Most Catholics didn't lose any sleep over who would be elected chairman of the prolife committee at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ national meeting in Baltimore this week. But the choice between Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City represented something of a referendum on whether or not the U.S. hierarchy is coalescing behind the priorities and pastoral vision of Pope Francis nearly five years into his papacy. In a rarity for ecclesiastical politics, the vote even generated a lengthy Wall Street Journal preview story that anonymously quoted a bishop remarking on the election’s broader significance.
Cupich lost the election to lead the bishops’ prolife committee to Naumann by a count of 96-82, the first time in more than forty years that a cardinal on the ballot did not win. Appointed by Francis to lead the nation’s third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in 2014, Cupich has used his prominent pulpit to address gun violence, health care, capital punishment, and economic inequality—not only as social challenges, but as urgent prolife issues. If abortion rightly shocks the conscience, Cupich wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed, “we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care…or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.”
The cardinal is playing a key role in reviving the consistent ethic of life framework championed decades ago by another Chicago cardinal, Joseph Bernardin, who for awhile became the public face of U.S. Catholicism. He offered a bold, controversial approach to defending human life that rejected single-issue politics, drawing opposition from powerful conservative bishops who feared that approach would water down the church’s stance on abortion. During the lengthy pontificate of John Paul II, Bernardin’s efforts were beaten back by bishops and other influential Catholics who elevated abortion as the preeminent issue for the church’s public engagement.
Naumann, the Kansas City archbishop who will now lead the bishops’ prolife activities, has culture-war instincts that reflect a starkly different style and set of priorities than Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich. For example, Naumann asserted that the Girl Scouts embodied “a hostile secular culture” when he severed ties with the organization in his diocese a few months ago because of their associations with groups that support abortion rights, contraception, and LGBT equality. In his diocesan newspaper, the archbishop publicly rebuked Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine, a Catholic, for his support of abortion rights. When Kathleen Sebelius served as governor of Kansas he publicly told her to refrain from receiving Communion because of her position on abortion. “The issues that pertain to family life, to marriage, to the dignity and sanctity of human life, do have a priority in our Catholic social teaching,” Naumann said in an interview with Crux during last fall’s presidential election. “Those are kind of foundational issues for us…I would say, however, in terms of the magnitude of things, abortion is a much more important issue, simply because of the sheer number of innocent lives that are taken every year in our culture.”