BALTIMORE – On the morning of November 19, 2016, Pope Francis created Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago a cardinal. That very evening, he took the opportunity afforded by his new position to host a fundraising dinner in the Vatican Museums to benefit immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.
As he approaches the one-year anniversary of being made a cardinal, Cupich told Crux that the dinner was among the high points of the past year.
“I think for us, to be able to be at the center of the Church and think of the margin, gave expression to what the pope wanted us to do,” said Cupich. “He wanted us to make sure the consistory was about us.”
Three years ago, on November 18, 2014, Cupich replaced Cardinal Francis George to lead what has traditionally been considered the second most important episcopal see in the United States after previously leading the diocese of Spokane, Washington. Since then, he’s become one of the most pivotal players in both the U.S. and global Church, widely being viewed as one of Francis’s closest allies in America.
Along with Cupich, Joseph Tobin was elevated to a cardinal on that same day. Tobin had served as archbishop of Indianapolis when it was first announced he would receive a red hat, though only a few weeks later was named archbishop of Newark, New Jersey.
Looking back over the past year, Tobin and Cupich both told Crux that first and foremost, they’re committed to Francis’s call to build a “culture of encounter” as a defining part of their pastoral ministry. Yet, they have also admitted that such a task is easier said than done in a nation that — as Cardinal Daniel DiNardo recently summarized — “seems more divided than ever.”
The Challenges of Building a Culture of Encounter
As the U.S. bishops met in Baltimore over the past week for their annual fall assembly, immigration took center stage in their discussions. At a critical moment, Cupich took the microphone to condemn the poisonous rhetoric that has come to define today’s public discourse.
Speaking to his brother bishops, he said that if Catholics attend Mass each week and hear the gospel and leave church still imitating divisive rhetoric, then something is seriously wrong.
Following that intervention on the floor of the conference, he told Crux, “The real issue and challenge that we have today is that people are…living in our own camps. We have such a tribal approach to politics.”
Cupich recalled a recent meeting of Catholic Extension, a fundraising body that provides support to mission dioceses across the United States, where many of the bishops told stories about hurricanes and floods that had hit their dioceses hard.
“People put aside their ideologies and their political persuasions and everyone pitched in—black and white, men and women, Republicans and Democrats,” Cupich recounted. “Anything that we can do to bring people together and just encounter each other as the Holy Father is asking us to do.”
The cardinal explained, “We convene people every week of different backgrounds and different persuasions and the way that they approach life in terms of their ideologies and their political persuasions, but just bringing them together I think we can show that there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us.”
Battling the Bullies
Two months after his arrival in Newark, Tobin battled an early March snowstorm to stand alongside fifty-nine year old Catalino Guerrero at a hearing with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to speak out against his deportation. Guerrero has lived in the United States for over twenty-five years, along with his four children and four grandchildren.
“It’s important to put a face on people,” Tobin said at the time. “I can’t accompany the 11 million undocumented people in this country, what I hope to do is say look, they’ve got faces, they’ve got histories.”
As he looks back over the past year, it’s this sort of scene—which he considers to be a form of bullying—that he considers a low point.
Forty percent of the 1.6 million Catholics in his archdiocese are Hispanic. “Those folks are terrified,” Tobin told Crux.
“Parents tell me that they’re not sure when they kiss their kids in the morning and they go off to school, that they’re going to be there at night,” said Tobin.
“The sort of impotence and the apathy on the part of the wider Church and society to allow this sort of bullying, which takes all different forms” continues to both bewilder and depress Tobin as he reflects on the past year.
“There are fatal forms of bullying, like abortion, I believe, is simply in many cases, people that are more powerful doing away with people that are ultimately helpless, and that takes other forms too,” said Tobin.
Both Tobin and Cupich alike admit that bullying has taken on an especially repulsive form within the Church, particularly on social media.
“I think the internet, which was supposed to be a wonderful market of ideas and a public square where we could talk to one another, has in many ways, reinforced and increased the polarization,” said Tobin.
Tobin told Crux he believes that while the internet presents incredible opportunities for evangelization, it also presents particular dilemmas for bishops and priests, and he’s asked his presbyteral council to consider a policy on how to best guide priests and bishops in the use of their social media.
“Some that have anticipated this, scream ‘First Amendment,’” Tobin said. “It’s not that you surrender your first amendment rights when you become ordained. Even in the civil jurisprudence, the right to free speech isn’t unlimited. I think as priests, there are certain things we can’t do. Or shouldn’t do morally.”
After social media campaigns by Church Militant, a conservative Catholic media outlet, led to the cancellation of several high profile speeches by Father James Martin, a popular Jesuit priest who has recently published a book on building bridges between the LGBT community and the Catholic Church, Cupich invited Martin to deliver a series of Lenten reflections in Chicago.
Cupich told Crux that he believes clamping down on this type of social media behavior isn’t necessarily the best solution but instead, it’s having the courage to still speak out even in the face of resistance.
“I’m not necessarily for going after people,” said Cupich. “However when I see an injustice I try to speak out against it. I think we have to be able to point to various expressions of poisonous rhetoric and say this is wrong.”
“In terms of clamping down, going after, or censoring people, I think that does little good and many times that approach only shows weakness,” he added. “I think we have to show strength by speaking up.”
Champions of a Consistent Ethic of Life
Among the most closely watched elections during the USCCB fall assembly was for the new head of the committee for pro-life activities, where Cupich was up against Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City.
Cupich is widely considered to represent the consistent ethic of life approach, which attempts to connect the dots between a range of issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment, whereas Naumann is more aligned with a traditional view that concentrates on abortion.
When Naumann beat Cupich in a vote of 96-82, some viewed this result as a vote against the consistent ethic of life approach. In an interview with Crux soon after the vote, Cupich said he believed this interpretation was incorrect.
“The [pro-life] committee has a huge membership. While the chair convenes people, he has to depend on the entire committee to move forward and also be in concert with the rest of the flow of the bishops’ conference,” said Cupich.
“I’ve been very pleased with the expansion of the understanding of life issues that we’ve had in our conference with regard to making sure that we’re consistent in our approach,” he added.
Cupich then pointed to the U.S. bishops’ guide on voting considerations as evidence as such.
“Surely, the document that we have, ‘Faithful Citizenship,’ reflects that, so I don’t see that we’re going to have any shift from that at all,” he said.
Pope Francis’s frontmen in the United States
At ages 65 and 68, respectively, Tobin and Cupich are quite young by ecclesial standards and will remain consequential players in a Church that Francis is attempting to reform and remake.
Both men were plucked from relatively obscure dioceses and in short order have become Francis’s frontmen in a country where debate about the pontiff is often a popular topic of conversation among the chattering classes.
At a recent University of Chicago event, Cupich was asked about the charge that Francis was fostering “chronic confusion” within the Church, as was recently alleged by Father Tom Weinandy, a former advisor to the U.S. bishops’ committee on doctrine.
“I don’t think people are scandalized by the pope,” Cupich responded. “I think they’re being told to be scandalized. I think there’s a difference.”
Asked about that same charge, Tobin told Crux that such charges are unfounded to him.
“There are those that are confused about what it means to be confused and to disagree,” said Tobin.
“If he [Weindandy] said Pope Francis was causing people to speak Russian it would have made as much sense to me.”