A publication of Sacred Heart University

Catechesis and Superheroes for the Digital Age

Rebuilding the Church of the future is in the hands of the young. As a religious sister and pediatrician, I am deeply concerned about the physical, emotional and spiritual consequences of pandemic-related trauma, secularization, economic instability and global violence for children and youth. These realities have compromised their ability to build a post-pandemic Church of inclusion, justice and mercy.

In December 2021, the Pontifical Academy for Life recognized the impact of the COVID pandemic on the lives of children and adolescents as “a parallel pandemic” to the infection itself. It exacerbated the longstanding lack of accessible, affordable health care for all, inadequate mental health and protective services, and crucially important preventive care. It revealed systemic issues of poverty, racism, sexism, exploitation and social marginalization with higher illness and death rates among the most socially disadvantaged.

Public health advisories to “shelter in place” at home assumed one had a home and that it was safe. The stark reality is that one hundred million homeless families had been displaced by war, poverty, persecution and natural disasters. The isolation of children with stressed parents confined to small spaces as well as school closures increased physical and sexual abuse.

The pandemic produced an explosion of research in developmental traumatology on the psychiatric and psychobiological effects of overwhelming stress during the crucial periods of growth and development for infants and children. Adolescence is a period of rapid development of the brain’s socio-affective circuitry that drives a need for affirmation and high sensitivity to internet bullying and phishing.

The Synod recognizes that our first formation in faith takes place in the family. Parents hand down beliefs and form their children as moral agents. They are “first responders” to the trauma of profound disruption of the family, faith and cultural rituals necessary for children’s sense of identity and security. Historically, children heard cultural and religious stories that helped them cope with difficulties and presented models of good and bad behavior.

Tragically, quarantine increased the time young people spend on addictive social media, which bombards them with very different models and stories. Exposure to interactive screen media begins for many North American children before the age of two. By adolescence, they are fully immersed as it steals time from sleep, exercise and in-person activities. In a pathological paradox, constant virtual interactions have unmasked deep loneliness and a loss of meaning and hope.

The shift from oral tradition to screen began in the late 1800s when motion pictures provided graphic images of real heroic soldiers sacrificing their lives. By the 1930s, Walt Disney’s tamed fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson established a new secular genre with good and evil characters clearly identified. Television brought screens into the home.

I had a new insight into the magnitude of the challenge of faith formation in post-Christendom one evening during Easter week. As I channel-surfed my television, the only program about Easter was on the “religion channel.” Strangely, there was massive hype about a rerun of the visually amazing initial Harry Potter film from the book series written between 1997 and 2007. As of 2023, it became the best-selling book series in history, selling over 600 million copies. Published in 85 languages, the total franchise is estimated at $25 billion! It presents coming of age and fantasy issues in dark themes of prejudice, corruption, madness and fearful death. How can faith formation compete? The Synod concluded, “The synodal culture needs to become more intergenerational, with spaces for young people to speak freely for themselves, within their families, and with their peers and pastors, including through digital channels.”

At every mass Catholics hear “the greatest story ever told,” which reveals the depth of God’s love for us in the Paschal Mystery and stories from salvation history. Today, these are among many competing, contradictory, fast-paced, interactive stories offered to youth.

The challenges are clear:

Renew inclusive, accessible Scriptural language and restore the importance of the proclamation of the Word.

Resuscitate personal encounters in the Eucharist, as a welcoming community of friends sharing a meal and giving thanks for a real incarnational presence.

Acknowledge and address the trauma of divisive polarization of beliefs and practices on the young.

Find new ways to educate youth in discernment of the perils and possibilities of the digital age, now compounded by AI, especially about the ways in which they can be manipulated.

Commit to being credible witnesses and “walk the talk” of our teaching.

Address the key ecclesial, moral and anthropological questions of our time raised in the Synod.

Recognize youth violence around the world as a cry for help: build on the courage and selflessness youth showed during pandemic as aid to isolated and vulnerable persons and on their concern for the environment.

Promote resilience to the inevitable traumas of life in prayerful, generous communities.

Rebuilding the Church of the future requires the formation of a new generation of superheroes, rooted in the hope of the incarnation and resurrection and powered by the Holy Spirit. “Make it so.”

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

Grace, Not Grievance

I recently read the 2024 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report Religious Change in America, which states that “one-quarter (26%) of Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated.” The report adds that 35% of these people are former Catholics. It states that nearly half (47%) of respondents cited negative teachings about LGBTQ+ people in their religious tradition as a primary reason for leaving.

I also know that research shows that disaffiliation within the Catholic Church has increased among young adults, some of whom I am in conversation with because they are in my classes. So, I brought this topic to my Catholic Intellectual Tradition (CIT) Seminar class. In our CIT seminars, we process in a synodal model where we listen carefully, reflect intentionally and engage in courageous civil dialogue about big questions and difficult topics. Their conversation was vigorous, animated and consistent with the PRRI report: “The Church says, ‘love one another’ but it does not show love for LGBTQ people;” “The Church does not treat women equally;” “The Church is not inviting.”  This is a class of mainly women and every one of them said they had a friend or a family member who is gay.

In CIT seminars, the faculty member steps back to allow the space for students to feel safe and free to discuss, and the faculty member does not dominate the conversation. But I did make minor contributions as the discussion unfolded. I mentioned Fiducia Supplicans, the Vatican’s declaration on the blessing of same-sex couples as well as divorced and remarried couples (many of my students’ parents are divorced and remarried). I also mentioned how we understand and practice the Catholic intellectual tradition as an ongoing conversation where dialogue, inquiry and questioning can bring new understanding to the Church. They were deeply engaged in the conversation but I knew that there was no encounter with God’s love in this dialogue.

Shortly after this class, Dignitas Infinita was released, and I read it with mixed reactions. This declaration has been commented on thoroughly both on this blog and other news outlets, so I will not repeat what has already been cogently critiqued and analyzed. When I read the document, I was so glad to see the Church emphasizing its long-held core belief of the inviolable dignity of every human person, created in the image of God, and extending human dignity to capital punishment, violence against women, poverty, the status of migrants, human trafficking and sexual abuse. I was glad to read the declaration affirming human dignity regardless of sexual orientation and rejecting discrimination against LGBTQ people. But I was confused because the document also reinforced the discrimination it stood against. While I recognize that the Church must assert truth as it defines truth, I could not see in this declaration where faith and reason were in dialogue or where there was any intellectual engagement with the science that it outright denied. I could not see a listening or synodal Church accompanying, with compassion, the full range of the lived experience of transgender and non-binary people.

I felt too discouraged to want to continue the conversation I had days before with my students. I thought instead of the son of my friends and the eight-year journey that began in high school when he exhibited out of control behavior and abused drugs. Many psychiatrists and psychologists could not help. Finally, he was sent to a therapeutic wilderness program for six months where he was able to express the turmoil inside him. I had witnessed the pain and anguish, love and support that this family experienced until now when they celebrate their daughter who is happy and settled in her true gender identity.

Several weeks later, Cardinal Cupich came to Sacred Heart University and gave a talk on his reflections on Fr. Timothy Radcliff’s pre-synodal retreat last October. Cardinal Cupich selected three of Fr. Radcliff’s insights “as a pathway to confront our fears, doubts and divisions.” The one that struck me was Eucharistic hope in a time of division. Eucharistic hope looks at Catholic theology’s both/and approach: scripture and tradition, faith and works. Eucharistic hope looks at the renewal of the Church like making bread—bringing the margins to the center and the center to the margins. The Cardinal’s talk lifted the darkness in my heart and brought me a moment of Eucharistic hope. My students were in the audience and I wished that they too experienced hope. I hoped for grace, not grievance.

In Monday’s Fourth Week of Easter Reading, Peter is chastised for eating and spending time with uncircumcised people. Peter tells his chastisers that he has had a vision and that “the Spirit told me to accompany these people without discriminating,” (Acts 11:1-18). Would it be Eucharistic hope to imagine that synodal conversations in the Spirit would renew the Church’s thinking—like making bread, like Peter’s vision?

Michelle Loris is the director of Center for Catholic Studies and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.

Serious Branding Issues

I love the Church. It’s strange that public and private agita about the Catholic “brand” makes me say “I love the Church” so plainly. Much like the way I am bored by a plain pizza, I don’t like to say things plainly. I delight in theopoetic flourish and obtuse grandiloquence, but there is a benefit to laying down one’s cards to profess love, to share hard news, to speak truth.

Now is a season for remembering why I love the Church. I’ve attended long vigils with ever ancient, ever new hymns and delighted in the joy of baptismal welcomes to my newest (some very small) siblings in Christ. The spring semester marks transitions for students and colleagues as we professors end the academic year. The pilgrim people of God are always in some way on the move, and I love that the Church is a dynamic, international, intergenerational community of very different people sharing faith and reason, sharing joy and hope, sharing griefs and anxieties.

I have also spent much time recently defending the sentence “I love the Church” to those wounded, confused and disappointed by its document on dignity. I have been caught in the whirlwind of courageous civil discourse and intentional reflection about Dignitas Infinita. With its stated goal of “offering important clarifications that can help avoid frequent confusion that surrounds the use of the term ‘dignity’” the Declaration on Human Dignity “does not set out to exhaust such a rich and crucial subject.” Its genre is a teaching document. Authorized (but not authored) by Pope Francis, the Declaration comes from one of the highest teaching organizations of the Roman Catholic Church: the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (now DDF, formerly the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, itself just one of the many rebrands for the historical Sacred Roman and Universal Inquisition).

Any statements of the DDF need to be taken seriously by the faithful. They become an immediate point of reference for non-Catholics as to what the Church officially teaches. Another sign of springtime, this declaration sprouted the perennials of commentary from mainstream media pundits as well as Catholic thinkers across the political, theological and gender spectrum. One of the most formative and helpful takes for my thinking came from Colleen Dulle on this very blog. There’s some fun in the way Vatican intrigue makes its way into my non-theological podcast and news diet.

I won’t rehash the headlines about Dignitas Infinita because I want to invite people to take the document seriously, to read it and think with it, against it, through it, despite it, informed by it. That is what it means for the Church to have official doctrine, that is, official teaching. Frankly, the “rapidification” of our news cycle means that many Catholic and non-Catholic reactions to the DDF will need to be adjusted and patched over time, perhaps like the script for an AI-generated and recently laicized “priest” bot. Taking the Church seriously in love means offering the gift of our time. I wish more of my energy could be spent absorbing the beautiful harmony between the distinctions about infinite dignity in the declaration’s introduction: ontological dignity (an irrevocable consequence of the human being as a beloved creature of God), moral dignity (referring to the use and abuse of human freedom), social dignity (a sense of the quality of life in terms of material conditions) and existential dignity (a sense of the quality of life as perceived and experienced).

But I admit, it is hard for me to take other parts of the declaration seriously because of the lack of any citations to its lived and liturgical tradition. None of the following words appear in the declaration: “liturgy,” “sacrament,” “baptism,” “rite” or “eucharist.” The word “prayer” only appears in the titles of footnotes. So much for lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of belief—when it comes to this set of doctrinal clarifications.

I love the Church, so I want to take the DDF seriously, especially as I live out my sacramental vocation as a father to a baptized daughter. The amply commented upon critique of “gender theory” or “gender ideology” fails to include any reflection on the sacraments or scripture. The Church has a gender theory, that is, a theory as to how biological sexual differences should manifest in human social relations. Part of that theory derives from the rite of baptism, where little boys and little girls are both wrapped in a similar looking white garment. The point of the Church’s sacramental gender theory, expressed in a ritual tradition, affirms the theology of St. Paul: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus,” (Gal 3:27-28). In the rite of baptism, ordinary social demarcations of identity are relativized to the identity of the people of God as the mystical body of Christ. The physical and social realities of racial, sexual, religious and class differences do not vanish because of this ontological change. The visible sign of baptism proclaims that God’s love can wash away even the sin that stops such beautiful and holy differences from radiating the truth of God’s triune love. The sacrament testifies to ontological dignity. I wish the DDF would testify to the social dignity conferred by our always developing and dynamic understandings of gender roles. And that’s just one section.

Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies and director of the Pioneer Journey at Sacred Heart University.

Magus, Prophet and Poet for Our Dark Times

Broadview, a Canadian magazine that focuses on “spirituality, justice and ethical living,” is a firmly and historically rooted United Church publication. Similar to the storied U.S. Sojourners magazine in its ecumenicity and biblical focus, it often serves as the conscience of the nation.

The current April/May issue is given over to “The Climate Issue” and, not unsurprisingly, it can make for grim reading. In the article “Poetry for the End of the World” by John Danakas the author quotes Robinson Jeffers, the American poet with a taste for the apocalypse, who lamented humanity’s “using and despising the patient earth” and anguished over the absence of “one mind to stand with the trees, one life with the mountains.”

Well, there is such a mind and such a life. They are those of John Moriarty. I have been revisiting this master with his profound if quirky taste for mollusk and Moses while preparing my lectures for a course I am to teach this summer at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas: “The Eco-Spirituality and Sacramental Vision of John Moriarty.”

Moriarty was not a doomsayer nor reconciled to humanity’s seeming passivity in the face of global catastrophe. Rather, he summoned his considerable resources as a gardener-philosopher, lyricist of the heart and the imagination and lover of soul and soil to witness to the beauty and tragedy of our planet.

For sure, this Irish hermit/mystic/ecologist who prognosticated from the windy wilds of Connemara was not alone in inveighing against those multiple mentalities and practices that imperil Creation’s flourishing.

He had been reading the entrails for decades by the time of his death in 2006. The failure to plan ahead, to face with stark attention the threats ahead of us, has long defined humankind’s resistance to planetary responsibility. He would have none of it. “We are going the wrong way,” he thundered with moral conviction and unwavering clarity, his listeners and readers mesmerized by his intensity, rhetorical skill and gift for narrative.

Moriarty mined his own history—personal, cultural, spiritual and anthropological—in order to paint on the larger canvas, to move from the particular to the universal, always seeking the consolations of contemplation, the sanctuary of isolation, the wondrous admixture of the primitive with the sophisticated, the elemental with the embellished.

Moriarty understood the power of art, the power of story, the redemptive possibilities inherent in myth, the often-dangerous allure of nature and the devastating luminosity of the dark night of the soul. He was part pioneer, part preserver and part renegade. He re-thought sacred truths, re-framed conventional beliefs and re-imagined ancient rituals for a new and impoverished time.

His own uniquely structured narrative was built around his philosophical ruminations and theological probing, his psyche bleeding onto the pages he wrote not as therapy or as authorial contrivance but as his way of discovering himself in his conflicted and yet joyous quest for integration.

Moriarty was quintessentially Irish. Despite his half-dozen years at the University of Manitoba, his mystical forays into the geological wonders of the Grand Canyon and his apophatic struggles in a Carmelite priory in Oxford, he remained a denizen of the west coast of Ireland, a proud product of County Kerry, their premier storyteller and myth maven.

But what you discover as you read him is that this Kerry visionary is really universal property, his sometimes-disturbing spirituality an invitation to a deeper understanding of faith, his boundaryless intellectual wanderings an invitation to push beyond the parochial limitations humanity often imposes on itself.

As fellow Irish writer John Banville observed of one of his characters in his novel The Singularities—and it could easily be Moriarty that he had in mind as a prototype: “For him, everything was animate, especially trees … He perceived pure being in all things, in the antics of madness as surely as in the most exacting refinements of religious ritual, in the crudest roisterings of farmers’ sons no less than in the action of the sweetest sonnet.”

I also find in Moriarty’s work a splendid congruence of sympathy and idea with the work of Pope Francis. The Argentine pontiff’s articulation of an “integral ecology,” his sensitivity to the monstrous mutilations of our earth by the craven and the venal, his deep Franciscan sensibility and his call for a new visioning resonate well with Moriarty’s capacious understanding of our stewardship of the earth.

Moriarty asks in the face of our ecological crisis: what to do?

And here is his answer: “That the Earth is an evolutionary success all the way forward from its beginnings is an opportunity for us to be other than how we have been. Indeed, if the Earth is to continue brightening our corner of the universe, we must be other than how we have been. Starting from the lowest parts of the Earth, Jesus pioneered a trail all the way back to the Divine Source. He pioneered it for all things, for stegosaurus and rhinoceros as well as for mollusk and Moses. In the interest of our further and final evolution we need to select this trail.”

And now.

Michael W. Higgins’s new book, The Jesuit Disruptor: a personal portrait of Pope Francis, will be published in the summer. He is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus of Sacred Heart University.

The Failure of “Dignitas Infinita” on Gender

This week’s new declaration by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Dignitas Infinita” (“Infinite Dignity”) takes aim at what it calls “gender theory,” “sex change” and “the deplorable practice of so-called surrogate motherhood,” among other concerns it identifies as “grave violations of human dignity.”

The document was in the works for five years in various forms, and despite the pains it takes to frame itself as a wide-ranging but not comprehensive document on human dignity, America Magazine’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, told me this week on our podcast that the document’s genesis was in 2019 when the Dicastery was focused in particular on the question of gender. The document itself states that it underwent major revisions on the orders of Pope Francis, who encouraged the writers to study his encyclical Fratelli Tutti and incorporate additional subjects. The Vatican has not confirmed what topics those were, but it is not unimaginable that at that point, this document was transformed from one based on gender to one that was framed as a more general reflection on human dignity, tied to the recent 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Vatican’s declaration affirms that the U.N. “authoritatively” reaffirmed the principle of human dignity, but takes pains to distance itself from what it calls “new rights”—a familiar refrain in Pope Francis’ frequent criticisms of the U.N.

In any case, the parts of the document that have garnered the most attention are those sections on gender, which, aside from the shockingly languid single paragraph on sexual abuse (“it also affects the Church”), form the weakest part of the document.

The section denouncing “gender theory,” by far the longest in the document, constructs a strawman argument, as Dan Horan, O.F.M., wrote for New Ways Ministry:

Cardinal Fernández writes in his introductory preface that the five-year-long work on this document sought to “take into account the latest developments on the subject in academia.” However, for all its talk about “theory,” the text fails to directly engage any specific theorist, philosopher, theologian or other scholar who works on the subject of gender ostensibly under consideration here. Not a single citation points to any source this text intends to critique.

Instead of accounting for real research, this document constructs a strawman called “gender theory,” whose tenets represent no actual theory or study with which I am familiar. The vagueness of the concept is presented at once as a catch-all and an ominous threat, which serves the purpose of establishing a boogeyman to be feared but does little to advance any real dialogue or understanding.

Rather strikingly, this DDF document creates its own original “gender theory” according to the patchwork of concepts it weaves in paragraphs 56 to 59.

That patchwork “theory” elaborated by the Vatican “intends to deny the greatest possible difference that exists between living beings: sexual difference…thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family” and is imposed on cultures that would otherwise reject it by “ideological colonization”—a term Francis has often used to refer to the United Nations’ work protecting “new rights” that are not detailed in the 1948 declaration, including things like abortion.

The section concludes with the assertion that, “‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’ Therefore, all attempts to obscure reference to the interminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected.” This argument is incoherent: What distinction between sex and gender can be made that cannot be interpreted as an “attempt to obscure reference to” sexual difference? If I cut my hair short or wear my husband’s jeans and hoodie, is that too far? What if I do “men’s work” like changing the oil in my car or fixing a leaky toilet?

Throughout these sections, the document, which speaks on behalf of “the Church,” fails to take the Church to account for the discrimination it denounces, in what at this point reads like a boilerplate statement before negative comments on LGBTQ+ people: “‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided.” In contrast to its language in other sections that “the Church and humanity must not cease fighting…” and “the Church also takes a stand against…,” it employs passive voice to say, “It should be denounced as contrary to human dignity the fact that, in some places, not a few people are imprisoned, tortured and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.” It fails to say anything at all about the fact that people are imprisoned, tortured or killed because they are transgender. In fact, it does not use the word “transgender” at all.

For all the years of study and preparation that went into this document, “Dignitas Infinita” notably lacks any substantive engagement with the theory it denounces, makes incoherent arguments regarding gender presentation as related to sex, and overlooks violence and discrimination against the very transgender people Pope Francis has gone out of his way to minister to.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has been tasked with responding “in light of the faith, to the questions and arguments arising from scientific advances and cultural developments.” To do so, it needs to engage these advances and developments seriously. In “Dignitas Infinita,” it has failed.

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming book on grappling with faith while covering the Vatican will be published by Penguin Random House in spring 2025.

Dangers Within

Throughout modern history, popes have typically identified the church as a bulwark against threats emanating from the outside world and its pitiful errors. These have ranged from Protestantism, democracy, socialism, evolution and railways (per Gregory XVI, at least in the Papal States), to “modern civilization” itself (Pius X), to name just a few. In recent decades many of these specific dangers have receded or lost their sting. Nevertheless, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI continued to warn against threats posed by outside cultural trends, such as what Cardinal Ratzinger, at the conclave that elected him, called “the dictatorship of relativism.” As far as internal threats went, they were especially on guard against the work of theologians who exhibited signs of “ambiguity,” or other threats against the doctrine of the Church. Arguably, this defensive strategy distracted attention from the seismic failure to recognize the clergy sex abuse scandal and its cover-up, which were all the while eating away at the Church’s foundations.

Pope Francis, too, has warned against cultural forces, including what he calls the “globalization of indifference,” a “throw-away culture” and a failure to heed “the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth.” But the greater threats to the Church in his view come from within—from the spirit of clericalism, “spiritual worldliness” and “self-referentiality.”

He says, “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.”

Many of his critics present themselves as defenders of orthodoxy and truth. It is notable that in his apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, he addresses such critics (none-too-subtly) under the heading “The Subtle Enemies of Holiness.” This he does by way of the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.       Such heresies, he says, are alive and well in the Church. They both give rise “to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism,” whereby “instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.”

Gnosticism was a broad school of thought that competed with orthodox Christianity in the early church. Its adherents sought salvation through special knowledge available only to the pure and elect. Recent popes have typically deployed the charge of “Gnosticism” against New Age or other contemporary spiritual movements. But the Gnosticism that Pope Francis fears seems to come primarily from elements in the church that identify themselves as the pure or elect. These “gnostics” in the church “absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking.” They “reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” He refers approvingly to St. Francis’ fear of the “temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distances us from the freshness of the Gospel.” 

The second threat to holiness comes from a new form of “Pelagianism.” Originally, this refers to an argument in the early church about the role of original sin, and therefore the necessity of grace in achieving salvation. The Pelagians—whose great adversary was St. Augustine—believed in the ability of men and women, by their own efforts, to achieve holiness.

Again, from recent popes, it was common to hear this kind of charge laid at the doorstep of those who too easily identify their promotion of social change with the Kingdom of God. But again, Pope Francis points in a surprising direction. The “new Pelagians” are those who “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.”

In effect, Francis is applying to elements in the church the same criticism that Jesus leveled against those in the Gospels who emphasize the importance of the law over the spirit of love and mercy. This form of “justification by their own efforts” finds expression in many ways of thinking and acting: “an obsession with the law … a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters …”

Thus, Francis’ call to holiness becomes a deceptively sharp criticism of tendencies within the Church. He is saying, in effect, that the greatest obstacles to promoting holiness in the Church do not come from outside “enemies,” whether individual critics of Christianity or general cultural forces, such as pluralism, relativism or atheism. Instead, they come from within—for instance, from those through whom, “contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few.” Just as Jesus confronted the “thicket of precepts and prescription” that stifled the spirit of mercy, so Francis reminds us of the essence of the law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.

Let those who have ears to hear listen!

Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.

Demos II and the Pathos of Pope Francis’ Haters

The success of an endeavor is often in direct proportion to the vociferousness of the hatred directed toward it. As a fan of the New York Yankees who attended many games during their recent heyday of 1996-2000, and of the Notre Dame football team (whose great successes are in the more distant past), I can testify that this is the case. If we measure the papacy of Francis, which is in certainly its latter phases, by this standard, it might be compared more fruitfully to the more recently successful Kansas City Chiefs or Alabama Crimson Tide football teams; the fires of hatred against Francis still burn hot. The recent publication of an anonymous letter by Demos II, who claims to be a cardinal, provides evidence for this.

Demos takes his name, notably, from a similar letter written anonymously by the late George Cardinal Pell—an advisor and then critic of Francis—shortly before his death. Pell’s 2019-2020 imprisonment on sexual abuse charges in his native Australia became a cause célèbre among conservatives. This whole saga, which included the publication of a 3-volume prison memoir, was in remarkably poor taste. Regardless of Pell’s guilt or innocence of these charges—which Australian court practices of secrecy render hard to sort out—making a martyr out of Pell amid the ongoing reality of clergy sexual abuse was incredibly tone-deaf to the pain of victims and those whose faith has been shaken by the stories of abuse and coverup. Reviving Pell’s nom de plume continues this legacy.

Demos II grounds his anonymity in the supposed “authoritarianism” of Pope Francis, an accusation regularly leveled against him from his right and seemingly grounded in periodic decisiveness about matters that irk them rather than the long leash he has given to his outspoken enemies. Authority is indeed one of the key points in the letter; for this cardinal, Francis has abused his authority yet forsaken the rightful authority of the church by teaching ambiguously. Indeed, ambiguity stands out as the second theme of this text: for its author, Francis has taught ambiguously in such a way as to mislead the faithful. The areas of ambiguity are rendered—ambiguously—but they seem to come down to questions around proclaiming Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation and the failure to name and harshly enough condemn sin. These are evidence-free charges, relying on innuendo rather than substantiation.

The rhetoric of Demos attempts to focus on the positive and prescriptive, using language about evangelization that attempts to mimic John Paul II. Yet, in fact, it manages to only capture the harsher side of that complex Pope. Demos participates in what has by now become a tradition of aggressively misreading Pope Benedict XVI with its language about the “hermeneutic of continuity.” In the author’s nostalgia for an imagined recent past, how a conclave of cardinals selected by John Paul II and Benedict XVI came to elect someone like Francis is of no interest.

The cluelessness of Demos becomes most clear in the letter’s critique of papal travel. While there are legitimate conversations to be had about the cost and benefits of papal trips (Czech theologian Tomáš Halík has written eloquently about his distaste for these events) the rationale Demos gives for curtailing them—shoring up the European church—is remarkably tone-deaf. It deliberately pushes back against the language used by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium calling for a “church that goes forth,” rather advising retreat. This focus on institutional maintenance is laughably out of touch with the reality of the church today—and its center of gravity in areas far from Europe—that it renders almost all the other complaints in the letter meaningless.

Pope Francis has made many mistakes, as he would be the first to admit. Yet his greatest mistakes on both internal and external matters have tended to be when he has hewed in a more conventional direction—his recent remarks about Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s sham election in Russia are indicative of this. Francis is at his best when challenging the church to be more true to the Gospel even at the risk of tension with established structures. It is this Gospel emphasis that Demos II cannot abide. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart suggested in a recent book that it is precisely the Christianity of Francis that his opponents cannot stand, and the points focused on by Demos make this all the more clear.

Like the hatred of winning sports teams discussed in the first paragraph, the rhetoric of Demos II burns hot but has shallow roots; negativity leads to a miserable spiral. With a constructive agenda based around a negative outline of Francis’ actions, this anonymous cardinal has done little but shine a light on the narrowness of his own viewpoints and movement. Haters such as Demos might well reflect on what good their vitriol is producing and whether they could be accomplishing something better for the church and the world.

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

Cuts to the Liberal Arts are a Social Sin

With this post, I am retiring from writing for this blog, which I have been doing since its inception in late 2018. Most of my previous posts have explored the interactions of church reform and parish life (a few of my favorites on this topic are Civility, Civics and Church Vitality, Breaking the Distrust Doom Loop and Unlike Any Mass I've Ever Attended). For my final post, I return to a theme I discussed in September 2020: how Catholic universities ought to be—but are not yet—a paradigm for ethics in the Church.

In that post, I launched from Fr. James Keenan’s central argument in his 2015 book, University Ethics: Universities too often fail to look inward and examine their motives. They cover up this lack of self-critique by spewing hot air about their missions. Keenan intimated, and I argue explicitly, that Catholic universities, as a group, do not notably excel over other private and public institutions.

Of course, universities, like any human institution, are not all bad or all good. Like any human institution, they are subject to the dynamics that Reinhold Niebuhr diagnosed in Moral Man and Immoral Society: “In every human group there is less reason to guide and check impulse… less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.” Niebuhr is talking about what Catholic social teaching now calls social sin. Sure, we are all sinners, but might not we expect Catholic institutions to be particularly attentive to resisting structural sin?

Take the cuts in faculty and majors that have been in the news in the past year. When one compares how, when faced with worrying budget situations, leaders at the University of Mississippi and the University of West Virginia acted compared to leaders at Marymount University and Manhattan College, the latter two Catholic universities did not distinguish themselves. They did not differ from their public university counterparts by the purely instrumental and financial language that their leaders used to justify their decisions, nor did they use a more deliberative process that involved all stakeholders.

Beth Ann Fennelly, a former poet laureate of her state who has taught at the University of Mississippi for over 20 years, powerfully called out the implications of this shift in vision:

“Reducing education to a business model changes what, and who, gets taught. Framing students as entry-level employees emboldens this nudge toward the vocational. But students need a wide horizon to explore, dream, try, fail, try harder, fail better. They need, if you will, to be useless—for a while, anyway.

It’s true that a great majority of my students won’t go on to be writers, but they will go on to be readers who, through literature, educate themselves cognitively, emotionally and spiritually. They’ll leave my classroom prepared to think critically, to consider another’s perspective and muster empathy and to recognize fake news, fearmongering and demagogy.”

University leaders love to say that they are preparing students to think critically and to develop empathy and democratic skills. But when the chips are down, what do they do?

Take Manhattan College. As reported in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) last month, more than 25% of faculty have been terminated over the last seven months. Among the programs that stand to be eliminated is the college’s religious studies major. Interestingly enough, at Marymount College last year, theology was also expendable, because it and other humanities majors were “no longer serving Marymount students.”

Now, two objections that Catholic university presidents and boards of trustees would make to what I’ve been arguing are (1) universities must protect the bottom line, and in the case of Manhattan and Marymount, they were in crisis; and (2) even Catholic universities that trim humanities majors still do plenty to promote a Catholic liberal arts education for all their students. Neither objection is without merit, but the second can be distracting, because there are dozens of “but what about…?” activities at every college. For instance, there will still be campus ministry activities, volunteer programs and courses in English and history. But Marymount’s and Manhattan’s actions show no commitment to maintaining a community of teacher-scholars in the liberal arts who can develop a community of learners over the course of their studies.

As to the first objection, Keenan’s critique is that universities don’t establish processes to ensure ethical oversight of routine decisions and to guide them through ethical crises. The ethical way to deal with a crisis is to involve all stakeholders, including students, in whose name cuts are being made, and faculty, who by long tradition are the primary caretakers of the academic enterprise at universities. It’s not the fact of financial difficulties or the need for budget changes that are in question, but how the decisions are being made. “The administration doesn’t want to discuss the situation as equals. When the faculty asks questions, they seem to respond with threats,” Adam Arenson, a Manhattan College history professor, told NCR.

For these reasons, 89% of 147 participating professors voted to express no confidence in Manhattan president Milo Riverso in January, while a student-led petition against the cuts has gained over 3,100 signatures.

Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners community of Christian justice activists, says that the operating principle of God’s economy is that “there is enough if we share it.” Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes was meant to show that an abundance mentality based on sharing is far more powerful than a deficit mentality based on hoarding. Are Catholic universities taking their Scripture seriously?

Changes to the current dynamic are not going to be easy, and they probably only happen through more collective action by faculty, both full-time and adjuncts. But for a start, we can at least get honest with our language.

To conclude with poet laureate Fennelly, “So let me suggest that higher education administrators jettison the corporatese. My students’ degrees are high value only if they’ve reason to value them highly. My campus is not your corporation. My classroom is not your boardroom.”

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

A Lenten Reflection

An Interfaith Conversation

One of the most compelling benefits that Laudato Si has yielded over the years has been its outreach to peoples of all faiths, creating a comfortable space for interfaith dialogue. That particular good was celebrated in a recent edition of the Earthbeat section of the National Catholic Reporter, which reported on the robust environmental movement that has been emerging from Islamic communities across the globe over the last several years. That movement has recently taken on special vigor as Islamic scholars and religious leaders have themselves entered the conversation, many of whom have claimed spiritual inspiration from Laudato Si. This has encouraged a quiet yet dynamic interfaith conversation between Catholics and Muslims about care for the earth and the flourishing of its peoples, while also providing a possible inception point for more complicated but crucial discussions between the two religious traditions.

The focus of the Earthbeat article was the publication of a new document, Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth, that Muslim religious leaders and scholars composed as a kind of sibling to Laudato Si. The document has become a point of entry for Muslims and Catholics to work in tandem in the creation of a global consciousness about care for the earth, grounded in the common beliefs that the earth is the glorious gift from a merciful and loving God and that human beings are properly understood to be khalifahs, or stewards, of the earth. Both documents also address the issue of environmental justice with their unflinching witness to the fact that the poorest nations in the world (many of which are Muslim majority) are suffering from some of the worst effects of climate change caused by the richest nations in the world, yet with the fewest resources to combat such deleterious events: raging wildfires, extreme drought, rising sea waters, loss of fresh water and loss of arable land. Stewardship, as Laudato Si and Al-Mizan insist, is a moral obligation of the faithful in striving for the common good.


A Lenten Reflection…

There is perhaps no better time than Lent to pause briefly and consider that seemingly minor but telling moment of interfaith engagement because the United States today—and, increasingly, the Church in the U.S.—is rife with fissures and demarcations, barriers and barricades, and is destabilized by caustic binary thinking among oppositional communities. Against all of that, the discreet Catholic-Muslim dialogue stands in stark contrast. Much of contemporary American society—and the Catholic community within that larger society—seems now too ready to reject subtlety in thinking and flexibility in human interactions, to rebuff conversations of differing perspectives, preferring ideological bombast and coarse contempt for the other. The ethos of Lent, however, can provide some corrective to the corrosive temper of the times.

Lent is a time of prayer, of memory and of meditation, practices that Laudato Si and Al-Mizan together encourage. It is a time for reflection: What is the life I am leading? How do I treat the vulnerable (human and otherwise)? Do I presume the privilege of acquisition and consumerism, by utilization and exploitation, both of the physical environment and in my life with others? Do I live a life of discontent or a life of gratitude? The Christian Middle Ages (particularly the Benedictines) embraced Lent as the holy time of conversion, that is, the righteous occasion of turning the soul “with” and toward God. As St. Benedict taught, Lenten conversion was a devotion of body, mind and soul for more authentic self-awareness (such as reflecting on questions), for a more intimate relationship with God (understanding the importance of questions) and for a more generous communion with others (caring about the answers to questions). St. Benedict understood Lent as an interval of spiritual and intellectual growth, not just for the individual but for the entire community, through prayer and meditation, but also action, notably the works of mercy.

One “act” to initiate the Lenten endeavor is the cultivation of listening: to God, to one’s most authentic self and to the other. It could be argued that such active listening can become a tool to begin healing those fissures in society. St. Thomas Aquinas described listening in a sermon as the heart of wisdom, and Jesus (naturally) as the perfect model for that act of listening. Jesus, Aquinas said, listened “assiduously,” with his heart and with an openness to many different people, some of whom strongly opposed him. He turned to others graciously, listening not to prove them wrong but to listen without barriers to their thoughts, their feelings and their perceptions. Such active listening can open spaces of connection for a deeper understanding of the other, which may reveal (as Laudato Si and Al-Mizan demonstrate) more areas of concurrence—places of meeting—than might have been previously believed.

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

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble…Or?

The fallout from, and the difficult reception of, Fiducia Supplicans has led some to further question the synodal project of Francis. While at the start of the process futile attempts were made to claim that consultation of the faithful did not have any implications for church teaching, now it is becoming increasingly apparent that the fears of traditionalists and the hopes of progressives have some basis in reality. Inevitably, and properly, the emerging voice of the sensus fidei fidelium is bound to impact teaching.

But at what cost? This is where the incantations of Macbeth’s chorus of witches with their prophecies of doom may resonate with even some moderate protagonists. Is the turmoil worth it? Is it wise to risk conflict and division? Might it not be better to retreat to calmer waters and carry on as before, with a tolerable amount of cognitive dissonance in the Body of the Church?

From the evidence of the Synod Synthesis Report it would seem that the commitment to openness remains, always within the process of discernment, which respects God’s time in the making of decisions. So, in several parts of this Synthesis Report, the participants in the synod recommend a deeper intellectual engagement with theology and the human and natural sciences, questioning in particular whether current anthropological categories operative within the Church are adequate to fully understand the various contested issues under discussion. These contested issues, as we all know, are mostly to do with sexuality and gender, and the two Irish Episcopal representatives at the synod (Bishops Brendan Leahy and Alan McGuckian) noted in their post-synodal report that one of the fruits of the synod was “…a call for shared discernment on controversial doctrinal, pastoral and ethical issues to be developed, in the light of the Word of God, Church teaching, theological reflection and an appreciation of the synodal experience.” The recent announcement of the formation of study groups to explore this theological reflection is faithful to the synodal commitment.

The early church did not seek to stifle discussion on the issue of what to do with Gentile converts, an issue that had all the potential to tear the community apart. Neither did third- and fourth-century Christians shirk the conflict involved in teasing out the Christological and Trinitarian issues that arose, and which, inter alia, occasioned the exiling of Athanasius of Alexandria not just once, but five times, from Alexandria. We have seen from the child abuse scandal what silence and repression lead to. The blind spots and dissonances in our ecclesial culture, that “bias of common sense,” which Bernard Lonergan speaks about, is best tackled precisely by the synodal tool of parrhesia, complemented by patient and generous listening (hypomene), and enriched by theological engagement. This is what the method of “conversation in the Spirit” has successfully promoted, with the observation from the synod that it needs to involve a better integration of the intellectual with the emotional.

This more positive interpretation of the synodal fallout is more in line with a recent report about the engagement of Pope Francis and his Council of Cardinals with the project of “demasculinizing the church,” referred to by Callie Tabor in her delightfully pungent piece on this blog entitled “Feminine Genius and the Smell of Drains.” Francis and his council have been meeting women, including theologians, to get a better understanding of what is at stake. In particular, they have been engaging with a book written by three Italian theologians (Linda Pocher, Lucia Vantini and Luca Castiglioni—the latter male, the two former female) entitled Making the Church Less Masculine? A critical evaluation of the ‘principles’ of Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

In his own preface to this book, Francis notes the importance of “…Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflection on the Marian and Petrine principles in the Church, a reflection that has inspired the magisterium of recent pontificates in the effort to understand and value the different ecclesial presence of men and women.” The interesting point here is that the authors, Vantini in particular, offer a critical interpretation of these principles, which, in truth, have already often been criticised in the wider global theological community. It is the synodal process that allows this process of critical engagement to move from the academy to all levels, including the highest, and lays the ground for ecclesial decisions that are the fruit of good faith discernment.

Much of this may be summed up by a vintage quote from Francis in the same preface: “By really listening to women, we men listen to someone who sees reality from a different perspective and so we are led to revise our plans and priorities. Sometimes, we are bewildered. Sometimes what we hear is so new and different from our way of thinking and seeing that it seems absurd, and we feel intimidated. But this bewilderment is healthy; it makes us grow.”  Whatever one thinks of the mind-set behind these words, they certainly do not indicate that the white flag is being raised and a retreat sounded!

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