Throughout American Catholic history, the archdioceses of Boston, Washington and Chicago have always been important centers of influence, generally led by strong prelates with national and international profiles.
In the 1980s, arguably no American was more consequential in John Paul II’s Vatican than Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, until the explosion of the sexual abuse scandals that ultimately cost Law his job in 2003.
For most of that time, Cardinal James Hickey of Washington stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Law as an American power-broker and papal ally.
Equally, no American prelate was more influential during the same period in providing a slightly different, more social justice-oriented vision of the Church and its role in the culture than Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, under his rubric of the “seamless garment.”
Flash forward 20 years, and the geographic roles were a bit reversed. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was seen as the primary intellectual interpreter of both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in the United States, while Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, both on the job and after his alleged retirement (I say “alleged” because McCarrick has remained busier after leaving office than most people are in it), is seen as a center-left, reformist point of reference.
After 2003 and Law’s departure, new Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was so focused on internal crisis management that he didn’t emerge as a national and international leader until later down the road.
As those examples also illustrate, while Boston, Chicago and Washington have always been important forces, they haven’t always been exactly in alignment. Sometimes, they’ve even represented rival ecclesiological, theological and political outlooks.
That, however, is not the case in 2016, when one could make a good case that those three cities now form a key “Pope Francis Axis” in the American church.
Chicago is occupied by Cardinal Blase Cupich, Francis’s first major episcopal pick in the United States and a man clearly in sync with the Pope Francis agenda.
He’s reached out to gays and lesbians, supported calls at the two Synods of Bishops on the family for opening Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and broadly established himself as a leader of the more progressive constituency within the bishops.
Boston, of course, is led by O’Malley, who in some ways was basically Francis before Francis was cool. He exudes the same personal simplicity and humility, the same love for ordinary people and direct pastoral contact, and the same instinctive preference for concrete human experience over ideology.
O’Malley also speaks fluent Spanish, is the lone American on Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers from around the world, and was also tapped by Francis to lead his new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which is leading the pontiff’s reform effort on the clerical sexual abuse scandals.
Finally, there’s Wuerl in Washington, who may actually be the most important “Francis man” in the States of all.
The Archbishop of Washington since 2006 and a cardinal since 2010, Wuerl has long been seen as one of the most effective behind-the-scenes figures among the American bishops, engendering wide respect for his intellect, his management skill, and his almost preternatural sense of calm.
At the two Synods of Bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015, Wuerl was the only American named by Pope Francis to the drafting committees for the summit’s final documents.
That was in part likely because Wuerl had dropped strong hints that he was open to a “pastoral” solution to the debate over Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and has since emerged as one of the most forceful defenders in the States of the pontiff’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
We got another small but telling reminder of Wuerl’s reach this week when Bishop Edward Burns, his former secretary in Pittsburgh, was named as the new shepherd of Dallas. That’s another Wuerl man in a key post, which has long been considered a key index of ecclesiastical clout.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that the man Burns replaced in Dallas, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, is also a friend of Wuerl, having been an auxiliary bishop in Washington and serving briefly under Wuerl as the archdiocese’s vicar general.
Farrell currently heads the pope’s new Dicastery for Family, Laity and Life, making him the most important American prelate in Rome.
Both Wuerl and Cupich now serve on the Vatican’s ultra-powerful Congregation for Bishops, responsible for recommending clergy to the pope to be appointed as bishops. In effect, that means that Wuerl and Cupich are the “kingmakers” in the United States, and their influence in shaping the next generation of the U.S. episcopacy is clear.
(One could add Newark under Cardinal Joseph Tobin to that list, but Newark doesn’t exactly enjoy the same history as a Catholic power.)
Does this Chicago-Boston-Washington axis represent a majority among the American bishops? Perhaps not, and one hint is that in the recent race for the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cupich, O’Malley and Wuerl weren’t even nominated, let alone elected.
Interestingly, while Wuerl, Cupich and O’Malley in different ways may be key Francis allies, they are also very different personality types: Cupich a savvy political operator, Wuerl a consummate diplomat and thinker, and O’Malley a palpably pastoral Capuchin.
In that sense, the history of contrasts among these three critical dioceses may have receded in some ways, but by no means all.
Yet, to be honest, Law, Hickey and Cardinal John O’Connor of New York didn’t really represent a majority among the American bishops during much of the John Paul years, when the tone was more generally set by Bernardin and his allies.
It took time to shape a new cohort of bishops closely tied to the Polish pope’s more robustly evangelical outlook, much as it may take a while now to do the same for prelates closer to Francis’s vision and agenda.
That’s not to say, of course, that prelates with doubts or concerns about some aspects of what they’re seeing today are thereby defying the pope.
On the contrary, sometimes bishops serve the pope best not only by carrying his agenda, but by pressing him to rethink elements of it they worry may be as ill-advised, doctrinally suspect, or pastorally unhelpful.
That said, Cupich, O’Malley and Wuerl, in their different ways, illustrate the sort of churchmen feeling the wind at their backs on Pope Francis’s watch.