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Entries from August 2019

The Cult of Saint George (Pell)

For a brief moment in the summer of 2018, there was a glimmer of unity in the fractured Catholic Church as the faithful, left, right and center, joined in outrage over another round of revelations of past crimes and misdeeds by priests, and even retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

That unity didn’t last long. Within weeks, the Catholic right and their media outlets were weaponizing the abuse crisis to target gays and their ideological foes while turning a blind eye to the obvious or potential sins of their friends and allies, and they used the McCarrick case to leverage an anti-Francis ambush by the disgruntled former curialist, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

Now the news that an Australian court has denied Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his conviction on sex abuse charges has sent conservatives into a veritable frenzy as they pull out all the stops to defend the former Melbourne archbishop and, more recently, Vatican finance minister. The original verdict, and now the denied appeal, were seen as landmarks in the effort to hold Catholic Church officials accountable, no matter how important they are, and to reform the ecclesiastical system and culture that fostered abuse and their cover-up.

That’s not how Pell’s friends saw it. There are certainly arguments that could be made on behalf of the 78-year-old cardinal, and they were made – and they were rejected by jurors and judges alike. Yet Pell’s pals were convinced that this was the greatest miscarriage of justice since the Dreyfus affair, and evidence of a rising tide of anti-Catholicism akin to the persistence of anti-Semitism. Pell, they claimed, is a martyr who was being targeted because he is an outspoken conservative and defender of traditional Catholic teaching, and they demanded his canonization. Santo subito!

“The testimony used to convict Thomas More was more plausible than that used to convict [Cardinal] Pell,” tweeted Edward Peters, a canon law professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “The charges against Cardinal Pell were so outrageous as to be utterly impossible,” Father Raymond J. de Souza wrote in the National Catholic Register, a conservative site prominent in campaigns against Pope Francis.

The Pell verdict was also invoked for political ends. “Catholics cannot expect just and fair treatment at the hands of our liberal elite,” Matthew Schmitz wrote in First Things, blaming “a spasm of anti-Catholic hysteria, whipped up by the Australian media and encouraged by law enforcement.” It was a line echoed by his wife, Julia Yost, in an eye-popping column in the New York Post that blamed a “campaign of misinformation and demonization carried out against [Pell] by Australia’s liberal media and legal elites.”

Pell’s allies attacked the victim, who the Victoria court’s chief called a compelling “witness of truth,” and they derided the case as based solely on one man’s testimony with no corroborating witnesses or evidence, and one that dealt with events more than 20 years ago in the unlikely setting of a cathedral sacristy after Mass. Those arguments ignore the fact that most abuse cases only surface long after the fact – traumatized 13-year-old choirboys are not known for running to the police – or that most abuse cases rest on a victim’s testimony and credibility. And abusers are by definition risk takers who do not act as rationally as most of us would – because most of us do not sexually abuse children.

Indeed, the case against Pell is remarkably similar to the one that brought down McCarrick: a 2017 claim that McCarrick had sexually molested an altar boy in the 1970s after Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was what triggered the Vatican investigation of him. There was no end to the digital ink that Catholic conservatives spilled in highlighting McCarrick’s case and his guilt, and using the case to bash Francis – who in fact launched the investigation of McCarrick, stripped him of his cardinal’s rank and eventually had him defrocked. “Conservative Catholics were quick to embrace the charges leveled against McCarrick, even without a trial verdict,” Michael Sean Winters wrote in a sharp column for the National Catholic Reporter. “Why accept the allegations against McCarrick so readily, while maintaining Pell's innocence?”

The reality is that whatever one thinks about Pell’s guilt or innocence, the case against him, in church terms, is at least as strong as the case against McCarrick was. Pell was accused of abuse numerous other times over the years, and if, as The Tablet’s Christopher Lamb reported, none of the others went to trial for various reasons, all could come into play as the Vatican decides whether to strip him of his ecclesiastical rank and privileges. Lamb also rounds up the repeated instances of Pell’s insensitive and even bullying treatment of victims when he was bishop, and his actions that may have shielded abusers – and which could lead to church discipline.

At its heart, however, the most troubling aspect of the reaction to the Pell verdict is not that they are using it to promote their political agenda or indulge their persecution complex. It’s that Pell’s allies have used a plausible allegation of sex abuse as a loyalty test for a friend and ideological ally.

Conservative commentator George Weigel, for example, who after Pell’s appeal was denied compared the Australian justice system to “the Soviet Union under Stalin,” has been one of Pell’s fiercest and angriest defenders – because the two men have been buddies for more than 50 years. Weigel loves and trusts Pell, and they share a conservative outlook that sees liberals as enemies to be vanquished by an “orthodox” band of brothers who are convinced of their own rectitude and see accusations like those against Pell as “gross falsehoods” that shouldn’t even be entertained.

This is dangerous. Remember it was Weigel and his fellow travelers in conservative Catholic circles who were the fiercest defenders of horrific abusers like Legion of Christ founder Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. For years they repeatedly downplayed reports of clergy abuse while vilifying the media. Mary Ann Glendon, for example, famously said that giving the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe for the clergy abuse reporting “would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

One would think the ensuing 15 years of hard experience should have encouraged a sense of epistemic humility, and a sense of charity for victims. Yet today these conservatives still too often turn a blind eye to serious allegations about their friends and allies while targeting their foes for relentless coverage.

As a result, the crisis has become another wedge issue rather than a rallying point for all Catholics to protect “the least of these.” George Pell is obviously a generous and loyal friend to those who are generous and loyal to him. Of course they don’t think he is abuser; he doesn’t abuse them. On the other hand, as those beyond his circle of trust know too well, the cardinal can be gratuitously bullying and abusive. That doesn’t make him a sex abuser.  

Pell’s guilt or innocence are not dependent on your own view of him. Knee-jerk loyalty is as dangerous as reflexive bias. Much blame for the clergy sex abuse crisis has been set at the foot of clericalism, the notion that priests benefit from a kind of “old boys” network of fellow clerics who cover for each other no matter what.

But the blind faith that so many lay Catholics have placed in George Pell show that clericalism, alas, is not just for clerics.

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

It’s Time

In her June 27 blog post, Jennifer Reek wrote: “Some Catholics are so busy being Catholics that they forget how to be Christians.” This simple reminder of what is to be at the core of our being and doing has remained with me. I wonder whether part of our ecclesial illness (and I refer to all of us) is that we have submitted to the temptation of sectarianism, both in how we see other believers and in how we see differing positions within the Church. We have, I fear, all too often lost sight of the simplicity of the Gospel, a simplicity that rings true throughout the history of salvation, as long ago as the words of YHWH to Moses: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”  (Exodus 6:7) One identity unites us and fundamentally identifies us: We are People of God. And so the question we need to answer individually and corporately is how do we live that out? How in today’s world, with today’s issues and challenges, do we “be God’s people?”

Not the easiest of dilemmas. However, I turn to Jesus’s instruction to “put new wine into new wineskins.” (Mk. 2:22). What is the new wine? What are the new wineskins? I believe the new wine is how you and I experience the Spirit alive and well in us and around us. It is God’s presence encountered in the world. The new wineskins? A world in which we are called to clearly and radically witness the divine presence in us and around us: we are God’s people and we are part of God’s creation.

So let’s not be afraid to question the significance of the divisions we have created and valorized. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves whether episcopal authority should return to the New Testament model of episkopos: overseer, not lord or sovereign. One who values all the People of God as bearers of the Spirit, not just those who wear a collar.

Is the Gospel today best served by a presbyter who is a “jack of all trades” assigned from “central office” or an elder chosen and respected by a community recognizing that person’s holiness, thus affirming the community as the Body of Christ, wise enough to recognize where the Spirit is manifest.

Internally, we Catholics struggle with the question of the ordination of women. Does the Church have authority to ordain women to the priesthood? Does not Acts 6:1 have any lesson for us? “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God ...” The apostles recognized the life of the Spirit in the community and invited the community to (dare I say?) innovate. The result? “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem … (Acts 6:7) Are Paul’s words to the Galatians meaningless: “There is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

If we are the people of God, aren’t we intended to invite others to recognize the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity? So why do we insist on creating obstacles to the divine gift of Love? Why do we hesitate when Francis kisses the feet of a prisoner? Why are we eager to condemn sinners, yet hesitant to love them?

Isn’t it time that our worship of the Creator God be matched by respect for the creation that manifests the divine presence? Isn’t it time to repent of our avarice that is destroying creation and put on “sack cloth and ashes” in order to respect and save the planet?

Instead of arguing over who is or isn’t right/true/orthodox, perhaps we should come together in a circle of prayer to listen to each other and hear the Spirit. Perhaps we could remember Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (1 Cor. 3:3-4) For are we not all God’s servants, working together (1 Cor. 3:9) building the kingdom?

Lest you think this idealistic, remember the time is now; the Spirit calls us to live the Gospel now, putting new wine into new wineskins, because we are the People of God.

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

In Defense of Academic Theology

For a few years, I have followed (and occasionally taken part in as @ProfDanRober) the Catholic conversations on the social media platform Twitter. There is much of value in this conversation – from it I have gained interlocutors, guest speaker and reading ideas. Catholic Twitter, and its subculture of “Weird Catholic Twitter,” contains a variety of personalities, from well-known public personae such as Fr. James Martin and Sr. Helen Prejean to accomplished academics like Professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University and Natalia Imperatori-Lee of Manhattan College. In certain sectors of this discourse, particularly those leaning to the right, I have noticed recently a tendency to critique academic theology, particularly insofar as it raises questions that some in the church do not want discussed (I think particularly of a recent discussion on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene regarding the possibility of women preaching).  In this context, I think it is important to highlight the contribution of academic theology, particularly in turbulent times for our church and world.

Many critics of academic theology ironically wrap themselves in the mantle of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, of course, was one of the very early “academic theologians,” with the place of theological inquiry moving in his time from monasteries and cathedral schools to universities.  Thomas was also no stranger to controversy as the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, condemned a number of his propositions after his death. I suspect, however, that purveyors of this discourse on Twitter do not have medieval scholasticism in the crosshairs of their critique; rather, I think, the concern is with contemporary lay academic theology. 

Academic theology in the United States is a relatively novel concept, perhaps surprisingly so.  Despite the long history of Catholic higher education beginning with the founding of Georgetown University in 1789, most collegiate religious instruction up until the 1950s consisted largely of religion classes aimed at catechesis. Theology training and formation were mostly limited to clergy. The philosophy curriculum typically offered a more rigorous, though also limited, formation in Catholic thought. It was with the ascendancy of theology during the period of Vatican II, as well as the work of pioneers such as Bernard Cooke and Monika Hellwig, that laypeople began to enter the theological ranks. They built on the legacy of such clerical leaders as John Courtney Murray and John Tracy Ellis, as well as the work of Sister Madeleva Wolff to bring theological formation and training to religious women.

Why, then, the backlash against academic theology? I do not, in fact, suspect that this hostility is primarily ideological, despite its somewhat consistent provenance from the right. Indeed, some prominent right-leaning theologians are occasionally held up for ridicule within these circles also. The issue strikes me rather as a kind of pietism – be a simple believer, take what the church teaches for granted, avoid getting caught up in academic issues that are beyond the layperson’s need to inquire. Within the same circles, the idea of “clericalism of the laity” is often invoked against any attempts by laypeople to gain influence within the church, and theology figures prominently in this critique.

The value of academic theology as it is practiced today is that it allows space for the church to think. In an age when priests and bishops have been exposed in grievous wrongdoing for how they have run the church, it is more important than ever that laypeople take up the task of intellectual and moral leadership. This task should not be taken in a spirit of opposition or resistance to the hierarchy, but functionally might end up in an adversarial situation (as it indeed often did when all theologians were clergy). Though this thinking might seem abstract, it has real implications for life in the church both at the parish level and at the structural level. The renewal of the church during and since Vatican II has been heavily influenced by theology, with many of the Council’s ideas coming from theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar and Murray.

It has been commonly remarked, loosely paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson’s views on education, that an educated citizenry is a prerequisite for life in a democracy. I think the same holds for life in the church today. While of course most laypeople in the church do not have access to a college education, their lay leaders and clergy ought to be informed by theological developments, and this requires a space for these developments. David Tracy famously described the three “publics” of theology as academy, society and church, and it is important for the church to recognize the importance of theology precisely so that it can make a difference in the academy (where it faces other challenges) and society.

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

Political Christianity and the Vocation of the Theologians

Last month I was one of four theologians invited to take part in an ecumenical summer school for theology students on the theme of “Theology and Plurality” in the beautiful old Croatian town of Dubrovnik. The school was organized by the Diocese of Dubrovnik, and participants came from all over the former Yugoslavia.

I nearly turned down the invitation. After years of being targeted by militant Catholic groups because of my theological advocacy for women priests and same-sex marriage and my opposition to the criminalisation of abortion, I had decided to have nothing more to do with institutional Catholicism. I would attend Mass and continue to promote women’s voices in the Church, but I would avoid hostile campaigns mounted against any Catholic institution that dared to give me a platform.

But faith is, as Pope Francis keeps reminding us, a risky enterprise. It’s an adventure that might get us into trouble and involves being willing to make mistakes. Moreover, Francis has challenged the punitive doctrinal absolutism of recent decades that led to the emergence of a potent network of Catholic vigilantes and a theological culture of self-censorship. I decided to accept the invitation.

I arrived in Croatia to discover that the vigilantes were already on to me. Croatian bloggers were regurgitating all the same old abuse and slander that had been used by their English-speaking counterparts. It was front-page news that another bishop had publicly criticized the Bishop of Dubrovnik, Bishop Mate Uzinić, for inviting a “notorious heretic,” a feminist who “promotes abortion” and who poses a serious threat to young theologians, to teach in the summer school.

Bishop Uzinić stood his ground in defending my presence. He pointed out that dialogue does not necessarily imply agreement but that it is essential to understand different points of view if we are to engage with modern society. He attended the summer school every day, sitting among the students and engaging in the discussion sessions. He and his team went out of their way to make me feel welcome and supported during what would otherwise have been a lonely and difficult time.

The widespread publicity had a positive effect in the end, opening up a forum for discussion between secular society and the Church beyond the hostile condemnations and campaigns of the Far Right. Several Catholics told me that they felt inspired and encouraged by the emergence of a fresh theological approach to issues of culture, plurality and Catholic identity.

For me, it was an opportunity to get to know a lively and inspiring group of theology students from across the former Yugoslavia, a region with a legacy of complex religious and political conflicts that still form a turbulent social undercurrent. In such a context, the decision to focus on themes of plurality and diversity in the summer school was a bold example of contextual theology in action, bringing Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant students into robust but respectful and friendly dialogue with one another.

One of the most significant outcomes of the whole affair was the decision by four Croatian theologians – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant – to publish a statement describing this as a Kairos time in Croatian society and challenging the silence of theologians in the public sphere in the post-Communist era. Echoing the emphatic “No!” of Karl Barth to Christian collusion with Hitler’s regime, and citing later feminist, liberationist and Black theologians who said “No!” to poverty and racial and sexual discrimination, the statement makes a vital distinction between “religion in the political sphere and political religion.” While there is a need for theological voices to be engaged in public debate, this is a vocation to seek nonviolent solutions to social crises. It is quite different from “the struggle for power clothed in religious attire” that “sooner or later reaches for the lever of domination to establish its principles.”

This timely statement has relevance far beyond the Croatian context. As the authors point out, “If theologians are silent then sooner or later theology itself becomes a victim of that silence.” There is an urgent need for public theology rooted in the Catholic tradition’s affirmation of the mutually illuminating relationship between reason and revelation to bring a credible theological perspective to bear on the challenges facing modern societies. Not least of these is the shocking rise of a form of political Christianity that is parasitic upon populist movements across the western democracies. Leaders such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Britain’s Jacob Rees-Mogg and Americans Steve Bannon and, of course, Donald Trump have cynically exploited Christian fears and prejudices, particularly among Catholics and, in the US, evangelicals, in their thinly disguised white supremacist campaigns posturing as a defense of “Judeo-Christian” values. It is hard to imagine a set of values more antithetical to either the Jewish or Christian traditions than the buccaneering swagger of these wealthy white male elites operating in a moral vacuum of corruption and lies.

In these volatile and dangerous times, we theologians have a duty as citizens to engage with society and to challenge those who distort and manipulate the Christian faith for political ends. We could start by refusing to collaborate with any institution that is willing to censor or silence our theological colleagues. As Francis recently told a gathering of theologians in Naples, theological freedom is necessary for “without the possibility of experimenting with new ways, nothing new is created, and one does not leave space for the newness of the Spirit of the Risen One.”

Political Christianity appeals to an ossified traditionalism to keep the Word of God safely sealed within the tomb of the past. Theologians are called to find a language that opens a space of risk and encounter through which the mystery of the risen Christ might emerge as an incarnate reality, bringing God’s peace and justice to a wounded and divided world.

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.

Requiescat in Pace

The Catholic Church has always been very good at baptizing, marrying and burying people.

When I was in seminary (note: I was never ordained), the retired pastor of my boyhood parish told me: “When you become a priest, remember to shower almost all of your attention on the school children, especially the first-graders, and the elderly of the parish. The first group will stay for a lifetime, and second will leave you their money.”

Well… maybe “once upon a time.” There are signs aplenty – and they are appearing all over the place – that our beloved, battered Church is losing its magic touch and, with it, a large number of its people.

More and more people who were born over the past few decades into traditionally Catholic families have opted out. If and when they finally decide to have kids, they feel no compulsion or compunction to baptize them as infants or at any time. Many parents allow their children to make the decision themselves once the kids have reached a more mature age.

So the numbers of baptisms are down all over the place.

It’s the same with Church weddings. When so many of the baptized are virtually un-churched and do not belong to a parish, the idea of finding a Catholic temple to celebrate tying the knot is not among the top priorities. The banquet hall is a different matter.

And then there are funerals. There was a time when even those Catholics who had drifted away from regular Sunday worship would, in the end, be carried (or wheeled) back into church with the holy water and incense sendoff provided by a funeral Mass.

Those days are fading, too.

This was brought home to me recently while attending a noontime funeral at the Roman Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, an imposing church dating to 325 A.D. that has been embellished over the centuries. The deceased was the father of one of my closest friends and a member of an old Roman family. He died the previous morning, two months after his 99th birthday.

About 80 people of all ages showed up for the Mass. It was clear most of them had not darkened the door of a church since God knows when. A young priest from Romania or a Slavic country presided in purple vestments. In near flawless Italian, he also did both the readings. In fact, he did everything, including the people’s parts since he discovered immediately that most of the “congregation” did not have a clue how to respond or what to do. Thankfully, since he appeared not even to know the family, he did not give a homily.

There was no music. Only about four or five people took communion, excluding the widow who is about 85 years old. The “liturgy” was over in about 25 minutes and that included the final commendation, read from an ambo. The priest (who was actually not bad as a presider) sprinkled the oak casket with holy water, incensed it, gave a final blessing and exited stage right. 

People milled around the church greeting one another as undertakers in dark suits and white gloves came in, hoisted the box on their shoulders and carried it to the hearse. The body was then interred in a family mausoleum in Campo Verano, the monumental cemetery adjacent to the Papal Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls.

I could not resist comparing this rather unedifying experience with another funeral that took place on Saturday in the Octave of Easter. The deceased died on Holy Thursday, just a few months before her 99th birthday. She was my last surviving grandparent, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants.

We had the funeral at St. Stephen’s Church in Toledo (Ohio), which was the immigrant parish where she had been baptized in 1920. There were only a few dozen people, most of them not Catholic, at the Mass. But it was quite a different atmosphere than the funeral I later attended in Rome.

The liturgy was carefully planned and family members were assigned to place the pall on the casket, do the readings and present the offertory gifts. The priest, a longtime friend of the family, gave a homily that highlighted aspects of my grandmother’s life and challenged us to think hard about the one lasting legacy – just one thing – that she gave to each of us.

Although most of my family is no longer Catholic, all seemed moved by the ritual. When we do funerals right, they are powerful. One of my nieces even told me she was interested in becoming a Catholic. I’d like to think that her great grandma’s funeral helped in some way to confirm her desire to do so.

I scan the obituaries each day in the Toledo Blade and read of many people who grew up Catholic, went to the parish grade school and diocesan high school. They were married in the Church. Some were even touted as being devout Catholics and active in their parishes when younger. But so often they are never given a public funeral Mass, especially if they are elderly. I suspect that’s because their heirs are no longer practicing and the priests want to avoid the scene I witnessed at the Italian man’s funeral at the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

The faith is not being passed on. So I’m thankful to my grandmother that, among the many ways she influenced my life, Catholic faith is the most important gift she gave to me.

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