A publication of Sacred Heart University

Francis: A Saint for Our Times

The title of our blog, ‘Go, Rebuild My House,’ comes from the words St. Francis heard in the spring of 1206 at San Damiano, a little church in ruins near his home town of Assisi. The young Francis was praying there, contemplating an icon of Christ on the cross, desperately wanting to hear from God who he was to be, what he was to do. He believed the command was Christ speaking to him directly, which filled him with intense joy. Francis at first took the message literally and set out to repair the building. Later he realized he was being asked to do much more.

As Franciscan friar Daniel P. Horan so well puts it in a National Catholic Reporter column on Francis as a model for church reform, “It would seem that ultimately God was less concerned about the physical structures of this or that particular worship space and more interested in spiritual and moral renewal, a rebuilding of the church that is the Body of Christ. St. Francis’ whole manner of living became focused on renewing the embodied, daily experience of Christian life by prioritizing the fundamentals of Gospel values in service to the poor, forgotten, voiceless and abandoned in his own time and context.”

Horan says there is a clear way of proceeding that Francis offers today’s Church: “repair the church, for as you see, it is falling apart!” Look at what is in plain sight crying out for repair: those forgotten, voiceless, abandoned in our own time and context, particularly “the women and men broken by abuse and silenced by trusted leaders that make up the church.” The popular image of Francis is of a sweet, unthreatening little man preaching to the birds, a domesticated garden statue among the flowers, what Horan in a later NCR column calls “the birdbath industrial complex,” the reduction of the saint “to a medieval petting-zoo mascot […] without regard for the radical truth about God and creation he intended.” Francis did not set himself apart from others. In fact, he did not set himself or humanity apart from other creatures, from creation. In his great poem “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis spoke of creation in familial terms: “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brother Wind,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” and “our Sister, Mother Earth.” “Such a free, anarchic soul was Francis,” Thomas Cahill wrote after being moved by the poem. “How he went against the grain of his hierarchical, ordered, aggressive, divisive society.”

Here is one reason why the little poor man (il poverello) is a saint for our times. The words of his poem, the life of joy and simplicity he led and inspired others to lead still goad pompous and arrogant hierarchs. A German Cardinal, among others, incensed over what he viewed as un-Christian activity taking place at the Vatican Synod for the Amazon in Rome this month, said the term “Sister Mother Earth” is pagan and heretical, apparently ignorant of Francis’ poem. Francis has been much in the news lately, at least in Catholic news. Pope Francis, the first pope with the courage to take the saint’s name as his own, has consecrated the synod to St. Francis. It opened on October 4, St. Francis’ feast day, with a tree-planting celebration in the Vatican gardens. The tree was planted in earth from Assisi, the Amazon, from places of environmental destruction and human degradation. Indigenous people from the region and others sang and danced around a mandala, which included a photo of Sister Dorothy Stang, the human rights activist murdered in Brazil, and two carvings of naked pregnant females greeting each other, perhaps a representation of the Visitation. The first week of the synod has been remarkable. The possibility of married men becoming priests, of women becoming deacons, discussed openly and seriously. Scientists are included in conversations about the environment and the effects of climate change. Input has been given from below—the people are speaking and teaching, the priests are listening. Pope Francis recognizes that St. Francis of Assisi is the model the Church now needs most for rebuilding its house.

I would like to end on a personal note, for Francis has been much on my mind for personal reasons. I have moved to the city named after him: “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís,” or “The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.” Of course, Francis is everywhere here: roads, schools, hotels, churches, apartments are named after him. We often eat lunch together, Francis and I, in a courtyard of the hospital where I have begun work as a chaplain. He is there every day, wings in the air, head thrown back in joy, one foot kicked high behind him. “Happy Dancing St. Francis” is the title of this statue, which erodes Horan’s “birdbath industrial complex.” I like this place, for it seems to have more of Francis about it than the statue. Many of the hospital’s leaders are women, and they have stressed the importance of relationship, of acknowledging and respecting each other, whether patient or colleague. Rooms are private and often have lovely views of the desert and mountains. There is a mix of religions and spirituality in Santa Fe: Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Native American, Nones, New Age, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim. Spiritual care of the patients is inclusive and expansive: the care of every person is stressed, regardless of belief. My colleagues are Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Interfaith. All of us believe in the importance of this approach. Here is where my ‘Church’ is, and doubtless where Francis’ was also.


Jennifer L. Reek is a writer and teacher.


As Pope Francis Calls for Climate Action, His Critics Fear a Green Trojan Horse

The octogenarian and the adolescent. The elder and the youth. Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg make for a marvelous duo, united in their shared concern for the planet, Indigenous peoples and the ramifications of political inertia.

Ms. Thunberg is a novice in these things – though an impassioned one with an agile mind – while Francis has been about the business of moral prophecy for at least the duration of his pontificate, and much longer as the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The sagacious pontiff has his synod on the Pan-Amazonian region (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana and French Guinea) scheduled for Oct. 6-27 in Rome. This event, one of a series of periodic synods, is unique in that it is not limited to ecclesiastical concerns or parochial challenges, but rather the larger and comprehensive matter of our “common home.” As he wrote in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional aspect of our Christian experience.”

In saying this, the Pope pledges the full weight of his authority behind humanity’s shared stewardship of the planet and all its occupants. He situates papal teaching within the context of the environmental crisis and abjures the dualistic thinking that insists on the separation of religion and politics. The Gospel demands no less than the repairing of what we have damaged and the cultivation of an oversight of compassion as opposed to exploitation.

What Francis has done with his encyclical and is about to do with his synod is an attempt to address the problem posed by American writer and savant Barry Lopez: “how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself.”

The Bishop of Rome knows the human capacity for sin, but he also knows humanity’s capacity for a graced existence, for a life of natural harmony in contrast to the rapacity that marks our relationship to creation.

But the synod, years in the making, has become a lightning rod for opposition to the pope. Ultraconservative prelates are all aligned in their resistance to a pontificate they perceive as too accommodating to contemporary trends, too obliging in watering down sound doctrine in the interest of compromise, too unsure of the absolutism of thought and behavior they find comforting and orthodox.

They see the synod as a smokescreen for broader initiatives than merely those driven by social-justice imperatives. They see further evidence of Francis’s efforts to diminish papal authority and alter tradition they view as sacral.

Take, as a case in point, the matter of ordaining mature married men, viri probati. Such men would serve in areas so vast with priests so sparse that access to the sacraments is a rarity. Yet this is seen as a portal to universal change: the ushering in of a married clergy and the ushering out of a universally celibate one. The discussion point is not nearly so draconian. There is plenty of room for nuance, and Catholic practice is much more diverse than it is given credit for.

But deep suspicion of Francis’s motives and the toxins of disloyalty and disobedience are no longer subterranean. They are out in the open, and the synod could well be a battleground for Catholic factionalism.

The pope, however, will remain concentrated on the primary objectives: conscientization around the consequences of deforestation, the disruption of Indigenous life, the economic inequities that drive brutal land-use practices, the continued aftershocks of environmental degradation, community violence and political polarization.

How does one work to achieve an “integral ecology” that weighs human socioeconomic needs with the right nurturing of the environment? And how does one do that in a respectful way without condescension and in keeping with the demands of the Gospel while at the same time remaining open to the spirituality of Indigenous peoples?

These are the key questions. And Francis believes the work of the synod – conducted with transparency and with freedom of mind and heart – can help determine a path that can restore the world to rightful integrity. At the end of this, as he said in Laudato Si, “we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God.”

That’s not hugely different, I wager, from Ms. Thunberg’s more secular dream.


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

Reprinted with permission from the The Globe & Mail.


The Catholic Imagination and the Challenge of Apathy

Recently, I had the joy of attending a conference on the Catholic Imagination at Loyola Chicago University. Over three days, the attendees heard presentations by fiction writers, poets, scholars and even filmmakers. It was a powerful reminder that Catholicism, as a living, breathing tradition, brims with creativity and vitality, whatever the crimes and sins of certain clerics. After one panel, I asked three fellow attendees about their experiences with Catholic undergraduate students regarding last summer’s duel tragedies involving the now-laicized McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury report. In the ensuing conversation, a question arose: Which reaction to the abuse crisis is worse, anger or apathy? The premise of the question is that a student’s anger demonstrates some degree of emotional investment in her or his Catholic faith. But if a student reacts with apathy, this indifference seems to indicate a great distance from Catholic beliefs and practices, regardless of whether the student checks “Catholic” on their admissions application. The attendees to whom I posed this question all agreed that apathy was indeed the greater challenge for a teacher of the Catholic tradition. Apathy indicates irrelevance. If the crimes of priests and bishops do not anger a person, it is probably because she or he has no reason to be personally angry. The crimes might be tragic, but they are someone else’s problems, involving someone else’s religion and someone else’s Church. Catholicism simply does not “matter” to one’s life.

This conversation reminded me of my own interactions with my students in the American northeast. A handful of students may be upset, but these students were few and far between. The overwhelming majority seemed to regard the abuse crisis with detachment, even amongst those who identified as Catholic. That said, I wonder if this situation of apathy—assuming it exists outside my own, limited context—also presents an opportunity. Perhaps most obviously, the Catholic instructor must not confront the reactions of betrayal, frustration, cynicism and fury towards ecclesial authorities that many Catholics have felt over the past year, myself included.

The greater challenge for the teacher, then, is to figure out how to invite students into seeing the beauty and richness of the Catholic tradition as indeed important and relevant to their lives. Issues concerning dogma and doctrine, as important as they are, are irrelevant to a person who does not first recognize why these issues would ever bear relevance to them. The situation reminds me of Pope Francis’s comment in his famous interview in America magazine that you have to heal a person’s wounds before you can start talking about other matters.

Hence, the importance of the Catholic imagination, with its stories, poems, artwork, music and movies, to the undergraduate teacher. By a Catholic imagination, I refer to a creative, artistic imagination that is significantly shaped by the liturgical, theological, spiritual and pious traditions of the Catholic tradition, regardless of whether the artist attends church regularly. The purpose of assigning a story, for example, by a Catholic author, whether from the quintessential Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, or a contemporary one, such as Kirsten Valdez Quade or Phil Klay, is to invite students to see the world from a different perspective, in which matters of sin and redemption, evil or grace, faith and doubt, play out through flawed protagonists who undergo their own journeys of spiritual growth. I would never expect to convert a student by assigning Greene’s The End of the Affair, but I would hope that by the end, the student sees that the questions raised by the text are important to a life well lived. Perhaps the student’s responses to those questions will be different from the author’s (assuming one could know that). But at least the conversation has started.

In Love’s Knowledge, the philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, wrote that the value of good fiction is that it demonstrates why “the search matters” and that “by showing the mystery and indeterminacy of ‘our actual adventure,’ they characterize life more richly and truly…” Although she was not writing as a Catholic, Nussbaum’s remark is relevant for any creative work that strives to demonstrate why faith “matters,” why the questions provoked by imaging the world through a Catholic imagination guide critical self-reflection on one’s own sources and foundations for life’s meaning. To bring examples of the Catholic imagination into the classroom in all its visual, aural, oral and verbal representations is not a panacea. It will not likely spur immediate conversion or convince any student overnight to attend mass regularly, nor does it replace forms of evangelization. But it is about the beginnings of a conversation, a crack in the armor of apathy that is so tempting to wear in today’s post-Christian America.


Brent Little is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


Voting with Their Pocketbooks

My mother recently told me, “This is the first year I didn’t donate to our bishop’s annual appeal. I donate to the parish, of course, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Like many Catholics, she is upset about everything going on in the church around the sexual abuse scandal fallout: the drip, drip, drip of new revelations of old and new crimes, and the lack of decisive action by the bishops to hold themselves accountable. Despite the charitable works that bishops’ annual appeals support, Catholics can’t help but feel that their donations to dioceses are abetting the bishops in paying out for lawsuits that really should fall on their shoulders, not ours.

My mom reflects a national trend. In March of this year, Washington Post columnist Mark Thiessen made a splash by advising fellow Catholics “don’t give them a dime” for these reasons. “A Pew Research Center survey released this past summer indicated that 26 percent of U.S. Catholics reported giving less money as a result of the recent reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by priests and bishops,” according to America magazine. This article quotes Father Jay Mello, a pastor of two parishes in Massachusetts, about his parishioners “vocal” reluctance to donate to diocesan collections. “They don’t trust the bishops and feel this is the only way they can send the message.”

While the immediate and specifically Catholic trend occurs within a longer downward slide in religious giving, which has to do with fewer Americans attending churches of all types, I am intrigued by the people who stay but give less, as well as those who fall away from regular attendance and active engagement in their parish out a sense of discontent. This latter phenomenon is another way that Catholics are sending a message the only way they can.

When someone you know who is member of an organization is frustrated about its direction, you usually advise them to first stay and try work for change from within. We tell our kids to try to improve a club, team or friend group that is frustrating them. Sure, sometimes one needs to drop out and find a new group, but that should be a last resort.

The sad thing is that the structures of the church offer them very few avenues for effecting positive change. The reason as many stay is that there is a difference between their local parish—where they have friends, where they can be involved, where they can feel listened to, where the rituals are meaningful to them—compared to the larger structures of the church, over which they have no meaningful say. The decline in donations and the things that Catholics are saying about the bishops and the institutional church are troubling signs. Are the bishops and the pastors listening? They want to and think they are trying, but I am not confident they know how to or know what to do next.

Consider when parishes hold open forums or when parishioners organize their own meetings to discuss crisis moments, such as proposed parish closures. Finally, a large group of Catholics is talking about their hopes and fears for the church, about their frustrations and willingness to see changes! But we Catholics don’t seem to know how to have dialogues in which everyone gets engaged except when a financial crisis is upon us. How much better it would have be if honest, passionate and messy conversations had been happening in parishes over many years.

Both the leaders and the laity lack ingrained habits of association, to use an image from that great observer of American civil society, Alexis de Tocqueville. This deficit is virtually baked into Catholicism, because of the hierarchical structure and the primary emphasis on attaining the sacraments. As we have often heard, “the church is not a democracy.” But we have sold ourselves way short, because we tend to assume that making the leaders accountable to its people and involving the laity in the pastoral planning of the church would mean shifting the paternalistic model of Catholicism all the way to the other side, to a low-church Protestant model.

But there exist dynamic options in between those poles, and they exist within Catholic history and the scope of its practices and laws. For instance, if the priests in the United States voted for their first archbishop, John Carroll, cannot some version of such practices occur today? Why can’t parishioners play a role in the selection of their new pastor? There’s much the institutional church can and should do.

But parishes need not wait on the bishops. There are two promising activities to explore. First, some form of parish renewal action along the lines of small-church groups and faith-sharing groups are valuable for engaging and reengaging Catholics. Catholics need ways to get reintroduced to the joy of the risen Christ, which sustains their hope for making change. Happily, my sense is that many U.S. parishes are participating in such programs. Second, the revitalization and full use of the existing model of pastoral (parish) councils is strongly needed. This will be the topic of my next column.

All signs point to this conclusion by scholars who study what it takes for a Catholic parish to be excellent: “A parish is successful or excels to the extent that it is energized by and thrives on the dynamism of dialogue” (Bradford Hinze, Practices of Dialogue in the Roman Catholic Church, 2006, p. 20). If Catholics are holding back their money, their attendance and their full engagement in their local church, the church must invite them to talk about it and must be ready to do something about it.


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


When Silence Becomes A Betrayal

Hate, ignorance and intolerance know no boundaries, be they geographic, emotional, physical or spiritual. We are challenged daily, individually and communally to make choices about our words, behaviors, beliefs and actions. Although the decisions we make today may have predictable or unanticipated short-term consequences, they doubtlessly will have a profound impact on the world in which we live tomorrow. As Martin Luther King once said: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

This is one of those times and, unfortunately, it is because a church leader believes the Eucharist can be weaponized. When our nation is at a poignant crossroad, and the public square has become infected with bias, hate and intolerance, silence is indeed a betrayal. We have our faith, we have our doctrine, and we have our beliefs. We also have a voice and the right to express our opinions, whether in support or in protest of actions we find contradictory, hateful and hypocritical within the Catholic church.

Here is a case in point:  Two private Catholic high schools in Indianapolis—Cathedral High School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School—are embroiled in a controversy with their local archdiocese and Archbishop Charles Thompson over the firing of a gay faculty member at Cathedral. More to the point, under pressure from the diocese, Brebeuf Prep refused to terminate one of its own teachers, the husband of the man fired at Cathedral.

In response to this decision, the archbishop told Brebeuf’s administration that if they wanted to remain part of the Catholic Church, they had to abide by his decisions. I wonder if the archbishop also told his priests suspended for abuses they were no longer Catholic? Or if he ceased compensating those suspended priests with Archdiocesan monies? I wonder if the archbishop called out his episcopal colleagues for their cover-ups of abuses?

Thompson ordered Catholic teachers and counselors to sign a contract agreeing that they would be “witnesses of Catholic principles and deed.” That request is certainly his prerogative, albeit one of a small mind. As retribution, Brebeuf Prep was also told it could not open its 2019/2020 school year with an all-school Mass. How draconian and immature first to use the Eucharist as a weapon and then to punish the students. Such myopia just further isolates young people from the church.

The self-righteous, insecure power measures continued. Brebeuf Jesuit Prep administrators are forbidden to attend archdiocesan discussions about school issues. At the same time, the archdiocese is putting pressure on other schools in the diocese to exclude Brebeuf athletic teams from local Catholic school sports competitions.

To its credit, Brebeuf Prep announced it would be unjust and a violation of conscience to terminate its teacher. The Cathedral teacher has filed a lawsuit claiming unlawful discrimination, and Jesuit Fr. Brian Paulson, provincial of the Jesuit’s Midwest Province, is directing an appeal to the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome to fight the decree removing Catholic identification from Brebeuf—a 57-year-old school with 800 co-ed students.

I am astounded by the hypocrisy evident in the archdiocese’s actions. As the Catholic church continues to reel internationally, from thousands of cases of child abuse, sexual molestation, abuse of power and improper behavior on the part of thousands of priests, church laypeople and episcopal leaders––to see current archdiocesan church leadership engage in such vindictive actions against a high school trying to live by Jesus’s words is shameful.

Last year, we were privileged to have Father James Martin, SJ, return to our campus to speak at an open forum at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. Martin is a well-known but controversial figure known for his writing, talks and outspoken opinions regarding the importance of listening to and welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics into our churches, our communities and our hearts. He also speaks passionately about protecting the unborn, as well as refugees, migrants and the environment.

In his presentation, Martin spoke to the importance of treating LGBTQ people with the virtues that the Catechism recommends: “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” pointing out that the Catechism says, “Every sign of unjust discrimination must be avoided.”

In his most recent book, Building a Bridge, Martin says, “This is part of what it means to be a Christian: standing up for the marginalized, the persecuted, the beaten down. Be prophetic. Be courageous. Be like Jesus,” he adds, “because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point? And remember that in his public ministry, Jesus continually reached out to people who felt like they were on the margins. He was bringing people who felt on the outside closer into the community. Because for Jesus, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is only us.”

Cardinal-elect Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna and a supporter of LGBTQ issues, wrote the preface for the European version of Martin’s book. Obviously, the cardinal-elect understands the mission to reach out to the margins as Jesus did numerous time in the gospels. It seems obvious that others in the episcopal ministry need to be more pastoral and less self-righteous in their care.

It might be helpful if Church clerical and lay leaders recall Jesus’saying: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” It is saddening when certain church leaders behave no better than the deteriorating public-square dialogue.

We are a country proudly founded on the principles of civil disobedience, and here, on our campus, we believe strongly in giving voice to differing opinions and philosophies, even if they make us personally uncomfortable or force us to address our own moral, ethical and spiritual standards. We stand firmly against intolerance and bias and will not ignore efforts to malign, discriminate or persecute others.

Through dialogue, debate and controversy, the students at Brebeuf and their peers in Indianapolis, here in Fairfield, Connecticut, and across the country are learning what it means to be Americans, and to be Catholic: We embrace one another regardless of our differences, protect those who cannot protect themselves and speak up when we see injustice and hypocrisy. We cannot and will not betray them, because we cannot and will not be silent.


John J. Petillo is the president of Sacred Heart University


The Next Steps (Towards Church Reform)

In his December 20, 2018, blog here, Robert Mickens drew our attention to the radical reform message contained in  Evangelii Gaudium (2013)—in particular its call to a more synodal church. He wondered that “this revolutionary text remains largely unstudied and unimplemented at almost every level of the Catholic Church.” How stands the situation now?

Well, there are some encouraging signs. The two universal synods in Rome (on the family and then on young people) were occasions of real debate. Elsewhere, the Catholic Church in Germany, under Cardinal Rheinhard Marx, has undertaken to move in a synodal direction, in particular by setting up binding and inclusive  conversations around  the neuralgic issues of power and accountability (including the role of women), sexual morality and clerical life-style (including celibacy). There will be a plenary council of the Australian church in 2020 and already in the preparatory, consultative phase, there has been enormous participation. There have been several synods in French dioceses, and the Conference of Bishops is researching the issue more deeply. In October this year, the synod on the Amazonian area will take place in Rome, with issues like ecology, married priests and the role of women on the agenda. The diocese of Liverpool is already well into a three-year preparation period for a synod to be held in 2020. Arguably, there has already been a vibrant tradition of this kind of ecclesial model in Latin America since the 60s, evident not least in the Aparaceida document, a kind of template for The Joy of the Gospel.

There are some similar signs over here in Ireland too. There was a fruitful synod of Limerick in 2016, and assemblies have been held in many other dioceses over the past 10 years or so. More recently, several new bishops have expressed the need to move in a similar direction.

But progress is slow, both in Ireland and elsewhere, and one gets a sense of a lack of momentum and energy around the project. Why is this?

Well, Francis himself knew that when he asked for “an entirely snyodal church,” convinced that this was what God expects from the church in the third millennium, it was a big ask, an epoch-changing transition from the long-established model of church called “hierarchological” by Congar. He noted that synodality “is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.” It requires keeping in touch with the base, with the people and their problems. The deep listening, the means, that are required at every level—parish, diocese, nation, region and universal—can be wearisome, and yet it is only through this concrete translation that a synodal church begins to take shape.

I recall being a delegate at the 34th General Congregation of the Jesuits in 1995. More than 220 of us lived in Rome for the best part of three months, sharing faith, arguing, gossiping, forging alliances, not without political intrigue, feelings of alienation and even paranoia (I speak only of myself!), and yet we succeeded through God’s grace in our exercise of communal discernment. However in general as a Church—unlike the Protestants and Orthodox—we have lost our habit of inclusive communal discernment, an example of McIntyre’s collective practices. In seeking to regain it, we will have to become familiar with “methodologies of synodality” (Osheim) that include facing and resolving conflict. Without the ability to face conflict with equanimity, we risk that disagreements devolve into simple polemics that weary all but the most passionately engaged.

There is of course an appropriate prudence to be exercised in choosing means, times and topics for discernment. Just as in personal therapy, within a family, in a society there comes a moment (Heaney’s “hope and history rhyme”) when to talk is good. However, we have erred for far too long within our church in shutting down inclusive listening and speaking. We need now to err on the side of being bold in seeking to implement the project of Francis, in taking some risks. Why not a National Synod in Ireland, why not the laying down of foundations for the same in North America? Were there not “culture wars” at stake when the Council of Jerusalem met in the first century to adjudicate on the issue of Gentiles that so divided the early Judaeo-Christian community?

The well-known legend of St Denys, Parisian martyr, records how he was decapitated, picked up his head and, continuing to preach, walked several miles to where he is now buried. In such matters, it has been said, “it is the first step that is most important.”  Synodality means walking together: we are at the beginning of a journey, and need to take the next first steps. Might the American Catholic Council’s Peoples Synod in Baltimore from September 27-29 be one such step?


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


Lost in Translation? Rebuilding a Comprehensive Christian Theology of Priesthood

“Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the People of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service.” In these lines, drawn from his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, On the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis – at the risk of stating the obvious – recalls a fundamental insight into the nature of the ordained priesthood. Rebuilding the church in the present crisis will require a serious effort to retrieve and integrate it more fully into a balanced theology of the priesthood – that of the ordained and that of the baptized faithful.

Francis has frequently insisted that the roots of the present crisis in the church lie in the culture of clericalism. The features of this culture, ingrained in the habits of many clergy and lay people alike, include a pretense of superiority by priests that is often met by an excessive attitude of deference or passive acquiescence on the part of the laity. In a world of “father knows best,” priests often infantilize, fail to listen or to respect laypersons, excluding them systematically from processes of decision-making. Perhaps the most pernicious feature, the most difficult to root out, is the way in which it conveys a false and distorted sense of holiness, supported by an ostensibly traditional theology of priesthood. More than a generation of men have been schooled in Catholic seminary training into thinking that they belong to a sacred caste, defined by an “ontological” difference – a different kind of being – as if floating in some rarified world of grace unattainable to the remaining community of the baptized.

This portrait of the ordained priesthood is rooted in a highly selective reading of Vatican II’s teaching and ignores at least a millennium of tradition. It is most often grounded in a line in the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church affirms: “The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, though they differ in essence and not only in degree, are nevertheless interrelated [ …] the ministerial priest, through the sacred power he enjoys, forms and governs the priestly people; in the person of Christ he brings about the eucharistic sacrifice and offers this to God in the name of the whole people” (LG 10). These lines appear in the chapter of the Constitution devoted to the vocation of the entire people of God, all of whom participate in the priestly, prophetic and royal offices of Christ through baptism, a participation that grounds their “common dignity” and equality (LG 32). Where conciliar teaching underlines the interdependence of the priesthood of the laity and that of the ordained, and points to their participation in Christ, more recent interpretations of this text insist on their fundamental difference and on the ordained minister’s role as “another Christ” (alter Christus), having lost sight of his call to serve the priestly people, all of whom also share in the one priesthood of Christ, in whose image they have been conformed through baptism (Rom 6:1-14; 8:29-30;  2 Cor 3:18; 1 Jn 3:2; Col 3:10).

When we step back and consider the whole of the council’s teaching, we find, if not a fully developed or systematic theology of the ordained priesthood, elements of a more biblical and traditional understanding of ministry. In the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, we discover that the prayer of the church is “the enacting of the priestly role of Jesus Christ” (LG 7). It is primarily the action of Christ, our one high priest. Citing Augustine, the Constitution insists that it is Christ who baptizes, who speaks to us through the word, who offers himself in the bread and wine with and through the praise of the gathered people. Augustine was deeply aware that no minister of the church is referred to as “priest” in the New Testament. This term was reserved for Christ, our great “high priest,” in the Letter to the Hebrews, who through his total gift of self offered once and for all the perfect sacrifice to God (Heb 9:11-28). Our prayer adds nothing to his gift but draws us into the pattern of his self-giving love. The term “priest” is then applied to the whole people of God who form “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9). The prayer of the church is thus understood as the action of the “whole Christ,” head and members of his ecclesial body. The progression of the council’s theology begins from the one priesthood of Christ, and proceeds to consider the vocation of the priestly people. Only then does it consider how the priesthood of the ordained serves the unfolding of the call of the whole people, to which they still belong. The catechism sums it up by saying, “the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (CCC 1547).

The council fathers opted to follow the pattern of the scriptures and the early Christian tradition in the language of the council documents by reserving the term “priest” (sacerdos) most often for the actions of Christ and of the whole people of God, while the ordained minister is referred to as “presbyter” (presbyteros), the elder or minister. This distinction, and hence the priority and agency of the priestly people of God, has been lost in translation. Thus, the “Decree on the Life and Ministry of Presbyters,” a reflection on the order of presbyters, is most frequently translated as a decree “on the Life and Ministry of Priests.” This may appear on the surface as a small point, a minor distinction. I would suggest that much more has been lost in translation that we might have realized. Restoring a sound theology of both the common priesthood of the baptized – with all the agency that it implies, and the priesthood of the ordained, will require the corrective a more careful and comprehensive study of these elements of the biblical and early Christian traditions.


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


The Cult of Saint George (Pell)

For a brief moment in the summer of 2018, there was a glimmer of unity in the fractured Catholic Church as the faithful, left, right and center, joined in outrage over another round of revelations of past crimes and misdeeds by priests, and even retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

That unity didn’t last long. Within weeks, the Catholic right and their media outlets were weaponizing the abuse crisis to target gays and their ideological foes while turning a blind eye to the obvious or potential sins of their friends and allies, and they used the McCarrick case to leverage an anti-Francis ambush by the disgruntled former curialist, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

Now the news that an Australian court has denied Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his conviction on sex abuse charges has sent conservatives into a veritable frenzy as they pull out all the stops to defend the former Melbourne archbishop and, more recently, Vatican finance minister. The original verdict, and now the denied appeal, were seen as landmarks in the effort to hold Catholic Church officials accountable, no matter how important they are, and to reform the ecclesiastical system and culture that fostered abuse and their cover-up.

That’s not how Pell’s friends saw it. There are certainly arguments that could be made on behalf of the 78-year-old cardinal, and they were made – and they were rejected by jurors and judges alike. Yet Pell’s pals were convinced that this was the greatest miscarriage of justice since the Dreyfus affair, and evidence of a rising tide of anti-Catholicism akin to the persistence of anti-Semitism. Pell, they claimed, is a martyr who was being targeted because he is an outspoken conservative and defender of traditional Catholic teaching, and they demanded his canonization. Santo subito!

“The testimony used to convict Thomas More was more plausible than that used to convict [Cardinal] Pell,” tweeted Edward Peters, a canon law professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “The charges against Cardinal Pell were so outrageous as to be utterly impossible,” Father Raymond J. de Souza wrote in the National Catholic Register, a conservative site prominent in campaigns against Pope Francis.

The Pell verdict was also invoked for political ends. “Catholics cannot expect just and fair treatment at the hands of our liberal elite,” Matthew Schmitz wrote in First Things, blaming “a spasm of anti-Catholic hysteria, whipped up by the Australian media and encouraged by law enforcement.” It was a line echoed by his wife, Julia Yost, in an eye-popping column in the New York Post that blamed a “campaign of misinformation and demonization carried out against [Pell] by Australia’s liberal media and legal elites.”

Pell’s allies attacked the victim, who the Victoria court’s chief called a compelling “witness of truth,” and they derided the case as based solely on one man’s testimony with no corroborating witnesses or evidence, and one that dealt with events more than 20 years ago in the unlikely setting of a cathedral sacristy after Mass. Those arguments ignore the fact that most abuse cases only surface long after the fact – traumatized 13-year-old choirboys are not known for running to the police – or that most abuse cases rest on a victim’s testimony and credibility. And abusers are by definition risk takers who do not act as rationally as most of us would – because most of us do not sexually abuse children.

Indeed, the case against Pell is remarkably similar to the one that brought down McCarrick: a 2017 claim that McCarrick had sexually molested an altar boy in the 1970s after Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was what triggered the Vatican investigation of him. There was no end to the digital ink that Catholic conservatives spilled in highlighting McCarrick’s case and his guilt, and using the case to bash Francis – who in fact launched the investigation of McCarrick, stripped him of his cardinal’s rank and eventually had him defrocked. “Conservative Catholics were quick to embrace the charges leveled against McCarrick, even without a trial verdict,” Michael Sean Winters wrote in a sharp column for the National Catholic Reporter. “Why accept the allegations against McCarrick so readily, while maintaining Pell's innocence?”

The reality is that whatever one thinks about Pell’s guilt or innocence, the case against him, in church terms, is at least as strong as the case against McCarrick was. Pell was accused of abuse numerous other times over the years, and if, as The Tablet’s Christopher Lamb reported, none of the others went to trial for various reasons, all could come into play as the Vatican decides whether to strip him of his ecclesiastical rank and privileges. Lamb also rounds up the repeated instances of Pell’s insensitive and even bullying treatment of victims when he was bishop, and his actions that may have shielded abusers – and which could lead to church discipline.

At its heart, however, the most troubling aspect of the reaction to the Pell verdict is not that they are using it to promote their political agenda or indulge their persecution complex. It’s that Pell’s allies have used a plausible allegation of sex abuse as a loyalty test for a friend and ideological ally.

Conservative commentator George Weigel, for example, who after Pell’s appeal was denied compared the Australian justice system to “the Soviet Union under Stalin,” has been one of Pell’s fiercest and angriest defenders – because the two men have been buddies for more than 50 years. Weigel loves and trusts Pell, and they share a conservative outlook that sees liberals as enemies to be vanquished by an “orthodox” band of brothers who are convinced of their own rectitude and see accusations like those against Pell as “gross falsehoods” that shouldn’t even be entertained.

This is dangerous. Remember it was Weigel and his fellow travelers in conservative Catholic circles who were the fiercest defenders of horrific abusers like Legion of Christ founder Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. For years they repeatedly downplayed reports of clergy abuse while vilifying the media. Mary Ann Glendon, for example, famously said that giving the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe for the clergy abuse reporting “would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

One would think the ensuing 15 years of hard experience should have encouraged a sense of epistemic humility, and a sense of charity for victims. Yet today these conservatives still too often turn a blind eye to serious allegations about their friends and allies while targeting their foes for relentless coverage.

As a result, the crisis has become another wedge issue rather than a rallying point for all Catholics to protect “the least of these.” George Pell is obviously a generous and loyal friend to those who are generous and loyal to him. Of course they don’t think he is abuser; he doesn’t abuse them. On the other hand, as those beyond his circle of trust know too well, the cardinal can be gratuitously bullying and abusive. That doesn’t make him a sex abuser.  

Pell’s guilt or innocence are not dependent on your own view of him. Knee-jerk loyalty is as dangerous as reflexive bias. Much blame for the clergy sex abuse crisis has been set at the foot of clericalism, the notion that priests benefit from a kind of “old boys” network of fellow clerics who cover for each other no matter what.

But the blind faith that so many lay Catholics have placed in George Pell show that clericalism, alas, is not just for clerics.


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


It’s Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


In Defense of Academic Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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


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