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Entries from April 2024

Serious Branding Issues

I love the Church. It’s strange that public and private agita about the Catholic “brand” makes me say “I love the Church” so plainly. Much like the way I am bored by a plain pizza, I don’t like to say things plainly. I delight in theopoetic flourish and obtuse grandiloquence, but there is a benefit to laying down one’s cards to profess love, to share hard news, to speak truth.

Now is a season for remembering why I love the Church. I’ve attended long vigils with ever ancient, ever new hymns and delighted in the joy of baptismal welcomes to my newest (some very small) siblings in Christ. The spring semester marks transitions for students and colleagues as we professors end the academic year. The pilgrim people of God are always in some way on the move, and I love that the Church is a dynamic, international, intergenerational community of very different people sharing faith and reason, sharing joy and hope, sharing griefs and anxieties.

I have also spent much time recently defending the sentence “I love the Church” to those wounded, confused and disappointed by its document on dignity. I have been caught in the whirlwind of courageous civil discourse and intentional reflection about Dignitas Infinita. With its stated goal of “offering important clarifications that can help avoid frequent confusion that surrounds the use of the term ‘dignity’” the Declaration on Human Dignity “does not set out to exhaust such a rich and crucial subject.” Its genre is a teaching document. Authorized (but not authored) by Pope Francis, the Declaration comes from one of the highest teaching organizations of the Roman Catholic Church: the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (now DDF, formerly the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, itself just one of the many rebrands for the historical Sacred Roman and Universal Inquisition).

Any statements of the DDF need to be taken seriously by the faithful. They become an immediate point of reference for non-Catholics as to what the Church officially teaches. Another sign of springtime, this declaration sprouted the perennials of commentary from mainstream media pundits as well as Catholic thinkers across the political, theological and gender spectrum. One of the most formative and helpful takes for my thinking came from Colleen Dulle on this very blog. There’s some fun in the way Vatican intrigue makes its way into my non-theological podcast and news diet.

I won’t rehash the headlines about Dignitas Infinita because I want to invite people to take the document seriously, to read it and think with it, against it, through it, despite it, informed by it. That is what it means for the Church to have official doctrine, that is, official teaching. Frankly, the “rapidification” of our news cycle means that many Catholic and non-Catholic reactions to the DDF will need to be adjusted and patched over time, perhaps like the script for an AI-generated and recently laicized “priest” bot. Taking the Church seriously in love means offering the gift of our time. I wish more of my energy could be spent absorbing the beautiful harmony between the distinctions about infinite dignity in the declaration’s introduction: ontological dignity (an irrevocable consequence of the human being as a beloved creature of God), moral dignity (referring to the use and abuse of human freedom), social dignity (a sense of the quality of life in terms of material conditions) and existential dignity (a sense of the quality of life as perceived and experienced).

But I admit, it is hard for me to take other parts of the declaration seriously because of the lack of any citations to its lived and liturgical tradition. None of the following words appear in the declaration: “liturgy,” “sacrament,” “baptism,” “rite” or “eucharist.” The word “prayer” only appears in the titles of footnotes. So much for lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of belief—when it comes to this set of doctrinal clarifications.

I love the Church, so I want to take the DDF seriously, especially as I live out my sacramental vocation as a father to a baptized daughter. The amply commented upon critique of “gender theory” or “gender ideology” fails to include any reflection on the sacraments or scripture. The Church has a gender theory, that is, a theory as to how biological sexual differences should manifest in human social relations. Part of that theory derives from the rite of baptism, where little boys and little girls are both wrapped in a similar looking white garment. The point of the Church’s sacramental gender theory, expressed in a ritual tradition, affirms the theology of St. Paul: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus,” (Gal 3:27-28). In the rite of baptism, ordinary social demarcations of identity are relativized to the identity of the people of God as the mystical body of Christ. The physical and social realities of racial, sexual, religious and class differences do not vanish because of this ontological change. The visible sign of baptism proclaims that God’s love can wash away even the sin that stops such beautiful and holy differences from radiating the truth of God’s triune love. The sacrament testifies to ontological dignity. I wish the DDF would testify to the social dignity conferred by our always developing and dynamic understandings of gender roles. And that’s just one section.

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

Magus, Prophet and Poet for Our Dark Times

Broadview, a Canadian magazine that focuses on “spirituality, justice and ethical living,” is a firmly and historically rooted United Church publication. Similar to the storied U.S. Sojourners magazine in its ecumenicity and biblical focus, it often serves as the conscience of the nation.

The current April/May issue is given over to “The Climate Issue” and, not unsurprisingly, it can make for grim reading. In the article “Poetry for the End of the World” by John Danakas the author quotes Robinson Jeffers, the American poet with a taste for the apocalypse, who lamented humanity’s “using and despising the patient earth” and anguished over the absence of “one mind to stand with the trees, one life with the mountains.”

Well, there is such a mind and such a life. They are those of John Moriarty. I have been revisiting this master with his profound if quirky taste for mollusk and Moses while preparing my lectures for a course I am to teach this summer at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas: “The Eco-Spirituality and Sacramental Vision of John Moriarty.”

Moriarty was not a doomsayer nor reconciled to humanity’s seeming passivity in the face of global catastrophe. Rather, he summoned his considerable resources as a gardener-philosopher, lyricist of the heart and the imagination and lover of soul and soil to witness to the beauty and tragedy of our planet.

For sure, this Irish hermit/mystic/ecologist who prognosticated from the windy wilds of Connemara was not alone in inveighing against those multiple mentalities and practices that imperil Creation’s flourishing.

He had been reading the entrails for decades by the time of his death in 2006. The failure to plan ahead, to face with stark attention the threats ahead of us, has long defined humankind’s resistance to planetary responsibility. He would have none of it. “We are going the wrong way,” he thundered with moral conviction and unwavering clarity, his listeners and readers mesmerized by his intensity, rhetorical skill and gift for narrative.

Moriarty mined his own history—personal, cultural, spiritual and anthropological—in order to paint on the larger canvas, to move from the particular to the universal, always seeking the consolations of contemplation, the sanctuary of isolation, the wondrous admixture of the primitive with the sophisticated, the elemental with the embellished.

Moriarty understood the power of art, the power of story, the redemptive possibilities inherent in myth, the often-dangerous allure of nature and the devastating luminosity of the dark night of the soul. He was part pioneer, part preserver and part renegade. He re-thought sacred truths, re-framed conventional beliefs and re-imagined ancient rituals for a new and impoverished time.

His own uniquely structured narrative was built around his philosophical ruminations and theological probing, his psyche bleeding onto the pages he wrote not as therapy or as authorial contrivance but as his way of discovering himself in his conflicted and yet joyous quest for integration.

Moriarty was quintessentially Irish. Despite his half-dozen years at the University of Manitoba, his mystical forays into the geological wonders of the Grand Canyon and his apophatic struggles in a Carmelite priory in Oxford, he remained a denizen of the west coast of Ireland, a proud product of County Kerry, their premier storyteller and myth maven.

But what you discover as you read him is that this Kerry visionary is really universal property, his sometimes-disturbing spirituality an invitation to a deeper understanding of faith, his boundaryless intellectual wanderings an invitation to push beyond the parochial limitations humanity often imposes on itself.

As fellow Irish writer John Banville observed of one of his characters in his novel The Singularities—and it could easily be Moriarty that he had in mind as a prototype: “For him, everything was animate, especially trees … He perceived pure being in all things, in the antics of madness as surely as in the most exacting refinements of religious ritual, in the crudest roisterings of farmers’ sons no less than in the action of the sweetest sonnet.”

I also find in Moriarty’s work a splendid congruence of sympathy and idea with the work of Pope Francis. The Argentine pontiff’s articulation of an “integral ecology,” his sensitivity to the monstrous mutilations of our earth by the craven and the venal, his deep Franciscan sensibility and his call for a new visioning resonate well with Moriarty’s capacious understanding of our stewardship of the earth.

Moriarty asks in the face of our ecological crisis: what to do?

And here is his answer: “That the Earth is an evolutionary success all the way forward from its beginnings is an opportunity for us to be other than how we have been. Indeed, if the Earth is to continue brightening our corner of the universe, we must be other than how we have been. Starting from the lowest parts of the Earth, Jesus pioneered a trail all the way back to the Divine Source. He pioneered it for all things, for stegosaurus and rhinoceros as well as for mollusk and Moses. In the interest of our further and final evolution we need to select this trail.”

And now.

Michael W. Higgins’s new book, The Jesuit Disruptor: a personal portrait of Pope Francis, will be published in the summer. He is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus of Sacred Heart University.

The Failure of “Dignitas Infinita” on Gender

This week’s new declaration by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Dignitas Infinita” (“Infinite Dignity”) takes aim at what it calls “gender theory,” “sex change” and “the deplorable practice of so-called surrogate motherhood,” among other concerns it identifies as “grave violations of human dignity.”

The document was in the works for five years in various forms, and despite the pains it takes to frame itself as a wide-ranging but not comprehensive document on human dignity, America Magazine’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, told me this week on our podcast that the document’s genesis was in 2019 when the Dicastery was focused in particular on the question of gender. The document itself states that it underwent major revisions on the orders of Pope Francis, who encouraged the writers to study his encyclical Fratelli Tutti and incorporate additional subjects. The Vatican has not confirmed what topics those were, but it is not unimaginable that at that point, this document was transformed from one based on gender to one that was framed as a more general reflection on human dignity, tied to the recent 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Vatican’s declaration affirms that the U.N. “authoritatively” reaffirmed the principle of human dignity, but takes pains to distance itself from what it calls “new rights”—a familiar refrain in Pope Francis’ frequent criticisms of the U.N.

In any case, the parts of the document that have garnered the most attention are those sections on gender, which, aside from the shockingly languid single paragraph on sexual abuse (“it also affects the Church”), form the weakest part of the document.

The section denouncing “gender theory,” by far the longest in the document, constructs a strawman argument, as Dan Horan, O.F.M., wrote for New Ways Ministry:

Cardinal Fernández writes in his introductory preface that the five-year-long work on this document sought to “take into account the latest developments on the subject in academia.” However, for all its talk about “theory,” the text fails to directly engage any specific theorist, philosopher, theologian or other scholar who works on the subject of gender ostensibly under consideration here. Not a single citation points to any source this text intends to critique.

Instead of accounting for real research, this document constructs a strawman called “gender theory,” whose tenets represent no actual theory or study with which I am familiar. The vagueness of the concept is presented at once as a catch-all and an ominous threat, which serves the purpose of establishing a boogeyman to be feared but does little to advance any real dialogue or understanding.

Rather strikingly, this DDF document creates its own original “gender theory” according to the patchwork of concepts it weaves in paragraphs 56 to 59.

That patchwork “theory” elaborated by the Vatican “intends to deny the greatest possible difference that exists between living beings: sexual difference…thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family” and is imposed on cultures that would otherwise reject it by “ideological colonization”—a term Francis has often used to refer to the United Nations’ work protecting “new rights” that are not detailed in the 1948 declaration, including things like abortion.

The section concludes with the assertion that, “‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’ Therefore, all attempts to obscure reference to the interminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected.” This argument is incoherent: What distinction between sex and gender can be made that cannot be interpreted as an “attempt to obscure reference to” sexual difference? If I cut my hair short or wear my husband’s jeans and hoodie, is that too far? What if I do “men’s work” like changing the oil in my car or fixing a leaky toilet?

Throughout these sections, the document, which speaks on behalf of “the Church,” fails to take the Church to account for the discrimination it denounces, in what at this point reads like a boilerplate statement before negative comments on LGBTQ+ people: “‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided.” In contrast to its language in other sections that “the Church and humanity must not cease fighting…” and “the Church also takes a stand against…,” it employs passive voice to say, “It should be denounced as contrary to human dignity the fact that, in some places, not a few people are imprisoned, tortured and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.” It fails to say anything at all about the fact that people are imprisoned, tortured or killed because they are transgender. In fact, it does not use the word “transgender” at all.

For all the years of study and preparation that went into this document, “Dignitas Infinita” notably lacks any substantive engagement with the theory it denounces, makes incoherent arguments regarding gender presentation as related to sex, and overlooks violence and discrimination against the very transgender people Pope Francis has gone out of his way to minister to.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has been tasked with responding “in light of the faith, to the questions and arguments arising from scientific advances and cultural developments.” To do so, it needs to engage these advances and developments seriously. In “Dignitas Infinita,” it has failed.

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming book on grappling with faith while covering the Vatican will be published by Penguin Random House in spring 2025.

Dangers Within

Throughout modern history, popes have typically identified the church as a bulwark against threats emanating from the outside world and its pitiful errors. These have ranged from Protestantism, democracy, socialism, evolution and railways (per Gregory XVI, at least in the Papal States), to “modern civilization” itself (Pius X), to name just a few. In recent decades many of these specific dangers have receded or lost their sting. Nevertheless, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI continued to warn against threats posed by outside cultural trends, such as what Cardinal Ratzinger, at the conclave that elected him, called “the dictatorship of relativism.” As far as internal threats went, they were especially on guard against the work of theologians who exhibited signs of “ambiguity,” or other threats against the doctrine of the Church. Arguably, this defensive strategy distracted attention from the seismic failure to recognize the clergy sex abuse scandal and its cover-up, which were all the while eating away at the Church’s foundations.

Pope Francis, too, has warned against cultural forces, including what he calls the “globalization of indifference,” a “throw-away culture” and a failure to heed “the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth.” But the greater threats to the Church in his view come from within—from the spirit of clericalism, “spiritual worldliness” and “self-referentiality.”

He says, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Many of his critics present themselves as defenders of orthodoxy and truth. It is notable that in his apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, he addresses such critics (none-too-subtly) under the heading “The Subtle Enemies of Holiness.” This he does by way of the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.       Such heresies, he says, are alive and well in the Church. They both give rise “to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism,” whereby “instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.”

Gnosticism was a broad school of thought that competed with orthodox Christianity in the early church. Its adherents sought salvation through special knowledge available only to the pure and elect. Recent popes have typically deployed the charge of “Gnosticism” against New Age or other contemporary spiritual movements. But the Gnosticism that Pope Francis fears seems to come primarily from elements in the church that identify themselves as the pure or elect. These “gnostics” in the church “absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking.” They “reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” He refers approvingly to St. Francis’ fear of the “temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distances us from the freshness of the Gospel.” 

The second threat to holiness comes from a new form of “Pelagianism.” Originally, this refers to an argument in the early church about the role of original sin, and therefore the necessity of grace in achieving salvation. The Pelagians—whose great adversary was St. Augustine—believed in the ability of men and women, by their own efforts, to achieve holiness.

Again, from recent popes, it was common to hear this kind of charge laid at the doorstep of those who too easily identify their promotion of social change with the Kingdom of God. But again, Pope Francis points in a surprising direction. The “new Pelagians” are those who “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.”

In effect, Francis is applying to elements in the church the same criticism that Jesus leveled against those in the Gospels who emphasize the importance of the law over the spirit of love and mercy. This form of “justification by their own efforts” finds expression in many ways of thinking and acting: “an obsession with the law … a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters …”

Thus, Francis’ call to holiness becomes a deceptively sharp criticism of tendencies within the Church. He is saying, in effect, that the greatest obstacles to promoting holiness in the Church do not come from outside “enemies,” whether individual critics of Christianity or general cultural forces, such as pluralism, relativism or atheism. Instead, they come from within—for instance, from those through whom, “contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few.” Just as Jesus confronted the “thicket of precepts and prescription” that stifled the spirit of mercy, so Francis reminds us of the essence of the law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.

Let those who have ears to hear listen!

Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.