What the Cupich Moment Can Teach Ambitious Seminarians

In the American Catholic Church and in the Church worldwide under the Francis papacy, we’ve entered the Cupich Moment. With his appointment to the Archdiocese of Chicago, and with his being selected as the primary American organizer of the gathering of bishops this coming February for the purpose of addressing the sexual abuse crisis (which he doesn’t acknowledge as a crisis), Cardinal Cupich now stands as the de facto most powerful prelate in America.

Imagine a first-year seminary student studying for the priesthood in one of America’s 189 Catholic seminaries. He is not yet formed theologically or spiritually but he dreams of wearing the red hat someday and finds that ambition beginning to shape his heart and mind.

As he observes the American ecclesial landscape, he can’t help but notice the rapid ascent of Cardinal Blase Cupich from relative obscurity to Pope Francis’s Point Man in America with an influence that will undoubtedly continue to grow internationally. As he plots the trajectory of his own ascent, Cupich becomes his template and he begins to identify some lessons to be learned from the Cupich Moment.

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First lesson: start with a healthy dose of Autonomy. Autonomy means departing from the clear teaching of Scripture and Tradition as articulated by the Magisterium.

I’ve noticed over the years that many devout evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and orthodox Catholics have an epiphany early on in their faith walk that sounds something like this: As far as values that are translated into the public square, why do I have more in common with deeply religious Jews (e.g., Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) than liberal, mainline Protestants and the Catholic Left? Answer: because you both submit to a divine text and a sacred Tradition.

As Dennis Prager said in a debate with Alan Dershowitz, “When I disagree with the Torah, I conclude that I must be wrong. When Alan disagrees with the Torah, he concludes that the Torah is wrong.” Dershowitz agreed.

In following in the footsteps of Cardinal Cupich, our seminarian needs to know how important it is to use ambiguous language to accomplish his agenda in an incremental manner. It’s the kind of “weaponized ambiguity” that Pope Francis employed in Amoris Laetitia that, like termites, doesn’t bring the wooden pillars of the Church down overnight but over several decades.

We see this in Cupich’s statements in October 2015 about the reception of Communion by homosexual couples. He doesn’t give us an unambiguous “Yes” but appears to answer in the affirmative with: “Gay people are human beings, too; they have a conscience, and my role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church.”

He added that, “at the same time,” his role as a pastor is to help them “through a period of discernment, to understand what God is calling them to at that point, so it’s for everybody.” Our young seminarian might also learn that using a substantive sounding word like “conscience” as a theological and pastoral doorway invites Autonomy (Subjectivism) into the ecclesial playground.

Our seminarian should also know that when God is taken off the throne of his heart and replaced with Autonomy and Ambition, he should prepare to undergo the transformation from caring shepherd to calculating politician. Rather than being guided by the sacred deposit of the faith, he will be guided by a Machiavellian efficiency that will feed his ambition and be aided by a vast retinue of “professional Catholics” whom Benedict XVI described as people “who make a living on their Catholicism, but in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops.”

Full disclosure: Over four-and-a-half years ago, when Cupich was Archbishop of Spokane, four parishioners and I spent three hours with him one morning presenting a very significant problem for his perusal which affected three parishes in Stevens County in northeast Washington. He listened and took notes but I guess he “didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole” because nothing was done and the can got kicked down the road to the next prelate.

He seemed to me more like a CEO/politician than a pastor and assumed that role again at the USCCB’s recent disastrous “corporate board meeting” in Baltimore. Certain anonymous priests have told me that he is a “good administrator,” but, unfortunately, what the Catholic Church in America needs right now in its leading prelate is not so much good administration but an ardent zeal for moral reform.

If our young seminarian wants to go places, he must also, for the most part, refrain from talking about the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. It might be permissible for him to talk about the devil on rare occasions when referring to his ecclesial enemies as Francis does, or heaven, if he wants to emphasize that everybody will be there, but swimming in these waters too much will identify him with those uptight, benighted, orthodox types who are so out of step with the Zeitgeist and Francis’s “revolution.”

It’s far better, like Cupich, to talk about “meeting people where they’re at,” “going out to the peripheries,” “accompanying people on their journey,” and respecting “their inviolable conscience” even if they’re involved in what the orthodox call “mortal sin.” He needs to promote a “journey of self-discovery” rather than the brittle doctrines of sin, confession, repentance, and conversion, and to remember: Alpha is in and Aquinas is out.

Our young priest-in-training need not feel alone in his Autonomy because he’s standing in an historical and pre-historical continuum that goes all the way back to Lucifer who took one-third of the angels down with him in his revolt. He then seduced Adam and Eve (“Hath God said?”) to follow the autonomous dictates of their will (“You shall be as gods”) and was undoubtedly instrumental in Israel’s history.

This is crystallized in the last verse of the Book of Judges, when there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes, and in ancient Hebrew wisdom: “There is a way which seems right to a man but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12). Nor does our young seminarian need to be a “quick study” to notice some of the fawning interviews Cupich receives from the media as his Autonomy more and more aligns itself with the Cultural Left.

The signature of the Cultural Left is that they make themselves the arbiters of truth and morality instead of submitting themselves to a divine text, sacred tradition, and/or something like the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. We see this in the broader American culture that encourages people to “follow their heart,” and embrace “your truth” (e.g., Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 75th Golden Globe Awards).

The wildly popular book, Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, encourages the reader to listen to “the god within.” Ross Douthat correctly argues that “the god within” isn’t a divine voice at all, but an amplified human voice that caters to our self-love.

Thus, our first-year seminarian can, by becoming more and more heterodox and by throwing around the word “conscience” like ketchup on hash browns, move up the ecclesial ladder and, in general, curry favor with the cultural elites while he does it. What’s not to like when you’re getting the best of both worlds?

However, like most left-of-center young people, our seminarian is likely to overlook the trade-offs involved in following in the footsteps of someone like Cupich. For one, as he ascends to positions of prominence, he’s likely to find himself managing a great decline.

All anyone needs to do is look at the precipitous decline in the liberal mainline Protestant denominations in the US in the last half-century to see what is happening and what will happen in the American Catholic Church. As our future priest rises in the ranks and promotes his enviro-socialist agenda, he may find himself invited to cocktail parties in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Georgetown, but he will be doing so as membership declines, vocations dwindle, church coffers empty, and dozens of churches close.

This is already happening in Cupich’s own diocese where 100 churches could close by 2030. Recently, the Pittsburgh Diocese, in precipitous decline, began implementing its largest consolidation of local churches in decades.

Many other examples could be furnished. Oh, the downside of being a Zeitgeist puppet.

Compare this to the Catholic Church in Africa where all the metrics are heading in the opposite direction, and where the Church looks like the early New Testament Church with its vibrant, robust orthodoxy and explosive growth. In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion, Dean M. Kelly showed that evangelical churches grow because they do what the more heterodox won’t do, i.e., make serious demands of their parishioners in terms of doctrine and behavior.

In the face of such evidence our ambitious seminarian could react in condescending arrogance as some prelates in Germany did as Catholicism disappears from their country. He might respond by saying that the Africans are a primitive people who see things in black and white and are drawn to the simplistic, binary ministry of the African clergy. Adding: Of course, there would be an increase in vocations in Africa; the men there have few career opportunities.

Our future priest, like the German episcopate, might feel like a high-brow movie critic watching an obscure, nihilistic French film in an art house theater with only two other people in attendance. The poorly attended event would only serve to boost his already over-inflated self-esteem.

With an essay like this, it’s easy to give in to despair, despite the encouraging news that is coming out of Africa. Though things look bleak in America for the next five to ten years, there are signposts of hope and several oases in the ecclesial desert across the fruited plain.

Catholicism is local: my parish priest, Fr. Kenneth St. Hilaire, is stellar and incarnates a robust orthodoxy, fervent devotional life, and palpable sanctity. My archbishop, Thomas Daly, has been outspoken about his disappointment with the 137-85 vote of the USCCB in Baltimore to not ask the Vatican to release documents concerning ex-Cardinal McCarrick. I’m sure several readers could provide other examples of faithful priests and prelates in the land of the free.

Both Fr. St. Hilaire and Archbishop Daly and several others are today’s sons of Athanasius who will, in their own way, take the fight to the sons of Arius in the next decade. May God’s grace, peace, and mercy be upon them as this ecclesial drama unfolds.

(Photo credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA)


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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