The cardinal's tweetstorm: After Cardinal Cupich took a stand, what's next?

Analysis: USCCB

When Cardinal Blase Cupich took out his iPhone Wednesday afternoon, he might not have appreciated the importance of the tweet thread he was about to produce. 

Twitter can be like that. We often fail to realize what a tweet might mean for us until after we have sent it — until the replies and quote tweets start pouring in.

Twitter should not be underestimated. Most Americans learned that lesson during the reign of the tweet-happy President Donald Trump, who spent four years tweeting zealously: Firing cabinet secretaries, fighting with Congress, and setting foreign policy, all in 280-character chunks typed out with his thumbs on a cell phone.

By comparison, the impact of Cardinal Cupich’s Jan. 20 tweetstorm might seem insignificant. But the thread from Chicago’s cardinal is a moment of significance for the U.S. bishops’ conference, and may offer a moment of revelation about Cardinal Cupich, and his role in the Church. 

Cupich was tweeting about a statement released by USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez, which pledged the bishops to work with incoming President Biden on areas of agreement, while also calling out the “moral evils” of the Biden administration’s policy agenda on issues like abortion, gender ideology, and religious liberty. 

The cardinal thought Gomez’ statement was “ill-considered,” produced with insufficient consultation, and evidence of unspecified “internal institutional failures” at the USCCB.

“I look forward to contributing to all efforts” to address those institutional failures, Cupich tweeted, though he has since declined to clarify to The Pillar precisely what failures he thinks should be addressed.

In fact, the consultations required by USCCB policy took place before the Gomez statement was released, and bishops tell The Pillar that additional consultation, as suggested by Cupich, would not have been customary for Gomez to release a statement in his own name.

Nevertheless, the cardinal has made clear that he is not happy, and that he does not intend to let the matter rest.  

It is unusual - and a breach of customary episcopal etiquette - for a U.S. bishop to air a dispute with his brother bishops in public, and especially on Twitter. The only other U.S. bishop to tweet something similar to what Cupich did is Bishop Joseph Strickland, who started a firestorm with a 2019 tweet that accused 69 bishops of voting against the inclusion of the phrase “preeminent priority” in a letter they intended to publish. (The vote was actually on another matter, but the issue on the floor got conflated during the debate, and some bishops, including Strickland, may have misunderstood what question they were being asked to vote upon. You can read a play-by-play here.) 

While Strickland is the bishop of a small Texas diocese, and is known - with increasing gravity in recent months - for coloring outside the lines, Cupich is a cardinal, a prince of the Church, and frequently characterized as an especially close collaborator of Pope Francis.

With regard to the politics of the conference, Cupich’s tweets, therefore, were decidedly more noteworthy than were Strickland’s.

Since Wednesday, some commentators have suggested that Cupich has fired the first shots of a coming intra-conference civil war. And Cupich’s pledge to clean up after “institutional failures” at the conference suggests the cardinal is looking for ways to exercise more personal influence at the USCCB, which means curtailing other influencers.

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But what happened on Wednesday won’t likely be the start of an all-out struggle for control of the bishops’ conference.

Why? 

Because Cupich seems not to have the votes.

To date, not one U.S. bishop has publicly supported Cupich’s shot at the Gomez statement or the process that produced it. Not one of the bishops generally thought to be aligned on matters of policy with Cupich has commented on his statement, while numerous bishops have issued statements of support for Gomez.

Support for the cardinal seems unlikely to materialize in the coming days.

The apparent substance of Cupich’s concern with the Gomez statement was the confrontational tone he thought it took with the incoming Biden administration on the issue of abortion. On Friday, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and a national day of penance and prayer for the unborn, Biden issued a statement affirming his commitment “to codifying Roe v Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe.”

Biden lamented that “the right to choose has been under relentless and extreme attack.”

The president’s statement is likely to make bishops, and practicing Catholics, even more confident that Gomez’ strong words for the White House were not “ill-considered.”

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In 2017, Cupich lost an election for chair of the conference’s important pro-life committee by only 14 votes. Some observers suggested that the cardinal was building a coalition of bishops who would support him in an eventual bid for leadership of the conference, and that his showing in that committee race, even while he didn’t win, was evidence of a conference divided between bishops of different worldviews, points of emphasis, or theological approaches. 

But less than four years later, that suggestion no longer seems to hold. When the cardinal would seem most to need public signs of support from his brother bishops, he has not yet found any.

Of course, there is a perception that even if Cupich is unpopular among his brother bishops in the U.S., he is well-liked in Rome and a favorite of Pope Francis. There is some evidence that is true, including the oft-repeated story that Cupich was personally chosen by Francis for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and was not on the candidate list prepared in the ordinary process.

This week, numerous bishops have speculated to The Pillar that Cupich’s frustration was a critical factor in the Holy See’s decision to intervene before Gomez’ statement was released, with an attempt first to shelve it, and then to delay it

But if Cupich is the cause of the Holy See’s intervention, his stock in Rome has likely declined after the embarrassment of public reporting about the intervention, and then the statement’s eventual release. If Cupich was relying on favor in Rome to exercise influence in the U.S. bishops’ conference — as he is believed to have done in the wake of the McCarrick scandal — it seems that after this week, he will have fewer chips to play, at the time he needs them most. 

When Cardinal Cupich took out his phone Wednesday, and decided to challenge openly the bishops’ conference president, he may have thought it the moment at which to take a stand. But before posting the tweet thread he might now regret, he may not have expected to find himself standing alone. 

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