A publication of Sacred Heart University

Setting the Cat Among the Pigeons? Pope Francis on Pets and Children

Pope Francis is arguably the most radical world leader of our time. Refugees, the climate crisis, neoliberal economics, technocracy, individualism—he has all these in his sights and he has fired off many eloquent and passionate appeals for humanity to wake up before it is too late. But sometimes he says something just a little—err— ill-considered?—and that sends the media on a feeding frenzy.

At a recent General Audience, he criticized couples who choose to have pets rather than children. This was a brief aside during a catechesis on Saint Joseph, but the media pounced on the story and it attracted many comments on social media as well. The Pope’s remarks were primarily directed to newlyweds, urging them to take the risk of becoming biological or adoptive parents, and warning about the threat of a “demographic winter” caused by declining birth rates across Europe, particularly in Italy. This might all seem like standard fare for an aging Pope who retains a romantic attitude towards marriage and family life, especially with regard to motherhood. It would probably have passed without comment if he hadn’t made that reference to having cats and dogs instead of children, referring to “selfishness” in a slightly different context—a subtlety that was lost amidst the headlines.

This is, however, not a new concern. Even before he was Pope, he has in the past complained about the amount of money spent on pets and cosmetics in a world in which children die of hunger. His comments can be interpreted as a criticism of consumerist societies that value possessions over people. As Sam Rocha (@SamRochadotcom) commented on Twitter, referring to the Pope’s Latin American background, “When you come from a place where people live like dogs, it is scandalous to see dogs live like people.” It would be consistent with the Pope’s concerns about the climate crisis if he had drawn attention to the high environmental cost of pet ownership and the decimation of wildlife by pets, including the vast number of birds killed by domestic cats. Nevertheless, it’s a pity he touched so briefly on a such a complex and neuralgic issue.

For a start, there is no “demographic winter” in Africa, where a rapid expansion in population challenges the capacity of communities and states to meet the needs of young people. The problems caused by Europe’s aging population could be solved by more open borders, which would allow the free movement of people. This would, of course, depend on other factors, including the need to avoid a brain drain from poor communities and ensuring just working and living conditions for migrant workers, but these are not insurmountable challenges. Children born in affluent nations have a vastly greater environmental impact than those born in less consumerist societies. There are good environmental reasons for limiting the number of children we have, which is why the Church’s teaching on birth control is a dangerous anachronism that most Catholic couples sensibly ignore. Also, while I agree with those who see the decline in adoption and the rise in abortion as a regrettable fact of modern life, adoption is by no means a simple solution. It usually leaves the birth mother with a lifetime of anguish, yearning and regret, no matter how loved and cared for her child might be by its adoptive parents. Moreover, parenthood is a vocation that doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with marriage, and not every sexually active woman wants to become a mother. There are many ways of bringing the values of familial love to our relationships, and actual parent/child relationships can sometimes become fraught with soul-destroying conflict and misery. The domestic idyll that conservative Catholics see through rose-tinted spectacles does not exist, and it never has. I don’t think a celibate male hierarchy is the best environment in which to generate informed discussions about the intimate details of domestic life. Pope Francis has shown a willingness to face up to some of the messy realities of marriage and the family in Amoris Laetitia, but there is little evidence that his views have been influenced by dialogue with women.

However, it’s important to set the record straight. The Pope is not condemning pet ownership tout court. Some of the comments swirling around social media pointed to the irony of a celibate man criticizing those who are voluntarily childless, but he was addressing couples, and he also spoke of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. Some commentators observed that it was bizarre for somebody who took the name of Saint Francis to criticize having pets, but in his Life of Saint Francis, Saint Bonaventure records that the saint refused to keep animals given to him as gifts and insisted on returning them to the wild, even when they kept coming back to him. The Rule of Saint Francis forbids his own friars from having anything to do with owning or using “any kind of beast of burden” (No. 15). This was partly because his rule of poverty did not allow for ownership of any property, but it was also because Saint Francis saw animals as sacramental. They are created by God just as we are, and therefore they are our brothers and sisters. His attitudes were a far cry from the sentimentality of much modern pet ownership.

These are conversations worth having, but please Pope Francis, remember the world is watching, and the media are always hungry for a few columns of papal trivia.  


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


The Divided Church and the Next Phase of Synodality

A new calendar year, just like significant milestones in the life of a person or institution, is a moment for us to reflect on the most recent phase of our personal and collective human journey and to prepare for the stretch of road that now lies ahead.

All aspects of our life on planet earth this past year were once again marked by the ongoing challenges (and hardships) posed by the coronavirus pandemic. We now begin year three (!) of this global health crisis.

And what has become painfully clear during this long travail is that we earthlings are more deeply divided than many of us had ever feared.

In almost every country in the world, people are sharply at odds with one another politically. And in many places around the globe, the unity that should bind Roman Catholics together has been further fractured.

Depending on which side of the divide they find themselves, believers will blame this aspect of their Church's long, ongoing crisis (which is much more complex than disunity) on something or somebody different.

Pope Francis tends to be the main reason for all the current woes of Catholicism, according to traditionalists and socio-political conservatives.

The obstinance of traditionalists and socio-political conservatives, on the other hand, is the reason for the Church's problems, according to reform-minded Catholics and socio-political progressives.

How can the divisions between these two groups, members of the same community of believers, be overcome?

It is unlikely that the synodal process, which Francis asked dioceses around the world to launch last October, will bring healing. At least in the immediate future.

One of the reasons is that many bishops—especially in the United States, but also elsewhere—are clearly not interested in this audacious project. Most of them seem terrified that the synodal process will only produce chaos and likely deepen the current divisions.

What else could one expect to happen if, as officials at the Synod of Bishops' secretariat in Rome have urged, all Catholics—even those who contest certain teachings and rules or those who no longer even attend Mass—are invited to come forward and have their say on the Church’s path forward?

Other bishops (and presbyters) apparently see the synodal process—which is extremely different from any diocesan synod or assembly that has been held in the past—as a serious threat to the current Church order in which only ordained clerics are allowed to make the most important decisions.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), as a body, has done practically nothing to promote the synodal process. Its vice president, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, has told Catholics in Southeastern Michigan that there is no need for it in their archdiocese.

Vigneron oversaw a local synod in Detroit in 2016 and believes that it sufficiently marked out the path of the archdiocese for the coming decades, even though that ecclesial assembly bore little resemblance to the synodal process the pope is trying make constitutive for Catholicism.

It will become clear next November whether the U.S. bishops have decided definitively to snub their nose at synodality. That’s when they elect their new conference president. And all but once in USCCB history has the vice president (in this case Vigneron) been voted to assume the top job. 

Pope Francis turned 85 last month and in March he is to complete nine years as Bishop of Rome. These are major milestones for both him and for all of us. During his time at the Vatican he has moved the Catholic Church in a markedly different direction than the one it was headed in when he was elected.

His effort to base all Church reform on a foundation of changed attitudes (or ethos) among priests and people—which is clearly and beautifully spelled out in the 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium—has borne much fruit, but probably not as much or as quickly as many had hoped or expected.

Of course, that is a matter of perspective. A minority of Catholics, unfortunately made up of many bishops and clergy, are not at all happy that so much fruit has already begun to sprout.

Nonetheless, the Church is still a long way from become the self-forgetful, risk-taking, missionary outreach community portrayed in Evangelii gaudium. It is still dominated by people (all of us to a degree) who are obsessed mostly with maintaining/reforming ecclesial structures or reinforcing/changing certain “teachings,” rules and customs.

And we are divided.

The only thing that continues to unite us is our professed belief in God. And it is only through God—in prayer—that we will discover how to heal what divides us.

Catholics are not very good at speaking about their “prayer life.” It’s too intimate and sometimes we find it even more embarrassing than talking about our sex life!

We’re not speaking of prayer that consists only of asking or thanking God for something. The prayer of discernment that the pope speaks about, like any good Jesuit would, is certainly a key to this the real type of prayer that is necessary.

But there is also something called contemplation—sometimes called the “prayer of the heart,” “centering prayer” or even transcendental meditation. It is sitting in silent stillness, clearing the mind and allowing oneself to be embraced by the Holy Spirit.

Most Catholics have grown up thinking this is only something for monks or nuns, but as Thomas Merton discovered monks aren't necessarily contemplatives. A lot of them are just introverts!

Perhaps the next stage of synodality and Church reform needs to be centered on a spiritual revival that helps Catholics—indeed, all Christians—discover the tools for building a deeper and richer interior life, whether through contemplative prayer, spiritual discernment or some other method that goes beyond just “saying prayers.”

The future of Christianity will likely depend on it.


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


Shaken. And stirred?

I have been thinking lately about the meaning of discipleship in our increasingly apocalyptic world. Climate change, the global pandemic and the growing threat to democracy each in its own way undermines our sense of what the world should be like. But the novel twist for the followers of Christ is that some of those who claim to be his disciples are climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and fully paid up members of QAnon. What hope can there be for proclaiming the gospel in a polarized Church in a polarized world, when the evangelizers cannot agree among themselves. Whatever happened to “see how those Christians love one another!”?

Getting close to Christmas as we are, we might look for help to Christmas 1914 in the trenches of the First World War. There is good evidence that at least at some points along the front line on Christmas Eve, the infantry called a truce and for an hour or two, met in no-man’s-land to exchange small gifts, to smoke cigarettes together and, in at least one spot, to play a game of soccer. Only to return promptly to killing one another. Fifty years later, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka saw the horrors of the trenches as the site of a potentially new world, illustrated by what he named “the solidarity of the shaken.” The “shaken” was his word for those whose assumptions about the world had been left behind in Flanders mud, and the solidarity that arose from the sense that the men on both sides shared the existential challenge of the trenches—after all, they represented different armies. In fact, they may not have agreed on anything except the commonality of shakenness. Patočka used this scenario to help him promote the Charter 77 movement in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, a loose association of people of many different political perspectives united only in their shakenness and ready to do battle for democracy.

How does this help us with the problem of evangelization today? Illustrating the logic of “we are all in this together,” it strongly suggests an emphasis on presence, in this case of the shaken to the shaken. The gospel has no words to solve climate change or mandate vaccination or preserve democracy; instead, it offers an example of the attitude we should bring to all life’s existential crises, one of care and concern rather than problem solving. Moreover, this is surely what we should expect of disciples of the one who called out in despair from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus Christ on the cross is truly the Shaken One, and his first disciples shared that shakenness until the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, whose power moved them to true solidarity. They did something, they proclaimed the risen Jesus, the one who overcame shakenness and showed the way for his followers to do the same.

Since we cannot proclaim justice effectively unless we are just ourselves, perhaps the first place to try out the insights around shakenness might be in internal evangelization, even as local as the badly polarized American Catholic Church. Like all other citizens of the globe, American Catholics are shaken by the impact of climate change and the pandemic, whether absorbing the problems or denying them. But we are also deeply divided about how to respond to them, or whether to respond at all. In such a hopelessly divided state, there is no way to be effective prophets to a world that so sorely needs it. However, if we could agree that our church, like our world, is shaken to its foundations, then this might be a moment to build on, just as the death of Jesus is the beginning of new life. And we might find the key to this in kenosis, in God’s self-emptying in Jesus Christ, which begins with the child in the manger in Bethlehem. Whether we are Christians who are moved to focus on the humanity of Jesus, or on the divinity of the one whose self-empting he embodies, we are united in following the God-man Jesus Christ, who shared fully in shakenness but who transcended it in the Resurrection. When we relativize rhetoric and prioritize care and concern, we move closer to our sisters and brothers in Christ with whom we may disagree about so many things, and closer too to the world that so needs to share universal shakenness —and be stirred to healing action.


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

This is the last Go, Rebuild My House column for 2021. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and we will return in 2022.


What Does Canada’s Catholic Church Owe Its Indigenous People?

In this season of waiting, COVID has forced the delay of a meeting in Rome between representatives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and Pope Francis, just one more disappointment in the sorrowful saga of the relationship between the Catholic Church in Canada and Indigenous communities.

Earlier this week, Canada’s Catholic Bishops, the Assembly of First Nations, the Metis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization representing Canada’s Inuit, issued a joint statement to say the meeting, to take place just days from now, would be postponed until 2022. Citing concerns relating to the vulnerability of elderly delegates who live in remote communities and the still numerous unknowns about the Omicron variant, the statement labeled the decision as “heartbreaking” and expressed a desire that the meeting be rescheduled for as soon as possible in the new year.

Worries are now being voiced that the postponement of the trip to Rome will further delay the pope’s promised visit to Canada, a critical step in beginning the arduous journey to make amends for the travesty of the country’s residential school system, a system in which the majority of schools are run by Catholic religious orders.

The delay is yet another in an ongoing series of disappointments that have plagued the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous communities and the Vatican. Just days earlier, a piece in the Globe and Mail revealed that the Vatican holds a valuable trove of Indigenous objects in its museum vaults, including a rare sealskin kayak from the Western Arctic. While the artifacts were gifted to the Vatican, Indigenous leaders are calling for the return of at least some of the items because they are important reflections of community history.

The Canadian Bishops’ statement of apology came this past September, months after the first of many discoveries of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools. It was an important step but many are asking why the pace can’t be quickened. While some religious communities have volunteered to release key documents, for example, to help families find the remains of loved ones, the pace remains slow—as slow as the details on the church’s financial reparations have emerged.

The past year has been shocking and disappointing for Canadian Catholics. Already reeling with ongoing claims of clergy sexual abuse, we faced non-stop revelations from an array of media outlets on how church-run schools for Indigenous children were dehumanizing, from the moment the children were ripped from their families through to being unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave.

Yet we should not be shocked. Indigenous communities had been telling us these details for some time. Calls to Action 71-76 in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, issued in

2015, called for action on the unmarked graves. And yet somehow, many of us overlooked this searing issue.

I am old enough to remember a time when Advent wasn’t just the bridge between Halloween and Christmas, but a time of preparation that included a penitential component, efforts to truly prepare to celebrate the Incarnation. While most of what I celebrate in my church is forward-looking, I am nostalgic for an era of that degree of deliberate mindfulness.

I know many Catholics who see the issue of residential schools as a tragedy of history—“this was before my time!” (even though the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996) or “why should I donate to cover the bad actions of the church?”—and accept no responsibility for the actions of the institutional church over the 116-year history of residential schools.

But if we are the church, we must all make amends, even for sins not personally committed. COVID has placed limits on so many of our activities that now is not the time to call for communal services, but we all have vital gifts we can offer if we are sincere in seeking to heal the sorrows visited on Canada’s Indigenous peoples by our church.

  • We can lobby church hierarchy and government officials for more support for issues such as the intergenerational trauma that can be traced back to earlier generations’ suffering in residential schools, or we can target an issue such the lack of clean drinking water on many of Canada’s reserves.
  • We can donate funds—and for those who are unwilling to give to church collections, feeling it to be good money after bad by covering the church’s shortfall in reparations, find a good local or national Indigenous-run charity.
  • We can pray for forgiveness and guidance—for ourselves and for our church. In this season of hope, we must remain hopeful that we can all honestly begin the process of reconciliation.
  • Finally, we can listen. What happened in residential schools should not be news to us. An inquest into the death of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died of exposure and hunger after running away from his residential school, took place in 1966, with a story on Chanie in a national news magazine shortly thereafter. It shouldn’t have taken another 45 years for the truth to sink in. Like Thomas, we should have believed and acted. Let this Advent be a time for that action, long overdue, to find new life.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


A Season for Eucharistic Expectations

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

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

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

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

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


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


On Scandal and Schism

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

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

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

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

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

Can we talk about “scandal” in the Church?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Pandemic, Syndemic and Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Biden, Amess and Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to get serious.


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