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Entries from August 2021

A Letter to Pope Francis

Dear brother Francis,

As one of your younger and distant relatives I am somewhat hesitant to write to you, yet I fear that if I don’t, my concerns may cause me to feel more than just geographic distance. So I ask for your patience and compassion.

I was reading, with much joy and solace, Let us Dream. Thank you. Yet, I can’t help but express some disappointment. I appreciate the beautiful vision you have for the Church. I agree that building a truly synodal Church that continually seeks to hear the voice of the Spirit is a slow and arduous process. But I think there are voices that have been speaking to us for many decades, if not longer, voices that some have tried peremptorily to silence, unsuccessfully. Other holy leaders, like your brother in Canterbury, have heard and listened. These voices remind me of the Cornelius story in Acts 10:1-48. How radical was it for the Jewish Christians that an uncircumcised person would be invited by God into the covenantal relationship and that Peter in response would have to declare: “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (v.47). Peter, I think we all would agree, reluctantly had to (as did Paul) step beyond the comfort of the established, what was “unlawful” (v.28) and previously viewed as unchangeable. The stirring of the Spirit called him to go “beyond his competency” and be rebuked: “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (v.15). Peter comes to realize “in every nation anyone who fears . . . [God] and does what is right is acceptable to . . . [God]” (v.35). So even what seemed an absolute barrier—circumcision—loses its weight and is superseded by the mark of Christ’s victory over sin and death: baptism. For in Christ, through baptism “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

So dear brother, why are we afraid to say, enough of the charade of an exclusively male priesthood? Your brother in Canterbury hears that the Spirit has called forth female clerics.

Similarly, why be hesitant to bring Christ’s healing to the wounds of the faithful who, like all of us in some way, have made mistakes but then enter into a new loving, committed relationship? Peter and Paul had to challenge the voices of the exclusivist righteous (who did have past practice on their side) and welcome the other as Christ does. Is it not time to do the same? Is it not right to openly challenge the voice of those who are afraid to let go of the logic of the middle ages?

I am moved by the joy of a mother who recognizes the steadfast love her daughter experiences in her relationship with another woman. I anguish over the pain caused to chaste and celibate Roman clergy whom I know, when they (and so many others) hear the voice of authority saying they are “disordered.” Meanwhile their presence, their ministry, is a sure sign of the Spirit being present. The Spirit speaks from the periphery even if many in the center do not wish to listen.

Of course, dear brother, the weight of this responsibility must be tremendous. In my heart I believe that you know all this. I can only imagine your concern for what may happen if a bold word spoken causes some to fall away. I understand that you may be worried about how your brother Andrew may respond. But I think we all must admit the pain and suffering that has been caused and continues to be caused by the Church’s inability to open itself to the voices of those who have been told “NO” and so pushed aside. I think we need to ask ourselves, not can we do this, but can we know the limits of the Spirit’s breath. Can we continue to impose our limits on the Divine Spirit?

I pray that you grow in strength and courage. I pray for your health. I pray that your compassion turns its attention to Canada and that you join many of us in apologizing to our First Nations for what has been done to them (scandalously) in the name of the Gospel.

Thank you dear brother. You have my prayers, as I know we all have yours.

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

The “Dirty Little Secret” and the “Latin Mass”

In his 1972 book Bare Ruined Choirs, Garry Wills famously argued that the Second Vatican Council brought into the open the “dirty little secret” that the church changes. That “secret” had been the subject of controversy going back to the beginning of the 20th century and illuminated various movements that inspired the Council. Understanding the complexity of the tradition, thinkers of these movements suggested, could help the church to move forward and respond to contemporary needs. They invited the church to live in reality: that of its own history, and that of the human community of today, rather than a timeless fantasy.

After two pontificates concerned with calming the storms of the post-Vatican II period by emphasizing the Council’s continuity with the tradition, Pope Francis has been more comfortable emphasizing that things did and needed to change at Vatican II and that wholesale acceptance of the Council is part and parcel of being Catholic. It is within this context that we can best understand what Francis did with his recent motu proprio entitled Traditionis Custodes, restricting the celebration of the Missal of 1962, the so-called “Latin Mass” (though its differences of wording and action are more relevant than its Latin).

The continued celebration of the Missal of 1962 after it was superseded twice–by the 1965 “transitional” Missal and the 1970 Missal known in modified form by most Catholics today–was a result precisely of the shock to the system (felt by large number of Catholics but only expressed in this way by a small minority) resulting from the revelation of the “dirty little secret.” With the exception of Pope Paul VI’s “Agatha Christie Indult” to English intellectuals in 1971, most celebrations were illicit and the result of disobedience by the likes of Fr. Gommar DePauw on Long Island or (most consequentially) Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. For traditionalists, disobedience to church authority–whether in action or spirit–was justified by the rightness of their cause, namely, standing for the immutable tradition over and against the reforms of Vatican II. Changes to the Mass was only one of their objections to Vatican II, with other issues such as religious freedom and changed attitudes toward Jews also looming large. Anti-Semitism and far-right political views ran rampant, owing to traditionalism’s roots in conservative French Catholicism.

Over time, as John Paul II allowed more celebrations of the older Missal in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off schism from Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X, more people became attracted to these celebrations as an alternative to celebrations of the newer Missal that they regarded as lacking in reverence. While there are valid criticisms of the way the liturgical reform was carried out in certain places, recourse to the older Missal was not the solution. Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio liberalizing the use of the 1962 Missal made matters worse in that traditionalists took it as license to continue building a parallel church (with many priests refusing to celebrate according to the 1970 Missal) that they viewed as more in keeping with tradition than that of the other 99% of Catholics. Of particular concern in this post-2007 period was increasing use of the Holy Week rituals from before Pius XII’s 1955 reforms–indication that the driving force of the “Latin Mass” movement was not reverence but ideological rollback of Vatican II and its predecessor reforms.

Some have argued that the action by Francis was an authoritarian move to crush a grassroots movement in the church to which he had never been sympathetic, or that liturgical diversity has always existed in the church as evinced by various Eastern Catholic and other movements that have their own ritual books separate from the Roman Missal. These criticisms ignore that the older Missal was, fairly or unfairly to those attracted to it for other reasons, the leading edge of an ideological movement that opposed an ecumenical council on multiple key points and whose leaders were determined to undermine Francis’ pontificate. Furthermore, bishops, even here in the United States where celebrations of the older Missal were most widespread, had had enough of the attitudes shown by this community and sympathetic priests toward their own authority.

Unity of worship does not have to mean uniformity–indeed, this was one of the great insights of Vatican II’s liturgical reform–but it cannot be achieved with the sectarian rhetoric and ideology of traditionalists who seek to inoculate against change and keep it a “dirty little secret” rather than embrace it as inevitable and life-giving. Traditionis Custodes invites the church to seek unity and nourishment in Vatican II–including areas where it made changes to teachings and practices of the church–and makes clear that any attempt to “walk back” or dilute it is a dead letter. Like Vatican II itself, Francis invites us to live in and respond to reality.

Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.


I am haunted by a photograph that was recently circulated on social media by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR). It shows luxury yachts in a harbor with diners at an outdoor restaurant in the foreground. In the background flames are leaping into the night, casting an eerie glow over the sky and the water. It could be a scene from any of the Mediterranean countries currently plagued by heatwaves and wildfires.

I saw that image while on a caravan tour of the Scottish Highlands last month with my husband Dave. We spent an idyllic month in some of the most unspoiled places on the planet – soaring mountains, rolling moors speckled with wildflowers, pristine seas lapping onto dazzling white beaches, dolphins leaping in the incoming tides. The luxury of a caravan is a long way from the camping holidays we used to have when we lived in Zimbabwe, when we would pile our four little children into the car and take off on safari. Herds of elephants would amble through our rudimentary campsites, baboons would settle noisily for the night in the trees above our tent and somewhere in the distance, we might hear the grunt of a leopard or the haunting cackle of a hyena. All these experiences of nature at its most awe-inspiring are overshadowed by that apocalyptic image of the night sky ablaze behind a scene of decadent luxury. In a report published this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that human activity has caused unprecedented and irreversible changes to the earth’s climate, and time has almost run out to avert a global catastrophe.

Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, offers a magnificent creation-centred theology that puts social and environmental justice at the heart of the Church’s life. It is an inspiring resource for all who recognize the urgency and enormity of the challenges facing us, but it is marred by one serious omission. Global environmental agencies recognize the vital contribution made by women in tackling environmental degradation, and gender equality is one of the key goals of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Yet Laudato Si’ has nothing to say about women and the environment. For all its emphasis on social and economic justice, it is silent about the disproportionate impact of climate change on the world’s poorest women and girls. It encourages local initiatives, but fails to acknowledge the extent to which women are in the forefront of grassroots sustainable development projects.

Despite its silence on women, however, Laudato Si’ is gendered through and through. Its subject is “Mother Earth” and “she” is a victim who is being laid to waste by human (male?) greed, neglect and indifference.

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. … [T]he earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). (LS para 2)

Implicit in this quotation is the gendering of power – the lords and masters are male, and the feminized earth is their victim. But Mother Earth is not a passive victim of human abuse awaiting rescue by papal knights in shining armour, any more than women are passive victims of male power who need strong men to protect them. Mother Earth fights back, and if she must destroy some of her children to ensure her survival, she will do so. Pandemics, fires, heatwaves, storms, floods – this is the behaviour we should expect if we attribute metaphorical motherhood to the planet, for it is how real mothers have behaved throughout history. If women are exploited, abused, raped, commodified, ignored and excluded, the result will be the savage desperation of needing to fight back however one can to survive.

Church teachings on motherhood are shaped by sentimental fantasies of maternal femininity which gloss over the often harsh realities and painful dilemmas of women’s lives, and these same attitudes infect the maternal feminine representation of nature. As ecofeminists have been arguing for many years, the romanticization of motherhood and the romanticization of nature go hand in hand, and both help to sustain a culture of domination.  If the Catholic Church is to become a leader in the struggle for the environment, its leaders will have to radically rethink their gender politics.

Robert Mickens suggested here recently that Pope Francis is seeking radical reform of the Roman Curia. It may be that in getting rid of the Vatican’s elitist patriarchal power structures, this shrewd Pope is preparing the way for his successor to at last bring women into full and equal partnership in the Church, but by then it may be too late to save our common home. Women are losing patience, and so is Mother Earth.

Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.

The Iron Pope

He was known as one tough pope who reigned for only five years near the end of the 16th century, during which time he ruthlessly restored order to a lawless and bandit-infested Rome and Papal States.

Though he was Supreme Pontiff for but a “blink of an eye,” Pope Sixtus (1585-1590) left a very big and deep footprint on the Eternal City and the Vatican that has endured to this very day. He financed a series of ambitious construction projects, including an aqueduct that remains intact to this day (the Aqua Felice), the rebuilding of the Lateran Palace, the completion of the dome of St. Peter’s and the erection of obelisks in front of three papal basilicas and other Roman sites.

But the most substantial achievement of Sisto Quinto (as he’s called in Italian) was the creation of the current structure of the Roman Curia. No pope in the last 431 years who has made the effort has been able to significantly alter it.

Oh, they have tried...

Paul VI (1963-78), who spent most of his priestly life in the Vatican, probably came closest of any to succeeding.

He angered many Church traditionalists and those among the Roman nobility when he stripped the Curia of many of its imperial court-like features—such as certain titles, ceremonies, regal eccentricities, etc.—following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But it quickly became apparent that the Pauline “reforms” were destined to remain only cosmetic, despite the pope’s intention to change the governing culture at the Vatican. Unfortunately, they never amounted to much more than nominal changes.

Pope Francis, who is almost halfway into his ninth year of steering the Barque of Peter and is quickly approaching his 85th birthday (in December), has made Roman Curia reform a major focus of his pontificate.

He began by instituting a new level of governance called the Council of Cardinals just one month after his election. Its purpose is to advise him on matters regarding his guidance of the universal Church and—most specifically— to help him write a new constitution for the Curia.

The document is said to be completed. But it is currently being scrutinized and amended by a team of canon lawyers the Jesuit pope trusts. It has been a long process to write what is essentially the blueprint for restructuring the Church’s central bureaucracy.

Many reform-minded Catholics have grown impatient with the project and they are even doubtful that Francis will be able to succeed where his successors (including Paul VI, whom he beatified in 2014 and declared a saint in 2018) have failed.

In contrast to Pope Paul, who was the consummate Vatican insider, Francis is a complete outsider. He is the first pope since St. Pius X (d. 1914) who never studied or worked in Rome. He is also the first member of a religious order to be elected Bishop of Rome since Gregory XVI, a Benedictine monk who reigned from 1831-46.

This has put him at a notable disadvantage. But the Argentine pope is shrewd.

He has moved slowly and methodically, strategically making one piecemeal change after another, gradually shifting the terrain inside the Vatican. The timing of the pope’s moves has generally been unpredictable, which has had the effect of keeping even seasoned Curia officials uncertain of what will come next and completely off balance.

Francis has shared drafts of the new constitution for the reformed Roman Curia with the heads of the Vatican's major departments, leaders of the world’s episcopal conferences and certain theologians. Ostensibly, the purpose for this has been to get further input and advice.

But only a few people know exactly which suggestions, if any, he has decided to incorporate in the final document. Both fans and foes of the reformer-pope suspect there will be some big surprises and major changes that were not included in earlier drafts.

The recent publication of the “motu proprio” Traditionis custodes, which basically nullified Benedict XVI’s restoration in 2007 of the Tridentine Mass, showed that Francis is not afraid to make substantial decisions that might even reverse policies instituted by his still-living predecessor.

How far, many are now wondering, will the Jesuit pope go?

It is well-known that, before undertaking major initiatives like traveling abroad, he seeks inspiration and celestial favor from the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Beside a devotion to “Our Lady, Un-doer of Knots,” he has visited a side chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore nearly 90 times since the start of his pontificate to pray before the Marian icon, “Salus Populi Romani” (Protectress and Health of the Roman People).

In a chapel on the other side of the nave of that same basilica are the tombs of two popes. One is of St. Pius V (d. 1572), the man who codified the Tridentine Mass. And directly facing it is that of the earlier-mentioned Sixtus V.

I visited Sixtus’ tomb last year on August 27 for the 430th anniversary of his death and asked a church custodian if, in all the times Pope Francis has been to the basilica, he’s ever stopped here.

No, the man said, he could not recall that ever happening.

I’m not completely convinced. But even if Francis has not prayed at the tomb of Sixtus V, perhaps he should, just for a bit more inspiration as he gets ready to carry out his Curia reform.

The Romans called Sixtus “er papa tosto,” a phrase that one might liberally translate as “the tough” or “badass pope.”

Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.