In 2014, Pope Francis moved Bishop Blase Cupich from the Diocese of Spokane (Catholic population: 100,000) to the Archdiocese of Chicago (two million). With his neatly parted hair and clear, quick speech, he could easily pass for a priest of Opus Dei. Yet his promotion set off alarm bells with conservatives, who had not seen it coming.

Cupich’s tenure in Spokane had been overshadowed by questions about his commitment to the pro-life cause – specifically, his decision to ban seminarians from demonstrating outside Planned Parenthood clinics and the way he placed abortion next to “joblessness and want” on the hierarchy of evils. Then, in 2016, Francis appointed him to the College of Cardinals, pointedly passing over the archbishops of some of America’s oldest and largest sees.

Last week, Cardinal Cupich ran for chair of the pro-life committee, which plays a disproportionally large part in setting the theological tone of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). His opponent was Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, an articulate critic of Cupich-style relativising. “Those issues that involve intrinsic evils – direct attacks on human life, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, or direct attacks on the institution of the family… must assume a moral priority,” he wrote in First Things back in 2007.

Archbishop Naumann is also willing to be a bit cheeky when it comes to his differences with the Pope. Responding to a comment Francis made about Amoris Laetitia in July, he joked: “I’ve heard individuals say that he shouldn’t give interviews above a certain altitude, because it seems like he creates teaching moments for us at that point!”

Cupich was expected to win by force of Francis’s implicit endorsement. As George Weigel pointed out in a post-election write-up for the National Review: “There are few episcopates in the world more loyal to Rome or more deferential to legitimate papal prerogative than the American bishops.”

This is especially true of the conservatives, which is why the so-called “Francis Party” in the American Church isn’t neatly synonymous with progressivism: there are roughly as many ultramontanes, who dutifully follow the Roman line, as there are dogmatic liberals. Commentators expected the ultramontanes to bite their tongues and vote for the company man, despite his perceived theological flaws.

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