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Entries from June 2023

An Autopsy for Social Trust

As a religious sister, pediatrician and medical ethicist who has worked for almost 40 years to protect victims of clergy sexual abuse, there are days, weeks, months when I am overwhelmed by the challenges to healing and renewing the Church in our post-pandemic, post-Christendom world.

Faith and religion today are in decline, and democracy is in crisis. There has been a steady and steep loss of trust in North American institutions, documented since the early 1970s by Gallup and Harris polls, especially for the stock market, banks, television news and legal organizations. The root causes of this loss of trust include poor institutional performance and the global shocks of the pandemic, the 2008-2009 recession, rising economic and social inequity and bank failures.

We also live in an age where social media pundits question everything and cyber-criminals are willing and able to exploit the susceptible and vulnerable.

Embodied and embedded in communities and cultures, we depend on organizations and institutions: the police and military for protection, businesses for safe products at fair prices, schools for the promotion of knowledge, doctors for health care, government officials for justice and the common good and religious institutions for counsel on dealing with the moral issues of our time. Among others, the Pew Research Center has tracked the tragic and precipitous decline of trust in these institutions. This is dramatically so for the Church itself. How can we resuscitate it?

I know the Church as a living mystery of God’s love and presence among us. It has necessary institutions and an organizational structure and culture. Management studies exploring the life cycle of organizations and institutions recognize them as living entities with a founding by a charismatic leader, early growth, maturity and socio-cultural success, followed by an inevitable decline with the challenge of renewing the original vision and values of the sacred founding times or facing dissolution and death.

Important work on the wounded state of the Church has been written and ignored because of an ongoing denial of the depth of the issues, vicious in-fighting on the reasons for the wounds and appropriate responses, tragedy fatigue experienced from the ongoing clergy abuse crisis and pandemic loss of religious practice. We need to break through to the deep renewal so desperately needed.

In the evening, I turn to the television to debrief. I have become fascinated with television dramas about forensic scientists, forensic anthropologists and coroners. They engage my diagnostic heart in their captivating meld of science and detective mystery. They star passionate and dedicated individuals who literally get to the heart of the matter as they perform autopsies, crack open chests and go deep into vital organs and tissues to determine the cause of death and the extent of damage to vital organs and tissues.

Some autopsies are required by law, as in sudden and unexpected death; others determine culpability in a homicide; and others advance learning on the damaging effects of disease, trauma and environment.

My rambling reflections using the metaphor and method of autopsy help highlight the complexity of diagnosis and the need to reject simple answers. We begin with a careful visual examination of the entire body. Scars and skin changes from colonialism and the trauma of clergy abuse show the apparent health and vitality of the Church of western and white-privileged Christendom were false.

Diagnostic imaging investigations confirm old fractures, organ damage and obstructed blood vessels limiting the flow of life-giving nutrients. In the Church, these result from secrecy, denial, protection of institution and offender, avoidance of scandal (understood as loss of reputation) and inattention to a health status reflecting Gospel values.

Microscopic examination reveals an underlying moral theology that has been rule-bound and sin-centered, not focused on the promotion of personal virtues or the formation of conscience, which impairs judgment on the relational harms of sin that are powerful in our incarnational and trinitarian beliefs.

Microbiology documents the presence of endemic and syndemic infections. These are widespread and multi-generational. They produce persistent lethargy and weakness and result in the inability to know the vitality of good health and well-being.

Toxicology studies the harmful effects of chemicals, poisons, pollutants and environments. In the Church, they reveal a noxious culture of power and privilege in clericalism and James Keenan’s “hierarchalism” with its elitism and non-accountability, which are in complete contradiction to Jesus’ use of power and authority.

Because increasingly sophisticated genetic technologies reveal that trauma has multi-generational effects, it is urgent that we acknowledge the depth of pathology for the future of the Church and its youth.

My forensic mystery shows conclude with judgments, advice and the zippering of a body bag containing the corpse. For disciples of the risen Christ, we stand in hope at an empty tomb.

Pope Francis’ calls for a “new friendship” and real synodality can empower our response and resuscitate trust in the Church as a source of healing and hope.

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

Whither American Catholic Theology?

This past month, I had several opportunities to reflect in depth upon my own vocation as a theologian and its place. First, I attended an online meeting that took place as part of the Synod on Synodality, engaging theologians in dialogue about the continental phase document. Second, I attended two conventions of national theological organizations—the College Theology Society (CTS) and Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA)—both of which I engage actively with as a board member and ad hoc committee member, respectively.

The CTS and CTSA conventions were the first “normal” conventions of either society since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within both organizations, there was joy at being back in person (or in the CTSA’s case, in a more comfortable version of such) but also an apprehension about the survival of the profession in coming years, particularly with the “demographic cliff” of college students looming. Indeed, both the presidential address at the CTS and a special session at the CTSA devoted significant space to this set of topics. These troubling realities occasion some reflection.

Theology is a hallmark of Christianity, particularly in the two halves of the “Great Church” (i.e., Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) that emerged from the Council of Chalcedon. The great doctrines of Christianity on Christ and the Trinity are revealed in the New Testament but their form and definition came through the work of theologians. The compatibility of faith and reason lies at the heart of Christianity, and theology has periodically re-emerged from periods of relative quiet into playing a large ecclesial role. This was certainly true in the twentieth century leading up to the Second Vatican Council, when theologians such as Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar formulated insights that greatly influenced that gathering.

The era coming out of Vatican II thus witnessed a renaissance of theology, and in the United States, this meant a growing role for academic theology that went beyond the realm of clerics (such as those at Vatican II mentioned above) to include lay people and religious women, in particular. At its 1970s-1990s “peak,” Catholic academic theology in the United States pushed boundaries (not without controversy) with seminal works such as Elizabeth Johnson’s “She Who Is” Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s “God For Us” and Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s “En la Lucha.” Today’s theologians are no less insightful, but their works have seemingly had less relevance to the surrounding culture and even to the church.

My teacher David Tracy famously argued in “The Analogical Imagination” that theology has three publics: academy, society and the church. The place of theology in society has certainly faded since the days when John Courtney Murray, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich could appear on the cover of Time magazine or be namedropped in the Peanuts comic strip. In the academy, secularization and the dominance of religious studies within the academic study of religion have also marginalized theology. Catholic institutions have been the drivers of what vitality there is in academic theology, and that is fading as many of them cut liberal arts core requirements or close altogether. As the timing of the synodal consultation I attended indicated—it might have been subtitled “better late than never”—the hierarchy of the church in the United States also seems to have relatively little interest in what theologians have to say.

There are versions of this narrative in which there is no great loss to lament here; American theology has largely been a white, bourgeois enterprise that has failed to adequately deal with the horrors of the sexual abuse crisis. For others, largely to be found at other conventions such as the Academy of Catholic Theology or Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, it is a comeuppance for a theological academy too focused on relevance and innovation at the expense of attention to orthodoxy. Some of these critiques make trenchant points, and there is a dire need for Catholics in the United States to engage more deeply with what it means to be members of a global church. Yet there would be a cost to theological knowledge as a Catholic value fading away in the United States.

Absent serious academic inquiry, the dialogue between faith and reason can tend in the direction of fideism. For younger people, their engagement with Catholicism will tend to be through influencers they encounter on social media. Some of these influencers, such as Bishop Robert Barron, are theologically trained yet now deal in simpler messages tending in a culture-warrior direction. Others, such as Father Michael Schmitz, have a similar focus with less intellectual weight (though no little attention to lifting weights); still others, like Taylor Marshall, flirt with outright schism. Pope Francis himself has sometimes appeared to downplay the importance of theology, owing both to his own concern that intellectuals not look down on ordinary people’s faith and also possibly in reaction to his two predecessors’ concerns with theological orthodoxy that sometimes took the form of censorship and investigation.

There is thus reason for ordinary Catholics to be concerned at the peril of academic theology. Without sustained attention to the relationship between faith, reason and culture, space opens for ideologues and demagogues. It is important, then, both for theologians to engage clearly and positively with the church even as they critique it when necessary, and for Catholic institutions to live up to their mandate to continue to foster academic theology despite cross-pressure: to be, in the words of Notre Dame’s legendary Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., where the church does its thinking.

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

Succession Obsession

An orange haze of wildfire smoke blanketed the northeast last week and turned the sun red. The phenomenon, both beautiful and harrowing, is not new; folks on the West Coast have been dealing with it for years. But it brought a brand-new set of sights, smells and coughs for those of us who live near New York City. Driving home through the smoke conjured reminders about a world undergoing really big changes. Perhaps I am oversensitive to the latest round of climate and artificial intelligence apocalypticism because I am about to experience my first Father’s Day as a dad. Then again, one of my daughter’s favorite books to look at is titled “Climate Change for Babies.” I always knew that her future would be different from my past, but I am now starting to feel it.

What sort of world is going to come next? Some of that question gets tied up in the worries and anticipations of “succession.” (And, yes, this post eventually contains references to the finale of the HBO series of the same name. I won’t be offended if you decide to stop reading!) How will institutions and their leaders handle the massive and inevitable transitions around the corner? This is certainly the case for the Catholic Church. Any community or diocese awaiting the assignment of a new pastor knows a special brand of worry about change. With hope and God willing, Pope Francis will already be discharged from his latest visit to the hospital by the time anyone reads this blog post. According to all the reports I have seen, the Holy Father’s abdominal surgery went well and he will continue to make a steady recovery. Yet around the time he was hospitalized—on the same day wildfires in Canada choked my neighborhood—a good friend of mine raised a smart concern linking the future of the synod to the future of Francis. In a transnational and hierarchical organization like the Church, succession matters greatly. We need time in order for synodality to stick beyond the reign of Pope Francis. Given the fractured communication of our moment, we all still need more practice.

But I probably have “succession” on the brain thanks to the TV show. As I watched the series finale, I could not help but think about the show’s complexly Catholic sensibility, beyond the use of a church where I used to be a parishioner as a set piece. Let’s be clear: the über rich characters are not saintly heroes. But the finale displayed a gravitational pull of grace in a scene of raw, joyful and childlike play. I think it asks a hard question as to whether anyone stands fully outside the bounds of redemptive possibility, even those directly responsible for our world on fire. I’m not entirely sure the show’s creators or the show’s characters would agree with me. After each episode, there would be a behind the scenes piece with interviews and commentary that continually identified the genre of “Succession” as “tragedy.” Goals have been frustrated. Few get what they want.

As a scholar, I work on the intersection of drama and theology. The show’s absurdly dark and theatrical writing and scale are what drew me to like it so much. There are, of course, a number of interpretations of Jesus’ passion that see it as a tragedy redeemed with a happy ending: crucifixion leads to resurrection. As Dante understood so well, the genre of the Christian story is ultimately a comedy. “Succession’s” off-color humor does not, in and of itself, make its ending a happy one nor does it suggest resurrection. But I think “Succession” presents a terribly good understanding of the way grace sometimes surprises by delivering us from the evil we want to choose. That is, the loss of power might lead to something different. It might lead to more of the playful turning of expired detritus into a gross meal fit for a king. Such tragicomic communion is laughter rather than more consumption.

In the end, it’s not forgiving the wretchedness of the Roys and other billionaire sycophants (or the dispositions of a soul that enjoys such marvelously crass entertainment) that matters theologically. Atonement cannot pretend to be an erasure of wrongdoing or some hall pass to go and do wrong again. Succession means the project continues. The promise of reconciliation includes the commitment to go and sin no more. And if “Succession” succeeds in displaying something Catholic, it is in a relentless human freedom to change and play things otherwise than they have been, no matter how far gone the world seems to be or how entrenched our expectations.

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

Is Pope Francis Pope John Redux?

It’s all in the name. When Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli chose the name John XXIII on his election in 1958, he did so in great part because he admired the previous John—the XXII—because he continued the papacy in France, and Roncalli, former Vatican ambassador to the “eldest daughter of the church,” was a devoted Francophile. And just think of the French periti who would shape the Ecumenical Council he would call: Congar, de Lubac, Chenu, Danielou, etc.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, 2013, he chose to be known as Francis. The first of many firsts that have come to define the Bergoglio papacy, he knew that by choosing a name foreign to the annals of papal names, he was breaking with convention, just as Albino Luciani and Karol Wojtyla had done when they chose the double-barrelled John Paul. He knew that he needed to explain why Francis and he did so at a large gathering of journalists three days after the conclave that elected him, demonstrating his own comfort level with the media, his preference for transparency over speculation, and his resolve to embrace the legacy, and not only the name, of Il Poverello, the Poor One of Assisi:  “For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who protects creation. . . .How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.”

Working toward creating a church of and for the poor has proven to be a titanic task for Francis.  Bishops and cardinals accustomed to fine living, sumptuous housing, and the perks and privileges ratified by centuries of convention, were stunned to discover that the newly elected pope from Argentina preferred a stripped-down papacy: not for him the Apostolic Palace but the comparatively simple digs of the Casa Santa Marta. Protocol was streamlined, the princely dignities of office much modified.

By taking the name of Francis, Bergoglio signaled his intention to direct the church in new ways and to do so from the very beginning of his Petrine ministry. This first Jesuit pope elected to travel to Lampedusa, an island off the southwest coast of Italy, to visit the migrants from north Africa who had braved unsteady seas to escape tyranny, war and poverty. These are the ones he is called to serve. This was a first. Previous popes on their inaugural trips outside the Vatican went to their homeland—Poland and Germany—but Francis, to the dismay of his officials, opted for Lampedusa and sent a message to the world.

This trip wasn’t a photo op, a media ploy, or a dramatic papal visit to territory distant from Vatican concerns. On the contrary, the gesture was a visually arresting pilgrimage to the peripheries and therefore a key component of the Francis agenda. Throughout his papacy, Francis repeatedly underscores the role of the peripheries—geographical, political, economic, cultural and theological—that must be the focus of the center. For too long those on the margins have been made to feel either alienated or of secondary concern. No longer. The peripheries have moved to the center of the pope’s priorities.

From the outset, many in head office—the Roman Curia—sensed that their new boss was not going to follow established ways, would opt for spontaneity over script, would shuffle things around and make, as he urged Catholic youth to do, a mess.

Think again of John XXIII: he was a great shuffler of curial staff, astonished his aides and attendant cardinals with his smiles, wit, unpredictability and sweet, if startling, spontaneity. He often appeared to the suave and sophisticated members of his court as a bit of a bumpkin. He was anything but: he was a serious church historian; philosemitic when many others were the opposite; a polyglot; a seasoned diplomat negotiating in dangerous and complex circumstances; and a man of great tenacity. He brought about the Council in the face of stiff, if undemonstrative, resistance from the Roman Curia.

When Bergoglio’s old friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a fellow Argentine, scientist and the leading Jewish figure in the country, was asked about the growing perception in conservative Catholic circles that Francis was out of his depth in the Vatican, that he would be sidelined by the Curia, that his ambitions for change would be squandered by internal disputes, and that he would be dismissed as a lightweight by the old guard keen on securing a deferential continuity with the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies, the rabbi thundered, “They don’t know my Jorge.”

But they have come to know Jorge very quickly. When Benedict XVI resigned as pope, it was clear to the cardinal-electors that his successor would need to reign in a Curia out of control, handle the spiraling morale issue around the many scandals—venal and venereal—swirling about the Vatican’s many offices and deal with a Catholic hierarchy unhappy with decades of centralized management. No easy feat, but Bergoglio’s candidacy provided a light at the end of the tunnel. He was not implicated in any Vatican dysfunction, was unfamiliar with the Roman manner of doing things and was disinclined by temperament to adjust to it. He was a fresh face, and he would unsettle the status quo.

Just like Roncalli, he was seriously underestimated. The peasant pope would alter the face of the church in the modern world, and no one saw it coming, apart from his trusted confidant Loris Capovilla, and the Argentine pope would bring the contemporary church to a new, if unsettling, threshold of reform in and by the Spirit.

Michael W. Higgins is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Next year, his book on the Bergoglio papacy, “The Jesuit Disruptor: Francis Takes on His Church” and his book on the upcoming Synod, “The 30 Days that Shook the Church: The Synod on Synodality”, will both be published.

Vatican’s Communications Letter Needs Teeth

Two weeks ago on this blog, Vatican correspondent Christopher Lamb analyzed the latest instance of Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, using his sizable Twitter account (now more than 117,000 followers) to undermine Pope Francis. “I believe Pope Francis is the Pope,” Bishop Strickland tweeted, in an effort to distance himself from the sedevacantist podcaster Patrick Coffin, “but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the Deposit of Faith.”

The tweet was, of course, only the latest in a decade-long series of attacks on Francis. As Lamb, Massimo Borghesi and Mary Jo McConahay all document in their most recent books, this effort to discredit the Latin American pope is well funded, particularly in the United States—the consequence of decades of work by the religious right in this country to wed Catholicism to unfettered capitalism and a brand of social conservatism that takes its cues more from Fox News than from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Such a movement is directly threatened by Pope Francis’ advocacy for an “integral ecology” that combines care for the environment with a “preferential option for the poor,” his criticisms of the arms trade and exploitative industry and his advocacy for migrants and refugees to be welcomed and integrated into their adoptive countries.

This brand of neoconservatism has unfortunately also become entangled with liturgical traditionalism within the Catholic Church and even a tendency toward schism.

That a sitting U.S. bishop would need to clarify that he recognizes the legitimacy of the pope is an all-too-predictable consequence; that he paired that clarification with a public rejection of the pope in the same sentence would be laughable were it not so sad.

Bishop Strickland’s tweets prompted speculation (I was not immune) about how the Vatican might respond, and again sparked discussions of whether a faction of the American church is in schism. It was into this mix that the Vatican dropped a new document, “Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media,” on May 28.

The document, issued by the Dicastery for Communication and signed by its prefect, Paolo Ruffini (though surely approved by the pope before release), lays out a vision of social media that, for the first time in my 10 years of studying church documents on communications, struck me with its honesty about both the opportunities and ugly realities of the websites where we live part of our lives.

“Towards Full Presence” states clearly that there is a profit motive behind the majority of social media services that people use, and that we, as users, are the product (10); our attention and data are sold to advertisers, and the sites have a vested interest in keeping us engaged. They have found that the best way to do that is by showing us only what others like us engaged with, thus siloing us (15); more often than not, the most engaging content is that which sparks outrage.

The document even calls out bishops who have fallen prey to the outrage cycle and use social media to foment division:

We must be mindful of posting and sharing content that can cause misunderstanding, exacerbate division, incite conflict, and deepen prejudices. Unfortunately, the tendency to get carried away in heated and sometimes disrespectful discussions is common with online exchanges. We can all fall into the temptation of looking for the “speck in the eye” of our brothers and sisters (Mt 7:3) by making public accusations on social media, stirring up divisions within the Church community or arguing about who among us is the greatest, as the first disciples did (Lk 9:46). The problem of polemical and superficial, and thus divisive, communication is particularly worrying when it comes from Church leadership: bishops, pastors and prominent lay leaders. These not only cause division in the community but also give permission and legitimacy for others likewise to promote similar type[s] of communication (75, emphasis added).

The document is both honest and incredibly hopeful, particularly compared with some of Pope Francis’ more recent criticisms of social media that may make readers question whether such platforms are salvageable at all (cf. Fratelli Tutti 42-50). “Towards Full Presence” frames the question for believers not as whether to engage with social media, but how to do so conscientiously, with active listening and discernment, fostering genuine encounters and relationships with those who are different, using social media to galvanize positive action both online and off and ultimately using social media creatively to push back against division and to witness to the Gospel.

Although “Towards Full Presence” is well aware of the high stakes of the currently polarized ecclesial and social media landscapes, it also seems to be inhibiting its own message. The document states explicitly that it is “a pastoral reflection” and not “precise ‘guidelines’ for pastoral ministry”; it adopts what has jokingly been called a “pretty sketchy” naming convention; and it was signed by a prefect rather than the pope.

The document appears squarely aimed at the social media discourse in developed, Western nations. While it briefly mentions that communications technology is not available in some places due to a lack of resources, it omits any reference to nations like Russia and China, for example, that are well-developed but where the state represses access to social media. If this is an intentional positioning rather than an oversight, then it is clear that the problem the Vatican hopes to address is the one unfolding in Western, democratic states.

If the Vatican’s message is to make a dent in the seemingly impenetrable outrage machine or the phalanx of media outlets resisting Catholic social teaching, though, it will need to take steps that are stronger and more authoritative than issuing a “pastoral reflection.”

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.”