Pope Francis on Sunday engineered what may prove to be a seismic shift in the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, elevating not one or two, but a full three new American cardinals seen as belonging to the centrist, non-cultural warrior wing of the country’s hierarchy.
The pontiff announced a consistory, the event in which new members are inducted into the Church’s most exclusive club, for Nov. 19, coinciding with the end of his special jubilee Holy Year of Mercy.
The list includes 13 new cardinal-electors, meaning those under 80 and eligible to vote for the next pope, and features three Americans after Francis bypassed the U.S. in both 2014 and 2015.
The three Americans are Archbishops Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, as well as Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, recently chosen by Francis to head his new “dicastery,” meaning a Vatican department, on Family, Laity and Life.
While none of these three figures would be seen as “liberal” by secular standards, they are perceived as belonging to the more progressive camp in the Catholic hierarchy.
Of the three, Cupich and Farrell were quasi-expected, although one never knows with the unpredictable Francis. Chicago is an archdiocese that’s long been held by a cardinal, and Farrell’s new Vatican post seemed to beckon a cardinal at the top.
Tobin, however, is more of a surprise. Indianapolis is not a traditional “red-hat” see, meaning a diocese typically led by a cardinal, and his name had not featured prominently in much of the speculation leading up to the consistory announcement.
While the choice of a relatively small American city to have a cardinal could be seen as consistent with Francis’s passion for outreach to the peripheries, taken in tandem with both Cupich and Farrell, it seems more plausible that Francis was making a statement about the direction in which he wants the American church to go.
Had Francis held more to convention in his American picks, the logical candidates beyond Cupich would have been Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, both American cities historically led by cardinals.
There also would have been logic in each case, as the Mexican-born Gomez would have been the first Hispanic cardinal in U.S. Catholic history, and Chaput was Francis’s host when the pontiff visited Philadelphia last September for the World Meeting of Families.
Both Gomez and Chaput, however, are broadly perceived as more “conservative,” and thus would have reinforced what’s already seen as a strong conservative majority among the American cardinals, who tend to have an outsize influence on setting the tone for the Church both in terms of media perceptions and also internal leadership.
For some time now, retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been perceived as a fairly isolated figure among the U.S. cardinals in terms of his basic center-left, social justice-oriented outlook, able to talk to Democrats as comfortably as Republicans. He was joined in that stance by retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, but Mahony’s involvement in the clerical abuse scandals in the Los Angeles archdiocese has to some extent limited his effectiveness.
With Cupich and Tobin, however, what one might call the “McCarrick caucus” among the American cardinals has been swelled significantly.
Cupich was well known at Francis’s two Synods of Bishops on the family for parting company to some extent with the more traditionalist bloc, signaling openness on issues such as finding new pastoral approaches for LGBT believers and also opening the door to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to potentially receive Communion.
Tobin is a former superior general of the worldwide Redemptorist religious order, who served from 2010 to 2012 as the number two official at the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, better known as the “Congregation for Religious,” during the time when the Vatican was conducting two separate investigations of American nuns.
Tobin was publicly critical of those probes, suggesting they had been launched without dialogue or consultation with the women religious, and behind the scenes that didn’t always sit well with some of the prelates who had pushed for them in the first place. Many observers believed at the time his 2012 transfer to Indianapolis, before the usual five-year term in a Vatican office was up, reflected some unhappiness with his more conciliatory line.
More recently, Tobin clashed with Indiana Governor and Republic vice presidential nominee Mike Pence over Tobin’s determination to welcome Syrian refugees in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis despite Pence’s objections.
As for Farrell, over his years in Dallas he’s tried to steer the University of Dallas into a more centrist, mainstream position, at times running afoul of the sentiments of more conservative forces at the university. He’s also emerged as a leader in favor of gun control, something of a bold stance in the context of Texas, and also on immigration issues.
In one fell swoop, therefore, Francis has reshaped the character of the most senior level of the American hierarchy, steering it away from what some see as the partisan stance of the last two decades and back towards what might be described as the “consistent ethic of life” ethos associated with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, also of Chicago.
Bernardin also used the phrase “seamless garment” to capture that view.
The outlook, while certainly defending Church teaching on matters such as abortion and euthanasia, is more inclined to see them as part of a spectrum that also includes immigration, the death penalty, the environment, concern for the poor, and so on.
In 2011, the widely respected American Catholic writer George Weigel penned an influential essay in First Things declaring “the Bernardin Era is over and the Bernardin Machine is no more,” after Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York defeated Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson in the race for president of the US bishops conference, and at the time Weigel’s diagnosis was hard to dispute.
What neither Weigel nor anyone else could have anticipated, however, was the rise of a Latin American pontiff who would revive that legacy in his neighbor to the north.
While the realignment probably won’t have any immediate impact on the way the American Church approaches the election on Nov. 8 since the consistory isn’t until ten days later, it likely will reshape how the Church engages the aftermath – both in terms of the kinds of issues it prioritizes, and whom the Catholic leadership of the country is able to talk to about them.