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Entries from March 2024

Demos II and the Pathos of Pope Francis’ Haters

The success of an endeavor is often in direct proportion to the vociferousness of the hatred directed toward it. As a fan of the New York Yankees who attended many games during their recent heyday of 1996-2000, and of the Notre Dame football team (whose great successes are in the more distant past), I can testify that this is the case. If we measure the papacy of Francis, which is in certainly its latter phases, by this standard, it might be compared more fruitfully to the more recently successful Kansas City Chiefs or Alabama Crimson Tide football teams; the fires of hatred against Francis still burn hot. The recent publication of an anonymous letter by Demos II, who claims to be a cardinal, provides evidence for this.

Demos takes his name, notably, from a similar letter written anonymously by the late George Cardinal Pell—an advisor and then critic of Francis—shortly before his death. Pell’s 2019-2020 imprisonment on sexual abuse charges in his native Australia became a cause célèbre among conservatives. This whole saga, which included the publication of a 3-volume prison memoir, was in remarkably poor taste. Regardless of Pell’s guilt or innocence of these charges—which Australian court practices of secrecy render hard to sort out—making a martyr out of Pell amid the ongoing reality of clergy sexual abuse was incredibly tone-deaf to the pain of victims and those whose faith has been shaken by the stories of abuse and coverup. Reviving Pell’s nom de plume continues this legacy.

Demos II grounds his anonymity in the supposed “authoritarianism” of Pope Francis, an accusation regularly leveled against him from his right and seemingly grounded in periodic decisiveness about matters that irk them rather than the long leash he has given to his outspoken enemies. Authority is indeed one of the key points in the letter; for this cardinal, Francis has abused his authority yet forsaken the rightful authority of the church by teaching ambiguously. Indeed, ambiguity stands out as the second theme of this text: for its author, Francis has taught ambiguously in such a way as to mislead the faithful. The areas of ambiguity are rendered—ambiguously—but they seem to come down to questions around proclaiming Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation and the failure to name and harshly enough condemn sin. These are evidence-free charges, relying on innuendo rather than substantiation.

The rhetoric of Demos attempts to focus on the positive and prescriptive, using language about evangelization that attempts to mimic John Paul II. Yet, in fact, it manages to only capture the harsher side of that complex Pope. Demos participates in what has by now become a tradition of aggressively misreading Pope Benedict XVI with its language about the “hermeneutic of continuity.” In the author’s nostalgia for an imagined recent past, how a conclave of cardinals selected by John Paul II and Benedict XVI came to elect someone like Francis is of no interest.

The cluelessness of Demos becomes most clear in the letter’s critique of papal travel. While there are legitimate conversations to be had about the cost and benefits of papal trips (Czech theologian Tomáš Halík has written eloquently about his distaste for these events) the rationale Demos gives for curtailing them—shoring up the European church—is remarkably tone-deaf. It deliberately pushes back against the language used by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium calling for a “church that goes forth,” rather advising retreat. This focus on institutional maintenance is laughably out of touch with the reality of the church today—and its center of gravity in areas far from Europe—that it renders almost all the other complaints in the letter meaningless.

Pope Francis has made many mistakes, as he would be the first to admit. Yet his greatest mistakes on both internal and external matters have tended to be when he has hewed in a more conventional direction—his recent remarks about Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s sham election in Russia are indicative of this. Francis is at his best when challenging the church to be more true to the Gospel even at the risk of tension with established structures. It is this Gospel emphasis that Demos II cannot abide. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart suggested in a recent book that it is precisely the Christianity of Francis that his opponents cannot stand, and the points focused on by Demos make this all the more clear.

Like the hatred of winning sports teams discussed in the first paragraph, the rhetoric of Demos II burns hot but has shallow roots; negativity leads to a miserable spiral. With a constructive agenda based around a negative outline of Francis’ actions, this anonymous cardinal has done little but shine a light on the narrowness of his own viewpoints and movement. Haters such as Demos might well reflect on what good their vitriol is producing and whether they could be accomplishing something better for the church and the world.

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

Cuts to the Liberal Arts are a Social Sin

With this post, I am retiring from writing for this blog, which I have been doing since its inception in late 2018. Most of my previous posts have explored the interactions of church reform and parish life (a few of my favorites on this topic are Civility, Civics and Church Vitality, Breaking the Distrust Doom Loop and Unlike Any Mass I've Ever Attended). For my final post, I return to a theme I discussed in September 2020: how Catholic universities ought to be—but are not yet—a paradigm for ethics in the Church.

In that post, I launched from Fr. James Keenan’s central argument in his 2015 book, University Ethics: Universities too often fail to look inward and examine their motives. They cover up this lack of self-critique by spewing hot air about their missions. Keenan intimated, and I argue explicitly, that Catholic universities, as a group, do not notably excel over other private and public institutions.

Of course, universities, like any human institution, are not all bad or all good. Like any human institution, they are subject to the dynamics that Reinhold Niebuhr diagnosed in Moral Man and Immoral Society: “In every human group there is less reason to guide and check impulse… less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.” Niebuhr is talking about what Catholic social teaching now calls social sin. Sure, we are all sinners, but might not we expect Catholic institutions to be particularly attentive to resisting structural sin?

Take the cuts in faculty and majors that have been in the news in the past year. When one compares how, when faced with worrying budget situations, leaders at the University of Mississippi and the University of West Virginia acted compared to leaders at Marymount University and Manhattan College, the latter two Catholic universities did not distinguish themselves. They did not differ from their public university counterparts by the purely instrumental and financial language that their leaders used to justify their decisions, nor did they use a more deliberative process that involved all stakeholders.

Beth Ann Fennelly, a former poet laureate of her state who has taught at the University of Mississippi for over 20 years, powerfully called out the implications of this shift in vision:

“Reducing education to a business model changes what, and who, gets taught. Framing students as entry-level employees emboldens this nudge toward the vocational. But students need a wide horizon to explore, dream, try, fail, try harder, fail better. They need, if you will, to be useless—for a while, anyway.

It’s true that a great majority of my students won’t go on to be writers, but they will go on to be readers who, through literature, educate themselves cognitively, emotionally and spiritually. They’ll leave my classroom prepared to think critically, to consider another’s perspective and muster empathy and to recognize fake news, fearmongering and demagogy.”

University leaders love to say that they are preparing students to think critically and to develop empathy and democratic skills. But when the chips are down, what do they do?

Take Manhattan College. As reported in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) last month, more than 25% of faculty have been terminated over the last seven months. Among the programs that stand to be eliminated is the college’s religious studies major. Interestingly enough, at Marymount College last year, theology was also expendable, because it and other humanities majors were “no longer serving Marymount students.”

Now, two objections that Catholic university presidents and boards of trustees would make to what I’ve been arguing are (1) universities must protect the bottom line, and in the case of Manhattan and Marymount, they were in crisis; and (2) even Catholic universities that trim humanities majors still do plenty to promote a Catholic liberal arts education for all their students. Neither objection is without merit, but the second can be distracting, because there are dozens of “but what about…?” activities at every college. For instance, there will still be campus ministry activities, volunteer programs and courses in English and history. But Marymount’s and Manhattan’s actions show no commitment to maintaining a community of teacher-scholars in the liberal arts who can develop a community of learners over the course of their studies.

As to the first objection, Keenan’s critique is that universities don’t establish processes to ensure ethical oversight of routine decisions and to guide them through ethical crises. The ethical way to deal with a crisis is to involve all stakeholders, including students, in whose name cuts are being made, and faculty, who by long tradition are the primary caretakers of the academic enterprise at universities. It’s not the fact of financial difficulties or the need for budget changes that are in question, but how the decisions are being made. “The administration doesn’t want to discuss the situation as equals. When the faculty asks questions, they seem to respond with threats,” Adam Arenson, a Manhattan College history professor, told NCR.

For these reasons, 89% of 147 participating professors voted to express no confidence in Manhattan president Milo Riverso in January, while a student-led petition against the cuts has gained over 3,100 signatures.

Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners community of Christian justice activists, says that the operating principle of God’s economy is that “there is enough if we share it.” Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes was meant to show that an abundance mentality based on sharing is far more powerful than a deficit mentality based on hoarding. Are Catholic universities taking their Scripture seriously?

Changes to the current dynamic are not going to be easy, and they probably only happen through more collective action by faculty, both full-time and adjuncts. But for a start, we can at least get honest with our language.

To conclude with poet laureate Fennelly, “So let me suggest that higher education administrators jettison the corporatese. My students’ degrees are high value only if they’ve reason to value them highly. My campus is not your corporation. My classroom is not your boardroom.”

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

A Lenten Reflection

An Interfaith Conversation

One of the most compelling benefits that Laudato Si has yielded over the years has been its outreach to peoples of all faiths, creating a comfortable space for interfaith dialogue. That particular good was celebrated in a recent edition of the Earthbeat section of the National Catholic Reporter, which reported on the robust environmental movement that has been emerging from Islamic communities across the globe over the last several years. That movement has recently taken on special vigor as Islamic scholars and religious leaders have themselves entered the conversation, many of whom have claimed spiritual inspiration from Laudato Si. This has encouraged a quiet yet dynamic interfaith conversation between Catholics and Muslims about care for the earth and the flourishing of its peoples, while also providing a possible inception point for more complicated but crucial discussions between the two religious traditions.

The focus of the Earthbeat article was the publication of a new document, Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth, that Muslim religious leaders and scholars composed as a kind of sibling to Laudato Si. The document has become a point of entry for Muslims and Catholics to work in tandem in the creation of a global consciousness about care for the earth, grounded in the common beliefs that the earth is the glorious gift from a merciful and loving God and that human beings are properly understood to be khalifahs, or stewards, of the earth. Both documents also address the issue of environmental justice with their unflinching witness to the fact that the poorest nations in the world (many of which are Muslim majority) are suffering from some of the worst effects of climate change caused by the richest nations in the world, yet with the fewest resources to combat such deleterious events: raging wildfires, extreme drought, rising sea waters, loss of fresh water and loss of arable land. Stewardship, as Laudato Si and Al-Mizan insist, is a moral obligation of the faithful in striving for the common good.


A Lenten Reflection…

There is perhaps no better time than Lent to pause briefly and consider that seemingly minor but telling moment of interfaith engagement because the United States today—and, increasingly, the Church in the U.S.—is rife with fissures and demarcations, barriers and barricades, and is destabilized by caustic binary thinking among oppositional communities. Against all of that, the discreet Catholic-Muslim dialogue stands in stark contrast. Much of contemporary American society—and the Catholic community within that larger society—seems now too ready to reject subtlety in thinking and flexibility in human interactions, to rebuff conversations of differing perspectives, preferring ideological bombast and coarse contempt for the other. The ethos of Lent, however, can provide some corrective to the corrosive temper of the times.

Lent is a time of prayer, of memory and of meditation, practices that Laudato Si and Al-Mizan together encourage. It is a time for reflection: What is the life I am leading? How do I treat the vulnerable (human and otherwise)? Do I presume the privilege of acquisition and consumerism, by utilization and exploitation, both of the physical environment and in my life with others? Do I live a life of discontent or a life of gratitude? The Christian Middle Ages (particularly the Benedictines) embraced Lent as the holy time of conversion, that is, the righteous occasion of turning the soul “with” and toward God. As St. Benedict taught, Lenten conversion was a devotion of body, mind and soul for more authentic self-awareness (such as reflecting on questions), for a more intimate relationship with God (understanding the importance of questions) and for a more generous communion with others (caring about the answers to questions). St. Benedict understood Lent as an interval of spiritual and intellectual growth, not just for the individual but for the entire community, through prayer and meditation, but also action, notably the works of mercy.

One “act” to initiate the Lenten endeavor is the cultivation of listening: to God, to one’s most authentic self and to the other. It could be argued that such active listening can become a tool to begin healing those fissures in society. St. Thomas Aquinas described listening in a sermon as the heart of wisdom, and Jesus (naturally) as the perfect model for that act of listening. Jesus, Aquinas said, listened “assiduously,” with his heart and with an openness to many different people, some of whom strongly opposed him. He turned to others graciously, listening not to prove them wrong but to listen without barriers to their thoughts, their feelings and their perceptions. Such active listening can open spaces of connection for a deeper understanding of the other, which may reveal (as Laudato Si and Al-Mizan demonstrate) more areas of concurrence—places of meeting—than might have been previously believed.

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.