A publication of Sacred Heart University

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble…Or?

The fallout from, and the difficult reception of, Fiducia Supplicans has led some to further question the synodal project of Francis. While at the start of the process futile attempts were made to claim that consultation of the faithful did not have any implications for church teaching, now it is becoming increasingly apparent that the fears of traditionalists and the hopes of progressives have some basis in reality. Inevitably, and properly, the emerging voice of the sensus fidei fidelium is bound to impact teaching.

But at what cost? This is where the incantations of Macbeth’s chorus of witches with their prophecies of doom may resonate with even some moderate protagonists. Is the turmoil worth it? Is it wise to risk conflict and division? Might it not be better to retreat to calmer waters and carry on as before, with a tolerable amount of cognitive dissonance in the Body of the Church?

From the evidence of the Synod Synthesis Report it would seem that the commitment to openness remains, always within the process of discernment, which respects God’s time in the making of decisions. So, in several parts of this Synthesis Report, the participants in the synod recommend a deeper intellectual engagement with theology and the human and natural sciences, questioning in particular whether current anthropological categories operative within the Church are adequate to fully understand the various contested issues under discussion. These contested issues, as we all know, are mostly to do with sexuality and gender, and the two Irish Episcopal representatives at the synod (Bishops Brendan Leahy and Alan McGuckian) noted in their post-synodal report that one of the fruits of the synod was “…a call for shared discernment on controversial doctrinal, pastoral and ethical issues to be developed, in the light of the Word of God, Church teaching, theological reflection and an appreciation of the synodal experience.” The recent announcement of the formation of study groups to explore this theological reflection is faithful to the synodal commitment.

The early church did not seek to stifle discussion on the issue of what to do with Gentile converts, an issue that had all the potential to tear the community apart. Neither did third- and fourth-century Christians shirk the conflict involved in teasing out the Christological and Trinitarian issues that arose, and which, inter alia, occasioned the exiling of Athanasius of Alexandria not just once, but five times, from Alexandria. We have seen from the child abuse scandal what silence and repression lead to. The blind spots and dissonances in our ecclesial culture, that “bias of common sense,” which Bernard Lonergan speaks about, is best tackled precisely by the synodal tool of parrhesia, complemented by patient and generous listening (hypomene), and enriched by theological engagement. This is what the method of “conversation in the Spirit” has successfully promoted, with the observation from the synod that it needs to involve a better integration of the intellectual with the emotional.

This more positive interpretation of the synodal fallout is more in line with a recent report about the engagement of Pope Francis and his Council of Cardinals with the project of “demasculinizing the church,” referred to by Callie Tabor in her delightfully pungent piece on this blog entitled “Feminine Genius and the Smell of Drains.” Francis and his council have been meeting women, including theologians, to get a better understanding of what is at stake. In particular, they have been engaging with a book written by three Italian theologians (Linda Pocher, Lucia Vantini and Luca Castiglioni—the latter male, the two former female) entitled Making the Church Less Masculine? A critical evaluation of the ‘principles’ of Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

In his own preface to this book, Francis notes the importance of “…Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflection on the Marian and Petrine principles in the Church, a reflection that has inspired the magisterium of recent pontificates in the effort to understand and value the different ecclesial presence of men and women.” The interesting point here is that the authors, Vantini in particular, offer a critical interpretation of these principles, which, in truth, have already often been criticised in the wider global theological community. It is the synodal process that allows this process of critical engagement to move from the academy to all levels, including the highest, and lays the ground for ecclesial decisions that are the fruit of good faith discernment.

Much of this may be summed up by a vintage quote from Francis in the same preface: “By really listening to women, we men listen to someone who sees reality from a different perspective and so we are led to revise our plans and priorities. Sometimes, we are bewildered. Sometimes what we hear is so new and different from our way of thinking and seeing that it seems absurd, and we feel intimidated. But this bewilderment is healthy; it makes us grow.”  Whatever one thinks of the mind-set behind these words, they certainly do not indicate that the white flag is being raised and a retreat sounded!

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.

Synodal Conversion in a Lenten Season

The season of Lent is a journey toward Easter, the high point of the liturgical year, when those who have been on a pilgrimage of conversion to faith are initiated into Christian life through the sacrament of baptism. In baptism, we commit ourselves to following in Christ’s path of self-giving love, the path of costly discipleship that we call the paschal mystery. All the baptized renew that commitment each year in the Easter liturgy. Through baptism we have been incorporated into Christ and into his ecclesial body, the Church—that deeply flawed community of fellow disciples.

A renewed understanding of the dignity and co-responsibility of all the baptized faithful was at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the Church. The council acknowledged in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity a series of responsibilities and rights that belong to all the baptized faithful. Among these is the responsibility to offer counsel in matters that pertain to the good of the Church “through the organs erected by the church for this purpose.” Pastors, according to Lumen gentium, are to welcome the “prudent advice” of competent lay persons, knowing it can help them to arrive at better decisions in both “spiritual and temporal matters.”

In many regions, the synodal structures and practices envisioned by the council have yet to be enacted in a manner that truly honors the co-responsibility of all the baptized. As a result, few lay persons have really grasped that it is they who “make the church present and active” in the world. They remain unconvinced of the basic equality of all that flows from the dignity of baptism. Many continue to labor under the false impression that ordained ministers alone bear the church’s mission, and lay persons remain little more than passive and obedient objects of their ministrations. That vision, wrought by the cultural forces of a distant age, continues to blind us to the essential character of the church and of its servant task. The gifts of all, flowing from the same Spirit, are needed if the church is to witness to the love of God in a broken world.

This Lenten season, falling as it does between two assemblies of the international Synod, is an opportunity for Catholics everywhere to intensify the spiritual disciplines and practices that open our hearts to a “synodal conversion.” The aim of the Synod on Synodality has been to re-awaken a deeper consciousness in all the baptized of their co-responsibility for the life and mission of the church. To accomplish this, Catholics around the world have begun a long apprenticeship to relearn the habits of “walking together.” During this intercession, every local church has been asked, “How can we enhance the differentiated co-responsibility in mission of all the People of God?” In short, “How can we become a ‘synodal church in mission?’” in the words of the Synthesis Report from the 2023 Synodal Assembly. No one needs to wait for the conclusion of the international synodal process to begin implementing the practices necessary to develop a more synodal culture in the local churches.

Now is the time to commit ourselves, both personally and as communities, to listen deeply with the heart to one another and to the voices of those who have been marginalized or neglected by our communities. Genuine listening requires the humility to know that I am not in full possession of the truth, that I can always learn and grow. Such listening demands a willingness to listen respectfully to those with whom I disagree or find disagreeable. It implies a readiness to be changed by what I hear, perhaps discovering the ways that my works, my actions or omissions may have caused pain to others. Learning the habits of active listening must be matched by the courage to speak boldly, to speak the truth in love. It demands that we fast from harsh words and rash judgments.

Church unity is not the absence of public dissent or disagreement. As the difficult reception of Fiducia Supplicans signifies, open conversation concerning subjects that are not perceived uniformly is difficult. What appears on the face of it as Christ-like hospitality on one continent is a dangerous proposition in the 67 countries where same-sex relationships continue to be criminalized. The asceticism required for a genuine synodal conversion requires honesty and humility to avoid offering definitive pronouncements where consensus eludes us. True synodal conversion requires the resolve to stay in the conversation, even in the face of incomprehension, so that together we might discern the call to enter the radical love of Christ. Conversion is not our doing, but the fruit of the Spirit at work among us.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.

The Church of “The Betrothed”

It was one of those instances of serendipity that can happen to those of us blessed to live in New York City: at a screening last year for a documentary about the travels of Pope Francis I was introduced to Michael Moore, the latest translator of the great Alessandro Manzoni novel, The Betrothed. Moore is a lovely and unassuming man, but I was starstruck when I realized who he was. The nineteenth-century novel, titled I Promessi Sposi in Italian, was one of those grand epics that I had time to savor as a much younger man, before smartphones reduced my attention span to the length of, at most, three Tik-Toks. In fact, returning to long-form fiction was a vow I made during the pandemic for a host of reasons—saving my brain, and maybe my soul.

I have been doing pretty well in renewing my reading habit, and my encounter with Moore was a reminder that I had wanted to re-visit The Betrothed ever since his translation was published to high praise in 2022. The Betrothed, an overlooked masterpiece, was also enjoying a renaissance because Manzoni’s story is set in the Duchy of Milan around 1630 when an outbreak of the plague ravaged the region—much as the COVID virus was coursing across North America and beyond. The descriptions of widespread death and suffering four centuries ago resonated with our experience, and the passages about the denialism and disinformation that were as contagious as the disease itself could have spilled from the latest social media feed.

It was a novel for our moment, but truth be told the book was on my list because it’s also a favorite of Pope Francis, who in his first interview after his election said he read the book three times as a child and could recite the opening lines from memory. In fact, he said that he was reading it again now that he was pope. Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh believes that Francis drew his image of the church as “a field hospital” from the descriptions of the lazaretto where Capuchin priests would care for the sick and dying. And during the pandemic, Francis frequently referred to the novel as a source of consolation and hope. He advised engaged couples to read it, with good reason: the plot concerns the trials of Renzo and Lucia, who persevere through long separations as their plans to marry are thwarted by an evil baron, Don Rodrigo, who wants the saintly Lucia for himself.

“Manzoni gave me so much,” Francis has said. The funny thing is that in re-reading a novel from one’s youth you find even more, or different, things. I have certainly changed over the years, and so has the world—and the church. So, it’s natural that themes and characters that I might have overlooked or not grasped sufficiently before stuck out this time around.

Here are two that I’d highlight: clerics and converts.

This is a profoundly Catholic novel in setting and themes, and the virtues and vices of Catholicism are exemplified by the clergy characters. (The female religious, the Nun of Monza, is a column of her own.) There is Renzo and Lucia’s parish priest, Don Abbondio, a cowardly and dissembling pastor who refuses to marry the young couple out of fear of Don Rodrigo, the action that launches the novel’s main plot. Don Abbondio is contrasted with the heroic Capuchin, Fra Cristoforo, who stands up to Don Rodrigo and endures all manner of suffering to help Renzo and Lucia. Then there is the saintly and savvy archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, in real life a truly remarkable figure and cousin of Saint Charles Borromeo, a previous Milan archbishop.

Borromeo comes from nobility and uses all he has to help the poor and build up the city. He is stingy on his own behalf and generous with all others. Borromeo scandalized church officials by embracing the “dirty and disgusting” peasantry with tenderness, and he angered clergy by insisting they renounce their privileges and accompany their flock. “A holy archbishop like him should be more protective of his priests, treat them like the apple of his eye,” fumes Don Abbondio after one encounter with the cardinal.

In a pivotal scene, a lengthy encounter between the two clerics, Borromeo upbraids Don Abbondio for his incomprehensible cowardice toward Renzo and Lucia while the self-pitying Don Abbondio grumbles that Borromeo is making his life so hard while welcoming repentant sinners with open arms. It’s a passage that perfectly tracks the friction between Francis and the comfortable churchmen who the pope insists ought to renounce their perks and live out the Christ-like vocation they were called to. “The people of God need their pastors to be self-sacrificing, like the Capuchins, who stayed close,” Francis told Ivereigh when asked about The Betrothed. “You shouldn’t be Don Abbondio,” the pontiff has repeatedly warned.

In the end, despite the cardinal’s exhortations and Don Abbondio’s emergence unscathed from all peril, the priest never really changes. Yet that persistence contrasts with the novel’s other great theme of conversion: there is Fra Cristoforo, an arrogant young gentleman who kills a man during a street brawl and in profound remorse flees to a Capuchin monastery and becomes the saintliest of priests; and of course, The Nameless One, l'Innominato, the fearsome warlord whose troubled conscience after a life of brutal criminality leads to a clamorous conversion.

It’s the kind of genuine transformation that Francis wants of Catholics—not the “religious switching” from one denomination to another that we like better, but a change of heart and life that are, as always, the most convincing form of evangelization.

The world of today is so much like the world four centuries ago that Manzoni described and the world two centuries ago that he inhabited. And the church of The Betrothed is much like our own, as well. Take it and read.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 

The Luminosity of Gray

Since mid-November, it seems that our part of North America has been overwhelmingly cloudy. The sun’s appearance has become an astronomical oddity. Grayness seems to permeate our moods as well as our landscape. Yet, not all gray needs to be as depressing as the weather. The gray of life invites us into a deeper appreciation of lived experience, a fuller understanding of what it means to be human.

Gray is not fog. Gray is an admission that there really are few clear black-and-whites in human experience. We spend most of our lives in the complicated area between brilliance and darkness. It is that human experience, yours and mine, that we as Church need to address. A few weeks ago in this series, Paul Lakeland remarked on Francis’ November 1 motu proprio in which he called on theology to “be a fundamentally contextual theology, capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women daily live.” The first blog of the new year from Catherine Mulroney spoke of the Vatican’s more pastoral approach allowing for “keeping ashes reverently at home,” thus acknowledging a reality already being practiced by many faithful Catholics. The pastoral approach of Fiducia supplicans is a preeminent example of this “contextual” approach, calling upon bishops and pastors to bring the grace of the Gospel to all, thus inviting spiritual growth in a pastorally positive context. It does not provide a recipe; rather, it provides a fundamental stance in the grayness of life: the offer of blessing. It is pastoral; it is Christ-like; it lives the Gospel.

Just over 58 years after the promulgation of Gaudium et spes, which opened with a clear statement that the Church’s mission is to bring “the radiance of the Gospel message” (92) to the world in which humanity exists, it is mystifying that somehow this approach is regarded by many as “new” or even “revolutionary.” The Church has a concrete mission in which theology, doctrine, etc. are tools for the fulfillment of that mission. Yet, somehow in the first years of this papacy, Francis’ declarations were heard as simply “pastoral” not theological. More recently his “pastoral” approach is regarded somehow as less valuable than “clear doctrine.” Have we forgotten that all doctrine, all theology, all witness must be pastoral? As Church, we are called to communicate one simple message: Christ’s victory over sin and death in the Resurrection! All truths flow from this Truth—all actions should. We should bring the joy and blessings of the Gospel to those who may not yet have experienced that Truth, not because we are the proprietors of the Truth, but because we, as they, struggle to live that Truth. In solidarity we accompany them on their journey. That assistance cannot be in the abstract if it is to address the real needs of human persons. Perhaps that is the key to understanding our current dilemma as disciples of Christ: do we give priority to bringing the Gospel to the specific circumstances of those to whom it needs to be addressed, or do we prioritize an absolutization of certain principles?

History, I suggest, teaches us that the Spirit has consistently led the Church to find ever more effective ways to live the Gospel Truth: strict monotheism or a Trinitarian God, circumcision or no circumcision, Latin or the vernacular, no cremation or the blessing of ashes, no talking to non-Catholics or an ecumenical commissioning of bishops and many more examples. However, in each circumstance the challenge has been immense, the fears real, the call to trust the Holy Spirit clear. The past is not to be repeated, rather it gives us the courage to hold firm to the Spirit’s guidance in the Body of Christ and know that gray most certainly has the luminescence of the Gospel that shines everywhere and for everyone so that the Good News is alive for the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed (Lk. 1:18).

Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.

The Ecological Crisis: Desire, Mourning and Language

A recently published report on scientific climate data constitutes a dire warning. 2023 was the hottest year on record, and scientists say that we are on the brink of an apocalyptic disaster that “has profound consequences for … all human endeavors.”

But vital though it is, scientific data alone cannot motivate the necessary changes in human behavior, collectively or individually. In her book, Meditations on Creation in an Era of Extinction, Kate Rigby draws on ancient theological writings on the biblical account of the six days of creation (the Hexaemeron), as a resource for reflecting on the ecological crisis.  She suggests that such stories are not rendered redundant by modern science, for they are concerned “not so much with the physical processes of cosmogenesis as with questions of meaning, value and purpose—questions that properly lie outside the remit of the natural sciences.”  

Scientific facts need to be incorporated into stories that give meaning to our lives, and this entails delving deeply into the psychological and linguistic influences that shape us. If, as Martin Heidegger, we inhabit the house of language, then we need to change our ways of speaking about “our common home” if we are to inhabit it differently.

Pope Francis is leading by example. He pays close attention to the science of climate change, but his prose shimmers with a poetic vision that weaves together the contemplative and the active, the mystical and the conceptual. In his November 2023 Motu Proprio, Ad Theologiam Promovendam, he calls theological reflection “to a turning point, to a paradigm shift, to a ‘courageous cultural revolution’” (quoting Laudato Si’). It is regrettable that, as Callie Tabor argues, his language about women remains mired in sometimes “hopeless romanticism” and “misogynistic stereotypes.” The gendering of nature as feminine has profound ecological implications, and it’s a pity that Pope Francis hasn’t engaged more closely with eco-feminist thinkers who might alert him to the need for a paradigm shift in how we talk about gender and nature. But setting aside that not-insignificant concern, his call for a transformation in theological language and methods is fundamental to a wider revolution in the ethos and practice of the Catholic faith.

In the face of alarming news, we can be gripped by a frenetic desire to act, but for those of us who live in the richest and most environmentally destructive nations, might we be called to a counter-intuitive response: instead of doing more, should we be doing less? In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis coined the neologism “rapidification” to describe the ways in which our accelerating lifestyles contribute to the environmental crisis. In the aftermath of the Second World War, German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper writes about the importance of leisure, not in the sense of the commodified leisure activities that even in his time, and vastly more so in our own time, have displaced the Sabbath rest, but as deep contemplation that allows us to “listen to the essence of things.” He writes, “In leisure, man … celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of the Creation. He looks and he affirms: it is good.” Rigby includes the seventh day in her Hexaemeron, “the Sabbath day, in which we, too, are invited to join with the creator in celebrating the communion of all creatures.”

This indwelling in creation entails a process of mourning as well as celebration. Rigby writes of the dark night, the via negative, that is part of the contemplative experience, which “can deepen your anguished awareness of harm, suffering and wrong.” In her book, The Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe sees the denial of sorrow and mourning as part of neoliberalism’s “culture of uncare”—“Care is under attack here, as to feel grief about the world is to care about it.” Mourning is a necessary aspect of our reimagining ourselves in relation to nature, for much that has been lost will never be recovered. In a beautiful section from his homily on Psalm 37 in the Office of Readings for the third Friday of Advent, St. Augustine writes about what it means to pray without ceasing, as an expression of “the desire of the heart.” He writes, “Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. Therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.” He goes on to explain that our groaning is an expression of our desire, for our anguish is not concealed from God.

The flowering of a new eco-consciousness has its roots deep in our desire and its distortions. That is where we must begin the process of sorrow, repentance and transformation. If, as Pope Francis says, theology is called to “transdisciplinarity,” drawing on different sources of knowledge in the light of revelation, then we must forge a new understanding of spirituality that draws discerningly on theories of language, psychoanalysis and gender. We must learn to speak of our desires and sorrows in the language of poets and mystics—language that breaks open our imagination and calls us to new ways of understanding and caring for this fragile, beautiful world.

Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.

“Viva il Papa!”

Pope Francis, like his most recent predecessors, has two fixed appointments each week—his general audience on Wednesday mornings and his Angelus address and apostolic blessing on Sundays at noon. At both of these weekly gatherings someone in the crowd will inevitably shout out at a certain point, “Viva il Papa!” Everyone else then repeats the phrase with a full-throated, “Viva!” Those of us who have covered the Roman papacy for many years take this for granted. But the stadium-like cheer for “Papa Francesco” at a recent general audience suddenly caused me to pause and take a different look at his pontificate. I got somewhat emotional as I watched the 87-year-old pope hobble slowly with his cane into the Paul VI Hall. The audience gave him a standing ovation as he struggled with determination to move his physically impaired and overweight body to his chair at center-stage, reminding me just how much ordinary people really love and appreciate this man.

I, too, have greatly admired so much of what Francis has done these past nearly 11 years to try to revitalize and give new momentum to a Church that looked so tired and on the point of collapse in 2013, when he was elected Bishop of Rome. But I've not always liked the Jesuit pope’s bedside manner. I’ve criticized his sometimes-harsh treatment of Vatican aides and employees, most of all the way he publicly embarrassed Cardinal Angelo Becciu by abruptly stripping him of his conclave voting rights. Francis never informed the cardinal of the exact charges against him or allowed him the opportunity to defend or explain himself. The pope’s shocking defenestration of this lifelong papal diplomat was done in a way similar to how the former Holy Office used to silence and punish errant theologians. Can you imagine if Benedict XVI had done something similar? Or what if he had publicly equated surrogate motherhood with human trafficking, or likened having an abortion to hiring a hitman as Francis has? The mainstream media would have crucified the Bavarian theologian-pope who was once called “God’s Rottweiler.” But they usually give Francis a pass.

In any case, my criticisms of the current pope have been more about his governing “style,” not his theological views, pastoral or social priorities, teachings or reforms. But sometimes, even here, one can lose sight of the bigger picture. I was reminded of this after reading a long article that appeared several days ago in the Rome daily, La Repubblica. Its main author was Iacopo Scaramuzzi, a friend and colleague whom I consider to be one of the most astute observers of the Vatican. The piece gave a broader perspective of what has happened since March 2013, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first Jesuit and the first person born in the New World to become pope. He was also the first one to take the name Francis after the saintly friar from Assisi who’s often been called “the second Christ” because of his radically evangelical way of life. The La Repubblica article conceded that the Argentine pope has had to act in an almost dictatorial manner at times to deal with internal opposition and even corruption. It also conceded that not all of his personnel choices or policy moves have been successful. But it noted that this was just one side of a complex personality that has also displayed genuine acts of benevolence, openness, mercy and patience. Though it was not exactly spelled out in black and white, the piece reminded me of what I first found so encouraging and attractive about Francis in the early weeks and months of his pontificate—he is someone extremely comfortable in his own skin and is not embarrassed to let people know that he is a sinner like everyone else. The pope is not afraid to let the mask slip because—as far as I can tell—there is no mask.

Now the old pope is on the last stretch of his pontificate. No one can say how much time he has left, but it is clear that his energies are diminishing almost as fast as he’s trying to complete his Church reforms. He has become, at times, both wistful and whimsical in a grandfatherly like way that makes him even more likeable and sympathetic to many of us than ever before. This is especially true at a moment when doctrinally rigid clerics, including bishops and even a few cardinals, are intensifying their attacks against him. The pope has exposed the legalistic and judgmental attitudes that gird their professed defense of Catholic teaching. They’ve brutally accused Francis of making a “mess” of things in the Church. But there is no doubt that things needed to be shaken up. The synodal project, as nebulous as it may seem even to his fans and supporters, is the pope’s way of trying to open up and expand an imploding Church so that the fewest number of people get crushed by its steady collapse.

Pope Francis will probably not succeed in completing the much-needed reform of the Church. What individual could? But he is laying the firm foundation for that project, one that will have to be left to his successor(s) to continue building upon. But for whatever time is left in this pontificate, you can be sure that the elderly pope will continue to provoke criticism from clericalists and traditionalists through his efforts to make the Church more welcoming to all. And for that we can only say: “Viva il Papa!”

Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.

A Paradigm Shift for Theology?

On November 1, 2023, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio to revise the statutes for the Pontifical Academy of Theology. Not a very exciting sounding development for sure, though hidden in the document is a clear call to all theology “to a turning point, to a change of paradigm, to a ‘courageous cultural revolution’ that commits it, in the first place, to be a fundamentally contextual theology, capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women daily live.” Francis called on scholars, “like good shepherds,” to “smell of the people and the street and, with their reflection, pour oil and wine on the wounds of men.” As a synodal, missionary and outgoing church, he proclaimed, we need a correspondingly “outgoing” theology, which will be a product of “an epistemological and methodological rethink.” One that adopts an inductive method. Theologians will need to commit to doing theology “in a synodal form, promoting among themselves the ability to listen, dialogue, discern and integrate the multiplicity and variety of the demands and contributions.” Not a dismissal of theology, to be sure, but a wake-up call to many.

Reflecting on this, a lot of different thoughts came together for me this week. There were the magi, of course, heading from nowhere in particular in search of something they knew not quite what. There was also a phrase that has been bugging me, from Jorge Bergoglio’s address to the gathered cardinals before the consistory that elected him pope, when he called on Christians to reach out to the periphery with the good news and listed “intellectual currents” among the target groups. What on earth did that mean? And by happenstance, reading of Christian Wiman’s latest book, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, pushed me to think about the relative inadequacy of theology to do justice to religious experience, compared to the stimulus to the imagination afforded by poetry. One question becomes clear: what use is theology anyway, or perhaps more accurately, what kind of theology is it that Pope Francis values? And one answer stands out: it all depends on how imaginative you are prepared to be in bringing together two loci, namely, the everyday experience of ordinary people and the word of God in Scripture. On January 5 in America magazine, John Martens suggested that Pope Francis’ emphasis on scripture is one source of the disquiet expressed about him by many Catholics because the message of unlimited love and unfettered mercy breaks away from comfortable boundaries. It’s scary. That’s why the grand inquisitor and his pals theologized Jesus into incarceration, and his response, to kiss his jailer, blew the gates off the prison. Not that over-cautious ecclesiastics and more than a few theologians haven’t been trying to shore up the fortifications ever since, with considerable success until the present papacy.

Francis clearly does not want to abolish theology, but he evidently thinks it should be conducted out in the open and in concert with the daily experience of all Christians, “outgoing” and not self-absorbed, dedicated to the primary task of Christians, which for Francis is evangelization. But being evangelical means being an outward-looking community of love and mercy. This requires in its turn, I think, creating a theology that explains and justifies exactly why the work of the church is nothing more nor less than love and mercy. And that, to return to Martens, is a deeply scriptural theology that keeps its distance from the metaphysical death by a thousand qualifications. So, when this week in church we celebrated the Epiphany, the magi exemplified Francis’ words that “paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.” While you can express dubia about the words of Francis, you are on shaky ground if your reservations extend to the clear message of scripture. Like the Samaritan in the gospel parable, these wise men are models for Christians and Jews, though they stand outside the traditions themselves. The call of God is not just extended to all but perhaps heard by all, which is uncomfortable to anyone who wishes to celebrate the good luck of Christians. Theology’s role is not to put this into question, but to start from this point and move forward. And that means that boundless love and mercy are unquestionable fundamentals.

So, what then about the church’s responsibility to reach out to those who follow other “intellectual currents”? How can you evangelize those who have their own intellectual and moral convictions and no space for the Christian story? Don’t we just have to respect their difference? Evidently, if we put Jesus Christ front and center in our outreach, we will not get far. But if we put the message of Jesus Christ in evidence through our practice of boundless mercy and love, while we may make no converts to the church, we may very well help build up the people of God. As the 14th century mystical treatise, The Cloud of Unknowing, proclaimed, “by our love the divine may be reached and held, by our thinking, never.” Theology is a rational activity, clearly, but can it find a way to abandon prescription and proscription? Its future role may be the profoundly important but second-order activity of description of the works of love and mercy.

Paul Lakeland is emeritus professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

New Possibilities Rising from the Ashes

The release of Fiducia supplicans and the resulting lively discussions about what the declaration means, especially for same-sex couples, was the topic front of mind for many Catholics in the days leading up to Christmas. It certainly drew attention away from the guidelines the Vatican offered less than two weeks earlier on the handling of cremated remains and the permissibility of keeping a small portion of a deceased loved one’s ashes. The two sets of messages feel connected, though, in that they seem to reflect an effort on the part of the Church to find pastoral compromises when faced with the reality of people’s lives. 

The key takeaway on cremation is that, while the scattering of ashes or placing them in items such as jewelry remains forbidden, Rome now says a small portion may be stored in “a place of significance” instead of a cemetery. This acknowledges that for many families – including mine – having ashes at home can help them come to terms with the reality of death and encourage prayer and reflection on the meaning of life and what lies ahead. Many good, faithful Catholics have been keeping ashes reverently at home for some time. Rome’s clarification acknowledges that reality and removes stigma or judgment on well-meaning people. 

 As with so many issues, from artificial birth control to the frequency of attending confession, for example, this message tells us there are faithful Catholics for whom certain long-standing traditions can be rethought or reworked. Sometimes we forget that a well-formed conscience not only includes but extends far beyond reproductive and sexual matters. 

The Vatican’s update on the placement of ashes made my pastoral side feel just a tad smug. When my husband died a few days before the pandemic lockdown began, our family was free to operate outside of Catholic practice because Mike was a non-observant Jew. In conversations I had with our four adult children, it became clear that cremation was the most appropriate choice for us, with Mike’s urn remaining in our home. 

While Rome’s clarification did not apply to the decisions we made, it still left me hopeful that my Church is beginning to be more clearly supportive and understanding of a practice many Catholics embrace. As with same-sex couples receiving blessings, I am hopeful that these new efforts to work with people’s deeply held emotions and needs spread to other aspects of Church life as well.  

One of the realities of what some still call a “mixed marriage” is a desire to respect and learn about what is acceptable and appropriate for the spouse’s tradition. I checked with theologian friends who are knowledgeable on the subject and who knew our family dynamic, and they noted that while much of Judaism still rejects cremation, its use is growing in some of the more liberal Jewish movements. Given Mike’s lack of engagement with his faith, I was comfortable we were making an appropriate decision. 

And so, in good conscience, we opted for cremation and brought Mike’s urn home, placing it on the living room piano, in the heart of our family space. There simply was no space more sacred to him, or more appropriate to the rest of us. 

Having his ashes with us means so much more to us than interring him in a place far from home. My youngest daughter begins each day by blowing the urn a kiss, a custom her sister adopts when back at home. My sons always have a moment of communion when visiting, laying a hand on the urn and offering a few quiet words. These moments are among the most prayerful I’ve seen from my children since they left parochial school; these customs matter to my children and to me. I can also say with confidence that, for a man who eschewed religious practices, they would be sacred to Mike, too. 

The Church’s decision to weigh in on this now suggests an increasing trust in the faithful, an awareness that engaged Catholics have an innate notion of the sacred. With fewer Catholic families opting for funeral masses, it indicates a desire to work with people to achieve a compromise. And in what might be its most significant impact, it demonstrates that concepts like life after death and the raising of the dead might be more nuanced and less literal than many of us had been raised to believe. 

Mike’s ashes are a constant reminder of the gift of life, the sanctity and mystery of it. We are humbled by the presence of his remains in our lives, and we have had endless discussions about what it all means. I realize that our choice was easier because Mike was not a Catholic and that it is a decision that is not for all. I know the solace his ashes have brought us, though, and I am thankful that the Vatican is allowing my fellow Church members to know this solace, too.

The opportunities for similar decisions across Church life present rich and encouraging possibilities. May the momentum continue. 

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

Happy Birthday, Pope Francis

Pope Francis just turned 87 years old. In the long history of the papacy, very few popes have lived to such an old age, but modern medicine has increased longevity, his health issues are surprisingly few, and he seems determined to continue governing the Catholic Church as long as he can.

After a bad bout of sciatica, when asked if he could continue, he told an interviewer, “I don’t govern with my knee.” True enough. But at 87, the human body does not recover as easily from any mishaps or misfortunes.

He had a three-hour surgery last summer. They say that an hour of anesthesia is like running for 3 miles. Not many 86-year-olds run 9 miles with no ill effects.

Pope Francis has let it be known that early in his papacy, he drafted a letter of resignation to be used should he ever become enfeebled to such a degree that he could not continue. But there are no legal protocols to govern such a circumstance.

The last three papacies were contrasts in papal succession. Pope John Paul I died in his sleep after only 30 days as pope. He was like a comet that ran through the sky, brilliant but short.

Pope John Paul II’s last years were seen as heroic by his acolytes but they were a disaster for the Church. His secretary, Archbishop, later Cardinal, Stanislaw Dziwisz; the secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano; and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ran the show for the last few years and they knew the pope’s mind as well as anyone. But large decisions were delayed, such as taking action against serial pedophile and sex abuser Fr. Marcial Maciel. Theologically, the idea of those assistants running the papacy raises an interesting question. Assistants to the pope, indeed the entire Roman curia, shares in the execution of his office, but do they share in the grace of office?

It was Ratzinger who, as Pope Benedict XVI, and having experienced the long, slow decline of his predecessor, broke with 500 years of tradition and resigned when he felt unequal to the job. In his retirement, he served as a discrete confidant to his successor Pope Francis. He famously turned away the cardinals who appealed to him for help in resisting some of Francis’ initiatives during the twin synods on the family in 2014 and 2015.

Contemplating the end of the Bergoglio papacy, the most striking fact is how thoroughly Pope Francis has upended the old papal court. Think of this for a minute—everyone knew the name of John Paul II’s secretary and everyone knew the name of Benedict’s secretary. How many people can name Pope Francis’ secretary? Or knows that there are two? Or that he is on his second batch of secretaries? When the newly elected Pope Francis announced he intended to live at the Domus Sanctae Marthae rather than in the apostolic palace, he said it was because he did not want to be lonely. The change had profound institutional effects. The papal court drew power from its isolation, but Francis is not isolated.

This makes it unlikely that Francis’ last years in office will resemble those of John Paul II, with entrenched, powerful prelates running the show on his behalf. His desire to stay at the helm, especially through next year’s second session of the synod on synodality, makes it unlikely his final years will resemble those of Benedict either. I don’t see Pope Francis resigning. If he were to step down before next October’s synod, the conclave would become a referendum on synodality just as the 1963 conclave was a referendum on continuing the Second Vatican Council. When the cardinals elected the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, as the new pope, they were endorsing the council. As pope, Paul VI had that extra wind at his back as he steered the council forward. Still, Francis has given no indication he will resign.

It is not clear to me why popes should not, like other bishops, resign at the age of 75 or at least at the age of 80, when cardinals lose their right to vote. The age of 80 is also a hard deadline for diocesan bishops and curial officials whom the pope allows to stay on after 75.

One bishop friend told me years ago that he thought bishops should resign at 65 or 70, and return to being a pastor; that men in their 70s lose steam and should make way for a new crop of vibrant bishops. It is a great idea but it will never happen.

The culture of the hierarchy is often impenetrable. For example, when Benedict resigned, most commentators, myself included, anticipated that the cardinals in conclave would seek out a younger man as a result. All the images of the frail pontiff and Benedict’s own words saying he was no longer able to do the enormous work, these pointed to the selection of a young and vigorous candidate. The cardinals drew the exact opposite lesson: If a pope could resign, they were less reluctant to choose an older man. Bergoglio was already 76 years old when he was elected Bishop of Rome.

It is foolish to predict when Francis will call it quits, or when, like most popes, a health crisis will carry him to the next world. One thing is clear: It is time for an organization that routinely elects elderly men to virtually absolute authority to come up with some protocols to govern the various circumstances occasioned by increasing longevity.

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

Catholic Ecclesiology According to Bad Bunny

In October of 2023, I had the pleasure of delivering a Hispanic Heritage Month lecture on Bad Bunny and Latinx theology for the Aquinas Center at Emory University. The event drew many enthusiastic students into conversation about Bad Bunny’s representation of various themes intersecting our Latinidad and our Catholic tradition. Clearly, the students at Emory are fans of Bad Bunny.

A recipient of various awards and a prestigious recognition as Spotify’s most listened to artist worldwide for three consecutive years, from 2020 to 2022, Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio (alias Bad Bunny) has captivated the hearts and minds of young persons around the world. Benito was raised in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, where he worked as a bagger at a grocery store before being catapulted to the international stage. His success is probably due to his incredible music-making skills as well as engagement in topics that are relevant to young people today.

In addition to the numerous Latinx theological and liberatory themes in his music and videos, I argue that Bad Bunny can teach us important things about Catholic ecclesiology—specifically about the dynamic between ressourcement and aggiornamiento.

Emblematic of the Second Vatican Council, ressourcement and aggiornamiento represent a tension within the Church between “returning to the source” (ressourcement) and “updating to keep with the signs of the times” (aggiornamiento). During conciliar deliberations, debate arose about the meaning and scope of each of these concepts; and these questions have yet to be fully addressed in our contemporary Church.

Bad Bunny’s reguetón music reflects a constant balance and integration of these two concepts. Ressourcement is present in his incorporation of traditions and cultural norms of Puerto Rico as well as his continuous sampling of classical reguetón songs from pioneer artists. Through his music, young Puerto Rican listeners can learn about their history and heritage in addition to the origins and development of reguetón as a genre. Aggiornamiento is present in Bad Bunny’s fearless engagement with contemporary controversies, namely those around matters of corruption in Puerto Rico and questions of sexual oppression. This engagement is reflected in lyrics, visuals and live performances.

For Bad Bunny, there is no ressourcement without aggiornamiento. Through the integration of both dynamics, he adeptly captivates his audience by simultaneously giving voice to their cultural traditional identity and their contemporary struggles.

Perhaps, among the many examples of this dual dynamic in Bad Bunny’s work, the greatest example of this integrated dynamic of ressourcement and aggiornamiento is seen in the lyrics and music video for his song, “El Apagón” [“The Blackout”]. Ressourcement is seen in the various references to historical and cultural figures in Puerto Rico, in the musical beats derived from Afro-Caribbean Bomba music and in the idioms found throughout the song. The music video features images from the various cultural references and different Puerto Rican people lip syncing to the song. Aggiornamiento is seen in the engagement with contemporary political and economic issues such as the constant post-hurricane blackouts and the government-sanctioned gentrification by millionaire U.S. Americans. Both issues are tackled in a 16-minute mini-documentary incorporated into the music video. Perhaps most interestingly, Bad Bunny is not afraid of highlighting a queer identity in his music and videos: “El Apagón” also showcases gay flags and queer people vogueing at a party. Thus, Bad Bunny combines the quest for economic and political liberation with a vision for sexual embodied liberation as well.

There are other notable examples where Bad Bunny infuses traditional culture with forward-thinking contemporary issues. The music video for “Titi me Preguntó,” where an archetypical aunt is asking Bad Bunny if he has a girlfriend and if he is getting married, contains a critique of compulsory heteronormativity with a scene depicting him getting kidnapped and forced down a wedding isle to marry the perfect bride coming down from heaven. The music video for “Yo Perreo Sola,” samples beats from classical reguetón but the lyrics contain a contemporary message about women’s self-sufficiency. More interestingly, in the video, Bad Bunny performs in drag, again queering gender and donning the “female persona” to convey a feminist message. In the song “Antes Que Se Acabe,” he samples the late Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado’s tag line “que reciban de mi siempre paz, mucha paz. Pero, sobre todo, mucho mucho mucho mucho amor” [may you receive my peace, lots of peace. But, above all, lots lots lots lots of love], along with messages about living in the moment, anti-racism and connecting with nature. The song “Baticano” (which is a Puerto Rican pronunciation of “Vaticano” [Vatican]) features a segment of a traditional preacher’s sermon shaming the congregation by saying “Dios te está mirando, Dios te está escuchando. Eso es lo que le estamos enseñando a nuestros hijos” [God is watching you and listening to you. That’s what we are teaching our children], which are phrases commonly heard in Puerto Rican culture. In response, Bad Bunny criticizes the hypocrisy of religious leaders on matters of sexuality and reminds them that they, too, are humans with sexuality that should be expressed without judgement. The music video for Baticano features Bad Bunny as a vilified Frankenstein’s monster (presumably for his sexual expressions), gloomy satanic figures watching over him and, at one point, a father prevents a kid from watching the TV screen where two men kiss. The aforementioned pastor is also depicted as a puppet with strings.

In sum, Bad Bunny’s art, which strikes a balance between the rhythms and themes of traditional reguetón and the contemporary questions facing Puerto Rican and Latinx persons, serves as a reminder for the Church of the need to make tradition relevant. To do so, the Church must be willing to listen and engage with all Catholics throughout the globe. In other words, the balance between ressourcement and aggiornamiento is a crucial part of the Synodal journey. The current polarization in the U.S. Church, which is mostly focused on ressourcement without aggiornamiento, will continue to alienate many young Catholics unless it learns to strike a proper balance between past, present and future.

Considering the increasing levels of teenage disaffiliation from the Church, Catholic leaders would be wise to listen to public figures who have managed to captivate contemporary youth and learn from their methods. Bad Bunny’s unique art, grounded in culture but looking toward the future, presents a prime example of such reflection. This method presents an opportunity for the Church, not to reject tradition, but to update it and keep it relevant.

Bad Bunny’s reguetón is a music for today! In the same way, the Church must become a Church that lives for today. It must become a Church that not only honors tradition, but also deploys it in the service of our contemporary understanding of humanity and society. It must become a Church for right now.

Ish Ruiz is the Provost-Candler Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.