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Entries from December 2023

Happy Birthday, Pope Francis

Pope Francis just turned 87 years old. In the long history of the papacy, very few popes have lived to such an old age, but modern medicine has increased longevity, his health issues are surprisingly few, and he seems determined to continue governing the Catholic Church as long as he can.

After a bad bout of sciatica, when asked if he could continue, he told an interviewer, “I don’t govern with my knee.” True enough. But at 87, the human body does not recover as easily from any mishaps or misfortunes.

He had a three-hour surgery last summer. They say that an hour of anesthesia is like running for 3 miles. Not many 86-year-olds run 9 miles with no ill effects.

Pope Francis has let it be known that early in his papacy, he drafted a letter of resignation to be used should he ever become enfeebled to such a degree that he could not continue. But there are no legal protocols to govern such a circumstance.

The last three papacies were contrasts in papal succession. Pope John Paul I died in his sleep after only 30 days as pope. He was like a comet that ran through the sky, brilliant but short.

Pope John Paul II’s last years were seen as heroic by his acolytes but they were a disaster for the Church. His secretary, Archbishop, later Cardinal, Stanislaw Dziwisz; the secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano; and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ran the show for the last few years and they knew the pope’s mind as well as anyone. But large decisions were delayed, such as taking action against serial pedophile and sex abuser Fr. Marcial Maciel. Theologically, the idea of those assistants running the papacy raises an interesting question. Assistants to the pope, indeed the entire Roman curia, shares in the execution of his office, but do they share in the grace of office?

It was Ratzinger who, as Pope Benedict XVI, and having experienced the long, slow decline of his predecessor, broke with 500 years of tradition and resigned when he felt unequal to the job. In his retirement, he served as a discrete confidant to his successor Pope Francis. He famously turned away the cardinals who appealed to him for help in resisting some of Francis’ initiatives during the twin synods on the family in 2014 and 2015.

Contemplating the end of the Bergoglio papacy, the most striking fact is how thoroughly Pope Francis has upended the old papal court. Think of this for a minute—everyone knew the name of John Paul II’s secretary and everyone knew the name of Benedict’s secretary. How many people can name Pope Francis’ secretary? Or knows that there are two? Or that he is on his second batch of secretaries? When the newly elected Pope Francis announced he intended to live at the Domus Sanctae Marthae rather than in the apostolic palace, he said it was because he did not want to be lonely. The change had profound institutional effects. The papal court drew power from its isolation, but Francis is not isolated.

This makes it unlikely that Francis’ last years in office will resemble those of John Paul II, with entrenched, powerful prelates running the show on his behalf. His desire to stay at the helm, especially through next year’s second session of the synod on synodality, makes it unlikely his final years will resemble those of Benedict either. I don’t see Pope Francis resigning. If he were to step down before next October’s synod, the conclave would become a referendum on synodality just as the 1963 conclave was a referendum on continuing the Second Vatican Council. When the cardinals elected the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, as the new pope, they were endorsing the council. As pope, Paul VI had that extra wind at his back as he steered the council forward. Still, Francis has given no indication he will resign.

It is not clear to me why popes should not, like other bishops, resign at the age of 75 or at least at the age of 80, when cardinals lose their right to vote. The age of 80 is also a hard deadline for diocesan bishops and curial officials whom the pope allows to stay on after 75.

One bishop friend told me years ago that he thought bishops should resign at 65 or 70, and return to being a pastor; that men in their 70s lose steam and should make way for a new crop of vibrant bishops. It is a great idea but it will never happen.

The culture of the hierarchy is often impenetrable. For example, when Benedict resigned, most commentators, myself included, anticipated that the cardinals in conclave would seek out a younger man as a result. All the images of the frail pontiff and Benedict’s own words saying he was no longer able to do the enormous work, these pointed to the selection of a young and vigorous candidate. The cardinals drew the exact opposite lesson: If a pope could resign, they were less reluctant to choose an older man. Bergoglio was already 76 years old when he was elected Bishop of Rome.

It is foolish to predict when Francis will call it quits, or when, like most popes, a health crisis will carry him to the next world. One thing is clear: It is time for an organization that routinely elects elderly men to virtually absolute authority to come up with some protocols to govern the various circumstances occasioned by increasing longevity.

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

Catholic Ecclesiology According to Bad Bunny

In October of 2023, I had the pleasure of delivering a Hispanic Heritage Month lecture on Bad Bunny and Latinx theology for the Aquinas Center at Emory University. The event drew many enthusiastic students into conversation about Bad Bunny’s representation of various themes intersecting our Latinidad and our Catholic tradition. Clearly, the students at Emory are fans of Bad Bunny.

A recipient of various awards and a prestigious recognition as Spotify’s most listened to artist worldwide for three consecutive years, from 2020 to 2022, Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio (alias Bad Bunny) has captivated the hearts and minds of young persons around the world. Benito was raised in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, where he worked as a bagger at a grocery store before being catapulted to the international stage. His success is probably due to his incredible music-making skills as well as engagement in topics that are relevant to young people today.

In addition to the numerous Latinx theological and liberatory themes in his music and videos, I argue that Bad Bunny can teach us important things about Catholic ecclesiology—specifically about the dynamic between ressourcement and aggiornamiento.

Emblematic of the Second Vatican Council, ressourcement and aggiornamiento represent a tension within the Church between “returning to the source” (ressourcement) and “updating to keep with the signs of the times” (aggiornamiento). During conciliar deliberations, debate arose about the meaning and scope of each of these concepts; and these questions have yet to be fully addressed in our contemporary Church.

Bad Bunny’s reguetón music reflects a constant balance and integration of these two concepts. Ressourcement is present in his incorporation of traditions and cultural norms of Puerto Rico as well as his continuous sampling of classical reguetón songs from pioneer artists. Through his music, young Puerto Rican listeners can learn about their history and heritage in addition to the origins and development of reguetón as a genre. Aggiornamiento is present in Bad Bunny’s fearless engagement with contemporary controversies, namely those around matters of corruption in Puerto Rico and questions of sexual oppression. This engagement is reflected in lyrics, visuals and live performances.

For Bad Bunny, there is no ressourcement without aggiornamiento. Through the integration of both dynamics, he adeptly captivates his audience by simultaneously giving voice to their cultural traditional identity and their contemporary struggles.

Perhaps, among the many examples of this dual dynamic in Bad Bunny’s work, the greatest example of this integrated dynamic of ressourcement and aggiornamiento is seen in the lyrics and music video for his song, “El Apagón” [“The Blackout”]. Ressourcement is seen in the various references to historical and cultural figures in Puerto Rico, in the musical beats derived from Afro-Caribbean Bomba music and in the idioms found throughout the song. The music video features images from the various cultural references and different Puerto Rican people lip syncing to the song. Aggiornamiento is seen in the engagement with contemporary political and economic issues such as the constant post-hurricane blackouts and the government-sanctioned gentrification by millionaire U.S. Americans. Both issues are tackled in a 16-minute mini-documentary incorporated into the music video. Perhaps most interestingly, Bad Bunny is not afraid of highlighting a queer identity in his music and videos: “El Apagón” also showcases gay flags and queer people vogueing at a party. Thus, Bad Bunny combines the quest for economic and political liberation with a vision for sexual embodied liberation as well.

There are other notable examples where Bad Bunny infuses traditional culture with forward-thinking contemporary issues. The music video for “Titi me Preguntó,” where an archetypical aunt is asking Bad Bunny if he has a girlfriend and if he is getting married, contains a critique of compulsory heteronormativity with a scene depicting him getting kidnapped and forced down a wedding isle to marry the perfect bride coming down from heaven. The music video for “Yo Perreo Sola,” samples beats from classical reguetón but the lyrics contain a contemporary message about women’s self-sufficiency. More interestingly, in the video, Bad Bunny performs in drag, again queering gender and donning the “female persona” to convey a feminist message. In the song “Antes Que Se Acabe,” he samples the late Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado’s tag line “que reciban de mi siempre paz, mucha paz. Pero, sobre todo, mucho mucho mucho mucho amor” [may you receive my peace, lots of peace. But, above all, lots lots lots lots of love], along with messages about living in the moment, anti-racism and connecting with nature. The song “Baticano” (which is a Puerto Rican pronunciation of “Vaticano” [Vatican]) features a segment of a traditional preacher’s sermon shaming the congregation by saying “Dios te está mirando, Dios te está escuchando. Eso es lo que le estamos enseñando a nuestros hijos” [God is watching you and listening to you. That’s what we are teaching our children], which are phrases commonly heard in Puerto Rican culture. In response, Bad Bunny criticizes the hypocrisy of religious leaders on matters of sexuality and reminds them that they, too, are humans with sexuality that should be expressed without judgement. The music video for Baticano features Bad Bunny as a vilified Frankenstein’s monster (presumably for his sexual expressions), gloomy satanic figures watching over him and, at one point, a father prevents a kid from watching the TV screen where two men kiss. The aforementioned pastor is also depicted as a puppet with strings.

In sum, Bad Bunny’s art, which strikes a balance between the rhythms and themes of traditional reguetón and the contemporary questions facing Puerto Rican and Latinx persons, serves as a reminder for the Church of the need to make tradition relevant. To do so, the Church must be willing to listen and engage with all Catholics throughout the globe. In other words, the balance between ressourcement and aggiornamiento is a crucial part of the Synodal journey. The current polarization in the U.S. Church, which is mostly focused on ressourcement without aggiornamiento, will continue to alienate many young Catholics unless it learns to strike a proper balance between past, present and future.

Considering the increasing levels of teenage disaffiliation from the Church, Catholic leaders would be wise to listen to public figures who have managed to captivate contemporary youth and learn from their methods. Bad Bunny’s unique art, grounded in culture but looking toward the future, presents a prime example of such reflection. This method presents an opportunity for the Church, not to reject tradition, but to update it and keep it relevant.

Bad Bunny’s reguetón is a music for today! In the same way, the Church must become a Church that lives for today. It must become a Church that not only honors tradition, but also deploys it in the service of our contemporary understanding of humanity and society. It must become a Church for right now.

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

Feminine Genius and the Smell of Drains

Last week in unscripted remarks to the International Theological Commission (ITC), Pope Francis called for theologians to “demasculinize” the church. As happens frequently when Francis’ remarks go “viral,” many online commentators greeted these remarks with a hope that Francis’ revolution of the Catholic Church is just around the corner. Others noted that Francis has called for the ITC itself to include more women since 2014 (the address that included the women are the “strawberries on the cake” line) and that these latest remarks offer mostly a reiteration of his call early in his papacy for a “profound theology of the woman.” Throughout these various remarks, Francis echoes John Paul II’s “feminine genius” and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “nuptial” interpretation of gender, put to work towards an ecclesiology of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the church.

When I hear these kinds of remarks and think about the theology that informs them, I am reminded of a line from a letter Dorothy Sayers wrote in response to C.S. Lewis who, anticipating the possible ordination of women in the Anglican Church, requested that Sayers write in defense of an all-male priesthood, reasoning that the defense might be received better from a woman than a man. Sayers declined, and wrote to Lewis:

“Incidentally, one has to be very careful with that ‘Bridegroom’ imagery…[T]hat sort of thing doesn’t make much appeal to well-balanced women, who look on it as just another example of men’s hopeless romanticism about sex, and who are apt either to burst out laughing or sniff a faint smell of drains.”

Reading Francis’ latest comments, I do detect a whiff of drains. “Demasculinizing” the church, addressing its longstanding patriarchal subordination of women’s voices and bodies, is certainly crucial both for the future of the church and for doing justice to women. But it is hard to believe such “demasculinizing” can be accomplished while continuing to think in terms of abstract principles of the “masculine” and especially the “feminine” instead of the actual lives of men and women. Even at their most positive, these discussions of “feminine genius” and “theology of the woman” (singular!) are laden with what Sayers names “hopeless romanticism,” and in their less positive moments, they simply reaffirm misogynistic stereotypes.

These stereotypes of the feminine tend to show up in Francis’ more painful moments of discussing gender—from encouraging religious sisters to be spiritual mothers and not “old maids” to countering a query about the possible misogyny of his ideas of women as primarily mothers and wives with a quip that, “The fact is, woman was taken from a rib.” Indeed, Francis has a tendency, when pushed on his views on gender, to resort to jokes.

In the spirit of sororal suggestion (admittedly less official than fraternal correction), I might recommend that the pope and his brother bishops listen to some of the women’s ripostes to their quips and opining on the status of women.

From the time of Francis’ 2013 remarks, women theologians have pointed out with variously pointed and playful tones that should he and his brother bishops wish to encounter this more “profound” theology where women are concerned, they might consider reading one or several of the bookshelves full of theology written by women. We would be happy to provide reading lists.

Indeed, when reflecting on the “demasculinizing,” of theology and of the church, I am reminded of a religious sister whom I met during my master’s one evening as we attended a lecture on a Marian and Petrine ecclesiology inspired by Balthasar. At the end of the talk, she leaned over to me with a wide grin and said, “You know how I remember my theological education amongst the seminarians? The phrase, ‘even the dogs eat the scraps from their master’s table’ comes to mind.” And then she began to laugh, amused at the dissonance between the idealized rhetoric of the “feminine” church we had just heard and the realities of her own theological education in a space defined by clericalism.

While women’s reactions to the patriarchal realities of Catholicism rightfully run the gamut, jokes like the one this sister made simultaneously make plain the pain of being a woman in this tradition and burst the bubble of overinflated rhetoric about the “feminine genius,” laying bare the inadequacies of even benevolent patriarchy to see women as truly human. Speaking of women in such idealized complementarian terms, as we have seen, does little to rectify the structures of patriarchy in church and theology that for generations have been content to leave women the “scraps.”

I do hope, with Francis, for a “demasculinizing,” of the church, if what is meant by that is addressing these structures of patriarchy, so that women’s theological expertise, preaching and leadership is both fostered and given equal status within the church. If, however, this “demasculinizing” is simply an expansion of the “feminine genius” to serve as the “profound theology of the woman,” Francis claims is lacking, then I suspect more and more women will continue to wrinkle their noses and make their way out of the church, from which they smell that scent of drains.

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

The Sisters and Synodal Hope

The October 2023 session of the Synod on Synodality has ended “not with a bang but a whimper” and, apologies to T.S. Eliot, some howls of frustration and cries of disappointment from both supporters and opponents of the process.

Pope Francis’ commitment to continue Vatican II renewal and his call to “encounter, listen and discern,” in the synodal experience, in the face of some vicious opposition, give me hope. I have been captured by the Synod images of clergy, religious and lay participants sitting together at tables in ordinary attire in sharp contrast to the usual rows of formally-garbed clerics waiting to receive a definitive proclamation. The seating plan was more than decorative as it transformed relationships from vertical to horizontal.

I had a flashback to my experience as a Sister of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, when we embraced the Vatican II call to renew mission, governance and work in light of the changing needs of society. In Chapters of Renewal, we adopted small table group sharing and, informed by the leading theologians of Vatican II, committed to deep listening, with a focus on the pain and suffering in the world. Our years of learning are recognized as “tested practices of synodal life and discernment in common that communities of consecrated life have matured over the centuries” (10b). Early on, we had to overcome the denial of some to accept the difficult and contentious issues facing Church and world. We learned to express differences in an honest and respectful way as we moved from debates, with winners and losers, to contemplative prayer and discernment.

While theological and ideological debates rage on, sisters throughout the world, at personal risk, provide care to the sick, hungry, homeless and victims of war and violence. We are aware that Apostolic Religious life, as we have known it, is coming to completion in the post-Christendom West. The International Union of Superiors General (UISG) of women religious has been intensely involved in Synod preparation. In July 2022, they contributed many insights from sisters’ global experience that are echoed in the Synod Summary Report.

They identify God’s dream for creation and the centrality of relationships in the “Trinitarian dynamic by which God comes to meet humanity.” This is not hierarchy but radical equality of all three Persons in continuous loving and giving. The “seeds of synodality” are recognized in the life of the early Church, rooted in the dignity of baptism and co-responsibility of all for evangelization and the Eucharist. Sisters embody that the “…Church ‘is’ mission.”

Sisters also identify “weeds that threaten the seeds” and focus on clergy sexual abuse, women in the Church, moral theology, anthropology and divisive polarization.

The Summary report states, “The Church needs to listen with special care and sensitivity to the voices of victims and survivors of … abuse by clergy.” Tragically, victims’ voices have been actively suppressed. Sisters acknowledge they have been responsible for some abuse. They have also been victims of abuse. They have seen its tragic toxic effects as they provide support for victims as teachers, health care professionals and pastoral workers. Failure of Church leaders to recognize the magnitude of the harms to victims, non-offending clergy and the whole Church is devastating.

Despite new norms and two motu proprios, clergy abuse continues across the globe from Chile to Australia, Africa, Western Europe and North America. The focus has shifted from priest offenders to bishops and cardinals, revealing a toxic culture of power and privilege.

Clericalism is identified as “an obstacle to ministry and mission,” not the deep corruption it is. Francis’ focus on pedophiles, fewer than 5% of clergy offenders, fails to address the systemic causes and dynamics of abuse, including power, special status and psycho-sexual and social immaturity, operative in the other 95%.

Jesus’ countercultural interactions with women as disciples and first witnesses to the Resurrection support the calls for justice for women and combating violence against them in society. Sisters have personal experience of the Church’s failure to “walk the talk.” There is an urgent need to act on studies on women deacons.

The environment, migrants, refugees, the poor and Indigenous peoples are given priority. “People who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because their marriage status, identity or sexuality” suffer from outmoded teaching.

There is no quick fix to becoming a “constitutively synodal” Church. The Synthesis Report identifies convergences, issues to be addressed and practical work. Sisters can help priests and bishops to develop synodal encounters in their parishes and dioceses.

Religious life is called a prophetic life form in official documents and spiritual writings. Prophets are called to respond to an urgent need of the time. They lament the situation contrary to God’s will and help us imagine a Spirit-filled future. Sisters are living out their charisms to the last breath. Conscious of legacy in our decline, we witness to Resurrection hope and share Pope Francis’ dream: “…a Church that is the servant of all … welcomes, serves, loves, forgives … with open doors that is a haven of mercy.”

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