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Entries from March 2021

“God Can’t Bless Sin,”—True but …

The Vatican’s declaration that priests may not bless same-sex unions is not surprising. What is deplorable is the explanation that this cannot happen because “God can’t bless sin.” It does make you wonder what Rome sees when it sees a same-sex couple. Like heterosexual couples, the distinguishing mark of their union is the love that binds them together. And surely, most assuredly, God is eager to bless love. The Vatican doesn’t see a loving couple. It sees two people who have sex in a way it considers unnatural. The sexual activity, like that of a heterosexual couple, symbolizes and strengthens the loving union that is the point of it all. Any adult, anywhere and at any time, can have sex, and some of it is probably sinful. God wouldn’t bless that kind of sexual activity, any more than God would bless theft or violence. But God, unlike the Vatican, is not obsessed with sex. God is obsessed with love. Real, genuine love is its own justification, and I am pretty sure that God smiles on it and, in all probability, is nothing like as curious or censorious as the Church when it comes to bedroom behavior. After all, it was love that we were created for.

One of the clearest positions of the Church on the nature of priesthood is that the priest acts in persona Christi, that just as Christ is the head of his body, the Church, so the priest acts in his place. Christ is the head of the church, not bound by the laws of the Church. The Spirit of Christ blows when and where it will. The Holy Spirit is the love of Christ at work in the world, and the priest acts as Christ’s representative or agent. The Vatican obviously believes this, because it is the basis for the otherwise baseless rejection of the sacramental ordination of women. So surely if the priest stands in persona Christi and if Christ is the sacramental presence of God in the world, and if God is obsessed with love but not with sex, then it doesn’t seem altogether wrong for the priest to be blessing same-sex unions. It seems like common sense. A marriage ceremony blesses the love between two people, not the sex they have. Or does it, for the Vatican?

It’s a pretty well-known fact that the Pope favors civil unions for same-sex couples, though in all probability he sees it as a way for them to attain legal status and protections, rather than as the next best thing to sacramental marriage in the church. But surely the Pope is not just suggesting that civil marriage can be cover for sinful behavior. The CDF’s declaration that “God does not bless sin” seems to be more than a little at odds with the famous “who am I to judge” remark of Pope Francis. God and not the church is the judge of sin. Not even the Pope, by his own estimation. But the language of the CDF’s text cannot but remind one of the consternation of the Jesuit priest on Pope Paul’s birth control commission. “But if we change the rules and allow birth control,” he is reported to have expostulated, “then what about all the people we have sent to hell in times past?” Judgments about sin in the mouths of human beings are prime examples of hubris. I think it was Jesus who discouraged this kind of language when he advised that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.

Francis de Bernardo sees the Vatican statement as unsurprising and impotent. I would add disappointing. But the charge of impotence is worth thinking about a bit more. De Bernardo argues that the lay faithful simply do not share the Vatican disapproval of same-sex unions, and at least in the United States he has good statistics to back him up. Of all Christian groups measured by their support for or tolerance of same-sex marriage or civil unions, the Catholics are the most “gay-friendly.” I find this reassuring, though as a theologian, I want to explore the ecclesiological consequences of a rift between the magisterium and the rest of us. I am not going to say the sensus ecclesiae, because that includes the clergy too. But when a sizable majority are OK with same-sex relationships and even marriage, we are evidently looking at magisterial teaching that has not commanded assent. We need to apply the same logic to this as we do to the Church’s dead-letter ban on birth control or its absolute rejection of women in ordained ministry. If the teaching isn’t persuasive, then there are only three possibilities. Perhaps the vast majority of us are simply blindly sinful, guilty of vincible ignorance and need to come to heel. Or perhaps the teaching is not being expressed sufficiently clearly. Or perhaps it is bad teaching. The CDF presumably favors the first option. The majority of the rest of us don’t.

It seems pretty clear that what makes sex sinful is not the absence of sacramental marriage but the absence of love. If the Church wishes to continue to insist that same-sex unions are not candidates for sacramental marriage, that is the Church’s prerogative, though that does not make it in itself a correct judgment. But it is absolutely unacceptable that any loving relationship be declared beyond God’s blessing. The Church evidently believes that God blesses all individuals, gay and straight alike, made in the divine image and likeness. But apparently not the former if they enter into a loving relationship. How crazy is that?

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

Returning to a House Divided

When the parable of the great church reopening is told, what will we learn from it?

A parable by nature is a teaching tool, and the rupture caused by the pandemic in the ability to participate in in-person liturgies, to receive the sacraments—even to gather for coffee in the church basement—has offered an extended period to reflect deeply on our participation in the life of the church and what it means.

Dioceses are now determining what the return to some iteration of normal will look like—not that all of us will return. For some, time away from church will be akin to the seed falling on rocky soil, withering away from lack of nourishment. More than a year of being able to roll over and hit the snooze button may mean a more relaxed approach to attendance for some. In no way is this a criticism of the roller-overs; they may simply never have received the nourishment they needed.

But for many, online masses and a whole church year behind us without physical connection to a place that should feel like home will have created a hunger to return—safely—and, importantly, to become more engaged. Unlike the seed on rocky soil, many will return with the faith of the flourishing mustard seed or the zeal of the prodigal son.

That flourishing, that eagerness to return, will speak to our understanding of what we have missed. But it will also reflect a spiritual maturing many have discovered in the last 12 months. We have had to rely in good measure on our own resources and I’ve heard many reflect with a kind of delighted wonderment that they have a richer interior life than they had realized. Time away, like absence making the heart grow fonder, has made them realize they really do believe what they profess.

With that ownership comes responsibility. We have all witnessed the tragic stories of families losing loved ones to COVID and being unable to hold a proper funeral, instead being relegated to a gathering of 10 with others watching online. We should create good from this suffering so it not be in vain, whether we double down on engaging in steps to end the pandemic, or promising to be more supportive to those bereaved, perhaps creating or supporting a parish ministry.

Similarly, coronavirus has shone a light on the elderly, so vulnerable to the twin threats of COVID-19 and isolation. If we talk about respect for life, it goes without saying that it should include the elderly. The church my family attends in Florida has a parish nurse. Each time I’ve seen the office door I’ve been struck by what a good idea it is. Imagine someone doing wellness checks, keeping seniors engaged and in their homes longer, offering practical and moral support to new mothers— the list is endless.

 When we return, we come back to a church still divided over so many issues, the latest being the Vatican’s denial of blessings for same-sex relationships. While no one has ever pretended that the Church of Rome is a democracy, a recent Pew Research Survey indicated that six in 10 American Catholics support the idea of same-sex marriage. I cannot remember the last time I heard anyone discuss the concept of sensus fidelium, let alone the role the laity plays in how the church discerns questions of faith and morals, but this most recent decision has many Catholics shaking their heads, and some walking away, joining the others who have already left.

The church doors will reopen as one of the most momentous periods in our lives winds down. Historically, ecumenical councils have stemmed from social change or to answer great questions. We are, without question, in a period where we face both. Our church is riven by battles over orthodoxy and the insidious creep of culture and politics into matters of faith. At the same time, we must discuss the question of how laity—and especially women—can assume a larger role.

Vatican II offered recognition to the laity, allowing us to take our first tentative steps toward maturity. That maturity is now upon us. A new council could carry on the conversation that began almost 60 years ago.

We return, like Thomas, with our eyes opened. We come with the hope that our church will have the compassion of the Good Samaritan. We have witnessed great suffering and we want to affect change because of what we have come to understand in this strange and awful period.

We want to offer insights gained and share lessons learned on what a lived gospel looks like. If we can’t, as the old song says, “How you going to keep ‘em down on the farm? … or in the pews.

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

Bishops’ Conference Should Look Toward Rome

What do you do when your national bishops’ conference goes bonkers? That is not a question I ever imagined needing to ask and answer when I attended my first plenary meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference as a journalist many years ago.

It is a question that has forced itself on us all this year, first with the churlish statement USCCB President Archbishop Jose Gomez issued on inauguration day. “I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration and the new Congress,” Gomez wrote, but then betrayed that pleasantry by raining on President Biden’s big day, warning that Biden “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. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.” All of that needed to be said, but if you really want to work with the new president, you do not say it publicly on his first day in office.

Gomez found himself contradicted by several cardinals and bishops, either explicitly or not. The “working group” he had announced to cope with this pro-choice Catholic president was quickly shuttered. (Thank God!) But, let’s be clear: Gomez is not an outlier. His decision to issue that statement reflected the views of the 10 committee chairs on the working group, only one of whom apparently opposed the statement. The chairs were elected to their posts by their peers.

Behind closed doors, the bishops continue to fret about Biden in a way they never did about Trump. And, I suspect a majority of bishops still want to pursue the highly misguided effort to draft a statement on “eucharistic coherence,” aka, how to deny Biden communion. Never mind that this is a discussion that happens only in America. Never mind that the conservative’s hero, St. Pope John Paul II, routinely gave communion to the pro-choice mayors of Rome and other Italian officials. Let them plow ahead in this misguided effort. The conservatives may have a majority of the conference, but they do not have the two-thirds majority that is required to pass a teaching document. Even if they did, a teaching document would require the approbation of the Holy See, and I doubt that would be forthcoming.

As bad as the Biden working group and its statement were, the bishops outdid themselves in the first week of March with a ridiculous statement about the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine. Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chair of the committee on pro-life activities, and Bishop Kevin Rhoades, chair of the doctrine committee, issued a joint statement that began: “The approval of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United States again raises questions about the moral permissibility of using vaccines developed, tested and/or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines.” I am always alert to the use of the passive voice in USCCB statements. Who had any questions about the “moral permissibility” of these vaccines? And why is the U.S. bishops’ conference raising a moral qualm where our theology tells us none need exist? On the basis of what loony theology are they inviting people to prefer one vaccine to another?

Archbishop Naumann puts the “arch” back into “archbishop.” I remember precisely the first time I saw him. At the Harborplace Marriott in Baltimore where the U.S. bishops hold their annual plenary meeting, there is a long escalator that brings the bishops down from the floor where they meet to the mezzanine level where they go for lunch. Near the foot of the escalator are two large armchairs. Each year, on Mondays, Michael Hichborn, then from the American Life League and now with the Lepanto Institute, would be sitting there with a friend and two bishops would always stop, talk to them and then leave together for lunch at a nearby restaurant. One of the bishops was Naumann. Hichborn is famous for outing people in order to get them fired from Catholic institutions and for his relentless attack on the U.S. bishops’ anti-poverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. He is not what you would call a theological sophisticate, but he has had Naumann’s ear for years.

Similarly, the Charlotte Lozier Institute pretends to be the “research arm” of the Susan B. Anthony List, a Republican Party pro-life group. If you really care about stopping abortion, you would know that you need pro-life Democrats to do so, but the Susan B. Anthony List only endorses Republicans, and they looked the other way when Trump went on his killing spree with federal executions as his term ended. The Lozier Institute was likely the proximate cause of the USCCB nuttiness. In December, it released a statement about the moral issues they perceived in using cell lines from aborted fetuses.

Last week, even the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center had had enough and issued a blistering statement criticizing the bishops’ conference that was signed by a bevy of pro-life conservative professors. It concluded:

To be perfectly clear, we are not saying that people are justified in using and promoting these vaccines because the great goods they provide offset the evil of appropriating a prior wicked action. Rather, we believe that there is no such impermissible cooperation or appropriation here. The attenuated and remote connection to abortions performed decades ago and the absence of any incentive for future abortions offer little if any moral reasons against accepting this welcome advance of science.

This is what it has come to. The U.S. bishops issue statements that articulate lousy theology derived from the Lepanto and Lozier Institutes that even the Ethics & Public Policy Center recognizes as baloney.

It has been 21 years since M. Cathleen Kaveny published the definitive essay on the issue of cooperation with evil and “Appropriation of Evil: Cooperation’s Mirror Image” at the journal of theological studies. Kaveny actually used the example of using cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue to explain why this new category of “appropriation of evil” was needed because the structure of the moral issues differs from the classic theology of cooperation with evil. She focuses on the crux of the matter: “The most important question is whether the appropriator intends to ratify the auxiliary agent’s wrongful act in making use of that act’s fruits or byproducts. Does the appropriator make use of them as if it were the appropriator’s own action, as if it were an action that he or she would have engaged in, given the opportunity and/or necessity?” The U.S. bishops should consult with Kaveny, not with Lepanto, the next time they need some theological expertise!

I do not know what it will take to pull the bishops out of the hole they are digging for themselves. It is not simply a matter of consecrating enough bishops who are not culture warriors. They must walk down the difficult path of forging some unity among themselves. It is not true that all roads lead to Rome. Some paths lead in different directions. But in the history of the Catholic Church, there is no unity apart from communion with the Bishop of Rome. These latest episodes would not have occurred if the bishops’ conference was genuinely learning from the pope to whom they have all taken vows of obedience. It is time they start.

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

Silence in the Desert within a Desert

My calendar reads “March 2021” in a way that feels like yet another season of a well-worn television programs. Familiar characters and storylines and more of the same. Sure, this March will have more madness than the last one, and some of us can be proud at accrued mastery for high quarantine arts in Zoom or bespoke hobbies. And yet, here we are, in the midst of a second Lenten fast during this time of social and ecclesial distance. We find ourselves continuing to adjust our masks and to process life during a pandemic. Prayer—forgotten or foregrounded—sits in a chasm between our vaccinated hopes and our variant anxieties. Exhausted and overcommitted, the world seems caught in one long Lent.

This Lent feels just a bit like a desert within another desert. I think part of the issue is the loss of weekly rituals that embody the passing of time. For me, the spiritual livestreams are running a bit dry. But the wisdom of the liturgical calendar resists a logic of productivity that aims to compare this March to last March. Instead, the Church’s cyclical time should invite a different relationship to God’s enduring present. A relationship that returns to search amidst barren wastelands of silence year after year.

Lenten devotion dovetails with the “already, not yet” shifting vaccination timelines and phases of the rollout. Some dawning hope can be seen on the horizon, but we must still keep to disciplines of the fast. Lenten hope might also be the right attitude to reimagine Church life beyond pandemic time. Those with one foot out the door will surely have a much harder time stepping back inside. Sharp downward trends in liturgical attendance, financial support, vocations, and diocesan resources have only accelerated thanks to COVID-19. And throughout this election year, ecclesial politics in the United States have increasingly shown to match the troubling partisanship that drives the noise of public discourse.

Close to a year ago, Pope Francis made history by delivering an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing during the lockdown. The Pope did not appear at his customary Vatican window to bless crowds in the piazza below. Instead, cameras tracked a solitary pontiff shuffling slowly in the rain. He prayed before a crucifix said to work miracles against plagues past and reflected on how “We are all in the same boat.”

Strikingly, the livestream event included a moment for digital adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A laptop became an altar; a screen became a monstrance. On the one hand, this was not miraculous. Catholics have lauded the legitimacy of technologically mediated rituals since the onset of television. Like teaching, in-person liturgies are unequivocally better, but virtual participation works in a pinch or a pandemic. A livestream adoration did not call for profound liturgical innovation or theological gymnastics. But on the other hand, inviting the whole city and the whole world to Eucharistic adoration required the courage to risk boredom and to risk misinterpretation in silence.

Silence, after all, can be as ambiguous and confrontational as it can be soothing or peaceful. Silence moves in and of itself. In a 2016 book on silence and noise, Robert Cardinal Sarah wrote, “In the Church’s liturgies, silence cannot be a pause between two rituals; silence itself is fully a ritual, it envelops everything. Silence is the fabric from which all our liturgies must be cut.” Could we extend Cardinal Sarah’s metaphor to see the silences of this long Lent not as hiatus, but as a fabric to reinvigorate liturgical life?

The Church needs courage to lead into what comes next. “Getting back to normal” cannot be the goal; standards of “normalcy” belong to the linear calendar. Mitigating the pandemic so we can gather in person will not magically resolve the Church’s ongoing complicity in systemic racism or convince those betrayed by clericalism to trust the institution again. If anything, the pandemic calls Church leaders to be shepherds of a living tradition like the one that found new expression in the risky and responsive silence of that lockdown blessing.

Pope Francis recently accepted the resignation of the same Cardinal Sarah as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. Cardinal Sarah’s tenure at the top of the CDW has been riddled with controversy—perhaps most famously in the questions that surround “co-authorship” with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI of a book about priestly celibacy. Cardinal Sarah has become a darling of the reactionary and traditionalist movements in the United States, and the conspiracy theory machine hummed with speculations about hidden meanings in Sarah’s resignation tweet.

In an unusual way, the Holy Father has not yet named Cardinal Sarah’s successor. Whomever it is, Pope Francis’ choice can send a clear signal—to curial offices in the city and bishops conferences around the world—about future ritual priorities. Here is a chance for a new direction. Rather than quibble over translation or banning beloved hymn texts, perhaps all of the faithful need a chance to sit in this silence together. Whatever comes after our long, Lenten time in the desert cannot be a return to the same. Our aim must be renewal.

Charles A. Gillespie is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.