Cardinal Cupich Says Synod’s Egalitarian ‘Conversations in the Spirit’ Can ‘Revolutionize’ the Church

The Chicago prelate called for a reform of Church governance rooted in a process that some say inappropriately minimizes the distinction between bishops and laypeople.

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich attends the Synod of Synodality in October 2023.
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich attends the Synod of Synodality in October 2023. (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

A leading U.S. cleric is proposing the “conversation in the Spirit” methodology employed at last October’s Synod on Synodality assembly as a model for reforming the Church, placing particular emphasis on the method’s egalitarian nature.

Speaking April 24 at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago said that the model for small-group discussions, which is marked by each participant taking a turn to speak while others listen, intervals of silence, and allowing for disagreement, is at the heart of Pope Francis’ call “to envision a renewal of the whole Church.”

“It is a new ‘model of the Church,’ which I believe has the promise of bringing about a renewal for how we make decisions in the Church and how we relate to one another at the universal, continental, national and local levels,” said Cardinal Cupich, referring to a term popularized by the American theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles, whose 1974 book on the subject laid out five models, or images, of the Church in post-conciliar theology.

“All of us, no matter our position in the Church, must proceed from a common understanding that ‘authority is multiple and mutually enhancing,’” said Cardinal Cupich, quoting from Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe’s presentation during the pre-synod retreat, which served as the basis of the cardinal’s talk.

Cardinal Cupich’s proposal for reforming Church governance on the basis of a process that flattens the distinction between bishops and the laity is likely to deepen concerns among some Catholics that the synod is promoting an understanding of Church governance and teaching that is incompatible with established Catholic ecclesiology, a concern that has dogged the multiyear process.

Cardinal Cupich delivered his vision for a “conversation in the Spirit”-style Church as part of Sacred Heart University’s ongoing Bergoglio Lecture Series. The series has previously included presentations from other high-profile prelates associated with the liberal wing of the Church in the United States, such as Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, who spoke on “radical inclusion” in February 2023, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, who focused on the scriptural and conciliar basis for synodality in his April 2023 remarks.

Cardinal Cupich participated in the first session of the Synod on Synodality as a personal nominee of Pope Francis after he was not elected by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to serve as a delegate.

During his talk on Church reform, which was inspired by Father Radcliffe’s presentations at the pre-synod retreat, Cardinal Cupich repeatedly highlighted the conversation-in-the-Spirit methodology’s diminishment of distinctions between bishops and other members of the Church.

For instance, the Chicago cardinal said that when participants were asked what they wished to be called at the start of a synod small group, “everyone, no matter their position in the Church, gave their first name and omitted any reference to a title. We began on equal footing and recognized that each speaks with authority.”

The cardinal also said that many lay members of the synod “were astonished that, for the first time, Church leaders actually listened to them” — a surprising claim, given that many of the lay participants held influential roles in the institutional Church, including in the theological establishment, through chancery leadership, and on diocesan advisory boards.

The Chicago prelate said the introduction of the conversation-in-the-Spirit methodology was the most significant element of Pope Francis’ “reframing of synodality,” which Cardinal Cupich said was “nothing short of revolutionary.” Previously, he said, synods were pre-arranged and avoided open discussion, limitations overcome by utilizing the conversation-in-the-Spirit method and sitting in small groups at round tables.

The cardinal also highlighted the expansion of voting membership at the synod beyond the episcopacy. For the first time at a Synod of Bishops, a significant number of laypeople were included as full members, representing about a quarter of all participants.

“All have an equal say and, more importantly, an equal vote,” said the cardinal, adding his emphasis on the importance of equal voting, which was not included in his prepared remarks, during his presentation.

Concerns that some involved in the synod are using an emphasis on “co-responsibility” to minimize the Church’s inherently hierarchical nature reached a crescendo at the October 2023 assembly.

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, told the Register at the synod that the bishops’ unique, God-given charism to teach, govern and sanctify was being “ignored” by some in their understanding of the Second Vatican Council, in contrast to Pope Francis’ insistence that synodality is not about “the democratization of the Church.”

John Cavadini, head of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, has written that the synod’s rooting of “co-responsibility” in baptism, and not a Eucharistic conception of the Church, runs the risk of reducing ecclesial governance, which Vatican II taught was “intrinsic to the fullness of holy orders conferred on the bishop,” to a mere baptismal charism, available to all believers.

And several theologians have told the Register that the first session of the synod was marked by some trying to change Church teaching by changing Church structure, a theological approach that was advanced after Vatican II by theologians like Belgian Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx, but was repudiated during the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Cupich seemed to anticipate criticisms that might be directed toward his proposal — not by offering theological rebuttals, but by suggesting that some in the Church have a “fear” of change and letting go of power.

“Those hearing the truth fear it will require giving up control or change,” he said, adding that “the fear of losing control runs deep in the psyche of Church leadership.”

Cardinal Cupich’s proposal for a conversation-in-the-Spirit-style Church comes in the midst of an interim period for the Synod on Synodality between the 2023 session and a final assembly in October in Rome. That session is expected to produce a final proposal for reforming the Church along synodal lines, though Pope Francis will have the ultimate say of what comes next.