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Entries from February 2021

The Curse of Clericalism

In just one week in January, it seemed as if all the grief and shame was unleashed again. Every media outlet was covering one story after another about the Catholic Church and the cumulative effect was dispiriting and demoralizing.

There was the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which declined to hear a final appeal from the Archdiocese of St. John’s concerning its liability over the abuse of children at Mount Cashel Orphanage; there was the rising clamor for the resignation of Vincent Nichols, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (the premier Catholic prelate in England), following a report chronicling his failure to deal with abuse cases while Archbishop of Birmingham; there was the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland, with its searing indictment of ecclesial neglect and cruelty; and there was the uncontained outrage in Cologne, Germany, over the obstinate refusal of its Cardinal Archbishop, Rainer Maria Woelki, to make public the findings of an investigation he commissioned into abuses in the archdiocese.

So, when does it end? When will the toxin that is clericalism – the corrosive pattern of entitlement and abuse of power by clergy – be purged? How does the institutional church move on when it cannot stanch the flow of allegations? Certainly, the contributing factors are many – and some are outside the immediate boundaries of church life. But what progress can be made if there is still resistance to full disclosure, to acknowledging the sins of the past in a manner that is genuinely contrite and not choreographed by lawyers and actuaries, when many officials, fatigued and defensive, simply want to escape the relentless pull of accountability?

By means of various studies, surveys, commissions and academic panels, we have a good if not comprehensive understanding of the roots of many of the problems we consider to be the marks of clericalism: the absence of psychosexual maturity, truncated emotional growth, the perks of prestige (at least among some in the Catholic community), power and entitlement by virtue of one’s “calling.” It can be reasonably said that we have a handle on the diagnosis. It is the prognosis that concerns many – not least of whom is that ardent advocate for structural change, Nuala Kenny.

A Sister of Charity of Halifax, retired pediatrician and ethicist, Dr. Kenny is tenacious in summoning Catholic authority to the task for reform. In her forthcoming book, The Post-Pandemic Church: Prophetic Possibilities, she highlights her anguished puzzlement that “in a church with a strong commitment to life, the sexual abuse of children and youth is not considered a prolife issue.” She recognizes that the church’s ill health and slow response to the challenge is attributable to many factors both external and internal. But the persisting pathology compromises the church’s essential purpose, weakening its credibility, souring Catholics on their spiritual birthright – a true sign of enduring scandal.

To reclaim trust, to build anew confidence in the integrity of the church’s leaders – from local pastors to bishops – channels of communication are essential with theologically literate laypeople and a creative rethinking of the way we educate men to priestly ministry is fundamental. And in doing this, we need to deemphasize, if not eliminate entirely, the spurious and seemingly ineradicable notion that somehow – ontologically – priests are a different species. We need also to take seriously the theological and historical arguments for the ordination of women to the ministry of deacon.

Some of these matters fall within the jurisdiction of the local bishops, others are reserved to Rome, but what is critical at this juncture is action, not paralysis – not waiting out this pontificate in the hopes that the next pope will restore the old identity and calm the tempestuous waters that beset Peter’s barque. Nostalgia and fantasy have no place in a reform agenda. Or, indeed, with reality.

Dr. Kenny’s moral urgency is underscored by the following passage from the late spiritual writer and Irish priest Daniel O’Leary, who spoke of clericalism shortly before his death in 2019 as “a collective malaise ... It keeps vibrant life at bay; it quarantines us for life from the personal and communal expression of healing relationships, and the lovely grace of the tenderness which Pope Francis is trying to restore to the hearts of all God’s people.”

The curse of clericalism – a phrase employed by bishops and popes alike – can only really be extirpated when there is institutional will to do so. Dr. Kenny is wondering why we are still waiting. So am I.


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

Reprinted with editorial permission of The Globe and Mail


The Vatican is Pushing Forward on Synodality; The U.S. Bishops Should Follow Suit

Pope Francis’ appointment of Xavière Sister Nathalie Becquart and now-bishop-elect Luis Marín de San Martín to the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops is only the latest step in his efforts to push the global church toward a synodal model of leadership. That is, a model in which bishops and lay people speak freely together about the issues affecting them and where they believe the Spirit is calling them, and, through discussion and voting, reach decisions together.

Synodality is not necessarily a process of democratization, as final decisions still rest with the synod of bishops and, ultimately, the pope, but embracing co-responsibility between the bishops and lay people does help “overcome clericalism and arbitrary impositions” and gives “special attention to the effective participation of the laity in discernment and decision making, favoring the participation of women” (Querida Amazonia 88, 92).

Furthermore, Francis sees this type of mutual respect and listening—when one enters into it honestly, not with the goal of emerging as a “winner” or getting one’s own way—as a key to achieving the elusive unity he’s called for the church to embrace.

The pope has taken Vatican II’s call to synodality seriously: After acknowledging in the first year of his pontificate that the synod of bishops was “half baked” in comparison to the model the Second Vatican Council called for, he instituted a college of cardinal advisers who he suggested could eventually be elected by the Vatican’s standing synod of bishops and held high-profile synods on the family, young people and the Amazon. He appointed a handful of women, including Sister Becquart, as consultors to the synod and now, by appointing her as undersecretary to the synod, has for the first time allowed women a vote in the synod. The extension of voting rights to more women, which has been called for for years, is now under consideration at the Vatican and could be granted as early as 2022’s planned synod on synodality.

Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops are in dire need of the collegiality being pushed forward at the Vatican. The most recent example was the bishops’ embarrassing response to the election of the U.S.’ second Catholic president, to which some bishops responded by questioning the integrity of the election, issuing a combative statement that sparked Vatican intervention and constituting, then disbanding, a committee to determine, without the input of President Biden’s (more sympathetic) local bishops, how to deal with Biden and whether he should be allowed to receive communion.

The bishops who pushed for these initiatives generally embrace a “culture warrior” approach to church leadership, putting their effort into scoring political points and building their own cult followings—the exact opposite of the synodal call to unity, cooperation and listening.

At the Vatican’s summit on the protection of minors in 2019, Pope Francis forced bishops who denied that abuse was an issue in their dioceses to sit and listen to survivors from around the world until they understood the gravity and breadth of the problem. At that summit, the U.S. bishops were seen as the experts in the room, having dealt with the abuse crisis for years, while others lagged far behind. If the American bishops continue to behave as an exclusive and infighting group, come the 2022 synod, they will be the ones forced to sit down and listen to lay experts on synodality—like Sister Becquart—until they understand.


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.


The Anarchists

There really are Catholic anarchists hoping for the end of Pope Francis. They find something wrong with everything he says, even though his every word is rooted in the Gospel and the writings of his predecessors.

Don’t be fooled. Another target of the agitators is the Second Vatican Council. That would be the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which met from 1962 to 1965. No matter that some 2,625 bishops met then, in a spirit of aggiornamento. Naysayers within and without were complaining before the print dried on the documents.

And the documents were exciting and enlightening indeed. They promised a new and vibrant Church internally (Lumen gentium) and in relation to the world (Gaudium et spes), and they invited all to read the word of God (Dei verbum). Other documents discussed ecumenism and relations with the Eastern Churches and non-Christian religions; missionary activity; religious freedom; and the lives, apostolates, and education of the laity, religious and priests. Notably, one document discussed bishops’ conferences and emphasized episcopal collegiality.

Since then, the road to aggiornamento has been bumpy. Pockets of Church leadership resisted and still resist the Council’s determinations. Pope Francis thinks it is high time they joined the rest of the Church. The theme of the next synod of bishops is, after all, synodality.

Speaking to members of the Italian Bishops’ National Catechetical Office in late January this year, Francis made the fact and facts of Vatican II quite clear:

This is magisterium: the Council is the magisterium of the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you do not follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the Church. We must be demanding and strict on this point. The Council should not be negotiated in order to have more of these ... No, the Council is as it is. And this problem that we are experiencing, of selectivity with respect to the Council, has been repeated throughout history with other Councils.

Enter the anarchists, the schismatics, if you will. Taking a lead from Fidel Castrol’s Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) of the 1950s, their well-oiled propaganda machine uses all the tools of social media. Bolstered by clearly schismatic bishops within their ranks, they aim their lies sharply. Their main target: the magisterial teachings of the Vatican Two.

Hence, the Church suffers the social media cacophony of individuals whose simulated authority creates discord. It suffers priests performing unauthorized exorcisms, unassigned bishops claiming moral authority over synods and governments and retired cardinals rewriting doctrine. Like Castro, each of these recognizes the power of media—the new media—to foment religious and, if truth be told, political insurrection.

The thread throughout: some clerics seem to have signed on to a part of QAnon beliefs. They seem to think that Satan has infected the United States (especially the Democratic Party), the Church and the world at large.

They are bound together both politically and by views that decry the decisions of Vatican II. They prefer Tridentine liturgy and 19th-century clerical garb. They question doctrinal development and statements rooted in science. They recoil in horror at the thought of women at the altar, whether as lectors, acolytes, or—heaven forbid--restored to the ordained diaconate.

They are so fixated on evil they claim an indigenous statue at activities of the 2019 Pan-Amazon Synod is evidence of ecclesiastical idolatry. And they encourage unauthorized exorcisms. For example, once the U.S. election results were in, an American priest of an Italian diocese, but living in Madison, WI, performed exorcisms of election workers and officials in conjunction with his private daily Tridentine Mass, livestreamed on YouTube. Then, a priest of Omaha, NE, said he exorcised the Congress as he joined the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol because a “demon” had taken hold there. His views exploded on Twitter and Facebook. Each acted with the clear intent of supporting the “stolen election” lie. Neither seems to have suffered any repercussions for his actions.

How many others are out there? How many others have followed the leads of the stars of Church Militant, EWTN, LifeSiteNews and the many, many alt-right priest bloggers and bishop-tweeters arguing against anything remotely modern or true? And, among them, how many present the Trump lie?

The confluence of anti-Vatican II beliefs and alt-right political beliefs wrapped in ecclesiastical silk and lace present a frightening future for the Church and the world. The Gospel approaches to the needs of the people of God, so well-embodied in the documents of Vatican II and invigorated by Francis, are in danger.

The anarchists only want to tear down; the schismatics only want their own Church. Their problematic acts and comments are exacerbated by social media. And no one seems to be able to control them, or even to want to.


Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.


An Inauguration

In a phone call last April with 600 Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Gomez, President of the USCCB, and Cardinal Dolan of New York, President Trump referred to himself as the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church.” While none of those on the call positively confirmed this distinction, neither did they demur, nor did they challenge Trump’s warning that if he were defeated in November “You’re going to have a very different Catholic Church.”

And so it came to pass. With the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, the nation had its first glimpse of that “very different Catholic Church.” For many Americans, it wasn’t so bad: an appealing image of a devout Catholic whose faith, nurtured by prayer and the Sacraments, has sustained him through personal tragedies, fostered his capacity for compassion and inspired a lifetime of service to the common good.

Assuming office in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 U.S. lives, and on the very ground where only two weeks earlier, a murderous mob had tried to overturn the election, Biden simply spoke from his heart about healing, justice, truth, care for the earth and the most vulnerable among us, and cited St. Augustine’s teaching that a people is “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” And then, as he does every Sunday, he attended Mass.

It was, of course. naïve to think that Biden’s words would heal a bitterly divided nation. But perhaps, for one day, this spectacle of faith and civic devotion—under such unprecedented circumstances—might have passed without a reminder of the divisions in the American Catholic Church. But that was not to be. Archbishop Gomez, on behalf of the USCCB, issued a lengthy letter acknowledging President Biden’s faith and understanding of “the importance of religious faith and institutions.” But the burden of his letter was to emphasize that “our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”

To be sure, it is true that the USCCB and its commissions had from time to time issued statements of disapproval about the Trump administration’s cruel separation of children from their parents at the border, the zealous implementation of the death penalty or other policies (too numerous to name), that surely threatened “human life and dignity.” Typically, these statements referenced the “administration” rather than the president, and never in terms of “moral evil.” Such statements were treated as obligatory nods to Catholic social teaching, with no influence or impact or public policy or any claim on the attention of the average Catholic; the faithful; they were obviously subordinate to the priority of Trump’s commitment to the “pro-life” cause, his support for “religious liberty” and Catholic schools—the subjects covered in the friendly phone call in April.

Did the bishops truly believe that Donald Trump was “pro-life?” Or did they cynically welcome his support, knowing it was encased in lies and cruelty? Because Trump is evidently a psychopath—in the precise sense of a person incapable of remorse, empathy, insight or comprehension of truth—his embrace of the “pro-life” banner had the effect of degrading the meaning of the term, while also degrading the moral authority of anyone who welcomed his alliance.

Yet even before the inauguration, Gomez had been worrying that the election of a Catholic president like Biden “creates confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches.” To address this potential confusion, he convened a task force of bishops to consider the problem of “Eucharistic coherence”—in other words, raising the possibility that Biden might be barred from Communion.

And yet one might legitimately ask whether the bishops themselves had created confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches. Pope Francis has made it clear that concern for refugees, opposition to the death penalty, and care for the earth are inseparable from the church’s commitment to life. And yet if that teaching was lost on many American Catholics, who bore the blame for that confusion?

Still, in a land rent by divisions that President Trump had recently whipped up to a murderous frenzy, the inauguration offered hope that healing was possible, both for our country and for our Church. It raised the promise, beyond the differing prudential judgments about how to translate our faith into public policy, that a People of God is also a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.

The final word goes, as it did on the inauguration itself, to the extraordinary poem by Amanda Gorman, a young African American Catholic woman, which wrestled eloquently with the tensions between the history we bear and the promise that propels us forward:

When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.


Robert Ellsberg is the editor of the works of Dorothy Day and the author of many books on saints, mostly recently A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives.