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Entries from July 2021

You Talk About Your Rights. What About Your Duty?

As we survey the dismal inability of so many Americans to bring themselves to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the language is very much about “my right” to choose yea or nay. This is just one instance of the way rights language is despoiling the earth, as I exercise “my right” to use and abuse the non-renewable resources of the planet, or “my right” to gorge while others starve, or “my right” to ignore democratic freedoms and declare a free and fair election to be a falsity, or “my right” to carry a gun. Nor is this kind of rights language restricted to the secular world.

When the church argues that it has the right to withhold birth control coverage from its employees’ health care packages, or the right to fire an elementary schoolteacher because she is married to another woman, or the right to turn a politician away from the Eucharist, common sense is far from these judgments and some kind of ideology, some ecclesial culture war, is driving them. The few Catholics who argue for a religious exemption from the vaccination requirement at the most sensitive and sensible Catholic colleges and universities probably do so, like their non-Catholic counterparts, out of some vaguely ideological Trumpian anti-vaxxer sentiments. But their objections, often employing the papally discredited argument that a possible remote connection between the vaccination and aborted fetuses precludes Catholic cooperation with evil, are hard to defend when Pope Francis has declared that vaccination is “a moral imperative.”

I have lately been reading Robert Zaretsky’s new book, The Subversive Simone Weil, which, while it might be a little guilty of domesticating that least tamable of thinkers, offers us much food for thought for our present-day church and world on exactly this topic of rights. Weil is deeply suspicious of how potentially egotistical a focus on rights can be. Here is where we have to be careful, because the world is way too short on the right kind of rights. But what are they? They are the rights of those who pretty much have no access to the rights that the rest of us can enjoy without pressure or penalty.

Catholic social teaching has been aware of this issue of rights language for a very long time. Classically, it insists that every right has a concomitant responsibility. But Simone Weil eschews the language of rights and responsibility in favor of the idea of duty; duty can have no conditions; it is simply just what my conscience and human nature require of me as a member of the human community. There is an absolute quality to duty; there is no such thing as a conditional duty. This is clearly more congenial to Weil’s temperament than any kind of moral compromise or casuistical escape-clause. Indeed, it was probably her extremism here that hastened her death in England in 1943, when she felt duty-bound to eat no more than her French fellow-citizens suffering under Nazi occupation. “Duty to what?” one might ask, and Zaretsky’s reply is that Weil saw “duty to the good” to be the motivator. In this, she was shadowed by Iris Murdoch, an admirer of Weil, who though an agnostic wrote in language redolent of the doctrine of original sin, of human beings’ “insuperable psychological barriers to goodness,” and thought that the task of moral philosophy was “to purify this energy which is naturally selfish in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly.”

And so, we come to the reluctance to be vaccinated against COVID. The language of rights is used overwhelmingly among those unwilling to be vaccinated, and the idea of duty is never mentioned. Duty to the good or duty to God, both amount to care for the community. What God wants is a loving and caring community in which “my rights” are second to “the common good.” The centrality of the idea of the common good to Catholic social teaching (CST) coincides with Weil’s duty to the good and her interpretation of duty points exactly to the particular way in which CST understands the common good, as the good of the whole measured by the particular care and concern for the least powerful members of society.

It is quite clear that vaccination against COVID-19 is a fine example of the application of the principle of the common good, so how come the U.S. church has not spoken forcefully to promote it? And why have some Catholic universities resisted the idea of a vaccine mandate, while so many have imposed one? There is undoubtedly a mix of motives, including the fear of backlash from parishioners, or from anti-vaxxer donors, alumni and trustees of the schools. I suppose it’s a trade-off. A few more people die, but the money keeps coming in. What bishops and college presidents should be making clear is that putting one’s personal freedoms before the needs of the community, in any situation but especially in one so dire as the present pandemic, is a deeply sinful course of action. When Pope Francis says that being vaccinated is a moral obligation, the implication for those who choose otherwise is clear. The hands of those who choose the freedom to exercise “their rights” may turn out to have blood on them.


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


Fiddling While the Churches Burn

These are sorrowful times for the Catholic Church in Canada.

The discovery of more than a thousand unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools run for Indigenous children by Catholic religious orders and dioceses—with the certainty that more will be found—is shining renewed light on one of Canada’s ugliest chapters. But while the discoveries have exposed our colonial past at its worst, they have also revealed the degree to which the Canadian Catholic Church is a splintered institution.

It has long been estimated that at least 4,100 children in Canada died due to illness or accidents in residential schools they were forced by the federal government to attend. A lack of access to records has made research challenging, but recent use of ground-penetrating radar has begun to offer hard evidence of testimony delivered to the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that prompted the TRC to describe the experience of residential schools to be “cultural genocide.”

This is a significant moment in relations, not only between Indigenous people and the Canadian government, which instituted and funded the schools, but also between Indigenous people and the Catholic Church. Some have stepped up to seek change, writing open letters and creating petitions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is Catholic, has called on the Church for a formal apology. But there has been a deafening silence from some corners. The only thing more disappointing than that silence are the voices of those who feel the need to defend the Church at all costs.

The right continues to quibble and make excuses rather than confront the past. They argue about the exact numbers of children buried on these sites, or note that sometimes these sites were used by the nearest community, too, as if one could quantify grief, that finding 10 children’s graves would make it somehow less worrisome than finding 50.

They point to individual apologies issued by various bishops, including comments from Pope Benedict XVI in 1999, to suggest the Church has responded adequately, even though it has not yet answered Call to Action #58 from the TRC, which expressly asked for an apology to be delivered by the Pope in Canada—within a year of the report’s issuance—as was done in Ireland in 2010.

While a 2006 class action suit required dioceses and orders involved to pay $25 million—or “best efforts”—collections taken up in the affected locations and efforts in some unrelated dioceses netted a shameful final $3.7 million. Canada, for what it’s worth, has 13 million Catholics.

As the horrifying discoveries continue, and Catholics begin to gain some insight into what the families forcibly torn apart to enroll children in these schools suffered, the cries for justice increase, as do suggestions that both attendance and the collection plate will take hits as parishes begin to re-open post-COVID. This story has been front-page news since May of this year and is not going away. The Church looks heartless and racist, the sins of the past still not healed.

In the midst of this, one Catholic pastor in the Toronto area gave a tone-deaf homily recently in which he argued that no one talks about “the good done” by the Catholic Church in residential schools.

Right-wing bloggers and websites have assiduously avoided the topic of the graves, instead focusing on fires raging in Catholic churches, some on First Nations reserves. With almost no evidence available, the right labels this a hate crime. And when others have stated that if churches have been burned by those affected by the legacy of residential schools the anger behind the action is understandable, the right rears up as if commenters had struck the matches themselves. Obviously, no one is condoning criminal behavior, especially as some of these churches minister to Indigenous Catholics; to say one understands is not to condone. But churches can be rebuilt. The thousands of children who died cannot be brought back to life.

Compassionate Canadian Catholics are discussing the need for a papal visit, if Pope Francis’ health allows, to make a formal apology. They seek complete payment of the $25 million owed in the class action suit and they want the remains found on all former residential school sites to be identified and buried in a manner the family wishes.

This resonates. When my husband died last year, our family decided to keep his ashes on our piano, still in the midst of family life. I’ve seen my boys give the urn a loving pat, and my daughters blow kisses. We know where Mike’s remains are. We have that solace. Not to know the circumstances of a loved one’s death or burial place is a cruelty I cannot imagine. That my Church had any role in contributing to a grieving family’s suffering appalls me.

But as more graves are found, some continue to fiddle while churches burn. What they fail to see is that the Church—and the laity—are radically different than when the residential schools first opened in 1880. Many of us are asking whether it will ever be possible for us to apologize enough.


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


What Has Happened to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?

In March, I wrote “Bishops’ Conference Should Look Toward Rome,” about the sad situation at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in their foolish attempt to browbeat President Joe Biden on the issue of abortion and their beyond foolish qualms about the Covid-19 vaccines. Their June meeting did nothing to restore confidence in their leadership. 

People ask me all the time: “How did it get this bad?” The answer is not complicated, but it is multi-faceted.

The first and foremost reason is that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were poor judges of character and placed people in positions of authority who should not have been there. They also followed the old adage “promoveatur ut amoveatur,” or promote to remove.

The most critical person in choosing candidates for the episcopate is the apostolic nuncio. Pope Benedict sent Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to the U.S. as nuncio because he wanted to get him out of Rome. From October 2011 until April 2016, Viganò served in this critical role, screening new candidates and proposing the promotion of others. Nuncios do not succeed in getting all their nominees through the cumbersome process, but they get around 50%. And, as we all know, Viganò can charitably be called unhinged.

In addition, Pope Benedict XVI named Cardinals Raymond Burke and Justin Rigali to the Congregation for Bishops, and they helped promote some of the worst culture warriors to Metropolitan sees: men such as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in San Francisco and Archbishop Alexander Sample in Portland, OR. Earlier, Burke had been critical in the naming of Archbishop Joseph Naumann as coadjutor Archbishop of Kansas City, KS. So, the system by which bishops are selected was in the hands of culture warriors for many years.

If there has been little help from Rome, there has also been little help from the pews, and this is far less commented on. In the wake of Vatican II, there has been a push to include lay people in decision-making positions that do not require ordination. It is not uncommon to find a lay woman serving as chancellor or a layman serving as superintendent of schools. In the pre-conciliar era, when you walked into a chancery, it was staffed almost exclusively by clerics.

I am no fan of clericalism, but the problem is that in the years after the Council, the ideological makeup of these new lay staff shifted to the right. Many liberal Catholics left the Church, and fewer still ever thought of working for the various offices that comprise a chancery, at least when compared to the number of conservative Catholics who warmed to the prospect.

As well, bishops tend to be conflict-averse. There is an old saying: If your request will be met with a “yes,” you meet with the bishop, but if it will be met with a “no,” the Vicar General will deliver the bad news. Bishops know that if, for example, they were to appoint a communications director who had worked for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the right-wing, anti-abortion brigades would pummel them with phone calls and emails, maybe even a protest. But no one complains when they hire someone who worked for a Republican.

The Knights of Columbus was led for 20 years by Carl Anderson, who formerly worked as a Republican operative. His replacement, Patrick Kelly, served on the staff of President George W. Bush.

The executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, Christopher Healy, previously served as the chairman of the state Republican Party. Brittany Vessely is the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, but she is also part of the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life and she did a Publius Fellowship at the Claremont Institute.

It is not uncommon for a bishop to bring a neuralgic issue before his diocesan advisory board, a mix of clergy, religious and lay advisors, and it is the laity who are advocating for a hardline, culture warrior position. This has happened in many dioceses over issues such as accepting the children of gay parents into Catholic schools. The laity say “we don’t want those people in our school,” and the clergy are the ones who ask on what basis you deny a Catholic education to a baptized Catholic.

So, when bishops want to know what the laity think about an issue like denying communion to pro-choice politicians, and they ask the lay people who are closest to them, they tend to get the most conservative feedback imaginable. Combine that with the prominence of well-funded, right-wing organizations like the Napa Institute and the Acton Institute, which fly bishops in for conferences—and at Napa, the conference is accompanied by cigar and cognac receptions!—and you begin to understand how it is that USCCB can become such a mess.

Lay leadership is not the answer, at least not currently. I will take my chances with Papa Francesco and his current appointees to the Congregation for Bishops. But the changes we need won’t happen quickly and they won’t be sudden or sharp. Pope Francis has proposed synodality as a vehicle by which the Holy Spirit might return to our ecclesial decision making, but it is difficult to imagine today’s culture warriors engaging in a genuinely synodal process. We are in for some bad ecclesial weather for the next few years.


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


O Beautiful for Independence Shared

The U.S. failed to achieve at least one vision for independence this year. President Biden set an ambitious goal for vaccination against COVID-19: to administer first doses to 70% of eligible Americans by the Fourth of July. But that date came and went without success. And, despite scorching temperatures in the West and a nightmarish building collapse in Florida, many places around the country nonetheless celebrated Independence Day with fireworks, family barbecues, and maskless memories of what “normalcy” can look like.

The Delta variant proves why the global community surely needs to maintain vigilance, but we can and should praise local milestones in the worldwide effort to combat this still ongoing, still deadly, still mutating virus. By July 4, the U.S. as a whole managed to boast first dose vaccination rates well above 60%. Many individual states even surpassed the President’s 70% target! Collective efforts for the common good can be worthy of celebration even if independence remains allusive. There’s no need to win in order to throw a good party.

The Americanized obsession with winning (as opposed to “the good”) surely calls for its own sharp critique, but there might be a lesson for the Church hiding in a national refusal to be embarrassed by falling just short of a stated public goal. That’s because rebuilding and reopening cannot be achieved instantly or with total satisfaction this side of the end of time. Ecclesial and political leaders will continue to set ambitious benchmarks, and human communities will continue to fail to achieve them. But a pilgrim people walking together towards holiness is bound to stumble. Christians have been failing to reach ambitious goals since the very beginning. Pick up and read any of Saint Paul’s letters to the earliest church communities and you might find an inspired record of salacious scandals, doctrinal disagreements and leaders making (and learning from) mistakes. Our contemporary debates about how to dress and how close Christians should sit together at the liturgy or what sorts of politicians can be invited to eat at the Lord’s table are nothing new.

Conversations about eating together make sense for a religious tradition whose rituals enact a shared meal with meaning far beyond ordinary sustenance. For Catholics, the Eucharist is an encounter with a living God from whom we can never be independent. Shared meals can testify to the relationships that not only make a truly human life possible but actually worth living. Somewhat like the profound difference between the burgers I shared over the weekend with people I love and the many burgers I have eaten alone in my car, gathering to be present together taps into a mysterious beauty that evades easy description but that I so missed during the doldrums of lockdown. It’s like the invisible bubbly stuff that makes up what sociologist Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” It’s like the shimmering aura of “life” in a busy restaurant or a party. It’s like the unpolished splendor of a packed church loudly singing along to a hymn that everyone knows by heart.

A quote often attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo claims that “to sing is to pray twice.” I’m always tickled by my mixed reaction to “America the Beautiful” as a hymn for Mass near Independence Day. On the one hand, too much overt patriotism clashes with the transnational harmony of the universal Church. Baptism proclaims hope for common citizenship in the heavenly city, after all. But, on the other hand, the tune (composed by an Episcopal organist and choirmaster) makes for a dignified procession that is simply fun to sing. Katherine Lee Bates’ poetry offers a political theological aesthetic in an American idiom. We sing praise for God’s favor manifested across a creation teeming with glory, difference and life: majestic purple mountains preside over the waving amber grains, fruited harvests framed by shining seas. Strikingly, we sing about America’s experiment in human fraternity that adorns and “crowns” God’s handiwork: the beauty of the creation that God deems to be good.

The second verse of this patriotic song prayed as a Catholic hymn issues a challenge for how to steward that beauty. Our project becomes a new pilgrimage “across the wilderness” to “beat” a “thoroughfare for freedom.” But are there ways to envisage this liberating roadway with an integral ecology, one where we help others to walk together with the earth rather just upon it? Can Catholic models of freedom be extended so “self-control” no longer, as it surely did at residential schools for indigenous children taken from their families, treat whiteness as a means to “confirm” souls? Can we imagine laws that enhance freedom? The ideals of a revolutionary spirit of liberty and justice for all rarely found swift ratification in the legal system. Indeed, the failure to decide that political independence from monarchy should also include economic independence from the evils of chattel slavery reverberates until today. Our contemporary prayer must become supplication that admits the inability to succeed at this experiment if our aim remains radical independence. “America, America, God mend thine every flaw.”


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


The Risky Business of Atonement, Litigation and Healing

The Church entered the COVID-19 pandemic in a wounded state from revelations of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and new awareness of the harms of colonialism and residential school abuse of Indigenous persons, sexism and racism in the Church itself. The grand narrative of the Church as a place of justice and care for the vulnerable is now a grand fiction for many. While leadership bears a particular responsibility, all in the Church have a duty of atonement for these harms. Church leadership response to clergy sexual abuse has been marked by silence, denial and cover up, protection of image and minimization of the harms. As a pediatrician, I have held a sodomized twelve-year-old boy bleeding from the rectum and tried to comfort a five-year-old girl who was raped. The harms to them early in their development cry out for atonement.

Atonement here requires apology and repentance, care for victims, policies and protocols for response to allegations and protective safeguarding initiatives, education into the harms of profound, often life-long harms of abuse in childhood with particular attention to the devastated spiritual consequences when the offender is a representative of Christ and the need to address underlying issues for long-term prevention.

As we’ve seen from media moguls and bank executives, apology can be no more than politically correct risk management. Meaningful apologies require explicit acceptance of responsibility for wrongdoing, regret for the harm, identification with those harmed and corrective action. Diocesan days of atonement have occurred in many places but a culture of atonement remains elusive.

Financial settlements with ‘gag orders’ have been an element of response. In the U.S., where suing is a national pastime, and Canada alone, billions of dollars have been paid out. These settlements are risky business for both Church and victims. For the Church, they can appear to be buying off victims without real remorse and promote the belief that the Church has limitless wealth. Victims can be re-victimized or liberated. We have learned to our peril that money does not bring healing and risks the anger of many in the Church who blame greedy victims for the closure of parishes and bankruptcy of dioceses. This creates a unique Church version of rape shaming rather than a community of compassion and support. Legal retributive justice focuses on blame so its adversarial nature can traumatize all without any sense of justice or reparation. We must understand the reasons victim-survivors risk initiating legal processes so we can create new practices capable of promoting justice and healing.

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have a history of not being heard or believed, and even punished, for their ‘allegations.’ Because disclosures of clergy sexual abuse are made long after the events and there have been few criminal convictions, victim-survivors feel betrayed by the justice system. They seek to take back control of their damaged lives but must assess their ability to withstand the process and its risks. Criminal law is about a crime, a state-controlled trial and a punishment. Victims have concerns regarding the need for evidence and difficulties in accessing memories of the abuse from the natural fading of memory and protective avoidance. Civil law focuses on the wrong, a tort, and its damage where the injured party controls the process.

Some pursue these legal processes to confirm the truth about events so horrible, victims themselves can’t believe it. Conditioned to believe in the holiness of the priest they think they are crazy. Here, lawyers listen, re-assign blame from victim to the defendant and reveal the multiple parties responsible. However, lawyers trolling for participants in class action suits can promote the monetization of the harms over healing.

Some pursue litigation to support other survivors. Others want to make the larger community aware of the wrongs and hypocrisy of the Church and make the Church atone. However, research shows that the goals of litigation for most survivors are support for care, accountability for the harm done, future prevention and the possibilities for transformation of damaged family relationships and personal redemption.

Moved by Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation, we need to develop the ethic and practice of restorative justice. It is an approach to criminal, civil and church law violations that addresses all aspects of offences in one process. For the Church, it helps acknowledge and restore the lost childhood of victims, make meaningful atonement and restore faith in the Church as a place of justice and care as well as trust in our loving and forgiving God.

Restorative mediation is a voluntary, private process controlled by the parties so all can be responsible for healing. A victim advocate may provide support. Lawyers may be present. There is careful review of the evidence. The process begins with the moral accountability of the offender and of the Church in a face-to-face meeting where experience is shared. This allows real compassion what is a “suffering with” the other. The spiritual harms in clergy abuse can be taken into account as we address underlying beliefs and practices for long-term prevention.


Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.