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First thoughts on the English version of Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia.

There are as one might expect in a document of this length and written with access to the kinds of resources a pope commands, many good things said about marriage in Amoris. Whether those things speak with any special profundity or clarity is better left, I think, for each reader to decide individually.

That said, however, one must recall that Francis is not a systematic thinker. While that fact neither explains nor excuses the various writing flaws in Amoris, it does help to contextualize them. Readers who are put off by more-than-occasional resort to platitudes, caricatures of competing points of view, and self-quotation simply have to accept that this is how Francis communicates.

Some juridic issues that were widely anticipated include:

Holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Francis does not approve this central assault tactic against the permanence of marriage, but neither does he clearly reiterate constant Church teaching and practice against administering the Eucharist to Catholics in irregular marriage situations. And, speaking of ‘irregular marriage’, nearly every time Francis uses that traditional phrase to describe what could more correctly be termed pseudo-marriage, he puts the word “irregular” in scare quotes, as if to imply that the designation is inappropriate and that he is using it only reluctantly.

Internal forum. Francis makes almost no commentary on the so-called “internal forum” solution. What little comment he does make on the internal forum in AL 300 is not controversial.

Canon law in general. Francis makes almost no use of canon law in Amoris. What few canonical comments he does make are not controversial.

‘Same-sex marriage’. Francis leaves no opening whatsoever that ‘same-sex marriage’ can ever be regarded as marriage. AL 251.

Some problematic points (in no special order) include:

1. Speaking of divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, Francis writes: “In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy [i.e., sexual intercourse] are lacking ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers’ (Gaudium et spes, 51).” AL fn. 329. I fear this is a serious misuse of a conciliar teaching. Gaudium et spes 51 was speaking about married couples observing periodic abstinence. Francis seems to compare that chaste sacrifice with the angst public adulterers experience when they cease engaging in illicit sexual intercourse.

2. Speaking of “Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church”, Francis writes “Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way.” AL 292. This simple phrasing requires significant elaboration: forms of union that most radically contradict the union of Christ and his Church are objectively adulterous post-divorce pseudo-marriages; forms of union that reflect this union in a partial, but good, way are all natural marriages. These two forms of union are not variations on a theme; they differ in kind, not just in degree.

3. Speaking of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2384 describes as “public and permanent adultery”, Francis writes that some post-divorce marriages can exhibit “proven fidelity, generous self-giving, [and] Christian commitment”. AL 298. Many will wonder how terms such as “proven fidelity” can apply to chronically adulterous relationships or how “Christian commitment” is shown by the public and permanent abandonment of a previous spouse.

4. In AL 297, Francis writes: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” To the contrary, it is precisely the logic of the Gospel that one can be condemned forever. CCC 1034-1035. If one meant, say, that no one can be ‘condemned for ever’ by earthly authority, one should have said so. But, of course, withholding holy Communion from those in “public and permanent adultery” is not a “condemnation” at all, so the point being made is not clear.

5. In AL 280-286, directly discussing sex education for youth, I did not see any acknowledgement, indeed not even a mention, that parents have rights in this important area. Perhaps that is to be gleaned from comments about parents made elsewhere in AL.

See also: Fr. James Schall’s comments here.

Misunderstanding the (alleged) ‘Congo contraception’ case

Even by the standards of his reign, the presser Pope Francis conducted on his return flight from Mexico has provoked an unusual number of questions. I wish to address only one of those here.

Preliminarily, I note that the burden is not on the negative to prove that something did not occur, it is on the affirmative to prove that the alleged something did occur. That said, though, it now seems all but certain that the ‘permission’ or ‘approval’ which Francis has claimed his predecessor Pope Paul VI gave for Congo nuns facing rape to use contraception simply does not exist. See e.g. Fr. Zuhlsdorf or John Allen*.

Unfortunately this myth has been invoked by the pope as if it were a fact of Church history, and, more importantly, in a way that suggests it might be a precedent to be considered in deciding whether contraception may also be used to prevent pregnancy in some cases of possible birth defects. That claim would take Pope Francis’ contraception remarks into a very different area. No longer are we musing about a point of Church history (as interesting as that might be), now we are dealing with Church moral teaching. The stakes become dramatically higher.

So here’s my point: not only does the Congo nuns permission seem NOT to exist, but, even if it does exist in some form, it could NOT, I suggest, by its own terms, be used by Francis (or anyone else committed to thinking with the Church) to call into question the Church’s settled teaching that “each and every marital act [quilibet matrimonii usus] must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae vitae 11) and that therefore “excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after conjugal intercourse [coniugale commercium], is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae vitae 14).

Obviously the Congo nuns case (or the Balkan nuns story in the 1990s, to take another variation of the myth) was not about marital acts, it was about religious women facing criminal acts of violent sexual intercourse; the Congo question was not about possible birth defects, it was about stopping rapists’ sperm from reaching ova that perchance had been ovulated. Between women facing rape and wives worried about birth defects there simply is no parallel relevant to the moral question of contraception. One can like that fact or hate it, but one cannot change it or ignore it. Moreover, Church teaching on the immorality of contracepted marital acts is, I believe, taught infallibly; but, even if I were wrong about that technical claim, there is no question about what that teaching is, namely, that contracepting acts of marital intercourse, whether doing so as an end in itself or as means to some other end, is objectively immoral.

A discussion could be had, I think, on whether non-marital sexual intercourse is subject to the same moral requirements as that to which marital intercourse is held. Humanae vitae does not, as far as I can see, address that question. But, as to whether a permission allegedly given to nuns to take contraceptive measures in the face of rape establishes a precedent for spouses wanting to contracept their sexual relations out of fear of possible birth defects, the conclusion seems inescapable: there is no parallel between the two cases, and so there is no precedent set.

*A note on Allen’s article cited above: As I feared he did earlier, Allen is once again arguing that papal non-action is papal action.

After claiming that then-Cdl. Montini was “close to the currents that shaped [the journal] Studi Cattolici” and that it “was assumed” that Montini approved of an article defending contraception by Congolese nuns, an assumption that Allen says “appeared to be confirmed later” when as pope Montini later promoted one of its authors, Allen tops off this journalistic house of cards with a zinger: “The Vatican [sic] never repudiated the 1961 position [taken by theologians, not by Montini], so the takeaway was that it remained a legitimate option. To Italians — and remember, Francis’ ancestry is Italian … that meant Paul VI approved.”

Good grief. I say it again, good grief.

I can imagine not a few Italians are hitting the roof right about now over Allen’s opinion of their formal logic skills. But my question is, How many conjectures from assumptions based on silence may a journalist pile up before someone shouts Enough!? Here’s one for ya: God could have stopped this evil or that if He wanted to, but He didn’t stop it, so bingo, God is the author of evil. Talk about bad logic skills. Seriously, there are plenty of terrible things that John Allen has never written about, let alone condemned; may we assume that his silence on such matters signals his consent to them? If not, should not the same deference be accorded to a pope?

23 Feb 2016. This post now available in French, here.

2 Mar 2016. This post now available in Portuguese, here.

Seven quick thoughts on the most recent papal presser

Frankly, I don’t know how he does it. When I fly to Europe I have to sleep all the way over.  Not Pope Francis. Anyway, may I offer some comments on some topics mentioned in the latest mid-air papal presser?

1. Pope Paul VI, as I understand it, did approve of religious women threatened by rape using contraceptives. It is obvious, though, that such measures were taken in self-defense against criminal acts and, more importantly, would have occurred outside the context of conjugal relations. Avoiding pregnancy under outlaw circumstances is not only ‘not an absolute evil’, it’s not an evil act at all. I hope that mentioning this unusual episode in a press chat will not contribute unduly to the world’s misunderstanding of the limitations of Paul VI’s position in this case and of the episode’s non-applicability to firm Church teaching on contraception within marriage.

2. An individual becomes “Christian” by, and only by, (valid) baptism. Donald Trump was apparently baptized Presbyterian, which faith community has valid baptism. Donald Trump is, therefore, as a matter of canon law (c. 204), Christian. Trump might be a good Christian or a bad one—I cannot say, and neither can anyone else. Trump might do and say things consistent with Christian values or in contradiction to them, but his status as baptized, and therefore as Christian, is beyond dispute.

3. There is no legitimate “principle” by which a “lesser of two evils” may ever be licitly engaged in. It is fundamental moral theology that even a small evil action may never be licitly engaged in—no matter how much good might seem to result therefrom and no matter how much evil might seem to be avoided thereby. There are, to be sure, principles by which a good or neutral action that has two effects, one good and one evil, might be licitly engaged in under certain circumstances despite the evil effects; and there are principles by which “lesser evils” may be tolerated (not chosen). But parsing these matters accurately and responsibly requires more time than can be devoted to them in a press conference.

4. Abortion (assuming we are talking about doing an action intended to kill a human being prior to birth, and not just suffering ‘abortion’, i.e., miscarriage) is, Francis observed, always evil. Abortion is not, however, “evil” because it is a “crime”. Not all criminal acts are by nature evil and not all evil acts are crimes. Other factors must be considered lest moral principles and legal principles become confused.

5. The Vatican City State, a sovereign nation, has the right to build, and has chosen to surround itself with, a giant wall. Evidently, building or using a national wall is not a non-Christian act nor a stance contrary to Gospel values. The pope’s criticism of building walls on part of a national border is probably better understood as prudential in nature, not principled.

6. It is important (though some might say it is too late) to distinguish between a Catholic’s stance toward “same-sex unions” and that toward “same-sex marriage”. These are not equivalent terms. Legal recognition of “same-sex unions” might be a good idea, a tolerable idea, or a bad idea, but, per se, “same-sex unions” are things over which reasonable minds (including Catholic minds) may differ; in contrast, Catholics may never approve or support “same-sex marriage”, this, upon pain of contradicting infallible Church teaching, if not of committing heresy.

7. The pope said nothing suggesting confusion about “celibacy” and “continence” (c. 277), although the Crux reporter seems to regard the former as another word for the latter. Anyway, I do not know whether there is such a thing as a (priest) who does not have the “friendship of a woman”, but I would not think the “friendship of a woman” is necessary to make a man ‘complete’.

Silence is not much evidence of anything, so why suggest otherwise?

The following are not thoughts on Pope Francis but rather about a recent report by John Allen on Pope Francis.

Allen, associate editor of the on-line news site Crux, recently argued that “Francis pioneers a merciful way to oppose abortion, gay marriage”. Setting aside questions as to what the ubiquitous and apparently infinitely malleable adjective “merciful” means here, I take from his headline Allen’s claim that Francis recently did or said some things to “pioneer” new ways to oppose abortion and so-called gay marriage. That claim gets my attention, naturally, but should it not be proven by what Allen includes in his article? Allen offers four points.

2016 March for Life. Allen writes “As to the March for Life, Francis didn’t offer any direct endorsement, but US leaders in the anti-abortion movement say they’re convinced he’s got their backs.” Sorry? This sentence says that Francis said and did nothing in regard to the March for Life, reporting only that some pro-lifers feel that the pope supports them. If it is anything, that sentence is not a claim about Francis, it’s a claim about pro-lifers.

Francis need not, of course, have attended the March for Life (no pope has); he need not have sent it a supportive message (though other popes have); he need not even mention the March for Life if he does not wish to. But, if he did not attend, did not greet, and did not even mention the March, how exactly is this series of non-actions evidence that the pope is ‘pioneering’ a new way to oppose abortion? If eisegesis is reading one’s opinions into another’s words, what is it when there literally are no words to read one’s opinions into, but a message is divined from them anyway?

Italy’s Family Day. Per Allen, “With regard to Italy’s Family Day, Francis used an address to judges of the main Vatican [sic] court on Friday to insist that ‘there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,’ which was taken locally as a green light for resistance to the civil unions measure.” Sorry, but, as above, Francis did not mention Family Day, he did not mention Italian parliament members or its proposed legislation, and he said nothing about marriage or family that any Catholic could not have said in casual conversation. How, then, do Francis’ remarks to the Roman Rota ‘pioneer’ a new way to oppose ‘gay-marriage’ in Italy or anywhere else?

Absolution from abortion. Allen recalls the pope’s September extension of faculties to remit the sin/crime of abortion. This papal act, though it was awkwardly announced and in some ways was probably canonically redundant, was a papal initiative in regard to abortion. So far, so good. But Allen’s claim is, apparently, that forgiveness for abortion is a ‘pioneering’ new way to oppose abortion. If that logic is not evident to you, reader, well, it is not clear to me, either. I need an explanation or argument to understand the connection that Allen thinks the pope sees between “forgiving offenses” and “opposing offenses”.

Korean abortion memorial. Allen writes “During a trip to South Korea, the pontiff added an impromptu visit to a symbolic ‘cemetery’ for the victims of abortion at a Catholic health care facility outside Seoul, formed by a rolling grassy hillside dotted with small white crosses and topped with a statue of the Holy Family … Notably, Francis didn’t say anything at all during that visit.” Once again, Francis’s non-comments are offered as evidence of what he must have meant.

Granted, visiting a memorial is usually an expression about what is memorialized there, but in the Catholic tradition, we usually rely on words to give meaning to actions. A piece of bread is not silently blessed by a priest, but consecratory words are said over it so that the people know what the Eucharistic gesture means. In Allen’s view, the pope need not have said anything about abortion because the pope’s “haunted, anguished visage told the whole tale.” Maybe so, I wasn’t there. Maybe a look of papal grief is a ‘pioneering’ new way to oppose abortion. But Allen has already drawn more meaning from papal silences than I think can be prudently gleaned, so I may be forgiven, I hope, some reluctance to take this silence as ‘pioneering’ a new way to oppose abortion.

I conclude as I began. These remarks are not a criticism of Francis—there is no doubt whatsoever where he stands on the gravity of abortion and on the impossibility of ‘gay-marriage’ (even if his manner sometimes muffs his message) and he is not obligated to engage in any specific acts of opposition to either. But my remarks are a criticism of reporters who, with some proclivity these days, seem to offer the pope’s silence on various matters as evidence for what they think he means on various matters. May I suggest, instead, that silence is usually, pretty much, just silence.

A non-magisterial magisterial statement?

Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, is not something, I suggest, that can be switched on and off. Magisterium is either, according to objective (not subjective) criteria, engaged, or it isn’t. There are, of course, various degrees of magisterial authority in the Church and, yes, most folks hearing the word “magisterium” immediately, but usually wrongly, think that some grand ecclesiastical pronouncement is in the offing. But when popes and bishops publicly address themselves to matters of faith and morals, they are, I think, engaged in a magisterial act. A small act, usually, but nevertheless a real one. Protestations to the contrary—including treating magisterial acts as if their character were a matter of specific intentionality—do not change that fact.

Consider two scenarios.

First, some of Pope Francis’ unscripted remarks, e.g. his homilies during daily Mass, have caused confusion for the faithful. Early on, his spokesman, poor Fr. Lombardi, tried to steer controversial papal remarks into less problematic phrasings. Lombardi’s next step (well, after he declared he would no longer comment on unscripted papal remarks—a resolve that lasted a few days, as I recall) was to announce that Francis’ unscripted remarks were not part of the Church’s magisterium.

Excuse me?

Vatican press reps do not get to define what the “magisterium” of the Church is or what constitutes a “magisterial” act. Popes and bishops, addressing faith and morals, in public statements made during a constitutive part of a liturgy (see the definition of a “homily” in Canon 767), are, I think, engaged in a magisterial act, whether they expressly advert to that fact, or not (see CCC 87, 892, 2034; Canon 753). Of course, papal or episcopal remarks made under such circumstances rank near the bottom of the magisterial authority list but, once uttered (not to mention, recorded and published), they contribute, in some small degree at least, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church. Appreciating that point should, if nothing else, give prelates pause in how they express themselves in certain contexts.

Of course Francis is by office as well as by personality a unique figure in the Church so the concerns some might feel at how his press office treats the notion of “magisterium” could be assuaged by seeing it is as a necessary expedient. But lately, I fear, the ‘it’s-magisterial-only-if-we-say-it’s-magisterial’ line is appearing elsewhere in Rome. Consider a second scenario: the recent “Reflections on Theological Questions” published by the “Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews”.

In this document, signed by the cardinal president of a pontifical commission and co-signed by the bishop vice-president, “theological questions are further discussed, such as the relevance of revelation, the relationship between the Old and the New Covenant, the relationship between the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ and the affirmation that the covenant of God with Israel has never been revoked, and the Church’s mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism.” Now, if cardinals and bishops, appointed by popes to direct pontifical commissions, issuing statements on some important points of faith entrusted to those commissions and publishing them through the Holy See, are not engaged in a magisterial act contributing to the “ordinary magisterium” of the Church, who exactly would be?

To be sure, the PCRJ document is not “infallible” (as if only infallible assertions were part of the magisterium), nor is it directly papal in character (as if only popes could contribute to the magisterium), nor is every assertion therein ‘magisterial’ (as if, say, historical summaries were objects of magisterium). But the PCRJ document definitely, and in many places beautifully and insightfully, contributes to the Church’s ordinary teaching regarding, among other things, the relevance of revelation, the relationship between the Old and the New Covenant, the relationship between the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ and the affirmation that the covenant of God with Israel has never been revoked, and the Church’s mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism.

And yet the PCRJ text claims that it “is not a magisterial document or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church”. Of course it is!

If Cardinal Koch had wanted to publish personal reflections on Jewish-Catholic relations he could have sent them to a scholarly or popular journal. Context would have satisfied all but the most scrupulous that such remarks were personal, not ‘magisterial’ in character. But that is not what Koch did. Instead, in his capacity as the prelatial head of a pontifical commission in charge of certain questions he issued a document expressing certain theological points. That makes this document a small, but definitely magisterial, exercise. If there are people out there who do not understand what it means, and what it doesn’t mean, to say that such-and-such a statement is part of the (here, ordinary) magisterium of the Church, then by all means, let’s explain matters to them. But let’s not downplay the character our own documents just to avoid setting off a tizzy of confusion among semi-informed observers.

But there is, I think, a deeper point to be appreciated in all this: the relationship between an intention behind, and the nature of, an act is complex; the lawyer in me knows that much. But lately, a rising number of persons seem to think that they can control the characterization of their act simply by declaring an intentionality for their act. That’s a very slippery slope. As a rule, I think an intention to perform an act is relevant to one’s responsibility for the act, but is not dispositive of the characterization of the act.

Popes who make deliberate assertions about faith or morals in public remarks are contributing, in a small way, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church; dicasterial prelates who make deliberate assertions about faith or morals in materials published through the Holy See are contributing, in a small way, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church; the rest of us should be able to tell, without having to await (unqualified) clarifications from press offices and without having to scan dicasterial documents for (ineffective) disclaimers, whether the Church’s magisterium is in play. If it is in play, then we can worry about what level of magisterium is being applied.

Update: Jimmy Akin responds to my post, here. He makes some good points, as usual. Those reading his comments might be interested in my reactions.

(1) Of course the Holy See issues some non-magisterial statements. (2) I too think some examples of ‘non-magisterial magisterial’ statements can be found prior to Francis. (3) My approach does not make identifying magisterial statements “very easy”. Real thought still has to be applied. What my approach does do, I suggest, is underscore that magisterial character is not so casually turned off and on, and underscores that prelates need to exercise greater care in making assertions on faith & morals. (4) Jimmy’s analysis strikes me as having exaggerated the conscience-binding character of individual prelatial statements; rather than our looking, as I think the Church has traditionally done, at the magisterial teaching on XYZ as a whole, Jimmy seems to fear that my approach makes every individual prelate’s statement on XYZ into something binding on consciences. To avoid that, he prefers to let magisterial character be turned on and off much more readily than I think can be supported. (5) Jimmy seems to leave unaddressed my concerns that what I am calling ‘specific intentionality’ (whereby an action must be characterized as the actor intends it be to characterized, rather than characterized for what it really is) is, more and more, being allowed to determine the character of an ecclesial act (although this problem appears in several other areas of life), rather than just responsibility for an act. I repeat that I think this is dangerous path to have set out on.

It’s not impossible, just very difficult, to glean ‘heresy’ from conduct

My observation that Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago is not a “heretic” exposed considerable misunderstanding about the notion of “heresy”. Confusion on this matter should surprise no one, for antinomian times, such as those obtaining now, discourage wider familiarity with certain basic terms of ecclesiastical discourse. Among the comments I have received, some run along these lines: “Just look at everything Abp. Cupich does! If he’s not heretic, no one is!”

Oh dear. Shall we examine this claim in light of what the law actually says?

Three points: (1) “Heretic” is not a term used to describe, say, a prelate who one thinks is doing a bad job, but rather, denotes someone given to “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (Canon 751). (2) “Heresy” is not a ‘bad attitude’ but a crime punishable by a latae sententiae excommunication (and yes, automatic sanctions should be abolished from Roman canon law as they have been from Eastern, but the sanction itself—as opposed to the non-process by which it is supposedly incurred—reflects the gravity of the crime). And (3) a variety of canons (e.g., 18, 221 § 3, and several besides) protect the faithful against the unjust infliction of sanctions in the Church. In short, “heresy” means something very specific in canon law and there are criteria for using the word correctly.

Now, setting aside the what “is to be believed” (we’ll take an easy example below), the vast majority of heresy cases with which I am familiar took as their occasion a speech or writing, that is, a verbal proposition or assertion: “Jesus was not God” or “Mary had other children by Joseph” and so on. These assertions directly present, or logically and unequivocally amount to, the ‘doubt or denial’ of a protected truth that, if uttered under the circumstances outlined in Canon 751, constitute heresy—but only such assertions and only if uttered under such circumstances.

Our question here is: can physical actions or a manner of conduct amount to a verbal assertion of the sort qualifying as heresy? Possibly. Let’s take a case wherein there is no question about what is to be believed with divine and Catholic faith.

Suppose a Catholic, contrary to CCC 1374, does not accept that Jesus is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Eucharist. He never expresses this opinion in words but steadfastly refuses to make a sign of reverence when passing before a tabernacle. In such a case, his action/omission accurately reflects his heretical views, yes—but, is it not obvious that the evidentiary problems (of trying to parlay someone’s failure to genuflect when passing before a tabernacle into proof of the crime of heresy) are almost insurmountable? In this case, the action or omission might well be evidence of heresy but it is not remotely proof of the crime.

Let’s take a more graphic case: the same man, disgusted by what he regards as idolatry of a piece of bread, breaks open the tabernacle and scatters the hosts on the ground. Some might say, “If that is not proof of a Eucharistic heresy, what would be?” In one sense, they are correct, for scattering hosts on the ground as if they were nothing but bits of bread would be strong evidence of a certain Eucharistic heresy. But here’s the problem: the exact same action—stealing hosts and scattering them on the ground—could be committed by someone who thoroughly believes in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist but does the evil act as a gesture of contempt for Jesus! We see, thus, that without words, or without a very wide and sustained pattern of activity/omission, it is very difficult (not impossible, but very difficult), to glean heresy from someone’s conduct. The burden is on the accuser to prove charges, especially serious charges, and proving heresy by words is, as it should be, difficult; but proving heresy solely by actions or omissions, even repeated ones, is very difficult.

Mind, one’s deleterious actions or omissions might be evidence of other canonical crimes (e.g., as above, sacrilege, per c. 1367) or, as suggested in my earlier post, pastoral negligence (e.g., failure to urge the observance of ecclesiastical discipline per c. 392), but heresy?

I don’t think so. In most heresy cases, words speak louder than actions.

Clergy have consciences, too

Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich is not a heretic. Although that adjective is being tossed his way with some frequency these days, there is no evidence that Cupich doubts or denies some doctrine that must be believed with divine and Catholic faith (1983 CIC 751) and so he is not, as far as I can see, a heretic.

But if Cupich really has, as reported here, doubled down on his earlier intimations that, among others, divorced-and-remarried Catholics and Catholics living in ‘same-sex marriages’ should, and must be allowed to, ‘follow their conscience’ even if their conscience leads them to the proverbial communion rail, then he is misrepresenting Church teaching on marriage—which holds marriage to be a permanent union between a man and a woman (1983 CIC 1055, 1056)—and is failing to urge the observance of all ecclesiastical laws (1983 CIC 392), among which laws two are especially relevant in approaching for, and being given, holy Communion, namely, Canons 915 and 916.

As has been explained many, many, many times, Canon 916 impacts the individual considering approaching for holy Communion and directs those “conscious of grave sin” to refrain from approaching for the Sacrament. Individuals must form their consciences in accord with Church teaching and, yes, Cupich alludes to “Church teaching” in underscoring the fundamentality of conscience, but he fails, I fear, to point out, among other things, that conscience is used largely to assess whether one’s concrete action in a given situation accords with Church teaching—not to determine whether one agrees with or accepts Church teaching in the first place.

Canon 915, however, in contrast with Canon 916, directs ministers of holy Communion to withhold the Sacrament, not from “sinners” per se (as if ministers could read souls!), but rather, from those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin”. Now there is zero doubt but that, in Catholic tradition, attempting marriage following a civil divorce and/or entering a “same-sex marriage” is to undertake the kind of gravely wrong public action that triggers ministerial obligations under Canon 915. Thus, when Cupich (and he is not alone in talking this way) says “It’s not up to any minister who is distributing the Eucharist to make a decision about a person’s worthiness or lack of worthiness” he misses the point: a minister is not assessing personal “worthiness” when withholding holy Communion from one’s whose conduct is described in Canon 915, but rather, is acting in accord with an age-old sacramental discipline designed to protect both the Sacrament from the risk of possible sacrilege and the faith community from the harm of classical scandal caused by someone’s public contrarian conduct.

Finally, recognizing the sharp differences between Canon 916 (impacting individuals) and Canon 915 (impacting ministers) allows us to make one last point: amid all the discussion of the primacy of conscience it seems almost forgotten that clergy have consciences, too. Many clerics, Deo gratias, and other ministers of the Eucharist, recognize the significance of their sacramental office and know—as all Catholics should know—that their actions, too, are carried out before a God who sees all. These ministers understand Church doctrine and discipline on marriage, Communion, conscience, and liturgical office, and they wish to act in accord with those teachings and laws, even in the face of growing pressure to disregard these considerations and despite the lack of support some experience from Church leadership.

Their consciences, too, I suggest, deserve respect.