A publication of Sacred Heart University

Look to the Gospels for Answers

In 1969, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, theologian Henri de Lubac gave an address at St. Louis University entitled “L’Église dans la crise actuelle” (“The Church in the current crisis.”) De Lubac addressed at length the divisions facing the church, which were particularly stark for his audience in the United States. Following the 1968 release of Humanae Vitae, American Catholics’ U.S. political preferences quickly found a corollary in church politics. If you voted Republican, the logic went, you generally supported Humanae Vitae and its ban on birth control and preferred the old Latin rite. If you were a democrat, you opposed Humanae Vitae and preferred the new Mass.

It’s a division that in many ways persists to this day in the U.S. church, having been exacerbated by social media, well-funded media outlets pushing their visions of the church and high-profile Catholic voices ceaselessly offering hot takes on current ecclesial and secular news, rarely straying from their established party lines. Meanwhile, Catholics in the pews continue to self-segregate, largely along racial and political lines. All this has even led to speculation about a possible American schism.

In response to the fractures he saw growing, de Lubac points to one figure as a possible antidote: That figure was Madeleine Delbrêl, the French social worker, poet and mystic who spent the decades after her conversion to Catholicism working in the militantly atheist Communist village of Ivry-sur-Seine, outside Paris. Through difficult years of running social programs from a lay Catholic community connected to her parish, and later for the local, mostly Communist government, Debrêl became known as a bridge-builder between Catholics and Communists.

In that St. Louis University speech, de Lubac describes Delbrêl as an example of the kind of simple, authentic Christian living and spirituality that rivals “the refined purity of certain cerebral spiritualities in whose name ordinary Christianity—the only one familiar to the saints and to the ordinary Christians for the past 20 centuries—is criticized.” He sees the intellectualized liberal-conservative divide in the church as a distraction from true Christianity: simple faith.

In his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis offers a similarly humble response to what he has taken to calling the “pandemics” that divide our world—not only Covid-19, but the pandemics of racism, xenophobic populism, exploitative neoliberal economics, environmental degradation and so on. In a break in tone from Francis’ previous encyclical Laudato Si’, Fratelli Tutti acknowledges not only the urgent need to rectify our relationships with the earth and one another, but also that our world is progressing away from, not toward, this goal of reconciliation. Rather than coming together, Francis sees the coronavirus pandemic driving us farther apart.

After laying out these issues in his first chapter, ominously titled “Dark Clouds Over a Closed World,” Francis devotes his entire second chapter an extended reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan, through which he interprets our social ills. He asks his readers to reflect on which character they most represent. Are we the robbers? The wounded man? Are we the priest and Levite hurrying by someone on the side of the road, unwilling to give our time? Or are we the Good Samaritan, who prioritizes the man over whatever plans he had? Furthermore, are our institutions places like the inn where the Samaritan takes the man to rest and be cared for? As Francis points out, the Samaritan had transportation to offer, but no place to offer the man rest and medical treatment. Do we have institutions that will help us care for others when our personal abilities fall short?

It is significant that Francis points first to the Gospel to examine how we should respond to social ills, rather than looking to the tried and true documents of Catholic Social Teaching. As my “Inside the Vatican” podcast co-host Gerard O’Connell likes to say, Pope Francis doesn’t think you need to be a theologian or scholar to have a Christian outlook on the world. It is enough that you crack open your Bible and take a clear-eyed look at the world around you.

This is the kind of simple spirituality that de Lubac praised in Madeleine Delbrêl, whose personal Bible, particularly the Gospels, was packed with layers of notes. It is what drove her to pack up her posh life in the intellectual salons of 1920s Paris and move to a working-class town where Catholic and Communist children threw stones at one another in the street.

Reading the Gospel with a clear-eyed view toward the world is what led the women in Sr. Maura Clarke’s Bible study in Nicaragua to fight for justice in their country.

It’s the ordinary Christianity that, de Lubac says, is “the only one familiar to the saints.”

In Fratelli Tutti, all of Francis’ high-level concrete recommendations to shift the world from a culture of division and confrontation to one of encounter and dialogue—including a reform of the United Nations, a global fund to end hunger, worldwide denuclearization, abolition of the death penalty—start with reading the world through the lens of the Gospel.

Faced with ecclesial rifts that divide ordinary Catholics from their families and even Vatican officials from the pope, paired in the U.S. with a shameful degree of secular political partisanship, Pope Francis offers a simple solution: Tolle, lege. Take up the Gospel, look at the world around you, and see where God is leading.


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


China and Three Catholics

It is clear that relations with mainland China are fraught. The geopolitical situation is hazardous and seemingly insurmountable. Diplomacy has collapsed into shouting matches; polemical argument supplants reasoned argument.

But there may be an avenue we haven’t explored, and it is an unusual recourse.

What do Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai, the owner of Next Digital and Apple Daily and the most prominent critic of mainland China and its various satraps, as well as Baron Christopher Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University and the last British Governor of Hong Kong who was instrumental in establishing the “two systems, one country” policy ensuring thereby the peaceful transfer of the former colony in 1997, have in common?

They are all three committed and practicing Catholics.

Does that matter in the current geopolitical orbit? In the ordinary run of things, no, but these are not ordinary times and the Vatican has taken notice, and long before the current dustup.

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, the able polyglot Pietro Cardinal Parolin, and the prelate in charge of Relations with States, the Liverpudlian Archbishop Paul Gallagher, have been involved in sensitive negotiations with Beijing that have created turbulent waves among many in the hierarchy. But they are not only architects of a new policy with regard to mainland China, they have been doing it at the urgent behest of their boss, Pope Francis.

Well before strains between Beijing and Hong Kong reached its present level with the implementation of a new security law that is draconian in its content and execution, with protests and arrests a daily occurrence, the imposition of sanctions, the revocation of extradition treaties and an unchecked intemperance of rhetoric on all sides, the Vatican has been working almost since the inception of the Francis papacy to find some common diplomatic ground.

The Vatican’s diplomatic corps is the oldest in Europe. Its training ground, the Pontificia Academia Ecclesiastica, guarantees a sure training in languages, law, polity and the finer points of diplomatic etiquette. The Vatican’s ambassadors do their job with a class and efficiency that is a model for their secular counterparts.

These papal ambassadors do what all ambassadors do: they listen, monitor, avoid drawing attention to themselves, make recommendations to head office on the Tiber and enforce Vatican directives when instructed. And they have been silent players on the international scene for a long time. For instance, negotiations in 1978 around a dispute between Chile and Argentina over contesting claims of sovereignty with the Beagle Islands Channel that were successful in avoiding war were brokered by the Vatican of John Paul II. Francis and his team were major players in the rapprochement between Havana and Washington that occurred in 2016 during the Obama Administration.

They have demonstrated that they have the chops. As the battle rages among all the contesting parties engaging the Vatican may prove profitable.

But a major caveat rests with the increasingly public disputes around the Vatican’s quiet discussions with Beijing. To ensure the reconciliation of the “two” Catholic Churches in China—the Underground Church that has been systematically persecuted and has remained fiercely loyal to Rome and the official Catholic Church that has acknowledged the rights of Beijing to appoint bishops and regulate Catholic institutions for political fidelity—the Vatican has had to make accommodations that Francis’s critics find reprehensible. And some of these critics carry significant clout.

Lord Barnes, a self-described progressive Catholic and very pro-Francis, has publicly called into question Rome’s silence on the current uproar, cautioned that its naivete regarding Beijing’s intentions may compromise its international standing on this issue, with the result that many Chinese Catholics feel abandoned. These sentiments are much more vigorously articulated by the former Cardinal Archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, but there is no indication that the Vatican will interrupt its negotiations nor generate a reversal of policy.

Persuaded that ospolitik, the diplomatic approach of Agostino Cardinal Casaroli and Pope Paul VI when negotiated with the Soviet regimes of Eastern Europe, is the best way of ensuring the survival of the church, Francis is out of sync with his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who rejected ospolitik and opted for a more confrontational style.

The jury is out on which approach will prove most successful in dealing with China, but what is clear is that Francis’s diplomacy is designed to avoid the resurgence of a global Cold War, enshrine fundamental respect for religious freedom without repudiating the values and principles of a political system at variance with its own and keep dialogue open. There are dangers in this, as Lord Barnes has made clear, but the Vatican is a long-term player and has included the costs in its calculus.

Given what Lam, Lai, Patten and the Vatican have in common—their faith—this may provide the opportunity for another behind the scenes diplomatic initiative.


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

 


Flannery O’Connor on the Catholic Campus

In 2017, I listened to a fascinating interview on the TED Radio Hour with the artist, Titus Kaphar, in which he movingly recalls his experience of taking his two sons to the Brooklyn Natural History Museum, when the infamous Teddy Roosevelt Statue still sat outside the main entrance. When his sons asked why the former president was able to sit atop a horse while the neighboring Native American and the African American had to walk, he found it difficult to answer. But the question lead to an idea: Perhaps one approach to problematic public artworks is to give contemporary artists the opportunity to “make new monuments that stand next to these old monuments and force those old monuments into a dialogue.”

I have often thought of Kaphar’s argument in light of the recent controversies over this past summer regarding other public works of art, honors and memorials; as readers doubtlessly know, these debates erupted anew because of the Black Lives Matter protests, spurred by the senseless and tragic death of George Floyd. Often, there really was not much of a debate for many of us; symbols and memorials of Confederate leaders or European Colonizers should have long ago been torn down for their affirmation of a racist past that further entrenched white privilege. But what about honoring people whose memory is more ambiguous and complicated?

Such a question has recently been raised regarding Flannery O’Connor, probably the most esteemed American Catholic author. The immediate cause was Loyola University Maryland’s decision in July to rename the student dormitory, Flannery O’Connor Residence Hall, after the remarkable Sister Thea Bowman in response to a student petition. This petition was inspired by Paul Elie’s article, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?,” in the June 22 issue of The New Yorker, itself stemming in part from Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s excellent, recent book on O’Connor and race, Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor. Needless to say, many O’Connor readers were not happy at Loyola’s decision, and a petition crafted by O’Donnell (and sent to Loyola’s president, Brian Linnane, SJ) was signed by such literary luminaries as Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez, Ron Hansen and Mary Gordon, along with dozens of O’Connor scholars and readers. Basically, the controversy boils down to this: Do you honor a Catholic writer who acknowledged that she was born with white privilege, who exposed the intrinsic evil of racism in her fiction and who strived in her personal life to confront her own racism, but who also laced her letters with racist jokes and displayed little interest in becoming close acquaintances and friends with African-Americans?

Time for a full disclosure: After some hesitation, I signed this petition. My hesitation was similar to Cathleen Kaveny’s defense of Loyola’s president: Linnane’s decision was taken out of pastoral considerations for students of color, particularly amongst students who find themselves living in this dorm. As a person who has lived his entire life with white privilege, I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in O’Connor Hall as a student of color. Yet despite this hesitation, I decided to sign the petition for various reasons. First, the case of O’Connor is complicated considering her critique both of her personal racism and the racism of her segregated South; certainly, the issued deserved a greater debate than the timeframe allowed. Second, although the names of our buildings and public artworks on Catholic universities and colleges deserve careful reflection, one wonders at what point such discussions consume time better spent on tackling the truly difficult tasks of addressing structural racism in America, such as pedagogical training in the classroom to address white privilege, scholarships for students of color and sustained efforts to recruit and hire more faculty and staff of color.

Moreover, another reason I signed the petition is because O’Donnell, reminiscent of Kaphar’s argument, suggests that Loyola should honor both Bowman and O’Connor. “What could be more fitting,” she writes, “than to see these two Southern Catholic women’s names appear side by side, one white, one black, both pioneers of the faith who employed their talents and imaginations in the service of God, their Church and the greater good?” For my part, I’m not suggesting that we honor both Bowman and O’Connor by ascribing their names to the same dormitory; as Kaveny remarks, a student residence may not be the most appropriate place to honor O’Connor. But there is more than one way to honor a great Catholic writer, whether that be through an academic center, a statue or a painting, to name just a few possibilities. To honor both Bowman and O’Connor together on a Catholic campus (however that would be done) would be in the spirit of Kaphar’s argument that our public honors and artwork need to be in conversation with one another, one correcting the other, thereby compelling us to live in the ambivalent tension of our history.

Perhaps we should be even bolder on our Catholic campuses and consider giving space for non-Catholic voices to critique elements of our own tradition. What if all the buildings and honors named after Thomas Aquinas had a nearby Jewish or Muslim voice to counter his own anti-Jewish, Islamophobic writings? Imagine the teaching opportunities such dialogues would create. Kaphar remarks that “We can just change the name and pretend like that decision was never made, and no one actually has to take responsibility.” Or he says, we can strive to “create a space for conversation.” Are Catholic schools courageous enough to have this difficult conversation in the very structure of our campus?


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

 


Building Innocence on a Lie

How does a country cope with shame?

In July 1942 French police in occupied Paris carried out “Operation Spring Breeze”—arresting 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, who were detained in the Vélodrome d'Hiver (a cycling stadium). The detainees were held for five days with little food or water, while awaiting transport by cattle cars to camps in the East—mostly to Auschwitz. Of the 4,000 children rounded up in this raid, only six adolescents returned.

The Jews deported in Operation Spring Breeze represented only a quarter of the 42,000 ultimately deported from France to Auschwitz—811 of whom survived. However, the role of French police in conducting this raid remained a particular stain on the French conscience. After the war, many in France denied any culpability, claiming it was a Nazi operation. In 1994, President François Mitterand declared, “I will not apologize in the name of France. The Republic had nothing to do with this. I do not believe France is responsible.”

But in 1995 President Jacques Chirac reversed this position, acknowledging the work of 450 French policemen, and issued a public apology: “These black hours will stain our history forever ...  France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.”

In 2017 President Emmanuel Macron renewed this apology: “It was indeed France that organized this roundup,” he said. “Not a single German took part. It is convenient to see the Vichy regime as born of nothingness, returned to nothingness. Yes, it’s convenient, but it is false. We cannot build pride upon a lie.”

There was surely a time when French citizens would have found it impossible to believe that their countrymen could be implicated in such a crime. But gradually, under occupation, a large part of the population, infected by the virus of racism and the cult of nationalism, succumbed to regarding their fellow human beings as the Other, not truly French, “not like us.” 

In Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros, he describes a town in which the citizens are gradually turning into rhinoceroses—rampaging through the streets, destroying gardens and causing a ruckus. At first people are shocked and horrified—but they gradually yield to the “new normal,” accepting that there is nothing so wrong with being a rhinoceros; in fact, it is those who cling to their humanity who are the real outsiders and dangers to public safety!

Only five years ago, in September 2015, Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress, outlining a vision of the fundamental values—liberty, equality, compassion and solidarity—that make a country “great.” He did this with reference to four “great” Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Weaving a narrative intertwining religious truths with the highest civic ideals, he called for welcoming immigrants and refugees, caring for the earth, ending the death penalty, dedication to the poor and the common good and pursuing the goal of global solidarity.

Five years ago, that message seems like a time capsule from a different era. Did he already hear what most of us could not?—somewhere on the horizon, the distant hoof beats of the rhinoceros? He could not literally have known that the next year a presidential candidate would campaign under the slogan of “Making America Great Again,” and that, with strong Catholic support, he would go on to pursue an agenda aimed at countering all the policies and “fundamental values” outlined in his speech to Congress.

Yet five years later, I listened to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast where Attorney General William Barr, fresh from making good on his promise to execute federal prisoners, was awarded the Christifideles Laici award for his “selfless and steadfast service in the Lord’s vineyard.” He was followed by President Trump, who was lauded for his unparalleled commitment to the “culture of life.” And in between, there was a keynote by a respected Catholic bishop who lauded the Christian inspiration behind the Declaration of Independence and the importance of religion in the public square. There were pictures displayed of St. John Paul II in Poland, and even of the President honoring the Shrine of JPII, fresh from having bravely, with the help of his attorney general, dispersed demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets to pose with a Bible in the public square.

Someday, many may look back on our time and pretend that it was not we who put children in cages, dismantled environmental regulations, fiddled while 200,000 died, applauded those who marched under banners of hate—or imagine that it was all the work of a regime that was born of nothingness and returned to nothingness.

But we cannot build innocence upon a lie.


Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, most recently, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives.


By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”—Matthew 7:15-20

In this post I take our blog title and begin to explore, in a roundabout way, what it might mean if the house we are meant to “rebuild” is ourselves, that is, to paraphrase Pope John Paul II, the human person as a living house of the divine.  

When I lived in Scotland, I had a wonderful spiritual director, a good tree bearing good fruit. He was gentle, wise, perceptive, and had a fine sense of humor. Most importantly, he could see. He could see in the way the writer and cultural theorist bell hooks moves to define it in her wonderful book Belonging: A Culture of Place. She tells the story of her grandmother, Baba, who taught her that human beings are “shaped by space.” Baba’s house was filled with things of varied texture and color: sunlit lace curtains, strings of red peppers, braids of brown tobacco leaves, cups of burgundy wine. “Do you believe that space can give life, or take it away, that space has power?” Baba asked her granddaughter. She showed hooks “the beauty of the everyday,” taught her that “we must learn to see.”

My former spiritual director did for me what hooks’ grandmother did for her. For me and for many others in Glasgow and beyond, Catholic and otherwise, he helped create a sanctuary at the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in the heart of the city. As soon as I crossed the threshold into that space, I felt more at ease, more myself. Inside those walls the air seemed lighter, the colors, brighter. Ordinary objects provided a sense of welcome and safety: teacups and biscuit tins, bookcases crowded with books and house plants, a chapel full of light and art. I would meet with my spiritual director (though I prefer the term “anam cara,” or “soul friend,” which was used in the early Celtic Church) and talk about my prayer and daily life. Sometimes, after listening awhile, he would simply ask: Where was God in all this? Gradually I came to see patterns in what initially seemed formless and chaotic. Like bell hooks, I had found a space that gave life and “rebuilt” my interior landscape.

Watching the Democratic National Convention last month, my soul friend unexpectedly came to mind, though I had not thought of him for some time. The same question arose that he had asked so often. Where is God in this? Or, in other words, where is life? Was this virtual space, created to guard against the spread of COVID-19 and thus protect participants, life giving? I found it overwhelmingly and surprisingly so, especially in its inclusion of all U.S. people—Native American, Black, Hispanic, white, men, women, young, old, straight, gay, from every region, from many faiths and none. Here was a portrayal of the United States as diverse and reunited, a welcoming, merciful space, one of possibility in which a society might actually begin to heal and even flourish. The Democratic candidate Joe Biden, a Catholic, appeared human and humane, vulnerable and humble, yet strong and ready to protect and serve all Americans. “I will be an ally of the light,” he promised, “not of the darkness.”

Nothing I saw those nights of the convention led me to believe that Joe Biden is “Catholic in name only,” as one speaker declared during the Republican National Convention not long after, nor that Catholics who voted for Democrats would be condemned to hell, as a Wisconsin priest claimed in a viral video recently. I saw no evidence, as was claimed by some, that there was no mention of God at the DNC. To the contrary, there was more than enough to make an American voter aware of the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”) uneasy.

By their fruits you will know them. In response to what David E. Decosse politely called the “fever pitch of false statements on the part of many claiming to speak for Catholicism,” he and others have attempted to clarify the responsibility of the American Catholic voter in the midst of a bombardment of constant lies and chaos. They turn to the teaching document on the subject from the U.S. bishops, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” What are the most important considerations for the responsible Catholic voter? The bishops name four principles of Catholic Social Teaching: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity.  Political decisions ought to be governed by reason and confirmed by revelation using a well-formed conscience. Crucial is the formation of conscience, which seems neglected in today’s world. How does one develop a conscience, know the good tree? Perhaps all the Church needs to refocus on this, the “rebuilding” of interior landscape, on learning how to see.


Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.


Catholic Universities are Not Yet a Paradigm for Ethics in the Church

Those eager for reform in the Catholic Church have looked to Catholic universities for inspiration. But Catholic universities are beset by many of the same problems that plague the Church: clericalism, top-down decision-making, lack of diversity, reluctance to change and a culture of fear. These are Catholic twists on more fundamental problems plaguing universities in general. As Jesuit ethicist James Keenan put it in his 2015 book, University Ethics:

Simply put, the American university does not hold its employees to professional ethical standards because it has not created a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability at the university, and this is in part both because of the nature of the contemporary university and because it does not believe that it needs ethics (4).

Universities don’t teach about university ethics. Few of their employees are held to professional ethical standards.

Most of all, the administrators – in particular, those at the highest level of the university from vice presidents and the president to the board of trustees – have not been trained in professional university ethics. Small wonder then that they do not promote a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability (6).

While this blind spot can occur in any type of institution, Keenan says universities and the Catholic Church are particularly susceptible. Both presume that because they teach ethics, they do not need it themselves. If Keenan is right, then Catholic universities are doubly hampered by their university culture and their Catholic culture.

This need for internalized professional ethics takes on new urgency during COVID-19. The month of August saw some universities open early, among them the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame saw 512 positive coronavirus tests from August 3 to 28, in response to which it put all courses online for two weeks and will bring 87 students before disciplinary hearings. The editors of a student newspaper editorialized, “Don’t make us write obituaries.” They assert that while the university’s blaming of the outbreak on students “isn’t entirely misplaced, it has been used to deflect responsibility from the very administrations that insisted they were prepared for us to return to campus.”

To be sure, many Catholic and non-Catholic colleges are doing a better job. But the public looks to the flagship Catholic universities to see how they live their values. Notre Dame so far has not distinguished itself from its secular peers.

If Notre Dame and others fail, the deep causes will be what Keenan has diagnosed: the blind spot regarding ethics and the culture of commodification that has infected American universities. Universities have built up huge infrastructures to woo customers, and the entire U.S. higher education system has habituated young people into thinking that fun and amenities are what they need. COVID-19 is forcing everyone to ask what we have been doing. But there’s no way back to the stated ideal of a liberal arts education as the central purpose of college without a lot of financial pain.

Nor is there a way forward on important goals regarding diversity without making some sacrifices. The attitude of “ethics is for society, not for us” has tainted certain responses to the revitalized movement for racial justice. At one Catholic university, the reaction was to issue an impressive-sounding plan for diversity and inclusion. It features new procedures for reporting students who post biased statements on social media and an initiative to create new courses on diversity. Keenan would remind us, however, to beware of a possible disconnect between word and deed.

One would have to take a moment to notice what is not included in this university’s plan: goals and strategies to increase faculty and staff of color (less than 1% of tenured faculty are of color), to increase enrollment of students of color (about 5% are Black, compared to 10% of residents in the state and 40% in the university’s host city), and to be a better citizen of that financially struggling city. One might also be surprised to learn that the administrator in charge of a new student diversity center laid off the university’s rare Black employee with a supervisory role, only to put out a job ad calling for a more junior employee to do much the same duties.

Obviously, neither I, nor still less the reader, is privy to the particulars of a personnel decision. But a senior officer familiar with the situation gave me a take on why an action like this occurs with impunity: “It’s clericalism, pure and simple.” You see, the administrator in charge is a priest, known to have a long history of clashes with supervisees at two Catholic universities, firing or forcing out many of them.

Keenan’s diagnosis of the lack of internal ethics in such institutions is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching about removing the log from one’s own eye (Matthew 7:5). In the case above, the log is the “defensiveness and certitude” of white progressives, which “make it virtually impossible to explain” to them how they uphold racism (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 5).

Keenan concludes his book saying it’s time for those with institutional power ­– boards, administrators, and tenured (especially white, male) faculty – to get serious about internal ethics. Sadly, in my 25-year career in Catholic higher education, I have seen enough to be discouraged about all three groups.

But because of the Black Lives Matter movement, my hope has gravitated to students and laity – the folks with the numbers and the money, even though they have the least institutional power. We have seen what young people can effect through collective action. For instance, Georgetown University students voted in April 2019 to pay an annual fee into a reparations fund for the descendants of the 272 slaves that Georgetown sold in the year 1838. The students acted six months before the university itself did.

Catholic universities and the Church should not wait for demands or demoralization, both of which are already eating away at them. They should get to work on enculturating internal ethics while the time is ripe.


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


Lo cotidiano: The Narrative Voice the Church—and the World—Still Needs

Times of crises will scatter people into different directions to make sense of what is occurring or to gather ideas for what can be done. The current global condition of fear and disruption caused me recently to amble through some older documents and articles, and happily I came across several essays by the late feminist theologian, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. Her voice in those writings is clear and dynamic, and she compelled her reader to ponder some difficult questions and confront some unsettling realities.  Paging through a few of her essays, I recognized that many of her ideas still resonate today in our tumultuous era of global pandemic, political and cultural protests, and the increasingly rancorous polarization between and among communities of citizens. Her call for a renewed appreciation of Christian caritas—love of God, love of neighbor—as a love that is cohesion (dare one say, solidarity?) rather than a kind of concession, and her insistence that the neglected voices of the marginalized (women, the poor, the oppressed) must be acknowledged and integrated into the theorized narrative that has been Church, find echoes, not surprisingly, in the words and ministry of Pope Francis. Indeed, reading Isasi-Diaz from 1996 and hearing Pope Francis in 2020 is like eavesdropping in on an amicable conversation between two impassioned advocates for human dignity and moral accountability. Yet, it is also true that now, as then, there are certain constituencies within, and without, the Church that reject even to the point of denouncing such advocacy, except perhaps as a vague (and, thereby, non-threatening) ideal.

Like most theologians of liberation, Isais-Diaz wanted to extricate the Church (the people of God) and its rhetoric (the good news of Christ) from the tight hold of an exclusive and powerful cadre who continue(d) to arrogate to themselves solely the representation of the Church and of the Catholic faith. Isasi- Diaz and her colleagues sought to illuminate the Church with the light of the simple faith lived by the disenfranchised millions and, for that reason, she placed at the heart of her own theology the concept of lo cotidiano, the “everyday.” It is an elusive term and does not neatly translate into English but Isasi-Diaz explains it as

… the sphere in which our struggle for life is most immediate, most vigorous, most vibrant … what we face everyday and … how we face it … (it) refers to the way we talk, with the impact of class, gender, poverty and work on our routines and expectations; it has to do with relations within families and among friends and neighbors in a community. It extends to our ... central religious beliefs [1] 

 Such a ‘liberating’ theme was/is not unfamiliar but the Church and the world are at a crossroads, and so her idea bears repeating. Isasi-Diaz was reminding both the leaders of the Church as well as the people in the pews of the necessary meaning of Christian caritas: it is a ‘love’ that is a kind of kenosis, an emptying of the will to be fully receptive to the reality of another. Christ is of course the sublime exemplar of caritas that is really kenosis and, for all his divinity, Jesus was fully human, fully aware of the people among whom he walked—among whom he chose to walk—and whom he loved and who loved him. He walked not among the priests and the scribes and the powerful but among the poor, the lost and the broken. Jesus knew the people in their daily lives and participated joyfully in that lo cotidiano: he went to the home and ate a meal with a social outcast; he understood with certainty the frantic fear of a parent whose child is ill, and he went fishing with a fisherman whose nets were empty but he still had to feed his family.

Pope Francis also perceives in the message of Jesus the principle of lo cotidiano. While he has spoken and written extensively about the physical blight of the global pandemic, its catastrophic reach and its cruel intrusion, he has also recommended a reframing of the current situation. Rather than focus on despair and fear (although he himself has identified with such sentiments), he has urged people to conceive of this time as a period of introspection and as an opportunity for spiritual and moral renewal, both an interior conversion (a personal kenosis) but also a sincere participation in lo cotidiano, following Jesus. As Pope Francis explained at a general audience in August,

Faith, hope and love necessarily push us towards this preference for those  most in need, which goes beyond necessary assistance... it implies walking  together, letting ourselves be evangelized by them, who know the suffering Christ well, … Sharing with the poor means mutual enrichment … we are led  to this by the love of Christ, Who loved us to the extreme and reaches the boundaries, the margins, the existential frontiers ...[2]

Walking with Christ and those ‘most in need’ to the edges of the human condition is a formidable challenge for anyone but it is a challenge that must be met if the Church is not fully and finally to be emptied. The high-minded rhetoric of a select few increasingly echoes along silent aisles and unoccupied pews exactly because it is rhetoric of a few who are privileged and the powerful but who  are no longer accepted to speak for others, especially for the many marginalized and poor ‘from the margins’ who have for too long been forced to remain silent or who were not permitted to tell their stories, to speak of their realities, have their voices heard. As Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz two decades ago and Pope Francis a few weeks ago both have suggested, for the Church not only to survive but to flourish, it must become filled with the light of day, irradiated and brought to life by the luminosity of lo cotidiano of the people of God.


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

[1] Ana Maria Isais-Diaz, “Lo Cotidiano: A Key Element of Mujerista Theology”, Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology, 10:1 (Aug. 2002), 9.

[2] http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200819_udienza-generale.html 


Embodying Church Reform: A Tale of Two Documents

Imagine a sower going out to sow …’

In this case the seed is the theological vision and rhetoric of a synodal church, sown by Pope Francis. The crop will be the translation of this vision into a changed ecclesial culture and law, embodied in the nuts and bolts of the structures and institutions of parish and diocesan life, as well as of the universal church. The harvest is fruit of our encounter with Jesus Christ and the missionary impulse this generates to serve our world (bruised by COVID-19 and facing so many other challenges), bringing it the good news of God’s mercy and love.

There have been two striking documents recently published, evidence of this attempt to translate vision into concrete reality. The first focuses on the parish, as Brian Stiltner has often done on this site (05/21/2020). It emanates from the Vatican’s Congregation of the Clergy. The first half of the document is a worthy reiteration of the vision of Francis, combined with a genuinely fresh analysis of the changed contours of parish in our digital age, from something primarily local in a geographical sense to the transformation of time and space that virtual reality implies. Tellingly, however, absent from the account of the vision is mention of synodality itself, the evil of clericalism, and, albeit many references to the church as the People of God, omission of the centrality through baptism of the share of the faithful in the three-fold office of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet and king.

These absences are felt in the application, mainly through the lens of current Canon Law, of the broad vision to parish life. While there are many good proposals (including lay leadership of parishes), the general trend is to highlight the essential difference between ordained priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful, and to give clear priority to the former. In this sense the trenchant recent critiques of Catherine Clifford (08/20/20) and Tina Beattie (07/23/2020) on this site are justified: the document reveals a ‘priest-centered paradigm of church (Clifford) and is ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’ (Beattie), in that, for all its good intentions and indeed creative innovations, the predominant impression conveyed is one that is disappointingly deficient when it comes to lay, and particularly female, co-responsibility. This gives too much fodder to the still dominant clericalism of our church – not to mention to the ‘hierarchicalism’ that James Keenan has analyzed as the distinctively unaccountable form of episcopal clericalism.

A different, contrasting document comes from Australia. ‘The Light from the Southern Cross’ emanates from a committee of the Australian Bishops Conference and has to do with the translation of the vision of Francis into diocesan and parish life under the rubric of governance. The document highlights certain gospel and Catholic social teaching values and principles that must be integrated in this translation. These include subsidiarity, stewardship, synodality, dialogue reflection, co-responsibility and discernment. In addition, the document notes that we must take seriously '... the expectations of contemporary culture in terms of transparency, accountability, inclusion, participation and diversity’ (5.1.2). It notes that till now the authority of both bishops and priests has been excessively personalized and unaccountable.

There follow 86 concrete recommendations including: that these general principles be reflected at every level of diocesan and parish life; that the process of ad limina episcopal visits to Rome be made more transparent; that all the People of God, including, of course, lay people, have a say in the process for appointing bishops; that women be given real leadership and decision-making powers, including the selection and formation of seminarians, as well as the placement of priests in parishes; that lay people, and especially women, participate in the proceedings of the Conference of Bishops in Australia; that lay advisers, including, of course, women, attend councils of priests’ and consultors’ meetings; that each diocese  be obliged to have a diocesan pastoral council with lay members; that within five years of the Plenary Council (scheduled for 2020-21, but postponed because of COVID-19) each diocese should have a synod, and every 10 years after that; that all parishioners have at least an annual opportunity to share their ideas in a transparent synodal process within the parish; and that all parishioners should have a say when there is any question of the reorganization of parish boundaries/clusters. You get the drift!

What is perhaps surprising about the Australian document is that, within the same restrictions of Canon Law (with some minor modifications) and a fairly conservative approach to church teaching (no explicit challenge, for example, to the ban of female ordination), this document manages so well to capture the spirit of Pope Francis in the letter of its text. It’s as if because they wanted to be inclusive, they found a way.

Of course, it is true that the Vatican Document, although not of high authoritative standing, was formally approved by Pope Francis, whereas the Australian document has yet to be discerned by the Australian Bishops. But as Pope Francis has often insisted ‘… the great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but from the periphery’ (Spadaro conversation with Pope Francis on religious life, La Civilta Cattolica I, 2014). I have already suggested on this site that most progress has been made around the cultural realization of church reform – an enhanced public space to dialogue and debate openly. It now seems to me that the more tedious but so necessary reform of structures and institutions is also under way.

‘… others fell on rich soil and produced their crops, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty. Listen, anyone who has ears’ (Mt 13: 9).


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


Being Church in a Time of Pandemic

Images of a priest-centered church have been on vivid display following the onset of COVID-19, when public health and government officials issued directives to shelter at home and severely limited public gatherings, including public worship. The reflex of many pastors was to livestream the eucharist from the splendid isolation of empty churches – some presiding over the strange specter of row upon row of cutout photos of their absent parishioners. Are they solitary heroes or tragic jesters? Did they not know that religious television networks already broadcast the Mass every day? Could they not envision another way of reaching out to their flock in a time of need?

Anyone watching might easily conclude that the church’s life and prayer is an entirely priest-centered event. The image of the lone celebrant betrays the real meaning of the liturgy, which is the action of a gathered people. While these priests may be acting with the best of intentions, their actions reveal an inadequate sense of the liturgy and of church. Inexplicably, their pastoral reflex is to focus inward, not outward to the daily struggles of a wider community. Rather than passively watching the prayer of a lone celebrant, might the present moment not be an occasion for communities to gather for online bible study, for the Liturgy of the Word, or the Liturgy of the Hours, for sharing our struggles and needs and bearing them together?

Even now, when some regions are experiencing a respite from the pandemic and limited gatherings in places of worship are once again permitted – in my home province of Ontario gatherings of up to 50 people are authorized indoors with obligatory masks, physical distancing, and hand hygiene – it remains impossible to gather as a whole community. The most vulnerable – in particular, the more senior members of the parish – continue advisedly to shelter at home. It will not be possible to gather as one for the foreseeable future.

What might these images and experiences teach us about what it means to be church? The most basic definition of church is ekklesia, the gathered assembly. That assembly is not an abstract idea but a concrete community of flesh and blood people. That we are unable to gather – even for the sake of a greater good: the health and safety of those same people – touches at the heart of who we are and what it means to be church. We are diminished when we cannot gather and no amount of virtual or “spiritual communion” can make up for that loss.

We are a sacramental people. Our faith tells us that God comes to meet us in the taste, touch and smell of quotidian material reality: in cleansing water, in a loaf and a cup that are shared, in the laying on of hands, in the fragrant balm of healing oil and in the kiss of peace. In a most sinister turn, these very things have now become potential “vectors of transmission,” threatening the life and health they were meant to signify and nourish. Could our self-imposed fast be teaching us their true worth, carving out in us a truer hunger and thirst? Might these same signs and gestures – as we perform them daily at home, alone or in family gatherings – yet become symbols of divine love and care? Following the logic of incarnation, our common life is to be a living sign of God’s design for humanity.

It is painfully ironic that, just at the moment when the global Catholic community is awakening to the urgent need to repair its structures and practices of communion, its ability to gather as one is sorely tested by external forces beyond its control. Even before he had fully grasped the systemic nature and extent of the abuse crisis across the global church, Pope Francis invited Catholics to embark on a project of pastoral conversion. To accomplish this, he sought to revive the practice of synodality in church governance, calling for the creation of indispensable spaces for all of God’s people to come together for free and open conversation at every level of ecclesial life as they discern the way forward in their common journey in faith. In the fall of 2018, responding to the emergence of the true extent of the crisis of abuse, Francis addressed a letter to the people of God and observed: “Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.” Without structures that gather together all the baptized, the life of the church is diminished. These structures of participation are essential not only to the healing of the church in the present moment, but to its continuing vitality and mission.

The ability to mobilize the many gifts of the baptized is being severely challenged by the pandemic. As we hunker down and practice physical distancing, the danger of falling back into a priest-centered paradigm of church hangs over Pope Francis’ project of renewal. This was confirmed by the Instruction for the Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community emanating from the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy in July. Thankfully, the bishops of Germany did not let it go by unchecked. They did not hesitate to call out the inadequacies of the document’s outmoded image of the parish community centered on the priest, one that disvalues the real contributions of the many gifted and qualified co-workers in ministry and the co-responsibility of the baptized. The German bishops have been actively walking with their people, discerning and harnessing their creative energies.

The pandemic has exposed in no uncertain terms the fault lines and gaping inequities of human societies, including the failure to protect and care for the elderly, refugees, migrant workers, the precariously employed, the poor and the vulnerable – all with a deeply destabilizing effect. At a time when the global structures of human community are faltering and in serious decline, the world needs more than ever the witness of a community united in its effort to honor the dignity and worth of every human person no matter their race, color or social condition, to serve the common good and live as one with God’s creation. It will no doubt require great ingenuity to overcome the challenges raised by COVID-19, but let us not be thrown off course as we discern together the shape of the church to come.


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


Catholics and Cancel Culture

Catholics watching the intensifying debate over “cancel culture” could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the sudden interest in a phenomenon we have been dealing with, and fighting about, for decades or longer. How do you say “Been there, done that” in Latin?  Drawing lines around orthodoxy and authority has been part of the DNA of Christianity since the beginning, as evidenced by arguments over Gentile converts at the Council of Jerusalem and Christ’s nature at the Council of Nicaea.

Inclusion often won out, as with the mission to the Gentiles and the Donatism controversy. Then again, Galileo. The modern era and the reaction of a defensive (sometimes slipping into paranoid) mindset of Fortress Catholicism had the church hunting for heretics more than converts, and modern means of communication made “delation” – such a polite term for such an underhanded practice – even easier. Pius X was a master of the art, as conservatives like him tended to see Modernists under every bed. During the reign of John Paul II and his righthand man, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the concerns often focused on what was going on in every bed, and the culture of denunciation flourished.

Social media has provided a hyper-efficient means for anyone who wants to de-platform or outright cancel Catholics they find objectionable, and now most anyone with an Internet connection can be a tinpot inquisitor. The shift has been so swift that we now have a pope who is the object of Catholic cancel culture rather than its driver.

Yet the Catholic Church under Pope Francis may, in fact, have a lesson for everyone in this debate, from the heresy hunters on the right who dominate cancel culture – in the church and in society – to the emerging progressive Puritans on the left.

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has slowed the Roman machinery of inquisition and denunciation almost to a halt. He has instead preached a message of inclusion and outreach, accompaniment and discernment, and he has saved his harshest words for those in the hierarchy who judge others while sparing themselves. At the same time, he has not silenced or censured even senior church leaders who disagree with him, despite their machinations against him or their pseudo-schismatic levels of criticism of his papacy.

This reflects an approach that Francis spelled out early on in his opening speech to the 2014 synod at the Vatican. Francis told the bishops from around the world that the tone of their discussions should be characterized by the Greek term parrhesia – literally meaning to “say everything” or, in this context, to speak freely and boldly. “A general condition is this,” the pope said. “Speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This you cannot say.’ ”

“You need to say all that you feel with parrhesia,” he continued. “And, at the same time, you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.”

This was a sea change for the church, as Francis well knew (he himself never forgot having his own talk for a synod years earlier censored by Vatican officials). It’s also a good way to think about our current debates, or, rather, our debates about debates.

A recent Twitter thread by Teresa Bejan, a professor of political theory at Oxford and author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, prompted these reflections as she invoked parrhesia as the hermeneutical lens for the cancel culture controversy.

“Parrhesiastic speech is thus ‘free’ in the sense of being freely or frankly spoken, without fear or favor towards one’s audience and how they might react,” Bejan wrote. The opposite of parrhesia “isn‘t just silence, but *unfree* speech – flattery, hypocrisy, dishonestly telling the audience what they want to hear and only that. A society without parrhesia is thus a society of ‘yes’-men ruled by an overwhelming norm of conformity.” That’s an observation that ought to ring painfully true for those who have followed the courtier culture that marks ecclesiastical dynamics.

What Bejan highlights, however, is that parrhesia is not simply about establishing and defending a legal right. Cancel culture is, in fact, a debate about culture, that is, a debate involving people and their sensibilities. “One also needs to be able to *trust* one’s audience to be tolerant when it comes to things they don’t want to hear,” Bejan continued. “[T]he legal right to free speech is insufficient to protect parrhesia, and parrhesia is valuable. We must therefore cultivate a culture that tolerates disagreeable speech … We must do this *not* because we value the disagreeable speech as such, let alone its content. But because the alternative is a brutalizing and conformist culture of fear in which the weak, vulnerable, and unpopular suffer most.”

Francis’ promotion of genuine synodality is key to building such a culture in the ecclesial context. Everyone can speak his or her mind at synods; propositions are adopted with a supermajority vote, and even those propositions that do not pass are included for the record. A synod is not a winner-take-all, zero-sum game. But there are other Catholic practices that can also move us beyond the temptation to cancel and de-platform, such as the well-known, oft-ignored Ignatian presupposition “that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it.”

Also critical is the acceptance of legitimate dissent; it’s a noble tradition within the church that was largely erased in past decades. Dissent not only allows the church to breathe and to grow but it serves as a key pressure valve to let off steam and foster healthy conversations instead of explosive arguments. The alternative is what we see so often today, a “dubia” culture of catechism Catholicism in which a believer (or even a pope) must respond with reductive “yes-or-no” answers. A wrong answer, or no answer, equals heresy, or schism. Exactly who is the heretic or the schismatic then becomes a matter of further debate.

A truly ecclesial culture must also allow room for mistakes, incorrect answers and a gradual growth in understanding – by all sides. This means practicing of the fundamental virtues of forgiveness, mercy and charity. They ought to be central to the Christian life, but they are too often missing in Catholic culture today – and they are practically banished from the discourse of our secular puritanism as principles are placed above people. Yes, the church has something to teach here. But first we must learn.


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