What the Changing Face of U.S. Catholicism Means for the Interfaith Community

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Blase Cupich Cardinal Francis George

Bishop Blasé Cupich is greeted by Cardinal Francis George at a press conference in Chicago, where it was announced Cupich will succeed him. Credit: Creative Commons/WGN Radio


Pope Francis’ recent appointment of Blasé Cupich — a progressive bishop from Spokane, Washington — to replace the reactionary Cardinal Francis George as the leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago shows that Pope Francis is intent on reviving liberation theology not just in the Vatican and in the developing world but also within the ranks of U.S. Catholic leadership.
The leadership of the Archdiocese of Chicago is a huge role, as it involves a position of authority over two million Catholics. The Pope’s new pick, Cupich, is the opposite of Cardinal George, a reactionary who had butted heads with the Obama administration and compared gay pride parades to the Ku Klux Klan. In sharp contrast, Cupich has used his pulpit to condemn as “provocative” the Catholics who protested against abortion rights in front of Planned Parenthood. And during the election cycle of a referendum on gay marriage in Washington state, Cupich even expressed concern about the high suicide rate among homosexual youth.
John Gehring from Talking Points Memo eloquently noted the significance of this move, writing:

 “By appointing a social justice bishop who seeks common ground to a high-profile diocese, a reform minded pope has sent a clear signal to U.S. church leaders losing their way fighting the culture wars….San Francisco Bishop Robert McElroy has argued that Pope Francis’ emphasis on poverty and inequality ‘demand a transformation of the existing political conversation in our nation.’ Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the most influential American Catholic because of his role on the pope’s council of cardinals tasked with reforming church governance, has called comprehensive immigration reform ‘another pro-life issue,’ and in a homily before the annual March for Life in Washington last January said ‘the Gospel of Life demands that we work for economic justice in our country and in our world.'”

What does Pope Francis’ bold revival of liberation theology in the Catholic Church mean for the interfaith community?

Bold moves such as the appointment of Cupich are critical not only to Catholics but also to people of other faiths and to agnostics and atheists as well because they underscore a broader weakening of religiously rooted social conservatism.
Many political commentators have theorized that religious and social  conservatism is slowly losing traction in the United States. While there was a time in which James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, and other groups were spiritual voices embraced widely by average Americans, those times are now very much over. While Joel Osteen may have his place on satellite radio and his Texas megachurches are still crowded, he has little political significance, and the list of evangelical heavy hitters — from Jerry Falwell to James Dobson — is increasingly a list of men who have passed on or retired.
The Republican Party is ascendant with libertarians, who at their core love the ideology of Ayn Rand and are much more wedded to institutions of finance than institutions of faith. Ron Paul, the father of likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, has been dismissive of same-sex marriage as a political issue when asked about it and while both him and his son oppose abortion rights, it is unlikely that Rand Paul will make abortion a political issue.
Religious conservatism’s wane comes with a waning of religion in public life. In a study done by the Pew Research Center and reported on by the think tank, Faith In Public Life, nearly three-quarters of the public (72 percent) now think religion is losing influence in American life. This is up five percentage points from 2010 to the highest level in Pew Research polling over the past decade. And most people who say religion’s influence is waning see this as a bad thing.
The waning influence of religion in public life may be new to the United States, but it has been a phenomenon in many other developed countries for a long time. Most of Europe has long been quite secular, and it is likely that the election of Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, reflected a desire to find a Catholic leader whose values would not be anathema to secular people and to Catholics influenced by secular humanist values of equality and multiculturalism. It’s unlikely that the Catholic Church would have retained broad support in Europe with another leader like Pope Benedict, who used his prestige to engage in Islamophobia and homophobia instead of tackling human rights abuses and economic inequality.
Francis election reflected not just an ideological swing but also a long needed appeal to the majority of the world’s Catholics, who largely live in developing countries like Argentina, the Philippines, Brazil, and Albania. Francis has been warmly received in his visits to these developing countries, in part because he comes from one of them himself, whereas the last two popes were Europeans of the World War II generation.
The radicalism of Pope Francis may seem shocking to those accustomed to more conservative strains within Catholicism, but his faith-based opposition to global capitalism and class exploitation is rooted deeply in Latin America’s tradition of liberation theology. Liberation theology was first espoused in the 1970s by Gustavo Gutierrez, a theologian who was invited to the Vatican for the first time last year (despite decades of influence).
The distinctness of liberation theology is critical to understand because while more conservative forms of Catholicism were rooted in the missionary establishment that was funded and spread along with colonialism, liberation theology emerged from the perspective of the world’s poor who have been caught on the wrong side of global capitalism.

Pope Franics

Credit: Creative Commons/Wikipedia


Francis’ interfaith commitments (he has famously invited rabbis and imams to the Vatican and said that communists and socialists, infamous for an ideological distrust of religion, “are closet Christians”) may come in part from the fact that liberation theology has often incorporated elements of indigenous spiritual traditions into a more syncretic form of Christianity.
The recent appointment of Cupich hits home that the rebirth of liberation theology that Pope Francis is fueling is starting to touch the United States. With hope, this rebirth will energize religiously grounded progressive social movements more broadly. Religious movements have historically been at the core of America’s most successful social movements. Upton Sinclair, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez all espoused deep Christian principles while fighting for regulation of the meat industry, the end of racial segregation, and the rights of migrant workers.
If this progressive movement continues to grow within Catholicism, it will pave the way for increasingly powerful collaborations among theological progressives in Jewish circles, Protestant circles, and secular social justice circles. Our country’s charities, homeless shelters, food banks, and free clinics are already loaded with religious workers.
As progressive religious movements gain strength, their work can go beyond the provision of direct service toward changing the deeper structures that keep poverty in place.
Imagine Catholic dioceses, Jewish rabbis, and Muslim imams all working with social justice workers to make sure the country’s poor can have their basic needs met. Religion can be a powerful force for both healing and destruction, and if we choose to use it to repair society, society will reap the benefits.
 
Michael Powell-Deschamps is the creator of the website Radical Second Things and a contributor to Dagblog, the Hampton Institute, and many other websites.