The Purpose of the Papacy, Francis, and the Synod

This blog post was inspired by a quote by Pete Buttigieg going around, “[T]he purpose of the Presidency is not to glorify the President, but to unify the American people.” What struck me was how easily it could be transposed into an ecclesiological context, specifically a post-Vatican II context.

The purpose of the papacy is not to glorify the pope;
but to unify the Christian people.

The first part is easiest to demonstrate. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Pope John XXIII being carried in to the opening of the Council, in all his pomp and circumstance, it’s easy to read that kind of thing as glorifying the person of the pope. I think of Pope John Paul I as the person who most clearly put an end to that kind of pomp: instead of a coronation, he was inaugurated by receiving a pallium, such as bishops receive when they are installed (albeit a special papal one). Since the council, much of the traditional papal regalia has been put away to be admired and studied, rather than used. Popes have gone out and travelled all over the world, face to face with thousands of ordinary Catholics. There’s still an aura of celebrity attached to the pope, but his public appearances are clearly more aligned with servant than with king.

Pope Francis has embodied this understanding of the papacy even more clearly: from the moment of his first appearance as pope, when his first action was to ask the assembled faithful to pray for him, in the words of the familiar prayers that every Catholic learns in childhood. Other striking moments early in his time as pope exemplify this as well: his choice to move out of the papal palace and live in Casa Santa Marta, among ordinary people; and his choice of a modest economy car to get around town. I was especially impressed, when he went out to say Mass at a local church, that he stood around outside the doors of the church before mass, greeting people as they arrived, just like an ordinary pastor.

The second part requires a bit more unpacking. “Unification” and “Christian people” are both doing a lot of work here when translated into an ecclesial register. Continue reading

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The Statue at the Synod and the Catholic Imagination

Symbols and artwork are multivalent.

How can any Catholic with a properly formed imagination look at a statue of a heavily pregnant woman in the context of a church, and not see Mary pregnant with Jesus?

Is it because she is naked, with her drooping breasts clearly shown? The breasts that nursed him, the body that bore him, that God would not suffer to decay?

Is it because she doesn’t appear “beautiful” by contemporary Western standards for women? Those standards presume either young perky non-pregnant breasts, or supportive undergarments.

Is it because she is brown? Surely not. Mary was probably brown. We have other wooden statues in our churches.

Is it because indigenous Catholics prayed before it? Come on. We pray before statues of Mary All. The. Time.

Is it because their prayers didn’t look like our prayers, with neat rows of votive candles, flowers in vases, and rosaries? We cannot use “looks familiar” as a necessary criterion for authentic Catholic prayer. “I know it when I see it” is a definition of obscenity, not of Catholicism.

Is it because the statue was described as symbolizing life and fertility? No, that can’t be it, because that verbal description came after the imagination responded to the image. (And besides, we call Mary  “our life”, and our most common Marian prayer blesses the fruit of her womb.)

Symbols and artwork are inherently multivalent. Inscribing Christian meaning onto non-Christian symbols has been intrinsic to evangelization and the spread of the gospel since the birth of the church. The Christmas tree is merely the best-known example; the practice was pervasive. If we look at the statue and see Mary, the mother of Jesus; and indigenous people of the Amazon look at the statue and see a symbol of life and fertility, then that is the opportunity for a conversation about how our visions overlap, where they differ and what they have in common. This is part of conversion and part of inculturation. That’s how it works.

How can a Catholic look at that statue, in a church, and not see Mary, pregnant with Jesus?

Or Elizabeth, pregnant with John in her old age, with her husband rendered mute by God for challenging the angel who appeared, all unexpected, in the sanctuary of the Temple?

Or Felicity, imprisoned by the Romans with her fellow Christians but at risk of being executed later without them because the Romans would not send a pregnant woman into the arena? She prayed that she would give birth early, and God granted that prayer.

Or perhaps the mother of Moses: pregnant, enslaved, and secretly planning how to craft a chance of survival for her baby, in case she bore a son, by floating him down the river.


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Social Justice and Sexual Diversity

I’m writing this on National Coming Out Day in the United States. The metaphorical closet to which it refers is a potent symbol of vulnerable marginalization. This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments from plaintiffs who believe they have a right to fire people who are transgender, who are gay, whose gender presentation is too far from the stereotypical norm.

My support for people whose gender or sexuality goes beyond the “gender binary” is firmly rooted in my formation as a Catholic. It is clear to me that people who are not heterosexual and cisgender are marginalized by our society, and the preferential option for the poor is a preferential option for those who are economically marginalized. The biblical injunction to care for the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan describes people who are marginalized and vulnerable in a variety of ways, and therefore God commends them especially to our protection.

Many would describe the plaintiffs’ position in the Supreme Court case as representing traditional Christian values about sex and gender. Even supposing that this were the case, the Biblical teaching about welcoming the marginalized (which would include “not firing them from their jobs”, just so we’re perfectly clear) would still apply. “But they’re icky” is not a get-out-of-loving-your-neighbor-free card. [1]

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out the new religious studies minor in Social Justice and Sexual Diversity offered by Mount St Mary’s University:

This minor provides students an opportunity to examine sexual diversity and religious discourse through the lens of Social Justice, as expressed in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.  Sexual diversity manifests itself in various forms of identity, expression, gender, and embodiment.  Hence, this minor weaves affirmation of sexual diversity with the themes of Social Justice: human dignity, rights and responsibilities; solidarity and community with the marginalized; and stewardship of creation.  The methodology is praxis-based and interdisciplinary, and provides opportunities for local and global advocacy by and for the sexually marginalized.

Students choose 18 credits worth of coursework from a list of almost 40 fabulous options that examine sexual diversity in the context of sacred texts of multiple traditions, interfaith conversation, bioethics, colonialism, the ecological crisis, and more! (Can I take all of them??)

A praxis-based program with opportunities for advocacy is especially timely, and will help form students in “walking the walk” of social justice principles. I commend MSMU for offering this Religious Studies minor, and encourage young progressive people of faith (or their parents!) to check it out.

[1] To the contrary: tradition tells us that St Francis of Assisi made a point of embracing lepers because of their ickiness, in an attempt to grasp Jesus’ descent from the divinity of heaven to the muck of humanity. And mimetic theology tells us that the outraged response to ickiness is the scandalized response that leads to scapegoating.

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What is a church, that we should be mindful of it?

I found myself crying, as I watched Notre Dame burn. I’d only been there once; why was I crying? I cried as I watched the people gathered to sing the Hail Mary as they watched the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris burning. Why? What is this church, that it should inspire such a reaction?

Usually, when theologians discuss the definition of church, they’re talking about the body of Christ, the communion of believers, the ecclesial community, the ecclesiastical institution, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” object of the Creed. Today I’m going to talk about the building. Not Notre Dame specifically, but the genus of which Notre Dame is an instance: a church as Catholics make churches, and particularly a great church, that expresses the fullness of this genus of church.

A church, first of all, is embodied prayer. Everything about its building is prayer, especially so during Christendom. The money donated to build the church is an offering to God by the donors, through whose goodness they have these financial gifts to offer, an offering of thanksgiving or petition. The justly compensated labor of the architects and artists is an offering to God, as they turn the creative gifts with which God has endowed them to create works that glorify God. The justly compensated labor of the carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, and every other skilled or unskilled laborer involved in the complicated task of raising a building is the prayer of workers in the vineyard who answer Jesus’ call to come into the fields to gather in the plentiful harvest. A church is a great, intricate, persistent tapestry of prayer.

A church, secondly, is a sacramental: Continue reading

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Create in me a clean heart, O God

About 20 years ago, the music director of my parish announced that he would be resigning at the end of0 the current choir season, 8 months later. Not only was he the best music director I’d ever worked with, whose opinions I invariably respected even when we disagreed, he was a good friend. This happened amidst a great deal of other change in my life, and it was very difficult for me. I was on the search committee for his successor, and that didn’t go smoothly for me either: I didn’t like the process, and I especially didn’t like that the search parameters were defined to find and hire a candidate who lacked some of the expertise that I considered most important. My clearest memory of the time involves a phone call with a choirmate and fellow committee member, a woman 30 years my senior: I was in tears, she was distressed by my distress, and earnestly advising me not to take it all so seriously that it made me cry, that it wasn’t good for me.

During the same period, the choir was rehearsing a setting of Psalm 51, to prepare for Lent. It was lovely, with a musical setting that intensified the text, and a few challenging passages for us to work on. So we were singing it a lot, every Wednesday for weeks, and some Sunday mornings if there was time. The opening was simple, with men and women singing first separately, then together:

Continue reading

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Clericalism and the Doctrine of Scandal

The doctrine of scandal in the Catholic church is based on the scriptural injunction ((Romans 14:13ff, for example) to avoid doing anything that would shake the faith of others, particularly those whose faith is less mature.

In practice, this has been commonly interpreted as a justification for covering up the sins of clergy, specifically including the sin of sexual abuse of children. The rationale has been that if the laity knew that a priest (or a bishop! Or a cardinal!) had done such a sinful thing, our faith would be shaken and we might even leave the Church: thus endangering our salvation, according to the pious; or taking our donations with us, according to the cynical. It was better, reasoned the clerics, to protect the faith of their flock by keeping those misdeeds secret, protecting the reputation of the church. And so these incidents were not reported to secular authorities, and victims were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and offending priests were re-assigned to another parish where no one would know what had happened.

I think we can all agree that the result of this policy was disastrous. (And certainly, one important lesson to take from this story is that you should always be suspicious when the thing you propose to do for the benefit of others just happens to coincide with your own best interests.) But what I want to do here is dive into the relationship between the doctrine of scandal implemented in this way, and the structural sin of clericalism.

Implicit in this doctrine, if taken at face value, is the assumption that the faith of laypeople is weaker, and more easily shaken, than the faith of clergy.

This assumption is an outgrowth of clericalism, which perceives clergy as a class as holier, closer to God, stronger in faith, and wiser in judgment than laypeople as a class, purely by virtue of their clerical status. This goes hand in hand with the infantilization of the laity, whose role in parish governance is to be strictly consultative (Section 536.2 of canon law). The pre-Vatican 2 maxim that laity were to “pray, pay, and obey” is no longer universally recognizable as the Catholic lay experience, thanks to the Vatican 2 retrieval of the priesthood of all believers; but its ghost haunts our parishes in the tendency to assume that “Father knows best,” and to expect that if something needs to be done, Father will take care of it, or arrange for it to be taken care of.

The structure of clericalism, these tendencies affecting both laity and clergy, constitutes an occasion of sin for both classes. It tempts clergy to think too highly of themselves, and laity to think too little. It tempts clergy to take too much upon themselves, and laity to take too little. It tempts clergy to overstep moral authority, and laity to abdicate moral agency.

It successfully tempted hundreds of men — priests, bishops, and cardinals — to collusion and complicity in the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable persons, such as seminarians. By their passive silence and their active coverup, these men participated in deeply wounding thousands of innocent victims: all on the grounds that the laity couldn’t handle the truth.

Coptic icon of Christ feeding the multitudes, with text on the bottom reading "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.


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About the Vigano memo

Last night, the former papal nuncio to the US released an 11 page letter containing breathtaking allegations that many high-ranking clergy, even including popes, knew about the abusive behavior of former Cardinal McCarrick.

If true, this is devastating, and it must be investigated.

But is it true? We don’t really know yet. There are some good Catholic journalists on the story. I recommend practicing the virtue of patience, as we wait for corroboration, if any, and for more facts to come out.

Meanwhile, here are my thoughts:

  • Remember the Kim Davis thing? Vigano engineered that.
  • There’s a clergy abuse survivors group who doesn’t buy it.

  • I read the letter very quickly last night, and a few things struck me as poorly evidenced. But here’s the thing that I gradually noticed today: On page 6 of the letter, Vigano describes his first meeting with Francis:

When it was my turn, I just had time to say to him, “I am the Nuncio to the United States.” He immediately assailed me with a tone of reproach, using these words: “The Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized! They must be shepherds!” Of course I was not in a position to ask for explanations about the meaning of his words and the aggressive way in which he had upbraided me.

In this 11 page letter, there are 16 references to homosexuals, including: homosexual tendencies, promoting homosexuals, active homosexuals, the homosexual current, subverting the Catholic doctrine on homosexuality, homosexual abuse, homosexual behavior, homosexual networks (3 times).

Gee, what *could* be the reason that Francis said that to him??


Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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#CatholicsForAction gather this weekend

Thanks to Adrienne Alexander who shares the following information:

After the PA Grand Jury, I was very disappointed with the initial USCCB response, then I went Mass for the feast of the Assumption, heard essentially nothing & got quite upset. I didn’t realize how much I needed something to be said or how hurt I’d be by the silence. Fortunately I turned my pain & anger to action, and went to work organizing.
I put out a national call to action, and so far we have seven cities (also listed below) that have answered the call to hold events on Sunday, August 26. A couple more have been in conversation, and may hold events after that.
I feel very strongly that the “flock” needs to show up, and show the same old, same old isn’t ok. By gathering on the same day to say enough & support each other in this difficult time, I was hoping to create a Women’s March type of feel. As I’ve talked to folks, the words I’ve heard haven’t been condemnation, but lament, contemplation, penance, action. I think it’s important at this point to remind ourselves, Church leadership, broader society, that WE are the Church, we stand with survivors of abuse, and thereby demand more action.


Events are being held:

Saturday, August 25

Boston, MA — 4p @ Cathedral of the Holy Cross

Sunday, August 26

Chicago, IL — 1:30p @ Holy Name Cathedral

Naperville, IL — 5p @ St. Margaret Mary

Philadelphia, PA — 11:30a @ Sister Cities Park

South Bend, IN — 1p @ The Grotto, Notre Dame

St. Louis, MO — 3p @ Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis

Twin Cities, MN — 1p @ Cathedral of St. Paul

Washington, DC — 10:30a @ St. Matthew’s Cathedral

If you live in one of these cities, please consider attending if you can.

In any case, please pray for this effort; for all who attend; that priests will be emboldened to speak out; that the bishops will see and hear and be moved to right action; and for the whole church.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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Dear Catholic clergy: Please say something.

Dear Catholic clergy,

Please, say something about the Pennsylvania report at Mass. At every Mass. We need to hear you say something about it. We need to know you are paying attention, that this is not just business as usual.

If you don’t know what to say, or if, after discernment with input from others, it is your pastoral judgment that addressing the matter plainly will cause more harm than good, I gently invite you to use these words.

When: At the beginning of mass, immediately after the greeting.

What: In light of the recent report about the churches in Pennsylvania, let us begin Mass with a moment of silent prayer:
    for all those who were harmed;
    for the repentance of the men who harmed them;
    and for the conversion of the men who covered it up and allowed it to continue.

(Spend at least 45 seconds in silent prayer. More is better.)

(During this prayer, your posture and demeanor should be penitent.)
(Hopefully, that part will come naturally.)

I have deliberately worded this prayer without any explicit reference to sexual abuse, children, priests, or bishops. This is because I know there are priests out there who have been confronted by furious parents for mentioning these topics in front of their young children, thus forcing the parents to explain, and who are therefore adamant about not talking about it at Mass.

If you are one of those priests, please, I beg you, use this prayer. I wrote it for you. It is vague enough that those furious parents can gloss over it to their children: “There was a report about a lot of sad things that happened in Pennsylvania, so we’re praying for the people who were involved.”

If you are *not* one of those priests, please, I beg you, be more explicit:

In light of the recent report about the horrific crimes that were committed across six dioceses in Pennsylvania, let us begin Mass with a moment of silent prayer:
    for all the children who were sexually abused;
    for the repentance of the priests who abused them;
    and for the conversion of the bishops who covered it up and allowed it to continue.

Additionally, I encourage the use of this prayer at the beginning of every prayer service, every rosary, and every meeting in every parish for the foreseeable future. It can be offered by clergy or laity: whoever is convening the meeting or offering the invocation.

Please, give us this prayer, or something like it. Give us your prayer. Give us a space and a structure for our prayers.

Above all, do not keep silent. You know, and we know, that keeping silent was an intrinsic element of the sins that were committed in Pennsylvania, and in all the other places that we don’t know about yet,

because the people who do know
have kept silent.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.





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Shepherd Me, O God

The psalm at Mass tonight was Psalm 23, and we sang a paraphrased setting of it by Marty Haugen. I’ve sung it dozens of times before, but this time the refrain took my imagination somewhere new.

Shepherd me, O God

We’re used to seeing shepherd as a noun, “the Lord is my shepherd” and all that. But shepherds actively shepherd the flock. Sheep are not exactly the brightest animals on the planet… and when it comes to following the LORD, well, we’re all sinners who need to be shepherded.

Beyond my wants

So I had this image of myself wandering aimlessly… well, no, not aimlessly exactly: headed in a general direction, but easily distracted. Very easily distracted. Super duper easily distracted.

A sheep might stop for a lovely browse on a yummy bush, or some extra luscious looking grass. Sheep get lost by following those distractions, one leading to another, until they’ve wandered away from the flock off in another direction entirely.

What are my wants, my distractions? The latest novel from my favorite author, when there are other things that need my attention. A videogame, endless games of solitaire, sleep or food even tho I’m not really tired or hungry. That feeling of outrage, of righteous indignation, the rush of “I’m right”, the fascination of scandal. The easy path.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants.

Beyond my fears

What do sheep fear? Things that are really dangerous, and things that are not. Wolves and other predators, and scary looking but harmless critters. Paths to safety that look unstable.

How do you get sheep past those things? My first thought involved a sheepdog, snapping at the heels of the sheep to make them more scared of him than they are of the ScaryThing. “Chivvy me, O God”??

(If the Lord is my shepherd, then perhaps the Holy Spirit is his sheepdog. “The part of God that noodges you”, noodging you past things, keeping you going when you want to stop.)

But religion that relies on fear of something worse has never made sense to me, so I started thinking of other ways shepherds coax their sheep past scary things. They stand in front of the scary thing, hiding it, perhaps. They talk to the sheep, keeping its attention on them instead, keeping a hand on it, soothing it, always keeping it moving.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my fears of failing, of doing it wrong, of not doing enough, of offending, of being talked about, of being ignored, of being abandoned.

Shepherd me, O God,
Beyond my wants,
Beyond my fears,
From death into life.

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