From the standpoint of many American Catholics, Pope Francis has just taken one of his most important steps yet. One of the central ways the head of the Catholic Church exercises his authority is in appointing Bishops to Catholic dioceses around the world. Bishops drive the tone on the local level and set the agenda that governs important parish-level decisions. The choices the Pope makes are therefore closely watched by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, especially when, as has just happened, the newly appointed prelate is replacing a particularly controversial figure.According to theWSJ, Pope Francis has just named a replacement for the archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, who has been battling cancer. George is a noted “conservative” by the standards of inter-ecclesiastical battles, and his successor, Bishop Blase Cupich, has a reputation of being more “liberal” than he. Cupich allegedly forbade priests in his former diocese from praying in front of Planned Parenthood Clinics, and took actions that angered liturgical traditionalists in the Church who favor the extraordinary form of the Catholic Mass in Latin.Partisans of the narrative that Francis represents a more liberal era for the Catholic Church are seizing on this appointment as evidence that he is realizing his promise. The Chicago archdiocese is an important one, and this is, arguably, Pope Francis’ biggest American appointment yet. Yet the story is considerably more complicated, as Thomas Peters points out:
People also forget that when Sen. Tom Daschle issued a fund-raising letter on behalf of NARAL, Bishop Cupich took Daschle publicly to task and issued a rebuke against Daschle that was read from every pulpit in his diocese the weekend before the election. Last year he wrote this on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade: “The truth will win out and we have to believe that a nation whose collective heart can break and grieve for babies slaughtered in Newtown has the capacity and God’s grace to one day grieve for the babies killed in the womb” […]He is on record opposing the HHS mandate.So, on the hot button social issues, Bishop Cupich more than just falls in line with the Church’s teaching, he articulates and defends it.
It’s too soon to tell what sort of Bishop Cupich will be in his new Chicago seat; elevation to higher positions can often bring out unexpected tendencies in Catholic prelates. This revelation-through-elevation happened with Pope Francis himself, who was considered a relatively unassuming figure before his election. But early indications are that the left’s hopes and the right’s fears are once again distorting a nuanced decision, and not just on the so-called “pelvic issues.” As Get Religion’s Dawn Eden points out, both sides have been so occupied with the culture war implications of the appointment that Cupich’s “unusually proactive” outreach to victims of clergy sexual abuse has largely dropped out of the conversation, or been buried deep in any stories about the choice. It seems that much of the media coverage is more focused on scoring points than on dispassionate reporting on Cupich’s career.This distortion is an indication that liberals enamored of Francis still project their biases when evaluating his pontificate. One day, we expect, an important rift will open between Francis and his fans in the media, putting an end to such interpretive gymnastics. But judging by the reaction to Cupich’s appointment, his Good Friday hasn’t yet arrived.