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Special Report: Catholics in Chicago

Catholics at a Crossroads

More Chicagoans than ever are leaving the church. Can new archbishop Blase Cupich change that?

Beyond the metal barricades and phalanx of cops blocking off State Street, inside the massive stone-walled Gothic cathedral, right near the polished wood confessionals, the TV cameramen checked their cables. And checked them again. For November 18 was no ordinary news day. In half an hour, every station in the city would interrupt its usual broadcast schedule to beam out live coverage of the two-hour Mass formally installing Blase Cupich as the ninth archbishop of Chicago. It would be the culmination of more than eight weeks of near-daily reporting on what this m­­ild-mannered 65-year-old was planning (he won’t live in the cardinal’s mansion!), doing (attending a bishops’ conference in Baltimore!), and saying (“People in Chicago are much like the people in Omaha, where I grew up. They work hard, they pray hard”).

Such wall-to-wall media coverage of one religion’s change in leadership is hard to imagine in any other big American city. You wouldn’t see it in New York or L.A., for example. But Chicago, as if you needed reminding, is different. It’s the city whose first European settler was a Catholic priest. Run for decades by Catholics. And continually flooded with Catholic immigrants, at first from Western Europe and these days mostly from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. More Catholics live here than do members of any other single religion. Heck, even Rahm probably knows what parish he’s from.

If you tuned in to Cupich’s installation and saw the 1,000-plus priests, bishops, civic dignitaries, and other invitation-only guests streaming into Holy Name Cathedral on that freezing November day, you might believe Chicago is just as robustly Catholic as ever. But looks can be deceiving. In 1980, Catholics made up 43 percent of the total population of Cook and Lake Counties, the territory encompassed by the Archdiocese of Chicago. Today they constitute about 35 percent, or 2.07 million people, according to an exclusive poll conducted by Fako Research & Strategies for Chicago in November (see full poll results here). That figure correlates with the downward trend reported in other studies.


Meanwhile, 14 percent of the residents of those two counties—more than 800,000 people—used to be Catholic but have left the church. Put another way: For every 10 Catholics here, there are now four ex-Catholics. Among those born in the United States, the exodus has been greater still. Says Susan Ross, who chairs Loyola University’s theology department, “If it weren’t for Latino immigration, the church in Chicago would be losing many more people.”

Other large urban dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest, such as Boston, Cleveland, and New York, are also experiencing declines more precipitous than those in the nation as a whole. (Over the past four decades, the percentage of Catholics in the United States has fallen by just one percentage point, to 24 percent.) Data from this magazine’s poll—together with research from such organizations as the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University and interviews with theologians, sociologists, pastors, nuns, and current and former Catholics—suggest that the downward trend will not reverse anytime soon.

The effects of continued shrinkage would be huge, and not just for Catholics. The Archdiocese of Chicago remains one of the largest employers in the metro area, with 7,900 on the payroll (down from 15,500 a decade ago), more than at Allstate or Northern Trust. And while it has shuttered 45 percent of its elementary schools since 1980—and Cupich’s predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, announced seven more closures and three mergers in late October—the 207 that remain represent just about the only affordable private alternative to poorly performing public schools in many Chicago neighborhoods. Add in Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, Misericordia (a group home for the developmentally disabled), 17 Catholic hospitals, and Catholic Charities (which offers over 150 services in 160 locations), and “there’s no single entity beyond the State that does more for Chicagoans than the Catholic Church,” says Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois and the archdiocese’s chief lobbyist in Springfield.

For the church to keep doing all that, Cupich must have a committed flock with equally committed pocketbooks. That’s quite a challenge, given that Chicago Catholics are more polarized than ever before, experts say. Can he please both hard-line traditionalists—those who still mourn the Latin Mass and typically give more generously—and the progressives who want the church to relax its prohibitions on everything from birth control to female priests? Those in the latter group, Chicago’s poll and others show, are the ones far more likely to walk out of Mass one day and never return.


Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who began running the Chicago Archdiocese in 1982, was appointed by the conservative Polish pope John Paul II. But he had much more in common with the broad-minded Italian pontiff John XXIII, the driving force behind the Second Vatican Council. As general secretary and then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1968–72 and 1974–77, respectively), Bernardin helped implement Vatican II’s reforms and modernizations, including dropping the requirement that priests say Mass in Latin and clarifying that “the church” means the people of God rather than the church hierarchy.

Bernardin was popular in Chicago for speaking out against racism, appointing women to leadership positions, and offering a Mass for divorced and separated Catholics, among other moves. But in Rome, says Father Michael Pfleger, the pastor of St. Sabina’s on the South Side and a prominent social justice advocate who had a good relationship with the cardinal, “there was a perception that under him, Chicago had become far too loose.”

Not until Bernardin’s death in 1996 would Chicago’s Catholics get a leader as tradition minded as John Paul and his successor, German theologian Benedict XVI. Orthodox Catholics loved Cardinal Francis George’s focus on fidelity to church doctrine, such as fighting legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. The New York Times recently called the 77-year-old, who is seriously ill with bladder cancer, a “combative conservative.” Concurs Ross: “George’s message was essentially, ‘Get with the program or shut up.’ ” (Through a spokeswoman, George declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Whatever you may think of George’s 17-year tenure, there’s no denying that his flock became more polarized as the years went by. Indeed, the parishes that are thriving in these days of shrinking congregations seem to be largely those on either the right or the left.


One in the latter category is Old St. Patrick’s in the West Loop. When Bernardin named Jack Wall its pastor in 1983, Old St. Pat’s had only four registered parishioners. Today it has more than 3,000, many of them young people attracted by the parish’s social justice programs. (An example: the North Lawndale Kinship Initiative, in which parishioners work with partner organizations to improve opportunities in that low-income West Side neighborhood.) Says Wall, who now runs Catholic Extension, a Chicago-based “papal society” that helps support needy American dioceses: “Catholics are always at our best when reaching out to the poor.”

That message resonates with progressive Chicagoans pained by what they see as an increased focus in recent years on all the things Catholics shouldn’t do. “The things that make the news about the Catholic Church have almost nothing to do with the faith itself,” says Jennifer Payne, 50, a lawyer and parishioner at Queen of Angels in Lincoln Square. “As a result, people actually think that Catholicism is about anti-homosexuality or anti–birth control or anti-divorce. Those have so little to do with what the Catholic faith is really about.”

Sister Patricia Crowley, the prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, sounds a similar note. “Social justice is what’s so integral to the teachings of the Gospels,” she says. “Though George has been strong on immigration, he wasn’t an activist.”


Three miles north and at the opposite end of the spectrum from Old St. Pat’s is another resurrection story: St. Mary of the Angels. Back in 1988, the historically Polish church in Bucktown was such a wreck that the archdiocese closed it. Then arrived a pastor associated with Opus Dei, an orthodox group within the Catholic Church whose members hew to strict devotional requirements. Today St. Mary of the Angels has about 2,500 members, a number that has stayed “fairly steady” over the past decade, says its current pastor, Father John Waiss, even though many worshipers must make an effort to get there. “Most people coming here are from the suburbs and outlying areas,” he says. “People know you can get a plain, ordinary Mass here without any funny stuff.” And, every Wednesday night, a mass delivered in Latin.

Mary Anne Hackett, a grandmother of 18 from west suburban La Grange, attends yet another church revived by a conservative pastor: the elaborately baroque St. John Cantius in Chicago’s River West neighborhood. Every Sunday, she and her husband, a retired ophthalmologist, make the half-hour drive. “There are tons of young families there,” says Hackett, who is also the president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, a group that aims to restore traditional Catholic values. (Most of its 1,400 members range from age 40 to 70, and virtually all are white, she says, adding that CCI welcomes those of all races.)

Saturday in Late November at St. John Cantius Church in the city’s West Town neighborhood
Saturday in Late November at St. John Cantius Church in the city’s West Town neighborhood  Photo: Amanda Rivkin

“The Catholic Church shouldn’t be a free-for-all. We have doctrines from the magisterium,” Hackett says. She adds with genuine puzzlement: “If people don’t accept the teachings of the church, then why do they want to be Catholic? There are lots of other churches that allow women priests. There are lots of other churches that allow divorce.”

To progressives, such statements sound an awful lot like a traditionalist takeover. “In the past 10 years, the church has become like the Tea Party,” declares Father Pfleger, who was suspended by Cardinal George for several weeks in 2011 (it’s complicated). “The conservatives have been very loud: ‘This is our church. If you do not like it, you should leave it.’ ”

What would it look like if “cafeteria Catholics”—people who pick and choose which teachings to follow and which to ignore—did leave the church? Chicago’s poll provides a pretty good idea. The vast majority of Catholics in Cook and Lake Counties disagree with at least some teachings: 70 percent support the use of contraceptives (nationally, it’s 79 percent), for example, and 69 percent think that divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive Holy Communion. Subtracting 70 percent from the Catholic community in those two counties would leave little more than 600,000 people; the number of ex-Catholics would soar to nearly 2.3 million.

Some Catholics wouldn’t object to seeing the church shrink, as long as it holds fast to existing doctrine. Benedict, for one, has foreseen a time when “the number of [the Church’s] adherents diminishes,” according to a 1969 radio address published in his 2009 book Faith and the Future. “She will become small and will have to start afresh, more or less from the beginning. . . . [and] will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.”


If there were still any question as to whether the new archbishop is the ideological soulmate of his populist boss, Pope Francis, the homily he delivered at his installation Mass dispelled it. Cupich spoke of the importance of protecting the poor and the vulnerable—including victims of sexual abuse—and challenged Catholics to “step out of our comfort zone” and “leap into the turbulence of life in the world.” And in ringing tones, he delivered a message directly to the Holy See’s ambassador to the United States, the apostolic nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò, who was seated near the pulpit: “Tell Pope Francis he can count on the Archdiocese of Chicago to be fully behind him.”

Neither Francis nor Cupich seems interested in a smaller church. Quite the opposite. In late October, the pope tweeted: “The principal mission of the Church is evangelization, bringing the Good News to everyone.” As for Cupich, he said from the pulpit in November: “We face . . . the formidable task of passing on the faith to the next generation. . . . Parents and grandparents wonder if they are going to be the last Catholics in their family.”

They should wonder, given the findings of a research team led by Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame and coauthor of the 2014 book Young Catholic America. As part of a national study on youth and religion, back in 2002 and 2003 his team began tracking a group of about 700 Catholics between the ages of 13 and 17. In 2013 and 2014, when the researchers asked the now 20-somethings whether they still identified as Catholics, only about half said yes. “That’s a big hit,” Smith says. “New research suggests that even young Latino Catholics are starting to leave, too”—a sobering finding given that Latinos are the biggest source of growth in the Catholic population here.

Bans on birth control, same-sex marriage, and divorce—not to mention female or married priests—are a tough sell to a generation that came of age watching Modern Family and going to school with kids who have two mommies. “Doctrine tends to drive them away,” says Josh Packard, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, who is conducting a qualitative study on why Catholics and other Christians leave their churches. “They get frustrated that the church doesn’t seem to make much time for issues of social justice, but it has plenty of time to police morality.”

Ross, the Loyola professor, agrees: “I think we’ve lost this generation.”

Others play down the alarm, pointing to studies that show millennials are growing indifferent to institutions, period. Gilligan suggests another factor: the explosion in social media. “That’s partly due to the breakdown of the family,” he explains. “When that happens, people aren’t passing on the faith the way they did in the past.” Cupich told Chicago that they could be leaving because they’re simply too busy, though he concedes that “the sex abuse crisis has had an impact” (read more from the interview here).


No question. In this magazine’s poll, Catholics and ex-Catholics alike overwhelmingly named priest sexual abuse as the most important issue they’d like to see Cupich and the church leadership address. Though Cardinal George did release documents on 66 Chicago-area pedophile priests over the past year (find them at docinfo.archchicago.org), Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, gives his performance a D-minus. “George committed to improvements and to transparency,” she says, “and he didn’t deliver.”

In response to Chicago’s request for comment, archdiocesan spokeswoman Susan Burritt e-mailed a long list of actions that the cardinal has taken to combat priest sexual abuse, including establishing the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth in 2003. It’s “a fully developed unit that responds to allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric, employee, or volunteer,” she wrote. “The office has trained over 173,000 adults and 200,000 young people, as well as conducting background checks on all employees and all volunteers who work with young people.”

Yet George still failed to protect children from known serial molester Daniel McCormack, a former pastor at St. Agatha in North Lawndale, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to abusing five boys. More young men have since alleged abuse by the notorious now-defrocked priest. In 2006—three years after he established the office to protect youth—George apologized in a public letter, saying, “Our response . . . was sorely inadequate.”

The archdiocese has forked over millions to settle lawsuits brought by McCormack’s victims alone. The total sum it has paid to all abuse victims since 2000: $130 million, excluding legal fees, Burritt says.


Chicago’s poll does have some good news for the archdiocese, however. For one thing, most Chicago-area Catholics who have stuck with the church have been feeling better about it lately. One factor is clearly the wildly popular pope. Eighty-two percent of Chicago Catholics believe he’s in touch with the needs of Catholics today, and 85 percent believe that he’s doing a good or excellent job. “According to what we’ve seen, the pope is the opposite of polarizing,” says Mike Kendall, chief programming officer of Relevant Radio, a listener-supported Catholic station (950 AM) with a weekly Chicago-area audience of about 100,000. “There’s a huge spike [in listenership] whenever we report on him.”

Though Cupich is still very much in the honeymoon phase, so far he’s doing all the right things to share in the glow of the “Francis effect,” from frequently speaking Spanish to choosing St. Agatha—McCormack’s old parish—as the place to celebrate his first Sunday Mass as archbishop. It can’t have escaped him that such moves are likely to appeal to former Catholics, who like Francis almost as much as current Catholics do. Because what better pool from which to recruit new members than those who have already been baptized into the faith?

It’s not like the church would have to win back a bunch of atheists. About two-thirds of Chicago’s former Catholics have switched to another religion, according to Chicago’s poll. If they’re like their peers nationwide, most became Protestants.

Latinos, in particular, tend to be attracted to evangelical churches. From 2010 to 2013, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, the percentage of U.S. Hispanics who were evangelical Protestants rose from 12 to 16 percent; the percentage who were Catholic fell from 67 to 55 percent. “One of the things that attracts people to places like Willow Creek [the evangelical megachurch in South Barrington] is that they’re really good at family life and giving support,” says Mary Ellen Konieczny, a Hyde Park resident and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, who compared traditional and progressive parishes for her 2013 book The Spirit’s Tether.


Which suggests that Cupich should prioritize making Chicago parishes more welcoming and supportive to Hispanics. Beyond that, the demographics are clear: If he wants to keep the church in Chicago from shrinking further, he’s got to spend more time listening to the progressives than pacifying the traditionalists. He may not be able to overturn the doctrines that bother liberals most, but he can allow progressive pastors to make quite a few changes at the parish level. (Father Pfleger no doubt has some ideas to share.)

Change in the Catholic Church is possible, argues Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Garry Wills in his next book, The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis (Viking, March). “[The church] became Roman with the Roman Empire, shedding its Middle Eastern roots and adopting a Latin structure; became a super-monarchy in the age of monarchs; became super-ascetic in the age of Stoic contempt for the body; became misogynistic in the various patriarchies; became anti-Semitic when the world despised Jews,” Wills writes. “Change—far from being the enemy of Catholicism—is its means of respiration, its way of breathing in and breathing out.”

Ultimately, Cupich’s best shot at both growing the church and doing away with the liberal-conservative divide may be simple: guide your flock to expand its focus. When you concentrate on looking outward to the needs of others, as the Scriptures say that Jesus did—when you gain a deeper sense of purpose and meaning—“reforms that seem hard can seem almost incidental.”

Those are Wills’s words. Here are Cupich’s, on the cold day of his installation, incense billowing, as he addressed the most influential Catholics in the third-largest archdiocese in the nation: “Don’t resist reform by saying, ‘We’ve never done that before.’ ”

Additional reporting by Matt Pollock and Joe Engleman
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