In an exclusive interview with America, Cardinal-designate Blase Cupich shared his hopes about what the new Trump administration and incoming Republican Congress can do about the nation’s deep divide following one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history. He also shared some thoughts on the upcoming Catholic bishops’ plenary assembly in Baltimore next week.
The archbishop of Chicago was in Rome for a meeting of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, which selects candidates to be bishops in countries across the globe, including North and South America, and was a panel member at the presentation of a new book of Pope Francis’ homilies and talks during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
He will return to Rome after the U.S. bishops' meeting for a consistory at the Vatican on Nov. 19, during which Pope Francis will make him a cardinal.
Americans have elected a new president after a campaign that revealed a deep divide and polarization in the country. How do you interpret that divide?
I think every election reveals the divisions in society, and this one in particular showed the depth of the discontent in the American family. There are many factors at play, some historical, such as race, which since the Civil War has been a point of division in America. Likewise, there has also been a division based on the disparity in the economy, and that is even more pronounced today as many feel trapped in a system that does not work for them.
The pope has spoken about this as it pertains to the entire world. There is inequity in the system, and many are of the opinion that there is no way forward for them or their families.
In Chicago, that is experienced by those living in neighborhoods that are segregated, where people are convinced that they have no way of moving out and up onto another level on the economic ladder. Additionally, globalization has been a factor. A lot of jobs, especially manufacturing jobs, which people counted on for generations, have moved elsewhere.
I think all of those factors are part of the disenchantment that people feel today and which was revealed in the campaign, all in some way related to the sense that there is a lack of equality in society today.
As you look forward to the next four years, what do you hope for from the new administration and incoming Congress? What would you really like to see happen?
I think that we have to first of all re-establish a greater sense of solidarity, revitalizing our democracy, as the pope said to the Popular Movements last week and emphasizing the factors that unite us rather than divide us. My hope and aspiration would be that the leaders of the country now would be able to raise up those factors that make us a united states, and which draw us together. We don’t need more divisive language or programs and policies that are going to tear the fabric of the nation apart.
We saw a divide, too, in the U.S. church during this election, with some bishops considering a single issue—abortion—as the decisive factor for Catholic voters. With such a division among the bishops, how can the church in the United States help to heal the wounds of this polarized society?
Well, I think we have always had that kind of division in the episcopal conference when it comes to how some take up the various issues and give single focus to some over others. We see that every four years when we debate Faithful Citizenship. There are always some who would like us to make one issue, or a set of issues, the non-negotiables.
The bishops have rejected that approach in each reframing of the Faithful Citizenship document. So that’s nothing new. But I think what is new, what I have seen develop in a disturbing way, is that we have never before criticized or spoken about candidates individually, where we would criticize them by name or speak about them.
We always spoke about principles and the issues, but we never used the opportunity of addressing issues related to the campaign by actually naming and criticizing individual politicians by name. Unfortunately, that is a new development which we have seen happen in the last couple of years, and I think that’s a very disturbing departure from the way we have done things in the past. I am convinced that in the long run this tactic does not suit us well, and it really is not what we should be doing as bishops. I hope we have a chance to talk about this when we meet in November; otherwise our voice will be even further marginalized in the public square.
That’s in fact what the pope is reported to have said in an interview published this morning in La Repubblica when asked before the elections what he thought about Donald Trump. “I do not pass judgement on persons or politicians, I just want to understand what are the sufferings that their way of proceeding causes to the poor and the excluded,” the pope is quoted as saying.
That’s right, and I think before an election it is important that we do not single people out and speak about them in a personal way. That has never been our our way of acting, and it is disturbing that some have deviated from that tradition and practice. We need to return to speaking about these issues without speaking directly about individuals and criticizing them personally.
You return to the United States tomorrow for the U.S.C.C.B. fall meeting, where important elections will take place not only for the presidency of the conference but also for its committees. Some have presented these elections as a referendum on Pope Francis, is that how you see them?
No, I think the bishops in the United States want to be supportive to the successor of Peter, whoever he is. There’s a great devotion to the pope, and I think that bishops by and large find that Pope Francis has made their ministry much easier, in the sense that there is a buoyancy and enthusiasm about the church that we had lost over the years and the Holy Father has done much to recapture.
I do think that some in the church, not only bishops but right across the board, are struggling to adjust to the way the Holy Father is speaking about some very important issues, and I think that just takes time. So, I don’t see the U.S.C.C.B. elections as necessarily a referendum on the pope. I think that every time we have these elections, it is an opportunity for us to examine how we see our mission.
From my perspective, we should revitalize our tradition as an episcopal conference of addressing not only the issues of our country, but also those of the world and offer a vision for our country of how we should contribute to peace and justice around the world. Pope Francis talked about this when he came to the United States last year. We bishops have a responsibility to point the way for our people to look beyond our parochial and national concerns, since we as the United States are in a position to do so much good with our resources.
What would you like to come out of this assembly of bishops this weekend? What message would you like the bishops to offer the country and the universal church?
Well first of all, given the situation in the country, I know from speaking to a lot of folks who are or who work with undocumented immigrants, there really is a great fear on the part of immigrant families. I saw the homily of Archbishop Gomez this past week, and I agree totally with him that there are a lot of people who are afraid. My hope would be that the bishops first of all would speak in a pastoral way to calm the fears of people and let them know that we are advocates for them, that we will be their voice, defending them. So for starters, we have to come out of our meeting with that very clear message to our people.
Secondly, we also, as I noted already here, have to be willing to take the wider view of the issues we should be addressing. I was so encouraged by a response of Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state, who was asked after the election, “What are you most concerned about in today’s world?” His reply offers us a template for the broad agenda we should be pursuing as an episcopal conference:
"The millions of children that are forced to leave their homes, the thousands of unaccompanied minors who fall prey to abuse and exploitation. The fate of peoples who are innocent victims of war. Political and multilateral efforts are needed in order to remove the root causes of the vast movement and forced displacement of peoples, in other words conflicts, violence, human rights violations, environmental degradation, extreme poverty, the trade and trafficking of arms, corruption and sinister commercial and financial plans."
Those are the kind of issues we should be taking up given our stature in the world.
During his visit to the United States last year, Pope Francis delivered an important talk to the bishops in which he called them to engage in dialogue, not in confrontation, to avoid judgmental positions or use of harsh and divisive language, to work for inclusion not exclusion. Looking over the past year since then, it seems to me that not everyone is taking his advice. Why?
Well, I think we are learning. The Holy Father gave us some very specific advice and challenging things to think about, not only in this perspective but in other ways as well. “Amoris Laetitia” was also very challenging to all of us, as was “Laudato Si’.” And so it will take us time to absorb the richness of these magisterial teachings and make it our own.
I firmly believe that the Holy Father’s urging is a challenge to us and will make us a better conference and better bishops. So my hope would be that we will speak frankly with each other about these issues, and if we have difficulties with that then we dialogue among ourselves as a conference. I think it will take some time for people to adjust to this new reality, but isn’t that always the case whenever a prophetic voice is raised in the church and the world?
Cardinal Donald Wuerl in an interview during the synod of bishops on the family wondered whether the reason some bishops distance themselves from Francis and his teaching is because they do not like it or share his vision of the church? Is that how you see it?
Surely, there are some who are struggling with the vision offered by the pope, and, yes, sadly, there are some who are opposed to him and do not like him, as Cardinal Wuerl said. I use the word sadly, not in terms of it being sad for the pope, but for those who oppose him or working against him because in reality they lack an understanding of what it means to be a bishop in the Catholic Church.
As we worked in the synod last year, the Holy Father indicated that for us to move forward with the guidance of the Spirit we would all, including him, be on a path of conversion. The conversion for any bishop in this moment has to involve asking the question: What must I do to be of greater service to the church by working in unity with the succesor of Peter.
He is the elder brother in the midst of us who calls us to greater understanding of our episcopal service but also our service to the universal church in collegiality with him, in union with him. This is the great service the successor of Peter offers the church, calling us to conversion and working in unity.
In all of this the Holy Father clearly has in mind what the Second Vatican Council said about the role of bishops when it comes to how they relate to the universal church. They are not only charged with oversight of the flock entrusted to them, but also all of the churches, and in this they share a ministry with the Holy Father.
In a word, that means that we should not only have a concern for our own dioceses, our own country, but we should also have a concern for all of the churches throughout the world and at the same time be open to all of the ways that we can learn from them. We begin that learning in our own dioceses, but it also must extend to what we can learn from the experiences of the church worldwide.
This is in keeping with the pope’s message during the synod when he commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, telling us we have to be an ecclesia docens and an ecclesia discens. We have to teach and learn, especially from the flock, as they often know how to sniff out the new paths where Jesus is leading us.
You will soon receive the red hat. What does it mean to you to be chosen by Pope Francis as one of his close advisors? What do you feel deep in your heart at this nomination?
I think that I have to continually tell myself that I have to be attentive to what the concerns of the Holy Father are in solicitude for the whole church and to be able not just to support him personally by becoming involved in those things, but also to speak to my brother bishops about that.
The word cardinal comes from the word hinge, which means we are those who help the Holy Father to be present to the local churches in a more dynamic way. So my hope would be that I would join with my brothers in the College of Cardinals to offer that service in a more ample way to the universal church and particularly to the church in the United States.
As I have told my people and priests in Chicago, we are living in a graced time with the ministry of Pope Francis and should feel so very privileged to be part of the renewal of the church he is bringing. That particular thought sustains and encourages me, reinvigorating me as a bishop, who has served nearly 20 years.