By RACHEL ZOLL
AP Religion Writer
As the leader of two American dioceses, Roman Catholic Bishop Blase Cupich has staked out a firm position in the middle of the road.
He has spoken out against same-sex marriage and against conservative hostility toward gay rights advocates. He has opposed abortion, while urging parishioners and priests to have patience, not disdain, for those who disagree. And he has criticized fellow U.S. bishops who threatened to shut down religious charities instead of pursuing a compromise with the White House over health care policies that go against Catholic teaching.
On Saturday, Pope Francis named Cupich as the next archbishop of Chicago, sending a strong signal about the direction that the pontiff is taking the church. Cupich will succeed Cardinal Francis George, 77, an aggressive defender of orthodoxy who once said he expected his successors in Chicago to be martyred in the face of hostility toward Christianity.
“I think what Francis is trying to do with his appointments in both the United States and around the world is to moderate the conversation and get us past the culture wars and the ideologues,” said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. “Francis is not trying to balance a lurch to the right with a lurch to the left. He’s trying to build up the big middle so we can have conversations and not arguments.”
The Chicago appointment is Francis’ first major mark on American Catholic leadership.
A native of Omaha, Nebraska, and one of nine children, the 65-year-old Cupich has served in a wide range of roles within the church.
He has been a parish pastor, a high school instructor and president of a seminary. After earning degrees in the U.S. and in Rome, he worked at the papal embassy in Washington, and as a bishop, has led several committees for the U.S. bishops’ conference. For a few years, he led the bishops’ committee on the child protection reforms adopted amid the clergy sex abuse scandal.
In his current posting as head of the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, Cupich inherited the fallout from a previous bishop’s decision to seek bankruptcy protection over sex abuse claims. He started a mediation effort that has drawn praise from local attorneys for victims.
At a news conference Saturday in Chicago, he cited his family’s immigrant history — his four grandparents were from Croatia — in a call for immigration reform. “Every day we delay is a day too long,” he said. As bishop in Rapid City, South Dakota, starting in 1998, then in Spokane, he has worked extensively with immigrant and Native American communities. About 44 percent of parishioners in the Chicago archdiocese are Latino.
Cupich first became a bishop as the American church leadership began taking a more combative approach to culture war issues, under St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Yet, he struck a tone that reflects what Francis has emphasized for the church: a focus on mercy over hot-button policies that the pope says has driven away Catholics.