If the Obama administration’s blanket rule for foreign policy is “Don’t do stupid stuff,” it appears that Pope Francis’ rule of thumb for the Catholic bishops is “Don’t be a jerk.”
The replacement of Cardinal Francis George—outspoken opponent of gay marriage and a leader of the USCCB’s battle against the contraception mandate—with Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago is one of the pope’s clearest signals to date of how he intends to conduct his papacy in concrete terms.
The replacement of George was not in itself unexpected, as he had already passed the mandatory retirement age of 75 for bishops and is suffering from cancer. What was widely watched was who Francis would choose to replace George in one of the country’s most high-profile dioceses.
Cupich is known as a conciliator who has emphasized dialog and shied away from the types of high-profile confrontations that have come to define the Catholic Church in recent years. “I’ve always believed in collaboration and consultation, but I guess I’m listening more intently to the voices of people who might not have had the kind of hearing that they should have—people of diverse backgrounds, people with differing opinion,” he told the New York Times before his appointment.
He told priests to refrain from appearing at protests at abortion clinics and wrote an essay in America magazine that sought to find common ground between the Obama administration and the bishops on the contentious issue of the contraception mandate, while warning that the church’s opposition could backfire:
I believe that an even greater opportunity is before us—namely, to have a fundamental dialogue that is deeper and on a more prolonged basis about the role of religion in society in general and the nature of religious liberty in particular, especially as it applies to faith-based charitable, health and social service ministries in the United States….While the outrage to the H.H.S. decision was understandable, in the long run threats and condemnations have a limited impact. Leaders especially have a responsibility in this regard. They should always be leery of letting a situation escalate to an undesirable degree, particularly if it has the potential to bring lasting harm to both the church and the nation, and even worse, disproportionately affect the least among us.
George, on the other hand, was a master of escalating situations. When a gay pride parade was scheduled for a time that would take it past a Catholic church during Sunday mass, George raised the specter of the Gay Liberation Movement “morph[ing] into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.”
And in an epic rant published just weeks ago in his column for Catholic New World, he compared the treatment of Catholics who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion at the hands of the “progressive” establishment to Christians and Jews who “are fined for their religion in countries governed by Sharia law.”
George raised the prospect of a future where “those who do not conform to the official religion” of approval of “all types of sexual relationships” that were once considered sinful will be driven from public life:
It means that those who choose to live by the Catholic faith will not be welcomed as political candidates to national office, will not sit on editorial boards of major newspapers, will not be at home on most university faculties, will not have successful careers as actors and entertainers. Nor will their children, who will also be suspect. Since all public institutions, no matter who owns or operates them, will be agents of the government and conform their activities to the demands of the official religion, the practice of medicine and law will become more difficult for faithful Catholics.
With his retirement looming, George had little to lose by going against the Francis emphasis on peace and love. But other prelates who presumably have a longer career in front of them have adjusted accordingly. George’s fellow culture warrior, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was as least as bombastic about the contraception mandate and same-sex marriage, is singing a different tune these days.
He greeted the news that a gay group has been given long-sought permission to march in New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade as if nothing would make him happier. He told the Boston Globe’s John Allen that the days of threatening to use communion to discipline pro-choice Catholic politicians were “in the past.” Like all good politicians, Dolan knows which way the wind blows.