Text pals: J.B. Pritzker, Cardinal Blase Cupich in close contact amid the pandemic, messages, emails show
The communications offer a rare look at the relationship between Pritzker and Cupich, who privately heaped praise on the governor and worked with him behind the scenes to guide church protocols.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s strict COVID-19 response over the past two years drew considerable resistance from the public at times, but he found a behind-the-scenes ally in Cardinal Blase Cupich, text messages between the two leaders show.
Pritzker and Cupich were in frequent contact, according to newly obtained records that show they texted and emailed each other repeatedly from early 2020 into this year.
The written communications — obtained from the governor’s office by a public records request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act — offer an unusual look at the relationship between the governor and the top Catholic cleric in the region.
They show that the two men heaped praise on one another for the way each dealt with the challenges brought on by COVID.
The communications also show Cupich — the spiritual leader, appointed by the pope, of Catholics in Cook and Lake counties — coordinating the Catholic church’s response to the pandemic with the governor’s office.
In a text message April 7, 2020, Cupich alerted Pritzker to a letter he’d sent pastors “to make clear my expectations.
“Know of my support as you lead us through this crisis,” Cupich wrote, forwarding a copy of the letter, which noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now “recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
The letter also reminded “all pastors and administrators of parishes and agencies that there are to be no public liturgical or sacramental celebrations (including drive-through or parking-lot gatherings for communion, confession or blessings) until further notice.”
The cardinal also wrote: “In addition, social distancing must be observed during live-streamed or recorded celebrations, with the added precaution of using face coverings if distancing measures prove difficult to maintain. Following the guidance of our local and national public health professionals demonstrates that everyone has an essential part to play in controlling the spread of this deadly virus. It is also in keeping with what we as a people of faith have learned from the first pages of scripture: we are ‘our brother’s keeper.’”
Eight minutes later, Pritzker texted back: “I love this. Thank you, Your Eminence. You are saving lives. Bless you.”
On April 25, 2020, Cupich texted Pritzker: “Thank you for your service to our state. Following your revised stay-at-home order, I have informed our pastors that we will continue to comply as we have from the beginning. I have asked my team, comprised of healthcare professionals and pastors, to suggest some steps that might allow for our parishes to open up gradually.
“Of course, before taking any action, I would submit these suggestions to you for your consideration. My hope is that my team might be of assistance to you as you make decisions going forward and perhaps provide some useful models that you could share with other faith-based organizations in Illinois. If you would like to designate someone from your office to be a resource for my team, please know that I would welcome that as a way to insure full cooperation with your efforts.”
No written response followed.
On May 2, 2020 — after a rally downtown against Pritzker’s extended stay-at-home order attracted demonstrators carrying signs with Nazi and other anti-Semitic references — Cupich texted Pritzker: “Governor I’m tweeting this out ‘We support Governor Pritzker’s efforts to save precious human lives during the COVID-19 pandemic and condemn strongly any comparison of these measures with the murderous Nazi regime. Hate has no home here.’”
Pritzker, who is Jewish, texted back, “Thank you Your Eminence.”
On May 11, 2020, Cupich texted the governor after Pritzker might have been exposed to the virus to say, “Sorry you have to be quarantined.”
In the same message, the cardinal appeared to distance himself from a leader of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, which “sent you a letter taking issue with your Restore Illinois plan” that lays the groundwork to “regionally” re-open the state’s economy.
“For the record the Archdiocese of Chicago was not consulted on this letter and does not approve of it,” Cupich wrote.
Pritzker responded, “Thank you Your Eminence. I am appreciative of your collaborative spirit in this. Stay healthy and safe.”
On May 19, 2020, Cupich texted the governor about whether “your staff wants to view our training webinar for preparing parishes to reopen. Here is the link of the On Demand presentation. Will send PP [PowerPoint] next. We had over 2,200 pastors/volunteers view first presentations yesterday.”
Pritzker responded: “I love that you have posted a Webinar. You are by far the most proactive faith leader in the nation.”
On Sept. 4, 2020, Cupich emailed Anne Caprara, Pritzker’s chief of staff, about an interfaith memorial service a day earlier at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel for those who had died of the coronavirus:
“Just to let you know I was grateful for being invited to join the memorial service last evening at U of C. I would only add that whomever drafted the governor’s presentation should get a raise, as it was nicely done. I mentioned to the governor that we are going to promote flu vaccination, beginning with my visit next Wednesday to my doctor to be vaccinated, which will be filmed. We have a fairly large footprint in the Brown and Black populations and feel that we can make a contribution in this regard. If there is something the state plans to do on this let me know how we can help.”
Caprara also called Cupich “at the request of Dr. Ezike” — Ngozi Ezike, who was then the state’s public health director — “to ask that he include her in his prayers as she leads the state through the worst of the pandemic,” according to a Pritzker spokeswoman.
On Sept. 22, 2020, Cupich texted the governor: “I can update you on pastors call and will be free at 1:40 p.m.”
Within an hour, Pritzker texted back the first in a series of links to news stories about Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman killed in a bungled police raid in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020. One of those links was to a story by The New York Times with the headline: “Breonna Taylor’s Life Was Changing. Then the Police Came to Her Door.”
On Sept. 25, 2020, Cupich texted Pritzker, “FYI Just posted,” with a link to a Chicago Tribune opinion piece that Cupich co-authored with Bishop Horace E. Smith of Apostolic Faith Church on the Near South Side about Taylor “on behalf of” a number of Chicago-area Black ministers.
In it, Cupich and Smith wrote, “As pastors who minister to Black families, brown families, Asian families and white families, we find ourselves once again faced with the horrifying question: Why does this keep happening, and what can we do about it?”
There were several texts in which Cupich asked the governor to hop onto a phone call but didn’t say what about.
Pritzker’s spokeswoman says there “are no calls between the governor and the cardinal listed on the governor’s calendar on the dates” cited in the texts, “but the governor does make spontaneous calls on his own that are not part of his schedule.”
Neither Cupich nor his aides would comment.
Pritzker declined an interview request. A written statement from his office said of his regular contacts by text and email with the cardinal: “Throughout the COVID pandemic the governor frequently sought input from community leaders, especially those in the faith community, as in person services and many of the in-person programs churches provide were scaled back to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The governor appreciated the cardinal’s willingness to listen and constructively share his perspective as the challenges of the pandemic required putting together plans that relied on developing science and best practices from the public health experts. The governor also appreciated the work cardinal Cupich did to promote the necessity of masks and vaccinations as the pandemic response moved forward. Gov. Pritzker has always prioritized working together with community leaders to develop and implement strategies that keep communities safe and healthy.”
Cupich’s good relationship with Pritzker — as well as with other powerful Democratic politicians in Illinois — stands in contrast to how his predecessor, the late Cardinal Francis George, interacted with politicians. Though cordial, George was loath to put himself in a situation in which the church’s independence might come to be questioned as a result.
George also never forgot just how far apart he and the church were with most Democratic politicians regarding abortion.
That’s a topic that doesn’t appear in any of the Cupich and Pritzker exchanges, which included a period in which Pritzker was supporting legislation that now allows minors in Illinois to get an abortion without having to tell their parents.
Though church teaching opposes abortion, Cupich hasn’t been vocal on that subject.