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Entries from October 2019

Sometimes a Statue is Just a Statue

The South American rainforest may still be on fire, but the rest of us were saved from burning in hell thanks to the wiley ways of some alt-right Catholic cognoscenti in Rome for the recent Amazon synod.

The great rush to save us from ourselves? It wasn’t to support the final synod document calling for greater awareness of—and response to—ecological sins. Nor was it to cheer a move to ordain married men in an under-supported part of the world where people are hungry to receive sacraments. It wasn’t even to applaud the pope’s move to continue the discussion on women and the diaconate.

Instead, with a chorus of tsks that swelled to clucks and culminated in a resounding splash, some concerned Catholics took steps to ensure we weren’t lead astray by what appeared to be some fairly humble artwork. The act of tossing two Amazonian statues into the Tiber smacked of paternalism, a rigidity dictating thought and valuing lockstep practice without any theological underpinnings, or thought. The amount of bloggers’ ink spilled on this tempest in an alt-right teapot merely highlights the silliness of so much of the criticism that continues to swirl around the Francis papacy. There’s a nasty smug superiority rather than anything that suggests real concern for the church and her people.

Two simple, culturally appropriate, wooden statues placed in Santa Maria in Transpontina at the beginning of the synod were deemed so offensive by some that they were carried off and tossed in the river to ensure the church would not be undermined—nay, threatened!—by their presence. The charge against the folk art? The statues were deemed “pagan” and thus not deserving of their hallowed placement. It was an action that offends for many reasons: for starters, it’s theft, not to mention vandalism, and it smacks of an insular ignorance that defies the reality of the church as global family. And last time I checked, God loves the pagans, too.

I’m sure I’m not the only Catholic woman who saw the carvings of the two pregnant women and read into them the Visitation, given my cultural and catechetical lens. The power of art rests in the eye of the beholder, and images can be interpreted by different people at different times in radically different ways. For many of us, the fecundity expressed in these simple works was profoundly pro-life, and thus pro-God, regardless of the statues’ origins or creators. That this became the focal point of the synod for some floors me. The power the right assigned these simple images certainly lends credence to all the non-Catholics who’ve ever believed that we “worship” statues. Given the ongoing fuss over these tiny women, you’d be forgiven for thinking our critics were right.

Naturally, like the good father he is, Pope Francis stepped in to mediate, ensuring the statues were replaced before the end of the synod. Sides were sent to their corners, and the important work of the synod will move forward.

If I sound a tad annoyed, it may be because of my years in Catholic media. Editing a national Catholic publication placed me on the receiving end of near-weekly snail mail and email litanies cataloguing my errancies of orthodoxy, even though most writers were motivated by assumption, rather than fact–but a surety that they were the guardians of orthodoxy, of truth.

One reader, for example, wrote to tell me my collects were “boring” and were not in the true spirit of the mass. He was pointed in the direction of the office of divine worship and discipline of the sacraments in Rome, the men who actually do write these prayers.

Another wrote to advise me I needed to learn how to edit, as she had counted the number of times I’d left the word “and” in the Easter Vigil’s creation story from Genesis and that there were far too many for her liking. To this woman, I sent an explanation that Scripture translations, licensed by the bishops, were not to be tinkered with by the likes of me. 

One man threatened to vandalize copies of my periodical throughout his town. While I’m no fan of the latest translation of the Roman Missal because it stripped away much of the lyricism, I was not responsible for changing the words of the Apostles’ Creed so that Jesus descended to hell rather than to the dead. My efforts to explain the concept of sheol were not received in the spirit with which they were offered.

Still another, a priest, wrote to chastise me for running the wrong Mass readings, perhaps my biggest editing fear. Turns out that Father had simply not switched weekday lectionaries when the new liturgical year began. But who would be right—the man in the collar or the wife and mother (who happens to have a theological degree of her own).

And let’s not even get started on the messages I’d receive after running ads for a women’s religious community’s yoga retreats. 

In all cases, I found myself annoyed by attacks based on a presumption that I was wrong without having done any research. Sometimes, I was amused, though, that so many so appalled at the notion of women rising above their station actually assumed I had the power to write the prayers of the Mass or to edit scripture. Sadly, there was a constant holier-than-thou tone that ran through this type of missive. The writers’ voices were more about a triumphal need to point out others’ flaws than a desire to have a conversation, to understand why someone else had done something, or even to help. I could easily imagine the statues tossers having come from my readership.

(To be fair, sometimes the attacks came from the left, including more than a few women who chided me for not arbitrarily adding inclusive language to the readings and prayers of the Mass. While I was sympathetic, that was not a battle I was willing to take on on behalf of my employer.)

I was reminded of the orthodoxy police with the recent headlines out of Tennessee about the priest who fought to ban Harry Potter from school shelves because, in consultation with exorcists, said priest had learned that the spells in the children’s series were “real” and could conjure up spirits.

The news amused. As the only non-fantasy reader in a Potter-mad family, I finally had a talking point for the next time the family binge-watched the franchise movies because the boy wizard and I now had something in common.

One of the oddest letters I ever received was from someone who sent me what was purported to be a list of local exorcists. Scribbled at the bottom was a note reading simply, “I think you need this.”

I filed the story away as an anecdote to share selectively with those who would see the humor. There’s nothing to laugh at with a book ban, though. Not only does it smack of an Index-like censorship, it’s also a sad comment on Catholics being threatened by a fictional character spouting words we shouldn’t really believe have any power. 

My mail memories do not stand in isolation. There’s a direct link to throwing statues in the Tiber to telling others what to think and how to worship. There’s also a healthy heaping of superstition and fear, even though, as people of faith, we have little to fear.

After all, sometimes a statue is just a statue…

Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

Limits of Vos Estis Exposed

The ecclesial meltdown in Buffalo has highlighted the limits of the metropolitan model for policing the conduct of bishops as it relates to clergy sex abuse adopted by Pope Francis in May with his motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi.

The metropolitan model leaves it to the metropolitan archbishop to commence an investigation of a bishop within his ecclesiastical province. Once he determines an investigation should be conducted, he contacts the relevant dicastery in the Vatican, in this case the Congregation for Bishops, and they must authorize him to proceed, or not, within 30 days. The metropolitan archbishop then has 90 days to complete his investigation. The scope of the investigations conducted under the terms of Vos estis are limited to allegations of sexual abuse by a bishop or the covering up of abuse by others. 

Late last year, the TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” dedicated a segment to the allegations that Bishop Richard Malone was covering up instances of clergy sex abuse. The charges were made by his former personal assistant Siobhan O’Connor. A case could be made that if Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the metropolitan for all of New York state, knew nothing but what he had seen on that television show, he would have been justified in asking Rome for authorization to conduct an investigation on June 1, the day Vos estis went into effect.

At last year’s plenary meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference in November, several bishops told me that Bishop Malone was denying all the allegations.

This summer, a parish priest, Father Jeffrey Nowak, was removed from ministry and asked to undergo an evaluation. Later, Bishop Malone’s priest secretary, Fr. Ryszard Biernat, was also taking a leave of absence. Both had been involved, perhaps romantically, with a seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski. In a recording of a meeting discussing the situation, Bishop Malone referred to the situation as a “love triangle.”

Charges and counter-charges flew. Ms. O’Connor defended Fr. Biernat. “Whatever is going on in there, I can tell you one thing: I have total trust in Father Ryszard’s selfless commitment to the priesthood, our diocese and Our Lord,” she said in a written statement. “Father Ryszard’s name is Polish for ‘Richard,’ which means that I worked closely with two Richards during my time in the Chancery. One of them I trust with my whole heart. The other is Bishop Malone.” Defenders of Fr. Nowak sent reporters pictures of Bojanowski with Biernat at the Dead Sea, both covered in mud and holding each other very, very closely.

In the same recording in which Malone referred to the love triangle, he was heard saying, “This could be the end for me as bishop….it could force me to resign.”  Ugh. His evident self-pity is Exhibit A for the argument that clericalism is the root of the problem of clergy sexual abuse and its cover up.

Why, then, was no action taken until early October when the Vatican embassy in Washington announced that New York Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn would be leading an apostolic visitation of the diocese of Buffalo. Such visitations have long been used to examine a variety of problems in a diocese or seminary or religious order. Unlike investigations conducted under the terms of Vos estis, Bishop DiMarzio is not restricted to examining allegations of sex abuse or its cover-up. He can assess such difficult-to-prove qualities as presbyteral morale. I suspect Rome has already made the decision to remove Malone, which is why they chose a visitation over a Vos estis investigation: It is beyond self-evident that Malone has lost the moral authority needed to effectively lead his diocese.

The unanswered question is why Cardinal Dolan did not initiate an investigation all summer? Or, did he request authorization and was denied? We do not know, which points to one of the major limits with Vos estis: There is little transparency in the process, certainly less than is accorded a priest who is accused of sex abuse under the terms of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children. On the other hand, Archbishop Bernie Hebda of Minneapolis-St.Paul made a public announcement that he was conducting an investigation of Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston. Rome or the nuncio should regularize the procedure for disclosing news of an investigation to the public.

In a couple of weeks, the bishops will be gathered in Baltimore for their plenary meeting. I doubt they will address these issues in open session but they must do so in executive session. If any metropolitan archbishop is himself negligent in pursing investigations, the whole metropolitan model will come into disrepute. No bishops’ reputation, not Malone’s and not Dolan’s, should be permitted to obstruct the bishops’ conference from urging public disclosure of all requests for authorization to conduct an investigation. If the bishops are to police each other, the least they can do is let the rest of us know how they are doing it.

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

Francis: A Saint for Our Times

The title of our blog, ‘Go, Rebuild My House,’ comes from the words St. Francis heard in the spring of 1206 at San Damiano, a little church in ruins near his home town of Assisi. The young Francis was praying there, contemplating an icon of Christ on the cross, desperately wanting to hear from God who he was to be, what he was to do. He believed the command was Christ speaking to him directly, which filled him with intense joy. Francis at first took the message literally and set out to repair the building. Later he realized he was being asked to do much more.

As Franciscan friar Daniel P. Horan so well puts it in a National Catholic Reporter column on Francis as a model for church reform, “It would seem that ultimately God was less concerned about the physical structures of this or that particular worship space and more interested in spiritual and moral renewal, a rebuilding of the church that is the Body of Christ. St. Francis’ whole manner of living became focused on renewing the embodied, daily experience of Christian life by prioritizing the fundamentals of Gospel values in service to the poor, forgotten, voiceless and abandoned in his own time and context.”

Horan says there is a clear way of proceeding that Francis offers today’s Church: “repair the church, for as you see, it is falling apart!” Look at what is in plain sight crying out for repair: those forgotten, voiceless, abandoned in our own time and context, particularly “the women and men broken by abuse and silenced by trusted leaders that make up the church.” The popular image of Francis is of a sweet, unthreatening little man preaching to the birds, a domesticated garden statue among the flowers, what Horan in a later NCR column calls “the birdbath industrial complex,” the reduction of the saint “to a medieval petting-zoo mascot […] without regard for the radical truth about God and creation he intended.” Francis did not set himself apart from others. In fact, he did not set himself or humanity apart from other creatures, from creation. In his great poem “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis spoke of creation in familial terms: “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brother Wind,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” and “our Sister, Mother Earth.” “Such a free, anarchic soul was Francis,” Thomas Cahill wrote after being moved by the poem. “How he went against the grain of his hierarchical, ordered, aggressive, divisive society.”

Here is one reason why the little poor man (il poverello) is a saint for our times. The words of his poem, the life of joy and simplicity he led and inspired others to lead still goad pompous and arrogant hierarchs. A German Cardinal, among others, incensed over what he viewed as un-Christian activity taking place at the Vatican Synod for the Amazon in Rome this month, said the term “Sister Mother Earth” is pagan and heretical, apparently ignorant of Francis’ poem. Francis has been much in the news lately, at least in Catholic news. Pope Francis, the first pope with the courage to take the saint’s name as his own, has consecrated the synod to St. Francis. It opened on October 4, St. Francis’ feast day, with a tree-planting celebration in the Vatican gardens. The tree was planted in earth from Assisi, the Amazon, from places of environmental destruction and human degradation. Indigenous people from the region and others sang and danced around a mandala, which included a photo of Sister Dorothy Stang, the human rights activist murdered in Brazil, and two carvings of naked pregnant females greeting each other, perhaps a representation of the Visitation. The first week of the synod has been remarkable. The possibility of married men becoming priests, of women becoming deacons, discussed openly and seriously. Scientists are included in conversations about the environment and the effects of climate change. Input has been given from below—the people are speaking and teaching, the priests are listening. Pope Francis recognizes that St. Francis of Assisi is the model the Church now needs most for rebuilding its house.

I would like to end on a personal note, for Francis has been much on my mind for personal reasons. I have moved to the city named after him: “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís,” or “The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.” Of course, Francis is everywhere here: roads, schools, hotels, churches, apartments are named after him. We often eat lunch together, Francis and I, in a courtyard of the hospital where I have begun work as a chaplain. He is there every day, wings in the air, head thrown back in joy, one foot kicked high behind him. “Happy Dancing St. Francis” is the title of this statue, which erodes Horan’s “birdbath industrial complex.” I like this place, for it seems to have more of Francis about it than the statue. Many of the hospital’s leaders are women, and they have stressed the importance of relationship, of acknowledging and respecting each other, whether patient or colleague. Rooms are private and often have lovely views of the desert and mountains. There is a mix of religions and spirituality in Santa Fe: Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Native American, Nones, New Age, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim. Spiritual care of the patients is inclusive and expansive: the care of every person is stressed, regardless of belief. My colleagues are Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Interfaith. All of us believe in the importance of this approach. Here is where my ‘Church’ is, and doubtless where Francis’ was also.

Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.

As Pope Francis Calls for Climate Action, His Critics Fear a Green Trojan Horse

The octogenarian and the adolescent. The elder and the youth. Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg make for a marvelous duo, united in their shared concern for the planet, Indigenous peoples and the ramifications of political inertia.

Ms. Thunberg is a novice in these things – though an impassioned one with an agile mind – while Francis has been about the business of moral prophecy for at least the duration of his pontificate, and much longer as the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The sagacious pontiff has his synod on the Pan-Amazonian region (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana and French Guinea) scheduled for Oct. 6-27 in Rome. This event, one of a series of periodic synods, is unique in that it is not limited to ecclesiastical concerns or parochial challenges, but rather the larger and comprehensive matter of our “common home.” As he wrote in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional aspect of our Christian experience.”

In saying this, the Pope pledges the full weight of his authority behind humanity’s shared stewardship of the planet and all its occupants. He situates papal teaching within the context of the environmental crisis and abjures the dualistic thinking that insists on the separation of religion and politics. The Gospel demands no less than the repairing of what we have damaged and the cultivation of an oversight of compassion as opposed to exploitation.

What Francis has done with his encyclical and is about to do with his synod is an attempt to address the problem posed by American writer and savant Barry Lopez: “how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself.”

The Bishop of Rome knows the human capacity for sin, but he also knows humanity’s capacity for a graced existence, for a life of natural harmony in contrast to the rapacity that marks our relationship to creation.

But the synod, years in the making, has become a lightning rod for opposition to the pope. Ultraconservative prelates are all aligned in their resistance to a pontificate they perceive as too accommodating to contemporary trends, too obliging in watering down sound doctrine in the interest of compromise, too unsure of the absolutism of thought and behavior they find comforting and orthodox.

They see the synod as a smokescreen for broader initiatives than merely those driven by social-justice imperatives. They see further evidence of Francis’s efforts to diminish papal authority and alter tradition they view as sacral.

Take, as a case in point, the matter of ordaining mature married men, viri probati. Such men would serve in areas so vast with priests so sparse that access to the sacraments is a rarity. Yet this is seen as a portal to universal change: the ushering in of a married clergy and the ushering out of a universally celibate one. The discussion point is not nearly so draconian. There is plenty of room for nuance, and Catholic practice is much more diverse than it is given credit for.

But deep suspicion of Francis’s motives and the toxins of disloyalty and disobedience are no longer subterranean. They are out in the open, and the synod could well be a battleground for Catholic factionalism.

The pope, however, will remain concentrated on the primary objectives: conscientization around the consequences of deforestation, the disruption of Indigenous life, the economic inequities that drive brutal land-use practices, the continued aftershocks of environmental degradation, community violence and political polarization.

How does one work to achieve an “integral ecology” that weighs human socioeconomic needs with the right nurturing of the environment? And how does one do that in a respectful way without condescension and in keeping with the demands of the Gospel while at the same time remaining open to the spirituality of Indigenous peoples?

These are the key questions. And Francis believes the work of the synod – conducted with transparency and with freedom of mind and heart – can help determine a path that can restore the world to rightful integrity. At the end of this, as he said in Laudato Si, “we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God.”

That’s not hugely different, I wager, from Ms. Thunberg’s more secular dream.

Michael W. Higgins is the distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University.

Reprinted with permission from the The Globe & Mail.

The Catholic Imagination and the Challenge of Apathy

Recently, I had the joy of attending a conference on the Catholic Imagination at Loyola Chicago University. Over three days, the attendees heard presentations by fiction writers, poets, scholars and even filmmakers. It was a powerful reminder that Catholicism, as a living, breathing tradition, brims with creativity and vitality, whatever the crimes and sins of certain clerics. After one panel, I asked three fellow attendees about their experiences with Catholic undergraduate students regarding last summer’s duel tragedies involving the now-laicized McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury report. In the ensuing conversation, a question arose: Which reaction to the abuse crisis is worse, anger or apathy? The premise of the question is that a student’s anger demonstrates some degree of emotional investment in her or his Catholic faith. But if a student reacts with apathy, this indifference seems to indicate a great distance from Catholic beliefs and practices, regardless of whether the student checks “Catholic” on their admissions application. The attendees to whom I posed this question all agreed that apathy was indeed the greater challenge for a teacher of the Catholic tradition. Apathy indicates irrelevance. If the crimes of priests and bishops do not anger a person, it is probably because she or he has no reason to be personally angry. The crimes might be tragic, but they are someone else’s problems, involving someone else’s religion and someone else’s Church. Catholicism simply does not “matter” to one’s life.

This conversation reminded me of my own interactions with my students in the American northeast. A handful of students may be upset, but these students were few and far between. The overwhelming majority seemed to regard the abuse crisis with detachment, even amongst those who identified as Catholic. That said, I wonder if this situation of apathy—assuming it exists outside my own, limited context—also presents an opportunity. Perhaps most obviously, the Catholic instructor must not confront the reactions of betrayal, frustration, cynicism and fury towards ecclesial authorities that many Catholics have felt over the past year, myself included.

The greater challenge for the teacher, then, is to figure out how to invite students into seeing the beauty and richness of the Catholic tradition as indeed important and relevant to their lives. Issues concerning dogma and doctrine, as important as they are, are irrelevant to a person who does not first recognize why these issues would ever bear relevance to them. The situation reminds me of Pope Francis’s comment in his famous interview in America magazine that you have to heal a person’s wounds before you can start talking about other matters.

Hence, the importance of the Catholic imagination, with its stories, poems, artwork, music and movies, to the undergraduate teacher. By a Catholic imagination, I refer to a creative, artistic imagination that is significantly shaped by the liturgical, theological, spiritual and pious traditions of the Catholic tradition, regardless of whether the artist attends church regularly. The purpose of assigning a story, for example, by a Catholic author, whether from the quintessential Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, or a contemporary one, such as Kirsten Valdez Quade or Phil Klay, is to invite students to see the world from a different perspective, in which matters of sin and redemption, evil or grace, faith and doubt, play out through flawed protagonists who undergo their own journeys of spiritual growth. I would never expect to convert a student by assigning Greene’s The End of the Affair, but I would hope that by the end, the student sees that the questions raised by the text are important to a life well lived. Perhaps the student’s responses to those questions will be different from the author’s (assuming one could know that). But at least the conversation has started.

In Love’s Knowledge, the philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, wrote that the value of good fiction is that it demonstrates why “the search matters” and that “by showing the mystery and indeterminacy of ‘our actual adventure,’ they characterize life more richly and truly…” Although she was not writing as a Catholic, Nussbaum’s remark is relevant for any creative work that strives to demonstrate why faith “matters,” why the questions provoked by imaging the world through a Catholic imagination guide critical self-reflection on one’s own sources and foundations for life’s meaning. To bring examples of the Catholic imagination into the classroom in all its visual, aural, oral and verbal representations is not a panacea. It will not likely spur immediate conversion or convince any student overnight to attend mass regularly, nor does it replace forms of evangelization. But it is about the beginnings of a conversation, a crack in the armor of apathy that is so tempting to wear in today’s post-Christian America.

Brent Little is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.