A publication of Sacred Heart University

It’s Time

In her June 27 blog post, Jennifer Reek wrote: “Some Catholics are so busy being Catholics that they forget how to be Christians.” This simple reminder of what is to be at the core of our being and doing has remained with me. I wonder whether part of our ecclesial illness (and I refer to all of us) is that we have submitted to the temptation of sectarianism, both in how we see other believers and in how we see differing positions within the Church. We have, I fear, all too often lost sight of the simplicity of the Gospel, a simplicity that rings true throughout the history of salvation, as long ago as the words of YHWH to Moses: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”  (Exodus 6:7) One identity unites us and fundamentally identifies us: We are People of God. And so the question we need to answer individually and corporately is how do we live that out? How in today’s world, with today’s issues and challenges, do we “be God’s people?”

Not the easiest of dilemmas. However, I turn to Jesus’s instruction to “put new wine into new wineskins.” (Mk. 2:22). What is the new wine? What are the new wineskins? I believe the new wine is how you and I experience the Spirit alive and well in us and around us. It is God’s presence encountered in the world. The new wineskins? A world in which we are called to clearly and radically witness the divine presence in us and around us: we are God’s people and we are part of God’s creation.

So let’s not be afraid to question the significance of the divisions we have created and valorized. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves whether episcopal authority should return to the New Testament model of episkopos: overseer, not lord or sovereign. One who values all the People of God as bearers of the Spirit, not just those who wear a collar.

Is the Gospel today best served by a presbyter who is a “jack of all trades” assigned from “central office” or an elder chosen and respected by a community recognizing that person’s holiness, thus affirming the community as the Body of Christ, wise enough to recognize where the Spirit is manifest.

Internally, we Catholics struggle with the question of the ordination of women. Does the Church have authority to ordain women to the priesthood? Does not Acts 6:1 have any lesson for us? “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God ...” The apostles recognized the life of the Spirit in the community and invited the community to (dare I say?) innovate. The result? “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem … (Acts 6:7) Are Paul’s words to the Galatians meaningless: “There is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

If we are the people of God, aren’t we intended to invite others to recognize the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity? So why do we insist on creating obstacles to the divine gift of Love? Why do we hesitate when Francis kisses the feet of a prisoner? Why are we eager to condemn sinners, yet hesitant to love them?

Isn’t it time that our worship of the Creator God be matched by respect for the creation that manifests the divine presence? Isn’t it time to repent of our avarice that is destroying creation and put on “sack cloth and ashes” in order to respect and save the planet?

Instead of arguing over who is or isn’t right/true/orthodox, perhaps we should come together in a circle of prayer to listen to each other and hear the Spirit. Perhaps we could remember Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (1 Cor. 3:3-4) For are we not all God’s servants, working together (1 Cor. 3:9) building the kingdom?

Lest you think this idealistic, remember the time is now; the Spirit calls us to live the Gospel now, putting new wine into new wineskins, because we are the People of God.

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

In Defense of Academic Theology

For a few years, I have followed (and occasionally taken part in as @ProfDanRober) the Catholic conversations on the social media platform Twitter. There is much of value in this conversation – from it I have gained interlocutors, guest speaker and reading ideas. Catholic Twitter, and its subculture of “Weird Catholic Twitter,” contains a variety of personalities, from well-known public personae such as Fr. James Martin and Sr. Helen Prejean to accomplished academics like Professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University and Natalia Imperatori-Lee of Manhattan College. In certain sectors of this discourse, particularly those leaning to the right, I have noticed recently a tendency to critique academic theology, particularly insofar as it raises questions that some in the church do not want discussed (I think particularly of a recent discussion on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene regarding the possibility of women preaching).  In this context, I think it is important to highlight the contribution of academic theology, particularly in turbulent times for our church and world.

Many critics of academic theology ironically wrap themselves in the mantle of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, of course, was one of the very early “academic theologians,” with the place of theological inquiry moving in his time from monasteries and cathedral schools to universities.  Thomas was also no stranger to controversy as the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, condemned a number of his propositions after his death. I suspect, however, that purveyors of this discourse on Twitter do not have medieval scholasticism in the crosshairs of their critique; rather, I think, the concern is with contemporary lay academic theology. 

Academic theology in the United States is a relatively novel concept, perhaps surprisingly so.  Despite the long history of Catholic higher education beginning with the founding of Georgetown University in 1789, most collegiate religious instruction up until the 1950s consisted largely of religion classes aimed at catechesis. Theology training and formation were mostly limited to clergy. The philosophy curriculum typically offered a more rigorous, though also limited, formation in Catholic thought. It was with the ascendancy of theology during the period of Vatican II, as well as the work of pioneers such as Bernard Cooke and Monika Hellwig, that laypeople began to enter the theological ranks. They built on the legacy of such clerical leaders as John Courtney Murray and John Tracy Ellis, as well as the work of Sister Madeleva Wolff to bring theological formation and training to religious women.

Why, then, the backlash against academic theology? I do not, in fact, suspect that this hostility is primarily ideological, despite its somewhat consistent provenance from the right. Indeed, some prominent right-leaning theologians are occasionally held up for ridicule within these circles also. The issue strikes me rather as a kind of pietism – be a simple believer, take what the church teaches for granted, avoid getting caught up in academic issues that are beyond the layperson’s need to inquire. Within the same circles, the idea of “clericalism of the laity” is often invoked against any attempts by laypeople to gain influence within the church, and theology figures prominently in this critique.

The value of academic theology as it is practiced today is that it allows space for the church to think. In an age when priests and bishops have been exposed in grievous wrongdoing for how they have run the church, it is more important than ever that laypeople take up the task of intellectual and moral leadership. This task should not be taken in a spirit of opposition or resistance to the hierarchy, but functionally might end up in an adversarial situation (as it indeed often did when all theologians were clergy). Though this thinking might seem abstract, it has real implications for life in the church both at the parish level and at the structural level. The renewal of the church during and since Vatican II has been heavily influenced by theology, with many of the Council’s ideas coming from theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar and Murray.

It has been commonly remarked, loosely paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson’s views on education, that an educated citizenry is a prerequisite for life in a democracy. I think the same holds for life in the church today. While of course most laypeople in the church do not have access to a college education, their lay leaders and clergy ought to be informed by theological developments, and this requires a space for these developments. David Tracy famously described the three “publics” of theology as academy, society and church, and it is important for the church to recognize the importance of theology precisely so that it can make a difference in the academy (where it faces other challenges) and society.

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

Political Christianity and the Vocation of the Theologians

Last month I was one of four theologians invited to take part in an ecumenical summer school for theology students on the theme of “Theology and Plurality” in the beautiful old Croatian town of Dubrovnik. The school was organized by the Diocese of Dubrovnik, and participants came from all over the former Yugoslavia.

I nearly turned down the invitation. After years of being targeted by militant Catholic groups because of my theological advocacy for women priests and same-sex marriage and my opposition to the criminalisation of abortion, I had decided to have nothing more to do with institutional Catholicism. I would attend Mass and continue to promote women’s voices in the Church, but I would avoid hostile campaigns mounted against any Catholic institution that dared to give me a platform.

But faith is, as Pope Francis keeps reminding us, a risky enterprise. It’s an adventure that might get us into trouble and involves being willing to make mistakes. Moreover, Francis has challenged the punitive doctrinal absolutism of recent decades that led to the emergence of a potent network of Catholic vigilantes and a theological culture of self-censorship. I decided to accept the invitation.

I arrived in Croatia to discover that the vigilantes were already on to me. Croatian bloggers were regurgitating all the same old abuse and slander that had been used by their English-speaking counterparts. It was front-page news that another bishop had publicly criticized the Bishop of Dubrovnik, Bishop Mate Uzinić, for inviting a “notorious heretic,” a feminist who “promotes abortion” and who poses a serious threat to young theologians, to teach in the summer school.

Bishop Uzinić stood his ground in defending my presence. He pointed out that dialogue does not necessarily imply agreement but that it is essential to understand different points of view if we are to engage with modern society. He attended the summer school every day, sitting among the students and engaging in the discussion sessions. He and his team went out of their way to make me feel welcome and supported during what would otherwise have been a lonely and difficult time.

The widespread publicity had a positive effect in the end, opening up a forum for discussion between secular society and the Church beyond the hostile condemnations and campaigns of the Far Right. Several Catholics told me that they felt inspired and encouraged by the emergence of a fresh theological approach to issues of culture, plurality and Catholic identity.

For me, it was an opportunity to get to know a lively and inspiring group of theology students from across the former Yugoslavia, a region with a legacy of complex religious and political conflicts that still form a turbulent social undercurrent. In such a context, the decision to focus on themes of plurality and diversity in the summer school was a bold example of contextual theology in action, bringing Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant students into robust but respectful and friendly dialogue with one another.

One of the most significant outcomes of the whole affair was the decision by four Croatian theologians – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant – to publish a statement describing this as a Kairos time in Croatian society and challenging the silence of theologians in the public sphere in the post-Communist era. Echoing the emphatic “No!” of Karl Barth to Christian collusion with Hitler’s regime, and citing later feminist, liberationist and Black theologians who said “No!” to poverty and racial and sexual discrimination, the statement makes a vital distinction between “religion in the political sphere and political religion.” While there is a need for theological voices to be engaged in public debate, this is a vocation to seek nonviolent solutions to social crises. It is quite different from “the struggle for power clothed in religious attire” that “sooner or later reaches for the lever of domination to establish its principles.”

This timely statement has relevance far beyond the Croatian context. As the authors point out, “If theologians are silent then sooner or later theology itself becomes a victim of that silence.” There is an urgent need for public theology rooted in the Catholic tradition’s affirmation of the mutually illuminating relationship between reason and revelation to bring a credible theological perspective to bear on the challenges facing modern societies. Not least of these is the shocking rise of a form of political Christianity that is parasitic upon populist movements across the western democracies. Leaders such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Britain’s Jacob Rees-Mogg and Americans Steve Bannon and, of course, Donald Trump have cynically exploited Christian fears and prejudices, particularly among Catholics and, in the US, evangelicals, in their thinly disguised white supremacist campaigns posturing as a defense of “Judeo-Christian” values. It is hard to imagine a set of values more antithetical to either the Jewish or Christian traditions than the buccaneering swagger of these wealthy white male elites operating in a moral vacuum of corruption and lies.

In these volatile and dangerous times, we theologians have a duty as citizens to engage with society and to challenge those who distort and manipulate the Christian faith for political ends. We could start by refusing to collaborate with any institution that is willing to censor or silence our theological colleagues. As Francis recently told a gathering of theologians in Naples, theological freedom is necessary for “without the possibility of experimenting with new ways, nothing new is created, and one does not leave space for the newness of the Spirit of the Risen One.”

Political Christianity appeals to an ossified traditionalism to keep the Word of God safely sealed within the tomb of the past. Theologians are called to find a language that opens a space of risk and encounter through which the mystery of the risen Christ might emerge as an incarnate reality, bringing God’s peace and justice to a wounded and divided world.

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

Requiescat in Pace

The Catholic Church has always been very good at baptizing, marrying and burying people.

When I was in seminary (note: I was never ordained), the retired pastor of my boyhood parish told me: “When you become a priest, remember to shower almost all of your attention on the school children, especially the first-graders, and the elderly of the parish. The first group will stay for a lifetime, and second will leave you their money.”

Well… maybe “once upon a time.” There are signs aplenty – and they are appearing all over the place – that our beloved, battered Church is losing its magic touch and, with it, a large number of its people.

More and more people who were born over the past few decades into traditionally Catholic families have opted out. If and when they finally decide to have kids, they feel no compulsion or compunction to baptize them as infants or at any time. Many parents allow their children to make the decision themselves once the kids have reached a more mature age.

So the numbers of baptisms are down all over the place.

It’s the same with Church weddings. When so many of the baptized are virtually un-churched and do not belong to a parish, the idea of finding a Catholic temple to celebrate tying the knot is not among the top priorities. The banquet hall is a different matter.

And then there are funerals. There was a time when even those Catholics who had drifted away from regular Sunday worship would, in the end, be carried (or wheeled) back into church with the holy water and incense sendoff provided by a funeral Mass.

Those days are fading, too.

This was brought home to me recently while attending a noontime funeral at the Roman Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, an imposing church dating to 325 A.D. that has been embellished over the centuries. The deceased was the father of one of my closest friends and a member of an old Roman family. He died the previous morning, two months after his 99th birthday.

About 80 people of all ages showed up for the Mass. It was clear most of them had not darkened the door of a church since God knows when. A young priest from Romania or a Slavic country presided in purple vestments. In near flawless Italian, he also did both the readings. In fact, he did everything, including the people’s parts since he discovered immediately that most of the “congregation” did not have a clue how to respond or what to do. Thankfully, since he appeared not even to know the family, he did not give a homily.

There was no music. Only about four or five people took communion, excluding the widow who is about 85 years old. The “liturgy” was over in about 25 minutes and that included the final commendation, read from an ambo. The priest (who was actually not bad as a presider) sprinkled the oak casket with holy water, incensed it, gave a final blessing and exited stage right. 

People milled around the church greeting one another as undertakers in dark suits and white gloves came in, hoisted the box on their shoulders and carried it to the hearse. The body was then interred in a family mausoleum in Campo Verano, the monumental cemetery adjacent to the Papal Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls.

I could not resist comparing this rather unedifying experience with another funeral that took place on Saturday in the Octave of Easter. The deceased died on Holy Thursday, just a few months before her 99th birthday. She was my last surviving grandparent, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants.

We had the funeral at St. Stephen’s Church in Toledo (Ohio), which was the immigrant parish where she had been baptized in 1920. There were only a few dozen people, most of them not Catholic, at the Mass. But it was quite a different atmosphere than the funeral I later attended in Rome.

The liturgy was carefully planned and family members were assigned to place the pall on the casket, do the readings and present the offertory gifts. The priest, a longtime friend of the family, gave a homily that highlighted aspects of my grandmother’s life and challenged us to think hard about the one lasting legacy – just one thing – that she gave to each of us.

Although most of my family is no longer Catholic, all seemed moved by the ritual. When we do funerals right, they are powerful. One of my nieces even told me she was interested in becoming a Catholic. I’d like to think that her great grandma’s funeral helped in some way to confirm her desire to do so.

I scan the obituaries each day in the Toledo Blade and read of many people who grew up Catholic, went to the parish grade school and diocesan high school. They were married in the Church. Some were even touted as being devout Catholics and active in their parishes when younger. But so often they are never given a public funeral Mass, especially if they are elderly. I suspect that’s because their heirs are no longer practicing and the priests want to avoid the scene I witnessed at the Italian man’s funeral at the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

The faith is not being passed on. So I’m thankful to my grandmother that, among the many ways she influenced my life, Catholic faith is the most important gift she gave to me.

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

The role of spiritual resistance.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the idea of spiritual resistance. Essentially it means that as believers, our responsibility is to the gospel, not to any particular ideology or worldview. And in our day and age, this notion has resonance for Catholic Christians both centripetally and centrifugally. Catholics act and think centripetally when their attention is to the community of faith. All the ideas we may have and the actions we take that have as their focus the health of the Church are centripetal. They seek to move towards the center. When we talk the language of “rebuilding the house,” we are in the first instance looking to change and restore the place we call our spiritual home. Now, of course, we also think and act centrifugally when we turn our attention as Catholic Christians to the need to heal the world. Every action taken by church members or by the institutional church itself upon the world beyond the community of faith is a centrifugal action. It looks outward from the center to the wider world beyond. Our faith motivates us to action.

If we look more closely at the convictions of Catholic Christians today about both their church and the place of the church in the wider world, it rapidly becomes apparent that there is no consensus among us—either about ecclesial reform or political initiatives. What we do all seem to have in common is a stance of resistance. Whether we are troubled by what we see as the openly racist agenda of the Trump administration, or by the apparent conviction of the Democratic party that one cannot adopt a prolife stance on abortion and be a true blue believer; whether we are scandalized by the effort to undermine the papacy or embarrassed by the obvious inadequacy of Pope Francis’s grasp of the meaning of “gender,” in each case our stance is one of resistance to what we perceive as evil, sinful or just plain wrong. And in each case we can easily find those Catholics who hold the opposite views to ours with sincerity, if not what we think of as cogency. There seems to be no agreement among Catholics about either their church or their political principles. We are polarized, and since we all recite the same creed and publicly profess the same faith, there is a puzzle here, if not an actual scandal.

The polarization problem is caused by inattention to the centrality of the gospel message and the intrusion of the less than laudable instincts that reflect the fallen condition of our human nature. This is obviously not to say that all our perspectives on change in the church are wrong, still less that the liberal perspective is morally and spiritually superior in every respect to a more conservative view. Liberal views are not right or wrong because they are liberal, any more than conservative views are right or wrong because they are conservative. On the contrary, rightness and wrongness do not pertain to any political or ideological perspective, but only for Christians in the first and last instance because they emerge out of the gospel imperatives. The good news of the gospel is that we are made whole in the love of God present in history in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the word salvation suggests, we are saved by being healed, healed from captivity to our baser instincts, healed from egocentrism.

The good news of the gospel suggests raising the dialectic of the centripetal and the centrifugal to new heights. No longer is it about concern for the church and the church’s value to the world. Now it is revealed to be concern for the wholeness and health of the whole of creation, a form of attention that both unites and cancels the dialectic of inner and outer. Whether we are concerned for the state of the church or the fate of the world, the only question is this: how can we best further the gospel imperative to promote the health and wholeness of creation? What course of action promotes a healthy planet and a fulfilled human community, and through them the only kind of happiness that each individual should seek—the contentment that comes with being a part of a movement towards the health of the whole. This is what Jesus meant when he advised his followers not to fret about little things, but rather, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and everything else you need will follow.

The path of spiritual resistance is then the gospel-motivated struggle against all that is enemy to the full blooming of creation—human and non-human alike. We may find ourselves resisting the lack of compassion of a church that has hidden the abuse of children in its past, and that dismisses same-sex marriage partners from church employment, refuses to educate its children or condemns children to continued loneliness because two women or two men would constitute “unnatural” parents. (There is indeed a wealth of room for reflection on the frequent ecclesial preference for what is natural over what is loving.) Similarly, we may have to find ourselves on the uncomfortable front lines of the struggle against hatred, utterly insistent that we oppose racism and white supremacy not because we are liberals or Democrats, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

“Spiritual resistance” was the term used by anti-Nazi church-people, many of them Catholic priests, in the struggles in occupied France during the Second World War. The Jesuits produced a clandestine journal intended to challenge and encourage their fellow citizens of France, and the headline of the first issue makes so clear what is at stake when we are not courageous, when we take the easy way out or we tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do. “France,” the headline blazes out, “be on guard for your soul.” The journal and its editors hated Nazism and were suspicious of Marxism, but they proclaimed the need to save the soul of France. Their act of spiritual resistance, like any we might undertake, was not politically motivated, but it was full of profound political consequences. Our attention to the ways in which our world and our church can be deaf to the gospel message of wholeness and health is not politically motivated, but it is overflowing with obvious political consequences.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

We Have Seen the Lord

The slower summer pace on a university campus leaves plenty of time for reflection. My first summer in my current job, I spent many afternoons pondering an exquisite painting hanging on the wall outside my office. I knew neither the title of the work nor its subject, but the image captivated me.

A diptych, the left panel of the work was all but empty, just capturing the back of a cloak. In the right panel was the cloak’s owner—a young woman barely past adolescence. Her expression was at once unsettled yet determined, her cloak purposely gathered around her and her hair flowing about her head, reflective of the winds blowing her forward.

MagdaleneBefore the summer was over, I learned the painting was titled Apostola Apostolorum and was created by student Emmaus O’Herlily, OSB, and I suddenly understood why it had so resonated. My mother had died on the feast of Mary Magdalene, and, like the subject of the painting, for me she was a powerful witness to the risen Christ.

Like Mary Magdalene, my mother was called to a new role in the Church. I can still see her—convent-educated, deeply faithful, a rule follower to the max—taking her first timid steps toward the ambo as a lector at some point in the early 1970s, her face mirroring the subject outside my office—tentative but called to serve.

I was proud that my mother was the first woman to head our parish council and proud of her invitation to serve as a lay member of a men’s religious community, but I recognized that she did all these things with a modicum of discomfort, that there was always a silent “Yes, Father!” behind anything she took on. She grew up in a different church and was being called into a new form of Church she couldn’t yet define but knew she wanted to be part of, even if she’d been trained to feel somehow unworthy.

In those heady post-Vatican II days, I was enrolled in the same convent school my mother had attended. But instead of classroom conversations on topics like proximate occasion of sin or lists of things young ladies shouldn’t do, we debated subjects such as the need for inclusive language, and we joined the nuns who taught us by picketing local grocery stores selling boycotted grapes. While the school’s motto—The love of Christ has gathered us together— remained the same, it was blowing us in new and empowering directions.

My own church experience built on my mother’s, giving me a confidence that had been rare in her era, and it took me to places she hadn’t been. I was mindful of her, for example, the first time I found myself in the sanctuary serving as a Eucharistic minister, remembering my father’s injunctions when I was a child that a girl could never pass the first step toward the altar.

All of these moments seemed like steps—albeit tiny—in the right direction. I was pretty smug that my church was changing. The pace might seem glacial, but I knew you couldn’t change a 2,000-year-old institution overnight.

Then came the election of Benedict XVI in 2005. As we kept CNN on low in the background, my nine-year-old daughter looked at the sea of men in red entering the consistory and asked where the women were. I assumed she was joking until her 14-year-old sister joined in and asked why only men would weigh in on a decision so vital to the life of the church.

I confess to a sense of guilty amusement that, as the Catholic parent in our family, I must have been offering my children a sense of my understanding what Church might be instead of what it was. I also saw that my own acceptance and acquiescence were as old-fashioned to them as my mother’s was to me.

While I could offer weak cultural arguments, I couldn’t offer anything hard-wired in dogma to answer their questions, and my daughters were not happy with my answers. Ongoing conversations with them saw me recommit to an active Catholic life to help create a church where my daughters could feel welcome, a church where they were confident that those around them recognized that, yes, they too, were made in the image and likeness of God, worthy of an equal place at the table. While their mother might critique the church, I also wanted them to see that I loved the immutable beauty just below the politics.

The intervening 14 years have made that commitment very hard. The ongoing abuse scandals dishearten and sadden, as does the institutional unwillingness to ponder change. And if I realize anything, it’s that women continue to be too polite, too taciturn, even as we are relied upon to serve.

While we applaud ongoing small steps, such as Pope Francis’s appointment of women to the panel that oversees religious communities, that we feel a need to express gratitude for a logical move is counterintuitive, and we await any real movement on larger questions, such as whether women can serve as deacons.  We’re told there’s a report on the Pope’s desk from the panel struck in 2016 but we don’t even know when—or if—we will hear the results.

Meanwhile, the church continues to sag under the weight of scandal and clericalism and spiritual exhaustion. In this troubled church, women run many—if not all—the programming in parishes, from sacramental preparation to RCIA. In many theologates, women make up the majority of students. And if you survey the pews most Sunday morning, it’s women who remain in faithful attendance.

Institutionally, we seem to be a church intent on perpetuating the old instead of growing into the new, and one of the ways we perpetuate the old is to throw up roadblocks to even greater participation by women. But the old ways aren’t working. Rather than hunker down, it’s time to try something new.

We’ve been loyal. We’ve been faithful. And from our place on the sidelines we’re tired of watching the endless crisis and turmoil, especially when we are ready and able to help. We’ve been patient and polite, and that simply hasn’t helped.

It was only three years ago that Mary Magdalene’s memorial (July 22) was elevated to a full feast day. In making the shift, a spokesman for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith described the day as a moment for Christians to “reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the new evangelization and the greatness of the mystery of divine mercy.”

Any Scripture scholar will tell you that every word matters. There is a reason Mary Magdalene is the first to declare, “I have seen the Lord.” One of the best ways for the church to acknowledge the dignity of women is to recognize that we, too, have seen the Lord—and we want to show you what that means to us.

Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

Renew the Church according to the Spirit of the Gospel

As we near the one-year anniversary of the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, which catalogued the crimes of clergy sex abuse over 70 years and reawakened the sense of betrayal by those Church leaders who covered up those crimes, is it now possible to begin drawing distinctions and clarifying facts? In the immediate aftermath of listening to the disgusting accounts of serial child rape, distinctions are impossible, and the only clarity available is emotional clarity. But, distinctions and factual clarity remain necessary.

The first distinction is one that I mentioned in my last submission to this series: What happened in 2018 was not really a revival of the clergy sex abuse crisis. There was no new surge in incidences of sex abuse by clergy. Instead, 2018 represented an ecclesiological crisis, because it became obvious there had been no real accounting for the crimes that had happened in the past, no real transparency. Most U.S. bishops had failed to publish the names of those credibly accused, even though such publication almost always results in helping other victims to come forward and, consequently, to receive some measure of compensation for what was done to them. The wrong-headed idea that publishing the names would cause scandal continued to dominate the decisions made in many chanceries, even though the real scandal was always the cover-up.

This distinction is important because it gets to the heart of diagnosing what went wrong and, therefore, how to cure the ailment. There is no doubt that the spike in actual cases of abuse began in the 1960s and declined rapidly in the 1980s. Surely, that priests trained for one era and its mores found themselves in a different era and different mores was part of the problem. Seminary education was beginning to change in the 1970s and 1980s, with an emphasis on psycho-sexual maturity that had never even been discussed before the Second Vatican Council.

But, the cover-up had nothing to do with the sexual revolution. It was a symptom of a clerical and hierarchic culture that was deeply ill. And, in Pope John Paul II, the Church had a leader who did not want to hear about it, who dismissed allegations even when they were credible and whose acolytes said the problem of sex abuse was no more than a lack of fidelity. Well, in a sense, that is true, but not very helpful. All sin is a lack of fidelity. Not until the scandal exploded in the media was his hand forced and, even then, there was no effort to hold bishops accountable for covering up the crimes. Only a frontal assault on the sickness of clericalism will rid the Church of what made the problem of sex abuse a systemic betrayal of ecclesial leadership and the sacramental bonds that should characterize it.  

Secondly, it is a fact that the sexual abuse of children continues to be an enormous problem in our country, but it is very, very rarely perpetrated by Catholic priests or ministers. Data from the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services indicate that on average, there are some 7,500 annual allegations of child sex abuse, and about 2,000 of them are substantiated. According to the Chicago Tribune, police in Chicago investigated more than 500 cases in the Chicago Public Schools between 2008 and 2017, and the public has been told next to nothing about those cases. Conversely, since 2002 in the Archdiocese of Chicago, there have been only a handful of substantiated cases. Yet, the Attorney General of the State of Illinois is investigating the Catholic Church.

The bishops are in no position to point the finger elsewhere, but the rest of us need to ask why our public officials are so intent on rehashing decades-old cases of clergy sex abuse while remaining so indifferent to cases happening right now in other settings. Nor are bishops in a position to pat themselves on the back for enacting the reforms of 2002 that mandated prevention training for all personnel, background checks and other measures, but the fact remains that those measures have prevented any systemic return of sex abuse from occurring. 

Regrettably, emotional reactions in 2018 were not the only reason that getting at the heart of the matter has been so difficult. Wealthy conservative Catholics have sought to hijack the crisis to advance their attacks on Pope Francis and further their already extensive influence over the Church in this country. Liberal Catholics have proposed their 1970s agenda items—married clergy, women priests, dismantling the hierarchic structure of the Church—as solutions, even though none of them have the least bearing on the prevention of child sex abuse.

Distinctions matter. Facts matter. Emotional disgust at events that happened in the 1970s cannot obscure the fact that most of these incidents happened long ago. Ideological objectives can only distort efforts to protect children and renew the Church.

The good news? Ever since 2013, we have had a pope who has been urging us to renew the Church according to the spirit of the Gospel. That, and that alone, is the solution to the crisis the Church is experiencing.

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

It’s Time to Imagine a New Model

It would appear that the Catholic church is entering into a period of acute contraction at the same time as the current Bishop of Rome is calling for expansion. Why the rupture or wide disjunction?

Pope Francis’s radical—and it is radical, hence the aggressive resistance—call for a church of the peripheries, a church of the poor, is a significant departure from earlier ecclesiologies that privileged, or at least prioritized, pastoral and doctrinal issues differently.

Francis is fearless; many of his bishops, North American specifically, are fearful. Francis welcomes dispossession; most of his NA hierarchy resist any form of disempowerment. Francis exudes joy even amidst his tendency to remonstrate and his episcopal colleagues this side Atlantic recoil anxiously.

Part of the problem—the major part in my view—is the quality of our spiritual leadership and the appalling dearth of visionary thinking around our understanding of priestly ministry. If the priesthood is in turmoil, and only the most intractable of obscurantists could think otherwise, then we need to collectively think of new ways of resuscitating a credible and meaningful presbyterate. Relying on a nostalgic recovery of an older and now much discredited model shaped more by Bing Crosby than by reality will do us no favors, and yet that is precisely what appears afoot in too many dioceses.

In diocese after diocese in Canada and in the United States, I am told that the local hierarchy is hellbent on restoring some clear distinctions in liturgical behavior that underscore the special dignity of the priesthood, curtails behavior by the laity that is judged an encroachment on clerical prerogatives and reasserts the unique caste that is the priestly calling.  Eucharistic ministers must have their responsibilities more clearly delineated; permanent deacons must be publicly differentiated from priests and transitional deacons in dress and function; the laity must know its place and the priesthood’s ontological status must be vigorously reinstated.

This is all a form of madness. The way forward is not the way backward. Unlike Canute, we cannot instruct the waves to behavior untowardly. What we need to do is imagine a new model predicated not on recovery but discovery, a model that allows us to conceive a way out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves. And a quagmire we are in.

Everyone from Pope Francis to the most conservative of Curial prelates agrees that clericalism is a curse—a toxin that we must evacuate from our system. But different definitions of clericalism abound, and efforts to dilute its specific meaning by extending its compass to broadly encompass everyone trivializes the problem and prevents us from addressing the crisis at hand.

Be sure: clericalism is about clerics. The priesthood is in disarray  because of priests. We are caught in an ecclesiastical earthquake because of priestly misdeeds. They, not the laity, are the problem and once so identified we can begin a strategy of redress and reformation. We need our priests and our spiritual leaders, and either eliminating them or restoring the ancien regime are not options.

Why not revisit the suppressed Priest Worker Movement of 1940s France? Why not incorporate the non-stipendary arrangement of Anglican priests?  Why not distinguish between career and vocation?  Why not imagine priestly ministry outside decaying parochial structures?  Why not envision the abolition of seminaries—the seed ground of clericalism—and their replacement with schools of divinity?

When we have begun the process of reforming an atrophying system, introducing a more humane formation program and taking seriously the papal call for a revitalized priesthood, then and only then, should we think of expanded ministries, the ordination of women to the diaconate and presbyterate and creative but organically conservative—not traditionalist—iterations of a vital and credible priesthood. 

Clericalism is in its death throes. Its revival is a marker of enervating fear in a time that calls for evangelizing urgency. We must begin by rooting out the things that restrict the life of the Spirit.

Time for expansion. Contraction is a knee-jerk response unworthy of the People of God.

Michael W. Higgins is the distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University.

This Is Not Fine

There is a meme called “This Is Fine” that is so right for our cultural moment it is constantly reworked, reposted, revisioned, reanimated—gone viral, as they say. Begun as a comic by K.C. Green titled “The Pills Aren’t Working” or “On Fire,” the images picture an anthropomorphic hat-wearing dog drinking from a coffee cup in a room engulfed in flames. “This is fine,” the dog says, when clearly it is not. In the original cartoon, the dog continues, “I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently.” The dog takes a sip of coffee, his hat and arm catch fire. “That’s okay, things are going to be okay,” the dog says. The dog melts away, unrecognizable, monstrous.

Some would have us believe that everything is fine in the Church. Practicing Catholics should believe things are okay even if their reality screams otherwise. Denial is strong here. After the release last summer of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on widespread sexual abuse of children in Catholic dioceses and its systemic cover up by Church officials, Peter Steinfels, for example, felt compelled to write a 12,000-word piece in Commonweal titled “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems: It’s Inaccurate, Unfair & Misleading.” As Christopher R. Altieri points out, however, in The Catholic World Report, the grand jury “did what it set out to do, in spades: show there is a prima facie case to make against the bishops of Pennsylvania, who covered up abuse and enabled abusers for more than seven decades.” Other state attorneys general are now investigating higher-ups in the Church, for the bishops have shown they are incapable of policing themselves.

The Pennsylvania report has caused an awakening. Finally, U.S. Catholics have grasped the breadth and depth of the corruption. Women seem to get this more than men. Is it because some are mothers? Perhaps women are able to recognize more clearly those who are excluded? Unlike the clerics at the Vatican sex abuse summit last February, Jamie Manson, for instance, acknowledged and honored survivors. In a National Catholic Reporter piece, she noted that “survivors of clergy abuse from 20 different countries demonstrated … through the streets of Rome demanding a zero tolerance policy; they spoke to legions of reporters. Through it all, not one cleric stepped outside to greet them.”

Not one cleric stepped outside to greet them. My last column here called for communal action from the bishops, for a time of sackcloth and ashes. Kathy Kane, in a blistering blog entry titled “On the Rocks: Cocktails at Bishops’ Conference Belies Church Suffering” encountered the antithesis of that call at the recent USCCB meeting in Baltimore. Kane, aka “captain of the Mom Squad,” traveled with other mothers from Philadelphia to support the survivors demonstrating outside the conference hotel because, she wrote, “the victims and survivors have literally saved our children by exposing the issue of clergy abuse to the world.” Several bishops, including some from Philly, entered the hotel lounge where the moms were also gathered. The bishops ordered drinks, talked and laughed loudly. One ridiculed a former victim advocate from the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Laughter all around. Not one cleric protested. As Kane noted, one would expect better from “men who are the focus of national attention due to their members’ history of child rape, sexual assault of adults, sexual misconduct, financial impropriety and cover-up of crimes.”

Some Catholics are so busy being Catholics that they forget how to be Christians. After James Carroll wrote a piece in The Atlantic this month provocatively titled “Abolish the Priesthood,” the response from some quarters consisted of ad hominem attacks, a few quite vicious. Matt Fish, a priest, tweeted “James Carroll epitomizes the worst traits of his generation, and soon they’ll all be gone, while we rebuild the Church they tried to destroy according to the very model they tried to erase.” In one response to such critics, the author discovered women responding favorably to Carroll. I myself was particularly moved by Carroll’s honest portrayal of his pain at the Church’s betrayal of its people. Something snapped inside him. He stopped going to Mass. “I carry an ocean of grief in my heart,” he wrote. Who can remain unmoved by that? Carroll predicted a flourishing future Church: “The Church I foresee will be governed by laypeople, although the verb govern may apply less than serve. There will be leaders who gather communities in worship, and because the tradition is rich, striking chords deep in human history, such sacramental enablers may well be known as priests. They will include women and married people. They will be ontologically equal to everyone else. They will not owe fealty to a feudal superior.”

K.C. Green reworked his comic a few years ago and titled it “This Is Not Fine.” The dog is back in the burning room, but this time it stops before claiming the situation acceptable. It wonders, “what the hell was wrong” with its thinking. How could it have let the fire go so long, get so bad! It grabs a fire extinguisher and frantically puts out the fire. In the final two panels, the dog sits in the dark, burned-out room, holding its head in its hands, weeping.

Jennifer Reek is a writer and teacher.

A Yearning to be Engaged

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore recently wrote a column titled “Half Measures” reflecting on how parishes can respond to this challenge: “Mass attendance is down. Our absent Catholics aren’t merely out of town; many are gone. For a variety of distressing reasons, they are disconnected from the Lord, the Church, the Mass and the sacraments.”

What Lori describes is familiar to Catholics in most parts of the world, and certainly in most parts of the United States, including the New England region where I live. While there are Masses that are exceptions to the rule (usually at ethnic parishes, parishes in high socioeconomic enclaves and university-based parishes), most weekly Masses are, to be blunt, boring. The music is not very good. The preaching only occasionally makes you think or really moves you, and it does a poor job of expositing the scriptures. Not many teens and young adults are in attendance. There aren’t as many people there compared to a decade ago, and the weekly donations are way down. There are many activities advertised in the bulletin, but only a small slice of parishioners participate in any of them.

This situation has everything to do with church reform. Vatican II defined the church first and foremost as the people of God (Lumen gentium, chapter 2). Accountability in the church depends on the whole people of God taking an active role. To do that, lay Catholics have to be there, and they have to care.

Yet the onus for change lies mainly on the leadership of the church. In Catholic polity, there’s little meaningful change that lay Catholics can make if the way is not cleared from above. For those lay Catholics who do yearn to be engaged, there is little structural space for their voice, participation and leadership.

As a prominent leader in the U.S. church, what does Archbishop Lori think needs to be done about this situation? Taking as a generic example a parish whose membership is shrinking, Lori says that merely adding a coffee hour after mass, nice though that is, is not bold enough. He calls for “genuine missionary conversion” and lists several practices that characterize it. Let’s look at these proposals.

“An urgent summons to prayer and repentance, first and foremost exemplified by the parish clergy and leadership.” Yes, exactly, and with even more transparency and robust involvement of lay oversight. The parish level has not really been the problem here; lay Catholics are waiting in good faith on action from the bishops.

“Concentrated attention on good preaching.” This is one of Lori’s most apt proposals. Why are Catholic homilies so routinely terrible, intellectually thin and irrelevant to the real struggles of daily life? The delivery has none of the marks of excellent public speaking. All the years of theological and biblical learning the priest has done seems to make no impact on the content. And homilies rarely mention the tremendous social and ethical teaching of the church. How many priests in the typical U.S. parish have ever once said anything about police shootings, despite the bishops’ great recent letter, Open Wide Our Hearts? Bad preaching is a major factor in leading a Catholic who wants to be a churchgoer to find another church, and it’s a key place where the Mass fails to engage young Catholics’ minds and hearts.

“Reverent liturgy; abundant opportunities for eucharistic adoration and confession.” Adoration and confession are nice, but like coffee hours, they are half measures. These activities speak mostly to the older generation, and frankly, not even to many of them. By contrast, Protestants churches of all types and sizes typically put significant resources into having excellent music at their services. A few years ago, Thomas Reese commented on what the Catholic church needs to learn from the data about its hemorrhaging membership. Reese says that “those who are leaving the church for Protestant churches,” which is about half of the fallen-away, “are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues…People are longing for liturgies that touch the heart and emotions. More creativity with the liturgy is needed, and that means more flexibility must be allowed.”

Lori concludes his list with a range of pastoral ministries: “Personal outreach to absent parishioners; sound catechesis for parishioners of all ages, especially the young; support of married couples and families; loving assistance to the sick and the dying; generous outreach to the poor and vulnerable; and more.” I affirm what the Archbishop is getting at here, even though he and I may have different visions for catechesis. It’s hard work, but it can be led by a pastor who empowers his parishioners. As for the laity, more of them have to step up and volunteer. But not much of the potential can be unleashed unless the bishops make room for Reese’s “flexibility and creativity” in every area of church life.

It won’t happen without much greater investment of time, money and hiring in key ministries, particularly directed to the young. As Paul Lakeland has written on this blog, what young people “encounter in the church is too often something that does not speak to their hearts or inflame their souls.” According to Reese, the “data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence.”

Lori’s oversight is his implication that the onus lies with individual parishes to implement these activities. It’s not that individual parishes shouldn’t try, and it’s not that they can’t grow more vibrant. But their grassroots efforts must be met with a huge outpouring of support, resources and changes in vision and tone from the bishops. The Archbishop is right that people are spiritually hungry and looking for authenticity. “No half measures” must be the mantra at every level of the church.

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