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On ‘Christians’ and the ‘greatest Christians’

While Cardinal Cupich’s remark that “some of the greatest Christians I know are people who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in” is understandable in a certain way, it’s also very confusing.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago is seen in Chicago April 4. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

When Cdl. Cupich of Chicago says “some of the greatest Christians I know are people who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in”, I kinda sorta get what he means.

Raised as we were by an active Catholic mother and a nominally Methodist father, I had many opportunities to compare religious observances over the years. My mom did what was expected of Catholic moms through those years, God bless her, and I scarcely noticed it. But my dad’s religious conduct (or better, his conduct related to religion) caught my attention.

He willingly paid for Catholic schools when there were free public schools just a few blocks away. His Friday dinner was always fish although he would have loved a hamburger. And from time to time, he was the parent who actually made sure we kids got to Mass on Sunday. Thus, when my mother remarked, as she did more than once, that “Your father is the best Catholic in this house”, I knew what she meant.

But I also knew what she didn’t mean.

She did not mean that dad enjoyed the graces that came with Confirmation, the Eucharist, and Confession (being baptized, he and mom shared in the graces of Matrimony). She certainly did not mean that Catholicism was simply one more option among various belief systems, or none. And she never parlayed my dad’s Christian sensibilities into an ersatz Catholic identity cooked up in gratitude for his support in raising the children Catholic. Why not? If for no other reason, because words meant something in our house. Dad saw to that.

These thoughts came to mind when I read Cupich’s remarks about some of the “greatest Christians” being people who believe in nothing—or at any rate in nothing related to Christ. I can, in a way, appreciate his point for, obviously, people need not have a “faith system” in order to be mature, responsible, loving members of society.

But, unless both Cupich and his listeners know the personal examples he has in mind (in the way that my mom and I both knew much about my dad), I think it is confusing, in a world where words seem pretty much to mean whatever a speaker wants them to mean, for a prelate of the Catholic Church to refer to people “who don’t actually have a faith system that they believe in” as counting among the greatest Christians, of all things. Greatest people? Sure. Greatest humanitarians? Quite possible. But greatest Christians? Is that not to treat the word “Christian” as devoid of some specific, belief-oriented, content?

Consider a related point: Canon 205, rooted in Lumen gentium 14, sets out three criteria whereby baptized persons are found fully in communion with the Catholic Church, beginning with the profession of faith, and including also participation in sacraments and cooperation with ecclesiastical governance. Those who have, therefore, no “faith system that they believe in”, and who thus cannot claim full communion with the Church, are to be respected, of course, but also prayed for—not held up as role models for Catholics qua Catholics. Indeed, if one’s lack of “a faith system” is the result of an actual repudiation of the Christian faith (suggesting apostasy per Canon 751) one’s need for prayer and an invitation out of disbelief is all the more urgent, these, being among the pastoral points for bishops included in, say, Canon 383.

Likewise, I suggest, being “Christian” has something to do with, among other things, professing faith in Jesus Christ; being a “great Christian” has something to do with, among other things, proclaiming him boldly; and thus, holding out persons with no discernible beliefs as examples of the “greatest Christians” is not helpful especially in days of so much confusion about the meaning of, and the importance of being, Christian.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.


  1. It’s that kind of thinking that holds up abortionists and atheists and other secularists as exemplars and puts them on Vatican committees.

    • Yup. And there’s more to come. Bet on it.
      Some of the “greatest Jews I know” are people who don’t actually have a faith system…. .
      Some of the “greatest muslims I know” are people who don’t actually have a faith system… .
      Can you imagine a cleric of any other religion saying something as ridiculous as Cupich’s statement?

      • self-examination is fine, and humility to admit that we fall short in some areas compared to others who aren’t in the pews every week is part of improvement, but there is more going on here. This piling on of the “Christians are proud hypocrites” message from every where is not helpful, disheartening and only comforts and bolsters people of lesser character.

  2. Dear Cardinal,
    Applying a specific case to the general case is always an error – – statistic 101. That given, what is your point? That there are sinners among Christians? That there are kind people of no faith? What would you have faithful Catholics do differently given this keen insight?

    • Faithful Catholics incorporate those virtues as well as receiving the privileged Catholic graces. A lot of you seem to need to meditate on Jesus’ description of the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats, and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Then, there is the faith of some individual pagans, whom Jesus hlds up as exemplars.

      The theological virtues seem to form a continuum. You can’t have faith, hope or charity, without having pretty much the whole package. And what is notable in Cardinal Cupich’s perspective, and also Mr Peters when he speaks of his father, is that they don’t allude to just being ‘nice’, but to the much more primordial theological virtues – which might well form the disposition of potentially ready converts to the faith.

      It seems to me that Mr Peters does understand the issue, but makes a further point. It does no harm for people to focus on different concerns. In this case, surely, Cardinal Cupich’s is the least acknowledged by Catholics – certainly judging from this thread – although Mr Peter’s point seems a curious analogue of the Prodigal Son’s stolidly virtuous brother ; the bedrock truth that gives meaning to the other truth, however elliptically. We Catholics need to understand both. There are plenty of bad Catholics, as observant as you like.

  3. C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is anachronistic, troubling, insensitive, to many today. Lewis said that when we make words mean whatever we want them to mean, what results is incoherence, nothing means anything. At the onset of MC, Lewis defined Christianity as a Platonist or Stoic would define Platonism or Stoicism, and proceeded from there. He admitted bad professing Christians and generous non-Christians, but he stayed true to the meaning of words.

  4. What Cupich means is that Christianity is obsolete and unnecessary in today’s world. What he means is that people don’t need Christ. What he means is that people are naturally good, and don’t need no stinkin church. What he means is that we should burn down all churches, and simply adopt the practices of moralistic humanism, because being a Christian does not matter in today’s world. What Cupich means is that he really wants to be Bishop of a new church, a church we will sing into being.

    • Not just that, but that to truly move on to the next step in our evolution as the wonderful glorious models of goodness that we are meant to become, we must move beyond the limited confines of Faith, hope and charity of Christianity and embrace the new world religion of tolerance, inclusion and diversity.

    • What a brilliant choice on the part of Pope who am I to judge, making him a Cardinal, putting at the head of Diocese of Chicago and giving him a vote for the next pope.

  5. Serious listeners might observe that the Cardinal’s remarks could be understood as referring to himself – given some of the explicit DISBELIEFS that he publicly promotes.

    • Perfect.
      Words tell us much about the speaker no matter the subject.
      Sort of like when the words ‘coprophagia’ and ‘coprophilia’ are used by the Vicar of Christ.

  6. “Some of the greatest christians never read the bible and have never heard of the bible.”
    “Some of the greatest christians have never heard of Christ.
    “Some of the greatest christians have never gone into a church.”
    “Some of the greatest christians don’t understand what sin is.”
    “Some of the greatest christians have no belief in the afterlife or the immortality of the soul.”
    Wow. That was freeing!

    • “some of the greatest Christians are living in sinful relationships”
      “some of the greatest Christians are pro-choice”
      “some of the greatest Christians worked for the Hillary campaign”

    • Dear Donald,
      Thank you for the link. Certainly God wants all humanity to return to Him, that is why He created us. That said, it is through faith in Jesus that we are saved. Doing good (that can mean a lot of things) is a start in proving our faith as St. James exhorts, but good works in themselves can become an ego satisfier alone if not offered to God as a service to HIM. Let us not forget about picking up our cross (stop our selfish sinning) and following Jesus who gave us a perfect example. Unfortunately for our Pope, those he has elevated to represent him do him no favors!
      God bless,

  7. Christ sets up a banquet in heaven which includes DOCA immigrants. How many of my friends and family wouldn’t be invited, because they can’t be trusted to be civil? Many of course would be very invited. But the road is narrow. There are many non-Christians, Protestants, and Catholics that will be like the Criminal hanging next to Christ, “today you will see paradise”; you’re invited to the banquet. But there are many that pray the rosary every day that will not get an invite, not because God is mean, but God sees our hearts. Can we be trusted? It really isn’t a confusing time when all the Bishops and leaders of our church speak out in opposition to DOCA yet none of the Catholics give a hoot about what they think. (As a disclaimer: I do not worship government but it is important and I oppose moral relativism and communism).

    • The bishops have so cheapened themselves by jumping on every feel-good, touchy-feely PC bandwagon that comes along that yes – no one takes them seriously anymore. (it would help if they did their real jobs once in a while though)

    • Christ sets up a banquet in heaven for DACA immigrants? They’re not even dead yet! Does he set one up for Trump supporters as well? Who are you, that tells us who will be seated at the banquet and who will not be seated? Are you Jesus’ right hand man? I see that you are assigning seats at the table based on political positions. Nice one.

  8. Cupich simply likes to sow confusion, in matters of faith and morality — specifically sexual morality — as in all things Catholic. He should remember that in doing so he follows a being who’s very name means “the one who confuses” in Holy Scripture.

  9. Unfortunately for Chicago their Bishop is fond of saying ridiculous things, as if someone who does not believe in Christ Jesus as the Son of God could be the greatest Christian. I’ll expect that he considers Jehovah Witnesses Christian, even though they deny His Divinity, for that matter, even Muslims can be called Christians, after all they consider Jesus a prophet. I have to suspect Cupich has no idea how to be a true Christian, which is why he reminds me of Cushing, Bishop of Boston 60 years ago, who was also famous for saying nonsense, and more infamous for allowing abusive priest to prey on his flock. Those advanced in the hierarchy by Pope Francis scare me!

  10. Let’s be honest, the main reason the cardinal said this is to shame the practicing (orthodox) Catholics he does not like and to ingratiate himself with those he does. There is nothing unifying in his declaration. Unfortunately by trashing those he despises, he also trashed all the saints whom he should surely “know”. Some of the greatest bishops I know are the ones who don’t grandstand.

  11. It is a tautology to state that people with no belief system are not Christians. That is because to be a Christian, one must believe in Jesus Christ. Conversely, one who does not believe in Jesus Christ is, by definition, not a Christian.

    Sure, there non-Christians who are nicer, more charitable, more merciful, and/or more just than some Christians, but that does not make them Christians. Does the Church admit the possibility that such a person can be saved? Yes, the Church admits that it is a possibility, but the Church does not say that they will be saved or even that it is likely. Such a person must be invincibly ignorant of the Gospel through no fault of their own. “No fault” is a pretty high standard. Nice people who affirmatively refuse to worship God will not be saved.

    If the Cardinal was trying to make a point he should have said that there are many non-Christians who seem to act in a more Christ-like manner that some Christians. That statement would be indisputable. But I am afraid he may be one of the many who have stretched the Church’s reformulation of the doctrine “No Salvation Outside the Church” to an extreme (and absurd) end.

    • M.V. something along these lines?
      Prayer For The Silence of A Pope/Bishop.

      Dear loving and merciful Father,
      We pray for your Son’s earthly guardian
      of the deposit of faith.
      Grant to your humble servant N. __________
      that he may reserve and decline both speech and writing so as to safeguard your tradition that you so lovingly have bestowed on us for thousands years.
      May you grant our Vicar the peace and courage needed for earthly solitude and contemplation.
      Eternal and loving giver of all that is good, we beseech thee, to guide Him in his duties in living the gospel without words.
      We ask this thru Christ Our Lord.

  12. I feel what is missing here is the context to which Cdl Cupich spoke. This may offer more direction. Still, I enjoyed and appreciated the article.

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