A publication of Sacred Heart University

Women and the Synod: Attending to the Sensus fidei fidelis

In 2022, the Catholic Women Speak network, which I facilitate, initiated an International Survey of Catholic Women (ISCW). Initially intended to be an informal survey of our 1200+ members to gather feedback for the Synod, it developed into a more ambitious project.

Pope Francis and Tracy McEwan
Dr. Tracy McEwan presents Pope Frances with a copy of the International Survey of Catholic Women.

Drs. Tracy McEwan and Kathleen McPhillips of the University of Newcastle in Australia – both sociologists of religion – offered to work with me to design a professional survey, hosted by the University of Newcastle. The survey was translated into eight languages by volunteers and distributed through many Catholic networks. It attracted more than 17,000 responses from around the world. A summary report was submitted to the Vatican in August 2022, and in March 2023 a more in-depth analysis was published. It was presented to Pope Francis by Tracy McEwan in Rome on International Women’s Day on 8th March.

The survey included closed questions with tick-box responses and open-ended questions for written responses. The report is available online and it includes a full explanation of the research methodology and analysis of the findings, as well as the questionnaire.

Surveys are blunt instruments and must be interpreted with discernment. We are often reminded that the Catholic Church is not a democracy and, while many of us see scope for greater democratic participation in the Church, the failure of many western political institutions is a reminder that democracy itself can slide into populism and mob rule when it is not underwritten by a shared vision of the good life and the just society.

In 2014, the International Theological Commission published a document titled “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church”, which surveys the role played by believers in the formation of church teaching. Respect for the sensus fidei would entail that church leaders take seriously the ways in which Catholics experience their faith in different cultures and contexts, as a vital aspect of the development and interpretation of doctrine. This creative tension between the core teachings of the Church and the realities of everyday faith is, I believe, a way of balancing the desire for greater democracy with the need to preserve fundamental principles of justice in the context of the sacramental mysteries of faith. To read the ISCW report as an expression of the sensus fidei by thousands of Catholic women around the world is to recognize what a significant document it is.

It showed 88% of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “My Catholic identity is important to me.” The report notes that:

Many respondents expressed their ongoing commitment to the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist. They used terms such as: “love,” “source of grace,” “central” and “anchor” when explaining their relationship with the Eucharist (p. 23).

A majority 82% agreed or strongly agreed that “Catholic social teaching is a good resource for social justice action.” In the open responses, many framed their discontent with the institutional Church in terms of wanting closer adherence to Gospel values and the teachings of Jesus. One elderly woman from Vietnam wrote:

I see myself longing for the values of Jesus lived in the Church and find they are lost in heavy institutionalization, legalism and clericalism.

A younger woman from Poland called for:

A return to the gospel itself and what is most important – love of neighbor. I don’t hear it in churches or from priests. I don’t see respect for every, absolutely every, person.

The survey can therefore be taken as an authentic expression of the sensus fidei fidelis, given that the majority of respondents were practicing

Analysis and Findings
A page from the International Survey of Catholic Women results.

Catholics whose faith meets the criteria listed in that ITC document. While a small minority expressed a desire for a return to a preconciliar model of church, the vast majority (84%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I support reform in the Catholic Church.” Most want greater conformity to Gospel values, to social justice and care for creation—and to a more welcoming and inclusive church. This lends authority to their capacity to discern where the institution fails to be church—in clericalism and abuses of power; in the continuing failure to tackle sexual and spiritual abuse; in a lack of accountability and transparency in church leadership and governance; in the exclusion or marginalization of people on the basis of race, sexuality, marital status and, unsurprisingly, in the failure to fully include women at all levels of church leadership. A majority of respondents supported women’s ordination (69%) and 74% agreed or strongly agreed that “Women need to have freedom of conscience with regard to sexual and reproductive decisions.”

Similar issues have been raised in Synod reports from around the world, most notably with regard to the roles and representation of women. It is clear that the Synod has unleashed a process that must lead to significant reform, or it will leave many Catholics feeling bitter and disillusioned about their voices not being heard and their concerns being ignored. A first step would be to give votes to women attending the Synod and to ensure that these women are truly representative of the rich diversity of women in the worldwide Church. This would be a significant move towards breaking through the barriers of clericalism, misogyny, abuse and corruption that still lead to many explicit and implicit forms of silencing, exclusion and humiliation for women in the worldwide Church, and prevent the living waters of hope, renewal and transformative action from flowing freely through our Catholic institutions and communities.

Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.

“In the eleventh year of my pontificate...”

The 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy is now in the history books. The Catholic Church’s first-ever Jesuit and New World pope has completed a dynamic decade on the Chair of Peter, although he’s not done that by just sitting around at the Vatican. Francis has completed 40 international journeys (to 59 different countries), as well as 35 trips outside Rome to other places in Italy. Within the Eternal City itself, he’s made several parish visits and gone to the Basilica of St. Mary Major more than 100 times to pray before the beloved icon of Mary, “Salus Populi Romani.” Without a doubt, the 86-year-old pope has been slowed by age and declining health, but he has shown an impressive determination to keep up his busy schedule of global bridge-building and evangelization.

And when he’s not been traveling, he’s been busy trying to achieve nothing less than a full-scale cultural and ministerial change at the Vatican, while helping the global Church emerge (without being crushed) from its steadily collapsing Eurocentric paradigm and give birth to a truly global and newly inculturated Catholicism. His not-always-clearly-defined project of making “synodality” the driving engine of these efforts and a constitutive part of the Church’s life and decision-making process has been one of the hallmarks of his pontificate.

A dynamic ten years? No doubt about it. But there have been mixed reactions from the clergy (including bishops and cardinals), as well as the people in the pews. It’s been like a dream-come-true for many Catholics who have long believed their Church needs to change in order to be more faithful to the Gospel, engage more effectively with modern society and other faiths, and simply be more relevant to people of today. But these same ten years have been a complete nightmare for those who believe their Church must resist change in order to remain faithful to Catholic doctrine, provide unambiguous and uncompromising moral strictures for the salvation of its members and stand apart from a secular society run amuck.

Over the next twelve months, whenever Pope Francis issues a document he’ll sign it with words to this effect: “Given in the eleventh year of my pontificate.” The question many people are asking is what, exactly, this eleventh year is likely to bring? Some fear—and others sincerely hope—that it will prove to be the pontificate’s proverbial eleventh hour; that is, its conclusion. One of the main reasons for these two different sentiments is the synodal process, which the pope launched in autumn 2021. This series of widespread local and regional consultations with Catholics (and, in many parts of the world, even non-Catholics) on the current state of the Church and its future has been seen by many as akin to throwing open the doors for debating anything and everything.

The next step in this synodal process will take place this coming October in Rome when the Synod of Bishops (that is still the Synod’s official name—for now) holds the first of two assemblies over the course of 24 months to further discuss the issues and ideas that emerged during the consultations. But bishops will not be the only ones participating in those assemblies. There will also be priests, religious sisters and brothers and other lay people. It’s not clear at this point whether those who are not clerics will be, like the bishops, full members or just invited guests (as observers and experts). The answer to that crucial question will determine whether they will be able to vote on proposals the body surfaces. Pope Francis recently said that all “members”—even if they are not bishops—will be allowed to do so. 

Even though the Jesuit pope has completely overhauled the dynamics and procedures of the Synod, this permanent institution that Paul VI established in 1965 at the end of the Second Vatican Council remains a mere consultative body. The current pope has certainly made it a chamber of much more honest and open debate, but the Synod has no deliberative powers unless its president, the Roman Pontiff, grants it such. No pope has ever done that. And so far, Francis has shown no signs that he’s ready to do so. Quite the contrary. He’s even rejected proposals that were approved by a vast majority of Synod members (like the appeal for married priests in 2019 at the assembly on the Amazon). So, all eyes will be on Rome this October to see what develops. It is possible, of course, that the pope will instruct the assembly to refrain from drafting concrete proposals until the second assembly in October 2024.

As we look ahead, there is also the question of how much longer Francis will be pope. The possibility of yet another papal resignation continues to hang over his pontificate. This means that over the next months, Vatican-watchers and others interested in the fate of the Catholic Church will be keeping a close eye on the pope for any further signs of declining health. Shortly after his election, Francis said Benedict XVI was right to resign in 2013 because of diminished energies. He said at the time that papal resignations were now “something normal.” But this past February he seemed to flip-flop, saying popes should serve for life. Then, just a week ago, he put the possibility of resigning back on the table, admitting that he'd likely step down, too, if he were to experience “a fatigue” that prohibited him “from seeing things clearly.” Only one thing is clear right now, the eleventh year of this pontificate will be as interesting as it is unpredictable.

Robert Mickens is the Rome-based English editor of "La Croix International", the online Catholic journal.

A Heretic in Good Company

Two weeks ago, Cardinal Robert McElroy visited Fairfield, Connecticut, spending time at both Catholic universities in this medium-sized town. I think it is fair to say that he was well-received by most, if not all, of those who came out to see him. Imagine our surprise, then, to discover that First Things magazine, a rightward-leaning but usually more judicious publication, gave space to Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, to accuse the cardinal of heresy, albeit writing in a way that allowed plausible deniability when challenged. In words that persuaded no one, Paprocki argued that he, “intended the discussion to be more rhetorical.” Whatever that might mean.

McElroy is well able to defend himself from what seems to have been a somewhat foolish attack, among other things misunderstanding or ignoring the clear account in canon law of what constitutes heresy. McElroy’s “sin,” argued Paprocki, was to reject the doctrinal and canonical perspective on sacramental access for the divorced and remarried and for those guilty of homosexual acts. But the bishop didn’t understand that becoming a heretic is much harder to do. It has to pertain to the essentials of the faith. The cardinal’s rejoinder, which you can read in the Jesuit magazine, America, on March 2, reiterates his scholarly argument that history does not support the claim that all sexual sins are mortal and therefore anyone guilty of them is barred from the sacrament. For this very reason, pastoral concerns may trump dogma.

I will let the cardinal explain all of this to you, but aside from the specific points at issue, a larger and perhaps deeper set of concerns swirling around the accusation of heresy need to be looked at. The very notion of heresy itself is ambiguous enough. Most commonly, a dictionary definition would say that a heretic is a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma and refuses to acknowledge revealed truth, perhaps with the rider that such a person has fallen into grave error, deserving penalty or even condemnation. There are other ways of defining heresy, however, and it will sometimes simply be said that a heretic is someone whose beliefs or actions are considered wrong by most people because they disagree with beliefs that are generally accepted. This way of explaining heresy has a number of interesting characteristics. It seems to require the judgment of the community that a person’s views are in error because they run contrary to the prevailing opinion. Hidden here is the implication that heresy is not measured by a fixed inherited standard (dogma 1, we might call it), but by the scandal caused by disrupting the community’s instinct for what is right (dogma 2, perhaps). If this sounds a little bit like Vatican II’s invoking of the sensus fidelium, it should. It also implies an understanding of the development of doctrine and, indeed, of the hierarchy of truths.

When Bishop Paprocki seems to be accusing Cardinal McElroy of heresy, his reference to the rights and responsibility of the supreme pontiff is glaringly off-target. He writes of the supposedly hypothetical cardinal that, “only the pope can remove a cardinal from office or dismiss him from the clerical state in the case of heresy or other grave crimes.” Does he imagine that Pope Francis is likely to do this to someone whose views seem to coincide very closely with his own? There is a phrase that has been going around lately, that “opposition to Pope Francis is opposition to Vatican II.” Allow me to amend it a little: “opposition to Cardinal McElroy is opposition to Pope Francis which is opposition to Vatican II.”

Times change, Bishop Paprocki, and not always for the worse. On the door of my office, I have a poster whose headline proclaims, “a heretic in good company.” The list of “heretics” that follows includes, among others, Joan of Arc, Origen, Teilhard de Chardin, the Franciscans, Ivone Gebara and Galileo. Not bad company at all. The point is that yesterday’s heretic is today’s “thought leader.” Even Martin Luther makes the list on my poster, and it was John Paul II who called him in from the heretical cold. The world is changing, and one of the few ways in which it is changing for the better is that we are learning to accept all God’s children where they are, filled as they are with grace as the people they are. Gay, lesbian, trans or merely divorced and remarried. And as this awareness grows more in our society, it is just possible that those who oppose it in the name of rigid dogmatism may be the real heretics.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

Taking Time to Listen to Rarely Heard Voices

I am a cynic by nature on just about anything, including my Church. When the Synod on Synodality was announced, therefore, I was skeptical about what value it might have, assuming the same old voices would be saying the same old things—to the same old response.

As the rollout began, my cynicism seemed validated, as conversations with friends across Canada and the United States suggested an uneven embrace of the listening and information-gathering process, depending not only on who was at the helm in your diocese but even, sometimes, who your pastor was. The very concept of subsidiarity, it seemed, remains optional.

But then a colleague was appointed by the Vatican’s Dicastery on Human Integral Development to join the North American working group of a global project entitled Doing Theology from the Peripheries, designed to ensure that voices of people on the margins were not only consulted but included in the reporting process.

The North American findings were presented recently at a gathering at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College and the information was stunningly moving. As participants—both from the working group and spokespeople from groups who were consulted—spoke it became increasingly clear that it was time to set aside at least some of my cynicism.

The committee was made up of nine theologians from across North America and, as an unintended consequence of COVID, they found their reach extended because of the new acceptance of online meeting tools. And so, the working group was able to speak with migrants on the Mexico-United States border, people living with disabilities and people who were incarcerated. They spoke with people experiencing poverty, members of the LGBTQ community and women who feel excluded and diminished due to their gender. In other words, many of the people you don’t necessarily hear from at the average parish council meeting. (Similar consultations were held around the world.)

The North American consultations resulted in a 70,000-word report. As discussed at the presentation of the findings, a recurring message was that while the Church is comfortable serving the comfortable, its central motivation should be to serve those who face struggles, those whose lives include unique challenges as these people, too, are the Church.

As participants talked, I felt a sensation I hadn’t felt for some time, and that was that my Church was actively engaging in the kind of work it should be doing and, by extension, demonstrating for those of us still in the pews—or feeling a lifelong attachment, even if not still in the pews—that the Catholic Church should be a place of engagement and action, especially with and for those who face extraordinary challenges. This, I realized, was Francis demonstrating his sincerity and his goal of really serving his flock.

But as I listened, I was also forced to do some soul-searching and more than a little squirming. The work of the Peripheries project was powerful, but it highlighted for me how easy it is to insulate oneself from the lives happening around us. I had plenty of opportunities to sit down with street people in my community when I was involved in a supper program at my church, for example, but usually the conversation was over whether it was spaghetti or stew being offered for dinner rather than topics of faith, and my conversations with a gay relative are more likely to be about popular culture rather than examining ways he has been hurt by the Church.

In no way is that to suggest that anyone owes me, a privileged white woman, very personal, often private, details about their lives. Instead, it is confessional, demonstrating how the Peripheries report made me mindful of my lack of appreciation for my own good fortune, something I have always maintained comes with responsibility. If I hold my Church accountable, shouldn’t I be holding the same mirror up to myself?

It is up to me to figure out how I attempt to bridge the divides in my life, my city, my Church. How do I learn about the experiences of others without objectifying them? How do I increase my empathy and understanding and translate that into action?

If the Church is to be what I understand, confess and hope it to be, it should serve as a guide, providing times of encounter when we truly can see the face of Christ in all. And those encounters shouldn’t be only of the often-necessary imbalanced kind, where a volunteer dishes out a meal to a homeless man and then goes home feeling better about him/herself.

My imagination is limited and I’m not sure what that might look like. But hearing from participants in the Peripheries work made me realize Francis is seeking out those who do have ideas about substantive change, including those most affected by that change.

He’s a smart man, that Francis. Now let’s see what happens with the information gleaned.

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

Anti-Francis Critics Do Disservice to the Memory of Benedict and John Paul II

The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, followed closely by the death of Cardinal George Pell, brought the opposition to Pope Francis into the light of day. Benedict’s longtime secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein gave an unfortunate interview in which he seemed to suggest the late pontiff had serious misgivings about his predecessor, and posthumous writings from Pell had the same effect.

Criticizing a pope is nothing new. What made these criticisms of the pope from such highly placed prelates so remarkable was the entitlement they embodied. In both tone and content, these criticisms did not evidence manly disagreement but an almost childlike disgust that the last conclave had taken their toys away. The papacy belonged to them and to those who thought like them. John Paul II and Benedict, they were real popes because they agreed with Gänswein and Pell, and that is what real popes do.

Such claims are not only a disservice to Pope Francis. They are a disservice to the memory of Popes John Paul II and Benedict! It was telling that Pell, in a memo previously published anonymously but now revealed to have been authored by him, highlighted the controversial presence of an Amazonian statue to Pachamama at the Synod on the Amazon as a symbol of the doctrinal laxity of this pontificate. He forgot that Pope John Paul II had spoken fondly of Pachamama, and more generally about the need to inculturate the Gospel, during a homily in Cuzco, Peru in 1985.

Gänswein, who reportedly spent some time attending the seminary of the schismatic Lefebvrist movement in Écône, Switzerland, lamented Pope Francis’ revocation of Summorum Pontificum, the document by which Pope Benedict liberalized access to the Tridentine rite of the Mass. Gänswein also said Benedict regretted the decision. But what was not clear is whether or not Benedict recognized the necessity of the decision, regretting the necessity more than the decision.

I remember Vatican sources telling me that Pope Francis never would have overturned Summorum Pontificum without discussing it first with his predecessor. When Pope Francis issued Traditionis custodes, the document that ended the experiment in wider access to the old rite, Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., a high-ranking official at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained to Catholic News Service’s Cindy Wooden why it was necessary. The use of the traditional Mass “has gotten totally out of control and become a movement, especially in the U.S., France and England—a movement that aggressively promotes the Traditional Latin Mass among young people and others as if this ‘extraordinary form’ were the true liturgy for the true church.”

DiNoia, who had been brought to work at the CDF by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, and had previously led Ecclesia Dei, the Vatican commission charged with dialoguing with the Lefebvrists, added, “Pope Francis is right to see in the repristination of the pre-conciliar liturgy at best a form of nostalgic dalliance with the old liturgy and at worst a perverse resistance to the renewal inspired by the Holy Spirit and solemnly confirmed in the teaching of an ecumenical council.”

In an interview with the Associated Press in January, Pope Francis confirmed that he would speak to his predecessor about thorny issues. “For me, he was a security. In the face of a doubt, I would ask for the car and go to the monastery and ask,” he said, recalling his visits to the monastery where Pope Emeritus Benedict lived. “I lost a good companion.”

Similarly, on his flight back from Africa in 2019, the pope noted that criticisms of him overlook the fact that he often says the exact same things as his predecessors did. “For example, the social things that I say are the same things that John Paul II said, the same things! I copy him. But they say: the Pope is a communist,” the pope told the journalists on the plane.

One of the challenges for U.S. Catholics is to disentangle Pope John Paul II from his acolytes. Neo-conservatives in the United States such as Michael Novak, George Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus, largely convinced the rest of the U.S. church that John Paul II was, for all intents and purposes, one of them, a U.S.-style neo-con. They dismissed his support for organized labor as a leftover from the role unions played in liberating Poland from the Soviet yoke. They cited one or two sentences in Centesimus Annus that seemed open to contemporary capitalism—it was 1991, and Francis Fukuyama had already declared the end of history!—but they neglected John Paul’s insistence on a robust role for the State in the regulation of economic conditions and attaining the common good. Massimo Borghese’s magnificent book Catholic Discordance, which I reviewed here, tracks the neo-con distortions of the teachings of Pope John Paul II.

Every pope has a different style, special concerns or interests but the points of continuity and commonality are also pronounced. These critics of the pope only show their own limits when they criticize Francis for something that their hero John Paul II also did. Remember when the Polish pope kissed a Koran? Can you imagine what would happen if Francis did that? The anti-Francis brigade is arguing itself into irrelevance and foolishness.  

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

Church Turned Upside Down: Leadership Lessons from Mardi Gras

This coming Tuesday, the Mardi Gras or Carnival season comes to an end and gives way to Lent, completing the transition away from the Christmas festal cycle to that of Easter. I recently had the chance to speak with someone living and working in New Orleans who described to me the various parades there and the variety of people from around the city who participated in them, a far cry from debauched stereotypes about the festival. This fascinating conversation served as a reminder to me that Carnival’s symbols and traditions—unofficial to the liturgical calendar but deeply rooted in Catholic tradition—might help us to think anew about the significance and meaning of leadership in the church.

The two names by which the feast is known—translated “fat Tuesday” or “goodbye to meat,” respectively—both reflect the significance of food to its celebration. Depending where you are, various kinds of desserts will figure in—ranging from the cinnamon-flavored, creamy “king cake” of French-influenced regions, to various forms of doughnuts like beignets and paczki. Indeed, the very history of doughnuts is closely tied up with Mardi Gras. These preoccupations reflect the significance of the body—bodily enjoyment before the onset of bodily deprivation through fasting – to Catholicism.

Parades and festivals of fools further the celebration by incorporating the whole body with singing, dancing, parading and theatrical performances. In many places, these celebrations traditionally included “boy king” and “boy bishop” ceremonies—with a child stepping into the role temporarily and with much pomp and circumstance—that symbolically inverted the social order. In so doing, they made an important point: however important a king or bishop might appear, any pretense they make about their significance is and ought to be subject to mockery as they are human like the rest of us and subject to the same fate. While on some level these ceremonies served to reaffirm the social order even as they leveled it, they contained and very publicly displayed important truths about its relative significance. These ceremonies notably declined as the “divine right of kings” became more prevalent, and the embattled Catholic Church of the last few centuries has afforded less irreverence in portrayals of its leadership.

In some ways, Mardi Gras is symbolic of a cultural Catholicism—what theologian Karl Rahner called a “people’s church”—that is rapidly passing away thanks to secularization. Most of the traditionally Catholic countries where its celebration is most noted have indeed rapidly secularized (or in the case of many Latin American countries, witnessed a rise of Evangelicalism). Yet the inversions of hierarchies offered by this feast have insights for us today.

Many of the challenges we face in the church today owe to the clerical and hierarchical culture that became more prevalent after the Council of Trent with the institution of seminaries and more regimented life for diocesan clergy. This situation was exacerbated both by the 19th and 20th century centralization of church governance and the further culture of respect for authority fostered in the English-speaking lands (notably for Catholics in Ireland) during the Victorian era. (Saint!) Thomas More’s satirical Utopia—where the priests were very holy because very few—gave way to a more self-serious vision of the priesthood and episcopacy that has damaged the church significantly. The sexual abuse scandal cannot be blamed solely on this, but it was certainly exacerbated by it—any class of people who set themselves apart in this way, protected from the consequences of their actions, are by human nature practically guaranteed to engage in severe abuse of power.

The boy bishop ceremony encapsulates a skepticism toward authority and its bearers that is sorely needed today (along with other reforms about who can exercise that authority). Attempts to revive a “high” vision of the priesthood have resulted in cadres of young priests insensitive to the needs of the faithful and hostile to the magisterium of Pope Francis. Meanwhile, a large number of men called (on the phone) to the episcopate decline it, and those who accept it still struggle with finding “the smell of the sheep.” The spirit of Mardi Gras ought to inform our perspectives on these matters. Pope Francis has famously remarked on the temptation of many Christians toward lives like Lent without an Easter, but perhaps we also ought to beware of Lent without a Carnival. The extravagance and mockery of Mardi Gras and the simplicity espoused by the “pact of the catacombs” during Vatican II are two sides of the same coin: a view of leadership aware of its own limitations and geared to service rather than power.

So, as you enjoy your Mardi Gras pastries—whether from your local doughnut shop, Polish bakery, or Cajun restaurant—consider carrying the spirit of Mardi Gras forward. If you aspire to leadership in the church or your station in life (particularly if you are from a dominant group), remember first and foremost that it is not about you. Tolerating, and indeed encouraging, some levity about your role will serve your own good and that of those you lead. You might even, as they say in New Orleans Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler.

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

Babel, Pentecost and LGBTQ+ Persons

LGBTQ+ issues have featured prominently in synod reports throughout the world. The Vatican’s Working Document for the Continental Stage recognizes the importance of accompanying LGBTQ+ persons and acknowledges the tension resulting from a lack of clarity about what it means to “include” and “accompany” them. The authors of the report fear that because of this and other polarizing tensions, the Church might be facing “an experience of Babel and not Pentecost” (Enlarge the Space in Your Tent, no. 30). I was struck by this Biblical reference and wish to reflect upon it more as it pertains to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Church.

In both stories, Babel and Pentecost, the characters are attempting to build something (Babel: A tower to reach the heavens; Pentecost: The Church of Jesus Christ). What distinguishes their endeavors—and outcome—is the foundation and structure of what they are building. The Tower of Babel was characterized by a quest for power, fear of the unknown and exclusion of diverse views. The quest for power was seen in the attempt to build a tower to “make a name of ourselves” (Gen 11:4), fear of the unknown was seen in both the fear of being scattered throughout the Earth and the remedy of reaching the heavens to be like God, and the exclusion of diversity was seen in the fragmentation of society due to the different languages.

Pentecost was characterized by a commitment to community, risk-taking in the face of the unknown and celebration of difference as a gift. Community was seen in the commitment to the central message of the Gospels, risk-taking was seen in the departure from the upper room to face an unknown fate and celebration of diversity was seen through the cherishing of the different languages/gifts—each contributing to a common mission. These two stories contain important lessons for a synodal Church on what it means to truly include and accompany LGBTQ+ persons.

While the global Church acknowledges the importance of listening to LGBTQ+ persons, there is a lack of clarity about the scope and impact such listening is meant to have: Does listening to them simply mean offering them a place where they can find comfort amidst their suffering? Or are we actually permitting the Church as a whole to be transformed by their grace-filled life witness? If our goal is simply to be nice and hear about the struggles of LGBTQ+ persons without letting those stories transform us, we are building a synodal Church that resembles Babel: clinging stubbornly to our security, power and fear of difference—all made concrete in the various self-referential exclusionary magisterial documents on human sexuality and reported instances of LGBTQ+ exclusion.

Genuine accompaniment of LGBTQ+ persons must be open to the often-alluded-to “God of surprises,” risk the discomfort of uncertainty about mysterious matters of sexuality and celebrate the diversity of sexual “language” (read: experience/expression) as we continue to build a pluralistic Church where all are welcome. More importantly, it must learn to recognize the grace present in loving same-sex relationships and gender transitions. Such a synodal process goes beyond simply listening and embraces true joint communal discernment that is open to what Grzegorz Strzelczyk refers to as “an epiphany of the Spirit.”

My fear with the current synodal process (which is in its infancy) is precisely that, prior to engaging in dialogue, some sectors of the Church preemptively discredit LGBTQ+ experiences by categorizing them as sinful. Therefore, the dialogue does not reflect genuine communal discernment so much as a listening session on how to support LGBTQ+ persons’ sinful struggles. As an example, the U.S. National Synod Report expresses concerns for those marginalized and underrepresented in the Church, but also expresses that such marginalization happens because “circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the Church. Among these are members of the LGBTQ+ community,” (p. 6). What is interesting about this statement is that it holds LGBTQ+ persons responsible for their own marginalization, rather than acknowledging the role of problematic magisterial doctrine in their exclusion. This showcases a preemptive refusal to revisit the structural/doctrinal foundations through synodal discourse.

Pope Francis and some bishops have advocated for accompaniment and inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons but have stopped short of publicly entertaining the possibility of developing these doctrines. Conversely, the German Synodal Way has been very explicit, despite objections from the Vatican, about the importance of these structural doctrinal reforms that would validate and recognize LGBTQ+ experiences as grace-filled.

As a pragmatist, I acknowledge that Catholic development of doctrine takes place over time. It would be unfair to expect this change to happen instantly. Perhaps we first need a new moral framework that tolerates the diversity of theological opinion in our Church on some sexual matters before demanding doctrinal development. Nevertheless, we must ultimately abandon the Babelian quest to protect a structure that falsely promises closeness to God while breeding division and exclusion amongst us. Instead, we must embrace Pentecost and move beyond the doctrinal “security” we experience in the upper room to truly encounter the grace present in our diverse world. 

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

Rebuilding Amidst Falling Debris

Sometimes, insight into a pressing problem comes from unexpected places. I watched more television than usual during pandemic quarantine in my retirement facility. I learned much from home improvement shows relevant to rebuilding the Church, both the physical space and the spiritual reality of the People of God. I conclude that the Church is not a “fixer upper” in need of simple cosmetic improvements but a major construction project.

These programs demonstrate both possibilities and perils in construction providing lessons for rebuilding the post-pandemic global Church.

Programs describing the restoration of old homes with “good bones” in welcoming neighborhoods have a commitment to preserve family history and architectural beauty while updating modern conveniences. These projects often uncover major structural surprises such as mold growing in dark and damp places spreading disease by invisible spores, rot from termite infestation and major foundation issues.

There are profoundly different objectives. There are the wealthy who want multi-million-dollar luxury estates with open concept design, gourmet kitchens, en suite bathrooms for all and a media room. Many demand breath-taking views preferably in a gated community to ensure privacy and the “right kind of neighbors.” Others, who desire to simplify and focus on essentials in life, are building tiny houses. All these programs show that a clear vision of the goal of rebuilding is essential before you can begin.

There were also news stories of families trying desperately to patch a leaky roof and shutter windows during a hurricane. Rebuilding after total destruction from hurricanes and tornadoes presents the opportunity to build a totally new edifice. Attempting construction for a weakened and rotting edifice that is still showering down life-threatening debris presents almost insurmountable challenges.

Many trying “do it yourself” renovations and repairs learned tragic lessons about the importance of clear and realistic goals, expertise and appropriate resources and tools. I learned that a clear vision, an architectural blueprint that brings the vision to life and practical skills are necessary for successful construction.

History reveals the move from original worship around the table in house churches to the cathedrals and basilicas after forced conversion to Christianity in the West. The numbers of worshipers increased because of Christianity’s cultural and political integration so large imperial public buildings were used for worship. Consistent with the theology of the time, there was a clear delineation of priestly spaces and places for lay observers. A variety of styles throughout history, from Byzantine and Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, reflected beliefs of the time, materials at hand and culture.

The Vatican II vision of the Church as People of God and Body of Christ began a restoration of early Church ecclesiology and liturgical experiences. It stated, “The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to the full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations,” (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 1963 par 31).

Pope Francis retrieves this vision in his June 2022 letter on liturgical formation Desiderio desideravi. It calls for humility and deep conversion grounded, not in proscribed actions, but in what Christ has done and is doing for us in the Paschal Mystery. He says, “Let us always remember that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that is the celebrating subject and not just the priest,” (36).

He quotes Jesus, “I have earnestly desired to eat the Passover with you before I suffer,” (Luke 22:15) and emphasizes the communal nature of the Eucharist. He repeatedly refers to “bread broken and shared” by friends of Jesus. Worship spaces should foster both a sense of community and a sense of transcendence.

Pope Francis’ synodal way provides us the radical image of a tent. We are challenged to “enlarge the space of your tent” and construct it for welcoming and inclusion, especially of the poor and marginalized.

Rebuilding the Church today is a hazardous task. We live in a post-Christendom, secular socio-political reality where the Church is not respected.

There is a crippling polarization regarding the goals of rebuilding between those desiring a Church of wealth and power and a Church of the poor. Our resources are limited because of departures from practice of the faith over past century, losses from pandemic shutdown and disaffection of the young. Our strength has been wounded by ongoing clergy sexual abuse as revealed in the Cardinal McCarrick saga and reports from Philadelphia to France and by colonialism and racism.

 We need the “hard hat” of trust in God to withstand the falling debris.

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

The Grace to Misunderstand Less

This semester at Sacred Heart, all students enrolled in the core great books seminars in the Catholic intellectual tradition will be reading a short address from Sr. Thea Bowman, which she gave to the 1987 National Congress of the Religious Formation Conference. The address presents the urgent need to decenter whiteness in religious formation, embracing the multicultural reality of Catholicism. Sr. Thea grounds this call in Christ’s own call to all people. With homiletic artfulness, she builds a litany of Jesus’ call to people from every continent, age, race and marital status.

The final movement of this call turns to those on the margins of both church and society:

“‘Only virgins of good reputation and good family were admitted.’ Now Jesus calls virgins of good repute, also victims of sexual abuse, child abuse, chemical abuse, violence and war; some who have been and perhaps are sexually, heterosexually, homosexually active, presenting the whole threat of AIDS in our formation programs; some people who are sexually preoccupied, misunderstood, misunderstanding and grieving. […] Jesus calls to the diverse, and how often they find themselves misunderstood.” (Bowman, “Cosmic Spirituality,” in Shooting Star, p. 110)

This speech, of course, is marked by the particulars of Sr. Thea’s own moment, such as the AIDS crisis, at its height in the 1980s and 90s. Yet, in rereading it, I found it to be timely in its description of a church marked by both misunderstanding and a desire to reflect the mission of Christ’s love.

There are three kinds of misunderstanding, at least, that the church must grapple with to better live out its mission. The first is a willful misunderstanding that at a certain point becomes so malicious as to warrant a stronger vocabulary—not simply misunderstanding, but a will to do harm. Read from our own point in history, Sr. Thea’s discussion of the victims of sexual abuse and child abuse takes on a terrible new significance in light of the ongoing revelations about the scope of the sexual abuse of children and adults by Catholic clergy and lay workers globally. The story of this crisis far too often continues to reflect a will to protect institutional power rather than an effort to understand and side with the pain of victims/survivors.

On a smaller scale, this malicious misunderstanding is reflected in moments like this week’s Twitter discussion after The Catholic League tweeted that Pete Buttigieg’s marriage was a “legal fiction.” Fr. Jim Martin’s factual correction to this tweet—that Mr. Buttigieg is married legally and in the eyes of his Episcopal church—was met with both torrents of homophobic abuse and theological gatekeeping about the distinctions of legal and sacramental marriage. Both kinds of response to Fr. Martin echoed a willful misunderstanding of Christ’s call to people of all sexual orientations. This type of willful misunderstanding continues to protect institutional power and norms at the cost of the diversity of the members of the body of Christ.

The second kind of misunderstanding is the tragic consequence of structures of social sin that separate us from one another. Prior to our conscious consent, we enter into scripts about the value of our bodies, our class, our culture, which some of us then internalize in ways that lead us to harm others. This is the kind of misunderstanding Sr. Thea discusses when she speaks of white formation personnel who assume the normativity of their spiritual practices without a real desire to learn from the spiritual practices of other cultures.

There is, I think, a relationship between this kind of misunderstanding and the third, which is the simple human error of not fully understanding the experience of another. These are the small misunderstandings that may be impacted by social sin but may also result from a lack of gracefully navigating human community. This kind of misunderstanding is the source of the smaller but real feelings of a lack of acceptance in spaces like parishes. During the local phase of the synod, I heard from many people who had some small interaction with their priest or a long-established parishioner that left them feeling misunderstood. While some could point to the second misunderstanding as the root cause, an exclusion born of racism or the privileging of married people, for others, it was a more intangible feeling that they had not truly been seen.

In her life and ministry, Sr. Thea undoubtedly encountered all these kinds of misunderstandings. Yet, in this address, she makes it clear that throughout all these human errors, both malicious and unintended, Jesus continues to call. This continual call is a grace—a grace that empowers us to try to misunderstand less, both as individuals and as a church. If the church does embrace synodality more fully—and what exactly that means and looks like is still being discovered—then we will presumably find more patterns for speaking and listening together. This is a small grace, perhaps, but still one that might allow us to misunderstand less and to be more ready, in Sr. Thea’s words, to hear Jesus’ call.

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

Work We Always Should Be Doing

I recently heard a truism about adulthood: you’re always cleaning the kitchen. Kitchens are a symbol of life’s work unending. I’m not good at maintaining a pristine look to my spaces. My kitchen (or office or bedroom or car or living room…) sparkles with clutter and books. Making homemade marinara sauce leaves the place splattered with the look of a crime scene. If cleanliness is close to godliness, we can rule out chants of santo subito for me.

It should require no exhaustive list of statistics or primer in feminist theory to point out my privilege in being able to disdain the pressures of aesthetic tidiness without much risk to my reputation. Markers of my identity—the ways I perform myself can be interpreted by others into categories like maleness, whiteness, straight marriage, parenthood, American citizenship, economic stability, relative able-bodiedness—rarely come prepackaged with the correlation imposed on women between keeping house and moral virtue. That point should be banal, yet the pervasiveness of patriarchal assumptions across the Church and the Catholic intellectual tradition demand attention. Even prior to a rigorous discussion of theological anthropology or sin or magisterial teaching on sex and gender, the conditions in which Catholics think together about social life need a good scrub.

There’s a difference between saying “Go, clean my house” and “Go, rebuild my house.” Things have to become pretty messy before they can be rebuilt; all the more so if you renovate a kitchen. To rebuild requires attention to foundations and starting points. To rebuild means to gamble that this house has value worth preserving.

This is why I am so flummoxed when Catholic identity gets set up in opposition to the language of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging as if these ideas are somehow “new” to Catholic thought. Catholic communities doing DEIB work can begin by returning to the premise, derived from the deposit of faith, that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. The community takes as given that human beings possess an inestimable and beloved value. This point of faith demands action in how we organize social life. Gaudium et Spes 29 puts it well: “although rightful differences exist between [people], the equal dignity of persons demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person […].” Work for justice does not mean work for bland sameness.

But a Catholic theological position about human dignity needs also to be reasonable. Faith provides the impetus and inspiration for why Catholics need to care about inclusion. Such is quite a different starting point for confronting the structural sins of exclusion from others on offer—from materialism and class struggle, from nationalism, from the atomized sovereignty of the liberal subject, from non-Christian religious ways of knowing. Reason, however, becomes the vehicle for how we articulate and practice inclusivity in a Catholic context. Reason, as a shared capacity for understanding, explains our distinctive efforts at inclusion. Because it aspires to be reasonable, work for inclusive excellence can call on everyone to play a role, even those who militantly reject a Catholic theological starting point.

My proposal is far from modest and surely not guaranteed to solve every problem the Church currently faces in the arenas of colonialism, racism, sexism and economic inequality. But there is a need for members of the Catholic community to ground their calls for justice within awkwardly dogmatic commitments to tenets of faith. Equally true, however, is the need to show how the desire to exclude certain markers of identity makes theological errors. To be clear, hospitality puts obligations on both hosts and guests; inclusive excellence can never mean flattening diversity or the boring reign of crude relativism. But hiding behind the excuse of a “slippery slope” is not reasonable. In order to do the work of rebuilding, Catholics need to be bold in our public love of the Lord and one another.

Near the end of his book on the last things, Joseph Ratzinger writes gorgeously about the symphony of differences in the world to come: “the individual’s salvation is whole and entire only when the salvation of the cosmos and all the elect has come to full fruition. For the redeemed are not simply adjacent to each other in heaven. Rather, in their being together as the one Christ, they are heaven. In that moment, the whole creation will become song” (Ratzinger, Eschatology, 2nd. ed., 238). Our work of inclusion will never be finished; we will always be cleaning. But elevating, cherishing and increasing diversity in our midst can only help us anticipate and echo the richly textured harmony of the heavenly chorus.

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