A publication of Sacred Heart University

At the Crossroads

On the road to Emmaus, according to Luke, there came a point when Jesus made as if to go on without the two disciples but they pressed him to stay with them (Lk 24: 28). The Church universal in these strange times is at such a cross-roads. The case of Ireland may be instructive.

Long known as the ‘island of saints and scholars,’ with high rates of religious observance and an enormous missionary outreach to both the developed and  developing worlds, Ireland is now effectively  entering a post-Catholic phase. Even if over 78 percent of the population in the Republic still identified as Catholic in the recent census, it is increasingly accepted that this is a ‘cultural Catholicism’ for so many that does not translate into active discipleship, while the fastest-growing demographic is younger people without faith adherence.

Since at least the 1980s, there has been an erosion of the traditional Catholicism that so imbued Irish personal and public life. This has been evidenced most clearly in public policy issues like contraception, divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage and, most spectacularly last year, abortion, where the State, supported by the majority of the people, has increasingly adopted positions at odds with that of the Catholic Church. There is a crisis of vocations to the priesthood, with the managerial device of parish ‘clustering’ introduced to ensure the availability of Sunday Eucharist for all. One gets a sense of demoralisation, even of defeatism.

The most obvious reason for this dramatic change of fortune is the scandal of child and institutional abuse by clerics and religious and its mishandling by church authorities. This is a familiar story elsewhere in the Church. The damage to victims, survivors and their wider families has been enormous and will take a long time to heal. The moral authority and prestige of the Church have taken a huge hit.

However, I would also point to other, and perhaps even deeper, sources of disenchantment with the Church. There is the clear non-reception of much church teaching on issues of sexuality and gender. This is particularly so among younger people who find, for example, the Church’s attitude toward homosexuality and gay relations, as well as its stance on women priests, at best of little interest and at worst unjust and immoral.

And, perhaps deeper still, there is a sense that in the dominant culture of Western Christianity (now increasingly making headway elsewhere in our globalized world) the individual person and his/her experience and story, authenticity, freedom, equality and the  voices of minorities always trump the institutional voices of a patriarchal hierarchy with its focus on institutional cohesion and rule-keeping.

In this context, with secularism widening and deepening, the Catholic Church in Ireland is faced with a choice, articulated well by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. Given that we are likely to be a minority in the future, do we batten down the hatches, circle the wagons and become a ‘culturally irrelevant minority,’ or do we ‘cast out into the deep,’ in a spirit of dialogue and engagement with our world?

Readers will recognize in this choice facing Ireland the similar question facing the Church world-wide: given the end of ‘Christendom,’ and the futility of investing energy and resources in unwinnable political battles that only reinforce the idea of Christianity as a set of ethical precepts that the Church seeks to impose via the state, do we choose the so-called Benedict option of a future, ‘smaller, purer church,’ a critic on the side-lines? Or do we go for the so-called Francis option—a Church in conversation and dialogue with the world, redolent of the ‘smell of the sheep,’ a field-hospital because it itself is sick and is being treated, a church that wins adherents through attraction to the person of Jesus Christ, friend of the poor, icon of the infinite tenderness and mercy of God our Mother and Father?

This is the Church Pope Francis calls synodal, stating boldly that it is the kind of church that God expects of us in the third millennium. It will develop a culture of open discussion and debate, with appropriate structures and institutions to allow this to happen. It will involve lay people, women and men, in teaching and governance. It will not be afraid to change and will allow, as Newman knew so well, that ‘consulting the faithful’ results in a ‘development of doctrine’ that is not simply linear in nature but is also corrective.

There is increasing evidence in Ireland that our bishops are taking this Francis option seriously and may be on the cusp of decisive action in this respect. The laity who remain are clearly ready for action of this kind. This needs to happen more widely in other countries for the Francis revolution to be actualized, a millennial paradigm shift to a model of church that has deep  biblical and traditional roots and is particularly well-placed to dialogue with (and critique, where necessary) our contemporary culture.

When the two disciples made their choice at their crossroads they went, through their encounter with the stranger, from downcast faces to burning hearts, from despondency to joy. We are at a similar crossroads today.


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


Creative Reimagining Needed to Resolve the Crisis in the Church

The present crisis in the church has been a long time in the making and no one should be so naïve as to think that it will find a quick resolution. Pope Francis and his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., have signaled in recent days that we ought to temper our expectations for the upcoming meeting of the heads of the episcopal conferences from around the world in Rome. Austen Ivereigh, the biographer and astute observer of Pope Francis and his pontificate, suggests that we should not look for institutional reform, but for Francis to continue his efforts to reform the culture, in particular the culture of clericalism at the root of the shocking failure of pastoral leadership that continues to reverberate around the world (“From Evasion to Conversion,” Commonweal - January 30, 2019).

The gathering of the bishops in Rome signifies that the global Catholic community is at last coming to terms with the truth that no local church is immune from the human reality of abuse nor from the systemic failure of pastoral leaders to do justice. The reality of abuse can no longer be dismissed as a North American affair nor as a problem inherent in the liberal West. Sadly, today one quarter of the world’s conferences of Catholic bishops still have no established safeguarding policies nor procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy or church personnel. These measures were mandated many years ago by Francis’ predecessor. Some conferences may simply lack the means to develop them. Others are likely stuck in denial.

Father Lombardi seems to suggest that the meeting in Rome will be a time for schooling the bishops, requiring that they really listen to the experience of victims, to better understand the dynamics of abuse and the enduring harm it effects. The meeting will be conducted in a penitential spirit, aiming to inspire a necessary conversion in the bishops’ ways of thinking and of proceeding. There is no doubt that better education and a profound attitudinal conversion are needed. However, to be truly effective, any conversion of the culture must be met by a substantive reform of the very structures that have fostered a clerical caste more interested in protecting itself than the people it pretends to serve.

Fifteen years ago, John P. Beal, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, described the sexual abuse crisis as “an ecclesial leadership crisis.” In comments that now appear tragically prescient, he worried that the policies set out in the 2002 Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse were insufficient to address the “deeper problems” relating to the ineptitude of the bishops who denied, covered up and minimized the true scope of the problem. He noted that in the present canonical structure and practice of the Catholic Church “all lines of accountability lead upward.”

This has created a situation where only the pope has the power to suspend or remove negligent or delinquent bishops from their duties. In the broad scope of history, this is a rather untraditional approach to church governance. In centuries past one finds abundant examples of horizontal lines of accountability where bishops would not imagine acting without the full collaboration of the cathedral chapters or synods that elected them. (Such structures remain in a number of Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches today.) Metropolitan bishops had greater oversight for discipline within their ecclesiastical province.

Now is the time for a creative reimagining of horizontal structures of episcopal accountability that would include fellow bishops, clergy and the lay faithful of the diocesan church. New procedures are sorely needed for the election of diocesan bishops – so as to engage more fully the community of the baptized in discerning the pastoral and leadership needs of their church. The participation of competent lay persons on diocesan personnel boards might develop a more adequate profile for the kind of priests needed to meet today’s needs. They should share actively in discerning the suitability of candidates for ministry and contribute to priestly formation. Diocesan pastoral councils must assume a more vital role. Regular forums – assemblies, synods, diocesan retreats – are needed to enable the bishop to hear from representatives from every parish community as they seek to discern together missional needs and priorities. Every space for frank exchange will contribute to the kind of transparency and accountability needed in church governance today and brought to light by the sexual abuse crisis. Pope Francis, in a letter to the whole people of God, has indicated that bishops alone are unlikely to find a solution to present challenges. The creation of new and vital structures for ongoing dialogue is the first step to discerning a way forward together.

In the absence of genuine synodality – supported by participative structures that honor diversity and foster the synergy of gifts belonging to all the baptized – the college of bishops is likely to remain a self-absorbed body drifting above the very church they were ordained to serve.


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


The Real Scandal

The “clergy sex abuse scandal” has been something of a misnomer in that, according to the First Law of Media Dynamics, the public always views the cover-up as worse than the crime. Every case of abuse is a crime, a horror and a tragedy. But it is the concealment of those acts, by bishops charged with overseeing priests, that infuriates the flock.

The problem is that the church’s “doctrine of scandal” has, by tradition and by canon law and by some readings of Saint Paul, gotten the formula exactly backwards: sins must be concealed to preserve the faithful – “the faithful” taken here to mean a flock too weak-minded to be trusted – from having their faith undermined by the discovery that some of their shepherds are not all they’ve been cracked up to be. Time and again we heard bishops say they did not want to “give scandal” by publicizing the real reason a pastor was suddenly yanked from the pulpit or sent into retirement or transferred elsewhere, or they claimed they did not want to bring the church into disrepute before a hostile world by airing the clergy’s dirty laundry.

That attitude is, as Victoria Gaile Laidler rightly put it, an “infantilization of the laity” and “an outgrowth of clericalism, which perceives clergy as a class as holier, closer to God, stronger in faith and wiser in judgment than laypeople as a class, purely by virtue of their clerical status.” While some churchmen may have come by this condescension honestly, the sacred rationale for covering up crimes also tended to dovetail suspiciously well with institutional preservation and career advancement.

Until it didn’t.

“The irony, of course, is that all this avoidance of scandal has resulted in the greatest scandal in the Catholic Church since the Reformation,” as Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, put it in a Religion News Service column.

Silk suggested that Pope Francis needs to change canon law to make it clear that the sins of the fathers cannot be hidden on the obviously false pretense that exposing them would shake the faith of the flock and drive them away.

That’s a perfectly fine idea, but while the canon lawyers are sharpening their quills, I’d be happy if the church – starting with the Vatican – simply began telling the whole truth about what it knows about a particular case, and why. “The papacy must be a glass house,” John Paul II told reporters back in the early years of his papacy, in the 1980s. Yet if John Paul himself was happy to be out and about for all to see, he succeeded in constructing an impenetrable edifice around the rest of the church, ostensibly to defend her from a hostile world and the contagion of secularism and moral relativism. What that wall also shielded, however, was the church’s own relativism when it came to the sexual abuses of minors, a scandal that went virtually unaddressed throughout much of his papacy.

Francis, after many missteps, has been much better when it comes to transparency. But again, the bar was low and much more needs to be done. Hopefully the Vatican summit on combating abuse at the end of February will be another step forward in this regard, but one simple step – and one that should hardly be controversial – would be for the Vatican to explain why a bishop has been forced to resign, or indeed why he is allowed to resign at all and has not been dismissed. It hardly saves face, or protects the sensibilities of a flock that now assumes the worst, to have a bishop who has shielded an abuser or committed some other act of misgovernance to retire without an adequate explanation beyond the citation of a generic passage from canon law (and even that is not always forthcoming these days).

Similarly, that all dioceses in the U.S. have not published lists of credibly accused clerics (“credibly accused” or “substantiated allegations” being terms that also need some clarification) is confounding, to say the least. Before the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report last August, only about 40 out of 187 Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States had revealed the names of clerical abusers; as of January that number has more than doubled, but it still accounts for just about half of all dioceses. And some still aren’t getting the message.

The Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., for example, is hesitating to join what it calls a “stampede” toward transparency, with a spokesman for Bishop Peter Jugis telling the Charlotte Observer that doing so might re-traumatize victims. “There is no empirical evidence that publishing a list brings comfort or aid to a victim,” said David Hains. “(Some Catholic priests) have obviously done a lot to harm victims. We don’t want to pile on and do more.”

Victims themselves say that’s empirically not the case, and indeed publishing names of alleged abusers has been shown to be the most effective way of empowering victims who have not stepped forward to speak up.

There’s an important corollary to this appeal for transparency, namely the responsibility of Catholic media to investigate and report the truth. No account of the arc of this scandal narrative is complete without noting the groundbreaking efforts by National Catholic Reporter starting in the 1980s and continuing over the decades. NCR, along with journalists in secular media who pursued these stories, were subject to relentless criticism, stonewalling and worse; yet they persisted.

The role of Catholic media today is even more important for two reasons: One, the abuse crisis has grown more complex as we are moving forward from viewing it as a simple, and simplistic, problem of bad priests and zero tolerance solutions. It’s now becoming clear that this is a problem of a distorted clerical culture, of episcopal malfeasance and improper priestly formation – and these issues will require deeper and more far-reaching global solutions involving theology and ecclesiology, governance and ministry. These are the kind of topics that Catholic journalists should be able to tackle better than anyone.

But the other reality is that Catholic media must step up because secular media are facing tectonic shifts in the industry that are dramatically reducing the number of reporters available to cover a growing number of pressing issues, from politics to economics. Religion is often left behind.

Unfortunately, even as the Internet provided more points of entry for Catholic journalism at a lower cost, the price has been to open the door to well-financed, ideologically-oriented outlets and social media mavens on the right that have suddenly discovered the clergy abuse crisis – and are weaponizing it to advance their agenda on behalf of their pet political issues, against what they see as doctrinal lassitude, against gays in the priesthood (and anywhere else in the church) and, above all, against Pope Francis and his allies who are seeking a more inclusive, pastoral and dynamic church. The faux journalism of these Catholic media and their like-minded secular counterparts ultimately winds up taking the focus away from reforms to make children safe and the church a credible witness to the Gospel.

A secular media that has fewer religion writers, and fewer reporters with experience on the Catholic beat, relies more than ever on Catholic outlets to provide leads on church news. What they too often find are stories promoted by self-styled Catholic journalists who display little knowledge of the practice of journalism or the ethics of Catholicism.

If, as the sobering aphorism has it, “The first casualty of war is truth,” then a Church that sees itself at war with the world – and a Catholic media waging a civil war inside the Church – are going to produce yet another victim in a tragic crisis that has already seen far too many.


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


A Listening Church

In the midst of crisis, the most common human reaction, understandably, is an impulse to DO SOMETHING. As our Church reels from long overdue revelations of clerical sexual abuse and corruption, there is an overriding, incontrovertible need for action. When one receives a diagnosis of a serious ailment, the response is often two-fold: amelioration of symptoms and attacking the underlying disease. The vile symptoms of this disease afflicting the Church are clear. Abuse in the Church must always be condemned and rooted out. But when abuse is aimed at the most innocent, the need to address the severity of the symptom predominates, occluding further action. However, this abuse must be addressed not only symptomatically but also causally. We must acknowledge and treat the underlying disease.

All forms of abuse are rooted in cultures of power and self-aggrandizement. Regretfully, our Church has persistently created and preserved hierarchies of power validated by spurious absolutist claims to superiority: male over female, those ordained over laity, etc. A Church called to witness the love and compassion of the Tri-Une God too often has exercised judgment and exclusion instead, purportedly in the name of preserving Truth. Church leaders have become comfortable as elite teachers more than companions and co-disciples. As a result, they fail to attend to the voice of the Spirit amidst the People of God.

It cannot be said that listening is absent. Catholics are well practiced in the art of listening, in one sense. Papal pronouncements are listened to, after which everyone from across the spectrum (whichever spectrum you choose) responds within their own echo chamber. Similarly, hierarchs, clergy and laity may listen to alternate voices, only to explain, within their own networks, why the alternate voice is misguided, in error or naïve. While listening occurs, it fails to convert to a new understanding of the movement of the Spirit in our lives and in our world.

However, a listening Church necessarily is a Church of conversion. Pope Francis has frequently called the Church, specifically bishops, to become better listeners. In his 2018 document “Episcopalis Communio,” Francis reminded us that a bishop must “simultaneously be a teacher and a disciple.” Francis has indicated that bishops must listen to the People of God to more fully discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a bishop’s listening must lead to his conversion, just as the Pope’s listening must lead to his fuller understanding of how he is to exercise his charism of leadership. However, listening cannot be limited to special occasions such as the Synod of Bishops. Listening must become the very lifeblood of the Church. This is the medicine for the disease of power devastating the Church—a remedy that is not so easy to swallow. This listening demands a new humility. It is listening to the other not simply to be informed of their reality. Rather, it means listening in silence and asking how what I hear reveals the Spirit to me. Clerics who listen to laity in humility do so not for politeness or even respect, but rather with a willingness to hear truths that may change how they minister. The voices of others, especially the victimized, excluded, marginalized and denigrated can restore the Church from its disease of power, but only when we, with power, internalize this process of listening. Requiring historical “unlearning” of privilege, this process demands nurturing and careful practice. To become a Listening Church of conversion, we need to create structures of dialogue at every level. We need to accept our own personal fallibility and so enter into any dialogue with a little less certainty of our positions and a little more openness to the other. We need to prepare ourselves for the uncertainty that being a Church of listeners will bring, because discernment seldom takes a quick route. We need to be prepared to live in the tension of seeing “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) with only the certitude that, through our openness and humility, the Spirit will speak and “lead us to all truth” (Jn. 16:13).

Along with causing pain and outrage, the acknowledgment of the betrayal of the Community of Faith, of its Christian mission presents an opportunity for decision/conversion. This time of crisis is a time for us, all members constituting the Church, to move from illness to health, to re-build the Church as a community of listeners perpetually converted by the gift of the Holy Spirit.


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


We Need to Reflect on Our Complicity in Racism

The ongoing crisis in the church surrounding the sexual abuse scandal and the loss of confidence in authority has been rightly unsettling for many Catholics. As we reflect on this reality of years-long evil and complicity, we ought not to let it distract us from other injustices in which many Catholics – clerical and lay alike – have sadly been complicit. In the United States, this manifestly includes the nation’s “original sin” of racism rooted in centuries of racially based chattel slavery. In so reflecting, we turn our attention to Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the national calendar in the U.S. commemorates on January 21.  King’s example has much to offer us both on this question of racial injustice and on the classic Catholic question of sainthood and its implications.

Growing up as an “old millennial” in the 1980s and 1990s, I was part of the first generation of American schoolchildren for whom the Martin Luther King Day holiday in January, and concomitant lessons in school, were a “given” part of the calendar. Little did I know at the time of the complicated history of the holiday’s passage into law or the controversial nature of King’s life and work up until and even after his death. King’s secular “sainthood” – centered around the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham protests of spring 1963 and the “I Have a Dream” speech – seemed safely a part of the American mythos on which I was raised.

Dorothy Day, herself likely on the path to sainthood in the church, famously commented, “Don’t call me a saint – I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” The thrust of Day’s comment was that it is all too easy for sainthood – whether official church canonization or other kinds of sainthood such as that surrounding King (who is also commemorated on the calendars of some church bodies) – to reduce people to facets of their lives that are most comfortable for those who are themselves comfortable or powerful. In so reducing complex figures to flatter, easier versions, we refuse the challenge that made the person a saint in the first place. 

King’s veneration is well deserved and yet, as Day’s comment about sainthood indicates, has in certain respects oversimplified King’s legacy, particularly among white Americans. Michael Eric Dyson, Jeanne Theoharis and other thinkers have explored the ways in which the legacy of the Civil Rights movement has been utilized to obscure present-day injustices and the movements that combat them. This is particularly and ironically the case for the Black Lives Matter movement and the way it has been vilified by many whites who view its simple slogan, and demands for acknowledgement of equal Black humanity by law enforcement and other societal institutions, as a threat.

King himself did not die a popular or sainted figure among white Americans. His 1967 announcement of opposition to the Vietnam War did not sit well with many whites, particularly middle-class northern whites (many of them Catholics). His later speeches also more explicitly named racism as the root of the problems the Civil Rights movement sought to remedy. This shift in emphasis came very much from his experiences fighting housing discrimination in the urban and particularly suburban north. This is apparent if one watches the raw footage contained in the 1970 documentary film King: A Filmed Record, particularly the 1966 march for integration in the Chicago suburbs. This campaign – which King described as one of the most difficult of his career – was met by a vociferous white (and again largely Catholic) backlash that might be shocking to some, but sadly should not be in light of some of the things we have witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere recently.

Worthwhile reading for this Martin Luther King Day would be King’s great sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” delivered in Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 – mere days before his death. In that sermon, King attacks the evils of racism, poverty and war in bracing language that acknowledges the unpopularity of his stands. He also raises the problem of the unique injustice to Black Americans as the only group that has been subjected to slavery on American soil. This is a fact that we as a nation still struggle to reckon with, and is particularly trenchant for American Catholics, many of whom traditionally have been “white ethnics” who faced discrimination early on but later gained acceptance through assimilation to a whiteness that was unavailable to Black Americans. Just because one’s ancestors did not personally participate in slavery does not exempt one from its long-term benefits and consequences.

Saints are there to challenge us, to unsettle us from our usual ways of thinking and doing. If our image of a saint – whether a saint of the church, a “secular” saint or both – is not doing this, it usually is a judgment on us, not on them (which is not to say saints have to be “perfect” and free of error, as one has only to peruse the list of saints to realize). Martin Luther King and the causes for which he lived and died – racial equality, economic justice, peace – deserve better than simplistic hagiography. We have witnessed in the past few years the dangers that arise from a failure of vigilance and memory concerning hatreds that we naively assure ourselves were limited to the past or to “other” people (1930s Germans, bigoted Southerners). Let us honor King’s memory by remembering it more fully and dedicating ourselves to the causes he embraced – not just the ones we find convenient.

Renewing the church does not just meant cleaning up the internal messes of malfeasance by Catholic leaders, much needed as this is. It means finding a prophetic voice against injustice that has been too often silenced or selectively exercised, and which is now – at least in the case of the hierarchy – rendered void of moral authority. It means listening to the voices of black Catholics, too often neglected in histories as well as discussions of contemporary American Catholics. And it means acknowledging and repenting of the sins of commission and omission by white Catholics, including “white ethnic” Catholics, putting property values above justice in the era of “white flight” and those who are indifferent or complicit (whether directly or through willful ignorance of their own complicity) with racial hatred today. Turning for guidance to King and other saints – Catholic and not – would be a worthy starting point for this effort.


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


Culture Wars and Women’s Bodies: Why the Catholic Church is Implicated in the Politics of the Far Right

In 2017, Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Presbyterian pastor Marcelo Figueroa, editor of the Argentinian edition of L’Osservatore Romano, co-wrote an article on America’s culture wars titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.” The article provoked widespread debate, but today it seems even more relevant and accurate in its analysis than when it was first published. It refers to “an ecumenism of hate” expressed in a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations” that finds common ground around issues such as “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.” Over and against this “ecumenism of conflict,” the authors posit Pope Francis’s “ecumenism that moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges” in which “the contribution of Christianity to a culture is that of Christ washing the feet.”

The American Right enjoyed inordinate influence in the Vatican under the last two popes. Notwithstanding significant disagreement when it came to American military interventionism, from the early 1990s, America’s culture warriors successfully focused all the hierarchy’s moral energy on opposition to abortion, homosexuality, feminism and gender theory, just as in the 1980s they had successfully focused its energy on opposing liberation theology. Francis has done much to change this power imbalance, and the hierarchy is becoming increasingly representative of the diverse cultures and contexts that make up global Catholicism. He has revived the vision of Vatican II and shifted the emphasis away from doctrinal absolutism around issues of sexuality and gender to focus on social and environmental justice and a more pastorally sensitive approach to the existential realities of living and loving. It is clear from the hate-filled campaigns they have launched against him that the erstwhile power brokers of American Catholicism are not pleased.

However, in one important area nothing significant has changed, and that is in church teachings relating to female sacramental, sexual and reproductive embodiment and the role and representation of women in the Church. Catholic teaching remains rooted in the belief that men have God-given authority to exercise control over women’s bodies, including the exclusion of the female body from the sacramental capacity to represent Christ. An exclusively male hierarchy continues to promote its teachings on sexuality, abortion and family life without any public engagement with women. Francis seeks a church whose guiding model is that of dialogue, but we have yet to see any meaningful dialogue between the Catholic hierarchy and women.

It is hard to overestimate the extent to which this plays into the hands of those who seek to co-opt the Catholic Church into the service of the nationalist and racist ideologies spreading through the western democracies. The control of the female body underlies every quest for racial, religious or national domination, for it is through women’s bodies that genealogies of race, religion and nation are perpetuated and the “purism” to which Spadaro and Figueroa refer is promoted. The recent television series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a chilling reminder of the association between political tyranny and reproductive control.

Some years ago, I wrote a journal article analyzing the influence of the Holy See on the United Nations around issues of gender and sexuality. I pointed out how a powerful alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals, improbably supported by some Islamic theocracies, exploited the Holy See’s membership of the UN to block the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights. These attempts by the Holy See to inhibit international development policies relating to women’s rights are symptomatic of the extent to which the Catholic Church is implicated in the rise of a global political agenda of the Right that finds common ground in the impetus to control female bodies through its opposition to reproductive rights.

The Church’s moral teaching on abortion could find a coherent place within a wider pro-life ethos if women were full participants as active agents and not simply passive recipients of church teaching, particularly around reproductive and sexual teachings that impact directly upon female lives in complex and sometimes tragic ways. Church teaching shows a shocking disregard for the many ways in which women and girls suffer as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. Abortion is still too often presented in absolutist language which takes no account of factors influencing abortion decisions, including consideration of the social and economic conditions needed to promote maternal and infant flourishing. Nowhere in church teaching is there any sustained discussion of maternal mortality, despite the fact that nearly 300,000 women and girls die every year as a result of complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth (including unsafe abortions), 99 percent of them in the world’s poorest communities.

No matter how much Francis changes the men at the top, no matter how passionately he promotes his vision of a poor church of the poor in the context of the all-encompassing environmentalism of Laudato Si’, his efforts will fail as long as the Church in its institutions and teachings continues to uphold the idea that men are divinely authorized to rule over women’s lives. Remove that distorted ideology, and the collusion between Catholicism and the demagogues of the Far Right will become more difficult to sustain. Only through gender inclusivity can other forms of inclusivity be truly embraced and expressed.


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


The Pope’s Bold Plan for Rebuilding the Church is Being Ignored

There is arguably no papal document since the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that has mapped out such a radical reform of Church governance, life and mission as Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

It is the blueprint for what the pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has called a “paradigm shift” towards a more decentralized, synodal and missionary Church for the next millennium.

Yet, in the more than five years since Francis issued the exhortation in September 2013, this revolutionary text remains largely unstudied and unimplemented at almost every level of the Catholic Church—parishes, dioceses, episcopal conference and even at Vatican.

Revelations over the past year confirming that the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its institutional cover-up are a global phenomenon and not limited to just a few regions have further neutralized Evangelii gaudium’s impact.

The highly emotive events of 2018—including, but not limited to, the widespread abuse catastrophe in Chile, the removal of the sexual predator Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals and the former papal nuncio to Washington’s lurid accusations that the Vatican and the pope have allowed sexually active homosexuals to climb the hierarchical while covering up abuse—have forced the now 82-year-old Francis to devote much more time to dealing with the abuse crisis.

Catholics who identify as traditionalists, and those obsessed with the strict enforcement of rules and blind submissiveness to the clergy, have seen this crisis as the chink in the Jesuit pope’s armor. Though most of Pope Francis’ critics remained silent and were even dismissive of the claims of abuse victims only a few years ago, they have now seized on his seemingly ambivalent handling of this crisis as their most effective means of further blocking his more widespread and profound plans for reform.

It is hard to recall a time in modern history when the Bishop of Rome was so contested, despised and vilified. Not even Paul VI faced such opposition as he tried to implement the reforms called by the just-concluded Vatican Council II.

Evangelii gaudium is a challenging manifesto for deep and radical reform and, as such, it is a threat to Francis’ traditionalist opponents. That most Catholics, including bishops and priests, are largely unaware of the exhortation’s profound significance, or are just ignoring it, is of great assistance to these opponents’ efforts.

Certainly, other documents from this pontificate—such as the 2015 encyclical on creation and ecology (Laudato Si’) and the 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family (Amoris laetitis)—have raised a lot more discussion and controversy. But, by the pope’s own admission, none of them are as important as Evangelii gaudium. Francis continues to see “The Joy of the Gospel” as his most consequential contribution to the future life and development of the Church.

The main objective of the document is to move Catholics out of the comfort of their self-referential and neat-and-tidy communities into the messiness and ambiguities of everyday life beyond the church sanctuary. It is a call to renewed mission.

Thus, it is a stinging rebuke to “the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’ ” and a direct summons “to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization” (EG 33).

Pope Francis is trying to launch a radical “missionary option” that will necessarily mean “transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

That means change and reform—even of the structures and practices of the centralized bureaucracy at the Vatican.

“Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach,” the pope says. He calls for a greater enhancement of the “genuine doctrinal authority” of episcopal conferences.

The main goal is to renew the Church as a community of believers that takes the Gospel of Jesus Christ outside of its comfort zone and joyfully shares it (not imposes it) with all people, but especially with those who are poor, despised, outcast and on the margins. It certainly does not envision a Church that is immaculate and perfect, but one that takes risks and is unafraid of stumbling in its mission to share the Good News and the Word of Life with all humanity.

This, in a nutshell, this the kind of Church that Pope Francis is trying to bring forth:

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.

“If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.”

The pope continues: “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).”

This is what a renovated Church looks like in the mind of Pope Francis. Those who want to be part of the rebuilding project have the guiding document at hand. It’s called the Gospel. And the blueprint for making it alive for the Church in our times is Evangelii gaudium.

All Catholics, no matter what their role or responsibility in the Church, need to read this apostolic exhortation, study it and pray over it. Then help implement it. Perhaps this would be the start of a rejuvenated and vibrant community of faith, a sign of hope for the world.


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


A Church in Need of Kenosis

When I learned quite recently that Pope Francis is such a fan of the work of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo that he called him one day to congratulate him on his latest book, I was led to give more attention to Vattimo’s prescription for ecclesial health, that what the church needs is more kenosis! In face of the church’s continuing struggle with the scandal of sexual abuse, everyone rightly proclaims the importance of becoming more humble. Given the history, we would be foolish not be humble. Humility, however, is not enough.

Humility is a virtue, but kenosis is a practice. The two, of course, belong together, though while kenosis cannot happen without humility, humility doesn’t always lead to kenosis. The intensely “umble” Uriah Heep had no sense that this attitude required change. In fact, of course, in Dickens’ novels and in the Catholic Church, any humility that is just cringing is pretty much the opposite of true humility.

Kenosis, or self-emptying, is what happens when our need to be humbled is patterned after the divine life. In the Incarnation, Paul says in Philippians, it is God who empties the self of God in becoming human in Jesus Christ. In a strange way, we know that Christ is God in history because he was, for all his compassionate and healing actions, in human terms, a figure of weakness and failure. Discipleship of Christ begins in humility, which should not be hard for human beings with open eyes, but it has to continue in the actions that humility requires, the self-emptying that stands as a sign of contradiction to the world around us. Even if it is destined to end in failure.

There is a lesson in divine kenosis for a church struggling with resolution to the ongoing crises of sex abuse and abuse of power. God’s parallel to human humility is divine compassion, and kenosis is the action that cashes in that level of concern. A truly humble church patterned after the life of Christ will empty out all self-concern in the pursuit of purification. Clericalism got us into this mess by wrapping up our self-concern in the mantle of “protecting the good name of the church,” and we will only get out of this mess, if we ever do, by abandoning all attempts to be anything other than totally open. Evidently, our leaders have not all yet reached this point. Kenosis, it seems sometimes, is reserved to God, whereas divine kenosis is really a teaching tool on the way to achieve true humanity.

The kenosis demanded of the clergy is pretty obvious; discipleship of Christ requires service before prestige or, more accurately, only the prestige that follows from a life of service that is not seeking that kind of recognition. But what is not quite so obvious is that there is no kenosis if there is no action. Interior acts of humility, however sincere, do not cut it. What will the clergy in general and bishops in particular do? One thing they could do would be to act on the conviction that there is a difference between church management and sacramental leadership, and that management is not a clerical charism. Step aside and let qualified laity do what qualified laity are qualified to do.

The kenosis demanded of the lay community is less obvious but equally important. The virtue of humility has been preached to the laity for many centuries and very successfully internalized. This contributed considerably to the ease with which bishops could hide predatory priests from the law. But the humility the church preaches to the laity is deeply a-kenotic because it calls for no action at all. It not only does not involve actions that grow out of humility, it positively discourages them. Lay humility as assumed by the laity cannot accept that understanding of the virtue. The humility of the Hebrew prophets did not prevent them challenging their leaders, even if this put their lives in danger. Self-emptying for the laity today is not about giving up prestige, but rather giving up the comfort that accompanies passivity. Every time we do not speak when we should or do not act when action is called for, we are failing in our discipleship of the Christ who personifies the self-emptying of God.


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


The Church is a Field Hospital After a Battle

We are living in an enormously traumatic moment in the life of the church, a moment that at its core has been produced by the sin of a church that is called in its every essence to reflect holiness to the world. At every level in the life of the church, we are confronting elements of rot and corrosion and need for radical reform in our ecclesial community that can regenerate the reality of missionary discipleship that is the vocation of every Christian.

At such a moment, the theology of the church must be imbued with a deep humility rooted in the recognition that our church is truly the pilgrim people of God, seeking ever deeper understanding of the pathway to which the Lord is guiding us.

Our theology must incorporate the vocation of the laity as the centerpiece of the church’s action in the world, and in doing so reject the clericalism that has imprisoned the church and created a blindness to the failings and dominance of a clerical caste system that on so many levels mocks the servant priesthood of Jesus Christ, who was servant to all, brother to all in their concrete needs and suffering.

A theology for the present age must look to the future and engage the young, the marginalized and the alienated with special fervor, never being content to recede into a smaller, purer church that is unwilling to risk grappling with the world in the light of the Gospel that was brought to all nations.  Perhaps, most importantly,  we need a theology for the present moment that is deeply pastoral at its heart, expressed more fully by its understanding of the dynamic of mercy and grace that God brings into the concrete lives of men and women, that by its syllogisms and doctrinal formulations.

It is my belief that the theological method and content preached by Pope Francis for the past five years points us toward just such a theology.

The pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects the traditional prism that focused pastoral theology on the work of priests, or even on a more generalized notion of pastoral ministry in the internal life of the church. In a very real way, the architects of pastoral theology in the writings of Pope Francis include the whole body of the faithful in relationship with God, and the datum of pastoral theology is the lived experience of the faithful in the concrete call of their discipleship. Such a transposition is essential in the current moment for our church, for clericalism is radically at the heart of the multi-dimensional crisis that the Catholic community faces today.

The very nature of the church involves at its heart pastoral action to heal the hearts of men and women who are suffering. Pope Francis outlined this ecclesiological assertion in his beautiful description of the church itself as a field hospital: “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. And you have to start from the ground up. This is the mission of the church: the church heals, it cures. . . The mission of the church is to heal wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good, God forgives all, God is the Father.”

From the pastoral vision of Francis flows a strategy of engagement and accompaniment with the world that at the same time seeks always its own need for healing and grace amidst its sinfulness.


Guest contributor Robert W. McElroy is the Bishop of San Diego, Calif., and this column is drawn from his address “The Pastoral Revolution of Pope Francis: The Challenge for the Academy in Today’s Humbled Church," given at Sacred Heart University.


My Heart Goes Out to the Girls and the Women

The results of the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse are as stark as they are staggering. They may also be surprising, because while we have long wrung our hands over the tragedy of priestly abuse, seeing the report’s statistics in aggregate may be the first time many Catholics fully understand just how many female victims have been preyed upon over the years by priests. While the first image of a victim may be a choir boy or altar boy, just shy of a quarter of victims in the cases studied were females: girls, teens and women, suffering at the hands of men they trusted as pastors, teachers, counselors, family friends.

That single statistic should dramatically change the way we talk about clergy sexual abuse. For too long, the conversation has been held hostage by those with a homophobic agenda, those on the right who see the tragedy as a convenient excuse to purge the church of gay priests. Overly simplistic, thoroughly unscientific, opportunistic, this response is also offensive, because it imposes a harsh and unjust sentence on thousands of good men serving the church faithfully — and lawfully.

Even more toxic, though, is the reality that the focus on gay men ignores the trauma of female victims abused by heterosexual priests. In a church long criticized for its marginalization of women, ignoring the plight of females in this instance is nothing short of re-victimization. We have long known that sexual violence is not about desire, but about power and control. It’s also a crime that prompts a deep sense of isolation for the victim. If we don’t reference the female victims, acknowledging their unique experiences, we only serve to buy into that systemic marginalization and become part of the problem. But as things now stand, even though we can safely expect thousands of female victims to come to light as grand jury investigations roll out in state after state, no one anticipates a rallying cry to rid the church of heterosexual priests.

When the Pennsylvania report was released this past August, it showed that 6 percent of the thousand cases examined involved prepubescent girls, while 16 percent of victims were female adolescents. Women represented another 1 percent of victims. The resulting indicator of 23 percent of all victims translates to about 250 female victims out of the 1,000 studied, a number that falls in line with the 2004 John Jay College Report, commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which indicated that 19 percent of clergy abuse victims are female.

After the release of the Pennsylvania report, First Things rushed in with a piece headlined “Why Men Like Me Should Not be Priests,” authored by a gay man, while one of Lifesite News’ first stories on the report ran with the headline “Accused Pennsylvania Priest Predators Preyed Mostly on Teen Boys: Analysis.” Overlooked in this coverage was the voice of the female victims, their suffering ignored. (When I questioned one woman who posted to an alt-right site advocating for a purge of gay priests how this would help all the female victims, her response was cool and brutal: since there are more male victims than female victims, the girls and women would have to wait.)

In the mainstream media’s coverage following the release of the grand jury, references to female victims tended to the particularly salacious or remarkable: the victims who became pregnant or the priest who abused five of eight girls in a family, as if one could quantify the crime and resulting suffering.

As more and more dioceses undergo grand jury investigations, our understanding of how widespread the problem is can only grow. After all, abuse is a crime of opportunity, and up until recently, the young people who priests have come in contact with have overwhelmingly been boys, whether because the local bishop insisted only boys could be altar servers, or because teaching priests were assigned to all-boys’ high schools or because seminarians are, by definition, all male.

A 2011 article by Karen Terry and Joshua Freilich in the Journal of Child Sex Abuse, however, analyzed data indicating that when priests began to gain more access to young females in the 1990s, the number of female victims grew also, offering a perverse twist on women’s desire to find equality in the church.

The John Jay College Report followed the Boston Globe’s explosive 2002 expose on abuse in the church, coverage which, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report notes, inspired people in Pennsylvania to report their own experiences of abuse. No doubt the Pennsylvania report will likely spur others to report as well.

In response to the latest explosive accountings — not only from the U.S. but from around the world — Rome has arranged the meeting on the protection of minors this coming February at the Vatican. The first of its kind, it’s an important step. But while women and abuse victims are involved in the preparatory work, and lay men and women experts in abuse will attend as advisers, as of this writing the people with the power around the table at this meeting are all men.

The Vatican Press Office notes that “Pope Francis wants Church leaders to have a full understanding of the devastating impact that clerical sexual abuse has on victims.” We must remain hopeful that experts in the field will move the discussion away from a simplistic, knee-jerk understanding of who abusers are and why they abuse to a more comprehensive understanding of why the church is vulnerable, how to end the problem and how to heal the victims.

As the women victims look on and view a sea of black and scarlet collars at the decision-making table, I wonder how hopeful they will feel that change is coming anytime soon.


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