A publication of Sacred Heart University

Welcome, Empower, Send: Lessons from Successful Multiethnic Parishes

My interest of late has been the role of parishes in church reform. Two posts ago, I proposed that parish-renewal programs and active parish councils are vital for empowering lay Catholics to renew the Church. In my previous post, I discussed how Americans’ participation in their churches and other local organizations makes significant contributions to social fabrics both small and large, which suggests that the vitality of parishes is significant for the health of the civic community. Here I tie these points together, drawing upon insights from the experiences of multiethnic parishes.

An infographic collection from Commonweal’s April issue on “The American Parish Today” captures major demographic shifts that shape the present and future of U.S. Catholicism. The number of Hispanic/Latinx Catholics is steadily growing (now 40 percent of the total), a quarter of all parishes intentionally serve Hispanic/Latinx Catholics, and most Catholics (56 percent) now live in the South and the West. Theologian Brett Hoover reflects on the growth of “shared parishes,” those that serve two or more ethnic, racial or language groups. In some cities, more than 75 percent of Masses are offered in a language other than English, and “across the Midwest and South, where demographic transformations began in earnest in the 1990s, the percentage lay[s] somewhere between 15 and 45 percent.”

These demographic shifts create new challenges and opportunities for ministry, worship, education and social outreach. How do successful multiethnic parishes respond to them? The Commonweal issue features an interview with Fr. Hector Madrigal, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Amarillo, Texas. St. Joseph is highly diverse: it comprises the original white/Anglo members, culturally assimilated Mexican Americans, Mexican immigrants, Filipino immigrants and refugees from South Sudan, Bosnia, and El Salvador.

Asked why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised his parish in a 2014 study on best practices for shared parishes, Fr. Madrigal says, “The USCCB identifies nine steps to integration. There are three that I call giant steps. The first step is about welcoming, giving people a place to feel and call their home. The second, once they’ve been welcomed, is to let people feel they belong and can influence decisions. This leads to the third giant step, the commitment to stewardship and communion.” The Bishops’ report found St. Joseph implementing every step.

All parishes can learn from shared parishes. These three giant steps are the essential steps for building vibrant parish communities of any ethnic composition, and they are the same steps by which a parish promotes the common good. Let’s look at each step and its implications for church reform.

Welcome. The Commonweal issue includes survey findings that Catholics are most attracted to a parish by its open, welcoming spirit and by “the sense of feeling you belong there.” In an era when 30 percent of active Catholics attend a parish other than the one closest to their home and no longer attend out of mere habit, welcoming is more important than ever. A popular parish-renewal program, Fr. James Mallon’s Divine Renovation, emphasizes hospitality, following Jesus’ teaching, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). Fr. Mallon writes, “Someone once said that the Church is the only organization that exists mainly for the sake of those who do not belong.” While hospitality builds and maintains community among current members, it is also key to missionary discipleship. “Hospitality does not mean being friendly with our friends and all the people who look, think and talk like us, but reaching out to the stranger.”

Empower. The second step, says Fr. Hector Madrigal, “is to let people feel they belong and can influence decisions.” I believe that this is the pivot point of the whole enterprise, and it’s the step where many Catholic parishes and the entire Church have a lot more work to do. That’s why you are reading this blog! People are more committed to their communities and more likely to go beyond the minimum asked of them when they have a sense of ownership. Among the best practices for promoting ownership is having a parish pastoral council with a meaningful deliberative voice, according to those who specialize in studying such councils (such as Charles Zech and Mark Fischer). Fr. Madrigal provides an excellent example of this empowerment strategy:

“[At St. Joseph] we’ve been good about incorporating and integrating our different ethnic groups, but what about the younger people? And so we had some listening sessions where we evaluated our hospitality, our hymns and our homilies. And there it surfaced very clearly that generational difference is a serious issue for us and we need to address it. … The most essential thing is that we’re not just going to talk about them. We’re going to talk with them. … We’ve come up with a new structure, and one of the requirements is that a third of the pastoral council must reflect this younger generation. We’re being as intentional about it as we were in including the South Sudanese in leadership, the Spanish-speaking, those who speak more English—now we’re saying we have to include the younger generation in the leadership of this parish.”

What one notices in this quote, and throughout the interview, are these processes at St. Joseph: listening to the members, formulating a mission statement based on the discernment of the whole parish, (re)evaluating all parish practices in light of that mission, intentionally including all constituencies in the leadership of the parish, and from this foundation, forming Catholics to become missionary disciples. Following the USCCB’s “best practices,” but moving ahead of what most bishops make possible, Fr. Madrigal and St. Joseph are in the vanguard of parish-level reform in the Church. They exemplify at the parish level the greater deliberative role for the laity that Gerry O’Hanlon calls for in his recent post in this blog.

Send. The word “Mass” comes from the liturgy’s closing words in Latin: “Ite, missa est,” meaning, “Go, she [the Church] has been sent.” Worship is completed in mission. Drawing upon the Aparecida Document of the 2007 conference of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, both Fr. Mallon and Fr. Madrigal emphasize missionary discipleship. The future Pope Francis was the leading force at Aparecida, and the bishops’ document was warmly affirmed by Pope Benedict. Thus, there should be power in this metaphor to draw together different visions within the Church today.

So, if you want your parish be a strong actor for social justice in the wider community, work to build community in your parish. If you want your parish to grow and the parishioners to show a greater missionary zeal, empower their voice and their leadership, and challenge them to serve the kingdom of God. Good ecclesiology is good social ministry, and vice versa. Or, in theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s oft-quoted dictum, “The church doesn’t have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.”


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


Why Dante Still Matters, and Especially Now

… ma gia volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,
Si come rota ch’igualmente e mossa,
L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.[1]
(Paradiso. xxxiii. 143-145)

Were he alive today, Dante Aligheri would rock social media, and not just because of his poetic brilliance. In truth, Dante was a proud—even at times arrogant—voluble, enlightened but often (by his own account) volatile Florentine who harbored—at least initially in the creation of his masterpiece—a rather robust penchant for revenge. Through his writings, Dante was willing to expose the prevalent hypocrisy (including his own) and the persistent abuse of authority in both secular and religious Florentine society.  He wrote with a fierce determination to speak truth to power (after all, what other devout Catholic in the 14th century—or any century—would place a pope in hell?) and to expose malfeasance wheresoever it was found. One can only imagine his tweets from #therealdivinecomedy. 

Dante’s greatest work was, of course, his ‘divine’ Commedia, and while there are many sources that inspired its composition, one of the most crucial was his own immediate environment. Dante looked at the world around him and was unhappy with what he saw or, at least, with what he perceived to have become the status quo: the apparent dissolution of social ethics and community responsibility, a languid relativism undermining common moral values and a pervasive ambivalence about intellectual and theological integrity. Sound familiar? It is intriguing, then, to consider what Dante would make of the current global pandemic and of the tested responses of responsible institutions, as well as of the reaction—from world leaders and from average people—that have ranged from the admirably effective to the abysmally ineffective. It goes without saying that Dante would be impressed by the valiant efforts of the medical professionals and other ‘frontline’ workers, the teachers, the mail carriers, the grocery clerks, the trash collectors and so many others. It is also clear that he would be disheartened (but perhaps not surprised?) by other behaviors that percolate through social media, such as the demands for exclusion, the threats of violence and the reckless dismissals of cautionary oversight. He likely would take to social media to call out the smugly self-absorbed, the hypocritical anger-mongers and the thoughtless betrayers of trust and of the truth.

Dante’s Commedia is commonly acknowledged to be one of the greatest treasures of western European literature and, like all literary artifacts, it lends itself to different interpretations. It is a narrative poem of an epic scale and a bountiful excursus of the world of late medieval Italy. It is a compendium of the robust interdisciplinarity of learning in the medieval world, connecting theology to classical literature to law to mythology to history to art to politics to science, and it is a study in poetic composition and astonishing versification. However, the Commedia is more than a cultural or literary or historical artifact: it is an examination of social ethics and individual dignity, and it is also a spiritual narration of universal relevance.  It is true that for the (post) modern reader, the very structure of the poem into three cantica titled Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, might seem archaic, peculiar, even ludicrous, but that tripartite structure is an organizing principal that is meant to guide the reader through her/his own journey of self-reflection, self-awareness and self-assessment—a journey that must be completed to regain the connection to God (having strayed away midway through life) and one’s full humanity. Yet, that journey is never a singular enterprise, nor is it an occasion to celebrate exclusively the individual, paradoxical as that might seem.

Dante’s journey through the three ‘conditions of being’ follows a tri-level pathway of encounters with others: even Dante’s vision of God, while personal, was not achieved alone. The souls whom he meets along the excursion are those of individuals whose adjudicated placements are primarily the result of the kinds of relations they had with others: they loved others either not at all (and themselves too well), or too tepidly (and eventually realized their failing) or quite exquisitely (with the purity of agape). How we love each other—and therefore love God—is at the core of the Commedia. The multiple episodes of the ‘souls’ throughout the Commedia are the means by which Dante can address the brokenness of his world, a culture that seemed to him to be elevating love of self over love for others, and a love for material existence over a love of God. Dante chided his contemporaries (and himself) for the errors of the day: an escalating monetization of society, an increasing inward turn of both the intellect and the spirit, a rising interest in self-promotion at the cost of relational engagement and an intensifying disillusionment with shared ethical values.

Like Aquinas, Dante was a student of Aristotelian thinking (expanded with Pauline belief), and so he accepted the dictum that people are by nature relational and can realize the flourishing of their humanity in communion with each other: the common weal takes precedence over the desires of any one individual (see 1 Corinthians 12: 4-26). Dante likely would have regarded our current ‘cult’ of individualism, the fraught promise of the modern age, with grave concern, even condemnation, especially in a society that has the luxury to know better and the means to do well.  His is a cautionary tale for our times.

Yet Dante was not without hope. His journey does not remain mired in inevitable damnation (Calvin is still two centuries away). Once Dante and Virgil emerge out of the darkness of the Inferno and begin the ascent of the purgatorial mountain, Dante encounters souls whom he can celebrate for their atonement, the souls of those who redirected their lives from sin (pride, envy, wrath, greed) to virtue (humility, compassion, patience, generosity), always with the help of others. No one can make the journey alone. The souls in Purgatorio did not just cease from sinning, they embraced active lives of virtuous behavior and reconnection to others (and, through others, to God). Yet Dante was also a resolute believer in free will, and so he also insists that we always have choice in how we live our lives, whether we choose the dark wood of fear and despair, self -pity and resentment, or the clear path of benevolence and joy, empathy and love.


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

…tanto ch’i’ vidi de la cose belle
che porta ‘l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stele. 

(Inferno. xxxiv. 137-139)[2]

1 Trans.: …my desire and will were already moved, like a wheel turned uniformly, by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

[2] Trans.: …until I saw, through a round opening, some of those things of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there that we emerged to see again the stars.


Taking Stock – Church Reform

One of the positive side effects of this sad time of coronavirus/COVID-19 is that those of us well enough to do so have time to take stock. Where, then, stands reform in the Catholic Church?

I think Michael Sean Winters “nailed” it (03/05/2020). There had been an exaggerated reaction of dismay to the formal response of Pope Francis to the Amazon Synod. Winters is surely right to assert that Francis understandably wanted to focus on matters ecological at that synod, and that the tectonic shift that is happening under him with regard to church reform centers on a synodality that is not reducible to a parliamentary form of government, where issues are determined purely by majority vote. In short, with regard to the issues of married priests and female deacons, issues of concern to the universal church, Francis remained unconvinced that the discernment process had reached the point of peaceful decision.

Nonetheless, this incident has raised concern in some quarters that while the reform of Francis has been strong on personal and cultural aspects, it has been limited at the legal, institutional and structural levels, so that a well-organized and resourced opposition is now scenting blood.

Certainly at the cultural level, there has been real progress - a genuine loosening up of discussion, debate, and a growing familiarity with the practice of communal discernment. And there has been an awareness of the need for legal, institutional and structural change – so, for example, the new laws in Episcopalis Communio around mandatory consultation before the Synod of Bishops, the on-going work of the Council of Cardinals, the shortly to-be-published document on reform of the Curia are all evidence of this.

I would suggest that there are two major issues emerging as the reform seeks to find more secure institutional footing within the church.

Frist, with regard to the relationship between primacy and collegiality as newly focused by the Amazon Synod, John O’Malley, in another context, notes that while it is clear that in the Catholic Church, governance is shared by the pope and the collective authority of the bishops, the practical implementation of this sharing will by definition always be untidy and subject to change. Church governance, like the governance of every institution that is not a dictatorship, consists of lines that are sometimes blurred. We are faced with the practical question of what are the appropriate instruments for making the collegial (synodal) tradition of church governance effective. 

Since the ultimate purpose is the discernment of God’s will (and not some more simple counting of votes, the “parliamentary procedures” of ARCIC III),  one can understand the reluctance of Francis to simply accept tout court – the recommendations of a regional synod that were themselves deeply contested and were also being addressed in other fora. On the other hand, perhaps ARCIC III also has it right in recommending a more deliberative role for the Synod of Bishops and a fuller articulation of the authority of Episcopal Conferences. O’Malley’s colleague at Georgetown, Ladislas Orsy, has already long argued for the effective, not just affective, authority of Episcopal Conferences, proposing that the Holy See can and should retain ultimate supervisory authority over the conferences but more in the traditional manner of a court of appeal.  By offering a more deliberative status to the Synod of Bishops and indeed to Episcopal Conferences, Francis would be laying positive foundations for a more shared ecclesial governance, coupled with a kind of mutual veto to avoid simple head-counting as a means of settling disputed issues, thus preserving the value of discernment.

Secondly, we need to address the role of the laity in church teaching and governance. While, as O’Malley notes, historically the laity at Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II exercised real influence through a consultative process, nonetheless in an age that values participation as of right and in which the share of the baptised in the three-fold office of Jesus Christ (including governance) is more and more acknowledged, it would seem sensible to move in the direction that ARCIC III proposes and offer a more deliberative role to laity in the Catholic Church.

This would enhance the value of the sensus fidei fidelorum in both church teaching and governance, not least as an antidote to the often unconscious clericalism that Francis himself often criticizes and has identified as an obstacle to the creation of a synodal church. But, in addition, it is the “sense of the faithful” in regions like ours that is most sensitive to such neuralgic issues as the unresolved role of women in the Church and the unreceived status of some church teaching on sexuality. These “internal peripheries” (Lakeland, 03/19/2020) of the Church articulate in their voices of dissent a position that requires hearing and discernment if the Church is to regain credibility in our culture.

We may cavil at some of Francis’ own theological instincts and language on such issues but this may be to miss the point. By his synodal decentralisation, he wants a less exclusive emphasis on his own particular position (and the inevitable blind spots of any particular pontiff) and more room for the Holy Spirit to work through the whole Church. Which is why, as Catherine Mulroney urges (03/12/2020), we all need to put our shoulders to the wheel, from parish level up, in bringing about this new church.


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


An End to the Age of Hubris?

Not a few prognosticators have mused that the global crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic might be an opportunity for a much-needed “reset” of social, economic and political systems. Indeed, the experience of confinement and self-isolation has led many to become more deeply conscious of, and grateful for, community, family, neighbors and friends. Almost instinctively, they have begun reaching out in gestures of solidarity. Teachers deliver books, tablet computers and food boxes to needy students and their families. Others check in on and run errands for elderly neighbors. Many are reaching out to family, friends, colleagues and students through countless video conferences. Families sheltering in place share meals, conversation and leisure activities once again. We are rediscovering the importance of staying connected.

A colleague recently observed the need to reflect on this new experience of “globalized vulnerability.” Could this be a chance to rediscover the true meaning of humanity? And whoever said we were invulnerable? Those born since the Second World War, especially those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, may just be the first generations in human history who have not lived with a constant concern for survival and the fear of death from successive waves of disease, infection, famine or violent conflict. Until this period—an age of antibiotics and technological prowess—the experience of humanity was marked by a profound consciousness of both the fragility and the giftedness of life, and indeed, by the knowledge of our interdependence on one another, other creatures and the earth.

Scientists see a clear connection between humanity’s aggressive assault on the natural world and the arrival of a global pandemic. Over the past decade, international teams of scientists have made the case for the recognition that since beginning from the mid-20th century, the earth has entered into a new geological epoch defined by humanity’s irreversible impact upon the earth, its ecosystems and climate. The Anthropocene era—shaped by unprecedented levels of atmospheric CO2, rising sea levels, desertification, deforestation and the mass extinction of species—they warn, is one where reckless modes of human living have been “playing with fire.”

Who can deny that much of the human community has been flying blind through an age of hubris, defying the gods, under the spell of excessive self-confidence? How else are we to comprehend the failing of leaders around the globe to heed the warnings of scientists and epidemiologists, neglecting to take sensible precautions, ignoring the inevitable? It will never happen, they told themselves. Or it will happen somewhere else, on some distant continent, and not impinge upon more “developed” societies. When it does, they thought, scientists would produce an antidote, a vaccine in short order. Even when the pandemic had reached their shores, the leaders of the many wealthy nations continued to deny, minimize and obfuscate in a breath-taking show of insouciance.

Pope Francis points to the dangerous technocratic paradigm and a “cult of unlimited power” that has seeped into our culture in his exhortation on the Care of our Common Home, Laudato Si. He rightly observes that our lifestyle reflects a “misguided anthropomorphism” where human beings have placed themselves at the center of everything. This, he suggests, has led to a dangerous relativism that “sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interest.” The poor and the vulnerable are easily forgotten, lost from view. In such a world, not a few have fallen prey to the false choice between human health and economic wealth.

Canada’s chief public health officer reflected in one of her daily news briefings that the pandemic “humbles us.” COVID-19 has confronted the global community with the limits of our scientific knowledge and shone a bright light on the fissures of our public health, social and political structures. The way forward requires a rediscovery of solidarity and the common good: the good of all the earth and all its inhabitants. This journey toward self-transcendence begins by the embrace of our mortal nature and need for others. It is high time to set aside the foolish pretentions of invincibility, to embark upon the path of humility and embrace our true humanity.

The health care crisis and the looming period of economic depression should not distract us from the crisis in the church and for the need for a comprehensive “reset” in the way the community of the baptized choose to live together and continue Christ’s healing mission on the world. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has called for a humbler church, one that is close to the poor and goes out to the peripheries. He has preached often and at length concerning the spiritual ills in need of healing within the culture and structures of the church and its ministers: the love of riches, honors and flattery, lack of transparency, rigidity and holier-than-thou-ism. It is this culture that led many to defend the institution and its clergy at all costs from accusations of abuse, to reject the advice of competent medical professionals and psychologists, to deny and minimize the maladies of spiritual and sexual abuse and many abuses of power, blinding them to the true pain and suffering of survivors.

Church leaders might take a lesson from the public health crisis. Sadly, some have yet to take to heart the advice and warnings of competent experts—not just lawyers, but medical professionals, psychologists, educators, theologians and survivors. They will need to test, study and arrive at a more accurate diagnosis of the disease, share information widely and take the full measure of its spread and better protect our children and the vulnerable. Greater transparency, honesty and open communication will be essential to restoring the confidence that church leaders are fully committed to creating safe and healthy communities.

When Pope Francis, inspired by Alessandro Manzoni’s work of historical fiction, The Betrothed, described his vision of a missionally engaged church as a “field hospital,” he could hardly have imagined our present predicament. Instead of looking for the church in the gathering of virtual communities provoked by confinement orders, let us not lose sight of how the gospel is being lived out away from the camera’s eye. There, countless men and women are working every day to comfort and care for the sick, the dying, the elderly and the disabled, the newly unemployed and the many uncounted victims of the crisis. In their humble service and self-gift, the church and the human community are being renewed.


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


Saint George Feeds the Dragon

After Cardinal George Pell’s acquittal on child sex abuse charges earlier this month, there was a momentary hope that this saga might end with the kind of humility that people of good will, not to mention a senior leader of the Catholic Church, ought to bring to such an agonizing episode.

The seven-member High Court of Australia ruled unanimously that the jury that convicted Pell of molesting two choirboys in 1996 after Mass in the Melbourne cathedral should have had reasonable doubt about the allegations. The court said there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.” Pell’s first trial on these charges ended in a hung jury in September 2018, but prosecutors retried the cardinal and the jury in the second trial unanimously agreed on Pell’s guilt in December 2018.

Last August, a divided appeals court ruled 2-1 against Pell’s appeal, but the High Court’s ruling on April 7 to quash the conviction was the final word.

Pell, 78, was immediately freed, having served 13 months of a six-year sentence. The president of the Australian bishops conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, issued a sensitive and carefully worded statement recognizing that the decision would be welcome news for some and “devastating for others,” and he reaffirmed the church’s “unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.” The Vatican, where Pell had spent a stormy tenure as Pope Francis’ point man for reforming Rome’s byzantine finances, struck a similarly balanced tone.

Pell’s initial statement also seemed aimed at reconciliation. “There is certainly hurt and bitterness enough,” he said. “However, my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church, nor a referendum on how church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the church. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”

Alas, the peace was fleeting.

Pell and his fan base soon reverted to the form that I described, and lamented, in my previous column here: casting blame on others, deflecting attention from their own faults, picking fights and generally disregarding victim sensitivities. This was not entirely surprising: From his cell last August, and contrary to prison rules and any sense of ecclesial prudence, Pell joined a fierce conservative campaign against the Synod on the Amazon with a broadside that questioned every aspect of Francis’ ministry, from his missionary outreach to the synodal path and his desire for a “Church of the Poor.”

Pell seems unable to help himself, and that he was acquitted during Holy Week proved a temptation too great to resist. “The Lord is close to those who have been unjustly accused,” Pell said in a grainy cellphone video message that he recorded in Italian and sent addressed to his Italian friends for Easter.

This was rich, given that during his time in the Roman Curia, Pell made a point of belittling Italian ways of doing business and even had memos from his office sent around in English, rather than the Italian that is the lingua franca of the Vatican. As Massimo Faggioli put it in Commonweal, Pell’s video was “clearly not aimed at Italian Catholics in the pews, but at prelates in the Vatican, which suggests that he still hopes to recover his standing in Rome or have some sway in shaping the political alignment in the college of cardinals.”

Also on Easter weekend, Pell wrote a column in Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian (conservative media in Australia and in the Catholic world have been crucial advocates for Pell) that managed to identify his own suffering with that of Jesus while claiming that, while that abuse crisis was bad for the Catholic Church, “we have painfully cut out a moral cancer and this is good.”

A few days later, in an irresponsible interview on Sky News with conservative provocateur Andrew Bolt, Pell dropped any theological pretensions and went full conspiracy-monger, telling Bolt that the case against him was a “persecution” carried out by liberals and Australian state media because they don’t like Christianity or Pell’s bully brand of social conservativism. “The culture wars are real,” said Pell, who was willingly baited as Bolt tossed him one leading question after another. “There is a systematic attempt to remove the Judeo-Christian legal foundations, with the examples of marriage, life, gender, sex, and [toward] those who oppose that, unfortunately there's less rational discussion and there's more playing the man.”

His accuser, Pell said, was “used” by these evil forces, and he agreed with Bolt that authorities would continue “trawling for victims” to use against him. The cardinal also said that senor Vatican officials who didn’t like his efforts to clean up curial finances played a role in selling him out to Australian authorities, though he provided no evidence of such a plot. “Just how high up it goes”—meaning corruption in the Vatican—“is an interesting hypothesis,” Pell said. Well.

Pell’s conservative allies in the church never needed much encouragement to amplify such views, and they quickly piled on, pointing to the “psychological problems” of Pell’s chief accuser (the other alleged victim died of a drug overdose years ago) and describing Pell’s prosecutors as a “lynch mob.” They called for a government investigation of both Australian media and “corrupt” law enforcement, and they repeatedly depicted Pell’s treatment as the result of an anti-Catholicism that was at least equal to traditional anti-Semitism. “If Pell was a rabbi instead of a cardinal, he wouldn’t have spent a single night in prison,” wrote Michael Warren Davis.

A thread running through all of this commentary is that Pell was “innocent.” Certainly, Pell may well have been innocent of this crime, and there were good, and sober, arguments on his behalf. But as the New York Times detailed, the Australian justice system is so opaque that no one except the judges and the jury saw all the evidence and heard all the testimony, making outside judgments inherently uncertain.

Moreover, this was not the only accusation against Pell, or the only example of his dire response to clergy abuse accusations. Prosecutors could reopen a case involving even earlier abuse accusations against Pell, from when he was a priest—a case that was shut down once he was convicted of the other charges. There are also at least eight civil suits against Pell, and now that Pell’s appeal has run its course, the redacted sections of a Royal Commission study of the Australian church’s record on clergy abuse may now be published. The relevant sections had been blacked out during Pell’s prosecution because they concern his role as a priest advising the bishop of Ballarat about how to handle abusive priests, and later, about how he handled abusive priests when he was archbishop of Melbourne.

Even what is publicly known about Pell’s record overseeing abusive priests and dealing with victims is unsightly. Further revelations could put him in jeopardy not only with Australian authorities but also with the Vatican’s new anti-abuse procedures. As Michael Sainsbury wrote in La Croix, “no matter what the Holy See decides to do, or not do, George Pell will certainly remain tied up in legal knots for many years to come.”

That means George Pell will also be forever in the arena, a prospect that should frighten Australian Catholics who are preparing for a plenary council this October—a synodal process of the sort that Pell disdains—in an effort to promote reform and chart a new path for the country’s church. Pell’s prominence and support in some sectors in Rome are also worrisome for those who believe the church needs to open itself to self-examination, repentance and change.

The aftermath of Pell’s acquittal shows that the cardinal and his allies are stuck in the past, reveling in battles with ideological foes without seeing that they are their own worst enemies, and that the real casualty of such warfare is the Gospel itself. Sure, there is bias against the church and deep-seated anger among Catholics as much as the liberal secular elite conservatives love to hate. Who wouldn’t be angry at what church leaders were doing to cover up abuse while preaching about the sinfulness of others?

But casting Pell as the victim, and being reflexively offensive in your public witness and defensive about the institutional church, are the attitudes that got us into this scandal in the first place.

Yes, George Pell may have been acquitted in this case. But as his post-vindication conduct has shown, the church’s trials, and his, are anything but over.


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


Together, We Can

Can you believe it? Resurrection? Pandemic? Did it actually happen? When will it end?

Oh, we always want answers. I have become particularly frustrated by the repetitive questions the Canadian media is presenting our prime minister (apologies to American readers for a bit of local color). The questions: How long will the physical distancing restrictions last? When will the economy rebound? How much will all the economic measures cost? We want answers! That’s what transparency is all about, but what if we don’t know the answers? Or more importantly, why is it so difficult to recognize the limits of our human capacities?

Many have commented, quite accurately, that this worldwide pandemic is striking at the core of the image that we have created for our human systems and abilities. Doctors are supposed to cure us. Medical systems are supposed to guarantee our health. Governments are supposed to ensure our security and well-being. Ostensibly, the privilege of the Global North entails invincibility and scientific enlightenment. Devastating pandemics may be the fate of Africa or areas in Asia, but certainly not here! Here I am to be protected and guaranteed safety, because I am a 21st-century North American with governments, health-care systems and bureaucracies functioning for my benefit.

COVID-19 tells another story. It is the story of devastation; it is the story of horror; it is the story of my being just like every other human being—frail, frightened and at the mercy of a killer we  cannot see. The dead have committed no crime, they have not angered a merciless god, and they most certainly have not been appointed to their fates by a transcendent power. We are witnesses to (participants in) something that we prefer to ignore: death and the sin of the world. When our health authorities tell us that the spread of the virus is in our hands, our compliance is less eager than our concern over when authorities will get things under control. We do not see ourselves responsible for our global fate, whether due to a pandemic, or climate change or widespread hunger and poverty. We do not admit our weakness and need for each other, need to live for each other and that for our world to be healed, we must let go of our privilege. We see Christ on the Cross for our future salvation, not for His Kingdom here and now. We fear to enter into the mystery of our Faith—the mystery of our human existence. We continue to see the Cross as something accomplished, concluded, in the past. When we lose sight of the Cross as a sign of our weakness, of a God who is as much absent as present, of a Church more enroute than arrived, we continue to demand answers. 

Fortunately, as we move through the Passion to the Resurrection, we can choose the Way of the Cross; we can recognize that together the Cross can be carried; we can know the healing that comes from experiencing God with us, among us and in us. We can rejoice in His presence, even when our churches are closed. We can be strengthened by renewing our awareness of the Spirit within us calling us to be priest, prophet, king. We can let go of those habits that have become crutches and stand in the way of fully living the inheritance of a child of God. We can put aside our need to simply obey and accept black and white answers. Despite the fear of letting go of normalized paradigms, we can take responsibility for our faith and renew the Church. We can be Church, not because someone says so, but because that is what we are called to be by the One who knew our name before we were born. We are the Church that passes through the Cross to the Resurrection. We can be the Church that proclaims a new vision for a humanity forced to realize its profound unity, through its infirmity. We can be the Church that lets go of its own standing and privilege in order to embrace the poor, the forgotten and the marginalized. I can’t alone, but we can together.


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


The Long Good Friday

“Zion is wasted and made low; Jerusalem, desolate and void.”

--From “Bow Thine Ear, O Lord,” translation of “Civitas Sancti Tui” by William Byrd

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, one of the annual highlights was participating in the liturgies of Holy Week as a member of the Liturgical Choir. During my time as a student, the choir was directed by the late Dr. Gail Walton (d. 2010), who masterfully combined musical perfectionism and loving mentorship of students. Within Holy Week, our first major task as a choir was a version of Tenebrae, the medieval service of darkness and light in which candles are slowly extinguished symbolizing the flight of the apostles.

One year, we sang for this service “Bow Thine Ear, O Lord,” a motet by the Tudor composer William Byrd that he wrote to evoke parallels between the plight of Catholics in England and the plight of the Jews during the Babylonian Exile. During one rehearsal of this piece, Gail became concerned about the gap in passion from the choir between this piece and another work, Louis Vierne’s thundering “Kyrie” from his Messe Solennelle, that we were going to sing for Tenebrae. She implored us to put the same passion into singing Byrd’s quiet lament as we did for Vierne’s “big” plea for mercy. Even a decade and a half later, this advice has stuck with me, and I think it is instructive for our present moment.

We enter the Triduum this year feeling spiritually and physically “desolate and void,” as Byrd’s motet would have it. Whereas usually Lent, particularly with the readings from Year A of the Lectionary cycle, picks up in intensity week by week culminating in the Fifth Sunday with the Raising of Lazarus, for many of us, this year’s Lent has had an entirely different kind of intensity—one that has not let up since just after the Second Sunday. This year, the Transfiguration Gospel and Peter’s exclamation that “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” take on ironic resonance, as we have been—for good reason—unable to attend church services since that time. Desolation and void have been our spiritual lot and are likely to be for a good part of the Easter season at least. It has felt, to borrow the title of a British film from the 1970s, like a long Good Friday.

How then to respond? Some in the Church have foolishly called for reopening public Masses on the grounds that the spiritual health and wellbeing of the faithful are more important than protection from disease. This attitude exhibits a kind of fideism, a rejection of the basic Catholic principle that we emphasize in our Catholic intellectual tradition seminars at Sacred Heart: faith and reason are compatible. Firm faith and hope in God do not justify reckless behavior with our earthly bodies, our “one wild and precious life” in Mary Oliver’s words, that is the prelude to resurrection life yet that has its own dignity and value worth preserving.

We must also avoid the temptation toward individualism during the Triduum, even aa—and precisely because—many are, in fact, alone. “Me and Jesus” spirituality is neither healthy for the individual nor authentic to Christian identity in community. Whether we are participating in livestreamed services (there are good arguments for and against this) or developing our own home rituals, we must do so in a way that goes beyond the closed-in mentality that Pope Francis so often laments in the church and that extends beyond the hierarchy to many of the laity. The mandatum of Holy Thursday this year will not be reenacted in the washing of the feet in churches around the world (or in a prison by Pope Francis), but this does not exempt us from its call; rather, it reinforces the idea that service must be part and parcel of our Christian lives. If we are not on the front lines of this fight as a health-care professional, grocery store worker or delivery driver, we must support them in whatever way we can, both in mundane ways, such as tipping generously, and deeper ways such as fighting for just wages and benefits for them. We cannot venerate the cross this year on Good Friday, but we can venerate what Ignacio Ellacuría called the “crucified people” in our community around the world who suffer and die as many still live comfortably amidst the pandemic. We cannot share the light of the Paschal Candle, but we can, in the words of Michael Forster’s Advent poem, “Kindle a light to lighten the darkness” because “God in the poor is coming” to meet us, judge us, heal us and free us.  What will our Easter offering for them be?

To return, then, to the wisdom of my late, great choir director Gail Walton: there is a danger that we will count the Triduum and Easter this year as less meaningful due to the quiet desolation we understandably feel. This would be to make the same mistake my choir did—to mistake fullness and gratification for meaning. Viktor Frankl wrote and spoke at length about finding meaning under the most difficult circumstances, and we would do well to learn from him that our feeling of emptiness offers a surplus rather than a deficit of meaning, and to act accordingly. In the words of tonight’s Introit, let us glory in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which is salvation, life and resurrection: through which we are saved and freed.  Let us use that freedom wisely and justly.


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


On Praying in a Pandemic

The Covid19 pandemic brings into sharp relief the interdependence of all humankind. We in the western capitalist democracies are being confronted with the illusory nature of our claims to autonomy, individualism and progress. Suddenly, everything is in flux, the habitual routines and rituals of everyday life have been suspended, and we wonder with some justification if things will ever be the same again. We find ourselves in limbo, suspended between a past that may have disappeared forever, and a future that nobody can predict.

In this time of social isolation, it’s not surprising that Christians are taking to social media with what is becoming a daily deluge of prayers and blessings, holy pictures and homespun rituals, livestreamed Masses and virtual devotions. There are many reasons for such intensity of prayer. There is the anguish of those living with illness, death and bereavement; the exhaustion of health workers daily risking their lives to help others; the loneliness of those who are cut off from society and have no one to turn to; the abandonment of those who are poor and homeless, of migrants and refugees, of all who already inhabit the desolate margins of our consumerist societies and whose meager sources of care and support have suddenly vanished. Yet it’s unsettling to notice how Christian social media is focusing more on different ways and means of praying through Holy Week and Easter than on ways of responding to our neighbours in need and forming communities of care and support for those who are most vulnerable.

I’m not denying the importance of prayer and worship, particularly during this holiest time of the Christian year, nor am I denying that many Christians are doing everything they can to provide a safety net for those most in need, but still I’m uneasy about the frenetic activity of online liturgical life right now. Sometimes it can seem as if the greatest impact of coronavirus is its disruption of the church-going activities of western citizens. It has pushed into oblivion the most desperate and despairing people on our planet, and a widespread preoccupation with our own struggles and deprivations is distracting us from the plight of those who must now add coronavirus to a long catalogue of misery and marginalization. Is the problem that deep down, we expect God to behave like some capitalist overlord who keeps rich white people safe from the scourges of disease and social and economic chaos that happen every day in every way to the poorest of the poor?

Theodicy rears its ugly head in times like these, as theologians leap into action to tackle the problem. Why does God allow these things to happen? What explanation can theology offer to help people to reconcile their faith in the goodness of God with disease, suffering and death? But there is no new theological challenge about coronavirus. Pandemics are as old as humankind, and faith must always grapple with the challenges posed by tragedy, trauma and catastrophe. 

Coronavirus belongs within a natural order that includes disease and death, but the challenges it presents are surely not so much about God as about ourselves. The rapid spread of the disease was made possible by globalization. We know today that the globetrotting consumerist lifestyles that many of us in the West have come to expect are not sustainable. We have also discovered that, faced with an unprecedented crisis, we can respond with remarkable urgency in bringing about a radical change in the way we live. Yet there is increasing evidence that, unless we willingly make some of these changes as a long-term commitment to sustainable development, we are likely to be overtaken by an environmental catastrophe that will dwarf this present crisis.

Even the worst pandemics eventually pass, but the environmental crisis will not pass. That is why this may be a moment of epochal significance for all life on earth. While many of us long for the restoration of our social interactions, for reunion with family and friends, for a return to normal, we must also ask what ‘normal’ might be after this. How can we embed the more positive aspects of this strange time of suspended animation into our institutions and lifestyles?

Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ reclaims the forgotten wisdom of the Catholic tradition with regard to the interconnectedness of all God’s creation and the graced capacity of every form of life to reveal something of the trinitarian mystery. As modern western culture surged ahead with its confidence in science, reason and progress, our relationship with the natural world – including our own bodies – became infected with dualism. The earth’s riches became commodities to be exploited rather than wonders to be marvelled at. Humankind became divided between the tourists and travellers who treat the earth as a vast theme park, and the refugees, migrants and exploited workers who constitute the shadow side of the capitalist jamboree. Other species became instrumentalized, valued only for their usefulness to humans. Yet today we are rediscovering what our pre-modern forebears knew all along – that we are part of a delicate and wondrous symphony of life played out through all the diverse species and forms of nature. We humans have an awesome responsibility for how our behavior impacts on this graced harmony of being.

I live on a houseboat on the River Thames in London. Every day during this crisis, I kayak across the river to the nature reserve on the other side for my daily walk, and I wonder anew at how the sounds of nature are emerging against the unfamiliar silence of this vast city. Flights to and from Heathrow have dwindled to a few a day. Traffic noise has faded into insignificance apart from the occasional wail of an ambulance bringing a stark reminder of the times we are living through. The birds are singing in the full-throated exuberance of spring, and May shrubs flower in snowy abundance along the near-deserted paths beside the river. I sit on the bank and watch the water turn to gold in the setting sun, and I imagine that the earth is rejoicing in this brief respite from the wanton destructiveness of human activity. We may even find in the end that fewer people overall will die this year, because the air we breathe is cleaner than it has been for a very long time.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 7 million people die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution. Children living in polluted cities are likely to suffer damage to their lungs, stunted growth and impaired brain development. Even if we face several more months of coronavirus, the impact is unlikely to come anywhere near to these figures. The environmental crisis is a more deadly and stealthy pandemic than any disease, and yet it has created barely a ripple in terms of bringing about the kind changes we need to make.

There is growing evidence that the reduction in human activity of the last few weeks is dramatically reducing air pollution. The question is, what happens when this crisis is over? To ensure that this is not just a brief respite in our headlong dive towards an annihilating catastrophe, we need to insist that our governments make radical changes in policy, economics and law. This will mean an end to the neoliberal globefest that has lined the pockets of the rich and pushed the poor to the margins of survival. It will mean embracing as part of our normal lives some of the extreme measures that we have proven we can live with during this pandemic – and we may find that we are happier for it.

I have recently been reading Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper’s book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, first published in 1952. It is a searing criticism of how the exaggerated work ethos of modernity induces a collective amnesia with regard to our capacity for contemplation, silence and the enjoyment of creation. Pieper calls his readers to rediscover the essence of our humanity in recognizing leisure as a form of worship, because it invites a letting go of all our preoccupations and anxieties and a reclamation of our capacity for wonder beyond the boredom and distractedness of modern life.

The word ‘crisis’ derives from the Greek ‘krisis,’ but the biblical Greek has richer meanings than its English derivation. It refers to a time of judgment and decision-making, a time of separation and discrimination when we must choose between life and death, good and bad. We might associate it with the biblical concept of ‘kairos,’ referring to a time out of time that constitutes a rare moment of opportunity and the potential for transformation. This time of krisis is a kairos moment. It may never be repeated. In all the dark mystery of suffering and death, coronavirus might yet prove to be the wakeup call that saved the planet. ‘See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.’ (Deut. 30:15). This may be our very last opportunity to choose life and prosperity for future generations. I hope and pray that we choose well.


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


American Exceptionalism and the Coronavirus

Like many Americans who live in Rome, my inbox has suddenly been overloaded with emails. New message alerts have been popping up more frequently on the various social media apps I use. And recently, people have been trying to reach me for a phone or video chat several times each day.

Most of these are friends and family from the United States. They are checking in to see if we’re safe. Or is to satisfy a morbid curiosity about what life is like in Italy, currently the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic?

It doesn’t matter that I live in Rome, where there have been relatively few cases of infection compared to the northern region of Lombardy where the virus is ravaging the people of cities like Bergamo and Milan.

“I’m great,” I tell them. “I don’t have the virus, as far as I know. At least I haven’t had any visible symptoms,” I say, reciting the same response of the past two or more weeks since all of Italy went into lockdown.

Thank God I can still repeat myself.

Then I assure them that I’m not really bored or going stir crazy during this virtual house arrest. In fact, I’ve never been busier with writing and editing. And since I usually work at home anyway, this is not that much of an inconvenience. But not being able to go to the gym each afternoon sure is!  However, I’m managing with that, too.

Then, probably less tactfully than intended, I tell my American friends that I am much more worried about them. And they should be, too. I try to explain that soon the United States will outpace Italy in infections—which, in fact, actually happened just as I sat down to write this piece…

I watch both CNN and Fox News each evening to see how people in my native country are reacting and responding to the spread of COVID-19. And this merely verifies my fears that the United States is so deeply divided into roughly two substantial blocs, and people cannot even agree anymore on what is black and what is white.

Yet, the coronavirus crisis has shown me—painfully—that most of them do agree on one thing: the United States is different and better than all other nations of the world. And if anyone can beat COVID-19, it is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Belief in American exceptionalism will not immunize people in the 50 states from the current pandemic. Yet the behavior many of them are displaying suggests that they believe this—or something else—makes them less susceptible to contracting the disease than folks in Italy, China or anywhere else on the planet.

Selective adherence to the social distancing and self-isolation directives (where they even exist) is proof that people in the United States have not understood that they are just as vulnerable—and probably more so—than we in Rome.

We see this happening every single day, beginning with the people who are applying the measures to stop the spread of the disease. The U.S. president begins his press briefing as members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force huddle, shoulder-to-shoulder behind him. “This is serious, so remember to practice social distancing,” they warn us. But the optics signal to the American people that it’s not really that dangerous, at least not for everyone. Not for people of importance, those in authority.

The president calls this a war and promises that America will be beat it. He proclaims his hope that the country will “be opened up and raring to go by Easter.” Maybe Easter 2021… This pandemic has just arrived in the continental United States, and anyone who tries to make you believe it’s going away soon is nothing but a snake oil salesman. The crisis has only just begun. 

Unfortunately, Catholics won’t find much guidance from their national spiritual leaders. The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference tweeted “five spiritual tips for you to live out at home during the #coronaviruspandemic.” They included getting to know your next-door neighbor better and taking walks with friends! That is not social distancing. And when it was pointed out, the USCCB quickly removed the tweet and replaced it with one offering more sober advice.

The conference does not inspire confidence. But neither do so many of the individual bishops. Almost all of those who have seminarians and priests studying in Rome called the young men back to the United States because of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. Most of them did so in early March, but the rest scrambled to get the seminarians out just as the pandemic was exploding in the United States and the president was closing the borders to people arriving from Europe.

God only knows what these bishops were thinking. No doubt, they were guided in part by that sacrosanct creed: American exceptionalism. They don’t seem to be fans of socialist Italy’s single payer healthcare system (which doesn't work, according to Joe Biden!). The bishops—who opposed the American Health Care Act (Obamacare) on ideological grounds that would make the most rigid of Pharisees blush—obviously think their men needed to be rushed back home where, if needed, they could get the best health care and be treated by the greatest doctors in the world.

These seminarians will not be returning to Rome for a very long time. They’ll be lucky if they make it back in time to serve the pope’s Midnight Christmas Mass. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Certainly, the bishops wanted to make sure their men got out of Italy while they could, especially so they would be back in their dioceses for spring and summer ordinations. But if the United States continues to try to deal with the pandemic in the current haphazard, piecemeal fashion, the virus will continue to spread like brushfire, and there will be no ordinations—except, perhaps, in the cathedral sacristy. Then only a few people would risk getting infected instead of an entire congregation.

The coronavirus is extremely contagious, and it does not discriminate. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, nobility or peasant stock, cleric or layperson… It makes no difference. Anyone can get it. But it is extremely dangerous for those over the age of 70 and people of any age with preexisting health issues (including obesity, asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, psychological problems, etc.). Most of the people who die of COVID-19 are in these categories.

And that should deeply worry Catholics in the United States, at least from a Church point of view. Because a good many of their priests and bishops fit into those categories, as well, and would be in grave danger if they were to be infected.

We in Italy appreciate the messages of concern and encouragement our friends in the States are sending our way. But, honestly, we are more concerned about folks in our native land, which could very well become like northern Italy 50 times over. Fortunately, many Americans share our concerns. And, hopefully, they still have enough time to convince those in the country who don’t.


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


Could the Intellectual Periphery Be Closer Than We Think?

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery.” (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 2013)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the words of Jorge Bergoglio to the assembled cardinals in 2013 that, apparently, played a big role in his subsequent election to the papacy. This was the injunction to “go to the existential peripheries.” There are many kinds of periphery, and some of them are noncontroversial and dear to the heart of Pope Francis. The poor, the hungry, the oppressed, these are the obvious peripheries—the groups that have been named for many years by liberation theologians as “the marginalized.” In the well-known wish of the pope, “I want a church that is poor and for the poor,” these peripheries are to be made central. The missionary disciple who goes out to these peripheries with the message of the preferential love of God is doing exactly what the gospel demands.

But what of the other peripheries he includes? I have been considering, in particular, the peripheries of “ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents.” When we think about outreach to the poor, we know that the grace of God is extended preferentially to them, and the missionary disciple’s task is to make this clear by concretizing it. To see this in action, take a look at Paul Farmer’s work in health care in Haiti, Ecuador and Rwanda—work influenced by the theology of Gustavo Gutierrez. But just as grace is always already present to the poor, it is equally always already present to those who are indifferent to religion and those whose “intellectual currents” are not easily embraced in the Christian vision.

What does “intellectual currents” mean? An obvious example would be atheism, which is certainly more than “indifference to religion,” and 55 years ago the Second Vatican Council adopted an irenic posture towards those whose lives apparently do not need faith in God, even recognizing that the world has much to teach the church. But would I be entirely wrong to imagine that among the intellectual currents Bergoglio had in mind might have been what clerics love to call “radical feminism,” the “ideology of gender,” and neoliberalism? What does it mean to go out to those intellectual peripheries with the message of the gospel, knowing that these and others are always already graced?

Another of Francis’s favorite words is “dialogue,” and evidently the missionary disciple is called into dialogue with those whose intellectual positions not only come into conflict with gospel teaching, but whose grace-filled wisdom might also have something to teach the church that the church would not otherwise know. Upholstered with teachings or mere opinions that we may imagine belong to the heart of the gospel, encountering the grace-filled intellectual other, we might even find that we are, at the periphery, encountering the gospel anew. In his Marianist Lecture at the University of Dayton a couple of decades ago, Charles Taylor said that the church owed its commitments to justice and freedom to the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment. That kind of debt to the secular world was not exhausted in the 19th century. Indeed, the debt was not recognized for a century or so, and such might be the case for the intellectual currents with which the church is struggling today. So, the logic of Francis’s call to go to the intellectual periphery is one of overcoming the unhealthy polarizations of our contemporary world. When we recognize with Georges Bernanos that “grace is everywhere,” we have no other option than that of respect, of radical hospitality to the other who is no more and no less than us a mysterious mixture of sin and grace.

The one dimension of this outreach to the periphery that may not always be attended to is the internal outreach to those whose intellectual currents may be at odds with one or other official stance of the church. If the missionary stance of the church needs to be centrifugal, to move from the faith community out into the world, and if the centripetal opposite is too often a sterile kind of ecclesial navel-gazing, it is also true that no missionary orientation will be effective if the center from which it emerges is not itself sound. Hence the pope’s linking of being “for the poor with being poor.”

But at the same time, a church that can dialogue openly with the secular world, with all the potential relativization of its own positions that this might entail, needs to come to the task with an openness to its own internal differences. A case in point: Pope Francis’s evident lack of real understanding of the objectives of global feminism and of the many challenges of varied gender identities sets up a need for open dialogue with faithful Catholics who do not share his perspective and who may, in many instances, understand better the complex issues he is trying to address. Here, of course, the danger is that internally to the church there lingers the assumption that on ethical issues there is one approved perspective and therefore no need or room for dialogue with difference. This is much clearer when we move from the sensitive struggles of Pope Francis to the ugly power-play of a number of American bishops who seem to think that the gospel calls them to fire good teachers in same-sex relationships, oh, and by the way, to eject their children from the Catholic school system.

What if we recognize that it is increasingly the case that the range of ethical postures that we find in the world as a whole is matched by the variety of convictions of faithful Catholics? For quite some time now, the church has accepted the idea of the development of doctrine. Development implies growth, and growth requires dialogue and argument. But what about the development of ethics, which will be intrinsically connected to our developing understanding of human nature? In one area, that of the relationship between a theology of creation and the kind of concern for the earth expressed in Laudato Si’, we have managed to grow in a healthy direction. In consequence the church in general, and the pope in particular, have become global leaders on environmental issues. Here, we might say, the dialogue has somehow been successful. Can we now imagine the same process occurring in the realm of sexual ethics, biology and the possibilities of medical technology? Only, I think, if the church can manage outreach to the internal periphery. Respect for the external other cannot consistently coexist with the condemnation of the internal voice of dissent.


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