CHICAGO — The Archbishop of Chicago has invited some U.S. bishops to a series of conferences on the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The seminars will be held at three Catholic colleges later this month.
According to a letter obtained by Catholic News Agency, the meetings, dubbed “New Momentum Conferences on Amoris Laetitia,” are designed to offer a “tailor-made program that goes from why Amoris Laetitia provides new momentum for moral formation and pastoral practice to how to provide formative pastoral programs.”
“The aim is to gather 15 to 20 bishops to have a conversation with the aid of theologians on the related topics,” the letter said.
The letter, written by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, explains that the conferences are modeled after a seminar of bishops and theologians discussing Amoris Laetitia held at Boston College in October 2017.
“The seminar treated the full document giving particular focus to its reception in the multicultural and diverse environment that characterizes the Church in the United States,” Cardinal Cupich wrote.
“Both the bishops and the theologians universally agreed that our two-day seminar was an exercise in synodality, a walking together in which the Church both taught and listened. In fact, in keeping with the counsel of Pope Francis at the start of the 2014 synod, the Boston College participants spoke with candor and boldness, parrhesia, but they also listened with humility,” the letter explained.
The letter said that Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery on Laity, Family and Life, encouraged and endorsed the upcoming conferences, which will be held at Boston College, the University of Notre Dame and Santa Clara University.
The upcoming seminars come in the wake of a speech given by Cardinal Cupich Feb. 9 at the Von Hügel Institute, at St. Edmund College, in Cambridge, England.
In that speech, Cardinal Cupich said that “Pope Francis is convinced of the need for a new ministerial approach to families as he looks at the challenges facing families in today’s world.”
He added that “some people misinterpret and misunderstand Amoris simply because they fail or refuse to take into account the present reality in all its complexity.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerlof Washington and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta are scheduled to speak at the upcoming Boston College seminar. Cardinals Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and Cupich will present at the University of Notre Dame. Bishops Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Robert McElroy of San Diego will present at Santa Clara University, according to the invitation.
Several theologians and a canon lawyer will also present at the upcoming seminars.
Among the theologians is Kate Ward, a professor at Marquette University. From 2012 to 2015, Ward was a national board member of Call to Action, a group that has called for the ordination of women to the priesthood, expressed support for same-sex “marriage” and said that the Church should re-evaluate its “position” on the use of artificial birth control.
From 2006 to 2009, Ward served as a national board member of Call to Action Next Generation, a youth affiliate of the organization. She chaired that board 2008-2009.
In 2006, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then-prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, wrote that Call to Action’s activities “are in contrast with the Catholic faith due to views and positions held which are unacceptable from a doctrinal and disciplinary standpoint. Thus to be a member of this association, or to support it, is irreconcilable with a coherent living of the Catholic faith.”
Also scheduled to present is Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a theologian at Manhattan College.
Imperatori-Lee was also a presenter at the October seminar at Boston College. At that seminar, she criticized the Church’s “infantilization of the laity,” saying that “laypeople are infantilized by a logic ... where pastors serve as gatekeepers, offering permission for sacraments, rather than as counselors who accompany laypersons on their sacramental journeys.”
In a 2015 interview with the podcast “Daily Theology,” Imperatori-Lee described the late theologian and University of Notre Dame professor Father Richard McBrien as a mentor. According to the National Catholic Reporter, “McBrien advocated the ordination of women priests, an end to mandatory celibacy for priests, moral approval of artificial birth control, and decentralization of power in the Church.”
In a 2016 essay in the magazine America, she wrote that “any claim that there are only two kinds of humans, male and female, is simplistic.”
Msgr. Jack Alesandro, a canon lawyer from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, also presented at the Boston College seminar and will present at the upcoming conferences.
At the 2017 seminar, Msgr. Alesandro said that Amoris Laetitia “as a whole supports the idea that, as time passes, sacramental marriages become more sacramental and therefore more indissoluble.”
Msgr. Alesandro also said that Amoris Laetitia suggests new thresholds for the validity of consent to sacramental marriage. The document suggests “a superior capacity and resolve of the will is required of those entering sacramental marriage than of those entering a non-sacramental union,” he said.
He said the exhortation “is challenging judges in a tribunal process to discover whether both spouses, including the man, were at the time of the wedding truly capable at the time of tenderness in the sense described by the Pope, the tenderness of a mother cradling her infant.”
“Spouses must be capable of entering a lifelong adventure, and able to renew it constantly, if they are to exchange consent validly. It requires that they be friends on the journey. While they do not start out whole and complete, we know that they must at least be able to grow into this vocation. If they’re incapable of that growth, or they’re really not committed to it, I don’t think they’re validly married, at least, not the Christian marriage.”
“Canon lawyers may find it difficult to get their juridical mind around love, if their thinking has become overly legal, which is another way of saying ‘secularized,’” he said.
According to the invitation, “there will be other theologians who will be invited to participate at one or more of the days.”
During his Feb. 9 speech, Cardinal Cupich said that Pope Francis has introduced a set of “hermeneutical principles” — principles of theological interpretation — that “force a paradigm shift” in the Church’s work with families.
Among the aspects of such a paradigm shift, Cardinal Cupich said, is “rejecting an authoritarian or paternalistic way of dealing with people that lays down the law, that pretends to have all the answers, or easy answers to complex problems, that suggests that general rules will seamlessly bring immediate clarity or that the teachings of our Tradition can pre-emptively be applied to the particular challenges confronting couples and families.”
Cardinal Cupich further discussed the importance of discernment in conscience. The “voice of conscience — the voice of God — ... could very well affirm the necessity of living at some distance from the Church’s understanding of the ideal, while nevertheless calling a person ‘to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized,’” he said, commenting on an excerpt from Amoris Laetitia.
The cardinal said that a pastoral, not “merely doctrinal,” approach is needed in work with families, because “the conscience based Christian moral life does not focus primarily on the automatic application of universal precepts. Rather, it is continually immersed in the concrete situations which give vital context to our moral choices.”
The result of such a pastoral approach, Cardinal Cupich said, “is not relativism, or an arbitrary application of the doctrinal law, but an authentic receptivity to God’s self-revelation in the concrete realities of family life and to the work of the Holy Spirit in the consciences of the faithful.”
Further, the cardinal said, “doctrinal development is about remaining open to the invitation to see our moral teachings on marriage and family life through the lens of God’s omnipotent mercy."
“Doctrine can develop as a result of the Church’s merciful accompaniment of families because God has chosen the family as a privileged place to reveal all that the God of mercy is doing in our time,” he added.
The cardinal concluded by saying that a failure to approach questions related to marriage and family life with a “holistic approach” has “led some critics to misinterpret and misunderstand Amoris. Instead of actually attending to the present reality of people’s lives today in all of its complexity, they limit their scope to an idealistic understanding of marriage and family.”
The letter inviting bishops to the upcoming conferences explained that transportation costs would be covered by “foundation grants.”
The Boston College event is sponsored by the Jesuit Institute, the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Cushman Foundation, Healey Foundation and Henry Luce Foundation.
According to its tax forms, the Cushman Foundation provided the Archdiocese of Chicago a $12,300 grant in 2015 to fund periti, or theological experts, to the Synod of Bishops on the Family, in which then-Archbishop Cupich participated.
The Henry Luce Foundation has given at least $600,000 in grants to Commonweal magazine since 2005; it has also given grants to a number of Catholic universities and theology programs. In 2007, it gave a $25,000 grant to the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, according to grant listings on the foundation website. It also gave a onetime $9,500 grant in 2015 to the Archdiocese of Chicago “to support communications during the Ordinary Synod of the Roman Catholic Church.”
The foundation’s website says it “seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious and art communities.”
The Luce Foundation’s theology program gives grants to “advance understanding of religion and theology.”
“Particular attention is given to work that rethinks what theology is and reimagines its contemporary significance; to research that creatively examines received assumptions about religion, secularity and public culture; and to projects located at the intersections of theological inquiry and the multidisciplinary study of religion,” the foundation’s website says.
Sources told CNA that the U.S. bishops’ conference is not involved in the “New Momentum Conferences.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago did not respond to questions before deadline.