In this case, it was religious moderation — not extremism or volatile rhetoric — that grabbed headlines. It was February, and Barack Obama was delivering his speech on the mandate requiring the health care plans of Catholic organizations to cover contraceptives, traditionally opposed by Catholic doctrine.
Blase Cupich, bishop for the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, was taking notes. He’d been tasked by America magazine, the 103-yearold national publication of the Jesuits, to write an essay about the Catholic reaction to the president’s decision.
Like other Catholic bishops, Cupich was opposed to the mandate and worried it would restrict religious freedom. That was expected. But what stirred some controversy was the way that, after repeating the church’s reason for opposition, he called for a “return to civility.”
“While the outrage to the … decision is understandable, in the long run threats and condemnations have a limited impact,” Cupich wrote, cautioning that leaders should “always be leery of letting a situation escalate to an undesirable degree.”
Observers took note. The National Catholic Reporter contrasted his “reasoned, measured tone” with the “hot, culture-warrior language” of Philadelphia’s archbishop, who told Catholics they should be “angry.” Reuters used his column as the lead example of how some bishops have become uncomfortable with the “biting rhetoric” of other bishops.
Cupich’s beliefs aren’t necessarily moderate — he’s against
contraception and is opposed to abortion for any reason — but in trying
to avoid heightened conflict, he’s stoked opposition from conservative
When Cupich became the bishop of the Spokane diocese in the fall of 2010, he landed in a thicket of problems: The church’s image had been scarred by sexual-abuse scandals, and lawsuits had sent the diocese into bankruptcy.
Then another issue arose. For the last few years, a national group called 40 Days for Life had protested abortion by praying outside abortion clinics. Compared to groups that blockaded abortion clinics in Spokane a decade ago — or groups that yell scripture over megaphones today — 40 Days for Life aimed to be tame. No blockades, no gory signs. Traditionally, about a dozen Catholic priests in Spokane joined in. Several seminarians would come out every Friday, in front of Spokane’s Planned Parenthood clinic, and lead a group in praying the Catholic rosary.
In 2008, Bishop William Skylstad, Cupich’s predecessor, endorsed the campaign, writing, “I commend this effort and pray that abundant fruits flow from it.”
That was why the movement’s local leader, John Weingarten, was so surprised to hear rumors last fall that Cupich had banned priests and seminarians from praying outside clinics.
Weingarten found it “terribly upsetting” and started an online petition in protest. Meanwhile, the controversy lit up a network of conservative Catholic blogs and the anti-abortion news service LifeSite News.
“It concerned me. I don’t understand what he’s doing,” Seattle Catholic blogger Mark Shea says of Cupich. “The rest of the Catholic bishops not only had no problem with 40 Days for Life. [Some] participated in it themselves.”
Finally, the diocese issued a clarifying statement on behalf of Cupich.
“The present political environment has become very toxic and polarizing,” especially about abortion, the statement said.
While Cupich wouldn’t forbid priests from praying outside the clinic, he asked priests to keep their role of “teacher” the priority. Decisions about abortion, the statement read, are not usually made in front of clinics — they’re made at “kitchen tables and in living rooms and they frequently involve a sister, daughter, relative or friend who may have been pressured or abandoned by the man who fathered the child.”
Priests are the public face of the church, Cupich says. He would never want a priest’s public actions to endanger their credibility and community impact.
But the church’s critics, on both ideological sides, aren’t satisfied. Karl Easterland, president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, is critical, not just of the bullying that women at the clinic can face, but of the Catholic Church’s stance against contraception. Planned Parenthood, with its contraception efforts, he says, does more than any other organization to prevent abortion.
Weingarten, meanwhile, says that even if priests or seminarians were technically allowed to participate, none have during the campaign this spring. He feels they’ve been discouraged. Also, the Inland Register, the diocese’s paper, used to allow 40 Days of Life to advertise, but this spring, Weingarten was told that “because of the controversy for the 40 Days for Life campaign I ran this by Bishop Cupich and he said no to advertising.”
“Please understand that I have absolutely nothing personally against the bishop, and he is in my prayers regularly,” Weingarten says in an email. “However, my goal is to save as many lives as possible, and having our bishop get in the way of that is troublesome.”
In his third-floor office next to the red towers of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, Cupich, in black-and-white priestly dress, expands on his philosophy in a calm, ruminating baritone.
His writings and statements, he says, are constantly themed with references to bringing sides together, striking up dialogue, “defusing hot wires.” He sees these hot-button social issues as just one thread in a larger religious tapestry.
“I want to make sure that the message we have is very clear,” Cupich says. “It begins with the unborn, it doesn’t end there.”
It’s a philosophy underscored by his previous job as bishop in Rapid City, South Dakota. Under his leadership, the “Pro-Life Committee” in the Rapid City diocese became the “Social Justice Committee.” It wasn’t a shift away from an anti-abortion message, Cupich says, but an expansion to all sorts of issues — opposition to capital punishment, support of immigration reform, concern for those in poverty.
In Spokane, Cupich tries to speak to the full breadth of issues. And not just speak. His goal is to listen, he says.
“He probably would be more of a visionary bishop than I might have been,” says Skylstad, Spokane’s former bishop.
Skylstad adds that Cupich’s vision is one of conversation — to hold firm to Catholic beliefs, while engaging secular voices, like the U.S. government, in dialogue.
“I think that his voice reflects voices that used to be more common in the U.S. Catholic Congress of Bishops,” says Bryan Cones, managing editor of U.S. Catholic Magazine. In a recent blog post, Cones called Cupich “the bishop who can speak without shouting.”
Cones sees the interaction between the Catholic Church and the secular world as increasingly strident. With the loudest voices growing, Cones says, Cupich is an exception.
“Very caustic language wears thin quickly,” Cupich says. “I think my approach works better in the long run.”* An earlier version of this story misidentified the city of Bishop Cupich's former diocese.