A publication of Sacred Heart University

“Only in the Deep Valleys Can You Appreciate the Majesty of the Mountains.”

Last month’s plenary meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops invited that sentiment. The conference’s central “accomplishment” was the adoption of a thoroughly anodyne document reflecting a pre-conciliar understanding of the Eucharist. This was a kind of nadir: The bishops’ conference that once produced remarkable documents on nuclear weapons and the economy could only manage a text that was even less interesting than the catechism.

But at least it was an off-ramp, a way to bring an end to the fruitless year-long effort by some culture warrior bishops to get the conference to urge, even demand, that President Joe Biden be denied communion. The zealots lost.

There also were signs of hope at last month’s meeting if you know how to read the tea leaves. The most obvious was the presentation on synodality by Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas. Flores is among the most intellectually gifted bishops in the country, a man who inhales literature and culture. A Latino, Flores catches many of Pope Francis’ literary references that the rest of us miss. His time leading a border diocese has marked him as a Pope Francis bishop too: His flock is on the margins. Not only did Flores help his brother bishops better understand what synodality is all about, he became the chair of the Doctrine Committee at the end of the meeting. (The bishops elected him last year and he served as chair-elect the past year.) That is a reason for hope.

Another important change took place when Baltimore Archbishop William Lori assumed the leadership of the Pro-Life Activities Committee. He replaces Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann. Lori is the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, the leadership of which has been taken over by Republican Party operatives in recent years. Still, the Knights are a far cry from the American Life League and Lepanto Institute which were the groups that shaped Naumann’s approach to pro-life issues. Lori is conservative but compared to Naumann, he is the embodiment of sweet reasonableness.

The election of new committee chairs this year showed signs the pro-Francis bishops are getting closer to the day when they will constitute a majority of the conference.

For example, Bishop James Cecchio of Metuchen defeated Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle in the race to become treasurer of the conference, 135-106. Cecchio is a more conservative type, a former rector of the North American College in Rome who roped in conservative donors like Tim Busch, founder of the rightwing Napa Institute, to fund new projects at the seminary. Etienne is more obviously a bishop in the mold of Pope Francis, beginning a series of listening sessions last year designed to help forge a pastoral plan from the ground up.

There was a bit of what statisticians call “noise” around this result. Cecchio’s ten years as rector meant that he had hosted many of the bishops when they came to Rome, so his significant margin of victory was not necessarily a referendum on whether the body of bishops wanted to more closely align themselves with the pope.

The strangest election was for the chair-elect of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, the USCCB’s point person for a raft of important public policy issues. The bishops selected Ukrainian Archbishop Borys Gudziak, despite the fact that he had spent most of the past decade working in France. Most bishops barely know him. Why did he win? Because the alternative was the culture warrior par excellence, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. That was a bridge too far.  

Another election showed the degree to which the conference is still not willing to go all-in with Pope Francis. Bishop Steven Lopes of the Anglican Ordinariate defeated Archbishop Mitch Rozanski of St. Louis to become chair-elect of the Liturgy Committee by a single vote, 121-120. Rozanski marked himself as a pro-Francis bishop during an intervention at the June USCCB meeting. Lopes is more conservative but he also leads an ordinariate that was created precisely so the former Anglicans could keep a different rite. The closeness of the margin indicates that it is not too long before Team Francis has the votes to select new leadership more aligned with the pope, but they are not there yet.

Next year, the bishops will elect a new president to replace Archbishop Jose Gomez, whose tenure as leader of the USCCB has been one disappointment after another. Between now and then, Pope Francis will likely name another fifteen or twenty bishops, perhaps more. There may be enough votes next November to decisively steer the conference in a new direction.

The Catholic Church is like an aircraft carrier. It doesn’t change course on a dime but it does change. The committee chair elections in the past two years were baby steps to be sure, but they move the U.S. Church closer to that day when its conference headquarters is not known as a “Francis-free zone.” There is a long way to go, but things are moving in the right direction.


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


A Season for Eucharistic Expectations

A dear friend of mine and I sometimes like to speculate about a cultural “triduum” in the United States that spans Thanksgiving, Black Friday and the First Sunday of Advent. The Church ordinarily reserves the idea of a triduum for the Paschal Triduum that stretches from Holy Thursday and Good Friday through Easter because the story of salvation history plays wonderful tricks with time. Thanksgiving, built on a civil mythology that obscures the wounds of colonization, celebrates giving thanks for gifts one already has; Black Friday, a day named in honor of its profit margins, crowds shopping malls and email inboxes with deals for buying more gifts; Advent begins a period of holiday celebrations-while-waiting. Few tripartite symbols better capture the ironies of American consumerism. Except, of course, that celebration of excess called the Turducken, evangelized by John Madden during Thanksgiving football commentary. The nestling delicacy (so I’m told) consists of a chicken stuffed within a duck stuffed within a turkey. A triduum works like a sort of Turducken for the calendar. Considered part of a single movement in time, last weekend’s three festivals reveal how our national holiday season joins the liturgical invitation for the People of God to turn and look eastward in renewed expectation of the Christ’s arrival.

This time of year brings a cascade of anticipations that might be overwhelming, and the calendars align with an added twist of fate. Recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved a document titled “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” Consuming thanksgiving might be one simple phrase that summarizes the Eucharist. Primarily, the document seeks to teach and remind the Catholic faithful of the surprising and countercultural reality of the Eucharistic mystery. The Bishops remind the faithful how Catholics believe they truly encounter the living God in the Eucharist. In the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, ordinary food and drink become “the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ without ceasing to appear as bread and wine to our five senses” (21). While it appears that the faithful consume the host, I think it would be better to say the Eucharist consumes and transfigures us.

Simply snacking on the Eucharist will not transform the world. Many anxiously watched to see if the document would include explicit instructions about whether to bar certain Catholic politicians, President Biden chief among them, from receiving the Eucharist. Aside from a few phrases about the “special responsibility” for laity in positions of authority to “form their consciences in accord with the Church’s faith and moral law” (36), the document offers no blanket denial. Instead, it provides a summary of the church’s teachings about sinfulness and communion and reminders about the sacrament’s centrality to Christian life. It calls for “a time of Eucharistic renewal, a time of prayer and reflection, of acts of charity and sincere repentance” (58). The document reminds everyone, perhaps even the bishops, too, that “Participation in the Mass is an act of love” (28).

To proclaim the meaning of the Eucharist through acts of charity, repentance and love requires reflection on priorities. The reign of God lacks managerial efficiency or militaristic obedience. “Eucharistic renewal” should not mean slick marketing campaigns for social media. Bishops must be shepherds that “guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls,” but the USCCB rightfully and surprisingly avoids an explicit checklist for what, in fact, constitutes “public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law” (49). The document explains that Christian work to promote life and dignity includes a special dedication to “the most vulnerable in our midst: the unborn, migrants and refugees, victims of racial injustice, the sick and the elderly” (38). Visible communion describes a relationship wrapped in holy mystery and prayerful longing for unity. Therefore, visible communion may not so easily map onto a partisan agenda or search engine optimized branding.

Eucharistic renewal will mean examining the Church’s exclusions and expectations. The Eucharist demands conversion outward, to respond to God’s gift with acts of extravagant mercy and unexpected beauty. The Eucharist, far from a smug reaffirmation of personal righteousness or liturgical taste, sends the faithful in love “to tell other people about it” (57). Eucharistic expectations fit well the joy and the complexity of this season. Any conversation about Eucharistic renewal begins by listening with care to the voices of those harmed by the Church and those left waiting. Only then might Advent excitement about sharing the Eucharist ring true without sounding like yet another ad campaign.


Charles A. Gillespie is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


On Scandal and Schism

Growing up in a very conservative Catholic household, I heard many warnings about not causing “scandal” but I never thought much about the concept until a bishop accused me of doing just that.  About two decades ago, the incident involved an award for a prominent alumna in public life. A photograph of the alumna and mention of the award appeared in our TRINITY magazine, which prompted a scolding letter from the local bishop, a cardinal, accusing me of creating scandal because the alumna, a politician, is pro-choice, contrary to Catholic teachings.  Nothing about the award or the photograph suggested that Trinity or I were supporting abortion or flagrant disrespect for the Church.  This women’s college was recognizing women’s leadership.  No matter. In the words of the bishop, I was guilty of… Scandal!

The cardinal in question was McCarrick, no longer a cardinal nor priest.  Defrocked due to sexual abuse allegations.  The response of the hierarchy to the massive scandal of priests committing sexual crimes remains inadequate.

Can we talk about real “scandal” in the Church?

I was thinking of this incident recently when I read a speech that Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles gave on November 4, 2021 to the Congress on Catholics and Public Life in Spain.  His Excellency Archbishop Gomez is also the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops which will meet next week to discuss, among other things, whether Catholic politicians who are pro choice can receive Holy Communion, something that some bishops call a scandal.

In his speech, Archbishop Gomez decried “new social justice movements” as “pseudo-religions” perpetrated by, among others, “an elite leadership class” in universities.  Commentators have subsequently made it clear that he was referring to Black Lives Matter, among other movements.   Archbishop Gomez said, “Whatever we call these movements — “social justice,” “wokeness,” “identity politics,” “intersectionality,” “successor ideology” — they claim to offer what religion provides.”  He then ridicules “the ‘woke’story” of human suffering and oppression as somehow anti-Christian and wholly secular.   He went on, “Today’s critical theories and ideologies are profoundly atheistic. They deny the soul, the spiritual, transcendent dimension of human nature; or they think that it is irrelevant to human happiness. They reduce what it means to be human to essentially physical qualities — the color of our skin, our sex, our notions of gender, our ethnic background, or our position in society…these movements resemble some of the heresies that we find in Church history.”

Can we talk about “scandal” in the Church?

Rather than going after faithful lay Catholics whose political views differ from their own, the bishops need to examine their own scandalous entwinement with political groups that mock Church teachings on social justice and profess outright contempt for Pope Francis.

It is a profound scandal for one of the leading Catholic bishops to call advocating for racial justice a heresy, to engage in gaslighting about the concept of social justice which is central to Catholic teachings and has been since the late 19th Century when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum.  There is nothing “new” about social justice, nor is there anything “atheistic” about what has been a core set of beliefs for Catholics across generations.  There is nothing — absolutely NOTHING! — that is anti-Christian about confronting racial hatred and white supremacy, about protesting police violence and the killings of Black people by law enforcement officers, about proclaiming the inherent rights and dignity of persons of color to be free from political oppression and social degradation.  In fact, to do so is profoundly Christian.

Social justice starts with the bedrock teaching on the dignity and worth of human life — the whole basis for the Church’s teachings against abortion, the death penalty, and other major life-centered dogmas including (ahem, Archbishop Gomez) racism — and proceed through the tenets of solidarity, the option for the poor, the rights of workers, care for family and the community, the exercise of responsibility to participate in public life, and care for God’s creation.  How “woke” is that?  You can look it all up right there on the USCCB website!  Social justice IS what we do as Catholics!  But you wouldn’t know that from reading the Archbishop’s screed against it.

Perhaps most disturbing in his historically agnostic address, Archbishop Gomez cites the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd as the basis for the rise of “pseudo-religions” that are antithetical to Christian beliefs.  “The new social movements and ideologies that we are talking about today, were being seeded and prepared for many years in our universities and cultural institutions. But with the tension and fear caused by the pandemic and social isolation, and with the killing of an unarmed black man by a white policeman and the protests that followed in our cities, these movements were fully unleashed in our society.” 

Shame on the archbishop for using George Floyd’s murder as a pretext for political grandstanding in the guise of Catholic teaching! Shame on him for dismissing concerns about racial hatred, white supremacy, and the actual and profound harm done to human life through the ongoing consequences of racial brutality and political oppression!  Shame on him for speaking contemptuously of the work of universities devoted to promoting the ideals of social justice — universities like Trinity that work in solidarity with those who are marginalized, who have suffered immense poverty and discrimination and yet are able to find hope and pathways to greater economic security and lifelong fulfillment with a great education, one that was first conceived and shaped by the selfless labor of great Catholic religious women like our Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur here at Trinity, and religious orders like the Jesuits and others.

In response to the murder of George Floyd and the righteous protests that followed, here at Trinity we created Trinity DARE: Driving Actions for Racial Equity to promote racial justice for our students, the majority of whom are African American, with substantial representation of Hispanic, Asian and students from immigrant backgrounds.  We certainly did not do this as some kind of (in the words of Archbishop Gomez) Marxist or pseudo-religious or atheistic impulse.  Rather, as with all that we do at Trinity, we pursue racial justice as an expression of our mission in Catholic social justice.

Not a word of acknowledgement or gratitude in the speech of Archbishop Gomez for all those who do the hard work of the Church every day, lay women and men whose devotion to mission is breathtaking, the workers in what Pope Francis once called the “field hospital” of our faith.

The archbishop’s statement seems wholly divorced from the reality of Catholic teachings on social justice as well as the plain fact that the most important social justice movement of our lifetime — the civil rights movement, the quest to atone for the ongoing consequences of slavery and search for racial equity — arose from, was led by, and is fueled by the passion of people of faith and Christian beliefs, and generations of ministers including, most famously, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Reading the bishop’s speech, I felt that he had never actually talked with or had any experience with members of the Black community who are profoundly Christian and unabashedly religious in their expression — more so than most white Catholics of my acquaintance.

Commenting on the bishop’s speech in National Catholic Reporter, Fr. Bryan Massingale noted, “…he blanketly characterizes social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter as pseudo-religions based on profoundly atheistic ideologies that are hostile to Catholic belief…On the contrary, most Black Catholics I know advocate Black Lives Matter precisely because of our belief in the universal human dignity of all people as images of God,” Massingale added. “We declare that Black Lives Matter precisely because of our allegiance to what the archbishop calls the Christian story.”

Can we talk about the real “scandal” in the Church?

Next week the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, of which Archbishop Gomez is president, will be meeting in Baltimore to discuss, among other things, a document that arose from the desire of some bishops to prohibit pro-choice politicians from receiving Holy Communion. Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in all of American history, and yet a significant group of bishops are hell-bent on making him a pariah in our Church.  Why? Because he is pro-choice, which seems to be the single greatest “scandal” in the lexicon of some bishops.  Dimissive of social justice, unconcerned about the deeply corrosive effects of racial hatred, ignoring their responsibilities as pastoral leaders, some bishops would seem to be happier if the Church were much smaller.  They may get their wish.  If bishops like Gomez keep it up, the defections among the faithful will increase, not in any dramatic walkout, but in the slow and steady erosion of confidence in the leadership of the Catholic Church in America.

The real scandal that is brewing is a potential fracturing of the Church in the United States — some say it has already occurred — leading to a formal recognition of schism. If the bishops care anything about the health of the Catholic Church in America, they should reconsider their strategies.  The vast body of the faithful are looking for pastoral leadership, affirmation of the good work that we are doing, and even if our views depart at times from what the bishops may wish (sometimes for good reason, if they would only listen), at least some care and concern for how disagreement occurs among people who are all walking together on the same journey across very treacherous terrain.  Bishops should be looking for ways to hold the faithful together, not using wedges to drive us farther apart.

Pope Francis has made it eminently clear that he wants the American bishops to stand down from their confrontation with President Biden and other Catholic politicians whose secular political positions are at odds with Catholic teachings on abortion.  Teach and preach, yes, that’s what bishops should do; but public condemnation of individuals?  No.  Public confrontation at the communion rail over political issues is desecration of the sacrament and at odds with the pastoral responsibilities of the clergy.

Let those pastoral responsibilities start with a commitment to backing away from culture wars and dismissive rhetoric about the importance of social justice movements.  Let the bishops stand up to racial hatred and injustice as a matter of our faith teaching about the dignity and worth of all human life.  Let the bishops commit themselves to spending more time side-by-side with those who are laboring mightily in the field hospital, and less time in places like the Napa Institute cavorting with those who are responsible for driving people to the margins.


Patricia A. McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University. This article first appeared on the president’s blog.


Pandemic, Syndemic and Resilience

As a pediatrician with forty years of experience in caring for seriously ill, dying and abused children and youth, I have often been in awe of the wisdom, courage and resilience of some and heartbroken at the life-long devastating wounds to others.

In my personal journey with the clergy sexual abuse of minors, I have moved from direct care of abused children to diagnosing the underlying systemic and cultural factors which have fostered this profound harmful during a critical time in human development.

In 1986, with the public recognition of the longstanding crisis of the sexual abuse of minors in the West, the initial focus was on identifying risk factors in individual victims and in offenders. It became apparent that this approach failed to assess adequately the complexity of causation. The American sociologist David Finklehor provided a helpful framework for assessment of underlying systemic and cultural factors in his “dynamics or preconditions” for abuse.

Vulnerability is inherent in our embodied and embedded reality. It is unique to our personal situation. It can be pathogenic when caused by unjust beliefs, policies and practices. The pandemic has caused unprecedented global vulnerability and a global cultural trauma for all children and adults. It has unmasked inadequacies in accessible, affordable health care for all, adequate mental health care and public health with its attention to poverty and marginalization of communities and populations.

Specific harms to children and youth, the most vulnerable, include short and long-term effects on physical and mental health, an increase in youth suicide, an explosion of child sexual exploitation and abuse, the loss of routine and rituals of identity and security, parental stress and a changing epidemiology of risk.

Epigenetics has shown that our genes are influenced by trauma which affects learning, adaptive behaviors, physical and mental health and adult productivity. In trauma, the suffering caused by violence is remembered and relived. It is not in the past because the body remembers, and wounds and scars remain.

The multiple traumas of the pandemic have raised critical questions regarding a God who allows suffering on such a massive scale. All this requires a deeper understanding of the effects of trauma and the promotion of resilience in the post-pandemic Church and world.

In the critical systems thinking of Merrill Singer and others, the COVID-19 pandemic is increasingly understood as a syndemic, when a number of factors, including the physical, emotional, social, economic, political, religious and spiritual, combine to cause greater impact than the infection itself. A syndemic lens broadens and deepens our understanding of trauma and assists us in viewing the pandemic through the lens of faith and faith through the lens of the pandemic.

Responding to trauma must be rooted theologically and become a reality in our life, worship and mission. Trauma presents challenges to pastoral care and Christian theology.  

Pastoral care is concerned with the well-being of individuals and communities. Pastoral workers themselves have experience tragedy fatigue, especially in ministering to those who have lost their faith and questioning a loving God. This can lead to compassion fatigue, burnout and traumatic stress. Self-care, self-compassion and self-acceptance are essential. No effective safeguarding can occur without the education and support of families who are real first responders as they balance protection from infection with promotion of rituals of identity and security, long-term human development and resilience to the adverse events of childhood.

How can we bring new life out of the death and darkness around us? In crisis we are called to restore right relationships with God, others and all of creation.

The mystery of suffering and belief in a loving God are central to Christian belief. Traditional theologians offer meaning and comfort from the experience of Jesus, the “Suffering Servant.” Christian theology and practice from trauma-informed theologians focus on accompaniment, truth-telling and wound-healing

The promotion of resilience is crucial in resistance to abuse and healing from it. The word’s origin means to recoil or spring back. In psychology it has come to mean the ability to respond effectively to and cope with trauma, adversity and failure. It is an ongoing protective capability.

Research has identified resilience-promoting factors including strong social networks; acknowledging and confronting fears; and an optimistic outlook.

The convergence of the sexual abuse crisis, pandemic and trauma studies raise critical questions. How do we obstruct resilience, and even retraumatize, by bad theology and insensitive, inadequate pastoral care? How can we respond to trauma in ways that promote the resilience of the Resurrection as we move forward? 

Simple ‘quick fix’ answers to our wounded Church and world will not produce healing and renewal in the post pandemic Church and world. As Jesus in his Paschal Mystery and all mothers witness bringing forth new life is painful and messy work. It is our challenge today.


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


Archbishop Gomez's Comments Reveal Anti-intellectualism Among Church Leaders

When I was working on my master's degrees in Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago, I took a graduate course on Christian spirituality at the Catholic University of America. While there were a few lay students enrolled in the course, the class was composed overwhelmingly of diocesan seminarians and two or three members of religious orders, including myself.

It was an interesting class and the professor, himself an ordained member of a religious community, regularly tried to make the history of Christian spirituality applicable and relatable to these seminarians who would be entrusted with the pastoral care of their Christian sisters and brothers in just a few years.

One day, our professor made an insightful comment that has stayed with me all these years later. He said that in order to be a good priest, someone who can preach the Word of God in a relevant manner, understand the "signs of the times" (Gaudium et Spes), relate to the people in their communities and be a balanced and thoughtful person, we ought to be people of culture, intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning.

He explained that, as seminarians, the students in this class should strive to be well-rounded, developing a robust prayer life and spirituality that helped them to engage in the ministry God was calling them to pursue. He encouraged the students to begin cultivating a love of learning and the arts, to seek out a wide range of literature and sources of knowledge, and to embrace what medieval thinkers called the via pulchritudinis (the way or path of beauty).

This insight has been reaffirmed by many wise and exemplary priests and women and men religious I have known over the years.

Recently, I have been remembering this professor's encouragement because of a series of public missteps by church leaders in the United States that could have been mitigated or perhaps even avoided if more American bishops practiced what my Catholic University professor preached.

What I mean is that one thread linking a number of the scandalous and insensitive statements and actions of U.S. bishops individually and collectively is an apparent anti-intellectualism that is, sadly, not uncommon in other sectors of American society today. There appears to be decreasing interest among the American episcopate, and among clergy more broadly, in reading widely, engaging in robust conversation and dialogue, or learning from perspectives, sources and cultures different from one's own.

We have seen this play out this year with the simplistic and at times dangerously erroneous statements some bishops have made regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and alleged ethical questions surrounding it. As research scholars have noted, such attitudes and statements around vaccine misinformation, skepticism and noncompliance with public health protocols are strongly correlated to anti-intellectual attitudes.

Sadly, many church leaders believe themselves to be sufficiently situated to make appropriate judgments about things they know nothing about and to distrust actual experts and professionals.

Likewise, we have seen how a narrowly defined political horizon has led to unprecedented criticism of Catholic politicians, usually Democrats, which has led to acrimonious internal debates about whether it is or is not appropriate to issue a collective statement calling for the refusal to admit certain public figures to Communion (for the record, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope Francis, among others, have signaled clearly that it is not appropriate).

The arrogance that has led so many bishops to feel they are entitled to make such sweeping judgments can yet again be traced back to a misplaced sense of unassailable knowledge or certitude, which belongs to absolutely no individual minister — including the pope himself (see Evangelii Gaudium, 51).

Caught now in the embarrassing situation of unwisely pushing ahead with attempts to draft such a political document, one that would have inevitably reduced the Eucharist to a "weapon" or "reward," in effect committing blasphemy, and now realizing that such a foolish effort would never be allowed by the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is attempting to rebrand the text as some kind of treatise on the importance of the Eucharist and the true sacramental presence of Christ.

If that were in fact what was on the table, there wouldn't be much of a problem. However, as Msgr. Kevin Irwin, the renowned sacramental theologian, noted in NCR last week, the theological foundations for the current draft document are so outdated as to be theologically inaccurate and deeply problematic. Rather than reflect the church's actual teaching from the highest authority — the Second Vatican Council — the authors appear to have traveled back to the theological imagination of Trent, clearly not taking advantage of centuries of theological, historical, biblical and liturgical scholarship.

Imagine if the bishops and those conference staffers working on a text about the Eucharist actually read the best scholarship on the subject from the last half-century. Imagine if those who purport to guide and teach those Christians entrusted to their pastoral care were intellectually curious, widely read, and consulted actual experts and professionals in theological and liturgical fields.

I have spent several columns in recent years pointing out how the very same dynamics — refusal to consult experts and professionals, failure to listen to the experiences of those viewed as different, overt animosity to the possibility of change or development — have harmed and continue to harm LGBTQ Christians and others.

But it was the understandable firestorm that erupted last week in response to Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez's keynote address for a conference in Madrid that got me thinking not just about the sum of these separate areas of problematic speech and action, but also about the underlying cause of the consistently disappointing and often shocking disconnection from reality that is exhibited — without any sense of self-awareness — by our brothers in leadership roles in the church.

The thing is, I like Gomez. As with many other bishops I sometimes name in this column when engaging their public statements and actions, my concerns with Gomez's statements are not a matter of personal attack or dislike, but are about professional and pastoral responsibility. It is alarming that the bishop of one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse dioceses in the world would make claims so removed from the lived reality of the people he was ordained to serve.

As a theologian and a Franciscan priest, I am keenly aware of the limitations that we all face in our professional and pastoral ministries. Bishops are no different than any other cleric, religious or layperson. Episcopal ordination does not confer any special knowledge (which is the literal meaning of "Gnosticism"), nor does it provide anyone with special intellectual powers.

As Fr. Bryan Massingale, professor at Fordham University, said in a recent NCR article, the issue is that bishops like Gomez in last week's address have the audacity to speak with unearned authority about issues they clearly do not understand.

Most wise people in positions of comparable responsibility would solicit the advice and insight of those who are experts and professionals. But time and again, few American bishops seem able to do something so simple.

To be fair, I know of several bishops in the United States who do regularly consult with theologians, canonists, liturgists and other scholars, recognizing with appropriate humility that they do not and will never have all the correct answers or perspectives on their own. And yet, something more is needed. As Thomas Aquinas said so often, virtue requires practice (habitus) and the virtue of wisdom and intellectual curiosity requires an inquiring and discerning mind, heart and spirit.

In the meantime, it would behoove those inclined to make such statements and claims to read something other than the same-old pre-Vatican II British literature (pace Lewis and Tolkien), watch something other than EWTN and Fox News, and talk to somebody other than those narrowly selected interlocutors who are predisposed to agree with whatever one's solipsistic worldview might hold.


Reprinted by permission of NCR Publishing Company  www.NCROnline.org
 
Franciscan Fr. Daniel P. Horan is the director of the Center for Spirituality and professor of philosophy, religious studies and theology at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana. 

Biden, Amess and Us

As American Catholics wage war over President Joe Biden’s faith—conservatives bemoaning his insufficient ardour on reproductive life issues and progressives trumpeting his command of Catholic Social Teaching—many of their bishops are inclined to punish the president by finding ways to exclude him from receiving the Eucharist. Meanwhile, Pope Francis and like-minded prelates in Rome welcome the president, warn that using communion as a punishment or reward is theologically aberrant and caution their American counterparts on the need for pastoral prudence.

And all this plays out full scale in the media: photoshoots in the Vatican, news commentary and warring op-ed pieces in the national dailies. Not quite “breaking news,” but clear fodder for pundits, zealots, spin doctors and nervous chancery officials.

In England, meanwhile, the nation mourns the loss of one of its longest-serving and most-respected members of parliament, Sir David Amess, who was murdered while meeting with many of his constituents in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex.  He was stabbed several times by a young man for reasons that are not yet apparent but that the authorities are examining for terrorist motivation.

The death of Amess shocked the nation and media coverage was immediate and comprehensive. But in addition to the social and political chatter and analyses, there was serious media interest in his Catholic faith. He was a politician of conviction, his principles of service grounded in his religious tradition. Although he didn’t wear his Catholicism on his sleeve, he was open about what nurtured his political vocation and, as a consequence, his constituents knew the man beyond the partisan script, the polished speaking points, the political brand.

The weekly journal of opinion, The Tablet, boldly declared in its leader editorial of November 1 that “there is a Catholic term for what happened to Sir David Amess: martyrdom. Doing his duty while knowing the risks, he laid down his life for others.”

For both the British and the American electorate, knowing something about the faith of their politicians is a matter of consequence, not to be ignored or trivialized. For sure, there are those whose excess of piety and political fervour will dispose them to a kind of tribalism that is unwelcome in the common political arena; the majority will benefit in knowing something about the undergirding principles that make the politician.

In Canada, by sharp contrast, we prefer to keep religious faith and spirituality well on the periphery of our public square. Why are Canadians so skittish about religious faith in the public space? The endlessly controversial, and in my view notorious, Bill 21 in Quebec legislated by the ruling provincial government, the Coalition Avenir Québec, prohibiting the wearing of religious garb or insignia by those in public service and invoking the Notwithstanding Clause to ensure its passage despite nominal opposition from several human rights organizations and federal political leaders, is a dramatic instance of not just indifference to religion but its forced marginalization.

And now the same government is resolved to introduce a new bill replacing its mandatory public school course, “Ethics and Religious Culture,” with “Quebec Culture and Citizenship.”  The overt hostility to all things religious in la belle province following the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s when Quebec radically divested itself of all things Catholic and clerical morphed over the subsequent decades into a tepid hostility but is now best described as indifference. In fact, ignorance of the religious roots of Quebec society—and not just Catholic—is now universal.

But there are many people of faith—all faiths—in positions of leadership in the government, the academy, the corporate world, etc. but they are hyper-cautious about so declaring. Religion is a strictly private matter.

But this runs counter to the very nature of religion, forces people of faith into the shadows, demarcates acceptable discourse in public settings and establishes a culture of siege rather than an environment of openness.

The politics of faith can be ugly. The concordats of the Trump universe are suspect and divisive, the devolution of the Church of England to a cultural and historical symbol delimiting. But faith is news, religion and politics more than natural adversaries, the spiritual beliefs of the nations’ leaders worthy of public scrutiny and celebration.

Although it is true that religion did surface in the recent election—Anamie Paul’s Jewish faith, Jagmeet Singh’s Sikhism—the coverage was superficial not substantive, as if it is impolite to enquire.

Time to get serious.


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


Can the Church Live Up to the Glasgow Climate Goals?

The more than 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow meet under immense pressure this month as environmentalists warn that immediate action must be taken to prevent the worst projected effects of climate change.

One of the main purposes of holding the conference is nations’ failure to fulfill the commitments they made in the Paris Climate Accords. Signers of the accord committed to taking the necessary measures to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with a goal of limiting it to 1.5 degrees, but they are not on track to do so. A recent report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed the devastating effects that even 1.5 degrees of warming would cause, warning that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

Likewise, developed countries’ Paris pledge to provide $100 billion annually to help poorer countries develop sustainably has not been met. Convincing countries to make good on that commitment will be a main goal of COP26.

In his message to COP26, Pope Francis writes, “As the Glasgow Conference begins, all of us are aware that it has the vital task of demonstrating to the entire international community whether there really exists a political will to devote—with honesty, responsibility and courage—greater human, financial and technological resources to mitigating the negative effects of climate change and assisting the poorer and more vulnerable nations most affected by it,” (emphasis added).

The pope should ask the same question of the church: Does there really exist the will to undergo an ecological conversion—not just a conversion of heart, but a physical conversion of church properties?

The Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest landholders. And as Molly Burhans, the founder of GoodLands and the first person to map all of the church’s properties for the first time since the Middle Ages, has shown, that land could be used much more responsibly.

Squaring church property location data with maps of natural resources, water tables, real estate value, accessibility and other metrics, Burhans is able to create informed plans for how best to use the church’s extensive land-holdings, whether that means identifying where to build a Catholic hospital in a remote area in Africa or creating plans for how U.S. dioceses should use their many vacant properties.

Unfortunately, this work is underfunded and has not been prioritized by a church whose finances are already stretched thin.

In 2018, Pope Francis offered to create a Vatican cartography institute with Burhans at the head—the Vatican’s first female-founded department. The offer came with no budget—just a small stipend that would not cover living expenses. Burhans developed a counter-proposal with a budget around a million dollars—modest for this type of project—for a ten-month trial period. She recently traveled to Rome to discuss the plan with Vatican officials. Still, it is unclear whether the Vatican will accept the counter-offer.

Burhans is certainly exceptional in her field, having been named, just this year, one of the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorers, but lay Catholics like her have been taking the lead in the ecological conversion—in contrast, a new study reveals, with the U.S. bishops.

A recently-released Creighton University analysis of 12,000 columns written by U.S. bishops in their diocesan papers from 2014 to 2018 showed that only 93 (less than 1 percent) of the columns referenced climate change, and only 57 of them did so in a way that suggested climate change was real. In short, “Laudato Si’” went largely ignored by American bishops. Only 20-30 out of the around 180 dioceses in America have taken steps toward converting their properties to be more eco-friendly. (In contrast, a 2020 Princeton survey revealed that Laudato Si’ had significantly shifted American Catholics toward viewing climate change as an important political issue that carried with it a moral imperative to act.)

Burhans’ work and the presence of Catholic grassroots environmentalist groups at Glasgow this month show that there does exist among the American Catholic laity the will for an ecological conversion. The question, then, is whether the American bishops and the Holy See have the “will to devote—with honesty, responsibility and courage—greater financial and technological resources to mitigating the negative effects of climate change” which affect both them and their adherents. As Dorothy Fortenberry wrote in a recent America essay, “Nothing will change the church more profoundly than the color green ceasing to be ordinary.”


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.


The Attack on Pope Francis

Pope Francis has never claimed to be perfect. “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” he was asked soon after his election. “I am a sinner,” was the answer.

One of the reforms of the papacy the Jesuit Pope has enacted is a willingness to admit mistakes publicly and apologize for them. In another shift from recent tradition, he’s also given his full support to media freedom. If something goes wrong, Francis doesn’t send Vatican officials to spin on his behalf or issue clarifications setting out what the Pope really meant to say. 

His authentic communication style, spontaneity and refusal to be scripted is a recovery of the original Petrine tradition. After all, St. Peter, who tended to jump in too quickly and then rue the consequences, became the Church’s chief apostle despite his human failings. 

This shift from a monarchical to servant-leader model has helped make this Pope the most respected religious leader in the world today; yet it has also seen him face unprecedented attacks.  

Beginning soon after his election, the 84-year-old Pope has come up against a powerful and well-funded network of Catholics who have been conducting a guerrilla warfare against his papacy. 

In my book, The Outsider, I document more than a hundred of these attacks that originate from a range of sources including Fox News, populist politicians, President Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Rome-based cardinals. We are not talking about the normal criticism you would expect of a leader, but a politically motivated campaign. And it is rooted in politics. 

Those opposing Francis are unnerved by his bold, prophetic stance on social issues, including his critiques of the capitalist system, appeals for refugees and call to end the death penalty. An outsider pope who has associated himself with outsiders has made those used to calling the shots inside Catholicism very uncomfortable. 

Offering a megaphone to those opposing Francis is the world’s largest religious broadcaster, EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), which has been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump’s politics

One of their flagship programs, hosted by Raymond Arroyo, a regular Fox News contributor, runs unrelentingly negative attack lines against Francis. This hostility has seeped into some other areas of the network. In September 2019, a priest used his homily to attack the Pope during an EWTN live-streamed Mass, while the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register was one of just two websites that in 2018 released the text of former papal diplomat Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s “testimony” calling on the Pope to resign.

Francis has decided to call some of this out. Without naming EWTN, the Pope has spoken of “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.” He explained that “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them.” He added, “They are the work of the devil.”

His comments made a distinction between criticism of Jorge Bergoglio, “a sinner,” and the office of the papacy, the instrument of the Church’s unity. The issue is not about a Catholic media outlet criticizing the Pope, but fueling division through one-sided coverage. This is why he referenced the devil: the original meaning of the Greek word, diabolos, can be translated as “to divide.”

Even after Francis’ remarks, EWTN’s response has been to double-down and say nothing. Arroyo’s latest show saw him spend half an hour talking down the global synod reform process with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a longtime Francis critic. At one point Müller, the Vatican’s former doctrine chief, said consulting people during the synod was “unnecessary.” 

Despite the increasingly politicized attacks, the Pope is not backing down. During an address to community organizers, he said he was willing to “make a pest of myself” with his demands for a fairer distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, for arms dealers to end their activities and for businesses to stop polluting the earth. The Roman Pontiff compared the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd to the Good Samaritan and he urged the media to avoid the “logic of post-truth, disinformation, defamation…” All of what he said is an application of the Church’s social teaching.

“It saddens me,” he said, “that some members of the Church get annoyed when we mention these guidelines that belong to the full tradition of the Church. But the Pope must not stop mentioning this teaching, even if it often annoys people, because what is at stake is not the Pope but the Gospel.”

As anyone who has overseen reform can attest to, coming up against opposition can be a sign you’re going in the right direction. 


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


Saved by Beauty

Many years ago, while fasting in a jail cell in Colorado as a result of sitting on the railroad tracks leading into a nuclear weapons factory, I received a postcard from Dorothy Day. It was an aerial photo of Cape Cod, on which she had written, “I hope this card refreshes you and does not tantalize you.”

Dorothy was an avid collector of picture postcards. Some of them adorned the walls of her room at Maryhouse. They included icons and art, but also images from nature: forests, the ocean, polar bears. Dorothy spent most of her life surrounded by actual images of poverty, including the hungry men and women who waited outside the Catholic Worker each morning for a bowl of soup. But one of Dorothy’s most distinctive qualities was her eye for beauty.

In every circumstance, she could notice something beautiful: the sunlight on a tenement fire escape, or a gingko tree poking through the sidewalk. She enjoyed listening to the opera on the radio. She felt her heart “leap for joy” as she read and suddenly assented “to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.” But she also had an eye for moral beauty: the sight of someone sharing bread with a neighbor (the literal meaning of “companionship”). And hardest of all, she could see beauty where others did not, in the features of Jesus under the disguise of the poor and downtrodden.

Despite all the misery and injustice in the world, she believed we must discipline ourselves to remember the goodness of God’s creation and to catch glimpses of the new heaven and the new earth that were evident if only we had eyes to see. These “samples of heaven” could refresh us and sustain our hope amidst so many frustrations and disappointments.

The life of Sister Wendy Beckett, a consecrated hermit who lived on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England, was quite different from Dorothy Day. But in their attention to the saving power of beauty, they had much in common. Sister Wendy for some years achieved surprising celebrity when she was discovered by the BBC and given a television series in which she visited museums and talked about art. When that was over, she was happy to return to her cell, where she spent most of her days in silence and prayer.

In her last years, before her death in 2018, Sister Wendy and I corresponded on an almost daily basis. She told me that she had considered her television work as a kind of apostolate. By means of talking about the beauty of art, she felt she had found a way of talking about God—the source of Beauty—to an audience unfamiliar or put off by religious language. But for Sister Wendy, beauty was not just about what is aesthetically pleasing. Like her forebear, Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century anchoress and mystic, Sister Wendy saw all things in relation to the mysteries of faith, and so in that light, like Julian or St. Francis or Dorothy, she could see beauty in the Cross, and even in our own sufferings.

One time, in describing a dream, she provided a deep account of her vocation. The dream had three parts: It began with her looking at magnificent pictures of lakes. Then they were actual lakes and she was walking around them, taking in their beauty. Then the lakes were inside her—she was containing them. But at this point she realized there was something wrong with them; they were poisoned or polluted. Yet she felt that in her sorrow and through her own heart she was somehow able to purify the lakes. “I suppose,” she wrote, “this is an image of what being a Christian means. In Jesus we take the whole wounded world into ourselves and suffer with it, holding it out all the time to His holiness.” That is our reason for being, she said: “God’s lakes need us.”

Dorothy Day often quoted Dostoevsky’s famous line, “The world will be saved by beauty.” I often puzzled over what that meant. But both Dorothy and Sister Wendy showed me that beauty has a moral dimension. To direct our attention to beauty, or even the recollection of it, while sitting in a slum or a jail cell or a hermitage, could inspire us to greater courage, hope and love. And it occurred to me that that is why I have spent so much of my life writing about saints: because the lessons of their beautiful faith and witness can refresh and ennoble us. And God’s lakes, forests, polar bears and all the other suffering creatures need us.


Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books, the editor of many volumes of writings by Dorothy Day and author of numerous works on saints. His letters with Sister Wendy, This is Heaven, will appear next year.


Eucharistic Incoherence

For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them.

- T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

The Catholic bishops of the United States have problems on their hands. Their moral credibility as leaders has been in tatters for some time now due to the ongoing revelations of the extent and cowardice of their actions in responding to the sexual abuse of minors. Catholic levels of engagement with the church, particularly among the young, continues to plummet. The coronavirus pandemic has left many people feeling spiritually adrift, particularly in parts of the country where religiosity and COVID precautions such as masking and vaccines have been in an inverse relationship. All of these are urgent matters affecting many people, a true challenge of leadership.

How have the bishops chosen to respond, in their June meeting and the runup to their November meeting?  By voting to proceed with a document on the Eucharist including a section on “Eucharistic Coherence”— e.g. worthiness of the faithful to receive the Eucharist if it might produce a public scandal—with a cadre of bishops throwing aside all pretense of avoiding political partisanship to single out the inauguration of President Biden as the cause of this initiative (which it clearly was). This document will not be approved by the Vatican. High-level Cardinals, and even the Pope himself, have made this abundantly clear.

What brought the bishops to this point? Ultimately, through a combination of tunnel vision and donor pressure, they have chosen to fight the culture wars rather than pastor their flocks. They have also not-so-tacitly signaled that Catholics are allowed to be Republicans and carry out policies of Republican administrations, but are not allowed to be Democrats or support positions associated with Democrats (namely, continuing legal availability of abortion). Beyond the issue of abortion, many bishops promote, for example, organizations that still attempt conversion therapy despite its devastating psychological effects while shunning (and in many cases condemning) even moderate Catholic outreach to the LBGTQ community such as that of Fr. James Martin, SJ. Catholicism, on this view, is concomitant with cultural and political conservatism.

When I set out to choose an epigraph for this column, I initially thought of the famous line from the same speech referenced above in Murder in the Cathedral, in which its protagonist, Archbishop Thomas Becket, says that “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” I demurred in part because I do not in fact think the bishops are doing the right thing, but reading through the broader speech to ensure proper context, I found it even more relevant than I expected, as Becket is grappling with the temptation to find glory in martyrdom, which should be taken up only reluctantly. I think a similar dynamic is afoot in our day and age; many of the bishops have concluded that strong public opposition, including from within the church, equates to a kind of soft martyrdom. This language of martyrdom and persecution carries within it that danger of self-glorification and making their cause—the pro-life cause, proximately, but ultimately the cause of the faith itself—serve them and their political, culture war ends.

While this debate goes on, American democracy remains on the brink of catastrophe, with many “red” states curtailing voting rights and preparing for the possibility of sending electors that go against the will of the people in the 2024 election. This has been met with resounding silence from the Catholic hierarchy, as was much of the corruption and abuse (particularly the lies leading to January 6) of the Trump administration. Needless to say, there has also been little episcopal condemnation of the failures of Catholic politicians like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott to protect their citizens from needless COVID-19 deaths through vaccination, and of Catholic Supreme Court justices to stay executions that are egregious even by the standards of that barbaric form of punishment. What is this—threatening de facto excommunication to some politicians who promote policies that are out of line with Catholic teaching but completely ignoring others—but incoherence?

Pope Francis has all but begged the U.S. bishops to change their tack on multiple occasions, to little avail, with some bishops belittling this past Sunday’s opening homily of the Synod. In November, they have a choice: to stay the course and produce a document that will be null and void but alienate and anger many Catholics whose relationship to the church has been strained by the above; or to embrace the approach of Pope Francis—full witness to the teaching of the church in dialogue with the pastoral needs of the world in front of them, including the crying needs of their own country and its people. That would be coherence— not with culture war politics but with the Gospel.


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