The man sitting a few feet away from me – spry and youthful for his 68 years, polite, unflappable – does not look like a firebrand. But Cardinal Blase Cupich has been a controversial figure since at least 2011, when as Bishop of Spokane he discouraged his priests and seminarians from attending pro-life vigils. More recently, he has argued that reception of Communion ultimately depends on an individual’s “conscience” – which observers have struggled to reconcile with the Church’s prohibitions regarding, say, pro-abortion politicians or the divorced and remarried. More controversially yet, the cardinal has claimed Pope Francis’s support for his views.
In fairness, Francis obviously likes Cardinal Cupich, having promoted him first to Archbishop of Chicago and then to the College of Cardinals. I’m meeting His Eminence just before his lecture to the Von Hügel Institute at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. It’s titled “Pope Francis’s Revolution of Mercy: Amoris Laetitia as a New Paradigm of Catholicity”. The Pope’s emphasis is on community, the cardinal tells me as we perch on armchairs in an academic’s book-lined office. “The Church needs to be that community that is going to accompany people.”
Some have criticised Pope Francis’s approach for what they see as a carelessness over doctrine. Similar criticisms surround his handling of the abuse crisis, especially in Chile where he rebuked abuse survivors who accused a local bishop of having turned a blind eye. The Pope’s senior adviser on child protection, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, publicly criticised Francis for causing “great pain for survivors of sexual abuse”. But Cardinal Cupich, when I mention his fellow American’s remarks, praises the Pope for sending an investigator to Chile.
“I think that now the Holy Father sees that by sending Archbishop Scicluna, that we have to listen to those who have come forward and made accusations,” he says. “I’m pleased the Holy Father did that.”
There’s a queue of journalists waiting to meet Cardinal Cupich – on my way in I pass the editor of the Tablet coming out, and I’m about to be followed by a well-known papal biographer – so I press on. St John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and every other pope who has spoken plainly on the subject, taught that the Church is unable to give Communion to those who are divorced and civilly remarried, if they are in a sexual relationship with their new partner. On Cardinal Cupich’s reading of Amoris Laetitia, an individual’s conscience can override that teaching. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Not so, says the cardinal. “What John Paul II did in [his 1981 apostolic exhortation] Familiaris Consortio and also with the Code of Canon Law, in removing the status of excommunication from somebody who is in a second marriage, was a development that in fact was more significant than what the Pope is for doing now. Because once you begin to say that even though they’re in this quote/unquote sinful, irregular situation, they’re still part of the Church, they’re not excommunicated any more, even though they were before. So that was a change.”
This analogy, as the cardinal acknowledges, was first drawn by Rocco Buttiglione, but it has been criticised for historical inaccuracy. As the canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Holy See’s highest court, wrote in a response to Buttiglione: “John Paul II never lifted any excommunication against divorced and remarried Catholics because, quite simply, there was no excommunication against divorced and remarried Catholics for him to lift.” It has certainly never been taught as perennially binding, whereas the doctrine on Communion has been repeatedly affirmed as – in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, approved by St John Paul II – a “binding” practice which “cannot be modified because of different situations”. The excommunication story doesn’t resolve the contradiction, does it?
“Yes,” he replies, “but I would go back and say, we have always made the distinction between something that is gravely, objectively evil, and the subjective culpability.”
I’m tempted to point out that John Paul and Benedict dismissed this distinction as beside the point – but the clock is ticking so I ask something else. If people in sexual relationships outside marriage are encouraged to receive the Eucharist, there is a very high risk of unworthy Communions. Isn’t His Eminence worried about sacrilege?
At this point an organiser comes into the room to tell us that our time is up. “No, no,” says the cardinal, courteous as ever, “give us two minutes. Well, again I think that, don’t we all say before we go to Communion, we are not worthy? All of us say that. So let’s not make it just about divorced and remarried people, or people who are committing sins of the flesh. There’s an unworthiness in terms of greed, jealousy, backbiting, calumny against people.”
The lecture, delivered to a full house, echoes with declarations of momentous change, “significant shifts”, “a major shift in our ministerial approach that is nothing short of revolutionary”. Pastors must be “immersed” in “concrete” situations, Cardinal Cupich says.
And then he drops a bombshell – at least, it may be a bombshell. “The voice of conscience – the voice of God,” the cardinal announces, “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal.”
What exactly does this mean? On Twitter, Stephen White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center interpreted Cardinal Cupich’s words as saying that “‘God’s voice’ can command us to violate God’s law”. White remarked: “Hard to see how this doesn’t nullify…all of Christianity.”
It depends on what it means to live “at some distance from … the ideal”. It could mean “Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t always get to daily Mass right now – just make sure you’re sticking to your prayer routine.” But others may hear it as meaning “Sometimes God wants you to commit adultery.” Given that churchmen only seem to start talking about ideals and distances and consciences when adultery is the subject, that may be less implausible than it sounds. On the other hand, when I asked Cardinal Cupich in our interview about intrinsic evils – acts like contraception and extramarital sex which are always wrong, never the right choice – he replied instantly, “Yes, there are.” So perhaps Stephen White is overreacting. Who knows?
Maybe it’s just Friday afternoon haze, but a mist of confusion seems to hang over Cambridge today. On the subject of intrinsic evil, I asked Cardinal Cupich earlier about Fr Maurizio Chiodi, the member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, who recently said that Amoris Laetitia meant contraception could be OK.
The cardinal replied: “No, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think that Amoris Laetitia changed that dynamic at all.”
But when I asked whether Fr Chiodi should retract his comments, the cardinal said: “I think that if there were strong moral reasons why you could come to that conclusion they would have been possible before rather than after. I don’t think Amoris changed the debate on it.” I heard this as a rejection of contraception – but reading the transcript, it’s rather ambiguous.
If one thing is clear from the Q and A that follows the cardinal’s lecture, it’s that people have doubts and concerns – especially regarding the cardinal’s views on conscience. One student says that she doesn’t know anything about Amoris Laetitia and all that, but she can think of times she has made serious moral mistakes even though her conscience said it was fine.
Another young Catholic stands up to ask whether there is a “place in Pope Francis’s Church” for people like him, “whose experience of conscience is that it depends on those absolutely immovable standards”. Yes, the cardinal says, there is. An audience member who introduces herself as a grandmother and retired teacher notes that, according to Blessed John Henry Newman, “doctrine develops, as it were, organically, over the centuries”. She asks how this accords with the cardinal’s abrupt “paradigm shift”. He replies that every Church council has been a paradigm shift.
The most direct challenge is from the philosopher and historian Professor John Rist. How can one talk about a “revolution of mercy”, he asks, when so many opponents of theological liberalism have been removed from their senior positions in Rome? And isn’t all this talk about “paradigm shifts”, in truth, “an attempt, under cover of offering solutions to genuine social problems in Western society, to impose on the Church radical changes of doctrine, developed not by the laity but largely in Germany by a group of relativists and Hegelian theologians?” Rist sits down to applause.
Cardinal Cupich isn’t rattled, but he certainly speaks with more intensity. “I think that we need to step back and say, do we really have all the story, or are we listening to sources that pretend to have the story?” And there’s a more basic issue of trust, he adds: “Do we really believe that the Spirit is no longer guiding the Church?”
Two days later I receive an email from Rist. “Had I had the chance,” he says, “I would have told him that the Holy Spirit is indeed guiding the Church, via Cardinal Burke and many other Catholic souls. Perhaps Cardinal Cupich has not heard of Athanasius contra mundum.”
Whether or not the present confusion has reached the levels of the 4th century, it is unquestionably widespread. The traditional doctrine is simple enough: don’t commit adultery; if you do, go to Confession and resolve not to sin again; if you prefer not to confess, then you can’t receive Communion, but the Church will do everything to help you. That doctrine is now like an unhappy guest at the party: nobody is showing it the door, but it’s made to feel unwelcome.
Some theologians argue that the central question in debates over Amoris Laetitia is the act of contrition: the requirement that to be forgiven for a sin – and so open the way to Communion – one must confess it and say, “By the help of Your grace, I will try not to sin again.” I ask Cardinal Cupich whether this is a helpful principle.
“Yes,” he says, “part of the rite of reconciliation, the confession of sins, the Sacrament of Penance, is [to] have a firm commitment to not sin again.” That sounds affirmative enough. But then he adds: “It’s just the next best step that I can take, here and now, in the present moment, that God is calling me to. And that’s the firm purpose of amendment, it seems to me, that has to be made.”
The cardinal can’t, surely, mean that it can be impossible to avoid breaking the Commandments. The Church has frequently condemned that as heresy. But what does he mean? I feel that traditional teaching has neither been affirmed nor denied.
I’m musing on this after the lecture when I feel a tap on the elbow: “Thanks, Dan.” Cardinal Cupich is a friendly man who doesn’t flinch from a challenge. But this was an afternoon which didn’t so much resolve the Church’s present confusion as embody it.
This article first appeared in the February 16th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here