News Analysis

United States: Out of the red

The Pope passes over some obvious American candidates for the College of Cardinals

Few pontiffs would seem so naturally disposed to favour Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles as Pope Francis. Like the Holy Father, he was born in Latin America, and remains a strong advocate for immigration reform in the United States. His homilies place a strong emphasis on humility, simplicity and personal holiness. He also serves as vice president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and is expected to succeed Cardinal Daniel DiNardo as president in 2019. One would assume he was a leading contender for a cardinalship.

Yet Gómez was passed over in 2016 when Francis created three new American cardinals: Kevin Farrell, Blase Cupich, and Joseph Tobin. Then, last Sunday, the Holy Father announced he was appointing 14 more cardinals. No Americans were included on the list.

Gómez isn’t the only American who has been unexpectedly denied a seat in the College of Cardinals. Charles Chaput was also expected to have been elevated by now. Philadelphia is the sixth-largest diocese in the country, and its archbishop has traditionally worn the red zucchetto. Chaput is also a popular commentator on both religious and secular affairs (his review of the new Pope Francis documentary appears on page 29 of this issue).

The problem for both prelates may be their strong reputation for theological orthodoxy. Gómez was ordained a priest of Opus Dei and Chaput is a forceful opponent of gay marriage, marking them as two of the American Church’s leading conservatives.

Moreover, the Holy Father seems to place little emphasis on a bishop’s credentials when appointing new cardinals and doesn’t mind plucking them from relative obscurity. He shuffled Cupich from Spokane (the 134th US largest diocese) to Chicago (the 3rd). Tobin was elevated from Indianapolis (the 76th) to Newark (the 9th). Neither made any extraordinary impression in their previous posts, but both are outspoken members of the USCCB’s liberal wing. They also replaced top conservatives: Francis George and John Myers, respectively.

Neither Cupich nor Tobin are typical “progressives”. Yet both are, for instance, strong supporters of Fr James Martin SJ. Cardinal Robert Sarah called Fr Martin “one of the most outspoken critics of the Church’s message with regard to sexuality” in a 2017 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. Sarah is the highest-ranking traditionalist in Rome and a strong contender to succeed Francis.

That such a high-ranking foreign prelate would weigh in on this American controversy is telling. Conservative and liberal prelates across the globe are jockeying for influence in the American Church. Francis has escaladed tensions by bypassing the traditional promotion structure and positioning his allies in top positions – most importantly the College of Cardinals, which will choose the next Supreme Pontiff.

If one of the Holy Father’s confidants (Cardinal Pietro Parolin, for instance) succeeds him, he will face an uphill battle in continuing to place friends like Cupich and Tobin at the top of the hierarchy. Yet Vatican-watchers still expect a more conservative prelate like Sarah to be elected. If so, the next pope may be inclined to use similar guerrilla tactics to restore conservatives’ dominance in the USCCB.

Even if a home-grown moderate like Cardinal Seán O’Malley was selected, he would find it difficult to heal the deep divisions that have been riven in the American Church. A region that was once solidly in the pocket of conservatives has become the most visible battleground in the Catholic Church. Regardless of who succeeds Francis, we shouldn’t expect a ceasefire anytime soon.