Pope Francis on Sunday engineered what may prove to be a seismic shift in the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, elevating not one or two, but a full three new American cardinals seen as belonging to the centrist, non-cultural warrior wing of the country’s hierarchy.
The pontiff announced a consistory, the event in which new members
are inducted into the Church’s most exclusive club, for Nov. 19,
coinciding with the end of his special jubilee Holy Year of Mercy.
The list includes 13 new cardinal-electors, meaning those under 80
and eligible to vote for the next pope, and features three Americans
after Francis bypassed the U.S. in both 2014 and 2015.
The three Americans are Archbishops Blase Cupich of Chicago and
Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, as well as Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas,
recently chosen by Francis to head his new “dicastery,” meaning a
Vatican department, on Family, Laity and Life.
While none of these three figures would be seen as “liberal” by
secular standards, they are perceived as belonging to the more
progressive camp in the Catholic hierarchy.
Of the three, Cupich and Farrell were quasi-expected, although one
never knows with the unpredictable Francis. Chicago is an archdiocese
that’s long been held by a cardinal, and Farrell’s new Vatican post
seemed to beckon a cardinal at the top.
Tobin, however, is more of a surprise. Indianapolis is not a
traditional “red-hat” see, meaning a diocese typically led by a
cardinal, and his name had not featured prominently in much of the
speculation leading up to the consistory announcement.
While the choice of a relatively small American city to have a
cardinal could be seen as consistent with Francis’s passion for outreach
to the peripheries, taken in tandem with both Cupich and Farrell, it
seems more plausible that Francis was making a statement about the
direction in which he wants the American church to go.
Had Francis held more to convention in his American picks, the
logical candidates beyond Cupich would have been Archbishop Jose Gomez
of Los Angeles and Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, both American cities
historically led by cardinals.
There also would have been logic in each case, as the Mexican-born
Gomez would have been the first Hispanic cardinal in U.S. Catholic
history, and Chaput was Francis’s host when the pontiff visited
Philadelphia last September for the World Meeting of Families.
Both Gomez and Chaput, however, are broadly perceived as more
“conservative,” and thus would have reinforced what’s already seen as a
strong conservative majority among the American cardinals, who tend to
have an outsize influence on setting the tone for the Church both in
terms of media perceptions and also internal leadership.
For some time now, retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been
perceived as a fairly isolated figure among the U.S. cardinals in terms
of his basic center-left, social justice-oriented outlook, able to talk
to Democrats as comfortably as Republicans. He was joined in that stance
by retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, but Mahony’s
involvement in the clerical abuse scandals in the Los Angeles
archdiocese has to some extent limited his effectiveness.
With Cupich and Tobin, however, what one might call the “McCarrick
caucus” among the American cardinals has been swelled significantly.
Cupich was well known at Francis’s two Synods of Bishops on the
family for parting company to some extent with the more traditionalist
bloc, signaling openness on issues such as finding new pastoral
approaches for LGBT believers and also opening the door to divorced and
civilly remarried Catholics to potentially receive Communion.
Tobin is a former superior general of the worldwide Redemptorist
religious order, who served from 2010 to 2012 as the number two official
at the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and
Societies of Apostolic Life, better known as the “Congregation for
Religious,” during the time when the Vatican was conducting two separate
investigations of American nuns.
Tobin was publicly critical of those probes, suggesting they had been
launched without dialogue or consultation with the women religious, and
behind the scenes that didn’t always sit well with some of the prelates
who had pushed for them in the first place. Many observers believed at
the time his 2012 transfer to Indianapolis, before the usual five-year
term in a Vatican office was up, reflected some unhappiness with his
more conciliatory line.
More recently, Tobin clashed with Indiana Governor and Republic vice
presidential nominee Mike Pence over Tobin’s determination to welcome
Syrian refugees in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis despite Pence’s
As for Farrell, over his years in Dallas he’s tried to steer the
University of Dallas into a more centrist, mainstream position, at times
running afoul of the sentiments of more conservative forces at the
university. He’s also emerged as a leader in favor of gun control,
something of a bold stance in the context of Texas, and also on
In one fell swoop, therefore, Francis has reshaped the character of
the most senior level of the American hierarchy, steering it away from
what some see as the partisan stance of the last two decades and back
towards what might be described as the “consistent ethic of life” ethos
associated with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, also of Chicago.
Bernardin also used the phrase “seamless garment” to capture that view.
The outlook, while certainly defending Church teaching on matters
such as abortion and euthanasia, is more inclined to see them as part of
a spectrum that also includes immigration, the death penalty, the
environment, concern for the poor, and so on.
In 2011, the widely respected American Catholic writer George Weigel penned an influential essay in First Things
declaring “the Bernardin Era is over and the Bernardin Machine is no
more,” after Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York defeated Bishop Gerald
Kicanas of Tucson in the race for president of the US bishops
conference, and at the time Weigel’s diagnosis was hard to dispute.
What neither Weigel nor anyone else could have anticipated, however,
was the rise of a Latin American pontiff who would revive that legacy in
his neighbor to the north.
While the realignment probably won’t have any immediate impact on the
way the American Church approaches the election on Nov. 8 since the
consistory isn’t until ten days later, it likely will reshape how the
Church engages the aftermath - both in terms of the kinds of issues it
prioritizes, and whom the Catholic leadership of the country is able to
talk to about them.