A publication of Sacred Heart University

The Grace to Misunderstand Less

This semester at Sacred Heart, all students enrolled in the core great books seminars in the Catholic intellectual tradition will be reading a short address from Sr. Thea Bowman, which she gave to the 1987 National Congress of the Religious Formation Conference. The address presents the urgent need to decenter whiteness in religious formation, embracing the multicultural reality of Catholicism. Sr. Thea grounds this call in Christ’s own call to all people. With homiletic artfulness, she builds a litany of Jesus’ call to people from every continent, age, race and marital status.

The final movement of this call turns to those on the margins of both church and society:

“‘Only virgins of good reputation and good family were admitted.’ Now Jesus calls virgins of good repute, also victims of sexual abuse, child abuse, chemical abuse, violence and war; some who have been and perhaps are sexually, heterosexually, homosexually active, presenting the whole threat of AIDS in our formation programs; some people who are sexually preoccupied, misunderstood, misunderstanding and grieving. […] Jesus calls to the diverse, and how often they find themselves misunderstood.” (Bowman, “Cosmic Spirituality,” in Shooting Star, p. 110)

This speech, of course, is marked by the particulars of Sr. Thea’s own moment, such as the AIDS crisis, at its height in the 1980s and 90s. Yet, in rereading it, I found it to be timely in its description of a church marked by both misunderstanding and a desire to reflect the mission of Christ’s love.

There are three kinds of misunderstanding, at least, that the church must grapple with to better live out its mission. The first is a willful misunderstanding that at a certain point becomes so malicious as to warrant a stronger vocabulary—not simply misunderstanding, but a will to do harm. Read from our own point in history, Sr. Thea’s discussion of the victims of sexual abuse and child abuse takes on a terrible new significance in light of the ongoing revelations about the scope of the sexual abuse of children and adults by Catholic clergy and lay workers globally. The story of this crisis far too often continues to reflect a will to protect institutional power rather than an effort to understand and side with the pain of victims/survivors.

On a smaller scale, this malicious misunderstanding is reflected in moments like this week’s Twitter discussion after The Catholic League tweeted that Pete Buttigieg’s marriage was a “legal fiction.” Fr. Jim Martin’s factual correction to this tweet—that Mr. Buttigieg is married legally and in the eyes of his Episcopal church—was met with both torrents of homophobic abuse and theological gatekeeping about the distinctions of legal and sacramental marriage. Both kinds of response to Fr. Martin echoed a willful misunderstanding of Christ’s call to people of all sexual orientations. This type of willful misunderstanding continues to protect institutional power and norms at the cost of the diversity of the members of the body of Christ.

The second kind of misunderstanding is the tragic consequence of structures of social sin that separate us from one another. Prior to our conscious consent, we enter into scripts about the value of our bodies, our class, our culture, which some of us then internalize in ways that lead us to harm others. This is the kind of misunderstanding Sr. Thea discusses when she speaks of white formation personnel who assume the normativity of their spiritual practices without a real desire to learn from the spiritual practices of other cultures.

There is, I think, a relationship between this kind of misunderstanding and the third, which is the simple human error of not fully understanding the experience of another. These are the small misunderstandings that may be impacted by social sin but may also result from a lack of gracefully navigating human community. This kind of misunderstanding is the source of the smaller but real feelings of a lack of acceptance in spaces like parishes. During the local phase of the synod, I heard from many people who had some small interaction with their priest or a long-established parishioner that left them feeling misunderstood. While some could point to the second misunderstanding as the root cause, an exclusion born of racism or the privileging of married people, for others, it was a more intangible feeling that they had not truly been seen.

In her life and ministry, Sr. Thea undoubtedly encountered all these kinds of misunderstandings. Yet, in this address, she makes it clear that throughout all these human errors, both malicious and unintended, Jesus continues to call. This continual call is a grace—a grace that empowers us to try to misunderstand less, both as individuals and as a church. If the church does embrace synodality more fully—and what exactly that means and looks like is still being discovered—then we will presumably find more patterns for speaking and listening together. This is a small grace, perhaps, but still one that might allow us to misunderstand less and to be more ready, in Sr. Thea’s words, to hear Jesus’ call.


Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


Work We Always Should Be Doing

I recently heard a truism about adulthood: you’re always cleaning the kitchen. Kitchens are a symbol of life’s work unending. I’m not good at maintaining a pristine look to my spaces. My kitchen (or office or bedroom or car or living room…) sparkles with clutter and books. Making homemade marinara sauce leaves the place splattered with the look of a crime scene. If cleanliness is close to godliness, we can rule out chants of santo subito for me.

It should require no exhaustive list of statistics or primer in feminist theory to point out my privilege in being able to disdain the pressures of aesthetic tidiness without much risk to my reputation. Markers of my identity—the ways I perform myself can be interpreted by others into categories like maleness, whiteness, straight marriage, parenthood, American citizenship, economic stability, relative able-bodiedness—rarely come prepackaged with the correlation imposed on women between keeping house and moral virtue. That point should be banal, yet the pervasiveness of patriarchal assumptions across the Church and the Catholic intellectual tradition demand attention. Even prior to a rigorous discussion of theological anthropology or sin or magisterial teaching on sex and gender, the conditions in which Catholics think together about social life need a good scrub.

There’s a difference between saying “Go, clean my house” and “Go, rebuild my house.” Things have to become pretty messy before they can be rebuilt; all the more so if you renovate a kitchen. To rebuild requires attention to foundations and starting points. To rebuild means to gamble that this house has value worth preserving.

This is why I am so flummoxed when Catholic identity gets set up in opposition to the language of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging as if these ideas are somehow “new” to Catholic thought. Catholic communities doing DEIB work can begin by returning to the premise, derived from the deposit of faith, that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. The community takes as given that human beings possess an inestimable and beloved value. This point of faith demands action in how we organize social life. Gaudium et Spes 29 puts it well: “although rightful differences exist between [people], the equal dignity of persons demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person […].” Work for justice does not mean work for bland sameness.

But a Catholic theological position about human dignity needs also to be reasonable. Faith provides the impetus and inspiration for why Catholics need to care about inclusion. Such is quite a different starting point for confronting the structural sins of exclusion from others on offer—from materialism and class struggle, from nationalism, from the atomized sovereignty of the liberal subject, from non-Christian religious ways of knowing. Reason, however, becomes the vehicle for how we articulate and practice inclusivity in a Catholic context. Reason, as a shared capacity for understanding, explains our distinctive efforts at inclusion. Because it aspires to be reasonable, work for inclusive excellence can call on everyone to play a role, even those who militantly reject a Catholic theological starting point.

My proposal is far from modest and surely not guaranteed to solve every problem the Church currently faces in the arenas of colonialism, racism, sexism and economic inequality. But there is a need for members of the Catholic community to ground their calls for justice within awkwardly dogmatic commitments to tenets of faith. Equally true, however, is the need to show how the desire to exclude certain markers of identity makes theological errors. To be clear, hospitality puts obligations on both hosts and guests; inclusive excellence can never mean flattening diversity or the boring reign of crude relativism. But hiding behind the excuse of a “slippery slope” is not reasonable. In order to do the work of rebuilding, Catholics need to be bold in our public love of the Lord and one another.

Near the end of his book on the last things, Joseph Ratzinger writes gorgeously about the symphony of differences in the world to come: “the individual’s salvation is whole and entire only when the salvation of the cosmos and all the elect has come to full fruition. For the redeemed are not simply adjacent to each other in heaven. Rather, in their being together as the one Christ, they are heaven. In that moment, the whole creation will become song” (Ratzinger, Eschatology, 2nd. ed., 238). Our work of inclusion will never be finished; we will always be cleaning. But elevating, cherishing and increasing diversity in our midst can only help us anticipate and echo the richly textured harmony of the heavenly chorus.


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


The Fall of the Mighty

I remember the day clearly. The phone call from Oslo took me by surprise. It was the publisher of the Norwegian edition of my book Logician of the Heart, and I was especially chuffed to be published in a Scandinavian language. After all, Higgins, in Irish O hUiggín, means descendant of a Viking and I have always been much taken by this tenuous connection to the Norsemen.

I wasn’t chuffed after the phone call.

I was informed that my book was being pulped, extinguished, made a distant memory only.  Within a couple of days of receiving this desolating news I was told by Liturgical Press in Minnesota that they were doing likewise and that all catalogs listing the book were to be similarly purged. To be twice pulped in one week struck me as more than bad timing.

You see, the logician of the title was Jean Vanier, the now disgraced spiritual genius whose fall from the heights of honor was traumatic for countless people. The co-founder of L’Arche—a movement for the intellectually challenged—and a spiritual counselor and writer for multitudes, Vanier was an eminence with few equals in both the Catholic world and beyond with every possible dignity bestowed on him by pontiffs, prime ministers, presidents and monarchs. Shortly after his death, Vanier was discovered to have been in a series of relationships with women that were judged to be not only morally inappropriate but abusive.

His halo was expunged, and it is no exaggeration to say that millions were disillusioned—if not devastated. For those of us who were Vanier biographers, it was a grim time with the media. How could all of us have missed his sexually exploitative behavior? Easy enough, when there is neither a public record nor a private correspondence to suggest such behavior, when no one came forward with allegations until shortly before his death and when an international investigation into the accusations of the five complainants was conducted entirely sub secreto, until, in other words, the damage surfaced into the light.

The bravery of these women is extraordinary given Vanier’s exalted status.

But Vanier is only one of many spiritual and artistic luminaries in the last few years whose time of reckoning has come. David Haas, the popular composer of liturgical music, is the subject of numerous civil suits for serial predation, has conceded that his behavior with scores of young women was reprehensible and has seen his music delisted by his publisher and banned from performance in numerous churches and dioceses.

Now, the case of the Slovenian artist, mosaicist and Jesuit spiritual director, Marko Rupnik has the Catholic universe in turmoil. Rupnik has been accused of the spiritual and sexual abuse of many women who belong to a religious body he is associated with called the Loyola Community. The Society of Jesus has imposed penalties, and the Vatican has both excommunicated him and subsequently lifted the excommunication; the authorities have restricted his priestly activities and censured his behavior in strong canonical terms, but in the end appear to have done all of this in a cloud of opacity. Numerous Catholic outlets, many of an obscurantist and anti-Pope Francis disposition like The Pillar, The National Catholic Register and Catholic World Report, were quick in moving on the unfolding scandal of Rupnik’s behavior, Rome’s perceived tardiness and what many have judged to be cumbersome Jesuit media footwork.

Rupnik’s work—individual or through his artistic collective the Centro Aletti—is to be found all over the world, including in Portugal, Italy and the United States. In fact, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Sacred Heart University has his artistically inventive rendering of the Harrowing of Hell that has generated wide admiration in both professional and devotional circles.

Like that other great Catholic artist, Eric Gill, whose masterfully conceived and executed sacred and secular sculptures are to be found throughout Great Britain, and whose incestuous and pedophiliac exploits shocked the world when revealed in 1989, appreciation of Rupnik’s art is now seriously compromised by his nefarious behavior.

In the end, although this is not likely to be the end, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the Vanier, Haas and Rupnik scandals. Although it is understandable that a process of erasure and indictment has its psychological and political rationale, to decimate the legacy entirely does disproportionate damage. To lose access to the writings of Vanier, in particular his seminal Becoming Human, is to compound the tragedy. A moral blitzkrieg has collateral pain.

What we have learned from all these instances is that the explosive combination of spiritual and erotic intimacy should be seen for what it is—manipulative predation—rather than how it is rationalized by the moral culprits as a special innocence, an entitled relationship. The deep pathology that runs through centuries of Catholic teaching on sexuality—a pathology marked by a deep fear of sexual pleasure with its body-versus-spirit dualism—needs to be recognized for its destructive potential. And the aftershocks of patriarchy reverberate throughout all of society. It’s time for a new and healthier anthropology.


Michael Higgins is a distinguished professor emeritus at Sacred Heart University and Basilian distinguished professor of contemporary Catholic thought, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.


Honor Benedict XVI by Reforming the Office of Emeritus Pope

As the church mourns the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and debates his complex legacy as a theologian and administrator, I want to focus this column on the part of his legacy that historians will still mention in the same breath as Benedict’s name centuries from now: his resignation.

Benedict, as we well know, was the first pope to resign voluntarily in more than 700 years, doubtless setting the stage for future popes to resign. John Paul II’s gradual decline raised major questions about what should happen when a pope becomes too ill to govern. Although John Paul’s answer—“[Jesus] did not come down from the cross”—was a moving testimony to his commitment to serve the Church, it could not stop the inevitable jockeying for power that happens any time a leader is incapacitated. Benedict saw this firsthand and, recognizing his own limitations, set a new precedent.

Yet Benedict’s emeritus papacy was not the quiet withdrawal from public life he had envisioned. As his health declined (he has, for years, been unable to hold a conversation without someone, usually his secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, “translating” his faint speech), people seeking to undermine Benedict’s successor swooped in to use the retired pope’s name to bolster their own messages. One notable example: In early 2020, Cardinal Robert Sarah claimed to have co-written a book with Benedict on priestly celibacy, opposing the ordination of married men that had been proposed by the bishops of the pan-Amazon synod. At the time, Pope Francis was still in the process of drafting his response, Querida Amazonia. This exhortation closed the door on a universal change in the clerical celibacy rule but left the door open for the Amazonian bishops to form a regional episcopal conference and to re-present the proposal in a way that would limit it to their region. The Sarah-Benedict book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, was interpreted as a thinly veiled effort to influence Francis’ decision on the matter.

Just before the book’s publication, however, Benedict requested, via Archbishop Gänswein, to have his name removed from the book, saying he had not agreed to co-author it and that he had simply provided Cardinal Sarah with a brief text on celibacy to use as he liked. The book’s American publisher, Ignatius Press, refused to remove the pope emeritus’ name from the first edition, in defiance of his request.

How did such a spectacular failure in communication come about? Similar questions have been raised over other post-papacy writings of Benedict. His 2019 letter blaming clerical sexual abuse on the sexual revolution of the 1960s included a bizarre claim that pornographic films being shown on airplanes had led to an outbreak of violence among passengers, which Benedict indicated was a sign of society’s “mental collapse.” In his early 2021 testimony to Munich abuse investigators, he claimed in defiance of documented meeting notes that he had not been part of a 1980 meeting where the case of a pedophile priest had been discussed. Reporters raised questions about the authorship of both texts and ultimately corrected the Munich testimony, conceding that the pope emeritus had not prepared the 82-page testimony himself.

That these examples occurred later in Benedict’s retirement as he grew frailer raises the question of how to prevent even retired popes from being taken advantage of as they age. It seems likely that, following the death of the pope emeritus, Pope Francis will want to place some guardrails on the office of emeritus pope, beginning first and foremost with its title: Experts I interviewed for a podcast earlier this year agreed that Francis would prefer the title “emeritus bishop of Rome,” to do away once and for all with the now Netflix-famous “two popes” narrative.

My sources raised other possibilities for reform, among them, limiting the public writings of the retired pope. I would argue this needs to include giving the Vatican’s communications dicastery control over disseminating the retired pope’s public comments; this was a point of tension each time some new statement came from Benedict’s office during his retirement. Other suggested reforms include having the pope emeritus return to wearing his cardinal’s attire or monastic garb rather than papal white, as previous retired popes before Benedict had done.

Pope Francis recently revealed that he had signed his own letter of resignation back in 2013, to be used if he ever became too ill to govern the church. He pointed to past popes who had done the same. Despite these personal decisions, though, there are currently no guidelines for how to handle a pope becoming too ill to govern, much less, as Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, has pointed out repeatedly since the 1990s, how to handle questions of a pope being on life support. And there are certainly no guidelines around the only recently reopened office of retired pope. As people live longer and medical interventions become more advanced, these questions grow more and more pressing, and they should be answered during the current papacy.

If the church is to honor the most important part of Benedict’s legacy—his humble and historic decision to resign—then it should look to Benedict’s post-papacy for lessons on how to protect retired popes from manipulation and properly incorporate their service to the church, whatever form it may take, in their final years.


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.


Death of a Pope, a Pope Emeritus

This article was published in The Globe and Mail on December 31.

It is not surprising that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – the former cardinal born Joseph Ratzinger who passed away on Saturday at the age of 95—has requested to be buried where St. John Paul II was interred in the Vatican. Although the two were unlike in temperament and aesthetic sensibility—Karol Wojtyla’s preference was for rousing Slavic folksongs, whereas Cardinal Ratzinger relished a Mozart piano concerto—they both worked in tandem to address a world they saw enmired in dangerous thinking, doctrinally unmoored, spiritually adrift.

No surprise, then, that John Paul II chose Cardinal Ratzinger as his papacy’s theological heavyweight, plucking him from the Archdiocese of Munich in 1981 and bringing him to Rome as prefect to run the Suprema (then known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), the Vatican department that ensures orthodoxy. An accomplished theologian with an impressive pedigree, Cardinal Ratzinger did not hesitate to enforce on the ground what John Paul II vigorously proclaimed on his universal platform. Whereas John Paul’s vision was epic in scope and dramatic in style, as befits an actor and poet, his number two’s approach was meticulous, specific, forensic.

The cardinal didn’t hesitate to admonish Catholic thinkers he felt were wayward, prone to celebrity, insufficient in their love for the church and reckless in disturbing the faithful. As a consequence, many of the most fertile and engaged theological minds in Catholicism were censored, silenced or expelled from religious life. Neither the pontiff nor his prefect would have seen this as a purge; rather, they saw this as the “righting” of Peter’s barque after the turbulence of modernity and the perceived flabbiness of institutional governance that followed the Second Vatican Council, between 1962 and 1965.

In many areas of Catholic thought, they were of similar mind and worked conjointly. Few, however, envisioned that the German prelate would succeed the Polish pontiff when he died in 2005. But if the cardinal electors wanted continuity at all costs, the choice was obvious: Cardinal Ratzinger knew the mind of John Paul II better than anyone else in the Vatican.

Appropriately, given the cardinal’s abhorrence of Western civilization’s drift from religious authority, he chose the name Benedict, after the great monastic thinker and founder who helped shape the future of Christianity out of the ruins of empire and the assaults of barbarism. And like his predecessor Benedict XV, whose papacy spanned the First World War, he would rebuild Christian Europe out of the universal carnage.

But almost from the outset, the new pope was embroiled in controversy. His address to an academic audience at the University of Regensburg whipped up an international storm resulting in estrangement from the Muslim community (although he was able to go some way to repairing the damage). He bungled his attempts at rapprochement with a schismatic group, the Society of St. Pius X, when he re-admitted various dissenting figures without appropriate scrutiny, failing to excise a notorious antisemite from their number. The Vati-Leaks scandal broke, implicating the Vatican in all kinds of sexual chicanery and venality. The German episcopate relentlessly opposed his leadership. And the clerical sex abuse scandal, with its endless disclosures of leadership complicity, worsened while he was pope.

But there were high points as well, including his remarkable trip to Great Britain when he beatified the Victorian thinker John Henry Newman, spoke at Westminster Abbey, drank orange Fanta with Queen Elizabeth, and surprised this most secular of countries with his charm and intelligence. (His public speeches were typically deadly in their lack of theatre and emotion but remarkable in their intellectual architecture.) A scholar’s scholar, he also produced a handful of uniformly penetrative encyclicals.

Indeed, Benedict XVI remained the old-school academic. Although the quality of his work was variable, books such as Introduction to Christianity and Principles of Catholic Theology are classics in their field. Throughout his life he was a major shaper of Catholic thought, a definer of the Catholic sensibility.

David Gibson, a sympathetic but critical biographer, rightly notes that “he was a pontiff who wanted to be a bridge but he wound up as a wedge.” I believe that this, ultimately, was the principal reason behind Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation in 2013. He was certainly tired, as he said, his energy sapped by factionalism in the Vatican, his health fragile, his leadership diminished. But he also knew that the pontifex maximus had become an obstacle.

That was his first exit, when he became Pope Emeritus. And now we have his second. Requiescat in pace.


Michael Higgins is a distinguished professor emeritus at Sacred Heart University and Basilian distinguished professor of contemporary Catholic thought, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.


Quo Vadis

According to a famous legend, St. Peter, fleeing the certainty of persecution, was heading away from Rome on the Appian Way when he encountered the Risen Christ, traveling in the opposite direction. “Quo vadis—where are you going?” he asked the Lord, who replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” This encounter apparently restored Peter’s faith and courage, inspiring him to turn about and proceed toward Rome to face his own martyrdom.

I thought of this story last month when I was invited to be part of a panel of contributors to this blog for a webinar entitled, “Quo Vadis: Where is U.S. Catholicism Going?” That question was open to many different approaches. For me, it brought to mind the story of St. Peter. I imagined that the question could be translated as such: “Is U.S. Catholicism, in the person of its shepherds, pursuing the way of Jesus, or is its direction determined more by interests of self-preservation, security and what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”?

That question has a particular poignancy as we draw close to the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election. It is worth recalling the extraordinary “quo vadis” challenge he delivered in his short speech before the conclave of 2013 that concluded with his election. There, he said, first of all, that evangelization presupposes a desire in the church to come out of itself: to go to the peripheries—not just geographical but existential. Secondly, he said that a church that does not do this becomes “self-referential” and sick. He described this as a kind of ecclesial narcissism. Succumbing to such spiritual worldliness, he said, “is the worst evil that can befall the church.” Simplifying, he said, “there are two images of the Church: either the evangelizing church that comes out of herself … or the worldly church that lives in herself, of herself, for herself.”

His words apparently electrified his audience. And clearly they provided a succinct agenda for the pastoral and evangelical mission he has pursued over the past 10 years. And yet, on the whole, one feels that in the case of the American bishops, they heard these words, and decided to proceed on in the direction they preferred. They have largely ignored his emphasis on integral ecology, his critique of “an economy that kills,” his pleas to avoid single-issue politics and divisive culture-war wedge issues. A certain number have insinuated that he is, if not in error, then a kind of nuisance, that his priorities are discretionary, irrelevant to their own priorities and not to be taken seriously.

In 2020, many of them were among the 600 bishops and other Catholic leaders on a conference call with President Trump, thanking him for his support for the pro-life cause, religious freedom and parochial schools. And when Trump declared himself “the best president in the history of American Catholicism,” not one of them uttered a word of protest. Nor did any of them, during those four years, charge him (as the president of the USCCB would do on the very inauguration day of President Biden), with pursuing policies that would “advance moral evils.”

Within days of our “Quo Vadis” panel, the U.S. bishops met for their annual assembly to elect new leadership. Preceding that vote Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio, addressed the bishops in words that offered an uncanny echo of my own remarks. He began, in fact, by reminding the bishops of the very same speech by Cardinal Bergoglio to the conclave of 2013 about the two images of the church—an evangelizing church or a self-referential “sick” church. He went on to offer a resume of some of Pope Francis’ characteristic themes: the church as a “field hospital” with the ability to “heal wounds and reignite the hearts of the faithful”; the emphasis on mercy; the call for a “poor church for the poor,” willing to “go forth from its comfort zone”; a church that embraces the Pope’s vision of “integral ecology” and care for our common home.

Archbishop Pierre concluded his speech by referring to the synodal path, which involves “listening, understanding and patience,” and which demands “dialogue in a concrete and respectful way.” He noted that much of the division in our country “and even in the church,” comes from the fact that “we have forgotten how to be with one another and to speak with one another.” Finally, he evinced the hope that “our common discernment” might lead to a faith-filled answer to the question: “’Where are we?’ and more importantly to the question, ‘Where are we going?’”

And so quo vadis? This was in effect the question that Pope Francis, through his representative, was posing to the U.S. bishops. Their answer followed promptly in the election of a new president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese of the Military Services, reputed to be the most distant from the vision of Pope Francis among the possible candidates.

And so the question on the Appian Way lingers: Where are we going?


Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books and a daily contributor to Give Us This Day. His most recent book (with Sister Wendy Beckett) is Dearest Sister Wendy… A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.


Fr. Marko Rupnik’s Case Tests Church’s Anti-Abuse Measures

The case of Marko Rupnik, a high-profile Jesuit priest and artist, threatens the legacy that Pope Francis has built when it comes to tackling the scourge of clerical sexual abuse.

Rupnik has been accused of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse against consecrated women. Fr Arturo Sosa, the superior of the Jesuit order to which the Pope belongs, told reporters that Rupnik was temporarily excommunicated in 2019 after he absolved a woman who he had been sexually involved with—one of the most serious Church crimes and forms of spiritual abuse. In 2021, a separate complaint was made against Rupnik but was not pursued due to the statute of limitations expiring. Both the excommunication and the decision not to prosecute were handled by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Following the excommunication, the Jesuits placed Rupnik under restrictions, banning him from hearing confessions and offering spiritual directions. 

But the Slovenian Jesuit had influence and connections, including inside the doctrine dicastery. He has been a hugely popular Church artist whose mosaics decorate the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Vatican’s apostolic palace, the basilica in Lourdes, France and the St John Paul II shrine in Washington, D.C. At this blog’s own institution, Sacred Heart University, he designed the mosaic in the chapel. He recently designed the logo for the 2022 Vatican’s World Meeting of Families.

All this means that how his case was handled is a stress test for the Church’s anti-abuse measures. Three things need to be looked at. 

The first is the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of two offices in the Church’s central government that are on the front line of tackling abuse. The dicastery prosecutes cases of clerics accused of abuse but is far from transparent in how it goes about its work. In the case of Rupnik, the dicastery has remained silent on why he was not prosecuted, given that there have been plenty of times when the statute of limitations has been waived. What role did Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, the former secretary at the dicastery, play in the case? Archbishop Morandi was reportedly close to Rupnik and lived in the same Jesuit community as Rupnik. While the Jesuits have revealed what they knew about the case, the doctrine office’s silence is wrong and harmful. 

The second is the Pope’s commission for the protection of minors, which should act as the equivalent of a diocesan safeguarding office inside the Holy See. Under the reforms of the Roman Curia, it has been placed within the structure of the doctrine dicastery. Some question the wisdom of this given the need for an independent body inside the Vatican to ensure safeguarding standards are being met. The Pope has also insisted that the commission remains independent. But three former commission members, including Baroness Sheila Hollins, have now gone public voicing their concern about the commission’s strategy and leadership. They are worried that the commission is drifting from its core purpose of ensuring best practices are followed in safeguarding. The commission insists that it does not comment on individual cases. Still, it is in danger of being seen as missing in action during the latest phase of the abuse crisis, now squarely on how the hierarchy handles cases. 

Thirdly is a need for the Church to be more proactive when it comes to allegations of abuse of adults, particularly religious women. While the Rupnik case did not involve minors, it involved “#metoo” abuse that had a grave spiritual dimension. If the Jesuits had explained that Rupnik had been placed under specific measures and put the information into the public domain, it would have prevented the scandal from erupting. Given the seriousness of absolving an accomplice in the confessional, Rupnik also seems to have been treated leniently, suggesting that what took place could be excused as taking place between consenting adults. While Canon Law has expanded the definition of abuse to include “vulnerable adults,” abuse of power between adults must be better recognized. 

Finally, this case points to the growing weaponization of abuse for ecclesial-political purposes. Notably, highly sensitive details about the Rupnik matter were leaked to at least two online publications hostile to the Francis pontificate. The leaking of this material could only have come from the inside with the ultimate goal of trying to damage the Pope. It points to the deep resistance to Francis from inside the Church. There are likely other Rupnik cases, but they may not suit the anti-Francis agenda, so they will likely stay under the radar. 

In this highly charged atmosphere, it is vital to ensure all cases of abuse are handled in a rigorous, independent and proactive manner. 


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


“We Were Made for Love”

At the Festival of Social Doctrine, whose theme was, “Building Trust: the beauty of encounter,” Pope Francis addressed the audience with this message:

“We were made for love … Encounter must become our greatest desire, our goal to be pursued tenaciously, because a human being is made in such a way that it is not fulfilled, does not develop and cannot find its fullness except through a sincere gift of self." This is the gift of love.

Advent is the season when Christians await this moment of incredible and extraordinary love: we believe that God’s gift of self, out of pure love for us, is his only Son, Jesus the Christ. For Christians, it is in the mystery of the Incarnation that we find meaning and value that are integral to our human dignity. We know we are all created in the image of God—our Imago Dei. This creative act of love endows us all with inviolable dignity. It is during these four weeks that we reflect—each week with hope, faith and joy—on the belief that out of an act of unfathomable love, God loved us into being and then gave to our broken world and fractured selves Jesus the Christ, to be our Savior to dispel the darkness of our calamitous times. Jesus the Christ took human form to live in the human condition to restore us to love—what an astonishing thought. “We were made for love.” This is our ongoing salvation.

The recent working document from the General Secretariat of the Synod, “Enlarge the space of your tent” seems to offer a message that resonates with the Pope’s call for love and encounter, and with the meaning of Advent—that we were made for love. From a synodal journey of encounter, here are two messages from parishes that reflect the sensus fidei: “The dream is of a Church that more fully lives a Christological paradox: boldly proclaiming its authentic teaching while at the same time offering a witness of radical inclusion and acceptance through its pastoral and discerning accompaniment” (EC England and Wales). “Instead of behaving like gatekeepers trying to exclude others from the table, we need to do more to make sure that people know that everyone can find a place and a home here” (remark by a parish group from the USA). The first quotation calls for the tricky balance that must be made between “authentic teaching” and “radical inclusion,” yet both messages call for welcome and acceptance. Both statements call for the love for which we were all made.

In the arc of God’s promise to create a space for community, this synod report tells us that the people of God are asking for greater consideration for divorced and remarried Catholics, for women’s ordination and in general for women’s roles within the Church, for the LGBTQ+ community and for healing from the horror of the sex abuse crisis. This journey of the Synod promises to be long and challenging, but the hope is that it seeks a larger tent of radical inclusion, reaching to the margins with listening and welcoming, fostering encounter with trust, recognition and respect. This seems to be a call for the love for which we were made.

Yet, about the same time that the report “Enlarge the space of your tent” was published, we read another report: at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall meeting, the already divided and mistrusted body of bishops chose a candidate who seems more in line with polarization, discord and division and less in favor of creating the welcoming Church expressed in the synodal report. There seems to be a disconnect between what we might hope for from the synodal report and what we see in the decisions of the USCCB.

My students experience a similar disconnect with the Church. One LGBTQ student said to me, “It doesn’t match up—the love you say that Jesus brings in the Gospel and what the Church says to us.” This student’s remarks resonate with what so many of my students (straight and LGBTQ) want: a church where they feel welcome and accepted. Yet, they do not always experience that sense of belonging.

Now, another disconnect occurs between the hope engendered by the first synod report and what we heard in a recent interview where Pope Francis explained why women cannot be ordained as priests. He gives us the theory of the Petrine Principle (the keys went to Peter), and he offers women the Marian Principle (to be a spouse) and the administrative way (to manage and organize for the Church). How does this statement match up with what has been reported about the call for women’s ordination and the role of women in the Church in “Enlarge the space of your tent?” How will this statement affect the general extended synodal encounter and dialogue—which must be based upon trust? Will the tent be widened? How will the tent balance “authentic teaching” with “radical inclusion”? How will the ineffable love of the Incarnation, for which we were made, and which is the essence of our Church, be enfleshed in this enlarged tent?


Michelle Loris is the chair of the Catholic studies department and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.


“Unlike Any Mass I’ve Ever Attended”

I intend this post as a further contribution to June-Ann Greeley’s discussion last week about many young Catholics’ disengagement from Mass. I agree with Greeley’s diagnosis of a generational lack of theological and liturgical formation that “has resulted in generational apathy or dismissiveness about an entity and a system about which they know little and, as a result, care not at all.”

In dialogue with Popes Benedict and Francis, Greeley calls for “an intentional redirection of generations toward the liturgy that (among other attainments) connects the sacred with the profane, the divine with the mortal, the substantial with the incorporeal.”

My reflections go in a different but complementary direction. Sure, young people can find depths to plumb in the rich sacramentalism of the Catholic liturgy with the help of effective formation. But young Catholics are also looking for something else. They are looking for the same things most people are looking for if they visit a church, decide to join a church, or are simply going to feel motivated enough to get up on Sunday morning:

Welcome and acceptance. Connection to community. Emotional engagement. Social relevance. Support in facing the problems of everyday life.

My list is backed up by Commonweal’s infographics about contemporary American parishes, which lists the top factors that attract people to a parish: its open, welcoming spirit (68%), the sense of feeling you belong there (64%) the quality of the preaching (62%) and liturgy (60%).

Like my colleague June-Ann, my list is also informed by teaching theology to undergraduates. I recently had an experience with my students that enriched my appreciation of why they feel disconnected from typical Catholic worship and what they are looking for instead.

For my course “Black Theology and Ethics,” I arranged for students to join me at Sunday worship at a Baptist church that is almost entirely African American in its membership. While several students in the class seemed interested, the “getting up on Sunday morning” thing was an obstacle for some. Three intrepid women took up my offer, and we had a terrific time, followed by brunch at a diner afterward (which is an undervalued element of church culture that could perhaps attract some young people!).

Black church services and other energetic Protestant services are no longer new experiences for me, although I didn’t have such experiences until after my college years. The Black Baptist service was a new experience for my three students, all of whom remarked—as captured in the title of this post—that they have never experienced anything like it in a Catholic church.

And that was a good thing: they all found the worship service energetic, engaging and “not boring,” even though it ran to an hour and a half in length, with the sermon lasting half an hour.

Yet it wasn’t merely the energy of the gospel band and the other upbeat elements of Black church worship that made them like the service. Certainly, these were among their reasons, but the things they really appreciated are deeper and more significant. To quote my students:

“It brought me so much joy to see how excited people were to welcome new people to their church.”

“It was very apparent that the pastor put a great deal of effort into preparing his sermon so that it would relate Bible teachings to problems in our society today; by doing so, his words resonate with people on a personal level.”

“The pastor was very interactive with the churchgoers, unlike the churches I normally go to, where they don’t really talk with you but more at you.”

The first quote refers to the tremendous welcoming spirit we received throughout our visit. Several ushers greeted us when we entered; the whole congregation sang to us at the start of the passing of the peace; many congregants came over to shake our hands and welcome us.

My students were impressed by the relatable sermon. The pastor connected the themes of Psalm 78 to the everyday struggles of people in the pews. He assured them that Jesus was walking with them in these struggles. He drew upon the historical struggles and the strong faith traditions of Black Christians and of the African diaspora. At one point, he chided the Christian community when it hypocritically fails to support single parents. My students appreciated this honesty and inclusiveness, for they each know people who have had children out of wedlock and see that these women need support, not ostracism.

These reactions are widely confirmed by conversations I’ve had with the rest of the students in this class and in others. But what these three students could see and articulate better—by having a concrete experience to compare to their attendance at Catholic Masses—is what they positively value in a church experience.

A Mass that would hook them doesn’t need to have gospel music. It does need to speak to their lives and daily challenges. It does need to genuinely, joyfully welcome them. It does need to speak to their hopes and dreams for a better world.


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


Building a Relationship

“Liturgy implies a real relationship with Another…” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 36)

This blog space is not unfamiliar with commentaries about the hard reality of Catholic churches and Catholic schools (including seminaries) emptying and finally closing, and of younger generations walking out of and away from the Church—or rejecting the Church and their families’ Catholic faith altogether. It does seem that many of the younger generations are indifferent to the particularities and peculiarities within the Church that the older “we” (especially those of us in the academy) energetically discuss and debate: the appropriate language and expression of the Mass, insights into Vatican and other ecclesial personalities or even the demarcations between “traditional” or “progressive” Catholicism. Such are concerns for individuals who, usually, have the long vantage point of history and/or are well-schooled in Catholicism, its rich theology and symbology. Yet such debates—as those of us teaching young people realize—have no compelling interest to most of the younger generation(s). They not only lack that historical perspective but, if class discussions are any indication, they do not even understand much of the core of Catholic Christianity, especially its basics: the Mass, the Eucharist, the sacred liturgy. The absence of a richly detailed and thorough theological formation, even in the basics, has resulted in generational apathy or dismissiveness about an entity and a system about which they know little and, as a result, care not at all.

The reality of that condition of generational unfamiliarity seems to have been the inspiration—at least partly—for Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter “Desiderio desideravi,” released on June 29 of this year. In brief, it is a clarion call for the liturgical (re?) formation of contemporary Catholics, especially but not only the young, in the fond hope that a constructive education of the Catholic faith and its essential practices might persuade Catholic youth (but also the general Catholic diaspora) to find a way back to the Church. Some of the letter is, indeed, a valid reprimand to those who persist in their resistance to the liturgical decisions of Vatican II, but, again, that is for those who know the history of the debate and is not really an engagement with absent Catholic youth. I prefer to focus on what I perceive to be the Pope’s overarching message in the letter: that a more intentional restoration of the sacred liturgy to its central place in the life of Catholicism, and a serious recovery of informed instruction about so essential a dimension of Catholic religious life, might inspire in the lost generations reconsideration of their devotional/religious paths, perhaps leading them back to the Church.

In the letter, Pope Francis laments that the sacred liturgy has seemed to diminish increasingly in interest and significance for each successive generation since Vatican II, or has been manipulated by “ideological vision”:

I simply want to invite the whole Church to rediscover, to safeguard and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration. I want the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church not to be spoiled by a superficial and foreshortened understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its being exploited in service of some ideological vision, no matter what the hue... (Francis, Desiderio Desideravi,16).

Pope Francis beseeches us to move beyond the politicizing and weaponizing of the faith(ful) (the “ideological vision”) and recognize that, before anyone can “choose a side,” they must fully understand the matter at hand: it is not a matter of ideology, it is partially a function of education. How many of us have heard students (family members, friends) assert that there is no need to attend Mass, they can “experience God” in the safety and comfort of their personally designated space? Of course, private and individual devotion has always been a rich aspect of Catholic spirituality, yet the blithe dismissal of the Mass (a more communal, less subjective and more abstracted spiritual encounter) reveals a distressing lack of understanding about the liturgy and about sacramental praxis in the life of Catholicism. The liturgy creates a sacred space wherein the faithful can encounter in real time the Living Christ. It is universal and timeless and not hampered by specificity of people and place: as Benedict XVI (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote, the liturgy

… is the worship of an open heaven. It is never just an event organized by a particular group or set of people or even by a particular local Church. Mankind’s movement toward Christ meets Christ’s movement toward men… [In the liturgy] everything … comes together: the horizontal and the vertical, the uniqueness of God and the unity of mankind… (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 63).

The Church cannot be “rebuilt” without an intentional redirection of generations toward the liturgy that (among other attainments) connects the sacred with the profane, the divine with the mortal, the substantial with the incorporeal. As Benedict XVI explains, the lack of particularity and subjectivity of the sacred liturgy raises it from a simple service of human devotion to the realm of mystical encounter.

Yet, there is a more troubling wrinkle to the need for theological formation and existential engagement, one that Pope Francis identifies that might be familiar to many of us:

…the challenge is extremely demanding because modern people—not in all cultures to the same degree—have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act… (27).

Pope Francis is addressing the pervasive cynicism of post-modern thought that has resigned people to live with a “fragmentation” that makes it “impossible” for them to appreciate symbolic action, the broad and deep “horizon of meaning” inherent in the human condition. While his claims might be somewhat controversial, I think Pope Francis has a point. There does seem an inability to experience awe and wonder (so overwhelmed are we by dread and anxiety) and a desire to resist layers of meaning and depth of interpretation. Thus, the matter of liturgical formation is not simply a matter of language or stylization but of how to share meaningfully so metaphysical and unequivocal a concept so that it may be experienced. What is necessary, then, is a new approach to theological formation for a new generation, that they might be able to understand and then enter into the timeless encounter of mystical sacredness. That must be one of the essential “building blocks” in the rebuilding of the Church.


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