A publication of Sacred Heart University. All opinions are solely those of the authors.

Celebrating Juneteenth: Learn from Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood

Celebrating Juneteenth as Catholics it is difficult to imagine any better way than to reflect on the lives of the six American Black Catholics, four women and two men, who are somewhere on the road to official sainthood. Three of them were born into slavery, and all of them had some association with its history, so to remember them on the occasion of the federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery is really a no-brainer. The litany could go something like this:

Servant of God, Mother Mary Lange, pray for us,
Venerable Henriette DeLille, pray for us,
Venerable Augustus Tolton, pray for us,
Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, pray for us,
Venerable Pierre Toussaint, pray for us,
Servant of God, Julia Greeley, pray for us.

It surely is important for a still preponderantly white American Catholic Church to pay attention to these notable Black Catholics, and to ask them to pray for us, not so much because they are Black as because they are Catholics. Their importance lies in the ways in which their individual lives speak to our church today. None of them had an easy life. All of them were heroic. Each in turn has a lot to teach us about how to conduct ourselves today as what Pope Francis calls us, “missionary disciples.” They are not “them.” They are “us.”

My own favorite is the humblest of them all, Julia Greeley, who was a freed slave who converted to Catholicism. She lived mostly in and around Denver, working for white families and using her own limited resources to aid those poorer than herself, towing around a wagon filled with food, clothing and even firewood, and doing it at night-time to save embarrassing the recipients of her help. Her life and work have deep ecclesial significance, mostly because they strongly suggest that holiness has no essential connection to the spectacular. Like St. Alphonsus Rodriguez before her, the Jesuit who spent his entire working life as a doorkeeper, Julia Greeley testifies to the spiritual importance of the everyday.

Each of the remaining five in their different ways alert us to the close connection between heroic sanctity and the ordinary and, because they were Black, the extraordinary hurdles that each of them had to negotiate. Augustus Tolton, a former slave, became the first Black American Catholic priest. When one of his teachers recognized the young man’s possible priestly calling, however, no American seminary would admit him. Instead, he studied in Rome, returning to work in the Midwest for a few short years before his early death in 1897, where he was such a fine preacher that his small Black congregation’s numbers were soon swelled by white Catholics looking for a good homily. You can only guess how the local clergy reacted to that!

And then there was Henriette DeLille, great granddaughter of a slave, who could not gain admission to a religious community, so she used her family’s funds to establish the Sisters of the Presentation in 1842 and was their Mother Superior until her death 20 years later. Their most important work for our church today was surely that they taught slaves—a forbidden and hence dangerous commitment. And how about Pierre Toussaint, a slave from Haiti who bought his freedom in New York through years of work as a hairdresser and is the only layperson buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral? He was a huge philanthropist, considered by many to be effectively the founder of Catholic charities, builder of New York’s first orphanage and the first school for Black children. Or Mother Mary Lange, who 30 years before the proclamation of emancipation, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore and a school for Black children. Her order, then and now, has a special concern for the marginalized members of society.

Last but not least, there is the only one of the six whose life was lived out in the modern world, Sister Thea Bowman, whose name is attached to residence halls at both Sacred Heart University and Fairfield University. A childhood convert to Catholicism, she went on to become an extraordinary force in American Catholic life as a teacher, scholar, writer, public speaker and outspoken critic of racism in society and the Church. She would laugh, I am sure, to be told that she is best known for a YouTube video in which her personal magnetism is demonstrated when, wheelchair-bound and dying of cancer, she got the entire U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to stand and sing We Shall Overcome!

Brave, humble, countercultural, outspoken, deeply wounded and entirely faithful to the Catholic Church, these women and men point a way forward for the American church. Each in their own way is a model of countercultural fortitude, and each is accessible to all of today’s American Catholics, Black and white, of whatever political persuasion. You set your sights on God, you look around you at your fallen world, you roll up your sleeves and you just do what has to be done. In our age, marked by hatreds of all sorts, they remind us of the power of simple human goodness. Their holiness shames every instance of white privilege. And most, if not all, of our American Catholic community have never heard of them. Shame on us!

Paul Lakeland is emeritus professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

On Catholic Social Media and Lost Causes

As I look ahead to beginning work on another theology degree in the fall, St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, frequently comes to mind.

I am returning to school to try, in my own small way, to help shift the tenor of conversation on social media when it comes to all things Catholic. Too much of Catholic social media is a wasteland of misinformation and pitched battles between left and right, with the concept of loving one’s neighbor lost in the fray.

As Pope Francis notes in Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media, although we are called to be loving neighbors to each other, some of the approaches people take on various social platforms cause “pitfalls” on the “digital highway.”

While social media can be a useful tool for sharing parish information or for the Vatican to disseminate encyclicals, too many people revel in the opportunity to voice anonymously the most loathsome—and often incorrect—views not only of Church life but also Church doctrine. The things they’d be too sheepish to say at a parish council meeting find new and fiery life behind a trite account name and a profile picture of the Sacred Heart.

Would-be canon lawyers engage in arcane debates, willfully leading the gullible into thinking, for example, that receiving communion in the hand is frowned on by the Church, or that the Latin Mass is the only acceptable rite, always twisting interpretations to uphold otherwise untenable positions. Pictures are taken on the sly of mass attendees to be posted later with arch comments about dress and demeanor, with all that’s missing a caption reading, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like this man, who wore shorts to mass.”

A priest in my diocese alarms me with what he posts. He identifies himself as a priest and uses his full name and location, I suspect because he feels his ordained status wields more clout. He takes to X (formerly Twitter) daily to rail on everything from his belief that COVID czar Dr. Anthony Fauci should be arrested to the very existence of gay and trans people, all tied up with a love of gun culture and corporal punishment. He saves particular scorn for Church hierarchy. A recent, ironic tweet talked about the decline in respect for bishops, and then labeled them “sodophile eco-witch Globalist prelates.” Quite the descriptor. I’ve known this man since we were teenagers. Always a loner—and sometimes mocked for his ultra-orthodox views—he now enjoys a seemingly unlimited audience for his terrifying take on life, all with his own priestly imprimatur.

This kind of chatter takes up far too much room in the social media world. Therefore, Catholics relying on various platforms to stay abreast of Church-related news should be forgiven if they know more about the sensational—the biting priest story, for example—than being able to speak to the content of Laudate Deum, the fall 2023 follow-up to Laudato Si’.

My response to this unpleasantness, this ugly side of Church life, is to return to school. Before writing my thesis, I’ll take as many courses—the psychology of faith, for example—to help illuminate the behaviors that upset me. I cannot sit back and criticize others or offer suggestions without ensuring I have at least some background on the topics I am addressing.

It is the spirit of the Synod on Synodality that helped me make this decision. Should you think I have an inflated sense of my own importance, I remain mindful that I am a woman engaging with an inherently patriarchal institution. But from everything I’ve read on the synod, it is a process that values the thoughts of the individual and sees the worth of conversation. Civilized discourse for an uncivilized world.

The synod has restored my faith in the Church respecting—and listening to—the sensus fidelium. While I have done a great deal of volunteering in variety capacities, I cannot recall ever having been asked my opinion on anything Church-related other than how much to charge for the annual spaghetti supper.

Today, I see offering my thoughts not just as an opportunity but, in fact, almost a responsibility, a vocation or calling. I have to do my small part to help heal a wounded Church. I hope that focused time engaged with others to think theologically about issues will help.

I want to help raise the level of the discussion so that we can listen respectfully, whether it’s to the story of the millions on the margins or the struggles and loneliness hidden behind rectory doors. We need to stop the insults and open our ears and our hearts to the possibility that there may be something to what the other says. Sometimes, the ugliest comments are actually a cry for help.

As I prepare for language exams and comb through course catalogues, I am making a conscious decision to cling to St. Jude’s other label—patron saint of desperate situations. I’d like to think modern Catholic discourse is often flawed but not irrevocably broken. I’ll be spending the next two years thinking of root causes, as well of as fixes.

 The situation is indeed desperate. But Jude is also a saint invoked when seeking healing and comfort. I suspect he’ll be hearing from me a great deal.

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

A Culture of Grievance

Ours is a polarized nation and Church. Left versus right, red state versus blue, traditionalist versus Vatican II Catholics. There seems to be one commonality that crosses the usual lines: Ours is a culture of grievance.

The grievances on the right can be plainly seen. Just tune in to an evening of Fox News or watch Bishop Robert Barron interview one of his many rightwing interlocutors such as Jordan Peterson. These grievances interest me less than those on the left.

Consider the responses to Dignitas Infinita, the Vatican’s statement on human dignity, specifically the section on gender and sexuality. Most of the responses from the theological community were filled with a sense of grievance: How dare the pope sign off on a document that did not cohere with the latest theories about gender and sexuality!

Some invoked “the science.” The United Kingdom’s National Health Service recently published an extensive study of gender identity services for children and young people known as the Cass Report that concludes that the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of some medical treatments is not conclusive. Dr. Hilary Cass who led the study wrote: “While a considerable amount of research has been published in this field, systematic evidence reviews demonstrated the poor quality of the published studies, meaning there is not a reliable evidence base upon which to make clinical decisions, or for children and their families to make informed choices.” The report recommended a ban on prescribing puberty blockers to adolescents unless they are part of a clinical trial.

The most curious thing about most of the responses to Dignitas Infinita from the theological community, however, was not what they contained, but what they lacked: theology. There were many who invoked the experiences of transgender persons. As I wrote at the time in NCR, “Experience matters, but in the making of theology, experience can never be the only thing that matters. We have canonical Scriptures. We have a theological tradition. We have an authoritative magisterium. More importantly, there is not a human alive who has not at least once made a choice that seemed obvious at the moment given his or her lived experience, but the decision turned out to be a disaster.” 

The same attitude of grievance and umbrage followed upon reports that Pope Francis has used a vulgar slur when discussing gay seminarians in a meeting with Italian bishops. At America magazine, theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale published a long complaint. There was no real engagement with the possibility that a subculture of campiness in a seminary could be problematic. Again, what was missing from the essay was much in the way of theology.

The highlighting of pastoral theology alongside other theological disciplines is one of the hallmarks of this papacy. Where are the symposia and academic conferences on the obvious tensions between pastoral theology and doctrinal teaching? Where are the studies on the relationship between the ethical visions Catholic hold and their ecclesial visions? I would venture to say that in the U.S., one of the principal impediments to a shared ecclesial vision, without which the Catholic Church cannot hold together, is our dogged insistence that our particular ethical visions are what is most important. That may work for other denominations, but it doesn’t work for the Catholic Church.

Even more importantly, where are theologians focusing on forging a Catholic culture in which grace and gratitude take priority over grievance and umbrage?

I was speaking with an employee at a diocesan chancery about their Vicar General and why he was so successful. “There are a lot of reasons, but most of all, he is a happy priest,” the staffer told me.

His comment put me in mind of a recent academic conference. I was not in attendance, but the story was related to me by three people who did. After one of the presentations, one theologian said she found it necessary to spend several classes at the beginning of each semester helping the students work through their anger at the Church. The presenter replied, “I find my students respond well to the fact that I am a happy Catholic.”

That Vicar General and that presenter are the exception, but we need them to become the rule. Here is the remedy for the divisions, and much else, that afflict the Church. The key problem for the Catholic Church is not the divide between the left and the right, but the failure of both to build a culture of grace and gratitude.

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

A Tale of Two Churches

The incendiary right-wing remarks offered at the 2024 commencement ceremony of Benedictine College by NFL Kansas Chief’s kicker, Harrison Butker, served as a stark reminder of the deeply entrenched polarization in the Catholic Church.

The commencement speech contained a strong endorsement of the Latin Mass and a sharp criticism of bishops and priests who, according to the star athlete, did not do enough to defend the Catholic faith from secular corruption. The speech omitted Vatican II teachings on the multicultural and global dimensions of faith, the importance of engaging with culture if we are to respond to the signs of the times and the calls to social justice. In fact, the speech did not have a single mention of the poor and marginalized—with whom Jesus spent the majority of his time on Earth.

Among the many topics the speech covered, the ones that drew the most media attention were—unsurprisingly—the comments on gender and sexual orientation. Butker condemned the “demonic lies” told to women that their vocation can be lived out in pursuit of a professional career. Instead, he emphasized the roles of “homemaker,” “wife” and “mother” as the most important vocations women can pursue. He also took a quick stab at LGBTQ+ persons by criticizing pride month (evoking enthusiasm from the audience) and even inserted a Taylor Swift reference—leaving both progressive Catholics and Swifties enraged.

As I listened to his vision for Catholicism, I did not recognize the post-Vatican II Church I grew up with. In fact, for a moment I thought I was watching a scene from a certain popular dystopian fictional series on Hulu (based on a book by Margaret Atwood).

And then came the thunderous applause from the audience after the speech and I was reminded that perhaps my vision of the Vatican II Church is the fictional one.

Among many things, polarization in our Church on matters of gender and sexual orientation has been fueled by what I consider to be duplicitous activities from Vatican officials, including the Holy Father. For example, over the past year, there have been two documents addressing LGBTQ+ issues, which have somehow simultaneously created more openness to LGBTQ+ inclusion while solidifying their place in the Church as second-class members.

Fiducia Supplicans, published at the end of 2023, allows priests to bless persons in same-sex unions who together approach them for a benediction. However, these blessings are conceptualized as non-sacramental and as a desire for people in same-sex unions to live a better life despite their limitations. It discursively crafts an adverse reality for same-sex couples whereby the love they share and, I argue, the grace that flows from their union is pathologized.

Dignitas Infinita, published in 2024, synthesizes the Church’s beautiful teachings on human dignity as applicable to all persons—including LGBTQ+ people. However, the document then proceeds to craft and condemn the boogieman of “gender ideology” (which appears to be a thin veil for transgender identity). Interestingly, in a private correspondence with Sr. Jeaninne Gramick, Pope Francis appears to clarify that gender ideology does not apply to “transexuals,” leaving further questions about what the document is actually referring to, but nonetheless offering fodder for right-wing Catholics to further oppress transgender persons.

In what is perhaps to me the most offensive incident, during a closed meeting with Italian bishops, news outlets reported that Pope Francis used a homophobic slur to refer to same-sex sexual activity among seminarians. Furthermore, he asked Italian bishops to bar gay persons from entering the seminaries; which—though congruent with an earlier document he endorsed banning men with deep seated homosexual tendencies from the priesthood—is a direct contradiction to his most famous response of “who am I to judge?” that supported gay men’s vocation to be priests if they search the Lord with all their heart. In an ambiguous apology where the Vatican expressed regret for any offense, Pope Francis reiterated that the Church is for everyone.

Unfortunately, such welcome appears to me as a superficial sense of unity based on kind gestures toward the oppressed while, conceptually, we continue to think less of them and thereby perpetuate their oppression. More importantly, the result of this duplicity is a polarized Church. There are indeed two Churches—both born out of the selectivity with which Catholics embrace parts of a duplicitous message.

What is needed going forward is an attitude of humility. Catholic leaders must embrace reality: matters of sexuality remain a mystery to our Church, and we have to be careful with the messages we send. Real unity can best be fostered when we commit to joint communal discernment that stems from genuine curiosity, not when we pretend that we have all the answers.

As I have written before (here and here), my hope for the future of the Church rests in synodality, which I believe represents a new ecclesiology whereby mutual listening—especially to the marginalized such as LGBTQ+ persons—will yield new insights about our faith and our nature that can guide the Church forward together. For such a vision to take place, Catholic leaders, especially Pope Francis, need to listen to their own advice and recommit to genuine discernment in unity. 

In the meantime, I lament that both the Vatican and Mr. Butker have missed important opportunities to meaningfully unite our Church as of late.

Ish Ruiz is the assistant professor of Latinx & queer decolonial theology at Pacific School of Religion. 

The Tyranny of Usefulness and Social Poetry

In the Catholic intellectual tradition seminars at Sacred Heart, students read a small section of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University on the uses of knowledge. Students inevitably struggle with the excerpt, not only because of Newman’s Victorian prose, but also because the Lockean vision of education that he critiques is so often the vision that they have been raised with. When we arrive at Newman’s quotation of Locke, we read it aloud to hear the scorn lacing the philosopher’s words as he disparages the teaching of Latin to a young man bound for a trade and recounts the terrible fate that might befall the student who learns verse-making:

“I know not what reason a father can have to wish his son a poet, who does not desire him to bid defiance to all other callings and business; which is not yet the worst of the case; for, if he proves a successful rhymer, and gets once the reputation of a wit, I desire it to be considered, what company and places he is likely to spend his time in, nay, and estate too; for it is very seldom seen that any one discovers mines of gold or silver in Parnassus.

What living is there to be earned as a poet? Locke asks, insisting that it is far better to learn the practical skills of a trade. The “use” of education in this vision is primarily economic—the preparation of individuals to participate in the labor force and contribute to a growth in capital.

Nearing two centuries on from Newman’s book, this economic understanding of what is “useful” has become all-pervasive. As my colleague Brian Stiltner described in his final column for this blog, higher education is no exception, often operating in vocabularies and logics taken more from corporate boardrooms than from classrooms. Recently, I listened to a lecture from the economist Ha-Joon Chang, who put it succinctly, “In a capitalist society, especially the kind of market-oriented one that we are living in now … everything has to justify its existence in terms of money—so, literary festivals, teaching about ancient languages in universities, preservation of our cultural heritage.”

Usefulness, in this economic sense, has become a tyrannical interpretative framework, impressing itself upon us all. Even as I aim to invite students into Newman’s perspective, that there might be a “use” to poetry and to education beyond this economic one, I feel the weight of the Lockean scorn echoing through our society: Who would want their child to be a poet?

And yet, Pope Francis has claimed that the role of the university is just that—to form “social poets.”  This phrase is one that Francis first introduced in his address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, an initiative begun under his papacy that gathers grassroots organizations from across the globe to creatively address the needs of land, labor and lodging. In his 2021 address, he explained that he chose this phrase because “poetry means creativity, and you create hope.” By refusing to conform to the tyranny of economic usefulness and its “throwaway” logic, these grassroots organizations creatively work towards a world where all have access to housing and dignified work and where the land is cared for as integral to the community of creation rather than treated as a resource to be exploited. Out of communities that appear “useless” to the gaze of the market, these poets craft practices of hope.

By expanding this role of the social poet to universities, Francis invites those of us in higher education to understand our work as the formation of individual and collective creativity towards the “poetry” of a new society—one not governed solely by economic profit. He calls for the mission of the university to be the training of social poets who “upon learning the grammar and vocabulary of humanity, have a spark, a brilliance that allows them to imagine the unknown.” The grammar of humanity must go beyond market-driven usefulness to uncover the intrinsic value in human reflection, artistry and community. As Francis stated earlier this year in an address to the International Federation of Catholic Universities, education must “awaken and cherish in each person the desire to ‘be’.” Being, not earning, is the basis of worth.

In the same talk on economics and democracy, Chang (speaking to a British audience), describes how the need to justify all things through the market leads to a reduction in meaning, such as arguing for the British monarchy on the basis that it brings in tourist revenue. Whether one is a monarchist or a not, Chang points out that this is a “demeaning, ridiculous” way to argue for an institution as foundational to society. With this example, he invites us to look at the tyranny of market usefulness from the outside, if only momentarily, in order to see that we might interpret the world otherwise.

The brilliance of poetry, I would submit, lies in the ability to see things at a “slant,” to borrow a term from Emily Dickinson. Forming our students as social poets means forming them to be able to see the world from a new angle. From this perspective, they might reimagine what it means for something to be useful—and indeed, ask whether that category is sufficient to the dignity and wonder of creation. If, as Francis encourages us to, Catholic universities are able to live this mission, we will not only be continuing a legacy of education extending far beyond Newman into the past, but also moving into the future with creativity and hope.

Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.

The Challenge of Race and Place for Local Synodality

At the heart of the Church’s ongoing synodal reform lies Vatican II’s theology of the sense of the faithful. This conciliar teaching locates the Church’s capacity to identify and know the Gospel truth in the entire people of God. For this reason, synodal reform at the local level (diocesan level) has primarily involved broadening lay participation through listening sessions, communal discernment and online surveys.

Yet, only focusing on this type of reform overlooks the movement required to overcome the challenges of race and place for synodality in the U.S. For example, in the segregated city of St. Louis, the archdiocese (my local church) took a more centralized approach to its one and only listening session with racial minorities. Rather than holding this single listening session in Black St. Louis north of the segregating line (known by locals as “the Delmar Divide”), the diocese held this listening session in midtown – an area that boasts a burgeoning cornucopia of restaurants, access to expensive, organic grocers and two Catholic institutions of higher education.

Although the synthesis report demonstrates that the listening session involved authentic sharing, surfaced real challenges and was by many measures a genuine experience of synodality, the diocese’s approach required the periphery of the local church to move toward the center instead of the center moving toward the periphery. This approach discouraged participation of those at the racial margins wary of diocesan intentions and in the end, only 25 out of approximately 477,000 non-white Catholics participated in this diocesan-wide listening session. At the same time, the preference for a non-peripheral place prevented diocesan leaders entrusted with discerning insights from this listening session from sharing in the racially unfamiliar lifeworld of St. Louis’ periphery. Indeed, there is a difference between listening to Black Catholics in a white space and listening to Black Catholics in their space.

Although one can certainly scrutinize the mechanics of event planning to find reasons for low participation, a more fundamental, theological problem lies in this centralized approach to synodality itself. Indeed, Pope Francis has repeatedly urged those who are ecclesially centered as pastoral leaders to move to the peripheries: “Pastors must have the smell of the sheep… Go down among your faithful, even into the margins of your dioceses and into all those ‘peripheries of existence.’” This is not simply a metaphorical mandate, but a missionary demand to move to unfamiliar spaces of the periphery. There, we can find the “smell of the sheep” that is the sense of the faithful. As Pope Francis puts it in Let Us Dream: “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is. I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery.” In other words, we cannot make for the margins in the abstract, but rather we must go close and touch the marginalized as Jesus did.

Like most local churches, race and place are not small obstacles to synodality for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. I have found that many white residents disordered by the sin of racism—Catholics included—are hesitant to make the 20-minute drive from the suburb to the city. Yet, what if we actually lived the preferential option for the poor as the Church itself teaches? What if we as a Church understood Pope Francis’ exhortation to go to the periphery with the literality that he intends? What if we left the 99 sheep for the one as Jesus did? Doing this in the abstract is easy; doing this concretely—especially in the context of race—is hard.

So let me ask again in concrete terms. What if we as a Church centered the margins by locating our listening sessions among the marginalized in the places that are the margins? As a synodal Church, we should have a multitude of listening sessions, but if we can only have one, why not hold that at the racial periphery north of the Delmar Divide? When holding listening sessions about parish and school closures, what if we primarily (but not exclusively) held these in the racial peripheries north of Delmar? Why not ask those who are racially centered to drive the 20 minutes to the margins? Why not use listening sessions and communal discernment to begin a process of racial conversion through which the racially centered can begin to see the world through the eyes of the racially marginalized? Why not enable those unfamiliar with the racialized peripheries to hear the faith, witness and challenges of Black Catholics in the place that gives their witness context—the place that is the racialized periphery?

Indeed, synodality is a “journey together” and requires widespread consultation and increased lay participation. Yet, the end of synodality is not consultation or even decentralization but rather attentiveness to the Spirit corporately at work through the sense of the faithful.

Consequently, local synodality requires missionary movement that can overcome the movement of race and place. If the church of St. Louis’ approach to synodality typifies the approach taken by other local churches in the U.S., this indicates how much further local churches need to go to become truly synodal. Only when those of us who are ecclesially and socially centered move north of Delmar can we “hear the Spirit of God speaking to [us] from the margins."

Deepan Rajaratnam is a doctoral candidate in Christian theology at Saint Louis University.

Catechesis and Superheroes for the Digital Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The challenges are clear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace, Not Grievance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serious Branding Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magus, Prophet and Poet for Our Dark Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now.

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