A publication of Sacred Heart University

Feminine Genius and the Smell of Drains

Last week in unscripted remarks to the International Theological Commission (ITC), Pope Francis called for theologians to “demasculinize” the church. As happens frequently when Francis’ remarks go “viral,” many online commentators greeted these remarks with a hope that Francis’ revolution of the Catholic Church is just around the corner. Others noted that Francis has called for the ITC itself to include more women since 2014 (the address that included the women are the “strawberries on the cake” line) and that these latest remarks offer mostly a reiteration of his call early in his papacy for a “profound theology of the woman.” Throughout these various remarks, Francis echoes John Paul II’s “feminine genius” and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “nuptial” interpretation of gender, put to work towards an ecclesiology of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the church.

When I hear these kinds of remarks and think about the theology that informs them, I am reminded of a line from a letter Dorothy Sayers wrote in response to C.S. Lewis who, anticipating the possible ordination of women in the Anglican Church, requested that Sayers write in defense of an all-male priesthood, reasoning that the defense might be received better from a woman than a man. Sayers declined, and wrote to Lewis:

“Incidentally, one has to be very careful with that ‘Bridegroom’ imagery…[T]hat sort of thing doesn’t make much appeal to well-balanced women, who look on it as just another example of men’s hopeless romanticism about sex, and who are apt either to burst out laughing or sniff a faint smell of drains.”

Reading Francis’ latest comments, I do detect a whiff of drains. “Demasculinizing” the church, addressing its longstanding patriarchal subordination of women’s voices and bodies, is certainly crucial both for the future of the church and for doing justice to women. But it is hard to believe such “demasculinizing” can be accomplished while continuing to think in terms of abstract principles of the “masculine” and especially the “feminine” instead of the actual lives of men and women. Even at their most positive, these discussions of “feminine genius” and “theology of the woman” (singular!) are laden with what Sayers names “hopeless romanticism,” and in their less positive moments, they simply reaffirm misogynistic stereotypes.

These stereotypes of the feminine tend to show up in Francis’ more painful moments of discussing gender—from encouraging religious sisters to be spiritual mothers and not “old maids” to countering a query about the possible misogyny of his ideas of women as primarily mothers and wives with a quip that, “The fact is, woman was taken from a rib.” Indeed, Francis has a tendency, when pushed on his views on gender, to resort to jokes.

In the spirit of sororal suggestion (admittedly less official than fraternal correction), I might recommend that the pope and his brother bishops listen to some of the women’s ripostes to their quips and opining on the status of women.

From the time of Francis’ 2013 remarks, women theologians have pointed out with variously pointed and playful tones that should he and his brother bishops wish to encounter this more “profound” theology where women are concerned, they might consider reading one or several of the bookshelves full of theology written by women. We would be happy to provide reading lists.

Indeed, when reflecting on the “demasculinizing,” of theology and of the church, I am reminded of a religious sister whom I met during my master’s one evening as we attended a lecture on a Marian and Petrine ecclesiology inspired by Balthasar. At the end of the talk, she leaned over to me with a wide grin and said, “You know how I remember my theological education amongst the seminarians? The phrase, ‘even the dogs eat the scraps from their master’s table’ comes to mind.” And then she began to laugh, amused at the dissonance between the idealized rhetoric of the “feminine” church we had just heard and the realities of her own theological education in a space defined by clericalism.

While women’s reactions to the patriarchal realities of Catholicism rightfully run the gamut, jokes like the one this sister made simultaneously make plain the pain of being a woman in this tradition and burst the bubble of overinflated rhetoric about the “feminine genius,” laying bare the inadequacies of even benevolent patriarchy to see women as truly human. Speaking of women in such idealized complementarian terms, as we have seen, does little to rectify the structures of patriarchy in church and theology that for generations have been content to leave women the “scraps.”

I do hope, with Francis, for a “demasculinizing,” of the church, if what is meant by that is addressing these structures of patriarchy, so that women’s theological expertise, preaching and leadership is both fostered and given equal status within the church. If, however, this “demasculinizing” is simply an expansion of the “feminine genius” to serve as the “profound theology of the woman,” Francis claims is lacking, then I suspect more and more women will continue to wrinkle their noses and make their way out of the church, from which they smell that scent of drains.

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

The Sisters and Synodal Hope

The October 2023 session of the Synod on Synodality has ended “not with a bang but a whimper” and, apologies to T.S. Eliot, some howls of frustration and cries of disappointment from both supporters and opponents of the process.

Pope Francis’ commitment to continue Vatican II renewal and his call to “encounter, listen and discern,” in the synodal experience, in the face of some vicious opposition, give me hope. I have been captured by the Synod images of clergy, religious and lay participants sitting together at tables in ordinary attire in sharp contrast to the usual rows of formally-garbed clerics waiting to receive a definitive proclamation. The seating plan was more than decorative as it transformed relationships from vertical to horizontal.

I had a flashback to my experience as a Sister of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, when we embraced the Vatican II call to renew mission, governance and work in light of the changing needs of society. In Chapters of Renewal, we adopted small table group sharing and, informed by the leading theologians of Vatican II, committed to deep listening, with a focus on the pain and suffering in the world. Our years of learning are recognized as “tested practices of synodal life and discernment in common that communities of consecrated life have matured over the centuries” (10b). Early on, we had to overcome the denial of some to accept the difficult and contentious issues facing Church and world. We learned to express differences in an honest and respectful way as we moved from debates, with winners and losers, to contemplative prayer and discernment.

While theological and ideological debates rage on, sisters throughout the world, at personal risk, provide care to the sick, hungry, homeless and victims of war and violence. We are aware that Apostolic Religious life, as we have known it, is coming to completion in the post-Christendom West. The International Union of Superiors General (UISG) of women religious has been intensely involved in Synod preparation. In July 2022, they contributed many insights from sisters’ global experience that are echoed in the Synod Summary Report.

They identify God’s dream for creation and the centrality of relationships in the “Trinitarian dynamic by which God comes to meet humanity.” This is not hierarchy but radical equality of all three Persons in continuous loving and giving. The “seeds of synodality” are recognized in the life of the early Church, rooted in the dignity of baptism and co-responsibility of all for evangelization and the Eucharist. Sisters embody that the “…Church ‘is’ mission.”

Sisters also identify “weeds that threaten the seeds” and focus on clergy sexual abuse, women in the Church, moral theology, anthropology and divisive polarization.

The Summary report states, “The Church needs to listen with special care and sensitivity to the voices of victims and survivors of … abuse by clergy.” Tragically, victims’ voices have been actively suppressed. Sisters acknowledge they have been responsible for some abuse. They have also been victims of abuse. They have seen its tragic toxic effects as they provide support for victims as teachers, health care professionals and pastoral workers. Failure of Church leaders to recognize the magnitude of the harms to victims, non-offending clergy and the whole Church is devastating.

Despite new norms and two motu proprios, clergy abuse continues across the globe from Chile to Australia, Africa, Western Europe and North America. The focus has shifted from priest offenders to bishops and cardinals, revealing a toxic culture of power and privilege.

Clericalism is identified as “an obstacle to ministry and mission,” not the deep corruption it is. Francis’ focus on pedophiles, fewer than 5% of clergy offenders, fails to address the systemic causes and dynamics of abuse, including power, special status and psycho-sexual and social immaturity, operative in the other 95%.

Jesus’ countercultural interactions with women as disciples and first witnesses to the Resurrection support the calls for justice for women and combating violence against them in society. Sisters have personal experience of the Church’s failure to “walk the talk.” There is an urgent need to act on studies on women deacons.

The environment, migrants, refugees, the poor and Indigenous peoples are given priority. “People who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because their marriage status, identity or sexuality” suffer from outmoded teaching.

There is no quick fix to becoming a “constitutively synodal” Church. The Synthesis Report identifies convergences, issues to be addressed and practical work. Sisters can help priests and bishops to develop synodal encounters in their parishes and dioceses.

Religious life is called a prophetic life form in official documents and spiritual writings. Prophets are called to respond to an urgent need of the time. They lament the situation contrary to God’s will and help us imagine a Spirit-filled future. Sisters are living out their charisms to the last breath. Conscious of legacy in our decline, we witness to Resurrection hope and share Pope Francis’ dream: “…a Church that is the servant of all … welcomes, serves, loves, forgives … with open doors that is a haven of mercy.”

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

We Cannot Delay

On October 11, Kerry Alys Robinson, newly appointed President and CEO for Catholic Charities USA, executive partner of the Leadership Roundtable, philanthropist and powerful lay leader in the Church, gave an impassioned and inspiring talk on “Co-Responsibility and a New Culture of Leadership in the Church” to Sacred Heart University students. They were overwhelmingly responsive to Robinson as an extraordinary role model of leadership in the Church and as a messenger of unwavering love for the Church, even when it disappoints. She spoke strongly, telling us that the Church cannot afford to lose its youth or to alienate its women.

On October 25, Dr. Willie James Jennings, a systematic theologian at the Yale Divinity School and a nationally recognized lecturer and prize-winning author, spoke at Sacred Heart on an “Education in Belonging.” He called on students to reimagine and dream of their education as becoming someone who gathers and draws diverse people together in relationship with one another—and by implication, become someone who would create new ways of becoming a community, a country, a world—through connection and belonging.

Both of these talks made me think of the Pope’s Synod on Synodality. Without question, the Synod marked an historic moment in the life of the Church. A synod of bishops filtered with lay men and women—from across different countries and cultures—sitting together discussing, agreeing, disagreeing, listening to each other and voting on topics that are central to the people who are the Church. We have here a vision not seen since the early Church—a gathering of people brought together by a common baptism rather than by a clerical role or status. It has already been said that the Synod was the embodiment of Vatican II: a true sensus fidei, the delegates, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were wrestling over the “joys and hopes” and “signs of the times” of our Church. And even though naysayers still think that the Synod will take down doctrine and tradition, we have come to realize from the final document that, all along, the Synod was meant as a renewed way of being Church, not a meeting to decide on issues, but rather a series of synodal conversations to discern and discuss issues. A synod is a way of creating connection and relationship—drawing diverse people together in a community of belonging.

In so many ways, the Synod was a triumph of rebuilding our house. But, as one who loves this Church, there is disappointment. For the women who are part of this community, the issue of women in the diaconate as described in the final report, A Synodal Church in Mission, is disappointing. While the report acknowledges that Jesus “entrusted the announcement of His Resurrection to a woman,” and recognizes that women and men share the same baptism and that mostly women fill the Church pews, because there were different perspectives expressed about women in the diaconate, the report comes to this conclusion:

“Theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken.”

 Another disappointment: despite the fact that issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ people were strongly mentioned in the report prior to the Synod, and despite vociferous discussions taking place on the topic of LGBTQ+ persons during the Synod, no mention is made of LGBTQ+ in the final report. The report did not even name the existence of LGBTQ+ people. (If there is no language for something, does it exist?) We read only this statement: “Certain issues, such as those relating to matters of identity and sexuality … are controversial … because they raise new questions. Sometimes the anthropological categories we have developed are not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences and require greater precision and further study.”

Here at Sacred Heart, in our Human Journey Seminars: Great Books in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, faculty work, as my colleague Charlie Gillespie identifies it, in a synodal seminar. Faculty create communities of belonging where students engage in intentional reflection and courageous conversations about big questions, ideas and issues—sometimes contentious and sometimes baffling. Students tell us that they benefit from listening to their classmates’ perspectives, that while they do not always agree, they do learn to stretch themselves to hear and see another person’s experience. And sometimes students just want an answer of some kind—or at least they do not want us, the faculty, to “punt” on important, vexing issues or questions. They lose trust when we do that.

I am saddened by the increasing number of women and young adults who are leaving the Church because they are disappointed by what the Church says or does. I struggle when I see my students so disinterested in a Church with which they no longer feel a sense of belonging because it eludes them rather than engages with their “joys and hopes” and their experiences, which are the “signs of the times.” 

I recognize that the Synod has to move cautiously and carefully. I see that it has outlined in its final report a substantial amount of work that it hopes to address before it convenes again next year. I hope that it recognizes that we cannot afford to lose our youth and alienate our women.

Michelle Loris is the director of Center for Catholic Studies and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.

Untitled Synod

Last week, I had the pleasure of listening to a conversation about “The Synod: What Happened? What Didn’t? What’s Next?” sponsored by “Go, Rebuild My House” and the Sacred Heart University Center for Catholic Studies. Time and again, the participants in the webinar emphasized that the process of synodality means more to Pope Francis—and to the history and life of the Church—than any product of the Synod’s deliberations, syntheses and votes.

Stories abound of people listening to people while sitting around common tables. Synodal conversations re-code assumptions by bringing together a greater catholicity of bodies, faithfulness and forms of life to what it means to be Church. The real power of synodality emerges from a more fully human conversation at the heart of the Church.

The first risk of synodality arrives in listening without anticipation. The Church, the people of God, must learn how to encounter and talk together without rushing to prediction or replication. Synodal conversation achieves something distinct from the churn of artificial intelligence driven by large language models. Synodal conversation avoids recycling the scene in the same way it has always been played. But what could synodality look like outside of the Synod’s official meetings, channels and events?

The Synod on Synodality may well be an invitation for Catholics to “untitle” what the whole pilgrim people of God think a synod of bishops should, could and can be. But a digression into revolutionary collaborative theatre-making will be shockingly necessary to explain what “untitling” means.

For over two years, I have had the privilege to work with The Untitled Othello Project in residence at Sacred Heart University. I wish a short blog post had space to name co-conspirators and share about Untitled Othello in all its confounding complexity, dramatic excitement and wondrous humanity. Professional actors spent hours sitting together reading, performing, interrogating and exploring Shakespeare’s tragedy about Othello without restricting his humanity to a title, “the Moor of Venice.” The actors and directors did this work in the company of professors and students all while being recorded and live streamed. We also had to untitle ourselves. This work asks for rigorous attention to the people in the room, including the insights into meaning brought by our different bodies and our different cultures and our different experiences. The same play can make meaning in many ways, but all voices need to be at the table even if we play different roles.

Untitling is a process that sets aside inheritances and “shows up” to a shared room, open to our own humanity and that of others. Untitling does not mean ignoring performance history in search of a “new” take or pretending that Othello (or any other text—or, indeed, any person) arrives in the room purified of the world. The work approaches Shakespeare’s script aware but not governed by the ways these words are at once revelatory and wounding, beautiful and troubling, canonical and problematic. Untitled Othello trusts both that there is a script worth performing together and that a good, just or worthy production might never be possible to achieve. We have discovered that the chief value of untitling is its process, not any potential product. Untitled Othello may or may not produce a stage version of Othello, but it most certainly produced new ways of imagining theatre practice and university learning.

I wonder if “untitling” offers a way to understand what Pope Francis meant during his intervention against clericalism. The Holy Father made his commentary with references to the model of the Church as the people of God found in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium. Synodality describes how the people of God enact the journey of a pilgrim people. Clericalism proceeds from labels and honorifics as the first principle of ecclesial conversation: the Hierarchy pronounces, the Faithful obey. But, in a move of theopoetic clarification, neither “Hierarchy” nor “Faithful” necessarily describe the whole of the people of God per se. What would it mean to understand the Church and the world through the eyes of the people of God?

At one moment, Pope Francis linked the image of a soul of the people of God to a mode of interpretation, a lens through which the real can become known: “The faithful people, the holy faithful people of God, have a soul, and because we can speak of the soul of a people we can speak of a hermeneutic, of a way of seeing reality, of a conscience. Our faithful people are conscious of their dignity, they baptize their children, they bury their dead.” Here, the Holy Father notices a capacity in the whole people of God to see reality that exceeds the capacity of prelates, clergy or even religious left on their own. Pressed further, the Pope uncovers a sense of the sensus fidelium that interprets-in-action, that performs, that moves doctrine from documentary bureaucracy into living tradition. Synodality does not diminish the authority and duty of the episcopacy to shepherd the flock, but it does challenge the Hierarchy to recognize its finitude (well, Bishops are people, too), its failures (past, present and still to come) and its spiritual vocation (rather than the maintenance of an institution, however glorious, for its own sake). Bishops (like all the clergy, religious and laity) are part of the People of God.

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

Refreshing Candor

It has become the daily custom—the press briefing ritual—that all the guests at the press table speak about their own experience of synodality. And they do so, often rhapsodically and often uniformly, celebrating the synod’s enveloping atmosphere of prayer, openness and universality. I believe that they are sincere—after all, La Sala Stampa della Santa Sede (the Press Office of the Holy See) is not a Beijing or Moscow-like apparatus of state—and their stalwart defense of the efficacy of the synod process is not to be gainsaid.

But it is wonderfully refreshing when one of the prelates goes off script while responding to a question, speaking from the heart with no polite evasions and with searing honesty. I don’t mean to suggest that the other guests—bishops and sisters predominantly—are pollyannaish in their remarks because they do address the pastoral challenges facing their dioceses and communities forthrightly, but not with the passion of Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Military Ordinary for the Federal Republic of Germany.

Of course, there has been a years-long concern in Rome, and in other quarters, over the process, status and content of the German Synod—too liberal, no doctrinal guardrails, dissension among bishops, etc.—and there was a palpable fear among many that the wild liberality of the Germans could compromise the Rome Synod on Synodality. The Rhine flows into the Tiber all over again. In fact, there were frank exchanges between the Vatican and the German hierarchy and episcopal visits to Rome to calm curial nerves and to assuage papal anxiety.

There was also a letter signed by more than a hundred bishops from around the world sent to the German episcopacy addressing what they considered excesses in the German synodal process. The letter, consisting mostly of very conservative American and Latin American prelates with a mere sprinkling of Canadian hierarchs located in the western provinces, was ostensibly a corrective of the German experiment, but indirectly a warning to Francis to beware what he was opening.

So, when Overbeck discussed the reality of the German church he pulled no punches. He spoke of its four-year national synod, the very public debate about women in ministry, the often fierce tensions between doctrine and enculturation, as well as the personnel challenges in his own diocese where since he has been bishop he has presided over the funerals of some 300 priests and the ordinations of a paltry 15. The German synod was a synod of repentance and it started because of the catastrophic consequences of the clerical sex abuse tsunami.  

Overbeck commented that sitting on his desk back home is a dossier of allegations concerning a cardinal deceased by two decades. The pastoral task of healing continues, the voices of the survivors must be listened to, and justice and reconciliation secured. “The disaster is unending,” the plain-speaking bishop opined, and although committed to synodality as understood by his Roman experience, he is no less committed to the synodality of his German experience.

Although clerical sex abuse has commanded little overt and sustained attention at the Synod on Synodality, clericalism, the abuse of power and the need for meaningful priestly formation have surfaced regularly precisely because they were raised repeatedly during the consultative phases—local, diocesan, national and continental—thereby confirming their global significance.

In the judgement of many reputable church historians and theologians the ever-festering, ubiquitous and morale-sapping reality of clerical sex abuse constitutes the greatest institutional and moral crisis facing Catholicism since the Reformation.

The German bishops are facing the crisis head on. Besieged by the angry, the disillusioned and the alienated, the bishops have tried, and I would argue heroically, to grapple with the pastoral implications and to think boldly of how they can move forward.

The synodal model vigorously on display in Rome is one way forward but the German church is wrestling with a pressing moral urgency and time is not an option. Following the release of the Sauvé Report in France, the delayed awakenings to the issue in Italy and Portugal, the tremors shaking Poland and the bankruptcies of many American dioceses, the Vatican strategies of redress and reform are inadequate. Time to think boldly indeed.

When discussing the roots of clericalism, it makes sense to discuss where the incubation of clericalism and its attendant problems lie: the seminary. That is beyond the remit of the Synod, but not beyond its scope. Listening to the Germans has been a bracing corrective.

Christoph Schönborn, the Dominican Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, opted like Overbeck to speak in English rather than German and made a special point of underlying one overriding truth, “If faith, hope and charity do not increase as a result of our work on synodality then it has been in vain.” In this he echoed the sentiments expressed at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. In short, we have our work cut out for us as a church.

Like Overbeck, Schönborn pulled no punches. Europe is no longer the center of Catholicism—a reality that Benedict XVI never fully embraced—but it can and must become a moral center for the challenges facing humanity in Europe and elsewhere that the political classes seem powerless to address. The political leadership of Europe is incapable of reaching an agreement on the matter of immigration and refugees and this is disastrous. The church can fill that vacuum. In addition, Schönborn noted the comment of a highly respected political scientist who remarked that the method of synodality at work in Rome—prayerful disposition, speaking, silence, listening with the heart and the mind, integrating convergences with divergences in a new synthesis of understanding—if applied to the Security Council of the United Nations could shatter the ideological barriers that render the cessation of conflict and the emergence of peace impossible. Think Israel and Gaza; think Ukraine and Russia.

Although it might shock them both, Schönborn and Mary McAleese, past President of Ireland and perennial gadfly in Roman curial circles, have this in common: the Catholic Church with its reach, history and rich philosophical and theological tradition could be the global organ for human rights.

Could be; must be.

Michael W. Higgins is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Next year his book on the Bergoglio papacy, “The Jesuit Disruptor: Francis Takes on His Church” will be published and his book on the Synod, “The 60 Days that Shook the Church: The Synod on Synodality,” will be published in 2025.

Synod: Unpause—What happened here and what the next 11 months hold

In his opening address at the synod on October 4th, Pope Francis referred to the synod as a “pause”—a time when synod participants would take a break from their frenetic lives in order to come together in Rome, to listen to one another, to have “conversations in the Spirit” on our most pressing issues and to identify the convergences, divergences, ideas and questions that emerged in these conversations.

The comment came in the context of the pope asking synod participants to “fast” from speaking to the media, and urging reporters like me to communicate that the synod was about listening. Although he didn’t name it, it was clear that the pope wanted reporters to take a “pause” this month from reporting on the intra-church disagreements we so often focus on. (By the way, I do not recommend telling people not to talk to the press about a story and telling reporters to cover that story positively in the same breath. It’s not a great PR strategy. But I digress.)

For the month of the synod, the press has been surprisingly “good,” as one prominent synod cardinal told me. There have been leaks, but nothing on the scale of the Amazon synod’s Pachamama incident, and only a few analyses have made this out to be a “single issue” synod.

But every pause is, necessarily, temporary, and as the synod comes to a close, it is time to plan for what is next. As synod spiritual director Timothy Radcliffe reminded the synod participants on their retreat, the disciples at the transfiguration did have to come down from the mountain. As synod relator general Cardinal Hollerich reminded them at the beginning of the synod discussions on participation, the success of the synod will be judged on what they accomplished in this momentous “pause.”

The final document for this month’s meeting is expected to be approved and released on Saturday, and it will outline the results of the synod’s conversations—as previously mentioned (and mentioned ad nauseam in the synod hall), the convergences, divergences, questions and ideas. It seems apparent enough that after two years of listening to Catholics around the world, the convergences and divergences on the key questions about how the church fulfills its evangelizing mission will be fairly representative of previous conversations. The questions and ideas that arise will require deeper reflection and investigation; synod officials have already said they may involve possible changes to canon law.

The next 11 months before the synod reconvenes will be a time for discussing those questions and ideas broadly in the church and deepening our reflection on them. This isn’t just a job for the synod participants. They’re coming down the metaphorical mountain not with stone tablets like Moses, but with stories of a profound experience like the Transfiguration that will inspire our next conversations as a community, focus our intentions going forward and inspire us to think differently about what may be possible. It’s this conversation that the synod participants will bring back to Rome next year; this is the “circularity” of synodality that we so often hear about. The pause is coming to an end. Ready, set, go.

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming book on grappling with faith while covering the Vatican will be published by Penguin Random House in spring 2025.

A Journey Faith

In speaking of synodality, there is no word that Pope Francis deploys more frequently than “journey.” After all, as he likes to say, synodality means “journeying together.” Pope Francis clearly relishes the adventure of this way of being church—“I think this is truly the most wonderful experience we can have: to belong to a people walking, journeying through history together with their Lord who walks among us!” And yet not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Where, they wonder, is this journey headed?

Many times over the last ten years, I have returned to the extraordinary interview Pope Francis gave to the Jesuit press some months after his election as pope. There he shared his understanding of the church (“a field hospital”); his views on the confessional (“not a torture chamber”); his feelings about a gay person who sincerely seeks God (“who am I to judge?”); his love of opera, the films of Fellini, the art of Chagall; and his “dogmatic certainty” that “God is in every person’s life.”

But among the nuggets buried in this revealing interview, there was an image that clearly identified the difference between Pope Francis and many of his critics. That was his distinction between what he called a “lab [or laboratory] faith” and a “journey faith.” He said, “There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory. Ours is not a lab faith, but a journey faith, a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.” In a way that distinction points to many of the tensions and fears that have surfaced in the lead-up to this synod, a tension between those who adhere to a “lab faith” and those who embrace the adventure and uncertainty of a “journey faith.”

         What is the difference? In a “lab faith,” everything is certain and mathematical; the greatest threats come from relativism, doubt and uncertainty. (Compare Cardinal Ratzinger’s speech to the conclave of 2005 wherein he identified the “dictatorship of relativism” as the greatest threat facing the church; Bergoglio, in contrast, identified that danger in ecclesial introversion, a hesitancy to go out to the peripheries.) But such a faith can be inflexible—ill prepared to deal with the messiness of life or the nature of reality, which is not all black and white,  yes or no (as demanded by the authors of the most recent “Dubia”). Presuming that all the answers are theoretically knowable in advance, a lab faith may leave us impervious to the surprising promptings of the Holy Spirit.

In contrast to a “lab faith,” a “journey faith” is at home on the frontier; starting with experience rather than with abstract truths. It is constantly open to uncertainty and risk and to new, unexpected information. If a “lab faith” prizes certainty, a journey faith values trust, patience and a capacity to endure or even embrace uncertainty.

In a journey faith, we don’t know all the answers in advance. We have to pray, to practice discernment, to listen to how God is speaking to us through the events of history or the circumstances of our own lives. As Pope Francis notes, “Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing … We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us … God is encountered walking along the path.”

Clearly, for Pope Francis, the significance of the synodal path does not lie in any particular outcomes. It is a way of being church that is comfortable with uncertainty, that travels by the light of faith, that is open to new insights, that is incomplete and always engaged in the “adventure of the quest for meeting God.”

Is there a way of reconciling these two styles of faith—that of the “lab” and that of the “journey”? Both styles have always been present in the church—though typically it has been the “lab faith” that held official sway, while those of the “journey” persuasion were consigned to the margins. Here, in contrast, the balance has been reversed. The difference is that those on the “journey” tend to be more tolerant of diversity, while their “lab” partners sound alarms at anything that seems to stray from the well-worn path. Nevertheless, Pope Francis believes that it is possible to walk “united with our differences. This is the way of Jesus.”

Concluding his homily for the opening Mass of the Synodal Path, he issued this invitation: “Dear brothers and sisters, let us have a good journey together! May we be pilgrims in love with the Gospel and open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit. Let us not miss out on the grace-filled opportunities born of encounter, listening and discernment. In the joyful conviction that, even as we seek the Lord, he always comes with his love to meet us first.”

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books. His most recent book isDearest Sister Wendy. . . A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.

Dubia(s) Faith

This week’s beginning of the Synod on Synodality evinced stark contrasts. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former master of the Dominican Order and one of the great spiritual writers of our time, gave an illuminating retreat for Synod participants. At the same time, a group of Cardinals released a statement saying that they had submitted dubia to Pope Francis concerning the Synod and issues to be discussed there, and that after receiving what they considered to be an inadequate response, they had resubmitted with a request for a “yes/no” answer. These events—and the response the Cardinals received from the Pope—tell us something about inquiry in good and bad faith.

Radcliffe, a former student of the great Hebert McCabe, OP and heir to the English Dominican tradition of intellectualism, is no stranger to learned inquiry, and his role as retreat leader sought to connect mind and heart. Radcliffe notably prayed that members of the Synod would have their hearts freed from fear. This, of course, is easier said than done—truly freeing our hearts from fear requires immense spiritual discipline. He also noted that “orthodoxy is spacious and heresy is narrow,” arguably one of the themes of Pope Francis. Radcliffe further dwelt on the nature of disagreement in the Church, pointing out the need especially to listen to one another yet also refusing a bland “both sides” approach in pointing out the hurt that so many people in marginalized communities have felt from the institution of the church.

The dubia Cardinals, including the American Raymond Cardinal Burke, an implacable critic of Pope Francis, were engaged in a different mode of discourse clearly geared to their press release just ahead of the Synod. This is seen in the phrasing of the four questions they posed. The clear intent was to pose leading questions in order to show the Pope’s unwillingness—read inability—to answer forthrightly. This would enable them to raise the alarm about the project of the Synod and to fearmonger—the quest for “yes/no” answers and the timing of their release on the Monday before the Synod began speaks to this.

This kind of bad faith “gotcha” questioning is endemic to our politics, particularly as it plays out on social media. So much of what passes for political discourse in certain sectors consists of “just asking questions,” serving to stir doubt and derision without spelling the likely consequences of such a position or laying out any constructive alternative. This approach to vaccines alone has cost many thousands of lives. Such questioning is poisonous to inquiry and corrosive to faith.

By answering the dubia, Pope Francis demonstrated shrewdness in the face of cynicism. When the Cardinals came out with their statement, he was prepared to make public his own response to their questions. Thus, rather than leave room for speculation about what he said that the Cardinals found so inadequate, Francis left people free to read it for themselves. In so doing, Francis trusted that people of good will would understand that the questions the Cardinals posed do not lend themselves to simple “yes/no” answers but must be dealt with in their complexity.

Beyond political deftness, however, what Francis demonstrated is his openness to good faith questioning and discussion. While it is not in the scope of this column to get into the substance of the answers that Francis gave to the dubia, what they clearly demonstrate is a sympathy and inclination toward inquiry. Thus, on matters such as women’s ordination where he and other Popes have staked out a clear though widely controverted position, he thus indicates it is possible to study the question and that prior statements fall short of dogmatic definition. This may seem obvious to many readers of this forum, but many Catholics—whether they agree or disagree—likely viewed the Cardinals’ approach as closer to the stated teaching of the Church on these matters. The Synod will, of course, have to take its own approach to the possibilities on such issues, but what Francis offers in his letter is a path forward for good-faith inquiry.

Good faith questioning leads to insight and spiritual nourishment; bad faith questioning leads to cynicism and despair. So much discourse about Pope Francis from his enemies has taken this form, and the dubia represent a kind of culmination. Radcliffe’s retreat provides us with the wisdom we need to pursue this questioning. This is seen especially in his evocation of the road to Emmaus: “A real conversation cannot be controlled. One surrenders oneself to its direction.”

Open inquiry is challenging; it’s much easier to set everything up so you know the answers in advance. I learn this twice a week when teaching an undergraduate seminar asking students to think for themselves about texts and important issues without my providing comfortable conclusions. Inquiry requires discipline to resist cynicism, to keep an open mind and open heart. Let us pray with Radcliffe that the Synod takes this to heart.

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

Church Attendance and Trust

In my last post, I discussed the erosion of social trust in the United States and made the case that parishes have an important countervailing role to play in the restoration and maintenance of social trust. Echoing Pope Francis, I wrote:

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

But what’s the bigger picture? What major trends are the little actions up against?

Recently, I became a subscriber to sociologist Ryan Burge’s excellent Substack, Graphs about Religion. Here and in his posts on X (Twitter), Burge creates and comments on gorgeous, inventively designed graphs about trends in American religion. On September 4, Burge posted an article titled, “Church Attendance Used to Drive Up Trust, It Doesn’t Anymore,” in which he took a deep dive into the data from the General Social Survey (GSS) from the 1970s though the 2010s. Here is what he found.

Since the early 1970s, the GSS has been asking Americans, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?” At that time, just under 50% said yes, most people can be trusted, and 50% replied that you can’t be too careful. A small percentage, under 5%, said that it depends on the circumstances. That “it depends” answer has stayed flat over 50 years (it has inched up to about 9%), while the other two answers have steadily diverged. In 2022, 65% of people chose the distrusted option and 26% said other people could be trusted. While the divergence has been steady, Burge notices that “trust really took a dive in the 1990s. It dropped about eight percentage points in that decade from the prior one.”

Burge associates the trust responses with frequency of church attendance. In every decade up to the 2010s, the more often that someone went to church, the more likely they were to trust their fellow citizens. But that relationship flipped in the aughts decade, especially starting around 2017. The upshot:

It’s clear that at a minimum, there’s no more positive association between religious attendance and trust. If anything, it may be a slightly negative relationship now … Religious attendance used to clearly drive-up interpersonal trust, by about 5% from the bottom of the attendance spectrum to the top. Now, overall trust [among frequent attenders] seems to decline just a bit (2-3 percentage points).

Burge asks, what’s going on? Here is where he can only speculate because generalizations from data speak to correlation, not fully to causation. His hunch is this:

Church used to be a great way to interact with folks who were different than you. They voted for a different candidate; they came from a different economic background. Folks with doctorates sitting next to folks with a high school diploma. That offers a tremendous amount of opportunities to learn about other people. Build bridges, generate social capital, and all kinds of good things. Now, houses of worship have become monocultures.

The research I have been doing for the past three years—interviewing members of a handful of Catholic and Protestant churches and observing their worship, volunteerism and social life—partially confirms, yet also complicates, the picture from the polls. Greater diversity of members’ careers, education, race/ethnicity and socioeconomics does promote the social capital that Burge mentions. But churches are going to be monocultural in at least some regards; they cannot always do a great deal about increasing diversity on every front. Here’s a very brief portrait of how that can play out.

An Evangelical megachurch in New England describes itself on its website with the adjectives, “Jesus-focused, multiethnic, modern, multigenerational, family-friendly.” In my visits to this church on several Sundays, the reality lived up to the advertising on all five points. The church service and sermons aim to unite the people in expressing joyous faith, and they constantly offer opportunities to “meet your church neighbor.” I have not heard political and culture-conflict issues mentioned there.

By contrast, an Evangelical megachurch in Michigan, despite having many of these same qualities, leans into the culture wars. As profiled in the Atlantic, the church’s pastor has grown his church in part because he offers sermons, conferences and opportunities for public witness that reflect the grievance culture of Fox News and the One America Network. Reflecting its local community but also drawing together a self-selected community, this church’s congregation is much more white than the other one.

Finally, a New England Catholic parish that, after two waves of mergers, serves all the Catholics in a large town, is ethnically diverse to a level that reflects the demographics in the area. For reasons of both its size and the ecclesiology of Catholicism, its membership appears to represent a wider socioeconomic range that than the other two churches. Like the first church, it rarely touches controversial social issues from the pulpit or in any public way. Both of these churches might be said to be trying to prevent becoming political monocultures in a practice of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I would argue, as I did at the end of my prior post, that that’s a flawed approach, even though it is common.

The differences that stand out between the Catholic parish and the New England megachurch on trying to avoid becoming monocultures overall is that the Catholic parish has more raw material to work with but doesn’t have a full strategy for doing so. The absence of youth and families in the pews is noticeable and becoming worse. The megachurch very clearly wants to be multiethnic, multigenerational and family-friendly, and it crafts its services and programs accordingly.

Here are my hunches: The Michigan megachurch enjoys a lot of trust among its members, but these members are likely to look with suspicion on their fellow citizens who differ from them. The New England megachurch and the Catholic parish have similar good trust in general among their members, yet their sheer size means that the benefits of the trust are only felt with the people they know at church. I don’t have reason to doubt that their active members are, more so than not, taking attitudes of trust out into society with them. But the Catholics have been getting hurt in their trust at the hands of the Church itself, both by mergers and clerical misconduct (a priest in this parish was recently removed under the shadow of scandal). The ultimate risk for the Catholic parish in building trust is that there will not be people to rub shoulders with.

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

When the Bishop is a Bully: Pastoral Misogyny in Texas

In prayer, let us ask for the grace of a pastoral heart, an open heart that draws near to everyone, so as to bear the Lord’s message…For without this love that suffers and takes risks, our life does not work. If we Christians do not have this love that suffers and takes risks, we risk pasturing only ourselves. Shepherds who are shepherds of themselves, instead of being shepherds of the flock, are people who comb “exquisite” sheep. We do not need to be shepherds of ourselves, but shepherds for everyone… 

(Pope Francis, General Audience, 18 Jan 23)

It is something of a lugubrious tale, really, and perhaps not deemed worthy of notice by many people, but the fraught saga of the bumptious Bishop of the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, Michael Olson, and the cloistered community of Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in Arlington, Texas, centering on the community’s prioress, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, is yet another display of the entrenched misogyny of certain members of the ecclesial hierarchy and yet another instance of a Catholic cleric foregoing any semblance of pastoral care or deference to human dignity (especially with regard to women) and preferring instead to assert his wrathful and prideful dominion over a community of women, as the Vatican gives him license to do so.

This is not the appropriate space to adjudicate the full controversy: in point of fact, the actual truth may never really be known since the accusations that have emerged, especially from the bishop’s office (including the monastery being a den of drug-abusing and drug-selling women and that Gerlach herself had crossed state lines to purchase her stash), are as muddled as they are curious. Still, even if any of the original allegations are close to the truth (at worst, sexual impropriety through text or phone since even the bishop does not claim personal contact between the nun and the priest), the response of Bishop Olson has been so appalling and lacking any semblance of pastoral compassion that there is currently a lay-led petition for his removal within the diocese.

The optics are startling. There is the spectacle of Bishop Olson first descending into the monastery with a band of brothers to confiscate all Mother Gerlach’s communication devices; later, his call to local law enforcement to enter the monastery to investigate and confiscate the communication devices of all the other nuns, and then finally, in reaction to the nuns’ rejection of his claims and methods, his prohibition of the celebration of (public) Mass and Confession at the monastery. Indeed, the event of Bishop Olson first threatening excommunication of Mother Gerlach and then censuring of the other members of the community, reminds this daughter of Boston, Massachusetts, not of the compassionate solicitude that any ordained man of the Church is expected to proffer to any member of his “flock,” but more the authoritarian tactics of the Puritan theocrats in the 17th century against women who resisted their dominion. Of course, the Olson episode also echoes the frenetic “apostolic visitation” to religious in 2008 that, ultimately, proved to be only a fruitless exercise of misogynistic furor.

The optics alone of this sordid series of events should give any thoughtful Catholic pause. How can the Church—and this Pope—continue to preach equity and love and mercy when it persists in the atrocious double standard that persecutes and maligns women but continues to care for men and, historically, even abet men in their deception? For example, it took weeks before the name of the priest who was the correspondent in this “sinful” matter to be publicly named, but the bishop promulgated the name of Mother Gerlach as soon as possible. There was little substantive proof or alternate explanations for the many accusations Olson made and yet he acted (and judged) imperiously and without pastoral concern for any of the nuns; however, for decades, the Church hierarchy protected, advised, consoled and even abetted thousands of male priests who were knowingly guilty of heinous crimes against children and other instances of grave moral failure.

As always, however, the specifics are more the sideshow to the grave disease of misogyny that continues to erode the Church. It is not simply a question of “allowing” women a “seat” at the synodal table or more presence at the altar—it is an insufferable culture of disregard and discontent with women (religious and lay) that has been pervasive in the history of institutional Christianity but made all the more acute by the resistant self-regard of a single-gendered community of men. The Vatican has supported Bishop Olson in all his machinations and communications and, thus, seems to have abandoned the nuns, cloistered Carmelites, to their male persecutor.

All of this must be considered with regard to the future of the Catholic Church, at least in the U.S. The epic fail of the Church to demonstrate even a fraction of pastoral care for the community of women and not demur at all when Bishop Olson sends out to the public a video complaining about his treatment at the hands of the nuns and how he has been so unfairly maligned, only telegraphs to women, especially younger women, that the Catholic Church neither defends nor protects their dignity as humans and their integrity as females. There can be no “rebuilding” of any edifice as long as one half is no longer there for support.

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