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Entries from October 2020

When Did We See You, Lord?

The plan had been to write a post comparing the place of God and religion in Canadian and American elections, a topic that might have ended up making me sound like a smug neighbor to the north. (Full confession: these days, I probably am.) The idea was to talk about the irony of Canada being far more comfortable than the United States regarding institutional references to God while also being far less likely to involve religion in federal politics.

While the Constitution of the United States contains no overt reference to God, in keeping with the oft-cited principle of the separation of church and state, the Canadian Declaration of Rights and Freedoms states clearly in its preamble that Canada “is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”

Your national anthem celebrates military victory and profound love of the symbolism of the stars and stripes, while ours asks that “God keep our land glorious and free.” (The French transition goes even farther, with a reference to the cross.)

A friendly debate would likely raise other good-natured comparisons, but in Canada, which has two Catholics, a Sikh and a Jew as leaders of federal parties, God is not employed in the same way in our national elections as God is in the United States, where both federal parties are led by Christians; there are, for example, no unsanctioned photo ops with holy books outside places of worship north of the border.

Furthermore, while I’ve been known to fire off a letter or two of complaint to my local chancery office, I have never been subjected to a homily directing me how to vote, as has happened more than once in this American election year. Campaigning in Canada usually stops at the edge of church property and is almost never taken into the pulpit. As the most recent version of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ election guide demonstrates, the emphasis is on themes such as working to build a better society or the formation of conscience rather than on specific issues, and Canadian clergy, in my albeit limited experience, tend to respect that when at the ambo.

This had been the plan. But then I watched the final presidential debate last week and my heart was sundered by Donald Trump’s cavalier approach to the migrant children housed in detention centers and, in particular, to the 545 children whose parents cannot be found.

“They’re so well taken care of,” Trump blithely said of the children now isolated from their parents. “They’re in facilities that are so clean.” 

At that moment, the notion of rather light-hearted comparisons became insensitive because I was reminded yet again of the peril of Catholics, no matter where they live, being single-issue voters.

My frustration over abortion as the preeminent election issue for Catholics, a battle long familiar to me as a Canadian Catholic voter, had been growing throughout this American election campaign given the frequent assertions I have stumbled across claiming that Donald J. Trump is a great friend to the prolife movement. And before anyone lectures me, I’m a mother of four who also lost three pregnancies. I need no lectures on when life begins. I do, however, believe that our church needs a fulsome discussion on what it means to be prolife.

There is no doubt that in a church that reverences life from conception to natural death, abortion is a key concern. But while our gaze has been trained on this one issue, look what has happened in other issues relating to life—and consider how we could help.

As of this writing, for example, nearly a quarter of a million Americans have died of coronavirus, with experts predicting as many as 400,000 thousand deaths in total by the end of the year. In contrast, there were 862,000 abortions in 2017, the last year for which figures are available, tallies that are far closer than many would recognize or admit.

Reducing the number of abortions performed is a complicated question, requiring not a legal response so much as an economic one that looks to issues ranging from full employment and adequate health care to affordable housing and accessible daycare. Abortion will likely always be with us whether legalized or not. The question is what we can do to prevent it.

But think how many lives could have been saved— quite easily— if, in the pandemic we are experiencing, people embraced the simple safeguards of hand washing, social distancing and masks. It has been suggested that a near-universal embrace of mask use could save more than 100,000 lives in the period between this past September and February 2021. A simple weapon with a significant win.

But conservative Catholics, a group particularly likely to describe themselves as prolife, are big supporters of Donald Trump, a president who has repeatedly mocked the use of masks and hidden behind his privilege rather than acknowledge publicly the dangers of this deadly virus, in spite of having freely discussed it with Bob Woodward in the now-notorious interview.

While most church leaders have been good at requiring masks for those within church walls, some have joined in the mockery, and even Pope Francis has disappointed on this point, appearing far too frequently without a mask, setting a terrible example.

Consider, too, the question of health care in the United States and the battle over the Affordable Care Act. When the Supreme Court hears the challenge to the ACA next month, millions of Americans could be at risk of losing their health care, depending on how the court rules. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that leaving millions of people struggling to find health care in the midst of a pandemic is a profound question of protecting life, one that every Catholic should be concerned about and consider while voting.

The list of prolife issues for voters should be lengthy. For example, more than half of all American states still have the death penalty on the books. As Pope Francis makes clear in Fratelli tutti, the death penalty is not only “inadmissible,” but a reality Catholics should work to end. Being prolife requires us to embrace even the most challenging of people, the most upsetting of situations and to learn the true meaning of compassion because all life, no matter how messy, how challenging, is a gift reflective of the love of God.

But it is the migrant children trapped at the border who have my attention these days. It is they who remind me of what we should mean when we talk about protecting life. We can get sidelined by debates over which administration had what policy regarding migrants at the border. We can digress by laying blame at the feet of the parents. But in the meantime, the children are suffering through no fault of their own, and if we choose to remain silent, as individuals or as a church, we are complicit.

We exist as a church because we believe in the life, death and resurrection of a migrant child. If we really believe, we need to be comfortable with the answers Christ can offer us when we ask: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?”

Do we choose our life battles by head count or do we work on many fronts at once to save lives? Only when we work to protect all life when we see it threatened can we then describe ourselves as a community that is truly prolife.

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

Forming Consciences, Not Faithful Citizenship

The nation has learned many things this election cycle. We have learned that President Donald Trump’s narcissism is total, standing firm even in the face of a pandemic. We have learned that former Vice President Joe Biden is no longer as sharp as he once was, but he is nobody’s fool and nobody’s figurehead. We have learned difficult lessons about the fragility of democracy and the power of demagoguery. We have learned that social media brings curses as well as blessings.

This election also holds lessons for the Catholic Church in the United States, the most obvious of which is that the Catholic bishops of the country need to scrap the current text of their quadrennial document on voting, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” usually shortened to “Faithful Citizenship.”  They need to start anew before the 2024 election.

At last November’s plenary meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gave final approval to a deeply flawed text. They had already decided to retain the underlying document from 2016, which was the same document they adopted in 2008. That is to say, it’s not magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI, whose one social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, was issued in 2009. As in previous cycles, the bishops decided to add a new introductory note to the text.

The introductory note is a disaster. For years, those bishops who think the only issue that should command the attention of Catholic voters is abortion had tried to raise its significance in the text. Back in the early years of this century, they had borrowed the concept of “intrinsic evil” and improperly applied it to considerations of voting. I say “improperly” because that an evil is “intrinsic” does not tell us whether or not it is grave or whether it is a properly concern of civil authority. For example, lying is intrinsically evil, but civil authorities only criminalize it when it subverts justice as in cases of fraud or perjury. Telling your child she is the most intelligent child in the world or that he is the most beautiful child in the world is not criminal. Masturbation is an intrinsic evil. Do the bishops think it should be criminalized?

Last year, for the first time, the “abortion-only” crowd succeeding in having the drafting committee include the statement that abortion was “our preeminent priority.” Of course, the bishops had no way of knowing that COVID-19 would become the priority for most voters, and indeed, that the president’s failed response to the pandemic would become the principal life issue for most voters. The bishops did not explain how abortion could be “preeminent” when the document later states that many other issues are “equally sacred.” If they are equal, abortion is not preeminent or, better to say, it may be a preeminent issue, but not the preeminent issue. Nonetheless, the bishops ignored the contradiction and kept the adjective.

Some bishops who supported the inclusion of “preeminent” were forced to admit that their logic was formed by political, not theological, assessments. Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, OR, said, “We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court.” Sample had no theological justification, only a reading of the political winds, and he read them wrong.

“Preeminent” has been misused since because it was intended to be misused. Bishops and conservative Catholic commentators routinely argue that because abortion is “preeminent” it is therefore “determinative,” when the teaching in the underlying document, to say nothing of the teaching of recent popes, all indicate that no issue can be pronounced determinative as a matter of theological teaching, because voters must make a host of prudential judgments in deciding how to cast their ballots.

The whole effort to prioritize abortion and make it determinative for conscientious Catholic voters fails for another reason. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis wrote, “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not replace them.” (#37) Telling Catholic voters which issues they must prioritize is an attempt to replace, not form, the consciences of Catholic voters. It defines “faithful citizenship” far too narrowly and implies those who do not follow their lead are somehow not faithful.

The emphasis the bishops place on religious liberty in the introductory note is similarly misplaced. I consider religious liberty one of the founding fathers’ great gifts to the nation. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae, in turn, shared that gift with the world, albeit constructed on a different philosophic foundation from that employed by America’s founders. But the religious liberty campaign mounted by the bishops’ conference has become absurd. In recent weeks, fears for the future of religious liberty have been stoked as a part of the effort to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court Justice. Her confirmation will mean that six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Roman Catholics and a seventh was raised Catholic. How many justices do we need before we feel our religious liberty is secure?

The person of Donald Trump has also exposed another flaw in the document: It emphasizes issues over character and competence. Voters select a person, not a platform, when they go into the ballot box. Boston College Professor Cathleen Kaveny has been arguing this point for years, most prominently and comprehensively in her 2016 book Prophecy Without Contempt. In fact, if the bishops do decide to scrap “Faithful Citizenship” and start over, they should make Kaveny their principal theological and legal adviser.

If the bishops want a new document, they also have a text with which to start. In his recent talk at St. Mary’s College, “Voting as a Faithful Disciple,” published by the National Catholic Reporter, Bishop Robert McElroy provides a thoughtful, balanced and theologically sound alternative to the problematic “Faithful Citizenship.” No one can gainsay McElroy’s fierce opposition to legalized abortion, but he does not allow that opposition to cloud out all other considerations, even among life issues.

It is an interesting parlor game to speculate how different the Church’s witness in the public square would have been if the USCCB had stuck with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” approach, rather than its prioritization of abortion. But politics is not about parlor games, it is about power, and bishops, of all people, should recognize the dangers—moral, theological and institutional—of reducing religion to politics. If they commit to rethinking how they can better fulfill their responsibility as teachers of the faith, I can’t predict whether they will come up with something better or not. But we will know they are on the right track if, having junked the current text and forged something new, it comes to be known in shorthand as “Forming Consciences” not “Faithful Citizenship.” Bishops are not, and should not pretend to be, political pundits. That is one of the principal lessons of the 2020 election cycle.

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

Look to the Gospels for Answers

In 1969, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, theologian Henri de Lubac gave an address at St. Louis University entitled “L’Église dans la crise actuelle” (“The Church in the current crisis.”) De Lubac addressed at length the divisions facing the church, which were particularly stark for his audience in the United States. Following the 1968 release of Humanae Vitae, American Catholics’ U.S. political preferences quickly found a corollary in church politics. If you voted Republican, the logic went, you generally supported Humanae Vitae and its ban on birth control and preferred the old Latin rite. If you were a democrat, you opposed Humanae Vitae and preferred the new Mass.

It’s a division that in many ways persists to this day in the U.S. church, having been exacerbated by social media, well-funded media outlets pushing their visions of the church and high-profile Catholic voices ceaselessly offering hot takes on current ecclesial and secular news, rarely straying from their established party lines. Meanwhile, Catholics in the pews continue to self-segregate, largely along racial and political lines. All this has even led to speculation about a possible American schism.

In response to the fractures he saw growing, de Lubac points to one figure as a possible antidote: That figure was Madeleine Delbrêl, the French social worker, poet and mystic who spent the decades after her conversion to Catholicism working in the militantly atheist Communist village of Ivry-sur-Seine, outside Paris. Through difficult years of running social programs from a lay Catholic community connected to her parish, and later for the local, mostly Communist government, Debrêl became known as a bridge-builder between Catholics and Communists.

In that St. Louis University speech, de Lubac describes Delbrêl as an example of the kind of simple, authentic Christian living and spirituality that rivals “the refined purity of certain cerebral spiritualities in whose name ordinary Christianity—the only one familiar to the saints and to the ordinary Christians for the past 20 centuries—is criticized.” He sees the intellectualized liberal-conservative divide in the church as a distraction from true Christianity: simple faith.

In his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis offers a similarly humble response to what he has taken to calling the “pandemics” that divide our world—not only Covid-19, but the pandemics of racism, xenophobic populism, exploitative neoliberal economics, environmental degradation and so on. In a break in tone from Francis’ previous encyclical Laudato Si’, Fratelli Tutti acknowledges not only the urgent need to rectify our relationships with the earth and one another, but also that our world is progressing away from, not toward, this goal of reconciliation. Rather than coming together, Francis sees the coronavirus pandemic driving us farther apart.

After laying out these issues in his first chapter, ominously titled “Dark Clouds Over a Closed World,” Francis devotes his entire second chapter an extended reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan, through which he interprets our social ills. He asks his readers to reflect on which character they most represent. Are we the robbers? The wounded man? Are we the priest and Levite hurrying by someone on the side of the road, unwilling to give our time? Or are we the Good Samaritan, who prioritizes the man over whatever plans he had? Furthermore, are our institutions places like the inn where the Samaritan takes the man to rest and be cared for? As Francis points out, the Samaritan had transportation to offer, but no place to offer the man rest and medical treatment. Do we have institutions that will help us care for others when our personal abilities fall short?

It is significant that Francis points first to the Gospel to examine how we should respond to social ills, rather than looking to the tried and true documents of Catholic Social Teaching. As my “Inside the Vatican” podcast co-host Gerard O’Connell likes to say, Pope Francis doesn’t think you need to be a theologian or scholar to have a Christian outlook on the world. It is enough that you crack open your Bible and take a clear-eyed look at the world around you.

This is the kind of simple spirituality that de Lubac praised in Madeleine Delbrêl, whose personal Bible, particularly the Gospels, was packed with layers of notes. It is what drove her to pack up her posh life in the intellectual salons of 1920s Paris and move to a working-class town where Catholic and Communist children threw stones at one another in the street.

Reading the Gospel with a clear-eyed view toward the world is what led the women in Sr. Maura Clarke’s Bible study in Nicaragua to fight for justice in their country.

It’s the ordinary Christianity that, de Lubac says, is “the only one familiar to the saints.”

In Fratelli Tutti, all of Francis’ high-level concrete recommendations to shift the world from a culture of division and confrontation to one of encounter and dialogue—including a reform of the United Nations, a global fund to end hunger, worldwide denuclearization, abolition of the death penalty—start with reading the world through the lens of the Gospel.

Faced with ecclesial rifts that divide ordinary Catholics from their families and even Vatican officials from the pope, paired in the U.S. with a shameful degree of secular political partisanship, Pope Francis offers a simple solution: Tolle, lege. Take up the Gospel, look at the world around you, and see where God is leading.

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.

China and Three Catholics

It is clear that relations with mainland China are fraught. The geopolitical situation is hazardous and seemingly insurmountable. Diplomacy has collapsed into shouting matches; polemical argument supplants reasoned argument.

But there may be an avenue we haven’t explored, and it is an unusual recourse.

What do Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai, the owner of Next Digital and Apple Daily and the most prominent critic of mainland China and its various satraps, as well as Baron Christopher Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University and the last British Governor of Hong Kong who was instrumental in establishing the “two systems, one country” policy ensuring thereby the peaceful transfer of the former colony in 1997, have in common?

They are all three committed and practicing Catholics.

Does that matter in the current geopolitical orbit? In the ordinary run of things, no, but these are not ordinary times and the Vatican has taken notice, and long before the current dustup.

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, the able polyglot Pietro Cardinal Parolin, and the prelate in charge of Relations with States, the Liverpudlian Archbishop Paul Gallagher, have been involved in sensitive negotiations with Beijing that have created turbulent waves among many in the hierarchy. But they are not only architects of a new policy with regard to mainland China, they have been doing it at the urgent behest of their boss, Pope Francis.

Well before strains between Beijing and Hong Kong reached its present level with the implementation of a new security law that is draconian in its content and execution, with protests and arrests a daily occurrence, the imposition of sanctions, the revocation of extradition treaties and an unchecked intemperance of rhetoric on all sides, the Vatican has been working almost since the inception of the Francis papacy to find some common diplomatic ground.

The Vatican’s diplomatic corps is the oldest in Europe. Its training ground, the Pontificia Academia Ecclesiastica, guarantees a sure training in languages, law, polity and the finer points of diplomatic etiquette. The Vatican’s ambassadors do their job with a class and efficiency that is a model for their secular counterparts.

These papal ambassadors do what all ambassadors do: they listen, monitor, avoid drawing attention to themselves, make recommendations to head office on the Tiber and enforce Vatican directives when instructed. And they have been silent players on the international scene for a long time. For instance, negotiations in 1978 around a dispute between Chile and Argentina over contesting claims of sovereignty with the Beagle Islands Channel that were successful in avoiding war were brokered by the Vatican of John Paul II. Francis and his team were major players in the rapprochement between Havana and Washington that occurred in 2016 during the Obama Administration.

They have demonstrated that they have the chops. As the battle rages among all the contesting parties engaging the Vatican may prove profitable.

But a major caveat rests with the increasingly public disputes around the Vatican’s quiet discussions with Beijing. To ensure the reconciliation of the “two” Catholic Churches in China—the Underground Church that has been systematically persecuted and has remained fiercely loyal to Rome and the official Catholic Church that has acknowledged the rights of Beijing to appoint bishops and regulate Catholic institutions for political fidelity—the Vatican has had to make accommodations that Francis’s critics find reprehensible. And some of these critics carry significant clout.

Lord Barnes, a self-described progressive Catholic and very pro-Francis, has publicly called into question Rome’s silence on the current uproar, cautioned that its naivete regarding Beijing’s intentions may compromise its international standing on this issue, with the result that many Chinese Catholics feel abandoned. These sentiments are much more vigorously articulated by the former Cardinal Archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, but there is no indication that the Vatican will interrupt its negotiations nor generate a reversal of policy.

Persuaded that ospolitik, the diplomatic approach of Agostino Cardinal Casaroli and Pope Paul VI when negotiated with the Soviet regimes of Eastern Europe, is the best way of ensuring the survival of the church, Francis is out of sync with his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who rejected ospolitik and opted for a more confrontational style.

The jury is out on which approach will prove most successful in dealing with China, but what is clear is that Francis’s diplomacy is designed to avoid the resurgence of a global Cold War, enshrine fundamental respect for religious freedom without repudiating the values and principles of a political system at variance with its own and keep dialogue open. There are dangers in this, as Lord Barnes has made clear, but the Vatican is a long-term player and has included the costs in its calculus.

Given what Lam, Lai, Patten and the Vatican have in common—their faith—this may provide the opportunity for another behind the scenes diplomatic initiative.

Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s and president of Corpus Christi Colleges, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.


Flannery O’Connor on the Catholic Campus

In 2017, I listened to a fascinating interview on the TED Radio Hour with the artist, Titus Kaphar, in which he movingly recalls his experience of taking his two sons to the Brooklyn Natural History Museum, when the infamous Teddy Roosevelt Statue still sat outside the main entrance. When his sons asked why the former president was able to sit atop a horse while the neighboring Native American and the African American had to walk, he found it difficult to answer. But the question lead to an idea: Perhaps one approach to problematic public artworks is to give contemporary artists the opportunity to “make new monuments that stand next to these old monuments and force those old monuments into a dialogue.”

I have often thought of Kaphar’s argument in light of the recent controversies over this past summer regarding other public works of art, honors and memorials; as readers doubtlessly know, these debates erupted anew because of the Black Lives Matter protests, spurred by the senseless and tragic death of George Floyd. Often, there really was not much of a debate for many of us; symbols and memorials of Confederate leaders or European Colonizers should have long ago been torn down for their affirmation of a racist past that further entrenched white privilege. But what about honoring people whose memory is more ambiguous and complicated?

Such a question has recently been raised regarding Flannery O’Connor, probably the most esteemed American Catholic author. The immediate cause was Loyola University Maryland’s decision in July to rename the student dormitory, Flannery O’Connor Residence Hall, after the remarkable Sister Thea Bowman in response to a student petition. This petition was inspired by Paul Elie’s article, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?,” in the June 22 issue of The New Yorker, itself stemming in part from Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s excellent, recent book on O’Connor and race, Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor. Needless to say, many O’Connor readers were not happy at Loyola’s decision, and a petition crafted by O’Donnell (and sent to Loyola’s president, Brian Linnane, SJ) was signed by such literary luminaries as Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez, Ron Hansen and Mary Gordon, along with dozens of O’Connor scholars and readers. Basically, the controversy boils down to this: Do you honor a Catholic writer who acknowledged that she was born with white privilege, who exposed the intrinsic evil of racism in her fiction and who strived in her personal life to confront her own racism, but who also laced her letters with racist jokes and displayed little interest in becoming close acquaintances and friends with African-Americans?

Time for a full disclosure: After some hesitation, I signed this petition. My hesitation was similar to Cathleen Kaveny’s defense of Loyola’s president: Linnane’s decision was taken out of pastoral considerations for students of color, particularly amongst students who find themselves living in this dorm. As a person who has lived his entire life with white privilege, I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in O’Connor Hall as a student of color. Yet despite this hesitation, I decided to sign the petition for various reasons. First, the case of O’Connor is complicated considering her critique both of her personal racism and the racism of her segregated South; certainly, the issued deserved a greater debate than the timeframe allowed. Second, although the names of our buildings and public artworks on Catholic universities and colleges deserve careful reflection, one wonders at what point such discussions consume time better spent on tackling the truly difficult tasks of addressing structural racism in America, such as pedagogical training in the classroom to address white privilege, scholarships for students of color and sustained efforts to recruit and hire more faculty and staff of color.

Moreover, another reason I signed the petition is because O’Donnell, reminiscent of Kaphar’s argument, suggests that Loyola should honor both Bowman and O’Connor. “What could be more fitting,” she writes, “than to see these two Southern Catholic women’s names appear side by side, one white, one black, both pioneers of the faith who employed their talents and imaginations in the service of God, their Church and the greater good?” For my part, I’m not suggesting that we honor both Bowman and O’Connor by ascribing their names to the same dormitory; as Kaveny remarks, a student residence may not be the most appropriate place to honor O’Connor. But there is more than one way to honor a great Catholic writer, whether that be through an academic center, a statue or a painting, to name just a few possibilities. To honor both Bowman and O’Connor together on a Catholic campus (however that would be done) would be in the spirit of Kaphar’s argument that our public honors and artwork need to be in conversation with one another, one correcting the other, thereby compelling us to live in the ambivalent tension of our history.

Perhaps we should be even bolder on our Catholic campuses and consider giving space for non-Catholic voices to critique elements of our own tradition. What if all the buildings and honors named after Thomas Aquinas had a nearby Jewish or Muslim voice to counter his own anti-Jewish, Islamophobic writings? Imagine the teaching opportunities such dialogues would create. Kaphar remarks that “We can just change the name and pretend like that decision was never made, and no one actually has to take responsibility.” Or he says, we can strive to “create a space for conversation.” Are Catholic schools courageous enough to have this difficult conversation in the very structure of our campus?

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