A publication of Sacred Heart University

The Remedy of Synodality

Pope Francis has often repeated that we not only live in a moment of epochal change but are undergoing a radical change of epoch with profound implications for the future of humanity and of our earthly home. His writings—including Laudato Si’, which lays out a new paradigm of ecological justice; Fratelli Tutti, which calls the great religions to work together to nurture a culture of human solidarity and social friendship; or Evangelii Gaudium, on the need for a pastoral and missionary conversion of the church—when taken together, represent a sweeping and incisive diagnosis of the many ills that confront the earth, the human community, and within it, the community we call the church. At every level we are confronted with the reality of systemic failure the extent of which threatens the very future of the planet, of the human community and of the church as we know it.

The most radical of the remedies that Francis proposes for the renewal of the church and its mission is in his invitation to rediscover how to live as a more synodal church. In a recent interview he repeated once again that the desire for a new culture of synodality is not just a personal wish, but that by leading the church in this direction, he is carrying forward a mandate entrusted to him by his brother bishops, one forged in the sometimes-raucous exchanges among the College of Cardinals preceding the conclave of election in the spring of 2013. What emerged from those encounters was an acute awareness that one of the greatest challenges facing the global Catholic Church, one sapping its strength for mission, is a crisis of governance. Decades of a centralizing and controlling culture at the center have disempowered local churches and stifled their ability to respond to new questions and pressing needs.

Writing in 2018 in response to the systemic crisis of sexual abuse and institutionalized cover-up that point to a deep-rooted culture of clericalism and impunity, Francis declared that he could not envision “a conversion of our activity as a church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s people.” Francis’s call for an international synod of bishops on the theme, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” is a massive wager. Not content to bring together a few hundred bishops from the various conferences of bishops in Rome for a few weeks of meetings, he has invited all Catholics to set out on a journey, to “walk together,” as he puts it, and relearn some of the essential habits that reflect the true nature of the church as a people called together by God. 

With his distinctive flair, Francis understands a synod as a process rather than a single event.

That process will be launched on October 10, first in Rome, and then—it is hoped—in every diocese around the world. Bishops and all the baptized are to come together to pray, dialogue, discern and decide on priorities for mission, including what needs to be reformed for their communities to better serve the world. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has prioritized “initiating processes” over “possessing spaces” or “obtaining immediate results” (Evangelii Gaudium, 223-224). This synodal process in every diocese, conference of bishops and continent will culminate in a meeting of bishops in Rome in October 2023.

Nothing has really prepared the bishops, clergy or the lay faithful to embark upon such an undertaking. Little in their seminary formation and training has prepared the leaders of today’s church to listen or render an account to the people they serve. Since the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed the dignity and co-responsibility of all the baptized, structures for dialogue and participation (parish and diocesan pastoral councils, diocesan synods)—if and when they were established—have been a feint artifice of communion and participation. Too often shepherds, unwilling to be unsettled by the perspectives of the competent, the visionary, the marginalized, have surrounded themselves with the loyal and the like-minded. Many gifted lay women and men, living out their faith in the context of families, factories, farms and offices, having been ignored for so long, they will hardly know what to make of an invitation to communicate with distant bishops.

The success of this entire effort will depend largely upon the capacity, courage and ingenuity of the bishops to mobilize and engage with their people. Francis and his team can only initiate. It is no secret that many bishops openly resist his agenda. Will they to rise the occasion? Should they fail, they would be turning a deaf ear to what the Spirit, poured out upon all the baptized, is saying to the churches. They bear a message for the healing of the church and of the world.


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


Why the Arts?

With an ever-oscillating mixture of trepidation and excitement as we near the return date to campus, students, faculty, administrative staff and parents juggle their conflicting emotions and wavering expectations in a climate so slippery that a firm footing remains frustratingly elusive.

Health protocols, labor laws, political priorities, deepening levels of social anxiety and any number of other considerations combine to make a return to campus a less-than-natural occurrence.

Ideally, a campus is a sanctuary, not a field hospital, a place where the disinterested pursuit of knowledge is treasured as an essential good. But these days appropriate pandemic-specific policies need to be enacted to ensure the physical well-being of all and we are enjoined to be patient in the whirligig of sanctions, advisories and cautions that have become our continuing reality. Fair game.

But we should be impatient as well. Unsettled and impatient in the way that the arts—liberal and fine—force us to alter perspective, to re-think foundations, to broaden our understanding. Ideally, the kind of engaged academic environment we see in the Netflix series The Chair—with all its colourful dysfunction, problematic personalities and intelligently empowered, if occasionally wayward, students—is what every arts faculty both aspires to and recoils from. Canadian actor Sandra Oh plays the role of Ji-Yoon Kim, the new chair of the department of English at the fictitious Pembroke University, and her myriad of mini crises would not be unfamiliar to any current chair of a real university.

Collegiate life is a messy business, after all.

Even though we may not have the restoration we all want—a recognizable academic environment unhindered by health concerns—there is much we can recover. Most importantly: the cultivation of a critical approach to all things.

Never has it been more necessary.

Our public language has been compromised. Words as conduits of meaning have been suborned. Renegade political authorities have mercilessly exploited the credulous and we face, globally, a tyranny of Unreason.

When speaking of what he calls the “personified State” in The Undiscovered Self, psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung argues that “belief in the word becomes credulity and the word itself an infernal slogan capable of any deception.” Awash in the rhetoric—anodyne as well as malignant—of the many purveyors of truth, entombed in the global membrane of social media, subject to competing constructs of reality (Trumpians, anti-vaxxers, religious zealots mapping the terrain of the Apocalypse)—we reel from the velocity of it all. As the American poet Thomas Merton observes in his verse play The Tower of Babel, “the words of this land/are interminable signals of their own emptiness/signs without meaning.”

When we see CNN and FOX news for what they really are—celebrity pontificating at the cost of objective reportage—and when we see Canadian politicians in the midst of a national election opt for posturing and preening over uncluttered truth-telling, we are reminded yet again of the need for dispassionate analysis, a hermeneutic of suspicion, a relentless unearthing of the verifiable.

That’s what the liberal and fine arts do. And that’s why we need them.  They are not a divertissement for the privileged, a decorative element that adds lustre to our public image; rather, they are constitutive of human meaning. And they are the final guarantor of our freedom. They are the means of our deeper thinking, vehicles of our imagining.

I am beginning to sound like a recruiter trying to justify arts over its professional equivalents, trumpeting the value of the non-utilitarian over the practical, intellectual curiosity over pragmatic planning. And there might be something in that, but it is not a question of either/or.

I have been in the professoriate for over four decades, have held nearly every administrative post imaginable—institute director, chair of a department, associate dean, dean, vice-president, president and vice-chancellor—and I have wrestled with the personnel and ideological challenges faced by Professor Kim and then some. I have been chastened, corrected and on occasion a mite excoriated, because that is the price you pay to be part of that quarrelsome, opinionated, vigorously independent and yet fiercely territorial entity we call the university, and most prominently its arts faculty. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Out of this cauldron of debate and competing ambitions is forged the kind of mind necessary for survival in our increasingly constrictive environment. And that kind of mind is what the humanities and the social sciences are schooled to refine, a mind that knows how to read not glance, probe not accept, submit to scrutiny all claims to truth and fact rather than defer out of convenience or intellectual laziness. There is a cost to thinking clearly but a greater cost in supine conformity to prevailing orthodoxies.

Never in my professorial life has there been a more pressing need for the critical thinking provided by the arts than now. Conflicting claims to scientific truth in a pandemic, the proliferation of intolerance generated by a new absolutism, a miasma of misinformation, quasi-literate political leaders, institutional collapse—all these and more make for a lethal potpourri of end-of-days threats. Intelligent reading is a hopeful antidote, in part.

We are adept at acquiring knowledge and data by various digital mediations but there is no shortcut to wisdom. For that we need the arts.

Catholic colleges, in particular, have a longstanding commitment to cultivate the sapiential along with the scientific. It speaks to the heart of our mission.


The original version of this blog appeared in The Globe and Mail, September 4, 2021 and is published with permission of the editor.

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


A Better Apologetics

Francis has been pope for more than eight years now and has settled into that rhythm in a papacy whereby you know more or less what he is going to say before he says it. His favorite themes are the ones he has always stressed: outreach to the marginalized, mercy and inclusion, dialogue and synodality, and so on. His dislikes are also obvious: legalism and rigidity, clericalism and careerism, pomp and circumstance, etc. 

Yet Francis still manages to strike those chords in different ways, so that they resonate long after they are spoken. Part of that is because, well, he is the pope, so anything he says is notable. I remember once when I went to interview Mother Teresa and she tried to put me off: “I always say the same things, why do you want to talk to me?” Well, you’re Mother Teresa, I wanted to say. She reluctantly agreed to an interview and as she spoke the power of her words hit me not only because she was a “living saint” (an amusing contradiction) but because what she said was so counter to the prevailing discourse.

So it is with Pope Francis, only what he says so often runs contrary not just to the ways of the secular world but to the self-righteous mindset of much of the Catholic Church.

That was especially evident in the pope’s Angelus address on the last Sunday in August. The noontime event is often a perfunctory appearance, giving pilgrims and tourists far below in the piazza a chance to say they “saw” the pope, and for the rest of us to see what kind of shape the pope is in. The pontiff will usually have a pleasant spiritual reflection, then recite the prayer, and then add a few comments on the events of recent days. Those comments are what will often generate a news brief for the wires.

But on Aug. 29 it was Francis’ mini-homily on the Gospel reading of the day that was especially notable. The passage was from the Gospel of Mark when some of the scribes and Pharisees again try to trap Jesus and his followers because they don’t follow the tradition of washing their hands carefully before eating. Frankly, I’m with the Pharisees on this one. Also, Francis needs to be much more attentive to using the Pharisees as a foil for his blasts against hypocrisy. When Christians hear criticisms of “the Pharisees” as religious legalists they too often equate them to “the Jews”—and not to themselves.

Yet the practice of self-accusation was what Francis wanted to preach about and, Pharisee-bashing aside, he did so in such a way that made me realize yet again how facile and faithless— and obviously ineffective—is what passes for much of Catholic apologetics today.

Francis began by stressing the importance of genuine faith over “outward formalities,” true religion rather than “a religiosity of appearances.” That’s an unsurprising commonplace.

But then he pivoted to the heart of his message, which bears quoting:

“How often we blame others, society, the world, for everything that happens to us! It is always the fault of ‘others’: it is the fault of people, of those who govern, of misfortune, and so on. It seems that problems always come from the outside. And we spend time assigning blame; but spending time blaming others is wasting time. We become angry, bitter and keep God away from our heart…One cannot be truly religious in complaining: complaining poisons, it leads you to anger, to resentment and to sadness, that of the heart, which closes the door to God.”

This is childish behavior, the pope said, and he became animated and extemporaneous as he noted that the early monastics knew that the “path of holiness” began by blaming yourself.

That practice of self-accusation has been the paradigm shift of the Francis papacy: that the church must reform before it can pretend to preach to the world with any authority. That was also a motif of Paul VI’s 1975 exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, which is understandably a favorite reference for Francis. Yet the past half century has seen church culture move in the other direction, toward an “evangelization by apologetics” that relies on cultivating a sense of grievance and fomenting culture wars. The key to this approach is to find an outside force to demonize, be it secularism or liberalism or, God forbid, “Critical Race Theory.”

The point is to have an enemy, a straw man works just fine. Anything to avoid condemning ourselves. Today’s self-styled apologists fancy themselves Paul at the Areopagus preaching to pagan Athenians. In reality our problem is the one Kierkegaard identified, that of “becoming a Christian in Christendom.” Instead, we have evangelization by detraction not attraction, a constant argument with others that reduces faith to a pseudo-intellectual exercise. It is about rallying the base rather than finding converts.

But that base continues to shrink, and at the end of the day, that is because the Church itself is often what drives people away from religion. Little wonder we don’t want to look in the mirror. As Francis said in his Angelus remarks, “If we look inside, we will find almost all that we despise outside.”


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


A Letter to Pope Francis

Dear brother Francis,

As one of your younger and distant relatives I am somewhat hesitant to write to you, yet I fear that if I don’t, my concerns may cause me to feel more than just geographic distance. So I ask for your patience and compassion.

I was reading, with much joy and solace, Let us Dream. Thank you. Yet, I can’t help but express some disappointment. I appreciate the beautiful vision you have for the Church. I agree that building a truly synodal Church that continually seeks to hear the voice of the Spirit is a slow and arduous process. But I think there are voices that have been speaking to us for many decades, if not longer, voices that some have tried peremptorily to silence, unsuccessfully. Other holy leaders, like your brother in Canterbury, have heard and listened. These voices remind me of the Cornelius story in Acts 10:1-48. How radical was it for the Jewish Christians that an uncircumcised person would be invited by God into the covenantal relationship and that Peter in response would have to declare: “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (v.47). Peter, I think we all would agree, reluctantly had to (as did Paul) step beyond the comfort of the established, what was “unlawful” (v.28) and previously viewed as unchangeable. The stirring of the Spirit called him to go “beyond his competency” and be rebuked: “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (v.15). Peter comes to realize “in every nation anyone who fears . . . [God] and does what is right is acceptable to . . . [God]” (v.35). So even what seemed an absolute barrier—circumcision—loses its weight and is superseded by the mark of Christ’s victory over sin and death: baptism. For in Christ, through baptism “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

So dear brother, why are we afraid to say, enough of the charade of an exclusively male priesthood? Your brother in Canterbury hears that the Spirit has called forth female clerics.

Similarly, why be hesitant to bring Christ’s healing to the wounds of the faithful who, like all of us in some way, have made mistakes but then enter into a new loving, committed relationship? Peter and Paul had to challenge the voices of the exclusivist righteous (who did have past practice on their side) and welcome the other as Christ does. Is it not time to do the same? Is it not right to openly challenge the voice of those who are afraid to let go of the logic of the middle ages?

I am moved by the joy of a mother who recognizes the steadfast love her daughter experiences in her relationship with another woman. I anguish over the pain caused to chaste and celibate Roman clergy whom I know, when they (and so many others) hear the voice of authority saying they are “disordered.” Meanwhile their presence, their ministry, is a sure sign of the Spirit being present. The Spirit speaks from the periphery even if many in the center do not wish to listen.

Of course, dear brother, the weight of this responsibility must be tremendous. In my heart I believe that you know all this. I can only imagine your concern for what may happen if a bold word spoken causes some to fall away. I understand that you may be worried about how your brother Andrew may respond. But I think we all must admit the pain and suffering that has been caused and continues to be caused by the Church’s inability to open itself to the voices of those who have been told “NO” and so pushed aside. I think we need to ask ourselves, not can we do this, but can we know the limits of the Spirit’s breath. Can we continue to impose our limits on the Divine Spirit?

I pray that you grow in strength and courage. I pray for your health. I pray that your compassion turns its attention to Canada and that you join many of us in apologizing to our First Nations for what has been done to them (scandalously) in the name of the Gospel.

Thank you dear brother. You have my prayers, as I know we all have yours.


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


The “Dirty Little Secret” and the “Latin Mass”

In his 1972 book Bare Ruined Choirs, Garry Wills famously argued that the Second Vatican Council brought into the open the “dirty little secret” that the church changes. That “secret” had been the subject of controversy going back to the beginning of the 20th century and illuminated various movements that inspired the Council. Understanding the complexity of the tradition, thinkers of these movements suggested, could help the church to move forward and respond to contemporary needs. They invited the church to live in reality: that of its own history, and that of the human community of today, rather than a timeless fantasy.

After two pontificates concerned with calming the storms of the post-Vatican II period by emphasizing the Council’s continuity with the tradition, Pope Francis has been more comfortable emphasizing that things did and needed to change at Vatican II and that wholesale acceptance of the Council is part and parcel of being Catholic. It is within this context that we can best understand what Francis did with his recent motu proprio entitled Traditionis Custodes, restricting the celebration of the Missal of 1962, the so-called “Latin Mass” (though its differences of wording and action are more relevant than its Latin).

The continued celebration of the Missal of 1962 after it was superseded twice–by the 1965 “transitional” Missal and the 1970 Missal known in modified form by most Catholics today–was a result precisely of the shock to the system (felt by large number of Catholics but only expressed in this way by a small minority) resulting from the revelation of the “dirty little secret.” With the exception of Pope Paul VI’s “Agatha Christie Indult” to English intellectuals in 1971, most celebrations were illicit and the result of disobedience by the likes of Fr. Gommar DePauw on Long Island or (most consequentially) Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. For traditionalists, disobedience to church authority–whether in action or spirit–was justified by the rightness of their cause, namely, standing for the immutable tradition over and against the reforms of Vatican II. Changes to the Mass was only one of their objections to Vatican II, with other issues such as religious freedom and changed attitudes toward Jews also looming large. Anti-Semitism and far-right political views ran rampant, owing to traditionalism’s roots in conservative French Catholicism.

Over time, as John Paul II allowed more celebrations of the older Missal in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off schism from Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X, more people became attracted to these celebrations as an alternative to celebrations of the newer Missal that they regarded as lacking in reverence. While there are valid criticisms of the way the liturgical reform was carried out in certain places, recourse to the older Missal was not the solution. Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio liberalizing the use of the 1962 Missal made matters worse in that traditionalists took it as license to continue building a parallel church (with many priests refusing to celebrate according to the 1970 Missal) that they viewed as more in keeping with tradition than that of the other 99% of Catholics. Of particular concern in this post-2007 period was increasing use of the Holy Week rituals from before Pius XII’s 1955 reforms–indication that the driving force of the “Latin Mass” movement was not reverence but ideological rollback of Vatican II and its predecessor reforms.

Some have argued that the action by Francis was an authoritarian move to crush a grassroots movement in the church to which he had never been sympathetic, or that liturgical diversity has always existed in the church as evinced by various Eastern Catholic and other movements that have their own ritual books separate from the Roman Missal. These criticisms ignore that the older Missal was, fairly or unfairly to those attracted to it for other reasons, the leading edge of an ideological movement that opposed an ecumenical council on multiple key points and whose leaders were determined to undermine Francis’ pontificate. Furthermore, bishops, even here in the United States where celebrations of the older Missal were most widespread, had had enough of the attitudes shown by this community and sympathetic priests toward their own authority.

Unity of worship does not have to mean uniformity–indeed, this was one of the great insights of Vatican II’s liturgical reform–but it cannot be achieved with the sectarian rhetoric and ideology of traditionalists who seek to inoculate against change and keep it a “dirty little secret” rather than embrace it as inevitable and life-giving. Traditionis Custodes invites the church to seek unity and nourishment in Vatican II–including areas where it made changes to teachings and practices of the church–and makes clear that any attempt to “walk back” or dilute it is a dead letter. Like Vatican II itself, Francis invites us to live in and respond to reality.


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


APOCALYPSE NOW?

I am haunted by a photograph that was recently circulated on social media by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR). It shows luxury yachts in a harbor with diners at an outdoor restaurant in the foreground. In the background flames are leaping into the night, casting an eerie glow over the sky and the water. It could be a scene from any of the Mediterranean countries currently plagued by heatwaves and wildfires.

I saw that image while on a caravan tour of the Scottish Highlands last month with my husband Dave. We spent an idyllic month in some of the most unspoiled places on the planet – soaring mountains, rolling moors speckled with wildflowers, pristine seas lapping onto dazzling white beaches, dolphins leaping in the incoming tides. The luxury of a caravan is a long way from the camping holidays we used to have when we lived in Zimbabwe, when we would pile our four little children into the car and take off on safari. Herds of elephants would amble through our rudimentary campsites, baboons would settle noisily for the night in the trees above our tent and somewhere in the distance, we might hear the grunt of a leopard or the haunting cackle of a hyena. All these experiences of nature at its most awe-inspiring are overshadowed by that apocalyptic image of the night sky ablaze behind a scene of decadent luxury. In a report published this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that human activity has caused unprecedented and irreversible changes to the earth’s climate, and time has almost run out to avert a global catastrophe.

Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, offers a magnificent creation-centred theology that puts social and environmental justice at the heart of the Church’s life. It is an inspiring resource for all who recognize the urgency and enormity of the challenges facing us, but it is marred by one serious omission. Global environmental agencies recognize the vital contribution made by women in tackling environmental degradation, and gender equality is one of the key goals of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Yet Laudato Si’ has nothing to say about women and the environment. For all its emphasis on social and economic justice, it is silent about the disproportionate impact of climate change on the world’s poorest women and girls. It encourages local initiatives, but fails to acknowledge the extent to which women are in the forefront of grassroots sustainable development projects.

Despite its silence on women, however, Laudato Si’ is gendered through and through. Its subject is “Mother Earth” and “she” is a victim who is being laid to waste by human (male?) greed, neglect and indifference.

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. … [T]he earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). (LS para 2)

Implicit in this quotation is the gendering of power – the lords and masters are male, and the feminized earth is their victim. But Mother Earth is not a passive victim of human abuse awaiting rescue by papal knights in shining armour, any more than women are passive victims of male power who need strong men to protect them. Mother Earth fights back, and if she must destroy some of her children to ensure her survival, she will do so. Pandemics, fires, heatwaves, storms, floods – this is the behaviour we should expect if we attribute metaphorical motherhood to the planet, for it is how real mothers have behaved throughout history. If women are exploited, abused, raped, commodified, ignored and excluded, the result will be the savage desperation of needing to fight back however one can to survive.

Church teachings on motherhood are shaped by sentimental fantasies of maternal femininity which gloss over the often harsh realities and painful dilemmas of women’s lives, and these same attitudes infect the maternal feminine representation of nature. As ecofeminists have been arguing for many years, the romanticization of motherhood and the romanticization of nature go hand in hand, and both help to sustain a culture of domination.  If the Catholic Church is to become a leader in the struggle for the environment, its leaders will have to radically rethink their gender politics.

Robert Mickens suggested here recently that Pope Francis is seeking radical reform of the Roman Curia. It may be that in getting rid of the Vatican’s elitist patriarchal power structures, this shrewd Pope is preparing the way for his successor to at last bring women into full and equal partnership in the Church, but by then it may be too late to save our common home. Women are losing patience, and so is Mother Earth.


Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.


The Iron Pope

He was known as one tough pope who reigned for only five years near the end of the 16th century, during which time he ruthlessly restored order to a lawless and bandit-infested Rome and Papal States.

Though he was Supreme Pontiff for but a “blink of an eye,” Pope Sixtus (1585-1590) left a very big and deep footprint on the Eternal City and the Vatican that has endured to this very day. He financed a series of ambitious construction projects, including an aqueduct that remains intact to this day (the Aqua Felice), the rebuilding of the Lateran Palace, the completion of the dome of St. Peter’s and the erection of obelisks in front of three papal basilicas and other Roman sites.

But the most substantial achievement of Sisto Quinto (as he’s called in Italian) was the creation of the current structure of the Roman Curia. No pope in the last 431 years who has made the effort has been able to significantly alter it.

Oh, they have tried...

Paul VI (1963-78), who spent most of his priestly life in the Vatican, probably came closest of any to succeeding.

He angered many Church traditionalists and those among the Roman nobility when he stripped the Curia of many of its imperial court-like features—such as certain titles, ceremonies, regal eccentricities, etc.—following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But it quickly became apparent that the Pauline “reforms” were destined to remain only cosmetic, despite the pope’s intention to change the governing culture at the Vatican. Unfortunately, they never amounted to much more than nominal changes.

Pope Francis, who is almost halfway into his ninth year of steering the Barque of Peter and is quickly approaching his 85th birthday (in December), has made Roman Curia reform a major focus of his pontificate.

He began by instituting a new level of governance called the Council of Cardinals just one month after his election. Its purpose is to advise him on matters regarding his guidance of the universal Church and—most specifically— to help him write a new constitution for the Curia.

The document is said to be completed. But it is currently being scrutinized and amended by a team of canon lawyers the Jesuit pope trusts. It has been a long process to write what is essentially the blueprint for restructuring the Church’s central bureaucracy.

Many reform-minded Catholics have grown impatient with the project and they are even doubtful that Francis will be able to succeed where his successors (including Paul VI, whom he beatified in 2014 and declared a saint in 2018) have failed.

In contrast to Pope Paul, who was the consummate Vatican insider, Francis is a complete outsider. He is the first pope since St. Pius X (d. 1914) who never studied or worked in Rome. He is also the first member of a religious order to be elected Bishop of Rome since Gregory XVI, a Benedictine monk who reigned from 1831-46.

This has put him at a notable disadvantage. But the Argentine pope is shrewd.

He has moved slowly and methodically, strategically making one piecemeal change after another, gradually shifting the terrain inside the Vatican. The timing of the pope’s moves has generally been unpredictable, which has had the effect of keeping even seasoned Curia officials uncertain of what will come next and completely off balance.

Francis has shared drafts of the new constitution for the reformed Roman Curia with the heads of the Vatican's major departments, leaders of the world’s episcopal conferences and certain theologians. Ostensibly, the purpose for this has been to get further input and advice.

But only a few people know exactly which suggestions, if any, he has decided to incorporate in the final document. Both fans and foes of the reformer-pope suspect there will be some big surprises and major changes that were not included in earlier drafts.

The recent publication of the “motu proprio” Traditionis custodes, which basically nullified Benedict XVI’s restoration in 2007 of the Tridentine Mass, showed that Francis is not afraid to make substantial decisions that might even reverse policies instituted by his still-living predecessor.

How far, many are now wondering, will the Jesuit pope go?

It is well-known that, before undertaking major initiatives like traveling abroad, he seeks inspiration and celestial favor from the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Beside a devotion to “Our Lady, Un-doer of Knots,” he has visited a side chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore nearly 90 times since the start of his pontificate to pray before the Marian icon, “Salus Populi Romani” (Protectress and Health of the Roman People).

In a chapel on the other side of the nave of that same basilica are the tombs of two popes. One is of St. Pius V (d. 1572), the man who codified the Tridentine Mass. And directly facing it is that of the earlier-mentioned Sixtus V.

I visited Sixtus’ tomb last year on August 27 for the 430th anniversary of his death and asked a church custodian if, in all the times Pope Francis has been to the basilica, he’s ever stopped here.

No, the man said, he could not recall that ever happening.

I’m not completely convinced. But even if Francis has not prayed at the tomb of Sixtus V, perhaps he should, just for a bit more inspiration as he gets ready to carry out his Curia reform.

The Romans called Sixtus “er papa tosto,” a phrase that one might liberally translate as “the tough” or “badass pope.”


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


You Talk About Your Rights. What About Your Duty?

As we survey the dismal inability of so many Americans to bring themselves to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the language is very much about “my right” to choose yea or nay. This is just one instance of the way rights language is despoiling the earth, as I exercise “my right” to use and abuse the non-renewable resources of the planet, or “my right” to gorge while others starve, or “my right” to ignore democratic freedoms and declare a free and fair election to be a falsity, or “my right” to carry a gun. Nor is this kind of rights language restricted to the secular world.

When the church argues that it has the right to withhold birth control coverage from its employees’ health care packages, or the right to fire an elementary schoolteacher because she is married to another woman, or the right to turn a politician away from the Eucharist, common sense is far from these judgments and some kind of ideology, some ecclesial culture war, is driving them. The few Catholics who argue for a religious exemption from the vaccination requirement at the most sensitive and sensible Catholic colleges and universities probably do so, like their non-Catholic counterparts, out of some vaguely ideological Trumpian anti-vaxxer sentiments. But their objections, often employing the papally discredited argument that a possible remote connection between the vaccination and aborted fetuses precludes Catholic cooperation with evil, are hard to defend when Pope Francis has declared that vaccination is “a moral imperative.”

I have lately been reading Robert Zaretsky’s new book, The Subversive Simone Weil, which, while it might be a little guilty of domesticating that least tamable of thinkers, offers us much food for thought for our present-day church and world on exactly this topic of rights. Weil is deeply suspicious of how potentially egotistical a focus on rights can be. Here is where we have to be careful, because the world is way too short on the right kind of rights. But what are they? They are the rights of those who pretty much have no access to the rights that the rest of us can enjoy without pressure or penalty.

Catholic social teaching has been aware of this issue of rights language for a very long time. Classically, it insists that every right has a concomitant responsibility. But Simone Weil eschews the language of rights and responsibility in favor of the idea of duty; duty can have no conditions; it is simply just what my conscience and human nature require of me as a member of the human community. There is an absolute quality to duty; there is no such thing as a conditional duty. This is clearly more congenial to Weil’s temperament than any kind of moral compromise or casuistical escape-clause. Indeed, it was probably her extremism here that hastened her death in England in 1943, when she felt duty-bound to eat no more than her French fellow-citizens suffering under Nazi occupation. “Duty to what?” one might ask, and Zaretsky’s reply is that Weil saw “duty to the good” to be the motivator. In this, she was shadowed by Iris Murdoch, an admirer of Weil, who though an agnostic wrote in language redolent of the doctrine of original sin, of human beings’ “insuperable psychological barriers to goodness,” and thought that the task of moral philosophy was “to purify this energy which is naturally selfish in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly.”

And so, we come to the reluctance to be vaccinated against COVID. The language of rights is used overwhelmingly among those unwilling to be vaccinated, and the idea of duty is never mentioned. Duty to the good or duty to God, both amount to care for the community. What God wants is a loving and caring community in which “my rights” are second to “the common good.” The centrality of the idea of the common good to Catholic social teaching (CST) coincides with Weil’s duty to the good and her interpretation of duty points exactly to the particular way in which CST understands the common good, as the good of the whole measured by the particular care and concern for the least powerful members of society.

It is quite clear that vaccination against COVID-19 is a fine example of the application of the principle of the common good, so how come the U.S. church has not spoken forcefully to promote it? And why have some Catholic universities resisted the idea of a vaccine mandate, while so many have imposed one? There is undoubtedly a mix of motives, including the fear of backlash from parishioners, or from anti-vaxxer donors, alumni and trustees of the schools. I suppose it’s a trade-off. A few more people die, but the money keeps coming in. What bishops and college presidents should be making clear is that putting one’s personal freedoms before the needs of the community, in any situation but especially in one so dire as the present pandemic, is a deeply sinful course of action. When Pope Francis says that being vaccinated is a moral obligation, the implication for those who choose otherwise is clear. The hands of those who choose the freedom to exercise “their rights” may turn out to have blood on them.


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


Fiddling While the Churches Burn

These are sorrowful times for the Catholic Church in Canada.

The discovery of more than a thousand unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools run for Indigenous children by Catholic religious orders and dioceses—with the certainty that more will be found—is shining renewed light on one of Canada’s ugliest chapters. But while the discoveries have exposed our colonial past at its worst, they have also revealed the degree to which the Canadian Catholic Church is a splintered institution.

It has long been estimated that at least 4,100 children in Canada died due to illness or accidents in residential schools they were forced by the federal government to attend. A lack of access to records has made research challenging, but recent use of ground-penetrating radar has begun to offer hard evidence of testimony delivered to the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that prompted the TRC to describe the experience of residential schools to be “cultural genocide.”

This is a significant moment in relations, not only between Indigenous people and the Canadian government, which instituted and funded the schools, but also between Indigenous people and the Catholic Church. Some have stepped up to seek change, writing open letters and creating petitions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is Catholic, has called on the Church for a formal apology. But there has been a deafening silence from some corners. The only thing more disappointing than that silence are the voices of those who feel the need to defend the Church at all costs.

The right continues to quibble and make excuses rather than confront the past. They argue about the exact numbers of children buried on these sites, or note that sometimes these sites were used by the nearest community, too, as if one could quantify grief, that finding 10 children’s graves would make it somehow less worrisome than finding 50.

They point to individual apologies issued by various bishops, including comments from Pope Benedict XVI in 1999, to suggest the Church has responded adequately, even though it has not yet answered Call to Action #58 from the TRC, which expressly asked for an apology to be delivered by the Pope in Canada—within a year of the report’s issuance—as was done in Ireland in 2010.

While a 2006 class action suit required dioceses and orders involved to pay $25 million—or “best efforts”—collections taken up in the affected locations and efforts in some unrelated dioceses netted a shameful final $3.7 million. Canada, for what it’s worth, has 13 million Catholics.

As the horrifying discoveries continue, and Catholics begin to gain some insight into what the families forcibly torn apart to enroll children in these schools suffered, the cries for justice increase, as do suggestions that both attendance and the collection plate will take hits as parishes begin to re-open post-COVID. This story has been front-page news since May of this year and is not going away. The Church looks heartless and racist, the sins of the past still not healed.

In the midst of this, one Catholic pastor in the Toronto area gave a tone-deaf homily recently in which he argued that no one talks about “the good done” by the Catholic Church in residential schools.

Right-wing bloggers and websites have assiduously avoided the topic of the graves, instead focusing on fires raging in Catholic churches, some on First Nations reserves. With almost no evidence available, the right labels this a hate crime. And when others have stated that if churches have been burned by those affected by the legacy of residential schools the anger behind the action is understandable, the right rears up as if commenters had struck the matches themselves. Obviously, no one is condoning criminal behavior, especially as some of these churches minister to Indigenous Catholics; to say one understands is not to condone. But churches can be rebuilt. The thousands of children who died cannot be brought back to life.

Compassionate Canadian Catholics are discussing the need for a papal visit, if Pope Francis’ health allows, to make a formal apology. They seek complete payment of the $25 million owed in the class action suit and they want the remains found on all former residential school sites to be identified and buried in a manner the family wishes.

This resonates. When my husband died last year, our family decided to keep his ashes on our piano, still in the midst of family life. I’ve seen my boys give the urn a loving pat, and my daughters blow kisses. We know where Mike’s remains are. We have that solace. Not to know the circumstances of a loved one’s death or burial place is a cruelty I cannot imagine. That my Church had any role in contributing to a grieving family’s suffering appalls me.

But as more graves are found, some continue to fiddle while churches burn. What they fail to see is that the Church—and the laity—are radically different than when the residential schools first opened in 1880. Many of us are asking whether it will ever be possible for us to apologize enough.


Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.


What Has Happened to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?

In March, I wrote “Bishops’ Conference Should Look Toward Rome,” about the sad situation at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in their foolish attempt to browbeat President Joe Biden on the issue of abortion and their beyond foolish qualms about the Covid-19 vaccines. Their June meeting did nothing to restore confidence in their leadership. 

People ask me all the time: “How did it get this bad?” The answer is not complicated, but it is multi-faceted.

The first and foremost reason is that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were poor judges of character and placed people in positions of authority who should not have been there. They also followed the old adage “promoveatur ut amoveatur,” or promote to remove.

The most critical person in choosing candidates for the episcopate is the apostolic nuncio. Pope Benedict sent Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to the U.S. as nuncio because he wanted to get him out of Rome. From October 2011 until April 2016, Viganò served in this critical role, screening new candidates and proposing the promotion of others. Nuncios do not succeed in getting all their nominees through the cumbersome process, but they get around 50%. And, as we all know, Viganò can charitably be called unhinged.

In addition, Pope Benedict XVI named Cardinals Raymond Burke and Justin Rigali to the Congregation for Bishops, and they helped promote some of the worst culture warriors to Metropolitan sees: men such as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in San Francisco and Archbishop Alexander Sample in Portland, OR. Earlier, Burke had been critical in the naming of Archbishop Joseph Naumann as coadjutor Archbishop of Kansas City, KS. So, the system by which bishops are selected was in the hands of culture warriors for many years.

If there has been little help from Rome, there has also been little help from the pews, and this is far less commented on. In the wake of Vatican II, there has been a push to include lay people in decision-making positions that do not require ordination. It is not uncommon to find a lay woman serving as chancellor or a layman serving as superintendent of schools. In the pre-conciliar era, when you walked into a chancery, it was staffed almost exclusively by clerics.

I am no fan of clericalism, but the problem is that in the years after the Council, the ideological makeup of these new lay staff shifted to the right. Many liberal Catholics left the Church, and fewer still ever thought of working for the various offices that comprise a chancery, at least when compared to the number of conservative Catholics who warmed to the prospect.

As well, bishops tend to be conflict-averse. There is an old saying: If your request will be met with a “yes,” you meet with the bishop, but if it will be met with a “no,” the Vicar General will deliver the bad news. Bishops know that if, for example, they were to appoint a communications director who had worked for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the right-wing, anti-abortion brigades would pummel them with phone calls and emails, maybe even a protest. But no one complains when they hire someone who worked for a Republican.

The Knights of Columbus was led for 20 years by Carl Anderson, who formerly worked as a Republican operative. His replacement, Patrick Kelly, served on the staff of President George W. Bush.

The executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, Christopher Healy, previously served as the chairman of the state Republican Party. Brittany Vessely is the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, but she is also part of the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life and she did a Publius Fellowship at the Claremont Institute.

It is not uncommon for a bishop to bring a neuralgic issue before his diocesan advisory board, a mix of clergy, religious and lay advisors, and it is the laity who are advocating for a hardline, culture warrior position. This has happened in many dioceses over issues such as accepting the children of gay parents into Catholic schools. The laity say “we don’t want those people in our school,” and the clergy are the ones who ask on what basis you deny a Catholic education to a baptized Catholic.

So, when bishops want to know what the laity think about an issue like denying communion to pro-choice politicians, and they ask the lay people who are closest to them, they tend to get the most conservative feedback imaginable. Combine that with the prominence of well-funded, right-wing organizations like the Napa Institute and the Acton Institute, which fly bishops in for conferences—and at Napa, the conference is accompanied by cigar and cognac receptions!—and you begin to understand how it is that USCCB can become such a mess.

Lay leadership is not the answer, at least not currently. I will take my chances with Papa Francesco and his current appointees to the Congregation for Bishops. But the changes we need won’t happen quickly and they won’t be sudden or sharp. Pope Francis has proposed synodality as a vehicle by which the Holy Spirit might return to our ecclesial decision making, but it is difficult to imagine today’s culture warriors engaging in a genuinely synodal process. We are in for some bad ecclesial weather for the next few years.


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