The cardinal's much-discussed lecture was worryingly ambiguous - and in one important place just incorrect

Cardinal Cupich’s lecture in Cambridge last week has generated some commentary, and I feel the need to join in. It would take far too long to do a point by point refutation of everything the Cardinal says, but I would like to pick up on some points which seem misleading or ambiguous.

First, an error of fact. The Cardinal says: “The bishops gathered at the synods on the family were united in this regard, in the end voting for all the proposals by over a 2/3 vote and in most cases nearly unanimously.”

Actually, at the first synod the proposals to admit the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion were not passed by a 2/3 majority. As the ever valuable Wikipedia reminds us, “Of the three paragraphs that failed to get a two-thirds majority but were included in the final report, two deal with the question of whether in some circumstances to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to be admitted to the Eucharist, and the third discusses pastoral care for gay Catholics.”

It is odd that the cardinal should have overlooked this. But let it not be forgotten that the Synod did not endorse communion for the divorced and remarried.

This is not the only imprecision in Cardinal Cupich’s remarks. He claims, for instance, that “the complex realities that couples and families face today are singularly different from those of the past… A fresh approach is needed.” He does not say that this means a fresh approach to moral teaching is needed – though he does not rule this out, either.

Now, we do have to keep up with the times, and develop responses to new questions. But there are certain underlying realities that stay the same. Human nature is unchanging. People everywhere across the globe and across the ages are substantially (to use a good Aristotelian phrase) the same. Thus, while it may be the case that the life of the Maasai (amongst whom I once lived) is very different from the style of life among my present parishioners in the south east of England – in fact it is hard to picture two sets of people more unalike – both share the same human nature and are bound by the same moral law. A Maasai who practices polygamy does something against the will of God concerning marriage; so does a person in Surrey who practices civil divorce and remarriage.

Why is this point so fundamental? Because if we do not accept the continuity of human nature, and its unchanging nature, it becomes impossible for the Church to teach the eternal verities, that is, a Gospel that is the same for all peoples in all generations. Moreover, we would have to abandon the belief that the teaching of Christ is valid not just for the people of his time, but for the people of all times.

Incidentals change; the underlying reality does not. Consider the way that Shakespeare still speaks to us, being “not of an age, but for all time”. Consider the timelessness of the Bible as an existential description of the human condition. Read, for example, the concluding verses of Genesis 24, where Rebecca and Isaac marry – the timelessness of that passage is breath-taking. Singularly different from today? Yes, in incidentals, but in underlying reality, no.

Given the above, it is not simply legitimate to keep on proposing the perennial teaching of the Church with regard to marriage and the family, it is essential that we do so.

The Cardinal then goes on to state: “If we accept that families are a privileged place of God’s self-revelation and activity, then no family should be considered deprived of God’s grace.” One might ask how that last phrase applies to Fred and Rosemary West, or of the recent case of the California “House of Horrors” and the numerous other examples of places where family life is marked by abuse and cruelty. Not every relationship is good. But let that pass. Even speaking in general, it is worth asking in what sense families are “a privileged place of God’s self-revelation and activity”.

After all, the vowed life is also a privileged place of God’s self-revelation. So is the liturgy; so is the life of charity; so is the life of mysticism; and so on. There are beautiful examples of family life: the lovely relationship between St Thomas More and Meg Roper; the heroic sacrifice of Gianna Beretta Molla. But there are also less admirable examples.

And this is where the cardinal’s words have a dangerous tendency. They could imply that the insights of lived family life are of such importance that they can be a decisive source of moral teaching in every case. But sometimes family life contradicts the Gospel, as in cases of divorce and remarriage. We must not imagine that every single example of family life exemplifies Catholic doctrine.

There are other concerning tendencies in the cardinal’s talk. In a second post I will cover some of them, and then suggest how Catholics might respond.