Cardinal Cupich’s Revolutionary Conscience
Fr. Gerald E. Murray
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
The Church has always taught that marriage is intrinsically indissoluble by the express will of God. That the unbreakable unity of marriage is not an ideal, in the sense of an as yet unattained goal towards which married couples strive, but rather is the very reality, the very nature of marriage. The Church teaches that fidelity to marriage vows is not merely something that you should strive for in seeking to arrive at the ideal of marriage, but rather is a serious obligation inherent in the nature of marriage.
Thus infidelity is not an excusable failure to live up to an ideal that is difficult, perhaps even impossible to achieve. Infidelity is rather a positive rejection of a solemnly promised vow to live in accordance with the divinely willed nature of marriage. In short, the Church teaches that God joins a man and a woman in an indissoluble bond and offers them the grace to be faithful for life to the obligations inherent in this state of life. Any infidelity to these obligations does not cause that marriage to die or disappear. And marriage is not subject to dissolution by the retroactive withdrawal of consent at any point after the exchange of vows.
Ever since the publication of Amoris Laetitia, doubts have been cast upon the necessity of adhering to this understanding of marriage. Chicago’s Cardinal Blasé Cupich recently spoke on Amoris Laetitia at St. Edmund’s College in Cambridge, England. His line of argument undermines the Church’s teaching on marriage, and everything else, by treating one’s lived experience as some sort of divine revelation. This means that what one does becomes the standard of what one should believe.
Cardinal Cupich speaks about a synodal church in which:
“there is no hierarchical distinction between those with knowledge and those without. As such, the most important consequence of this call to accompaniment ought to be greater attention to the voices of the laity, especially on matters of marriage and family life, for they live this reality day to day.”
Laymen are often better instructed in Catholic doctrine than their pastors. The shepherds should rejoice when they find their flock to be knowledgeable and faithful believers. But what if they reject Church teaching? Is that rejection to be embraced as a sign of God’s action in their lives?
Cardinal Cupich argues:
“It goes without saying that this will also mean rejecting an authoritarian or paternalistic way of dealing with people that lays down the law, that pretends to have all the answers, or easy answers to complex problems, that suggests that general rules will seamlessly bring immediate clarity or that the teachings of our tradition can preemptively be applied to the particular challenges confronting couples and families. In its place a new direction will be required, one that envisions ministry as accompaniment, an accompaniment, which we will see, is marked by a deep respect for the conscience of the faithful.”
It is deeply demoralizing to hear a Catholic bishop describe the task of teaching the faithful the truths of the Gospel as being an exercise of authoritarianism or paternalism that “pretends” to answer the difficult questions or problems people have. When he claims that it is wrong to think that “the teachings of our tradition” can “preemptively” meet “particular challenges confronting couples and families,” he is reducing Church teaching to an inadequate set of possibly useful suggestions. The voice of the Lord speaking through the doctrine of his Church is no longer reliable or universally applicable. Instead, we must listen to the conscience of married couples, which is even seen as a new source of divine teaching.
Cardinal Cupich claims:
“accompaniment also is an act of forming Church teaching. There is a continuum of accompaniment which undergirds this entire range of actions by the Church. And thus . . . the core goal of formal teaching on marriage is accompaniment, not the pursuit of an abstract, isolated set of truths. This represents a major shift in our ministerial approach that is nothing short of revolutionary.” [Emphasis added.]
What does this revolution involve? Cardinal Cupich says:
“When taken seriously, this definition demands a profound respect for the discernment of married couples and families. Their decisions of conscience represent God’s personal guidance for the particularities of their lives. In other words, the voice of conscience – the voice of God – or if I may be permitted to quote an Oxford man here at Cambridge, what Newman called “the aboriginal vicar of Christ” – could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal, while nevertheless calling a person “to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303).
Thus a decision of conscience, for instance, to leave one’s wife and civilly “remarry,” is labeled “God’s personal guidance” that would grant divine approval to one’s blameless embrace of the “necessity” of what is euphemistically called “living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal.” Cardinal Cupich is telling us that God will inspire someone to serenely decide in his conscience that it is necessary for him to commit adulterous acts, and that this is therefore God’s will for him.
Is there any possible way that this opinion is reconcilable with Catholic teaching on the nature and proper formation of conscience, the necessity to avoid mortal sin at all times, and the impossibility of God approving of what He condemns, i.e., adultery?
What is revolutionary here is not any change in the Church’s teaching on marriage (which is impossible), but rather the attempt to impugn that teaching by claiming that since some people decide that they would rather not be faithful to their marriage vows, they may in good conscience claim that God does not require them to be faithful; rather they should calmly recognize the “necessity” of embracing what has always been taught by the Church to be a gravely immoral lifestyle.
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The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.