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Entries from October 2021

The Attack on Pope Francis

Pope Francis has never claimed to be perfect. “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” he was asked soon after his election. “I am a sinner,” was the answer.

One of the reforms of the papacy the Jesuit Pope has enacted is a willingness to admit mistakes publicly and apologize for them. In another shift from recent tradition, he’s also given his full support to media freedom. If something goes wrong, Francis doesn’t send Vatican officials to spin on his behalf or issue clarifications setting out what the Pope really meant to say. 

His authentic communication style, spontaneity and refusal to be scripted is a recovery of the original Petrine tradition. After all, St. Peter, who tended to jump in too quickly and then rue the consequences, became the Church’s chief apostle despite his human failings. 

This shift from a monarchical to servant-leader model has helped make this Pope the most respected religious leader in the world today; yet it has also seen him face unprecedented attacks.  

Beginning soon after his election, the 84-year-old Pope has come up against a powerful and well-funded network of Catholics who have been conducting a guerrilla warfare against his papacy. 

In my book, The Outsider, I document more than a hundred of these attacks that originate from a range of sources including Fox News, populist politicians, President Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Rome-based cardinals. We are not talking about the normal criticism you would expect of a leader, but a politically motivated campaign. And it is rooted in politics. 

Those opposing Francis are unnerved by his bold, prophetic stance on social issues, including his critiques of the capitalist system, appeals for refugees and call to end the death penalty. An outsider pope who has associated himself with outsiders has made those used to calling the shots inside Catholicism very uncomfortable. 

Offering a megaphone to those opposing Francis is the world’s largest religious broadcaster, EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), which has been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump’s politics

One of their flagship programs, hosted by Raymond Arroyo, a regular Fox News contributor, runs unrelentingly negative attack lines against Francis. This hostility has seeped into some other areas of the network. In September 2019, a priest used his homily to attack the Pope during an EWTN live-streamed Mass, while the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register was one of just two websites that in 2018 released the text of former papal diplomat Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s “testimony” calling on the Pope to resign.

Francis has decided to call some of this out. Without naming EWTN, the Pope has spoken of “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.” He explained that “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them.” He added, “They are the work of the devil.”

His comments made a distinction between criticism of Jorge Bergoglio, “a sinner,” and the office of the papacy, the instrument of the Church’s unity. The issue is not about a Catholic media outlet criticizing the Pope, but fueling division through one-sided coverage. This is why he referenced the devil: the original meaning of the Greek word, diabolos, can be translated as “to divide.”

Even after Francis’ remarks, EWTN’s response has been to double-down and say nothing. Arroyo’s latest show saw him spend half an hour talking down the global synod reform process with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a longtime Francis critic. At one point Müller, the Vatican’s former doctrine chief, said consulting people during the synod was “unnecessary.” 

Despite the increasingly politicized attacks, the Pope is not backing down. During an address to community organizers, he said he was willing to “make a pest of myself” with his demands for a fairer distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, for arms dealers to end their activities and for businesses to stop polluting the earth. The Roman Pontiff compared the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd to the Good Samaritan and he urged the media to avoid the “logic of post-truth, disinformation, defamation…” All of what he said is an application of the Church’s social teaching.

“It saddens me,” he said, “that some members of the Church get annoyed when we mention these guidelines that belong to the full tradition of the Church. But the Pope must not stop mentioning this teaching, even if it often annoys people, because what is at stake is not the Pope but the Gospel.”

As anyone who has overseen reform can attest to, coming up against opposition can be a sign you’re going in the right direction. 

Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church. 

Saved by Beauty

Many years ago, while fasting in a jail cell in Colorado as a result of sitting on the railroad tracks leading into a nuclear weapons factory, I received a postcard from Dorothy Day. It was an aerial photo of Cape Cod, on which she had written, “I hope this card refreshes you and does not tantalize you.”

Dorothy was an avid collector of picture postcards. Some of them adorned the walls of her room at Maryhouse. They included icons and art, but also images from nature: forests, the ocean, polar bears. Dorothy spent most of her life surrounded by actual images of poverty, including the hungry men and women who waited outside the Catholic Worker each morning for a bowl of soup. But one of Dorothy’s most distinctive qualities was her eye for beauty.

In every circumstance, she could notice something beautiful: the sunlight on a tenement fire escape, or a gingko tree poking through the sidewalk. She enjoyed listening to the opera on the radio. She felt her heart “leap for joy” as she read and suddenly assented “to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.” But she also had an eye for moral beauty: the sight of someone sharing bread with a neighbor (the literal meaning of “companionship”). And hardest of all, she could see beauty where others did not, in the features of Jesus under the disguise of the poor and downtrodden.

Despite all the misery and injustice in the world, she believed we must discipline ourselves to remember the goodness of God’s creation and to catch glimpses of the new heaven and the new earth that were evident if only we had eyes to see. These “samples of heaven” could refresh us and sustain our hope amidst so many frustrations and disappointments.

The life of Sister Wendy Beckett, a consecrated hermit who lived on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England, was quite different from Dorothy Day. But in their attention to the saving power of beauty, they had much in common. Sister Wendy for some years achieved surprising celebrity when she was discovered by the BBC and given a television series in which she visited museums and talked about art. When that was over, she was happy to return to her cell, where she spent most of her days in silence and prayer.

In her last years, before her death in 2018, Sister Wendy and I corresponded on an almost daily basis. She told me that she had considered her television work as a kind of apostolate. By means of talking about the beauty of art, she felt she had found a way of talking about God—the source of Beauty—to an audience unfamiliar or put off by religious language. But for Sister Wendy, beauty was not just about what is aesthetically pleasing. Like her forebear, Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century anchoress and mystic, Sister Wendy saw all things in relation to the mysteries of faith, and so in that light, like Julian or St. Francis or Dorothy, she could see beauty in the Cross, and even in our own sufferings.

One time, in describing a dream, she provided a deep account of her vocation. The dream had three parts: It began with her looking at magnificent pictures of lakes. Then they were actual lakes and she was walking around them, taking in their beauty. Then the lakes were inside her—she was containing them. But at this point she realized there was something wrong with them; they were poisoned or polluted. Yet she felt that in her sorrow and through her own heart she was somehow able to purify the lakes. “I suppose,” she wrote, “this is an image of what being a Christian means. In Jesus we take the whole wounded world into ourselves and suffer with it, holding it out all the time to His holiness.” That is our reason for being, she said: “God’s lakes need us.”

Dorothy Day often quoted Dostoevsky’s famous line, “The world will be saved by beauty.” I often puzzled over what that meant. But both Dorothy and Sister Wendy showed me that beauty has a moral dimension. To direct our attention to beauty, or even the recollection of it, while sitting in a slum or a jail cell or a hermitage, could inspire us to greater courage, hope and love. And it occurred to me that that is why I have spent so much of my life writing about saints: because the lessons of their beautiful faith and witness can refresh and ennoble us. And God’s lakes, forests, polar bears and all the other suffering creatures need us.

Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books, the editor of many volumes of writings by Dorothy Day and author of numerous works on saints. His letters with Sister Wendy, This is Heaven, will appear next year.

Eucharistic Incoherence

For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them.

- T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

The Catholic bishops of the United States have problems on their hands. Their moral credibility as leaders has been in tatters for some time now due to the ongoing revelations of the extent and cowardice of their actions in responding to the sexual abuse of minors. Catholic levels of engagement with the church, particularly among the young, continues to plummet. The coronavirus pandemic has left many people feeling spiritually adrift, particularly in parts of the country where religiosity and COVID precautions such as masking and vaccines have been in an inverse relationship. All of these are urgent matters affecting many people, a true challenge of leadership.

How have the bishops chosen to respond, in their June meeting and the runup to their November meeting?  By voting to proceed with a document on the Eucharist including a section on “Eucharistic Coherence”— e.g. worthiness of the faithful to receive the Eucharist if it might produce a public scandal—with a cadre of bishops throwing aside all pretense of avoiding political partisanship to single out the inauguration of President Biden as the cause of this initiative (which it clearly was). This document will not be approved by the Vatican. High-level Cardinals, and even the Pope himself, have made this abundantly clear.

What brought the bishops to this point? Ultimately, through a combination of tunnel vision and donor pressure, they have chosen to fight the culture wars rather than pastor their flocks. They have also not-so-tacitly signaled that Catholics are allowed to be Republicans and carry out policies of Republican administrations, but are not allowed to be Democrats or support positions associated with Democrats (namely, continuing legal availability of abortion). Beyond the issue of abortion, many bishops promote, for example, organizations that still attempt conversion therapy despite its devastating psychological effects while shunning (and in many cases condemning) even moderate Catholic outreach to the LBGTQ community such as that of Fr. James Martin, SJ. Catholicism, on this view, is concomitant with cultural and political conservatism.

When I set out to choose an epigraph for this column, I initially thought of the famous line from the same speech referenced above in Murder in the Cathedral, in which its protagonist, Archbishop Thomas Becket, says that “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” I demurred in part because I do not in fact think the bishops are doing the right thing, but reading through the broader speech to ensure proper context, I found it even more relevant than I expected, as Becket is grappling with the temptation to find glory in martyrdom, which should be taken up only reluctantly. I think a similar dynamic is afoot in our day and age; many of the bishops have concluded that strong public opposition, including from within the church, equates to a kind of soft martyrdom. This language of martyrdom and persecution carries within it that danger of self-glorification and making their cause—the pro-life cause, proximately, but ultimately the cause of the faith itself—serve them and their political, culture war ends.

While this debate goes on, American democracy remains on the brink of catastrophe, with many “red” states curtailing voting rights and preparing for the possibility of sending electors that go against the will of the people in the 2024 election. This has been met with resounding silence from the Catholic hierarchy, as was much of the corruption and abuse (particularly the lies leading to January 6) of the Trump administration. Needless to say, there has also been little episcopal condemnation of the failures of Catholic politicians like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott to protect their citizens from needless COVID-19 deaths through vaccination, and of Catholic Supreme Court justices to stay executions that are egregious even by the standards of that barbaric form of punishment. What is this—threatening de facto excommunication to some politicians who promote policies that are out of line with Catholic teaching but completely ignoring others—but incoherence?

Pope Francis has all but begged the U.S. bishops to change their tack on multiple occasions, to little avail, with some bishops belittling this past Sunday’s opening homily of the Synod. In November, they have a choice: to stay the course and produce a document that will be null and void but alienate and anger many Catholics whose relationship to the church has been strained by the above; or to embrace the approach of Pope Francis—full witness to the teaching of the church in dialogue with the pastoral needs of the world in front of them, including the crying needs of their own country and its people. That would be coherence— not with culture war politics but with the Gospel.

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

The Crisis of Community among Priests and Laity—A Tale of Two Surveys

I started researching this post by looking for surveys about what American laity are satisfied and dissatisfied with. But I stumbled on a gripping survey about new priests’ satisfaction. Other than this November 2020 story by the Catholic News Agency, the Catholic and secular media ignored the release of this survey, so I missed it at the time. But it deserves a lot more attention.

The survey of over 1,000 recently ordained priests in the U.S., three-fourths of them diocesan priests, was conducted in 2020 by the Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Titled “Enter by the Narrow Gate,” the survey report focuses on how well the priests feel prepared by seminary formation and how satisfied they are with various aspects of priestly life.

The priests feel well prepared for presiding at liturgies, preaching and knowing theology. They say they are least prepared in parish administration, preparing couples for marriage, ministering in multicultural settings and handling stress or managing their time. They are most satisfied in their ministries, such as celebrating Mass, preaching, counselling, hearing confessions and ministering to youth. The areas in which they are least satisfied are “performing administrative and human resource duties, the poor relationship they have with the pastors under whom they serve, feeling burned out from their workload, their frustration with their diocese/bishop and the lack of fraternity among their fellow priests.”

While four in five of the priests are satisfied overall with their vocation, one in five are not. One in 20 say they would not enter the priesthood again, if they could do it over, and might not stay in the priesthood. How can the Church be satisfied with twenty percent of its ministers frustrated and unhappy? That statistic sounds like it should come from a survey of Amazon workers, but apparently even they are less dissatisfied (at 12 percent) than the priests.

The numerical statistics are complemented by nearly 200 pages of representative quotations. Reading them made me very sad for younger priests and for the seminarians whom I advise in my faculty role. Not to discount the many statements about satisfaction and meaning in their lives, but I was taken aback by so many statements about loneliness, lack of mentoring and support, and fraught relationships with other priests, bishops, and sometimes laity. For example:

  • “Perhaps the least satisfying aspect is the presbyterate. Upon being ordained I felt like I was shipped out to work with no one looking out for me. When days get long or situations are tough to navigate I never was taught where to turn.”
  • “I do not find my ‘brother’ priests trustful people with whom I can get together and spend holidays or have time to relax and have fun.”
  • “It can be lonely. At times, I wonder if I would have been happier as a married man.”
  • “My seminary did little to nothing to prepare me for living a healthy life. Years of living under the watchful eye of formators ready to pounce on any flaw made me fearful to be honest about my struggles.”
  • “I went to a parish with 5,000 people. Normally, four priests serve that parish. Now it was myself—a brand new priest—and the 80-year-old pastor with very limited energy. It was so wildly overwhelming.”
  • “I feel the people’s expectations of a priest are pretty wild and many times unhealthy. It’s very easy for people to see the priest as a celebrity or a purely spiritual being or even as a commodity.”

Readers of the report can find plenty of fodder to support both “liberal” and “conservative” critiques of today’s Church. But it would be a mistake to lean too hard in either direction. Rather, there’s a community crisis among priests.

In addition to “Enter by the Narrow Gate,” I found a 2009 Pew Forum report on lay people who leave Catholicism. Those Catholics who become unaffiliated are more likely to cite reasons having to do with Church teachings on abortion, LGTBQ and the like. But one-fifth of them leave out of disappointment with the feeling of community in parishes. One-fifth of Catholics who become Protestant cite the same reason, and even more of them changed religions because the worship services and the overall style of the religion were more appealing. Three in ten join their new religion because a member invited them.

Much needs to change in priestly training and support structures. Much needs to change to make parishes more welcoming and communal. Couldn’t priests and lay people find common cause in rethinking parish life to support one another and to develop richer friendships with each other? Shouldn’t lay people better appreciate the social-emotional needs of their priests, and shouldn’t priests be able to share the duties of ministry more widely? Those are among the questions that occur to me from reading these reports in tandem.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.