A publication of Sacred Heart University

Vatican’s Communications Letter Needs Teeth

Two weeks ago on this blog, Vatican correspondent Christopher Lamb analyzed the latest instance of Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, using his sizable Twitter account (now more than 117,000 followers) to undermine Pope Francis. “I believe Pope Francis is the Pope,” Bishop Strickland tweeted, in an effort to distance himself from the sedevacantist podcaster Patrick Coffin, “but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the Deposit of Faith.”

The tweet was, of course, only the latest in a decade-long series of attacks on Francis. As Lamb, Massimo Borghesi and Mary Jo McConahay all document in their most recent books, this effort to discredit the Latin American pope is well funded, particularly in the United States—the consequence of decades of work by the religious right in this country to wed Catholicism to unfettered capitalism and a brand of social conservatism that takes its cues more from Fox News than from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Such a movement is directly threatened by Pope Francis’ advocacy for an “integral ecology” that combines care for the environment with a “preferential option for the poor,” his criticisms of the arms trade and exploitative industry and his advocacy for migrants and refugees to be welcomed and integrated into their adoptive countries.

This brand of neoconservatism has unfortunately also become entangled with liturgical traditionalism within the Catholic Church and even a tendency toward schism.

That a sitting U.S. bishop would need to clarify that he recognizes the legitimacy of the pope is an all-too-predictable consequence; that he paired that clarification with a public rejection of the pope in the same sentence would be laughable were it not so sad.

Bishop Strickland’s tweets prompted speculation (I was not immune) about how the Vatican might respond, and again sparked discussions of whether a faction of the American church is in schism. It was into this mix that the Vatican dropped a new document, “Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media,” on May 28.

The document, issued by the Dicastery for Communication and signed by its prefect, Paolo Ruffini (though surely approved by the pope before release), lays out a vision of social media that, for the first time in my 10 years of studying church documents on communications, struck me with its honesty about both the opportunities and ugly realities of the websites where we live part of our lives.

“Towards Full Presence” states clearly that there is a profit motive behind the majority of social media services that people use, and that we, as users, are the product (10); our attention and data are sold to advertisers, and the sites have a vested interest in keeping us engaged. They have found that the best way to do that is by showing us only what others like us engaged with, thus siloing us (15); more often than not, the most engaging content is that which sparks outrage.

The document even calls out bishops who have fallen prey to the outrage cycle and use social media to foment division:

We must be mindful of posting and sharing content that can cause misunderstanding, exacerbate division, incite conflict, and deepen prejudices. Unfortunately, the tendency to get carried away in heated and sometimes disrespectful discussions is common with online exchanges. We can all fall into the temptation of looking for the “speck in the eye” of our brothers and sisters (Mt 7:3) by making public accusations on social media, stirring up divisions within the Church community or arguing about who among us is the greatest, as the first disciples did (Lk 9:46). The problem of polemical and superficial, and thus divisive, communication is particularly worrying when it comes from Church leadership: bishops, pastors and prominent lay leaders. These not only cause division in the community but also give permission and legitimacy for others likewise to promote similar type[s] of communication (75, emphasis added).

The document is both honest and incredibly hopeful, particularly compared with some of Pope Francis’ more recent criticisms of social media that may make readers question whether such platforms are salvageable at all (cf. Fratelli Tutti 42-50). “Towards Full Presence” frames the question for believers not as whether to engage with social media, but how to do so conscientiously, with active listening and discernment, fostering genuine encounters and relationships with those who are different, using social media to galvanize positive action both online and off and ultimately using social media creatively to push back against division and to witness to the Gospel.

Although “Towards Full Presence” is well aware of the high stakes of the currently polarized ecclesial and social media landscapes, it also seems to be inhibiting its own message. The document states explicitly that it is “a pastoral reflection” and not “precise ‘guidelines’ for pastoral ministry”; it adopts what has jokingly been called a “pretty sketchy” naming convention; and it was signed by a prefect rather than the pope.

The document appears squarely aimed at the social media discourse in developed, Western nations. While it briefly mentions that communications technology is not available in some places due to a lack of resources, it omits any reference to nations like Russia and China, for example, that are well-developed but where the state represses access to social media. If this is an intentional positioning rather than an oversight, then it is clear that the problem the Vatican hopes to address is the one unfolding in Western, democratic states.

If the Vatican’s message is to make a dent in the seemingly impenetrable outrage machine or the phalanx of media outlets resisting Catholic social teaching, though, it will need to take steps that are stronger and more authoritative than issuing a “pastoral reflection.”

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” 

A Person of Hope

“Is your father a person of faith?” I have been asked that question several times since my father, Daniel Ellsberg, announced in February that he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. I think of the answer he himself provided many years ago: “No, but I am a person of hope.”

My dad, a former defense analyst, is of course best remembered for copying a 7,000-page top-secret history of the Vietnam War, later known as the Pentagon Papers, and providing it to the press and public in 1971. For this action he was charged with 12 felony counts under the espionage act, facing 115 years in prison. At his arraignment, a reporter asked him, “Are you concerned about going to jail?” He replied, “Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end this war?”

It is characteristic of many people who perform extraordinary actions to believe that what they did is what “anyone would do.” But that does not make it less extraordinary. His memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, could well be read as a conversion story, from his work as a nuclear war planner to his time in the Pentagon working full-time on “the problem” of Vietnam, then two years in Vietnam itself, where the sufferings of the Vietnamese people “became as real to me as my own hands.” This experience shifted his perception of the war from a “problem to be solved” to a “mistake to be ended.” But it was in his later work on the Pentagon Papers project itself and learning of the secret origins and history of the war that he came to see it as a “crime to be resisted.” By this time he had met young draft resisters, inspired by Gandhian nonviolence, who were going to prison in opposition to the war. It inspired him to ask, “What could I do to end the war if I were willing to go to jail?”

Where do faith and hope come into this? My father does not believe in “God.” I put that word in quotes because, as I once told him, “I do not believe in the God you don’t believe in.” We had many conversations or debates about religion over the years. He never could comprehend my conversion to Catholicism—though as he once told me, “Because of my respect for you, I have to think there is more to it than I can understand.” And yet over the many decades of his tireless protests against nuclear war, he was glad to welcome close allies among Catholics and other “people of faith.” And he appreciated my writing about saints and prophets, knowing well how much his own life had been affected by the power of living witness.

He is a “person of hope”—who believes that hope is not a feeling of optimism, but a way of engagement, a way of living that opened the way to transformation. You never know the possible consequences of your actions. His actions were in the spirit of a prophet, warning the nations that they were on the road to perdition, yet never despairing that conversion was possible and that we might choose life.

Dorothy Day often spoke of the need for “saint-revolutionaries,” among whom she included characters in novels by Ignacio Silone and Arthur Koestler—secular figures, who set an example of moral engagement and were prepared to sacrifice themselves for others. I think also of those honored by the “non-believer” Albert Camus, who, without the consolation of belief in an afterlife, still committed themselves to join with others in the struggle against the forces of death. In that struggle he welcomed the commitment of Christians who would avoid abstractions and confront “the blood-stained face history has taken on today”: a grouping of men and women “resolved to speak out clearly and pay up personally.”

My father spent the past fifty years struggling to warn the world of the perils of the nuclear “Doomsday Machine.” Approaching the end of his life, he wonders whether his actions had had any effect. Yet to his last breath, he continues to direct all his intentions toward the possibility of a great awakening or moral conversion. It would take a miracle, he acknowledged in his secular terms. It would require a wholesale commitment to “the others, those not of our immediate tribe, to future generations, to the earth, to our fellow creatures.” The fact that this was not only the moral choice but an imperative for our own survival underlined the urgency of this intention.  

“Is your father a person of faith?” I reflect on this question as Dad enters his final days.

“Yes. He is a person of hope.”

Robert Ellsberg publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, most recently, Dearest Sister Wendy … A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship (with Sister Wendy Beckett).

Strickland, U.S. Bishop's Social Media Sows Division

The German church’s synodal path has sparked plenty of talk about a possible schism or even a second Reformation. But while plenty of criticisms can be made of Der Synodale Weg, a potentially more severe threat to unity is looming in Texas. 

Joseph Strickland, the Bishop of Tyler, in Texas, recently told his almost 116,000 followers on Twitter that although he believes "Pope Francis is the Pope," he rejects Francis' “program of undermining the Deposit of Faith.” He added: "follow Jesus," with the implication being that somehow the Pope isn't. 

Bishop Strickland’s tweet was an attempt to distance himself from Patrick Coffin, a hard-right podcaster who rejects Francis’ election as the Successor of St. Peter. Coffin had arranged for Bishop Strickland to send a message to an online summit, and the bishop wanted to clarify his position.  

The Texan prelate has in the past endorsed social media content attacking the Pope and has tweeted that Cardinal Arthur Roche, the Holy See’s top liturgy official, should “return to the Catholic faith.” For a bishop—or any Catholic—this is dangerous territory. The Church’s catechism makes it plain that the Pope is “the visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” and defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” 

This case points to the dangers posed by social media to the Church’s communion and begs the question of why certain bishops in the United States have taken strong public stances against the German synod while staying silent about what is going on in their homeland. 

Yes, the German synod has pushed ahead with reforms on women’s ordination and the blessing of same-sex couples in ways that could be detrimental to unity. Senior officials in the Roman Curia have vocalized their concerns and held an extensive dialogue with German church leaders. Francis has also warned that the German process risks becoming “elitist” and “ideological,” focusing on outcomes rather than process. But no German bishop has publicly rejected Francis in the way that Strickland has just done.

Last year, the Archbishop of Denver, Samuel Aquila, wrote an open letter claiming the German synodal path challenges and “in some instances” repudiates the deposit of faith. Bishop Strickland has also issued a statement on “The German Bishops’ Error.” Yet the same Archbishop Aquila has described Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio who released a dossier of accusations against Francis and called on him to resign, as “a man of deep faith and integrity.” Archbishop Viganò’s accusations against Francis were later found to be full of inaccuracies and falsehoods, and the former diplomat is supportive of several conspiracy theories. Several other U.S. prelates, including Bishop Strickland, also made declarations of support for Viganò after his 2018 dossier was released and have never corrected the record. Siding with Archbishop Vigano when he was calling on the Pope to resign also has serious implications for unity. 

So far, the Holy See has not made any official moves to rein in Bishop Strickland. In previous pontificates, bishops who stepped out of line could expect a swift response from Rome. 

Nevertheless, Archbishop Robert Prevost, the newly appointed prefect of the Holy See’s office for bishops, has talked about the risks of bishops using social media, saying it can do “damage to the communion of the Church.” Archbishop Prevost has insisted that a bishop must be “a pastor, capable of being close to the members of the community.” The main concern in Rome will be whether the bishop serves his flock or pushes an ideological agenda. 

In the past, Francis has said he’s “not afraid” of schisms, although he prays it won’t happen. “When you see Christians, bishops, priests, who are rigid, behind that there are problems and an unhealthy way of looking at the Gospel,” he says. 

The synodal process, with its emphasis on listening and dialogue, offers an antidote to the polarization in politics and the wider culture which has infected the church. Father Timothy Radcliffe, the Dominican friar who Pope Francis asked to lead a retreat for the October synod assembly members, has talked about the synod as “daring to open yourself to people who’ve got views other than your own.” It’s a process, he says, that can help break people out of their “bubbles” and “sterile culture wars.” The invitation is there for anyone who wishes to take part. 

But the concern with Bishop Strickland is that he will continue to use his large social media following to sow division and promote his public rejection of the Francis pontificate. At some point, Rome may need to act.  

Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church. 

Neglect in the Daily Distribution

The Epistle and the Gospel from this past Fifth Sunday of Easter show us the early Church facing difference and diversity. The Jewish members of the Christian community identified as either Hebrews or Hellenists. They had different languages, customs and ways of being church. The Epistle tells us how they were trying to resolve the concern for the vulnerable Hellenist widows who were “being neglected in the daily distribution.” To solve the issue, it seems that they gathered the community in what appears to have been a small synod. Then in the Gospel, as if to announce the diversity of the people of God, Jesus tells us there are many dwelling places in his Father’s house. These readings might serve as an example for our Synodal process. But I wonder.

This past February at Sacred Heart University, Cardinal McElroy delivered a stunning Bergoglio Lecture on the Synod’s “vision of a church capable of radical inclusion, shared belonging and deep hospitality according to the teachings of Jesus.” In response to the Cardinal’s call for pastoral inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, and his anticipation—and powerful refutation—of those who would retaliate against his position, there was an appalling complaint against him.

The LGBTQ+ community, who constitute one portion of the people of God, are too often excluded, degraded and demonized as living lives that are “gravely evil.” From the Catechism of the Church, the sexual lives of LGBTQ+ people are described as “intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law.” Fr. James F. Keenan, in his book, A History of Catholic Theological Ethics, explains that the Church’s moral teachings about sexuality developed over centuries culminating somewhere in the 17th century when the Church asserted a negative evaluation of sexual desire, without, of course, understanding this desire in the complex development of human personality. He explains that this negative view derives from the lives of early church monks who were dedicated to both holiness and celibacy and who had to address their sexual urges and desires. So, for example, dealing with masturbation became a serious sin. It still is, that is, if young people in the Church actually cared. Sins against nature, Keenan tells us, are sins that have semen flow anywhere except into the female vessel. Keenan explains that in the Catholic moral tradition, no other moral issue has had such a powerful negative response as does sexual sin. More recently it appears, too, that the U.S. Bishops’ document rejecting gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender persons lacks the “listening and exchange” urged by Pope Francis in his address to the Alphonsian Academy.

Ethics have to do with our behavior, but there is a more fundamental problem. Over the centuries, an essentialist, gender binary ideology has developed the patriarchal systems, structures and norms that undergird our thinking and feeling about gender identity and sexual behavior. And even though science shows us that male and female, in both the natural world and with human persons, run on a spectrum in different ways, and that, for example, a person may be chromosomally male or female but possess sex organs that present differently, we are bound by our binary, essentialist understanding of human persons.

In his lecture, Cardinal McElroy wondered why “there is such a powerful and visceral animus to the LGBTQ+ community.” In response, I would offer that the (mis)perceived “other-ness” of the LGBTQ+ community strikes a potent irrational, possibly unconscious, fear that wrongly leads to exclusion and moral censure. The reality of the LGBTQ+ community challenges and disrupts binary thinking. The question becomes, what does it mean to be human?

There are Catholic theologians and ethicists much better equipped than I am to address the issues raised here; and address these issues they must, because we are seeing our young people drift from and leave the Church in numbers. Part of the reason they leave is because they do not see or experience welcoming and belonging in the Church. They do not experience the “many dwellings” that Jesus promises.

I emphasize with my students that we are all created in the image of God, that we—each individual—are loved into being by a loving God. I tell them that the story of the Gospel is a story of love, that Jesus embraced and walked with the marginalized, that Jesus’ Easter suffering, death and resurrection is for all of us. But I think, instead of hearing me, they see the Church’s “neglect in the daily distribution.”

Michelle Loris is the chair of the Catholic studies department and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.

Breaking the Distrust Doom Loop

The past few decades, and especially the past few years, have raised concerns about Americans’ low trust in institutions and each other. For years now, we’ve heard about opinion polls that report the public’s continually declining trust in institutions such as Congress, the presidency, the news media, organized religion and many others. In recent years, political polarization has grown dramatically, leading Americans to have lower trust in fellow citizens of the opposite political affiliation.

At the end of March, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about a new Wall Street Journal poll suggesting that the value Americans place in religion, patriotism, community involvement and having children has dropped since the year 1998, by about 20 percentage points in each case. Brooks says that he understands the disillusionment, especially of younger Americans who have “grown up in a crappy time — Iraq, the financial crisis, Trump, George Floyd, the pandemic, a widespread sense that you won’t be as well off as your parents.” Positively, he points to signs of renewal in the U.S. economy and glimmers of a return to sanity in politics.

Yet, he writes, “My fear is that the latest renewal will be killed in its crib by the intractable forces of cynicism and withdrawal. My fear is that we’ve entered a distrust doom loop.” Brooks puts his finger on a wide-ranging cultural phenomenon that concerns a lot of Americans. As we know, the Catholic Church is caught up in this phenomenon, for reasons both of its making and out of its direct control.

I appreciate the tack that Brooks has taken in his writing and public speaking in recent years— seeking a capacious middle-ground conservativism, pulling back hard from the MAGA-turn of the Republican party, and introspecting about the moral and spiritual traits that are conducive to personal and social flourishing. But this gradual shift places him in the crossfire between conservatives who think he’s gone squishy and liberals who think he hasn’t atoned enough.

As to be expected, then, many of the thousand readers’ comments on his essay, coming mostly from a liberal perspective, took Brooks to task. Two matters grated on them particularly: that Brooks focused the article on patriotism and that he framed the essay as an open letter to the Zoomer generation. The first choice opens up an important conversation about what it means to be patriotic, and Brooks did his best in the limited space of an op-ed to articulate a critical and inclusive form of patriotism.

But his second choice, to write to Gen Z, is more problematic because even if trust in institutions and in some classic values is particularly low for the youngest Americans, (a) such trust is historically low across the generations and (b) young people have particular reasons to be distrustful and cynical. Brooks does acknowledge both those points, but he’s not quite able to get over nostalgia for the era in which he grew up.

As writers on this blog often point out, the younger generation of Catholics and those raised Catholic have lots of reasons to be distrustful of, or just not interested in, the Church. And this entire blog is motivated by a “Bergoglian” principle that reforming the Church authentically is not about looking back in nostalgia—which the Pope calls “the siren song of religious life”—but looking forward in hope and with courage.

As a national and global crisis, the breakdown of trust seems an overwhelming problem. But much better than asking, “So what can I possibly do about it?” is to ask, “What are we, the followers of the risen Christ, called to do about it?”

We can attend to how we are building trust within our particular relationships and local communities. As I often like to describe in my contributions to this blog, the parish has an important role to play. In 2015, a conference was held at the University of Notre Dame, which became the book Polarization in the US Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal. In her contribution to the conference and the book, Erin Stoyell-Mulholland, a student pro-life activist, said:

Understanding the important role that parishes can take in decreasing polarization in the church is an important first step. Systematic change rarely comes from a top-down approach. It is through building community and cultures that encourage respectful dialogue with whom we disagree that we can begin to see other people’s experiences…. We should want to go to Mass alongside those who make our blood boil.

Pope Francis, in his letter Rejoice and Be Glad, writes:

The common life, whether in the family, the parish, the religious community, or any other, is made up of small, everyday things … A community that cherishes the little details of love, whose members care for one another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.

We can curse the darkness, or we can light a candle. Little acts are powerful and they do add up to something bigger. They add up if we do the small things not only one-on-one for individual people but also to build beloved communities—families, parishes, workplaces, civic organizations—that then do bigger things for even bigger communities and more people.

Let’s hope that neither the U.S. nor any other nation—nor the Catholic Church—is in “a distrust doom loop.” But even when trust is frayed and nerves are raw, the best advice is to heed the Psalmist (37:3): “Trust in the LORD and do good; live in the land and cultivate faithfulness.”

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

Synodality, Spirituality and Silence

The documents of the 2021-2024 Synod on Synodality that are available online make for sometimes genial, other times frustrating, reading. One text is of particular interest, the document titled “Biblical Resources for Synodality,” organized and written by the Biblical Sub-Group of the synod’s Commission on Spirituality. Like many of the other documents, this one is quite accessible to a wide range of readers and pleasing to the eye. It posits the amenable—and familiar—claim that Scripture is “at the heart of the synodal journey” and is the physical and metaphysical space wherein the faithful can experience an authentic encounter with Christ. With that, the document seems to admit that a kind of Scriptural and spiritual illiteracy persists among contemporary Catholics. And so, it proffers as a remedy for such a vacuum in religious education and spiritual life two spiritual modes of engagement: the application of the “imaginative contemplation” to holy texts and personal experiences, and the monastic practice of lectio divina as a modality for the praxis of prayer. Such techniques, the document avers, are movements as much “of the heart as of the mind” and so enlarge the compass of reason with the rich creativity of the ensouled heart and original inspiration. It is worth noting that private contemplation reconfigures the space of spiritual engagement, properly, to encompass personal and individual, and not just clerical, authority.

One cannot deny the merit of cultivating “imaginative contemplation” and performing lectio divina as habits of devotion but also as habits of being in the world. As the document explains, “imaginative contemplation” is akin to a “heart that has eyes,” that is, being present with a spiritual, aesthetic and emotional openness before Scriptural texts that can inspire prayer. Yet how transformative for daily life to be present before the world with such openness, releasing the creative energy of a benevolent imagination to envision possibility and conceive in different directions and dimensions. While it is an important praxis for piety, it seems it might also be a vital practice for meaningful engagement with a confusing and chaotic world, especially for young people. For them, the world is so mired in hopelessness, cynicism and doubt, that we ‘elders’—and the Church—are obliged to encourage in them the quiet thoughtfulness of contemplation and the innovative potential of imagination. Imaginative contemplation defies the limitations of reason, excites hope and invites into daily life the extravagance of creativity: beauty, mystery and wonder.

Lectio divina is also a traditional practice of affective piety and constitutes a four-fold process of engaging Scripture (and reading in general): reading the text deliberately; reflecting on the text personally; entering into a prayerful state through the inspiration of reflection; and, finally, contemplating in silent (wordless) stillness the presence of God. Like “imaginative contemplation,” lectio divina is a private devotion and independent of clerical or ecclesial authority.

With regard to those referents, then, the document does merit consideration, especially since those two kinds of practice are relevant to the spiritual health of Catholics and are sorely lacking in the devotional lives of most faithful. Yet, there still remains a troubling lacuna, not unexpected (unfortunately), that might seem petty to mention, but that is still an omission that exemplifies the depth and persistence, and perhaps even acceptance, of the patriarchal culture of the Church, which is the most toxic obstacle the Church must overcome if it is to retain in its community women and their children (Gen Z and beyond). Without women, the condition of the Church will become (has become) precarious.

Although the group responsible for the creation of the document consisted of five men and two women (one religious, one lay), only men wrote the actual text. That seemingly minor fact, however, might explain how, in the 94 pages of text, there is not one mention of women (with the usual exception of Mother Mary, who of course does not count in this instance). All the Biblical passages incorporated as examples for study, for example, are about (and of course by) men. All the examples of spiritual teachers and practitioners of lectio divina that the document cites are men, and all the quoted passages included for reflection are the words of men: Bede; St. Anselm; St. Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, to name just a few. Where are the stories of Sarah, Rachel, Esther, Naomi, the Magdalene? Where are the references to female models of lectio divina: Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Gertrude the Great, or Bridget of Sweden? Why the persistent notation in the document of “the voices of the Fathers” and not one mention of the voice of a Mother?

This might seem a minor issue to some, but for women, it is not minor. In a document that purports to be a token of synodality, an invitation for community participation, women’s voices, women’s stories, women’s ideas, women’s reflections, are still not part of the major narrative. Rather, it seems now as ever, women are expected simply to amalgam their piety with the piety of men. Yet, if each individual has dignity and value, where is the woman to tell her story, to be the author of her narrative? What does the silence of and about Catholic women say to younger generations of women who ache to have some representation in the story of the Church or who know that there are voices out there but those voices are still ignored or silenced?

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

Breaking the Silence

In the 1837 folktale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Hans Christian Andersen leaves it to the voice of a small child to make the pertinent observation: “But he doesn’t have anything on!”

With his radical project of ecclesial synodality Pope Francis has gifted the Church with free and open speech. Time and again he has urged us to exercise parrhesia, to say what we honestly feel and think, always combined with a desire to listen with generosity and patience (hypomene) to those with whom we disagree. His synodal convenor, Cardinal Mario Grech, has urged us to break the silence. Francis does this always with a view  to renew and reform our church in order that it can engage more credibly in the mission of bringing hope to our wounded world and cosmos, rather than to become ensnared in self-referential debate.

In a piece in the Irish monthly The Furrow, I wrote about Pope Francis’ recent contribution to the debate about the ordination of women in America Magazine. You will recall Francis drew on the reflections of Hans Urs von Balthasar concerning the Petrine and Marian principles to show how it was theologically inappropriate, and indeed impossible, for women to aspire to priesthood (the diaconate was not directly addressed).

With my own background of doctoral studies in von Balthasar, I queried whether his genial intuition concerning the equality-in-difference between men and women could bear the weight of the kind of essentialist, ontological separation it acquires in his own theology, and in the papal application of it, concerning the ordination of women. I also acknowledged our debt to Pope Francis in speaking out in this kind of way, true to his own synodal instincts. Rather than staying silent, and clouding the justification for the continuing ban on female ordination in opaque mystification, he made an attempt to explain and to persuade.

However, it is unlikely that too many will in fact have been persuaded by von Balthasar’s rather arbitrary and idiosyncratic use of symbolic discourse around the issue of female ordination. His position is a much-critiqued, minority opinion among the wider theological community.

How to proceed, then, on this controverted issue? I draw on the stimulating contributions already published on this blog over the years, and, in particular, from the more recent contributions of Michelle Loris, Tina Beattie, and Myroslaw Tataryn. The deeply Trinitarian-based project of synodality has at its core the discernment of the “sense of faith of the faithful.” One obvious way of proceeding at this point is for us all—Pope, bishops, priests, the faithful—to invite those women who experience a vocational call to ordained ministry to tell their stories (in the way that abused people or people with various sexual orientations have been encouraged to do, to good effect).

Many such women will, understandably, be hesitant to come forward: in the past they have suffered great pain by being silenced in a pretty brutal way. But it is becoming more obvious that Pope Francis has significantly changed our ecclesial culture, that openness is prized, that peripheral voices are increasingly made to feel welcome. And, after all, it was not so much theological argument as the witness of experience that allowed that first Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) to move to a decision on the much more thorny issue of Gentile inclusion that faced the early church and threatened to divide and fragment it.

The other obvious way to proceed—as argued for many years by another contributor from this parish, Phyllis Zagano—is for some urgency to be shown around the introduction of the diaconate for women. This is clearly an issue around which the Document for the Continental Stage of the synod is open. I see it as both a need in itself and as a preparatory way to aid the Catholic imagination to become accustomed to the hopefully eventual priestly ordination of women.

Along the way all this will require theological revision (see the 2014 document of the International Theological Commission on the Sense of Faith in the Life of the Church, n 84). In the end it is not so much theories around complementarity (a version of which is to be found in von Balthasar’s Petrine and Marian principles) or representation (in persona Christi) that are crucial here, but rather the strong affirmation in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) that the Church does not consider it has the authority to ordain women. This—and the claimed “definitive” status of this document—would require further theological scrutiny, not least in the context of the provisional judgment of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976 that this was not a question that could be determined by Scripture alone.

I write in Eastertide, at a time when we hear of Peter and John running to the tomb, having listened to the women. So, by all means let us exercise prudence and discern wisely, but let us do so with urgency, always in the context of a resurrection people, open to the God of Surprises, who want to be part of a church which values the dignity of all its members. A credible church is important if the Christian witness of hope is to be understood in our needy world.

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

God Raised this Jesus; of this We are Witnesses

In this Easter season spanning the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost, we listen again to the proclamation of the Resurrection and to stories that recount the slow birth of the early Christian community. The scriptures paint a picture of pain and confusion among Jesus’ disciples, their hopes dashed by his violent execution at the hands of Roman imperial power and egged on by religious authorities. His project, and any expectation they might have had of success, now seemed an abject failure. 

On Easter Sunday we heard how the women belonging to the community of Jesus’ disciples, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1; cf. Mark 16:1; Luke 23:55-56; John 20:1;), came to the tomb looking for Jesus on the first day of the week. The other disciples, all of whom had denied or abandoned Jesus following his arrest, stayed away in fear. Even these most faithful followers of Jesus were caught off guard by the angel’s message: “you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised up just as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6). Jesus defies all human expectation. The presence of the angel at the empty tomb attests to the impossibility of tying him down, of relegating him to the realm of the dead and confining him to the parameters of human hope.

Accounts of encounters with the Risen Jesus are stories, not of unfailing faith and insight, but more often of the disciples’ blindness, as they persistently fail to recognize him. One has Mary Magdela taking Jesus for a “gardener” (John 15:20); in another the disciples on the road to Emmaus take him for a fellow traveler, since “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). Mary’s tears (John 20:11-13), her mixture of bewilderment, fear and joy at the angel’s news (Matthew 28: 8; Luke 24:4-5), convey the sense of grief they must have felt. The letting go of their hopes for a triumphant and powerful messiah and the slow process of re-educating their vision of faith had just begun. Still, in her fledgling faith and hesitant comprehension of resurrection, Mary accepts her mission to “go and tell the brothers” what she has seen and heard, and of Jesus’ call to set out for Galilee, where they, too will see him (Matthew 28:10). Her budding faith is enough to witness to his resurrection.

On the road to Emmaus Jesus responds to the incomprehension of the disciples with no little exasperation—“How foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (Luke 24:25). As they recount their experience to him, they relate the basic elements for a confession of faith: how Jesus was a “mighty prophet,” “the one to redeem Israel,” how he was “condemned and crucified,” and how the women recounted seeing “a vision of angels who said he was alive” (Luke 24: 19-23). They were “astounded” by the women’s story, but not seeing for themselves, they were reluctant to believe. Jesus patiently explains to them the meaning of the scriptures. Their apprenticeship did not end with Jesus’ resurrection. It begins here. They must now reflect again on his whole life and ministry and come to understand it in light of the resurrection, relearning the story of salvation in Christ. Slowly, they come to recognize the Risen One as he nourished their faith with the Word and the breaking of the bread.

These images of the nascent church might serve as a meditation on the life of the church in our time. Today, no less than in the early church, we experience continued resistance to the witness of women. In so many ways our all-too-human expectations have been disappointed by the displacement of the church in Western societies; by the collapse of certain models of ecclesial life, including models of ministry and vocation; by revelations of abuse and betrayal by those in positions of power; by the failure to welcome the gifts of all the baptized. We have measured the “success” of the church by worldly standards: financial wealth, the favor of state power, strong and influential institutions, armies of religious workers, the count of “bums on benches,” baptisms, confirmations and marriages. These gages of ecclesial life are not to be dismissed lightly, but they do not tell the whole story. They fail to assess the most vital dimension of ecclesial life and mission, admittedly unmeasurable by human standards: is this a community where one encounters the Risen Christ and goes forth to proclaim his love?

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are challenged to let go of false hopes and mistaken expectations if we are to learn how to live as witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. It is not by chance that the image of the first disciples walking in the company of the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus has come to serve as a paradigm for the synodal process upon which we have embarked as a global church. The many issues identified through the diocesan, national and continental phases of the process reveal the joys and the painful disappointments experienced by many. This is as it should be on the path of conversion—a necessary process of mourning and re-education in the ways of the Gospel. There is much to mourn. There are bitter deceptions and fears concerning the unknown future. We will find joy again in the presence of the Risen Christ if we have the humility to listen and learn like true disciples.

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

The Numbers Game

This column is posting during the somber days of Holy Week, as Christians commemorate the death of Christ on the cross, abandoned by his closest friends and betrayed by the crowds that had welcomed him to Jerusalem with palms and hosannas just a few days earlier. Then we turn right around and on Sunday celebrate Easter and the Resurrection. In keeping with that rebirth, Catholics begin a new season of liturgical readings featuring the Acts of the Apostles in which the dominant theme is a striking contrast to the darkening arc of Holy Week. Instead of suffering and a state execution, we hear stories of miracles and growth, as a small community of believers preaches and teaches and draws thousands of converts.

These contrasting narratives separated by a few moments in time—the righteous martyr persecuted for the faith versus the exuberance of divinely-inspired growth—have shaped the church’s path through history in different eras and different places, and each has their appeal, and a degree of authority: the tiny mustard seed sown in fertile soil becomes the largest of bushes, a sanctuary for the birds of the air.

But that paradox can also be turned into a kind of shell game by which partisans can claim vindication for their side. If they are a small minority rejected by the world that proves their holiness, the reasoning goes, and if they are a burgeoning movement whose numbers are increasing it means they have the wind of the Holy Spirit at their backs. Conversely, if the ranks of their foes are tiny it shows that their enemies have clearly lost touch with the true faith, and if the ranks of their opponents are growing it means they have simply curried favor with the secular world, going with the flow to inflate their numbers.

Heads I win, tails you lose.

Never mind that imperial decrees or colonizing powers or simple demographics can undergird the greatest episodes of church growth every bit as much as right belief. The allure of the numbers game has grown in modern times, especially among conservatives and traditionalists who are scrambling to find their footing amid the social upheavals. Dean Kelley’s 1972 study, “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing,” set the tone as a bully tract championing the success of denominations that he termed “conservative.” Kelley argued that conservative churches focused on spiritual growth and demanding commitments, as opposed to laxist liberal churches that focused merely on ”do-gooderism,” were those that retained members and drew converts because people want to be challenged and to ponder ultimate things.

Kelley’s thesis was praised for far longer than it should have been. Social trends of recent decades ought to have spiked Kelley’s thesis once and for all. Today the only “denomination” that is growing is the cohort that identifies as religiously unaffiliated, the so-called “nones,” people of no religion. In the United States, the “nones” account for nearly three-in-ten adults, far outstripping Catholics and any other denomination.

Faced with these grim realities, the self-styled “orthodox” have sometimes resorted to “remnant theology,” the idea drawn from the Hebrew Bible that a saving remnant of true believers will keep the flame alive. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a proponent of such a view, arguing that a “creative minority” of faithful Catholics would be the salvation of the church until some future Christian Springtime. The rightwing writer Rod Dreher took that idea of internal exile literally with his “Benedict Option” book in which he argued that conservative Christians should form small, intentional communities to survive in this strange secular land.

But the temptation to win by the numbers has never gone away. In the Catholic Church, devotees of the Old Latin Mass claim that they are not only nurturing the true faith in the “Mass of the Ages” but their numbers are growing rapidly; that claim isn’t true, but never mind.

In the pages of the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat regularly argues that the Second Vatican Council was “a failure” because of the downward slide in church attendance and vocations and everything else since the 1960s, and that the slide has worsened since Francis was elected pope. Yet Douthat’s argument is marginally plausible only if you examine a tiny slice of Catholicism in America and ignore the enormous growth in the church globally since Vatican II; or, vis-à-vis Francis, if you ignore the trend lines that were moving steadily downhill under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two popes whose conservatism we were told would save Western Christendom.

Whether numbers are going up or down, and for whatever reasons, it’s best to recall that conversion is at the heart of Christianity, and souls are not pelts you collect to show off. The numbers game reveals a temptation to believe that it’s what we ourselves do that will bring about the Kingdom of God. If we adopt this policy or make that argument or run these ads in the Super Bowl, Jesus wins. If we don’t, Jesus loses.

That’s not how it works. The real growth in the Acts of the Apostles derives from the examples of the disciples loving each other, living in communion, sharing all in common. That is the witness that drew so many converts to this early church, forming a multitude of one body rather than a head count to lord over your opponents.

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

A Eucharistic Church is a Synodal Church

On February 3, 2023, unbeknownst to most Catholics, a leading ecumenist of our era died at the age of 92. Greek Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas contributed to numerous formal and informal ecumenical dialogues, taught systematics and patristics in Greece and the United Kingdom, influenced the Ecumenical Patriarchate as it developed its ecological theology and presented Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ in 2015. But Zizioulas’ influence on ecumenical thinking on the Eucharist, the episcopacy and synodality is most notable.

In the current Catholic conversations about synodality and the future of the Church, Zizioulas’ legacy should be an important touchstone. Paul McPartlan summarizes in The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology:

What characterizes Zizioulas’ writings on communion or koinōnia is threefold: first, his anchoring of the idea in a theology of the Trinity drawn principally from the Cappadocian fathers; second, his proposal that it is through the celebration of the Eucharist most of all that the church participates in the communion life of God; and third, his conviction that the structure of the church must correspond to and reflect the mystery of that divine communion.

Church life, synodality, is not an expression of democratic principles or enlightened leadership. Rather, synodality flows from the Eucharistic celebration and reflects the mystery of the Holy Trinity. If we follow Zizioulas’ understanding of the early Church traditions, both Eucharistic celebrations and the life of the Church (which necessarily includes synodality) should reflect the Triune God: united in diversity. The Church is fully Church when it gathers at the Eucharistic celebration around the bishop—the visible expression of the unity of the Universal Church. But that Church in its fullness lives practically in its synodal life, making room for multiple voices so that the gifts of the Spirit may be recognized by and within the community—gifts that are inherently revealed when the community recognizes the transformative nature of the Eucharistic event. It is not only the bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ; during the Eucharistic epiclesis we pray: “Send down your Holy Spirit upon us and these gifts” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). The Eucharistic assembly is transformed and cannot but live synodally, because it now lives the Trinitarian life—we become the Body of Christ.

Zizioulas challenges us to recognize the nature of synodality as more than a process of consultation. Synodality is about being Church—being Eucharistic. Synodality must begin in thanksgiving (eucharistia)—not a conversation about “what we want,” but a recognition of what we have received. I’m not suggesting (the too common) “sharing” but (an ever new) attending to and gratefulness for our giftedness as a faithful yet diverse community whose diversity derives from the reality of humanity coming together as people of faith. Synodality is valuing—even cherishing—the gifts of each. Synodality is acknowledging the invitation of the other and embracing our common journey, sinners as we be, to see and celebrate “God with us.” In gratitude, we learn to listen to each other, not because we agree, but because we learn that the Spirit speaks to us through one another.

Thus, I was struck by the echoes of Zizioulas’ insights in last week’s blog by Tina Beattie concerning The International Survey of Catholic Women. The respondents overwhelmingly affirmed their Catholic identity which absolutely entails an “ongoing commitment to the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist.” However, this commitment also involves a yearning for a Church more open to diversity, that validates female leadership in ministry and is more sensitive to the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ Catholics, divorced Catholics and single parent Catholics. In other words, a Eucharistic Church that calls together its diverse members into a communion mirroring the Most Holy Trinity. A Church unafraid to see itself as it is: broken, sinful and, at times, all too self-righteous. The survey not only calls the Church to “enact immediate reforms and produce guidelines to eliminate sexual, spiritual, physical and emotional abuse in church contexts,” but also expresses concern over church leadership’s faithfulness to the Gospel when it aligns itself with partisan political positions and fails to proclaim Catholic social teaching in the face of “poverty, climate change, homelessness, war and economic injustice.” The survey is not a declaration of political opposition; rather it echoes the Gospel call to repentance, the prelude to the Eucharistic celebration.

The voices heard in the survey hearken back to a Church whose vibrancy stems from a courageous humility to admit its inadequacies, listen for the Spirit and respond in thanksgiving to the Son who manifested the divine love that conquers death. God is triune: a community of being, an ever-dynamic outpouring of love. A Eucharistic Church is trinitarian. A trinitarian community (a community of Divine Love) necessarily encompasses otherness; it cannot remain static and retain its integrity, its essence. Zizioulas reminds us that the Spirit of synodality is the breath of the Church. If we don’t strive for a polyphony of all voices, what are we really? 

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