From the synod (8): An interview with Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago

Archbishop Cupich listening to a question from Catholic News Service Rome bureau chief, Cindy Wooden

Archbishop Cupich listening to a question from Catholic News Service Rome bureau chief, Cindy Wooden. Standing behind: Chicago priest Fr Manuel Dorantes, Spanish language synod assistant to Fr Lombardi.

[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome] Yesterday I was one of a number of journalists who sat down with the Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, who is one of Pope Francis’s appointees at the synod. Sometimes dubbed ‘America’s Pope Francis’, his appointment in September 2014 to one of the most important sees in the United States was seen as signalling the Pope’s desire for a more pastoral direction for the American Church.

The interview gives an important insight into the mindset of those who at this synod want to see the Church adopt strategies and languages that make it easier to show the merciful face of God. In the course of the interview, he tells a powerful story about how allowing a divorced and remarried woman to take Communion was the trigger for her conversion.

Although he was careful not to be drawn on the question of the divorced and remarried, saying only that he was weighing the different ideas and solutions, he said: “we can’t ignore the fact that there are lots of people out there who feel stuck. And we have to look for a way in which we’re going to reach out to them.” (He never claimed, as is being misreported, that people should be allowed to receive Communion if they had decided to do so in conscience.)

For Archbishop Cupich, the three key words of the synod are ‘accompaniment’, ‘integration’ and ‘reconciliation’. He notes that “we have to look for a way those three words are going to be the template for us to continue discussion for all those people, whether they’re folks who are divorced and remarried, or gay, or other people who feel disenfranchised.”

Archbishop Cupich reports that the synod is a serene place for honest speaking and listening, in which transformation is happening. He invites people to take their cue from Pope Francis and not give in to fears and anxieties.

The interview follows, slightly cut for length, and with the journalists’ questions summarised rather than transcribed.

Do you share the anxieties about the synod expressed by Archbishop Chaput in the Wall Street Journal?

I really don’t. It’s important to keep in mind something about the working document. It didn’t just drop out of the sky. It’s the result of the first synod and the consultation with the bishops, so it’s not as though somebody decided to write this document. It is in some ways a summary of the earlier discussions and consultations that already took place. It is a reflection of the input that was given. So if the bishops don’t like it, maybe we’re the only ones who are to blame in a sense because it came from us.

Remember though that it is a working document, not a final document, and if there are things for us to tweak and refine, then that’s great, it’s important for us to do that, but I do not share the anxiety at all.

I look at the Holy Father … He motioned to me one day to come over and talk to him and he just looked so refreshed, calm, at peace; and that is the attitude I think we should all have. If the Holy Father is at peace with the way things are going, each one of us should put aside the fears or anxiety that may be part of the present in our hearts and pay attention to Peter at this moment.

Have the environment and gun control, both issues on which you have spoken, come up at the synod?

Yes, ecology has come up in terms of the impact it has on global poverty — some of the poorer countries where they see the sea levels rising; some of the bishops are being impacted by that have spoken. Also with regard to violence: not necessarily the kind of gun violence we have but domestic violence and violence in society, with regard to drug trafficking — that has come up. Also the issue of labor, in the sense that workers — especially in cases where both parents are working — the impact that has on family life. So not as directly as I addressed them, or that are an issue for Chicago, but those issues are present in the room.

What has been the impact of the ‘Letter of the 13’?

Well of course I did not see any original letter but I’ve read news reports and the concerns they expressed are not my concerns, and the Holy Father spoke to some of those concerns on Tuesday morning [of the first week] and I think by and large people were satisfied with how he addressed those concerns. I think it has had absolutely no impact at all on the synod.

If the synod was so open etc., why did people feel the need to send something that was private rather than take to the synod floor?

That is a very good question which you should pose to the people who reportedly signed it!

Do you feel a tension between responding to Catholics who seem to need a strong leader with clear ideas who will lay out exactly for them what they are to do, and those Catholics who seem to be more willing to work out the messiness?

I’ve felt it for 40 years as a priest. A friend of mine who is a retired archbishop says all he wants on his tombstone is, ‘I tried to treat you like adults’. And I think that what he means by that is that we really do have to have an adult Christian response to living the Christian life; and that I think is where the Holy Father is leading us. We have the means by which we can help people come to decisions, important decisions, about how they live their Christian life.

This is a moment that I think highlights that kind of catechesis all the more: catechesis cannot be just about giving people the fixed doctrines and the stated doctrines we have, but also helping them, accompanying them, by showing them the path the Church has outlined in terms of making prudent decisions.

We have documents that really help us do that. I would point out, for instance, the 2009 document by the International Theological Commission on natural law. There is a whole section in there on how you make moral decisions, and I think that’s a very important piece for this synod. We can’t just refer to doctrines as though they were syllogisms from which we deduce a conclusion. There has to be that integration of a person’s circumstance case by case in their life.

We hear there may not be a published final document or post-synodal exhortation. Is there a desire to keep the conversation going, not close it off?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I’ve heard that too, that the Holy Father is not going to have an apostolic exhortation. Remember though that he issued two motu propio prior to the synod, and it could be that, much like Pope Benedict did, he could have that means by which decisions are communicated and made, kind of like the executive orders that we have in the United States, whereby various actions are taken.

So I don’t want to second-guess what the Holy Father is going to do. But let’s go back to that word ‘synod’. Because the Holy Father has said he wants a Church that reflects synodality, that is, a walking together. And we’re surely not at the end of the journey. I think we’re just  taking the first steps

Question about same-sex marriage and pastoral care of gay people, whether it’s come up.

It has come up in the small groups and it will now in the third part; it has also come up occasionally in the various three-minute [speeches]. It’s clear to me that that discussion needs to mature in the light of the Church.

If we’re going to really accompany people we have to first of all engage them. In Chicago, I visit regularly with people who feel marginalised. Whether they are The words ‘accompaniment’, ‘integration’ and ‘reconciliation’ continue to be repeated in the synod; and we have to look for a way those three words are going to be the template for us to continue discussion for all those people, whether they’re folks who are divorced and remarried, or gay, or other people who feel disenfranchised. Those three words I think are going to guide us going forward.

the elderly, or the divorced and remarried, or gay and lesbian individuals, also couples. I think that we need to really get to know what their life is like if we are going to accompany them.

In regard to the sacraments for divorced and remarried, what is the status of that discussion inside the synod hall?

Well I think people have stated their positions.  I know the German bishops have, also Roberto González [Archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico] had an intervention which was published, with regard to penitential practice, a pathway of moving forward.

Others feel as though that the doctrine of the Church is clear about that. But I would go back again, as I said earlier, to what the Church teaches about making sure that we consider things on a case-by-case basis. I do have this one little thing from this document on natural law from the ITC published in 2009. This is what it says:

 “… [I]n morality pure deduction by syllogism is not adequate. The more the moralist confronts concrete situations, the more he must have recourse to the wisdom of experience, an experience that integrates the contributions of the other sciences and is nourished by contact with men and women engaged in the action.”

That seems to me to go beyond the language of syllogism. I really think that — and this is a point I really want to make with you today — I think the greatest contribution that the bishops can make to families is to act and speak like families act and speak. That is a very key thing and I find that happening.

A number of years ago my mother, who gave birth to nine children, was asked: “Do you love one of your children more than the others?” And her answer was simple: “Only if they need it.” Well that’s the way families speak. That’s the way a mother talks. We have tobe able to speak that way too.

Syllogisms are important; general principles are important. But there’s a limitation on how that allows us the freedom to address real-life situations that I believe is in concert with what the Church teaches, as referenced in this particular document. So I would want to make sure that the full breadth of what the Church teaches is brought to bear when we address these very delicate questions.

What is at stake at the synod? What is the point of this?

I feel that by having us come together and listen to each other there is great benefit. Maybe we’re not going to come out with the sharp, clear answers that you in the media would like to have in order to write nice stories, but I’m seeing real transformation happening in the aula [synod hall]: people are talking to each other, they’re listening to each other, they’re coming in with a sense that their own views are changing.

I have changed. I have listened to the other side where I have really taken  to heart what has been said by people across the board. One of the participants said he felt like one of the Three Kings – -he’s going to go back by a different way. And I think that’s true for all of us. So if it has that impact I think the synod will be a success just for that.

We’re trying to figure out where you fall on the spectrum … 

People have been trying to do that for years!

In your pastoral experience, how have you counselled someone who is divorced and married and their desire to participate in the sacraments? And second, if it were your synod, you were running the show, what would you think would be a good paragraph in the final document?

I’ll take the last one first. I think that would be a huge pretense on my part even to think that. I mean, this is the Pope’s synod, and I’m not equipped to even begin to answer that. He’s got to make his own decisions about that.

I don’t come in with any pre-conceived goals. I came here, at the request of the Holy Father — I was not elected, I was appointed by the Pope to come here — and I heard him say: speak boldly and listen humbly. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. So I didn’t come here with any preconceived notions with what I want to do.

In regard to my own pastoral work with people I’ve always tried to understand them. We use that word ‘reconciliation’ all the time. It doesn’t mean giving people forgiveness. It comes from an anatomical root, namely the eyelashes,the cilia, so you begin to see eye to eye with people.

So if that’s the case, then not only do I have to understand them, but I also have to see how they understand me. And so I try to help people along the way, and if people come to a decision in good conscience then our job as a Church is to help them move forward and to respect that the conscience is inviolable, and we have to respect that, when they make decisions. And I’ve always done that.

How to encourage people to play a larger part in the Church?

People go through phases in their lives so we have to be patient with them and always available and present to them. I don’t worry too much about market share. I want to invite people, and we have to look for ways.

One of those ways we find for younger generations getting involved in the Church is through volunteering for Catholic Charity events. Young people today are generous. When they come and participate in that kind of work, that’s where you really engage them, and that’s where you invite them to be part of the life of the  Church. It might not be at Sunday Mass, but you can engage them through the generosity that’s in their hearts. I have a great hopefulness about young people; they are very generous. And I look for opportunities …

I go to the universities in Chicago for example and say Mass for the students, and I talk to them afterwards, I really enjoy that, I’m energised by that. Now, do these kids go to Mass every weekend? Probably not. But there’s something else in their lives that really is at issue, and they have to know that we are with them.

What has been the role of the African bishops at the synod?

The extended family is something they are reminding us of the value of. In the United States, the extended family support system has really eroded, because of the mobility in the workplace, people are not with their extended families any more like they would be in some other countries and cultures. So they’re reminding us of the importance of the extended family.

What I did in my intervention was to say that what the Church needs to do, at least in western society, and in the US in particular, is to be the substitute for that extended family because nuclear families are detached from that extended family, and the Church needs to be “the family for families.” That was the point that I tried to make in my intervention.

How important is the apparent agreement by the German bishops on the relationship between justice and mercy?

The Germans along with other countries and cultures are making a singular contribution. They are in touch with a theological tradition. They have some very important voices that are well educated, and they bring that to the table. So I weigh them as I do all the others; I listen to what they have to say and I’m very respectful. They come with a great theological tradition.

Question about whether what he previously said about conscience applies also to gay people.

Gay people are human beings too and they have a conscience. My role as a pastor is to help them discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet at the same time helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point. So I think that it’s for everybody. We have to be careful not to pigeonhole one group as though they’re not part of the human family. As if there’s a different set of rules for them. That I think would be a big mistake.

Question about call in synod for new language; is this a call for the language of teaching documents to be amended, or a new pastoral language?

Yes and I would go back to what I said earlier. We have to speak to families the way families recognize themselves. Yes it’s important to have various general principles, categories, words from our tradition and so on;, and yet if we really do want to engage people they have to recognise that we know their life in the way that we speak.

It’s interesting: that word ‘indissolubility’ … What we heard was that in different cultures, especially in the east, that word says too much for people, or it’s too hard a word to understand. People understand ‘lifelong fidelity’, but it seems too much of a juridical term to describe the richness and complexity of what a marriage means for people and their culture. I had never heard that before. But I get it. Because what it conveys is not the indissolubility of a wedding band, but handcuffs!

Does he believe that the synod would have benefitted by hearing from the voices of gay and lesbian couples and divorced couples?

It may have been. I know that when I did the consultation in my diocese I did have those voices as part of my consultation and put that in my report, so maybe that was the way [those voices were] represented. But I do think we could benefit from the actual voices of people who feel marginalized rather than having it filtered through the voices of other representatives or the bishops. There’s something important about that, I have found personally.

What does he think of the proposal that greater freedom should be given to regional or local bishops’ conferences to decide on some of these pastoral issues?

Well, I would like to give a bit more thought to that. I think that as the diocesan bishop I would like to be able to make sure that what I do is in conformity not just with the Church in my nation  but also the universal Church, but also recognising that I have specific needs in my own diocese. We don’t want to create national Churches. However we do have particular law for national churches already. Hence, for example, the Essential Norms for the protection of children. Those are approved by the Holy See but they are national norms for us. We also have a national norm with regard to … Every bishop has to submit to their metropolitan their financial audited reports on an annual basis.

So there is a function which a bishops’ conference can offer but when it comes to these other questions I’d like to give a little more thought to see how that would work to make sure that we don’t just create policy on very sensitive issues on a national level, but we do it with the conformity of the Church universal but give the respectful autonomy to the diocesan bishop.

What is your view of the Kasper proposal to admit to the sacraments divorced and remarried people? 

Let me point out something about Cardinal Kasper’s [proposal]. That was proposed in his talk to the cardinals. And it is the last chapter of I think five chapters in which he spelled out the theology of the family. I say that because sometimes when they refer to what Cardinal Kasper said to the cardinals they only go after that. I encourage people to look at the whole development of how he gets there.

So I really do find his treatment of what he calls ‘the Gospel of the Family’ — it’s published in a book, and I gave it, by the way, to all my priests; I wanted them to read it because is very rich theologically. In the last chapter he offers a proposal of how we can accompany with the mercy of God, with the background of the theology and he developed, he comes to these proposals.

 I think he has reasoned this proposal well given the theology that he offers; I do think that we should look at a way in which people are not just accompanied but integrated and reconciled.

But at the same time other bishops have stood up and offered their penitential pathway. Archbishop González of Puerto Rico for instance and the German bishops have their own take on it and other bishops as well. I am open to looking at all of it but I do think that we can’t ignore the fact that there are lots of people out there who feel stuck. And we have to look for a way in which we’re going to reach out to them.

I really did like the two motu proprio that the Pope released. I think that’s going to be enormously helpful to us and I’m going to see if that’s going to be a way in which we can do that.

But we have to believe in the mercy of God and the grace of God to trigger conversion rather than having it the other way around as though you’re only going to get the mercy if you have had the conversion. The economy of salvation doesn’t work that way. Christ receives people, and it’s because of that mercy that conversion happens many many times in the Scriptures.  And I think that’s worth looking at.

That’s my experience. I’ll tell you a story.

There was a priest who told me some years ago that he was doing a funeral for a young man who had committed suicide. He was in his 20s. And the mother came forward for Communion. Now she was divorced and remarried and she came forward for a blessing.

Turns out this woman was very angry with God about her son taking his life, mad at the Church, but she still came forward. And the pastor said to her, “No, today you have to receive.”

She went back to her pew and wept uncontrollably. She then came back to visit with the priest and began reconciliation. She began the process: she didn’t want to deal with the annulment thing; she didn’t want anything to do with the Church; but she began. And her heart was changed. She did have her marriage annulled; her marriage is now in the church.  But it was because that priest looked for mercy, grace, to touch her heart. And that’s something we need to keep in mind. I think the Holy Father has talked about that. It’s not a straight line.

What is your most abiding impression of this, your first synod?

It’s the Holy Father, it’s just seeing him there, listening attentively, nodding once in a while. But he is very attentive to what is happening. He comes and mixes with us during the coffee break. He seems very joyful, very much at peace; that’s why any of the tensions that people talk about, or the fears and anxieties … you wouldn’t think this Pope didn’t have a care in the world.

He’s a man who is really very much at peace. Cardinal George, of happy memory, was asked at his 50th anniversary celebration to describe the Pope. He said: “He’s a man who’s really free.”

Well that’s coming out to me. The thing I’m coming away with is that it’s a great privilege to be in the presence of a wonderful man who cares about and loves the Church and is very free to let people speak their minds, and who believes in the power of the Holy Spirit leading the Church. That gives me great confidence and that’s what I take away.

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