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Sep 20, 2014 4:26 PM

Pope chooses a moderate for Chicago archbishop

The Associated Press

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.

George is two years past the church's retirement age and is suffering from cancer. The Chicago archdiocese is the nation's third-largest and among its most important, serving more than 2.2 million parishioners. Chicago archbishops are usually elevated to cardinal and are therefore eligible to vote for the next pope. Both George, and his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, had served as presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cupich will be installed as archbishop in November.

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.

In 2011, Cupich told the anti-abortion committee and priests in Spokane that he wanted an educational, not confrontational, approach to the issue. He warned for having disdain for those who support abortion rights.

The next year, during the run-up to the Washington state referendum that ultimately recognized gay marriage, Cupich repeatedly underscored church teaching that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But he also wrote at length to parishioners about the suffering of gays and lesbians because of anti-gay prejudice. He condemned violence and bullying that has led some gay teens to suicide.

"I also want to be very clear that in stating our position, the Catholic Church has no tolerance for the misuse of this moment to incite hostility toward homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity," Cupich wrote.

After the Obama administration issued a requirement for birth control coverage for employers, Cupich said faith-affiliated charities should never be forced to provide services that the church considers morally objectionable. However, he condemned threats by some U.S. church leaders that they would shut down social service agencies over the Affordable Care Act.

"These kind of scare tactics and worse-case scenario predictions are uncalled for," he wrote in a letter to diocesan employees. "I am confident we can find a way to move forward."


Follow Rachel Zoll on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rzollAP


Associated Press writer Carla K. Johnson contributed to this report from Chicago.


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