Pope Francis on Saturday appointed Bishop Blase Cupich, a moderate who has called for civility in the culture wars, as the next archbishop of Chicago, signaling a shift in tone in one of the most important posts in the U.S. church.
Cupich, of Spokane, Washington, will be installed in the Archdiocese of Chicago in November, succeeding Cardinal Francis George, according to an announcement by the papal ambassador to the U.S. The archdiocese has scheduled a news conference for Saturday morning which Cupich is expected to attend. George, 77, has been battling cancer and has said he believes the disease will end his life.
Cupich is Francis' first major appointment in the U.S. and the clearest indication yet of the direction he wants to steer American church leaders. The Archdiocese of Chicago is the third-largest, and one of the most important, dioceses in the country, serving 2.2 million parishioners. Chicago archbishops are usually elevated to cardinal and are therefore eligible to vote for the next pope.
George is especially admired in the church's conservative wing as an intellectual who took an aggressive stand against abortion and gay marriage. Cupich has not been among the harder-line bishops and instead has called for a "return to civility" in conversations on divisive social policies. Francis has said he wants church leaders to focus more on mercy and compassion and less on hot-button issues.
In 2012, during the run-up to the Washington state referendum that ultimately recognized gay marriage, Cupich repeatedly underscored church teaching that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But he also wrote at length to parishioners about the suffering of gays and lesbians because of anti-gay prejudice, and he condemned violence and bullying that has led some gay teens to suicide.
"I also want to be very clear that in stating our position, the Catholic Church has no tolerance for the misuse of this moment to incite hostility toward homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity," Cupich wrote.
In a letter last year on the Obama administration's birth control coverage rule for employers, Cupich said faith-affiliated groups should never be forced to provide services that the church considers morally objectionable. However, he condemned threats by some U.S. church leaders that they would shut down social service agencies over the Affordable Care Act.
"These kind of scare tactics and worse-case scenario predictions are uncalled for," he wrote in a letter to diocesan employees. "I am confident we can find a way to move forward."
The Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said Cupich "will be a pastorally dedicated, theologically astute and visionary leader in line with Francis' transformative papacy." Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter who writes about the American bishops, noted that major appointments like the one in Chicago are made in consultation with U.S. church leaders.
"The cardinals of the U.S. church, and anyone else the Holy Father consulted, decided that it was important not only to send a bishop to Chicago: they wanted to send a message," Winters said.
Cupich, 65, is a native of Omaha, Nebraska, where he was ordained a priest. He holds degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian University and The Catholic University of America. In the 1980s, he worked on the staff of the Vatican embassy in Washington. He was appointed bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1998, and served there until 2010, when he was appointed to Spokane.
Cupich also served as chairman of the U.S. bishops' child protection committee at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis and as church leaders were putting in place a toughened policy on disciplining guilty priests.