A publication of Sacred Heart University

« August 2022 | Main | October 2022 »

Entries from September 2022

Taking a Stand in the Face of Anger

Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once famously likened living next to the United States to “sleeping with an elephant.”

Trudeau, the father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was suggesting that for a country the size of Canada, with a current population of 38 million, our cheek-by-jowl proximity to the United States, with a population almost 10 times the size, makes it impossible to not be affected by–or share in–the movements of the land to the south of us.

That includes, for example, the increasingly nasty tone of public discourse, especially in politics. The tone that began to emerge in the United States in about 2015 and grew to horrify so many either crept north or, more likely, empowered local views previously kept under wraps because they were deemed unseemly. With civility out the window, too many Canadian politicians of all stripes, particularly women politicians, have now suffered not only verbal harassment but forms of physical aggression, too. Thus, we watch American trends and wait to see what will make its way north.

It has been particularly upsetting to see American priests and members of the Church hierarchy blur the line between reiterating Church teachings and engaging in partisan politics. Some have gone so far as to suggest–subsidiarity be damned!–that Catholics risk eternal damnation depending on how they vote. Any such suggestion clearly contradicts the notion of freedom of conscience and undermines the effort to work effectively toward the common good, which relates to people at all stages of life rather than to any one topic. It was, therefore, almost old news when the rallying cry for Trudeau the Younger to be denied Communion began in some corners of Canada, given his position on various contentious issues.

Thus, I was relieved to see timely statements from many American bishops in response to the Republican stunt of transporting migrants arriving in the southern United States to places like Martha’s Vineyard, long a vacation spot for the likes of the Obamas and the Clintons. It is not hard to imagine self-congratulatory party members chuffed with glee over a stunt they perceived to be so witty, so apt, in spite of its very attack on the dignity of the human person.

But then Rhode Island’s Bishop Joseph Tobin tweeted that “the baby in the womb, the refugee in Cape Cod – neither should be exploited for political points.” And San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller likened the move to “human trafficking,” adding that, “to use migrants and refugees as pawns offends God, destroys society and shows how low individuals can (stoop) for personal gains”.

I am wondering how Republican Catholics received these episcopal statements. A recent survey by Pew Research suggests half of registered Republicans identify as Catholic. Another poll, designed to ask Republicans their response to the ferrying of migrants to states perceived as liberal, suggests a full two-thirds of Republicans support the idea. Regardless of the various possible mathematical breakdowns, the two polls suggest a significant number of Catholics approved of the migrant shipments, in spite of Church leaders speaking out–not in a partisan, cult-of-the-politician way, but in a style that reflects classic Catholic Social Teaching.

It made me hopeful that our Canadian bishops will increasingly become more vocal not on politics itself but on any kind of decision, be it societal or governmental, that attacks the common good and the dignity of the person. While some bishops spoke up in the early days of residential school gravesites being uncovered, far too many remained silent, seemingly waiting for someone else to speak first. Catholics in pews witnessed a Church we had always thought of as universal suddenly hiding behind local dioceses when questions arose of apologies or reparation for the harms done to families torn apart by the residential school system. While the former has now been voiced by the Pope himself, during his visit to Canada this past summer, the latter is still a confusing mess to many of us, weighed down by–surprise!–internal politics. There is a great deal of work still to be done in opening archives, arranging reparation payments and listening to the intergenerational trauma that the Church still needs to address and help ease.

Leadership calls for courage, and there are likely many American Catholics who disagree with those bishops who have taken a stand and spoken up on an ongoing basis about how welcoming the stranger and caring for those in need–especially children facing deplorable conditions–is essential gospel teaching we need to embrace. I applaud these men for finding ways to respond to challenging political issues without getting political about it.

Those of us north of the 49th parallel would welcome this trend creeping in our direction.

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

The Midterms and the Disappearance of a Distinctive Catholic Vote

The midterms in November are becoming more interesting from a political perspective as President Joe Biden’s poll numbers have started to rise, former President Donald Trump’s legal woes remind voters of how enervating his tenure was, and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade motivates a significant part of the Democratic Party’s base. At the beginning of the summer, Democrats appeared headed into a tsunami, but now control of the Senate appears up for grabs even if it remains doubtful the Democrats can hold the House. 

The past months, however, have brought more bad news for Catholic political involvement. It is difficult not to conclude that the polarization of the ambient political culture, which has gradually been eating away at the very idea of a distinctive “Catholic vote,” has now completed its task. Pro-life Catholic Democrats and pro-immigration Catholic Republicans have joined the endangered species lists.

In 2008, when I published a book called Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, I still held out the hope that there were enough well-catechized Catholics who would resist the different ways libertarianism was eating at the social bonds that lay at the root of both parties.

For Republicans, libertarianism sidelined any consideration of the common good in economic policy. The invisible hand of the market became an idol as well as a myth, and any challenge by the government on behalf of other social goods was considered a priori illegitimate. Morally, they put the “lazy” into laissez-faire.

For Democrats, libertarianism manifested itself in the mantra “my body, my choice” adopted by the abortion rights movement. All the intellectual and moral pathologies that flowed from the libertarian ethic followed inexorably: indifference to the humanity of the unborn and the adoption of a throwaway culture regarding unwanted progeny.

Still, there was a group of pro-life Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and, in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, resolving the issue of federal funding of elective abortions was the last hurdle standing. Led by Rep. Bart Stupak, the pro-life Democrats successfully forced the House to demonstrate no legislative intent at circumventing the Hyde Amendment’s proscription of such federal funding.

And there were Republicans like Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush who urged their party to adopt not only a more humane approach to the issue of immigration but to recognize immigrants as a potential boon for the country and for their party. The entrepreneurial spirit of many migrants seemed a natural fit for the GOP, exemplified by New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez’s 2012 convention address, in which she explained her family’s business success and its foundation in the American Dream.

What is more, Catholics occupied a unique place for media strategists working on campaigns. Democrats were ill-advised to run an ad on Christian radio programming because they would be reminding four Republican evangelicals to vote for every Democratic evangelical. A Democrat might run an ad in a Jewish newspaper, but no Republican would. Catholics, however, appeared split between the parties by about 46%-46%. The remaining 8% were persuadable and, in the event, would decide any close election, not least because several key swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania had a large Catholic population.

Now, the ill effects of gerrymandering, combined with Supreme Court decisions permitting more and more dark money into politics, have made it harder and harder to maintain a centrist position in either party. Activists with lots of special interest money behind them impose litmus tests on candidates in primaries for both parties.

I am especially disappointed with liberal Catholics. In the months since the Dobbs’ decision, they have largely abandoned the “consistent ethic of life” that was the hallmark of liberal Catholic sentiment on life issues. Paul Baumann courageously took on the pernicious influence of “Catholics for Choice.” But where have been the liberal theologians at respectable Catholic schools insisting that whatever the moral failings of the pro-life movement, and they are many, we Catholics can’t turn a blind eye to abortion on demand?

Conservative Catholics made their deal with the devil with Donald Trump. The House Select Committee Hearings into the attack on the U.S. Capitol have shown just how conscious prominent Catholics like William Barr and Pat Cipollone were that it was the devil with whom they were doing business. Groups like “Catholic Vote” undermine Catholic social doctrine with impunity. And the U.S. bishops’ conference is in absentia from the fight to preserve democracy.

Let’s hope the old adage proves true again: It is always darkest before the dawn.

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

Barron, LaBeouf and Catholic Toxic Masculinity

Recently, Bishop Robert Barron, newly-installed ordinary of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and Catholic media personality, interviewed the actor Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf, who stars in a new film about Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the controversial 20th-century saint, admitted to Barron that he had recently converted to Catholicism. This revelation was predictably highlighted by Barron and others as evidence of the attractiveness of Catholicism (in related ways, perhaps to recent discussions of “Dimes Square” and the church skillfully explored in this forum by Colleen Dulle), but it also exposed several issues. Beyond LaBeouf s apparent attraction (mediated by Mel Gibson) to schismatic traditionalist chapels, the announcement of his conversion came without a public reckoning or other discussion concerning his record of abusive behavior toward women.

Barron’s interview and apparent disinterest in abusive behavior toward women comes in the wake of a series of revelations about his Word on Fire organization, particularly its attitudes toward sexual harassment perpetrated by former high-ranking employee Joey Gloor. Gloor’s background as a bodybuilder highlights Barron’s own fascination in recent years with bodybuilding and other activities that might be termed aggressively masculine. His fixation with Canadian pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson, himself a kind of guru of neo-masculinity, is a piece of this. These initiatives at a high-profile, fairly mainstream organization (right-of-center but not “hard-right” or traditionalist in audience and authorship) point to a crisis of masculinity within Catholicism, though not the kind that might typically be pointed out on Barron’s media channels or at a Catholic men’s conference. The crisis comes not from failure to honor traditional “manly virtue” but rather from a hypertrophied account of masculinity that itself flows from a refusal to address new and developing ways of understanding gender roles in society.

As with many challenges in the church, these issues around masculinity date back decades and centuries, but Barron’s particular iteration of them is of more recent vintage. It dates, I would argue, to the revelations about clerical sexual abuse in the early 2000s and the panic about gay men in the priesthood that many on the right and in the hierarchy fomented at this time. Most infamously, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning sexuality in seminary admissions that effectively took hold at this time encouraged an emphasis on masculinity that, frankly, protests too much. During this same period, increasing societal acceptance of gay relationships and transgender identities fueled this bunker mentality concerning sexuality in the church. All of this while, as Frédéric Martel and others have made abundantly clear, high-ranking cardinals—many of them quite conservative—and other leading clerics in the church have engaged in longstanding gay relationships with little to no known difficulties.

At a recent conference I attended, Dr. John Boyle of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota made a wise remark about the way in which Chrétien de Troyes’ medieval romances demonstrate Christianity’s sublimation of the warrior culture that it converted in Europe. Chrétien avoids showing the battle scenes in his stories of knights, focusing instead on other aspects of the knights’ lives. The “warrior virtues” as some might call them today, have no place in Christianity—rather, Christian living tends to subvert these virtues in favor of others. This is a hard lesson, as Catholic concepts like the “church militant” and organizations ranging from the Society of Jesus to the Knights of Columbus have in different ways drawn on military language, but it is an important one. Following the Prince of Peace ought to mean thinking differently about power and its true use than one will see on HBO.

Clearly the Catholic intellectual tradition exemplified by Chrétien contains important resources for breaking toxic masculinity, but clericalism in church governance makes this hard to attain. It creates a “boys’ club” as described above that is nigh-impossible to breach and that covers up the hypocrisy of its members. That culture spreads to para-church organizations like Word on Fire that have no inherent reason to take on the same organization (and subsequent problems), but nonetheless do. The only solution to these unhealthy organizational cultures is to try to make them into healthy ones, and this ultimately starts with the question of who is invited to be part of them.

The most important thing leaders in the church (whether clerical or lay) can do to begin to break this cycle is to listen—actually listen—to women. It is especially important for them to listen to women who might tell them things they do not want to hear, particularly on controverted issues, and to allow them space to lead. To take seriously Pope Francis’ vision of a listening church requires the church—to listen. Francis himself has modeled this listening as a pastor of souls, particularly in his outreach to the transgender community in Rome, but has been much slower putting this into practice on the level of church governance. The test of his pontificate’s legacy may well be whether this bifurcation can be resolved or whether it falls to a successor to break the “boys’ club” and foster a healthier culture of leadership.

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

Journeys to the Center of the Church

Our lives are filled with journeys. Some are anticipated and planned; others are dreaded or in crisis. Travels today are fraught with difficulty: complex security, canceled flights, missed connections, train derailments and road closures.

Two particular journeys in the Church reveal areas in need of deep conversion of minds, hearts, relationships and structures to “the mind of Christ”: Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada for the evils of Indian residential schools and the global “journeying together” of the Synod on Synodality.

Because of my commitment as a pediatrician to the care and protection of children, I immersed myself in Pope Francis’ Canadian visit. I was touched by powerful images of the elderly Pope willing to expose his vulnerability: the sorrowful, penitent Pope surrounded by Indigenous graves and the smiling Pope at the healing Lac Ste. Anne blessing the Indigenous crowds to drumming and dancing.

In jarring contrast, the Mass in Commonwealth Stadium was a traditionalist clerical extravaganza celebrated in Latin—clearly not one of Canada’s official languages.

I searched the images and words for credibility and possibilities for atonement in the three stages. The first stage related directly to apology and atonement for complicity with residential schools; the second addressed global political issues; and the third related to challenges for a post-Christendom Church.

Francis acknowledged systemic, ecclesial and cultural factors, including the pernicious intertwining of colonialism for wealth and power and evangelization.

His meetings with government officials raised major issues of justice and care for global leaders in our violent and commercialized world.

In Quebec City, clerics and religious were asked “to manifest Jesus’ concern for everyone and his compassion for the wounds of each … find new ways to proclaim the Gospel to those who have not yet encountered Christ … [S]ecularization … relegating God to the background … represents a challenge for our pastoral imagination.”

“We must begin with ourselves: bishops and priests should not feel themselves superior to our brothers and sisters in the People of God … The Church will be a credible witness to the Gospel the more its members embody … a welcoming community, one capable of listening, entering into dialogue and promoting quality relationships.”

Pope Francis’ For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission is a controversial commitment to “journeying together” in our wounded Church and world. It calls for listening to the Word of God, as well as to each other and trusting in the Holy Spirit.

Diocesan participation ranges from none to token, as in the U.S., to robust, notably in Germany, Australia and France. Lay-led synods include Bristol, Scottish Laity Network and Canadian Concerned Lay Catholics. These have identified crucial spiritual and theological goals for the journey:

Strengthen belief in a merciful and loving God, the Church as the People of God and the priesthood of all the baptized.

Revitalize the parish as a welcoming place of prayer, liturgical celebration and service.

Return to Jesus’ understanding of power and servant leadership, rejecting clericalism and “hierarchicalism” and fostering co-responsibility for mission.

Restore right relationships between clergy and laity and women and men, acknowledging the gifts of all.

Renew moral theology from sin to conscience and virtue and develop a healthy Christian anthropology for all “made in the image and likeness of God.”

Recognize the urgency of disaffiliated youth and young adults from the Church.

Address the practical issues needed to achieve these goals.

A successful journey depends on personal preparation and external factors. We undertake this synodal journey burdened by clergy sexual abuse, massive departures from the practice of the faith and pandemic lockdowns.

Traveling with others requires agreement on a destination. Polarization between liberals and conservatives is paralyzing the journey of reform and renewal.

As we travel, others join us. We now have 20 new Cardinals representing the global Church. Pope Francis has called them to exercise “unassuming power” and preach the Gospel to all “without exception.”

We know that even well-planned travel can be canceled, and we can miss connections by circumstances beyond our control.  

The people of God are on a never-ending journey into the heart of Christ. We pray for resurrection hope to bring us home.

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

The Spirit and the Rules: Reflections on the Local Phase of the Synod

For the past several years, I led a small lay group in Atlanta known as the Catholic Lay Interparish Partnership. The group, made up of parishioners from about 25 archdiocesan parishes, began as a local effort to respond to the horror of the sexual abuse crisis brought to renewed focus by the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. With time and discussion, we decided to center the group’s efforts on the empowerment of the laity as co-responsible members of the Body of Christ. We met with archdiocesan leadership for months advocating for a synod to hear the thoughts of the laity on the shape of the Church in our region. Thanks to the timing of Pope Francis and the Spirit, that wished-for synod became a reality.

As I facilitated listening sessions and synthesized reports, the limits of the process became apparent: the official archdiocesan synod reached only the most active of Catholics, with the majority of participants being over 55 and white, despite the fact that the non-Latino white population now makes up an estimated 43% of the Catholic population in the archdiocese. This flaw has been echoed across many synodal reports in the U.S.

Throughout the local synod process in Atlanta, we discovered that many people did not want to participate in the synod because they did not trust the Church to hear them. Others who did participate shared the complexities of their lives with visible or audible trepidation. A number of individuals stated that they were sharing facets of their life for the first time outside the most intimate friends. 

Common themes and reactions to the process resound across synodal reports. U.S. Catholics described the joy they find in community, in prayer practices and in liturgy, especially the Eucharist. At the same time, the calls for change are clear in the tales of exclusion and even open hostility felt by people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community and divorced and remarried Catholics. The wounds of clericalism and the sexual abuse crisis continue to cut deep.

While many diocesan reports still remain unpublished, a number are available online, and the glimpses they contain of lay Catholic stories are well worth reading. As I facilitated listening sessions and synthesized notes, my own curiosity was piqued by a common reference that did not get as much attention in the final archdiocesan report: “rules.”

I heard and read Catholics express both a desire for their faith to be about more than rules, and a desire for the clarity that “rules” and “answers” provided. What struck me most was that for some Catholics, “rules”—in a legalistic and punitive sense of the word—appear to be a major way that they understand what the Church is about in the world.

I have been pondering the relationship between this discussion of rules and the lack of trust in the synod process. The lack of trust is well-founded and confirmed by the way the Church has fostered a culture of secrecy about abuse and its other failings. The rules add another dimension to this lack of trust. If someone imagines or has experienced the rules as the most significant aspect of the life of the Church and knows that her own life carries complexities that may not perfectly reflect these rules, it is not hard to understand why she might not entrust her complex human story to the Church. Rules are often insufficient to the reality of going through a divorce or supporting a trans child or listening to a friend with depression.

The Catholic tradition prides itself on a sacramental imagination, one which finds God in the messiness of human reality. Yet, listening to many participants in the synod, I heard that they feel that this messy human reality is not welcomed in the Church. The impression is that sacramentality, at least in official ecclesial spaces, extends only so far as the rules will allow. It is difficult to be a field hospital if no one feels comfortable letting you know where it hurts. But an even larger gap in trust exists when the rules proclaim that your human situation is “wounded” by something that you experience as a space of that sacramental presence.

Many participants who used the language of “rules” did so in the context of hoping for the Church to be about something more. Their own lives of faith told them that such a category was insufficient to the reality of being a Christian. One of the things the synod is revealing is that lay Catholics find the grace of God where ecclesial officials fear to tread. The laity’s is perhaps a more truly Catholic sacramentality, which rightly perceives an inconsistent legalism in the boundaries the Church has sought to draw around that divine presence in women, queer people, people of color and more. For many, if the synod is to give them real hope in the future of the Church, it must show that at least some of these “rules” are beginning to give way to the reality of the Spirit present within the complexities of human lives.

 Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.