The Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cardinal Cupich, made headlines earlier this week when he announced a series of theological seminars on the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia. Featuring competent theologians – most of them young, several of them women, almost all of them on record as pushing the doctrinal envelope – the seminars are organized for small groups of 15-20 bishops of the United States, whom Cupich has invited to participate.
The lengthy talk that Cardinal Cupich gave recently to the Von Hügel Institute of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, provides the backdrop to the series, which is an outgrowth of a two-day gathering on Amoris late last year at Boston College. The Cardinal’s speech at St. Edmund’s was chock-full of buzzwords and technical theological jargon, peppered with references to Pope Francis’ own writings and statements on various hot-button issues.
The speech itself garnered broad attention in the Catholic press. The doctrinally challenging and even problematic portions of Cardinal Cupich’s remarks have received extensive treatment. The question few are asking is: why? Why this? Why now?
The answer is political, rather than doctrinal.
The seminar series bypasses the usual USCCB organs and procedures for such things. That, in itself and on its own, is frankly no cause for great concern. Willingness and ability to circumvent entrenched and increasingly unresponsive bureaucracy in order to get things done is, in the main, something of which the Catholic Church at every level arguably has greater need, even if such modus procedendi does have its downside. In the present case, it is nothing about which anyone needs to be worried. It does, however, suggest an answer to the questions, “Why this?” and “Why now?”
In November of last year, the USCCB preferred Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City over Cardinal Cupich for the leadership of the Bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities. Widely treated in the news analysis as a referendum of sorts on Pope Francis’ approach to pro-life advocacy, a few commentators – most notably John Allen at Crux – saw the election as at least in part a sign of the bishops’ reticence to work with Cupich.
If that’s the case, then this series of little get-togethers may well be the result of Cardinal Cupich’s decision to take his ball and go – not home, but – to the next pitch over, to play a new and different game.
It is highly unlikely that the seminars will come to much theologically. For one thing, the speakers’ list is far too homogenous in its intellectual outlook and orientation to generate any really fruitful discussion or debate. For another, the lines in the sand over Amoris are already drawn. Finally, even if the seminars do end up creating a sort of unified camp for the promotion of participants’ broadly agreed view of Amoris Laetitia, the movement is almost certainly destined quickly to lose whatever momentum it gets from the first push, unless it is able to garner the institutional support needed to sustain it. Given the circumstances, that, too, is highly unlikely.
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