A publication of Sacred Heart University

Gallup-ing Out of the Church?

The Easter season is traditionally a joyful time for Catholics both because it commemorates the most important mystery of our faith and because the Easter Vigil and its liturgy of baptism welcomes many new Catholics to the fold. There was particular joy this year for many who were able to celebrate the sacraments in person after last year’s somber Holy Week and Easter during the darkest time of the Covid-19 pandemic. For many Catholics, however, this Easter still came with tinges of regret, particularly as many understandably did not feel that their local churches were safe enough given the greater likelihood of churchgoers to resist masking and other safety measures. For those paying attention, there was also concerning news from a Gallup poll indicating the increasing disaffiliation of Americans from religion, especially Catholicism.

In addition to showing that American participation in religious institutions on the whole has declined below the 50% mark, the Gallup poll show a decline among Catholics from 76% to 58% over the period beginning roughly in the early 2000s. Given that this period coincided with the first major revelations of clerical sexual abuse in Boston and elsewhere, this should come as no surprise. Between events that have frayed the loyalty of older generations for whom belonging to the church was a matter of course and generational replacement trending in the direction of disaffiliation, the church as an institution and more importantly as a people is experiencing decline.

Expert commentators such as Kaya Oakes have rightly noted that disaffiliation and secularization are not coterminous. Just because people do not belong to a church does not meant they are not religious, and it does not even mean they are no longer engaging with that particular church institution, but simply that they do not choose to be a registered member of the congregation. Recent trends, such as the cult-like belief in Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about the election being stolen, highlight both the danger of post-religious substitutes for belief but also the disturbing number of religious believers who themselves accept such ideas. Indeed, many white evangelical and Catholic congregations have been active drivers of these exact problems, and Catholic leaders have fed into this dynamic by their willingness to criticize President Biden’s Catholicism in often more direct ways than they challenged the manifold evils of President Trump’s administration. Polls from the past few years showing religiously unaffiliated Americans as more receptive to the welcoming of refugees than Catholics and other Christians also demonstrate how the worldview of many Christians has been shaped more by identity politics than by Gospel values.

It is clear that those of us concerned with the future vitality of Catholicism in the U.S. have a problem on our hands. The number of people interested in the church, particularly among the young, is diminishing, and the actions of church leaders in response have not been encouraging. This is particularly true in the online Catholic world – the most likely place that young people will encounter the church and its witness. With a few exceptions led by Fr. James Martin, this space has been dominated by right-wing voices, many of them full of vitriol against Pope Francis and Catholics who disagree with them. Bishop Robert Barron, whose large Word on Fire media ministry has avoided Pope-bashing and exhibited a more general balance, has increasingly positioned himself to appeal in a rightward direction, particularly with recent criticisms of the “woke” movement as “vile” – a casual dismissal of a complex phenomenon mainly centered on questions of racial justice.

I have learned through years of engaging with the question of Catholics and disaffiliation that there is no easy answer to the questions raised by data such as the recent Gallup poll. Conservative efforts to promote a “thick” Catholic culture have often relied on rational choice theories emphasizing that a religion that makes higher demands on people will be more appealing and more conducive to forming a culture over time. Such approaches, I believe, lead to sectarianism and thus an exclusionary vision of what it means to be Catholic. The many connections of conservative Catholic leaders to the Trump movement, including the Big Lie, show the danger here also. On the other hand, more progressive approaches, while making a home for many Catholics otherwise alienated by the church and bishops, have a somewhat marginal influence on the church institution itself and have not been a demographic panacea. A deeper, long-term conversion of the institution is required, demanding structural change that we have not yet begun to realize even with the helpful tone and actions of Pope Francis.

With this sober news amid the joy of Easter, I suggest we look to the culmination of this joyous season, namely, Pentecost. Ultimately, the future of the church will come about by having faith and discerning where the Holy Spirit wants us to go. This is what John XXIII meant when he referred to Vatican II as a kind of new Pentecost, and it is the case for our own predicament. The plan is not clear, and as always in life, doing the right thing will not always be immediately popular or successful. The future will no doubt be different than what we have known and perhaps what we hope for, but this is nothing to fear.


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


On Ideology, Identity and Gender

I knew that I would be courting controversy when I agreed to review Abigail Shrier’s provocative book, Irreversible Damage: Teenage Girls and the Transgender Craze, for The Tablet. The book had been positively reviewed by respected journals such as The Economist and The Sunday Times, and slated by no less respected journals such as The Los Angeles Review of Books. Having studied, taught and written about gender for many years, I felt qualified to review it.

I have long been a moving target of the U.S. Catholic Far Right, but my review of Shrier’s book turned the tables. This time, the counterblast came mostly from outraged U.S. Progressives on various social media platforms. I’d been expecting criticism, but the vehemence and vitriol from some I regard as thoughtful intellectuals astonished me.

I used the word “transgenderism,” not knowing that it had been added to what I might call the Index Verborum Prohibitorum—the Progressive equivalent of the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Apparently “transgenderism” implies an ideology and is therefore offensive. When I said to an English trans friend that I probably shouldn’t have used that word, she dismissed my concerns. “Let’s not get caught up in the culture wars,” she said.

I made clear in my review that the book was problematic and that Shrier was an unreliable witness. I wish that I had been more critical of her inflammatory use of words like “virus” and “contagion” in connection with those who are already disproportionately targets of violence, exclusion and abuse. Nevertheless, the book raises important questions about a dramatic increase in teenage girls developing gender dysphoria and being offered puberty blockers, testosterone and sometimes double mastectomies as they progress through the transitioning process, and what Shrier sees as the collusion of a powerful transgender lobby in suppressing any opposition.

It is to be expected that, as attitudes change, the number of trans persons will increase, because they no longer have to conceal what they believe to be their true gender. Moreover, when religious and political conservatives have reduced the rich diversity of human genders to two narrowly defined categories, it is hardly surprising that some question their own gendered identities if they fail to conform to such constricting stereotypes. But there is a difference between supporting young people who are experimenting with their identities, including their genders, and offering them life-changing medical interventions during the turbulent hormonal and sexual changes of adolescence. Puberty blockers risk infertility, and testosterone induces physical changes that are irreversible.

The High Court of England and Wales recently ruled that  a court order must  be obtained before those under age 16 can be treated with puberty blockers, on the basis that children of that age cannot give informed consent to such treatments. This has been one of several controversies surrounding the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, which has been accused of failing to provide adequate therapeutic guidance before prescribing puberty blockers. Shrier’s book focuses on the U.S., but she addresses these issues. The response to my review has convinced me that she is on to something, in spite of her blatant prejudice.

Many who criticized my review refused to allow even a glimmer of doubt about the universal competence and reliability of teenage girls who self-diagnose as transgender and the therapists who support them. Meanwhile, a few stories have leaked through from concerned parents—some shared, a couple by way of private messages—who believe that their daughters are being exposed to the kind of pressures Shrier describes. These are liberal parents who are supportive of their daughters, despite their misgivings. One pointed out that her daughter’s gender dysphoria was the latest in a number of behavioral problems such as eating disorders and self-harm, another issue to which Shrier draws attention. Of course, in some cases such behavior might be symptomatic of the underlying anxiety associated with being transgender and fearing what it will mean to come out, but even so, I’m left with many questions that I don’t have space to explore here.

Like many feminists, I find myself under increasing pressure to explicitly include trans women in anything I want to say about the dignity and rights of women and girls. Yet there are injustices that are specific to anatomical females in relation to their sexual and reproductive capacities and the ways in which, to borrow Freud’s phrase, ‘anatomy is destiny.’ Not least of these is the continuing power that the Catholic hierarchy wields over women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights through its doctrinal and political interventions. Being born female condemns many millions to lives of poverty, illiteracy, domestic and sexual servitude and early death through causes associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

The female body is today an object of commodification, violation and exploitation in ways that are often first experienced in puberty. It is not transphobic to suggest that in some cases the onset of gender dysphoria may be a desperate desire to escape the body-shaming pressures and sexualized predations that eat away at the self-confidence of teenage girls, nor should it be wrong to argue that, before endorsing a self-diagnosis of transgender, every effort should be made by therapists and educators to understand the corrosive effects of an inherently misogynist social environment on the formation of female identity. None of this is to deny the different, but no less significant, challenges experienced by trans people, but there must surely be space for feminists to continue to explore what it means to be a woman, and even to challenge those who lay claim to that identity when many of us are just beginning to dismantle the essentialized and idealized concept of “Woman” that we have carried around as our God-given destiny since birth.

An ideology is a set of beliefs by which one seeks to bring about change in society, and as such it is a neutral term. However, benign ideologies seek change through understanding, not through diktat. They are open to different views and refined through debate and reflection. Destructive ideologies are those that impose their views on others and seek to silence or eliminate all dissent. These last few weeks, I have experienced the latter. I have in the past paid a high price for refusing to be silenced by the sexual ideologues of the Catholic Right. I am not now willing to be silenced by Progressive gender ideologues.


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


Worshipping at Saint Cubiculum's

Once again, Christians around the world have observed the liturgical season of Lent under numerous restrictions imposed by efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Measures to prevent the spread of the disease have varied from nation to nation and even among regions, states and cities of each particular country. But there is hardly a place on earth where people have not had their patience pushed to the limit during these 14 or 15 (or is it now 16?) months that the pandemic has been raging.

While folks in the United States are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to what appears to be an effective vaccination campaign, here in Europe we’re still stuck in the gloom of uncertainty. The rollout of vaccines, let us say, has not been so good here on the Old Continent.

Pope Francis has noted that, at least here in Italy, we were shocked and badly shaken last year when we had to face our first Holy Week in lockdown. This year, he's said, the feeling is more one of exhaustion, of being worn out.

From a religious point of view, much of that sentiment is because the preventive measures have included the suspension of congregational worship or strict limits on how many people can gather in those places where churches are actually allowed to remain open.

And that it is tiresome when, for a second year in a row, we cannot celebrate Holy Week and Easter properly—or in the pre-pandemic manner.

Catholics, probably in a way more pronounced than those who belong to any other community in the one (though fractured) Church of Christ, feel a need—indeed, they are told it is their duty—to “attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.”

This, of course, is not a divine law or a scriptural injunction. It is human application of the third commandment in the Decalogue. And most religious authorities (i.e. the bishops) have exempted Catholics from the “obligation” during the pandemic.

And most Catholics have accepted this, not because they have been granted a dispensation to “skip” Mass without committing “grave sin,” but because they want to stop the spread of a potentially deadly virus.

But other believers (a minority, thank God) have denounced the restrictions on worship as a violation of religious freedom.

In Poland, where new cases of infection are currently skyrocketing to their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, the Catholic bishops are insisting that churches be to allowed to stay open. “Leaving churches open is extremely important, because a person is not only a body, but also a soul," said Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the national episcopal conference. “And prayer – especially in moments of trials and hardships – strengthens us on the path to salvation,” he added.

Perhaps the archbishop skipped Mass on Ash Wednesday. It’s possible, since this is not a Holy Day of Obligation. Or perhaps he forgot the Gospel passage for the day’s liturgy (Mt 6,1-6;16-18), for it was many weeks ago. These lines in this passage—the one with which the Church began the Lenten Season—are worth recalling: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Mt 6, 5-6).

I'm not sure how those verses are translated in Polish, but the archbishop will recognize them in the Vulgate:

Et cum oratis, non eritis sicut hypocritae, qui amant in synagogis et in angulis platearum stantes orare, ut videantur ab hominibus. Amen dico vobis: Receperunt mercedem suam. Tu autem cum orabis, intra in cubiculum tuum et, clauso ostio tuo, ora Patrem tuum, qui est in absondito; et Pater tuus, qui videt in abscondito, reddet tibi.

The bottom line is that one does not have to go to church to pray. And in times of pandemic, there are very good reasons why one should not do so.

That there are bishops and priests—and other baptized faithful—who see “temple worship” as absolutely essential, in all circumstances, to what it means to be a faithful Christian, is indictment on their vision of Church. It is but hollow shell. The phrase the Nazarene used was “whitewashed sepulcher.”

It is a Church that puts considerable emphasis on the externals—its impressive buildings; its well-funded projects; its rules and precepts; its legal statutes and its “power” to summons people to Mass each Sunday. 

We must admit that we all buy into this exact type of Church to some degree or another. And, so, it is to all of us that Pope Francis has placed the challenge of conversion—the need to change our attitudes, our mentality.

These past many months of “liturgical lockdown” should be seen within the context of the pope’s challenge. Have we used this time to discover our “inner room” our own cubiculum? Most presbyters and bishops have been incapable or uninterested in helping Catholics develop that inner room into a place of true worship and not just some second-class waiting room until churches are opened and Mass can be celebrated.

In fact, our “cultic priests” have only been able to “say Mass” for us on social media or television, allowing us to watch them perform true liturgy.

This has certainly been one of the biggest missed opportunities and saddest spectacles of clericalism in the post-Vatican II period. But not all Catholics have fallen into this clericalist trap. More and more have taken Matthew 6:6 to heart and have discovered that church is not the only place (and perhaps not even in the most important one) where we go to pray and deepen our faith. They’ve discovered that true religion and true worship can also be experienced at Saint Cubiculum’s.


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


“God Can’t Bless Sin,”—True but …

The Vatican’s declaration that priests may not bless same-sex unions is not surprising. What is deplorable is the explanation that this cannot happen because “God can’t bless sin.” It does make you wonder what Rome sees when it sees a same-sex couple. Like heterosexual couples, the distinguishing mark of their union is the love that binds them together. And surely, most assuredly, God is eager to bless love. The Vatican doesn’t see a loving couple. It sees two people who have sex in a way it considers unnatural. The sexual activity, like that of a heterosexual couple, symbolizes and strengthens the loving union that is the point of it all. Any adult, anywhere and at any time, can have sex, and some of it is probably sinful. God wouldn’t bless that kind of sexual activity, any more than God would bless theft or violence. But God, unlike the Vatican, is not obsessed with sex. God is obsessed with love. Real, genuine love is its own justification, and I am pretty sure that God smiles on it and, in all probability, is nothing like as curious or censorious as the Church when it comes to bedroom behavior. After all, it was love that we were created for.

One of the clearest positions of the Church on the nature of priesthood is that the priest acts in persona Christi, that just as Christ is the head of his body, the Church, so the priest acts in his place. Christ is the head of the church, not bound by the laws of the Church. The Spirit of Christ blows when and where it will. The Holy Spirit is the love of Christ at work in the world, and the priest acts as Christ’s representative or agent. The Vatican obviously believes this, because it is the basis for the otherwise baseless rejection of the sacramental ordination of women. So surely if the priest stands in persona Christi and if Christ is the sacramental presence of God in the world, and if God is obsessed with love but not with sex, then it doesn’t seem altogether wrong for the priest to be blessing same-sex unions. It seems like common sense. A marriage ceremony blesses the love between two people, not the sex they have. Or does it, for the Vatican?

It’s a pretty well-known fact that the Pope favors civil unions for same-sex couples, though in all probability he sees it as a way for them to attain legal status and protections, rather than as the next best thing to sacramental marriage in the church. But surely the Pope is not just suggesting that civil marriage can be cover for sinful behavior. The CDF’s declaration that “God does not bless sin” seems to be more than a little at odds with the famous “who am I to judge” remark of Pope Francis. God and not the church is the judge of sin. Not even the Pope, by his own estimation. But the language of the CDF’s text cannot but remind one of the consternation of the Jesuit priest on Pope Paul’s birth control commission. “But if we change the rules and allow birth control,” he is reported to have expostulated, “then what about all the people we have sent to hell in times past?” Judgments about sin in the mouths of human beings are prime examples of hubris. I think it was Jesus who discouraged this kind of language when he advised that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.

Francis de Bernardo sees the Vatican statement as unsurprising and impotent. I would add disappointing. But the charge of impotence is worth thinking about a bit more. De Bernardo argues that the lay faithful simply do not share the Vatican disapproval of same-sex unions, and at least in the United States he has good statistics to back him up. Of all Christian groups measured by their support for or tolerance of same-sex marriage or civil unions, the Catholics are the most “gay-friendly.” I find this reassuring, though as a theologian, I want to explore the ecclesiological consequences of a rift between the magisterium and the rest of us. I am not going to say the sensus ecclesiae, because that includes the clergy too. But when a sizable majority are OK with same-sex relationships and even marriage, we are evidently looking at magisterial teaching that has not commanded assent. We need to apply the same logic to this as we do to the Church’s dead-letter ban on birth control or its absolute rejection of women in ordained ministry. If the teaching isn’t persuasive, then there are only three possibilities. Perhaps the vast majority of us are simply blindly sinful, guilty of vincible ignorance and need to come to heel. Or perhaps the teaching is not being expressed sufficiently clearly. Or perhaps it is bad teaching. The CDF presumably favors the first option. The majority of the rest of us don’t.

It seems pretty clear that what makes sex sinful is not the absence of sacramental marriage but the absence of love. If the Church wishes to continue to insist that same-sex unions are not candidates for sacramental marriage, that is the Church’s prerogative, though that does not make it in itself a correct judgment. But it is absolutely unacceptable that any loving relationship be declared beyond God’s blessing. The Church evidently believes that God blesses all individuals, gay and straight alike, made in the divine image and likeness. But apparently not the former if they enter into a loving relationship. How crazy is that?


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


Returning to a House Divided

When the parable of the great church reopening is told, what will we learn from it?

A parable by nature is a teaching tool, and the rupture caused by the pandemic in the ability to participate in in-person liturgies, to receive the sacraments—even to gather for coffee in the church basement—has offered an extended period to reflect deeply on our participation in the life of the church and what it means.

Dioceses are now determining what the return to some iteration of normal will look like—not that all of us will return. For some, time away from church will be akin to the seed falling on rocky soil, withering away from lack of nourishment. More than a year of being able to roll over and hit the snooze button may mean a more relaxed approach to attendance for some. In no way is this a criticism of the roller-overs; they may simply never have received the nourishment they needed.

But for many, online masses and a whole church year behind us without physical connection to a place that should feel like home will have created a hunger to return—safely—and, importantly, to become more engaged. Unlike the seed on rocky soil, many will return with the faith of the flourishing mustard seed or the zeal of the prodigal son.

That flourishing, that eagerness to return, will speak to our understanding of what we have missed. But it will also reflect a spiritual maturing many have discovered in the last 12 months. We have had to rely in good measure on our own resources and I’ve heard many reflect with a kind of delighted wonderment that they have a richer interior life than they had realized. Time away, like absence making the heart grow fonder, has made them realize they really do believe what they profess.

With that ownership comes responsibility. We have all witnessed the tragic stories of families losing loved ones to COVID and being unable to hold a proper funeral, instead being relegated to a gathering of 10 with others watching online. We should create good from this suffering so it not be in vain, whether we double down on engaging in steps to end the pandemic, or promising to be more supportive to those bereaved, perhaps creating or supporting a parish ministry.

Similarly, coronavirus has shone a light on the elderly, so vulnerable to the twin threats of COVID-19 and isolation. If we talk about respect for life, it goes without saying that it should include the elderly. The church my family attends in Florida has a parish nurse. Each time I’ve seen the office door I’ve been struck by what a good idea it is. Imagine someone doing wellness checks, keeping seniors engaged and in their homes longer, offering practical and moral support to new mothers— the list is endless.

 When we return, we come back to a church still divided over so many issues, the latest being the Vatican’s denial of blessings for same-sex relationships. While no one has ever pretended that the Church of Rome is a democracy, a recent Pew Research Survey indicated that six in 10 American Catholics support the idea of same-sex marriage. I cannot remember the last time I heard anyone discuss the concept of sensus fidelium, let alone the role the laity plays in how the church discerns questions of faith and morals, but this most recent decision has many Catholics shaking their heads, and some walking away, joining the others who have already left.

The church doors will reopen as one of the most momentous periods in our lives winds down. Historically, ecumenical councils have stemmed from social change or to answer great questions. We are, without question, in a period where we face both. Our church is riven by battles over orthodoxy and the insidious creep of culture and politics into matters of faith. At the same time, we must discuss the question of how laity—and especially women—can assume a larger role.

Vatican II offered recognition to the laity, allowing us to take our first tentative steps toward maturity. That maturity is now upon us. A new council could carry on the conversation that began almost 60 years ago.

We return, like Thomas, with our eyes opened. We come with the hope that our church will have the compassion of the Good Samaritan. We have witnessed great suffering and we want to affect change because of what we have come to understand in this strange and awful period.

We want to offer insights gained and share lessons learned on what a lived gospel looks like. If we can’t, as the old song says, “How you going to keep ‘em down on the farm? … or in the pews.


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


Bishops’ Conference Should Look Toward Rome

What do you do when your national bishops’ conference goes bonkers? That is not a question I ever imagined needing to ask and answer when I attended my first plenary meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference as a journalist many years ago.

It is a question that has forced itself on us all this year, first with the churlish statement USCCB President Archbishop Jose Gomez issued on inauguration day. “I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration and the new Congress,” Gomez wrote, but then betrayed that pleasantry by raining on President Biden’s big day, warning that Biden “has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.” All of that needed to be said, but if you really want to work with the new president, you do not say it publicly on his first day in office.

Gomez found himself contradicted by several cardinals and bishops, either explicitly or not. The “working group” he had announced to cope with this pro-choice Catholic president was quickly shuttered. (Thank God!) But, let’s be clear: Gomez is not an outlier. His decision to issue that statement reflected the views of the 10 committee chairs on the working group, only one of whom apparently opposed the statement. The chairs were elected to their posts by their peers.

Behind closed doors, the bishops continue to fret about Biden in a way they never did about Trump. And, I suspect a majority of bishops still want to pursue the highly misguided effort to draft a statement on “eucharistic coherence,” aka, how to deny Biden communion. Never mind that this is a discussion that happens only in America. Never mind that the conservative’s hero, St. Pope John Paul II, routinely gave communion to the pro-choice mayors of Rome and other Italian officials. Let them plow ahead in this misguided effort. The conservatives may have a majority of the conference, but they do not have the two-thirds majority that is required to pass a teaching document. Even if they did, a teaching document would require the approbation of the Holy See, and I doubt that would be forthcoming.

As bad as the Biden working group and its statement were, the bishops outdid themselves in the first week of March with a ridiculous statement about the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine. Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chair of the committee on pro-life activities, and Bishop Kevin Rhoades, chair of the doctrine committee, issued a joint statement that began: “The approval of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United States again raises questions about the moral permissibility of using vaccines developed, tested and/or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines.” I am always alert to the use of the passive voice in USCCB statements. Who had any questions about the “moral permissibility” of these vaccines? And why is the U.S. bishops’ conference raising a moral qualm where our theology tells us none need exist? On the basis of what loony theology are they inviting people to prefer one vaccine to another?

Archbishop Naumann puts the “arch” back into “archbishop.” I remember precisely the first time I saw him. At the Harborplace Marriott in Baltimore where the U.S. bishops hold their annual plenary meeting, there is a long escalator that brings the bishops down from the floor where they meet to the mezzanine level where they go for lunch. Near the foot of the escalator are two large armchairs. Each year, on Mondays, Michael Hichborn, then from the American Life League and now with the Lepanto Institute, would be sitting there with a friend and two bishops would always stop, talk to them and then leave together for lunch at a nearby restaurant. One of the bishops was Naumann. Hichborn is famous for outing people in order to get them fired from Catholic institutions and for his relentless attack on the U.S. bishops’ anti-poverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. He is not what you would call a theological sophisticate, but he has had Naumann’s ear for years.

Similarly, the Charlotte Lozier Institute pretends to be the “research arm” of the Susan B. Anthony List, a Republican Party pro-life group. If you really care about stopping abortion, you would know that you need pro-life Democrats to do so, but the Susan B. Anthony List only endorses Republicans, and they looked the other way when Trump went on his killing spree with federal executions as his term ended. The Lozier Institute was likely the proximate cause of the USCCB nuttiness. In December, it released a statement about the moral issues they perceived in using cell lines from aborted fetuses.

Last week, even the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center had had enough and issued a blistering statement criticizing the bishops’ conference that was signed by a bevy of pro-life conservative professors. It concluded:

To be perfectly clear, we are not saying that people are justified in using and promoting these vaccines because the great goods they provide offset the evil of appropriating a prior wicked action. Rather, we believe that there is no such impermissible cooperation or appropriation here. The attenuated and remote connection to abortions performed decades ago and the absence of any incentive for future abortions offer little if any moral reasons against accepting this welcome advance of science.

This is what it has come to. The U.S. bishops issue statements that articulate lousy theology derived from the Lepanto and Lozier Institutes that even the Ethics & Public Policy Center recognizes as baloney.

It has been 21 years since M. Cathleen Kaveny published the definitive essay on the issue of cooperation with evil and “Appropriation of Evil: Cooperation’s Mirror Image” at the journal of theological studies. Kaveny actually used the example of using cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue to explain why this new category of “appropriation of evil” was needed because the structure of the moral issues differs from the classic theology of cooperation with evil. She focuses on the crux of the matter: “The most important question is whether the appropriator intends to ratify the auxiliary agent’s wrongful act in making use of that act’s fruits or byproducts. Does the appropriator make use of them as if it were the appropriator’s own action, as if it were an action that he or she would have engaged in, given the opportunity and/or necessity?” The U.S. bishops should consult with Kaveny, not with Lepanto, the next time they need some theological expertise!

I do not know what it will take to pull the bishops out of the hole they are digging for themselves. It is not simply a matter of consecrating enough bishops who are not culture warriors. They must walk down the difficult path of forging some unity among themselves. It is not true that all roads lead to Rome. Some paths lead in different directions. But in the history of the Catholic Church, there is no unity apart from communion with the Bishop of Rome. These latest episodes would not have occurred if the bishops’ conference was genuinely learning from the pope to whom they have all taken vows of obedience. It is time they start.


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


Silence in the Desert within a Desert

My calendar reads “March 2021” in a way that feels like yet another season of a well-worn television programs. Familiar characters and storylines and more of the same. Sure, this March will have more madness than the last one, and some of us can be proud at accrued mastery for high quarantine arts in Zoom or bespoke hobbies. And yet, here we are, in the midst of a second Lenten fast during this time of social and ecclesial distance. We find ourselves continuing to adjust our masks and to process life during a pandemic. Prayer—forgotten or foregrounded—sits in a chasm between our vaccinated hopes and our variant anxieties. Exhausted and overcommitted, the world seems caught in one long Lent.

This Lent feels just a bit like a desert within another desert. I think part of the issue is the loss of weekly rituals that embody the passing of time. For me, the spiritual livestreams are running a bit dry. But the wisdom of the liturgical calendar resists a logic of productivity that aims to compare this March to last March. Instead, the Church’s cyclical time should invite a different relationship to God’s enduring present. A relationship that returns to search amidst barren wastelands of silence year after year.

Lenten devotion dovetails with the “already, not yet” shifting vaccination timelines and phases of the rollout. Some dawning hope can be seen on the horizon, but we must still keep to disciplines of the fast. Lenten hope might also be the right attitude to reimagine Church life beyond pandemic time. Those with one foot out the door will surely have a much harder time stepping back inside. Sharp downward trends in liturgical attendance, financial support, vocations, and diocesan resources have only accelerated thanks to COVID-19. And throughout this election year, ecclesial politics in the United States have increasingly shown to match the troubling partisanship that drives the noise of public discourse.

Close to a year ago, Pope Francis made history by delivering an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing during the lockdown. The Pope did not appear at his customary Vatican window to bless crowds in the piazza below. Instead, cameras tracked a solitary pontiff shuffling slowly in the rain. He prayed before a crucifix said to work miracles against plagues past and reflected on how “We are all in the same boat.”

Strikingly, the livestream event included a moment for digital adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A laptop became an altar; a screen became a monstrance. On the one hand, this was not miraculous. Catholics have lauded the legitimacy of technologically mediated rituals since the onset of television. Like teaching, in-person liturgies are unequivocally better, but virtual participation works in a pinch or a pandemic. A livestream adoration did not call for profound liturgical innovation or theological gymnastics. But on the other hand, inviting the whole city and the whole world to Eucharistic adoration required the courage to risk boredom and to risk misinterpretation in silence.

Silence, after all, can be as ambiguous and confrontational as it can be soothing or peaceful. Silence moves in and of itself. In a 2016 book on silence and noise, Robert Cardinal Sarah wrote, “In the Church’s liturgies, silence cannot be a pause between two rituals; silence itself is fully a ritual, it envelops everything. Silence is the fabric from which all our liturgies must be cut.” Could we extend Cardinal Sarah’s metaphor to see the silences of this long Lent not as hiatus, but as a fabric to reinvigorate liturgical life?

The Church needs courage to lead into what comes next. “Getting back to normal” cannot be the goal; standards of “normalcy” belong to the linear calendar. Mitigating the pandemic so we can gather in person will not magically resolve the Church’s ongoing complicity in systemic racism or convince those betrayed by clericalism to trust the institution again. If anything, the pandemic calls Church leaders to be shepherds of a living tradition like the one that found new expression in the risky and responsive silence of that lockdown blessing.

Pope Francis recently accepted the resignation of the same Cardinal Sarah as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. Cardinal Sarah’s tenure at the top of the CDW has been riddled with controversy—perhaps most famously in the questions that surround “co-authorship” with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI of a book about priestly celibacy. Cardinal Sarah has become a darling of the reactionary and traditionalist movements in the United States, and the conspiracy theory machine hummed with speculations about hidden meanings in Sarah’s resignation tweet.

In an unusual way, the Holy Father has not yet named Cardinal Sarah’s successor. Whomever it is, Pope Francis’ choice can send a clear signal—to curial offices in the city and bishops conferences around the world—about future ritual priorities. Here is a chance for a new direction. Rather than quibble over translation or banning beloved hymn texts, perhaps all of the faithful need a chance to sit in this silence together. Whatever comes after our long, Lenten time in the desert cannot be a return to the same. Our aim must be renewal.


Charles A. Gillespie is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


The Curse of Clericalism

In just one week in January, it seemed as if all the grief and shame was unleashed again. Every media outlet was covering one story after another about the Catholic Church and the cumulative effect was dispiriting and demoralizing.

There was the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which declined to hear a final appeal from the Archdiocese of St. John’s concerning its liability over the abuse of children at Mount Cashel Orphanage; there was the rising clamor for the resignation of Vincent Nichols, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (the premier Catholic prelate in England), following a report chronicling his failure to deal with abuse cases while Archbishop of Birmingham; there was the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland, with its searing indictment of ecclesial neglect and cruelty; and there was the uncontained outrage in Cologne, Germany, over the obstinate refusal of its Cardinal Archbishop, Rainer Maria Woelki, to make public the findings of an investigation he commissioned into abuses in the archdiocese.

So, when does it end? When will the toxin that is clericalism – the corrosive pattern of entitlement and abuse of power by clergy – be purged? How does the institutional church move on when it cannot stanch the flow of allegations? Certainly, the contributing factors are many – and some are outside the immediate boundaries of church life. But what progress can be made if there is still resistance to full disclosure, to acknowledging the sins of the past in a manner that is genuinely contrite and not choreographed by lawyers and actuaries, when many officials, fatigued and defensive, simply want to escape the relentless pull of accountability?

By means of various studies, surveys, commissions and academic panels, we have a good if not comprehensive understanding of the roots of many of the problems we consider to be the marks of clericalism: the absence of psychosexual maturity, truncated emotional growth, the perks of prestige (at least among some in the Catholic community), power and entitlement by virtue of one’s “calling.” It can be reasonably said that we have a handle on the diagnosis. It is the prognosis that concerns many – not least of whom is that ardent advocate for structural change, Nuala Kenny.

A Sister of Charity of Halifax, retired pediatrician and ethicist, Dr. Kenny is tenacious in summoning Catholic authority to the task for reform. In her forthcoming book, The Post-Pandemic Church: Prophetic Possibilities, she highlights her anguished puzzlement that “in a church with a strong commitment to life, the sexual abuse of children and youth is not considered a prolife issue.” She recognizes that the church’s ill health and slow response to the challenge is attributable to many factors both external and internal. But the persisting pathology compromises the church’s essential purpose, weakening its credibility, souring Catholics on their spiritual birthright – a true sign of enduring scandal.

To reclaim trust, to build anew confidence in the integrity of the church’s leaders – from local pastors to bishops – channels of communication are essential with theologically literate laypeople and a creative rethinking of the way we educate men to priestly ministry is fundamental. And in doing this, we need to deemphasize, if not eliminate entirely, the spurious and seemingly ineradicable notion that somehow – ontologically – priests are a different species. We need also to take seriously the theological and historical arguments for the ordination of women to the ministry of deacon.

Some of these matters fall within the jurisdiction of the local bishops, others are reserved to Rome, but what is critical at this juncture is action, not paralysis – not waiting out this pontificate in the hopes that the next pope will restore the old identity and calm the tempestuous waters that beset Peter’s barque. Nostalgia and fantasy have no place in a reform agenda. Or, indeed, with reality.

Dr. Kenny’s moral urgency is underscored by the following passage from the late spiritual writer and Irish priest Daniel O’Leary, who spoke of clericalism shortly before his death in 2019 as “a collective malaise ... It keeps vibrant life at bay; it quarantines us for life from the personal and communal expression of healing relationships, and the lovely grace of the tenderness which Pope Francis is trying to restore to the hearts of all God’s people.”

The curse of clericalism – a phrase employed by bishops and popes alike – can only really be extirpated when there is institutional will to do so. Dr. Kenny is wondering why we are still waiting. So am I.


Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s and president of Corpus Christi Colleges, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Reprinted with editorial permission of The Globe and Mail


The Vatican is Pushing Forward on Synodality; The U.S. Bishops Should Follow Suit

Pope Francis’ appointment of Xavière Sister Nathalie Becquart and now-bishop-elect Luis Marín de San Martín to the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops is only the latest step in his efforts to push the global church toward a synodal model of leadership. That is, a model in which bishops and lay people speak freely together about the issues affecting them and where they believe the Spirit is calling them, and, through discussion and voting, reach decisions together.

Synodality is not necessarily a process of democratization, as final decisions still rest with the synod of bishops and, ultimately, the pope, but embracing co-responsibility between the bishops and lay people does help “overcome clericalism and arbitrary impositions” and gives “special attention to the effective participation of the laity in discernment and decision making, favoring the participation of women” (Querida Amazonia 88, 92).

Furthermore, Francis sees this type of mutual respect and listening—when one enters into it honestly, not with the goal of emerging as a “winner” or getting one’s own way—as a key to achieving the elusive unity he’s called for the church to embrace.

The pope has taken Vatican II’s call to synodality seriously: After acknowledging in the first year of his pontificate that the synod of bishops was “half baked” in comparison to the model the Second Vatican Council called for, he instituted a college of cardinal advisers who he suggested could eventually be elected by the Vatican’s standing synod of bishops and held high-profile synods on the family, young people and the Amazon. He appointed a handful of women, including Sister Becquart, as consultors to the synod and now, by appointing her as undersecretary to the synod, has for the first time allowed women a vote in the synod. The extension of voting rights to more women, which has been called for for years, is now under consideration at the Vatican and could be granted as early as 2022’s planned synod on synodality.

Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops are in dire need of the collegiality being pushed forward at the Vatican. The most recent example was the bishops’ embarrassing response to the election of the U.S.’ second Catholic president, to which some bishops responded by questioning the integrity of the election, issuing a combative statement that sparked Vatican intervention and constituting, then disbanding, a committee to determine, without the input of President Biden’s (more sympathetic) local bishops, how to deal with Biden and whether he should be allowed to receive communion.

The bishops who pushed for these initiatives generally embrace a “culture warrior” approach to church leadership, putting their effort into scoring political points and building their own cult followings—the exact opposite of the synodal call to unity, cooperation and listening.

At the Vatican’s summit on the protection of minors in 2019, Pope Francis forced bishops who denied that abuse was an issue in their dioceses to sit and listen to survivors from around the world until they understood the gravity and breadth of the problem. At that summit, the U.S. bishops were seen as the experts in the room, having dealt with the abuse crisis for years, while others lagged far behind. If the American bishops continue to behave as an exclusive and infighting group, come the 2022 synod, they will be the ones forced to sit down and listen to lay experts on synodality—like Sister Becquart—until they understand.


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


The Anarchists

There really are Catholic anarchists hoping for the end of Pope Francis. They find something wrong with everything he says, even though his every word is rooted in the Gospel and the writings of his predecessors.

Don’t be fooled. Another target of the agitators is the Second Vatican Council. That would be the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which met from 1962 to 1965. No matter that some 2,625 bishops met then, in a spirit of aggiornamento. Naysayers within and without were complaining before the print dried on the documents.

And the documents were exciting and enlightening indeed. They promised a new and vibrant Church internally (Lumen gentium) and in relation to the world (Gaudium et spes), and they invited all to read the word of God (Dei verbum). Other documents discussed ecumenism and relations with the Eastern Churches and non-Christian religions; missionary activity; religious freedom; and the lives, apostolates, and education of the laity, religious and priests. Notably, one document discussed bishops’ conferences and emphasized episcopal collegiality.

Since then, the road to aggiornamento has been bumpy. Pockets of Church leadership resisted and still resist the Council’s determinations. Pope Francis thinks it is high time they joined the rest of the Church. The theme of the next synod of bishops is, after all, synodality.

Speaking to members of the Italian Bishops’ National Catechetical Office in late January this year, Francis made the fact and facts of Vatican II quite clear:

This is magisterium: the Council is the magisterium of the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you do not follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the Church. We must be demanding and strict on this point. The Council should not be negotiated in order to have more of these ... No, the Council is as it is. And this problem that we are experiencing, of selectivity with respect to the Council, has been repeated throughout history with other Councils.

Enter the anarchists, the schismatics, if you will. Taking a lead from Fidel Castrol’s Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) of the 1950s, their well-oiled propaganda machine uses all the tools of social media. Bolstered by clearly schismatic bishops within their ranks, they aim their lies sharply. Their main target: the magisterial teachings of the Vatican Two.

Hence, the Church suffers the social media cacophony of individuals whose simulated authority creates discord. It suffers priests performing unauthorized exorcisms, unassigned bishops claiming moral authority over synods and governments and retired cardinals rewriting doctrine. Like Castro, each of these recognizes the power of media—the new media—to foment religious and, if truth be told, political insurrection.

The thread throughout: some clerics seem to have signed on to a part of QAnon beliefs. They seem to think that Satan has infected the United States (especially the Democratic Party), the Church and the world at large.

They are bound together both politically and by views that decry the decisions of Vatican II. They prefer Tridentine liturgy and 19th-century clerical garb. They question doctrinal development and statements rooted in science. They recoil in horror at the thought of women at the altar, whether as lectors, acolytes, or—heaven forbid--restored to the ordained diaconate.

They are so fixated on evil they claim an indigenous statue at activities of the 2019 Pan-Amazon Synod is evidence of ecclesiastical idolatry. And they encourage unauthorized exorcisms. For example, once the U.S. election results were in, an American priest of an Italian diocese, but living in Madison, WI, performed exorcisms of election workers and officials in conjunction with his private daily Tridentine Mass, livestreamed on YouTube. Then, a priest of Omaha, NE, said he exorcised the Congress as he joined the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol because a “demon” had taken hold there. His views exploded on Twitter and Facebook. Each acted with the clear intent of supporting the “stolen election” lie. Neither seems to have suffered any repercussions for his actions.

How many others are out there? How many others have followed the leads of the stars of Church Militant, EWTN, LifeSiteNews and the many, many alt-right priest bloggers and bishop-tweeters arguing against anything remotely modern or true? And, among them, how many present the Trump lie?

The confluence of anti-Vatican II beliefs and alt-right political beliefs wrapped in ecclesiastical silk and lace present a frightening future for the Church and the world. The Gospel approaches to the needs of the people of God, so well-embodied in the documents of Vatican II and invigorated by Francis, are in danger.

The anarchists only want to tear down; the schismatics only want their own Church. Their problematic acts and comments are exacerbated by social media. And no one seems to be able to control them, or even to want to.


Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.