A publication of Sacred Heart University

The “Dirty Little Secret” and the “Latin Mass”

In his 1972 book Bare Ruined Choirs, Garry Wills famously argued that the Second Vatican Council brought into the open the “dirty little secret” that the church changes. That “secret” had been the subject of controversy going back to the beginning of the 20th century and illuminated various movements that inspired the Council. Understanding the complexity of the tradition, thinkers of these movements suggested, could help the church to move forward and respond to contemporary needs. They invited the church to live in reality: that of its own history, and that of the human community of today, rather than a timeless fantasy.

After two pontificates concerned with calming the storms of the post-Vatican II period by emphasizing the Council’s continuity with the tradition, Pope Francis has been more comfortable emphasizing that things did and needed to change at Vatican II and that wholesale acceptance of the Council is part and parcel of being Catholic. It is within this context that we can best understand what Francis did with his recent motu proprio entitled Traditionis Custodes, restricting the celebration of the Missal of 1962, the so-called “Latin Mass” (though its differences of wording and action are more relevant than its Latin).

The continued celebration of the Missal of 1962 after it was superseded twice–by the 1965 “transitional” Missal and the 1970 Missal known in modified form by most Catholics today–was a result precisely of the shock to the system (felt by large number of Catholics but only expressed in this way by a small minority) resulting from the revelation of the “dirty little secret.” With the exception of Pope Paul VI’s “Agatha Christie Indult” to English intellectuals in 1971, most celebrations were illicit and the result of disobedience by the likes of Fr. Gommar DePauw on Long Island or (most consequentially) Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. For traditionalists, disobedience to church authority–whether in action or spirit–was justified by the rightness of their cause, namely, standing for the immutable tradition over and against the reforms of Vatican II. Changes to the Mass was only one of their objections to Vatican II, with other issues such as religious freedom and changed attitudes toward Jews also looming large. Anti-Semitism and far-right political views ran rampant, owing to traditionalism’s roots in conservative French Catholicism.

Over time, as John Paul II allowed more celebrations of the older Missal in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off schism from Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X, more people became attracted to these celebrations as an alternative to celebrations of the newer Missal that they regarded as lacking in reverence. While there are valid criticisms of the way the liturgical reform was carried out in certain places, recourse to the older Missal was not the solution. Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio liberalizing the use of the 1962 Missal made matters worse in that traditionalists took it as license to continue building a parallel church (with many priests refusing to celebrate according to the 1970 Missal) that they viewed as more in keeping with tradition than that of the other 99% of Catholics. Of particular concern in this post-2007 period was increasing use of the Holy Week rituals from before Pius XII’s 1955 reforms–indication that the driving force of the “Latin Mass” movement was not reverence but ideological rollback of Vatican II and its predecessor reforms.

Some have argued that the action by Francis was an authoritarian move to crush a grassroots movement in the church to which he had never been sympathetic, or that liturgical diversity has always existed in the church as evinced by various Eastern Catholic and other movements that have their own ritual books separate from the Roman Missal. These criticisms ignore that the older Missal was, fairly or unfairly to those attracted to it for other reasons, the leading edge of an ideological movement that opposed an ecumenical council on multiple key points and whose leaders were determined to undermine Francis’ pontificate. Furthermore, bishops, even here in the United States where celebrations of the older Missal were most widespread, had had enough of the attitudes shown by this community and sympathetic priests toward their own authority.

Unity of worship does not have to mean uniformity–indeed, this was one of the great insights of Vatican II’s liturgical reform–but it cannot be achieved with the sectarian rhetoric and ideology of traditionalists who seek to inoculate against change and keep it a “dirty little secret” rather than embrace it as inevitable and life-giving. Traditionis Custodes invites the church to seek unity and nourishment in Vatican II–including areas where it made changes to teachings and practices of the church–and makes clear that any attempt to “walk back” or dilute it is a dead letter. Like Vatican II itself, Francis invites us to live in and respond to reality.


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


APOCALYPSE NOW?

I am haunted by a photograph that was recently circulated on social media by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR). It shows luxury yachts in a harbor with diners at an outdoor restaurant in the foreground. In the background flames are leaping into the night, casting an eerie glow over the sky and the water. It could be a scene from any of the Mediterranean countries currently plagued by heatwaves and wildfires.

I saw that image while on a caravan tour of the Scottish Highlands last month with my husband Dave. We spent an idyllic month in some of the most unspoiled places on the planet – soaring mountains, rolling moors speckled with wildflowers, pristine seas lapping onto dazzling white beaches, dolphins leaping in the incoming tides. The luxury of a caravan is a long way from the camping holidays we used to have when we lived in Zimbabwe, when we would pile our four little children into the car and take off on safari. Herds of elephants would amble through our rudimentary campsites, baboons would settle noisily for the night in the trees above our tent and somewhere in the distance, we might hear the grunt of a leopard or the haunting cackle of a hyena. All these experiences of nature at its most awe-inspiring are overshadowed by that apocalyptic image of the night sky ablaze behind a scene of decadent luxury. In a report published this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that human activity has caused unprecedented and irreversible changes to the earth’s climate, and time has almost run out to avert a global catastrophe.

Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, offers a magnificent creation-centred theology that puts social and environmental justice at the heart of the Church’s life. It is an inspiring resource for all who recognize the urgency and enormity of the challenges facing us, but it is marred by one serious omission. Global environmental agencies recognize the vital contribution made by women in tackling environmental degradation, and gender equality is one of the key goals of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Yet Laudato Si’ has nothing to say about women and the environment. For all its emphasis on social and economic justice, it is silent about the disproportionate impact of climate change on the world’s poorest women and girls. It encourages local initiatives, but fails to acknowledge the extent to which women are in the forefront of grassroots sustainable development projects.

Despite its silence on women, however, Laudato Si’ is gendered through and through. Its subject is “Mother Earth” and “she” is a victim who is being laid to waste by human (male?) greed, neglect and indifference.

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. … [T]he earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). (LS para 2)

Implicit in this quotation is the gendering of power – the lords and masters are male, and the feminized earth is their victim. But Mother Earth is not a passive victim of human abuse awaiting rescue by papal knights in shining armour, any more than women are passive victims of male power who need strong men to protect them. Mother Earth fights back, and if she must destroy some of her children to ensure her survival, she will do so. Pandemics, fires, heatwaves, storms, floods – this is the behaviour we should expect if we attribute metaphorical motherhood to the planet, for it is how real mothers have behaved throughout history. If women are exploited, abused, raped, commodified, ignored and excluded, the result will be the savage desperation of needing to fight back however one can to survive.

Church teachings on motherhood are shaped by sentimental fantasies of maternal femininity which gloss over the often harsh realities and painful dilemmas of women’s lives, and these same attitudes infect the maternal feminine representation of nature. As ecofeminists have been arguing for many years, the romanticization of motherhood and the romanticization of nature go hand in hand, and both help to sustain a culture of domination.  If the Catholic Church is to become a leader in the struggle for the environment, its leaders will have to radically rethink their gender politics.

Robert Mickens suggested here recently that Pope Francis is seeking radical reform of the Roman Curia. It may be that in getting rid of the Vatican’s elitist patriarchal power structures, this shrewd Pope is preparing the way for his successor to at last bring women into full and equal partnership in the Church, but by then it may be too late to save our common home. Women are losing patience, and so is Mother Earth.


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


The Iron Pope

He was known as one tough pope who reigned for only five years near the end of the 16th century, during which time he ruthlessly restored order to a lawless and bandit-infested Rome and Papal States.

Though he was Supreme Pontiff for but a “blink of an eye,” Pope Sixtus (1585-1590) left a very big and deep footprint on the Eternal City and the Vatican that has endured to this very day. He financed a series of ambitious construction projects, including an aqueduct that remains intact to this day (the Aqua Felice), the rebuilding of the Lateran Palace, the completion of the dome of St. Peter’s and the erection of obelisks in front of three papal basilicas and other Roman sites.

But the most substantial achievement of Sisto Quinto (as he’s called in Italian) was the creation of the current structure of the Roman Curia. No pope in the last 431 years who has made the effort has been able to significantly alter it.

Oh, they have tried...

Paul VI (1963-78), who spent most of his priestly life in the Vatican, probably came closest of any to succeeding.

He angered many Church traditionalists and those among the Roman nobility when he stripped the Curia of many of its imperial court-like features—such as certain titles, ceremonies, regal eccentricities, etc.—following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But it quickly became apparent that the Pauline “reforms” were destined to remain only cosmetic, despite the pope’s intention to change the governing culture at the Vatican. Unfortunately, they never amounted to much more than nominal changes.

Pope Francis, who is almost halfway into his ninth year of steering the Barque of Peter and is quickly approaching his 85th birthday (in December), has made Roman Curia reform a major focus of his pontificate.

He began by instituting a new level of governance called the Council of Cardinals just one month after his election. Its purpose is to advise him on matters regarding his guidance of the universal Church and—most specifically— to help him write a new constitution for the Curia.

The document is said to be completed. But it is currently being scrutinized and amended by a team of canon lawyers the Jesuit pope trusts. It has been a long process to write what is essentially the blueprint for restructuring the Church’s central bureaucracy.

Many reform-minded Catholics have grown impatient with the project and they are even doubtful that Francis will be able to succeed where his successors (including Paul VI, whom he beatified in 2014 and declared a saint in 2018) have failed.

In contrast to Pope Paul, who was the consummate Vatican insider, Francis is a complete outsider. He is the first pope since St. Pius X (d. 1914) who never studied or worked in Rome. He is also the first member of a religious order to be elected Bishop of Rome since Gregory XVI, a Benedictine monk who reigned from 1831-46.

This has put him at a notable disadvantage. But the Argentine pope is shrewd.

He has moved slowly and methodically, strategically making one piecemeal change after another, gradually shifting the terrain inside the Vatican. The timing of the pope’s moves has generally been unpredictable, which has had the effect of keeping even seasoned Curia officials uncertain of what will come next and completely off balance.

Francis has shared drafts of the new constitution for the reformed Roman Curia with the heads of the Vatican's major departments, leaders of the world’s episcopal conferences and certain theologians. Ostensibly, the purpose for this has been to get further input and advice.

But only a few people know exactly which suggestions, if any, he has decided to incorporate in the final document. Both fans and foes of the reformer-pope suspect there will be some big surprises and major changes that were not included in earlier drafts.

The recent publication of the “motu proprio” Traditionis custodes, which basically nullified Benedict XVI’s restoration in 2007 of the Tridentine Mass, showed that Francis is not afraid to make substantial decisions that might even reverse policies instituted by his still-living predecessor.

How far, many are now wondering, will the Jesuit pope go?

It is well-known that, before undertaking major initiatives like traveling abroad, he seeks inspiration and celestial favor from the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Beside a devotion to “Our Lady, Un-doer of Knots,” he has visited a side chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore nearly 90 times since the start of his pontificate to pray before the Marian icon, “Salus Populi Romani” (Protectress and Health of the Roman People).

In a chapel on the other side of the nave of that same basilica are the tombs of two popes. One is of St. Pius V (d. 1572), the man who codified the Tridentine Mass. And directly facing it is that of the earlier-mentioned Sixtus V.

I visited Sixtus’ tomb last year on August 27 for the 430th anniversary of his death and asked a church custodian if, in all the times Pope Francis has been to the basilica, he’s ever stopped here.

No, the man said, he could not recall that ever happening.

I’m not completely convinced. But even if Francis has not prayed at the tomb of Sixtus V, perhaps he should, just for a bit more inspiration as he gets ready to carry out his Curia reform.

The Romans called Sixtus “er papa tosto,” a phrase that one might liberally translate as “the tough” or “badass pope.”


Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.


You Talk About Your Rights. What About Your Duty?

As we survey the dismal inability of so many Americans to bring themselves to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the language is very much about “my right” to choose yea or nay. This is just one instance of the way rights language is despoiling the earth, as I exercise “my right” to use and abuse the non-renewable resources of the planet, or “my right” to gorge while others starve, or “my right” to ignore democratic freedoms and declare a free and fair election to be a falsity, or “my right” to carry a gun. Nor is this kind of rights language restricted to the secular world.

When the church argues that it has the right to withhold birth control coverage from its employees’ health care packages, or the right to fire an elementary schoolteacher because she is married to another woman, or the right to turn a politician away from the Eucharist, common sense is far from these judgments and some kind of ideology, some ecclesial culture war, is driving them. The few Catholics who argue for a religious exemption from the vaccination requirement at the most sensitive and sensible Catholic colleges and universities probably do so, like their non-Catholic counterparts, out of some vaguely ideological Trumpian anti-vaxxer sentiments. But their objections, often employing the papally discredited argument that a possible remote connection between the vaccination and aborted fetuses precludes Catholic cooperation with evil, are hard to defend when Pope Francis has declared that vaccination is “a moral imperative.”

I have lately been reading Robert Zaretsky’s new book, The Subversive Simone Weil, which, while it might be a little guilty of domesticating that least tamable of thinkers, offers us much food for thought for our present-day church and world on exactly this topic of rights. Weil is deeply suspicious of how potentially egotistical a focus on rights can be. Here is where we have to be careful, because the world is way too short on the right kind of rights. But what are they? They are the rights of those who pretty much have no access to the rights that the rest of us can enjoy without pressure or penalty.

Catholic social teaching has been aware of this issue of rights language for a very long time. Classically, it insists that every right has a concomitant responsibility. But Simone Weil eschews the language of rights and responsibility in favor of the idea of duty; duty can have no conditions; it is simply just what my conscience and human nature require of me as a member of the human community. There is an absolute quality to duty; there is no such thing as a conditional duty. This is clearly more congenial to Weil’s temperament than any kind of moral compromise or casuistical escape-clause. Indeed, it was probably her extremism here that hastened her death in England in 1943, when she felt duty-bound to eat no more than her French fellow-citizens suffering under Nazi occupation. “Duty to what?” one might ask, and Zaretsky’s reply is that Weil saw “duty to the good” to be the motivator. In this, she was shadowed by Iris Murdoch, an admirer of Weil, who though an agnostic wrote in language redolent of the doctrine of original sin, of human beings’ “insuperable psychological barriers to goodness,” and thought that the task of moral philosophy was “to purify this energy which is naturally selfish in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly.”

And so, we come to the reluctance to be vaccinated against COVID. The language of rights is used overwhelmingly among those unwilling to be vaccinated, and the idea of duty is never mentioned. Duty to the good or duty to God, both amount to care for the community. What God wants is a loving and caring community in which “my rights” are second to “the common good.” The centrality of the idea of the common good to Catholic social teaching (CST) coincides with Weil’s duty to the good and her interpretation of duty points exactly to the particular way in which CST understands the common good, as the good of the whole measured by the particular care and concern for the least powerful members of society.

It is quite clear that vaccination against COVID-19 is a fine example of the application of the principle of the common good, so how come the U.S. church has not spoken forcefully to promote it? And why have some Catholic universities resisted the idea of a vaccine mandate, while so many have imposed one? There is undoubtedly a mix of motives, including the fear of backlash from parishioners, or from anti-vaxxer donors, alumni and trustees of the schools. I suppose it’s a trade-off. A few more people die, but the money keeps coming in. What bishops and college presidents should be making clear is that putting one’s personal freedoms before the needs of the community, in any situation but especially in one so dire as the present pandemic, is a deeply sinful course of action. When Pope Francis says that being vaccinated is a moral obligation, the implication for those who choose otherwise is clear. The hands of those who choose the freedom to exercise “their rights” may turn out to have blood on them.


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


Fiddling While the Churches Burn

These are sorrowful times for the Catholic Church in Canada.

The discovery of more than a thousand unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools run for Indigenous children by Catholic religious orders and dioceses—with the certainty that more will be found—is shining renewed light on one of Canada’s ugliest chapters. But while the discoveries have exposed our colonial past at its worst, they have also revealed the degree to which the Canadian Catholic Church is a splintered institution.

It has long been estimated that at least 4,100 children in Canada died due to illness or accidents in residential schools they were forced by the federal government to attend. A lack of access to records has made research challenging, but recent use of ground-penetrating radar has begun to offer hard evidence of testimony delivered to the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that prompted the TRC to describe the experience of residential schools to be “cultural genocide.”

This is a significant moment in relations, not only between Indigenous people and the Canadian government, which instituted and funded the schools, but also between Indigenous people and the Catholic Church. Some have stepped up to seek change, writing open letters and creating petitions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is Catholic, has called on the Church for a formal apology. But there has been a deafening silence from some corners. The only thing more disappointing than that silence are the voices of those who feel the need to defend the Church at all costs.

The right continues to quibble and make excuses rather than confront the past. They argue about the exact numbers of children buried on these sites, or note that sometimes these sites were used by the nearest community, too, as if one could quantify grief, that finding 10 children’s graves would make it somehow less worrisome than finding 50.

They point to individual apologies issued by various bishops, including comments from Pope Benedict XVI in 1999, to suggest the Church has responded adequately, even though it has not yet answered Call to Action #58 from the TRC, which expressly asked for an apology to be delivered by the Pope in Canada—within a year of the report’s issuance—as was done in Ireland in 2010.

While a 2006 class action suit required dioceses and orders involved to pay $25 million—or “best efforts”—collections taken up in the affected locations and efforts in some unrelated dioceses netted a shameful final $3.7 million. Canada, for what it’s worth, has 13 million Catholics.

As the horrifying discoveries continue, and Catholics begin to gain some insight into what the families forcibly torn apart to enroll children in these schools suffered, the cries for justice increase, as do suggestions that both attendance and the collection plate will take hits as parishes begin to re-open post-COVID. This story has been front-page news since May of this year and is not going away. The Church looks heartless and racist, the sins of the past still not healed.

In the midst of this, one Catholic pastor in the Toronto area gave a tone-deaf homily recently in which he argued that no one talks about “the good done” by the Catholic Church in residential schools.

Right-wing bloggers and websites have assiduously avoided the topic of the graves, instead focusing on fires raging in Catholic churches, some on First Nations reserves. With almost no evidence available, the right labels this a hate crime. And when others have stated that if churches have been burned by those affected by the legacy of residential schools the anger behind the action is understandable, the right rears up as if commenters had struck the matches themselves. Obviously, no one is condoning criminal behavior, especially as some of these churches minister to Indigenous Catholics; to say one understands is not to condone. But churches can be rebuilt. The thousands of children who died cannot be brought back to life.

Compassionate Canadian Catholics are discussing the need for a papal visit, if Pope Francis’ health allows, to make a formal apology. They seek complete payment of the $25 million owed in the class action suit and they want the remains found on all former residential school sites to be identified and buried in a manner the family wishes.

This resonates. When my husband died last year, our family decided to keep his ashes on our piano, still in the midst of family life. I’ve seen my boys give the urn a loving pat, and my daughters blow kisses. We know where Mike’s remains are. We have that solace. Not to know the circumstances of a loved one’s death or burial place is a cruelty I cannot imagine. That my Church had any role in contributing to a grieving family’s suffering appalls me.

But as more graves are found, some continue to fiddle while churches burn. What they fail to see is that the Church—and the laity—are radically different than when the residential schools first opened in 1880. Many of us are asking whether it will ever be possible for us to apologize enough.


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


What Has Happened to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?

In March, I wrote “Bishops’ Conference Should Look Toward Rome,” about the sad situation at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in their foolish attempt to browbeat President Joe Biden on the issue of abortion and their beyond foolish qualms about the Covid-19 vaccines. Their June meeting did nothing to restore confidence in their leadership. 

People ask me all the time: “How did it get this bad?” The answer is not complicated, but it is multi-faceted.

The first and foremost reason is that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were poor judges of character and placed people in positions of authority who should not have been there. They also followed the old adage “promoveatur ut amoveatur,” or promote to remove.

The most critical person in choosing candidates for the episcopate is the apostolic nuncio. Pope Benedict sent Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to the U.S. as nuncio because he wanted to get him out of Rome. From October 2011 until April 2016, Viganò served in this critical role, screening new candidates and proposing the promotion of others. Nuncios do not succeed in getting all their nominees through the cumbersome process, but they get around 50%. And, as we all know, Viganò can charitably be called unhinged.

In addition, Pope Benedict XVI named Cardinals Raymond Burke and Justin Rigali to the Congregation for Bishops, and they helped promote some of the worst culture warriors to Metropolitan sees: men such as Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in San Francisco and Archbishop Alexander Sample in Portland, OR. Earlier, Burke had been critical in the naming of Archbishop Joseph Naumann as coadjutor Archbishop of Kansas City, KS. So, the system by which bishops are selected was in the hands of culture warriors for many years.

If there has been little help from Rome, there has also been little help from the pews, and this is far less commented on. In the wake of Vatican II, there has been a push to include lay people in decision-making positions that do not require ordination. It is not uncommon to find a lay woman serving as chancellor or a layman serving as superintendent of schools. In the pre-conciliar era, when you walked into a chancery, it was staffed almost exclusively by clerics.

I am no fan of clericalism, but the problem is that in the years after the Council, the ideological makeup of these new lay staff shifted to the right. Many liberal Catholics left the Church, and fewer still ever thought of working for the various offices that comprise a chancery, at least when compared to the number of conservative Catholics who warmed to the prospect.

As well, bishops tend to be conflict-averse. There is an old saying: If your request will be met with a “yes,” you meet with the bishop, but if it will be met with a “no,” the Vicar General will deliver the bad news. Bishops know that if, for example, they were to appoint a communications director who had worked for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the right-wing, anti-abortion brigades would pummel them with phone calls and emails, maybe even a protest. But no one complains when they hire someone who worked for a Republican.

The Knights of Columbus was led for 20 years by Carl Anderson, who formerly worked as a Republican operative. His replacement, Patrick Kelly, served on the staff of President George W. Bush.

The executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, Christopher Healy, previously served as the chairman of the state Republican Party. Brittany Vessely is the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, but she is also part of the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life and she did a Publius Fellowship at the Claremont Institute.

It is not uncommon for a bishop to bring a neuralgic issue before his diocesan advisory board, a mix of clergy, religious and lay advisors, and it is the laity who are advocating for a hardline, culture warrior position. This has happened in many dioceses over issues such as accepting the children of gay parents into Catholic schools. The laity say “we don’t want those people in our school,” and the clergy are the ones who ask on what basis you deny a Catholic education to a baptized Catholic.

So, when bishops want to know what the laity think about an issue like denying communion to pro-choice politicians, and they ask the lay people who are closest to them, they tend to get the most conservative feedback imaginable. Combine that with the prominence of well-funded, right-wing organizations like the Napa Institute and the Acton Institute, which fly bishops in for conferences—and at Napa, the conference is accompanied by cigar and cognac receptions!—and you begin to understand how it is that USCCB can become such a mess.

Lay leadership is not the answer, at least not currently. I will take my chances with Papa Francesco and his current appointees to the Congregation for Bishops. But the changes we need won’t happen quickly and they won’t be sudden or sharp. Pope Francis has proposed synodality as a vehicle by which the Holy Spirit might return to our ecclesial decision making, but it is difficult to imagine today’s culture warriors engaging in a genuinely synodal process. We are in for some bad ecclesial weather for the next few years.


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


O Beautiful for Independence Shared

The U.S. failed to achieve at least one vision for independence this year. President Biden set an ambitious goal for vaccination against COVID-19: to administer first doses to 70% of eligible Americans by the Fourth of July. But that date came and went without success. And, despite scorching temperatures in the West and a nightmarish building collapse in Florida, many places around the country nonetheless celebrated Independence Day with fireworks, family barbecues, and maskless memories of what “normalcy” can look like.

The Delta variant proves why the global community surely needs to maintain vigilance, but we can and should praise local milestones in the worldwide effort to combat this still ongoing, still deadly, still mutating virus. By July 4, the U.S. as a whole managed to boast first dose vaccination rates well above 60%. Many individual states even surpassed the President’s 70% target! Collective efforts for the common good can be worthy of celebration even if independence remains allusive. There’s no need to win in order to throw a good party.

The Americanized obsession with winning (as opposed to “the good”) surely calls for its own sharp critique, but there might be a lesson for the Church hiding in a national refusal to be embarrassed by falling just short of a stated public goal. That’s because rebuilding and reopening cannot be achieved instantly or with total satisfaction this side of the end of time. Ecclesial and political leaders will continue to set ambitious benchmarks, and human communities will continue to fail to achieve them. But a pilgrim people walking together towards holiness is bound to stumble. Christians have been failing to reach ambitious goals since the very beginning. Pick up and read any of Saint Paul’s letters to the earliest church communities and you might find an inspired record of salacious scandals, doctrinal disagreements and leaders making (and learning from) mistakes. Our contemporary debates about how to dress and how close Christians should sit together at the liturgy or what sorts of politicians can be invited to eat at the Lord’s table are nothing new.

Conversations about eating together make sense for a religious tradition whose rituals enact a shared meal with meaning far beyond ordinary sustenance. For Catholics, the Eucharist is an encounter with a living God from whom we can never be independent. Shared meals can testify to the relationships that not only make a truly human life possible but actually worth living. Somewhat like the profound difference between the burgers I shared over the weekend with people I love and the many burgers I have eaten alone in my car, gathering to be present together taps into a mysterious beauty that evades easy description but that I so missed during the doldrums of lockdown. It’s like the invisible bubbly stuff that makes up what sociologist Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” It’s like the shimmering aura of “life” in a busy restaurant or a party. It’s like the unpolished splendor of a packed church loudly singing along to a hymn that everyone knows by heart.

A quote often attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo claims that “to sing is to pray twice.” I’m always tickled by my mixed reaction to “America the Beautiful” as a hymn for Mass near Independence Day. On the one hand, too much overt patriotism clashes with the transnational harmony of the universal Church. Baptism proclaims hope for common citizenship in the heavenly city, after all. But, on the other hand, the tune (composed by an Episcopal organist and choirmaster) makes for a dignified procession that is simply fun to sing. Katherine Lee Bates’ poetry offers a political theological aesthetic in an American idiom. We sing praise for God’s favor manifested across a creation teeming with glory, difference and life: majestic purple mountains preside over the waving amber grains, fruited harvests framed by shining seas. Strikingly, we sing about America’s experiment in human fraternity that adorns and “crowns” God’s handiwork: the beauty of the creation that God deems to be good.

The second verse of this patriotic song prayed as a Catholic hymn issues a challenge for how to steward that beauty. Our project becomes a new pilgrimage “across the wilderness” to “beat” a “thoroughfare for freedom.” But are there ways to envisage this liberating roadway with an integral ecology, one where we help others to walk together with the earth rather just upon it? Can Catholic models of freedom be extended so “self-control” no longer, as it surely did at residential schools for indigenous children taken from their families, treat whiteness as a means to “confirm” souls? Can we imagine laws that enhance freedom? The ideals of a revolutionary spirit of liberty and justice for all rarely found swift ratification in the legal system. Indeed, the failure to decide that political independence from monarchy should also include economic independence from the evils of chattel slavery reverberates until today. Our contemporary prayer must become supplication that admits the inability to succeed at this experiment if our aim remains radical independence. “America, America, God mend thine every flaw.”


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


The Risky Business of Atonement, Litigation and Healing

The Church entered the COVID-19 pandemic in a wounded state from revelations of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and new awareness of the harms of colonialism and residential school abuse of Indigenous persons, sexism and racism in the Church itself. The grand narrative of the Church as a place of justice and care for the vulnerable is now a grand fiction for many. While leadership bears a particular responsibility, all in the Church have a duty of atonement for these harms. Church leadership response to clergy sexual abuse has been marked by silence, denial and cover up, protection of image and minimization of the harms. As a pediatrician, I have held a sodomized twelve-year-old boy bleeding from the rectum and tried to comfort a five-year-old girl who was raped. The harms to them early in their development cry out for atonement.

Atonement here requires apology and repentance, care for victims, policies and protocols for response to allegations and protective safeguarding initiatives, education into the harms of profound, often life-long harms of abuse in childhood with particular attention to the devastated spiritual consequences when the offender is a representative of Christ and the need to address underlying issues for long-term prevention.

As we’ve seen from media moguls and bank executives, apology can be no more than politically correct risk management. Meaningful apologies require explicit acceptance of responsibility for wrongdoing, regret for the harm, identification with those harmed and corrective action. Diocesan days of atonement have occurred in many places but a culture of atonement remains elusive.

Financial settlements with ‘gag orders’ have been an element of response. In the U.S., where suing is a national pastime, and Canada alone, billions of dollars have been paid out. These settlements are risky business for both Church and victims. For the Church, they can appear to be buying off victims without real remorse and promote the belief that the Church has limitless wealth. Victims can be re-victimized or liberated. We have learned to our peril that money does not bring healing and risks the anger of many in the Church who blame greedy victims for the closure of parishes and bankruptcy of dioceses. This creates a unique Church version of rape shaming rather than a community of compassion and support. Legal retributive justice focuses on blame so its adversarial nature can traumatize all without any sense of justice or reparation. We must understand the reasons victim-survivors risk initiating legal processes so we can create new practices capable of promoting justice and healing.

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have a history of not being heard or believed, and even punished, for their ‘allegations.’ Because disclosures of clergy sexual abuse are made long after the events and there have been few criminal convictions, victim-survivors feel betrayed by the justice system. They seek to take back control of their damaged lives but must assess their ability to withstand the process and its risks. Criminal law is about a crime, a state-controlled trial and a punishment. Victims have concerns regarding the need for evidence and difficulties in accessing memories of the abuse from the natural fading of memory and protective avoidance. Civil law focuses on the wrong, a tort, and its damage where the injured party controls the process.

Some pursue these legal processes to confirm the truth about events so horrible, victims themselves can’t believe it. Conditioned to believe in the holiness of the priest they think they are crazy. Here, lawyers listen, re-assign blame from victim to the defendant and reveal the multiple parties responsible. However, lawyers trolling for participants in class action suits can promote the monetization of the harms over healing.

Some pursue litigation to support other survivors. Others want to make the larger community aware of the wrongs and hypocrisy of the Church and make the Church atone. However, research shows that the goals of litigation for most survivors are support for care, accountability for the harm done, future prevention and the possibilities for transformation of damaged family relationships and personal redemption.

Moved by Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation, we need to develop the ethic and practice of restorative justice. It is an approach to criminal, civil and church law violations that addresses all aspects of offences in one process. For the Church, it helps acknowledge and restore the lost childhood of victims, make meaningful atonement and restore faith in the Church as a place of justice and care as well as trust in our loving and forgiving God.

Restorative mediation is a voluntary, private process controlled by the parties so all can be responsible for healing. A victim advocate may provide support. Lawyers may be present. There is careful review of the evidence. The process begins with the moral accountability of the offender and of the Church in a face-to-face meeting where experience is shared. This allows real compassion what is a “suffering with” the other. The spiritual harms in clergy abuse can be taken into account as we address underlying beliefs and practices for long-term prevention.


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


Just Imagine…

For comic relief or abject disgust, depending upon your personal faith perspective, the U.S. Catholic bishops continue to embarrass themselves. Their duplicity of self-righteousness is only surpassed by their delusional self-importance. 

Last week as the bishops gathered for their virtual meetings – somewhat like teenagers for electronic war games – they debated and voted (yes) if they should draft a document on the Eucharist and eligibility to receive it. Their self-proclaimed moral high ground is rooted in a narrow reading of Catholic doctrine that many of them view as the only one. How Pharisaical of them. 

Over these recent years. they never sought that moral high ground in regard to the abuse of minors by either themselves or their clergy. Yet those abusers were able and permitted to continue not only to receive the Eucharist, but to celebrate the Eucharist. Now, some of these same bishops call for a document that prohibits Catholic politicians from receiving the Eucharist based on their political views. It seems that raping and abusing minors ranks lower on their scale of offenses than supporting policies that do not match up with what these bishops envision as in keeping with church teaching.

This week’s behavior by these ‘spiritual’ leaders screams of their disconnect with their people and Pope Francis. Their rationale is rooted in “doctrine” and not in the mercy of Jesus. But then again, look at the churches, empty in no small part due to bishops’ and priests’ condescending preaching and autocratic lifestyle. The bishops’ behavior as an assembly, also, is saddled with disunity and open contempt among themselves. What a mess, and how fundamentally uncatholic.

It might be helpful for the American bishops, since more and more Catholics (especially, and most troublingly, young Catholics) are just ignoring them and their pronouncements, to postpone debates in order to retreat and reflect on the works and behavior of Jesus. Maybe, then, they would also eat with today’s prostitutes and tax collectors. They might even come to understand and accept Pope Francis’ call for synodality. 

Imagine – how refreshing! –  bishops listening to the people of God. Imagine, the Eucharist being food for the soul rather than a political weapon. Just imagine, pastors and not Pharisees.


John J. Petillo is the president of Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT.


De-clericalizing Seminaries

Pope Francis is concerned about priestly formation. Last week, my colleague Gerard O’Connell broke the news that the pope had ordered a review of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, which oversees priests and, perhaps more importantly, seminaries in the church’s non-mission dioceses. Ordering an apostolic visitation of a Vatican office was virtually unheard of until earlier this year when the pope ordered an Italian bishop to visit the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in order to discern what the office would need out of its next prefect. Now, it seems Francis is working from the same playbook in the Congregation for Clergy.

The pope’s concerns about worship are evident: He wants to see the Second Vatican Council implemented and wants to ensure that the celebrations of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass are (1) properly understood as an exception rather than the norm, as he did in a recent guideline governing the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and (2) that Mass in this form is desired by the community rather than being imposed by a priest. (I think, if a survey of the TLM were to be done in the United States, it would find that the case is often the former.)

The latter speaks to some of Pope Francis’ concerns about priestly formation. First, as is well known, Pope Francis has seen the damage that clericalism has wrought in the church, particularly in the sexual abuse crisis, when priests’ and lay people’s belief in the superiority of the priest bolstered decades of abuse and cover up. As I wrote in a previous column for this blog, Pope Francis’ solution to clericalism is a synodal model of church, one that involves priests and lay people listening to one another and working together to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling the church.

A second concern is pride, the root cause of clericalism. This pope has, from the beginning, instructed pastors to be humble, to have “the smell of the sheep.” Last week, he contrasted this with the image of a “superman priest,” telling a group of priests studying in Rome, “My fragility, the fragility of each one of us, is a theological place of encounter with the Lord. The ‘superman’ priests end up badly, all of them. The fragile priest, who knows his weaknesses and talks about them with the Lord, he will be fine.”

It was an image that created a striking contrast with last week’s news that the La Crosse, Wisconsin priest, Fr. James Altman, who became a YouTube sensation last year with his “You cannot be Catholic & a Democrat. Period. (Part I)” video, has now raised almost $700,000 in donations to help him fight his bishop’s request that he resign as pastor of his parish. While I cannot claim to know Fr. Altman’s soul or his relationship with God, it seems clear from the volume of donations that many people consider him to be a sort of superman.

As Sr. Josephine Garrett, C.S.F.N., a religious sister and licensed counselor who works with seminarians, points out in a recent interview with Gloria Purvis, seminary vetting processes often fail to account for personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, which can then run rampant when a priest gathers a large social media following.

The third concern Pope Francis has expressed, most publicly last week in a speech to seminarians, is rigidity. In the speech, Pope Francis urged the seminarians to “dilate the boundaries of the heart” while they are in seminary. “Be passionate about what approaches, what opens, what brings together. Be wary of experiences that lead to sterile intimisms, of ‘satisfying spiritualisms,’ which seem to give consolation and instead lead to closures and rigidity. And here I rest for a while: Rigidity is a bit of fashion today; and rigidity is one of the manifestations of clericalism. Clericalism is a perversion of the priesthood: it is a perversion. And stiffness is one of the manifestations. When I find a seminarian or a stiff young priest, I say ‘something bad happens to this one inside.’ Behind all rigidity there is a serious problem, because rigidity lacks humanity.”

Clericalism, pride, rigidity—the links between the three are evident, and with his recent speeches and the review of the Congregation for Clergy that he ordered, Pope Francis has made clear that he hopes to see a church in which priests are formed to be the opposite: Listening, humble and human.


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.