A publication of Sacred Heart University


A Season for Eucharistic Expectations

A dear friend of mine and I sometimes like to speculate about a cultural “triduum” in the United States that spans Thanksgiving, Black Friday and the First Sunday of Advent. The Church ordinarily reserves the idea of a triduum for the Paschal Triduum that stretches from Holy Thursday and Good Friday through Easter because the story of salvation history plays wonderful tricks with time. Thanksgiving, built on a civil mythology that obscures the wounds of colonization, celebrates giving thanks for gifts one already has; Black Friday, a day named in honor of its profit margins, crowds shopping malls and email inboxes with deals for buying more gifts; Advent begins a period of holiday celebrations-while-waiting. Few tripartite symbols better capture the ironies of American consumerism. Except, of course, that celebration of excess called the Turducken, evangelized by John Madden during Thanksgiving football commentary. The nestling delicacy (so I’m told) consists of a chicken stuffed within a duck stuffed within a turkey. A triduum works like a sort of Turducken for the calendar. Considered part of a single movement in time, last weekend’s three festivals reveal how our national holiday season joins the liturgical invitation for the People of God to turn and look eastward in renewed expectation of the Christ’s arrival.

This time of year brings a cascade of anticipations that might be overwhelming, and the calendars align with an added twist of fate. Recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved a document titled “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” Consuming thanksgiving might be one simple phrase that summarizes the Eucharist. Primarily, the document seeks to teach and remind the Catholic faithful of the surprising and countercultural reality of the Eucharistic mystery. The Bishops remind the faithful how Catholics believe they truly encounter the living God in the Eucharist. In the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, ordinary food and drink become “the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ without ceasing to appear as bread and wine to our five senses” (21). While it appears that the faithful consume the host, I think it would be better to say the Eucharist consumes and transfigures us.

Simply snacking on the Eucharist will not transform the world. Many anxiously watched to see if the document would include explicit instructions about whether to bar certain Catholic politicians, President Biden chief among them, from receiving the Eucharist. Aside from a few phrases about the “special responsibility” for laity in positions of authority to “form their consciences in accord with the Church’s faith and moral law” (36), the document offers no blanket denial. Instead, it provides a summary of the church’s teachings about sinfulness and communion and reminders about the sacrament’s centrality to Christian life. It calls for “a time of Eucharistic renewal, a time of prayer and reflection, of acts of charity and sincere repentance” (58). The document reminds everyone, perhaps even the bishops, too, that “Participation in the Mass is an act of love” (28).

To proclaim the meaning of the Eucharist through acts of charity, repentance and love requires reflection on priorities. The reign of God lacks managerial efficiency or militaristic obedience. “Eucharistic renewal” should not mean slick marketing campaigns for social media. Bishops must be shepherds that “guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls,” but the USCCB rightfully and surprisingly avoids an explicit checklist for what, in fact, constitutes “public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law” (49). The document explains that Christian work to promote life and dignity includes a special dedication to “the most vulnerable in our midst: the unborn, migrants and refugees, victims of racial injustice, the sick and the elderly” (38). Visible communion describes a relationship wrapped in holy mystery and prayerful longing for unity. Therefore, visible communion may not so easily map onto a partisan agenda or search engine optimized branding.

Eucharistic renewal will mean examining the Church’s exclusions and expectations. The Eucharist demands conversion outward, to respond to God’s gift with acts of extravagant mercy and unexpected beauty. The Eucharist, far from a smug reaffirmation of personal righteousness or liturgical taste, sends the faithful in love “to tell other people about it” (57). Eucharistic expectations fit well the joy and the complexity of this season. Any conversation about Eucharistic renewal begins by listening with care to the voices of those harmed by the Church and those left waiting. Only then might Advent excitement about sharing the Eucharist ring true without sounding like yet another ad campaign.

Charles A. Gillespie is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Archbishop Gomez's Comments Reveal Anti-intellectualism Among Church Leaders

When I was working on my master's degrees in Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago, I took a graduate course on Christian spirituality at the Catholic University of America. While there were a few lay students enrolled in the course, the class was composed overwhelmingly of diocesan seminarians and two or three members of religious orders, including myself.

It was an interesting class and the professor, himself an ordained member of a religious community, regularly tried to make the history of Christian spirituality applicable and relatable to these seminarians who would be entrusted with the pastoral care of their Christian sisters and brothers in just a few years.

One day, our professor made an insightful comment that has stayed with me all these years later. He said that in order to be a good priest, someone who can preach the Word of God in a relevant manner, understand the "signs of the times" (Gaudium et Spes), relate to the people in their communities and be a balanced and thoughtful person, we ought to be people of culture, intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning.

He explained that, as seminarians, the students in this class should strive to be well-rounded, developing a robust prayer life and spirituality that helped them to engage in the ministry God was calling them to pursue. He encouraged the students to begin cultivating a love of learning and the arts, to seek out a wide range of literature and sources of knowledge, and to embrace what medieval thinkers called the via pulchritudinis (the way or path of beauty).

This insight has been reaffirmed by many wise and exemplary priests and women and men religious I have known over the years.

Recently, I have been remembering this professor's encouragement because of a series of public missteps by church leaders in the United States that could have been mitigated or perhaps even avoided if more American bishops practiced what my Catholic University professor preached.

What I mean is that one thread linking a number of the scandalous and insensitive statements and actions of U.S. bishops individually and collectively is an apparent anti-intellectualism that is, sadly, not uncommon in other sectors of American society today. There appears to be decreasing interest among the American episcopate, and among clergy more broadly, in reading widely, engaging in robust conversation and dialogue, or learning from perspectives, sources and cultures different from one's own.

We have seen this play out this year with the simplistic and at times dangerously erroneous statements some bishops have made regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and alleged ethical questions surrounding it. As research scholars have noted, such attitudes and statements around vaccine misinformation, skepticism and noncompliance with public health protocols are strongly correlated to anti-intellectual attitudes.

Sadly, many church leaders believe themselves to be sufficiently situated to make appropriate judgments about things they know nothing about and to distrust actual experts and professionals.

Likewise, we have seen how a narrowly defined political horizon has led to unprecedented criticism of Catholic politicians, usually Democrats, which has led to acrimonious internal debates about whether it is or is not appropriate to issue a collective statement calling for the refusal to admit certain public figures to Communion (for the record, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope Francis, among others, have signaled clearly that it is not appropriate).

The arrogance that has led so many bishops to feel they are entitled to make such sweeping judgments can yet again be traced back to a misplaced sense of unassailable knowledge or certitude, which belongs to absolutely no individual minister — including the pope himself (see Evangelii Gaudium, 51).

Caught now in the embarrassing situation of unwisely pushing ahead with attempts to draft such a political document, one that would have inevitably reduced the Eucharist to a "weapon" or "reward," in effect committing blasphemy, and now realizing that such a foolish effort would never be allowed by the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is attempting to rebrand the text as some kind of treatise on the importance of the Eucharist and the true sacramental presence of Christ.

If that were in fact what was on the table, there wouldn't be much of a problem. However, as Msgr. Kevin Irwin, the renowned sacramental theologian, noted in NCR last week, the theological foundations for the current draft document are so outdated as to be theologically inaccurate and deeply problematic. Rather than reflect the church's actual teaching from the highest authority — the Second Vatican Council — the authors appear to have traveled back to the theological imagination of Trent, clearly not taking advantage of centuries of theological, historical, biblical and liturgical scholarship.

Imagine if the bishops and those conference staffers working on a text about the Eucharist actually read the best scholarship on the subject from the last half-century. Imagine if those who purport to guide and teach those Christians entrusted to their pastoral care were intellectually curious, widely read, and consulted actual experts and professionals in theological and liturgical fields.

I have spent several columns in recent years pointing out how the very same dynamics — refusal to consult experts and professionals, failure to listen to the experiences of those viewed as different, overt animosity to the possibility of change or development — have harmed and continue to harm LGBTQ Christians and others.

But it was the understandable firestorm that erupted last week in response to Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez's keynote address for a conference in Madrid that got me thinking not just about the sum of these separate areas of problematic speech and action, but also about the underlying cause of the consistently disappointing and often shocking disconnection from reality that is exhibited — without any sense of self-awareness — by our brothers in leadership roles in the church.

The thing is, I like Gomez. As with many other bishops I sometimes name in this column when engaging their public statements and actions, my concerns with Gomez's statements are not a matter of personal attack or dislike, but are about professional and pastoral responsibility. It is alarming that the bishop of one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse dioceses in the world would make claims so removed from the lived reality of the people he was ordained to serve.

As a theologian and a Franciscan priest, I am keenly aware of the limitations that we all face in our professional and pastoral ministries. Bishops are no different than any other cleric, religious or layperson. Episcopal ordination does not confer any special knowledge (which is the literal meaning of "Gnosticism"), nor does it provide anyone with special intellectual powers.

As Fr. Bryan Massingale, professor at Fordham University, said in a recent NCR article, the issue is that bishops like Gomez in last week's address have the audacity to speak with unearned authority about issues they clearly do not understand.

Most wise people in positions of comparable responsibility would solicit the advice and insight of those who are experts and professionals. But time and again, few American bishops seem able to do something so simple.

To be fair, I know of several bishops in the United States who do regularly consult with theologians, canonists, liturgists and other scholars, recognizing with appropriate humility that they do not and will never have all the correct answers or perspectives on their own. And yet, something more is needed. As Thomas Aquinas said so often, virtue requires practice (habitus) and the virtue of wisdom and intellectual curiosity requires an inquiring and discerning mind, heart and spirit.

In the meantime, it would behoove those inclined to make such statements and claims to read something other than the same-old pre-Vatican II British literature (pace Lewis and Tolkien), watch something other than EWTN and Fox News, and talk to somebody other than those narrowly selected interlocutors who are predisposed to agree with whatever one's solipsistic worldview might hold.

Reprinted by permission of NCR Publishing Company  www.NCROnline.org
Franciscan Fr. Daniel P. Horan is the director of the Center for Spirituality and professor of philosophy, religious studies and theology at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana. 

Biden, Amess and Us

As American Catholics wage war over President Joe Biden’s faith—conservatives bemoaning his insufficient ardour on reproductive life issues and progressives trumpeting his command of Catholic Social Teaching—many of their bishops are inclined to punish the president by finding ways to exclude him from receiving the Eucharist. Meanwhile, Pope Francis and like-minded prelates in Rome welcome the president, warn that using communion as a punishment or reward is theologically aberrant and caution their American counterparts on the need for pastoral prudence.

And all this plays out full scale in the media: photoshoots in the Vatican, news commentary and warring op-ed pieces in the national dailies. Not quite “breaking news,” but clear fodder for pundits, zealots, spin doctors and nervous chancery officials.

In England, meanwhile, the nation mourns the loss of one of its longest-serving and most-respected members of parliament, Sir David Amess, who was murdered while meeting with many of his constituents in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex.  He was stabbed several times by a young man for reasons that are not yet apparent but that the authorities are examining for terrorist motivation.

The death of Amess shocked the nation and media coverage was immediate and comprehensive. But in addition to the social and political chatter and analyses, there was serious media interest in his Catholic faith. He was a politician of conviction, his principles of service grounded in his religious tradition. Although he didn’t wear his Catholicism on his sleeve, he was open about what nurtured his political vocation and, as a consequence, his constituents knew the man beyond the partisan script, the polished speaking points, the political brand.

The weekly journal of opinion, The Tablet, boldly declared in its leader editorial of November 1 that “there is a Catholic term for what happened to Sir David Amess: martyrdom. Doing his duty while knowing the risks, he laid down his life for others.”

For both the British and the American electorate, knowing something about the faith of their politicians is a matter of consequence, not to be ignored or trivialized. For sure, there are those whose excess of piety and political fervour will dispose them to a kind of tribalism that is unwelcome in the common political arena; the majority will benefit in knowing something about the undergirding principles that make the politician.

In Canada, by sharp contrast, we prefer to keep religious faith and spirituality well on the periphery of our public square. Why are Canadians so skittish about religious faith in the public space? The endlessly controversial, and in my view notorious, Bill 21 in Quebec legislated by the ruling provincial government, the Coalition Avenir Québec, prohibiting the wearing of religious garb or insignia by those in public service and invoking the Notwithstanding Clause to ensure its passage despite nominal opposition from several human rights organizations and federal political leaders, is a dramatic instance of not just indifference to religion but its forced marginalization.

And now the same government is resolved to introduce a new bill replacing its mandatory public school course, “Ethics and Religious Culture,” with “Quebec Culture and Citizenship.”  The overt hostility to all things religious in la belle province following the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s when Quebec radically divested itself of all things Catholic and clerical morphed over the subsequent decades into a tepid hostility but is now best described as indifference. In fact, ignorance of the religious roots of Quebec society—and not just Catholic—is now universal.

But there are many people of faith—all faiths—in positions of leadership in the government, the academy, the corporate world, etc. but they are hyper-cautious about so declaring. Religion is a strictly private matter.

But this runs counter to the very nature of religion, forces people of faith into the shadows, demarcates acceptable discourse in public settings and establishes a culture of siege rather than an environment of openness.

The politics of faith can be ugly. The concordats of the Trump universe are suspect and divisive, the devolution of the Church of England to a cultural and historical symbol delimiting. But faith is news, religion and politics more than natural adversaries, the spiritual beliefs of the nations’ leaders worthy of public scrutiny and celebration.

Although it is true that religion did surface in the recent election—Anamie Paul’s Jewish faith, Jagmeet Singh’s Sikhism—the coverage was superficial not substantive, as if it is impolite to enquire.

Time to get serious.

Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s and president of Corpus Christi Colleges, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Can the Church Live Up to the Glasgow Climate Goals?

The more than 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow meet under immense pressure this month as environmentalists warn that immediate action must be taken to prevent the worst projected effects of climate change.

One of the main purposes of holding the conference is nations’ failure to fulfill the commitments they made in the Paris Climate Accords. Signers of the accord committed to taking the necessary measures to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with a goal of limiting it to 1.5 degrees, but they are not on track to do so. A recent report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed the devastating effects that even 1.5 degrees of warming would cause, warning that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

Likewise, developed countries’ Paris pledge to provide $100 billion annually to help poorer countries develop sustainably has not been met. Convincing countries to make good on that commitment will be a main goal of COP26.

In his message to COP26, Pope Francis writes, “As the Glasgow Conference begins, all of us are aware that it has the vital task of demonstrating to the entire international community whether there really exists a political will to devote—with honesty, responsibility and courage—greater human, financial and technological resources to mitigating the negative effects of climate change and assisting the poorer and more vulnerable nations most affected by it,” (emphasis added).

The pope should ask the same question of the church: Does there really exist the will to undergo an ecological conversion—not just a conversion of heart, but a physical conversion of church properties?

The Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest landholders. And as Molly Burhans, the founder of GoodLands and the first person to map all of the church’s properties for the first time since the Middle Ages, has shown, that land could be used much more responsibly.

Squaring church property location data with maps of natural resources, water tables, real estate value, accessibility and other metrics, Burhans is able to create informed plans for how best to use the church’s extensive land-holdings, whether that means identifying where to build a Catholic hospital in a remote area in Africa or creating plans for how U.S. dioceses should use their many vacant properties.

Unfortunately, this work is underfunded and has not been prioritized by a church whose finances are already stretched thin.

In 2018, Pope Francis offered to create a Vatican cartography institute with Burhans at the head—the Vatican’s first female-founded department. The offer came with no budget—just a small stipend that would not cover living expenses. Burhans developed a counter-proposal with a budget around a million dollars—modest for this type of project—for a ten-month trial period. She recently traveled to Rome to discuss the plan with Vatican officials. Still, it is unclear whether the Vatican will accept the counter-offer.

Burhans is certainly exceptional in her field, having been named, just this year, one of the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorers, but lay Catholics like her have been taking the lead in the ecological conversion—in contrast, a new study reveals, with the U.S. bishops.

A recently-released Creighton University analysis of 12,000 columns written by U.S. bishops in their diocesan papers from 2014 to 2018 showed that only 93 (less than 1 percent) of the columns referenced climate change, and only 57 of them did so in a way that suggested climate change was real. In short, “Laudato Si’” went largely ignored by American bishops. Only 20-30 out of the around 180 dioceses in America have taken steps toward converting their properties to be more eco-friendly. (In contrast, a 2020 Princeton survey revealed that Laudato Si’ had significantly shifted American Catholics toward viewing climate change as an important political issue that carried with it a moral imperative to act.)

Burhans’ work and the presence of Catholic grassroots environmentalist groups at Glasgow this month show that there does exist among the American Catholic laity the will for an ecological conversion. The question, then, is whether the American bishops and the Holy See have the “will to devote—with honesty, responsibility and courage—greater financial and technological resources to mitigating the negative effects of climate change” which affect both them and their adherents. As Dorothy Fortenberry wrote in a recent America essay, “Nothing will change the church more profoundly than the color green ceasing to be ordinary.”

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.

The Attack on Pope Francis

Pope Francis has never claimed to be perfect. “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” he was asked soon after his election. “I am a sinner,” was the answer.

One of the reforms of the papacy the Jesuit Pope has enacted is a willingness to admit mistakes publicly and apologize for them. In another shift from recent tradition, he’s also given his full support to media freedom. If something goes wrong, Francis doesn’t send Vatican officials to spin on his behalf or issue clarifications setting out what the Pope really meant to say. 

His authentic communication style, spontaneity and refusal to be scripted is a recovery of the original Petrine tradition. After all, St. Peter, who tended to jump in too quickly and then rue the consequences, became the Church’s chief apostle despite his human failings. 

This shift from a monarchical to servant-leader model has helped make this Pope the most respected religious leader in the world today; yet it has also seen him face unprecedented attacks.  

Beginning soon after his election, the 84-year-old Pope has come up against a powerful and well-funded network of Catholics who have been conducting a guerrilla warfare against his papacy. 

In my book, The Outsider, I document more than a hundred of these attacks that originate from a range of sources including Fox News, populist politicians, President Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Rome-based cardinals. We are not talking about the normal criticism you would expect of a leader, but a politically motivated campaign. And it is rooted in politics. 

Those opposing Francis are unnerved by his bold, prophetic stance on social issues, including his critiques of the capitalist system, appeals for refugees and call to end the death penalty. An outsider pope who has associated himself with outsiders has made those used to calling the shots inside Catholicism very uncomfortable. 

Offering a megaphone to those opposing Francis is the world’s largest religious broadcaster, EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), which has been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump’s politics

One of their flagship programs, hosted by Raymond Arroyo, a regular Fox News contributor, runs unrelentingly negative attack lines against Francis. This hostility has seeped into some other areas of the network. In September 2019, a priest used his homily to attack the Pope during an EWTN live-streamed Mass, while the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register was one of just two websites that in 2018 released the text of former papal diplomat Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s “testimony” calling on the Pope to resign.

Francis has decided to call some of this out. Without naming EWTN, the Pope has spoken of “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.” He explained that “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them.” He added, “They are the work of the devil.”

His comments made a distinction between criticism of Jorge Bergoglio, “a sinner,” and the office of the papacy, the instrument of the Church’s unity. The issue is not about a Catholic media outlet criticizing the Pope, but fueling division through one-sided coverage. This is why he referenced the devil: the original meaning of the Greek word, diabolos, can be translated as “to divide.”

Even after Francis’ remarks, EWTN’s response has been to double-down and say nothing. Arroyo’s latest show saw him spend half an hour talking down the global synod reform process with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a longtime Francis critic. At one point Müller, the Vatican’s former doctrine chief, said consulting people during the synod was “unnecessary.” 

Despite the increasingly politicized attacks, the Pope is not backing down. During an address to community organizers, he said he was willing to “make a pest of myself” with his demands for a fairer distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, for arms dealers to end their activities and for businesses to stop polluting the earth. The Roman Pontiff compared the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd to the Good Samaritan and he urged the media to avoid the “logic of post-truth, disinformation, defamation…” All of what he said is an application of the Church’s social teaching.

“It saddens me,” he said, “that some members of the Church get annoyed when we mention these guidelines that belong to the full tradition of the Church. But the Pope must not stop mentioning this teaching, even if it often annoys people, because what is at stake is not the Pope but the Gospel.”

As anyone who has overseen reform can attest to, coming up against opposition can be a sign you’re going in the right direction. 

Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church. 

Saved by Beauty

Many years ago, while fasting in a jail cell in Colorado as a result of sitting on the railroad tracks leading into a nuclear weapons factory, I received a postcard from Dorothy Day. It was an aerial photo of Cape Cod, on which she had written, “I hope this card refreshes you and does not tantalize you.”

Dorothy was an avid collector of picture postcards. Some of them adorned the walls of her room at Maryhouse. They included icons and art, but also images from nature: forests, the ocean, polar bears. Dorothy spent most of her life surrounded by actual images of poverty, including the hungry men and women who waited outside the Catholic Worker each morning for a bowl of soup. But one of Dorothy’s most distinctive qualities was her eye for beauty.

In every circumstance, she could notice something beautiful: the sunlight on a tenement fire escape, or a gingko tree poking through the sidewalk. She enjoyed listening to the opera on the radio. She felt her heart “leap for joy” as she read and suddenly assented “to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.” But she also had an eye for moral beauty: the sight of someone sharing bread with a neighbor (the literal meaning of “companionship”). And hardest of all, she could see beauty where others did not, in the features of Jesus under the disguise of the poor and downtrodden.

Despite all the misery and injustice in the world, she believed we must discipline ourselves to remember the goodness of God’s creation and to catch glimpses of the new heaven and the new earth that were evident if only we had eyes to see. These “samples of heaven” could refresh us and sustain our hope amidst so many frustrations and disappointments.

The life of Sister Wendy Beckett, a consecrated hermit who lived on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England, was quite different from Dorothy Day. But in their attention to the saving power of beauty, they had much in common. Sister Wendy for some years achieved surprising celebrity when she was discovered by the BBC and given a television series in which she visited museums and talked about art. When that was over, she was happy to return to her cell, where she spent most of her days in silence and prayer.

In her last years, before her death in 2018, Sister Wendy and I corresponded on an almost daily basis. She told me that she had considered her television work as a kind of apostolate. By means of talking about the beauty of art, she felt she had found a way of talking about God—the source of Beauty—to an audience unfamiliar or put off by religious language. But for Sister Wendy, beauty was not just about what is aesthetically pleasing. Like her forebear, Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century anchoress and mystic, Sister Wendy saw all things in relation to the mysteries of faith, and so in that light, like Julian or St. Francis or Dorothy, she could see beauty in the Cross, and even in our own sufferings.

One time, in describing a dream, she provided a deep account of her vocation. The dream had three parts: It began with her looking at magnificent pictures of lakes. Then they were actual lakes and she was walking around them, taking in their beauty. Then the lakes were inside her—she was containing them. But at this point she realized there was something wrong with them; they were poisoned or polluted. Yet she felt that in her sorrow and through her own heart she was somehow able to purify the lakes. “I suppose,” she wrote, “this is an image of what being a Christian means. In Jesus we take the whole wounded world into ourselves and suffer with it, holding it out all the time to His holiness.” That is our reason for being, she said: “God’s lakes need us.”

Dorothy Day often quoted Dostoevsky’s famous line, “The world will be saved by beauty.” I often puzzled over what that meant. But both Dorothy and Sister Wendy showed me that beauty has a moral dimension. To direct our attention to beauty, or even the recollection of it, while sitting in a slum or a jail cell or a hermitage, could inspire us to greater courage, hope and love. And it occurred to me that that is why I have spent so much of my life writing about saints: because the lessons of their beautiful faith and witness can refresh and ennoble us. And God’s lakes, forests, polar bears and all the other suffering creatures need us.

Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books, the editor of many volumes of writings by Dorothy Day and author of numerous works on saints. His letters with Sister Wendy, This is Heaven, will appear next year.

Eucharistic Incoherence

For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them.

- T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

The Catholic bishops of the United States have problems on their hands. Their moral credibility as leaders has been in tatters for some time now due to the ongoing revelations of the extent and cowardice of their actions in responding to the sexual abuse of minors. Catholic levels of engagement with the church, particularly among the young, continues to plummet. The coronavirus pandemic has left many people feeling spiritually adrift, particularly in parts of the country where religiosity and COVID precautions such as masking and vaccines have been in an inverse relationship. All of these are urgent matters affecting many people, a true challenge of leadership.

How have the bishops chosen to respond, in their June meeting and the runup to their November meeting?  By voting to proceed with a document on the Eucharist including a section on “Eucharistic Coherence”— e.g. worthiness of the faithful to receive the Eucharist if it might produce a public scandal—with a cadre of bishops throwing aside all pretense of avoiding political partisanship to single out the inauguration of President Biden as the cause of this initiative (which it clearly was). This document will not be approved by the Vatican. High-level Cardinals, and even the Pope himself, have made this abundantly clear.

What brought the bishops to this point? Ultimately, through a combination of tunnel vision and donor pressure, they have chosen to fight the culture wars rather than pastor their flocks. They have also not-so-tacitly signaled that Catholics are allowed to be Republicans and carry out policies of Republican administrations, but are not allowed to be Democrats or support positions associated with Democrats (namely, continuing legal availability of abortion). Beyond the issue of abortion, many bishops promote, for example, organizations that still attempt conversion therapy despite its devastating psychological effects while shunning (and in many cases condemning) even moderate Catholic outreach to the LBGTQ community such as that of Fr. James Martin, SJ. Catholicism, on this view, is concomitant with cultural and political conservatism.

When I set out to choose an epigraph for this column, I initially thought of the famous line from the same speech referenced above in Murder in the Cathedral, in which its protagonist, Archbishop Thomas Becket, says that “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” I demurred in part because I do not in fact think the bishops are doing the right thing, but reading through the broader speech to ensure proper context, I found it even more relevant than I expected, as Becket is grappling with the temptation to find glory in martyrdom, which should be taken up only reluctantly. I think a similar dynamic is afoot in our day and age; many of the bishops have concluded that strong public opposition, including from within the church, equates to a kind of soft martyrdom. This language of martyrdom and persecution carries within it that danger of self-glorification and making their cause—the pro-life cause, proximately, but ultimately the cause of the faith itself—serve them and their political, culture war ends.

While this debate goes on, American democracy remains on the brink of catastrophe, with many “red” states curtailing voting rights and preparing for the possibility of sending electors that go against the will of the people in the 2024 election. This has been met with resounding silence from the Catholic hierarchy, as was much of the corruption and abuse (particularly the lies leading to January 6) of the Trump administration. Needless to say, there has also been little episcopal condemnation of the failures of Catholic politicians like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott to protect their citizens from needless COVID-19 deaths through vaccination, and of Catholic Supreme Court justices to stay executions that are egregious even by the standards of that barbaric form of punishment. What is this—threatening de facto excommunication to some politicians who promote policies that are out of line with Catholic teaching but completely ignoring others—but incoherence?

Pope Francis has all but begged the U.S. bishops to change their tack on multiple occasions, to little avail, with some bishops belittling this past Sunday’s opening homily of the Synod. In November, they have a choice: to stay the course and produce a document that will be null and void but alienate and anger many Catholics whose relationship to the church has been strained by the above; or to embrace the approach of Pope Francis—full witness to the teaching of the church in dialogue with the pastoral needs of the world in front of them, including the crying needs of their own country and its people. That would be coherence— not with culture war politics but with the Gospel.

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

The Crisis of Community among Priests and Laity—A Tale of Two Surveys

I started researching this post by looking for surveys about what American laity are satisfied and dissatisfied with. But I stumbled on a gripping survey about new priests’ satisfaction. Other than this November 2020 story by the Catholic News Agency, the Catholic and secular media ignored the release of this survey, so I missed it at the time. But it deserves a lot more attention.

The survey of over 1,000 recently ordained priests in the U.S., three-fourths of them diocesan priests, was conducted in 2020 by the Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Titled “Enter by the Narrow Gate,” the survey report focuses on how well the priests feel prepared by seminary formation and how satisfied they are with various aspects of priestly life.

The priests feel well prepared for presiding at liturgies, preaching and knowing theology. They say they are least prepared in parish administration, preparing couples for marriage, ministering in multicultural settings and handling stress or managing their time. They are most satisfied in their ministries, such as celebrating Mass, preaching, counselling, hearing confessions and ministering to youth. The areas in which they are least satisfied are “performing administrative and human resource duties, the poor relationship they have with the pastors under whom they serve, feeling burned out from their workload, their frustration with their diocese/bishop and the lack of fraternity among their fellow priests.”

While four in five of the priests are satisfied overall with their vocation, one in five are not. One in 20 say they would not enter the priesthood again, if they could do it over, and might not stay in the priesthood. How can the Church be satisfied with twenty percent of its ministers frustrated and unhappy? That statistic sounds like it should come from a survey of Amazon workers, but apparently even they are less dissatisfied (at 12 percent) than the priests.

The numerical statistics are complemented by nearly 200 pages of representative quotations. Reading them made me very sad for younger priests and for the seminarians whom I advise in my faculty role. Not to discount the many statements about satisfaction and meaning in their lives, but I was taken aback by so many statements about loneliness, lack of mentoring and support, and fraught relationships with other priests, bishops, and sometimes laity. For example:

  • “Perhaps the least satisfying aspect is the presbyterate. Upon being ordained I felt like I was shipped out to work with no one looking out for me. When days get long or situations are tough to navigate I never was taught where to turn.”
  • “I do not find my ‘brother’ priests trustful people with whom I can get together and spend holidays or have time to relax and have fun.”
  • “It can be lonely. At times, I wonder if I would have been happier as a married man.”
  • “My seminary did little to nothing to prepare me for living a healthy life. Years of living under the watchful eye of formators ready to pounce on any flaw made me fearful to be honest about my struggles.”
  • “I went to a parish with 5,000 people. Normally, four priests serve that parish. Now it was myself—a brand new priest—and the 80-year-old pastor with very limited energy. It was so wildly overwhelming.”
  • “I feel the people’s expectations of a priest are pretty wild and many times unhealthy. It’s very easy for people to see the priest as a celebrity or a purely spiritual being or even as a commodity.”

Readers of the report can find plenty of fodder to support both “liberal” and “conservative” critiques of today’s Church. But it would be a mistake to lean too hard in either direction. Rather, there’s a community crisis among priests.

In addition to “Enter by the Narrow Gate,” I found a 2009 Pew Forum report on lay people who leave Catholicism. Those Catholics who become unaffiliated are more likely to cite reasons having to do with Church teachings on abortion, LGTBQ and the like. But one-fifth of them leave out of disappointment with the feeling of community in parishes. One-fifth of Catholics who become Protestant cite the same reason, and even more of them changed religions because the worship services and the overall style of the religion were more appealing. Three in ten join their new religion because a member invited them.

Much needs to change in priestly training and support structures. Much needs to change to make parishes more welcoming and communal. Couldn’t priests and lay people find common cause in rethinking parish life to support one another and to develop richer friendships with each other? Shouldn’t lay people better appreciate the social-emotional needs of their priests, and shouldn’t priests be able to share the duties of ministry more widely? Those are among the questions that occur to me from reading these reports in tandem.

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

The Quality of Mercy is Strained…in the Pews

If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love,

I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal…

(1 Corinthians 13:1)

On Sept. 7 Gov. Jim Abbott of Texas, a professed Roman Catholic, spoke at a press conference about his recent legislative victory, Senate Bill 8, which bans abortions after six weeks (‘fetal heartbeat’) and encourages all Texans to instigate civil lawsuits of liability for anyone who performs, “aids or abets” or intends to aid or abet, an abortion. 

That Abbott engineered such legislation is not surprising, nor is the legislation itself. Yet another comment that the governor made at that same press conference was alarming. When a reporter pressed him about the potential effect of the law particularly on survivors of rape and incest who then become pregnant, the governor replied almost condescendingly that those survivors need not be worried because, “… rape is a crime and Texas will work tirelessly that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”[1] Another governor, Ron Desantis of Florida, also a professed Roman Catholic, publicly approved most of the Texas legislation in much the same language.

Now, at first glance, that statement might seem to be a simple recognition that there is need for more deliberate efforts at prosecuting rape/incest cases in his home state, and that is a good thing. However, at second glance, his response startles because it is devoid of any acknowledgement of the plight of survivors of rape/ incest, and empty of thought to the suffering the survivors endure(d). The governor (notably, the father of a daughter) said nothing about the actual survivors, or their difficult circumstances, or how the state might assist them (especially minors) in their post-traumatic condition and during the pregnancies; rather, he spoke only about the punitive consequences for the criminals. Such willful insensitivity to and/or a studied disinterest in the women and girls who survive the brutality of sexual assault correlates with an apparent indifference (at best) that seems to have pervaded not only certain participants in the pro-life movement but many other (lay) communities of American Roman Catholics who have lately hobbled their moral and ethical principles with the destructive encumbrance of political enthusiasms.

This is not a pro-abortion commentary: quite the contrary. It is rather an appeal to American Roman Catholics (of whatever political persuasion) to act consistently according to the moral theology of the Church that affirms the human dignity of every person and argues for an ethics of care and a privileging of mercy. This is an appeal—notably to the lay Catholic community and to its leadership—to counter the culture of censure and tribalism that has been filtering through its ranks and to uphold the worth of the girls and women so that the life and humanity of both the child and the mother can be affirmed and dignified.

This is a challenge to a tenaciously patriarchal culture in which leaders often diminish and dismiss the experiences and sentiments of women and girls. The comments of Abbott (and others like him) are indicative of how (male) privilege, regardless of any religious sheen, continues to fail women and girls, especially those in vulnerable conditions. The governor did not allude to care or even empathy for the survivors of rape/incest. His only consideration was juridical, and so his comments seemed oblivious of the fact for survivors, the crime of rape/incest is far more that a procedural matter of arrest and prosecution. Lay Catholic leaders, especially those who lead pro-life organizations, must address with mercy and charity the real trauma of sexual assault, the real fear and confusion of a survivor who then discovers a pregnancy. The governor and other lay Catholic leaders should speak and act with a profession of empathy for the assaulted girls and women, especially as pregnancies proceed. Catholic leaders, especially Catholic politicians and government officials, are able to harness and distribute resources and should be quick to validate the wounded humanity of survivors, and their right to be provided, along with their babies, with natal and post-natal services.

People in the pews must voice their indignation when they witness among their peers not a drop of concern or empathy for the plight of women and girls, especially those who have been brutalized by sexual assault. They must invigorate an ethics of care that responds with benevolence and services, including programs of medical care, housing and shelter, spiritual counseling and loving guidance. The dedication to the sanctity of life should not cease at birth. The most glorious tenet of Catholic moral theology is the sacredness of all (human) life but that teaching imposes on all of us a claim which is neither simple nor uncomplicated. Life, within and outside the womb, demands vigilance and patience and sacrifice and perseverance, and every life must be met with encouragement and acceptance, without which impulsive, even injurious, decisions might be made.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-abortion-law-governor-abbott-rape-victims-six-weeks/ (accessed 9/15/21).

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

Conservative Catholic Critics Foment Discord and Youth Exodus

Polarization and vitriolic, personal attacks have become so commonplace that we barely raise an eyebrow when someone launches a moralistic, questionably ethical or politically biased tirade against another, and it is amplified by mainstream, digital, social or conservative media. But every innuendo, attack or distorted truth has consequences and causes collateral damage. And when the Pope himself is the target – and fellow Catholics wield the hammer – it is time to take stock and consider how this self-inflicted discord is harming the Church.

Divisions within the Church, as in partisan politics, have given rise to noisy minority voices with large bullhorns and small scruples. Conservative Catholic media and leaders attack the Pope, defy his leadership and openly protest his efforts to preach the importance of being merciful, less judgmental and more open to dialogue.

That is not to say the Vatican is beyond reproach or that differing opinions do not matter. Pope Francis has signaled his willingness to listen and encourages discussion, questions and opportunities for discourse and disagreement. But, he also reminds us that established policy and doctrine must be respected and supported.

Yet many in the Catholic conservative movement prefer their own spin and platform, with axes to grind and self-righteous, biased agendas to share. One example is the U.S.-based Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which has taken aim at Pope Francis for many of his views, including his belief that the Church should be making efforts to understand and welcome LGBTQ Catholics looking for spiritual guidance and support.

EWTN has been openly antagonistic of Pope Francis and church policy, inviting partisan Catholic leaders who differ with the Pope’s charge of inclusion to participate in broadcasts that often are hostile and insulting.

Contrary to that view, Sacred Heart University has joined a growing chorus of Catholic institutions in taking a stand against high-ranking church leaders attempting to marginalize and limit the civil and religious rights of LGBTQ people. We support the Pope’s view that discrimination of this nature disregards the Church’s commitment to social justice and more than a century of doctrine that encourages the human rights and dignity of all people, without exception.

Additionally, a cabal of U.S. bishops received negative press earlier this year when they said President Biden, a pious and dedicated Catholic, should not be offered the eucharist due to his openness to discussion on abortion laws. This politicizing of sacred traditions is an abomination.

The impudence demonstrated by these conservative critics is feeding a steady exodus from the Church. It is easy to understand why: having barely survived heinous revelations of long-term sexual improprieties and coverups, many believe Catholic leaders fail to listen to the needs of young parishioners and appropriately demonstrate concerns for those dealing with gender-identity challenges, divorce, birth control and abortion, women’s changing roles, diminishing spiritual values, the digital divide and many other relevant issues.

A Gallup Poll completed this past spring of 6,100 respondents revealed Church membership in 2020 dropping to 47% of those surveyed. It is the first time since 1937 that a minority of adults said they were members of a formal religious institution. Catholics belonging to a parish dropped from 76% in 2000 to 58% in 2020. Most alarming was the rapid decline among younger adults, particularly those born from 1981 to 1996 (Generation Y). The poll found that only 36% of that age group belong to a church.

These trends parallel similar drop-offs in clubs, organizations and professional associations. Change may be attributed to less trust in institutions, politics and business, but pointing fingers elsewhere disregards the truth that the Church is facing a fundamental crisis of image and doctrine, and internal political divisions are exacerbating flight.

The Pope has made clear his commitment to discussion and dialogue, to environmental stewardship and to being more empathetic and embracing toward all of God’s children. Here at Sacred Heart University, we welcome every voice, and believe strongly in the value of discussion, candor and inclusion. We will continue to host forums with speakers broaching controversial topics, and we want our students, faculty and the communities we serve to see our campus as a safe haven for learning, growing and exploring our differences.

As a proud institution steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition, we stand in support of Pope Francis and against those who, through their actions and words, choose to bring dishonor and injury to the Church, its teachings and its devoted followers. We would hope that more American bishops would demonstrate their fidelity and leadership in support of Pope Francis. Their silence is deafening, but indicative of their spine.

John J. Petillo, Ph.D., is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT.