A Tale of Two Bishops

One is described as “America’s Pope Francis”. One is criticized for failing to "truly walk the talk" set forth by Francis. Who is he?

It was the best of times…” One bishop was described, in a recent interview with a major network, as “America’s Pope Francis”. A veteran Catholic journalist described him as “humble and open, precisely the sort of pastor who ‘carries the smell of his sheep’ that Francis has said he wants.”

It was the worst of times…” One bishop was strongly criticized, in a just published op-ed in a large newspaper, as “a bishop who, while professing to reflect the new direction set by Pope Francis, does not by his actions truly walk the talk.” The author insinuated that this bishop was not “in sync with the new pope, who acts and speaks with common sense and humanity guiding him.”

Fascinating, I’d say. It is even more fascinating considering that the two bishops are one and the same man: Archbishop Blase Cupich, the recently installed head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who had previously spent almost five years as bishop of the Diocese of Spokane.

On November 30, 2014, Abp. Cupich was interviewed by Norah O’Donnell, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation”, who prefaced her live interview with Archbishop Cupich by saying, “Finally today, some are asking if he’s America’s Pope Francis.” Who those “some” are is not clear, but perhaps they included journalist John Allen, Jr., whose September 20th CRUX piece about Cupich’s appointment stated, “By now, the profile of a ‘Francis bishop’ has come into focus: Ideologically, moderates rather than hardliners; pastorally, men who place special emphasis on concern for the poor and those at the margins; and personally, leaders who aren’t flashy personality types, with a reputation for being accessible and hands-on.” Allen then lauded Cupich as “humble and open,” the sort of pastor who “carries the smell of his sheep” referenced by Pope Francis.

On Sunday, February 2nd, The Spokesman-Review published an op-ed, “Catholic Church better off if bishops follow pope’s lead,” written by Chris Carlson, former press secretary to four-time Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat who is not, it seems apparent, a “conservative” Catholic. Carlson focuses on a recent story that is familiar to Catholics in Spokane but has hardly been noted—with a couple of exceptions—outside of the Inland Northwest:

The recent settlement of a malpractice lawsuit filed by the Diocese of Spokane against its longtime outside counsel should be viewed as another example of a bishop who, while professing to reflect the new direction set by Pope Francis, does not by his actions truly walk the talk.

The Spokane Catholic diocese, while under the leadership of Bishop Blase Cupich – now archbishop in Chicago – spent two-and-one-half years, and who knows how many wasted dollars, because he was, according to the deposition of former vicar general the Rev. Steven Dublinski, “throwing mud at Paine-Hamblen to see if any mud sticks.”

The difficult, perplexing background

The story of the lawsuit against Paine Hamblen, the highly respected Spokane-based law firm that represented the Diocese of Spokane for over a decade, is complicated and riveting. In fact, it has the makings of catnip for journalists angling for sensational news about the Church: an unprecedented malpractice lawsuit by the bishop against the Catholic lawyers who had spent years representing the diocese in settling close to 200 sexual abuse claims; a resulting legal battle over millions of dollars (a “money grab”) and claims of conflict of interest; clashes and a resignation within a chancery over the handling of sexual abuse cases; accusations of a bishop involved in backroom mudslinging; a letter sent to Pope Francis because of allegedly “vindictive” actions by the bishop against fellow Catholics.

And yet, oddly enough, the story barely registered with national media and Catholic media alike. Most pieces about the settlement were cursory and run of the mill, with statements such as: “Former Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich, who now serves as archbishop of Chicago, reviewed the bankruptcy case when he arrived in 2010 and decided to pursue a claim against the law firm.” (I wonder: would there have been such silence if the bishop involved had a reputation as a “conservative”?)

Two of the few exceptions were The Spokesman-Review, which ran several pieces about the legal conflict, and the NBC affiliate in Chicago, whose reporter, Phil Rogers, rightly noted in a January 23rd report that the lawsuit was “unprecedented”. That assessment is shared by several lawyers and other experts I’ve talked to about the case, including Greg Arpin, a veteran attorney for Paine Hamblen who was originally named—along with his wife, Lori—as a defendant in the lawsuit brought by Cupich and the Diocese of Spokane. Arpin, who is a life-long Catholic who represented the diocese for over a decade (starting in 1986), told me last December that he had never seen anything like the lawsuit in his “nearly 40 years of law practice,” describing it as “very unusual” and “ highly irregular.” As a “Catholic lawyer defending the Church,” he said, “and a former member of the National Association of Diocesan Attorneys, it is unprecedented to my knowledge.”

Lori Arpin was so upset by the lawsuit that she sent a letter to Pope Francis in January 2014. “My husband and I,” she wrote, “are in the process of reevaluating our Catholic faith as a result of unjust actions taken against us. … In taking this vindictive and unjust legal action, Bishop Cupich has ignored all decisions made in the matter by (his predecessor) Bishop Skylstad, his canonical advisors, and the Bankruptcy Court.” She further claimed that Cupich, after arriving in Spokane in 2010, “did not consult with Greg, Bishop Skylstad, or the bishops and lay people with whom Bishop Skylstad had collaborated and consulted…” She concluded by saying that she and her husband “are stunned and hurt to the core by Bishop Cupich’s action against us. Our faith is shaken, especially after the total commitment made by Greg and his law firm to defend the Church, putting themselves in the line of fire, knowing the seriousness of the claims they had to settle.” The Arpins never received a response of any kind from the Holy See.

In an October 2014 Catholic New Service profile, “Newly named Chicago archbishop takes cues from pope: listen and nurture,” the new archbishop of Chicago emphasized that his style of leadership was based squarely on the example of Pope Francis:

The Holy Father is very clear about listening to all voices,” said Archbishop Cupich. “He specifically noted that it doesn’t matter what station you have in the life of the church, what position you hold, but that it’s important for all voices to be heard, to speak frankly and with charity.” …

It doesn’t hurt when the pope himself advocates the way you’ve been doing ministry, he admitted. “It allows you to be more confident in that approach and also to drill down deeper into how important it is.”

Lawsuit and leadership style

What really is Cupich’s “style”? What does his lawsuit indicate about his approach to being a pastor, shepherd, and leader? The Chicago Tribune, in an October 2, 2014, article, “Case offers insight into archbishop’s leadership,” suggested that Cupich’s willingness to pursue the lawsuit “offers insights into his willingness as a leader to challenge the status quo and make potentially unpopular decisions.” Part of the “status quo,” as the piece tacitly acknowledges, was the legal course set by Cupich’s predecessor, Bishop William S. Skylstad (who was head of the diocese for twenty years) as Cupich’s “aggressive move set up an unusually public clash between him and his predecessor…”

“Recent interviews,” the piece noted, “in Spokane with people on both sides of the issue, as well as court documents and legal experts, reveal how betrayed some felt by Cupich’s actions. They also show how the bishop struggled to handle a painful crisis that threatened his diocese’s future.” There’s no doubt that Cupich, when he arrived in Spokane in 2010, faced serious challenges, and any bishop in that situation was going to be criticized, fairly or not. He decided, as the Tribune reports, to file “an explosive lawsuit against the law firm that handled the bankruptcy on behalf of the diocese and had helped establish the original $1 million victims’ fund.” Further:

He alleged the law firm should not have represented both the diocese and Skylstad, who was embroiled in the scandal himself after being accused of ignoring warnings that a junior priest was molesting boys at a church where he had served as the senior priest. Cupich’s suit also claims the diocese law firm, Paine Hamblen, botched the bankruptcy by failing to commission an independent analysis of potential future claims and by pledging parish properties to secure settlements.

If the lawsuit seemed “explosive” when filed in 2012, it appears curious and even confounding now that the Diocese has agreed to quietly settle the matter. On January 23rd, the Diocese issued a joint statement with Paine Hamblen that said, in part, that the “settlement does not constitute an admission of wrong doing by either side; rather, it is a resolution of differences in an amicable manner which allows the parties to move forward with the important work that each conducts in the service of the common good.” It also stated, “There will be no further press releases or public comment by either party or their attorneys.” That apparently resolves the legal part of the matter, but it doesn’t answer questions about the wisdom of pursing the lawsuit, about Cupich’s leadership and decision making, and what all of this means, directly or indirectly, for both the Diocese of Spokane and the Archdiocese of Chicago.

After all, if Cupich believed strongly enough in the lawsuit to pursue it despite going directly contrary to the pastoral approach and legal strategy of Skylstad, why settle the lawsuit now? Was it simply because he had moved on to greener pastures? If so, what does it suggest about his sense of pastoral responsibility? Was it because he and his new legal team in Spokane recognized, in the end, that they had little to stand on and risked embarrassment in court and bad press to follow? “On its face,” the NBCChicago.com report stated, “the settlement would appear to be a resounding vindication for the firm…” From what I know of the situation, that is an accurate assessment.

But the lawsuit and settlement are just one part of the larger backdrop behind several other questions: Why was Cupich chosen by Francis for Chicago? Does Cupich embody the sort of bishop sought by the current pope? What, really, is a “Francis bishop”? Those questions are not easily answered, even though some insist they have been answered. John Allen, Jr., declared last September 20th that, “The ‘Francis Era’ in America starts today in Chicago,” and others followed suit. Thomas Peters of CatholicVote argued, “Pope Francis just issued his own ice bucket challenge to liberal Catholics, even if they don’t know it yet,” referencing Cupich’s rebuke of pro-abortion Sen. Tom Daschle while he was bishop of Rapid City, SD, as well as Cupich’s public stand for marriage and opposition to the HHS Mandate while bishop of Spokane. That’s all well and good, but shouldn’t opposing abortion, supporting marriage, and standing for religious freedom be minimum requirements for any Catholic?

What is a “Francis bishop”?

What does the current pope look for in a bishop? Francis, in a September 19, 2013 address, exhorted bishops to “tend the flock,” focusing on three aspects of that tending: “to welcome with magnanimity, to journey with the flock, to remain with the flock.” Journeying with the flock, said Francis, means bishops should be close to their priests, being accessible at all times; they must have “the odour of the sheep,” reaching out to those living in the “‘existential peripheries’ where there is suffering, solitude, loss of human dignity”; and bishops must serve with humility, not being “ambitious men, men that are married to this Church, but hoping for a more beautiful or a richer [Church]. This is a scandal!” The pontiff then warned that bishops must not fall into the “spirit of careerism,” describing that temptation as “a cancer.” He also criticized those bishops who are often gone from their dioceses, saying, “Avoid the scandal of being ‘airport bishops!’”

The principle of subsidiarity is helpful here: those closest to the situation usually know more about what is really going on. While the national press and CRUX have praised Cupich, they have offered remarkably little by way of specifics to warrant their praise. “On a personal level,” Allen wrote in his September 2014 piece, “Cupich is regarded as humble and open, precisely the sort of pastor who ‘carries the smell of his sheep’ that Francis has said he wants.” Yet, having spent quite a bit of time in Spokane—I grew up two hours east of the city, in western Montana—and having spoken to many Catholics there, I’ve heard a more complicated and distressing story.

The overall sense, expressed in varying degrees of detail, is that Cupich’s time in Spokane was quite disappointing and frustrating, especially for those looking for vibrant, clear, and accessible leadership. Those familiar with Cupich’s schedule and activities say that he was often out of the diocese for long periods of time, even more so than the amount of time Skylstad traveled while president of the USCCB. When Cupich was in the diocese, he was not readily available, rarely meeting with diocesan priests, especially not on an individual basis, although he apparently met often with certain, older Jesuit priests at Gonzaga.

When asked by CBS’s O’Donnell how he plans to “bring the pope’s vision to Chicago”, Cupich responded, “I’m going to do what I’ve tried to do the 16 years that I’ve been a bishop of a diocese. And that is to get to know people.” Yet the two descriptives used several times by those familiar with the bishop’s “style” while in Spokane are “detached” and “impersonal.” In a September 24, 2014 essay for The Catholic Thing, Douglas Kries, a professor of philosophy at Gonzaga, provided some specifics:

Bishop White Seminary at Gonzaga, which was nothing short of an extraordinary success story until Cupich became bishop, fell quickly into desuetude after his arrival. Moreover, when Gonzaga University refused to continue club status for Gonzaga’s campus Knights of Columbus council, Cupich, it is widely whispered, told the remaining seminarians not to discuss the matter with the press. It has also been widely reported that Cupich did not want his diocesan priests involved with certain pro-life groups that he considered too strident. Cupich may not even know it, but at the time, students involved with Gonzaga’s Right to Life Club felt abandoned, even though they were not his direct target.

The seminary situation is noteworthy, since prior to Cupich’s arrival, it was thriving, with over two dozen seminarians. Following the removal in 2011 of Fr. Darrin Connall, co-director of vocations and rector of the seminary since 2000, the number of seminarians has fallen to less than a half dozen. In addition, Kries notes that Cupich “had no interest in involving himself” in “direction of Gonzaga’s core curriculum,” a statement confirmed by others with direct knowledge of the situation at the Jesuit school, which has, to put it simply, been shedding its Catholic identity with determined efficiency (as Kries describes).

Controversies and “conversations”

“What I find to be very interesting in the Francis affect [sic] as people call it,” Cupich told O’Donnell, “is that people do have a sense that the church is listening to them, and also that he is speaking to their deepest desires.” Does that include listening to his predecessor or listening those who desire to pray quietly in front of abortion mills? While Skylstad had strongly endorsed the 40 Days for Life campaign of praying in front of abortion clinics (reportedly saying, in 2008: “I commend this effort and pray that abundant fruits flow from it”), Cupich discouraged priests and seminarians from participating and the diocesan newspaper stopped allowing 40 Days for Life to run advertisements. An April 2012 Inlander article reported:

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.”

The piece concludes with a quote from Bryan Cones, managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine: “I think that his voice reflects voices that used to be more common in the U.S. Catholic Congress of Bishops,” adding that Cupich is “the bishop who can speak without shouting.” But it’s not evident that any of the bishops are into “shouting”; the issue seems to be far more about clarity and firmness than loudness and combativeness. The November 2014 interview with NBC is a case in point. Much has been made, understandably, about Cupich’s remarks to NBC’s O’Donnell about the reception of the Eucharist by pro-abortion politicians. Those comments were quite unclear and convoluted (especially in the video; the transcript was cleaned up a bit), so much so that canon lawyer, Dr. Edward Peters, essentially concluded he wasn’t sure what the archbishop actually said or didn’t say. Here is the transcripted section:

O’DONNELL: But you in your own background appear to have emphasized conversation other confrontation. You haven’t been particularly confrontational with politicians who disagree with you on issues like abortion, for instance. Do you think the Eucharist has become too politicized?

CUPICH: Well, I think that is important always to begin with an attitude of dialogue. It’s important to listen to people and it’s very hard to have dialogue because in order for someone to tell you why they think you are wrong, you have to sit in patience to allow that to happen. The community — as I say, cannot be the place where those discussions are fought, but rather we have to look at how we’re going to deal with the tough issues of the day in a constructive way and as adults who respect each other.

O’DONNELL: So, when you say we cannot politicize the communion rail, you would give communion to politicians, for instance, who support abortion rights.

CUPICH: I would not use the Eucharist or as they call it the communion rail as the place to have those discussions or way in which people would be either excluded from the life of the church. The Eucharist is an opportunity of grace and conversion. It’s also a time of forgiveness of sins. So my hope would be that that grace would be instrumental in bringing people to the truth.

What is so striking is how Cupich accepted, without hesitation, the characterization and categorization used by O’Donnell, that any stand for withholding the Eucharist from those who publicly support abortion is inherently political and divisive. He then opted for the political solution: to dialogue and to appease. But is that really a solution? Has that particular approach—one that certainly used to be more common in the USCCB—proven to be so over the past several decades? As Kries notes, “Real moderates engage all sides, trying to find common ground, if it is available, that will permit them to advance their principles. By not inserting his office into conflict situations, Cupich has often, whether intentionally or not, quietly ceded much ground to one side, and without advancing his principles.”

It’s widely accepted that the pope selected Cupich directly, passing over the recommendation given him by the Congregation for Bishops. The reasons for that decision are not known, prompting more questions to fit among the many others. One of those numerous questions, put forth by Kries, is worth keeping in mind in the months and years to come: “And one wonders: if he comes across as too timid to be effective in the small, rather polite, and humble diocese of Spokane, what are his chances to be effective in a large, muscular, broad-shouldered place like Chicago?”

[Note: Lori Arpin sent her letter to Pope Francis in January 2014, not January 2013. That error has been corrected.]

About Carl E. Olson 1032 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.