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Entries from November 2023

We Cannot Delay

On October 11, Kerry Alys Robinson, newly appointed President and CEO for Catholic Charities USA, executive partner of the Leadership Roundtable, philanthropist and powerful lay leader in the Church, gave an impassioned and inspiring talk on “Co-Responsibility and a New Culture of Leadership in the Church” to Sacred Heart University students. They were overwhelmingly responsive to Robinson as an extraordinary role model of leadership in the Church and as a messenger of unwavering love for the Church, even when it disappoints. She spoke strongly, telling us that the Church cannot afford to lose its youth or to alienate its women.

On October 25, Dr. Willie James Jennings, a systematic theologian at the Yale Divinity School and a nationally recognized lecturer and prize-winning author, spoke at Sacred Heart on an “Education in Belonging.” He called on students to reimagine and dream of their education as becoming someone who gathers and draws diverse people together in relationship with one another—and by implication, become someone who would create new ways of becoming a community, a country, a world—through connection and belonging.

Both of these talks made me think of the Pope’s Synod on Synodality. Without question, the Synod marked an historic moment in the life of the Church. A synod of bishops filtered with lay men and women—from across different countries and cultures—sitting together discussing, agreeing, disagreeing, listening to each other and voting on topics that are central to the people who are the Church. We have here a vision not seen since the early Church—a gathering of people brought together by a common baptism rather than by a clerical role or status. It has already been said that the Synod was the embodiment of Vatican II: a true sensus fidei, the delegates, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were wrestling over the “joys and hopes” and “signs of the times” of our Church. And even though naysayers still think that the Synod will take down doctrine and tradition, we have come to realize from the final document that, all along, the Synod was meant as a renewed way of being Church, not a meeting to decide on issues, but rather a series of synodal conversations to discern and discuss issues. A synod is a way of creating connection and relationship—drawing diverse people together in a community of belonging.

In so many ways, the Synod was a triumph of rebuilding our house. But, as one who loves this Church, there is disappointment. For the women who are part of this community, the issue of women in the diaconate as described in the final report, A Synodal Church in Mission, is disappointing. While the report acknowledges that Jesus “entrusted the announcement of His Resurrection to a woman,” and recognizes that women and men share the same baptism and that mostly women fill the Church pews, because there were different perspectives expressed about women in the diaconate, the report comes to this conclusion:

“Theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken.”

 Another disappointment: despite the fact that issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ people were strongly mentioned in the report prior to the Synod, and despite vociferous discussions taking place on the topic of LGBTQ+ persons during the Synod, no mention is made of LGBTQ+ in the final report. The report did not even name the existence of LGBTQ+ people. (If there is no language for something, does it exist?) We read only this statement: “Certain issues, such as those relating to matters of identity and sexuality … are controversial … because they raise new questions. Sometimes the anthropological categories we have developed are not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences and require greater precision and further study.”

Here at Sacred Heart, in our Human Journey Seminars: Great Books in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, faculty work, as my colleague Charlie Gillespie identifies it, in a synodal seminar. Faculty create communities of belonging where students engage in intentional reflection and courageous conversations about big questions, ideas and issues—sometimes contentious and sometimes baffling. Students tell us that they benefit from listening to their classmates’ perspectives, that while they do not always agree, they do learn to stretch themselves to hear and see another person’s experience. And sometimes students just want an answer of some kind—or at least they do not want us, the faculty, to “punt” on important, vexing issues or questions. They lose trust when we do that.

I am saddened by the increasing number of women and young adults who are leaving the Church because they are disappointed by what the Church says or does. I struggle when I see my students so disinterested in a Church with which they no longer feel a sense of belonging because it eludes them rather than engages with their “joys and hopes” and their experiences, which are the “signs of the times.” 

I recognize that the Synod has to move cautiously and carefully. I see that it has outlined in its final report a substantial amount of work that it hopes to address before it convenes again next year. I hope that it recognizes that we cannot afford to lose our youth and alienate our women.

Michelle Loris is the director of Center for Catholic Studies and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.

Untitled Synod

Last week, I had the pleasure of listening to a conversation about “The Synod: What Happened? What Didn’t? What’s Next?” sponsored by “Go, Rebuild My House” and the Sacred Heart University Center for Catholic Studies. Time and again, the participants in the webinar emphasized that the process of synodality means more to Pope Francis—and to the history and life of the Church—than any product of the Synod’s deliberations, syntheses and votes.

Stories abound of people listening to people while sitting around common tables. Synodal conversations re-code assumptions by bringing together a greater catholicity of bodies, faithfulness and forms of life to what it means to be Church. The real power of synodality emerges from a more fully human conversation at the heart of the Church.

The first risk of synodality arrives in listening without anticipation. The Church, the people of God, must learn how to encounter and talk together without rushing to prediction or replication. Synodal conversation achieves something distinct from the churn of artificial intelligence driven by large language models. Synodal conversation avoids recycling the scene in the same way it has always been played. But what could synodality look like outside of the Synod’s official meetings, channels and events?

The Synod on Synodality may well be an invitation for Catholics to “untitle” what the whole pilgrim people of God think a synod of bishops should, could and can be. But a digression into revolutionary collaborative theatre-making will be shockingly necessary to explain what “untitling” means.

For over two years, I have had the privilege to work with The Untitled Othello Project in residence at Sacred Heart University. I wish a short blog post had space to name co-conspirators and share about Untitled Othello in all its confounding complexity, dramatic excitement and wondrous humanity. Professional actors spent hours sitting together reading, performing, interrogating and exploring Shakespeare’s tragedy about Othello without restricting his humanity to a title, “the Moor of Venice.” The actors and directors did this work in the company of professors and students all while being recorded and live streamed. We also had to untitle ourselves. This work asks for rigorous attention to the people in the room, including the insights into meaning brought by our different bodies and our different cultures and our different experiences. The same play can make meaning in many ways, but all voices need to be at the table even if we play different roles.

Untitling is a process that sets aside inheritances and “shows up” to a shared room, open to our own humanity and that of others. Untitling does not mean ignoring performance history in search of a “new” take or pretending that Othello (or any other text—or, indeed, any person) arrives in the room purified of the world. The work approaches Shakespeare’s script aware but not governed by the ways these words are at once revelatory and wounding, beautiful and troubling, canonical and problematic. Untitled Othello trusts both that there is a script worth performing together and that a good, just or worthy production might never be possible to achieve. We have discovered that the chief value of untitling is its process, not any potential product. Untitled Othello may or may not produce a stage version of Othello, but it most certainly produced new ways of imagining theatre practice and university learning.

I wonder if “untitling” offers a way to understand what Pope Francis meant during his intervention against clericalism. The Holy Father made his commentary with references to the model of the Church as the people of God found in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium. Synodality describes how the people of God enact the journey of a pilgrim people. Clericalism proceeds from labels and honorifics as the first principle of ecclesial conversation: the Hierarchy pronounces, the Faithful obey. But, in a move of theopoetic clarification, neither “Hierarchy” nor “Faithful” necessarily describe the whole of the people of God per se. What would it mean to understand the Church and the world through the eyes of the people of God?

At one moment, Pope Francis linked the image of a soul of the people of God to a mode of interpretation, a lens through which the real can become known: “The faithful people, the holy faithful people of God, have a soul, and because we can speak of the soul of a people we can speak of a hermeneutic, of a way of seeing reality, of a conscience. Our faithful people are conscious of their dignity, they baptize their children, they bury their dead.” Here, the Holy Father notices a capacity in the whole people of God to see reality that exceeds the capacity of prelates, clergy or even religious left on their own. Pressed further, the Pope uncovers a sense of the sensus fidelium that interprets-in-action, that performs, that moves doctrine from documentary bureaucracy into living tradition. Synodality does not diminish the authority and duty of the episcopacy to shepherd the flock, but it does challenge the Hierarchy to recognize its finitude (well, Bishops are people, too), its failures (past, present and still to come) and its spiritual vocation (rather than the maintenance of an institution, however glorious, for its own sake). Bishops (like all the clergy, religious and laity) are part of the People of God.

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

Refreshing Candor

It has become the daily custom—the press briefing ritual—that all the guests at the press table speak about their own experience of synodality. And they do so, often rhapsodically and often uniformly, celebrating the synod’s enveloping atmosphere of prayer, openness and universality. I believe that they are sincere—after all, La Sala Stampa della Santa Sede (the Press Office of the Holy See) is not a Beijing or Moscow-like apparatus of state—and their stalwart defense of the efficacy of the synod process is not to be gainsaid.

But it is wonderfully refreshing when one of the prelates goes off script while responding to a question, speaking from the heart with no polite evasions and with searing honesty. I don’t mean to suggest that the other guests—bishops and sisters predominantly—are pollyannaish in their remarks because they do address the pastoral challenges facing their dioceses and communities forthrightly, but not with the passion of Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Military Ordinary for the Federal Republic of Germany.

Of course, there has been a years-long concern in Rome, and in other quarters, over the process, status and content of the German Synod—too liberal, no doctrinal guardrails, dissension among bishops, etc.—and there was a palpable fear among many that the wild liberality of the Germans could compromise the Rome Synod on Synodality. The Rhine flows into the Tiber all over again. In fact, there were frank exchanges between the Vatican and the German hierarchy and episcopal visits to Rome to calm curial nerves and to assuage papal anxiety.

There was also a letter signed by more than a hundred bishops from around the world sent to the German episcopacy addressing what they considered excesses in the German synodal process. The letter, consisting mostly of very conservative American and Latin American prelates with a mere sprinkling of Canadian hierarchs located in the western provinces, was ostensibly a corrective of the German experiment, but indirectly a warning to Francis to beware what he was opening.

So, when Overbeck discussed the reality of the German church he pulled no punches. He spoke of its four-year national synod, the very public debate about women in ministry, the often fierce tensions between doctrine and enculturation, as well as the personnel challenges in his own diocese where since he has been bishop he has presided over the funerals of some 300 priests and the ordinations of a paltry 15. The German synod was a synod of repentance and it started because of the catastrophic consequences of the clerical sex abuse tsunami.  

Overbeck commented that sitting on his desk back home is a dossier of allegations concerning a cardinal deceased by two decades. The pastoral task of healing continues, the voices of the survivors must be listened to, and justice and reconciliation secured. “The disaster is unending,” the plain-speaking bishop opined, and although committed to synodality as understood by his Roman experience, he is no less committed to the synodality of his German experience.

Although clerical sex abuse has commanded little overt and sustained attention at the Synod on Synodality, clericalism, the abuse of power and the need for meaningful priestly formation have surfaced regularly precisely because they were raised repeatedly during the consultative phases—local, diocesan, national and continental—thereby confirming their global significance.

In the judgement of many reputable church historians and theologians the ever-festering, ubiquitous and morale-sapping reality of clerical sex abuse constitutes the greatest institutional and moral crisis facing Catholicism since the Reformation.

The German bishops are facing the crisis head on. Besieged by the angry, the disillusioned and the alienated, the bishops have tried, and I would argue heroically, to grapple with the pastoral implications and to think boldly of how they can move forward.

The synodal model vigorously on display in Rome is one way forward but the German church is wrestling with a pressing moral urgency and time is not an option. Following the release of the Sauvé Report in France, the delayed awakenings to the issue in Italy and Portugal, the tremors shaking Poland and the bankruptcies of many American dioceses, the Vatican strategies of redress and reform are inadequate. Time to think boldly indeed.

When discussing the roots of clericalism, it makes sense to discuss where the incubation of clericalism and its attendant problems lie: the seminary. That is beyond the remit of the Synod, but not beyond its scope. Listening to the Germans has been a bracing corrective.

Christoph Schönborn, the Dominican Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, opted like Overbeck to speak in English rather than German and made a special point of underlying one overriding truth, “If faith, hope and charity do not increase as a result of our work on synodality then it has been in vain.” In this he echoed the sentiments expressed at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. In short, we have our work cut out for us as a church.

Like Overbeck, Schönborn pulled no punches. Europe is no longer the center of Catholicism—a reality that Benedict XVI never fully embraced—but it can and must become a moral center for the challenges facing humanity in Europe and elsewhere that the political classes seem powerless to address. The political leadership of Europe is incapable of reaching an agreement on the matter of immigration and refugees and this is disastrous. The church can fill that vacuum. In addition, Schönborn noted the comment of a highly respected political scientist who remarked that the method of synodality at work in Rome—prayerful disposition, speaking, silence, listening with the heart and the mind, integrating convergences with divergences in a new synthesis of understanding—if applied to the Security Council of the United Nations could shatter the ideological barriers that render the cessation of conflict and the emergence of peace impossible. Think Israel and Gaza; think Ukraine and Russia.

Although it might shock them both, Schönborn and Mary McAleese, past President of Ireland and perennial gadfly in Roman curial circles, have this in common: the Catholic Church with its reach, history and rich philosophical and theological tradition could be the global organ for human rights.

Could be; must be.

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” will be published and his book on the Synod, “The 60 Days that Shook the Church: The Synod on Synodality,” will be published in 2025.