A publication of Sacred Heart University

Saved by Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Eucharistic Incoherence

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

- T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Crisis of Community among Priests and Laity—A Tale of Two Surveys

I started researching this post by looking for surveys about what American laity are satisfied and dissatisfied with. But I stumbled on a gripping survey about new priests’ satisfaction. Other than this November 2020 story by the Catholic News Agency, the Catholic and secular media ignored the release of this survey, so I missed it at the time. But it deserves a lot more attention.

The survey of over 1,000 recently ordained priests in the U.S., three-fourths of them diocesan priests, was conducted in 2020 by the Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Titled “Enter by the Narrow Gate,” the survey report focuses on how well the priests feel prepared by seminary formation and how satisfied they are with various aspects of priestly life.

The priests feel well prepared for presiding at liturgies, preaching and knowing theology. They say they are least prepared in parish administration, preparing couples for marriage, ministering in multicultural settings and handling stress or managing their time. They are most satisfied in their ministries, such as celebrating Mass, preaching, counselling, hearing confessions and ministering to youth. The areas in which they are least satisfied are “performing administrative and human resource duties, the poor relationship they have with the pastors under whom they serve, feeling burned out from their workload, their frustration with their diocese/bishop and the lack of fraternity among their fellow priests.”

While four in five of the priests are satisfied overall with their vocation, one in five are not. One in 20 say they would not enter the priesthood again, if they could do it over, and might not stay in the priesthood. How can the Church be satisfied with twenty percent of its ministers frustrated and unhappy? That statistic sounds like it should come from a survey of Amazon workers, but apparently even they are less dissatisfied (at 12 percent) than the priests.

The numerical statistics are complemented by nearly 200 pages of representative quotations. Reading them made me very sad for younger priests and for the seminarians whom I advise in my faculty role. Not to discount the many statements about satisfaction and meaning in their lives, but I was taken aback by so many statements about loneliness, lack of mentoring and support, and fraught relationships with other priests, bishops, and sometimes laity. For example:

  • “Perhaps the least satisfying aspect is the presbyterate. Upon being ordained I felt like I was shipped out to work with no one looking out for me. When days get long or situations are tough to navigate I never was taught where to turn.”
  • “I do not find my ‘brother’ priests trustful people with whom I can get together and spend holidays or have time to relax and have fun.”
  • “It can be lonely. At times, I wonder if I would have been happier as a married man.”
  • “My seminary did little to nothing to prepare me for living a healthy life. Years of living under the watchful eye of formators ready to pounce on any flaw made me fearful to be honest about my struggles.”
  • “I went to a parish with 5,000 people. Normally, four priests serve that parish. Now it was myself—a brand new priest—and the 80-year-old pastor with very limited energy. It was so wildly overwhelming.”
  • “I feel the people’s expectations of a priest are pretty wild and many times unhealthy. It’s very easy for people to see the priest as a celebrity or a purely spiritual being or even as a commodity.”

Readers of the report can find plenty of fodder to support both “liberal” and “conservative” critiques of today’s Church. But it would be a mistake to lean too hard in either direction. Rather, there’s a community crisis among priests.

In addition to “Enter by the Narrow Gate,” I found a 2009 Pew Forum report on lay people who leave Catholicism. Those Catholics who become unaffiliated are more likely to cite reasons having to do with Church teachings on abortion, LGTBQ and the like. But one-fifth of them leave out of disappointment with the feeling of community in parishes. One-fifth of Catholics who become Protestant cite the same reason, and even more of them changed religions because the worship services and the overall style of the religion were more appealing. Three in ten join their new religion because a member invited them.

Much needs to change in priestly training and support structures. Much needs to change to make parishes more welcoming and communal. Couldn’t priests and lay people find common cause in rethinking parish life to support one another and to develop richer friendships with each other? Shouldn’t lay people better appreciate the social-emotional needs of their priests, and shouldn’t priests be able to share the duties of ministry more widely? Those are among the questions that occur to me from reading these reports in tandem.


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


The Quality of Mercy is Strained…in the Pews

If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love,

I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal…

(1 Corinthians 13:1)

On Sept. 7 Gov. Jim Abbott of Texas, a professed Roman Catholic, spoke at a press conference about his recent legislative victory, Senate Bill 8, which bans abortions after six weeks (‘fetal heartbeat’) and encourages all Texans to instigate civil lawsuits of liability for anyone who performs, “aids or abets” or intends to aid or abet, an abortion. 

That Abbott engineered such legislation is not surprising, nor is the legislation itself. Yet another comment that the governor made at that same press conference was alarming. When a reporter pressed him about the potential effect of the law particularly on survivors of rape and incest who then become pregnant, the governor replied almost condescendingly that those survivors need not be worried because, “… rape is a crime and Texas will work tirelessly that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”[1] Another governor, Ron Desantis of Florida, also a professed Roman Catholic, publicly approved most of the Texas legislation in much the same language.

Now, at first glance, that statement might seem to be a simple recognition that there is need for more deliberate efforts at prosecuting rape/incest cases in his home state, and that is a good thing. However, at second glance, his response startles because it is devoid of any acknowledgement of the plight of survivors of rape/ incest, and empty of thought to the suffering the survivors endure(d). The governor (notably, the father of a daughter) said nothing about the actual survivors, or their difficult circumstances, or how the state might assist them (especially minors) in their post-traumatic condition and during the pregnancies; rather, he spoke only about the punitive consequences for the criminals. Such willful insensitivity to and/or a studied disinterest in the women and girls who survive the brutality of sexual assault correlates with an apparent indifference (at best) that seems to have pervaded not only certain participants in the pro-life movement but many other (lay) communities of American Roman Catholics who have lately hobbled their moral and ethical principles with the destructive encumbrance of political enthusiasms.

This is not a pro-abortion commentary: quite the contrary. It is rather an appeal to American Roman Catholics (of whatever political persuasion) to act consistently according to the moral theology of the Church that affirms the human dignity of every person and argues for an ethics of care and a privileging of mercy. This is an appeal—notably to the lay Catholic community and to its leadership—to counter the culture of censure and tribalism that has been filtering through its ranks and to uphold the worth of the girls and women so that the life and humanity of both the child and the mother can be affirmed and dignified.

This is a challenge to a tenaciously patriarchal culture in which leaders often diminish and dismiss the experiences and sentiments of women and girls. The comments of Abbott (and others like him) are indicative of how (male) privilege, regardless of any religious sheen, continues to fail women and girls, especially those in vulnerable conditions. The governor did not allude to care or even empathy for the survivors of rape/incest. His only consideration was juridical, and so his comments seemed oblivious of the fact for survivors, the crime of rape/incest is far more that a procedural matter of arrest and prosecution. Lay Catholic leaders, especially those who lead pro-life organizations, must address with mercy and charity the real trauma of sexual assault, the real fear and confusion of a survivor who then discovers a pregnancy. The governor and other lay Catholic leaders should speak and act with a profession of empathy for the assaulted girls and women, especially as pregnancies proceed. Catholic leaders, especially Catholic politicians and government officials, are able to harness and distribute resources and should be quick to validate the wounded humanity of survivors, and their right to be provided, along with their babies, with natal and post-natal services.

People in the pews must voice their indignation when they witness among their peers not a drop of concern or empathy for the plight of women and girls, especially those who have been brutalized by sexual assault. They must invigorate an ethics of care that responds with benevolence and services, including programs of medical care, housing and shelter, spiritual counseling and loving guidance. The dedication to the sanctity of life should not cease at birth. The most glorious tenet of Catholic moral theology is the sacredness of all (human) life but that teaching imposes on all of us a claim which is neither simple nor uncomplicated. Life, within and outside the womb, demands vigilance and patience and sacrifice and perseverance, and every life must be met with encouragement and acceptance, without which impulsive, even injurious, decisions might be made.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-abortion-law-governor-abbott-rape-victims-six-weeks/ (accessed 9/15/21).


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


Conservative Catholic Critics Foment Discord and Youth Exodus

Polarization and vitriolic, personal attacks have become so commonplace that we barely raise an eyebrow when someone launches a moralistic, questionably ethical or politically biased tirade against another, and it is amplified by mainstream, digital, social or conservative media. But every innuendo, attack or distorted truth has consequences and causes collateral damage. And when the Pope himself is the target – and fellow Catholics wield the hammer – it is time to take stock and consider how this self-inflicted discord is harming the Church.

Divisions within the Church, as in partisan politics, have given rise to noisy minority voices with large bullhorns and small scruples. Conservative Catholic media and leaders attack the Pope, defy his leadership and openly protest his efforts to preach the importance of being merciful, less judgmental and more open to dialogue.

That is not to say the Vatican is beyond reproach or that differing opinions do not matter. Pope Francis has signaled his willingness to listen and encourages discussion, questions and opportunities for discourse and disagreement. But, he also reminds us that established policy and doctrine must be respected and supported.

Yet many in the Catholic conservative movement prefer their own spin and platform, with axes to grind and self-righteous, biased agendas to share. One example is the U.S.-based Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which has taken aim at Pope Francis for many of his views, including his belief that the Church should be making efforts to understand and welcome LGBTQ Catholics looking for spiritual guidance and support.

EWTN has been openly antagonistic of Pope Francis and church policy, inviting partisan Catholic leaders who differ with the Pope’s charge of inclusion to participate in broadcasts that often are hostile and insulting.

Contrary to that view, Sacred Heart University has joined a growing chorus of Catholic institutions in taking a stand against high-ranking church leaders attempting to marginalize and limit the civil and religious rights of LGBTQ people. We support the Pope’s view that discrimination of this nature disregards the Church’s commitment to social justice and more than a century of doctrine that encourages the human rights and dignity of all people, without exception.

Additionally, a cabal of U.S. bishops received negative press earlier this year when they said President Biden, a pious and dedicated Catholic, should not be offered the eucharist due to his openness to discussion on abortion laws. This politicizing of sacred traditions is an abomination.

The impudence demonstrated by these conservative critics is feeding a steady exodus from the Church. It is easy to understand why: having barely survived heinous revelations of long-term sexual improprieties and coverups, many believe Catholic leaders fail to listen to the needs of young parishioners and appropriately demonstrate concerns for those dealing with gender-identity challenges, divorce, birth control and abortion, women’s changing roles, diminishing spiritual values, the digital divide and many other relevant issues.

A Gallup Poll completed this past spring of 6,100 respondents revealed Church membership in 2020 dropping to 47% of those surveyed. It is the first time since 1937 that a minority of adults said they were members of a formal religious institution. Catholics belonging to a parish dropped from 76% in 2000 to 58% in 2020. Most alarming was the rapid decline among younger adults, particularly those born from 1981 to 1996 (Generation Y). The poll found that only 36% of that age group belong to a church.

These trends parallel similar drop-offs in clubs, organizations and professional associations. Change may be attributed to less trust in institutions, politics and business, but pointing fingers elsewhere disregards the truth that the Church is facing a fundamental crisis of image and doctrine, and internal political divisions are exacerbating flight.

The Pope has made clear his commitment to discussion and dialogue, to environmental stewardship and to being more empathetic and embracing toward all of God’s children. Here at Sacred Heart University, we welcome every voice, and believe strongly in the value of discussion, candor and inclusion. We will continue to host forums with speakers broaching controversial topics, and we want our students, faculty and the communities we serve to see our campus as a safe haven for learning, growing and exploring our differences.

As a proud institution steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition, we stand in support of Pope Francis and against those who, through their actions and words, choose to bring dishonor and injury to the Church, its teachings and its devoted followers. We would hope that more American bishops would demonstrate their fidelity and leadership in support of Pope Francis. Their silence is deafening, but indicative of their spine.


John J. Petillo, Ph.D., is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. 


The Taliban Within

Dr. Anne Inman of New Ash Green in Kent had the following letter published in The Tablet on September 11, 2021, “What does the Catholic Church have to say about the Taliban announcement that women can work for the government since almost half of the workers are women, but ‘in the top posts…there may not be a woman’ (BBC Pashto interview, 1 September)?”

My first reaction was to remember the question posed by Myroslaw Tataryn in his delightful letter to Pope Francis on this blog (August 27, 2021): “So dear brother, why are we afraid to say, enough of the charade of an exclusively male priesthood?”

I happened at the time to be reading the Diary of Jesus Christ by New York-based Jesuit playwright Bill Cain. In one of his pieces, an imaginative riff on the choosing of the 12, (He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him—Mark 3: 13) he places Jesus in consultation with Mary Magdalene before he makes his choice. After the public announcement of the 12 he tells her he thinks it went well and is happy. She seems cold and replies “well, good on you,” and walks away. Jesus doesn’t get it and says, “Let’s celebrate tonight. Let’s have a party.” She says, “Fine. Who are you going to get to cook?” Finally, aware that things have gone wrong between them, Jesus says, “You are angry with me…are you angry with me for not choosing you?” Magdalene says, “I am angry that it didn’t cross your mind. And—to be fair—I am angry that it didn’t cross mine…when all the names were called, you said these are the ones I want. Seeing the joy, the rapture, the delight of those being called, I suddenly felt something I had never felt with you. Un-chosen. Omitted. Passed-over.” Jesus says, “But you are more dear to me than any of them. You are the one I go to to choose them”— but they both know that something remained unresolved—"we were silent. There was nothing to say.”

As with Jew and Gentile, with master and slave, now with man and woman (Gal. 3: 28) the full implications of the Gospel message—for Jesus himself, and a fortiori for us—requires historical development. Changing moral sensibility, scientific evidence and all that make up “the signs of the times” conspire to throw new light on old truths. We are at such a moment now with regard to the role of women and men in the Church. It is of course much too crude to simply equate the stance of the Church to that of the Taliban. But when women in the Catholic Church are now so conscious of not being taken seriously for so long, their feelings and thoughts not given equal value, then there is a real crisis, a time of “discernment.” And with all due recognition of the dangers of clericalism and its need of reform, it is simply disingenuous to refuse female ordination on the grounds that the Church doesn’t want to “clericalize” women—if clericalism is intrinsically evil, why continue to ordain men?

At times it seems as if the Church authorities, while recognizing that something is amiss, are failing to engage sufficiently urgently in what many seem to view as a comparatively minor concern deriving largely from privileged interests in the developed world. Perhaps some of the talk of “ideology,” “isolated consciences,” “elites” is sourced in this perception? I recall again on this blog the 34th General Congregation of the Jesuits in 1995 when there was resistance among some Jesuits to call attention to the unequal status of women in the Church on the grounds that it was prompted by a Western agenda that did not respect regional cultural autonomy. Fortunately, some of our members had access to a high-ranking Filipino U.N. official working in the area of Human Rights who assured us—I paraphrase—that more sins were committed against women all over the world in the name of cultural autonomy than anything else.

Pope Francis has opened up a space of discernment and of open and honest debate in the Church. I think we need to keep faith with this synodal process, with courage (parrhesia) and constancy (hypomene). In doing so we cannot shirk the mutual listening and engagement between those who understand the ban on the ordination of women to be based on dubious Scriptural foundations and an unpersuasive theological tradition, and those who sincerely object to what they perceive as a betrayal of tradition for the sake of a faddish accommodation to modernity. This “not shirking” can be wearisome: most of us don’t enjoy conflict and this can feel like nagging, especially when the episcopal custodians of the current status quo are often palpably decent and kind men. But, as Pope Francis himself noted inimitably in a recent interview on the complex issues involved for all of us in discernment (La Croix International, COPE, September 1, 2021), “The devil runs around everywhere, but I’m most afraid of the polite devils—those who ring your door bell and ask permission to come into your home…they are the worst ones and one is very deceived."

Peace is a Christian gift, but so too is holy lamentation, and the subversive memory of Jesus that constantly disturbs our peace.


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


The Remedy of Synodality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Why the Arts?

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

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

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

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

Collegiate life is a messy business, after all.

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

Never has it been more necessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


A Better Apologetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


A Letter to Pope Francis

Dear brother Francis,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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