The man sitting a few feet away from me – spry and youthful for his 68 years, polite, unflappable – does not look like a firebrand. But Cardinal Blase Cupich has been a controversial figure since at least 2011, when as Bishop of Spokane he discouraged his priests and seminarians from attending pro-life vigils. More recently, he has argued that reception of Communion should depend on an individual’s “conscience” – which observers have struggled to reconcile with the Church’s prohibitions regarding, say, pro-abortion politicians or the divorced and remarried. More controversially yet, the cardinal has claimed Pope Francis’s support for his views.

In fairness, Francis obviously likes Cardinal Cupich, having promoted him first to Archbishop of Chicago and then to the College of Cardinals. I’m meeting His Eminence just before his lecture to the Von Hügel Institute at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. It’s titled “Pope Francis’s Revolution of Mercy: Amoris Laetitia as a New Paradigm of Catholicity”. The Pope’s emphasis is on community, the cardinal tells me as we perch on armchairs in an academic’s book-lined office. “The Church needs to be that community that is going to accompany people.”

Some have criticised Pope Francis’s approach for what they see as a carelessness over doctrine. Similar criticisms surround his handling of the abuse crisis, especially in Chile where he rebuked abuse survivors who accused a local bishop of having turned a blind eye. The Pope’s senior adviser on child protection, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, publicly criticised Francis for causing “great pain for survivors of sexual abuse”. But Cardinal Cupich, when I mention his fellow American’s remarks, praises the Pope for sending an investigator to Chile.

“I think that now the Holy Father sees that by sending Archbishop Scicluna, that we have to listen to those who have come forward and made accusations,” he says. “I’m pleased the Holy Father did that.”

There’s a queue of journalists waiting to meet Cardinal Cupich – on my way in I pass the editor of the Tablet coming out, and I’m about to be followed by a well-known papal biographer – so I press on. St John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and every other pope who has spoken on the subject, taught that the Church is unable to give Communion to those who are divorced and civilly remarried, if they are in a sexual relationship with their new partner. On Cardinal Cupich’s reading of Amoris Laetitia, an individual’s conscience can override that teaching. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Not so, says the cardinal. “What John Paul II did in [his 1981 apostolic exhortation] Familiaris Consortio and also with the Code of Canon Law, in removing the status of excommunication from somebody who is in a second marriage, was a development that in fact was more significant than what the Pope is for doing now. Because once you begin to say that even though they’re in this quote/unquote sinful, irregular situation, they’re still part of the Church, they’re not excommunicated any more, even though they were before. So that was a change.”

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