Archbishops Chaput and Cupich offer sharply different visions of synod on the family

As a major Vatican meeting on the church’s approach to sexuality and family life enters its decisive week, two top American archbishops offered contrasting views about what course the synod should take—providing a window into the dilemma facing the gathering, and a reminder of the divisions that could endure in the U.S. after the meeting ends.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 16, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said “anxiety about the final product runs high” at the synod, where 270 churchmen from around the world are racing to synthesize their views into a concluding document they can give to Pope Francis.

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The pontiff, who has been presiding over the often tense debates, called this three-week meeting to help foster dialogue in the church while also looking at ways to adapt church practices to the realities of modern family life.

Chaput said in his column that while reformers swear they are not looking to change doctrine, their repeated claims to fidelity may mask plans to alter pastoral practices that could, for example, allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion.

“The more some synod fathers claim that no doctrinal change is sought on matters of divorce and remarriage—only a change in ‘discipline’—the more other synod fathers worry,” wrote Chaput, one of four bishops elected by his fellow American prelates to be a synod delegate.

“And for good reason. Practice inevitably shapes belief.”

Chaput’s concerns reflected worries shared by many in the orthodox camp. Some of them have delivered forceful public ultimatums, saying any changes would be tantamount to heresy, while 13 others lodged their protests about the synod’s process—and the working document they are debating—in a secret letter to Francis that was published earlier this week.

Later Friday, however, Archbishop Blase Cupich, a reform-minded prelate picked a year ago by Francis to head the Chicago archdiocese, said Chaput and others should, in effect, chill out.

“I don’t share the anxiety at all,” Cupich told reporters at a briefing.

Cupich then recounted how the pope called him over during a break in the proceedings to chat. “He just looked so refreshed, calm, at peace,” Cupich said. “That, I think, is the attitude that we should all have.

“If the Holy Father is at peace with the way things are going, I think each one of us should put aside the fears or anxieties that might be … present in our hearts and pay attention to” Francis’ example.

As for concerns expressed by Chaput and others that the synod’s working document is too slanted toward the reform agenda, Cupich said that the synod was in fact amending and editing that document.

He also noted that the working document was the product of a synod held last year, as well as months of consultation with bishops from around the world.

“If the bishops don’t like it maybe we are the only ones to blame, in a sense, because it did come from us,” he said.

Cupich argued that the synod should allow for pastoral flexibility on the two most controversial topics under debate here—Communion for Catholics who have remarried without an annulment, and finding ways to be more welcoming to gays and lesbians.

Now, Catholics who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment are viewed as living in adultery and thus cannot receive Communion unless they vow to abstain from sex. Many in the synod—prompted by direct suggestions from Francis—are pushing for ways around that ban.

In his remarks Friday, Cupich stressed the primacy of the individual conscience in making decisions about whether to receive Communion, and he argued that the pope and the synod could grant bishops and pastors leeway to treat each couple on a case-by-case basis.

“General principles are important. But there’s a limitation on how that allows us the freedom to address real-life situations,” Cupich said, adding:

“I do think we can’t ignore the fact that there are a lot of people who feel stuck. And we have to look for a way in which we are going to reach out to them.”

He said the much same about gay people.

“We have to make sure that we don’t pigeonhole one group as though they’re not part of the human family, so there’s a different set of rules for them. That would be a big mistake,” he said.

“We do have to believe in the mercy of God, and the grace of God to trigger conversion, rather than having it the other way around, as though you’re only going to get the mercy if you have the conversion.”

Those comments were also a notable contrast with Chaput’s views, which he elaborated on in his weekly column, published on Friday in the Philadelphia archdiocesan paper.

Chaput wrote that while he feels compassion for gay Catholics and the divorced and remarried, “mercy without truth is a comfortable form of lying.”

“The central issue is, do we and they want Jesus Christ on his terms or on ours? If we can’t in principle accept the possibility of discomfort, suffering and even martyrdom, then we’re not disciples. We can’t rewrite or overlook what Jesus requires in order to follow him.”

Chaput and Cupich are two of eight American bishops at the synod.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, were elected by their fellow bishops, like Chaput.

Cupich was chosen as an alternate by the U.S.C.C.B. members, then named last month as a special delegate by Francis. Also picked by Francis were New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Bishop George Murry of Ohio’s Youngstown Diocese.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
2 years 2 months ago
Jesus did not condemn the woman at the well who had five husbands and was living with a sixth man not her husband. He spoke to her of giving living water "gushing up to eternal life." So much of the conservative Catholic view seems to be "judge and condemn" and people just leave the church because of it. Pope Francis offers hope that the church will focus on issues other than those related to sexuality.
Michael Malak
2 years 2 months ago
Archbishops Cupich and Chaput come down on different sides of the big church versus small church debate. Chaput's church seems cloistered, small, judgmental, self-righteous and, worst, willing to push out people who are not deemed worthy. Cupich's church, on the other hand, looks to be a big rambunctious place, inviting, compassionate, expansive and caring, like being in a big family. What church would Jesus claim as His own?
Tim O'Leary
2 years 1 month ago
It is a little strange to hear the term "the orthodox camp" in a discussion about bishops, since the obvious name for the other camp would be non-orthodox or heterodox. In any case, Pope Francis has asked us to listen to the bishops and that includes Franciscan Chaput, as well as Cupich. But the personal vitriol in the comments against Chaput on several America articles seems to mean many readers do not want to heed the Pope's listening advice. While I lean to the concerns of Chaput, I do think Cupich makes some great points that should be listened to. Too many Catholics are "stuck" in places that make them unable to live the Catholic faith fully. This could be b/o a relationship or a practice that is clearly outside Catholic teaching, or a worldview (gender confusion, polygamy, contraceptive mentality, divorce, etc). I hope the Bishops can figure out the best way to facilitate conversion as the way to become unstuck. I remain very hopeful, since my hope is not in men but in the Spirit that secures the fidelity - just as He did in VC II and HV etc. Pope Francis is the first to warn about Satan trying to sow confusion and discord in the Church, and it shouldn't surprise us other bishops take his lead in repeating that warning. It stands to reason that the devil would be most active whenever he sees an opportunity among important Church meetings (note that Pope Paul VI warned about the very same thing around VCII - and the Spirit protected us).

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