A publication of Sacred Heart University

Notre-Dame de Paris, Pope Francis and Living Stones

Many of us, in various parts of the world, watched in horror and disbelief when Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames. It was especially gut-wrenching to witness an infernal beast consume the roof and topple the steeple of one of the world’s great Christian cathedrals at the very beginning of Holy Week. Like other televised tragedies, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the horrific spectacle in Paris commanded global attention and received blanket coverage from both mainstream and social media. And as with other history-making events, some journalists and pundits saw this as an opportunity to offer grave and poetic commentary. There was a lot of deliberating and moralizing. What did this distressing scene say about the current state of the scandal-plagued and ideologically divided Catholic Church? What was its message for secularized France? What fierce warning did it hold for a Western civilization that has become unhinged from its Christian moorings? In the end, Notre-Dame was not destroyed. And not a single life was lost, thanks be to God.

But the fire of this magnificent cathedral was a truly shocking thing to watch as I spent several hours switching back and forth through some of the channels available on my satellite dish: Italian State TV (RAI), Sky Italia, France24, Fox News… At CNN there was Chris Cuomo speaking about the symbolic importance of Notre-Dame for Catholicism and even the Vatican, wondering if the pope would actually go to Paris for Easter. “Imagine the image of Pope Francis in front of Notre-Dame saying Mass on Sunday. You know, with smoke still rising up from it as an idea of rebirth and renewal. How powerful that would be.” After briefly conceding the “concept from Catholicism (that) the Church is the people, not the places… and the people matter most”, Cuomo continued speculating. “It will be so interesting to see what pope does with this Holy Week, given this loss. Is there a chance that you see the pope not in Rome celebrating Easter Sunday, but here? What an important image that would be.” CNN’s correspondent in Rome, Delia Gallagher, said she “wouldn’t rule it out” because, “of course, we know that he’s a pope of surprises”. Jim Bittermann, an old hand with CNN who has been in Paris, off and on, for many years, said “it would be quite a remarkable symbol if this pope decided to come visit for the Easter Mass”. But he then cautioned, “It’s hard to believe that that could be organized so quickly, especially with the church still burning at this hour.”  

Oh my, I thought. What to make of this sort of suggestive speculation? These are all top-notch reporters and news analysts. Is it possible that they have not really understood Pope Francis’s priorities or the change of mentality he’s tried to bring about these past six years? The 82-year-old Jesuit pope is, by no means, anti-cultural. He is not anti-European. But, at the same time, and despite the affection he would win back from the people of France, it would be out of character for him to drop everything and rush to Paris because a cathedral has been badly damaged by fire – even considering the artistic masterpiece and historically important religious symbol that it is. The pope of Laudato Si’ is more concerned about our own human destruction of God’s masterpiece – the created universe and the human person. Francis is more alarmed that we are killing ourselves from the earliest stages of life in the womb up to natural death; through wars, torture and human trafficking. He’s disquieted by our careless destruction of our “common home," through the pollution of the air we breathe and the water we drink; through the wars we wage and the greed that consumes us to the detriment of the poor, the week, the immigrant and refugee and all other outcasts of society.

Pope Francis has not focused his worldwide ministry on preserving the cultural and artistic heritage of Christianity, at least not the way that has been manifested over the centuries through structures built of precious stones. Instead, he tried to show us how to take care of so many “living stones” that we have long ignored or scorned. He has gone to places like Lampedusa and Lesbos to comfort refugees; he has spent every Holy Thursday in prisons, washing the feet of criminals, some who are not even Christians. Like his patron, St. Francis of Assisi, the pope has seen the call to rebuild the Lord’s house as a summons to repair God’s crumbling household – all of humanity made in God’s image and likeness– rather than a building made of wood and stone.  As Richard Rohr has said, “Creation itself – not ritual or spaces constructed by human hands – was St. Francis’ primary cathedral.” And so it is for Pope Francis.


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


How to Have a Younger Church

It was thought-provoking to read Bishop Frank Caggiano’s wise words at Fordham on March 12, when he said that “young people are leaving the Catholic Church not because they are angry—but because they are indifferent.” Their lack of interest, he continued, was because “there are questions unresolved, and young people simply don’t have the mental energy or desire to figure it out.” There is much to agree with here, especially the implied distinction between the attitudes of older church-going Catholics to our currently dysfunctional church and those of the younger generation who, in most cases, are not regularly practicing. In my own experience of almost 40 years teaching undergraduates, I can concur with Bishop Caggiano that anger is not a common late-adolescent response to church matters. Perhaps “indifference” is a bit soft. I would probably want to say that they aren’t angry, because they don’t care. The church doesn’t matter to so many of them, so why would they be angry? The bishop is also correct that meeting questioners where they are in a respectful and nonjudgmental posture of listening is of paramount importance. Good pastors and educators understand that, while the less successful ones trot out pat answers to questions that may not actually have been asked. To borrow from the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he is so insistent in his advice to spiritual directors that they get out of the way and allow the spirit to work on the minds and hearts of the searcher. Which means, of course, that a mentor’s patience must approximate the patience of God which, as we know, is endless. Listening, as the bishops says, can be more important than talking.

However, if young people are drifting away from the church because they don’t care rather than because they are angry, let me suggest that they don’t care because what they encounter in the church is too often something that does not speak to their hearts or inflame their souls. Young people, in my experience, are patient with imperfection but intolerant of hypocrisy. They can sure spot a phony a hundred miles away. If you don’t believe me, browse sometime on the dishonest educator’s nemesis, www.ratemyprofessors.com. Whether for good or ill, there is no parallel reviewing system for pastors and bishops. Perhaps we ought to have one? And if we did, we would see a lot of understanding of the average guy doing his best, real appreciation for the one whose openness and honesty shines through and profound distaste for pretentiousness and false pride.

What really causes young people not to care rather than be angry is that they have written the church off, too often perhaps before they have given it a real chance. I think Bishop Caggiano is onto something when he writes about the beauty of the liturgy, but you have to be in the building to appreciate it. On the whole, they are not there for several reasons. First, the liturgy is as often as not pretty routine, and while that might be fine for those of us who have the ritual deep in our psyches, it doesn’t work to entice someone in. Second, the ethical values of the young, as opposed to their occasionally amoral practices (and how different are they here than the rest of us?) are not respected within the confines of the institutional church. A particular pastor may be receptive to an individual who comes to him. But the church itself is simply inconceivably unrealistic to the majority of young Catholics on same-sex relationships, on cohabitation before marriage and on the use of birth control. Most adult Catholics shrug their shoulders at the anachronistic approach of the church on these issues and carry on worshipping, perhaps because they understand deep down that the Lord is not always in agreement with the teaching of the church. But the young don’t have that patience. It’s not so much that they are not in the church, as that the church is not in the world they live in.

All that Bishop Caggiano suggested as ways to attract the young is wise and compassionate. But I would add a few things. Most importantly, weed out hypocrisy, whether it is bishops who hide abusers or senior church leaders who manage to be simultaneously closeted gays and homophobic. Then, our ethical teaching needs to be expressed in the knowledge of human frailty and imperfection, and with the honest acceptance of difference. Do not tell people that birth control for the unmarried is always self-indulgence and not sometimes responsible. Do not assume that cohabitation is always the road to future marital ruin, since it often isn’t. And do not assume that same-sex relationships can never be as loving and fulfilling as straight ones. All this would just be more fake news, and the church does not need to go that way. Maybe, even, encourage gay clergy to be open about their sexual orientation. The sky will not fall in, and there could be no better way to signal to gay Catholics that the church welcomes them. There used to be, years ago and happily long-gone, a column in the Fairfield County Catholic entitled “The Narrow Gate.” Nothing could be less Catholic. As James Joyce so famously described our church, “Here Comes Everybody.” Every one of our parishes should put out that big banner you see often adorning the church buildings of the U.C.C.—“All Are Welcome.” When this is what the Catholic Church proclaims, and when it really means it, and when it has done it for a while, the young will be back. It’s not doctrine or ethics or liturgy that they find most distasteful. They know, and they want the church to know, that love has no boundaries.


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


This is Our Problem

By now, the sins of the fathers are well known. 

Seemingly weekly headlines underscore that the Catholic Church is riven by clergy sexual abuse, not only locally but globally, with reports on abuse cases surfacing from Australia to Africa.

The intensity and immediacy of the current coverage make it easy to forget that this is not a new problem, newly revealed. It was 1985 when the U.S. bishops were first handed a report warning of an abuse crisis, and three decades since news broke of systemic crimes in both the Irish church as well as at Mt. Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, Newfoundland. These were harbingers of headlines to come.

It has taken us this long, as an institution and as a collective of members, to begin to admit — and react — to the inescapable rot from within. But as a recent conference hosted by the Faculty of Theology at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College revealed, the glacial pace at which we’re responding is simply unacceptable.

One of the key takeaways from the colloquium, titled The Wounded Body of Christ: Listening and Responding to Abuse in the Church, was that while we’re finally confessing publicly that the church is gravely wounded by the crisis, we have yet to listen and respond in a meaningful way to those who suffered at the hands of priests. Our response right now still rests at the institutional, rather than the personal level, and healing the church means nothing if we do not first heal our neighbor.

A case in point: at the conference, a panel discussion with survivors included a man named Mark Hawkins, whose vast experience in educating others about the trauma of childhood sexual abuse has taken him everywhere from teaching police and social workers to an appearance on Oprah. It has also earned him awards from Queen Elizabeth II and the Ontario Provincial Police. Yet, he noted, this was the first time in his years of speaking on the topic that a Catholic organization had invited him to talk. 

Another participant, Leona Huggins, was just back from Rome, where she had been the sole Canadian representative at the Vatican summit on ending abuse.

“I’d love to stop telling my story,” Huggins said, but then noted that one of the 21 talking points to come out of the Rome meeting was a suggestion to create a handbook of protocols. “It’s shocking that’s on the table. (The church is) still parsing what abuse is. We need to continue to tell our stories,” she said. 

The third panelist, John Swales, said of the survivor participants, “we are the lucky ones.” For Swales, participating was a way to speak for Michael, a friend who succumbed to the resulting horrors abuse sufferers can experience, and for all those who do not have a voice. 

“I’m actually okay,” Swales told the assembled. “You’re not. You need to figure out what to do.”

Attendees heard searing testimony, calmly delivered, of the many challenges survivors can face, from the costs of therapy and medication to loss of faith; from substance abuse and mental health issues to marriage breakdown and loss of income. 

It was noted, for example, that while the world-renowned Southdown Institute just north of Toronto offers therapeutic services to Roman Catholic and other clergy, survivor participants couldn't name a comparable site for them.

“There aren’t the same supports for victims as for perpetrators,” Swales argued. “I don’t expect a blank check, but I shouldn’t have to grovel to get therapy.”

For Hawkins, the manifestations of his trauma included finding himself “super protective” of his children and having difficulty trusting anyone. “This impacted my faith,” he said. “Why did God allow this to happen?”

Toronto lawyer Simona Jellinek, who has pursued cases for clients against a number of religious organizations, Catholic and otherwise, argued that the church’s first task is to turn its attention to the people who have been hurt — and then focus on fixing the church.

“Right now the church can tell its lawyers that instead of doing what insurance companies do in court (fight for the lowest settlement), they can send a clear message that we’re trying to make this a survivor-centric church,” she said. “The church is to do the work of God. It is not to be caught in in battles with its people.

“Defendants who come early and say ‘sorry’ are very helpful. That’s where the healing begins,” she added, noting that financial settlements tend to be lower when defendants show a degree of contrition. 

(As one person in attendance quipped, “What would Jesus do is not meant to be a financial decision.”)

Jellinek called for transparency and respect for the courts, arguing that any institution that keeps the crime of sexual abuse secret is complicit. 

“The biggest crime is the cover-up,” agreed Huggins, who discovered the priest who’d served time for abusing her was subsequently assigned to a parish in Ottawa.

It was a somber day, but there were notes of hope and suggestions for how to make progress. One attendee, for example, told the room that, frustrated by a lack of institutional response, she and several other parishioners formed a discussion group to research the problem and lobby the church for change. 

Another noted that only a quarter of the colloquium was devoted to survivors, stressing that for academics to learn and contribute to solve the crisis, they need first to hear and absorb victims’ statements, an assertion that prompted applause.

And from the survivors themselves, grace and guidance.

“I’m glad to be here and glad the church I grew up in is talking about the issue,” Hawkins said. 

“You have the power to make change,” Swales told the crowd. “This is a church that will defend its predators against young children. 

“This is our problem,” he said, gesturing to the assembled. “If you can walk out of here unscathed it says something about you.”

Indeed.


Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.


Summit at the Vatican was a Large Leap Forward

We are a little more than a month since the conclusion of the Vatican’s summit on combating the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the history of covering up such abuse. What can we conclude about the meeting and about the trajectory for the Church, here in the U.S. and abroad?

It is deeply regrettable that so many ecclesial activists on both the left and the right have denounced the summit for what they perceive as failures. On the right, that the summit did not identify homosexuality as a principal cause of sex abuse has been seen as the major failing, even though there is no credible study indicating that homosexuality is in any way an indicator for abuse. Most sexual abuse of children happens in families, not churches, and involves girls as well as boys. Only outside the home, is most abuse same-sex, and most studies conclude that this correlation is because abuse of a minor is a crime of opportunity, and the perpetrators have easier access to children of the same gender.  

As David Gibson pointed out in this space in January, it has been especially frightful to see how conservative Catholic media, which never paid much attention to clergy sex abuse before, now has glommed onto the issue as a means of attacking Pope Francis. This is especially strange in the case of Theodore McCarrick, the ex-cardinal who was at the center of the dossier issued last summer by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.  McCarrick has been promoted three times and then made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, not Pope Francis. McCarrick retired seven years before Francis was elected.  

Criticism of the summit, and of Pope Francis’ handling of the issue more generally, from the Catholic left has been just as wrong-headed. Some have claimed the summit accomplished nothing, but if you talk to any of the participants, that is to say, the people who are in a position to accomplish something, they felt that real progress was made. When the pope calls everyone to Rome and clears his schedule to address the issue, bishops worldwide understand that this is a priority. Additionally, the content of the meeting was widely praised by the participants: the talks were powerful. The participation of women was notable and, hopefully, now normative.  

There has also been an effort to hijack the issue of clergy sex abuse to address other issues that some partisans on the left want to see highlighted. Celibacy is not the problem, as our friends in the Southern Baptist Convention are discovering as they begin to grapple with the issue. Some blame patriarchy, but patriarchy gets blamed for the common cold these days. 

So, if the partisans of both left and right are wrong, what are we to make of the current situation of the Church and its efforts to confront this problem? What did the summit achieve?

First, the leaders of the universal church recognized that listening to victims changes the focus. If you identify, first and foremost, with a fellow priest, who was a perpetrator, you tend see the crime of sex abuse as a sin against chastity. If you identify with the victim, you see that a sin against justice has occurred. Those bishops who have met regularly with victims have long understood this, but some bishops and some cultures have not. The role of victim-survivors in the summit was critical. Lest we forget, Pope John Paul II never met with victims of clergy sex abuse, not once.

Second, the day after the summit, the pope met with the heads of the different dicasteries of the Roman Curia. The curia is not known for transparency or accountability, which are the two most necessary qualities the Church needs if it is to succeed in confronting the culture that allowed, and even encouraged, the covering up of the abuse. Accountability and transparency were central focal points for the summit, and the pope will need to continue to push his closest aides to fashion protocols for handling allegations of episcopal malfeasance and to publish those protocols. If necessary, the pope must enact appropriate legislation. The curia has fine tuned the art of slowly killing initiatives over the past 500 years, and they cannot be permitted to kill these accountability measures. Only on paper is a pope all powerful. He must persuade the curia or they will kill the reforms.

Third, the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences went home with an explicit mandate: Develop culturally appropriate norms for confronting abuse and reporting it. Different countries have different legal regimes within which they operate. Sexuality is always deeply inculturated and so the context for abuse might be different. But, they must develop norms that must be approved by the Holy See. Here in the U.S., the development of additional norms will occupy the bishops at their June meeting.    

As I have argued in my column at NCR, 2018 was not so much a sex abuse crisis as an ecclesiological crisis. The steps taken to protect children since 2002 have largely worked, but the reckoning by the hierarchy for their criminal covering up of abuse—that was allowed to slide. No more. Despite the critics, the summit at the Vatican was a large leap forward in confronting the hierarchic culture that permitted the cover up to continue. The reckoning will be postponed no longer.


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


Let the Ordinary be ordinary

These past few years have witnessed the refreshing and hopeful comments and kindnesses of Pope Francis. His words are always followed by sincere gestures of affection and mercy. He leads by living example. Unfortunately, that example is not having either a cerebral or emotional impact on many bishops, especially in this country. In fact, there are a few who enjoy ridiculing Francis’ words of mercy as merely vacuous. Those few bishops clearly tarnish the ministerial work of those who find comfort in Francis’s ministry.

This dismissive attitude speaks eloquently to the quality of these critics and their disdain for Francis. It is a disdain clothed in a princely vesture rather than in the common tweed of a diverse community of believers. The amazing thing is that the Spirit works despite this self-aggrandizement by so-called servants of the People of God. The faith of the laity in the gospel message is deeply rooted, although tested these days. Such faithful loyalty cannot be an excuse for simply tolerating the absence of transparency, the exorbitant lifestyles, or cover-up machinations by the anointed overseers.

Dedicated faithful and spirit-filled priests labor daily within their local communities and suffer needlessly because of such scandalous living. It is these priests who are more often confronted by the doubters, the offended and those who have abandoned the church. Through no fault of their own these priests are compelled to defend the indefensible.

Hypocrisy is the antithesis of integrity.  Many of these anti-Francis bishops preach in their gilded robes with aides fluttering around them. They are narcissists flattered by their courtiers. Yet it is in the parish pews, the hospitals, the shelters and the classrooms that the beauty and simplicity of the gospel message becomes credible. It is where the priests are living, working, preaching and witnessing. How many of our American bishops dwell in inner cities by their address and their lifestyle. Pope Francis regularly visited the slums of Buenos Aires. It was because he was among the poor and the disenfranchised that the Gospels were refreshed for him. He was not to be found in the luxurious and redecorated homes that—more often than not—are far above the median lifestyle of the people within his archdiocese.

This is a time of transformation and cleansing. The Pope could not have chosen a better name for himself by which to witness. Yet the appreciation of his selection is so easily missed or denied by many American bishops. The Renaissance-tinged times with all their gilded trappings and privileges need to be removed. The laity needs to refrain from falling prey to the silliness of financially supporting the Church’s works of charity as their Ordinaries divert funds for their personal lifestyle, refuse financial transparency and arrange for costly abuse cover-ups. It is simple: the privilege of office must be replaced with humble service in ministry.

The laity, priests and religious have an absolute right to know and challenge the Ordinary when gospel values are superseded by personal priorities and colleague protection. Why should an Ordinary receive any more in salary or retirement than the priests within his diocese? Why should an Ordinary live above his people?

Priests have been removed with seemingly facility. Yet Bishops’ predatory and cover-up behavior has been tolerated by their brother bishops. There is no smell of the sheep while clothed in the rich raiment of a Renaissance prince. The hierarchical culture of Game of Thrones is seen for its power and prestige. Why should not an Ordinary simply be ordinary? It is in the Gospels after all.


Dr. John J. Petillo is president of Sacred Heart University.


A Kairos Moment

As I write this, we are entering the desert of Lent. A dark Lent it looks to be indeed in the Church. Every day, it seems, there are more revelations of betrayal and crimes committed by the hierarchy worldwide. Australian Cardinal Pell is sentenced to six years in prison, convicted of sexual assault of two choirboys. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin is found guilty by a French court of covering up sexual abuse by one of his priests. The bishops’ summit in Rome on the protection of minors is being reported as a dismal failure. It wasn’t the devil that made them do it, as Pope Francis suggested, but rather, writes Jamie Manson in the National Catholic Reporter, “These men destroyed [the Church] all by themselves by enforcing a warped view of sexuality, making the preservation of their patriarchal rule their first priority and trading in cover-ups , lies and institutional blackmail.”

Sick to death of this rot poisoning the institutional Church, I have never been so tempted to leave. I find I cannot bring myself to go to Mass. I am not alone in this. A survey last year by America found that a majority of American Catholic women are disengaging from the Church, especially young women.  Jessica Mesman Griffith, for example, recently wrote of her own estrangement in the blog Sick Pilgrim: “When I realize trauma therapy has become a kind of religious practice for me, I miss church. I am every bit as lost as all the churchy folk warned I would be without it. But I cannot bring myself over the threshold.” I too miss church. For consolation, I read the psalms. On Shrove Tuesday, one takes aim and hits the mark of my heart. I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning. And yet, as I mourn, words from Isaiah come to mind: I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The prophet speaks for God: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Something is happening here. Michael Higgins, in the first column of this forum, “A Catholicism Under Siege,” wrote that we are in “a Kairos moment.” Kairos: one dictionary defines it as “a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action: the opportune and decisive moment.” To say this is Kairos time, a Kairos moment, is to say that we must act, with wisdom, before it is too late and the moment has passed.

I keep coming across this idea of Kairos time. Marybeth Chuey Bishop engages it creatively in “Doing the Time Warp at 2 a.m.,” an entry to her blog In Ordinary Time that revisits Rocky Horror Picture Show’s song Time Warp (“It’s astounding! Time is fleeting!”). Unable to sleep, she pulls out her grandmother’s rosary as a soporific. The rosary is broken, which leads Bishop to reflect: the beads take us in a “predictable circle” of the life of Jesus. “But what if it’s broken? What if the end doesn’t come back to the beginning in a stable, but is able to spiral through time, Kairos time instead of Chronos? What if it reached … all the way here?”

Last fall I felt I had a glimpse of Kairos time at a symposium for the Catholic Women Speak Network in Rome, which was held to coincide with the Vatican’s Synod on Youth. Catholic women gathered together from all over the world, working to make women’s voices heard in the Church. Some of us were on a panel about sexuality, abuse and power. Like Higgins, Nontando Hadebe, a South African theologian, called for “radical change,” said this was a Kairos moment, like apartheid, time to take a stand. “God is a God of new things!” she proclaimed. “We want a radical reconstruction! We need to be having visions of what a Church looks like that doesn’t look like anything we know!” Hadebe had ideas: We must not look away from this abyss in the Church, “a culture of toxic brotherhood that comes at the expense of women and children.” There must be communal action by the bishops, a time of sackcloth and ashes, with every Catholic church and seminary shut down. All the Church is to speak out, as part of a prophetic theology, especially the marginalized voices of women: a Church that doesn’t look like anything we know… now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?


Jennifer L. Reek is a writer and teacher.


A Lenten Proposal for a Penitential Church

One joy as a Catholic is the liturgical calendar’s rhythm throughout the year—the way, for example, Ash Wednesday disrupts the daily grind of life. But this is the first Lenten season since the “Summer of Shame.” For many, part of the shock was that Catholics could no longer simply hope or believe that the 2002 Dallas charter had adequately addressed the problem of sex abuse, particularly regarding the accountability of bishops. Those details are well known to readers of this blog, and I have little to add to the avalanche of commentary both here and elsewhere. But even before this dreadful summer, the sex abuse scandal was in the news in April—shortly after Easter—when Pope Francis released a remarkable apology for his previous defense (and appointment) of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, whose protection of Rev. Fernando Karadima ignored the stories of Karadima’s several victims. The pope’s apology was noteworthy—not just because it was a personal act of confession—but because any public apology from the See of Peter is rare indeed.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of a papal mea culpa occurred in 2000. On the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday, Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for the sins of Catholics who betrayed the Gospel over the past 2000 years—further this act of contrition was not confined to a press release but integrated into a solemn liturgy.

We need such liturgical reminders of the stains on our Church’s history. We need these reminders consistently, because however much the Church is the Body of Christ, its members’ misdeeds create a culture that allows sin to flourish. Certainly, the decades-long cover-up of pedophile priests by the hierarchy demonstrates this.

Catholics, like all human beings, are prone to forget the more troubling parts of our past. When the media hype dies down, we tend to become distracted by other issues. The consistent news concerning the abuse crisis—from the USCCB’s failed meeting in November to the recent Vatican conference—has so far prevented this from happening. But the danger lurks. I do not know how long (if ever) it will take before the magisterium implements systematic reforms to protect children and adults, hold bishops accountable and prevents future abuse. Yet it does not take a great leap of the imagination to foresee that when the public frenzy dies away, the momentum for reform could slow, or even whither.

We need, as an ecclesial community, the blessed rhythm of the liturgical calendar to compel us to examine our collective actions repeatedly. We need, in other words, the disruption of Ash Wednesday. But such disruption should not be confined to the current crisis. Sin within the institutional Church and its members will not disappear even if the sex abuse crisis is adequately addressed. Pope John Paul II’s 2000 apology is a reminder that evil in the name of the Gospel takes on many forms.

True, the issue first and foremost on our minds is the sex abuse crisis, and there, the magisterium bears the brunt of responsibility. But there’s a danger if the laity think that communal sins are an exclusive problem of the ecclesiastical elite for two reasons. First, as my colleague Dan Rober reminded us on this blog, there are other issues, other injustices that we need to remember as a praying and worshipping community. Second, such an attitude, an “us” versus “them” mentality, splinters the Body of Christ between the lay and the ordained.

So, a modest proposal: As a standard part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, each community should pray for all the times that our collective attitudes, actions and structures have failed to manifest the Gospel. Further, we should not be afraid to name our sins, whether it is sex abuse, racism, sexism, economic oppression or the rejection of a person who is unborn, LGBTQ, an immigrant, disabled or on death row, to list just a few possibilities. General prayers of communal repentance often do not awaken the conscience to issues about which one may be blind or recalcitrant.

Obviously, this raises a host of questions: Where in the liturgy should we place such a collective act of contrition? Should it only be during an Ash Wednesday mass or the shorter service for the disposition of the ashes? Perhaps, more basically, who would write this prayer? The parish? The bishop? The bishops’ conferences?

One blog cannot adequately address these issues. But Pope Francis has frequently admonished believers against inward-gazing self-righteousness. Ash Wednesday’s disruption brings a similar warning to our lives: be not too comfortable with yourself. Or, for that matter, with your Church.


Brent Little is an assistant lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


Church Reform through the Lens of the Oscars

The Academy Awards ceremony coincided with the final day of last week’s Vatican summit on sexual abuse, which prompted me to look for insights about church reform that are epitomized by four of the nominees for best picture. A common thread among these films is their attention to racial or ethnic marginalization, which is not unlike the experience of many laity in today’s church.

First, Roma symbolizes that reform must try to close the gaps of the laity’s disengagement. Alfonso Cuarón’s film follows a year in the life of Cleo, a maid to a wealthy family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Cleo is loved by the family and, at times, incorporated in their activities, but she is always aware of where the power lies. As a working class maid, an indigenous Mixtec and a woman, she is multiply marginalized in this society. Like Cleo, lay Catholics often feel like observers in swirl of ecclesial events, and not all their gifts are recognized. As Paul Lakeland writes in Liberation of the Laity, “the Catholic tradition currently squanders lay experience.”

Next, Green Book suggests that reform is built on listening. The movie dramatizes a 1962 road trip through the American South by Dr. Don Shirley, a black classical pianist, and his white driver, Tony Vellelonga. The movie follows the beats of the typical road picture, in which both men go on a journey of self-discovery and build a friendship. Green Book’s creators have been criticized for oversimplifying issues and indulging in the “white savior” trope. Nonetheless, this feel-good film does model something important about change in any culture: listening to others about their experience paves the way to personal transformations. The church has made significant efforts to listen to survivors of clerical sexual abuse; such wounded Catholics participated in the Vatican summit, for instance.

However, listening is not enough. Like racism, the lack of accountability in the Church is not simply the fault of bad individuals, and it will not be cured through interpersonal relationships alone. So a third film’s message is needed. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman shows that reform is about facing structural and historical sins. This film powerfully contextualizes its story of a black and a Jewish policer officer who infiltrated the KKK with an extended portrait of white supremacist culture. Drawing a line from the terrors of the lynching era to 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Lee drives home that resistance to racism must be organized, insistent and prepared to face harsh backlash.

Calls for accountability in the church might well need the same qualities to be effective. As in 2002, lay movements are on the rise. In the Washington, D.C., metro area, in the wake of the revelations about Theodore McCarrick, lay Catholics are posting “Five Theses” in parishes: full transparency, venues for survivors’ voices, simple living by bishops, women’s leadership in the church and prayer for reform. Whether church leaders will listen to the to Five Theses movement any more than they did to Voice of the Faithful, and whether they will even allow space for reform-minded laity to talk to each other, remains to be seen. Past experience gives a reason to be jaded.

Yet, a fourth film proposes that reform is about nurturing hope. Black Panther struck a chord with black Americans and with people of color around the world for its imagining of what Africa might be like if it hadn’t been colonized and millions of its people taken into slavery. The film is partly set in Wakanda, whose King T’Chaka becomes the film’s titular superhero. Here, a society of Africans from diverse tribes live in partial secrecy from the rest of the world, enjoying superior technology and a peaceful, vibrant culture. In Yes! Magazine, artist Ingrid LaFleur expressed why this imagery resonates with black audiences: “In Wakanda, we all belong… This is how the revolution begins, a slow expansion of the future vision that emerges… We reject the future that has been designed for us. Our inner superhero has been ignited.”

Lay Catholics should dare to hope for a future church were we all belong, in a full and meaningful way. The laity’s passion and activism for such a future are necessary ingredients. This lens is utopian, to be sure. But Christians exercising the virtue of hope can engage in planning for utopias, aware that we don’t bring the Kingdom, but we help build it by responding to Jesus’ call to discipleship. That’s a script worth writing.


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


It’s Time for the Laity to Look at Ourselves

Just last week, reports surfaced of yet another community of innocents whom predatory priests have been preying upon for decades, this time communities of nuns who now are defying cultural expectations to share stories of assault, rape, abortions, AIDS-related illnesses and ecclesial impassivity bordering on abandonment. The torrent of reports is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating.

However, it is not about the guilt of clergy that this brief commentary concerns itself; rather, it is a call to the lay population of the Church—especially lay leaders and insiders— to engage in a process of self-reflection and to contemplate any abandonment of the ‘straight path’ in our individual lives. I am, of course, not accusing the lay population of the crimes that continue to roil the Church, nor am I suggesting that the malfeasance of the credibly accused and convicted should taint those who are sincerely attempting to bring light and reform to the institutional body. However, while there is justifiable condemnation of abuse and complicity, we the laity must also look to ourselves and consider our own attitudes and behaviors with regard to currents of sexism, racism and classism that so bedevil society still.

Permit  me to draw on Dante and his “divine’ journey,” which was not simply some fantastic narrative of an individual navigating the spiritual realms of the soul; rather, it was the anguished contemplation of a troubled man who finally had come to recognize that while he had always been swift to judge and censure the failures of so many others, including the Church, he had not really considered his own participation in the moral and cultural upheaval that vexed Florence and its environs at the time.

It is with Dante’s own reckoning in mind that we should reflect on one of the great failings of the Church and society; that is, the prejudicial disregard of women. That failing finds ample corroboration in much of contemporary society as well as in the Church and thus, it may be argued, that lay Catholic men (and some women) may be just as much at fault as clergy in sustaining an ontological distinction of the sexes, asserting secondary status to the female in all significant ways.  For example, Pope Francis has made clear his categorical rejection of an equal presence of women in the Church, and yet even he had to confess the ugly reality of decades-long predatory abuse of nuns by priests and bishops. However, he did so to a strikingly quiet audience, and within 24 hours of the Pope’s comments, the Vatican issued another statement—a fervent clarification of the rhetorical turn of the Pope, pulling back comments about the ‘sexual slavery’ to which nuns in the global Church (including Europe) had been subjected, and falling into a miasma of sophistry that asserted that the “slavery” to which Francis had referred should rather more properly be understood as “manipulation” or a simple type of abuse of power. The statement was as embarrassing as it was hypocritical.

Such collusions of misogyny of course confound the moral status of the Church and, to some degree, modern society. Can modern institutions populated by male leaders (and some few women) proffer any claim about universal human dignity while separating out women (and girls) as something “other” and therefore lacking any claim to be heard or validated?  That there are so many (lay) men (and some women) who do not even consider misogyny a moral failure but simply a caricatured ‘battle of the sexes” points to a fundamental flaw in the moral foundation of society as well as the Church. As long as a certain population of clerical and lay men (and some women) sustains by word, deed or implication, the premise of a distinct ontology for men and another (inferior) for women, then all claims of moral restitution ring hollow.   

As a result, there are many lay women in the Church who are no more sanguine about the role and agenda of lay men (howsoever self-styled “progressive”) in the “rebuilding” of the Church (and perhaps society?) than they are about any shift in understanding on the part of clerical leaders.  As long as there is still inherent in the secular as well as clerical cultures a disposition to accord men an essential primary of place, there can be no sustained and meaningful rectification of abuses perpetrated by clergy, because in both secular and religious cultures, men have still been granted a metaphysical authority over women… and so everyone.

Perhaps an authentic reconstruction of the Church can only occur when everyone is willing to “dive deeply” as did Dante, and become fully self-aware, not simply about obvious tendencies but about the entrenched beliefs that guide daily lives.


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


At the Crossroads

On the road to Emmaus, according to Luke, there came a point when Jesus made as if to go on without the two disciples but they pressed him to stay with them (Lk 24: 28). The Church universal in these strange times is at such a cross-roads. The case of Ireland may be instructive.

Long known as the ‘island of saints and scholars,’ with high rates of religious observance and an enormous missionary outreach to both the developed and  developing worlds, Ireland is now effectively  entering a post-Catholic phase. Even if over 78 percent of the population in the Republic still identified as Catholic in the recent census, it is increasingly accepted that this is a ‘cultural Catholicism’ for so many that does not translate into active discipleship, while the fastest-growing demographic is younger people without faith adherence.

Since at least the 1980s, there has been an erosion of the traditional Catholicism that so imbued Irish personal and public life. This has been evidenced most clearly in public policy issues like contraception, divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage and, most spectacularly last year, abortion, where the State, supported by the majority of the people, has increasingly adopted positions at odds with that of the Catholic Church. There is a crisis of vocations to the priesthood, with the managerial device of parish ‘clustering’ introduced to ensure the availability of Sunday Eucharist for all. One gets a sense of demoralisation, even of defeatism.

The most obvious reason for this dramatic change of fortune is the scandal of child and institutional abuse by clerics and religious and its mishandling by church authorities. This is a familiar story elsewhere in the Church. The damage to victims, survivors and their wider families has been enormous and will take a long time to heal. The moral authority and prestige of the Church have taken a huge hit.

However, I would also point to other, and perhaps even deeper, sources of disenchantment with the Church. There is the clear non-reception of much church teaching on issues of sexuality and gender. This is particularly so among younger people who find, for example, the Church’s attitude toward homosexuality and gay relations, as well as its stance on women priests, at best of little interest and at worst unjust and immoral.

And, perhaps deeper still, there is a sense that in the dominant culture of Western Christianity (now increasingly making headway elsewhere in our globalized world) the individual person and his/her experience and story, authenticity, freedom, equality and the  voices of minorities always trump the institutional voices of a patriarchal hierarchy with its focus on institutional cohesion and rule-keeping.

In this context, with secularism widening and deepening, the Catholic Church in Ireland is faced with a choice, articulated well by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. Given that we are likely to be a minority in the future, do we batten down the hatches, circle the wagons and become a ‘culturally irrelevant minority,’ or do we ‘cast out into the deep,’ in a spirit of dialogue and engagement with our world?

Readers will recognize in this choice facing Ireland the similar question facing the Church world-wide: given the end of ‘Christendom,’ and the futility of investing energy and resources in unwinnable political battles that only reinforce the idea of Christianity as a set of ethical precepts that the Church seeks to impose via the state, do we choose the so-called Benedict option of a future, ‘smaller, purer church,’ a critic on the side-lines? Or do we go for the so-called Francis option—a Church in conversation and dialogue with the world, redolent of the ‘smell of the sheep,’ a field-hospital because it itself is sick and is being treated, a church that wins adherents through attraction to the person of Jesus Christ, friend of the poor, icon of the infinite tenderness and mercy of God our Mother and Father?

This is the Church Pope Francis calls synodal, stating boldly that it is the kind of church that God expects of us in the third millennium. It will develop a culture of open discussion and debate, with appropriate structures and institutions to allow this to happen. It will involve lay people, women and men, in teaching and governance. It will not be afraid to change and will allow, as Newman knew so well, that ‘consulting the faithful’ results in a ‘development of doctrine’ that is not simply linear in nature but is also corrective.

There is increasing evidence in Ireland that our bishops are taking this Francis option seriously and may be on the cusp of decisive action in this respect. The laity who remain are clearly ready for action of this kind. This needs to happen more widely in other countries for the Francis revolution to be actualized, a millennial paradigm shift to a model of church that has deep  biblical and traditional roots and is particularly well-placed to dialogue with (and critique, where necessary) our contemporary culture.

When the two disciples made their choice at their crossroads they went, through their encounter with the stranger, from downcast faces to burning hearts, from despondency to joy. We are at a similar crossroads today.


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