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Entries from July 2022

Francis in Canada: When Symbols Are More Powerful than Words

More often than not it is through symbols rather than words that the important messages of a pontificate are communicated. So it has been with Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, a visit aimed at making amends for the appalling abuse carried out against indigenous communities in state-funded, Catholic-run residential schools. 

While the words of Francis’ apologies were sorely needed and long overdue, they were doubly poignant coming from an elderly Roman Pontiff using a wheelchair. The image of the Pope sitting in front of the Lac Sainte Anne, praying for healing and reminding his audience that it was on the Sea of Galilee that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, will live on long in the memory. These moments in Canada also sent important messages to the whole Church. 

First of all, the 85-year-old Pope has offered a face of the Church able to show humility, admit wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. His use of an ordinary wheelchair and walking stick also shows a Church willing to embrace its own vulnerability and fragility. Such an approach overturns a deeply ingrained ecclesial view that while the Church may be made up of sinners, it is not a sinful Church. This attitude continues to prevail in the resistance—or lukewarm responses—to the global synod process of reform launched by Francis. There are a number of high-ranking prelates, supported by vocal supporters, who oppose any structural or institutional reforms of the Church. They might be happy to have a synod that focuses on culture war issues, but don’t want to look at anything that touches on internal change. They are uncomfortable in admitting the woundedness of the Church. Not so for Francis. 

“In confronting the scandal of evil and the Body of Christ wounded in the flesh of our indigenous brothers and sisters, we too have experienced deep dismay; we too feel the burden of failure,” Francis said in a homily during Mass at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica in Québec.

What the abuse scandals of the past have revealed time and again is that it can no longer be Church business as usual, and Francis’ Canada visit underlines a willingness to face up to the past and make amends. 

A fundamental element to this synodal process is a Church that learns to listen rather than simply find different ways to proclaim ready-made answers. Francis’ call is for the Church to go to the margins and the marginalized and be converted by the encounter. It is for this reason that indigenous communities, whether in Canada, Australia or the Amazon, are becoming some of the protagonists of the synodal journey. Interestingly, while Francis was in Canada, Cardinal Mario Grech, the leader of the synod office in Rome, was visiting indigenous communities in Guatemala. The Pope’s focus on the Indigenous in Canada was not about what he told them but learning the wisdom they have to offer. This was symbolized in Francis wearing the headdress of an indigenous chief and being given an indigenous name. 

Second, the Pope’s Canada trip sent a message about the Church’s relationship with tradition. While some have attacked Francis’ focus on indigenous communities, most notably during the 2019 Amazon synod for its inclusion of indigenous symbols, he is seeking to recover elements of Catholic tradition. In his speeches Francis praised those missionaries to Canada who preserved native languages and cultures and cited the Bishop of Québec, Saint François de Laval, who stood up for indigenous against those who tried to demean them. The Jesuit Pope is pointing to the long tradition of inculturation whereby Christianity inserts, rather than imposes, itself into a local culture, something epitomized by the Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, a Chinese scholar and adviser to the Emperor. 

When Catholics became involved in running residential schools for indigenous, Francis argued, they had entered a worldly pact with colonial powers of the time and betrayed the Christian faith. It is something which serves as a warning to those in the Church seeking alliances with contemporary political powers. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has been calling for a deeper exegesis of Catholic tradition by focusing on the essentials of the Christian faith and warning against any drifts into ideology. And the synodal journey is a recovery of what it means to be the Church and is a process with deep biblical and theological roots.

“It is up to us to take on the tradition received, because that tradition is the living faith of our dead,” the Pope explained during the Mass at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. “Let us not transform it into ‘traditionalism,’ which is the dead faith of the living, as an author [Jaroslav Pelikan] once said.” 

Francis, as he pushes on with reforms to the Church despite fragile health and physical pain, is pointing to the tradition articulated by the Apostle Paul when he wrote: “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 

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

Atonement for Abuse Demands Reforming the Church

Days away from Pope Francis’ long-awaited visit, after the horrific discovery of unmarked graves at Indian Residential Schools, in Canada we are bombarded by media coverage of tragic survivor stories and old film footage with unsmiling students under the watchful eyes of nuns. There is understandable outrage and intense scrutiny of abuse of the vulnerable by and in the Church.

As a pediatrician and Religious Sister, I have worked for over 40 years to heal and protect the victims of child sexual abuse in Church and society. Today we know that the sexual abuse of minors in homes and safe places by trusted adults can cause profound, often life-long, physical, psychological and emotional damage. Victims of clergy abuse can also feel violated and abandoned by God. The trauma can paralyze the development of moral identity, character and faith. We have learned to our shame that the sexual abuse by clergy is, first and foremost, the abuse of power, position and conscience.

Survivors of residential schools in Canada, the U.S., Australia and Ireland also experienced forced Christianization and the loss of families and culture. I weep at knowing that sick and dying children were without the love and support of their parents.

Pope Francis acknowledges the profound harms of abuse and declared that “There is work needed to make amends in the care of those harmed and in the repair of toxic culture and practices. We must ‘undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.’” (Evangelium Gaudii 2013 #27).

In 2014 he established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to break the silence and denial which have characterized Church response. He has worked tirelessly in developing canons, policies and protocols to deal with abuse and extending protection from minors to vulnerable adults. Come una madre amorevole, (2016) declares protection of children a duty of all in the Church. Vos estis lux mundi (2019) holds bishops and religious superiors accountable for misconduct, mismanagement and cover-up and sets an obligation to establish offices for victim assistance and reporting of cases.

The 2021 Book 6 Code of Canon Law new focus on “vulnerable persons” raises broader issues of power. Pope Francis’s Pentecost 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium is a revolutionary reform of the Curia situating it “at the service of the Church and world” and calls for the restoration of a culture of servant leadership.

Despite this work, denial, abuse and mismanagement continue across the globe confirming that policies and protocols are necessary but not worth the paper, or tablets of stone, they are written on without conversion of minds and hearts. Pope Francis notes wisely “Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffective.” (E.G. #189.)

Rebuilding the Church to atone for sexual and cultural abuse is not a cosmetic exercise. The Church is not a simple “fixer-upper” in the home improvement jargon. It is in need of urgent foundational repair. Personal and ecclesial discernment is essential to identifying the underlying systemic and cultural beliefs and practices that are in need of reform to the “mind of Christ.”

Pope Francis’ synodal project has identified key issues in need of discernment and action:

Restore the loving Triune and radically equal non-hierarchical God revealed in Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection.

Reclaim the primary understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ and the People of God who journey together.

Repair Church structures and a kenotic vision of authority to serve the contemporary Church and form true “missionary disciples” promoting social and restorative justice and care for our common home.

Rectify the abuse of power by emulating Jesus’ witness to using power for others and servant leadership.

Revitalize the priesthood of the baptized, the recognition of the gifts of all and the co-responsibility of lay and ordained for mission.

Resuscitate meaningful dialogue in the Church in the spirit of Decretum Gratiani “What touches all must be discussed and approved by all” with “open mind and heart” and with other Christians and others, especially Jews, Muslims and Indigenous traditions.

Restore evangelization and catechesis leading to Jesus, especially for our disconnected young.

Repair right relationships between ordained and lay and women and men in the Church.

Remodel our Churches as welcoming spaces and our liturgy to promote joyful celebration of the Word and the “full and active participation of all” in the Eucharist as a meal of friends, not a performance.


…morality from a sin-centered legalism to the formation of virtue and conscience

…a healthy Christian anthropology reflecting the dignity of all made in the “image of God” and belief that there is “…in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race, of nationality, social condition or gender…” (L.G.#32)

…a healthy theology of sexuality which preserves Christian values but also incorporates advances in science

Rebuilding requires strenuous labor, different skills and a blueprint with a vision for the new space. Thank God that vision of a happy welcoming home keeps us working.

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

Christian Love into Civic Action: Clues from Sociology

Last Sunday, the Gospel reading was the parable of the Good Samaritan. At my parish Mass, the priest stated that the story is well known to all of us, but it’s important that we not let it become mundane. Love is not a mere emotion; rather, Jesus is asking all of us to adopt a “radical, foundational,” active love. The homilist further noted that more love is desperately needed in society today. How we would practice such love, as individuals or as a parish, and what concrete steps it might mean for our action in society, he did not say.

Hopefully, the homily got the many of my fellow parishioners’ brain juices flowing about these questions for a while, as it did for me. I think that’s likely, and that’s about all we should expect from a single homily. Where most parishes falter is in providing guidance outside the homily to help their members make those connections in reflection and action.

While it’s important to reflect on these matters normatively (theologically, about what should be the case), it’s also useful to examine them descriptively (sociologically, about what in fact happens and what works for making change). So, for the past two months, I’ve read every academic article I could find in library databases that use social science methods to study the connections between church life and civic engagement—well over 100 articles. I’ll share three of many takeaways, highlighting findings that compare Catholics to other people of faith.

First, active church participation matters. Generally, people have to belong to a church and go to services to learn about and then participate in the church’s own outreach projects. But it’s not mere attendance that matters—attending religious services does not greatly predict people’s active participation in civic organizations. However, their being active in additional church activities does.

Second, traditions and their theological stances matter. To nuance the previous point, the kind of Christian or religious group to which one belongs makes a difference. A well-attested finding is that Jewish and mainline Protestant members and congregations are the most civically and socially active, Evangelical Protestants are the least, and Catholics are in the middle. While Evangelicals are not a monolithic group, they are consistently on the low-end of civic outreach, for reasons ranging from their theological conservatism to their focus on in-group bonding. Interestingly, regular attendance does raise the likelihood of Christians volunteering for social change efforts, except for Catholics. Like Evangelicals, the most-attending Catholics seem to turn more inward, which is also true of all Christian communities with a conservative theological orientation.

Third, the Catholic edge in youth volunteering gets squandered. For civic engagement, one might think to place hope in Catholic youth, who volunteer at high rates, benefitting from the service opportunities organized by Catholic schools. Catholic youth often describe service to others as one of the things they most like about Catholicism. However, compared to Protestants, “Catholic volunteerism does not persist into adulthood.” Why? For one thing, say these researchers, the Catholic school structure falls away; for another, “The lack of an avenue to civic life through commitment to other Catholic institutions, including parishes, may also affect overall levels of volunteering for Catholic school students after secondary school. These students may become disconnected from broader Catholic institutions and social networks that sustain volunteerism behavior.”

This speculation is consistent with a landmark 2001 study by a team of Catholic sociologists, Young Adult Catholics. The authors recommend that “ways must be provided in which young adults can become meaningfully involved in Church life … Many of our respondents complained of the absence of programs and activities for them, and especially for single adults in parish settings.”

All these studies point to the necessity of building up parish life with activities that pull in people beyond Mass attendance and that address the needs of young adults—for many reasons, including to inculcate the values and habits of civic engagement. The process is not sequential but mutually reinforcing, because some of those parish extracurriculars and many of the activities that will interest young adults are those involving outreach to the community.

Sadly, the alarm about disconnected young adults has been sounded for at least two decades now, and not enough is being done, as Michelle Loris recently argued in this space. And the U.S. Catholic Church at the national level and in many dioceses and parishes aspires to look more and more like the Evangelicals, which is likely to further suppress civic outreach. We Catholics should not squander our rich tradition of social activism and youth volunteerism. The Good Samaritan beckons us.

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

The Moral Insufficiency of the Church: Its Persistent Failure of Women

The nation doesn’t simply need

what we (women) have.

It needs what we are. 

~St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein)

In this blog space, I have written about the apparent dangers of a sector of American lay Catholicism to the moral and spiritual health of the Church and to the wider community of Catholics. In some corners of the country, contemporary Catholicism seems more akin to a heterodox Jansenism or a white evangelical Christian nationalism than to modern Christianity framed by the moral and social justice teachings of Vatican II. As evidence, one need only look to language of the (majority Catholic) justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade: embedded in the prosaic legalese was the patronizing discourse of disdain, condescension, and even insensitivity about what is obviously a complicated and fraught matter for women about human dignity and moral autonomy.

So, yes, American lay Catholicism has much for which it must answer. However, it is also true that many lay Catholics, both public leaders and private citizens, have taken/ take cues or “inspiration” from the authoritative narrative of the Church, and so it only seems appropriate to look to that constituency and “speak truth to” its rhetorical turn, specifically in its public responses to the Dobbs decision, responses which are dismaying in their moral insufficiency and compel two essential questions: does the Church have any real understanding of or even concern about the fact that it continues to fail women? Does the Church have any real understanding of or even concern about the pervasive patriarchy that continues to undergird the culture of Catholicism, especially in the U.S., and that has so undermined the moral agency of the Church that significant numbers of women are leaving the Church and younger women are rejecting the Church as being irrelevant—if not actually pernicious—to their lives?

Space will not permit the inclusion of the many publicized remarks of Church leaders (some can be found online) and indeed, upon first reading, the statements seem measured and pastoral, in some cases even compassionate, with regard to the life choices women in most of the country must now make. However, a closer reading of the statements exposes the disturbing depth of patriarchy rife through the hierarchy, for in every statement, not a single word was said about men and male accountability.

It is well documented that the most patriarchal cultures can be identified by two primary proclivities: on one hand, placing the burden of displaying and sustaining the culture’s honor and morality (as defined by men) on women, while on the other hand, privileging male behavior and ideation to such a consequential degree that, on occasions of ethical lapses or moral impropriety, men (unless compelled) are not held accountable in any meaningful way or their actions are folded into the prevailing culture as normal and acceptable. Thus, as several bishops (and other clergy) revealed in their statements, the entire onus of pregnancy—its fact, its intimations and its significance—falls entirely on the shoulders of women (and girls) without a word said about male responsibility or obligation. The patriarchal mindset provides men (and, admittedly, some women) with the intellectual contrivances to shield men from liability and deflect blame to others, usually women. Patriarchal rationalization has allowed (lay and clerical) men to diminish the worth and significance of women (and girls) qua feminae much as it seeded the sexual abuse crisis.

Qui tacet consentire videtur ubi loqui debuit ac potuit

~ St. Thomas More

It is also worth noting that the Dobbs decision did not merely overturn Roe v. Wade. It also granted the states full license to decide on the degree to which they may criminalize the actions of women (never men) simply seeking reproductive health care and, again, the Church (and lay Catholic) leaders, who have made proud claims about the need for compassion for (pregnant) women, have remained silent before such misogynistic machinations, suggesting, per More, that they are in agreement…or are simply too cowardly to challenge political authority.

There can be no ‘rebuilding’ of the Church without women, and without women, there will be no Church. As other contributors to this blog have testified, young people, but especially young women, are either leaving the church or rejecting membership altogether. However, many of those women are not abandoning religion altogether; rather, they are seeking religious spaces in which their lives and their perspectives are validated and respected. It is not up to women any more to make “the situation work”: it is the responsibility of the clergy to become self-aware and assess its patriarchy and find the moral will to effect authentic change for a more just and equitable Church.

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.