In American Catholic terms, Chicago always has been a land of giants. There have been nine Catholic archbishops in the Windy City, and for better or worse, they’ve all been larger-than-life figures.

In the early 20th century, Cardinal George Mundelein was an FDR enthusiast who mobilized the resources of the Catholic Church to respond to the Great Depression, and frequently sparred with the infamous “radio priest,” that Rev. Charles Coughlin, over his anti-Semitic and quasi-fascist demagoguery. The archdiocesan seminary in Chicago today bears Mundelein’s name.

To take another example, Cardinal John Cody, who ruled Chicago with an iron first during the 1960s and ’70s, was a lightning rod described by the priest-novelist Andrew Greeley as a “madcap tyrant.” Cody’s notoriety was also flavored with scandal He is alleged to have funneled large sums of church money to support a woman believed by many to have been his mistress.

Love ’em or hate ’em, the prelates who have ruled Chicago have been impossible to ignore.

More recently, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin embodied the progressive reform energies unleashed by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. During the 1970s and ’80s, Bernardin played a key behind-the-scenes role from Chicago as a power-broker in the national bishops’ conference, leading it to oppose the Reagan administration over military policy and to embrace the cause of the poor.

In many ways, Bernardin was the American John XXIII, the “Good Pope” who called Vatican II.

By contrast, Cardinal Francis George is more the American Benedict XVI, a brilliant intellectual committed to a robust defense of Catholic identity and tradition. During his own run as president of the national conference, George led the bishops in their fight with the Obama administration over the contraception mandates imposed as part of health care reform, framing the issue in terms of religious freedom.

All of which brings us to 65-year-old Blase Cupich, appointed by Pope Francis on Saturday to succeed George as the ninth Archbishop of Chicago.

The question is, are we looking at the American Francis?

There’s nothing a pope does as fundamental to shaping culture in the Catholic Church as appointing bishops, and that’s especially true for major pace-setting venues around the world. Chicago is on a short list with Milan, Paris, and Westminster as spots where popes have a chance to put their stamp firmly on the church in a wide chunk of the world.

To date, Francis has made a handful of those tone-setting choices, in Cologne, Germany; Madrid, Spain, and Sydney, Australia. His pick for Chicago brings the total to four, and by now we have a fairly clear picture of what Francis wants.

  • First, he wants moderates rather than ideologues, men who will defend church teaching but whose first instinct isn’t political confrontation, and who keep lines of communication open with all camps.
  • Second, he wants bishops of the “Social Gospel,” meaning leaders with a special concern for the poor, for immigrants, and for those at what he’s called the “existential peripheries” of the world.
  • Third, he wants men who see themselves as pastors rather than bureaucrats or diplomats, shepherds who, in his memorable image, “carry the smell of their sheep” because they’re close to the ordinary people they’re called to serve.

By all accounts, that’s what Francis has got in Cupich, an Omaha native whose previous job was as the bishop of Spokane in Washington.

Read a profile of Blase Cupich here.

Cupich is identified with the moderate wing of the American bishops, which has always been uncomfortable with the perception that Catholicism had become the new leader of the religious right. He irked some pro-life activists, for instance, by asking his priests and seminarians not to pray in front of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics, seeing it as an unnecessarily provocative gesture.

The new archbishop is also a man of the church’s social mission, with a clear commitment to reaching out to the suffering. Among other things, he’s led a committee within the bishops’ conference dedicated to reform on the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the church, saying a few years ago that he’s come to see the encounter with victims as a “template” for everything he does as a priest and a bishop.

On a personal level, Cupich is known as gracious and accessible. Actually, one of the few reservations people had about him when his name was mentioned for Chicago was whether he has a big enough personality to play on that stage.

Of course, people had the same question about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires prior to his election as pope, and we know how that turned out.

By virtue of Chicago’s history, and because from here on in Cupich will be known as Francis’ man — his first major appointment in America — the success or failure of the Francis revolution on these shores will rest to some extent on Cupich’s shoulders.

Seeing if he grows into the role will, therefore, be the primary Catholic drama in the Windy City for a long time to come.

Francis in Albania
On Sunday, Pope Francis will make a day trip to Albania, visiting a country where Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims alike suffered some of the worst religious persecution anywhere in the world under former dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1944 to 1985 and who banned religious expression in 1967.

The shared experience of the catacombs has produced a remarkable climate of religious solidarity in Albania, which Francis will try to extol as a model for inter-faith relations elsewhere.

This is Francis’ fourth international journey after outings to Brazil, the Middle East, and South Korea. At the moment, he’s scheduled to visit Strasbourg in November, to address the European Parliament, then Turkey, and will also head for Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January.

Ines San Martin, Vatican reporter for Crux, will be on the papal plane with Francis for Sunday’s Albania trip. (Here’s her report on how the trip captured Francis’s agenda, and here’s a photo gallery of the trip).

Apologizing to Benedict XVI
In the Catholic commentariat, there’s been discussion lately about whether Pope Benedict XVI is owed an apology for the brouhaha that broke out in 2006 over a speech he gave in Regensburg, Germany, which opened with a citation of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor linking Muhammad, the founder of Islam, with violence.

At the time, Benedict’s quotation was seen as a crass religious slur. Now, with the rise of the self-declared ISIS caliphate in northern Iraq and its bloody crackdown on religious minorities, things look a little different.

However, the revisionist take on his words risks a repeat of the fatal mistake of eight years ago, only in reverse. Aside from its second paragraph, the Regensburg speech really had nothing to do with Islam, and reading it that way distorts the point the retired pontiff was trying to make.

If you read the entire 4,000 word text – which, to this day, relatively few of the pundits commenting on it seem to have done – you’ll discover that Benedict’s primary points of reference aren’t Muslims, but rather Socrates, Duns Scotus, Immanuel Kant and Adolf von Harnack, luminaries of the Western intellectual tradition.

If Benedict was criticizing anything, it wasn’t Islam, but rather Western secularism and its tendency to limit the scope of reason to what can be scientifically and empirically verified, excluding any reference to ultimate truth.

The heart of Benedict’s argument at Regensburg was that reason and faith need each other. Reason shorn of faith, he suggested, becomes skepticism and nihilism, while faith deprived of reason becomes extremism and fundamentalism. In isolation, each becomes dangerous; to be healthy, they need each other.

In Regensburg, Benedict warned against “a reason which is deaf to the divine,” among other things pointing out that ignoring the transcendent handicaps the West in trying to engage the rest of the world, which takes religion seriously, indeed.

“Listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding,” he said.

Benedict XVI saw himself as a teaching pope, not a governor or a diplomat, and there’s no doubt his eight-year reign suffered because of it.

Yet as a teacher, he had an impressive record. His Regensburg speech was part of a four-volume work that also includes memorable addresses at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris in 2008, at Westminster Hall in London in 2010, and at the Bundestag in Germany in 2011.

In each, Benedict tried to lay out a vision for a constructive role for religious believers in post-modern democratic societies, arguing that democracies depend upon a bedrock of values they can’t supply for themselves, and that citizens motivated by religious beliefs can help supply them.

One can disagree with Benedict’s analysis, and he would be the first to concede that when he’s functioning as a cultural critic his thought is not covered by the infallibility popes claim when they’re pronouncing on faith and morals.

At some point, however, his arguments at least deserve to be heard.

If we owe Benedict XVI an apology for anything, it’s probably not for overreacting to his reference to Muhammad at Regensburg — which still seems ill-advised, especially in the absence of any context. It’s for never considering the rest of what he had to say.

The Pope’s personnel policy
This week, the respected Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister speculated that American Cardinal Raymond Burke, known as one of the most ferocious traditionalists and cultural warriors in the Vatican, may be slated for a demotion by Pope Francis.

Last December, Francis removed Burke from the Vatican’s all-powerful Congregation for Bishops, the body responsible for recommending new bishops around the world. Now Magister reports that Francis is on the brink of removing Burke from his position as head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s Supreme Court, and naming him patron of the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta, a basically ceremonial job with no real Vatican importance.

(The Knights of Malta is a chivalric organization for distinguished Catholics from around the world, whose mission is to assist the elderly, the handicapped, refugees, children, the homeless, and those with terminal illness and leprosy. One claim to fame is its sovereign status under international law, which makes it, and not the Vatican, technically the world’s smallest state.)

If Burke is sent packing, it will be difficult to see the move as anything other than trimming his sails.

Yet before anyone concludes that Francis is conducting an ideological purge, this week brought yet another personnel move that cuts in a slightly different direction: the appointment of Anthony Fisher, formerly the bishop of Parramatta in Australia, as the new Archbishop of Sydney.

Just 54 years old, Fisher is an erudite Dominican given to subtle reasoning about matters, making him difficult to characterize in terms of sound-bites. That said, he’s perceived in Australia as a protégé of Cardinal George Pell, the former Sydney archbishop who now is Francis’ finance czar, and so Fisher’s appointment will be seen as vote for continuity with Pell’s conservative leadership.

As a footnote, the choice certainly confirms Pell’s influence with this pope. Francis’ may be the signature on the bull sending Fisher to Sydney, but dust it for prints and I guarantee you’ll find Pell’s all over it.

Yet Fisher and his mentor are hardly clones of one another. Whereas Pell is a tough guy who relishes a fight, Fisher is a kinder, gentler soul, and he will undoubtedly surprise people with his capacity to listen and to make careful distinctions.

For instance, Fisher is a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, which tends to be a beachhead for the most aggressive pro-life voices in the church. I asked him last February how people in that world were reacting to Francis’ call to dial down the rhetoric on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

“There are still some who say that the best strategy for the church on this is open warfare, out-and-out confrontation with politicians, academics, the media, whoever you see as promoting the culture of death,” Fisher said.

“Others would say this approach has not worked. It has hardened hearts, made people closed to the Gospel of Life, made them write off Christians as fanatics or single-issue people,” he said.

Fisher clearly sees the folly of starting a conversation about Christianity with its positions on contentious political issues.

“[The culture wars] can’t be all we talk about, because there are much more fundamental things such as the love of God and the mercy of God that are absolutely, clearly prior,” he said, “and will drive any passion for social justice or the unborn or the elderly or any of these other causes.”

“The church is the loudest, clearest voice for life, there’s been no change in that situation under this pope,” Fisher said. “However, we have to take seriously the idea that maybe we need a different rhetorical register and a different strategy.”

In terms of what that strategy might look like, Fisher believes Francis himself is a pretty good role model: Despite being 77, he said, the pontiff “seems so forward-thinking, energetic, with-it, a child of our age, someone we can talk to.”

Fisher is no fire-breathing ideologue, but he’s also nobody’s idea of a progressive maverick. To the extent that there’s a new personnel policy under Francis, it may not be so much a shift from right to left, but an option for thoughtful leadership no matter where on the ideological compass it originates.

Speaking schedule
As this column goes to press, I’m in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to speak at a “Faith and Life” convention sponsored by the Diocese of Down and Connor under Bishop Noel Treanor, a prelate known across Europe from his terms as secretary general of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community.

Belfast is an infamous conflict zone in Protestant/Catholic relations, and I’ll pass along next week whatever I pick up on that front, as well as broader impressions on the issues facing the Church there.

Next week, these are the places where I’ll be speaking:

  • Tuesday, Sept. 23: Stonehill College, Easton, Mass., “Is Change Coming? Pope Francis and his Potential Impact on the American Church and Beyond,” 7 p.m., Martin Institute Auditorium
  • Wednesday, Sept. 24: Archdiocese of Boston Priests’ Appreciation Dinner, 7 p.m., Seaport World Trade Center
  • Friday, Sept. 26: Catholic Charities West Virginia, Charleston, West Virginia, Autumn Gathering, 7:30 p.m., Embassy Suites.

“All Things Catholic” readers in any of those areas would be most welcome.