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Entries from August 2020

Embodying Church Reform: A Tale of Two Documents

Imagine a sower going out to sow …’

In this case the seed is the theological vision and rhetoric of a synodal church, sown by Pope Francis. The crop will be the translation of this vision into a changed ecclesial culture and law, embodied in the nuts and bolts of the structures and institutions of parish and diocesan life, as well as of the universal church. The harvest is fruit of our encounter with Jesus Christ and the missionary impulse this generates to serve our world (bruised by COVID-19 and facing so many other challenges), bringing it the good news of God’s mercy and love.

There have been two striking documents recently published, evidence of this attempt to translate vision into concrete reality. The first focuses on the parish, as Brian Stiltner has often done on this site (05/21/2020). It emanates from the Vatican’s Congregation of the Clergy. The first half of the document is a worthy reiteration of the vision of Francis, combined with a genuinely fresh analysis of the changed contours of parish in our digital age, from something primarily local in a geographical sense to the transformation of time and space that virtual reality implies. Tellingly, however, absent from the account of the vision is mention of synodality itself, the evil of clericalism, and, albeit many references to the church as the People of God, omission of the centrality through baptism of the share of the faithful in the three-fold office of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet and king.

These absences are felt in the application, mainly through the lens of current Canon Law, of the broad vision to parish life. While there are many good proposals (including lay leadership of parishes), the general trend is to highlight the essential difference between ordained priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful, and to give clear priority to the former. In this sense the trenchant recent critiques of Catherine Clifford (08/20/20) and Tina Beattie (07/23/2020) on this site are justified: the document reveals a ‘priest-centered paradigm of church (Clifford) and is ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’ (Beattie), in that, for all its good intentions and indeed creative innovations, the predominant impression conveyed is one that is disappointingly deficient when it comes to lay, and particularly female, co-responsibility. This gives too much fodder to the still dominant clericalism of our church – not to mention to the ‘hierarchicalism’ that James Keenan has analyzed as the distinctively unaccountable form of episcopal clericalism.

A different, contrasting document comes from Australia. ‘The Light from the Southern Cross’ emanates from a committee of the Australian Bishops Conference and has to do with the translation of the vision of Francis into diocesan and parish life under the rubric of governance. The document highlights certain gospel and Catholic social teaching values and principles that must be integrated in this translation. These include subsidiarity, stewardship, synodality, dialogue reflection, co-responsibility and discernment. In addition, the document notes that we must take seriously '... the expectations of contemporary culture in terms of transparency, accountability, inclusion, participation and diversity’ (5.1.2). It notes that till now the authority of both bishops and priests has been excessively personalized and unaccountable.

There follow 86 concrete recommendations including: that these general principles be reflected at every level of diocesan and parish life; that the process of ad limina episcopal visits to Rome be made more transparent; that all the People of God, including, of course, lay people, have a say in the process for appointing bishops; that women be given real leadership and decision-making powers, including the selection and formation of seminarians, as well as the placement of priests in parishes; that lay people, and especially women, participate in the proceedings of the Conference of Bishops in Australia; that lay advisers, including, of course, women, attend councils of priests’ and consultors’ meetings; that each diocese  be obliged to have a diocesan pastoral council with lay members; that within five years of the Plenary Council (scheduled for 2020-21, but postponed because of COVID-19) each diocese should have a synod, and every 10 years after that; that all parishioners have at least an annual opportunity to share their ideas in a transparent synodal process within the parish; and that all parishioners should have a say when there is any question of the reorganization of parish boundaries/clusters. You get the drift!

What is perhaps surprising about the Australian document is that, within the same restrictions of Canon Law (with some minor modifications) and a fairly conservative approach to church teaching (no explicit challenge, for example, to the ban of female ordination), this document manages so well to capture the spirit of Pope Francis in the letter of its text. It’s as if because they wanted to be inclusive, they found a way.

Of course, it is true that the Vatican Document, although not of high authoritative standing, was formally approved by Pope Francis, whereas the Australian document has yet to be discerned by the Australian Bishops. But as Pope Francis has often insisted ‘… the great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but from the periphery’ (Spadaro conversation with Pope Francis on religious life, La Civilta Cattolica I, 2014). I have already suggested on this site that most progress has been made around the cultural realization of church reform – an enhanced public space to dialogue and debate openly. It now seems to me that the more tedious but so necessary reform of structures and institutions is also under way.

‘… others fell on rich soil and produced their crops, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty. Listen, anyone who has ears’ (Mt 13: 9).


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


Being Church in a Time of Pandemic

Images of a priest-centered church have been on vivid display following the onset of COVID-19, when public health and government officials issued directives to shelter at home and severely limited public gatherings, including public worship. The reflex of many pastors was to livestream the eucharist from the splendid isolation of empty churches – some presiding over the strange specter of row upon row of cutout photos of their absent parishioners. Are they solitary heroes or tragic jesters? Did they not know that religious television networks already broadcast the Mass every day? Could they not envision another way of reaching out to their flock in a time of need?

Anyone watching might easily conclude that the church’s life and prayer is an entirely priest-centered event. The image of the lone celebrant betrays the real meaning of the liturgy, which is the action of a gathered people. While these priests may be acting with the best of intentions, their actions reveal an inadequate sense of the liturgy and of church. Inexplicably, their pastoral reflex is to focus inward, not outward to the daily struggles of a wider community. Rather than passively watching the prayer of a lone celebrant, might the present moment not be an occasion for communities to gather for online bible study, for the Liturgy of the Word, or the Liturgy of the Hours, for sharing our struggles and needs and bearing them together?

Even now, when some regions are experiencing a respite from the pandemic and limited gatherings in places of worship are once again permitted – in my home province of Ontario gatherings of up to 50 people are authorized indoors with obligatory masks, physical distancing, and hand hygiene – it remains impossible to gather as a whole community. The most vulnerable – in particular, the more senior members of the parish – continue advisedly to shelter at home. It will not be possible to gather as one for the foreseeable future.

What might these images and experiences teach us about what it means to be church? The most basic definition of church is ekklesia, the gathered assembly. That assembly is not an abstract idea but a concrete community of flesh and blood people. That we are unable to gather – even for the sake of a greater good: the health and safety of those same people – touches at the heart of who we are and what it means to be church. We are diminished when we cannot gather and no amount of virtual or “spiritual communion” can make up for that loss.

We are a sacramental people. Our faith tells us that God comes to meet us in the taste, touch and smell of quotidian material reality: in cleansing water, in a loaf and a cup that are shared, in the laying on of hands, in the fragrant balm of healing oil and in the kiss of peace. In a most sinister turn, these very things have now become potential “vectors of transmission,” threatening the life and health they were meant to signify and nourish. Could our self-imposed fast be teaching us their true worth, carving out in us a truer hunger and thirst? Might these same signs and gestures – as we perform them daily at home, alone or in family gatherings – yet become symbols of divine love and care? Following the logic of incarnation, our common life is to be a living sign of God’s design for humanity.

It is painfully ironic that, just at the moment when the global Catholic community is awakening to the urgent need to repair its structures and practices of communion, its ability to gather as one is sorely tested by external forces beyond its control. Even before he had fully grasped the systemic nature and extent of the abuse crisis across the global church, Pope Francis invited Catholics to embark on a project of pastoral conversion. To accomplish this, he sought to revive the practice of synodality in church governance, calling for the creation of indispensable spaces for all of God’s people to come together for free and open conversation at every level of ecclesial life as they discern the way forward in their common journey in faith. In the fall of 2018, responding to the emergence of the true extent of the crisis of abuse, Francis addressed a letter to the people of God and observed: “Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.” Without structures that gather together all the baptized, the life of the church is diminished. These structures of participation are essential not only to the healing of the church in the present moment, but to its continuing vitality and mission.

The ability to mobilize the many gifts of the baptized is being severely challenged by the pandemic. As we hunker down and practice physical distancing, the danger of falling back into a priest-centered paradigm of church hangs over Pope Francis’ project of renewal. This was confirmed by the Instruction for the Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community emanating from the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy in July. Thankfully, the bishops of Germany did not let it go by unchecked. They did not hesitate to call out the inadequacies of the document’s outmoded image of the parish community centered on the priest, one that disvalues the real contributions of the many gifted and qualified co-workers in ministry and the co-responsibility of the baptized. The German bishops have been actively walking with their people, discerning and harnessing their creative energies.

The pandemic has exposed in no uncertain terms the fault lines and gaping inequities of human societies, including the failure to protect and care for the elderly, refugees, migrant workers, the precariously employed, the poor and the vulnerable – all with a deeply destabilizing effect. At a time when the global structures of human community are faltering and in serious decline, the world needs more than ever the witness of a community united in its effort to honor the dignity and worth of every human person no matter their race, color or social condition, to serve the common good and live as one with God’s creation. It will no doubt require great ingenuity to overcome the challenges raised by COVID-19, but let us not be thrown off course as we discern together the shape of the church to come.


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


Catholics and Cancel Culture

Catholics watching the intensifying debate over “cancel culture” could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the sudden interest in a phenomenon we have been dealing with, and fighting about, for decades or longer. How do you say “Been there, done that” in Latin?  Drawing lines around orthodoxy and authority has been part of the DNA of Christianity since the beginning, as evidenced by arguments over Gentile converts at the Council of Jerusalem and Christ’s nature at the Council of Nicaea.

Inclusion often won out, as with the mission to the Gentiles and the Donatism controversy. Then again, Galileo. The modern era and the reaction of a defensive (sometimes slipping into paranoid) mindset of Fortress Catholicism had the church hunting for heretics more than converts, and modern means of communication made “delation” – such a polite term for such an underhanded practice – even easier. Pius X was a master of the art, as conservatives like him tended to see Modernists under every bed. During the reign of John Paul II and his righthand man, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the concerns often focused on what was going on in every bed, and the culture of denunciation flourished.

Social media has provided a hyper-efficient means for anyone who wants to de-platform or outright cancel Catholics they find objectionable, and now most anyone with an Internet connection can be a tinpot inquisitor. The shift has been so swift that we now have a pope who is the object of Catholic cancel culture rather than its driver.

Yet the Catholic Church under Pope Francis may, in fact, have a lesson for everyone in this debate, from the heresy hunters on the right who dominate cancel culture – in the church and in society – to the emerging progressive Puritans on the left.

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has slowed the Roman machinery of inquisition and denunciation almost to a halt. He has instead preached a message of inclusion and outreach, accompaniment and discernment, and he has saved his harshest words for those in the hierarchy who judge others while sparing themselves. At the same time, he has not silenced or censured even senior church leaders who disagree with him, despite their machinations against him or their pseudo-schismatic levels of criticism of his papacy.

This reflects an approach that Francis spelled out early on in his opening speech to the 2014 synod at the Vatican. Francis told the bishops from around the world that the tone of their discussions should be characterized by the Greek term parrhesia – literally meaning to “say everything” or, in this context, to speak freely and boldly. “A general condition is this,” the pope said. “Speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This you cannot say.’ ”

“You need to say all that you feel with parrhesia,” he continued. “And, at the same time, you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.”

This was a sea change for the church, as Francis well knew (he himself never forgot having his own talk for a synod years earlier censored by Vatican officials). It’s also a good way to think about our current debates, or, rather, our debates about debates.

A recent Twitter thread by Teresa Bejan, a professor of political theory at Oxford and author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, prompted these reflections as she invoked parrhesia as the hermeneutical lens for the cancel culture controversy.

“Parrhesiastic speech is thus ‘free’ in the sense of being freely or frankly spoken, without fear or favor towards one’s audience and how they might react,” Bejan wrote. The opposite of parrhesia “isn‘t just silence, but *unfree* speech – flattery, hypocrisy, dishonestly telling the audience what they want to hear and only that. A society without parrhesia is thus a society of ‘yes’-men ruled by an overwhelming norm of conformity.” That’s an observation that ought to ring painfully true for those who have followed the courtier culture that marks ecclesiastical dynamics.

What Bejan highlights, however, is that parrhesia is not simply about establishing and defending a legal right. Cancel culture is, in fact, a debate about culture, that is, a debate involving people and their sensibilities. “One also needs to be able to *trust* one’s audience to be tolerant when it comes to things they don’t want to hear,” Bejan continued. “[T]he legal right to free speech is insufficient to protect parrhesia, and parrhesia is valuable. We must therefore cultivate a culture that tolerates disagreeable speech … We must do this *not* because we value the disagreeable speech as such, let alone its content. But because the alternative is a brutalizing and conformist culture of fear in which the weak, vulnerable, and unpopular suffer most.”

Francis’ promotion of genuine synodality is key to building such a culture in the ecclesial context. Everyone can speak his or her mind at synods; propositions are adopted with a supermajority vote, and even those propositions that do not pass are included for the record. A synod is not a winner-take-all, zero-sum game. But there are other Catholic practices that can also move us beyond the temptation to cancel and de-platform, such as the well-known, oft-ignored Ignatian presupposition “that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it.”

Also critical is the acceptance of legitimate dissent; it’s a noble tradition within the church that was largely erased in past decades. Dissent not only allows the church to breathe and to grow but it serves as a key pressure valve to let off steam and foster healthy conversations instead of explosive arguments. The alternative is what we see so often today, a “dubia” culture of catechism Catholicism in which a believer (or even a pope) must respond with reductive “yes-or-no” answers. A wrong answer, or no answer, equals heresy, or schism. Exactly who is the heretic or the schismatic then becomes a matter of further debate.

A truly ecclesial culture must also allow room for mistakes, incorrect answers and a gradual growth in understanding – by all sides. This means practicing of the fundamental virtues of forgiveness, mercy and charity. They ought to be central to the Christian life, but they are too often missing in Catholic culture today – and they are practically banished from the discourse of our secular puritanism as principles are placed above people. Yes, the church has something to teach here. But first we must learn.


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


Uncertainty Searching for Certainty

How many times do we hear that this period of pandemic brings us face to face with incomprehensible uncertainties? We yearn for a “normal,” yet our “new normal” continues to be imbedded in uncertainty. So Catholics might take comfort in that July 2020 marks 150 years since the promulgation of the dogma on Papal infallibility; hence profound certainty for many: the Pope can declare infallible truth. Although the dogma involves uncertainty (when and under what circumstances infallibility comes into play), nonetheless, this is a dogma of certainty and certainty is what many crave at this moment. Even pious Catholics yearn for the certainty of physical consumption of the Eucharist rather than a livestreamed eucharistic celebration with Spiritual Communion. Certainty is a highly valued commodity in a time of uncertainty.

But this time of uncertainty is teaching us valuable lessons. An important one contradicts our yearning for certainty. COVID reminds us that we are truly frail beings. Some of us may live an illusion of comfort and security, but ultimately, uncertainty is what defines our lives. Illness, disability, death inform  everyone’s life. Even more significantly, uncertainty dwells at the core of our faith. It is because “we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12) that we believe rather than know; we have faith—not science. Because of our faith, we recognize that we only bear the “firstfruits” and so “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption” (Romans: 23). We do not live in the end times, but we are an eschatological people: we wait in uncertainty of the end, while in hope of the coming glory.

 And we wait—in uncertainty. Yet this isn’t to be decried. St. Paul says: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Uncertainty is a manifestation of our weakness and frailty. It’s a space to learn the divine presence in us and for us. The ascetics have consistently taught that recognizing our frailty is to admit our complete dependence on the Spirit. Could this be the time to recognize our need for God, to surrender the mirage of control we have created in our lives and in the Church? Don’t we desperately need to recognize that we’re on the way to glory, not there already? And doesn’t that mean that we need to rediscover the Spirit moving within us, through whom we can come to truth, not with certainty but with patient anticipation? Are we able to recreate a Church that rests in anticipation, rather than certainty?

For too long we have succumbed to the temptation of certainty. Yet, the experience of not knowing, being unsure, is what opens us to God’s gift of Love: A Love that calls forth love. Love is always tenuous, uncertain, yet real. COVID is a reminder that, as we rush to our churches, rush to receive the Eucharist, we dare not ignore the man on the side of the road, left for dead. In wanting to proclaim the Gospel, we dare not forget that we have no greater claim on the truth than others. In rebuilding our Church, let’s remember that we are sinners, even though called to holiness. Whether we are traditionalists, conservatives, liberals or progressives, bishops, priests, religious or lay people, if we discard our penchant for speaking with certainty, we will hear each other more clearly and recognize we share the same Spirit. If we can embrace our frailty, we’ll be able to rejoice in gifts that the Spirit hosts in us. We can allow ourselves and others to journey in hope, sometimes journeying well, sometimes not so well, but always moving toward the Light. Nobody has all the answers; nobody possesses the Truth. He is the Truth and His Church is built on the one who three times denied Him! So, let’s remember the words cited by Pope John XXIII in Ad Petri cathedram: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” And as Paul said: “the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor. 13:13).


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