In less than two years, Pope Francis has changed the face of a two-thousand-year old institution. His emphasis on humility, mercy and social justice offer a vivid contrast to a vocal minority of U.S. Christian leaders who only see dark clouds and battles to fight. Think of it as a struggle between Christians who subscribe to the joy of the Gospel v. those who wage a culture war. The latter are being kicked to the curb by a pope determined to rescue the church from self-righteous ideologues, princely clerics and conservative activists who think opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion are the only real litmus tests of authentic Catholicism.
The Francis revolution has now arrived in the United States.
In his first major appointment here, the pope this weekend named a pastoral leader with a reputation as a bridge-builder to lead the Archdiocese of Chicago, home to more than 2 million Catholics. Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wa., an unexpected pick, replaces the hardline Cardinal Francis George, who clashed with the Obama administration, compared organizers of a Chicago gay pride parade to the Ku Klux Klan, and once declared liberal Catholicism an “exhausted project.” Cupich prefers dialogue and common ground to rhetorical fireworks. When some bishops warned that Catholic institutions could be shut down because of the contraception mandate in Obamacare, he cautioned against “scare tactics” and instead emphasized the church’s commitment to universal health care. “We should never stop talking to one another,” he wrote in a 2012 essay in the Jesuit America magazine.
When voters in Washington state went to the polls to decide a 2012 same-sex marriage referendum, he reiterated the church’s teaching on marriage but in a letter read at every parish acknowledged the high suicide rate of teens struggling with their sexual identity, and condemned any attempt to “incite hostility towards homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity.” He angered some in his diocese by urging priests and other anti-abortion protestors not to pray in front of Planned Parenthood offices, viewing the gatherings as unnecessarily provocative. The pope’s new man in Chicago, a storied diocese that is the third largest in the country, lives in a simple room at a seminary and owns no furniture. At Catholic University of America in Washington last summer, Cupich challenged libertarian views now ascendant in the Republican Party as incompatible with traditional Catholic social teaching about the common good and solidarity. Widening income inequality, he said, is a “powder keg that is as dangerous as the environmental crisis the world is facing today.”
Why should Americans outside of Chicago or non-Catholics care about the pope’s latest internal shakeup? The Catholic Church is not simply a religious organization, but a formidable player on the political stage. Back in the 1980s, the U.S. bishops’ conference in Washington was at the forefront of debates over the economy and nuclear disarmament, emerging as a frequent critic of Reagan-era policies. When the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago led a drafting process for a landmark national letter on war and peace, Reagan was so spooked that even before the release he sent his Catholic national security adviser William Clark to head off potential criticism. Bernardin, who appeared on the cover of Time in 1982, was the nation’s most influential Catholic leader. He preached an expansive pro-life message that didn’t end with concern for life in the womb. A “consistent ethic of life,” he insisted, recognizes that poverty, war and capital punishment were also grave threats to human dignity. His calls for a broader agenda and common ground met stiff resistance from powerful figures like Cardinal John O’Connor of New York and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, emboldened by Pope John Paul II to put abortion at the top of the agenda and fight the culture wars. When Geraldine Ferraro, a pro-choice Catholic, ran for vice president in 1984, O’Connor was a frequent public scold and wondered out loud how a Catholic voter could ever support a candidate not in favor of criminalizing abortion. The U.S. church’s hard right turn had begun in earnest.
During the 35 years that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI led the church, influential U.S conservatives — the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute and Robert George of Princeton University — filtered church teaching through an ideological prism that baptized the Iraq war, made an idol of unfettered markets and narrowed Catholic identity to a scorecard that aligned neatly with the Republican Party’s agenda. By 2011, Weigel was writing the epitaph of the Bernardin era, satisfied that in his words a time when “a liberal consensus dominated both the internal life of the Church and the Church’s address to public policy” was over. Fights against gay marriage and contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act have defined the public profile of the U.S. bishops in recent years. In a sign of how some bishops view an embattled church under siege from all sides, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has said that while he expects to “die in his bed,” his successor would “die in prison” and his successor would likely “die a martyr in the public square.”
By appointing a social justice bishop who seeks common ground to a high-profile diocese, a reform minded pope has sent a clear signal to U.S. church leaders losing their way fighting the culture wars. It’s unclear how long the 77-year old Francis will have to mold the hierarchy to fit his vision of a “poor church for the poor,” but the pendulum is swinging back to the center. San Francisco Bishop Robert McElroy has argued that Pope Francis’ emphasis on poverty and inequality “demand a transformation of the existing political conversation in our nation.” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the most influential American Catholic because of his role on the pope’s council of cardinals tasked with reforming church governance, has called comprehensive immigration reform “another pro-life issue,” and in a homily before the annual March for Life in Washington last January said “the Gospel of Life demands that we work for economic justice in our country and in our world.”
This is all good news not only for Catholic progressives in the pews who have felt left out in the cold during several decades of conservative dominance in the church. A revitalized Catholic voice in public life just might also help jumpstart a better political debate in Washington.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. You can follow him on Twitter @gehringdc.