A publication of Sacred Heart University

Taking a Stand in the Face of Anger

Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once famously likened living next to the United States to “sleeping with an elephant.”

Trudeau, the father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was suggesting that for a country the size of Canada, with a current population of 38 million, our cheek-by-jowl proximity to the United States, with a population almost 10 times the size, makes it impossible to not be affected by–or share in–the movements of the land to the south of us.

That includes, for example, the increasingly nasty tone of public discourse, especially in politics. The tone that began to emerge in the United States in about 2015 and grew to horrify so many either crept north or, more likely, empowered local views previously kept under wraps because they were deemed unseemly. With civility out the window, too many Canadian politicians of all stripes, particularly women politicians, have now suffered not only verbal harassment but forms of physical aggression, too. Thus, we watch American trends and wait to see what will make its way north.

It has been particularly upsetting to see American priests and members of the Church hierarchy blur the line between reiterating Church teachings and engaging in partisan politics. Some have gone so far as to suggest–subsidiarity be damned!–that Catholics risk eternal damnation depending on how they vote. Any such suggestion clearly contradicts the notion of freedom of conscience and undermines the effort to work effectively toward the common good, which relates to people at all stages of life rather than to any one topic. It was, therefore, almost old news when the rallying cry for Trudeau the Younger to be denied Communion began in some corners of Canada, given his position on various contentious issues.

Thus, I was relieved to see timely statements from many American bishops in response to the Republican stunt of transporting migrants arriving in the southern United States to places like Martha’s Vineyard, long a vacation spot for the likes of the Obamas and the Clintons. It is not hard to imagine self-congratulatory party members chuffed with glee over a stunt they perceived to be so witty, so apt, in spite of its very attack on the dignity of the human person.

But then Rhode Island’s Bishop Joseph Tobin tweeted that “the baby in the womb, the refugee in Cape Cod – neither should be exploited for political points.” And San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller likened the move to “human trafficking,” adding that, “to use migrants and refugees as pawns offends God, destroys society and shows how low individuals can (stoop) for personal gains”.

I am wondering how Republican Catholics received these episcopal statements. A recent survey by Pew Research suggests half of registered Republicans identify as Catholic. Another poll, designed to ask Republicans their response to the ferrying of migrants to states perceived as liberal, suggests a full two-thirds of Republicans support the idea. Regardless of the various possible mathematical breakdowns, the two polls suggest a significant number of Catholics approved of the migrant shipments, in spite of Church leaders speaking out–not in a partisan, cult-of-the-politician way, but in a style that reflects classic Catholic Social Teaching.

It made me hopeful that our Canadian bishops will increasingly become more vocal not on politics itself but on any kind of decision, be it societal or governmental, that attacks the common good and the dignity of the person. While some bishops spoke up in the early days of residential school gravesites being uncovered, far too many remained silent, seemingly waiting for someone else to speak first. Catholics in pews witnessed a Church we had always thought of as universal suddenly hiding behind local dioceses when questions arose of apologies or reparation for the harms done to families torn apart by the residential school system. While the former has now been voiced by the Pope himself, during his visit to Canada this past summer, the latter is still a confusing mess to many of us, weighed down by–surprise!–internal politics. There is a great deal of work still to be done in opening archives, arranging reparation payments and listening to the intergenerational trauma that the Church still needs to address and help ease.

Leadership calls for courage, and there are likely many American Catholics who disagree with those bishops who have taken a stand and spoken up on an ongoing basis about how welcoming the stranger and caring for those in need–especially children facing deplorable conditions–is essential gospel teaching we need to embrace. I applaud these men for finding ways to respond to challenging political issues without getting political about it.

Those of us north of the 49th parallel would welcome this trend creeping in our direction.


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


The Midterms and the Disappearance of a Distinctive Catholic Vote

The midterms in November are becoming more interesting from a political perspective as President Joe Biden’s poll numbers have started to rise, former President Donald Trump’s legal woes remind voters of how enervating his tenure was, and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade motivates a significant part of the Democratic Party’s base. At the beginning of the summer, Democrats appeared headed into a tsunami, but now control of the Senate appears up for grabs even if it remains doubtful the Democrats can hold the House. 

The past months, however, have brought more bad news for Catholic political involvement. It is difficult not to conclude that the polarization of the ambient political culture, which has gradually been eating away at the very idea of a distinctive “Catholic vote,” has now completed its task. Pro-life Catholic Democrats and pro-immigration Catholic Republicans have joined the endangered species lists.

In 2008, when I published a book called Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, I still held out the hope that there were enough well-catechized Catholics who would resist the different ways libertarianism was eating at the social bonds that lay at the root of both parties.

For Republicans, libertarianism sidelined any consideration of the common good in economic policy. The invisible hand of the market became an idol as well as a myth, and any challenge by the government on behalf of other social goods was considered a priori illegitimate. Morally, they put the “lazy” into laissez-faire.

For Democrats, libertarianism manifested itself in the mantra “my body, my choice” adopted by the abortion rights movement. All the intellectual and moral pathologies that flowed from the libertarian ethic followed inexorably: indifference to the humanity of the unborn and the adoption of a throwaway culture regarding unwanted progeny.

Still, there was a group of pro-life Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and, in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, resolving the issue of federal funding of elective abortions was the last hurdle standing. Led by Rep. Bart Stupak, the pro-life Democrats successfully forced the House to demonstrate no legislative intent at circumventing the Hyde Amendment’s proscription of such federal funding.

And there were Republicans like Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush who urged their party to adopt not only a more humane approach to the issue of immigration but to recognize immigrants as a potential boon for the country and for their party. The entrepreneurial spirit of many migrants seemed a natural fit for the GOP, exemplified by New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez’s 2012 convention address, in which she explained her family’s business success and its foundation in the American Dream.

What is more, Catholics occupied a unique place for media strategists working on campaigns. Democrats were ill-advised to run an ad on Christian radio programming because they would be reminding four Republican evangelicals to vote for every Democratic evangelical. A Democrat might run an ad in a Jewish newspaper, but no Republican would. Catholics, however, appeared split between the parties by about 46%-46%. The remaining 8% were persuadable and, in the event, would decide any close election, not least because several key swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania had a large Catholic population.

Now, the ill effects of gerrymandering, combined with Supreme Court decisions permitting more and more dark money into politics, have made it harder and harder to maintain a centrist position in either party. Activists with lots of special interest money behind them impose litmus tests on candidates in primaries for both parties.

I am especially disappointed with liberal Catholics. In the months since the Dobbs’ decision, they have largely abandoned the “consistent ethic of life” that was the hallmark of liberal Catholic sentiment on life issues. Paul Baumann courageously took on the pernicious influence of “Catholics for Choice.” But where have been the liberal theologians at respectable Catholic schools insisting that whatever the moral failings of the pro-life movement, and they are many, we Catholics can’t turn a blind eye to abortion on demand?

Conservative Catholics made their deal with the devil with Donald Trump. The House Select Committee Hearings into the attack on the U.S. Capitol have shown just how conscious prominent Catholics like William Barr and Pat Cipollone were that it was the devil with whom they were doing business. Groups like “Catholic Vote” undermine Catholic social doctrine with impunity. And the U.S. bishops’ conference is in absentia from the fight to preserve democracy.

Let’s hope the old adage proves true again: It is always darkest before the dawn.


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


Barron, LaBeouf and Catholic Toxic Masculinity

Recently, Bishop Robert Barron, newly-installed ordinary of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and Catholic media personality, interviewed the actor Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf, who stars in a new film about Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the controversial 20th-century saint, admitted to Barron that he had recently converted to Catholicism. This revelation was predictably highlighted by Barron and others as evidence of the attractiveness of Catholicism (in related ways, perhaps to recent discussions of “Dimes Square” and the church skillfully explored in this forum by Colleen Dulle), but it also exposed several issues. Beyond LaBeouf s apparent attraction (mediated by Mel Gibson) to schismatic traditionalist chapels, the announcement of his conversion came without a public reckoning or other discussion concerning his record of abusive behavior toward women.

Barron’s interview and apparent disinterest in abusive behavior toward women comes in the wake of a series of revelations about his Word on Fire organization, particularly its attitudes toward sexual harassment perpetrated by former high-ranking employee Joey Gloor. Gloor’s background as a bodybuilder highlights Barron’s own fascination in recent years with bodybuilding and other activities that might be termed aggressively masculine. His fixation with Canadian pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson, himself a kind of guru of neo-masculinity, is a piece of this. These initiatives at a high-profile, fairly mainstream organization (right-of-center but not “hard-right” or traditionalist in audience and authorship) point to a crisis of masculinity within Catholicism, though not the kind that might typically be pointed out on Barron’s media channels or at a Catholic men’s conference. The crisis comes not from failure to honor traditional “manly virtue” but rather from a hypertrophied account of masculinity that itself flows from a refusal to address new and developing ways of understanding gender roles in society.

As with many challenges in the church, these issues around masculinity date back decades and centuries, but Barron’s particular iteration of them is of more recent vintage. It dates, I would argue, to the revelations about clerical sexual abuse in the early 2000s and the panic about gay men in the priesthood that many on the right and in the hierarchy fomented at this time. Most infamously, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning sexuality in seminary admissions that effectively took hold at this time encouraged an emphasis on masculinity that, frankly, protests too much. During this same period, increasing societal acceptance of gay relationships and transgender identities fueled this bunker mentality concerning sexuality in the church. All of this while, as Frédéric Martel and others have made abundantly clear, high-ranking cardinals—many of them quite conservative—and other leading clerics in the church have engaged in longstanding gay relationships with little to no known difficulties.

At a recent conference I attended, Dr. John Boyle of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota made a wise remark about the way in which Chrétien de Troyes’ medieval romances demonstrate Christianity’s sublimation of the warrior culture that it converted in Europe. Chrétien avoids showing the battle scenes in his stories of knights, focusing instead on other aspects of the knights’ lives. The “warrior virtues” as some might call them today, have no place in Christianity—rather, Christian living tends to subvert these virtues in favor of others. This is a hard lesson, as Catholic concepts like the “church militant” and organizations ranging from the Society of Jesus to the Knights of Columbus have in different ways drawn on military language, but it is an important one. Following the Prince of Peace ought to mean thinking differently about power and its true use than one will see on HBO.

Clearly the Catholic intellectual tradition exemplified by Chrétien contains important resources for breaking toxic masculinity, but clericalism in church governance makes this hard to attain. It creates a “boys’ club” as described above that is nigh-impossible to breach and that covers up the hypocrisy of its members. That culture spreads to para-church organizations like Word on Fire that have no inherent reason to take on the same organization (and subsequent problems), but nonetheless do. The only solution to these unhealthy organizational cultures is to try to make them into healthy ones, and this ultimately starts with the question of who is invited to be part of them.

The most important thing leaders in the church (whether clerical or lay) can do to begin to break this cycle is to listen—actually listen—to women. It is especially important for them to listen to women who might tell them things they do not want to hear, particularly on controverted issues, and to allow them space to lead. To take seriously Pope Francis’ vision of a listening church requires the church—to listen. Francis himself has modeled this listening as a pastor of souls, particularly in his outreach to the transgender community in Rome, but has been much slower putting this into practice on the level of church governance. The test of his pontificate’s legacy may well be whether this bifurcation can be resolved or whether it falls to a successor to break the “boys’ club” and foster a healthier culture of leadership.


Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.


Journeys to the Center of the Church

Our lives are filled with journeys. Some are anticipated and planned; others are dreaded or in crisis. Travels today are fraught with difficulty: complex security, canceled flights, missed connections, train derailments and road closures.

Two particular journeys in the Church reveal areas in need of deep conversion of minds, hearts, relationships and structures to “the mind of Christ”: Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada for the evils of Indian residential schools and the global “journeying together” of the Synod on Synodality.

Because of my commitment as a pediatrician to the care and protection of children, I immersed myself in Pope Francis’ Canadian visit. I was touched by powerful images of the elderly Pope willing to expose his vulnerability: the sorrowful, penitent Pope surrounded by Indigenous graves and the smiling Pope at the healing Lac Ste. Anne blessing the Indigenous crowds to drumming and dancing.

In jarring contrast, the Mass in Commonwealth Stadium was a traditionalist clerical extravaganza celebrated in Latin—clearly not one of Canada’s official languages.

I searched the images and words for credibility and possibilities for atonement in the three stages. The first stage related directly to apology and atonement for complicity with residential schools; the second addressed global political issues; and the third related to challenges for a post-Christendom Church.

Francis acknowledged systemic, ecclesial and cultural factors, including the pernicious intertwining of colonialism for wealth and power and evangelization.

His meetings with government officials raised major issues of justice and care for global leaders in our violent and commercialized world.

In Quebec City, clerics and religious were asked “to manifest Jesus’ concern for everyone and his compassion for the wounds of each … find new ways to proclaim the Gospel to those who have not yet encountered Christ … [S]ecularization … relegating God to the background … represents a challenge for our pastoral imagination.”

“We must begin with ourselves: bishops and priests should not feel themselves superior to our brothers and sisters in the People of God … The Church will be a credible witness to the Gospel the more its members embody … a welcoming community, one capable of listening, entering into dialogue and promoting quality relationships.”

Pope Francis’ For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission is a controversial commitment to “journeying together” in our wounded Church and world. It calls for listening to the Word of God, as well as to each other and trusting in the Holy Spirit.

Diocesan participation ranges from none to token, as in the U.S., to robust, notably in Germany, Australia and France. Lay-led synods include Bristol, Scottish Laity Network and Canadian Concerned Lay Catholics. These have identified crucial spiritual and theological goals for the journey:

Strengthen belief in a merciful and loving God, the Church as the People of God and the priesthood of all the baptized.

Revitalize the parish as a welcoming place of prayer, liturgical celebration and service.

Return to Jesus’ understanding of power and servant leadership, rejecting clericalism and “hierarchicalism” and fostering co-responsibility for mission.

Restore right relationships between clergy and laity and women and men, acknowledging the gifts of all.

Renew moral theology from sin to conscience and virtue and develop a healthy Christian anthropology for all “made in the image and likeness of God.”

Recognize the urgency of disaffiliated youth and young adults from the Church.

Address the practical issues needed to achieve these goals.

A successful journey depends on personal preparation and external factors. We undertake this synodal journey burdened by clergy sexual abuse, massive departures from the practice of the faith and pandemic lockdowns.

Traveling with others requires agreement on a destination. Polarization between liberals and conservatives is paralyzing the journey of reform and renewal.

As we travel, others join us. We now have 20 new Cardinals representing the global Church. Pope Francis has called them to exercise “unassuming power” and preach the Gospel to all “without exception.”

We know that even well-planned travel can be canceled, and we can miss connections by circumstances beyond our control.  

The people of God are on a never-ending journey into the heart of Christ. We pray for resurrection hope to bring us home.


Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.


The Spirit and the Rules: Reflections on the Local Phase of the Synod

For the past several years, I led a small lay group in Atlanta known as the Catholic Lay Interparish Partnership. The group, made up of parishioners from about 25 archdiocesan parishes, began as a local effort to respond to the horror of the sexual abuse crisis brought to renewed focus by the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. With time and discussion, we decided to center the group’s efforts on the empowerment of the laity as co-responsible members of the Body of Christ. We met with archdiocesan leadership for months advocating for a synod to hear the thoughts of the laity on the shape of the Church in our region. Thanks to the timing of Pope Francis and the Spirit, that wished-for synod became a reality.

As I facilitated listening sessions and synthesized reports, the limits of the process became apparent: the official archdiocesan synod reached only the most active of Catholics, with the majority of participants being over 55 and white, despite the fact that the non-Latino white population now makes up an estimated 43% of the Catholic population in the archdiocese. This flaw has been echoed across many synodal reports in the U.S.

Throughout the local synod process in Atlanta, we discovered that many people did not want to participate in the synod because they did not trust the Church to hear them. Others who did participate shared the complexities of their lives with visible or audible trepidation. A number of individuals stated that they were sharing facets of their life for the first time outside the most intimate friends. 

Common themes and reactions to the process resound across synodal reports. U.S. Catholics described the joy they find in community, in prayer practices and in liturgy, especially the Eucharist. At the same time, the calls for change are clear in the tales of exclusion and even open hostility felt by people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community and divorced and remarried Catholics. The wounds of clericalism and the sexual abuse crisis continue to cut deep.

While many diocesan reports still remain unpublished, a number are available online, and the glimpses they contain of lay Catholic stories are well worth reading. As I facilitated listening sessions and synthesized notes, my own curiosity was piqued by a common reference that did not get as much attention in the final archdiocesan report: “rules.”

I heard and read Catholics express both a desire for their faith to be about more than rules, and a desire for the clarity that “rules” and “answers” provided. What struck me most was that for some Catholics, “rules”—in a legalistic and punitive sense of the word—appear to be a major way that they understand what the Church is about in the world.

I have been pondering the relationship between this discussion of rules and the lack of trust in the synod process. The lack of trust is well-founded and confirmed by the way the Church has fostered a culture of secrecy about abuse and its other failings. The rules add another dimension to this lack of trust. If someone imagines or has experienced the rules as the most significant aspect of the life of the Church and knows that her own life carries complexities that may not perfectly reflect these rules, it is not hard to understand why she might not entrust her complex human story to the Church. Rules are often insufficient to the reality of going through a divorce or supporting a trans child or listening to a friend with depression.

The Catholic tradition prides itself on a sacramental imagination, one which finds God in the messiness of human reality. Yet, listening to many participants in the synod, I heard that they feel that this messy human reality is not welcomed in the Church. The impression is that sacramentality, at least in official ecclesial spaces, extends only so far as the rules will allow. It is difficult to be a field hospital if no one feels comfortable letting you know where it hurts. But an even larger gap in trust exists when the rules proclaim that your human situation is “wounded” by something that you experience as a space of that sacramental presence.

Many participants who used the language of “rules” did so in the context of hoping for the Church to be about something more. Their own lives of faith told them that such a category was insufficient to the reality of being a Christian. One of the things the synod is revealing is that lay Catholics find the grace of God where ecclesial officials fear to tread. The laity’s is perhaps a more truly Catholic sacramentality, which rightly perceives an inconsistent legalism in the boundaries the Church has sought to draw around that divine presence in women, queer people, people of color and more. For many, if the synod is to give them real hope in the future of the Church, it must show that at least some of these “rules” are beginning to give way to the reality of the Spirit present within the complexities of human lives.


 Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


Acts and Images of Contrition

I once had a virtual audience with an actual anti-pope. I watched the documentary Pope Michael with some friends who then arranged a Skype conversation with its titular subject. If memory serves me right, I asked him about he balanced his time in Kansas with his duties to the people of the Diocese of Rome. I found his conviction charming even if his spiritual authority far from credible. But he seemed like a nice guy.

David Bawden, the man who called himself “Pope Michael,” died earlier this month. According to one set of internet rumors, he may have sacramentally confessed and recanted his false claims to be the successor of St. Peter before journeying home to God. Other online reports call this story mere rumor and gossip. Whether or not that tale of deathbed conversion happens to be true, I’m taken by its drama. I am still holding out hope for the happy ending.

It makes a lot of sense that Christians would cherish the aesthetics of forgiveness and find even imaginary accounts of reconciliation beautiful. The Christian vision of history, after all, centers around the cross-shaped, self-emptying love of God. The life of Jesus the Christ displays how beauty and redemption harmonize. This is the Lord who eats with sinners and who weeps for lost friends, in whom and through whom all is made new again. For the medieval imagination, it is only fitting that such love not only redeems a fallen world but makes creation even more beautiful to behold.

Attention to the real Holy Father’s penitential journey to Canada rightfully overshadowed news of the death of an obscure American anti-pope. As Michael Higgins observed in his blog last week, Pope Francis performed a tenderness in his listening and presence. Acts of contrition need to precede the work of healing.

For Catholics, the Church will always be both the bearer of the tradition and a continuation of God’s intervention in history. Pope Francis also demonstrates how to discern the sinfulness of compromised institutions. The Church is also a social construction, a human conglomerate complicit in systemic oppressions like residential schools. Restoring credibility for the Church includes corporate penitential actions. These are visible signs of faith meant for the world to see.

So, too, are the visible signs of faith in the sacred art that invites us to delight in creation. As Dante says through the mouth of Virgil, human creativity cooperates with the Creator, our arts are like God’s grandchildren (Inferno, Canto XI). But just as we inherit the glories of Catholic music, sacred architecture, painting and poetry alongside legacies of abuse and violence, a renewing Church needs to be cautious about how our contemporary works of penance are received. The same might be said of the signs and symbols of Catholic life: rosaries, icons, candles, robes, statues. The lush arts of Catholicism demonstrate a theological conviction about the good of the world God has made. But works of art might be shared by believers and non-believers alike; authentic shepherds and schismatics can, in theory, both wear a white zucchetto.

The danger comes when penitential prayer appears theatrical, as if performed for its own sake. Acts of contrition, however beautiful to behold, seek to rehabilitate wounded relationships beginning with oneself. Penance serves an inner conversion (a “turning around”) that pushes us towards acting differently in the future, aware of the wrongness of the past without obsessing over it. The Pope’s penitential journey offers an opportunity for the whole Church to reevaluate alignment identity. Catholic reparation for institutional complicities in evil remains a project for every person in the Church (some rightfully called to do more than others).

There are dangers to moving quickly because a preferred image may take the place of the truth. I believe we are still adapting to the speed of information sharing in our era of ubiquitous surveillance. Pictures and video arrive in real time often with commentary. Emotional reactions are real even if the story turns out to be fake. This rapidification of knowledge, to borrow a concept from Laudato Si’, can also undermine the inertia of penitential acts. Rapidification makes it difficult to separate the history-making fact of a Pope’s apology from the imperfect gaffs of a human doing human things. Penance appears awkwardly celebratory when filtered through social and traditional media. Indeed, the same rapidification inspires defensive calls to “get over it” when the apology does not seem enough for centuries of wrongdoing. Forgiveness should be quick and easy so we can scroll on to the next story.

The aesthetics of forgiveness are so powerful on stage or in a movie because drama, by its very nature, collapses big changes into short spans of time. A slick montage allows interpersonal transformation to be miraculously swift. Sometimes forgiveness does move fast. That’s the beauty of God’s infinite mercy made instantly accessible in the personal drama of sacramental confession. But repairing a compromised human institution calls for more than complaints or kitsch counter-papacies. Rather, it is the people of God doing works of great love that will prove how God’s holy Church remains credible even after all this time.


Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


A Humble Roman

When Julius Caesar informed the Senate of the Republic of Rome of the successful military defeat of an enemy by his legions, he is reputed to have said Veni, Vidi, Vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.

Two millennia later, another Roman came, saw and conquered. Except in this instance, the people he addressed had already been conquered for centuries, knew the personal price of defeat and dispossession, and he came not in triumph with a wreath of victory, but on a “pilgrimage of penance.”

Pope Francis traveled from the Tiber to Canada to honour his pledge to deliver an apology on native soil to the First Peoples of the New World for the colonizing crimes of the past, specifically the church-administered residential schools. These schools were often enclaves of segregation, cultural genocide, brutalizing behaviour by overseers, large dormitories of physical and sexual abuse, places where children were involuntarily submitted to a process of rigorous assimilation to the dominant power. These schools were the creation of the federal government, but the political leaders in Ottawa discharged operational responsibilities to several Christian churches—United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Mennonite and Roman Catholic—the lion’s share of which fell under the auspices of Catholic religious orders. For over a century, some 150,000 Indigenous children went through the schools. Thousands died due to disease, malnutrition and neglect, while intergenerational trauma damaged the lives of countless survivors and their descendants. The social and political consequences of a policy born of Victorian high mindedness and arrogance are with us still.

Expectations for this papal visit—held last month in three discrete areas of the country (Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit)—were high and the pope knew that he was being dropped into a political and spiritual maelstrom. Still, he masterfully focused on the mission at hand—a healing mission distinguished by its genuine contrition and moral imperative for healing. He knew that for all the words written for him by his Canadian hosts, curial support team and cardinal advisors, in the end he needed to impart sincerity by gesture, silence, attentive listening and tactile moments of embrace and reverenced kissing.

Francis knew that he needed to create a momentum of tenderness because he knew, as that very Catholic Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor knew, that when tenderness is just theory and “cut off from the person of Christ … its logical outcome is terror.”  To be tender is to be accountable, to be present to the other and to honour the other.

When Francis came to Washington to address both Houses of Congress, he highlighted some of the moral visionaries of the land, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He also included in their number Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and made much of their intellectual and spiritual contributions to America.

Likewise, when Francis came to Canada, he drew on the wisdom of two of the land’s globally recognized Catholic thinkers: political philosopher Charles Taylor and philosophical theologian Bernard Lonergan, a fellow Jesuit. In quoting Taylor on secularization, the pope noted that secularism constitutes a formidable challenge for our pastoral imagination and prompts us to look at “restructuring the spiritual life in new forms and new ways of existing.”

As I have said in my guest column, “View From Guelph” (The Tablet, August 6, 2022), “in applying this bold exercise in pastoral imagination to the Canadian context, indeed the New World context, Francis is calling for nothing less than a spiritual revolution. How do we address the corrosive effects of colonization, the deliberate and systematic effort to eradicate the cultures and spiritualities of the First Peoples, the appalling record of Euro-centric hegemony with its presumed civilizational superiority, in a way that moves beyond theory, exhortatory rhetoric and deft political manoeuvring?  Theologian Fredrick Bauerschmidt concisely encapsulates the options, “Christians must take as their model not Sepúlveda [the Spanish Renaissance humanist] who justified the conversion by conquest of the Americas, but the martyred Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who died because they would not abandon their Muslim neighbours.” The option, in other words, is either aggressive proselytizing or authentic witness. For centuries, we chose the former and the consequences are clear.

Francis repeatedly calls for the “recognition of the special genius of the Indigenous peoples, their harmony with Creation, the richness of their languages, which we ruthlessly suppressed, and the paramount need to move through truth to reconciliation and forgiveness.”

What happened in Canada is now unfolding in the United States following a detailed investigation initiated by the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, examining the legacy of the Native boarding schools, the role of Catholic orders in their administration and the need to find a process for moving forward with national healing.

Francis’ Canadian journey can prove a workable and inspiring template.


Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus at Sacred Heart University. The author and co-author of numerous books, his most recent is The Church Needs the Laity: the Wisdom of John Henry Newman (Paulist).


Seeking the Spirit Beyond ‘Dimes Square

Last year, about a month after Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes limiting the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass, I received a text from a college friend. We’d once been very close, working together on our college newspaper, but had a falling out after he began identifying with the alt-right and developed an admiration for Milo Yiannopolous, the former Breitbart staffer who, after being deplatformed when a series of videos of him advocating pedophilia emerged, converted to Catholicism, began to identify as a “reformed sodomite,” and became one of Pope Francis’ most vocal critics.

I immediately thought of this friend—like Milo, a gay man turned traditionalist Catholic reactionary—when I read First Things contributor Julia Yost’s piece in the New York Times this week, “New York’s Hottest Club is the Catholic Church.” Yost’s piece highlights a group of right-leaning downtown New York podcasters and small magazine editors who have taken up Roman Catholicism as a transgressive, anti-bourgeois yet Decadent-inspired cultural practice that Yost, while pointing out Gen Z’s proclivity for performativity, refuses to pin down as mere posturing.

I will refrain from judging their sincerity, too, but I do think that the strain of reactionary Catholicism that so often pops up in the United States—whether from the anticapitalist “Red Scare” podcast hosts or the hypercapitalist Breitbart scene—belies an insecurity that aims to take shelter in a church that never actually existed the way they imagine it did.

Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D., writing in Where Peter Is about Pope Francis’ recent critique of “indietrism” or “backwardism”, argues that while European traditionalists are solidly grounded in history and face the risk of failing to “notice that changes have taken place over the centuries,” Americans “are far more prone to look to the future and fix our gaze on a culture that never really existed but that we hope to bring into being. We have a nostalgia for ‘the perfect society.’” The solution, she writes, is that “The European mindset needs to be balanced by openness to the future, and the American mindset needs to be balanced by a true knowledge of the past.”

This lack of “a true knowledge of the past” is manifest not only in the young Americans who long for a pre-Vatican II era they never experienced and which, in reality, was not the way they imagine it being, with elaborate Tridentine high Masses every day and an unquestioningly obedient body of the faithful. It also appears in older conservative Americans who refuse to acknowledge—and in fact, resist—the truth of how doctrine develops over time. In just the last few days, the former EWTN staffers running “The Pillar” Substack have turned their focus to “investigating” the Twitter account of the Pontifical Academy for Life, after it tweeted that the controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae was not covered by papal infallibility. (This Twitter dust-up followed the academy’s publication of a volume of conference papers debating life issues.)

Then, of course, there is the “backwardism” of the wealthy conservative Catholics who have used their influence particularly in the media to undermine Pope Francis, as detailed in Go, Rebuild contributor Christopher Lamb’s book, The Outsider.

Again, I do not doubt these Catholics’ sincerity, but I believe their reactionary tendencies and their desire to construct an institution that has improbably not changed in 2,000 years is a sign of insecurity. It is much more comfortable to construct a museum-like church and assume the aesthetics of an imagined bygone era than it is to throw open the windows to let the Holy Spirit blow in, and to discern the Spirit’s call.

Back to my friend, the Milo admirer: About a month after Traditionis Custodes came out, he texted me to apologize. Although he was upset about the pre-Vatican II Mass being limited, he said, he had come to understand why the pope’s intervention was necessary. He recognized that the old Mass had become a proxy for opposition to Vatican II, and that he had participated in that opposition and realized now he was wrong.

This, to me, was a sign of spiritual maturing, of recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating where conversion was needed, and following that prompting.

In response to the Times’ piece about the Dimes Square traditionalists, former Commonweal editor and “Know Your Enemy” podcast host Matt Sitman tweeted, “One thing about religion I’ve realized from being an editor at a Catholic magazine and now doing KYE is that a lot of people wrestle with their faith in ways that are quiet, mostly private and not part of their influencer brand. You’ll never read about them!” Then added, “This is my impression from countless emails and conversations, and I’d wager that this group of people absolutely dwarfs whatever trend in NYC is being debated.”

Sitman’s account of quiet wrestling resonates with me, and certainly describes my friend’s eventual response to Traditionis Custodes. The work of the Holy Spirit is quiet and persistent and intimate; it can happen below layers of aesthetic preoccupations and in, as Madeleine Delbrêl says, “the ordinary people of the streets.” It is happening all the time.

What is thrilling, now, is that, since Vatican II, and especially with Pope Francis’ global synodal process, we are being asked to undertake that wrestling with the Holy Spirit, that discernment, together, rather than exclusively within ourselves. It makes sense that the Jesuit pope, the world’s spiritual director, is the one asking us to engage in discernment together. I pray that our faith will be mature enough—secure enough—to follow this call.


Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.


Planting Seeds

While recovering from a war injury in his family’s castle, Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier and courtier, asked for something to read, preferably his favorite genre of courtly adventure. Instead, he was presented with a book of lives of the saints. At first he found the stories boring. But eventually he became engrossed, imagining a different kind of heroism in God’s service. “What if I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did?” he asked himself. It was the start of a journey that led him to found the Society of Jesus.

I did not know this story when I set out to write my book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, which was published 25 years ago this month. But I did know the powerful, contagious effect of moral witness. I knew that from my own life and from the example of my father Daniel Ellsberg, whose decision to risk prison for copying the top secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers was directly inspired by the example of young men willing to go to jail for refusing to cooperate with the draft. Such stories had a great impact on my decision to take a leave from college after my sophomore year and make my way to the Catholic Worker—wondering what it would be like to do what Dorothy Day and her companions did.

It was Day who enlarged my store of holy and heroic exemplars. From her recounting of the lives of St. Francis, St. Therese, St. Vincent de Paul, and others, I learned about men and women who had had asked themselves what it would be like to live like Jesus and his disciples. Responding to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors, they had charted new paths of discipleship that others might follow. Day had little interest in abstract theories and principles; what fascinated her was the way these ideals were lived out. And so she moved easily between the canon of official saints and the lives of many others—writers, peacemakers, defenders of the poor, and other radical dreamers. She was drawn to those who (to borrow a phrase that Pope Francis applied to Day herself) allow us to “see and interpret reality in a new way.”

In that spirit, as I wrote All Saints, I combined “official” saints with others drawn from a wider “cloud of witnesses”: Gandhi, Etty Hillesum, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. On the one hand, I wanted to take the official saints down from their pedestals, to show them as human beings whose distinctive holiness was expressed in the course of a life. But I also wanted to expand the understanding of holiness.

Curiously, over the past 25 years, my calendar has edged closer to the official list, as 43 of “my” saints have progressed along the path of canonization, ranging from Servants of God Helder Camara, Pedro Arrupe and Dorothy Day herself, to Saints John Henry Newman, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Hildegard of Bingen, John XXIII and Charles de Foucauld. But my deeper motivation for writing this book, and the daily reflections on “Blessed Among Us” I have written over the past 10 years for Liturgical’s Give Us This Day, has not simply been to honor or remember those who went before, but to plant seeds that might encourage new readers on their own path.

This summer, one of my reflections was about Mattie Stepanek, who died in 2004 at the age of 13 of a hereditary disease. In his short, grace-filled life, he became an ambassador for peace, publishing best-selling books of poetry, befriending Jimmie Carter (who gave the eulogy at his funeral), teaching religious education classes in his parish and touching countless people with his remarkable witness to the gift of life. I noted that a guild is currently promoting his cause for canonization.

Afterward I received a message from his mother, who recognized my name but couldn’t immediately place it. Going through a box of Mattie’s things, she suddenly remembered, and sent me a picture. It was a copy of All Saints, which she said Mattie kept checking out of the library every two weeks until he could afford to buy his own copy.

This was a new experience, but a confirmation of why I write these reflections: So that somewhere, somebody might read these stories and imagine a different way of living, and ask themselves, “What if I should live like Mattie Stepanek?­”


Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books. His most recent book (with Sister Wendy Beckett) is Dearest Sister Wendy… A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.


Francis in Canada: When Symbols Are More Powerful than Words

More often than not it is through symbols rather than words that the important messages of a pontificate are communicated. So it has been with Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, a visit aimed at making amends for the appalling abuse carried out against indigenous communities in state-funded, Catholic-run residential schools. 

While the words of Francis’ apologies were sorely needed and long overdue, they were doubly poignant coming from an elderly Roman Pontiff using a wheelchair. The image of the Pope sitting in front of the Lac Sainte Anne, praying for healing and reminding his audience that it was on the Sea of Galilee that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, will live on long in the memory. These moments in Canada also sent important messages to the whole Church. 

First of all, the 85-year-old Pope has offered a face of the Church able to show humility, admit wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. His use of an ordinary wheelchair and walking stick also shows a Church willing to embrace its own vulnerability and fragility. Such an approach overturns a deeply ingrained ecclesial view that while the Church may be made up of sinners, it is not a sinful Church. This attitude continues to prevail in the resistance—or lukewarm responses—to the global synod process of reform launched by Francis. There are a number of high-ranking prelates, supported by vocal supporters, who oppose any structural or institutional reforms of the Church. They might be happy to have a synod that focuses on culture war issues, but don’t want to look at anything that touches on internal change. They are uncomfortable in admitting the woundedness of the Church. Not so for Francis. 

“In confronting the scandal of evil and the Body of Christ wounded in the flesh of our indigenous brothers and sisters, we too have experienced deep dismay; we too feel the burden of failure,” Francis said in a homily during Mass at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica in Québec.

What the abuse scandals of the past have revealed time and again is that it can no longer be Church business as usual, and Francis’ Canada visit underlines a willingness to face up to the past and make amends. 

A fundamental element to this synodal process is a Church that learns to listen rather than simply find different ways to proclaim ready-made answers. Francis’ call is for the Church to go to the margins and the marginalized and be converted by the encounter. It is for this reason that indigenous communities, whether in Canada, Australia or the Amazon, are becoming some of the protagonists of the synodal journey. Interestingly, while Francis was in Canada, Cardinal Mario Grech, the leader of the synod office in Rome, was visiting indigenous communities in Guatemala. The Pope’s focus on the Indigenous in Canada was not about what he told them but learning the wisdom they have to offer. This was symbolized in Francis wearing the headdress of an indigenous chief and being given an indigenous name. 

Second, the Pope’s Canada trip sent a message about the Church’s relationship with tradition. While some have attacked Francis’ focus on indigenous communities, most notably during the 2019 Amazon synod for its inclusion of indigenous symbols, he is seeking to recover elements of Catholic tradition. In his speeches Francis praised those missionaries to Canada who preserved native languages and cultures and cited the Bishop of Québec, Saint François de Laval, who stood up for indigenous against those who tried to demean them. The Jesuit Pope is pointing to the long tradition of inculturation whereby Christianity inserts, rather than imposes, itself into a local culture, something epitomized by the Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, a Chinese scholar and adviser to the Emperor. 

When Catholics became involved in running residential schools for indigenous, Francis argued, they had entered a worldly pact with colonial powers of the time and betrayed the Christian faith. It is something which serves as a warning to those in the Church seeking alliances with contemporary political powers. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has been calling for a deeper exegesis of Catholic tradition by focusing on the essentials of the Christian faith and warning against any drifts into ideology. And the synodal journey is a recovery of what it means to be the Church and is a process with deep biblical and theological roots.

“It is up to us to take on the tradition received, because that tradition is the living faith of our dead,” the Pope explained during the Mass at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. “Let us not transform it into ‘traditionalism,’ which is the dead faith of the living, as an author [Jaroslav Pelikan] once said.” 

Francis, as he pushes on with reforms to the Church despite fragile health and physical pain, is pointing to the tradition articulated by the Apostle Paul when he wrote: “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 


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