A publication of Sacred Heart University

Now, Whither Synodality?

With the publication in October 2022 of the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) we are in a better position to judge the trajectory of the synodal project of Pope Francis.

As I reported here in June about the Irish stage of this process, there was clearly a sense of joy among the admittedly limited, but committed, number of participants worldwide. People were so glad to have their voices heard, many of the same concerns emerged globally (albeit with particular national and regional emphases), and there was a sense of momentum engendered. This has been helped to no small degree by the openness and transparency with which the process has been almost universally conducted: and where this has not happened, it is clear that a template has been established, to which non-conforming episcopal conferences may be held to account in on-going iterations of the process.

The DCS notes tensions that accompany the process. Let me focus on one. The Continental Document calls for discernment on the part of the universal Church of the desire for a more welcoming space for marginalized groups such as remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in polygamous marriages and LGBTQ+ people (n 39). It also calls for discernment regarding the role of women (n 64—with a seeming positive inclination towards diaconate ordination and a “much greater diversity of opinion” around priestly ordination). What is already extraordinary is the fact that these issues are so universally noted. For example, with regard to the full and equal participation of women in the life of the Church, it is stated “…a growing awareness and sensitivity towards this issue is registered all over the world” (n 60).

What might the discernment on the part of the universal Church involve? Well, take for example the desire “to enlarge the space of your tent” (title of the DCS) by adopting a more welcoming attitude to LGBTQ people. Does this mean opening our hearts to “sinners” (which of course, in Catholic teaching, includes all of us), or does it mean reconsidering the Church’s teaching about sexuality as applied to gay people? Similarly, does the desire to offer women an equal role in Church life mean the creative expansion of decision-making roles for women within the existing discipline around ordination, or does it also call for a reconsideration of the teaching on diaconal and priestly ordination?

Of course, it is clear that whichever way we as the Church proceed there are tensions and political implications. It is to be hoped that part of the genius of the synodal pathway is the opening up of a culture of encounter and dialogue that allows us to go beyond “culture wars” to an appreciation of those who hold different views to ourselves, and a rediscovery that what we have in common is more important than what divides us. Nonetheless, as the early Church taught us at the Council of Jerusalem about the issue of the Gentiles, differences, too, must be confronted and, when the time is mature, resolved.

To this end, in the issues that I have highlighted above, I note a very significant point highlighted in n 8 of the DCS, which states that the document is not conclusive nor is it of the Church’s Magisterium, but “…nevertheless it is theological in the sense that it is loaded with the experience of listening to the voice of the Spirit enacted by the People of God allowing its sensus fidei to emerge.” Not definitive teaching then, but neither just a sociological report—no, this is an expression of the “sense of faith of the faithful.” The study issued by the International Theological Commission in 2014 (SF), under the aegis of the then-Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, outlines clearly how the Church is to proceed in the event of a clash between current teaching and the sensus fidei fidelium. In particular, it advises “clarification or reformulation” of such teaching (SF, 80), even to the point, with the aid of theology, of indicating “…in which areas a revision of previous positions is needed” (SF, 84—my emphasis).

As I noted above, there is a fair wind blowing behind the sails of synodality and a growing sense that “we are all in the same boat.” This augurs well for a time in the not-too-distant future when difficult issues can be confronted and when discernment at the universal level can lead to decisions. In the Ignatian tradition, discernment is precisely for decision, it is not a mere talking shop with the conscious or unconscious desire to avoid decision-taking. We are now in the phase of decision- making, and this needs to be remembered, even if we also need to ask for the grace to know when it is wise to move to the phase of decision-taking.


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


A Moment of Grace and Healing: One Year into the Synodal Process

On October 27, the Synod Office released a working document, entitled, “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” a distillation of reports from 112 of the 114 episcopal conferences, 15 Eastern Catholic Churches, 17 Roman dicasteries, religious communities and lay movements on the synodal process to date. The working document is intended to form the basis of further reflections in seven continental ecclesial assemblies that will gather between now and March of 2023.

I will be the first to admit that when Pope Francis invited the whole of the Catholic Church to enter a process of sustained spiritual conversation and reflect together on how we experience and might become a more synodal church, I held my breath. Should one even dare to hope?

Little in the recent history of Catholic ecclesial life has really prepared us for such an exchange. The report of the Canadian Conference of Bishops notes on several occasions how participants shared their experiences of “difficulty speaking out freely and authentically in the Church, whether because of fear of being ‘shut down’ or fear that their contributions would have no effect.” Despite a deep faith and love for the church, they embarked upon the process with misgivings, feeling “that the Church’s capacity to listen was poor and that concrete responses were rare.”

Generations of committed Christians might be forgiven for harboring such hesitations. They have witnessed a host of concerned and well-educated laity, survivors of sexual abuse, the LGBTQ community, divorced and remarried persons, former priests, religious women and others being shunned, banned from church properties, uninvited from church-sponsored events, unfairly accused of disloyalty and otherwise alienated. A church often given to the politics of condemnation and exclusion now invites them to speak—boldly, with parrhesia—and offers to listen “in an open and non-judgmental way.” That we are having a conversation at all is remarkable, and long overdue.

Pope Francis’ huge wager is that we will learn along the way. By leaning into the process of dialogue and walking together on the path of shared discernment, our eyes are opened to recognize the Spirit at work in the collective wisdom and rich diversity of gifts just waiting to be received. His call reflects a profound faith in the Spirit who has anointed all the baptized faithful and who never fails to guide them.

The Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) is not the product of a single theology or ideological agenda but is the fruit of a lived experience of synodality, one which is reawakening the awareness of our common dignity as baptized Christians. Reports from various episcopal conferences do not hesitate to describe the synodal experience as one of “liberation,” “the end of a collective alienation from one’s identity as a synodal Church,” and even “the first steps of the return from an experience of collective exile, the consequences of which affect the entire People of God.” These observations are at once a stinging indictment and a profound insight into the grace and healing afforded by the revival of synodal culture, one rooted in the equality of baptismal dignity.

It might be tempting to focus on the sadness expressed at the failure to really reach, welcome and fully hear the voices of those too often marginalized: women, the elderly and the young, the LGBTQ community, those belonging to marginalized racial, ethnic, indigenous communities, the differently abled, the poor, other Christians, those belonging to non-Christian religions and those of no religious affiliation. Beneath the weight of disappointment is an aspiration to listen and learn, to be more hospitable, to overcome the gap between the message proclaimed and the reality of our communities, to be a more credible church.

What shines forth on every page is a deep desire to continue on the synodal way, to nourish a more synodal culture, one that is supported by structures, practices and especially “renewed forms of leadership” that will foster greater communion and participation in view of Christ’s mission in the world. The scale of conversion required will not happen overnight and cannot be left to chance. One of the most frequently used words in the DCS is “formation” and its corollaries, which appear more than two dozen times: “to function in a truly synodal way, structures will need to be inhabited by people who are well-formed, in terms of vision and skills.” It is high time to rethink the curricula of Christian initiation, seminary, theological, pastoral and adult faith formation programs. More adequate training in the habits of authentic listening and dialogue, and the development of a capacity for discerning the movements of God’s Spirit will be essential to fostering genuine synodality and a deeper consciousness of the coresponsibility of all the baptized for the life and mission of the church.


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


Skunking Synodality

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

That the process of synodality has unsettled conservative Catholics in the West is nothing new. It has been a feature of the right’s critiques of Pope Francis and the synodal journey since the pontiff launched a revival of a consultative ecclesial method with consecutive global meetings on the family in 2014 and 2015.

That the critiques have morphed into increasingly alarmist campaigns against the synodal process is, perhaps, a sign that this shift to a more inclusive and missional style of Catholicism is taking hold. Last year Pope Francis not only expanded the traditional month-long synod meetings at the Vatican to be preceded by a global consultation, but he also extended the October 2023 “Synod on Synodality” in Rome to a second year to allow greater time for wider engagement and deeper discernment.

The fear of synodal inevitability seems to have focused the approach of the critics from praying that the synod process would flounder or go away, or that Francis would flounder or go away, to a tactic of turning the very term “synodality” into something sinister. It’s a clever and common, if insidious, move: No one knows what synodality really is, they claim, and that “confusion” actually proves that synodality is a cover for some Bolshevik-style takeover of the church.

It’s a circular and self-propagating strategy, much in the way that the American right has turned phrases like “Critical Race Theory” and “wokeness” from calls to fight racism and work for social justice—basic Christian commands—into leftist brainwashing propaganda that will destroy God and Country. Heads they win, tails we lose.

This maneuver has been part of the anti-synodal arsenal since the beginning. In October 2014, before the first synod under Francis was even over, then-Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a devoted culture warrior, declared that the message coming out of the Vatican gathering was one of “confusion.” And, he noted for good measure, “I think confusion is of the devil.” Chaput later argued that he was misunderstood, but in subsequent years doubled down on his criticism of synodality and Francis, himself, as “confusing.”

More recently, JD Flynn of The Pillar, a conservative Catholic blog, tweeted that synodality was simply just another church “slogan”:

This shouldn't surprise us. Before it was synodality it was accompaniment. Before that it was dictatorship of relativism and before that the new evangelization.

Nothing matters, it seems. Let’s tear down the whole temple rather than let our enemies win. It’s a view that betrays a profound and disturbing cynicism about Catholicism, all the more so because it comes from those who claim to be the most devout Catholics. When people who spend their careers in ecclesiastical precincts promoting those other terms as definitive markers for what it meant to be a “good” Catholic suddenly declare that it is all empty sloganeering and you can’t trust any of it, well, that’s truly a new kind of evangelization.

The release in October of a 45-page synthesis of the various local and national synod reports from around the world was an occasion for more dunking by the Catholic Right on what they saw as groupthink argle-bargle rather than clear doctrinal declarations. Of course, any document-by-committee is always going to slide into jargon or infelicitous phrasing at various points, and word clouds ought to be swept away. But the conservative critiques would carry more weight if they weren’t coming from the same crowd that argued for the transcendent beauty and dogmatic clarity of liturgical brainteasers like “consubstantial.”

Synodality, on the other hand, has a venerable history in the church. Google “John O’Malley” and “synods” and you will come up with a long list of accessible articles by the late great Jesuit historian explaining the history of synods and councils and the process of deliberation and discernment that they entail.

The only ones sowing confusion about the synod process are those standing on the sidelines. They don’t like what’s going on, but they don’t want to participate because they may not get all that they want. That’s their problem, because synodality is something that needs to be lived to be truly understood, and millions of Catholics around the world are doing just that.

The synthesis recently released by the Vatican notes at the start that the document “does not provide a definition of synodality in the strict sense … but expresses the shared sense of the experience of synodality lived by those who took part. What emerges is a profound re-appropriation of the common dignity of all the baptized. This is the authentic pillar of a synodal Church and the theological foundation of a unity which is capable of resisting the push toward homogenization.”

That doesn’t seem confusing at all.


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


The Promise of Vatican II: Still Waiting

Much is being written concerning the rekindling of ecclesial synodality. While the initiative for this renewal of Church governance comes from Vatican II, Vatican II’s sense of the Church as synodal/conciliar comes from the existence of the Eastern Churches. In its 2017 text “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” the International Theological Commission correctly noted: “In the Eastern Churches, synodal procedure continued to follow the tradition of the Fathers, particularly on the level of patriarchal and metropolitan Synods … ” (par 31). Although often not welcomed by the Vatican, this form of governance persisted, albeit imperfectly, in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Vatican II, in the Decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum, recognized the value and authenticity of this ecclesial tradition and solemnly declared “that the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls,” (par. 9). Recognizing this early Church tradition, the Council affirmed the “special duty” of these Churches in “promoting the unity of all Christians” by “prayer in the first place, and by the example of their lives, by religious fidelity to the ancient traditions, by a greater knowledge of each other …” (par. 24). Thus, the Council reaffirmed the unique gifts of the Eastern Churches and encouraged them in a mission to authentically live those gifts for the fulfillment of the dominical prayer: “that they all may be one” (Jn. 17:21).

However, what happens when an Eastern Church, living its authentic synodal tradition, sees no reason for being separated from its non-Catholic counterpart while continuing its communion with the see of Rome? Does the commitment to Vatican II, to synodality and to episcopal conciliarity make room for this possibility? This is not a theoretical question, but one that arises again and again.

On October 12, 2020, The Tablet reported that Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako said, “I see nothing to prevent the union of the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.” With that statement he joined a list of Catholic bishops who have at various times made clear that their Eastern Church should be reunited with its Orthodox counterpart. His words were reminiscent of the so-called Zoghby Initiative. In 1995, Archbishop Elias Zoghby proposed that his Melkite Church establish a “double communion”: while maintaining communion with the see of Rome, re-establish communion with its counterpart Orthodox Church, the see of Antioch. The July 1995 synod of Melkite bishops voted in favor, 24 to 2. However, a 1997 letter signed by the heads of three Vatican dicasteries, including the CDF, declared the initiative “premature.”

The Vatican’s lack of support for these initiatives demonstrates the limits of its understanding of true synodality. Synodality necessitates an organic listening, an openness to perceiving the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Synodality is not an ecclesial form of democracy. It is a recognition of our faith in the Holy Spirit working through and in the Body of Christ in its entirety. Synodality is an expression of our humility: no one actor in the Church is imbued with perfect knowledge that allows them to act with complete independence. All are at the service of the Holy Spirit. We know the Spirit when we are together and open to allowing that Spirit to call us to an ever fuller and more authentic expression of our faith, bringing the many into one. Being Church is about faith, which involves trust and a willingness to reenter into newness in Christ. Living synodally and fulfilling the promise of Vatican II demands facilitating the Eastern Churches’ freedom to be who they are, even when that entails new ways of living the unity of the Church. No doubt striving to practice synodality in this way would be neither straightforward nor easy. But this is where the Holy Spirit has been leading and it’s time to end the resistance to Christ’s entreaty that we all may be one.


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


Daring to Dream Amidst the Ruins

A volatile mix of populism and neoliberalism has been fermenting in politics in the last few years, most notably among United States Republicans and British Conservatives. This ideology feeds on the irreconcilable opposites of need and greed, arousing anger and resentment in struggling communities by blaming their plight on immigrants and refugees, stirring up nationalist and racist passions, while swelling the profits of private corporations which are held accountable to nobody but their shareholders. The influence of the private sector is not new in the United States; but since Brexit it has become a destructive factor in British politics, exacerbated by a Conservative Government that is lurching further and further towards extremism. Cherished publicly funded institutions of the welfare state such as the National Health Service are crumbling for want of funds, while vast amounts have been transferred from the public sector into private hands, with little or no transparency or accountability.

There was never going to be a way to reconcile the politics of populism with the economics of neoliberalism, and in Britain, the two are finally imploding. When Boris Johnson was ousted from office by his erstwhile supporters in July this year, a leadership contest saw Liz Truss emerge as our new Prime Minister in early September. Truss appointed Kwasi Kwarteng as her Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on Friday, September 24—a day that will surely go down in British history—he announced a mini-budget that the BBC described as “shock-and-awe tactics.” The budget was fuelled by an ideological commitment to “trickle-down economics”–the fantasy that the more rich people profit from their investments, the more poor people will benefit from the effects of their wealth.

It was immediately clear that the consequences would be spiralling costs for ordinary people and vast increases in wealth for the richest. The so-called markets (i.e. financial gamblers controlled by computerized algorithms) responded with a complete loss of confidence in Britain’s capacity to manage its economic affairs. Kwarteng was fired and replaced by the smooth-talking Jeremy Hunt, who abandoned most of Kwarteng’s tax reforms. As I write this, Liz Truss looks like a frightened rabbit caught in the headlights as the hyenas of her party come scavenging after her. By the time you read it, she may well be gone.

At last, populism and neoliberalism have collided head-on. The people who were promised so much by the jingoistic nationalism of the Brexit campaign with its racist and xenophobic undertones are waking up to the fact that they have been betrayed and deceived. Faced with spiralling fuel costs, rising interest rates on mortgages and rampant inflation, ordinary families face months—if not years—of hardship. It remains to be seen how this crisis will be resolved; but for now, it feels as if we Brits are living in a kleptocracy rather than a democracy.

All this has led me to wonder how any Christian who reads the Gospels and reflects on the fundamentals of our faith can possibly support such a system—though many do. Christians have less influence on British politics than they do in the States, but some of Britain’s most class-ridden elites are loudly self-proclaiming Catholics. Perhaps the most significant scripture for our times is Jesus’s warning that “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money,” (Matthew 6:24, NIV).

I heed Pope Francis’ warning that the Church is not a “spiritual NGO,” but that does not absolve the institutional Church from using its influence for good wherever it can. The Pope has a shrewd understanding of the ways of the world, a passionate commitment to those who are most marginalized and exploited by the present world order, a no-less-passionate commitment to environmental healing and sustainability, and illuminating all this a profound personal faith in the mystery and tenderness of God. This gives me food for reflection and inspiration as this crisis unfolds.

Francis has consistently spoken out against trickle-down economics, telling an interviewer: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger but nothing ever comes out for the poor.” In his semi-autobiographical book co-authored with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream, Francis names two women economists—Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato—who offer an ethos that reflects “a concern about the grotesque inequality of billions facing extreme deprivation while the richest one percent own half of the world’s financial wealth,” (p. 64). This month, Mazzucato was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life—a clear demonstration of Francis’s commitment to expand the horizons of the Church’s respect for the dignity of all human life, including those lives blighted by the injustices of modern economics.

In the Prologue to Let Us Dream, Francis writes:

This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities—what we value, what we want, what we seek—and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. What I hear at this moment is similar to what Isaiah hears God saying through him: Come, let us talk this over. Let us dare to dream. (p. 6)

Faced with the nightmare of British politics today, played out against the horrific backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and the looming threat of an environmental catastrophe, I draw comfort and hope from these words.


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


The German Model May be the Best Path Towards Church Reform

Roman Catholics in Germany were the first to embark on the synodal process that Pope Francis would later ask the entire Church around the world to take up.

They began their Synodal Path (Der Sinodale Weg) in December 2019, nearly two years before the pope launched local consultations in October 2021 for the global Catholic community. This latter process was the “diocesan phase” of an ongoing three-part preparation for the next assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will be held here in Rome in October 2023.

 

The Synodal Path in Germany has been a controversial project, to say the least. Some have seen it as an effort to subvert longstanding Church teaching and have warned menacingly that it is leading towards a schism.

But, in all truth, the Germans may have found the exactly right method for paving the way to a true reform of Catholicism.

They decided there was an urgent need for synodal discussions that included the country's clergy (including all the bishops) and lay faithful after the publication of a devastating report on the priest sex abuse crisis. The original plan, which would be reconfirmed and intensified over time, was to address the structural, theological and sociological issues in the Catholic Church that allowed such abuse to happen and even continue to the present day.

The German Bishops' Conference (DBK) and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) formed a Synodal Committee co-chaired by the top officers of each organization. Famous for their stereotypical obsession with meticulously organizing nearly everything, the Germans then drew up a structure and precise rules of procedure for what would be called the Synodal Path.

A Synodal Assembly of 230 Catholics of various ages and walks of life was formed and its work was divided into four “forums” that would focus on the following subject areas: 1.) Power and the Separation of Powers in the Church; 2.) Living Love in Sexuality and Partnership; 3.) Women in Ministries and Offices of the Church; and 4.) Priestly Existence Today.

The issues and some of the proposals for addressing them have caused alarm and aroused fear in more traditional Catholic circles, including among some cardinals and bishops in Rome and elsewhere. One of the reasons for the negative reaction is likely due to inaccurate media reports and alarmist "commentary" about the Synodal Path. Church officials and reform-minded Catholics in Germany are well aware that misconceptions are being perpetuated.

That is one of the reasons why the German Embassy to the Holy See recently hosted a conference in Rome with law professor Charlotte Kreuter-Kirchhof, a member of the Synodal Assembly and one of six women who sit on the Council of the Economy at the Vatican. “We are members of the Roman Catholic Church, and we will stay members of the Roman Catholic Church,” she told an English-speaking gathering that included diplomats, priests and religious, a number of journalists and a cardinal from northern Europe.

Kreuter-Kirchhof then clearly explained the procedures the Synodal Path has followed during and between its four meetings up to now. A fifth and final session is to be held in March. She explained the democratic process the Synodal Path has adopted to pass resolutions but debunked the myth that it was trying to force the bishops into making changes that are contrary to Church law. In fact, she stressed that canon lawyers were made members of the Assembly to help avoid any such attempt.

Documents must be approved by two-thirds of the German bishops and two-thirds of all the others (laity, priests and religious) in the Assembly. Only some of the items that pass can be adopted without approval from Rome. But no bishop can be forced to adopt any such changes.

Other items that are approved by the Assembly, notably those that propose changes in doctrine and law, must be sent to the pope for his consideration.

All this information and documentation can be found in various languages, including English, on the Synodal Path’s website.

Kreuter-Kirchhof sought to assure her listeners that the Germans were not trying to lead another Reformation. During the question-and-answer period following her presentation, she paraphrased Pope Francis by saying, “We don't need another Protestant Church in Germany,”

The Synodal Path has not been all smooth sailing, however. It hit a crisis earlier in the year and “came close to a failure,” the law professor said, after the document on sexuality did not get the necessary two-thirds approval of the bishops. Members of the Assembly said they were blindsided by the move since no bishop had made strong objections during the multi-stage process of drafting and finalizing the proposed text. They urged the opposing hierarchs to be more engaged in the process.

Kreuter-Kirchhoff said that incident taught everyone a vital lesson about the synodal process.

“We learned that if the bishops turn away from the people of God or if the people of God are not with the bishops, the Church suffers,” she said. “The synodal Church is the place of common faith, of listening to one another, of discerning together and of common decision.”

Rather than paving the road to schism, this path marks the way towards even greater Church unity. And for this lesson learned, Catholics around the world can rightly tell their German brothers and sisters, “Danke schön!”


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


Synodality and Structural Change

Pope Francis was a young man when the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) met in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 and produced five documents that realigned the church relative to the poor and to the authoritarian political systems that were dominant in that decade and later that went by the collective name of “national security states.” In their efforts to encourage participatory democracy, the bishops at the meeting drew attention to the paucity of what they called “mediating structures” in most if not all of the nations of Latin America. If political life is to be vigorous, they thought, then attention must be given to creating these structures, organizations or groups that fill the gap between the individual and the state. Without them, all you have is the vote, and that in itself does not make for true participation in civic life. When individuals have entered into associations and then use the power of the group to promote their social agenda, then perhaps sufficient influence can be exercised over elected officials that real change might occur.

This idea of mediating structures might be useful in our current political meltdown in the U.S. Of course, we may be inclined to think that in a mature democracy such as our own with a tradition of involvement in local government and civic life, these structures are already in place, and we need not fear for democracy. Perhaps we are less inclined to have this kind of confidence in the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol, but maybe not. But then, look at Kansas, where a plebiscite scotched the plans of politicos to remove the state’s protection of abortion rights from its constitution. Regardless of where we stand on the implications of the Dobbs decision and the overturning of federal protection of abortion rights, we should be very wary of the disconnect between the views of political parties and the decisions of the Supreme Court on the one hand, and the views of ordinary Americans on the other. It does seem to suggest that those organs of civic life that should give expression to the views of Americans and bring pressure to bear on legislators either do not exist or are ineffectual or are simply being ignored by a cabal of elected officials with no respect for the electorate that put them into office.

The more pressing issue for us, however, might be within the American Catholic Church itself. It seems fairly clear to me that Pope Francis’s raising the banner of synodality is motivated by the papal recognition that an authoritarian church in today’s world is unscriptural and likely to be ineffective. The call for synodality resonates with Medellín’s affirmation of the importance of mediating structures. Absent synodality, there is no structure between the faithful Catholic and the bishop and, eventually, the pope. Pope Francis is trying to change this situation at both ends of the process. He has worked to turn the Roman Curia into a servant of the global church and he has frequently reminded bishops of their need for humility and to be sure to “smell of the sheep.” And he has encouraged ordinary Catholics to raise their voices and express the kinds of concerns that can only grow out of love for the church. If his initiative fails, it will be a sad day for the future of Catholicism. But if it succeeds, does even Francis know what he might have started?

Think back to the Kansas decision and apply it to the church. In any number of important issues there is a disconnect between the people of God as a whole and their ordained leadership, especially at the level of the bishop. While American Catholics may be divided on any number of issues, the majority seem to want an end to mandatory clerical celibacy. Most are supportive of LGBTQ persons and a sizeable minority is unfazed by the idea of same-sex marriage. A majority of Catholics believe that while abortion is morally problematic, there are some circumstances in which the procedure is regrettably necessary. The vast majority of American Catholics simply ignore church teaching on birth control. Most seem to think that women should have a far larger role in ministry, even ordained ministry. Most love their church, but do not believe that people of other religious traditions are in any way at a spiritual disadvantage because they are not followers of Jesus Christ. If synodality becomes effective in ecclesial life, the future is going to be exciting. It’s easy to see why Francis likes the idea, and not too difficult to understand why more than a few American bishops are dragging their feet.


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


Taking a Stand in the Face of Anger

Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once famously likened living next to the United States to “sleeping with an elephant.”

Trudeau, the father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was suggesting that for a country the size of Canada, with a current population of 38 million, our cheek-by-jowl proximity to the United States, with a population almost 10 times the size, makes it impossible to not be affected by–or share in–the movements of the land to the south of us.

That includes, for example, the increasingly nasty tone of public discourse, especially in politics. The tone that began to emerge in the United States in about 2015 and grew to horrify so many either crept north or, more likely, empowered local views previously kept under wraps because they were deemed unseemly. With civility out the window, too many Canadian politicians of all stripes, particularly women politicians, have now suffered not only verbal harassment but forms of physical aggression, too. Thus, we watch American trends and wait to see what will make its way north.

It has been particularly upsetting to see American priests and members of the Church hierarchy blur the line between reiterating Church teachings and engaging in partisan politics. Some have gone so far as to suggest–subsidiarity be damned!–that Catholics risk eternal damnation depending on how they vote. Any such suggestion clearly contradicts the notion of freedom of conscience and undermines the effort to work effectively toward the common good, which relates to people at all stages of life rather than to any one topic. It was, therefore, almost old news when the rallying cry for Trudeau the Younger to be denied Communion began in some corners of Canada, given his position on various contentious issues.

Thus, I was relieved to see timely statements from many American bishops in response to the Republican stunt of transporting migrants arriving in the southern United States to places like Martha’s Vineyard, long a vacation spot for the likes of the Obamas and the Clintons. It is not hard to imagine self-congratulatory party members chuffed with glee over a stunt they perceived to be so witty, so apt, in spite of its very attack on the dignity of the human person.

But then Rhode Island’s Bishop Joseph Tobin tweeted that “the baby in the womb, the refugee in Cape Cod – neither should be exploited for political points.” And San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller likened the move to “human trafficking,” adding that, “to use migrants and refugees as pawns offends God, destroys society and shows how low individuals can (stoop) for personal gains”.

I am wondering how Republican Catholics received these episcopal statements. A recent survey by Pew Research suggests half of registered Republicans identify as Catholic. Another poll, designed to ask Republicans their response to the ferrying of migrants to states perceived as liberal, suggests a full two-thirds of Republicans support the idea. Regardless of the various possible mathematical breakdowns, the two polls suggest a significant number of Catholics approved of the migrant shipments, in spite of Church leaders speaking out–not in a partisan, cult-of-the-politician way, but in a style that reflects classic Catholic Social Teaching.

It made me hopeful that our Canadian bishops will increasingly become more vocal not on politics itself but on any kind of decision, be it societal or governmental, that attacks the common good and the dignity of the person. While some bishops spoke up in the early days of residential school gravesites being uncovered, far too many remained silent, seemingly waiting for someone else to speak first. Catholics in pews witnessed a Church we had always thought of as universal suddenly hiding behind local dioceses when questions arose of apologies or reparation for the harms done to families torn apart by the residential school system. While the former has now been voiced by the Pope himself, during his visit to Canada this past summer, the latter is still a confusing mess to many of us, weighed down by–surprise!–internal politics. There is a great deal of work still to be done in opening archives, arranging reparation payments and listening to the intergenerational trauma that the Church still needs to address and help ease.

Leadership calls for courage, and there are likely many American Catholics who disagree with those bishops who have taken a stand and spoken up on an ongoing basis about how welcoming the stranger and caring for those in need–especially children facing deplorable conditions–is essential gospel teaching we need to embrace. I applaud these men for finding ways to respond to challenging political issues without getting political about it.

Those of us north of the 49th parallel would welcome this trend creeping in our direction.


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


The Midterms and the Disappearance of a Distinctive Catholic Vote

The midterms in November are becoming more interesting from a political perspective as President Joe Biden’s poll numbers have started to rise, former President Donald Trump’s legal woes remind voters of how enervating his tenure was, and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade motivates a significant part of the Democratic Party’s base. At the beginning of the summer, Democrats appeared headed into a tsunami, but now control of the Senate appears up for grabs even if it remains doubtful the Democrats can hold the House. 

The past months, however, have brought more bad news for Catholic political involvement. It is difficult not to conclude that the polarization of the ambient political culture, which has gradually been eating away at the very idea of a distinctive “Catholic vote,” has now completed its task. Pro-life Catholic Democrats and pro-immigration Catholic Republicans have joined the endangered species lists.

In 2008, when I published a book called Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats, I still held out the hope that there were enough well-catechized Catholics who would resist the different ways libertarianism was eating at the social bonds that lay at the root of both parties.

For Republicans, libertarianism sidelined any consideration of the common good in economic policy. The invisible hand of the market became an idol as well as a myth, and any challenge by the government on behalf of other social goods was considered a priori illegitimate. Morally, they put the “lazy” into laissez-faire.

For Democrats, libertarianism manifested itself in the mantra “my body, my choice” adopted by the abortion rights movement. All the intellectual and moral pathologies that flowed from the libertarian ethic followed inexorably: indifference to the humanity of the unborn and the adoption of a throwaway culture regarding unwanted progeny.

Still, there was a group of pro-life Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and, in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, resolving the issue of federal funding of elective abortions was the last hurdle standing. Led by Rep. Bart Stupak, the pro-life Democrats successfully forced the House to demonstrate no legislative intent at circumventing the Hyde Amendment’s proscription of such federal funding.

And there were Republicans like Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush who urged their party to adopt not only a more humane approach to the issue of immigration but to recognize immigrants as a potential boon for the country and for their party. The entrepreneurial spirit of many migrants seemed a natural fit for the GOP, exemplified by New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez’s 2012 convention address, in which she explained her family’s business success and its foundation in the American Dream.

What is more, Catholics occupied a unique place for media strategists working on campaigns. Democrats were ill-advised to run an ad on Christian radio programming because they would be reminding four Republican evangelicals to vote for every Democratic evangelical. A Democrat might run an ad in a Jewish newspaper, but no Republican would. Catholics, however, appeared split between the parties by about 46%-46%. The remaining 8% were persuadable and, in the event, would decide any close election, not least because several key swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania had a large Catholic population.

Now, the ill effects of gerrymandering, combined with Supreme Court decisions permitting more and more dark money into politics, have made it harder and harder to maintain a centrist position in either party. Activists with lots of special interest money behind them impose litmus tests on candidates in primaries for both parties.

I am especially disappointed with liberal Catholics. In the months since the Dobbs’ decision, they have largely abandoned the “consistent ethic of life” that was the hallmark of liberal Catholic sentiment on life issues. Paul Baumann courageously took on the pernicious influence of “Catholics for Choice.” But where have been the liberal theologians at respectable Catholic schools insisting that whatever the moral failings of the pro-life movement, and they are many, we Catholics can’t turn a blind eye to abortion on demand?

Conservative Catholics made their deal with the devil with Donald Trump. The House Select Committee Hearings into the attack on the U.S. Capitol have shown just how conscious prominent Catholics like William Barr and Pat Cipollone were that it was the devil with whom they were doing business. Groups like “Catholic Vote” undermine Catholic social doctrine with impunity. And the U.S. bishops’ conference is in absentia from the fight to preserve democracy.

Let’s hope the old adage proves true again: It is always darkest before the dawn.


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


Barron, LaBeouf and Catholic Toxic Masculinity

Recently, Bishop Robert Barron, newly-installed ordinary of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and Catholic media personality, interviewed the actor Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf, who stars in a new film about Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the controversial 20th-century saint, admitted to Barron that he had recently converted to Catholicism. This revelation was predictably highlighted by Barron and others as evidence of the attractiveness of Catholicism (in related ways, perhaps to recent discussions of “Dimes Square” and the church skillfully explored in this forum by Colleen Dulle), but it also exposed several issues. Beyond LaBeouf s apparent attraction (mediated by Mel Gibson) to schismatic traditionalist chapels, the announcement of his conversion came without a public reckoning or other discussion concerning his record of abusive behavior toward women.

Barron’s interview and apparent disinterest in abusive behavior toward women comes in the wake of a series of revelations about his Word on Fire organization, particularly its attitudes toward sexual harassment perpetrated by former high-ranking employee Joey Gloor. Gloor’s background as a bodybuilder highlights Barron’s own fascination in recent years with bodybuilding and other activities that might be termed aggressively masculine. His fixation with Canadian pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson, himself a kind of guru of neo-masculinity, is a piece of this. These initiatives at a high-profile, fairly mainstream organization (right-of-center but not “hard-right” or traditionalist in audience and authorship) point to a crisis of masculinity within Catholicism, though not the kind that might typically be pointed out on Barron’s media channels or at a Catholic men’s conference. The crisis comes not from failure to honor traditional “manly virtue” but rather from a hypertrophied account of masculinity that itself flows from a refusal to address new and developing ways of understanding gender roles in society.

As with many challenges in the church, these issues around masculinity date back decades and centuries, but Barron’s particular iteration of them is of more recent vintage. It dates, I would argue, to the revelations about clerical sexual abuse in the early 2000s and the panic about gay men in the priesthood that many on the right and in the hierarchy fomented at this time. Most infamously, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning sexuality in seminary admissions that effectively took hold at this time encouraged an emphasis on masculinity that, frankly, protests too much. During this same period, increasing societal acceptance of gay relationships and transgender identities fueled this bunker mentality concerning sexuality in the church. All of this while, as Frédéric Martel and others have made abundantly clear, high-ranking cardinals—many of them quite conservative—and other leading clerics in the church have engaged in longstanding gay relationships with little to no known difficulties.

At a recent conference I attended, Dr. John Boyle of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota made a wise remark about the way in which Chrétien de Troyes’ medieval romances demonstrate Christianity’s sublimation of the warrior culture that it converted in Europe. Chrétien avoids showing the battle scenes in his stories of knights, focusing instead on other aspects of the knights’ lives. The “warrior virtues” as some might call them today, have no place in Christianity—rather, Christian living tends to subvert these virtues in favor of others. This is a hard lesson, as Catholic concepts like the “church militant” and organizations ranging from the Society of Jesus to the Knights of Columbus have in different ways drawn on military language, but it is an important one. Following the Prince of Peace ought to mean thinking differently about power and its true use than one will see on HBO.

Clearly the Catholic intellectual tradition exemplified by Chrétien contains important resources for breaking toxic masculinity, but clericalism in church governance makes this hard to attain. It creates a “boys’ club” as described above that is nigh-impossible to breach and that covers up the hypocrisy of its members. That culture spreads to para-church organizations like Word on Fire that have no inherent reason to take on the same organization (and subsequent problems), but nonetheless do. The only solution to these unhealthy organizational cultures is to try to make them into healthy ones, and this ultimately starts with the question of who is invited to be part of them.

The most important thing leaders in the church (whether clerical or lay) can do to begin to break this cycle is to listen—actually listen—to women. It is especially important for them to listen to women who might tell them things they do not want to hear, particularly on controverted issues, and to allow them space to lead. To take seriously Pope Francis’ vision of a listening church requires the church—to listen. Francis himself has modeled this listening as a pastor of souls, particularly in his outreach to the transgender community in Rome, but has been much slower putting this into practice on the level of church governance. The test of his pontificate’s legacy may well be whether this bifurcation can be resolved or whether it falls to a successor to break the “boys’ club” and foster a healthier culture of leadership.


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