Cardinal Cupich’s Uncertain Trumpet

St. Jerome and the Trumpet of Doom. Jusepe de Ribera, 1637.

New Oxford Review – April 2018

Ghosts from the 1970’s were stirring at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., this past November – at the Catholic Theological Union, to be exact. His Eminence Blaise Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, was the guest speaker, and his speech was steeped in some of the most beloved argot of that bygone era. It seemed to be an exercise in superannuated enthusiasms, all of the relevant to theologians of a certain age but risible to the millennial audiences of today. This new generation seeks a robust and dynamic existential Catholicism. Instead, what they heard was a hoary, hallucinatory Catholicism long relegated to the landfills of toxic theological experiments. Is this too harsh? Judge for yourself.

The good cardinal began his Murnion Lecture, titled “Dialogue in the Key of Pope Francis” (Nov. 2), by quoting the Holy Father: “The flock… has an instinctive ability to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.” Francis is, Cupich said, “trying to figure out where the Lord is taking us,” and the growing “disquiet” in the life of the Church today “is due to the unfamiliarity with the method of discernment that Pope Francis often uses.” Cupich then let forth with a stunning volley of provocative invitations: “It is our job,” he said, “to take up that discernment,” and that “takes time. It involves discipline. Most importantly, it requires that we be prepared to let go of cherished beliefs and long-held biases.”

Hmm. What could His Eminence have meant? The most cherished beliefs of Catholics usually mean the articles of the Creed and the moral law. Cardinal Cupich could not possibly have been referring to these, right? Then what? The uncertainty was unsettling.

And what of long-held biases? Headstrong secularists deploy this epithet against the Church’s teachings, particularly those concerning marriage and the family. What for secularists is bias, is for Catholics fidelity to God – fidelity not only to divine revelation but to the revelations of reason available to all men.

Take any man on the street. He is a metaphysician, whether he knows it or not. Why? Because he believes his eyes. He sees the anatomy of a man and a woman and instantly understands the moral law – not exactly, and not at once. But because he believes his eyes, those eyes bring his intellect to the truth that men and women are naturally what they are physically. Wittingly or not, the ordinary fellow in the street arrives at the ontological truth of man’s nature. Calling it anything other than what his eyes see is simply unnatural. It is this commonsense conclusion that effete cultural elites call bias. Surely, that’s not what the good cardinal meant.

Just because faithful Catholics battle against this type of unnaturalness doesn’t make them “haters.” Hating the disease never means hating the patient. In fact, the most notable act of love is to comfort the afflicted by helping to cure his disease. Upholding traditional Catholic teaching doesn’t make Catholics villains but heroes. The great Thomist Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange expressed this eloquently when he wrote, “The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves. The enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe; they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.” No one understands this more than the good cardinal, yet his words have justifiably caused dissonance.

There was more in Cardinal Cupich’s address that was perplexing. “Catholics must have a change of heart if dialogue is to be successful and common ground is to be found,” he asserted. Catholics “must come to an understanding that Jesus Christ is always doing something new.” So not true. Our Lord proclaims, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:15). Few words of Christ are more comforting. But make no mistake: His Church has consistently understood this easily malleable phrase in one way. The “newness” of Christ’s divine grace, pouring forth from His wounds on Cavalry. Washed in His precious blood, we are made new. This is wondrous. The newness is made ever more evident as we enter deeper into the truth of Christ, who is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” In the economy of salvation, we are called to change ever day, to be converted, to become new, so we may become more like Him who is unchangeable. “O beauty ever ancient, ever new,” in St. Augustine’s memorable words. Indeed, it was St. Augustine who expressed the traditional reading of the verse: “Rid yourself of what is old and worn out, for you know a new song. A new man, a new covenant; a new song. This new song does not belong to the old man. Only the new man learns it; the man restores from the fallen condition through the grace of God… To it all our love now aspires and sings a new song.”

Similarly, Christ’s Church: She changes so she may ever remain the same. Through the centuries, the Church has rightly been wary of those who are eager to translate Our Lord’s summons to newness as permitting novelty. Bringing novelty into the Church is usually an attempt to make the faith more congenial to the age and less demanding of believers. But the Savior’s mandate is the exact opposite: The times change, not the Church. Clearly, a prince of the Church ought to realize that an imprecise use of the phrase making all things new subjects it to the perils of protean manipulations. Firm clarify is demanded. But Cupich’s address lacked that firmness, leaving his intentions unclear.

His Eminence’s language then became even more tendentious. “We are not a Church of preservation, but rather a Church of proclamation,” he said. “To achieve this end, we must be open to significant, if not revolutionary changes.” The cardinal seems to want to construct a false dichotomy between preservation and proclamation. But there is none. If the Church has not preserved, what is it that she has to proclaim? Isn’t preserving what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received” (1 Cor. 15:3; italics added), and “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you” (1 Tim. 6:20; italics added)?

Moreover, Cupich continued, “Discerning dialogue will be key to unburdening ourselves from the temptation of settling for the ways things are, the familiar, the comfortable way, because it offers the hope that God is doing something new in our time.” The elasticity of the term something new in our time is concerning. Every age thinks of itself as the best, looking down its nose at times past. This is the bumptious vanity of which C.S. Lewis warned when he cautioned against “chronological snobbery.” Shiny new things are the invariable prelude to bitter old catastrophes. St. Paul is unmistakable in his suspicion of the present times: “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2).

But if that conformity is not to an eternally preserved Truth proclaimed by Mother Church, to what does it tend? Clearly, the Church shapes the applications of her irreformable teachings to the exigencies of the age. But she never reshapes her teachings to its tastes. Is this not what Our Lord meant when He said, “Every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, which bringeth forth out his treasures things new and old” (Mt. 12:52)? Cardinal Cupich’s words run the grave risk of having the proclamation depends only on the whim of an age. In fact, this has been the regnant interpretation of those who abandon the “hermeneutics of continuity.” Such a reading has always brought Holy Church to the edge of a cliff.

Then there is Cupich’s use of the word revolution. For men of all ages, particularly men living in the shadow of Marx’s enormities, the word suggests chaos, disequilibrium, unsteadiness. It is a word conspicuously absent from the conventional theological conversations of the Church – and for good reason. Revolution is an overturning of the present order; it is dreadful in any society. But it is impossible in the perfect society of the Holy Catholic Church. Overturning the sacred order of the Church Christ Himself constituted is nothing less than an overturning of Christ Himself: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Mt. 24:35).

Disquieting too these words of Cardinal Cupich: “We must continue to develop the spiritual and other resources needed… to be leaders in a synodal Church that is reimagining itself.” These words would make many a Catholic scratch his head. A synodal Church? Of course, the cardinal was referring to the ancient tradition of each bishop ruling sovereignly in his own diocese. But a bishop’s sovereignty depends on his fidelity to the unity of the Church, guaranteed by union with the Vicar of Christ, who guards and defends Tradition. Cum Petrus, sub Petrus (with Peter, under Peter). But Cupich’s rendering could easily be construed as meaning something different. It could easily be taken to mean that local Churches should be left to themselves, each at liberty to alter Tradition according to standards entirely their own. This kind of synodality quickly devolves into classic Protestantism.

Against this parlous interpretation, the esteemed Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap., recently took issue. The former head of the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on Doctrine and a member of the International Theological Commission, wrote in his now-famous letter to Pope Francis, “Encouraging a form of ‘synodality’ that allows and promotes various doctrinal and moral options within the Church can only lead to more theological and pastoral confusion. Such ‘synodality’ is unwise and, in practice, works against collegial unity among bishops.” The Church’s woeful experience with false interpretations of inculturation attests to this. When local custom is permitted to refashion Catholic teaching, Catholicism slowly withers.

Cardinal Cupich might also want to reconsider his generous use of the word reimagining. His intentions are no doubt benign, but the word is the routine vernacular of iconoclasts. It suggests openness to horizons entirely untethered to the normative or natural.

We live in days where the ground is constantly shifting beneath us. Every certitude is questioned, and metaphysical shelters are few, most having long been blown away by the hostile winds of secularism. The only refuge is the Rock of the Holy Catholic Church. “Uncertain trumpets” like Cupich’s will not do.

Reprinted with permission from NEW OXFORD REVIEW, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.;, 

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