ROME – Archbishop Blase Cupich won’t be hosting Pope Francis when he comes to the United States in September, as the visit is an East Coast affair. Nonetheless, the top Catholic in the Windy City may still be in the spotlight along the way, since many see him as this pope’s “man in America.”
It’s a role, to be clear, which Cupich has little interest in playing.
“I don’t see any responsibility to be a bellwether or a benchmark,” he told Crux on Wednesday. “I’m going to be who I am … I don’t think the Holy Father wants me to channel him in the United States.”
Cupich was in Rome this week to receive the pallium, a woolen cloth that symbolizes the office of archbishop. Francis bestowed it on 46 new archbishops from around the world, including the 66-year Cupich, named to Chicago last September.
While Cupich may not aspire to be an American symbol of the Francis era, he nevertheless incarnates the politically and theologically moderate ethos, especially concerned with social justice and the poor, widely associated with the present pontiff.
Many find Cupich reminiscent in that regard of Chicago’s late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who famously championed a “consistent ethic of life.” Bernardin saw Catholic opposition to abortion, the death penalty and war as all part of a single defense of life.
The idea has been criticized by some for appearing to dilute the focus on abortion and other pro-life concerns, but Cupich says he sees the Bernardin approach staging a comeback.
“People are more attuned now to the consistent life ethic that Cardinal Bernardin advocated than they were during his own lifetime,” he said. “We’ve seen the results of that.”
On other fronts in his Crux interview, Cupich touched on:
• His recent statement on the US Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of gay marriage, in which Cupich deliberately combined his criticism with support for another ruling upholding health care subsidies.
• Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si’.
• Recent resignations by three American bishops related to their handling of sex abuse cases, and the broad challenge of holding bishops accountable.
• His hope that the United States will become more engaged on global challenges such as the crisis in Ukraine and anti-Christian persecution.
• Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September, and why it’s important he’s starting in Cuba.
The interview with Cupich took place at Rome’s North American College, and the following are excerpts.
What does the pallium mean to you?
At first when I was thinking about it, it meant the connection I have with the See of Peter and the ability, in some way, to take up the ministry of unity within the church. That’s clearly the task of the Holy Father, and this makes me one [with him] in that sense.
What struck me when I got here, however, was meeting the other archbishops. I think there are 46 of us altogether. They come from Malta to Malaysia, South and Central America, Africa, to Central and Eastern Europe.
It was clear to me that the Church really is universal, and so I have a connection not just with the Holy Father but with them. That really struck me as important, to make sure that we’re supportive of each other.
Because you were Pope Francis’ first major appointment in the United States, many people see you as the “Pope’s Man in America.” Does that influence the way you do things?
Not at all. I think we’re all in union with the pope, and I find that unity something the other bishops care about as well. I don’t see any responsibility to be a bellwether or a benchmark. I’m going to be who I am, and I’ve said this from the very beginning.
At first, they weren’t comparing me to Pope Francis but to Cardinal [Francis] George, and that’s kind of an onerous comparison …
Care to tell us which comparison you find more daunting – Cardinal George or Pope Francis?
I think I’m going to avoid both of them … As I said then, this is another reason the church is against cloning!
In the 40 years I’ve been a priest and the 17 years I’ve been a bishop I’ve always been myself, and I find that it generally works out. People pick up authenticity or the lack of it, especially kids. I’m not too enamored [with being see as the pope’s man], and I don’t think the Holy Father wanted me to channel him in the United States. There was a process that was followed, advice was given, and as is always the case with appointments the Holy Father makes the final decision. I don’t think it should be overblown … for some reason, I was the one who emerged.
Are you aware that when you do or say something, people may think it’s not just Archbishop Cupich but the pope’s man in America?
Of course I understand that some people may think in those terms, but I don’t let it influence me. I’m not going to react to that at all … it’s not my point of reference and it’s not how I operate.
Let’s take for instance the statement I did on the Supreme Court decisions, because I made it about both. My audience was not the group that might be looking to me as a benchmark. It was the priests, the religious, the faithful, and the people of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I aim my remarks at the people I serve, and I think that’s what I really have to do.
I do try to be careful about what I say. I remember when we had this document from the Holy See a while ago that was about the [sexual] abuse problem that also included something on the ordination of women. I think it was you who wrote that I made lemonade out of lemons, because I had a turn of phrase about how that document really spoke about the core values we have which is why everything was included.
I try to look for ways in which people can see connections between various points that are sometimes missed. That’s why my statement on the Supreme Court decisions was written the way it was, not just about the redefinition of marriage but also health care. I wanted to help people see that, yes, we have certain objections to the way the legislation was drafted and the implementation, but we also have a position in support of health care.
It’s the same with the other decision. Yes, we have a position with regard to the definition of marriage, but this is about civil marriage rather than sacramental marriage. It doesn’t mean that we should use this opportunity in any way to be anything but caring for people in all of the human family.
I try to speak in such a way that lets people see the connections they would otherwise miss.
Speaking of connections people may miss, let’s talk about the pope’s encyclical, where Francis talked about both the environment and the defense of the unborn. Is it your take that people heard the whole of the encyclical, or just focused on selective parts of it?
When I some the reactions of some of the people who were questioning it, I wondered whether or not they read the document.
I encouraged adults to read the document with their kids, high school and college kids. I think there’s a sensitivity in that age group to the issues that maybe the parents don’t have, especially with regard to a ‘throw-away culture’ and its wastefulness. There’s a spiritual desert that’s part of modern life today and we have to fill it with the latest thing, no matter what the consequences are, or we can only be satisfied by having things immediately. I hear young people talk about that all the time, how they feel trapped by the onslaught of new products to fill their own spiritual lives.
I think that when people do have concerns about the document, I’d advise them to read it with somebody from a different age group. I think they’ll have a different take on it.
The encyclical combines peace-and-justice concerns with pro-life issues. In the American Church, those issues are often carried by very different camps that sometimes don’t relate well with one another. Do you think the encyclical can help change that?
Yes, but I think if you look at the encyclicals of Benedict XVI he tried very hard to do that from Deus Caritas Est all the way through …
With uneven results?
Yes, they’ve been uneven. On the other hand, it takes a while to let that all bleed in to people’s mindsets. A teacher has to be patient. Some people don’t get things on the first bounce, in fact most don’t. You have to look for another way to say it.
Look at the teaching we have on the death penalty. The bishops in Nebraska did a great job in talking to people. You had a population that for the most part was against [abolishing capital punishment], but legislators were brought along and now it’s the law of the land. I don’t think that would have happened without the Church’s involvement, and the constant education of people, especially young people.
Somebody told me recently that Christ works in decades, not just in years or moments. We see changes over decades. I’ve been a priest now for forty years, and I can’t believe the changes I’ve seen in people over various social issues. People are making the connections.
I would say this: people are more attuned now to the consistent life ethic that Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin advocated than they were during his lifetime. We’ve seen the results of that.
You’ve headed the US bishops’ Committee on Protection of Children and Young People. Recently we’ve seen two American bishops resign, at least in part over their handling of abuse cases – Robert Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph and John Nienstedt in St. Paul-Minneapolis. However painful, were those resignations important gestures of accountability?
First of all, we shouldn’t have these developments just to have ‘gestures.’ I think that would be a mistake. There are internal aspects of these situations, which aren’t known to the rest of us, in terms of how they developed.
I do think there has to be a consistent, clear, public system of accountability. I’m gratified that the pope has now set up a tribunal system. The [US] bishops in 2002 adopted a final chapter in our charter about mutual accountability, but we have lacked the ability to realize that. Yes, we have fraternal correction, we can talk to each other, and we do … I can tell you there are conversations that we have. Yet there’s been no trigger with which we’ve been able to effect accountability in a real way. The Holy Father’s action with the tribunal now makes that possible. That’s the real change.
In terms of these individual situations [such as Finn and Nienstedt], I would hope they would not just be ‘gestures.’
The world saw them as statements about accountability. Is that a positive thing?
Yes, it is.
However, both of those cases are different too. I don’t want to forget [St. Paul-Minneapolis Auxiliary Bishop Lee] Piché either, because he resigned too. There were three people involved here, and it’s heartbreaking. These people have families, they have people who care about them and who have supported them. All three of these men got into ministry, to priesthood, wanting to serve the Church. I want people to see the long haul of these men’s lives.
You were just in Ukraine. What are your impressions of the situation?
The real issue is that you have a country where border were defined and accepted by both Russia and Ukraine that now have evaporated. You also have a dispirited young population that had hopes for their future, and now those hopes are being dashed. Young people are suffering, including among the refugees. We visited one of the refugee camps.
This is a political situation. Does a country have the right to have its own borders respected by the rest of the human family?
I’m concerned that in the United States we have not given enough attention to this issue. People should go to those camps and see where the refugees are. They should go to the military hospitals. We met a young man whose arm had to be amputated. He couldn’t get into the United States to get a prosthetic, so Archbishop [Joseph] Kurtz [of Louisville, president of the US Bishops Conference] talked to the ambassador and we were able to get the visa for him. That’s just one of many, many circumstances.
I think the Church has to raise its voice on these issues that have to do with social justice on the global scale.
Did the Greek Catholics in Ukraine express their disappointment over what many of them see as an overly soft line from the Vatican on Russia?
They told me they’ve had ample opportunity to speak to the Holy See about their concerns, and that they have an entrée and a welcome there. They know that the Holy See is following this, and that the Holy Father is an individual who makes his own concerns known to people, as I know he did recently in his visit with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.
What I heard was they the Ukrainians are very grateful for the support the Church is giving them worldwide, including from the United States, and also with regard to their interaction with the Holy See.
We just returned from Egypt, talking to Christians who have suffered persecution. Should the Christian victims of persecution be a core concern of the Church in the United States?
Without question. Just remember, when Pope John Paul II sent Cardinal [Pio] Laghi to meet President [George W.] Bush [in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq], he indicated that civil war would happen and the persecution of Christians would take place, that minorities would be hurt. He also said that you’ll know how to get in, but you won’t know how to get out. He was right, and there have been many casualties.
You have to go back to that [war] to see how this has developed. Yes, there’s ISIS, there’s Al-Qaeda, and other forces, but they’re not operating in a vacuum. There were decisions about US policy that contributed.
This week the Vatican announced the pope’s schedule for his trip to the United States in September. Anything jump out?
I’m taken by the fact that he’s chosen to come to the United States from Cuba. I don’t think that should be missed. I think there really is a sense here that the pope is making a statement, or at least it can be interpreted this way, about the importance of the United States as an immigrant nation. He’s coming in some ways as an immigrant, reminding us of our heritage.
The Holy Father does more by actions than by words. I’d look for a thread, and of course the end point is the World Meeting of Families. I think he’s looking for a way, with the document on ecology, the speech to the United Nations, the speech to Congress, to create a better awareness in our country of who we’re not only a nation of families, but how we fit into the family of nations.
I think there’s something there that will be a thread running through all the various visits he’ll make. He didn’t have to go Cuba this time … he could have gone when he’s in Ecuador [next week]. He chose to combine it with the United States, and I think that’s significant.