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Cardinal Cupich faces clash of ideas and reality over Traditionis custodes

Cardinal Blase Cupich on Monday published an essay outlining his sense of the principles behind Traditionis custodes, Pope Francis’ limitations on celebrations of the Mass using the rubrics which preceded the Church’s liturgical changes occasioned by the Second Vatican Council.

But while the cardinal’s support for the pope’s intentions was clear, Cupich’s Archdiocese of Chicago has not yet issued an implementation plan for Traditionis custodes. And how the cardinal approaches that challenge might elucidate the challenge for diocesan bishops of managing the “constant tension between ideas and realities” identified by Pope Francis in Evangelii gaudium.

Cardinal Blase Cupich. Credit: Pillar file photo


In his Nov. 1 essay, Cupich wrote that Pope Francis issued restrictions on the “pre-Vatican II Mass,” which should be understood in light of three principles: the unity of the Church; the role of the diocesan bishop as moderator, promoter, and guardian of liturgical life, and the “solid unequivocal recognition on the part of all Catholics that the Second Vatican Council and its reforms are not only an authentic action of the Holy Spirit but also are in continuity with the Tradition of the Church.”

Those principles, Cupich argued, call for a “unitary celebratory form” of the Mass, which the diocesan bishop is “duty bound” to promote.

The cardinal’s essay has been criticized, especially by those who have suggested that his vision of liturgical reform — “that we leave behind a former way of celebrating the sacraments and adopt a new form” — does not take into account that contemporary expressions of the Church’s teaching and worship should be understood, and interpreted, in continuity with their antecedents in the past. 

Cupich faced similar criticism in 2018, when he said that the teachings of Pope Francis in Amoris laetita constituted a “paradigm shift” in the Church’s pastoral and theological vision. Theologians said his language seemed to suggest the “hermenuetic of discontinuity and rupture” against which Pope Benedict XVI warned in 2005.

But the cardinal rebuffed that view directly and clearly: “I reject the idea that a paradigm shift is a rupture and is not part of organic development…The premise that ‘paradigm shift’ means a break from the past is unfounded.”

Nevertheless, among some theologians, the cardinal’s essay this week might well reinvigorate the discussion his 2018 remarks prompted over the relationship between present and past.

Cupich wrote Monday that the Second Vatican Council gave the Church a “new self-understanding” in which “the Church left behind” some of what had come before, including the catechisms which preceded the promulgation of the 1992 “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” 

To be sure, the cardinal may not have meant “a break from the past” when he talked about “leaving behind” the Church’s older liturgical and catechetical expressions, but there will be some who take that as his meaning. He may be called upon to clarify that.

Nevertheless, whatever challenges await Cardinal Cupich in the world of ideas, his practical challenges might be even more daunting.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is one of the most ecclesially diverse local churches in the United States. The archdiocese has one of the largest Polish immigrant communities in the world, and one of the country’s largest Mexican immigrant populations. Chicago is home to several Catholic colleges and universities, an array of religious institutes and shrines, and a world-class seminary, with one of the most beautiful Catholic libraries anywhere.

The archdiocese is also home to several parishes and shrines at which the Extraordinary Form is celebrated, including at least two churches with nationally renowned Latin Mass communities. 

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The Extraordinary Form is, in short, a vibrant part of the ecclesiastical tapestry that is the Archdiocese of Chicago. That will make working toward a “unitary celebratory form” a challenge.

Cupich has not yet promulgated any official policy to implement Traditionis custodes in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He said shortly after it was promulgated that he would “take time to study, reflect and consult with others on it and in due time offer a pathway for implementing what the Holy Father has asked us to do” — a response that was fairly typical among U.S. bishops.

For the time being, “current practices with regard to the 1962 Missal remain in place,” Cupich wrote in July.

As he works toward the implementation of Traditionis custodes, Cupich might find the principles of an earlier work by Francis, Evangelii gaudium, to be of some value.

“Realities are greater than ideas,” the pope wrote in that text. “There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities.”

Cupich has been clear that the idea of a singular liturgical form is important to the pope, and therefore to diocesan bishops. But there is also a reality: for many Catholics, the faith is tied up intimately with the experience of the Extraordinary Form. It has meaning and importance to them, because it is how they experience and encounter Christ.

The idea and the reality may prove to be in tension. In such a situation, Pope Francis urges a willingness “to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time...initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.”

For his part, Cupich seems inclined to accept that implementation may well be a process. Cupich wrote on Monday that “fulfilling the aims of TC will require that we as pastors accompany people... to help them understand the essential principles of renewal called for in the Second Vatican Council.”

Cupich might find that process is best undertaken as a dialogue of mutual discernment.

Catholics who attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass often do so because they have very clear ideas about liturgical theology and the Catholic approach to sacred worship,. Their preferences are usually deeper than aesthetics. That does not mean that such Catholics reject the validity of the “Novus ordo,” but it does mean that they often have both intellectual and personal reasons to worship as they do, born out of the complexity and fruit of their spiritual lives. 

Given that the Extraordinary Form has been for some Catholics an occasion of deep conversion, any suggestion that liturgical reform means “leaving [it] behind” is likely to be slowgoing, if not entirely alienating. And discernment of how much to ask of Catholics attached to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, while helping them to maintain ecclesial unity, will not be easy.

To move forward, Cupich might find that gradualism is the right approach, pursued in a spirit of mutual respect, appreciation for the spiritual needs of those whom he leads, and patient commitment to authentic Christian discernment.

However he approaches it, Cardinal Cupich’s implementation plan for Traditionis custodes is worth watching. The cardinal faces a clash of ideas and reality. If that clash can be resolved peacefully, in line with the principles emphasized by Pope Francis, it might be exactly the “paradigm shift” that the cardinal has been talking about.

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