The bishops voted for Archbishop Joseph Naumann over the cardinal, who is seen as a 'Pope Francis bishop'

The US bishops have broken with tradition in a surprise vote for the leadership of their pro-life committee, with Archbishop Joseph Naumann gaining a narrow margin over Cardinal Blase Cupich.

The committee has been led by a cardinal since the mid-1980s, and the rejection of Cardinal Cupich will be seen as marking the bishops’ emphasis on abortion over other political issues, as well a degree of scepticism about Pope Francis’s approach.

The cardinal has been twice promoted by Pope Francis: to Archbishop of Chicago, and then to the College of Cardinals. He has also been appointed to the influential Congregation for Bishops.

However, the US bishops voted by a margin of 96 to 82 for the other candidate, Archbishop Naumann.

The vote had attracted more attention than any other at the bishops’ general assembly. Cardinal Cupich is seen as a “Pope Francis bishop”, and has placed abortion at the same level as other social issues, writing: “We should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighbourhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.”

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, by contrast, has argued that “issues that involve intrinsic evils – direct attacks on human life, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, or direct attacks on the institution of the family (for example, a redefinition of marriage to equate with same-sex unions or cohabitation) – must assume a moral priority. While all issues are important, all are not equally important from a moral analysis.”

Some observers, such as Christopher white of Crux, had framed the Cupich-Naumann vote in advance as a “referendum on both the conference’s approach to pro-life policies and Pope Francis”.

However, the editor of the Catholic News Agency, JD Flynn, tweeted after the vote: “CNA has talked with bishops who emphasise this is not a referendum on Francis. Bishops voting for both candidates told me it was only about trying to discern the best fit.”