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The Grace to Misunderstand Less

This semester at Sacred Heart, all students enrolled in the core great books seminars in the Catholic intellectual tradition will be reading a short address from Sr. Thea Bowman, which she gave to the 1987 National Congress of the Religious Formation Conference. The address presents the urgent need to decenter whiteness in religious formation, embracing the multicultural reality of Catholicism. Sr. Thea grounds this call in Christ’s own call to all people. With homiletic artfulness, she builds a litany of Jesus’ call to people from every continent, age, race and marital status.

The final movement of this call turns to those on the margins of both church and society:

“‘Only virgins of good reputation and good family were admitted.’ Now Jesus calls virgins of good repute, also victims of sexual abuse, child abuse, chemical abuse, violence and war; some who have been and perhaps are sexually, heterosexually, homosexually active, presenting the whole threat of AIDS in our formation programs; some people who are sexually preoccupied, misunderstood, misunderstanding and grieving. […] Jesus calls to the diverse, and how often they find themselves misunderstood.” (Bowman, “Cosmic Spirituality,” in Shooting Star, p. 110)

This speech, of course, is marked by the particulars of Sr. Thea’s own moment, such as the AIDS crisis, at its height in the 1980s and 90s. Yet, in rereading it, I found it to be timely in its description of a church marked by both misunderstanding and a desire to reflect the mission of Christ’s love.

There are three kinds of misunderstanding, at least, that the church must grapple with to better live out its mission. The first is a willful misunderstanding that at a certain point becomes so malicious as to warrant a stronger vocabulary—not simply misunderstanding, but a will to do harm. Read from our own point in history, Sr. Thea’s discussion of the victims of sexual abuse and child abuse takes on a terrible new significance in light of the ongoing revelations about the scope of the sexual abuse of children and adults by Catholic clergy and lay workers globally. The story of this crisis far too often continues to reflect a will to protect institutional power rather than an effort to understand and side with the pain of victims/survivors.

On a smaller scale, this malicious misunderstanding is reflected in moments like this week’s Twitter discussion after The Catholic League tweeted that Pete Buttigieg’s marriage was a “legal fiction.” Fr. Jim Martin’s factual correction to this tweet—that Mr. Buttigieg is married legally and in the eyes of his Episcopal church—was met with both torrents of homophobic abuse and theological gatekeeping about the distinctions of legal and sacramental marriage. Both kinds of response to Fr. Martin echoed a willful misunderstanding of Christ’s call to people of all sexual orientations. This type of willful misunderstanding continues to protect institutional power and norms at the cost of the diversity of the members of the body of Christ.

The second kind of misunderstanding is the tragic consequence of structures of social sin that separate us from one another. Prior to our conscious consent, we enter into scripts about the value of our bodies, our class, our culture, which some of us then internalize in ways that lead us to harm others. This is the kind of misunderstanding Sr. Thea discusses when she speaks of white formation personnel who assume the normativity of their spiritual practices without a real desire to learn from the spiritual practices of other cultures.

There is, I think, a relationship between this kind of misunderstanding and the third, which is the simple human error of not fully understanding the experience of another. These are the small misunderstandings that may be impacted by social sin but may also result from a lack of gracefully navigating human community. This kind of misunderstanding is the source of the smaller but real feelings of a lack of acceptance in spaces like parishes. During the local phase of the synod, I heard from many people who had some small interaction with their priest or a long-established parishioner that left them feeling misunderstood. While some could point to the second misunderstanding as the root cause, an exclusion born of racism or the privileging of married people, for others, it was a more intangible feeling that they had not truly been seen.

In her life and ministry, Sr. Thea undoubtedly encountered all these kinds of misunderstandings. Yet, in this address, she makes it clear that throughout all these human errors, both malicious and unintended, Jesus continues to call. This continual call is a grace—a grace that empowers us to try to misunderstand less, both as individuals and as a church. If the church does embrace synodality more fully—and what exactly that means and looks like is still being discovered—then we will presumably find more patterns for speaking and listening together. This is a small grace, perhaps, but still one that might allow us to misunderstand less and to be more ready, in Sr. Thea’s words, to hear Jesus’ call.

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

Work We Always Should Be Doing

I recently heard a truism about adulthood: you’re always cleaning the kitchen. Kitchens are a symbol of life’s work unending. I’m not good at maintaining a pristine look to my spaces. My kitchen (or office or bedroom or car or living room…) sparkles with clutter and books. Making homemade marinara sauce leaves the place splattered with the look of a crime scene. If cleanliness is close to godliness, we can rule out chants of santo subito for me.

It should require no exhaustive list of statistics or primer in feminist theory to point out my privilege in being able to disdain the pressures of aesthetic tidiness without much risk to my reputation. Markers of my identity—the ways I perform myself can be interpreted by others into categories like maleness, whiteness, straight marriage, parenthood, American citizenship, economic stability, relative able-bodiedness—rarely come prepackaged with the correlation imposed on women between keeping house and moral virtue. That point should be banal, yet the pervasiveness of patriarchal assumptions across the Church and the Catholic intellectual tradition demand attention. Even prior to a rigorous discussion of theological anthropology or sin or magisterial teaching on sex and gender, the conditions in which Catholics think together about social life need a good scrub.

There’s a difference between saying “Go, clean my house” and “Go, rebuild my house.” Things have to become pretty messy before they can be rebuilt; all the more so if you renovate a kitchen. To rebuild requires attention to foundations and starting points. To rebuild means to gamble that this house has value worth preserving.

This is why I am so flummoxed when Catholic identity gets set up in opposition to the language of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging as if these ideas are somehow “new” to Catholic thought. Catholic communities doing DEIB work can begin by returning to the premise, derived from the deposit of faith, that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. The community takes as given that human beings possess an inestimable and beloved value. This point of faith demands action in how we organize social life. Gaudium et Spes 29 puts it well: “although rightful differences exist between [people], the equal dignity of persons demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person […].” Work for justice does not mean work for bland sameness.

But a Catholic theological position about human dignity needs also to be reasonable. Faith provides the impetus and inspiration for why Catholics need to care about inclusion. Such is quite a different starting point for confronting the structural sins of exclusion from others on offer—from materialism and class struggle, from nationalism, from the atomized sovereignty of the liberal subject, from non-Christian religious ways of knowing. Reason, however, becomes the vehicle for how we articulate and practice inclusivity in a Catholic context. Reason, as a shared capacity for understanding, explains our distinctive efforts at inclusion. Because it aspires to be reasonable, work for inclusive excellence can call on everyone to play a role, even those who militantly reject a Catholic theological starting point.

My proposal is far from modest and surely not guaranteed to solve every problem the Church currently faces in the arenas of colonialism, racism, sexism and economic inequality. But there is a need for members of the Catholic community to ground their calls for justice within awkwardly dogmatic commitments to tenets of faith. Equally true, however, is the need to show how the desire to exclude certain markers of identity makes theological errors. To be clear, hospitality puts obligations on both hosts and guests; inclusive excellence can never mean flattening diversity or the boring reign of crude relativism. But hiding behind the excuse of a “slippery slope” is not reasonable. In order to do the work of rebuilding, Catholics need to be bold in our public love of the Lord and one another.

Near the end of his book on the last things, Joseph Ratzinger writes gorgeously about the symphony of differences in the world to come: “the individual’s salvation is whole and entire only when the salvation of the cosmos and all the elect has come to full fruition. For the redeemed are not simply adjacent to each other in heaven. Rather, in their being together as the one Christ, they are heaven. In that moment, the whole creation will become song” (Ratzinger, Eschatology, 2nd. ed., 238). Our work of inclusion will never be finished; we will always be cleaning. But elevating, cherishing and increasing diversity in our midst can only help us anticipate and echo the richly textured harmony of the heavenly chorus.

Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies and director of Pioneer Journey at Sacred Heart University.

The Fall of the Mighty

I remember the day clearly. The phone call from Oslo took me by surprise. It was the publisher of the Norwegian edition of my book Logician of the Heart, and I was especially chuffed to be published in a Scandinavian language. After all, Higgins, in Irish O hUiggín, means descendant of a Viking and I have always been much taken by this tenuous connection to the Norsemen.

I wasn’t chuffed after the phone call.

I was informed that my book was being pulped, extinguished, made a distant memory only.  Within a couple of days of receiving this desolating news I was told by Liturgical Press in Minnesota that they were doing likewise and that all catalogs listing the book were to be similarly purged. To be twice pulped in one week struck me as more than bad timing.

You see, the logician of the title was Jean Vanier, the now disgraced spiritual genius whose fall from the heights of honor was traumatic for countless people. The co-founder of L’Arche—a movement for the intellectually challenged—and a spiritual counselor and writer for multitudes, Vanier was an eminence with few equals in both the Catholic world and beyond with every possible dignity bestowed on him by pontiffs, prime ministers, presidents and monarchs. Shortly after his death, Vanier was discovered to have been in a series of relationships with women that were judged to be not only morally inappropriate but abusive.

His halo was expunged, and it is no exaggeration to say that millions were disillusioned—if not devastated. For those of us who were Vanier biographers, it was a grim time with the media. How could all of us have missed his sexually exploitative behavior? Easy enough, when there is neither a public record nor a private correspondence to suggest such behavior, when no one came forward with allegations until shortly before his death and when an international investigation into the accusations of the five complainants was conducted entirely sub secreto, until, in other words, the damage surfaced into the light.

The bravery of these women is extraordinary given Vanier’s exalted status.

But Vanier is only one of many spiritual and artistic luminaries in the last few years whose time of reckoning has come. David Haas, the popular composer of liturgical music, is the subject of numerous civil suits for serial predation, has conceded that his behavior with scores of young women was reprehensible and has seen his music delisted by his publisher and banned from performance in numerous churches and dioceses.

Now, the case of the Slovenian artist, mosaicist and Jesuit spiritual director, Marko Rupnik has the Catholic universe in turmoil. Rupnik has been accused of the spiritual and sexual abuse of many women who belong to a religious body he is associated with called the Loyola Community. The Society of Jesus has imposed penalties, and the Vatican has both excommunicated him and subsequently lifted the excommunication; the authorities have restricted his priestly activities and censured his behavior in strong canonical terms, but in the end appear to have done all of this in a cloud of opacity. Numerous Catholic outlets, many of an obscurantist and anti-Pope Francis disposition like The Pillar, The National Catholic Register and Catholic World Report, were quick in moving on the unfolding scandal of Rupnik’s behavior, Rome’s perceived tardiness and what many have judged to be cumbersome Jesuit media footwork.

Rupnik’s work—individual or through his artistic collective the Centro Aletti—is to be found all over the world, including in Portugal, Italy and the United States. In fact, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Sacred Heart University has his artistically inventive rendering of the Harrowing of Hell that has generated wide admiration in both professional and devotional circles.

Like that other great Catholic artist, Eric Gill, whose masterfully conceived and executed sacred and secular sculptures are to be found throughout Great Britain, and whose incestuous and pedophiliac exploits shocked the world when revealed in 1989, appreciation of Rupnik’s art is now seriously compromised by his nefarious behavior.

In the end, although this is not likely to be the end, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the Vanier, Haas and Rupnik scandals. Although it is understandable that a process of erasure and indictment has its psychological and political rationale, to decimate the legacy entirely does disproportionate damage. To lose access to the writings of Vanier, in particular his seminal Becoming Human, is to compound the tragedy. A moral blitzkrieg has collateral pain.

What we have learned from all these instances is that the explosive combination of spiritual and erotic intimacy should be seen for what it is—manipulative predation—rather than how it is rationalized by the moral culprits as a special innocence, an entitled relationship. The deep pathology that runs through centuries of Catholic teaching on sexuality—a pathology marked by a deep fear of sexual pleasure with its body-versus-spirit dualism—needs to be recognized for its destructive potential. And the aftershocks of patriarchy reverberate throughout all of society. It’s time for a new and healthier anthropology.

Michael Higgins is a distinguished professor emeritus at Sacred Heart University and Basilian distinguished professor of contemporary Catholic thought, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.

Honor Benedict XVI by Reforming the Office of Emeritus Pope

As the church mourns the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and debates his complex legacy as a theologian and administrator, I want to focus this column on the part of his legacy that historians will still mention in the same breath as Benedict’s name centuries from now: his resignation.

Benedict, as we well know, was the first pope to resign voluntarily in more than 700 years, doubtless setting the stage for future popes to resign. John Paul II’s gradual decline raised major questions about what should happen when a pope becomes too ill to govern. Although John Paul’s answer—“[Jesus] did not come down from the cross”—was a moving testimony to his commitment to serve the Church, it could not stop the inevitable jockeying for power that happens any time a leader is incapacitated. Benedict saw this firsthand and, recognizing his own limitations, set a new precedent.

Yet Benedict’s emeritus papacy was not the quiet withdrawal from public life he had envisioned. As his health declined (he has, for years, been unable to hold a conversation without someone, usually his secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, “translating” his faint speech), people seeking to undermine Benedict’s successor swooped in to use the retired pope’s name to bolster their own messages. One notable example: In early 2020, Cardinal Robert Sarah claimed to have co-written a book with Benedict on priestly celibacy, opposing the ordination of married men that had been proposed by the bishops of the pan-Amazon synod. At the time, Pope Francis was still in the process of drafting his response, Querida Amazonia. This exhortation closed the door on a universal change in the clerical celibacy rule but left the door open for the Amazonian bishops to form a regional episcopal conference and to re-present the proposal in a way that would limit it to their region. The Sarah-Benedict book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, was interpreted as a thinly veiled effort to influence Francis’ decision on the matter.

Just before the book’s publication, however, Benedict requested, via Archbishop Gänswein, to have his name removed from the book, saying he had not agreed to co-author it and that he had simply provided Cardinal Sarah with a brief text on celibacy to use as he liked. The book’s American publisher, Ignatius Press, refused to remove the pope emeritus’ name from the first edition, in defiance of his request.

How did such a spectacular failure in communication come about? Similar questions have been raised over other post-papacy writings of Benedict. His 2019 letter blaming clerical sexual abuse on the sexual revolution of the 1960s included a bizarre claim that pornographic films being shown on airplanes had led to an outbreak of violence among passengers, which Benedict indicated was a sign of society’s “mental collapse.” In his early 2021 testimony to Munich abuse investigators, he claimed in defiance of documented meeting notes that he had not been part of a 1980 meeting where the case of a pedophile priest had been discussed. Reporters raised questions about the authorship of both texts and ultimately corrected the Munich testimony, conceding that the pope emeritus had not prepared the 82-page testimony himself.

That these examples occurred later in Benedict’s retirement as he grew frailer raises the question of how to prevent even retired popes from being taken advantage of as they age. It seems likely that, following the death of the pope emeritus, Pope Francis will want to place some guardrails on the office of emeritus pope, beginning first and foremost with its title: Experts I interviewed for a podcast earlier this year agreed that Francis would prefer the title “emeritus bishop of Rome,” to do away once and for all with the now Netflix-famous “two popes” narrative.

My sources raised other possibilities for reform, among them, limiting the public writings of the retired pope. I would argue this needs to include giving the Vatican’s communications dicastery control over disseminating the retired pope’s public comments; this was a point of tension each time some new statement came from Benedict’s office during his retirement. Other suggested reforms include having the pope emeritus return to wearing his cardinal’s attire or monastic garb rather than papal white, as previous retired popes before Benedict had done.

Pope Francis recently revealed that he had signed his own letter of resignation back in 2013, to be used if he ever became too ill to govern the church. He pointed to past popes who had done the same. Despite these personal decisions, though, there are currently no guidelines for how to handle a pope becoming too ill to govern, much less, as Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, has pointed out repeatedly since the 1990s, how to handle questions of a pope being on life support. And there are certainly no guidelines around the only recently reopened office of retired pope. As people live longer and medical interventions become more advanced, these questions grow more and more pressing, and they should be answered during the current papacy.

If the church is to honor the most important part of Benedict’s legacy—his humble and historic decision to resign—then it should look to Benedict’s post-papacy for lessons on how to protect retired popes from manipulation and properly incorporate their service to the church, whatever form it may take, in their final years.

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.

Death of a Pope, a Pope Emeritus

This article was published in The Globe and Mail on December 31.

It is not surprising that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – the former cardinal born Joseph Ratzinger who passed away on Saturday at the age of 95—has requested to be buried where St. John Paul II was interred in the Vatican. Although the two were unlike in temperament and aesthetic sensibility—Karol Wojtyla’s preference was for rousing Slavic folksongs, whereas Cardinal Ratzinger relished a Mozart piano concerto—they both worked in tandem to address a world they saw enmired in dangerous thinking, doctrinally unmoored, spiritually adrift.

No surprise, then, that John Paul II chose Cardinal Ratzinger as his papacy’s theological heavyweight, plucking him from the Archdiocese of Munich in 1981 and bringing him to Rome as prefect to run the Suprema (then known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), the Vatican department that ensures orthodoxy. An accomplished theologian with an impressive pedigree, Cardinal Ratzinger did not hesitate to enforce on the ground what John Paul II vigorously proclaimed on his universal platform. Whereas John Paul’s vision was epic in scope and dramatic in style, as befits an actor and poet, his number two’s approach was meticulous, specific, forensic.

The cardinal didn’t hesitate to admonish Catholic thinkers he felt were wayward, prone to celebrity, insufficient in their love for the church and reckless in disturbing the faithful. As a consequence, many of the most fertile and engaged theological minds in Catholicism were censored, silenced or expelled from religious life. Neither the pontiff nor his prefect would have seen this as a purge; rather, they saw this as the “righting” of Peter’s barque after the turbulence of modernity and the perceived flabbiness of institutional governance that followed the Second Vatican Council, between 1962 and 1965.

In many areas of Catholic thought, they were of similar mind and worked conjointly. Few, however, envisioned that the German prelate would succeed the Polish pontiff when he died in 2005. But if the cardinal electors wanted continuity at all costs, the choice was obvious: Cardinal Ratzinger knew the mind of John Paul II better than anyone else in the Vatican.

Appropriately, given the cardinal’s abhorrence of Western civilization’s drift from religious authority, he chose the name Benedict, after the great monastic thinker and founder who helped shape the future of Christianity out of the ruins of empire and the assaults of barbarism. And like his predecessor Benedict XV, whose papacy spanned the First World War, he would rebuild Christian Europe out of the universal carnage.

But almost from the outset, the new pope was embroiled in controversy. His address to an academic audience at the University of Regensburg whipped up an international storm resulting in estrangement from the Muslim community (although he was able to go some way to repairing the damage). He bungled his attempts at rapprochement with a schismatic group, the Society of St. Pius X, when he re-admitted various dissenting figures without appropriate scrutiny, failing to excise a notorious antisemite from their number. The Vati-Leaks scandal broke, implicating the Vatican in all kinds of sexual chicanery and venality. The German episcopate relentlessly opposed his leadership. And the clerical sex abuse scandal, with its endless disclosures of leadership complicity, worsened while he was pope.

But there were high points as well, including his remarkable trip to Great Britain when he beatified the Victorian thinker John Henry Newman, spoke at Westminster Abbey, drank orange Fanta with Queen Elizabeth, and surprised this most secular of countries with his charm and intelligence. (His public speeches were typically deadly in their lack of theatre and emotion but remarkable in their intellectual architecture.) A scholar’s scholar, he also produced a handful of uniformly penetrative encyclicals.

Indeed, Benedict XVI remained the old-school academic. Although the quality of his work was variable, books such as Introduction to Christianity and Principles of Catholic Theology are classics in their field. Throughout his life he was a major shaper of Catholic thought, a definer of the Catholic sensibility.

David Gibson, a sympathetic but critical biographer, rightly notes that “he was a pontiff who wanted to be a bridge but he wound up as a wedge.” I believe that this, ultimately, was the principal reason behind Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation in 2013. He was certainly tired, as he said, his energy sapped by factionalism in the Vatican, his health fragile, his leadership diminished. But he also knew that the pontifex maximus had become an obstacle.

That was his first exit, when he became Pope Emeritus. And now we have his second. Requiescat in pace.

Michael Higgins is a distinguished professor emeritus at Sacred Heart University and Basilian distinguished professor of contemporary Catholic thought, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.