Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington, will be the successor to Cardinal Francis George in leading the Archdiocese of Chicago, it was announced Sept. 20.
This is Pope Francis' first major appointment, and is one Catholic insiders will closely watch. Cupich purportedly shares the pope's stated commitment to fighting poverty and economic injustice, but nevertheless took stands, albeit measured ones, against the referendum that ultimately led to gay marriage in Washington state.
The Chicago Sun-Times asked Cupich Sept. 20 if he thought the Church was too focused on homosexuality and abortion.
"I think there is something to be said about the important insights of the Holy Father on this," he replied. "… We have to make sure that we don't collapse our agenda around issues that distract us from the full breadth of human rights issues. That however doesn't diminish the importance of defending life of the unborn and also defending people's rights."
Miguel Diaz, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and now a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago, told The Chicago Tribune that Cupich "will be very much in line with Pope Francis' vision of a pastor bishop. He cares about the people who have been left out of the system. He will minister to the needs of the marginalized and the poor. Pope Francis has clearly chosen a man of great compassion."
Dignity/Chicago, an advocacy organization for LGBT Catholics, said in a Sept. 21 statement that it was "enthused" about the selection.
"Pope Francis has stepped up and acted on his intentions for a new, more welcoming Church by appointing Bishop Cupich, who, by all appearances, invites dialogue and envisions a more inclusive Church that respects everyone's faith and interest in living Gospel values," said Chris Pett, past president and spokesperson for Dignity/Chicago.
Another past president, Martin Grochala, added, "The Archdiocese of Chicago, in prior years, has led the national Church in efforts toward social justice and responding to the real needs of the faithful and our society with wisdom and outstanding leadership. Bishop Cupich brings his experience of ministry in a smaller, local Church that has been reflective of Pope Francis' call to embrace the poor and marginalized. He now has the opportunity to lead us in this ministry on a much broader scaleto be a true leader and shepherd of all who seek God and wish to live fully in the Gospel."
Pett noted, "We look forward to learning more about Bishop Cupich's views on the many issues impacting justice in the Church, including women's ordination, justice for church workers, and support for the sanctity and value of LGBTIQ families and lives. We also hope the Bishop Cupich will fully engage our community and other marginalized communities in the justice work of the Church."
But Joe Murray of Rainbow Sash Movement, an organization that has long struggled with the archdiocese's combativeness towards the LGBT community, said he was not convinced that that perceived compassion will translate to a cordiality between the archdiocese and gays and lesbians.
"Nothing's going to change," Murray said. "I think the tone will be different, but the substance is going to stay the same. He'll just be a gentler person, one who's not as raw as George."
He added that the appointment might indicate that Pope Francis is interested in taking the Church in a new direction, but he did not see any benefits trickling down to LGBT church members. He pointed back to a commentary that Cupich wrote as Washington state voters prepared to go to the polls over Referendum 74, a bill that eventually opened the door for gay marriage in that state.
Cupich said he was opposed to the bill, explaining, "… Many opponents of the law redefining marriage have close friends and family members who are gay or lesbian. They too recognize the importance of creating a supporting environment in society for everyone to live a full, happy and secure life. Yet, they also have sincere concerns about what a redefinition of marriage will mean for the good of society and the family, both of which face new strains in our modern world. They are asking the public to take a serious and dispassionate look at what a radical break with centuries of marriage law and practice will mean."
His letter urged opponents of the bill not to use the occasion as an excuse for intolerance and hostility towards gays and lesbians, however: "My genuine hope is that we all can value the coming vote on Referendum 74 as an opportunity to have a substantial public debate regarding this critical issue, carried on with respect, honesty and conviction … I offer these thoughts with respect, but also out of a sense of duty to contribute to the debate for the good of our state."
Murray said that Cupich was taking a "two-pronged" approach to the matterurging compassion for gays and lesbians but rejecting their call for marriage nonethelessthat might be misleading for gays and lesbians. "It's hard for a lot of gay Catholics. They want to latch onto these folks."
Activist Rick Garcia, who is Catholic, is more optimistic about Cupich, although he acknowledged, "He is a bishop, which means he's a company man, and a company man tows the company line. But he is markedly different in style and tone than George, who was a hard-line, dogmatic and insensitive leader."
Garcia noted that, in Cupich's letter, the archbishop only spent one paragraph discussing the supposed shortcomings of gay marriage, and spent the rest of the document urging compassion.
"This is a very positive thing," he added. "He comes from a small diocese and is not one of the big boys who are groomed for this kind of job. There was a list of people whom everyone thought was in line for the job, and none of them had a snowball's chance in hell. I think we're going to see a different tone coming out of the archdiocese than the one we've had with this character we've been burdened with for many years."
Rainbow Sash Movement announced Sept. 20 that it would send a delegation to Holy Name Cathedral Nov. 17 for Cupich's inauguration.
"The Rainbow Sash Movement welcomes the appointment of Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington as the next Archbishop of Chicago," said Murray in a statement. "The relationship between the Chicago's LGBT Community and the Chicago Archdiocese can best be described as hostile over the years. …We recognize we have differences. The question uppermost on our minds is should we allow those differences to stop us from acting as good neighbors? Is it so bad to talk to each other in a respectful way? ...The choice is simple for the new Archbishop: either welcome us or not. Is it possible for us to find Common Ground?"
George has been taking a less active role in the day-to-day affairs of the archdiocese since early this year, when he announced that he was battling cancer. He submitted a letter of resignation in January 2012, but that was a formality expected of all cardinals upon their turning age 75, and it was up to the discretion of the pope whether to accept it.