A publication of Sacred Heart University

Notes from a Merger

In my May 2021 post, I discussed the impending merger of the three parishes in my city into one “municipal parish” as an opportunity for reform of the Church in daily lives of Catholics. But, it was an opportunity marked by steep challenges: my parish is in New England, a region with declining church membership; priests are scarce nationwide; the pandemic battered parishes worldwide. Here I report some personal observations of living through this merger, which became official on the first of January.

Reflecting regional trends, the membership of my parish is graying and declining, but having a school has helped draw families with children. The pandemic made a huge dent in church attendance everywhere, but recovery has varied. I see only a smattering of children and teenagers in the pews at my parish—in any of the four locations where we worship, with the exception of the Spanish Mass. The contrast with pre-pandemic attendance is notable. So is the contrast with the huge, wealthy, suburban parish in Ohio that I visited this week, where the six weekend Masses were packed with people of all ages.

These differences were not caused by the pandemic but exacerbated by it. (To be sure, the Ohio parish benefits from an upper-class location and an attractive school.) For those who already had a weak connection to parish life, the pandemic prompted them to develop other habits. Both Catholic and Protestant church members over age 55 have been falling away; their reasons are not about any particular crisis or dislike of church, but because they are feeling disconnected and are finding other ways to “practice” their faith.

So, connection is key, and it’s a challenge for my merged parish. Because of their typical size, Catholic parishes are difficult places to get to know other people. Catholic parishes sponsor many groups that allow members to enjoy their preferred activities—from devotions and socializing to volunteer service—while avoiding the interests and styles of other parishioners. Both of these features pertained to my pre-merger parish, where I knew the difficulty of finding more than the handful of folks who were interested in the same ministries as I. Now my parish has tripled in size to approximately 6,000 families, served by one pastor, one associate pastor and five deacons.

From what I have observed during the pandemic and merger, my parish would be sunk without the devotion of its lay members and groups. A silver lining of the pandemic might be its furtherance of leadership by the already engaged members. But, referring back to my previous post, there’s only so far lay leadership goes in the current Catholic Church, not only by canon law, but by enculturation. I’ve observed the tendency of Catholics to hold back from taking initiative in deference to priests. I heard the phrase, “we’ll have to see what the new pastor wants,” a lot during the months before the merger... and said it myself! To his credit, the new pastor has conveyed a vision for growing through the merger that’s about letting the laity to continue their leadership of ministries and take a good bit of initiative. Indeed, it would be impossible and unwise to try to micromanage a parish of this size.

I’ve observed several pressing needs for my merged parish and the many parishes like them, of which I’ll mention two. The first is communications. Unlike some well-financed parishes, neither pre- or post-merger do we have a robust website or a creative use of social media. We don’t have the email addresses of most members, nor do many donate online. There’s one wonderful volunteer keeping the website and YouTube page updated, but for no pay and with no budget. We need a paid staff member and a communications strategy.

Second, I believe my parish desperately needs at least one paid youth minister. It would be a tough job at this point, but this ministry requires more than volunteers; it requires a specific skillset, youthful relatability and full-time attention. Without professional attention to the needs and interests of Catholic youth and their families, the Catholic Church, at least in much of New England, is going to keep dying out. The Ohio parish is privileged to raise $60,000 per week, but they do invest a chunk of these resources into youth programs, and the pastor has a vision for why this is important.

One way or another, parishes and dioceses need to prioritize spending on community building and youth formation. The aspirations that my archdiocese developed at its recent synod all sound great on paper, including, “On all levels, our local church needs to re-envision youth ministry so that it reflects the invitation that this Synod is putting forth to all: to encounter Christ and to become missionary disciples.” But where’s the plan?

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

Rest in Peace, Dr. Paul Farmer: A Gentle Lenten Reflection

[My neighbor is] not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in

whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek.

~ Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez

The unexpected death on February 21, 2022, of Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of the global non-profit Partners in Health and chair of the global health and social medicine department at Harvard Medical School, was, for many, both shocking and dispiriting. Followers of his work recognized in Farmer a resilient advocate for the poor, for the vulnerable and for the powerless, and a persistent challenger to the social privilege and moral equivocation of certain echelons of the Church and of developed nations, especially with regard to the communities of the destitute. That Farmer was a physician who imbued his medical work with the claims (and mandates) of social justice further illuminated his activism and tenacious campaign against poverty and indifference. It should be noted that he died as he had lived, at a medical clinic he had founded in Butaro, Rwanda, that provided free medical care and subsistence for the local population.

Farmer dedicated his career as a physician to some of the most impoverished and under-served communities in the world—in Haiti, Rwanda, Malawi, Peru and the Navajo Nation in the U.S.—but an inspiration far more profound than a physician’s (laudable) desire to heal rooted his passionate—and resolute —commitment. Admittedly indifferent to his Catholic faith most of his younger life, Farmer often stated that during his first years as a doctor, he experienced a deepening of that faith along with a transformation in his understanding of his craft through his encounter with the theological writings of Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, the noted architect of the ‘first wave’ of liberation theology. Indeed, so formidable was the effect of Gutiérrez’s ideas that Farmer often referred to Gutiérrez as his spiritual and moral accompagnateur, his ‘accompanier,’ in his public health and medical outreach and in his own ‘journey’ back to his Catholic faith.

From the principles of liberation theology, Farmer learned that the poverty that he encountered throughout the world is neither natural nor necessary, but it is ‘structural’: that is, the effects of material privation reach much farther and deeper into all facets of life than are apparent, and the dismal weight of poverty not only denies the poor access to the necessities of daily living, but also crushes hope and defies faith, creating an existential toxin that intensifies any physical malady. Poverty is the consequence of decisions and choices of capitalist engineers and its effects finally become ‘violent,’ damaging the body and the mind and the spirit, across and beyond generations.

Yet, poverty need not be a hopeless circumstance. As Gutiérrez taught Farmer, an antidote against that invasive contagion is a reorientation of perspective about the world and its people, based not on a hermeneutic of suspicion but rather on the “hermeneutic of generosity.” It is a hermeneutic grounded in hope and mercy that recognizes in real time the integrity of the other, regardless of material condition, by “walking” in company with, and not away from, those along whose paths we find ourselves. That creed of ‘accompaniment’ so enlightened Farmer that he was able to liberate his clinical work from mere diagnosis and prescription to a praxis of care and companionship: the healing arts, he realized, require not just chemicals and implements for corporeal restoration but compassionate and benevolent attention to the whole of each individual, accompanying them along the journey of illness to healing, or along the final pathway to death.

It does seem that the work and ideas of Gutiérrez and Farmer are especially pertinent at the start of this Lenten season. It has been a year of distress and sorrow, of many walking away from and dismissing the other, of defining truth only through the lens of the self. Yet Lent is the season of spiritual renewal, a period of reflection that calls us to the difficult truth of Jesus’ message of love and solidarity. It is a time of reawakening and transformation and so we pause to consider the liberating theology of Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez and the liberated life of Dr. Paul Farmer. Both men have called us to authentic personhood, to an intimacy with God through the love of Jesus that we express in our daily love for every person on whose path we discover ourselves. It is a love that rejects judgment and disdain and that is open to the fullness of each individual (Pope Francis refers to the “sacred ground of the other”) as a companion on the shared path of life.

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

The Synodal Pathway—Not only Pastoral but also Doctrinal Change?

We were chatting over the coffee trolley at a mid-morning break. The bishop was telling me about a conversation he had with a woman in his diocese about LGBTQ issues. He was gratified to discover that they shared a lot of common ground. But then—he spread out his hands as if to say “what can you do”—she said, well, the only real solution is that the Church changes its teaching.

I told him about the piece I’d read by the late Jesuit theologian Philippe Bacq (En Question, 2014). Bacq elegantly and succinctly outlines how for almost two thousand years the Church, in line with secular society, taught that there was a natural hierarchy within the family, according to which the husband ruled over the wife, whose duty it was to obey. Appeal was made to various Scriptural texts to support the teaching—Genesis 2 and 3; Pauline texts like I Cor 11:3 and Ephesians 5: 22-24, and there was ample patristic and scholastic corroboration in the tradition. The teaching was undisputed up to the 1940s. Then, in the light of the post-World War II societal evolution, Church teaching too evolved. By the time of Vatican II, the Church was stressing the equality of both partners in marriage, founded on a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, without reference to the traditional scriptural texts but now, instead, quoting the Song of Songs and I Cor. 7: 3-6. And then, to complete the evolution, in 1988 in Mulieris Dignitatem Pope John Paul II reiterated the teaching of Vatican II, and reinterpreted the traditional scriptural texts to accommodate the new teaching.

The bishop and I parted then, both of us, I suspect, with food for thought. For my part, I was struck by how many such conversations, formal and informal, are now taking place along the “synodal pathway” initiated by Pope Francis. And I reflected how tricky it is for bishops, brought up to instinctively exercise a conservative function in preserving the “tradition,” to think outside the box, not least when they read this from the Pope himself: “It’s important not to confuse Catholic doctrine and tradition with the Church’s norms and practices. What are under discussion at synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The Synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our times” (Let Us Dream, 84-5).

But this is the Pope who also said, “Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops” (Let Us Dream, 57). And it is the same Pope who stated in his Motu proprio entitled Spiritus Domini (15 January, 2021) that the change in Canon Law permitting women to be lectors and acolytes represents a “doctrinal development…arrived at in these last years that has brought to light how certain ministries instituted by the Church have as their basis the common condition of being baptized and the royal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism.” In an accompanying letter he noted that this development occurred due to a number of Assemblies of Bishops, and cited in particular the Final Document of the Amazon Synod.

In truth, we know that from earliest times and throughout history—think of the outreach to Gentiles in Acts 15; the consubstantiality of Nicea; the attitude to slavery; the shift from “error has not rights” to the Declaration on Religious Freedom—church teaching has changed, due not least to the sensus fidei fidelium, which is at the heart of the vision of Pope Francis in commending synodality as the way forward for the Church in this third millennium. And often this change is far from a smooth, almost linear-like development: rather it bears the bumps and bruises of dialectic, the change through “anomaly” described by Edward Hahnenberg in his notes on a theology of ministry (A Church with Open Doors, 2015). Viewed in this light, terms like “orthodox” and “tradition” assume new meanings. Any bishop who wishes to be ‘orthodox’ in today’s ecclesiological context needs to listen carefully to the ‘sense of faith of the faithful’ in his own diocese and represent this faithfully to the rest of the Church. Otherwise, a mere repetition of teaching that has not been received runs the risk of becoming ideological, in that it systematically screens out what we now understand to be a vital source of evidence. This too often creates the effect of teaching without learning, which is no kind of teaching at all.

In a divided Church, as Robert Mickens put it so well in his blog last month, synodal conversation will require that at its core is the prayer of discernment and contemplation, that encounter with Jesus which brings conversion. This is especially true if we dare to broach doctrinal and not just pastoral issues. The Pauline reminder (2 Tim 1: 7) that God has given us a spirit of power and not timidity is apt for us all, bishops and faithful alike.

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.

Dispatch from Ottawa

As this goes to press, we enter day 21 of the unlawful siege of Ottawa’s parliamentary precinct and downtown core by a rag-tag group of protesters. Local, provincial and national governments have invoked emergency measures.

A peaceable town, in normal times Canada’s national capital plays host to as many as three million visitors each year. Its citizens are accustomed to protest groups from many horizons who come to the seat of government seeking to exercise their right to free expression. Most law-abiding demonstrators return home peacefully to pursue their various causes through the channels of Canada’s democratic institutions.

Upon their arrival, leaders of the “freedom convoy” presented a “Memorandum” calling upon the Governor General and Senate of Canada to force the resignation of a duly elected government and accept its replacement by their self-appointed citizens’ committee. Their charter reflects the values of the nationalistic, racist and anti-democratic movements to which they belong. Parliament Hill has been draped with the flags and insignia of right-wing extremists, Trump 2024 regalia and the vulgar taunts of “F--- Trudeau,” shocking the staid sensibilities of decent Canadians. Money is pouring in from crowd funding sites, more than half of it from anonymous or pseudonymous American sources.

Make no mistake, while co-opting the sympathies of antivaxxers and the waning trust of the COVID-fatigued, the hard core of this band is bent on disrupting the peaceful democratic process and weakening Canada’s democratic institutions. Ostensibly, they represent truckers opposed to vaccine mandates for entry at the Canada-U.S. border. Yet, from the outset, Canada’s Teamsters Union and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, over 90% of whose members are vaccinated, have distanced themselves from the movement and its message. Unions on both sides of the border have denounced the recent escalation of illegal blockades erected at border crossings and disrupting the free movement of goods.

Back in Ottawa, citizens are at their wits end. Road closures and unruly demonstrators ostensibly fighting for “freedom” from public health measures hinder the most basic freedoms of city residents. Ironically, the convoy arrived just when many health restrictions were being relaxed, thanks to the subsidence of the most recent wave of COVID-19. Businesses and schools were re-opening. Workers were returning to their offices. Yet health-care workers, mask-wearing shop keepers, and area residents were systematically harassed by unruly unmasked protesters to the point that restaurants, shopping centers, offices, schools, libraries, theatres, museums—and even city hall, were forced to close. Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica cancelled its Sunday liturgies after “ugly” encounters with disruptive visitors. Residents no longer feel safe going outdoors, their neighborhood transformed into a raucous carnivalesque encampment.

Sadly, some Christian groups have chosen to identify with the cause of “freedom” and its claims of victimhood, underestimating the extremist elements at play. Preachers give succor, organize prayer meetings, or recite rosaries to nurture the religious zeal of a defiant cult. Online “news” outlets abet a hyper-scrupulous resistance to Vatican-approved vaccines. They promote the views of discredited Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, long given to conspiracy theories, as he denounces Canada as a country “infiltrated by globalists” and praises protesters’ opposition to “the establishment of the New World Order.” They welcome Bishop Joseph Strickland’s (Tyler, Texas) support for the occupiers’ defense of the “basic values … of individual freedom.”

Those claiming to fight for “freedom of choice” are, in fact, quite free. There are no “forced” vaccinations here. But choices have consequences. Individual freedoms have limits and must be balanced by social responsibility. Science has shown that the unvaccinated and unmasked are far more likely to become ill and spread COVID-19 to others. Public health measures aim to reduce such consequences until the pandemic has well and truly ended. Governments and health care professionals have sought to persuade, not coerce, people to protect themselves, their families, their communities. Their overall success has led Canada to have among the highest vaccination rates and lowest death rates in the world.

Similarly, in a free and civil society, those who exercise the right to free speech and public protest must do so in a responsible manner, one that respects the rights of other citizens, the rule of law and the role of public institutions. Failure to do so has consequences. There are no absolute freedoms in Catholic social teaching, no individuals unaccountable to the wider society. It ought to trouble us when the common good is portrayed as an un-Christian value. Even more disturbing is the uncritical support of forces actively seeking to undermine the institutions that serve it.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.

The Do-It-Yourself Schism

Is a schism in the Catholic Church on the horizon? That was the question posed to several of the writers at this blog in the first of a series of webinars planned to allow contributors to debate pressing ecclesial questions of the day and to interact with our growing audience. This inaugural topic certainly raised a few eyebrows: SCHISM! Are things really that bad?

For many on the Catholic right, the answer is yes, and has been almost since the start of the Francis pontificate in 2013. Already in 2014, New York Times columnist and resident exponent of Catholic conservativism, Ross Douthat, was suggesting that Francis’ pastoral ways were threatening “a real schism” by pushing the most faithful Catholics (i.e., conservatives like himself) to the brink of a break. Douthat continued to push the idea that Francis would “break the church,” as he wrote in an Atlantic cover story in 2015, and others on the right have carried that message forward ever since: “We are the loyal Catholics,” they say, “and Francis is creating the schism.” It’s a bit like conservatives who blame liberals for turning them into Trumpist authoritarians.

On our webinar, Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter noted that he had used the “s-word” in a 2018 column, but that he had rightly put the onus for such a break on the modern-day Jansenists who are placing their own beliefs and ideologies above the tradition and authority of the Catholic Church itself.

Other colleagues weighed in with equally important insights: Christopher Lamb, Vaticanista for The Tablet of London, said that the synodal process launched by Francis is key to heading off a schism. And Tina Beattie, emerita professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton and a popular writer on all things Catholic, said that the future of Catholic unity will depend on how much Francis can get done while he is pope, and who comes after him: someone who can continue to push for change and reduce the schismatic, culture warrior class to a negligible splinter, or someone who will reverse the legacy of Francis and the Second Vatican Council.

The discussion continued in this vein, with many pointed and a few hopeful observations. But a central theme of the conversation was trying to define what counts as a “schism.” It was a question I pondered as I prepared for the webinar.

A schism of the sort we normally associate with that venerable word to my mind connotes a genuine separation into competing entities, complete with papal bulls and mutual anathemas. There is a juridical threshold but also per force a geographical element to what we tend to think of as a schism: the Eastern Church and the Western Church divided in the Great Schism of 1054, for example, and the Reformation enshrined the principle of cuius regio, eius religio–the religion of the ruler is the religion of the ruled.

Catholicism is so connected to a physical sense of space and worship and community and tradition that it’s hard to launch a wholly new church. If you’re a Baptist all you need is a Bible to preach from, a river to baptize in, and maybe a tent to shield the revivalists from sun and rain. A Catholic church needs altars and priests to serve at them, and bishops to ordain them, and other bishops to consecrate new bishops, ad infinitum. Plus, people in the pews. That’s a lot of ecclesial infrastructure.

At the same time, as I looked into what a schism originally meant I learned that it had less to do with setting up a rival church than it did with breaking the bonds of charity, or what Pope Francis has called the “affective and effective communion” that the church is based on. As Fr. John Hardon, SJ, wrote in his venerable Catholic Dictionary, the early church was careful to distinguish between heresy and schism, both of which plagued Christianity. “By false doctrines concerning God,” wrote Saint Augustine, “heretics wound the faith; by sinful dissensions, schismatics deviate from fraternal charity, though they believe what we believe.”

In that sense, schism has arguably already happened. Those opposed to the direction that Francis and Vatican II are moving the church are fighting tooth and nail and fomenting all manner of dissension. And this sin against charity is harder to quantify and identify, and probably harder to heal, than a juridical or geographic split. In today’s digital world, would-be schismatics can follow the priest or bishop or cardinal of their choosing, whichever one makes the most noise from the biggest Internet platform–and there are plenty to choose from.

As the preacher of the papal household, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, said in a powerful Good Friday mediation last year, “Fraternity among Catholics is wounded!” The division is not over dogma or the sacraments or ministries, but “stem from political opinions that grow into ideologies after being given priority over religious and ecclesial considerations.”

“Pastors,” Cantalamessa said, “need to be the first to make a serious examination of conscience. They need to ask themselves where it is that they are leading their flocks–to their position or Jesus’.”

Will it all end in schism, or someplace else? In 2019, in response to a question about the Catholic right in America, Francis said that he is “not afraid of schisms” but that he prays it does not come to that. Then again, in a general audience talk this month, he stressed that for him, even if some Catholics may break communion with the church, the church will never give up on them. Referring to “those who have denied the faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the church, who have denied their baptism,” the pope asked: “Are these also at home? Yes, these too. The blasphemers, all of them. We are brothers. This is the communion of saints.”

It’s an expansive vision of the church but, paradoxically, so generous that for some Catholics it’s a reason to split the church.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 

Crossing the Line

Recently, it seemed as if a strong wind was rising and trying to refresh the faith environment. It came in the form of a series of articles and quotes by individuals of substance and reflection.

Robert Mickens, a regular contributor to this blog, described in La Croix the turbulence in Catholicism—at least in Europe—and changes in the old order; James Keenan, SJ, called on the hierarchy to learn humility and listen; Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, president of the European Bishops’ Conference, noted that “The Church has the image of an institution that knows everything better than others” and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark in looking for dialogue added, “My favorite definition of heresy is a refusal to deal with complexity.”

It is astonishing how so many Catholics justify their silence by hiding beneath the indoctrination rather than listening to the wind of the Spirit. It is not necessarily a wind calling for change as much as it is urging dialogue. Of course, in a monarchical system, “dialogue” is not in the glossary—especially for many of the American hierarchy.

Such expressions of intolerance, accountability and calls for synodal approach are labeled as crossing the line. How dare anyone challenge? How dare the people of God lead? How dare we believe that the Spirit continues to refresh the Church?

There is a generation before us hungering for meaning, not simply for rules. It is a generation that certainly believes in God but has a difficult time understanding the moralistic and monarchical deafness of many of the Church’s leaders. Yet the Spirit teaches us that hope is before us as we hear the voices of Hollerich, Tobin and, most certainly, Francis.

Now for them, I am hopeful that many others are willing to cross the line.

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

Will We Allow the Truth to Set Us Free?

In the midst of the various crises in the world, are we Catholics too busy navel-gazing to be “a light for the world”? Are we trying too hard to get it right as an institution to notice that we are called to witness the journey rather than prove to ourselves and everyone else that we are standing at the “pearly gates”? Are we so convinced of our holiness that even the truth can be manipulated to serve “a greater purpose”?

In these past few weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the contrast between the Christmas message of humility and gentleness, and continued evidence of the institutional malaise of the Church: a malaise ostensibly rooted in our fear of admitting error, of blemishing “the Church’s reputation” in the world. This was brought acutely to the forefront by another sexual abuse report, this time focusing on the Archdiocese of Munich. The report highlights how prominent ecclesial reformers (Cardinal Reinhard Marx) as well as those who achieve the highest ecclesial office (Pope Benedict) erred in the way they dealt with accused priests. Sadly, the established culture within the Church continues to be one of self-validation and, when that is jeopardized, self-preservation. The focus is inward, fearful not only of how “the secular world” will penalize the Church, but even fearful of “scandalizing” the faithful—a scandalously patronizing stance. These attitudes reveal a distrust of those not in the hierarchical loop and reflect a disengagement from the world. In other words, navel gazing: justified by canon law, buttressed by superficial analysis of social currents and a moralizing disengagement from human experience. This institutional culture is so pervasive that a reform agenda only scratches the surface of the problem. Reform merely tinkers with structures. Indeed, reform is inadequate.

If not reform, then what? Pope Francis sees the synodal path as not simply a path of reform, but of conversion. How can conversion resolve deeply embedded institutional sin? In a recent Commonweal article, Austen Ivereigh turns our attention to an essay from the 1990s of then Fr. Jorge Bergoglio, in which Bergoglio distinguishes between sin (forgivable) and corruption (refusal of God’s forgiveness). Perhaps for too long what has been diagnosed as sin is corruption.

So, Church reform is insufficient. We need conversion: an admission that the institutional sin currently discussed is, in fact, corruption—an inability to admit sin and thus the refusal of God’s gracious forgiveness. Shuffling abusive clergy from one parish or diocese to another is a sign of a leadership unable to admit its inadequacies, its sins. A culture that fears to be open to the struggles of young people with their sexual identity, less it put in question teachings that have always been open to historical development, describes a culture that relies more on laws and prescriptions than divine grace and humility. When the evidence of misogyny in all aspects of Church life is undeniable, yet denied, refusing to see how Christ’s example of the treatment of all human beings challenges the way in which the Church has lived for centuries—the Church is living an untruth. Even today the truth is manipulated. In 1980, then Cardinal Archbishop Ratzinger was present at the meeting that decided to receive into the archdiocese a priest who had been convicted of sexually abusing minors. Benedict’s most recent denial of attendance at the meeting was described as “the result of an editing error” according to his personal secretary. Denials in the name of some “higher” value reject the presence of God’s grace. Such a Church does not bring light into the world.

Reform will not renew the Church. Those of us who have been called to lead must be the first to admit our errors, we must be the first to admit our struggles, we must be the first to allow our wounds to be seen, so that God’s healing power can be known not in the abstract, but as an experience. We must let go of our power. When we are open about our weakness, we liberate others from feeling shame, self-doubt or worse, self-condemnation. When we admit brokenness, we dissolve any illusion of perfection and we can be with one another as equals united by the One who humbled himself, becoming one of us, in spite of being God (Philippians 2:6). Therein lies truth and hope.

Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.

Catholics and the Fascist Temptation

With the announcement of the beatification of Pope John Paul I, Pius XII stands as the most recent Pope not to be beatified or canonized. Pius XII had been on track for beatification, but Pope Francis halted these efforts in 2014. While Francis has cited the lack of a miracle as rationale, it seems likely that concerns about Pius’ studied neutrality during World War II had something to do with it. While not “Hitler’s Pope,” a combination of love for Germany and its culture, anti-communism and concern to protect the church from attack led him to (mostly) silence in the face of horrific evil. Pius has defenders who raise some valid points, but canonized sainthood is not owed even to the saints; rather, it serves the purpose of instructing the faithful in exemplary behavior—heroic virtue.

Pius’ stance during the war evoked 1930s debates that James Chappel has effectively described in his book Catholic Modern. Catholics during that period, rather than identify explicitly with either fascism or communism, tended (with some notable exceptions) to be either anti-communist or anti-fascist. This tendency reflected both the accurate sense of Catholics as “politically homeless” (though many sympathized with the corporatism of fascism or the redistribution of communism) but it also posed a danger: defining oneself by antipathy to one ideology often led to a kind of “anti-anti” sympathy for the other.

The term “fascism” became so radioactive in American politics after World War II that attempting to use it as a descriptor becomes challenging, but Robert Paxton offers some clarity on how to actually define this kind of movement: it begins from a preoccupation with decline of the political community and leads to the abandonment of democratic liberties and constraints in order to purge internal enemies. Paxton has warned in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, as well as numerous articles, that the U.S. faces a danger of sliding into fascism, but this is not inevitable—it would be the result of choices by many people who ought to know better.

The United States remains gripped in a political crisis that in many ways began with the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and continued below many people’s radar during the first year of Joe Biden’s administration. While it may not go by that name precisely (though there were groups on January 6 that specifically used symbols and ideas evocative of fascist movements, including the Nazi swastika and references to “Camp Auschwitz”) there are clear fascist and otherwise illiberal overtones in today’s American political environment, particularly the rise in efforts to selectively restrict voting, sloganeering (“Let’s Go Brandon”), and the threats of stochastic terrorism. This is less in evidence in the “Acela Corridor” of the Northeast, but even slightly outside the major metropolitan and suburban regions of New York or Connecticut it becomes very much apparent.

The Catholic bishops have been notably silent about this dangerous political environment. With some occasional exceptions, their entire political apparatus has been centered on overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision striking down all state laws that banned abortion. These efforts appear to be on the cusp of succeeding, but rather than seeing this as a moment to shift emphasis and moderate, bishops such as Archbishop José Gomez have doubled down on culture war rhetoric, perhaps because this is all they know at this point.

Catholics, however, cannot simply place blame on the failings of bishops. Many lay Catholics, including intellectuals such as Chad Pecknold of the Catholic University of America and Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame, have joined the illiberal cause, evincing a particular fondness for Viktor Orbán’s neofascist Hungarian government. This kind of advocacy goes beyond simply arguing for a conservative political view—competing political factions are part of any democracy—and into the realm of attempting to build a kind of Fascist International. Short of advocacy, but perhaps even more dangerous due to larger numbers, is the silent complicity of those who are prepared to accept the fall of democracy if it does not particularly affect their everyday lives.

One of the key pillars of the post-1945 world order was the “never again” sensibility—that the fascist movements that brought about World War II and its horrors could not be allowed to return. The church’s embrace of religious freedom and opening to other religions (especially Judaism) at Vatican II was in part a response to that moment and the horrors that preceded it. We owe it to the architects of the Council, many of whom were involved in the resistance to fascism, to resist it again. Pius XII, while probably not deserving of canonization, kept silent in response to unprecedented events—if we keep silent now, we have no such excuse.

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

Setting the Cat Among the Pigeons? Pope Francis on Pets and Children

Pope Francis is arguably the most radical world leader of our time. Refugees, the climate crisis, neoliberal economics, technocracy, individualism—he has all these in his sights and he has fired off many eloquent and passionate appeals for humanity to wake up before it is too late. But sometimes he says something just a little—err— ill-considered?—and that sends the media on a feeding frenzy.

At a recent General Audience, he criticized couples who choose to have pets rather than children. This was a brief aside during a catechesis on Saint Joseph, but the media pounced on the story and it attracted many comments on social media as well. The Pope’s remarks were primarily directed to newlyweds, urging them to take the risk of becoming biological or adoptive parents, and warning about the threat of a “demographic winter” caused by declining birth rates across Europe, particularly in Italy. This might all seem like standard fare for an aging Pope who retains a romantic attitude towards marriage and family life, especially with regard to motherhood. It would probably have passed without comment if he hadn’t made that reference to having cats and dogs instead of children, referring to “selfishness” in a slightly different context—a subtlety that was lost amidst the headlines.

This is, however, not a new concern. Even before he was Pope, he has in the past complained about the amount of money spent on pets and cosmetics in a world in which children die of hunger. His comments can be interpreted as a criticism of consumerist societies that value possessions over people. As Sam Rocha (@SamRochadotcom) commented on Twitter, referring to the Pope’s Latin American background, “When you come from a place where people live like dogs, it is scandalous to see dogs live like people.” It would be consistent with the Pope’s concerns about the climate crisis if he had drawn attention to the high environmental cost of pet ownership and the decimation of wildlife by pets, including the vast number of birds killed by domestic cats. Nevertheless, it’s a pity he touched so briefly on such a complex and neuralgic issue.

For a start, there is no “demographic winter” in Africa, where a rapid expansion in population challenges the capacity of communities and states to meet the needs of young people. The problems caused by Europe’s aging population could be solved by more open borders, which would allow the free movement of people. This would, of course, depend on other factors, including the need to avoid a brain drain from poor communities and ensuring just working and living conditions for migrant workers, but these are not insurmountable challenges. Children born in affluent nations have a vastly greater environmental impact than those born in less consumerist societies. There are good environmental reasons for limiting the number of children we have, which is why the Church’s teaching on birth control is a dangerous anachronism that most Catholic couples sensibly ignore. Also, while I agree with those who see the decline in adoption and the rise in abortion as a regrettable fact of modern life, adoption is by no means a simple solution. It usually leaves the birth mother with a lifetime of anguish, yearning and regret, no matter how loved and cared for her child might be by its adoptive parents. Moreover, parenthood is a vocation that doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with marriage, and not every sexually active woman wants to become a mother. There are many ways of bringing the values of familial love to our relationships, and actual parent/child relationships can sometimes become fraught with soul-destroying conflict and misery. The domestic idyll that conservative Catholics see through rose-tinted spectacles does not exist, and it never has. I don’t think a celibate male hierarchy is the best environment in which to generate informed discussions about the intimate details of domestic life. Pope Francis has shown a willingness to face up to some of the messy realities of marriage and the family in Amoris Laetitia, but there is little evidence that his views have been influenced by dialogue with women.

However, it’s important to set the record straight. The Pope is not condemning pet ownership tout court. Some of the comments swirling around social media pointed to the irony of a celibate man criticizing those who are voluntarily childless, but he was addressing couples, and he also spoke of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. Some commentators observed that it was bizarre for somebody who took the name of Saint Francis to criticize having pets, but in his Life of Saint Francis, Saint Bonaventure records that the saint refused to keep animals given to him as gifts and insisted on returning them to the wild, even when they kept coming back to him. The Rule of Saint Francis forbids his own friars from having anything to do with owning or using “any kind of beast of burden” (No. 15). This was partly because his rule of poverty did not allow for ownership of any property, but it was also because Saint Francis saw animals as sacramental. They are created by God just as we are, and therefore they are our brothers and sisters. His attitudes were a far cry from the sentimentality of much modern pet ownership.

These are conversations worth having, but please Pope Francis, remember the world is watching, and the media are always hungry for a few columns of papal trivia.  

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

The Divided Church and the Next Phase of Synodality

A new calendar year, just like significant milestones in the life of a person or institution, is a moment for us to reflect on the most recent phase of our personal and collective human journey and to prepare for the stretch of road that now lies ahead.

All aspects of our life on planet earth this past year were once again marked by the ongoing challenges (and hardships) posed by the coronavirus pandemic. We now begin year three (!) of this global health crisis.

And what has become painfully clear during this long travail is that we earthlings are more deeply divided than many of us had ever feared.

In almost every country in the world, people are sharply at odds with one another politically. And in many places around the globe, the unity that should bind Roman Catholics together has been further fractured.

Depending on which side of the divide they find themselves, believers will blame this aspect of their Church's long, ongoing crisis (which is much more complex than disunity) on something or somebody different.

Pope Francis tends to be the main reason for all the current woes of Catholicism, according to traditionalists and socio-political conservatives.

The obstinance of traditionalists and socio-political conservatives, on the other hand, is the reason for the Church's problems, according to reform-minded Catholics and socio-political progressives.

How can the divisions between these two groups, members of the same community of believers, be overcome?

It is unlikely that the synodal process, which Francis asked dioceses around the world to launch last October, will bring healing. At least in the immediate future.

One of the reasons is that many bishops—especially in the United States, but also elsewhere—are clearly not interested in this audacious project. Most of them seem terrified that the synodal process will only produce chaos and likely deepen the current divisions.

What else could one expect to happen if, as officials at the Synod of Bishops' secretariat in Rome have urged, all Catholics—even those who contest certain teachings and rules or those who no longer even attend Mass—are invited to come forward and have their say on the Church’s path forward?

Other bishops (and presbyters) apparently see the synodal process—which is extremely different from any diocesan synod or assembly that has been held in the past—as a serious threat to the current Church order in which only ordained clerics are allowed to make the most important decisions.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), as a body, has done practically nothing to promote the synodal process. Its vice president, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, has told Catholics in Southeastern Michigan that there is no need for it in their archdiocese.

Vigneron oversaw a local synod in Detroit in 2016 and believes that it sufficiently marked out the path of the archdiocese for the coming decades, even though that ecclesial assembly bore little resemblance to the synodal process the pope is trying make constitutive for Catholicism.

It will become clear next November whether the U.S. bishops have decided definitively to snub their nose at synodality. That’s when they elect their new conference president. And all but once in USCCB history has the vice president (in this case Vigneron) been voted to assume the top job. 

Pope Francis turned 85 last month and in March he is to complete nine years as Bishop of Rome. These are major milestones for both him and for all of us. During his time at the Vatican he has moved the Catholic Church in a markedly different direction than the one it was headed in when he was elected.

His effort to base all Church reform on a foundation of changed attitudes (or ethos) among priests and people—which is clearly and beautifully spelled out in the 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium—has borne much fruit, but probably not as much or as quickly as many had hoped or expected.

Of course, that is a matter of perspective. A minority of Catholics, unfortunately made up of many bishops and clergy, are not at all happy that so much fruit has already begun to sprout.

Nonetheless, the Church is still a long way from become the self-forgetful, risk-taking, missionary outreach community portrayed in Evangelii gaudium. It is still dominated by people (all of us to a degree) who are obsessed mostly with maintaining/reforming ecclesial structures or reinforcing/changing certain “teachings,” rules and customs.

And we are divided.

The only thing that continues to unite us is our professed belief in God. And it is only through God—in prayer—that we will discover how to heal what divides us.

Catholics are not very good at speaking about their “prayer life.” It’s too intimate and sometimes we find it even more embarrassing than talking about our sex life!

We’re not speaking of prayer that consists only of asking or thanking God for something. The prayer of discernment that the pope speaks about, like any good Jesuit would, is certainly a key to this the real type of prayer that is necessary.

But there is also something called contemplation—sometimes called the “prayer of the heart,” “centering prayer” or even transcendental meditation. It is sitting in silent stillness, clearing the mind and allowing oneself to be embraced by the Holy Spirit.

Most Catholics have grown up thinking this is only something for monks or nuns, but as Thomas Merton discovered monks aren't necessarily contemplatives. A lot of them are just introverts!

Perhaps the next stage of synodality and Church reform needs to be centered on a spiritual revival that helps Catholics—indeed, all Christians—discover the tools for building a deeper and richer interior life, whether through contemplative prayer, spiritual discernment or some other method that goes beyond just “saying prayers.”

The future of Christianity will likely depend on it.

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