A publication of Sacred Heart University

The Year of (Joseph) the Worker: A Call to Conscience

The images are as poignant as they are sobering, and they lay bare difficult truths about the United States. The images are photographs of Capitol workers, mostly Black and Brown men and women, in the hallways and along the offices and by the side chambers of the US Capitol, cleaning up just a day after angry gangs of violent insurrectionists set upon the building in uncontained anarchy and criminal mayhem. In the photographs, the men and women are masked and wearing hazmat suits for protection from potential infection amid the debris and unknown moistness that are evident everywhere. Gently, carefully, but with sad dignity, the custodians tend to the desecrated building: sweeping up broken glass and scattered papers, pulling down torn curtains, washing away human waste, covering damaged statuary with protective wrap and discarding piles of garbage and detritus. Their work might seem routine, even anticipated, but the significance of that labor should not be underestimated. If the workers had not performed the requisite cleansing after the terrorist assault on the Capitol and the building had been left in its horribly damaged condition, it is very likely that the persistent presence of such wreckage would have disquieted even more an already traumatized American psyche. The unpretentious dignity of the Capitol workers also offered a restorative—howsoever fleeting—counterpoise to the disgraceful vulgarity of the assailants.

On December 8, 2020, Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Letter “Patris corde” (“With a Father’s Heart”) in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as patron of the Universal Church. The letter explores the meaning of fatherhood as a relational construct and Joseph as a model for accountability and authenticity. It is a laudable effort. The letter is also the instrument with which Pope Francis officially declared 2021 as “the year of Joseph,” a period of time during which the Church is called to remember and men, especially, are encouraged to emulate the “virtues and zeal” of the husband of Mary. Again, a commendable and relevant appeal. 

However, at this perilous juncture in national—perhaps global—history, it seems more appropriate to pause and recollect another, certainly familiar, image of Joseph—that of Joseph the worker. As it happens, the promulgation of the Apostolic Letter in December coincided with the 65th anniversary of the institution of the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker by Pius XII, and so it seems incumbent upon the universal Church, and notably upon congregations of the lay faithful, to recognize that representation of Joseph as a call to conscience, as a mandate to honor the fundamental worth of all work and to promote the inherent dignity of every worker. As Pope Francis explained in the letter, the Catholic Social Justice tenets of the dignity of work and the integrity of the worker have particular urgency now because … “employment has once more become a burning social issue, and unemployment at times reaches record levels even in nations that for decades have enjoyed a certain degree of prosperity … and therefore there is a renewed need to appreciate the importance of dignified work, of which Saint Joseph is an exemplary patron.”  What is of especial interest is that Pope Francis identified as “dignified” the work of Joseph the laborer, the skilled craftsman and humble carpenter, although modern capitalist cultures might not agree: in such cultures, those workers are useful, even necessary, but not admirable or respectable.  Contemporary college students, including those in Catholic institutions, are rarely encouraged to consider manual labor as commendable work, especially in comparison to the business of the private sector or professional careers. There may be a tacit agreement that all work is good work, but the majority of students in higher education seek to become the managers or supervisors of those manual laborers, not workers themselves.

Yet the current pandemic might offer an occasion for a resetting of such dispositions. It could be argued that before the national lockdown last March, most people walked into grocery stores or drove into gas stations or sat at tables in a restaurant with little regard for the person stocking the shelves or managing the gas pump or working the cash register: such workers were invisible, unseen, assumed and presumed, much like the custodial crew of the US Capitol. However, when the pandemic swept through the US (like a savage mob?) in the spring, leaving chaos and fear in its initial wake, those workers who had been ignored became identified as “essential workers” whose occupations were understood to be vital for the sustenance of the regional and national economies and for the social stability of the local communities. The women and men who had always been at work as nursing aides, cashiers, waitresses, mail carriers, delivery workers or bus drivers were suddenly not only visible but also commendable; not only helpful, but also heroic.

The Columbian poet, Ramon Cote Baraibar, elevates the goodness of labor and the excellence of the worker to a spiritual condition, participatory in the work of God. In his prose-poem “Coal Deliveryman,” he is mindful of work as a holy practice and the worker as a celebrant of its salvific ritual:

Like finding a bar of aluminum wedged in a bull’s jaw. Like discovering in a sea chest a short obsidian head. Like looking through a padlock and seeing an undeserved dawn. As impossible as all these, as melancholy and lonely, was it to see the green truck that with the punctuality of a sacrament delivered the coal each month. On the slope its strained heart would announce itself vociferously, at the brink of death, and it would stop in front of the house as if to deliver the agonizing news of the fall of Troy. And then a man, wrapped in sacking, would pitch his cargo, resonant and angular, into an orange-painted crate.

Like opening a Bible and finding three leaves of laurel. Like lifting a stone and remembering someone’s name. Like finding the same snail again a hundred miles away. As impossible as all these, as melancholy and lonely, would it be to find, fifteen years later, the same coal deliveryman carrying on his trade, bent from the strain, determined to show the heavens that a man might do that job his entire life, that he scraped in the mines, that he stole thread from his wife to sew his sacking, that he dreamed of infinite excavations, of tunnels, and that they might forgive him for not having done more than that.”

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

The Long March through the Institutions

In Ireland, January 6 is called Nollaig na mBan – Gaelic for Women’s Christmas. The idea was that women would be thanked and celebrated after all the work they had put in over the Christmas season. They could put their feet up, party with other women and hand over domestic chores to men. While this was a custom honored more often in the breach than the observance, the genial instinct behind this version of our celebration of the feast of the Epiphany sparks curiosity about what this New (post Trump and, hopefully, post COVID) Year will bring us in terms of Catholic Church reform, not least through the lens of the place of women in the Church.

Pope Francis, with his notion of a ‘synodal church,’ has been leading reform within the Church. In his recent book, cowritten with Austen Ivereigh, (Let Us Dream, 2020) Francis notes that new questions have arisen since he began this process of synodal reform within the Church (83). Among them is the issue of doctrinal development: Francis is keen to stress that tradition is not static, and, in the spirit of Newman, admits of change – but, the question arises, can this change involve not just ‘linear’ continuity but also be a corrective of previous positions? Further, why limit the work of synods to the Church’s norms and practices, and not also to doctrine and tradition? (56-7; 84-5). And then, with particular reference to the issue of women, how can we continue to laud their contribution and qualities, as Francis does in terms of female economists and political leaders in the COVID crisis, and still insist that when it comes to the church these qualities can best serve to change its institutional culture ‘in an organic process which calls for integrating, without clericalizing, the viewpoints of women’? (66). Of course, many feminists and others share the Pope’s critique of clericalism, but this does not stop the Church from continuing to ordain men, and is it not somewhat disingenuous to limit access to orders in this way, unless there are some compelling scriptural and theological arguments to that effect?

Francis is concerned that issues like this can become polarizing in a partisan way that leads to rifts between ‘progressives and traditionalists,’ a mentality of ‘winners and losers,’ to the reality of ‘isolated consciences’ when individuals or groups pin everything onto one issue and effectively separate themselves from the body of the church. This can be the work of the ‘bad spirit,’ can be ideology, is a parliamentary rather than synodal process in which true discernment is lacking, is conflict (which is divisive) rather than crisis (which is a biblical term and is an invitation to conversion). However, as Francis admitted to Spadaro apropos the Amazon Synod, even if on the contentious issues of married priests and female deacons the discussion was parliamentary rather than discerning, still it was a ‘rich and necessary discussion’ – in other words, a step along the way. And is not the apparent non-reception by the ‘sense of the faithful’ of the Church’s position on the ordination of women (and many other issues around sexuality and gender) calling out for synodal discernment?

In his recent Encyclical Fratelli Tutti (criticized for its lack of references to women authors and for its exclusive title) Francis notes that ‘…the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story’ (n 23). Is there no one close to the Pope who could give him a gentle nudge and say: ‘This is exactly what critics accuse the Church of doing!’? Somewhat ironically Francis’ own religious order, the Jesuits, understood this when in 1995 at their 34th General Congregation, they adopted Decree 14 (Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society). There we spoke of ‘the systematic discrimination against women … embedded within the economic, social political, religious and linguistic structures of society’ (n 3 – my emphasis). We accepted that we as Jesuits ‘… have often contributed to a form of clericalism that has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction’ (n 9) and committed ourselves to addressing this situation, not least by ‘the use of appropriately inclusive language in speech and official documents’ (13.7). And, not long after John-Paul II had reiterated the Church’s ban on female ordination, we noted that ‘… some other questions about the role of women in civil and ecclesial society will undoubtedly mature over time … (and) will inevitably have implications for Church teaching and practice’ (14).

It is very hopeful that Francis himself is keeping faith with the synodal process and has chosen synodality itself as the topic of the 2022 Synod of Bishops precisely to tackle some of the new questions that have arisen. There will be widespread consultation before that Synod and it is the responsibility of local churches at all levels to have their say. In that respect it is interesting to note the recent comment of historian John O’Malley: ‘... the emergence of synodality … in recent documents from the Holy See … in essence promotes modifications of the current processes of church government and polity. Unfortunately, theologians and the Catholic media in the United States have paid scant attention to this development. In that regard, we lag behind other parts of the church’ (America, October 16, 2020). Perhaps the prospect of a ‘dull but decent’ Joe Biden presidency in the United States, after a term of high-voltage chaos, will provide a more propitious context for that ‘long march through the institutions’ that enduring church reform requires?

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

Truth-Telling, Transparency, and Accountability

On the eve of the Vatican summit on clerical sexual abuse in February 2019, Roman officials praised the Canadian bishops’ guidelines on responsible ministry, “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation,” as a model that might be emulated by other bishops’ conferences throughout the world. Adopted at the Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in September of 2018, it was an updating of the first guidelines on clergy sexual abuse in 1992, From Pain to Hope, established following the notorious case of abuse of children in the Mount Cashel Orphanage run by the Christian Brothers in St. John’s Newfoundland. While the CCCB pioneered the development of protocols for the investigation of abuse, Canada remains one of the few Western countries that has yet to experience an external audit for their effective implementation or see a comprehensive inquiry into historic abuse.

As if to rouse Canadian church leaders from their self-congratulatory complacency or to shock the sanguine conscience, on November 25, the Archdiocese of Montreal released the report of an independent investigation into the (mis)handling of complaints against former priest, Brian Boucher, now serving an eight-year prison sentence for the sexual assault of two young men. Retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Pepita G. Capriolo paints a detailed and sorry picture of repeated failures to investigate multiple complaints concerning Boucher’s inappropriate behaviors that predate his 1987 admission into seminary.

After interviewing over 60 witnesses, the good judge was “shocked” to find a deeply ingrained culture of secrecy and buck-passing where “no one took responsibility for acting” on complaints. Files and documents were “lost” or destroyed. ‘Secret files’ were hidden even from the archbishop, providing a pretext of plausible deniability in the event that police came looking. Curial staff proposed sending the Boucher files to the papal nunciature where they would be protected by diplomatic immunity. The “primary culprit” in a travesty of faults: lack of accountability. Absent any direct evidence of sexual abuse, no one was prepared to act. Capriolo sums up the “Catch 22” attitude of many: “one cannot investigate without proof, and proof cannot be obtained without an investigation. Ergo: do nothing.”

This tragic spectacle transpired against the background of the 1992 guidelines of the CCCB, From Pain to Hope that called for “giving priority to the protection of children and vulnerable adults, taking allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, independently of esteem for the reputation of the accused.” Boucher’s case was never referred to the diocesan advisory committee on sexual abuse established in response to From Pain to Hope. At almost every turn the desire to protect the reputation of the diocese and its priest trumped all others.

The Capriolo report shines a bright light on the weakness of the response to the sexual abuse crisis across Canada. It is well to have policies and procedures, but without transparency and accountability, one is reduced to a blind trust that every bishop has put them into action with effect. Advisory committees appointed by and reporting back to bishops are liable to remain, but a new cog in a closed wheelhouse. There is no way to verify that every complaint is being referred to competent professionals, that these are being properly documented, or referred to appropriate civil authorities.

Among the important lessons drawn by the report is that “limiting the obligation to intervene to cases of sexual abuse of minors is a mistake.” This is not the first case where seminary and diocesan staff were prepared to look the other way when presented with repeated complaints of psychologically and physically abusive behaviors – some of which might have been recognized sooner as manifestations of grooming behavior. Capriolo connects the dots between sexual abuse and other abusive conduct. Her observation bears repeating:

I do not believe that restricting the need for greater responsibility, accountability and transparency to the sole issue of sexual abuse of minors is reasonable. All abuse, be it sexual, physical or psychological is unacceptable. And although the idea of subjecting a child to sexual abuse is particularly abhorrent, the abuse of anyone in a position of vulnerability and inferiority must equally be pointed out and eliminated. … A priest has an inordinate power over people who put their trust in his spiritual strength and his apparent connection with the divine. It is therefore easy for a priest to abuse this trust if he so wishes and that can happen even if his victim is 18, 25 or 90.

This insight into the abuse of power underpins the recommendation that “all issues of abusive behavior, not limited to sexual abuse of minors, be referred immediately to a modified advisory committee.” To break a dithering self-protective closed circuit of inaction, the report recommends the appointment of a “qualified specially trained external ombudsperson” (emphasis in the original) to receive and investigate all complaints and allegations of abuse, all of which are to be brought to the attention of the modified advisory committee. These measures, combined with improved education and training concerning the nature of abuse and the obligation to report – reinforced by clear sanctions, improved protocols for record keeping and the disclosure of information and the publication of regular audits – would mark important progress.

Wisely, Archbishop Lépine has committed to pursuing a full review of Montreal’s diocesan archives in the interest of greater transparency and of learning from the past. The publication of the Capriolo report is an important first step toward a culture of greater transparency and accountability. While it may rightly provoke anger and shame, to achieve its purpose it must become a source of learning for the whole Catholic community.

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

Selecting Shepherds

Ask most any Catholic how the church chooses the pope – ask most anyone, for that matter – and they’ll probably give you a pretty accurate account of how it goes: The pope dies (or, these days, resigns), and all the cardinals rush to Rome. They gather in private to talk about who the next pope might be while the media speculate in public. Then they shut themselves in the Sistine Chapel and in full cardinalatial regalia, they cast votes, burning ballots with black smoke until there is a winner, in which case, poof! White smoke and “Habemus Papam!” and a new guy in a white cassock on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Joys and hopes, or griefs and anxieties, depending on who emerges.

Now, ask even a fairly savvy, Mass-going Catholic how their own bishop was chosen and you’ll likely be greeted with a quizzical look, some hemming and hawing and, ultimately, a shrug.

That’s not a knock on Mary or Joe Catholic. That’s an indictment of the system, and it’s a central lesson of the recent, much-discussed report on the rise and scandalous fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In an exhaustive, 450-page document dump on the career of one of the most prominent American churchmen of recent decades, there are obviously any number of episodes to shock our sensibilities and many lessons to learn.

But what may be unique about this report, amid all the various studies and grand jury investigations of this era of abuse, is that it draws back the curtain on the sausage-making factory of episcopal appointments – the lobbying and back-biting, money spread like fertilizer and orthodoxy used like campaign buttons. I think we need to remember this lesson and use it to press for genuine reforms in the selection of bishops.

It’s a recondite process, by design. The church often uses secrecy to signal sacrality, as if there is some divine mystery to choosing bishops that ordinary folk cannot fathom. Hardly. Secrecy is not the same as confidentiality; too often, as the McCarrick report shows, it’s simply a cover to let the powers-that-be game a system that’s not terribly systematized.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a page on their website outlining the various steps, but the best explainers I have read on how bishops are chosen are by Cindy Wooden at Catholic News Service and Ricardo da Silva, S.J., at America magazine. They walk the reader through the way that bishops early on identify potential episcopal talent among their priests, and how questionnaires are sent to certain clerics to solicit their opinions on candidates when a vacancy comes open. Sometimes lay people will be consulted, but no one knows how often or who, or even how many. Maybe two dozen people are asked, but it’s anyone’s guess.

Few even know what is on the questionnaire, which is secret and changes depending on what the pope at the time is looking for. Under John Paul II, questions of “orthodoxy” were paramount; tick those boxes and it didn’t always matter if you were a good pastor or a decent administrator, or any of the other attributes that would make for an effective bishop. The top three candidates are then put in a list called a terna that is forwarded by the nuncio of that country to the Roman Curia and the Congregation for Bishops. That is the curial department that vets candidates for Latin-rite dioceses, which includes the vast majority of dioceses in the U.S. (The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples vets bishop candidates for dioceses in mission territories and the Congregation for Eastern Churches screens nominees who are generally sent by synods of local church leaders Eastern-rite dioceses.)

Members of those congregations meet regularly to discuss candidates, list them in order of preference and then forward that list to the pope, who can go with the recommended pick, or choose anyone from the terna, or send it back and tell them to start over. That’s the platonic ideal. In real life, as the McCarrick report shows, curial officials or papal secretaries can intervene to pick a favorite or block an opponent, and a process that can lead to a wise choice can just as often wind up choosing a dud. No one will ever know why. Bishops regularly have no idea why they were picked, or even that they were in the running for a diocese. The process can take months, or years. Or a few days if it’s considered urgent.

Moreover, while the Vatican likes to cloak the selection process in the mantle of “tradition,” the current system wasn’t even codified until a century ago. Bishops – like popes – have been chosen in any number of ways over the centuries, from acclamation by the crowd to election by clergy to a decree by the local ruler. The Apostles chose Judas’ successor by lots. Moreover, elements of almost all these traditions still exist in various places.

The point is that nothing is set in stone and it’s well past time for the episcopal selection process to undergo an overhaul. The da Silva story in America magazine has a good discussion of some of the best recommendations, many of which have been debated most intently – and with almost zero effect – in the two decades since the clergy sex abuse crisis intensified.

None of this would be revolutionary. The pope would still have the final say, but there would be a much broader consultation and a much more transparent and comprehensible process. The point is not to figure out how to deal with a bishop like McCarrick once his perfidy is discovered, but to stop someone like that from becoming a bishop in the first place. It’s not that hard, and there were enough red flags in McCarrick’s career that any reasonable vetting system would have asked enough direct questions to stop his appointment.

Whatever reforms are eventually made, and let us pray reforms are coming, the principle that ought to guide the selection of bishops is the one that has guided the papacy of Pope Francis: synodality. This does not mean a series of primaries or a nominating convention, but a process of ongoing listening that identifies the needs of a diocese, and not just the needs of the Catholics of that diocese. Remember that a year before the Synod on Young People in 2018, the Vatican used an online survey to solicit input from youth around the world, no matter their religion or faith or lack thereof. The Vatican wanted to know what young people were thinking and what they wanted to see from the Catholic Church, and to let that inform their discussions.

The same principle should guide the selection of a bishop, which is also a question of asking ourselves what a bishop is for. A truly evangelical church shouldn’t be looking only for a manager to oversee an institution, but a missionary to build up a flock.

Will some episcopal egos be bruised in a more open process? Probably. But cardinals who finish as runners-up in a conclave seem to survive the ignominy just fine. If the Catholic Church can elect the Bishop of Rome in a manner so public that it inspires endless cable series and papal potboilers, then we should be confident enough to undertake the more mundane but equally important task of choosing our local ordinary with at least as much transparency, if a tad less drama.

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

The Other Pandemic

While the coronavirus pandemic besieges our world, the response to it brings into relief another, even more insidious, contagion. A blatant repudiation of facts has infected populations worldwide, spreading a disease of lies, a denial of reality. Significant numbers, albeit in minority, deny the severity and deadly consequences of COVID-19. This latter pandemic has been fueled by sectors within the Christian community and by aspects of Christian tradition. The COVID pandemic has illuminated another virulence that destroys an individual’s willingness to recognize the peril unleashed by denying realities. 

We see an example of this disease in the United States, where the world wished for is treated as the world that is. The presidentially promoted claim of a fraudulent election result challenges facts. Evidence is meaningless in the face of insistence on a fabricated narrative, based in a self-gratifying ideology. 

This type of thinking can also be seen in the negative reaction of certain Catholics, and others, to the reported statement of Pope Francis concerning the treatment of members of the LGBTQ community, specifically in relation to civil unions. The response belies reality. Pope Francis is stating a straightforward fact: those who follow the path of Christ must respect, be open to and treat with dignity all human beings, in the diverse forms in which we exist. The Pope asks us to be Christ in the world, as it is, rather than simply citing a metaphysical absolute.

The disease manifests when the facts of the sexual abuse crisis in our church are denied “because it’s just not possible,” because the church is sinless.

Often, the underlying problem is presented as a struggle between those who hold to spurious claims or to science. As Christians, I suggest the alternative to spurious claims is not simply the facts of science, but being open to reality: the world as it is. It is about being a realist who lives with hope. When we look at the gospel stories, the gospel witness of Jesus Christ, we see a man who dealt with people as they were, in the fullest sense. He knew who he was dealing with; he recognized the woman caught in sin; he also recognized the crowd wanting to stone her. He responded with dignity to all human beings. He embraced the lepers, even though his society said they were to be shunned. He spoke to the Samaritan woman and honored her despite his society’s and his religion’s taboos. It is that example of facing reality, of embracing the world as it is, that brings healing, love, acceptance, that we should follow today.

This is our challenge. It is the necessary response to the pandemic. It is not about my rights, but about whether I care about my brother and sister. Pope Francis’ statement about nonheterosexual civil unions was not about sacraments or Christian doctrine; it was saying that we have a profound Christian obligation to look at each other with love, compassion and understanding; to respect the dignity of every human being.

Currently, as the world looks to possible vaccinations to save us from COVID, we need to look to reality through the example of Christ, to save us from the ravages of self-serving refusals to acknowledge the existence of injustices to humanity and the natural world. As Francis describes in Fratelli Tutti, we have failed to recognize that the grace of God is not about the possibility for me to achieve great wealth or acclaim, the power and privilege that Daniel Rober spoke of in last week’s blog. It is about my ability to be with those in need. It is about me recognizing that I have both something to give and something to learn from those who are marginalized in our societies. We must walk with each other and not just with the one who makes me feel good. The other includes every other, regardless of whether I approve of their lifestyle or whether I think they are deserving.

As Christians, we need to address the pandemic of fabricated realities that wraps itself in dogma but denies the Word of God that calls us to live the gospel, to embrace the forgotten, neglected, condemned. We are broken as communities, as countries, as a civil society—not because of some absolute metaphysical transgression, but because we fail to embrace out sister and brother, as Christ has embraced us. Through love I transform myself, my heart, my vision, to see that God in me is God in every other. It’s not about me; it’s about us.

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

Thanksgiving and Apocalypse

To give light to them that sit in darkness,

and in the shadow of death:

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

  • Luke 1:79

American Catholics arrive at Thanksgiving this year on a somber note. The calamities of 2020 have been many: An ongoing pandemic with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and others forever changed for the worse; devastating fires and repeated hurricanes offering a glimpse of the future horrors of climate change; police killings that have pointed out once again America’s “original sin” of anti-black racism; brazen denial of the reality of fairly counted and reported election results that poses a threat to our democracy; and last but not least, for Catholics in particular, the McCarrick report highlighting the deep rot of clericalism within the church and the many, including John Paul II, who failed to stop the former cardinal’s sociopathic rise. There is a reason “#2020” has become synonymous with catastrophe on social media. There is little, seemingly for which to give thanks except having made it through the year.

This year, as is often the case, Thanksgiving coincides with the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent. This oft-misunderstood season does not simply serve as a prelude to Christmas but rather highlights the two comings of Christ: first, the apocalyptic coming of Christ at the end of time (thus bookending the period at the end of the liturgical year which also emphasizes this theme); and only thereafter hinting at the commemoration of Christmas. Advent is often put forward as a corrective to the commercialization of Christmas, but this year looking backwards in the calendar of the American civil religion to Thanksgiving might offer some insights.

Each year since 2008, I have attended the Advent Procession at Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue, an Episcopal church in New York City renowned for its music program. Until his sudden death in 2015, that choir was conducted by the great John Scott, and a staple of the service under his direction was Philip Moore’s setting of the Benedictus from the Gospel of Luke recited each morning as part of Morning Prayer. Moore’s haunting setting (now available on YouTube thanks to one of Scott’s former assistants), elaborating on the Gregorian Tonus Peregrinus or “wandering tone,” evokes the tension of Advent between the already and the not-yet: confidently waiting for something better yet still tentative about its arrival. That mood, I would argue, suits us well as we approach this Advent and this Thanksgiving. We await an apocalypse – not the end perhaps, but at the least a breaking through of justice and righteousness; and also await the tenderness of Christmas, perhaps not in Christmas itself but the ability to embrace our loved ones, in the words of the canticle, “without fear.”

Our society has certainly reached an apocalypse in its original sense of unveiling: all sorts of frightening unmaskings are taking place (and not just those related to low compliance with public health directives). The motivations and calculations of many powerful people in our society have lost all nuance. We fear with Yeats’ great apocalyptic poem that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  As one of the great witnesses to Advent, Alfred Delp, S.J., put it, the season shakes us out our “pathetic complacency.” There is no room now for complacency. Complacency means abandoning others to disenfrancisement, displacement, dehumanization and, ultimately, needless death.

Many reasons have been given for why our society has reached the point it is at now, in danger of crumbling from within. I would submit that one of the most profound ills of American society in our time is a deep bad faith that has injected a profound nihilism into our politics. This is not, pace some arguments made in Catholic circles, simply the fruit of “both-sides” polarization, but the result of the quest for power and privilege no matter what the cost to others. The story of McCarrick shows one example of such profound bad faith; the aftermath of the 2020 election and the undermining of democratic institutions for partisan purposes shows another one. Such bad faith comes, Delp argues, from avoiding the disquiet that comes from facing God. In a different way than Lent and its penance for our sins of commission, Advent ought to disquiet us by our failure to even in meager ways approximate the eschatological glory that awaits us.

This Thanksgiving, we need Advent more than ever. Let us pray with the community of the Didache in their Eucharistic Thanksgiving: May grace come and this world pass away.  Not entirely (yet), perhaps, but the bad faith, cynicism, fatalism and racism that have been part of the human contribution to #2020 cannot pass away quickly enough.

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

Tyranny, Obedience and the Closing of the Catholic Mind

After leaving my academic post earlier this year, I am rediscovering the joy of reading for its own sake, free from publication deadlines and the pressure to produce peer-reviewed journal articles. This week I started reading Bernard Häring’s three-volume study, Free and Faithful in Christ. Published in 1978, the first volume – General Moral Theology – can, with hindsight, be seen as a pivotal moment when the tide began to turn in the postconciliar Church. As a formative influence on the Council, Häring writes with all the intellectual vigor and openness that characterized Catholic theology after Vatican II, but the election of Pope John Paul II that same year would see a closing down of the Catholic mind, with an increasingly authoritarian approach promoted by John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Head of the CDF and then as Pope Benedict XVI.

The McCarrick report (published by the Vatican on November 10) exposes the damage caused by two popes who appointed bishops to do their will in the U.S. Church, clamping down on progressive and liberationist Catholicism and cultivating an obsessive preoccupation with sexual and reproductive issues – particularly abortion – that has contributed to the near disintegration of democracy in U.S. politics. That same day saw the British publication of a widely anticipated report into sex abuse in the Catholic Church by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), and it makes equally devastating reading with regard to the failure of the Church’s most senior leaders to offer an appropriate response to the trauma of victims and survivors and to take effective action to investigate charges of abuse.

It was against this background of clerical complacency, cronyism and betrayal that I read these words from Häring’s introduction. He writes,

what most influenced my thinking about moral theology was the mindless and criminal obedience of Christians to Hitler, a madman and tyrant. This led me to the conviction that the character of a Christian must not be formed one-sidedly by a leitmotif of obedience but rather by a discerning responsibility, a capacity to respond courageously to new value insights and new needs, and a readiness to take the risk. (p. 2)

I am not suggesting a direct comparison between Trump and Hitler, but the support of many white Catholics for Trump is deeply disturbing. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. Church has a monopoly on mindless and criminal obedience to tyranny. Across eastern and central Europe, and playing an obscure but influential role in Brexiteering British politics, there are powerful Catholics today walking a dark path towards political extremism. The warning lights are flashing orange for the future of democracy, and the Catholic Church is not an innocent bystander. So, I focus on the U.S. only because it is the crucible of so many of the conflicts in the Church today, and I find myself asking how far the Catholic education system there bears some responsibility for the failure to develop the qualities of moral formation that Häring describes – and, of course, I know that this refers only to a minority within the vastly diverse demographics of U.S. Catholicism, but it is a significant minority.

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching exchange students from U.S. universities in London. I was surprised to learn from some that their Catholic schools would bus them to March for Life events. March for Life is a well-funded vehicle for promoting the values of the U.S. religious right in countries as far afield as Croatia and Kenya, often working alongside the petition website CitizenGo, which gathers thousands of signatures from its subscribers around the world for campaigns against sexual and reproductive rights. I asked those exchange students if their Catholic schools encouraged them to join protest marches about other issues of social justice, but they said no. This is anecdotal, but I wonder how typical they were.

I have my own experience of constraints on the intellectual freedom of Catholic institutions in the U.S., having been ‘disinvited’ in 2012 from the University of San Diego where I had been asked to take up a six-week fellowship by my dear friend and colleague, the late Professor Gerard Mannion. The Newman Society was behind the campaign to have me banned, and I understand they have put similar pressure on other academic institutions in the U.S. Their doctrinal weapon was Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesia, which lent justification to many acts of censorship and intimidation. Watching from a distance, all this makes the land of the free seem very unfree insofar as Catholic intellectual life is concerned.

So reading Häring in this time of tumult, I’m reflecting on how high a price is being paid for the failure of the last two papacies to defend the Church’s rich traditions of learning and philosophical enquiry. Pope Francis has done much to reanimate the spirit of Vatican II, yet his obstinate resistance to engaging with women scholars or with gender theorists means that, however much he condemns clericalism, he continues to support a male hierarchical elite that underpins most of the systemic failures and abuses afflicting Catholic life today.

But there is no going back and there is no normal to go back to. After the pandemic recedes, and when we begin to take stock of the lessons to be learned from the U.S. election and from the publication of two more devastating reports into the ongoing sex abuse scandal, we may realize that the Church as we know it is finished. Far from seeing this as a tragedy, I believe that in the dying throes of this corrupted and dysfunctional institution, we can discern the birthing pains of a new era struggling to be born, but the stakes are high and there is much to lose if the old authoritarianism reasserts itself. This is indeed a time when Catholics must manifest ‘a discerning responsibility, a capacity to respond courageously to new value insights and new needs, and a readiness to take the risk.’

Tina Beattie is professor emirita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.

A Church and Nation in Need of Reconciliation

As if further proof were necessary, the results of the recent U.S. elections have forcefully confirmed what we already knew: the United States is a deeply divided nation. And so is the Catholic Church in this country.

On November 7 – four days after Election Day – almost every reputable news organization reported that the Democratic candidate and former vice president, Joe Biden, had won enough electoral votes to be declared the next occupant of the White House.

But the Republican incumbent, President Donald Trump, has yet to concede the election. Without any evidence, he and his diehard supporters are claiming that the voting was “rigged” to help the Democrats “steal the election.”

At the time of this writing, the ongoing tabulation shows that Biden has received just over 77 million popular votes, while Trump has garnered a bit more than 72 million. A five million vote difference seems an awful lot, but not when we’re talking nearly 150 million total.

The Democrats had hoped for a much, much wider margin. They wanted (indeed they needed) a landslide to argue that the American people had repudiated Trump’s dark and divisive politics and rhetoric.

But there was no repudiation. Some 72 million Americans actually told the rest of the nation that they approve of the way the president has conducted himself and conducted the nation’s affairs the past four years.

Various polls suggest that the divide could be even worse among Catholics. Some show that white members of our Church actually voted predominantly for Trump. This is a problem. A big problem. Especially when one considers that Catholics for Trump and Catholics for Biden are basically living like separated spouses under the same religious roof. They are not talking to each other. Or when they are, it is usually in harsh and accusatory tones.

Biden, who is a lifelong Catholic, says he wants to heal this gaping wound. But how can he possibly do that? Most Catholics who voted for Trump have excommunicated the former vice-president because he does not oppose legalized abortion. They, and the rest of Trump’s supporters, are also angry just at the thought that the man who “stole” the election now wants to heal the nation.

So, what is to be done? More specifically, what can Catholics do to move this forward?

First, we need to change our tone and rhetoric. We need to stop demonizing each other and refuse to magnify, retweet, “like” or forward personal attacks on either candidate or their supporters. That includes things that are factually untrue or unsubstantiated.

Second, we need to find a way to talk to one another about our concerns. Many families are divided by their political choices. Some – perhaps most – have decided to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the living room, refrain from mentioning anything pertaining to politics and make believe we’re all one big happy family. Sadly, we are not – not as a Church or as a nation.

Third, let’s finally admit that the U.S. political system is not working. At least not the way it should. That it took nearly a whole week to count enough of the ballots to determine a winner of the presidential election is a sign that all is not well.

Leaving aside Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of vote rigging, we should all be able to agree that the cumbersome, antiquated and extremely slow process – actually 50 different processes – that we witnessed this year was not the most shining moment of a people that has been indoctrinated into believing that theirs is the greatest democracy on earth.

In fact, the history of democracy in the United States is that of trying to severely limit democracy and who has the right to vote. From the very beginning of the nation, when only white male landowners were allowed to cast a ballot, there has been a constant struggle to expand the electorate.

Each state has different voting laws, deadlines, types of ballots, methods of tabulation and so forth. And then there is the uncomfortable matter of the Electoral College. Each time the electoral vote is close, the party whose candidate ends up on the losing end raises suspicions of irregularities or even begins a new drumbeat to abolish the Electoral College. The party whose candidate ends up winning is usually not interested in addressing either of these concerns.

Perhaps this year can be different. And maybe Democrats and others who supported Biden (especially Catholics) can actively partner with Republicans and Trump supporters to begin an honest and respectful national discussion aimed at devising reforms that will ensure more transparency, fewer chances of irregularity and – dare I say it? – a fresh look at the usefulness (or not) of the Electoral College.

And, finally, we need to pray – especially for President Trump. We need to pray that he is enlightened and endowed with the good grace to be part of the healing process, rather than the tearing apart of the nation.

Certainly, if there is evidence of voter fraud he – we all – should support every means to verify and clarify. And if the margins of victory are razor thin in key electoral districts, no one should be afraid of recounting the votes.

But we need to stop the harsh and hateful rhetoric, accusations and recriminations. Within the country and within the Church. It won’t be easy after these past four years, during which, one way or another, we have all been drawn into thinking that we have a right – at least at times – to speak our minds without having to abide by political correctness.

No, it won’t be easy.

But what is the alternative? If the United States does not have some sort of national reconciliation, the future will be bleak. And dangerous.

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

Catholics Need to be Independent Voters

By the time you read this blog, the voting will be over, but the counting will still be going on—perhaps for many days more. But whoever is President for the next four years, Catholics and their church need to do some serious soul searching as we look into the future. And I suggest we begin by abandoning all party affiliations and reregistering as independents.

A few weeks ago, I got some negative responses to an op-ed piece I wrote for the local newspaper (and many more positive ones) by suggesting that we all should be independents, but that this time we just had to vote Democratic. Even, I said, this time “Jesus would vote Democratic.” I suppose the remark could be considered a little inflammatory. It certainly wasn’t intended to cheer up Democrats or enrage Republicans. But all Catholics are independents, right? Jesus would have been an independent. And one of the notable things about almost all independents is that they vote and, almost inevitably, they vote Democrat or Republican. So, I wasn’t saying that Jesus is a Democrat or that he is opposed to Republicans. Just that an independent is going to vote one or the other, and this time it would have to be Democratic.

That we all should have been voting Democratic follows from Pope Francis’s critique of ideology. The only acceptable ideology, he has written, is the ideology of the gospel. All other ideologies straitjacket our thinking. But the ideology of the gospel enlarges thinking and calls on us to believe there are no limits to the message of life that is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel is prolife in all its many manifestations, prolife in the broadest possible sense of the phrase. If you put your head in the sand and deny climate change, you are not prolife. If you don’t wear a mask and practice social distancing, you are not prolife. If you live quietly in a country that profits enormously from the sale of arms, you are not prolife. And on the question of abortion, those who are not prolife can be found in both the prolife and prochoice camps. There are what we Brits call “headbangers” at both extremes. In the middle, we face the awful challenges of moral choice. But not because we are Democrats or Republicans.

Now that the voting in this most contentious of elections is over, it is time for the Catholic church and the community of faith, evidently not always exactly the same, to ask ourselves what should be the relationship between our Catholic identity and issues of political choice and civic virtue. And there, of course, is the heart of the issue. Political choices need to be made to promote civic virtue, not xenophobia or short-term personal gain. This is the core of the difference between calling someone a politician or a statesperson. In recent years, we have seen the worst of politicians putting their own egos or their own party’s advantage ahead of the national and global common good. If politicians belong to one party or another, it has to be because they see that party as promoting the common good. And when it doesn’t, well, you vote your conscience.

What is true for our elected representatives is equally true for those of us who elect them, and those in our community of faith who have more power or influence over Catholic public opinion. First to the bishops: If they cannot agree on ethical priorities, as apparently they cannot, then they need immediately to abandon the hoary old “Guide to Faithful Citizenship” in favor of something better. Perhaps silence would be better than a document that carefully explains how Catholic voters should not be single-issue people, but which is now prefaced with a statement that clearly says abortion is the pre-eminent issue for voters. This judgment is a commercial for the Republican party that contradicts the teaching contained in the document, and one that is so blatant that I would like to think that the next administration will take a long hard look at the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church. In fact, it was made pretty clear in recent months that some bishops and many clergy have been using the pulpit to contradict their own USCCB document, and there may be a price to pay.

But what of us, the people in the pew who vote? The first requirement for the exercise of an informed conscience, and here I agree with the bishops, is that we learn what is at issue and what is the quality of the arguments martialed on both “sides” to try to convince us. Bishops have no claim to our allegiance if they argue badly. (That is one reason, by the bye, that the Catholic faithful is largely not with them on issues of clerical celibacy and quite divided over the role of women in ministry.) So, bishops need to argue differently from politicians. No ego, no personal gain. No, they need to turn to the advice of Pope Francis and stick with the ideology of the gospel. As also should we voting faithful.

The gospel demands our commitment to the message of the Incarnation, that God so loved the world that the divine entered into history to the fullest possible extent, that of suffering and death. Our task as Catholic Christians is to love the world for God, to be a loving presence of God in history. And it is this and nothing else that should inform our commitment to civic virtue. Of course, we all can argue about what is the best course of action for civil society to take to make the world more like its God gave it the freedom to become, to become more like God, to be more loving. But we cannot argue about the gospel principle itself. There is no Christian argument for choosing the less loving course of action, whatever the cost. The cross is the Christian proof of this, and the resurrection into new life is the reward.

Our political choices moving forward require us to embrace the cross, to tackle the difficult civic and human issues in the service of bringing new life to the world. The only single issue that we should stand for is the single issue of a more contented life for all of humanity in a world that is our home, a home we share with the rest of God’s creation. This has absolutely nothing to do with party affiliation. So as a first step, let the Catholic community make a public commitment to status as independent voters. Our vote has to be won, and it will be won only if the political platform promotes the fullness of life. Which is indeed the ideology of the gospel.

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

When Did We See You, Lord?

The plan had been to write a post comparing the place of God and religion in Canadian and American elections, a topic that might have ended up making me sound like a smug neighbor to the north. (Full confession: these days, I probably am.) The idea was to talk about the irony of Canada being far more comfortable than the United States regarding institutional references to God while also being far less likely to involve religion in federal politics.

While the Constitution of the United States contains no overt reference to God, in keeping with the oft-cited principle of the separation of church and state, the Canadian Declaration of Rights and Freedoms states clearly in its preamble that Canada “is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”

Your national anthem celebrates military victory and profound love of the symbolism of the stars and stripes, while ours asks that “God keep our land glorious and free.” (The French transition goes even farther, with a reference to the cross.)

A friendly debate would likely raise other good-natured comparisons, but in Canada, which has two Catholics, a Sikh and a Jew as leaders of federal parties, God is not employed in the same way in our national elections as God is in the United States, where both federal parties are led by Christians; there are, for example, no unsanctioned photo ops with holy books outside places of worship north of the border.

Furthermore, while I’ve been known to fire off a letter or two of complaint to my local chancery office, I have never been subjected to a homily directing me how to vote, as has happened more than once in this American election year. Campaigning in Canada usually stops at the edge of church property and is almost never taken into the pulpit. As the most recent version of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ election guide demonstrates, the emphasis is on themes such as working to build a better society or the formation of conscience rather than on specific issues, and Canadian clergy, in my albeit limited experience, tend to respect that when at the ambo.

This had been the plan. But then I watched the final presidential debate last week and my heart was sundered by Donald Trump’s cavalier approach to the migrant children housed in detention centers and, in particular, to the 545 children whose parents cannot be found.

“They’re so well taken care of,” Trump blithely said of the children now isolated from their parents. “They’re in facilities that are so clean.” 

At that moment, the notion of rather light-hearted comparisons became insensitive because I was reminded yet again of the peril of Catholics, no matter where they live, being single-issue voters.

My frustration over abortion as the preeminent election issue for Catholics, a battle long familiar to me as a Canadian Catholic voter, had been growing throughout this American election campaign given the frequent assertions I have stumbled across claiming that Donald J. Trump is a great friend to the prolife movement. And before anyone lectures me, I’m a mother of four who also lost three pregnancies. I need no lectures on when life begins. I do, however, believe that our church needs a fulsome discussion on what it means to be prolife.

There is no doubt that in a church that reverences life from conception to natural death, abortion is a key concern. But while our gaze has been trained on this one issue, look what has happened in other issues relating to life—and consider how we could help.

As of this writing, for example, nearly a quarter of a million Americans have died of coronavirus, with experts predicting as many as 400,000 thousand deaths in total by the end of the year. In contrast, there were 862,000 abortions in 2017, the last year for which figures are available, tallies that are far closer than many would recognize or admit.

Reducing the number of abortions performed is a complicated question, requiring not a legal response so much as an economic one that looks to issues ranging from full employment and adequate health care to affordable housing and accessible daycare. Abortion will likely always be with us whether legalized or not. The question is what we can do to prevent it.

But think how many lives could have been saved— quite easily— if, in the pandemic we are experiencing, people embraced the simple safeguards of hand washing, social distancing and masks. It has been suggested that a near-universal embrace of mask use could save more than 100,000 lives in the period between this past September and February 2021. A simple weapon with a significant win.

But conservative Catholics, a group particularly likely to describe themselves as prolife, are big supporters of Donald Trump, a president who has repeatedly mocked the use of masks and hidden behind his privilege rather than acknowledge publicly the dangers of this deadly virus, in spite of having freely discussed it with Bob Woodward in the now-notorious interview.

While most church leaders have been good at requiring masks for those within church walls, some have joined in the mockery, and even Pope Francis has disappointed on this point, appearing far too frequently without a mask, setting a terrible example.

Consider, too, the question of health care in the United States and the battle over the Affordable Care Act. When the Supreme Court hears the challenge to the ACA next month, millions of Americans could be at risk of losing their health care, depending on how the court rules. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that leaving millions of people struggling to find health care in the midst of a pandemic is a profound question of protecting life, one that every Catholic should be concerned about and consider while voting.

The list of prolife issues for voters should be lengthy. For example, more than half of all American states still have the death penalty on the books. As Pope Francis makes clear in Fratelli tutti, the death penalty is not only “inadmissible,” but a reality Catholics should work to end. Being prolife requires us to embrace even the most challenging of people, the most upsetting of situations and to learn the true meaning of compassion because all life, no matter how messy, how challenging, is a gift reflective of the love of God.

But it is the migrant children trapped at the border who have my attention these days. It is they who remind me of what we should mean when we talk about protecting life. We can get sidelined by debates over which administration had what policy regarding migrants at the border. We can digress by laying blame at the feet of the parents. But in the meantime, the children are suffering through no fault of their own, and if we choose to remain silent, as individuals or as a church, we are complicit.

We exist as a church because we believe in the life, death and resurrection of a migrant child. If we really believe, we need to be comfortable with the answers Christ can offer us when we ask: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?”

Do we choose our life battles by head count or do we work on many fronts at once to save lives? Only when we work to protect all life when we see it threatened can we then describe ourselves as a community that is truly prolife.

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