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Entries from February 2019

Church Reform through the Lens of the Oscars

The Academy Awards ceremony coincided with the final day of last week’s Vatican summit on sexual abuse, which prompted me to look for insights about church reform that are epitomized by four of the nominees for best picture. A common thread among these films is their attention to racial or ethnic marginalization, which is not unlike the experience of many laity in today’s church.

First, Roma symbolizes that reform must try to close the gaps of the laity’s disengagement. Alfonso Cuarón’s film follows a year in the life of Cleo, a maid to a wealthy family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Cleo is loved by the family and, at times, incorporated in their activities, but she is always aware of where the power lies. As a working class maid, an indigenous Mixtec and a woman, she is multiply marginalized in this society. Like Cleo, lay Catholics often feel like observers in swirl of ecclesial events, and not all their gifts are recognized. As Paul Lakeland writes in Liberation of the Laity, “the Catholic tradition currently squanders lay experience.”

Next, Green Book suggests that reform is built on listening. The movie dramatizes a 1962 road trip through the American South by Dr. Don Shirley, a black classical pianist, and his white driver, Tony Vellelonga. The movie follows the beats of the typical road picture, in which both men go on a journey of self-discovery and build a friendship. Green Book’s creators have been criticized for oversimplifying issues and indulging in the “white savior” trope. Nonetheless, this feel-good film does model something important about change in any culture: listening to others about their experience paves the way to personal transformations. The church has made significant efforts to listen to survivors of clerical sexual abuse; such wounded Catholics participated in the Vatican summit, for instance.

However, listening is not enough. Like racism, the lack of accountability in the Church is not simply the fault of bad individuals, and it will not be cured through interpersonal relationships alone. So a third film’s message is needed. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman shows that reform is about facing structural and historical sins. This film powerfully contextualizes its story of a black and a Jewish policer officer who infiltrated the KKK with an extended portrait of white supremacist culture. Drawing a line from the terrors of the lynching era to 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Lee drives home that resistance to racism must be organized, insistent and prepared to face harsh backlash.

Calls for accountability in the church might well need the same qualities to be effective. As in 2002, lay movements are on the rise. In the Washington, D.C., metro area, in the wake of the revelations about Theodore McCarrick, lay Catholics are posting “Five Theses” in parishes: full transparency, venues for survivors’ voices, simple living by bishops, women’s leadership in the church and prayer for reform. Whether church leaders will listen to the to Five Theses movement any more than they did to Voice of the Faithful, and whether they will even allow space for reform-minded laity to talk to each other, remains to be seen. Past experience gives a reason to be jaded.

Yet, a fourth film proposes that reform is about nurturing hope. Black Panther struck a chord with black Americans and with people of color around the world for its imagining of what Africa might be like if it hadn’t been colonized and millions of its people taken into slavery. The film is partly set in Wakanda, whose King T’Chaka becomes the film’s titular superhero. Here, a society of Africans from diverse tribes live in partial secrecy from the rest of the world, enjoying superior technology and a peaceful, vibrant culture. In Yes! Magazine, artist Ingrid LaFleur expressed why this imagery resonates with black audiences: “In Wakanda, we all belong… This is how the revolution begins, a slow expansion of the future vision that emerges… We reject the future that has been designed for us. Our inner superhero has been ignited.”

Lay Catholics should dare to hope for a future church were we all belong, in a full and meaningful way. The laity’s passion and activism for such a future are necessary ingredients. This lens is utopian, to be sure. But Christians exercising the virtue of hope can engage in planning for utopias, aware that we don’t bring the Kingdom, but we help build it by responding to Jesus’ call to discipleship. That’s a script worth writing.


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


It’s Time for the Laity to Look at Ourselves

Just last week, reports surfaced of yet another community of innocents whom predatory priests have been preying upon for decades, this time communities of nuns who now are defying cultural expectations to share stories of assault, rape, abortions, AIDS-related illnesses and ecclesial impassivity bordering on abandonment. The torrent of reports is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating.

However, it is not about the guilt of clergy that this brief commentary concerns itself; rather, it is a call to the lay population of the Church—especially lay leaders and insiders— to engage in a process of self-reflection and to contemplate any abandonment of the ‘straight path’ in our individual lives. I am, of course, not accusing the lay population of the crimes that continue to roil the Church, nor am I suggesting that the malfeasance of the credibly accused and convicted should taint those who are sincerely attempting to bring light and reform to the institutional body. However, while there is justifiable condemnation of abuse and complicity, we the laity must also look to ourselves and consider our own attitudes and behaviors with regard to currents of sexism, racism and classism that so bedevil society still.

Permit  me to draw on Dante and his “divine’ journey,” which was not simply some fantastic narrative of an individual navigating the spiritual realms of the soul; rather, it was the anguished contemplation of a troubled man who finally had come to recognize that while he had always been swift to judge and censure the failures of so many others, including the Church, he had not really considered his own participation in the moral and cultural upheaval that vexed Florence and its environs at the time.

It is with Dante’s own reckoning in mind that we should reflect on one of the great failings of the Church and society; that is, the prejudicial disregard of women. That failing finds ample corroboration in much of contemporary society as well as in the Church and thus, it may be argued, that lay Catholic men (and some women) may be just as much at fault as clergy in sustaining an ontological distinction of the sexes, asserting secondary status to the female in all significant ways.  For example, Pope Francis has made clear his categorical rejection of an equal presence of women in the Church, and yet even he had to confess the ugly reality of decades-long predatory abuse of nuns by priests and bishops. However, he did so to a strikingly quiet audience, and within 24 hours of the Pope’s comments, the Vatican issued another statement—a fervent clarification of the rhetorical turn of the Pope, pulling back comments about the ‘sexual slavery’ to which nuns in the global Church (including Europe) had been subjected, and falling into a miasma of sophistry that asserted that the “slavery” to which Francis had referred should rather more properly be understood as “manipulation” or a simple type of abuse of power. The statement was as embarrassing as it was hypocritical.

Such collusions of misogyny of course confound the moral status of the Church and, to some degree, modern society. Can modern institutions populated by male leaders (and some few women) proffer any claim about universal human dignity while separating out women (and girls) as something “other” and therefore lacking any claim to be heard or validated?  That there are so many (lay) men (and some women) who do not even consider misogyny a moral failure but simply a caricatured ‘battle of the sexes” points to a fundamental flaw in the moral foundation of society as well as the Church. As long as a certain population of clerical and lay men (and some women) sustains by word, deed or implication, the premise of a distinct ontology for men and another (inferior) for women, then all claims of moral restitution ring hollow.   

As a result, there are many lay women in the Church who are no more sanguine about the role and agenda of lay men (howsoever self-styled “progressive”) in the “rebuilding” of the Church (and perhaps society?) than they are about any shift in understanding on the part of clerical leaders.  As long as there is still inherent in the secular as well as clerical cultures a disposition to accord men an essential primary of place, there can be no sustained and meaningful rectification of abuses perpetrated by clergy, because in both secular and religious cultures, men have still been granted a metaphysical authority over women… and so everyone.

Perhaps an authentic reconstruction of the Church can only occur when everyone is willing to “dive deeply” as did Dante, and become fully self-aware, not simply about obvious tendencies but about the entrenched beliefs that guide daily lives.


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


At the Crossroads

On the road to Emmaus, according to Luke, there came a point when Jesus made as if to go on without the two disciples but they pressed him to stay with them (Lk 24: 28). The Church universal in these strange times is at such a cross-roads. The case of Ireland may be instructive.

Long known as the ‘island of saints and scholars,’ with high rates of religious observance and an enormous missionary outreach to both the developed and  developing worlds, Ireland is now effectively  entering a post-Catholic phase. Even if over 78 percent of the population in the Republic still identified as Catholic in the recent census, it is increasingly accepted that this is a ‘cultural Catholicism’ for so many that does not translate into active discipleship, while the fastest-growing demographic is younger people without faith adherence.

Since at least the 1980s, there has been an erosion of the traditional Catholicism that so imbued Irish personal and public life. This has been evidenced most clearly in public policy issues like contraception, divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage and, most spectacularly last year, abortion, where the State, supported by the majority of the people, has increasingly adopted positions at odds with that of the Catholic Church. There is a crisis of vocations to the priesthood, with the managerial device of parish ‘clustering’ introduced to ensure the availability of Sunday Eucharist for all. One gets a sense of demoralisation, even of defeatism.

The most obvious reason for this dramatic change of fortune is the scandal of child and institutional abuse by clerics and religious and its mishandling by church authorities. This is a familiar story elsewhere in the Church. The damage to victims, survivors and their wider families has been enormous and will take a long time to heal. The moral authority and prestige of the Church have taken a huge hit.

However, I would also point to other, and perhaps even deeper, sources of disenchantment with the Church. There is the clear non-reception of much church teaching on issues of sexuality and gender. This is particularly so among younger people who find, for example, the Church’s attitude toward homosexuality and gay relations, as well as its stance on women priests, at best of little interest and at worst unjust and immoral.

And, perhaps deeper still, there is a sense that in the dominant culture of Western Christianity (now increasingly making headway elsewhere in our globalized world) the individual person and his/her experience and story, authenticity, freedom, equality and the  voices of minorities always trump the institutional voices of a patriarchal hierarchy with its focus on institutional cohesion and rule-keeping.

In this context, with secularism widening and deepening, the Catholic Church in Ireland is faced with a choice, articulated well by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. Given that we are likely to be a minority in the future, do we batten down the hatches, circle the wagons and become a ‘culturally irrelevant minority,’ or do we ‘cast out into the deep,’ in a spirit of dialogue and engagement with our world?

Readers will recognize in this choice facing Ireland the similar question facing the Church world-wide: given the end of ‘Christendom,’ and the futility of investing energy and resources in unwinnable political battles that only reinforce the idea of Christianity as a set of ethical precepts that the Church seeks to impose via the state, do we choose the so-called Benedict option of a future, ‘smaller, purer church,’ a critic on the side-lines? Or do we go for the so-called Francis option—a Church in conversation and dialogue with the world, redolent of the ‘smell of the sheep,’ a field-hospital because it itself is sick and is being treated, a church that wins adherents through attraction to the person of Jesus Christ, friend of the poor, icon of the infinite tenderness and mercy of God our Mother and Father?

This is the Church Pope Francis calls synodal, stating boldly that it is the kind of church that God expects of us in the third millennium. It will develop a culture of open discussion and debate, with appropriate structures and institutions to allow this to happen. It will involve lay people, women and men, in teaching and governance. It will not be afraid to change and will allow, as Newman knew so well, that ‘consulting the faithful’ results in a ‘development of doctrine’ that is not simply linear in nature but is also corrective.

There is increasing evidence in Ireland that our bishops are taking this Francis option seriously and may be on the cusp of decisive action in this respect. The laity who remain are clearly ready for action of this kind. This needs to happen more widely in other countries for the Francis revolution to be actualized, a millennial paradigm shift to a model of church that has deep  biblical and traditional roots and is particularly well-placed to dialogue with (and critique, where necessary) our contemporary culture.

When the two disciples made their choice at their crossroads they went, through their encounter with the stranger, from downcast faces to burning hearts, from despondency to joy. We are at a similar crossroads today.


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


Creative Reimagining Needed to Resolve the Crisis in the Church

The present crisis in the church has been a long time in the making and no one should be so naïve as to think that it will find a quick resolution. Pope Francis and his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., have signaled in recent days that we ought to temper our expectations for the upcoming meeting of the heads of the episcopal conferences from around the world in Rome. Austen Ivereigh, the biographer and astute observer of Pope Francis and his pontificate, suggests that we should not look for institutional reform, but for Francis to continue his efforts to reform the culture, in particular the culture of clericalism at the root of the shocking failure of pastoral leadership that continues to reverberate around the world (“From Evasion to Conversion,” Commonweal - January 30, 2019).

The gathering of the bishops in Rome signifies that the global Catholic community is at last coming to terms with the truth that no local church is immune from the human reality of abuse nor from the systemic failure of pastoral leaders to do justice. The reality of abuse can no longer be dismissed as a North American affair nor as a problem inherent in the liberal West. Sadly, today one quarter of the world’s conferences of Catholic bishops still have no established safeguarding policies nor procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy or church personnel. These measures were mandated many years ago by Francis’ predecessor. Some conferences may simply lack the means to develop them. Others are likely stuck in denial.

Father Lombardi seems to suggest that the meeting in Rome will be a time for schooling the bishops, requiring that they really listen to the experience of victims, to better understand the dynamics of abuse and the enduring harm it effects. The meeting will be conducted in a penitential spirit, aiming to inspire a necessary conversion in the bishops’ ways of thinking and of proceeding. There is no doubt that better education and a profound attitudinal conversion are needed. However, to be truly effective, any conversion of the culture must be met by a substantive reform of the very structures that have fostered a clerical caste more interested in protecting itself than the people it pretends to serve.

Fifteen years ago, John P. Beal, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, described the sexual abuse crisis as “an ecclesial leadership crisis.” In comments that now appear tragically prescient, he worried that the policies set out in the 2002 Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse were insufficient to address the “deeper problems” relating to the ineptitude of the bishops who denied, covered up and minimized the true scope of the problem. He noted that in the present canonical structure and practice of the Catholic Church “all lines of accountability lead upward.”

This has created a situation where only the pope has the power to suspend or remove negligent or delinquent bishops from their duties. In the broad scope of history, this is a rather untraditional approach to church governance. In centuries past one finds abundant examples of horizontal lines of accountability where bishops would not imagine acting without the full collaboration of the cathedral chapters or synods that elected them. (Such structures remain in a number of Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches today.) Metropolitan bishops had greater oversight for discipline within their ecclesiastical province.

Now is the time for a creative reimagining of horizontal structures of episcopal accountability that would include fellow bishops, clergy and the lay faithful of the diocesan church. New procedures are sorely needed for the election of diocesan bishops – so as to engage more fully the community of the baptized in discerning the pastoral and leadership needs of their church. The participation of competent lay persons on diocesan personnel boards might develop a more adequate profile for the kind of priests needed to meet today’s needs. They should share actively in discerning the suitability of candidates for ministry and contribute to priestly formation. Diocesan pastoral councils must assume a more vital role. Regular forums – assemblies, synods, diocesan retreats – are needed to enable the bishop to hear from representatives from every parish community as they seek to discern together missional needs and priorities. Every space for frank exchange will contribute to the kind of transparency and accountability needed in church governance today and brought to light by the sexual abuse crisis. Pope Francis, in a letter to the whole people of God, has indicated that bishops alone are unlikely to find a solution to present challenges. The creation of new and vital structures for ongoing dialogue is the first step to discerning a way forward together.

In the absence of genuine synodality – supported by participative structures that honor diversity and foster the synergy of gifts belonging to all the baptized – the college of bishops is likely to remain a self-absorbed body drifting above the very church they were ordained to serve.


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