A publication of Sacred Heart University

A Challenge for a Pro-Life Church

Justice Alito’s inept, inaccurate and ideologically motivated draft decision of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, if it becomes law in something like its present form, will pose a set of serious challenges for the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance. Let’s take them one at a time.

First, the absolutely worst thing to do would be for the Catholic Church to welcome and celebrate a decision simply because it removes abortion from the list of federally protected rights, and then sit back and do nothing more. If it should be the case that Roe v Wade is overturned, then Church authorities must ramp up support for those women who, whether they wish to or not, find they must bring their pregnancy to full-term. But it must also be ready to aid those who will have had resort to illegal abortions or have traveled to states where abortion is legal, whether their pain and suffering is physical or psychological, or both. Church teaching opposing abortion does not include judgment on those women who have chosen that path, and particularly not when it is quite obvious that a change in the law will disproportionately affect the poor. Both these groups will need material aid, not just pious words of encouragement or empty compassion. Compassion, after all, is “suffering with” those whose suffering we encounter.

A second necessity is for Church leaders to scrutinize the logic of the Supreme Court position and be ready to criticize it for its weaknesses. In other words, it might well be that they will find themselves in only moderate agreement with the stated reasons for overturning Roe v Wade. Legal strict constructionists like Justice Alito have no feeling for context and no nuanced way to read history. While the pro-life position of Church doctrine will obviously lead to welcoming what will presumably be substantial reductions in the number of abortions, leadership will need to ask what the further implications are of Alito’s unhistorical thinking for ecclesial life and American culture. In Church teaching obtaining an abortion is classified as an objective evil, a serious sin, but a sin is not the same thing as a crime. Crimes are punished, while sins are forgiven. Would we really be comfortable with the criminalization of abortion in such fashion that a woman could go to jail for it? Would we really want to argue that a surgeon who performed an abortion to save the life of the mother, or because the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, should be imprisoned for a crime? These are the consequences of arguments like those of Justice Alito, legal thinking devoid of compassion. The Church has absolutely no interest in the criminalization of abortion, neither the woman who has obtained the procedure nor the surgeon who has performed it.

A third issue of urgency is for the Church to abandon its outmoded, dead letter teaching on the “evils” of “artificial” birth control. For the most part, bishops have gone silent on the issue of contraception, perhaps because most Catholics of childbearing age who can access birth control do not have moral qualms about using it. And perhaps also because they know that teaching that is consistently ignored by the bulk of those to whom it is supposed to apply is of dubious, if any, authority. The next step is obvious enough. If Roe v Wade is overturned, it remains as important as ever to limit the number of unwanted pregnancies, and birth control is the only practical way to contribute significantly to that result. Curiously enough, there are parallels between Church teaching on contraception and the Alito draft document on abortion; both are based on forms of strict constructionism. Moreover, just as most Catholics do not agree with Church teaching on contraception, most Americans do not want to see Roe v Wade overturned. Perhaps our leaders in faith can attend to the important idea of the sensus fidelium, just as one has to hope that public opinion might influence the Supreme Court.

Fourth and finally, there is a difference between wishing for a world in which human life at all stages is cherished and using legal prohibitions to cause more pain and suffering to people than did the status quo ante. Would overturning Roe v Wade be better than the situation we currently have, imperfect though it is? Could the cure be worse than the disease? Might it not just be a wiser course of action, if one that would take longer, to put the energies of society to the service of building a better world, one in which “the common good” meant above all concern for the poor and the needy?


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


It’s Time to Catch Up

St. Paul, of course, was right. When I was a child I really did think like a child—and for that, I would like to apologize to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, the wonderful women who ran the secondary school I attended way back in the 1970s.

I arrived in high school a little more than a decade after Vatican II began, heady days when we still believed so much was possible. The practical reforms we’d heard about had begun to unfold around us. While I received my first communion kneeling at an altar rail, I was likely one of the last children in my parish to do so. The nuns once swathed in yards of serge now appeared in either a modified habit or, more frequently, modest street clothes. Our grad year retreat included seniors from the local boys’ school. Change was the new normal and we were confident there was a place for all of us in this exciting new 20th-century Church.

So when the sisters teaching our religion classes would speak about the importance of inclusive language, for example, my classmates and I, largely daughters of privilege, would roll our eyes, groaning about how we all knew that the word mankind, for example, included us. We were confident this was a minor hurdle because we had been promised change. It just didn’t matter.

As we all headed out into the workforce, though, we began to experience the desire to be recognized as ourselves and not subsumed into a category that at once acknowledged one gender while neatly bypassing the rest of us. By 1984 I was a reporter in a local newsroom, a place that was still a bastion of sexism, and I developed an appreciation for the call for inclusive language, a trend that has long since become the norm in so many places, including newsrooms—although still not yet in many quarters of my church. While change is taking place, the pace can feel glacial.

Long before the notion of community service for students became popular, the sisters expected us to serve society. For that reason, I found myself, more than a little sheepish and self-conscious, picketing the local grocery store where my mother shopped, attempting to enlighten shoppers about the challenges faced by the migrant workers picking grapes in California. Memories of those days came back to me at the height of COVID, when I read of pandemic outbreaks among local migrant farmworkers lacking the same protections the rest of us had.

Far more immediate was a stint in our local children’s hospital, taking patients down to Mass on Sunday mornings. One morning, the first patient I wheeled downstairs was a classmate. She had a reputation for being trouble, but that day I learned she had both an eating disorder and had been battered by a parent. It’s a lesson I have never forgotten.

Today, many of the teenagers I encounter who are active in the Church are vocal in their desire for a return to more traditional ways—mantillas, more kneeling, more opportunities to attend adoration or to say the rosary. We each worship in our own way, and I certainly respect the right to focus on forms I may not normally participate in, but I am sometimes left with the question of where all this leads. Call me a child of the 70s, but if that personal relationship you are developing with Jesus is an end point rather than a starting one, I can’t help but be disappointed.

Today I am a white-haired grandmother. If my children attend Mass, it’s largely to keep me company. My Church is riven with a division often fueled by secular politics, and the change upon which I had built my youthful hopes simply hasn’t manifested itself to the degree I had expected. I now realize my life is finite, and I mourn the fact that I will die before so many of the developments I had hoped to see become a reality. Today’s Church does not hold out the same promise to my children that it did to me.

Now I understand—and appreciate—the urgency of the women who taught me. They understood that they stood between the paternalistic institution they had entered and a more egalitarian vision of Church that would allow all of us to share our gifts in our own unique ways. Experience made the sisters prescient about what the next generation of Catholic women needed to know.

My classmates became teachers and social workers, healthcare professionals and volunteers, all with an understanding that the many gifts we had been given should be given back. Instilled in all of us was a sense of purpose and dignity and value, and we headed out into the world — and the 1980s—with a view that we could make a difference.

More than 40 years on, we are still waiting for our Church to catch up.


Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.


Going, Going, Gone

We are now coming to the end of the spring semester within the University. For all colleges this time of the year is a wonderful opportunity to recall moments of joy, sorrow, achievements or failure. Whatever the case, it is a season of hope.

The graduates prepare for the next phase of their lives and beginnings of a career. The underclassmen are preparing for summer activities and employment. Yet for all students, it is a time to reflect, formally or informally, on the year and the changes or growth in their lives. Critical thinking, an important element in our core curriculum, does have its place in this year-end transition.

Today, in my last two classes of the Catholic intellectual tradition seminar, students were asked to choose three readings from the semester and reflect on the impact in their lives. I was amazed at the depth of their reflections on personal development, morals and faith. I have borrowed the name of a study by St Mary’s Press for this refection, since it captures the present state of our young adults.

During the semesters, readings ranged from Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, Frankel, Dorothy Day, Theresa and Pope Francis. From the readings, the students were challenged to discover more about themselves and their journey.

This discussion caused me serious issue for reflection. While one student professed to be deep into the sciences and abandoned the notion of God, another was coping with the notion of justice. Yet another could not reconcile suffering in a world with God.

The depth of their reflections was awakening. Their comments were filled, for the most part, with their testimony of faith and their struggles with that at times. The awakening, for me, was their indifference to the institutional church. This common thread was rooted, as they see it, in the hypocrisy and the rigidity of the institution. Yet, for many, there was a fondness for individual priests who had crossed their paths.

Leaving the class, it struck me that the formulaic services and the lack of inclusiveness have alienated this generation. The “who made you?” catechism style has absolutely no relevance and is insulting to these students’ intellectual capacities.

In a study conducted by St. Mary’s Press, they write that “disaffiliation from the Church is largely a thoughtful, conscious, intentional choice made by young people in a secularized society where faith and religious practices are seen as one option among many.” Listening to our class discussion, I could not help but think that this disaffiliation is the making of our own institutional church. These students are honestly groping with faith on their personal journey. They are not groping with a series of catechism questions. They are motivated by the works and writings of Merton, Day, Theresa of Calcutta. So, they are struggling to understand how these remarkable witnesses they have discovered on their journey relate to an institution and many of its leaders who are far from inclusive and seem to enjoy being judgmental.

I certainly do not have the answers, but I do realize that pious pontificating pomposity will not be part of these students’ faith journey. Ministers and leaders, if they are sincere in their faith, will have to answer for their part in this alienation. Maybe rereading the gospels can help each of us recall and understand how Jesus treated and respected the alienated. Clearly, as I have experienced, our students understand and appreciate notions of inclusiveness, respect and faith as critical to their journey. Walking with them gives me hope that belief in God will flourish.


John J. Petillo, Ph.D., is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.


A Synodal History

Synodality is experiencing growing pains, which is to be expected. Ever since the close of Vatican II, synodality has had a very uneven career, both in the various local churches and in the universal church.

Under Pope Paul VI, the synod of bishops was still developing, trying to find ways to facilitate discussion and draft a document in the allotted month, an astonishingly short amount of time. Then, in 1974, the synod fathers had a vivid discussion of the topic of evangelization, but the draft summation of their reflections was rejected by synod fathers. They left their notes for the pope to issue as a post-synodal exhortation. Felix culpa: This led to Papa Montini’s most consequential document, Evangelii Nuntiandi, issued the following year.

Pope John Paul II was no fan of synods, in large part because he had been one of two principal authors (Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro of Karachi, Pakistan was the other) of the draft summation at the 1974 synod that had been rejected as inadequate. As pope, he reduced the synods during his long reign to dry, formal affairs. Papa Wojtyla famously said he read books during the sessions.

Pope Benedict XVI tried to interject some new life into the proceedings by introducing a doctrinal karaoke hour at the end of each day’s session: For one hour, any synod member could go to the microphone and raise any issue they wanted. It made the events less dry but did not really achieve the kind of dialogue needed for true synodality. 

Only with Pope Francis did synodality really come into full flower. His commitment to synodality is rooted in his experience of CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano), the council of Latin American bishops’ conferences. In 1992, the year Jorge Bergoglio was consecrated a bishop, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, prefect of the Pontifical Council on the Family, tried to disband CELAM and they nearly succeeded. Pope John Paul II was persuaded to let the organization continue. Three years later, then-Archbishop, later Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga took the helm as President of CELAM. He would go on to become Pope Francis’ closest confidante.

In the United States, the provincial and plenary councils of Baltimore in the 19th century served as a means by which the hierarchy forged common policies on a variety of ecclesial issues. Between the last such council in 1884 and the start of the U.S. bishops’ conference in 1917, the annual meeting of the nation’s archbishops served a similar function. There were severe divisions within the ranks of the hierarchy, especially over issues of assimilation and the proper attitude towards the ambient, Protestant culture, but those fights were mostly kept within doors and within bounds.

Once a formal bishops’ conference was launched in 1917, it served as an arena for dialogue and forging consensus. There was never unanimity. For example, Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, the senior churchman after the death of Cardinal James Gibbons in 1921, tried mightily to get the conference shut down by Rome, viewing it as a threat to his own importance. Later prelates like Cardinal Francis Spellman would remain aloof from the conference. Only in recent years, when the culture wars came to the hierarchy and to the staff at the conference has it ceased to be an effective vehicle for synodality.

Unsurprisingly, in many dioceses, the current synodal effort is engaged in lukewarm fashion. In San Francisco, they even farmed the task out to the Catholic Leadership Institute, which may be a fine organization, but farming out a task always sends the signal that the bishop is not taking it too seriously.

The German Church’s “Synodal Path” has garnered much attention, most recently when a group of English-speaking prelates signed a public letter to their German confreres expressing concern about some of the approaches evidenced in the published documentation coming from Germany. The decision to make the letter public was an example of bruta figura, a violation of the norms by which bishops normally communicate with one another. You can imagine what a brouhaha would have occurred if some German or Italian bishops had written to the U.S. hierarchy complaining about, say, their abuse of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty in recent years.

George Weigel, however, took to the pages of First Things, ostensibly to defend the letter to the German bishops but, in reality, the article reads like a reprise of some of his own greatest obsessions. That, and a despicably careless use of the epithet “apostasy.” It should by now be clear that Weigel’s principal contribution to the Catholic mind has been to encourage a reflexive culture warrior stance among his followers, including some in the episcopacy. If you do not agree with him, you are labeled a bad Catholic, even an “apostate.” I have reservations about some of the conclusions coming from the German Synodal Path too, but I do not question the Catholicity of those who were involved in the deliberations. 

If synodality is to succeed, we all need to learn to take deep breaths, and to allow the process to run its course. People need to spend less time maneuvering to achieve a particular ideological outcome and more time listening to one another. The enemy of synodality is not the other, it is ideology.  


Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.


“Tenebrae Now”

I did not expect to be so moved by candlelight when the lights went out. I was looking forward to the symbolic enactment of the Christ’s descent to the dead, light’s refusal to be subsumed. Plunged into near total shadow, the altar radiated. I knew the general structure of Tenebrae, a special form of sung prayer for Holy Week: choral psalms, lamentations, a candelabra extinguished one candle at a time. Tenebrae prays movement into the Triduum Sacrum’s drama of suppers, gardens, horrors, abandonments, descents and wonders.

The Tenebrae hearse (sometimes called a harrow) blazed. Isn’t that a marvelous name for this special liturgical prop, fifteen lit candles forming a triangle, death and light at once? At the Tenebrae I attended, some “house lights” remained on during the service so we could read along. Tenebrae builds to a spectacular denouement: the center candle, representing the light of Christ, is not extinguished. Instead, the candle gets hidden behind the altar. Light radiates even if its source descends out of sight.

After entombing the candle, someone shut off the electric lights. I was reminded of the arresting phrase from Lucy Kirkwood’s 2017 play The Children: “You don’t have a right to electricity.” The Tenebrae image had power precisely because the room turned off ordinary conveniences. I needed less light in order to notice light’s meaning.

I cannot remember the last time I went to Tenebrae, but I have spent the better part of the ongoing pandemic reading the Irish ecological mystic John Moriarty. Moriarty’s spellbinding work sits with a hard truth that our Church needs to hear and proclaim: the planetary environmental crisis is a symptom of a spiritual crisis. Dominant ideologies and myths insulate us from feeling part of the environmental whole like an immune system. Moriarty praises Tenebrae as a ritual antidote, an integrating spirituality. In Turtle Was Gone a Long Time I: Crossing the Kedron, Moriarty writes, “In Tenebrae, it is by the light of candles quenched not by the light of candles lighted that we continue,” (183). With Jesus as guide, we must be willing to descend and harrow the hells within ourselves.

Pope Francis continues to invite the Church to consider the same intersection of spirit and climate. Serious reflection on what is happening to our “common home” risks a real existential despair. Climate catastrophes are urgent, dire and profoundly overwhelming. Individual choices will not stop climate change. Individual quests to drive less, to recycle more plastic and paper, to install solar panels or take reusable totes to the grocery store—no matter how virtuous or cost effective—will not save the world. Some feel called to tiny houses or subsistence farming; many become overwhelmed. How can there be flourishing life, family and future if we need to change everything about how we live? Future generations will grapple with different coastlines after sea-level rise, lost biodiversity due to desertification, more intense storms and more unquenchable wild fires. The planetary future seems impossibly dark.

Moriarty poignantly describes human civilization as the iceberg into which Titanic Earth has crashed. We numb the anguish of impending doom with sentimental confidence in starship lifeboats. Far worse is the apathetic spiritual shrug: Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, so our planet might as well burn (and given the many evils humans perpetuate, perhaps it even should). Addiction to economic sameness takes the lead, ensuring a descent into hell on earth, with hosannas of “Drill, baby, drill.” How else could we keep the lights on all night?

To be clear, modern comforts and technologies are not inherently evil. Perhaps the dark isn’t as sinister as our consumerist consciousness makes it out to be. Moriarty’s Tenebrae offers ritual formation into an alternative spiritual position. Perhaps the ecological unknown can be like the dazzling darkness encountered in a mystic’s openness to the divine. Moriarty himself indulged a life of heroic simplicity. But not everyone needs to abandon their lifestyle to become hermetic gardeners and prolific writers. Instead, Moriarty claims in his first major book Dreamtime that “Settling for less was a way to wonder,” (194).

What room do we leave for wonder in our climate anxieties? Tenebrae embraces the necessary lamentation for our common home on an ecological collision course. It hurts to admit there can be no return to consumptive “normalcy.” The Church, as a pilgrim people of God, can help mourn the loss of unsustainable lifestyles rather than pile on unproductive guilt and shame. Truly integral ecological reform will mean sitting in the unknown dark together, acknowledging scary realities, and refusing to abandon hope. We can remember to turn off the lights sometimes and wonder. A Tenebrae spirituality helps us see what St. John Henry Newman calls the “Kindly Light” that leads a pilgrim people onward through darkness, never alone.


Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


The First Step in Healing: Pope Francis’ Apology

Our intrepid blogger, Colleen Dulle, in her recent entry spoke of the pending publication of a report issued by the Department of the Interior on the history and legacy of government-funded and church-operated Native boarding or industrial schools in the United States.  Indeed, the Secretary, Deb Haaland, is Indigenous and as a consequence this report has, as we now say, an existential meaning for her.

And so it should for us all.

Secretary Haaland made it clear that her immediate inspiration for acting was based on the horror of the unmarked graves in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Who can deny the traumatic impact of the discoveries of these unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School in the spring of 2021? But if we were shocked into awareness, ought we to have been? Did we not already know this from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report? What stilled our tongues, stoppered our ears and deadened our hearts?

Tim Lilburn, Canadian poet and philosopher, rightly situates our intellectual and spiritual malaise when he said in an essay that he sent to me shortly after the grisly discoveries, “Roman Catholics must identify what attitudes in Catholicism instigated the vicious, thanophilic  culture in residential schools that religious orders ran … These dispositions, missiological, ecclesiastical, spiritual, inter-personal and the thought-words backing them must be purged.”

That purgation moved to a new and more intense phase when Pope Francis gave his much sought-after apology for the Catholic Church’s role in operating the residential schools in the Vatican’s Sala Clementina to a gathering of Inuit, Métis and First Nations representatives, as well as to a smattering of Canadian bishops and papal officials. All present spoke of the experience of hearing this apology as profoundly moving. This pope was attentive to the pain of the Indigenous peoples, declined to offer spiritual blandishments and holy bromides, listened compassionately to their narratives of sadness and suffering, and did not skirt accountability for the wounds of humiliation and degradation inflicted on the First Peoples of Canada.

This apology was a long time in coming. Recommendation #58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report also stipulated that such an apology should be given on Canadian soil, and although the first iteration of the apology was in Rome, there is a commitment to come to Canada, very possibly on the Feast of St. Anne in July.

Francis, the first Jesuit pope, is unafraid of facing the shadow side of the church’s history. In his final session with the Canadian Indigenous delegation he left no doubt that the residential schools and their mission to erase Indigenous culture, to instill feelings of inferiority, to deracinate the Indigenous are a counter witness to the Gospel and that “any truly effective process of healing requires concrete actions.”

And so, what form will these concrete actions take? Undoubtedly, in addition to releasing the complete and not redacted or strategically withheld records, there must be a renewed guarantee to honour the financial obligations the Canadian Catholic Church was signatory to and unlike its sister churches shockingly remiss in meeting.

The Canadian Catholic Church is called to bold leadership for it is the Catholic Church in Canada, and not the Vatican, that bears responsibility for reparation. Shunting matters to Rome avoids the deeper issue of accountability and compromises the importance of subsidiarity in church governance.

For sure, getting an official apology for morally corrosive behavior by the church from the institution’s top person, in this case the Successor of St. Peter, is important—cathartic, symbolic and constitutive of genuine remorse.

But there is much more to do and that leadership must originate at the local and national level. Francis, as he did in his 2015 trip to Bolivia when he humbly asked for forgiveness for the “crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” has set the tone, established the model and summoned the church to forswear any alignment of the “logic of the sword with the power of the Cross.”

Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod Office in Rome, speaking in March at Oxford University, called for an end to the “culture of silence” that has often frustrated lay Catholics from speaking their minds. Grech’s call to shatter the culture of silence, when applied to the Canadian context and the church’s responsibility for healing, means that our leadership must get the job done: no more delays, no more legal legerdemain, no more financial and pastoral prioritizing that relegates Aboriginal justice needs to a subordinate status.

For Canadian lay Catholics, Pope Francis has created a new momentum to get things done. Time to break the culture of silence.

This applies as well in the U.S. context. In fact, in anticipation of the release of the Haaland investigation the Conference of Jesuits in Washington issued its own report, acknowledging the schools over which it had oversight, pledging full cooperation, highlighting pastoral and corrective strategies of the past and repudiating unqualifiedly the government, public and ecclesiastical mentality that allowed such schools to exist in the first place.

I asked an Indigenous knowledge keeper what she would say if she had had time with the pope. She reflected for a few moments and then said, “I would forgive him and then ask that he respect us.” Out of that respect will come a reverencing of the other as other, a treasuring of the Indigenous peoples and their diverse cultures as a gift to be honored and not as problem to be solved.

Francis got that right.


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


Recovering the Sensus Fidelium

Reading Cardinal Mario Grech’s Oxford lecture on synodality recently, I was struck by his account—which draws heavily on St. John Henry Newman’s—of the consultation of the faithful that happened before the declaration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Grech writes:

“[Pius IX] defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (8 December 1854) based on the ‘singularis Antistitum et fidelium conspiratio’ (the remarkable agreement (harmony) between the bishops and the faithful). In order to arrive at such a consensus between the Bishops and the faithful, he launched a real consultation, asking all the bishops to inform him with respect to their faith and the faith of the People entrusted to them regarding this doctrine.”

Newman, in his famous article “Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” does not seem entirely convinced of the veracity of this narrative, but he does support the underlying idea that would be affirmed by Vatican II, that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (cf. 1 Jn 2:20) cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium 12). Newman adds, “because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.”

From my own perspective as a young American who grew up in the age of what Massimo Faggioli recently called the period of “Vatican II historicized and lamented” and now working in Catholic media with a front-row seat to church divisions, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine the faithful being able to reach any universal consensus, aside from on the church’s most basic doctrines. It raised the question for me: Does the sensus fidelium exist anymore? Did it ever, really?

Pope Francis believes that it does, even if the faithful cannot reach a consensus. He writes, “In the dynamic of a synod”—like the one he has ambitiously called to hear the sensus fidelium on all things church—”differences are expressed and polished until you reach, if not consensus, a harmony that holds on to the sharp notes of its differences…Therein lies its beauty: the harmony that results can be complex, rich and unexpected,” (Let Us Dream 81).

In his series of lectures on synodality for the London Jesuit Centre, Austen Ivereigh points out that this harmony is not always harmonious: He says it is “tense,” “dynamic,” even “conflictual.” In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis says that we face two temptations when we are in conflict: One is to cling to our own conviction that we are right so tightly that we exacerbate the conflict; the other is to wash our hands of the conflict completely.

“The task of the reconciler is instead to ‘endure’ the conflict, facing it head-on, and by discerning see beyond the surface reasons for disagreement, opening those involved to the possibility of a new synthesis, one that does not destroy either pole, but preserves what is good and valid in both in a new perspective. This breakthrough comes about as a gift in dialogue, when people trust each other and humbly seek the good together, and are willing to learn from each other in a mutual exchange of gifts” (80).

Last week, I heard evidence of this sort of reconciliation in the Archdiocese of Regina’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which aims to reveal the truth of the abuses committed in Canada’s largely church-run residential schools. In a group interview ahead of three Indigenous delegations’ meetings with the pope last week, members of the Regina committee—Indigenous survivors, diocesan employees and Archbishop Donald Bolen—told me that they had been transformed by their dialogue with one another over the past several years. They had discussed their painful history together, discovered common ground in their faith in the Creator and their desire to care for creation, and had ultimately been able to chart a way forward towards healing and reparation. (I pray that the U.S. church can have a similarly fruitful reckoning with its own history of these schools, which has yet to be examined as deeply as Canada’s.)

The Synod on Synodality’s broad mandate to consult the entire People of God—even and especially those on the margins of the church—seemed at first to me as naively ambitious as the idea that the faithful could reach a harmonious synthesis in our disagreements. But the testimony of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee challenges my skepticism. In this case, the kind of transformative synodal encounter with others that Pope Francis always talks about has changed hearts and minds and brought two sides together onto one common path forward. It’s not a consensus, and certainly not all Canadian Catholics nor all Indigenous people are on board, but those who have chosen to participate and face their painful histories together have been able to create a harmony in difference.

Pope Francis’ vision of evangelization in Evangelii Gaudium posits that attraction is more powerful than imposition. I think that is also true of this kind of harmony: It cannot be imposed, but it can attract, and my hope is that it can inspire more people to join the chorus.


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.


Calling Her a Saint

On December 8, 2021, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Timothy Cardinal Dolan presided over a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York marking completion of the archdiocesan phase of the cause for the canonization of Servant of God Dorothy Day. During the course of the service he read an official statement and blessed a sample of the thirty-four boxes of documentation ready for shipment to Rome. There, if this process reaches its intended conclusion, Dorothy Day may one day be called St. Dorothy.

This prospect has aroused mixed feelings, even among those who admire her. For myself, having advocated for this cause for the past 25 years, it is hard to describe what this this occasion meant to me. Quite apart from this special Mass, I had long enjoyed a front-row seat on the evolving process, which began on November 8, 1997, the centenary of Day’s birth, when John Cardinal O’Connor, during Mass in the same cathedral, announced his intention to convene a gathering of people who had known her to discuss her possible canonization. I was part of that discussion and all that followed; eventually, I would be appointed to serve on the historical commission charged with compiling the material to fill those 34 boxes.

So much happened along the way. One of the highlights was certainly Pope Francis’ astonishing speech in 2015 before a Joint Session of Congress when he cited Day on his shortlist of four “great Americans” who offered a “new way of seeing and interpreting reality.” It was remarkable confirmation of David O’Brien’s oft-quoted line from his 1980 Commonweal obituary, wherein he called Day the most “important, interesting, and influential figure in the history of American Catholicism.”

And yet not all who agree with that statement are keen about her possible canonization. Some disapprove of the (considerable) expense involved or dispute the notion of measuring Day’s holiness by the strict canonical yardsticks of a Vatican bureaucracy.

There are those who fear that canonization will inevitably reduce her radical commitment to peace and justice in favor of some innocuous piety. (They cite statements by conservative prelates that seem to point in that direction.) Yet, I believe that Day’s writings speak for themselves. Having just edited her writings from the ’60s and ’70s, I am confident there is no way to diminish her radical critique of the capitalist system, her bold solidarity with the poor and oppressed, or her revolutionary commitment to gospel nonviolence. By the same token, there is no doubting the deep spirituality that underlays her witness and her activism. As Pope Francis observed, that witness was rooted in her reading of the gospels and her study of the lives of the saints.

But didn’t she say: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”? If that sentence is among the most famous things she supposedly said, I have no one to blame but myself; I cited it in the introduction to my 1983 edition of her selected writings. Whatever the provenance of this famous “quote,” the important question is: What did it mean?

Certainly, I never knew anyone with more devotion to saints than Day. She didn’t just venerate them—she tried to emulate them. They inspired her on her own quest for holiness, a vocation, she believed, that was shared by all Christians. What she objected to was being idealized, put safely on a pedestal, where her example posed no challenge to “ordinary” people. She knew that for most people, “saints” were perfect people; no one could be expected to follow their example. As she once said to me, “When they call you a saint, it means basically that you aren’t to be taken seriously.”

For Day, to be a saint meant taking Christ seriously. And that she certainly did: as a lay woman, as the leader of an apostolic movement, whose solidarity with the poor, resistance to a system that diminished human dignity and freedom, promotion of the gospel message of peace and concern for the earth, put her far in advance of church teachings in her time. Today, her stance is remarkably aligned with the agenda of Pope Francis. 

Those who fear that canonization will diminish Day might consider the ways in which her inclusion in the canon of saints may help to enlarge the church, offering a new model of holiness for our time. As a child she had expressed her admiration for those saints who cared for the sick and poor—but, she asked, “Where were the saints to change the social order, not just to care for the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” That question set the course of her own vocation. And with Day’s canonization, future generations would not need to ask that question.  


Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books. A former managing editor of  The Catholic Worker, he is also the editor of five volumes of writings by Dorothy Day. @RobertEllsberg


Pope Francis’ “Bottom-up” Revolution

Across large parts of the Catholic world, vocations to the priesthood and religious life are in steep decline. Whether it’s Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon or the Archdiocese of New York, the decline has long posed the Catholic Church an existential challenge to how it carries out its mission. 

Two arguments have traditionally been put forward to solve the problem. The first argues for a recruitment drive that has seen resources poured into initiatives encouraging single men to choose the priesthood. The second argues for expanding the ranks of the clergy by ordaining married men. 

While not disregarding the merits of these arguments, Pope Francis has decided to pursue a third way, which is to build up lay ministry and leadership. Rather than focus on who can be ordained to the presbyterate, Francis has pointed to the vocation to ministry that every Christian, through their baptism, can follow. 

In his new constitution for the Roman Curia, the Church’s central administration, the Pope makes the bombshell ruling that any suitably qualified male or female Catholic can lead a Vatican department. Praedicate Evangelium is a game-changer because it breaks the link between ordination and governance in the Church. Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the Jesuit canon lawyer, explained the “power of governance in the church does not come from the sacrament of [Holy] Orders” but an individual’s mission. 

This mini-revolution goes far beyond who gets the top jobs in Rome. It is about tackling the deeper problem that lies behind the vocation shortage: a lack of participation. And this in turn responds to the urgent need to include women’s leadership in the institutional church. 

Across many parts of the West, Catholic communities might be likened to a fire that has almost burnt out. But the fire is unlikely to start burning again if all the energy goes into lighting it from near the top. Francis’ reforms are the equivalent of trying to re-ignite the flames from the bottom by striking a match at ground level and blowing into the embers.

The Pope’s constitution to the curia can also be linked to the changes he has made to lay ministry, where he opened the roles of lector, acolyte and catechist to women and men not training to be priests. While Francis has maintained the ban on ordaining women to the priesthood, his changes mean there are new paths for women’s ministry. A second commission on the female diaconate—distinct from the presbyterate—has also been convened, although it is more likely that the question of re-instituting women deacons will come “from below” through local synods. The bottom line is that all church entities and all those involved in ministry, lay and ordained, need to serve the Church’s primary mission of evangelization. 

Yves Congar, the Dominican theologian and one of the architects of the Second Vatican Council, argued that for any ministry to exist it needs to meet three tests: it must involve something that is essential to the Church; it needs to be a stable activity that can be relied upon and finally it should be “officially authorized, possibly by a liturgical rite or by the intervention of the bishop.” 

This insight points to the need to rethink which “ministers” can lead parishes and communities and how to harness the different gifts within the entire People of God. In a recent talk to a group of Augustinians, the Pope made a startling point. Noting the sharp decline in vocations, he urged them to work with laypeople as they discern ways to continue their mission. “Let us prepare ourselves for what is going to happen,” Francis told them. “And let us give our charism, our gift, to those who can carry it forward.”

The critical question will be how the Pope’s reforms are now to be implemented. While laypeople can have governance roles, they can only do so provided ordination is not required. A laywoman is not going to be placed in charge of Vatican offices directly overseeing matters concerning the clergy. Furthermore, the code of Canon Law, which states that the laity only “participate” in governance, has not been changed—something which shows that Francis’ reforms remain a work in progress. The bigger challenge is going to be a cultural one. If the Dicastery for Bishops is led by a layperson, will that individual be able to tell a bishop the Pope wants him to resign? How would a female theologian find being the prefect of the Vatican’s doctrine office? 

Nevertheless, Francis’ reforms have deep roots in tradition and take much of their inspiration from the Early Church. They are not “managerial” changes, but radical ones based on the Gospel. N.T. Wright, the world-renowned New Testament scholar, once described the early Christian communities as “small at first, but growing” while totally different to their cultural milieu because of the “open welcome to all who found themselves grasped by the good news of Jesus.”

More than 2,000 years later, it is this vision of participation that sits as one of the foundation stones of the Franciscan reforms of the Church.


Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of  The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church. 


The Prognosis for Synodal Conversion, Reform and Renewal

The Church entered this Synodal process weak and wounded from clergy sexual abuse, revelations of racism and colonialism and fraud; massive departures from the faith in the Global North and pandemic trauma.

In this dark time, many have lost trust in the Church. Pope Francis’ call to “journey together” to bind up wounds, to stimulate trust, to renew relationships and to strengthen all for the common mission, brought light and hope. It challenged us to dream of real conversion, reform and renewal in the Church. However, many are sceptical that this process is a diversion from addressing long-identified pathological, systemic and cultural beliefs, practices and relationships. Still, those who are responding with enthusiasm see the possibility of real renewal of the Church.

As a physician, I am acutely aware of the risky business of prognosis for healing even when there is a patient who recognizes their need, a correct diagnosis, an effective prescription and a supportive community. I know the dangers and suffering of misdiagnosis for serious illness.

The Council of the Synod of Bishops has expressed “great satisfaction” with initial progress because most Episcopal Conferences have appointed someone to implement the process. However, this sets a low bar for the goal of becoming a “constitutively synodal” Church.

My diagnosis reveals serious and irreconcilable understandings of need, diagnosis, goals and support. I add challenges to the prognosis for healing.

The “fundamental synodal questions” are restricted to the experience of “journeying together” in dioceses, parishes and communities, to hopes for the future, and to identifying obstacles. Real encounter, sharing and listening are essential to overcome the culture of secrecy, silence and denial in the Church. We need to “form ourselves” in synodality.

Some bishops are not participating and denying the need. There are widely different formats ranging from questionnaires to single 3-5-hour sessions or a series of small group online sessions.

There is high control of the input, which is summarized in a 10-page and highly structured diocesan synthesis. This is followed by a second synthesis from continental national episcopal conferences culminating with a final synthesis presented to the Synod on Synodality in Rome, October 2023.

The preparatory document identifies goals including forming “a participatory and co-responsible Church” and liturgy promoting the “active participation of all the faithful.” However, key issues—identified by previous Synods and others—such as relationships between clergy and laity, the theology of priesthood, the role of women and a renewed moral and sexual theology and Christian anthropology are not explored.

Synodality is “discernment based on consensus from common obedience to the Spirit,” which recognizes that formal authority. There are serious issues of power, authority and Church organization here. In the Church, decision-making is only done by the pope, bishop or parish priest. All accountability is upward; none is to the People of God.

Pope Francis often says, “We say one thing with words but our actions and reality tell another story.” (Fratelli Tutti, 22) Assessing our reality, I diagnose some contradictions that threaten the promise of synodality and try to “read the dynamic of the culture in which we are immersed.”

The International Theological Commission has warned disparagingly that “synodality is … a linguistic novelty which needs careful theological clarification.” (2018)

The German Bishops’ Synodal Path agreed on many contentious theological and ecclesial issues needing reform. Disappointingly, Pope Francis responded to them with concerns about “false synodality.” He advised that they should discuss evangelism and not the teachings of the universal Church!

In classic misdiagnosis, German Bishop Voderholzer, a negative German participant, said the sexual abuse crisis was being “instrumentalized” by some to re-organize the Church. Research has shown that the abuse of trust, power, position and conscience in clergy sexual abuse and longstanding denial and cover-up has revealed endemic, systemic and cultural beliefs and practices that stand in contradiction to the “mind of Christ.”

Another misdiagnosis is evident in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) plan for a multimillion-dollar Eucharistic Congress focusing on the “real presence” to get people back to the practice of the faith.

The Vatican held a highly clerical February 2022 conference in Rome on the theology of priesthood organized by Cardinal Ouellet of the Congregation of Bishops. Pope Francis’ homily was a personal reflection on the gift of celibacy in the Latin Rite, not on the contested theology.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2022, Pope Francis’ message celebrated women doctors of the Church and demanded “the dignity and intrinsic worth with which the Creator endowed them be restored to all women.” If only the Church could witness to this!

The prognosis for healing depends on overcoming silence and denial in tragedy fatigue, challenges from secular culture and science, polarizing divisions, our commitment to conversion and renewal and accepting the “surprises of the Spirit.” It also depends on the life and health of our holy, visionary, and sometimes perplexing, Pope Francis.


Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.