A publication of Sacred Heart University

A Humble Roman

When Julius Caesar informed the Senate of the Republic of Rome of the successful military defeat of an enemy by his legions, he is reputed to have said Veni, Vidi, Vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.

Two millennia later, another Roman came, saw and conquered. Except in this instance, the people he addressed had already been conquered for centuries, knew the personal price of defeat and dispossession, and he came not in triumph with a wreath of victory, but on a “pilgrimage of penance.”

Pope Francis traveled from the Tiber to Canada to honour his pledge to deliver an apology on native soil to the First Peoples of the New World for the colonizing crimes of the past, specifically the church-administered residential schools. These schools were often enclaves of segregation, cultural genocide, brutalizing behaviour by overseers, large dormitories of physical and sexual abuse, places where children were involuntarily submitted to a process of rigorous assimilation to the dominant power. These schools were the creation of the federal government, but the political leaders in Ottawa discharged operational responsibilities to several Christian churches—United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Mennonite and Roman Catholic—the lion’s share of which fell under the auspices of Catholic religious orders. For over a century, some 150,000 Indigenous children went through the schools. Thousands died due to disease, malnutrition and neglect, while intergenerational trauma damaged the lives of countless survivors and their descendants. The social and political consequences of a policy born of Victorian high mindedness and arrogance are with us still.

Expectations for this papal visit—held last month in three discrete areas of the country (Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit)—were high and the pope knew that he was being dropped into a political and spiritual maelstrom. Still, he masterfully focused on the mission at hand—a healing mission distinguished by its genuine contrition and moral imperative for healing. He knew that for all the words written for him by his Canadian hosts, curial support team and cardinal advisors, in the end he needed to impart sincerity by gesture, silence, attentive listening and tactile moments of embrace and reverenced kissing.

Francis knew that he needed to create a momentum of tenderness because he knew, as that very Catholic Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor knew, that when tenderness is just theory and “cut off from the person of Christ … its logical outcome is terror.”  To be tender is to be accountable, to be present to the other and to honour the other.

When Francis came to Washington to address both Houses of Congress, he highlighted some of the moral visionaries of the land, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He also included in their number Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and made much of their intellectual and spiritual contributions to America.

Likewise, when Francis came to Canada, he drew on the wisdom of two of the land’s globally recognized Catholic thinkers: political philosopher Charles Taylor and philosophical theologian Bernard Lonergan, a fellow Jesuit. In quoting Taylor on secularization, the pope noted that secularism constitutes a formidable challenge for our pastoral imagination and prompts us to look at “restructuring the spiritual life in new forms and new ways of existing.”

As I have said in my guest column, “View From Guelph” (The Tablet, August 6, 2022), “in applying this bold exercise in pastoral imagination to the Canadian context, indeed the New World context, Francis is calling for nothing less than a spiritual revolution. How do we address the corrosive effects of colonization, the deliberate and systematic effort to eradicate the cultures and spiritualities of the First Peoples, the appalling record of Euro-centric hegemony with its presumed civilizational superiority, in a way that moves beyond theory, exhortatory rhetoric and deft political manoeuvring?  Theologian Fredrick Bauerschmidt concisely encapsulates the options, “Christians must take as their model not Sepúlveda [the Spanish Renaissance humanist] who justified the conversion by conquest of the Americas, but the martyred Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who died because they would not abandon their Muslim neighbours.” The option, in other words, is either aggressive proselytizing or authentic witness. For centuries, we chose the former and the consequences are clear.

Francis repeatedly calls for the “recognition of the special genius of the Indigenous peoples, their harmony with Creation, the richness of their languages, which we ruthlessly suppressed, and the paramount need to move through truth to reconciliation and forgiveness.”

What happened in Canada is now unfolding in the United States following a detailed investigation initiated by the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, examining the legacy of the Native boarding schools, the role of Catholic orders in their administration and the need to find a process for moving forward with national healing.

Francis’ Canadian journey can prove a workable and inspiring template.


Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus at Sacred Heart University. The author and co-author of numerous books, his most recent is The Church Needs the Laity: the Wisdom of John Henry Newman (Paulist).


Seeking the Spirit Beyond ‘Dimes Square

Last year, about a month after Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes limiting the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass, I received a text from a college friend. We’d once been very close, working together on our college newspaper, but had a falling out after he began identifying with the alt-right and developed an admiration for Milo Yiannopolous, the former Breitbart staffer who, after being deplatformed when a series of videos of him advocating pedophilia emerged, converted to Catholicism, began to identify as a “reformed sodomite,” and became one of Pope Francis’ most vocal critics.

I immediately thought of this friend—like Milo, a gay man turned traditionalist Catholic reactionary—when I read First Things contributor Julia Yost’s piece in the New York Times this week, “New York’s Hottest Club is the Catholic Church.” Yost’s piece highlights a group of right-leaning downtown New York podcasters and small magazine editors who have taken up Roman Catholicism as a transgressive, anti-bourgeois yet Decadent-inspired cultural practice that Yost, while pointing out Gen Z’s proclivity for performativity, refuses to pin down as mere posturing.

I will refrain from judging their sincerity, too, but I do think that the strain of reactionary Catholicism that so often pops up in the United States—whether from the anticapitalist “Red Scare” podcast hosts or the hypercapitalist Breitbart scene—belies an insecurity that aims to take shelter in a church that never actually existed the way they imagine it did.

Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D., writing in Where Peter Is about Pope Francis’ recent critique of “indietrism” or “backwardism”, argues that while European traditionalists are solidly grounded in history and face the risk of failing to “notice that changes have taken place over the centuries,” Americans “are far more prone to look to the future and fix our gaze on a culture that never really existed but that we hope to bring into being. We have a nostalgia for ‘the perfect society.’” The solution, she writes, is that “The European mindset needs to be balanced by openness to the future, and the American mindset needs to be balanced by a true knowledge of the past.”

This lack of “a true knowledge of the past” is manifest not only in the young Americans who long for a pre-Vatican II era they never experienced and which, in reality, was not the way they imagine it being, with elaborate Tridentine high Masses every day and an unquestioningly obedient body of the faithful. It also appears in older conservative Americans who refuse to acknowledge—and in fact, resist—the truth of how doctrine develops over time. In just the last few days, the former EWTN staffers running “The Pillar” Substack have turned their focus to “investigating” the Twitter account of the Pontifical Academy for Life, after it tweeted that the controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae was not covered by papal infallibility. (This Twitter dust-up followed the academy’s publication of a volume of conference papers debating life issues.)

Then, of course, there is the “backwardism” of the wealthy conservative Catholics who have used their influence particularly in the media to undermine Pope Francis, as detailed in Go, Rebuild contributor Christopher Lamb’s book, The Outsider.

Again, I do not doubt these Catholics’ sincerity, but I believe their reactionary tendencies and their desire to construct an institution that has improbably not changed in 2,000 years is a sign of insecurity. It is much more comfortable to construct a museum-like church and assume the aesthetics of an imagined bygone era than it is to throw open the windows to let the Holy Spirit blow in, and to discern the Spirit’s call.

Back to my friend, the Milo admirer: About a month after Traditionis Custodes came out, he texted me to apologize. Although he was upset about the pre-Vatican II Mass being limited, he said, he had come to understand why the pope’s intervention was necessary. He recognized that the old Mass had become a proxy for opposition to Vatican II, and that he had participated in that opposition and realized now he was wrong.

This, to me, was a sign of spiritual maturing, of recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating where conversion was needed, and following that prompting.

In response to the Times’ piece about the Dimes Square traditionalists, former Commonweal editor and “Know Your Enemy” podcast host Matt Sitman tweeted, “One thing about religion I’ve realized from being an editor at a Catholic magazine and now doing KYE is that a lot of people wrestle with their faith in ways that are quiet, mostly private and not part of their influencer brand. You’ll never read about them!” Then added, “This is my impression from countless emails and conversations, and I’d wager that this group of people absolutely dwarfs whatever trend in NYC is being debated.”

Sitman’s account of quiet wrestling resonates with me, and certainly describes my friend’s eventual response to Traditionis Custodes. The work of the Holy Spirit is quiet and persistent and intimate; it can happen below layers of aesthetic preoccupations and in, as Madeleine Delbrêl says, “the ordinary people of the streets.” It is happening all the time.

What is thrilling, now, is that, since Vatican II, and especially with Pope Francis’ global synodal process, we are being asked to undertake that wrestling with the Holy Spirit, that discernment, together, rather than exclusively within ourselves. It makes sense that the Jesuit pope, the world’s spiritual director, is the one asking us to engage in discernment together. I pray that our faith will be mature enough—secure enough—to follow this call.


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.


Planting Seeds

While recovering from a war injury in his family’s castle, Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier and courtier, asked for something to read, preferably his favorite genre of courtly adventure. Instead, he was presented with a book of lives of the saints. At first he found the stories boring. But eventually he became engrossed, imagining a different kind of heroism in God’s service. “What if I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did?” he asked himself. It was the start of a journey that led him to found the Society of Jesus.

I did not know this story when I set out to write my book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, which was published 25 years ago this month. But I did know the powerful, contagious effect of moral witness. I knew that from my own life and from the example of my father Daniel Ellsberg, whose decision to risk prison for copying the top secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers was directly inspired by the example of young men willing to go to jail for refusing to cooperate with the draft. Such stories had a great impact on my decision to take a leave from college after my sophomore year and make my way to the Catholic Worker—wondering what it would be like to do what Dorothy Day and her companions did.

It was Day who enlarged my store of holy and heroic exemplars. From her recounting of the lives of St. Francis, St. Therese, St. Vincent de Paul, and others, I learned about men and women who had had asked themselves what it would be like to live like Jesus and his disciples. Responding to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors, they had charted new paths of discipleship that others might follow. Day had little interest in abstract theories and principles; what fascinated her was the way these ideals were lived out. And so she moved easily between the canon of official saints and the lives of many others—writers, peacemakers, defenders of the poor, and other radical dreamers. She was drawn to those who (to borrow a phrase that Pope Francis applied to Day herself) allow us to “see and interpret reality in a new way.”

In that spirit, as I wrote All Saints, I combined “official” saints with others drawn from a wider “cloud of witnesses”: Gandhi, Etty Hillesum, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. On the one hand, I wanted to take the official saints down from their pedestals, to show them as human beings whose distinctive holiness was expressed in the course of a life. But I also wanted to expand the understanding of holiness.

Curiously, over the past 25 years, my calendar has edged closer to the official list, as 43 of “my” saints have progressed along the path of canonization, ranging from Servants of God Helder Camara, Pedro Arrupe and Dorothy Day herself, to Saints John Henry Newman, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Hildegard of Bingen, John XXIII and Charles de Foucauld. But my deeper motivation for writing this book, and the daily reflections on “Blessed Among Us” I have written over the past 10 years for Liturgical’s Give Us This Day, has not simply been to honor or remember those who went before, but to plant seeds that might encourage new readers on their own path.

This summer, one of my reflections was about Mattie Stepanek, who died in 2004 at the age of 13 of a hereditary disease. In his short, grace-filled life, he became an ambassador for peace, publishing best-selling books of poetry, befriending Jimmie Carter (who gave the eulogy at his funeral), teaching religious education classes in his parish and touching countless people with his remarkable witness to the gift of life. I noted that a guild is currently promoting his cause for canonization.

Afterward I received a message from his mother, who recognized my name but couldn’t immediately place it. Going through a box of Mattie’s things, she suddenly remembered, and sent me a picture. It was a copy of All Saints, which she said Mattie kept checking out of the library every two weeks until he could afford to buy his own copy.

This was a new experience, but a confirmation of why I write these reflections: So that somewhere, somebody might read these stories and imagine a different way of living, and ask themselves, “What if I should live like Mattie Stepanek?­”


Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books. His most recent book (with Sister Wendy Beckett) is Dearest Sister Wendy… A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.


Francis in Canada: When Symbols Are More Powerful than Words

More often than not it is through symbols rather than words that the important messages of a pontificate are communicated. So it has been with Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, a visit aimed at making amends for the appalling abuse carried out against indigenous communities in state-funded, Catholic-run residential schools. 

While the words of Francis’ apologies were sorely needed and long overdue, they were doubly poignant coming from an elderly Roman Pontiff using a wheelchair. The image of the Pope sitting in front of the Lac Sainte Anne, praying for healing and reminding his audience that it was on the Sea of Galilee that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, will live on long in the memory. These moments in Canada also sent important messages to the whole Church. 

First of all, the 85-year-old Pope has offered a face of the Church able to show humility, admit wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. His use of an ordinary wheelchair and walking stick also shows a Church willing to embrace its own vulnerability and fragility. Such an approach overturns a deeply ingrained ecclesial view that while the Church may be made up of sinners, it is not a sinful Church. This attitude continues to prevail in the resistance—or lukewarm responses—to the global synod process of reform launched by Francis. There are a number of high-ranking prelates, supported by vocal supporters, who oppose any structural or institutional reforms of the Church. They might be happy to have a synod that focuses on culture war issues, but don’t want to look at anything that touches on internal change. They are uncomfortable in admitting the woundedness of the Church. Not so for Francis. 

“In confronting the scandal of evil and the Body of Christ wounded in the flesh of our indigenous brothers and sisters, we too have experienced deep dismay; we too feel the burden of failure,” Francis said in a homily during Mass at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica in Québec.

What the abuse scandals of the past have revealed time and again is that it can no longer be Church business as usual, and Francis’ Canada visit underlines a willingness to face up to the past and make amends. 

A fundamental element to this synodal process is a Church that learns to listen rather than simply find different ways to proclaim ready-made answers. Francis’ call is for the Church to go to the margins and the marginalized and be converted by the encounter. It is for this reason that indigenous communities, whether in Canada, Australia or the Amazon, are becoming some of the protagonists of the synodal journey. Interestingly, while Francis was in Canada, Cardinal Mario Grech, the leader of the synod office in Rome, was visiting indigenous communities in Guatemala. The Pope’s focus on the Indigenous in Canada was not about what he told them but learning the wisdom they have to offer. This was symbolized in Francis wearing the headdress of an indigenous chief and being given an indigenous name. 

Second, the Pope’s Canada trip sent a message about the Church’s relationship with tradition. While some have attacked Francis’ focus on indigenous communities, most notably during the 2019 Amazon synod for its inclusion of indigenous symbols, he is seeking to recover elements of Catholic tradition. In his speeches Francis praised those missionaries to Canada who preserved native languages and cultures and cited the Bishop of Québec, Saint François de Laval, who stood up for indigenous against those who tried to demean them. The Jesuit Pope is pointing to the long tradition of inculturation whereby Christianity inserts, rather than imposes, itself into a local culture, something epitomized by the Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, a Chinese scholar and adviser to the Emperor. 

When Catholics became involved in running residential schools for indigenous, Francis argued, they had entered a worldly pact with colonial powers of the time and betrayed the Christian faith. It is something which serves as a warning to those in the Church seeking alliances with contemporary political powers. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has been calling for a deeper exegesis of Catholic tradition by focusing on the essentials of the Christian faith and warning against any drifts into ideology. And the synodal journey is a recovery of what it means to be the Church and is a process with deep biblical and theological roots.

“It is up to us to take on the tradition received, because that tradition is the living faith of our dead,” the Pope explained during the Mass at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. “Let us not transform it into ‘traditionalism,’ which is the dead faith of the living, as an author [Jaroslav Pelikan] once said.” 

Francis, as he pushes on with reforms to the Church despite fragile health and physical pain, is pointing to the tradition articulated by the Apostle Paul when he wrote: “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 


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


Atonement for Abuse Demands Reforming the Church

Days away from Pope Francis’ long-awaited visit, after the horrific discovery of unmarked graves at Indian Residential Schools, in Canada we are bombarded by media coverage of tragic survivor stories and old film footage with unsmiling students under the watchful eyes of nuns. There is understandable outrage and intense scrutiny of abuse of the vulnerable by and in the Church.

As a pediatrician and Religious Sister, I have worked for over 40 years to heal and protect the victims of child sexual abuse in Church and society. Today we know that the sexual abuse of minors in homes and safe places by trusted adults can cause profound, often life-long, physical, psychological and emotional damage. Victims of clergy abuse can also feel violated and abandoned by God. The trauma can paralyze the development of moral identity, character and faith. We have learned to our shame that the sexual abuse by clergy is, first and foremost, the abuse of power, position and conscience.

Survivors of residential schools in Canada, the U.S., Australia and Ireland also experienced forced Christianization and the loss of families and culture. I weep at knowing that sick and dying children were without the love and support of their parents.

Pope Francis acknowledges the profound harms of abuse and declared that “There is work needed to make amends in the care of those harmed and in the repair of toxic culture and practices. We must ‘undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.’” (Evangelium Gaudii 2013 #27).

In 2014 he established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to break the silence and denial which have characterized Church response. He has worked tirelessly in developing canons, policies and protocols to deal with abuse and extending protection from minors to vulnerable adults. Come una madre amorevole, (2016) declares protection of children a duty of all in the Church. Vos estis lux mundi (2019) holds bishops and religious superiors accountable for misconduct, mismanagement and cover-up and sets an obligation to establish offices for victim assistance and reporting of cases.

The 2021 Book 6 Code of Canon Law new focus on “vulnerable persons” raises broader issues of power. Pope Francis’s Pentecost 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium is a revolutionary reform of the Curia situating it “at the service of the Church and world” and calls for the restoration of a culture of servant leadership.

Despite this work, denial, abuse and mismanagement continue across the globe confirming that policies and protocols are necessary but not worth the paper, or tablets of stone, they are written on without conversion of minds and hearts. Pope Francis notes wisely “Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffective.” (E.G. #189.)

Rebuilding the Church to atone for sexual and cultural abuse is not a cosmetic exercise. The Church is not a simple “fixer-upper” in the home improvement jargon. It is in need of urgent foundational repair. Personal and ecclesial discernment is essential to identifying the underlying systemic and cultural beliefs and practices that are in need of reform to the “mind of Christ.”

Pope Francis’ synodal project has identified key issues in need of discernment and action:

Restore the loving Triune and radically equal non-hierarchical God revealed in Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection.

Reclaim the primary understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ and the People of God who journey together.

Repair Church structures and a kenotic vision of authority to serve the contemporary Church and form true “missionary disciples” promoting social and restorative justice and care for our common home.

Rectify the abuse of power by emulating Jesus’ witness to using power for others and servant leadership.

Revitalize the priesthood of the baptized, the recognition of the gifts of all and the co-responsibility of lay and ordained for mission.

Resuscitate meaningful dialogue in the Church in the spirit of Decretum Gratiani “What touches all must be discussed and approved by all” with “open mind and heart” and with other Christians and others, especially Jews, Muslims and Indigenous traditions.

Restore evangelization and catechesis leading to Jesus, especially for our disconnected young.

Repair right relationships between ordained and lay and women and men in the Church.

Remodel our Churches as welcoming spaces and our liturgy to promote joyful celebration of the Word and the “full and active participation of all” in the Eucharist as a meal of friends, not a performance.

Renew…

…morality from a sin-centered legalism to the formation of virtue and conscience

…a healthy Christian anthropology reflecting the dignity of all made in the “image of God” and belief that there is “…in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race, of nationality, social condition or gender…” (L.G.#32)

…a healthy theology of sexuality which preserves Christian values but also incorporates advances in science

Rebuilding requires strenuous labor, different skills and a blueprint with a vision for the new space. Thank God that vision of a happy welcoming home keeps us working.


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


Christian Love into Civic Action: Clues from Sociology

Last Sunday, the Gospel reading was the parable of the Good Samaritan. At my parish Mass, the priest stated that the story is well known to all of us, but it’s important that we not let it become mundane. Love is not a mere emotion; rather, Jesus is asking all of us to adopt a “radical, foundational,” active love. The homilist further noted that more love is desperately needed in society today. How we would practice such love, as individuals or as a parish, and what concrete steps it might mean for our action in society, he did not say.

Hopefully, the homily got the many of my fellow parishioners’ brain juices flowing about these questions for a while, as it did for me. I think that’s likely, and that’s about all we should expect from a single homily. Where most parishes falter is in providing guidance outside the homily to help their members make those connections in reflection and action.

While it’s important to reflect on these matters normatively (theologically, about what should be the case), it’s also useful to examine them descriptively (sociologically, about what in fact happens and what works for making change). So, for the past two months, I’ve read every academic article I could find in library databases that use social science methods to study the connections between church life and civic engagement—well over 100 articles. I’ll share three of many takeaways, highlighting findings that compare Catholics to other people of faith.

First, active church participation matters. Generally, people have to belong to a church and go to services to learn about and then participate in the church’s own outreach projects. But it’s not mere attendance that matters—attending religious services does not greatly predict people’s active participation in civic organizations. However, their being active in additional church activities does.

Second, traditions and their theological stances matter. To nuance the previous point, the kind of Christian or religious group to which one belongs makes a difference. A well-attested finding is that Jewish and mainline Protestant members and congregations are the most civically and socially active, Evangelical Protestants are the least, and Catholics are in the middle. While Evangelicals are not a monolithic group, they are consistently on the low-end of civic outreach, for reasons ranging from their theological conservatism to their focus on in-group bonding. Interestingly, regular attendance does raise the likelihood of Christians volunteering for social change efforts, except for Catholics. Like Evangelicals, the most-attending Catholics seem to turn more inward, which is also true of all Christian communities with a conservative theological orientation.

Third, the Catholic edge in youth volunteering gets squandered. For civic engagement, one might think to place hope in Catholic youth, who volunteer at high rates, benefitting from the service opportunities organized by Catholic schools. Catholic youth often describe service to others as one of the things they most like about Catholicism. However, compared to Protestants, “Catholic volunteerism does not persist into adulthood.” Why? For one thing, say these researchers, the Catholic school structure falls away; for another, “The lack of an avenue to civic life through commitment to other Catholic institutions, including parishes, may also affect overall levels of volunteering for Catholic school students after secondary school. These students may become disconnected from broader Catholic institutions and social networks that sustain volunteerism behavior.”

This speculation is consistent with a landmark 2001 study by a team of Catholic sociologists, Young Adult Catholics. The authors recommend that “ways must be provided in which young adults can become meaningfully involved in Church life … Many of our respondents complained of the absence of programs and activities for them, and especially for single adults in parish settings.”

All these studies point to the necessity of building up parish life with activities that pull in people beyond Mass attendance and that address the needs of young adults—for many reasons, including to inculcate the values and habits of civic engagement. The process is not sequential but mutually reinforcing, because some of those parish extracurriculars and many of the activities that will interest young adults are those involving outreach to the community.

Sadly, the alarm about disconnected young adults has been sounded for at least two decades now, and not enough is being done, as Michelle Loris recently argued in this space. And the U.S. Catholic Church at the national level and in many dioceses and parishes aspires to look more and more like the Evangelicals, which is likely to further suppress civic outreach. We Catholics should not squander our rich tradition of social activism and youth volunteerism. The Good Samaritan beckons us.


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


The Moral Insufficiency of the Church: Its Persistent Failure of Women

The nation doesn’t simply need

what we (women) have.

It needs what we are. 

~St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein)

In this blog space, I have written about the apparent dangers of a sector of American lay Catholicism to the moral and spiritual health of the Church and to the wider community of Catholics. In some corners of the country, contemporary Catholicism seems more akin to a heterodox Jansenism or a white evangelical Christian nationalism than to modern Christianity framed by the moral and social justice teachings of Vatican II. As evidence, one need only look to language of the (majority Catholic) justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade: embedded in the prosaic legalese was the patronizing discourse of disdain, condescension, and even insensitivity about what is obviously a complicated and fraught matter for women about human dignity and moral autonomy.

So, yes, American lay Catholicism has much for which it must answer. However, it is also true that many lay Catholics, both public leaders and private citizens, have taken/ take cues or “inspiration” from the authoritative narrative of the Church, and so it only seems appropriate to look to that constituency and “speak truth to” its rhetorical turn, specifically in its public responses to the Dobbs decision, responses which are dismaying in their moral insufficiency and compel two essential questions: does the Church have any real understanding of or even concern about the fact that it continues to fail women? Does the Church have any real understanding of or even concern about the pervasive patriarchy that continues to undergird the culture of Catholicism, especially in the U.S., and that has so undermined the moral agency of the Church that significant numbers of women are leaving the Church and younger women are rejecting the Church as being irrelevant—if not actually pernicious—to their lives?

Space will not permit the inclusion of the many publicized remarks of Church leaders (some can be found online) and indeed, upon first reading, the statements seem measured and pastoral, in some cases even compassionate, with regard to the life choices women in most of the country must now make. However, a closer reading of the statements exposes the disturbing depth of patriarchy rife through the hierarchy, for in every statement, not a single word was said about men and male accountability.

It is well documented that the most patriarchal cultures can be identified by two primary proclivities: on one hand, placing the burden of displaying and sustaining the culture’s honor and morality (as defined by men) on women, while on the other hand, privileging male behavior and ideation to such a consequential degree that, on occasions of ethical lapses or moral impropriety, men (unless compelled) are not held accountable in any meaningful way or their actions are folded into the prevailing culture as normal and acceptable. Thus, as several bishops (and other clergy) revealed in their statements, the entire onus of pregnancy—its fact, its intimations and its significance—falls entirely on the shoulders of women (and girls) without a word said about male responsibility or obligation. The patriarchal mindset provides men (and, admittedly, some women) with the intellectual contrivances to shield men from liability and deflect blame to others, usually women. Patriarchal rationalization has allowed (lay and clerical) men to diminish the worth and significance of women (and girls) qua feminae much as it seeded the sexual abuse crisis.

Qui tacet consentire videtur ubi loqui debuit ac potuit

~ St. Thomas More

It is also worth noting that the Dobbs decision did not merely overturn Roe v. Wade. It also granted the states full license to decide on the degree to which they may criminalize the actions of women (never men) simply seeking reproductive health care and, again, the Church (and lay Catholic) leaders, who have made proud claims about the need for compassion for (pregnant) women, have remained silent before such misogynistic machinations, suggesting, per More, that they are in agreement…or are simply too cowardly to challenge political authority.

There can be no ‘rebuilding’ of the Church without women, and without women, there will be no Church. As other contributors to this blog have testified, young people, but especially young women, are either leaving the church or rejecting membership altogether. However, many of those women are not abandoning religion altogether; rather, they are seeking religious spaces in which their lives and their perspectives are validated and respected. It is not up to women any more to make “the situation work”: it is the responsibility of the clergy to become self-aware and assess its patriarchy and find the moral will to effect authentic change for a more just and equitable Church.


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


Did Not Our Hearts Burn Within Us? (Lk: 24, 32)

About a fortnight ago (June 18), a motley crew of 160 people gathered in the upper room of a hotel in Athlone, the centre of the island of Ireland. They were the diocesan delegates and representatives of various ecclesial organizations and reform groups of the Irish Synodal Pathway. They comprised young and old, women and men, gay and straight, laity, priests, religious and bishops. They were gathered to discern the fruits of the year-long consultation of the Irish Catholic Church in preparation for the Universal Synod in Rome in 2023. This ‘pre-Synodal National Assembly’ was being asked to listen to the summary by the National Synodal Steering Committee (of which I am a member) of the various submissions (many of which have been published on diocesan websites—see the Association of Catholics in Ireland website) and to discern whether that summary accurately reflected what each diocese and organization had said.

The mood when we gathered was expectant and somewhat apprehensive. Could this long-awaited day deliver on expectations?

From the beginning, we were invited into a space of discernment, with prayers for the Holy Spirit to be with us. A brief account was offered of the underlying experience of synodality that shone through the 10-page accounts from each diocese and group—the enormous amount of work, the initial confusion, apathy and even cynicism around the whole project, the gathering momentum as people were invigorated by being asked their views and by their encounters with other people of faith. Then there was a presentation of the 15 different themes that formed the main content of the submissions—ranging from the ‘open wound’ of abuse (with the contribution of a poem by a survivor of clerical sexual abuse), through the notion of a more generous ecclesial inclusivity and belonging (with particular reference to women and the LGBTQI+ community), the ambient cultural challenges (including COVID), the difficulties of faith transmission and adult faith formation, the need to include laity in decision making roles in church governance, the special challenges afforded by the indifference of many young people to the institutional church, the need for more vibrant liturgy, the difficulties around clericalism and an aging clerical cohort. The somewhat inward looking nature of the fruits of the consultation were adverted to—what of ecology, poverty and inequality, the housing crisis in Ireland, immigration, peace on our divided island, relationships with other churches and religious faiths?

What was remarkable throughout the day—conducted mainly through the method of ‘spiritual conversation,’ in addition to some short inputs and open forums—was the honest speaking and respectful listening. We did not always agree—far from it—but it felt like even in our disagreement we were committed to attempting some common understanding. And while there was overwhelming evidence that so-called ‘hot button’ issues like the role of women in the church and the non-reception by many of church teaching on sexuality and gender were clearly articulated, still there was also a repeated insistence coming from all sides that we needed to ‘go deeper,’ that our common faith in Jesus Christ and the encounter with his Spirit were what would in the end be crucial. A prominent member of the LGBTQI+ community summed this up well in interviews with national media afterwards when she spoke of her apprehension at the start of the day, and how she had warmed to the honesty and respect on display, and her sense of the common faith that united us.

By the end of a packed day we made our way out to the enchanted 6th century monastic site of Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the River Shannon. There, on a glorious evening coming towards the summer solstice, we participated in a special liturgy designed for the occasion, reconnecting with our ancient roots of faith by processing around the ruins of the monastery, with glorious live music, prayers led for the most part by laity, some local children and families present, and a concluding ceremony of renewal, commitment and missioning. The sense of peace, joy and hope was palpable. People spoke of a ‘milestone,’ a ‘turning point,’ a ‘watershed.’ There was no triumphalism. Neither were there any illusions that the way forward was clear or that it would be easy. But it felt like—as Cardinal Grech had told the Irish Bishops when they were launching the synodal pathway—that the hope that ‘Jesus might visit us’ had been realised.

There have sometimes been fears and some scepticism expressed in our blogs here about the path of synodality: it feels good to be able to report to you that here in Ireland we have taken our first significant step on this path and have felt our hearts burn within us. I hope and pray that it may be the same where you are.


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


Proclaim the Good News

On June 5th, the Feast of Pentecost, the charter for a substantial reform of the structures of the Roman Curia went into effect. Issued by Pope Francis without fanfare on March 19, 2022 and marking the entry into the tenth year of his pontificate, the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium (Proclaim the Good News) is the product of years of extensive consultation with his Council of Cardinals, episcopal conferences and all offices of the curia.

Francis refers to the mandate received to carry out this reform from the cardinals who elected him. His proposed structural reform builds upon a sustained effort to reform the culture of those working within curial institutions, which he has envisioned as first and foremost a process of inner renewal. One might reread his annual Christmas greetings to the curia as a challenging set of spiritual exercises that invite the domineering and complacent careerists among them to rediscover ministry as service. These Christmas addresses recall that ecclesial structures exist not for themselves, but to serve the realization of the church’s mission to proclaim God’s merciful love.

The dominant note of Praedicate Evangelium is one of co-responsibility and of mutual collaboration in the service of that mission. It marks a step toward a fuller reception of the Second Vatican Council’s insights into the collegial nature of episcopal ministry and the co-responsibility of the baptized faithful for the life and mission of the church. The Council’s Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops expressed the wish that offices of the curia be reorganized to better serve the diverse needs of the churches in a new time. Yet the post-conciliar reforms of popes Paul VI and John Paul II failed to translate these insights effectively into practice. Paul VI carried out initial reforms by making the new Secretariat for Christian Unity a permanent fixture and creating new dicasteries for the laity and for justice and peace— the latter a direct response to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (GS 90). He also moved toward a greater internationalization of its staff, long dominated by Italians.

Where the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops spoke of the curia as functioning “for the good of the churches and in service to the sacred pastors [bishops]” (CD 9), the 1983 Code of Canon Law described the curia as working in the name and with the authority of the pope but neglected to mention its service to the bishops. The statutes introduced by Pope John Paul II in 1988, Pastor Bonus, emphasized the maintenance of “communion” conceived largely in juridical and universalizing terms, and gave rise to a highly centralized and controlling curial culture. French ecclesiologist Hervé Legrand observes that in the last half century the size of Vatican personnel doubled and the number of curial bishops quadrupled. Decrees emanating from the dicasteries were vested with increasing juridical and doctrinal weight, effectively reducing the doctrinal authority of the college of bishops to a “fiction.”

The Franciscan reform, aimed at reversing this dynamic, is recovering centripetal force through a “healthy decentralization” that sees the local churches as distinct centers of mission with diverse needs, and their bishops as sharing in the Pope’s care for the communion of all the churches. It reflects a more collegial style in the exercise of papal authority and places the curia at the service of the bishops in their role as local pastors.

Praedicate Evangelium opens the door to a radical shift in its recognition that within a truly synodal church, the dynamic of co-responsibility extends to all the baptized faithful, the gifts of whom the curia has need. A strong current of canonical and theological thinking has it that any exercise of authority or juridical power in the church is necessarily rooted in the sacrament of priestly ordination. Praedicate Evangelium contends that the staff of the Roman dicasteries act “by virtue of the power received from the Roman Pontiff in whose name it operates.” Given the vicarious nature of this power, Francis has determined that “any member of the faithful can preside” over the various offices, as the baptized are called to be missionary disciples. They are qualified, not by ordination, but by their competency, learning, experience and personal virtue. Competency takes precedence over loyalty or clerical caste. The appointment of religious or lay women and men to staff the Roman dicasteries is no innovation. But Praedicate Evangelium opens the way toward a greater presence of non-ordained staff and to their increasing share of responsibility and leadership.

While the reordering of the dicasteries is now complete on paper, Francis has yet to appoint new leaders to carry forward their redefined roles or to replace those who have exceeded the normal age of retirement or term limits. It is a fair bet that the many delays in the implementation of these reforms signal that he continues to labor in the face of strong headwinds. Francis has placed the reforms of Praedicate Evangelium at the center of his agenda for the extraordinary consistory of the College of Cardinals planned for August 29-30, an indication that they remain an urgent priority. Stay tuned. And may the winds of Pentecost continue to breathe new life into the church.


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


Can the Bishops Hear These Messages?

The synod and its synodal process is Pope Francis’ aim to listen to and learn from all his flock—from the ground up. It is nothing short of revolutionary. The Catholic Church has seen nothing like this movement since Pope John XXIII called for Vatican II. Francis truly wants to hear from his people. In fact, in a remarkable moment through the efforts of Loyola University Chicago, at “Building Bridges: A Synodal Encounter Between Pope Francis and University Students” (Zoom Forum), the Pope listened intently to college students express their concerns about the Church. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium summing up the Vatican II Council: “in all the baptized from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work…”  I believe Francis wants to listen to and learn from what the laity have to say. He has asked the bishops to organize the synodal process to hear what the flock is saying.

I wonder if there may be additional ways, outside of a formal synodal process, of listening to and learning from the flock. For example, the most recent May 2022, AP NORC Poll has something to say that is worth listening to and perhaps even learning from. The title of this very comprehensive poll is “Most Catholic Americans disagree with hardline positions of church leadership” and the first three items are worth attending to: Most American lay Catholics, who attend Mass regularly as well as those who do not, support some abortion rights, oppose denying Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, or denying Communion to LGBTQ people or to divorced and remarried Catholics. The laity reported here seem to disagree with the hard line position some bishops take on these big issues.

Interesting enough, these views are consistent with the 2018 St. Mary’s Press study “Going, Going, Gone” whose aim was to listen to the stories of youth and young adults who are disaffiliated from the Catholic Church. This report examined Millennials and Generation Z members (18-25) and asked why these young people are leaving the Catholic Church. “Of those who have left, 35% no longer belong to any religion, while 46% have joined another religion. An additional 14% report being atheists or agnostics.” The study reports that these youth say they reject the Catholic Church’s positions about LGBTQ people, abortion and birth control. They report that the Church emphasizes rules that do not connect to their real world.

“Going, Going, Gone” is consistent with my students’ views. My students tell me that they feel disaffiliated and disconnected from the institutional Church; they reject the Church’s positions on the LGBTQ+ community, on abortion and birth control, and on denying Communion to remarried Catholics or Catholics who may support abortion. My students hunger for connection, purpose and meaning in their lives, and many say they believe in God or a Higher Power, but they do not feel that their local parishes offer them the community and faith that they desire. One of my students confessed she identified as LGBTQ and she “had to leave the Church because her parish made it clear she was not accepted.” She said she occasionally attends Mass at the University. Some of my students do tell me that they attend Mass at the University because here they experience some of the faith and community they seek.

A 2021 Gallup Poll reports the decline of Church membership across major religious institutions with membership in the Catholic Church falling the fastest. This statement was made real to me in a very personal way. I had been visiting my brother-in-law and his wife who I had not seen in about a year. These are two people whose 38 years of married life have been spent in their parish as Eucharistic Ministers, Readers, Choristers and as Lay Leaders within the parish. I always thought of them as the kind of Catholics who would save the Church. I was impressed by their parish involvement, so I asked, as I always do, about their parish work. My brother-in-law’s response stunned me. He said “Oh we no longer belong to the parish or go to Church. It just became too much finally—the Church’s views on abortion and Communion and gay people. We just quit. Couldn’t take it any longer. Maybe we will join the local Episcopal or Congregational Church, but for now we don’t belong.” I was slack-jawed, and could barely respond, except to say that I understood.

His words saddened me. I feel sad, too, when I talk to my students and they say pretty much the same things as my brother-in-law told me. I believe that Francis would want to hear these stories from his flock. I just hope that the bishops are listening.


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