A publication of Sacred Heart University

Heroes of the Fourth Turning: The Challenge of Empathy and Accompaniment

How far does must empathy extend? Is it our responsibility, as Christians or as citizens, to understand intimately the perspectives of those whose views or way of life we detest? If I give myself over to identification with another person, do I have something to lose? These are profound questions, the types that I like to ask of students in my seminars. They have no easy answers. We each answer them with our lives.

These thoughts came to my mind recently when I had the fortune to attend the final performance of Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning during its run at Playwrights Horizon in New York City. This play generated a sensation among the Catholic intelligentsia, particularly among youth of the millennial generation. It may be surprising, then, to consider that this play centers on a group of young adults whose paths crossed at a conservative Catholic college, Transfiguration College of Wyoming. Why did this play, unusual Theater District fare, generate so much attention as one of the off-Broadway hits of the fall?

Arbery’s play roots itself thoroughly in what we at Sacred Heart call the Catholic intellectual tradition, with discussions of Aristotle, Flannery O’Connor, Augustine and assorted contemporary figures. The program for the play references René Girard and Hannah Arendt.  Indeed, early in the play, two of the characters discuss “big conversations” as a hallmark of their friendship, going back to their time at the college. The play itself very clearly deals with the idea that an education focused on asking the “big questions” might not always lead to the answers that its proponents think they are seeking. Much hinges, I think, on whether one sees this aspect of “Great Books” or similar education as a feature or a bug.

Arbery’s notes in the program reference the idea of a fugue in its twofold meaning – the classical musical vision of the fugue as variations on a theme so masterfully executed in many works of Johann Sebastian Bach as well as in much Renaissance polyphony; and the idea of a fugue state in which someone temporarily loses their identity. In this way, the play functions as a kind of fugue, in which the five main characters put forth variations on a worldview, interrupted several times by a loud noise whose provenance remains mysterious, and concluding with one of the characters going into a fugue state. The “big conversations,” then, are a kind of music that needs various perspectives but yet remains incomplete and in need of the outside, dissonant note.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a work worth contemplating on a number of levels, and like all good and great art, it eludes easy answers to the questions it asks. Politically, it performs a double turn in exploring the ability of the conservatives on stage to empathize – or not – with others while asking a largely liberal New York audience to empathize with them. Yet I think its exploration of empathy is more profound on an existential and spiritual level. What, it asks, do we have to lose if we enter into the world of another? If I truly empathize with another person, do I remain myself or enter into a “fugue” state as Emily does near the end?

Pope Francis has emphasized accompaniment – walking with other people – as one of the central themes of his pontificate. For him, the church ought to be a place of accompaniment. But accompanying someone is a challenging task; it requires seeing the world from their perspective and identifying with them on a deep level. It has the potential to change us in ways that might make us uncomfortable. As Arbery himself puts it, identification with others is dangerous, and risks the loss of oneself. Gustavo Gutiérrez, founder of Latin American liberation theology, has described accompaniment in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which means “entering the world of the other, of the ‘insignificant’ person, of the one excluded from dominant social sectors, communities, viewpoints and ideas.” Martin Luther King, preaching on this same Good Samaritan parable, called for a “dangerous unselfishness.” 

Will Arbery’s play challenges us, whether Catholic, ex-Catholic or never Catholic, to leave the road we are on and empathize with “others” in our community, church, nation and world; to forsake the self-absorption Pope Francis has frequently criticized within the church. As Arbery put it in an interview, “Love is ugly. Faith is painful. Joy hurts.” We need to take the risk of empathy, for in entering the lives of the others we can heal our own brittle selves.


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


Promoting Social and Economic Justice Through Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

In January 2019 I wrote a blog here on “Culture Wars and Women’s Bodies.” I described how Christian groups allied with the political Right are able to influence international law and policy-making around sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) through the Mission of the Holy See, which has permanent observer status at the UN. I want to revisit that topic here in view of recent events in Nairobi, Kenya.

From 12th to 14th November 2019, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) co-convened a summit in Nairobi together with the Danish and Kenyan Governments to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The ICPD+25 Summit was attended by over 9,500 delegates from more than 170 countries. According to the final press release, conference participants made “bold commitments to transform the world by ending all maternal deaths, unmet need for family planning and gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls by 2030.”

The rhetoric is idealistic but the aims are laudable, and in some areas there has already been considerable progress. The maternal mortality rate worldwide has declined by 38 percent since 2000, from 342 deaths per 100,000 live births to 211 deaths. Nevertheless, there are still an estimated 295,000 maternal deaths per year, of which 94% occur in the world’s poorest countries and communities. Poverty, racial and ethnic discrimination and war are all factors affecting maternal and infant survival. In the United States maternal mortality has increased over the past 30 years, with black women being three to four times more likely to die through causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth than white women. There are similar discrepancies between black and white maternal deaths in the UK.

Social and economic justice and maternal and infant well-being are therefore inseparable. If we want mothers and their children to survive and to thrive, we must address the policies and injustices which make pregnancy and childbirth a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of poor women and their children. Legitimate campaigns to protect the lives of the unborn must be balanced with the need to protect the lives of women and girls trapped in devastating situations of sexual abuse and enforced childbearing. The Catholic Church should be in the forefront of international efforts to combat the devastating impact of poverty on the lives of women and children, including campaigns to secure the right to sexual and reproductive health care and well-being. This is indeed the case at grassroots level through the work of Catholic NGOs and religious orders, but the Catholic hierarchy remains one of the most obstructive forces in the struggle for sexual and reproductive justice.

The Holy See boycotted the Nairobi Summit. In a press release it expressed concern that the summit was not being held under the official auspices of the UN. It criticized the organizers for reducing the agenda “to so-called ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ and ‘comprehensive sexuality education’” instead of focusing on issues such as “women and children living in extreme poverty, migration, strategies for development, literacy and education …”

Ever since the Cairo conference there has been an ideological stand-off between the Holy See and the majority of UN member states over SRHR. The Holy See has successfully lobbied to ensure that abortion has never been included as a reproductive right in official UN policies and resolutions. While the abbreviation SRHR is now common currency among development agencies and human rights campaigns, the Holy See and its allies in the UN have successfully ensured that official UN terminology refers only to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights (SRHRR), bracketing out sexual rights. The Holy See has registered numerous interventions and reservations to stipulate that such language should be interpreted according to church teachings on marriage, the family, birth control and abortion.

To question some of these tactics is not to say that SRHR campaigns should be unconstrained by any moral or religious perspectives. The importance of marriage and family life should be acknowledged in any development programme. The Holy See has the capacity to provide a voice of advocacy and conscience on behalf of the world’s poor which prevents the international development agenda from being hijacked by wealthy nations and corporations. Neo-Malthusian population control policies must be kept at bay if human dignity, rights and freedom of conscience are to be respected. Many feminist NGOs at the UN share some of these concerns and could be potential allies of the Holy See if there were less mutual hostility.

That press release on the Nairobi summit makes clear that the Vatican see the focus on SRHR as a distraction from issues of poverty, literacy and education, etc. This suggests a high level of ignorance or indifference to the ways in which poverty and lack of access to education and health care impact most directly on the lives of women and girls through their sexual and reproductive capacities. Their human dignity cannot be defended if their sexual and reproductive rights are bracketed out, but nowhere in Catholic social teaching is there any informed attempt to address these issues. The hierarchy’s romanticization of marriage and motherhood masks the grim realities of death, injury, abuse and violence which are the reality for hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest women and girls.

The Holy See’s boycott of the Nairobi Summit aligns it once again with the Far Right and with some of the world’s most oppressive states with regard to SRHR. The US Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement about ICPD+25 on behalf of the US, Brazil, Belarus, Egypt, Haiti, Hungary, Libya, Poland, Senegal, St Lucia and Uganda. It expressed reservations similar to those in the Holy See’s press release, saying: “We do not support references in international documents to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) .... In addition, the use of the term SRHR may be used to actively promote practices like abortion.”

The campaign organization CitizenGO has hundreds of thousands of subscribers around the world willing to sign any petition which opposes homosexuality and abortion and promotes a conservative political and religious agenda. It organized a petition asking President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya not to support the Nairobi Summit (he gave the opening address). In collaboration with March For Life CitizenGO organized protests in the streets of Nairobi and distributed banners and posters bearing the names of both organizations.

It feels painful to criticize Pope Francis when he is already under siege and is working so hard for positive change in the Church. Yet somebody needs to tell him that, as long as he colludes by his silence and evasion around the central question of women and the combined impact of poverty and patriarchy on women’s sexual and reproductive lives, he is lending implicit support to a cabal of far right interventionists working through Catholic networks. The messy, risk-taking church of the poor that he so passionately and eloquently promotes would not have boycotted Nairobi. It would have been there in the thick of the debates, speaking out as a voice of conscience on behalf of the world’s poorest women and girls from a position of attentive listening and dialogue.

Archbishop Antje Jackelén of Sweden said in her closing address to ICPD+25 that

SRHR is a win-win for ALL. We must work with faith organizations because influencing behavior change is one of their strengths. … We must build spaces for safe and brave and difficult conversations … Bodies matter to God, because in the Christian faith God took the form of human in Jesus Christ.

If only the Holy See could bring such words of wisdom to the dialogue instead of so often acting as a disruptive and obstructive presence.


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


A Marginalized Pope and How You Can Help Him

In Evangelii gaudium, the most important document of his pontificate, Pope Francis urges every bishop and local Church around the world to “undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform” (EG 30).

This apostolic exhortation, also known as “The Joy of the Gospel,” seeks to “draw out the pastoral consequences” of the Second Vatican Council (cf. EG 38). It does so by offering “guidelines” for a “new phase of evangelization…marked by enthusiasm and vitality” (EG 17).

“I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear,” the pope says (EG 33).

Then he spells out what he’s looking for.

“I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation, ” he says (EG 27).

“Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way.’ I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities,” Francis insists (EG 33).

Transforming, channeling and rethinking are all synonyms for changing such customs, structures and ways of doing things.

“We should not be afraid to examine them,” the pope says, even if they have deep historic roots and are beautiful. The litmus test is whether they still communicate the Gospel to people of our times (cf. EG 43).

The fact is that many of the Church’s customs and structures have become symbols of a self-preservation that is pathologically inward looking. They’ve become part of a comfort zone that the pope is trying to shake us out of; part of an illness that we don’t even realize is ailing us.

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” he declares (EG 49).

The pope issued Evangelii gaudium in November 2013. That’s six years ago. 

But in these six years, how many dioceses around the world have actually begun the “resolute process of discernment, purification and reform” that the pope calls for? How many bishops in the United States have done so?

As a national body, they certainly have not. Judging by the business-as-usual proceedings at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore this week, one wonders how many of these prelates have even read the pope’s apostolic exhortation.

Reform-minded Catholics in the United States are right to be discouraged by an episcopal leadership that is so clearly out of sync with Pope Francis and the priorities and tone he has set for renewing and reforming the Church. The bishops are not following either the spirit or the letter of Evangelii gaudium. And let’s not even talk about his encyclical on the Care of Our Common Home, Laudato Si’.

Many of the bishops – and priests ordained within the past 25 years – seem to be more attached to the magisterium of Benedict XVI, but in an ideological way that turns the former pope’s more carefully nuanced theological musings into weapons for the culture war they are waging against “modernity.”

They and the clericalist laypeople that support them are obviously trying to outlast Francis, who is 83 years old next month. Their dream is that it won’t be long before there is a new pope who will base his pontificate on the “we have always done it this way” mentality.  

This dream is a nightmare for those Catholics who actually love and support Pope Francis and his vision for a reformed Church and a more united global family, as is spelled out so boldly in Evangelii gaudium and Laudato Si’.

How can reform-minded Catholics help the pope in this arduous task of rebuilding a house that is in such a clear state of collapse? He cannot do it alone.

First of all, be generous in responding to the request he makes almost every time he ends a speech or address: pray for him. Don’t underestimate the power of prayer.

Pray, also, for all bishops and priests – those who are supporting Francis, those who are indifferent to him and those actively working against him.

Second, actively encourage all those in ministry (ordained or not) to read the “The Joy of the Gospel.” Invite them, along with other friends and people of your parish, to form a study group to look more carefully at the document and find ways to implement its guidelines.

There are many practical steps that can be taken even without formal permission from Church authorities. They can contribute to a process of transformation, development and lasting change.

Third, invite people who have drifted away from the Church or have never felt welcome to join you at your regular place of worship. You will likely have to accompany them closely, at least at the beginning. But this, too, can be catalyst for introducing new energy for change.

And, finally, do not give up hope. The psalmist gives encouragement by proclaiming, “Put not your trusts in princes, in mortals that cannot save.”

Instead, be assured that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church and, as Lady Julian of Norwich said so famously in the 14th century, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”   

It may sound naïve. It may sound silly. But it is the truly Christian response.


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


Being a Catholic College in a Neoliberal World

The challenges to Catholic higher education continue, though they are not what they were 20 or 30 years ago. The battle with the institutional church is won, but the embrace of the secular world has come to be fraught with more peril than we might have imagined. Hope for the future, which is surely what we have to have, will not be justified by defending the purity of our Catholic identity in face of episcopal suspicions. Rather, it will require us to find a way to be defiantly Catholic in a secular world that tends to be indifferent rather than hostile to Catholic schools to demonstrate that what the Catholic school has to offer is exactly what our world needs. If this sounds a little bit like the beginning of an editorial from First Things, a journal to which I subscribe solely for the purpose of learning how the other half thinks, be patient with me. Where First Things and its conservative allies imagine that the future lies in re-sacralizing our schools and colleges, I think the opposite is true. Our aim should be to secularize the genius of Catholic education. As Pope Francis might put it, we have to go to the periphery with a message of salvation. In a pluralistic world the message of salvation, of salus, is one that means both saving and health. The mission of the “missionary disciples” in this day and age, the mission to the world, is a message calling the human race to health, a health only to be accomplished in a healthy world. And the mission of our Catholic schools is increasingly a mission to students who do not come from the Catholic tradition and do not care about its internal concerns. The periphery, or some of it, may actually be in our classrooms.

We are all familiar with the dismal demographics of contemporary Catholicism. There are far fewer people actively participating in church than a generation ago, and far more of them, especially the younger generation, identifying themselves as “nones” or at least while still checking the box “Catholic” admitting to only rare or even no engagement with liturgical celebrations. For most of our institutions, the percentage of Catholic students is steadily decreasing, replaced by others with little or no interest in our tradition. And our Catholic students are largely under-catechized, even if they have weathered the horrors of CCD. However devout they might be, and some undoubtedly are, basic Catholic literacy cannot be taken for granted anymore. (And, parenthetically, couldn’t be taken for granted for their parents’ generation either.) Add to this that there are some good reasons for righteous anger against our church—though the appeal to that anger can sometimes be just a way of justifying one’s own drift away from commitment.

I think I am making a safe observation, though it is only anecdotal, drawn from my almost four decades of teaching undergraduates, that there is no correlation between the waning enthusiasm for institutional Catholicism among our students and their genuine goodness. They are mostly serious people, sometimes a little confused as the young often are, about priorities, but genuinely trying to find their way forward in what is a much more complicated world than the one in which most of us grew up. We all know of the epidemic of mental health issues among college students, and I think that we have not done nearly enough to relate it to the new stresses that students of today face. On the whole, we do not make them work as hard as we had to work in college, and we certainly grade them less harshly, so the stress has to have its ground somewhere else. And that somewhere else lies in what I am going to call the neoliberal constitution of our contemporary society.

It is with the first mention of the term neoliberalism that I am able to bring together our concern for the plight of our Catholic colleges and universities with the personal and spiritual stresses on our student body. Our institutions, our students and we, ourselves, live under the hegemony of global market capitalism and its latest and most sinister mutation, surveillance capitalism. When we make institutional accommodations to “the real world,” when we downplay principle in favor of pragmatism, or when we do nothing to address the fact that our students live their lives facing a small screen instead of one another, we are bending if not breaking in face of the hurricane force winds of the market. If, on the other hand, we resist these forces, is this not going to imperil our futures, even though in many respects we actually exist to confront these social forces? To modify Oscar Wilde’s phrase, “a neoliberal is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.” Beyond the embattled humanities, aren’t we torn between pandering to neoliberalism in order to survive, and sinking in a sea of prophecy, drowning in our own anachronistic self-righteousness? Well, no, actually.

Many of our schools will not survive another 15 years with a clear Catholic identity if they do not make a conscious choice to survive with meaning. In other words, if we are just like everyone else, but struggling financially and with declining enrollments, small endowments and limited financial aid resources, the writing is very clearly on the wall. Viktor Frankl did not say that “meaning” would save the concentration camp victims. In fact, he observed that often the best and most compassionate of his fellow inmates were the first to succumb. On the contrary, his message was the darker one that survival with meaning was the only form of survival worth having. When he later applied his experience to his field of existential psychology, his interventions with his patients encouraged them to search their lives for what it was that prevented them determining that suicide was their only option. I do not recommend asking our college and university presidents why they do not commit institutional suicide. It is their job to keep us all afloat, after all. But I would suggest that merely keeping ourselves afloat is a form of institutional suicide. First the spirit, then the bricks and mortar.

The present pope’s principal priority is to reorient the Catholic Church away from the sin of self-referentiality to a genuinely evangelical perspective. For Francis, a Christian is a missionary disciple whose orientation should be towards the periphery. To be evangelical or missionary is to move away from the center, not to stay at home, however comfortable that might be. Perhaps we could call this the Hobbit option. Bilbo and Frodo loved the Shire, but they saw that placing their comforts aside and setting out to combat evil was the only way, in the end, that the Shire could be preserved. The trope of the quest has its uses, though it is not the Holy Grail that should be our objective, so much as a world that is made safe for all its denizens, human and nonhuman alike, to flourish in the home that their creator God has offered to them, presumably knowing full well that its viability depends upon the right choices being made.

To be evangelical or to be a missionary disciple is evidently to take up the challenge of spreading the good news. The Gospel, the god spel of Old English, literally means the good news. But what is the good news that the missionary disciple of today is called to proclaim? The gospel never changes, but in the words of Thomas Aquinas, Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur or “what is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In other words, how the good news is spread must be tailored to what the hearers can hear. In days gone by, this meant that the missionary disciple needed to inculturate the message of the gospel in language and practices that the target audience could appreciate. Find a way to link veneration of the saints with the veneration of ancestors, or teach animists about the role of the Holy Spirit, or point as St. Paul did in Corinth to the shrine to the unknown God, and you are on your way to the full gospel. Today, the challenge is greater.

Much Catholic religious reflection is rightly suspicious of what is called “atonement theology,” the interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as an act of God in which the blood of his son atones for our sinfulness and reconciles us with our creator. But if we can just see atonement as at-one-ment and not as a ransom for sin, something can be rescued here. Christ came to show the way for the human race to be restored to union with God, to overcome the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis, which at heart was a sin against God’s creation, punished by introducing toil into human life, toil with and sometimes against the created world. Reconciliation is a restoration of the original harmony between God, human beings and the whole created order.

If this is so, then the good news that Christians must proclaim is the message of discipleship of Christ, as the one who subordinated his own self to the demands of God for the restoration of cosmic harmony. The way beyond sinfulness, says Calvary, is the way of subordinating our own selves to the creative love of God, wanting above all a created order that is built upon love. And if this is true, how far have we strayed to become children of a neoliberal order in which price and not value is the primary good. Neoliberalism is self-referential and contradictory to the gospel. It is at its root a deeply sinful structure, even if all those who benefit from it are not personally deeply implicated in its sinfulness. But liberation theologians would have us understand that we are to some degree implicated in sinful structures. You do not have to own slaves to be guilty of living quietly in a slave society. And you do not have to be a master of the universe to be in some degree responsible for the evils of global market capitalism.

All of this has serious practical implications for the shape of the task we undertake as Catholic schools. Here then is what it comes down to. If a Catholic college or university is going to survive as authentically Catholic, it needs to be missionary and evangelical, promoting and spreading to the world beyond itself the message of the good news that God wills human other-directedness in the service of cosmic harmony. One of the major ways that it will do this will be to educate its students to as sophisticated and critical an understanding of the world today as it possibly can. And the other is to prepare students in the hope that they will choose to fight under the standard of the truly human, not that of the anti-human. When the institution does this, and when its students follow along, then they are missionary disciples, whether they are Catholic or Buddhist or whatever. And as the great theologian Karl Rahner would then comment, I believe, then they have been confronted by the message of salvation, and they have said yes to it in their own lives, ad modum recipientis recipitur.

This may sound hopelessly idealistic, though in my view it is coldly and clinically rational. The way for our institutions to survive with meaning is to stand up to the neoliberal world by the proclamation of human values, not specifically Catholic or Christian values, though I hope I have suggested to you that the message of salvation has more to do with authentic humanism than it does with Catholic or any other denominational language. This is what I meant at the beginning of this little essay when I advocated not the re-sacralization of the Catholic university, but rather the secularization of the genius of the Catholic educational tradition.

So what might all this mean concretely for how we go about our business just as long as we can? Our pedagogical mission orientation must be to maintain a constant intentionality throughout the curriculum. It is easy for a philosopher to be a humanist, but what does this have to do with theoretical physics or accounting? So, as serious and as critical an engagement as is possible with whatever is the object of study; in this sense as thoroughly worldly or secular as we can achieve, but accomplished against the background conscious awareness that all we do is prepare students academically and personally for entry into lives of responsible human behavior.

But there is not just pedagogy, there is also paideia, which is perhaps a term unfamiliar to some, but refers to the total educational impact of what we might call the culture of the institution. What goes on in the classroom in terms of human formation is of little avail if the academic community as a whole does not reinforce in all its practices the commitments it makes to the classroom. So, attention to paideia is vital, it is where we walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk, and it has many dimensions.

There are many schools that are aware of their responsibilities to the world, and there are not a few Catholic schools that are not as faithful to the gospel call to cosmic harmony as they ought to be. But the strength of the Catholic tradition is that the kind of intentionality I have identified is simply not optional for our faith tradition. Thus we have the impetus to engage seriously in the adventure of Catholic education, and we stand under judgment if we fail our students, our world and, consequently, our God. So this is the justification we need in face of any claim that we are sidelining what is most Catholic. What is most Catholic is what it most evangelical, in the sense in which I have used this term, most oriented towards genuine human fulfilment in the context of cosmic harmony. Because we are Catholic, that is why we do this. So the fabric of Catholic life, its liturgy and its sacramentality, its prayer and its rituals, are ways of declaring the “why” of our educational mission and the nature of our identity. They are not, if they ever were, the “what” of our mission.

Remarkably, I believe, if we have the energy and the luck to be able to teach and nurture in this way, at once vital to the world’s future and vital to the understanding of soteriology that I have been outlining, we will find ourselves in line with what, in fact, are the overriding concerns of the younger generations of our world, of any faith or none. Young people are rising up against their inheritance of environmental degradation, the destruction of species and the coming threats to water and food supplies. The holism of the Catholic perspective just happens to be exactly what the world needs right now, and we should not be afraid to proclaim the importance of our perspective. If we market ourselves along these lines and we can walk the walk that talking the talk suggests, we will attract more students rather than less. Yes, we will continue to train professionals, but if we are successful, they will be people who will put their skills at the service of humanity, not the global market economy. They may or may not be Catholic or Christian, but they will not be self-referential. Both our students individually and our institutions themselves indulge in self-referentiality at their peril.

As Catholic schools, we are not doing this for God, but we are doing this because God has missioned us to act on behalf of the human race. In solidarity with those of other faiths and none, the Catholic Church could lead the charge, and bringing it to readiness to do so may be the most important thing our colleges and universities can do for the world. Teaching students of all faiths and none, the traditional language of the Catholic tradition may seem to have fallen into the background, if not into total disuse. But the faith tradition is the foundation for the conviction that teaching in this way is the right thing to do, and the hope that through it we can remake the world. After all, this is surely what Christian discipleship intends.


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


Sometimes a Statue is Just a Statue

The South American rainforest may still be on fire, but the rest of us were saved from burning in hell thanks to the wiley ways of some alt-right Catholic cognoscenti in Rome for the recent Amazon synod.

The great rush to save us from ourselves? It wasn’t to support the final synod document calling for greater awareness of—and response to—ecological sins. Nor was it to cheer a move to ordain married men in an under-supported part of the world where people are hungry to receive sacraments. It wasn’t even to applaud the pope’s move to continue the discussion on women and the diaconate.

Instead, with a chorus of tsks that swelled to clucks and culminated in a resounding splash, some concerned Catholics took steps to ensure we weren’t lead astray by what appeared to be some fairly humble artwork. The act of tossing two Amazonian statues into the Tiber smacked of paternalism, a rigidity dictating thought and valuing lockstep practice without any theological underpinnings, or thought. The amount of bloggers’ ink spilled on this tempest in an alt-right teapot merely highlights the silliness of so much of the criticism that continues to swirl around the Francis papacy. There’s a nasty smug superiority rather than anything that suggests real concern for the church and her people.

Two simple, culturally appropriate, wooden statues placed in Santa Maria in Transpontina at the beginning of the synod were deemed so offensive by some that they were carried off and tossed in the river to ensure the church would not be undermined—nay, threatened!—by their presence. The charge against the folk art? The statues were deemed “pagan” and thus not deserving of their hallowed placement. It was an action that offends for many reasons: for starters, it’s theft, not to mention vandalism, and it smacks of an insular ignorance that defies the reality of the church as global family. And last time I checked, God loves the pagans, too.

I’m sure I’m not the only Catholic woman who saw the carvings of the two pregnant women and read into them the Visitation, given my cultural and catechetical lens. The power of art rests in the eye of the beholder, and images can be interpreted by different people at different times in radically different ways. For many of us, the fecundity expressed in these simple works was profoundly pro-life, and thus pro-God, regardless of the statues’ origins or creators. That this became the focal point of the synod for some floors me. The power the right assigned these simple images certainly lends credence to all the non-Catholics who’ve ever believed that we “worship” statues. Given the ongoing fuss over these tiny women, you’d be forgiven for thinking our critics were right.

Naturally, like the good father he is, Pope Francis stepped in to mediate, ensuring the statues were replaced before the end of the synod. Sides were sent to their corners, and the important work of the synod will move forward.

If I sound a tad annoyed, it may be because of my years in Catholic media. Editing a national Catholic publication placed me on the receiving end of near-weekly snail mail and email litanies cataloguing my errancies of orthodoxy, even though most writers were motivated by assumption, rather than fact–but a surety that they were the guardians of orthodoxy, of truth.

One reader, for example, wrote to tell me my collects were “boring” and were not in the true spirit of the mass. He was pointed in the direction of the office of divine worship and discipline of the sacraments in Rome, the men who actually do write these prayers.

Another wrote to advise me I needed to learn how to edit, as she had counted the number of times I’d left the word “and” in the Easter Vigil’s creation story from Genesis and that there were far too many for her liking. To this woman, I sent an explanation that Scripture translations, licensed by the bishops, were not to be tinkered with by the likes of me. 

One man threatened to vandalize copies of my periodical throughout his town. While I’m no fan of the latest translation of the Roman Missal because it stripped away much of the lyricism, I was not responsible for changing the words of the Apostles’ Creed so that Jesus descended to hell rather than to the dead. My efforts to explain the concept of sheol were not received in the spirit with which they were offered.

Still another, a priest, wrote to chastise me for running the wrong Mass readings, perhaps my biggest editing fear. Turns out that Father had simply not switched weekday lectionaries when the new liturgical year began. But who would be right—the man in the collar or the wife and mother (who happens to have a theological degree of her own).

And let’s not even get started on the messages I’d receive after running ads for a women’s religious community’s yoga retreats. 

In all cases, I found myself annoyed by attacks based on a presumption that I was wrong without having done any research. Sometimes, I was amused, though, that so many so appalled at the notion of women rising above their station actually assumed I had the power to write the prayers of the Mass or to edit scripture. Sadly, there was a constant holier-than-thou tone that ran through this type of missive. The writers’ voices were more about a triumphal need to point out others’ flaws than a desire to have a conversation, to understand why someone else had done something, or even to help. I could easily imagine the statues tossers having come from my readership.

(To be fair, sometimes the attacks came from the left, including more than a few women who chided me for not arbitrarily adding inclusive language to the readings and prayers of the Mass. While I was sympathetic, that was not a battle I was willing to take on on behalf of my employer.)

I was reminded of the orthodoxy police with the recent headlines out of Tennessee about the priest who fought to ban Harry Potter from school shelves because, in consultation with exorcists, said priest had learned that the spells in the children’s series were “real” and could conjure up spirits.

The news amused. As the only non-fantasy reader in a Potter-mad family, I finally had a talking point for the next time the family binge-watched the franchise movies because the boy wizard and I now had something in common.

One of the oddest letters I ever received was from someone who sent me what was purported to be a list of local exorcists. Scribbled at the bottom was a note reading simply, “I think you need this.”

I filed the story away as an anecdote to share selectively with those who would see the humor. There’s nothing to laugh at with a book ban, though. Not only does it smack of an Index-like censorship, it’s also a sad comment on Catholics being threatened by a fictional character spouting words we shouldn’t really believe have any power. 

My mail memories do not stand in isolation. There’s a direct link to throwing statues in the Tiber to telling others what to think and how to worship. There’s also a healthy heaping of superstition and fear, even though, as people of faith, we have little to fear.

After all, sometimes a statue is just a statue…


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


Limits of Vos Estis Exposed

The ecclesial meltdown in Buffalo has highlighted the limits of the metropolitan model for policing the conduct of bishops as it relates to clergy sex abuse adopted by Pope Francis in May with his motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi.

The metropolitan model leaves it to the metropolitan archbishop to commence an investigation of a bishop within his ecclesiastical province. Once he determines an investigation should be conducted, he contacts the relevant dicastery in the Vatican, in this case the Congregation for Bishops, and they must authorize him to proceed, or not, within 30 days. The metropolitan archbishop then has 90 days to complete his investigation. The scope of the investigations conducted under the terms of Vos estis are limited to allegations of sexual abuse by a bishop or the covering up of abuse by others. 

Late last year, the TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” dedicated a segment to the allegations that Bishop Richard Malone was covering up instances of clergy sex abuse. The charges were made by his former personal assistant Siobhan O’Connor. A case could be made that if Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the metropolitan for all of New York state, knew nothing but what he had seen on that television show, he would have been justified in asking Rome for authorization to conduct an investigation on June 1, the day Vos estis went into effect.

At last year’s plenary meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference in November, several bishops told me that Bishop Malone was denying all the allegations.

This summer, a parish priest, Father Jeffrey Nowak, was removed from ministry and asked to undergo an evaluation. Later, Bishop Malone’s priest secretary, Fr. Ryszard Biernat, was also taking a leave of absence. Both had been involved, perhaps romantically, with a seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski. In a recording of a meeting discussing the situation, Bishop Malone referred to the situation as a “love triangle.”

Charges and counter-charges flew. Ms. O’Connor defended Fr. Biernat. “Whatever is going on in there, I can tell you one thing: I have total trust in Father Ryszard’s selfless commitment to the priesthood, our diocese and Our Lord,” she said in a written statement. “Father Ryszard’s name is Polish for ‘Richard,’ which means that I worked closely with two Richards during my time in the Chancery. One of them I trust with my whole heart. The other is Bishop Malone.” Defenders of Fr. Nowak sent reporters pictures of Bojanowski with Biernat at the Dead Sea, both covered in mud and holding each other very, very closely.

In the same recording in which Malone referred to the love triangle, he was heard saying, “This could be the end for me as bishop….it could force me to resign.”  Ugh. His evident self-pity is Exhibit A for the argument that clericalism is the root of the problem of clergy sexual abuse and its cover up.

Why, then, was no action taken until early October when the Vatican embassy in Washington announced that New York Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn would be leading an apostolic visitation of the diocese of Buffalo. Such visitations have long been used to examine a variety of problems in a diocese or seminary or religious order. Unlike investigations conducted under the terms of Vos estis, Bishop DiMarzio is not restricted to examining allegations of sex abuse or its cover-up. He can assess such difficult-to-prove qualities as presbyteral morale. I suspect Rome has already made the decision to remove Malone, which is why they chose a visitation over a Vos estis investigation: It is beyond self-evident that Malone has lost the moral authority needed to effectively lead his diocese.

The unanswered question is why Cardinal Dolan did not initiate an investigation all summer? Or, did he request authorization and was denied? We do not know, which points to one of the major limits with Vos estis: There is little transparency in the process, certainly less than is accorded a priest who is accused of sex abuse under the terms of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children. On the other hand, Archbishop Bernie Hebda of Minneapolis-St.Paul made a public announcement that he was conducting an investigation of Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston. Rome or the nuncio should regularize the procedure for disclosing news of an investigation to the public.

In a couple of weeks, the bishops will be gathered in Baltimore for their plenary meeting. I doubt they will address these issues in open session but they must do so in executive session. If any metropolitan archbishop is himself negligent in pursing investigations, the whole metropolitan model will come into disrepute. No bishops’ reputation, not Malone’s and not Dolan’s, should be permitted to obstruct the bishops’ conference from urging public disclosure of all requests for authorization to conduct an investigation. If the bishops are to police each other, the least they can do is let the rest of us know how they are doing it.


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


Francis: A Saint for Our Times

The title of our blog, ‘Go, Rebuild My House,’ comes from the words St. Francis heard in the spring of 1206 at San Damiano, a little church in ruins near his home town of Assisi. The young Francis was praying there, contemplating an icon of Christ on the cross, desperately wanting to hear from God who he was to be, what he was to do. He believed the command was Christ speaking to him directly, which filled him with intense joy. Francis at first took the message literally and set out to repair the building. Later he realized he was being asked to do much more.

As Franciscan friar Daniel P. Horan so well puts it in a National Catholic Reporter column on Francis as a model for church reform, “It would seem that ultimately God was less concerned about the physical structures of this or that particular worship space and more interested in spiritual and moral renewal, a rebuilding of the church that is the Body of Christ. St. Francis’ whole manner of living became focused on renewing the embodied, daily experience of Christian life by prioritizing the fundamentals of Gospel values in service to the poor, forgotten, voiceless and abandoned in his own time and context.”

Horan says there is a clear way of proceeding that Francis offers today’s Church: “repair the church, for as you see, it is falling apart!” Look at what is in plain sight crying out for repair: those forgotten, voiceless, abandoned in our own time and context, particularly “the women and men broken by abuse and silenced by trusted leaders that make up the church.” The popular image of Francis is of a sweet, unthreatening little man preaching to the birds, a domesticated garden statue among the flowers, what Horan in a later NCR column calls “the birdbath industrial complex,” the reduction of the saint “to a medieval petting-zoo mascot […] without regard for the radical truth about God and creation he intended.” Francis did not set himself apart from others. In fact, he did not set himself or humanity apart from other creatures, from creation. In his great poem “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis spoke of creation in familial terms: “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brother Wind,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” and “our Sister, Mother Earth.” “Such a free, anarchic soul was Francis,” Thomas Cahill wrote after being moved by the poem. “How he went against the grain of his hierarchical, ordered, aggressive, divisive society.”

Here is one reason why the little poor man (il poverello) is a saint for our times. The words of his poem, the life of joy and simplicity he led and inspired others to lead still goad pompous and arrogant hierarchs. A German Cardinal, among others, incensed over what he viewed as un-Christian activity taking place at the Vatican Synod for the Amazon in Rome this month, said the term “Sister Mother Earth” is pagan and heretical, apparently ignorant of Francis’ poem. Francis has been much in the news lately, at least in Catholic news. Pope Francis, the first pope with the courage to take the saint’s name as his own, has consecrated the synod to St. Francis. It opened on October 4, St. Francis’ feast day, with a tree-planting celebration in the Vatican gardens. The tree was planted in earth from Assisi, the Amazon, from places of environmental destruction and human degradation. Indigenous people from the region and others sang and danced around a mandala, which included a photo of Sister Dorothy Stang, the human rights activist murdered in Brazil, and two carvings of naked pregnant females greeting each other, perhaps a representation of the Visitation. The first week of the synod has been remarkable. The possibility of married men becoming priests, of women becoming deacons, discussed openly and seriously. Scientists are included in conversations about the environment and the effects of climate change. Input has been given from below—the people are speaking and teaching, the priests are listening. Pope Francis recognizes that St. Francis of Assisi is the model the Church now needs most for rebuilding its house.

I would like to end on a personal note, for Francis has been much on my mind for personal reasons. I have moved to the city named after him: “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís,” or “The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.” Of course, Francis is everywhere here: roads, schools, hotels, churches, apartments are named after him. We often eat lunch together, Francis and I, in a courtyard of the hospital where I have begun work as a chaplain. He is there every day, wings in the air, head thrown back in joy, one foot kicked high behind him. “Happy Dancing St. Francis” is the title of this statue, which erodes Horan’s “birdbath industrial complex.” I like this place, for it seems to have more of Francis about it than the statue. Many of the hospital’s leaders are women, and they have stressed the importance of relationship, of acknowledging and respecting each other, whether patient or colleague. Rooms are private and often have lovely views of the desert and mountains. There is a mix of religions and spirituality in Santa Fe: Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Native American, Nones, New Age, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim. Spiritual care of the patients is inclusive and expansive: the care of every person is stressed, regardless of belief. My colleagues are Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Interfaith. All of us believe in the importance of this approach. Here is where my ‘Church’ is, and doubtless where Francis’ was also.


Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.


As Pope Francis Calls for Climate Action, His Critics Fear a Green Trojan Horse

The octogenarian and the adolescent. The elder and the youth. Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg make for a marvelous duo, united in their shared concern for the planet, Indigenous peoples and the ramifications of political inertia.

Ms. Thunberg is a novice in these things – though an impassioned one with an agile mind – while Francis has been about the business of moral prophecy for at least the duration of his pontificate, and much longer as the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The sagacious pontiff has his synod on the Pan-Amazonian region (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana and French Guinea) scheduled for Oct. 6-27 in Rome. This event, one of a series of periodic synods, is unique in that it is not limited to ecclesiastical concerns or parochial challenges, but rather the larger and comprehensive matter of our “common home.” As he wrote in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional aspect of our Christian experience.”

In saying this, the Pope pledges the full weight of his authority behind humanity’s shared stewardship of the planet and all its occupants. He situates papal teaching within the context of the environmental crisis and abjures the dualistic thinking that insists on the separation of religion and politics. The Gospel demands no less than the repairing of what we have damaged and the cultivation of an oversight of compassion as opposed to exploitation.

What Francis has done with his encyclical and is about to do with his synod is an attempt to address the problem posed by American writer and savant Barry Lopez: “how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself.”

The Bishop of Rome knows the human capacity for sin, but he also knows humanity’s capacity for a graced existence, for a life of natural harmony in contrast to the rapacity that marks our relationship to creation.

But the synod, years in the making, has become a lightning rod for opposition to the pope. Ultraconservative prelates are all aligned in their resistance to a pontificate they perceive as too accommodating to contemporary trends, too obliging in watering down sound doctrine in the interest of compromise, too unsure of the absolutism of thought and behavior they find comforting and orthodox.

They see the synod as a smokescreen for broader initiatives than merely those driven by social-justice imperatives. They see further evidence of Francis’s efforts to diminish papal authority and alter tradition they view as sacral.

Take, as a case in point, the matter of ordaining mature married men, viri probati. Such men would serve in areas so vast with priests so sparse that access to the sacraments is a rarity. Yet this is seen as a portal to universal change: the ushering in of a married clergy and the ushering out of a universally celibate one. The discussion point is not nearly so draconian. There is plenty of room for nuance, and Catholic practice is much more diverse than it is given credit for.

But deep suspicion of Francis’s motives and the toxins of disloyalty and disobedience are no longer subterranean. They are out in the open, and the synod could well be a battleground for Catholic factionalism.

The pope, however, will remain concentrated on the primary objectives: conscientization around the consequences of deforestation, the disruption of Indigenous life, the economic inequities that drive brutal land-use practices, the continued aftershocks of environmental degradation, community violence and political polarization.

How does one work to achieve an “integral ecology” that weighs human socioeconomic needs with the right nurturing of the environment? And how does one do that in a respectful way without condescension and in keeping with the demands of the Gospel while at the same time remaining open to the spirituality of Indigenous peoples?

These are the key questions. And Francis believes the work of the synod – conducted with transparency and with freedom of mind and heart – can help determine a path that can restore the world to rightful integrity. At the end of this, as he said in Laudato Si, “we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God.”

That’s not hugely different, I wager, from Ms. Thunberg’s more secular dream.


Michael W. Higgins is the distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University.

Reprinted with permission from the The Globe & Mail.


The Catholic Imagination and the Challenge of Apathy

Recently, I had the joy of attending a conference on the Catholic Imagination at Loyola Chicago University. Over three days, the attendees heard presentations by fiction writers, poets, scholars and even filmmakers. It was a powerful reminder that Catholicism, as a living, breathing tradition, brims with creativity and vitality, whatever the crimes and sins of certain clerics. After one panel, I asked three fellow attendees about their experiences with Catholic undergraduate students regarding last summer’s duel tragedies involving the now-laicized McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury report. In the ensuing conversation, a question arose: Which reaction to the abuse crisis is worse, anger or apathy? The premise of the question is that a student’s anger demonstrates some degree of emotional investment in her or his Catholic faith. But if a student reacts with apathy, this indifference seems to indicate a great distance from Catholic beliefs and practices, regardless of whether the student checks “Catholic” on their admissions application. The attendees to whom I posed this question all agreed that apathy was indeed the greater challenge for a teacher of the Catholic tradition. Apathy indicates irrelevance. If the crimes of priests and bishops do not anger a person, it is probably because she or he has no reason to be personally angry. The crimes might be tragic, but they are someone else’s problems, involving someone else’s religion and someone else’s Church. Catholicism simply does not “matter” to one’s life.

This conversation reminded me of my own interactions with my students in the American northeast. A handful of students may be upset, but these students were few and far between. The overwhelming majority seemed to regard the abuse crisis with detachment, even amongst those who identified as Catholic. That said, I wonder if this situation of apathy—assuming it exists outside my own, limited context—also presents an opportunity. Perhaps most obviously, the Catholic instructor must not confront the reactions of betrayal, frustration, cynicism and fury towards ecclesial authorities that many Catholics have felt over the past year, myself included.

The greater challenge for the teacher, then, is to figure out how to invite students into seeing the beauty and richness of the Catholic tradition as indeed important and relevant to their lives. Issues concerning dogma and doctrine, as important as they are, are irrelevant to a person who does not first recognize why these issues would ever bear relevance to them. The situation reminds me of Pope Francis’s comment in his famous interview in America magazine that you have to heal a person’s wounds before you can start talking about other matters.

Hence, the importance of the Catholic imagination, with its stories, poems, artwork, music and movies, to the undergraduate teacher. By a Catholic imagination, I refer to a creative, artistic imagination that is significantly shaped by the liturgical, theological, spiritual and pious traditions of the Catholic tradition, regardless of whether the artist attends church regularly. The purpose of assigning a story, for example, by a Catholic author, whether from the quintessential Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, or a contemporary one, such as Kirsten Valdez Quade or Phil Klay, is to invite students to see the world from a different perspective, in which matters of sin and redemption, evil or grace, faith and doubt, play out through flawed protagonists who undergo their own journeys of spiritual growth. I would never expect to convert a student by assigning Greene’s The End of the Affair, but I would hope that by the end, the student sees that the questions raised by the text are important to a life well lived. Perhaps the student’s responses to those questions will be different from the author’s (assuming one could know that). But at least the conversation has started.

In Love’s Knowledge, the philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, wrote that the value of good fiction is that it demonstrates why “the search matters” and that “by showing the mystery and indeterminacy of ‘our actual adventure,’ they characterize life more richly and truly…” Although she was not writing as a Catholic, Nussbaum’s remark is relevant for any creative work that strives to demonstrate why faith “matters,” why the questions provoked by imaging the world through a Catholic imagination guide critical self-reflection on one’s own sources and foundations for life’s meaning. To bring examples of the Catholic imagination into the classroom in all its visual, aural, oral and verbal representations is not a panacea. It will not likely spur immediate conversion or convince any student overnight to attend mass regularly, nor does it replace forms of evangelization. But it is about the beginnings of a conversation, a crack in the armor of apathy that is so tempting to wear in today’s post-Christian America.


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


Voting with Their Pocketbooks

My mother recently told me, “This is the first year I didn’t donate to our bishop’s annual appeal. I donate to the parish, of course, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Like many Catholics, she is upset about everything going on in the church around the sexual abuse scandal fallout: the drip, drip, drip of new revelations of old and new crimes, and the lack of decisive action by the bishops to hold themselves accountable. Despite the charitable works that bishops’ annual appeals support, Catholics can’t help but feel that their donations to dioceses are abetting the bishops in paying out for lawsuits that really should fall on their shoulders, not ours.

My mom reflects a national trend. In March of this year, Washington Post columnist Mark Thiessen made a splash by advising fellow Catholics “don’t give them a dime” for these reasons. “A Pew Research Center survey released this past summer indicated that 26 percent of U.S. Catholics reported giving less money as a result of the recent reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by priests and bishops,” according to America magazine. This article quotes Father Jay Mello, a pastor of two parishes in Massachusetts, about his parishioners “vocal” reluctance to donate to diocesan collections. “They don’t trust the bishops and feel this is the only way they can send the message.”

While the immediate and specifically Catholic trend occurs within a longer downward slide in religious giving, which has to do with fewer Americans attending churches of all types, I am intrigued by the people who stay but give less, as well as those who fall away from regular attendance and active engagement in their parish out a sense of discontent. This latter phenomenon is another way that Catholics are sending a message the only way they can.

When someone you know who is member of an organization is frustrated about its direction, you usually advise them to first stay and try work for change from within. We tell our kids to try to improve a club, team or friend group that is frustrating them. Sure, sometimes one needs to drop out and find a new group, but that should be a last resort.

The sad thing is that the structures of the church offer them very few avenues for effecting positive change. The reason as many stay is that there is a difference between their local parish—where they have friends, where they can be involved, where they can feel listened to, where the rituals are meaningful to them—compared to the larger structures of the church, over which they have no meaningful say. The decline in donations and the things that Catholics are saying about the bishops and the institutional church are troubling signs. Are the bishops and the pastors listening? They want to and think they are trying, but I am not confident they know how to or know what to do next.

Consider when parishes hold open forums or when parishioners organize their own meetings to discuss crisis moments, such as proposed parish closures. Finally, a large group of Catholics is talking about their hopes and fears for the church, about their frustrations and willingness to see changes! But we Catholics don’t seem to know how to have dialogues in which everyone gets engaged except when a financial crisis is upon us. How much better it would have be if honest, passionate and messy conversations had been happening in parishes over many years.

Both the leaders and the laity lack ingrained habits of association, to use an image from that great observer of American civil society, Alexis de Tocqueville. This deficit is virtually baked into Catholicism, because of the hierarchical structure and the primary emphasis on attaining the sacraments. As we have often heard, “the church is not a democracy.” But we have sold ourselves way short, because we tend to assume that making the leaders accountable to its people and involving the laity in the pastoral planning of the church would mean shifting the paternalistic model of Catholicism all the way to the other side, to a low-church Protestant model.

But there exist dynamic options in between those poles, and they exist within Catholic history and the scope of its practices and laws. For instance, if the priests in the United States voted for their first archbishop, John Carroll, cannot some version of such practices occur today? Why can’t parishioners play a role in the selection of their new pastor? There’s much the institutional church can and should do.

But parishes need not wait on the bishops. There are two promising activities to explore. First, some form of parish renewal action along the lines of small-church groups and faith-sharing groups are valuable for engaging and reengaging Catholics. Catholics need ways to get reintroduced to the joy of the risen Christ, which sustains their hope for making change. Happily, my sense is that many U.S. parishes are participating in such programs. Second, the revitalization and full use of the existing model of pastoral (parish) councils is strongly needed. This will be the topic of my next column.

All signs point to this conclusion by scholars who study what it takes for a Catholic parish to be excellent: “A parish is successful or excels to the extent that it is energized by and thrives on the dynamism of dialogue” (Bradford Hinze, Practices of Dialogue in the Roman Catholic Church, 2006, p. 20). If Catholics are holding back their money, their attendance and their full engagement in their local church, the church must invite them to talk about it and must be ready to do something about it.


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