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Cardinal Blase Cupich Addresses the Conscience Plenary

Cardinal Blase Cupich addressed the Conscience Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome and warm greetings to you as we gather for this ninth convening of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, which is the birthplace of the modern interfaith movement. The Parliament has long called Chicago home, and I’m grateful to participate in advancing the mission of this respected organization to cultivate harmony among the world’s religions and spiritual communities. Thank you to Stephen Avino and the board of the Parliament for inviting me to address you. 

Today, we have come together to consider conscience and the role it plays in guiding us to act. Conscience formation has long been an important topic for spiritual writers and religious leaders. It strikes me, however, that conscience formation may never have been more vital to discuss than it is today.

I’m encouraged that together we are doing so this morning. I highlight the word “together” deliberately. These past few years have been difficult for all of us. We’ve also become more aware that our interconnections with one another and our environment are so important. And technological advances allow us to speak directly in real-time with people down the street as easily as with those on the other side of the world. This previously unimagined access to one another has been a gift, no doubt. Yet there are also some unfortunate dimensions of our newfound use of technology.

For instance, it is very easy to seek out and talk with those whom we find most agreeable, rarely or never listening to those who oppose our views can harden our positions. Moreover, through algorithms meant to keep us in touch with like-minded individuals and causes, technology has made dialogue across differences even less likely. We’re also finding that those outside of our growing silos become easier to vilify and dehumanize as the Others.

They’re no longer physically present to us. We have long moved far from Robert Putnam’s depiction of “bowling alone,” and now we are “surfing alone,” being led to virtual spaces of common outlook and perspective by the very devices that provide us with the unmatched ability to connect with the world.

Is the world at our fingertips, or are our fingertips narrowing our worlds? These reflections on our contemporary world are not meant to paint a bleak picture of our present reality or future prospects, but rather to underscore the vital need of gatherings like the Parliament of World Religions. As I look out on this plenary hall today, I see the diversity of the world. Religious and cultural differences do not separate us here today. In fact, they pull us together in an effort to conscientiously address the challenges we face in ensuring freedom, rights, and dignity for all. 

You testified loudly in coming together to a growing consciousness in our world that we are all interconnected. If we hope to advance the causes of peace and justice in the world, we must continue to seek out forums like this, to connect with one another in recognition of our differences and diversity, and turn our awareness and concern into action. 

This morning’s plenary centers on conscience. In 2019, conscience was identified as a key concern of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, in the jointly issued document on human fraternity. This is what they wrote. “This declaration, setting out from a profound consideration of our contemporary reality, valuing its successes and in solidarity with its sufferings, disasters, and calamities, believes firmly that among the most important causes of the crisis of modern world are the desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendent principles.” 

Let me focus on the declaration’s first core, the cause of the crisis in the modern world, the desensitized conscience. To be properly formed, a conscience needs to be sensitized, to be aware of others, and of all creation. The very word “conscience” means “knowing together with,” which implies that we have to look at the whole truth, the whole reality which includes the voices of others past and present. Desensitizing our conscience requires us to admit that conscience is not formed in a vacuum. Conscience formation requires cultivating awareness and respect for others, but also learning from others by encountering them in the depth of their humanity. 

To be sensitized means to heed what Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’, “That Mother Earth now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” We have come to see ourselves as lords and masters entitled to plunder her at will. The fifth directive of the Global Ethic, commitment to a cultural culture of sustainability and care for the earth, articulates well the role that our religions and spiritual traditions have in hearing and responding with utmost urgency to caring for our common home.

Whereas we live in a time that tries to focus our attention on individualistic and materialistic goals, our spiritual and religious traditions provide a rich resource to stand on sure ground and in the sure knowledge of our collective concern for one another’s rights and dignities.

Deeply principled, thoughtful, and spiritually grounded people in this room may disagree strongly about how best to achieve a more just and equitable world. At times these disagreements can cause anger, hurt, and mistrust, but we must never fail and fall into the temptation to demonize and dehumanize those who disagree with us.

As I look around this room this morning, I see the spark of the divine will and life here today. This spark informs us and engages my conscience and urges me to redouble my commitment to defend and support the freedom of all.

Thank you for your witness and the common concern. May we continue to create venues like the parliament to enhance our interconnection. but now I do so in a way of ratifying our commitment from the Catholic Church. Thank you.

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