Blase Cupich wants Catholics to grow up. Cardinal archbishop of a city famous for the husky, brawling laughter of youth, he preaches the virtues of “mature, well-integrated adult spirituality.” Witness to a man who said “Let the little children come unto me,” he endeavors “to renew the life of the Church by getting people to act like adults.”

No matter what problem Cupich encounters, his solution is to tell people to be more mature. How can we fix immigration? “We all have to act like adults.” What about ending abortion? It must be done “in a constructive way and as adults who respect each other.” And what was Amoris Laetitia about, anyway? Ah, yes: “moving out of an adolescent spirituality into an adult spirituality.”

Common to all these remarks is a refusal of responsibility. Some people have a quaint idea that a bishop should say what is right and wrong, in season and out, but Cupich has evolved beyond this. Cupich wants to liberate Catholic consciences from clerical control. “If people come to a decision in good conscience,” he says, “our job is to help them move forward and to respect that.” If you’re okay, so is he.

Cupich credits his ideas to Pope Francis. He says that Amoris Laetitia “put the responsibility on each individual, rather than an outside authority telling people what to do, as though they were children.” Don’t expect the pope or the bishop to tell you what to do. Daddy’s gone. Now you’re the man of the house.

No one born in the last forty years will be surprised by this rhetoric. There was the cool dad who winked and left you two alone, the cool dad who told you he didn’t keep count of the beer . . . . Even when the matter was trivial, the refusal either to forbid, or to accept responsibility for permitting, made him something less than a father. He told us to act like adults so that he didn’t have to.

Cupich is hoping more bishops will adopt his approach. At a recent conference at Boston College, he gathered scholars and journalists to help him promote it. One of the presenters, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, described the infantilization of laypeople as a feature of colonization. “The replacement of conscience is an act of domination, again colonization,” she said. “It is an abuse of power. The formation of conscience, on the other hand, is life-giving ministry.” 

Imperatori-Lee traced the colonization of conscience back to an encyclical Pius X issued in 1906. “The infantilization of the laity has its historical roots in a view of laypeople as objects of clerical control: pay, pray and obey, or as Pius X notes in Vehementer Nos, ‘the right of the laity is to allow itself to be led.’”

Imperatori-Lee’s anti-colonial rhetoric, like Cupich’s therapeutic talk of “well-integrated” spirituality, seeks to liberate. If bishops no longer exercise real authority over Catholic consciences, the faithful are of course free to do as they please. But so are the bishops. They no longer have to worry if their spiritual charges are blithe about abortion, adultery, and sacrilege. Those very words, with their antique and judgmental shadings, begin to sound foreign to the refinement of the episcopal office. Dialogue is more pleasant than polarization. After all, we’re all adults here.

Pius X took a different view. He saw the exercise of authority as a way to liberate the Church and protect Christian consciences. When he wrote Vehementer Nos, the French state had just revoked its concordat with the Vatican. Churches would be confiscated by the state. Priests would be subject to the draft.

Pius denounced laws that “place the Church under the domination of the civil power” and “encroach on matters which are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Church.” He insisted on inequality within the Church as a way of asserting the Church’s integrity and independence. The French state was sundering “the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the Pastors and Doctors—a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging.” Only bishops had the right to govern the Church—all others were interlopers.

Pius recognized that a non-hierarchical Church would be subject to the domination of the world. The same is true today. Attempts to play down the teaching and governing role of priest and bishop have not transformed Catholics into mature adults who stand upright and breathe free. It has left them enslaved to state, market, and tribe.

Cupich makes himself at home with these powers. When he needs to evangelize youths, he calls Mark Wahlberg. When he needs to denounce racism, he quotes Sundar Pichai. He quails from protesting outside abortuaries, lest he seem too extreme. He is less likely to invoke his apostolic authority than to marshal the prestige of the world. 

Maybe this is all just a hapless attempt to render Catholicism cool. It would not be the first time a father tried to appeal to his children by embracing pop culture and refusing to say no. But like every dad who tries to be cool, Cupich does not quite succeed. He and Wahlberg spoke to an auditorium of empty seats.

Of course, there is more than one kind of cool. Before it became a synonym for hip, cool indicated a kind of reserve, a haughty superiority to others and indifference to their pain. Someone who was cool would not care enough to intervene. In this sense, Cupich is cool. He pretends to be a friend to people who need a father. Instead of watching over, he looks away.  

Perhaps being concerned about abortion, adultery, and sacrilege is a childish habit unfit for adult company. But no one is fully adult, as bishops who disown their children amply reveal. Without moral authorities, the most mature among us cannot stand against the powers of this world. Cupich wants his tombstone to read, “I tried to treat you like adults.” Even those who shed no tears over his grave might think it a fitting epitaph.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

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