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Entries from February 2023

Anti-Francis Critics Do Disservice to the Memory of Benedict and John Paul II

The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, followed closely by the death of Cardinal George Pell, brought the opposition to Pope Francis into the light of day. Benedict’s longtime secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein gave an unfortunate interview in which he seemed to suggest the late pontiff had serious misgivings about his predecessor, and posthumous writings from Pell had the same effect.

Criticizing a pope is nothing new. What made these criticisms of the pope from such highly placed prelates so remarkable was the entitlement they embodied. In both tone and content, these criticisms did not evidence manly disagreement but an almost childlike disgust that the last conclave had taken their toys away. The papacy belonged to them and to those who thought like them. John Paul II and Benedict, they were real popes because they agreed with Gänswein and Pell, and that is what real popes do.

Such claims are not only a disservice to Pope Francis. They are a disservice to the memory of Popes John Paul II and Benedict! It was telling that Pell, in a memo previously published anonymously but now revealed to have been authored by him, highlighted the controversial presence of an Amazonian statue to Pachamama at the Synod on the Amazon as a symbol of the doctrinal laxity of this pontificate. He forgot that Pope John Paul II had spoken fondly of Pachamama, and more generally about the need to inculturate the Gospel, during a homily in Cuzco, Peru in 1985.

Gänswein, who reportedly spent some time attending the seminary of the schismatic Lefebvrist movement in Écône, Switzerland, lamented Pope Francis’ revocation of Summorum Pontificum, the document by which Pope Benedict liberalized access to the Tridentine rite of the Mass. Gänswein also said Benedict regretted the decision. But what was not clear is whether or not Benedict recognized the necessity of the decision, regretting the necessity more than the decision.

I remember Vatican sources telling me that Pope Francis never would have overturned Summorum Pontificum without discussing it first with his predecessor. When Pope Francis issued Traditionis custodes, the document that ended the experiment in wider access to the old rite, Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., a high-ranking official at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained to Catholic News Service’s Cindy Wooden why it was necessary. The use of the traditional Mass “has gotten totally out of control and become a movement, especially in the U.S., France and England—a movement that aggressively promotes the Traditional Latin Mass among young people and others as if this ‘extraordinary form’ were the true liturgy for the true church.”

DiNoia, who had been brought to work at the CDF by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, and had previously led Ecclesia Dei, the Vatican commission charged with dialoguing with the Lefebvrists, added, “Pope Francis is right to see in the repristination of the pre-conciliar liturgy at best a form of nostalgic dalliance with the old liturgy and at worst a perverse resistance to the renewal inspired by the Holy Spirit and solemnly confirmed in the teaching of an ecumenical council.”

In an interview with the Associated Press in January, Pope Francis confirmed that he would speak to his predecessor about thorny issues. “For me, he was a security. In the face of a doubt, I would ask for the car and go to the monastery and ask,” he said, recalling his visits to the monastery where Pope Emeritus Benedict lived. “I lost a good companion.”

Similarly, on his flight back from Africa in 2019, the pope noted that criticisms of him overlook the fact that he often says the exact same things as his predecessors did. “For example, the social things that I say are the same things that John Paul II said, the same things! I copy him. But they say: the Pope is a communist,” the pope told the journalists on the plane.

One of the challenges for U.S. Catholics is to disentangle Pope John Paul II from his acolytes. Neo-conservatives in the United States such as Michael Novak, George Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus, largely convinced the rest of the U.S. church that John Paul II was, for all intents and purposes, one of them, a U.S.-style neo-con. They dismissed his support for organized labor as a leftover from the role unions played in liberating Poland from the Soviet yoke. They cited one or two sentences in Centesimus Annus that seemed open to contemporary capitalism—it was 1991, and Francis Fukuyama had already declared the end of history!—but they neglected John Paul’s insistence on a robust role for the State in the regulation of economic conditions and attaining the common good. Massimo Borghese’s magnificent book Catholic Discordance, which I reviewed here, tracks the neo-con distortions of the teachings of Pope John Paul II.

Every pope has a different style, special concerns or interests but the points of continuity and commonality are also pronounced. These critics of the pope only show their own limits when they criticize Francis for something that their hero John Paul II also did. Remember when the Polish pope kissed a Koran? Can you imagine what would happen if Francis did that? The anti-Francis brigade is arguing itself into irrelevance and foolishness.  

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

Church Turned Upside Down: Leadership Lessons from Mardi Gras

This coming Tuesday, the Mardi Gras or Carnival season comes to an end and gives way to Lent, completing the transition away from the Christmas festal cycle to that of Easter. I recently had the chance to speak with someone living and working in New Orleans who described to me the various parades there and the variety of people from around the city who participated in them, a far cry from debauched stereotypes about the festival. This fascinating conversation served as a reminder to me that Carnival’s symbols and traditions—unofficial to the liturgical calendar but deeply rooted in Catholic tradition—might help us to think anew about the significance and meaning of leadership in the church.

The two names by which the feast is known—translated “fat Tuesday” or “goodbye to meat,” respectively—both reflect the significance of food to its celebration. Depending where you are, various kinds of desserts will figure in—ranging from the cinnamon-flavored, creamy “king cake” of French-influenced regions, to various forms of doughnuts like beignets and paczki. Indeed, the very history of doughnuts is closely tied up with Mardi Gras. These preoccupations reflect the significance of the body—bodily enjoyment before the onset of bodily deprivation through fasting – to Catholicism.

Parades and festivals of fools further the celebration by incorporating the whole body with singing, dancing, parading and theatrical performances. In many places, these celebrations traditionally included “boy king” and “boy bishop” ceremonies—with a child stepping into the role temporarily and with much pomp and circumstance—that symbolically inverted the social order. In so doing, they made an important point: however important a king or bishop might appear, any pretense they make about their significance is and ought to be subject to mockery as they are human like the rest of us and subject to the same fate. While on some level these ceremonies served to reaffirm the social order even as they leveled it, they contained and very publicly displayed important truths about its relative significance. These ceremonies notably declined as the “divine right of kings” became more prevalent, and the embattled Catholic Church of the last few centuries has afforded less irreverence in portrayals of its leadership.

In some ways, Mardi Gras is symbolic of a cultural Catholicism—what theologian Karl Rahner called a “people’s church”—that is rapidly passing away thanks to secularization. Most of the traditionally Catholic countries where its celebration is most noted have indeed rapidly secularized (or in the case of many Latin American countries, witnessed a rise of Evangelicalism). Yet the inversions of hierarchies offered by this feast have insights for us today.

Many of the challenges we face in the church today owe to the clerical and hierarchical culture that became more prevalent after the Council of Trent with the institution of seminaries and more regimented life for diocesan clergy. This situation was exacerbated both by the 19th and 20th century centralization of church governance and the further culture of respect for authority fostered in the English-speaking lands (notably for Catholics in Ireland) during the Victorian era. (Saint!) Thomas More’s satirical Utopia—where the priests were very holy because very few—gave way to a more self-serious vision of the priesthood and episcopacy that has damaged the church significantly. The sexual abuse scandal cannot be blamed solely on this, but it was certainly exacerbated by it—any class of people who set themselves apart in this way, protected from the consequences of their actions, are by human nature practically guaranteed to engage in severe abuse of power.

The boy bishop ceremony encapsulates a skepticism toward authority and its bearers that is sorely needed today (along with other reforms about who can exercise that authority). Attempts to revive a “high” vision of the priesthood have resulted in cadres of young priests insensitive to the needs of the faithful and hostile to the magisterium of Pope Francis. Meanwhile, a large number of men called (on the phone) to the episcopate decline it, and those who accept it still struggle with finding “the smell of the sheep.” The spirit of Mardi Gras ought to inform our perspectives on these matters. Pope Francis has famously remarked on the temptation of many Christians toward lives like Lent without an Easter, but perhaps we also ought to beware of Lent without a Carnival. The extravagance and mockery of Mardi Gras and the simplicity espoused by the “pact of the catacombs” during Vatican II are two sides of the same coin: a view of leadership aware of its own limitations and geared to service rather than power.

So, as you enjoy your Mardi Gras pastries—whether from your local doughnut shop, Polish bakery, or Cajun restaurant—consider carrying the spirit of Mardi Gras forward. If you aspire to leadership in the church or your station in life (particularly if you are from a dominant group), remember first and foremost that it is not about you. Tolerating, and indeed encouraging, some levity about your role will serve your own good and that of those you lead. You might even, as they say in New Orleans Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler.

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

Babel, Pentecost and LGBTQ+ Persons

LGBTQ+ issues have featured prominently in synod reports throughout the world. The Vatican’s Working Document for the Continental Stage recognizes the importance of accompanying LGBTQ+ persons and acknowledges the tension resulting from a lack of clarity about what it means to “include” and “accompany” them. The authors of the report fear that because of this and other polarizing tensions, the Church might be facing “an experience of Babel and not Pentecost” (Enlarge the Space in Your Tent, no. 30). I was struck by this Biblical reference and wish to reflect upon it more as it pertains to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Church.

In both stories, Babel and Pentecost, the characters are attempting to build something (Babel: A tower to reach the heavens; Pentecost: The Church of Jesus Christ). What distinguishes their endeavors—and outcome—is the foundation and structure of what they are building. The Tower of Babel was characterized by a quest for power, fear of the unknown and exclusion of diverse views. The quest for power was seen in the attempt to build a tower to “make a name of ourselves” (Gen 11:4), fear of the unknown was seen in both the fear of being scattered throughout the Earth and the remedy of reaching the heavens to be like God, and the exclusion of diversity was seen in the fragmentation of society due to the different languages.

Pentecost was characterized by a commitment to community, risk-taking in the face of the unknown and celebration of difference as a gift. Community was seen in the commitment to the central message of the Gospels, risk-taking was seen in the departure from the upper room to face an unknown fate and celebration of diversity was seen through the cherishing of the different languages/gifts—each contributing to a common mission. These two stories contain important lessons for a synodal Church on what it means to truly include and accompany LGBTQ+ persons.

While the global Church acknowledges the importance of listening to LGBTQ+ persons, there is a lack of clarity about the scope and impact such listening is meant to have: Does listening to them simply mean offering them a place where they can find comfort amidst their suffering? Or are we actually permitting the Church as a whole to be transformed by their grace-filled life witness? If our goal is simply to be nice and hear about the struggles of LGBTQ+ persons without letting those stories transform us, we are building a synodal Church that resembles Babel: clinging stubbornly to our security, power and fear of difference—all made concrete in the various self-referential exclusionary magisterial documents on human sexuality and reported instances of LGBTQ+ exclusion.

Genuine accompaniment of LGBTQ+ persons must be open to the often-alluded-to “God of surprises,” risk the discomfort of uncertainty about mysterious matters of sexuality and celebrate the diversity of sexual “language” (read: experience/expression) as we continue to build a pluralistic Church where all are welcome. More importantly, it must learn to recognize the grace present in loving same-sex relationships and gender transitions. Such a synodal process goes beyond simply listening and embraces true joint communal discernment that is open to what Grzegorz Strzelczyk refers to as “an epiphany of the Spirit.”

My fear with the current synodal process (which is in its infancy) is precisely that, prior to engaging in dialogue, some sectors of the Church preemptively discredit LGBTQ+ experiences by categorizing them as sinful. Therefore, the dialogue does not reflect genuine communal discernment so much as a listening session on how to support LGBTQ+ persons’ sinful struggles. As an example, the U.S. National Synod Report expresses concerns for those marginalized and underrepresented in the Church, but also expresses that such marginalization happens because “circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the Church. Among these are members of the LGBTQ+ community,” (p. 6). What is interesting about this statement is that it holds LGBTQ+ persons responsible for their own marginalization, rather than acknowledging the role of problematic magisterial doctrine in their exclusion. This showcases a preemptive refusal to revisit the structural/doctrinal foundations through synodal discourse.

Pope Francis and some bishops have advocated for accompaniment and inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons but have stopped short of publicly entertaining the possibility of developing these doctrines. Conversely, the German Synodal Way has been very explicit, despite objections from the Vatican, about the importance of these structural doctrinal reforms that would validate and recognize LGBTQ+ experiences as grace-filled.

As a pragmatist, I acknowledge that Catholic development of doctrine takes place over time. It would be unfair to expect this change to happen instantly. Perhaps we first need a new moral framework that tolerates the diversity of theological opinion in our Church on some sexual matters before demanding doctrinal development. Nevertheless, we must ultimately abandon the Babelian quest to protect a structure that falsely promises closeness to God while breeding division and exclusion amongst us. Instead, we must embrace Pentecost and move beyond the doctrinal “security” we experience in the upper room to truly encounter the grace present in our diverse world. 

Ish Ruiz is the Provost-Candler Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. 

Rebuilding Amidst Falling Debris

Sometimes, insight into a pressing problem comes from unexpected places. I watched more television than usual during pandemic quarantine in my retirement facility. I learned much from home improvement shows relevant to rebuilding the Church, both the physical space and the spiritual reality of the People of God. I conclude that the Church is not a “fixer upper” in need of simple cosmetic improvements but a major construction project.

These programs demonstrate both possibilities and perils in construction providing lessons for rebuilding the post-pandemic global Church.

Programs describing the restoration of old homes with “good bones” in welcoming neighborhoods have a commitment to preserve family history and architectural beauty while updating modern conveniences. These projects often uncover major structural surprises such as mold growing in dark and damp places spreading disease by invisible spores, rot from termite infestation and major foundation issues.

There are profoundly different objectives. There are the wealthy who want multi-million-dollar luxury estates with open concept design, gourmet kitchens, en suite bathrooms for all and a media room. Many demand breath-taking views preferably in a gated community to ensure privacy and the “right kind of neighbors.” Others, who desire to simplify and focus on essentials in life, are building tiny houses. All these programs show that a clear vision of the goal of rebuilding is essential before you can begin.

There were also news stories of families trying desperately to patch a leaky roof and shutter windows during a hurricane. Rebuilding after total destruction from hurricanes and tornadoes presents the opportunity to build a totally new edifice. Attempting construction for a weakened and rotting edifice that is still showering down life-threatening debris presents almost insurmountable challenges.

Many trying “do it yourself” renovations and repairs learned tragic lessons about the importance of clear and realistic goals, expertise and appropriate resources and tools. I learned that a clear vision, an architectural blueprint that brings the vision to life and practical skills are necessary for successful construction.

History reveals the move from original worship around the table in house churches to the cathedrals and basilicas after forced conversion to Christianity in the West. The numbers of worshipers increased because of Christianity’s cultural and political integration so large imperial public buildings were used for worship. Consistent with the theology of the time, there was a clear delineation of priestly spaces and places for lay observers. A variety of styles throughout history, from Byzantine and Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, reflected beliefs of the time, materials at hand and culture.

The Vatican II vision of the Church as People of God and Body of Christ began a restoration of early Church ecclesiology and liturgical experiences. It stated, “The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to the full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations,” (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 1963 par 31).

Pope Francis retrieves this vision in his June 2022 letter on liturgical formation Desiderio desideravi. It calls for humility and deep conversion grounded, not in proscribed actions, but in what Christ has done and is doing for us in the Paschal Mystery. He says, “Let us always remember that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that is the celebrating subject and not just the priest,” (36).

He quotes Jesus, “I have earnestly desired to eat the Passover with you before I suffer,” (Luke 22:15) and emphasizes the communal nature of the Eucharist. He repeatedly refers to “bread broken and shared” by friends of Jesus. Worship spaces should foster both a sense of community and a sense of transcendence.

Pope Francis’ synodal way provides us the radical image of a tent. We are challenged to “enlarge the space of your tent” and construct it for welcoming and inclusion, especially of the poor and marginalized.

Rebuilding the Church today is a hazardous task. We live in a post-Christendom, secular socio-political reality where the Church is not respected.

There is a crippling polarization regarding the goals of rebuilding between those desiring a Church of wealth and power and a Church of the poor. Our resources are limited because of departures from practice of the faith over past century, losses from pandemic shutdown and disaffection of the young. Our strength has been wounded by ongoing clergy sexual abuse as revealed in the Cardinal McCarrick saga and reports from Philadelphia to France and by colonialism and racism.

 We need the “hard hat” of trust in God to withstand the falling debris.

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