Archbishop Cupich,

Welcome, and a few thoughts for your first day on the job:

As you are no doubt already well aware, the great Catholic fault line since Vatican II is the rift between continuity and change. The challenge is how to turn this conflict into a creative tension we can all live with.

Ladislas Orsy, a great mind, great heart, and great champion of Vatican II, in his book, Receiving the Council, likens the post-council era to two mighty streams coming down out of the mountains and meeting on the plain. Turbulence is inevitable, but so is the eventual confluence. He can’t predict how long all of this will take, but in the long run, being a man of faith, he’s hopeful. 

The two streams, according to Orsy, represent continuity and change. Vatican II wasn’t only about change, of course. It was also about ressourcement, i.e. return to our origins. And some of the traditionalists who argue most fiercely for continuity and against change, Orsy says, overlook the fact that the Church has changed, developed and evolved a great deal since its earliest days. The challenge is: How does an institution like the Catholic Church sustain the valued thread of continuity — its identity — while also encouraging necessary change? 

That’s the tightwire Pope Francis is walking, and you, too, are now navigating that fine line.

Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict, proposed that we use what he called the hermeneutic of continuity and rupture (or discontinuity) in evaluating Vatican II. “Hermeneutic” is one of those awful words, like “consubstantial,” that confuse more than clarify. So let’s call it an “interpretive principle,” a “prism,” or better yet, a “lens.” 

It seems to me every “hermeneutic,” every “lens,” is susceptible to subjective bias. It’s not just the lens you’re looking through but who is doing the looking. If you like a certain development, you see continuity. If you don’t, you see rupture.

In addition, some of the most positive developments coming out of Vatican II were “new” — for instance, ecumenism, primacy of conscience, defining the Church as “the people of God.” Collegiality, on the other hand, is very “old,” whereas the hierarchical, centralized, top-down authority that replaced it at some point was “new.” Infallibility (from Vatican I in 1870)? That was new, too.

The more important question is how does the Church change without throwing baby Jesus out with the bathwater? What is the thread of continuity that needs to be preserved? If we could agree on that, we might begin to resolve our conflict.

And conflict always cries out for resolution. The Catholic Church has been through painful divisions before — the split with the Eastern Rite, the Protestant Reformation. More recently, the followers of Archbishop Lefevre (St. Pius X Society) after Vatican II. The great dream of the Catholic Church is unity, but that has been elusive. In its place, the Church has often resorted to uniformity, i.e. enforced unity. Genuine reconciliation is a long process, requiring patience and the courage to dialogue.

Orsy sees two streams flowing together. My image is the cross itself. Two beams, one vertical (top-down, hierarchical), one horizontal (egalitarian, more democratic). The symbol has no power unless the two are integrated — co-existing in creative tension, neither side dominant, neither side able to grow comfortable and complacent. It’s our cross to bear, so to speak. It’s your cross to bear as the head of the Chicago Archdiocese.

To integrate the two streams — or two beams — we need a different hermeneutic, a different lens, one that focuses on our connection with the past, while still allowing for periodic “aggiornamento,” i.e. updating. In other words, continuity that co-exists with change.

I propose the lens of love.

I lost my faith when I was 16. I awoke one morning and meaning was gone. Since that day I’ve been on the long road back to belief. At first, I asked the wrong question: “What is the meaning of life?” When I reframed it, “Does life have meaning?” it was easier to answer. Life was good, often beautiful, definitely meaningful. I just didn’t know why or how. As the years progressed, I never stopped looking, and longing, for God, but I wasn’t about to settle for easy belief. It had to be authentic.

When I told my parents I no longer believed in God, they were upset. Later that night when I went to bed, I found a note my father had placed on my pillow: “Where love is, there God is also” was all it said. It has been my touchstone ever since. In college, I encountered (there can be no other word for it) Martin Buber’s I and Thou, the book that changed my life. “All real living is meeting.” 

Life, I realized, is relational, and when we wander too far away from our foundation of love, we lose our way.

Without love there is no Christianity. As Jack Miles points out in his book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Jesus had the nerve to proclaim a disarmed, non-violent, loving God to a people who were waiting for a warrior messiah. Instead, they got the sacrificial lamb. Not exactly what they were expecting. Talk about rupture. Yet there was continuity. The Jews believed in a God of power, and Jesus was preaching a new kind of power — a much greater power as it turns out.

The Church teaches that Jesus is “the way,” which is pretty vague. The Church hasn’t done a good enough job of proclaiming what is very good news indeed: His way is love. If the gospel is good news, it should sound like it. Too often, it just sounds like scolding.

What does it say when a religion based on love fails to include the word “love” in either version of the Catholic creed? It means we’re using the wrong “hermeneutic,” looking through the wrong lens.

When we consider the great issues that tear this Church apart: contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, equality for women, a married clergy — we should view them through the lens of love.

Earlier this year, I attended a terrific production of the musical Fiddler on the Roof at our local high school, which explores the conflict between change and continuity. Tradition, Tevye says, helps us keep our balance in difficult times. Yet each of his three daughters challenges tradition because of love. Rupture? Tevye says to himself, “How can I turn against our traditions? Impossible!” On the other hand, he says, “How can I turn against my own daughter?” In the end, Tevye sees through the lens of love, and so must we.

With everything the Church teaches, we should ask, “What does love say?” Any teaching that does not reflect the love Jesus not only preached but embodied will fall on deaf ears.

A wise man once said, “People have to feel you before they can hear you.” People the world over “feel” Pope Francis, and they are intently listening, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. That’s authority, which is very different from enforcement. 

I remember hearing theologian Karl Rahner 40 years ago at Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago campus speak to a rapt audience about the “Incomprehensibility of God.” Recently, I read that Rahner preferred the word “mystery” when referring to the divine. 

I sense that mysterious spirit in myself, in everyone around me, in the world. I definitely sensed it at work in Vatican II, especially as I learned more about that remarkable event, talking to those who were in Rome during the council and whose lives were altered by the experience. I wrote a book about it, titled Unfinished Pentecost.

My journey, too, remains unfinished, but the long road has led me back to belief. I believe all human beings already belong to one church, standing before the same great mystery. I call it the “Church of the Open Window,” in honor of my hero, St. John XXIII, who started the Second Vatican Council by opening a metaphorical window to “let a little fresh air” into a very closed institution.

The Church of the Open Window is a lot more diverse than some might presently feel comfortable with, but we are unified by the Spirit, which works (in different ways) through all of us.

The Catholic Church will change, in ways none of us can predict, but I believe the Mysterious Spirit is taking us somewhere — someplace good. The thread of continuity, however, will always remain visible.

As long as we remember to look through the lens of love.

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