Thursday, July 07, 2016

The Table Has Turned – Pope Sets Bishops A-Blase

Well, that was quick – less than a month since Cardinal William Levada's 80th birthday left Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl as the lone American member of the Congregation for Bishops, the Pope has added a second hand in his top Stateside pick to date.

At Roman Noon today, Francis tapped Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago to join the all-important Thursday Table, which recommends appointees to the pontiff across the developed world. The first Windy City prelate to sit among the 30 Hatmakers, the move provides a significant boost in the handling of the US' sprawling docket of nods, and likewise ensures that the process will produce choices in the "pastoral" mold which the Pope explicitly indicated to the membership shortly after its 2013 reboot, and then reinforced to the Stateside bench in a potent message during last September's visit.

Having made a sound impression on Papa Bergoglio and his allies with his contributions at last year's Synod, it is nonetheless rather rich that Cupich – no stranger to the process from his days as an aide at the Washington Nunciature – has been named to the very body which Francis bypassed on the Chicago appointment, taking the file to himself upon its arrival in Rome to conduct his own consultations and make the choice alone. In any case, as Wuerl and Cupich have long had a sound working relationship in managing the rungs of the USCCB, the new arrangement is certain to make for a minimum of conflict, with the duo likely to split the respective oversight of nods East and West of the Mississippi, and forging a solid consensus in terms of votes. In other words, the role long played by Cardinal William Wakefield Baum's salon overlooking St Peter's Square – where the bulk of two generations' worth of Stateside appointments were decided – has effectively moved to the Rectory of Holy Name Cathedral.

Along those lines, it's critically important to recall the task both Wuerl and Cupich will trade off for the States as the ponente – the designated member who, in each case, is assigned to review the reams of documentation in depth to present a summary and recommendation to the entire congregation to guide its choice. Had just one American remained on board, the home workload involved could've seen some files entrusted to the other two English-speaking members – Cardinals Vincent Nichols of Westminster or George Pell, the Australian prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. Now, the domestic files will remain in domestic hands, and given the congregation's freedom to disregard a Nuncio's terna – which has been exercised with some frequency over the last decade on US picks – some interesting results are practically bound to crop up.

At the same time, another competence of the congregation bears noting: far more than merely providing for appointments, Bishops enjoys sweeping authority to investigate prelates for alleged misconduct and recommend their removal from office. Having scored high marks for his handling of abuse, child protection and other good-governance issues both as a diocesan bishop and USCCB chair, as Cupich has already made a public call to urge the effective implementation of Francis' new norms to combat abuse of office by bishops and religious superiors, he's now been placed squarely in a position to push the project to a thorough conclusion.

As the Stateside docket goes, topping the current pile are three key spots in the Northeast: Rockville Centre, Arlington and Newark – all in the range of a million Catholics and each disproportionately influential with their respective places in the New York and Washington metropolitan zones – rounded out by a host of long-pending requests for auxiliaries from coast to coast.

While said Northeastern trio is likely to set off a chain reaction of other openings as current prelates are moved up, the new duo might be in for yet more company at the Hatmakers' Table, as wide speculation over recent weeks has tipped an American to be named as the first head of the newly-merged super-dicastery for Family, Laity and Life which launches on September 1st, a post which will in all likelihood come with its own seat on Bishops.