing of their 2015 statement on political responsibility, Cardinal Cupich pushed hard to insert a paragraph from Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), cautioning against single-issue politics. 

“From the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has made it clear that the unborn must be defended, but not to the exclusion of other issues of human dignity,” said Cardinal Cupich in his written request to the drafting committee for the inclusion of a 183-word statement from Laudato Si — a request that was denied because of space considerations, though one sentence from the encyclical was added.  

When Cardinal Cupich’s amendment to include the whole paragraph was debated in heated language by the entire conference, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego asserted that the letter identifying abortion as the “preeminent” issue was in conflict with Francis’ teaching.

That assertion was categorically rejected by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, prompting applause. And in the end, the bishops voted 143-69 against the cardinal’s amendment to include the whole paragraph from Laudato Si

 

Discomfort With Pro-Life Advocacy?

Yet the cardinal’s own record suggests that his problem with USCCB statements that single out abortion as the “preeminent issue” arises from a broader discomfort with assertive pro-life rhetoric and public witness and that this position was formed before Pope Francis’ 2013 election. 

Father Matthew Nicks, pastor of St. Patrick, Assumption and St. Francis parishes in Walla Walla, Washington, who served under the cardinal during his previous appointment as bishop of Spokane, recalled his 2011 directive asking diocesan priests and seminarians to avoid 40 Days for Life prayer vigils at local Planned Parenthood businesses.

After Father Nicks and others expressed dismay at the directive, then-Bishop Cupich wrote a letter that outlined his position.

“He forcefully condemned abortion,” said Father Nicks, “but raised what he considered to be the fundamental question for us as a presbyterate: ‘How should we carry out our particular mission to proclaim the gospel of life?’ 

“He explained that those methods that he considered more public and aggressive were not only ineffective, but counterproductive in changing hearts, minds and laws and, as such, were ineffective at protecting the lives of the unborn,” said Father Nicks, who described his former bishop as a “social-justice pragmatist” who prioritized one-on-one conversations and social services that offered options for vulnerable women dealing with crisis pregnancies.

While Father Nicks stressed that he respects Cardinal Cupich’s approach to abortion, he noted that “to fully eschew the more public and assertive forms of protest seems to run the fatal risk of allowing a deepening complacency toward the catastrophic evil of abortion and of undervaluing our nation’s historic precedents which attest to such public protests being, indeed, effective.”

 

New Layer of Complexity

Now the election of a president who is both aggressively pro-abortion and a churchgoing Catholic has injected a new layer of complexity into the bishops’ deliberations over the best way to affirm Church teaching, dispel confusion and engage elected officials, and it is clear that Cardinal Cupich plans to put his stamp on the process.

If that’s the case, said Russell Shaw, the cardinal needs to become a “team player,” learn to “count votes and build consensus,” and let the papal nuncio articulate Pope Francis’ wishes.

A change in leadership style may not be enough. At the very time that the USCCB leadership is deeply concerned about the challenge that a Biden White House poses to the bishops’ teaching authority, Cardinal Cupich’s tweets have exposed divisions that could be exploited by the new administration. 

Moreover, it isn’t clear how many bishops are prepared to adopt what Cardinal Cupich has described as an “attitude of dialogue” when dealing with lawmakers like Biden, particularly without the benefit of a strong moral framework defining the terms and goals of such an exchange.

During his Jan. 28 homily at the vigil Mass for the March for Life, Archbishop Naumann, the bishops’ point man on life issues, made clear that he was on the alert.

“We must pray and fast that the president will cease attempting to confuse people about Catholic teaching by trampling on the sanctity of human life while presenting himself as a devout Catholic,” said Archbishop Naumann. 

Bishop Daly, for his part, is worried about efforts to use “dialogue” as a placeholder for inaction and moral compromise.

“I am afraid that a parallel church is emerging that is clearly ignoring or even changing Church teaching, especially on the life issues, with President Biden and other Catholic politicians and their allies in the clergy redefining what it means to be a devout Catholic,” said Bishop Daly. 

“We are for the poor in so many ministries, but we are strongly pro-life, from conception to natural death. St. Teresa of Calcutta is the model for us. But this has been co-opted by those trying to redefine Church teaching.” 

“Real dialogue means explaining with clarity, civility and charity what the Church believes and teaches,” he said.

“As I often say, ‘Compassion always; compromise never’ when it comes to the moral teachings of our faith. Today, especially with a Catholic president, a clear expression of the truth is needed. We cannot ignore what is happening, kicking the can down the road, thinking things are just going to work themselves out. Cardinal George is the model.”

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

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