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Entries from January 2020

Tolle, lege... (Take up, read...) David Adams Richards, the most important novelist of post-postmodern Catholicism

Over the span of almost two millennia, the creative works of Roman Catholic authors, poets, painters, musicians and other inspired artists have offered their distinctive perceptions of the world and of the human condition that have been as illuminating as they have been enthralling: consider the creations of Dante, Balzac, Mozart, Gaudi. However, today, amid the current scandals of institutional failure and moral negligence, many Catholics seem now to ignore or dismiss as inconsequential, even trivial, such gifts of the Catholic imagination—and there is perhaps justice in that. The Church and the laity must reckon honestly and vigorously on the abuse crisis as well as the concomitant declining population of observant Catholics, especially among the younger generation.

Yet, if the Church is to rebuild, it will do so in a (western) culture and with a population that has long since moved beyond any “post-Vatican II” identity and that is now superseding the “post-modern” ethos of the late 20th century with the post-postmodern ethos of the 21st century. As a result, the Church, and those committed to her recovery, should turn to agents of expression who not only give voice to but are also part of the new ethos, and so are independent of entrenched juridical assemblies or ineffectual intellectual insularity. This includes the poets, musicians, writers, painters and other artists within (to whatever degree) the Church who proceed from both mind and spirit in their work, who have absorbed as well as lived quotidian experiences of contemporary life and whose Catholic faith—howsoever distilled or conflicted—has inspired them to create significant art that contemplates and then interrogates the social and moral issues of post-postmodern culture, the failures and struggles of the post-postmodern Church and the place of theology—and religion, in general—in an increasingly complex and secularized culture. However, as post-postmodernists, they do so without the irony or cynicism or ambivalence of postmodern ideation, and one of the most authentic and most noteworthy voices of this post-postmodernism is the Catholic-Canadian novelist and essayist, David Adams Richards.

Richards may not be widely well known outside of Canada where he has been lauded with awards and testimonials (that lack of common familiarity with his writings suggests more about literary myopia in the U.S. than about the quality of Richards’ craft) but he should be. His novels, such as The Lost Highway, Mercy Among the Children and Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, chronicle with exacting but tender frankness the struggles and hardships of individuals striving to survive in secondary towns and hard-scrabble communities in the Canadian Maritimes, and while he situates his novels in such Canadian locations with names like Miramichi and Millbank, and populates his narratives with frequent allusions to “French” and “English” social groups and First Peoples nations like the Micmaq, Richards just as easily could be writing about forgotten mill villages in New England or rusted factory towns in much of the northern U.S. Those are towns and rural regions bereft of hope and suspicious of dreams, the result of the inherent injustice of the modern capitalist project and the social inequity it breeds, and Richards takes stock of those crumbing spaces of security or stability with an unflinching look. He discloses the ethical and moral desperation he espies everywhere: morally bankrupt institutions (lay and ecclesial); distressed and ineffective priests and hypocritical church goers; academic snobs whose arrogant naiveté is matched only by their moral weakness, and the covetous, unsympathetic working poor whose bodies and souls the relentless demons of want and futility have desiccated. Richards jettisons any pious notion of the Church and so omits from his novels any mythic characters of romantic piety. For Richards, the Church is profoundly human, not evil, just not sufficiently imaginative to respond to the needs of its contemporary congregations. Just so the remarks by Cardinal Walter Brandmuller this past summer, concerning the Amazon synod, when he underscored his critique of the gathering by insisting that the topics of discussion “have, at the most, marginally anything to do with the Gospels and the Church, … One asks oneself: what do ecology, economy and politics have to do with the mandate and mission of the Church?” Richards, of course, would argue that every aspect of the human condition, even economy, must somehow be part of the mandate and mission of the Church. Yet Richards also has in his sights the secular elite, politicians and civic leaders and academics who lean on their faith and the faithful only to promote their own, often ill-begotten and ill-conceived projects, and whose greed and power-lust have been sharpened by the concentrated borders of small towns.

Richards’ post-postmodernism is purgatorial but there is hope in that, just as Catholic teaching explains that purgatory is a circumstance of accountability and reflection but also hopefulness and redemption. The novels of David Adams Richards are not laden with postmodern burdens like ironic despair or vain despondency because for all the ethical missteps and errors of judgment and abandoned ideals of his characters—and people in general—Richards sustains a subtle anticipation that truth and goodness, howsoever rarified, will prevail, like Amy “the beautiful child” in The Lost Highway or the “unfathomable heart” of Percy in Mercy Among the Children. Richards truly cares and persuades the reader to care about his characters, even his grandly fallen ones, and such grasps at sympathy are a guide of hope, for both the characters and the reader. For what Richards wants most in his characters, what he hopes they most enfold within themselves—forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, understanding—he asks also of his readers as they journey with the people of inadequate coastal towns and shuttered inland villages over unforgiving and callous landscapes of the body and the soul. Humanity is a flawed and fallen creation, Richards concedes, distorted by its circumstance and at times not worthy of the natural riches bequeathed every day—the glorious hues of sunset, the gentles waves pulsing along a shoreline, the crisp air of autumn, the love of another human being—but, he insists, humanity is necessarily fallen, dependent on God’s grace, but more immediately upon the tender mercies of each other. The Lost Highway ends with the simple statement by a woman to another concerning her son, “Leave him be—leave him be—please realize that he is, after all, a human being.”[1] There is beauty in that.

[1] David Adams Richards, The Lost Highway (MacAdam/ Cage, 2007), 394


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


Civility, Civics and Church Vitality

In this week when the impeachment trial has begun—the second presidential impeachment trial Americans have witnessed within two decades—it should be clear to all that political civility is in a crisis. It’s on life support. Diagnoses differ as to who or what is most responsible for the steep decline of political civility, and that’s part of the very problem: Too many politicians and public figures don’t have a common understanding and practice of the habit of civility that allows them to “agree to disagree” or to hold a contentious debate but then still find a way to work on common interests. The politicians aren’t the only ones affected—all citizens lose out when government is in gridlock. The habits of incivility seep into us, and in some ways, they started with us.

As goes civility, so goes civics. The connection has been driven home to me by a fascinating new book, Politics is for Power. Tufts University political scientist Eitan Hersh names the problem of “political hobbyism,” which is following of political news, websites and podcasts and then commenting and complaining to family and friends and in online forums. Hersh conducted a survey finding that one-third of Americans say they spend at least two hours a day involved in “politics,” but for four-fifths of this group, the political hobby activities are all they do. This isn’t real politics, argues Hersh—hobbyism doesn’t serve others concretely, it doesn’t build coalitions, it doesn’t win votes and it doesn’t convince other people to join your cause.

Readers of this post will likely recognize people they know, but they should also likely recognize themselves in some measure. A vast number of Americans of all walks of life are susceptible to this behavior, and Hersh finds it’s particularly prominent among white, educated, somewhat older men, and among independents and Democrats. It’s not just the stereotypical Fox News watcher.

What does all of this have to do with Catholic Church reform? I propose that the crisis of civility and the crisis of civics are closely bound up with the crisis of civil society institutions, including attendance and active participation in churches. As is well known, transformation is occurring among all U.S. religions, with Christianity the numerical loser. The Pew Research Center recently reported that the decline of Christianity is continuing at a rapid pace, with 65 percent of American adults describing themselves as Christians, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. In many Catholic dioceses and parishes, membership is graying and the young adults don’t keep attending after they are confirmed. Wealthy suburban parishes and various kinds of nonwhite or ethnically diverse parishes are exceptions.

But why should one care? What is church good for? Church participation makes significant contributions to small and large social fabrics. Active participation in a religious community makes people healthier and happier. Ample research shows these associations, including that of sociologist Brad Wilcox, who finds that religious-service-attending Americans are less likely to cheat on their partners and more likely to enjoy happier marriages; and of political scientist Robert Putnam, who states that “churchgoing kids have better relationships with their parents and other adults, have more friendships with high-performing peers, are more involved in sports and other extracurricular activities” and are less prone to drug use and delinquency.

Both of these claims are cited by journalist Timothy Carney in his 2019 book Alienated America that traces the influence of stronger and weaker communal connections on the health of the public square. Like Hersh’s book, Carney’s is essential reading for those who are looking for fresh, constructive takes on what ails American public life. Carney plumbs voting patterns from the 2016 Republican presidential primaries to show that, for both individual voters and communities, each level down in church attendance brought a step up in Trump support.” This finding matters because, if the presidency of Donald Trump is emblematic of, and a contributor to, the erosion of civility and the exacerbation of political polarization, then participation in church could well be a counterbalancing force against these trends.

The erosion of civil society, the decline of the public’s trust in just about every social institution, the decline of church attendance and the rise of political polarization with its attendant rise in incivility are interrelated phenomena, I believe. They constitute a huge, interconnected social challenge that yields to no easy solution. But I can confidently say that churches can be part of the solution. It matters to the quality of social and political life in the U.S. that churches are healthy, in the sense both of having an active and growing (or at least stable) membership, and of living out their faith in a way that bolsters civility, peace and justice.

So, for the Catholic Church to become a stronger and lasting part of the solution—for it does already do much for the common good, but the trends of decline are undeniable— it has to be vital at the parish level and in the active participation of its lay members. I believe that won’t happen without the Church taking on board the kinds of suggestions that all the contributors to this blog have been advancing. Just going to church is not a magic bullet for building community. It matters how the people do community. The connection between Carney’s suggestions, which focus on building neighborly networks, and Hersh’s suggestions, which are to stop posting on Facebook and get out and do politics with your neighbors, are that building community requires developing face-to-face relationships.

Whether in the paradigm of community organizing, or small church communities or other methods, Catholics need to meet—for more than 60 minutes a week—and they have to be allowed and encouraged to make their parishes the communities they dream they can be.


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


In 2020, Pope Francis May Prove to Be a Great Friend to Islam

This was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 5.

The film The Two Popes, by writer Anthony McCarten and director Fernando Meirelles, sensitively and accurately captures the essential humanity of two very different popes: the cerebral and Eurocentric Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, and the instinctual globalist Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires and soon-to-be Pope Francis, Benedict’s successor.

Of course, effective drama depends on conflict, and reportage thrives on easily encapsulated polarities. All the more welcome, then, to see that Mr. McCarten and Mr. Meirelles eschew caricature and instead create a portrait of fully fleshed individuals of unlike backgrounds and divergent views, but with a shared faith and a genuine affection for each other.

Benedict, in his prior position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rarely spoke of other religious traditions and harbored some serious theological misgivings about ever-expanding doctrinal horizons when it came to ecumenical and interfaith agreements. As a priest and as a bishop, he had a very limited pastoral experience, spending most of his time as a professor in a German faculty of theology or as the orthodoxy invigilator in Rome.

Francis, by contrast, is a Jesuit with a well-honed predilection for a “culture of encounter” when it comes to the “other.” He spent the majority of his pre-pontifical days in active pastoral ministry.

Nowhere is the difference between the two popes more evident than in their approaches to Islam. Early in his papacy, in September 2006, Benedict gave his controversial University of Regensburg address, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” a dense work not given to soundbites or immediate comprehension by those outside the world of theological discourse (an audience Benedict did not have in mind).

By quoting 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, who spoke disparagingly of Mohammed, Benedict generated a media and political storm that saw formal denunciations by various world figures. Outraged Muslim spiritual leaders demanded a recantation, and protests and even violence occurred in some countries, leaving the Pope reeling, his curia in disarray and the Vatican press office scrambling to provide explanations.

Although Benedict made clear that the quotation did not in any way reflect his own view, the damage was done. As far away as Argentina, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was identified as saying that the Regensburg statements “will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years.” The Vatican was apoplectic, and by way of appeasement, the Archbishop’s spokesman, Guillermo Marco, took the hit and resigned. But as Francis biographer Paul Vallely makes clear, those in the know have no doubt that Father Marco reflected the views of his boss.

For Pope Francis, relations between the Catholic world and Islam became a spiritual and political priority. In part, this was an effort to continue the strategy of reparation that Benedict, post-Regensburg, had himself initiated. But it was also conceived as a more hands-on, person-to-person undertaking that relegated doctrinal and historical controversies to the side, opting for an encounter of like spirits rather than like minds.

To that end, in 2014, Francis invited both his close rabbi friend, Abraham Skorka, and his close Muslim friend, Omar Abboud, to accompany him to the Holy Land. He personally invited the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to his home in the Vatican to pray for peace. He travelled to countries racked by internecine warfare that played on Muslim-Catholic tribalism, the Philippines and the Balkans, interceding on behalf of peace and mutual understanding. In 2017, he visited Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the premiere seat of Sunni learning, and spent time with the Grand Imam, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, with whom two years later in Abu Dhabi he would sign the document “On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”

Importantly, his first trip as Pope was to the Italian island of Lampedusa to welcome migrants fleeing Africa – the majority of whom were Muslim – and to advocate on their behalf in a frightened and populist Europe.

He has annually washed the feet of Muslim women on Holy Thursday in imitation of Christ at the Last Supper.

Francis also beatified the Tibhirine Trappist monks who had sought to serve as a conduit between their Muslim neighbors in Algeria and the Catholic faith, not by proselytizing but by reverencing their traditions.

As 2020 begins, with the Middle East still in turmoil, the Islamic State poised for a resurgence and autocratic leaders flourishing in a time of frantic uncertainty, Francis may prove to be a great friend to Islam – like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, a channel of peace and light in a tortured time.


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


Change as Anthropological Conversion

Leading up to Christmas, David Gibson, in his December 13 blog here, noted how the logic of the Incarnation meant that God did not erase the messiness of our human condition but entered into it. In this time of urgent church reform, this means that we do well not to expect exclusively legal or mathematical clarity as the key to progress, but rather an attitude of discernment that takes its bearings from the baby in the manger.

As it happened, shortly after David’s post, on December 21, Pope Francis delivered his annual Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia under the rubric of “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1: 14). At the heart of this address was a reflection on the nature of change as the rationale for ecclesial reform, inclusive of the Vatican Curia itself, drawing in particular on Saint John Henry Newman. Francis quotes Newman’s well-known saying: “Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,” noting that clearly this does not mean change for change’s sake or following every new fashion, but rather the conviction that development and growth are a normal part of human life. We know that the baby in the manger is the one who “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was on him” (Lk 2: 40).

Francis goes on to note that for Newman, change was conversion and links this to the notion prominent in Vatican II of the pilgrim nature of Christian life, with new beginnings, displacements and changes so that, paradoxically, we need constantly “to change in order to remain faithful.” This applies not just to individual persons, but also to cultures. He insists that these days we live not just in an “era of change,” but in a “change of era”—a nonlinear, epochal time of change. This cannot mean approaching change as if it were a matter of simply putting on a new suit of clothes: something much more radical and interior needs to happen, “an anthropological conversion,” so that we need to change.

For this to happen in the incarnational mode that David Gibson refers to, Francis recommends the daring and patience that are part of a discernment of the signs of the times. This discernment respects tradition and is faithful to the depositum fidei but in a way that refuses to view tradition as static and the deposit of faith as somehow apart from the mystery of that personal encounter with Jesus Christ that always invites further growth. The aphorism of historian of Christianity Jaroslav Pelikan is apt: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I might add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

The stakes are high here, opposition to the vision of Francis takes both open and latent forms, and we don’t know who will prevail.

This drama of interpretative opposition around the issue of change takes place not just in the minds and hearts of individuals but also, and perhaps principally, in the communal life of the Church. It was evident at the recent Amazon Synod in Rome (October 2019). There, you will recall, at a meeting of over 180 bishops, with up to 80 lay people in attendance, after consultation with an estimated 87,000 people of the region, the synodal process yielded recommendations on care of the earth, the rights of indigenous people and the necessity in particular of an inculturated liturgy, ecclesial leadership of women in the context of a reflection on ministry mandated for men and women “in an equitable manner” and the ordination of married men to the priesthood. And so, after much discussion and some opposition (some 800 amendments were put to the final document and each paragraph had to be passed by over two-thirds of those present), as well as a kind of faux-controversy over the nature of indigenous statues, the Synod did, in fact, act very much in the spirit of discerning boldness and patience characteristic of the Christmas address of Francis and of the revolutionary shift to a synodal paradigm at the heart of his ecclesial reform.

The baby in the manger was visited by the wise men from the East. We travel from Christmas to Epiphany, and now through the rest of the year, liturgical, sacred and secular. The anthropological change that Francis refers to was analyzed by Bernard Lonergan in terms of a shift from classical to historical consciousness. Francis is well aware of the rigidity and fear that imprison some of us in a desire for mathematical and legal clarity in matters that do not admit of such simplification. For others of us, more apt to welcome change, perhaps the conversion may involve the insight that historical consciousness is not an ally of relativism and does allow of authentic objectivity.  At a less cerebral level, conversion involves the cultivation of an openness to the Spirit who may lead us in unforeseen directions and an openness as well, in loving challenge, to our often militantly rigid sisters and brothers. We live in exciting times!


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