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Bishop Cupich: A View from Spokane

Now that he has been named archbishop of Chicago, many people have expressed interest in Bishop Blase Cupich’s time as bishop of the Diocese of Spokane. I should make clear that I barely know Bishop Cupich on a personal level. I am only a Catholic layman in the diocese of Spokane. I do, however, hold an endowed chair in “Christian Philosophy” at Gonzaga University, serve as academic advisor to Bishop White Seminary (an undergraduate college seminary at Gonzaga), and am a former director of Gonzaga’s small Catholic Studies Program. Gonzaga University is, primarily, a school of approximately 4800 undergraduates that calls itself Jesuit and Catholic and that operates within the Spokane diocese.

First, the good news: Not long after he was appointed to serve as bishop in Spokane, Cupich delivered a talk at Gonzaga as part of “Ignatian Heritage Week.” His lecture was devoted to the work of Christian Smith, an accomplished sociologist who is the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.

Professor Smith’s work is vast, but he is especially deft at using sociological tools to chronicle the inability of Christian parents and educational programs, including Catholic ones, to pass on the practice or even the mere knowledge of Christian faith to young people in the United States. In his presentation, Bishop Cupich seemed quite convinced by Smith’s analysis of our current and ongoing crisis.

This means that Cupich recognizesthat there are very serious problems within the Catholic Church and within Catholic education in the United States. But Cupich may be unaware that after his appearance, Ignatian Heritage Week was taken over by Gonzaga administrators and that ideas such as Smith’s have hardly been featured during Ignatian Heritage Week ever since.

Not long after Cupich became bishop, the Gonzaga administration gave permission for the Vagina Monologues to be performed on campus. This was widely perceived – if never openly stated – as Gonzaga’s repudiation of former president Fr. Robert Spitzer. (Spitzer had refused such permission.) In the uproar that followed the approval of the Monologues under the new Gonzaga regime, it came out that Cupich had given his own approval for the performance.

It has been said that Cupich received promises from university administrators that the performance of the Monologues would be framed in some sort of proper educational context, but in the event the educational context turned into plenty of radical feminist bashing of, among others, the Catholic Church and her bishops. In any case, whatever his intent, the upshot of Cupich’s decision was to undermine the position of traditional Catholic scholarship at Gonzaga.

        Cardinal George welcomes Archbishop Cupich to Chicago

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.

I once wrote to him expressing in particular my concerns about the direction of Gonzaga’s core curriculum. His reply was polite, but he made it quite clear that he had no interest in involving himself in such matters. Gonzaga adopted, and is now planning to implement, a core curriculum that diminishes the number of courses that students take in “Catholic or Christian religion” from three to one.

The formerly required course on the Bible is being eliminated and the course in applied Christianity, which often in practice meant Christian morality, is being changed to world religions. Gonzaga students, many of whom belong to Cupich’s diocese, will soon be devoting only a single semester course in four years of college (3 out of 128 credits, or 2.34 percent) to the study of “the Catholic or Christian religion.”

The local Spokane newspaper describes Cupich as “a moderate who has called for civility in the culture wars,” since he has said that Pope Francis doesn’t want “ideologues.” From what I can tell, the description is inaccurate. 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. 

To be fair, Cupich was willing to debate publicly a local city councilman about legalization of same-sex marriage. Still, on the whole, the record is hardly a bold one. 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?

My advice to Catholics in Chicago? Your new archbishop is a very nice man; he is also very intelligent and talented. I respect him far too much to flatter him, as many of my fellow Spokanites are wont to do. And I refuse to believe that he really thinks that those of you trying to defend and advance the Church in the public forum are just “ideologues.” But he tends to be – to use a polite phrase – “conflict averse.”

We send him to you with our prayers and our charity. He’s got a very big job now, and he is going to need you to involve yourselves robustly in the struggles of the Church in Chicago if he is going to be successful.

Douglas Kries is a professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He is the co-author, with colleague and friend Brian Clayton, of Two Wings: Integrating Faith and Reason and author as well of The Problem of Natural Law. He is currently working on a book on Robert Bellarmine’s political thought..