What, then, does Cardinal Cupich mean?

In a recent talk at St. Edmund College, Cambridge, discussing paradigm shifts and hermeneutics implemented by Francis by means of Amoris laetitia, Blase Cardinal Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, stated:

The starting point for the role of conscience in the new hermeneutic is Gaudium et Spes 16 (2), which identifies conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man…(where) he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” 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).

(Emphasis supplied.) The entire talk is well worth reading, if only to see what a prelate widely seen as an influential American squarely aligned with Francis thinks about Amoris laetitia and its implementation. Other American prelates have disagreed, and it is unclear, especially considering recent votes by the USCCB, that Cupich’s views have wide currency among American bishops.

Nevertheless, this is plainly a major address and it has been promoted as such by members of the Pope’s party in the media. Were it not that Francis is currently embroiled in a very serious controversy regarding Bishop Barros of Osorno, Chile, and a letter allegedly presented to Francis by no less an authority than Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, one imagines that Cupich’s talk would receive much more coverage. But Cupich’s talk deserves some attention, not least for the passage quoted above, which implicates Bl. John Henry Newman in Cupich’s understanding of conscience. We shall see that Newman probably does not provide the support Cupich would like for his view of conscience.

First of all, we think it is fairly obvious that Cardinal Cupich intends to invoke Newman’s authority in support of his argument. Fr. John Hunwicke has identified a sort of clever usage here: Cardinal Cupich implies, but never asserts, that Cardinal Newman would have supported the proposition that conscience “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal.” Now, taken word by word: Cupich never says that Newman said what Cupich says. He never says that Newman understood conscience as a sort of get-out-of-sin-free card or an exception to any ecclesiastical rule or point of doctrine. Nevertheless, Fr. Hunwicke is quite right: to drop the quotation of Newman in the middle of that sentence makes it appear as though Newman would have somehow agreed with Cupich’s understanding of conscience. To determine whether or not this is the case, we must explore Newman’s writings in some detail.

The phrase “the aboriginal vicar of Christ” comes from Newman’s letter to the Duke of Norfolk, and it comes at the end of a long passage where Newman sets forth the Catholic understanding of conscience. The passage—though lengthy—is well worth considering in full:

I say, then, that the Supreme Being is of a certain character, which, expressed in human language, we call ethical. He has the attributes of justice, truth, wisdom, sanctity, benevolence and mercy, as eternal characteristics in His nature, the very Law of His being, identical with Himself; and next, when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels. “The eternal law,” says St. Augustine, “is the Divine Reason or Will of God, commanding {247} the observance, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things.” “The natural law,” says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.” (Gousset, Theol. Moral., t. i. pp. 24, &c.) This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual men, is called “conscience;” and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine Law, but still has, as such, the prerogative of commanding obedience. “The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the fourth Lateran Council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.'”

This view of conscience, I know, is very different from that ordinarily taken of it, both by the science and literature, and by the public opinion, of this day. It is founded on the doctrine that conscience is the voice of God, whereas it is fashionable on all hands now to consider it in one way or another a creation of man. Of course, there are great and broad exceptions to this statement. It is not true of many or most religious bodies of men; especially not of their teachers and ministers. When Anglicans, Wesleyans, the various Presbyterian sects in Scotland, and other denominations among us, speak of conscience, they mean what we mean, the voice of God in the nature and heart of man, as distinct from the voice of Revelation. They speak of a principle planted within us, before we have had any training, although training and experience are necessary for its strength, growth, and due formation. They consider it a constituent element of the mind, as our perception of other ideas may be, as our powers of reasoning, as our sense of order and the beautiful, and our other intellectual endowments. They consider it, as Catholics consider it, to be the internal witness of both the existence and the law of God. They think it holds of God, and not of man, as an Angel walking on the earth would be no citizen or dependent of the Civil Power. They would not allow, any more than we do, that it could be resolved into any combination of principles in our nature, more elementary than itself; nay, though it may be called, and is, a law of the mind, they would not grant that it was nothing more; I mean, that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise, with a vividness which discriminated it from all other constituents of our nature.

This, at least, is how I read the doctrine of Protestants as well as of Catholics. The rule and measure of duty is not utility, nor expedience, nor the happiness of the greatest number, nor State convenience, nor fitness, order, and the pulchrum. Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.

(Emphasis supplied.) When Newman says that “conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” he means it literally. Conscience is an individual’s apprehension of the divine law, and, according to Newman, never suffers enough in the apprehension of the individual to lose its character. That is, conscience will always be the voice of God and must always be obeyed as such.

Taken in one way, Cardinal Cupich appears to assert that God can be set at odds with His Church. Of course, one cannot believe that a bishop and a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church would make such a startling assertion, even if it is popular with protestants and progressives. Nevertheless, taking Newman’s understanding of conscience, to which Cupich refers specifically, if somewhat ambiguously, in his remarks, it is hard to see what Cupich is driving at. One therefore wishes to ask, perhaps somewhat less polemically than Charles Kingsley, what, then, does Cardinal Cupich mean? Let’s see what we mean.

First, Cardinal Cupich recognizes that conscience is identical with the voice of God, as Newman says. Cupich asserts that the voice of God “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal.” Taken in its literal sense, this is extraordinary: the voice of God could “affirm the necessity” of failing to follow the teachings of the Church. Of course, Cupich neglects to note that “when He became Creator, He implanted this Law, which is Himself, in the intelligence of all His rational creatures. The Divine Law, then, is the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign, irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of men and Angels.” It is the apprehension of this law that is conscience. This is perhaps the most serious ambiguity. If Cupich accepts the identity of conscience with the divine law, then he asserts here that the divine law, apprehended by man, can “affirm the necessity” of resisting the teachings of the Church.

Recall what Pius XII said in Mystici Corporis Christi:

Because Christ is so exalted, He alone by every right rules and governs the Church; and herein is yet another reason why He must be likened to a head. As the head is the “royal citadel” of the body—to use the words of Ambrose—and all the members over whom it is placed for their good are naturally guided by it as being endowed with superior powers, so the Divine Redeemer holds the helm of the universal Christian community and directs its course. And as to govern human society signifies to lead men to the end proposed by means that are expedient, just and helpful, it is easy to see how our Savior, model and ideal of good Shepherds, performs all these functions in a most striking way.

While still on earth, He instructed us by precept, counsel and warning in words that shall never pass away, and will be spirit and life to all men of all times. Moreover He conferred a triple power on His Apostles and their successors, to teach, to govern, to lead men to holiness, making this power, defined by special ordinances, rights and obligations, the fundamental law of the whole Church.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, Christ, the head of the Church, the sole ruler and governor of the Church, conferred upon the hierarchy, beginning with the Apostles and continuing down to the present day, “a triple power . . . to teach, to govern, to lead men to holiness.” When the Church, in Cardinal Cupich’s words, proclaims its understanding of an ideal, it is exercising this triple power, granted by Christ.

Consequently, it appears that Cardinal Cupich comes awfully close to asserting—presuming an understanding of conscience consistent with Cardinal Newman’s—that the divine law, implanted in each man by God, can permit individuals to act contrary to the teaching of the Church, established and ruled by God, who has given to the hierarchy the powers of teaching and sanctifying. While we are confident that Cardinal Cupich did not mean to set God against His Church by means of conscience, we are afraid that some readers, unschooled in theological controversy, may mistake his meaning and see in his words such an implication. And we admit that, having brought Cardinal Newman’s understanding of conscience into his remarks, one could fairly assume that Cupich meant to adopt Newman’s understanding as his own. The conflict between God and His Church in Cupich’s remarks follows from this understanding; therefore, one wishes that Cardinal Cupich would clarify his meaning.

A clever interlocutor—and the supporters of Amoris laetitia have shown themselves to be extremely clever if nothing else—might object and say that we have ignored an important point in Newman’s discussion of conscience. He might say that Newman acknowledged the possibility of a conflict between conscience and purely ecclesiastical laws. He might say that we are being unjust to Cardinal Cupich, whose meaning can be derived in greater detail from Newman’s own analysis of the potential conflict between conscience and ecclesiastical law. Indeed, our clever interlocutor might say that Cupich’s meaning is entirely clear if one considers Newman’s argument. This may be true. Let us consider, therefore, what Newman says:

But, of course, I have to say again, lest I should be misunderstood, that when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called “in possession;” that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it. Primâ facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head’s side, being simply discarded. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare. On the other hand, in the fact that, after all, in extraordinary cases, the conscience of each individual is free, we have a safeguard and security, were security necessary (which is a most gratuitous supposition), that no Pope ever will be able, as the objection supposes, to create a false conscience for his own ends.

(Emphasis supplied.) First of all, some context. Newman begins this argument by observing “that, conscience being a practical dictate, a collision is possible between it and the Pope’s authority only when the Pope legislates, or gives particular orders, and the like. But a Pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy.” It is not clear that when the Church proposes an ideal, in Cardinal Cupich’s terms, relating to the moral law, that there is the same possibility of collision. Still less is it clear that when the Church repeats what Our Lord said in the Gospel—as is the case with the question of divorce and remarriage—that there can be the possibility of collision.

Second of all, as we have noted before, Newman rejects an understanding of conscience as mere self-will. This is the “miserable counterfeit” of conscience Newman excludes from consideration in the context of a collision between conscience and ecclesiastical authority. In rejecting this understanding, Newman sets forth the important principle—a maxim, if you prefer—that “conscience has rights because it has duties”:

So much for philosophers; now let us see what is the notion of conscience in this day in the popular mind. There, no more than in the intellectual world, does “conscience” retain the old, true, Catholic meaning of the word. There too the idea, the presence of a Moral Governor is far away from the use of it, frequent and emphatic as that use of it is. When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, “the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all” cannot excuse one from obedience to the pope. Why not? Because it is not conscience. Therefore, if, by conscience, one uses this popular understanding, one can never justify, no matter how skillfully the argument is laid out, disobedience to ecclesiastical authority, to say nothing of disobedience on a point of considerable importance, such as this one.

Additionally, in the note on liberalism to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, we learn that Newman—as a protestant—”denounced and abjured” the proposition that “There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.”

To return to the main question: assuming, without granting, that the moral and ethical teachings of the Church fall into the category of acts discussed by Newman, we see that Newman proposes an extremely rigorous process for a conscience to claim the right of resistance. “If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question.” Moreover, the burden of proof, the onus probandi, is always with conscience: that is, if one believes one’s conscience requires resistance, one has the duty either to make out a case against obedience or to obey. The commands of the Pope do not have a burden of proof; that is, it is enough that the Pope issues them. Additionally, Newman recognizes that there may be an initial inclination to disobedience, which must be addressed squarely and rigorously. “He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism.” The process of justifiable resistance, in Newman’s terms, is arduous. It is not enough to invoke immediately—without serious thought, prayer, and an exhaustive effort of arriving at a right judgment—conscience and thereby claim the right to resist the Pope’s teaching.

Perhaps this is what Cardinal Cupich means. That is, perhaps he means that, for the divorced-and-remarried who wish to defy the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio and Benedict XVI in Sacramentum caritatis—that is, the teaching that they must live as brother and sister in order to be free to approach communion—upon the invocation of conscience, the process is long and difficult. The bigamists must engage in serious thought, prayer, and formation through “all available means” of a right judgment. They must “vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit” of their nature that rebels against commands from superiors. They must have no hint of self-will, and they must understand that the burden is on them and the presumption on the side of John Paul and Benedict and the teaching of the Church from the time of Christ Himself. Only when they are “able to say to ‘themselves,’ as in the Presence of God, that they must not, and dare not” follow the decrees of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Cardinal Cupich may be saying, may they invoke conscience as a basis to live more uxorio in a bigamous second marriage. Such a rigorous interpretation of Amoris laetitia would put Cardinal Cupich in an extreme camp. Few prelates, if this is indeed what Cardinal Cupich means, have expressed such a rigorous view.

We are left therefore where we were a few minutes ago. What does Cardinal Cupich mean when he says that conscience “could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal”? Does he mean to say that conscience sets God at odds with His Church in individual cases? We cannot believe that a cardinal would make such a bold—and boldly un-Catholic—statement, but, if he means to ratify Newman’s understanding of conscience and not the “miserable counterfeit” resisted by Newman, his meaning is unclear to a great extent. On the other hand, does he mean to follow Newman in holding that conscience may resist a decree of the Pope if, after the most arduous process of purification, education, and proof, conscience determines it is necessary? Such a view would turn the pastoral emphasis of Amoris laetitia into an austere rule leading to careful theological argumentation. Perhaps this is what Cardinal Cupich means to endorse. But if this is the case, we admit frankly being confused by the Pope’s friends’ endorsement of Cardinal Cupich’s talk. It is so far removed from their understanding of Amoris laetitia to be altogether more like the arguments of Cardinal Burke or Bishop Athanasius Schneider than those of Cardinal Schönborn or Rocco Buttiglione.

A word on that John Paul II address

At Life Site News, there is a translation of a 1987 speech by St. John Paul II touching upon, among other things, Humanae vitae. In the speech, John Paul stated, “What the Church teaches about contraception is not a matter of free discussion among theologians. Teaching the contrary is tantamount to inducing the moral conscience of the spouses into error.” In this view, John Paul joined Paul VI and Pius XI, both of whom taught—in Pius’s case, perhaps infallibly—that contraception was always and everywhere objectively evil. John Paul went on in his speech to rebut briefly the idea that the doctrine of the Church, while objectively true, is infeasible in some circumstances. (Recall that this address was before Veritatis splendor was issued.) Not so, John Paul teaches us: God does not command the impossible and He gives grace to all to follow His commandments. Obviously, as the attack on Humanae vitae ramps up—with people appointed by Francis to the Pontifical Academy for Life in the vanguard of the assault—Life Site News offers the translation as a counter.We wonder, however, whether it really matters at this point.

Since March 2013, two things have been obvious. The perennial teaching of the Church on questions like communion for bigamists and contraception is well known. Francis and his staunchest partisans don’t care. Familiaris consortio and Sacramentum caritatis—to say nothing of the words of Our Lord and St. Paul—were well known on the communion-for-bigamists question prior to the disastrous family synod. Yet, despite the ambiguous votes of the bishops at the family synod, Amoris laetitia was issued, apparently in contradiction to Familiaris consortio and Sacramentum caritatis. Now, a few years later, the Pope has declared the Buenos Aires guidelines, themselves profoundly ambiguous in light of the Church’s prior teachings, “magisterial.” One wonders how it happened that the Pope’s old colleagues in Buenos Aires came to issue guidelines that he responded to in a private letter, which was later promoted to the status of an Apostolic Letter. One wonders if Cardinal Parolin and Cardinal Baldisseri know. Did the clear teaching of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI matter, even as Francis canonized John Paul and can still see a light burning in Benedict’s monastic cell?

Likewise, the teaching of the Church on contraception is clear. Pius XI, in Casti connubii, proclaimed that it was evil, and he did so in a way that some theologians believe was infallible. The infallibility of Pius’s statement in Casti connubii was debated by the commission that resulted eventually in Humanae vitae. The status of Pius’s statement in Casti connubii in light of the doctrinal commentary to Ad tuendam Fidem probably should be discussed, too; that is to say, the question has gotten harder, not easier, to answer in the negative. Then, in an act worthy of St. Peter himself, Paul VI stood up to his own commission and the entire world and proclaimed all forms of artificial birth control were intrinsically evil. This act will never be forgiven by the progressives in the Church, always ready to make another accommodation with the world, and they have not stopped complaining about it. Nevertheless, Paul’s solemn discharge of the munus Petrinum has made possible the Church’s defense of life on every front. John Paul and Francis could not inveigh against the death penalty without the Church’s opposition to abortion, and Paul’s rejection of contraception made the Church’s steadfast opposition to abortion possible. Everyone knows this. Nevertheless, there is a mounting campaign against Humanae vitae.

The progressives see Francis as their last, best chance to achieve their long-cherished goal of setting aside Paul’s act. And not without good reason! Members of the Pontifical Academy for Life appointed by Francis challenge the applicability of Humanae vitae. What’s worse: Edward Pentin reports that a spokesman for the Academy claims that it “knew” about the positions of these members prior to their appointment. Moreover, Francis has handed the proponents of communion for bigamists a major victory. Why would the progressives arrayed against Papa Montini think they will fail? Indeed, the logic of Amoris laetitia is already a victory in their eyes! Thus, while we think it is unquestionably a good thing that Life Site News has presented the translation of John Paul’s 1987 speech, we are not sure it matters all that much.

On the other hand, it is clear that the confusion over once-clear moral questions is spreading. As the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium reminds us, the Church does not consist of the hierarchy, clergy, and vowed religious alone. Lay men and women, the Council tells us, make up a significant part of the entire Church. Progressives react with horror to the suggestion that the words of St. Pius X in Vehementer nos about the duties of the laity have much applicability today. As confusion mounts, the laity have, the Council would tell us, the right to the spiritual goods of the Church and the right to make known to their pastors their opinions. Parrhesia is not merely a synonym for progressives saying what a pope does not want to say. Consequently, the laity ought to understand what the doctrine of the Church is, what the recent popes have said, and in what ways the favorites of the current pontificate are deviating from that doctrine. This is, in fact, likely the only way that the confusion spreading in the Church will be addressed.