A publication of Sacred Heart University

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Embodying Church Reform: A Tale of Two Documents

Imagine a sower going out to sow …’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Being Church in a Time of Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Catholics and Cancel Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Uncertainty Searching for Certainty

How many times do we hear that this period of pandemic brings us face to face with incomprehensible uncertainties? We yearn for a “normal,” yet our “new normal” continues to be imbedded in uncertainty. So Catholics might take comfort in that July 2020 marks 150 years since the promulgation of the dogma on Papal infallibility; hence profound certainty for many: the Pope can declare infallible truth. Although the dogma involves uncertainty (when and under what circumstances infallibility comes into play), nonetheless, this is a dogma of certainty and certainty is what many crave at this moment. Even pious Catholics yearn for the certainty of physical consumption of the Eucharist rather than a livestreamed eucharistic celebration with Spiritual Communion. Certainty is a highly valued commodity in a time of uncertainty.

But this time of uncertainty is teaching us valuable lessons. An important one contradicts our yearning for certainty. COVID reminds us that we are truly frail beings. Some of us may live an illusion of comfort and security, but ultimately, uncertainty is what defines our lives. Illness, disability, death inform  everyone’s life. Even more significantly, uncertainty dwells at the core of our faith. It is because “we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12) that we believe rather than know; we have faith—not science. Because of our faith, we recognize that we only bear the “firstfruits” and so “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption” (Romans: 23). We do not live in the end times, but we are an eschatological people: we wait in uncertainty of the end, while in hope of the coming glory.

 And we wait—in uncertainty. Yet this isn’t to be decried. St. Paul says: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Uncertainty is a manifestation of our weakness and frailty. It’s a space to learn the divine presence in us and for us. The ascetics have consistently taught that recognizing our frailty is to admit our complete dependence on the Spirit. Could this be the time to recognize our need for God, to surrender the mirage of control we have created in our lives and in the Church? Don’t we desperately need to recognize that we’re on the way to glory, not there already? And doesn’t that mean that we need to rediscover the Spirit moving within us, through whom we can come to truth, not with certainty but with patient anticipation? Are we able to recreate a Church that rests in anticipation, rather than certainty?

For too long we have succumbed to the temptation of certainty. Yet, the experience of not knowing, being unsure, is what opens us to God’s gift of Love: A Love that calls forth love. Love is always tenuous, uncertain, yet real. COVID is a reminder that, as we rush to our churches, rush to receive the Eucharist, we dare not ignore the man on the side of the road, left for dead. In wanting to proclaim the Gospel, we dare not forget that we have no greater claim on the truth than others. In rebuilding our Church, let’s remember that we are sinners, even though called to holiness. Whether we are traditionalists, conservatives, liberals or progressives, bishops, priests, religious or lay people, if we discard our penchant for speaking with certainty, we will hear each other more clearly and recognize we share the same Spirit. If we can embrace our frailty, we’ll be able to rejoice in gifts that the Spirit hosts in us. We can allow ourselves and others to journey in hope, sometimes journeying well, sometimes not so well, but always moving toward the Light. Nobody has all the answers; nobody possesses the Truth. He is the Truth and His Church is built on the one who three times denied Him! So, let’s remember the words cited by Pope John XXIII in Ad Petri cathedram: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” And as Paul said: “the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor. 13:13).


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


Twilight of the Idols

It has been an iconoclastic summer in the U.S. and across the world, particularly societies such as Britain that once commanded racist empires and still benefit from that fact. Statues honoring historical figures – Confederate generals, U.S. presidents, Christopher Columbus, to name but a few – have been brought down both by groups of protesters and voluntarily by local governments. Sports team names have come up for reconsideration. This iconoclasm has extended to the Church, particularly as figures such as St. Junipero Serra, whose accomplishments spanned church and state, have come under rightful criticism for promoting racist ideas and practices. How are we to interpret these events? Are they a victory for social justice or “cancel culture” run amok?

Such conversations often benefit from proper distinctions. My teacher, the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, has drawn a very useful distinction between what he calls the idol and the icon. The idol, for Marion, is something that is venerated out of proportion with what it is, and thus violates the Biblical commandment against worship of graven images over and against God. The icon, meanwhile, leads us through itself to a true worship of God – it communicates something that it is not. Thus, an image or statue in a church is not idolatrous for Catholicism because it sacramentally helps bring us to the divine through matter.

How does this distinction help us through our present predicament?  Clearly, some figures venerated by statuary have no business being honored as they portray symbols of hate – these are inevitably idolatrous rather than iconographic. Confederate generals, regardless of whatever personal qualities they may have possessed, took up arms against the United States in a war waged with the continuance of slavery as its goal. Their names and images should not be honored anywhere in our nation. Other figures from United States history, such as the “Founding Fathers,” are in a more ambiguous position. Many were slaveholders, though the ideals they expressed in founding the United States – while expressing personal hypocrisy – ultimately led to the undoing of slavery as an institution. In other cases, such as the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has been removed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the blatant racism of the particular image overshadows the question of whether the historical figure ought to be honored.

This brings us, then, to the intersection of this discourse around statues and images and Catholicism. While the United States was founded as a Protestant nation and Catholics (particularly recent immigrants) remain “other” to aspects of our national identity (though certainly not to power and its abuses), a number of Catholics have been publicly honored with such statues. Most notably, images of Christopher Columbus (not a saint but a symbol for many Italian-American Catholics), St. Junipero Serra, and St. Louis IX of France (namesake of the city) have become increasingly controversial. This criticism and at times destruction (such as the statue of Columbus that was thrown into Baltimore’s harbor) have been met by some Catholics with defensive cries that such attacks are anti-Catholic. In St. Louis particularly, some Catholics put on pious displays positioning the French king as a great patron of Western civilization and downplaying any controversies around his actions toward French Jews.

What, we must ask, are we venerating when we honor historical figures such as this? In the case of saints such as Serra and Louis IX, we must consider in particular how our honoring of them as saints might differ from honoring them in the public square as part of a kind of “civil religion” in a pluralist democracy. Saints were not perfect people; indeed, we ought to hope they were not if our own aspirations to sainthood have any hopes of being realized. Their veneration even within the Church changes over time; saints are routinely moved on and off the calendar precisely because the relevance of their veneration to the faithful has changed. Before we become defensive about their images, then, much less those of figures such as Columbus, we ought to ask why we are doing so and in support of what goal.

Catholics, then, need not be afraid of this twilight of the idols. While there are surely historical precedents of protest movements becoming excessive, we are not at that place right now; our nation is still too far from collectively admitting that black lives matter to argue that protesters have achieved their goals. We ought to rather ask ourselves if, when we defend images of saints who were complicit or worse with evils done to people of color and other oppressed groups, we are defending their sanctity or precisely their actions that are least demonstrative of it. God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and we show God no favor by excusing oppression for our own comfort and that of our supposed civilizational heritage. “God is not in strength but in truth,” says the monk Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, and that ought to be our motto as Catholics and as Americans during this reckoning.


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


Women Who Walk Away

Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna outside Salisbury Cathedral is a statue of a life-sized woman with her back to the cathedral, dwarfed by the medieval edifice behind her but striding resolutely towards the open spaces ahead.  At a time when we are acutely aware of the communicative power of statues, that figure expresses where I find myself today, and I know that many Catholic women feel the same. Throughout the pandemic, we have been using social media to share our experiences, insights and stories from around the world. I have recorded a series of interviews with Catholic women from different cultures and contexts, and the same themes have emerged repeatedly.

While priests continue to say Mass in empty churches and ecclesial hierarchies have receded into the background, a vibrant sense of lay renewal has been taking place in the midst of solitude, struggle and grief, often led by women. Some have longed for the reopening of churches and a return to the sacraments, but others have been ambivalent. The domestic church has come into its own as women have found creative ways of maintaining liturgical and devotional rituals in their families or religious communities. Those who live alone or who, like me, are the only Catholics in their households, have had to search deeply within ourselves for the resources to nurture our faith without sacraments or community to sustain us.

Confined to our homes, we were unable to do anything but pray for our wounded world and our suffering neighbors, and this gave prayer a new intensity and focus. The Black Lives Matter movement created a volcanic eruption in an already volatile social environment, laying bare the ruptures in our broken societies and heightening awareness of the gross injustices that fester beneath the self-congratulatory banalities of modern liberalism. We became aware of how the family home is a torture chamber for those trapped in abusive or violent relationships with no escape during lockdown. Migrant workers and refugees became the poorest of the poor, as wealthy nations afflicted by the pandemic turned in on themselves and those on the margins were abandoned. These issues will become increasingly important as the world emerges from the pandemic to face an era of profound instability and risk.

But many women have also described the joy they felt with the cessation of human activity and the healing of the natural world. In our newfound leisure, we were able to cultivate a sense of attentiveness to nature and to appreciate anew the beauty of God’s creation. This too was part of an awakening and a call to renewal and transformation. The vision of Laudato Si’ has become not only possible, but essential, if we are to build a new world on the ruins of the old—a world in which the Catholic faith might offer inspiration, hope and freedom for those who want to work for the healing of the earth and the dignity and rights of our neighbors in need. From this perspective, to practice our faith would in future mean to stand in solidarity with all who are determined to resist the powers of destruction and exploitation and to use this opportunity to reimagine and recreate our relationships within our communities and in our natural and social environments. The Catholic Church is perhaps the only global institution with enough influence to lead such a movement for change, embracing the whole human family and all of creation in its vision—as Laudato Si’ does.

All this is to explain why I felt such dismay when I read the new Instruction issued by the Congregation for the Clergy, with the wordy title, “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church.” This is a set of rules for the reorganization of parish life necessitated by changing cultural norms and a shortage of priests. It is an iron fist in a velvet glove. Its florid rhetoric of evangelization masks a ruthless grab for clerical power and the establishment of a rigid line of demarcation between priests and the rest of us. Not all men are ordained but all the ordained are men, and therefore this is also a reassertion of male authority and female subordination. I don’t want to hear manipulative platitudes about priesthood not being about power but about service. I know too many women whose sense of belonging within a parish or Catholic institution has been destroyed by priestly abuses of power, and I know too many priests who will seize upon this document to wrest leadership roles away from women and to reinforce their sense of entitlement, privilege and superiority. Consider, for example, paragraph 96:

[I]t is the responsibility, first of all, of the diocesan Bishop and, as far as it pertains to him, the Parish Priest, to see that the appointments of deacons, religious and laity that have roles of responsibility in the Parish, are not designated as “pastor,” “co-pastor,” “chaplain,” “moderator,” “coordinator,” “Parish manager,” or other similar terms reserved by law to priests, inasmuch as they have a direct correlation to the ministerial profile of priests.

Pope Francis approved this document, but I doubt if he studied it; for it turns back the tide in the struggle against clericalism that has been a hallmark of his papacy.

I am writing this on the Feast Day of Mary of Magdala, the Apostle to the Apostles—a title finally given liturgical recognition in 2016 when Pope Francis elevated her memorial to a Feast Day on a par with the male apostles. If a woman can be called an apostle, why not a chaplain, pastor, coordinator —or even, priest?

When those clerics in the Vatican look up from their power games, they may discover that there is nobody left to lord it over except themselves. Like the Walking Madonna, like Mary of Magdala, sometimes a woman must turn her back on the institutions and structures, stop clinging to the past and stride with courage and determination towards a future that opens before us in all its unknowability, risk and opportunity, knowing that the risen Christ dances ahead of us along the precipitous path of faith.


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


The House is Burning …

It’s impossible to rebuild a house when it’s still on fire. The work of reconstruction cannot begin until the blaze is extinguished or the structure is completely reduced to ashes.

Catholics in the United States are watching two of their dwellings burn right now – their spiritual home and their geographical home.

The uncontrollable fire that continues to sizzle in the edifice of the Church – stoked by the still-ongoing child sex abuse crisis, the never-dying embers of misogyny and the reemergence of clericalism – has been tamed somewhat. But it is nowhere near to being completely stamped out.

The inferno that now consumes the United States – fueled by a misguided sense of American exceptionalism, the explosion of racism and social disunity, a completely irresponsible response to a deadly pandemic and the complete lack of national leadership – has only just begun to rage.

If this blaze is not put out soon – and it is hard to see how that will happen under the current president – this house is in grave danger of burning to the ground. From the other side of the Atlantic, it looks that serious.

But do people in the United States, specifically Catholics, see the gravity of the situation? There are signs that they do not. Perhaps it is a matter of not being able to see the forest for the trees. And this is very worrying.

A recent poll showed that upwards of 60% of white Catholics at this moment intend to vote for Donald Trump in November.

Perhaps they have convinced themselves that by appointing socially conservative judges willing to legislate against abortion the president has earned a “get out of jail free” card that allows him to forge ahead with his otherwise recklessly grotesque, immoral and un-Christian behavior and policies that are tearing the nation asunder.

One can only wonder what Catholics who support Trump think of Pope Francis. It’s hard to imagine two such substantially different personalities with such opposite worldviews and religious beliefs.

Francis has put forth a blueprint to help rebuild his smoldering Church so that it conforms more closely to the simple, yet demanding message of the gospel (cf. Evangelii gaudium).

This Church is the entire People of God, reformed in her missionary outreach and evangelization. And a key part of this mission is to work for the inclusion of the poor in society and promote peace and dialogue among all peoples.

Francis has even emerged as one of the world’s most convincing leaders of an urgent project to unite all humanity regardless of race, creed or nationality in saving our common home – the earth – from destruction.

He argues for this with courage, humility and farsightedness in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’.

The U.S. president’s “program,” if such exists, is completely opposed to this. It is based on no foundational document or secular equivalent of the gospel, other than unbridled capitalism, social Darwinism and greed.

Instead of outreach, it’s inward looking and insular. Instead of helping the poor, Trump’s personal demeanor and his administration’s policies actually punish and belittle the poor and disadvantaged.

They reward the wealthy and favor rugged individualism, while encouraging a lustful consumerism and the raping and pillaging of the natural environment. The promotion of peace and dialogue, meanwhile, is not a phrase that is even vaguely familiar to Donald Trump.

Catholics who support him have given him quite a pass, indeed.

“In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” says one translation of John 14, 2. And that’s the case in the Church as well.

The Church in the United States is just one dwelling place or part of the one big house that is the Universal Church. And while the fire has subsided in other parts, here it looks to be blazing out of control.

The lack of episcopal leadership, unified or otherwise, leaves one speechless and fearful for the institution’s very survival in this land. In the face of a country that is unraveling before the eyes of the entire world, the U.S. bishops have been tepid in their condemnation of almost any evil except abortion – and what they perceive as assaults on religious freedom.

The Catholics in the United States right now are “like sheep without a shepherd,” to use the biblical metaphor. Put another way, they are in a burning house with not enough men in authority who are willing or able to put out the fire or rescue those inside.

It is hard to watch what is happening to the United States and the Catholic Church there right now. Americans tend to believe our country is very different from every other place on earth.

Most are convinced that its peculiar governmental structures – or at least the ethos that sustains them – are resilient enough to weather any firestorm, survive even the most incompetent and corrupt leaders, and secure infinite and unlimited economic growth.

This is a fallacy. That Catholics, especially those in the episcopacy, cannot see this, suggests that they identify firstly as citizens of the United States, and only afterwards as members of the Church.

Meanwhile, the fires continue to burn in both houses they occupy…


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