A publication of Sacred Heart University

The Failure of “Dignitas Infinita” on Gender

This week’s new declaration by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Dignitas Infinita” (“Infinite Dignity”) takes aim at what it calls “gender theory,” “sex change” and “the deplorable practice of so-called surrogate motherhood,” among other concerns it identifies as “grave violations of human dignity.”

The document was in the works for five years in various forms, and despite the pains it takes to frame itself as a wide-ranging but not comprehensive document on human dignity, America Magazine’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, told me this week on our podcast that the document’s genesis was in 2019 when the Dicastery was focused in particular on the question of gender. The document itself states that it underwent major revisions on the orders of Pope Francis, who encouraged the writers to study his encyclical Fratelli Tutti and incorporate additional subjects. The Vatican has not confirmed what topics those were, but it is not unimaginable that at that point, this document was transformed from one based on gender to one that was framed as a more general reflection on human dignity, tied to the recent 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Vatican’s declaration affirms that the U.N. “authoritatively” reaffirmed the principle of human dignity, but takes pains to distance itself from what it calls “new rights”—a familiar refrain in Pope Francis’ frequent criticisms of the U.N.

In any case, the parts of the document that have garnered the most attention are those sections on gender, which, aside from the shockingly languid single paragraph on sexual abuse (“it also affects the Church”), form the weakest part of the document.

The section denouncing “gender theory,” by far the longest in the document, constructs a strawman argument, as Dan Horan, O.F.M., wrote for New Ways Ministry:

Cardinal Fernández writes in his introductory preface that the five-year-long work on this document sought to “take into account the latest developments on the subject in academia.” However, for all its talk about “theory,” the text fails to directly engage any specific theorist, philosopher, theologian or other scholar who works on the subject of gender ostensibly under consideration here. Not a single citation points to any source this text intends to critique.

Instead of accounting for real research, this document constructs a strawman called “gender theory,” whose tenets represent no actual theory or study with which I am familiar. The vagueness of the concept is presented at once as a catch-all and an ominous threat, which serves the purpose of establishing a boogeyman to be feared but does little to advance any real dialogue or understanding.

Rather strikingly, this DDF document creates its own original “gender theory” according to the patchwork of concepts it weaves in paragraphs 56 to 59.

That patchwork “theory” elaborated by the Vatican “intends to deny the greatest possible difference that exists between living beings: sexual difference…thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family” and is imposed on cultures that would otherwise reject it by “ideological colonization”—a term Francis has often used to refer to the United Nations’ work protecting “new rights” that are not detailed in the 1948 declaration, including things like abortion.

The section concludes with the assertion that, “‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’ Therefore, all attempts to obscure reference to the interminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected.” This argument is incoherent: What distinction between sex and gender can be made that cannot be interpreted as an “attempt to obscure reference to” sexual difference? If I cut my hair short or wear my husband’s jeans and hoodie, is that too far? What if I do “men’s work” like changing the oil in my car or fixing a leaky toilet?

Throughout these sections, the document, which speaks on behalf of “the Church,” fails to take the Church to account for the discrimination it denounces, in what at this point reads like a boilerplate statement before negative comments on LGBTQ+ people: “‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided.” In contrast to its language in other sections that “the Church and humanity must not cease fighting…” and “the Church also takes a stand against…,” it employs passive voice to say, “It should be denounced as contrary to human dignity the fact that, in some places, not a few people are imprisoned, tortured and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.” It fails to say anything at all about the fact that people are imprisoned, tortured or killed because they are transgender. In fact, it does not use the word “transgender” at all.

For all the years of study and preparation that went into this document, “Dignitas Infinita” notably lacks any substantive engagement with the theory it denounces, makes incoherent arguments regarding gender presentation as related to sex, and overlooks violence and discrimination against the very transgender people Pope Francis has gone out of his way to minister to.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has been tasked with responding “in light of the faith, to the questions and arguments arising from scientific advances and cultural developments.” To do so, it needs to engage these advances and developments seriously. In “Dignitas Infinita,” it has failed.


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


Dangers Within

Throughout modern history, popes have typically identified the church as a bulwark against threats emanating from the outside world and its pitiful errors. These have ranged from Protestantism, democracy, socialism, evolution and railways (per Gregory XVI, at least in the Papal States), to “modern civilization” itself (Pius X), to name just a few. In recent decades many of these specific dangers have receded or lost their sting. Nevertheless, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI continued to warn against threats posed by outside cultural trends, such as what Cardinal Ratzinger, at the conclave that elected him, called “the dictatorship of relativism.” As far as internal threats went, they were especially on guard against the work of theologians who exhibited signs of “ambiguity,” or other threats against the doctrine of the Church. Arguably, this defensive strategy distracted attention from the seismic failure to recognize the clergy sex abuse scandal and its cover-up, which were all the while eating away at the Church’s foundations.

Pope Francis, too, has warned against cultural forces, including what he calls the “globalization of indifference,” a “throw-away culture” and a failure to heed “the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth.” But the greater threats to the Church in his view come from within—from the spirit of clericalism, “spiritual worldliness” and “self-referentiality.”

He says, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Many of his critics present themselves as defenders of orthodoxy and truth. It is notable that in his apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, he addresses such critics (none-too-subtly) under the heading “The Subtle Enemies of Holiness.” This he does by way of the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.       Such heresies, he says, are alive and well in the Church. They both give rise “to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism,” whereby “instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.”

Gnosticism was a broad school of thought that competed with orthodox Christianity in the early church. Its adherents sought salvation through special knowledge available only to the pure and elect. Recent popes have typically deployed the charge of “Gnosticism” against New Age or other contemporary spiritual movements. But the Gnosticism that Pope Francis fears seems to come primarily from elements in the church that identify themselves as the pure or elect. These “gnostics” in the church “absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking.” They “reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” He refers approvingly to St. Francis’ fear of the “temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distances us from the freshness of the Gospel.” 

The second threat to holiness comes from a new form of “Pelagianism.” Originally, this refers to an argument in the early church about the role of original sin, and therefore the necessity of grace in achieving salvation. The Pelagians—whose great adversary was St. Augustine—believed in the ability of men and women, by their own efforts, to achieve holiness.

Again, from recent popes, it was common to hear this kind of charge laid at the doorstep of those who too easily identify their promotion of social change with the Kingdom of God. But again, Pope Francis points in a surprising direction. The “new Pelagians” are those who “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.”

In effect, Francis is applying to elements in the church the same criticism that Jesus leveled against those in the Gospels who emphasize the importance of the law over the spirit of love and mercy. This form of “justification by their own efforts” finds expression in many ways of thinking and acting: “an obsession with the law … a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters …”

Thus, Francis’ call to holiness becomes a deceptively sharp criticism of tendencies within the Church. He is saying, in effect, that the greatest obstacles to promoting holiness in the Church do not come from outside “enemies,” whether individual critics of Christianity or general cultural forces, such as pluralism, relativism or atheism. Instead, they come from within—for instance, from those through whom, “contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few.” Just as Jesus confronted the “thicket of precepts and prescription” that stifled the spirit of mercy, so Francis reminds us of the essence of the law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.

Let those who have ears to hear listen!


Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.


Demos II and the Pathos of Pope Francis’ Haters

The success of an endeavor is often in direct proportion to the vociferousness of the hatred directed toward it. As a fan of the New York Yankees who attended many games during their recent heyday of 1996-2000, and of the Notre Dame football team (whose great successes are in the more distant past), I can testify that this is the case. If we measure the papacy of Francis, which is in certainly its latter phases, by this standard, it might be compared more fruitfully to the more recently successful Kansas City Chiefs or Alabama Crimson Tide football teams; the fires of hatred against Francis still burn hot. The recent publication of an anonymous letter by Demos II, who claims to be a cardinal, provides evidence for this.

Demos takes his name, notably, from a similar letter written anonymously by the late George Cardinal Pell—an advisor and then critic of Francis—shortly before his death. Pell’s 2019-2020 imprisonment on sexual abuse charges in his native Australia became a cause célèbre among conservatives. This whole saga, which included the publication of a 3-volume prison memoir, was in remarkably poor taste. Regardless of Pell’s guilt or innocence of these charges—which Australian court practices of secrecy render hard to sort out—making a martyr out of Pell amid the ongoing reality of clergy sexual abuse was incredibly tone-deaf to the pain of victims and those whose faith has been shaken by the stories of abuse and coverup. Reviving Pell’s nom de plume continues this legacy.

Demos II grounds his anonymity in the supposed “authoritarianism” of Pope Francis, an accusation regularly leveled against him from his right and seemingly grounded in periodic decisiveness about matters that irk them rather than the long leash he has given to his outspoken enemies. Authority is indeed one of the key points in the letter; for this cardinal, Francis has abused his authority yet forsaken the rightful authority of the church by teaching ambiguously. Indeed, ambiguity stands out as the second theme of this text: for its author, Francis has taught ambiguously in such a way as to mislead the faithful. The areas of ambiguity are rendered—ambiguously—but they seem to come down to questions around proclaiming Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation and the failure to name and harshly enough condemn sin. These are evidence-free charges, relying on innuendo rather than substantiation.

The rhetoric of Demos attempts to focus on the positive and prescriptive, using language about evangelization that attempts to mimic John Paul II. Yet, in fact, it manages to only capture the harsher side of that complex Pope. Demos participates in what has by now become a tradition of aggressively misreading Pope Benedict XVI with its language about the “hermeneutic of continuity.” In the author’s nostalgia for an imagined recent past, how a conclave of cardinals selected by John Paul II and Benedict XVI came to elect someone like Francis is of no interest.

The cluelessness of Demos becomes most clear in the letter’s critique of papal travel. While there are legitimate conversations to be had about the cost and benefits of papal trips (Czech theologian Tomáš Halík has written eloquently about his distaste for these events) the rationale Demos gives for curtailing them—shoring up the European church—is remarkably tone-deaf. It deliberately pushes back against the language used by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium calling for a “church that goes forth,” rather advising retreat. This focus on institutional maintenance is laughably out of touch with the reality of the church today—and its center of gravity in areas far from Europe—that it renders almost all the other complaints in the letter meaningless.

Pope Francis has made many mistakes, as he would be the first to admit. Yet his greatest mistakes on both internal and external matters have tended to be when he has hewed in a more conventional direction—his recent remarks about Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s sham election in Russia are indicative of this. Francis is at his best when challenging the church to be more true to the Gospel even at the risk of tension with established structures. It is this Gospel emphasis that Demos II cannot abide. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart suggested in a recent book that it is precisely the Christianity of Francis that his opponents cannot stand, and the points focused on by Demos make this all the more clear.

Like the hatred of winning sports teams discussed in the first paragraph, the rhetoric of Demos II burns hot but has shallow roots; negativity leads to a miserable spiral. With a constructive agenda based around a negative outline of Francis’ actions, this anonymous cardinal has done little but shine a light on the narrowness of his own viewpoints and movement. Haters such as Demos might well reflect on what good their vitriol is producing and whether they could be accomplishing something better for the church and the world.


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


Cuts to the Liberal Arts are a Social Sin

With this post, I am retiring from writing for this blog, which I have been doing since its inception in late 2018. Most of my previous posts have explored the interactions of church reform and parish life (a few of my favorites on this topic are Civility, Civics and Church Vitality, Breaking the Distrust Doom Loop and Unlike Any Mass I've Ever Attended). For my final post, I return to a theme I discussed in September 2020: how Catholic universities ought to be—but are not yet—a paradigm for ethics in the Church.

In that post, I launched from Fr. James Keenan’s central argument in his 2015 book, University Ethics: Universities too often fail to look inward and examine their motives. They cover up this lack of self-critique by spewing hot air about their missions. Keenan intimated, and I argue explicitly, that Catholic universities, as a group, do not notably excel over other private and public institutions.

Of course, universities, like any human institution, are not all bad or all good. Like any human institution, they are subject to the dynamics that Reinhold Niebuhr diagnosed in Moral Man and Immoral Society: “In every human group there is less reason to guide and check impulse… less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.” Niebuhr is talking about what Catholic social teaching now calls social sin. Sure, we are all sinners, but might not we expect Catholic institutions to be particularly attentive to resisting structural sin?

Take the cuts in faculty and majors that have been in the news in the past year. When one compares how, when faced with worrying budget situations, leaders at the University of Mississippi and the University of West Virginia acted compared to leaders at Marymount University and Manhattan College, the latter two Catholic universities did not distinguish themselves. They did not differ from their public university counterparts by the purely instrumental and financial language that their leaders used to justify their decisions, nor did they use a more deliberative process that involved all stakeholders.

Beth Ann Fennelly, a former poet laureate of her state who has taught at the University of Mississippi for over 20 years, powerfully called out the implications of this shift in vision:

“Reducing education to a business model changes what, and who, gets taught. Framing students as entry-level employees emboldens this nudge toward the vocational. But students need a wide horizon to explore, dream, try, fail, try harder, fail better. They need, if you will, to be useless—for a while, anyway.

It’s true that a great majority of my students won’t go on to be writers, but they will go on to be readers who, through literature, educate themselves cognitively, emotionally and spiritually. They’ll leave my classroom prepared to think critically, to consider another’s perspective and muster empathy and to recognize fake news, fearmongering and demagogy.”

University leaders love to say that they are preparing students to think critically and to develop empathy and democratic skills. But when the chips are down, what do they do?

Take Manhattan College. As reported in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) last month, more than 25% of faculty have been terminated over the last seven months. Among the programs that stand to be eliminated is the college’s religious studies major. Interestingly enough, at Marymount College last year, theology was also expendable, because it and other humanities majors were “no longer serving Marymount students.”

Now, two objections that Catholic university presidents and boards of trustees would make to what I’ve been arguing are (1) universities must protect the bottom line, and in the case of Manhattan and Marymount, they were in crisis; and (2) even Catholic universities that trim humanities majors still do plenty to promote a Catholic liberal arts education for all their students. Neither objection is without merit, but the second can be distracting, because there are dozens of “but what about…?” activities at every college. For instance, there will still be campus ministry activities, volunteer programs and courses in English and history. But Marymount’s and Manhattan’s actions show no commitment to maintaining a community of teacher-scholars in the liberal arts who can develop a community of learners over the course of their studies.

As to the first objection, Keenan’s critique is that universities don’t establish processes to ensure ethical oversight of routine decisions and to guide them through ethical crises. The ethical way to deal with a crisis is to involve all stakeholders, including students, in whose name cuts are being made, and faculty, who by long tradition are the primary caretakers of the academic enterprise at universities. It’s not the fact of financial difficulties or the need for budget changes that are in question, but how the decisions are being made. “The administration doesn’t want to discuss the situation as equals. When the faculty asks questions, they seem to respond with threats,” Adam Arenson, a Manhattan College history professor, told NCR.

For these reasons, 89% of 147 participating professors voted to express no confidence in Manhattan president Milo Riverso in January, while a student-led petition against the cuts has gained over 3,100 signatures.

Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners community of Christian justice activists, says that the operating principle of God’s economy is that “there is enough if we share it.” Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes was meant to show that an abundance mentality based on sharing is far more powerful than a deficit mentality based on hoarding. Are Catholic universities taking their Scripture seriously?

Changes to the current dynamic are not going to be easy, and they probably only happen through more collective action by faculty, both full-time and adjuncts. But for a start, we can at least get honest with our language.

To conclude with poet laureate Fennelly, “So let me suggest that higher education administrators jettison the corporatese. My students’ degrees are high value only if they’ve reason to value them highly. My campus is not your corporation. My classroom is not your boardroom.”


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


A Lenten Reflection

An Interfaith Conversation

One of the most compelling benefits that Laudato Si has yielded over the years has been its outreach to peoples of all faiths, creating a comfortable space for interfaith dialogue. That particular good was celebrated in a recent edition of the Earthbeat section of the National Catholic Reporter, which reported on the robust environmental movement that has been emerging from Islamic communities across the globe over the last several years. That movement has recently taken on special vigor as Islamic scholars and religious leaders have themselves entered the conversation, many of whom have claimed spiritual inspiration from Laudato Si. This has encouraged a quiet yet dynamic interfaith conversation between Catholics and Muslims about care for the earth and the flourishing of its peoples, while also providing a possible inception point for more complicated but crucial discussions between the two religious traditions.

The focus of the Earthbeat article was the publication of a new document, Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth, that Muslim religious leaders and scholars composed as a kind of sibling to Laudato Si. The document has become a point of entry for Muslims and Catholics to work in tandem in the creation of a global consciousness about care for the earth, grounded in the common beliefs that the earth is the glorious gift from a merciful and loving God and that human beings are properly understood to be khalifahs, or stewards, of the earth. Both documents also address the issue of environmental justice with their unflinching witness to the fact that the poorest nations in the world (many of which are Muslim majority) are suffering from some of the worst effects of climate change caused by the richest nations in the world, yet with the fewest resources to combat such deleterious events: raging wildfires, extreme drought, rising sea waters, loss of fresh water and loss of arable land. Stewardship, as Laudato Si and Al-Mizan insist, is a moral obligation of the faithful in striving for the common good.

 

A Lenten Reflection…

There is perhaps no better time than Lent to pause briefly and consider that seemingly minor but telling moment of interfaith engagement because the United States today—and, increasingly, the Church in the U.S.—is rife with fissures and demarcations, barriers and barricades, and is destabilized by caustic binary thinking among oppositional communities. Against all of that, the discreet Catholic-Muslim dialogue stands in stark contrast. Much of contemporary American society—and the Catholic community within that larger society—seems now too ready to reject subtlety in thinking and flexibility in human interactions, to rebuff conversations of differing perspectives, preferring ideological bombast and coarse contempt for the other. The ethos of Lent, however, can provide some corrective to the corrosive temper of the times.

Lent is a time of prayer, of memory and of meditation, practices that Laudato Si and Al-Mizan together encourage. It is a time for reflection: What is the life I am leading? How do I treat the vulnerable (human and otherwise)? Do I presume the privilege of acquisition and consumerism, by utilization and exploitation, both of the physical environment and in my life with others? Do I live a life of discontent or a life of gratitude? The Christian Middle Ages (particularly the Benedictines) embraced Lent as the holy time of conversion, that is, the righteous occasion of turning the soul “with” and toward God. As St. Benedict taught, Lenten conversion was a devotion of body, mind and soul for more authentic self-awareness (such as reflecting on questions), for a more intimate relationship with God (understanding the importance of questions) and for a more generous communion with others (caring about the answers to questions). St. Benedict understood Lent as an interval of spiritual and intellectual growth, not just for the individual but for the entire community, through prayer and meditation, but also action, notably the works of mercy.

One “act” to initiate the Lenten endeavor is the cultivation of listening: to God, to one’s most authentic self and to the other. It could be argued that such active listening can become a tool to begin healing those fissures in society. St. Thomas Aquinas described listening in a sermon as the heart of wisdom, and Jesus (naturally) as the perfect model for that act of listening. Jesus, Aquinas said, listened “assiduously,” with his heart and with an openness to many different people, some of whom strongly opposed him. He turned to others graciously, listening not to prove them wrong but to listen without barriers to their thoughts, their feelings and their perceptions. Such active listening can open spaces of connection for a deeper understanding of the other, which may reveal (as Laudato Si and Al-Mizan demonstrate) more areas of concurrence—places of meeting—than might have been previously believed.


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


Double, Double, Toil and Trouble…Or?

The fallout from, and the difficult reception of, Fiducia Supplicans has led some to further question the synodal project of Francis. While at the start of the process futile attempts were made to claim that consultation of the faithful did not have any implications for church teaching, now it is becoming increasingly apparent that the fears of traditionalists and the hopes of progressives have some basis in reality. Inevitably, and properly, the emerging voice of the sensus fidei fidelium is bound to impact teaching.

But at what cost? This is where the incantations of Macbeth’s chorus of witches with their prophecies of doom may resonate with even some moderate protagonists. Is the turmoil worth it? Is it wise to risk conflict and division? Might it not be better to retreat to calmer waters and carry on as before, with a tolerable amount of cognitive dissonance in the Body of the Church?

From the evidence of the Synod Synthesis Report it would seem that the commitment to openness remains, always within the process of discernment, which respects God’s time in the making of decisions. So, in several parts of this Synthesis Report, the participants in the synod recommend a deeper intellectual engagement with theology and the human and natural sciences, questioning in particular whether current anthropological categories operative within the Church are adequate to fully understand the various contested issues under discussion. These contested issues, as we all know, are mostly to do with sexuality and gender, and the two Irish Episcopal representatives at the synod (Bishops Brendan Leahy and Alan McGuckian) noted in their post-synodal report that one of the fruits of the synod was “…a call for shared discernment on controversial doctrinal, pastoral and ethical issues to be developed, in the light of the Word of God, Church teaching, theological reflection and an appreciation of the synodal experience.” The recent announcement of the formation of study groups to explore this theological reflection is faithful to the synodal commitment.

The early church did not seek to stifle discussion on the issue of what to do with Gentile converts, an issue that had all the potential to tear the community apart. Neither did third- and fourth-century Christians shirk the conflict involved in teasing out the Christological and Trinitarian issues that arose, and which, inter alia, occasioned the exiling of Athanasius of Alexandria not just once, but five times, from Alexandria. We have seen from the child abuse scandal what silence and repression lead to. The blind spots and dissonances in our ecclesial culture, that “bias of common sense,” which Bernard Lonergan speaks about, is best tackled precisely by the synodal tool of parrhesia, complemented by patient and generous listening (hypomene), and enriched by theological engagement. This is what the method of “conversation in the Spirit” has successfully promoted, with the observation from the synod that it needs to involve a better integration of the intellectual with the emotional.

This more positive interpretation of the synodal fallout is more in line with a recent report about the engagement of Pope Francis and his Council of Cardinals with the project of “demasculinizing the church,” referred to by Callie Tabor in her delightfully pungent piece on this blog entitled “Feminine Genius and the Smell of Drains.” Francis and his council have been meeting women, including theologians, to get a better understanding of what is at stake. In particular, they have been engaging with a book written by three Italian theologians (Linda Pocher, Lucia Vantini and Luca Castiglioni—the latter male, the two former female) entitled Making the Church Less Masculine? A critical evaluation of the ‘principles’ of Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

In his own preface to this book, Francis notes the importance of “…Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflection on the Marian and Petrine principles in the Church, a reflection that has inspired the magisterium of recent pontificates in the effort to understand and value the different ecclesial presence of men and women.” The interesting point here is that the authors, Vantini in particular, offer a critical interpretation of these principles, which, in truth, have already often been criticised in the wider global theological community. It is the synodal process that allows this process of critical engagement to move from the academy to all levels, including the highest, and lays the ground for ecclesial decisions that are the fruit of good faith discernment.

Much of this may be summed up by a vintage quote from Francis in the same preface: “By really listening to women, we men listen to someone who sees reality from a different perspective and so we are led to revise our plans and priorities. Sometimes, we are bewildered. Sometimes what we hear is so new and different from our way of thinking and seeing that it seems absurd, and we feel intimidated. But this bewilderment is healthy; it makes us grow.”  Whatever one thinks of the mind-set behind these words, they certainly do not indicate that the white flag is being raised and a retreat sounded!


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


Synodal Conversion in a Lenten Season

The season of Lent is a journey toward Easter, the high point of the liturgical year, when those who have been on a pilgrimage of conversion to faith are initiated into Christian life through the sacrament of baptism. In baptism, we commit ourselves to following in Christ’s path of self-giving love, the path of costly discipleship that we call the paschal mystery. All the baptized renew that commitment each year in the Easter liturgy. Through baptism we have been incorporated into Christ and into his ecclesial body, the Church—that deeply flawed community of fellow disciples.

A renewed understanding of the dignity and co-responsibility of all the baptized faithful was at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the Church. The council acknowledged in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity a series of responsibilities and rights that belong to all the baptized faithful. Among these is the responsibility to offer counsel in matters that pertain to the good of the Church “through the organs erected by the church for this purpose.” Pastors, according to Lumen gentium, are to welcome the “prudent advice” of competent lay persons, knowing it can help them to arrive at better decisions in both “spiritual and temporal matters.”

In many regions, the synodal structures and practices envisioned by the council have yet to be enacted in a manner that truly honors the co-responsibility of all the baptized. As a result, few lay persons have really grasped that it is they who “make the church present and active” in the world. They remain unconvinced of the basic equality of all that flows from the dignity of baptism. Many continue to labor under the false impression that ordained ministers alone bear the church’s mission, and lay persons remain little more than passive and obedient objects of their ministrations. That vision, wrought by the cultural forces of a distant age, continues to blind us to the essential character of the church and of its servant task. The gifts of all, flowing from the same Spirit, are needed if the church is to witness to the love of God in a broken world.

This Lenten season, falling as it does between two assemblies of the international Synod, is an opportunity for Catholics everywhere to intensify the spiritual disciplines and practices that open our hearts to a “synodal conversion.” The aim of the Synod on Synodality has been to re-awaken a deeper consciousness in all the baptized of their co-responsibility for the life and mission of the church. To accomplish this, Catholics around the world have begun a long apprenticeship to relearn the habits of “walking together.” During this intercession, every local church has been asked, “How can we enhance the differentiated co-responsibility in mission of all the People of God?” In short, “How can we become a ‘synodal church in mission?’” in the words of the Synthesis Report from the 2023 Synodal Assembly. No one needs to wait for the conclusion of the international synodal process to begin implementing the practices necessary to develop a more synodal culture in the local churches.

Now is the time to commit ourselves, both personally and as communities, to listen deeply with the heart to one another and to the voices of those who have been marginalized or neglected by our communities. Genuine listening requires the humility to know that I am not in full possession of the truth, that I can always learn and grow. Such listening demands a willingness to listen respectfully to those with whom I disagree or find disagreeable. It implies a readiness to be changed by what I hear, perhaps discovering the ways that my works, my actions or omissions may have caused pain to others. Learning the habits of active listening must be matched by the courage to speak boldly, to speak the truth in love. It demands that we fast from harsh words and rash judgments.

Church unity is not the absence of public dissent or disagreement. As the difficult reception of Fiducia Supplicans signifies, open conversation concerning subjects that are not perceived uniformly is difficult. What appears on the face of it as Christ-like hospitality on one continent is a dangerous proposition in the 67 countries where same-sex relationships continue to be criminalized. The asceticism required for a genuine synodal conversion requires honesty and humility to avoid offering definitive pronouncements where consensus eludes us. True synodal conversion requires the resolve to stay in the conversation, even in the face of incomprehension, so that together we might discern the call to enter the radical love of Christ. Conversion is not our doing, but the fruit of the Spirit at work among us.


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


The Church of “The Betrothed”

It was one of those instances of serendipity that can happen to those of us blessed to live in New York City: at a screening last year for a documentary about the travels of Pope Francis I was introduced to Michael Moore, the latest translator of the great Alessandro Manzoni novel, The Betrothed. Moore is a lovely and unassuming man, but I was starstruck when I realized who he was. The nineteenth-century novel, titled I Promessi Sposi in Italian, was one of those grand epics that I had time to savor as a much younger man, before smartphones reduced my attention span to the length of, at most, three Tik-Toks. In fact, returning to long-form fiction was a vow I made during the pandemic for a host of reasons—saving my brain, and maybe my soul.

I have been doing pretty well in renewing my reading habit, and my encounter with Moore was a reminder that I had wanted to re-visit The Betrothed ever since his translation was published to high praise in 2022. The Betrothed, an overlooked masterpiece, was also enjoying a renaissance because Manzoni’s story is set in the Duchy of Milan around 1630 when an outbreak of the plague ravaged the region—much as the COVID virus was coursing across North America and beyond. The descriptions of widespread death and suffering four centuries ago resonated with our experience, and the passages about the denialism and disinformation that were as contagious as the disease itself could have spilled from the latest social media feed.

It was a novel for our moment, but truth be told the book was on my list because it’s also a favorite of Pope Francis, who in his first interview after his election said he read the book three times as a child and could recite the opening lines from memory. In fact, he said that he was reading it again now that he was pope. Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh believes that Francis drew his image of the church as “a field hospital” from the descriptions of the lazaretto where Capuchin priests would care for the sick and dying. And during the pandemic, Francis frequently referred to the novel as a source of consolation and hope. He advised engaged couples to read it, with good reason: the plot concerns the trials of Renzo and Lucia, who persevere through long separations as their plans to marry are thwarted by an evil baron, Don Rodrigo, who wants the saintly Lucia for himself.

“Manzoni gave me so much,” Francis has said. The funny thing is that in re-reading a novel from one’s youth you find even more, or different, things. I have certainly changed over the years, and so has the world—and the church. So, it’s natural that themes and characters that I might have overlooked or not grasped sufficiently before stuck out this time around.

Here are two that I’d highlight: clerics and converts.

This is a profoundly Catholic novel in setting and themes, and the virtues and vices of Catholicism are exemplified by the clergy characters. (The female religious, the Nun of Monza, is a column of her own.) There is Renzo and Lucia’s parish priest, Don Abbondio, a cowardly and dissembling pastor who refuses to marry the young couple out of fear of Don Rodrigo, the action that launches the novel’s main plot. Don Abbondio is contrasted with the heroic Capuchin, Fra Cristoforo, who stands up to Don Rodrigo and endures all manner of suffering to help Renzo and Lucia. Then there is the saintly and savvy archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, in real life a truly remarkable figure and cousin of Saint Charles Borromeo, a previous Milan archbishop.

Borromeo comes from nobility and uses all he has to help the poor and build up the city. He is stingy on his own behalf and generous with all others. Borromeo scandalized church officials by embracing the “dirty and disgusting” peasantry with tenderness, and he angered clergy by insisting they renounce their privileges and accompany their flock. “A holy archbishop like him should be more protective of his priests, treat them like the apple of his eye,” fumes Don Abbondio after one encounter with the cardinal.

In a pivotal scene, a lengthy encounter between the two clerics, Borromeo upbraids Don Abbondio for his incomprehensible cowardice toward Renzo and Lucia while the self-pitying Don Abbondio grumbles that Borromeo is making his life so hard while welcoming repentant sinners with open arms. It’s a passage that perfectly tracks the friction between Francis and the comfortable churchmen who the pope insists ought to renounce their perks and live out the Christ-like vocation they were called to. “The people of God need their pastors to be self-sacrificing, like the Capuchins, who stayed close,” Francis told Ivereigh when asked about The Betrothed. “You shouldn’t be Don Abbondio,” the pontiff has repeatedly warned.

In the end, despite the cardinal’s exhortations and Don Abbondio’s emergence unscathed from all peril, the priest never really changes. Yet that persistence contrasts with the novel’s other great theme of conversion: there is Fra Cristoforo, an arrogant young gentleman who kills a man during a street brawl and in profound remorse flees to a Capuchin monastery and becomes the saintliest of priests; and of course, The Nameless One, l'Innominato, the fearsome warlord whose troubled conscience after a life of brutal criminality leads to a clamorous conversion.

It’s the kind of genuine transformation that Francis wants of Catholics—not the “religious switching” from one denomination to another that we like better, but a change of heart and life that are, as always, the most convincing form of evangelization.

The world of today is so much like the world four centuries ago that Manzoni described and the world two centuries ago that he inhabited. And the church of The Betrothed is much like our own, as well. Take it and read.


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


The Luminosity of Gray

Since mid-November, it seems that our part of North America has been overwhelmingly cloudy. The sun’s appearance has become an astronomical oddity. Grayness seems to permeate our moods as well as our landscape. Yet, not all gray needs to be as depressing as the weather. The gray of life invites us into a deeper appreciation of lived experience, a fuller understanding of what it means to be human.

Gray is not fog. Gray is an admission that there really are few clear black-and-whites in human experience. We spend most of our lives in the complicated area between brilliance and darkness. It is that human experience, yours and mine, that we as Church need to address. A few weeks ago in this series, Paul Lakeland remarked on Francis’ November 1 motu proprio in which he called on theology to “be a fundamentally contextual theology, capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women daily live.” The first blog of the new year from Catherine Mulroney spoke of the Vatican’s more pastoral approach allowing for “keeping ashes reverently at home,” thus acknowledging a reality already being practiced by many faithful Catholics. The pastoral approach of Fiducia supplicans is a preeminent example of this “contextual” approach, calling upon bishops and pastors to bring the grace of the Gospel to all, thus inviting spiritual growth in a pastorally positive context. It does not provide a recipe; rather, it provides a fundamental stance in the grayness of life: the offer of blessing. It is pastoral; it is Christ-like; it lives the Gospel.

Just over 58 years after the promulgation of Gaudium et spes, which opened with a clear statement that the Church’s mission is to bring “the radiance of the Gospel message” (92) to the world in which humanity exists, it is mystifying that somehow this approach is regarded by many as “new” or even “revolutionary.” The Church has a concrete mission in which theology, doctrine, etc. are tools for the fulfillment of that mission. Yet, somehow in the first years of this papacy, Francis’ declarations were heard as simply “pastoral” not theological. More recently his “pastoral” approach is regarded somehow as less valuable than “clear doctrine.” Have we forgotten that all doctrine, all theology, all witness must be pastoral? As Church, we are called to communicate one simple message: Christ’s victory over sin and death in the Resurrection! All truths flow from this Truth—all actions should. We should bring the joy and blessings of the Gospel to those who may not yet have experienced that Truth, not because we are the proprietors of the Truth, but because we, as they, struggle to live that Truth. In solidarity we accompany them on their journey. That assistance cannot be in the abstract if it is to address the real needs of human persons. Perhaps that is the key to understanding our current dilemma as disciples of Christ: do we give priority to bringing the Gospel to the specific circumstances of those to whom it needs to be addressed, or do we prioritize an absolutization of certain principles?

History, I suggest, teaches us that the Spirit has consistently led the Church to find ever more effective ways to live the Gospel Truth: strict monotheism or a Trinitarian God, circumcision or no circumcision, Latin or the vernacular, no cremation or the blessing of ashes, no talking to non-Catholics or an ecumenical commissioning of bishops and many more examples. However, in each circumstance the challenge has been immense, the fears real, the call to trust the Holy Spirit clear. The past is not to be repeated, rather it gives us the courage to hold firm to the Spirit’s guidance in the Body of Christ and know that gray most certainly has the luminescence of the Gospel that shines everywhere and for everyone so that the Good News is alive for the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed (Lk. 1:18).


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


The Ecological Crisis: Desire, Mourning and Language

A recently published report on scientific climate data constitutes a dire warning. 2023 was the hottest year on record, and scientists say that we are on the brink of an apocalyptic disaster that “has profound consequences for … all human endeavors.”

But vital though it is, scientific data alone cannot motivate the necessary changes in human behavior, collectively or individually. In her book, Meditations on Creation in an Era of Extinction, Kate Rigby draws on ancient theological writings on the biblical account of the six days of creation (the Hexaemeron), as a resource for reflecting on the ecological crisis.  She suggests that such stories are not rendered redundant by modern science, for they are concerned “not so much with the physical processes of cosmogenesis as with questions of meaning, value and purpose—questions that properly lie outside the remit of the natural sciences.”  

Scientific facts need to be incorporated into stories that give meaning to our lives, and this entails delving deeply into the psychological and linguistic influences that shape us. If, as Martin Heidegger, we inhabit the house of language, then we need to change our ways of speaking about “our common home” if we are to inhabit it differently.

Pope Francis is leading by example. He pays close attention to the science of climate change, but his prose shimmers with a poetic vision that weaves together the contemplative and the active, the mystical and the conceptual. In his November 2023 Motu Proprio, Ad Theologiam Promovendam, he calls theological reflection “to a turning point, to a paradigm shift, to a ‘courageous cultural revolution’” (quoting Laudato Si’). It is regrettable that, as Callie Tabor argues, his language about women remains mired in sometimes “hopeless romanticism” and “misogynistic stereotypes.” The gendering of nature as feminine has profound ecological implications, and it’s a pity that Pope Francis hasn’t engaged more closely with eco-feminist thinkers who might alert him to the need for a paradigm shift in how we talk about gender and nature. But setting aside that not-insignificant concern, his call for a transformation in theological language and methods is fundamental to a wider revolution in the ethos and practice of the Catholic faith.

In the face of alarming news, we can be gripped by a frenetic desire to act, but for those of us who live in the richest and most environmentally destructive nations, might we be called to a counter-intuitive response: instead of doing more, should we be doing less? In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis coined the neologism “rapidification” to describe the ways in which our accelerating lifestyles contribute to the environmental crisis. In the aftermath of the Second World War, German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper writes about the importance of leisure, not in the sense of the commodified leisure activities that even in his time, and vastly more so in our own time, have displaced the Sabbath rest, but as deep contemplation that allows us to “listen to the essence of things.” He writes, “In leisure, man … celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of the Creation. He looks and he affirms: it is good.” Rigby includes the seventh day in her Hexaemeron, “the Sabbath day, in which we, too, are invited to join with the creator in celebrating the communion of all creatures.”

This indwelling in creation entails a process of mourning as well as celebration. Rigby writes of the dark night, the via negative, that is part of the contemplative experience, which “can deepen your anguished awareness of harm, suffering and wrong.” In her book, The Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe sees the denial of sorrow and mourning as part of neoliberalism’s “culture of uncare”—“Care is under attack here, as to feel grief about the world is to care about it.” Mourning is a necessary aspect of our reimagining ourselves in relation to nature, for much that has been lost will never be recovered. In a beautiful section from his homily on Psalm 37 in the Office of Readings for the third Friday of Advent, St. Augustine writes about what it means to pray without ceasing, as an expression of “the desire of the heart.” He writes, “Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. Therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.” He goes on to explain that our groaning is an expression of our desire, for our anguish is not concealed from God.

The flowering of a new eco-consciousness has its roots deep in our desire and its distortions. That is where we must begin the process of sorrow, repentance and transformation. If, as Pope Francis says, theology is called to “transdisciplinarity,” drawing on different sources of knowledge in the light of revelation, then we must forge a new understanding of spirituality that draws discerningly on theories of language, psychoanalysis and gender. We must learn to speak of our desires and sorrows in the language of poets and mystics—language that breaks open our imagination and calls us to new ways of understanding and caring for this fragile, beautiful world.


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