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Should a Catholic University take Koch Funding?

Can a Catholic university legitimately take money from the likes of the Koch Brothers? This is not a hypothetical question. Many Catholic universities are implicated. But none more so than Catholic University of America, which—in the face of much criticism—has just doubled down with another $10 million donation from the Koch Foundation.

The original partnership with the Kochs, and the subsequent criticism, predates Pope Francis and Laudato si’. If the university’s arguments were weak back then, they are paper-thin now.

Just consider how the philosophy and business practices of the Koch Brothers goes directly against the authoritative teaching of Pope Francis. I will make three points in this regard.

First, the Kochs are avid libertarians, defenders of the unconstrained free market as the best route to prosperity. This ideology is simply not compatible with Catholic social teaching. In full continuity with his predecessors, Pope Francis condemns the notion of a “deified market” or a “magical conception of the market.” His point is that an economic system underpinned by self-interest and oriented toward profit maximization is simply incapable of delivering integral and sustainable development. It leads instead to an economy of exclusion, and is deaf to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Pope Francis stresses that working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is a moral obligation—and for Christians, a commandment. “It is about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right,” he says. In other words, the universal destination of goods is a reality prior to private property. I have a feeling the Kochs would strenuously disagree with this. And this is no mere prudential disagreement. It is foundational and anthropological.

Second, the Kochs are among the leading funders and promoters of climate-change denialism. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis castigates those who are focused on “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms.” “There are too many special interests,” he says, “and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” It almost seems like the pope is addressing the Kochs directly! Today, the stakes are especially high after the signing of the Paris Agreement by 196 nations last December. This agreement, which aims to phase out carbon emissions, was a major priority of Pope Francis. It explains the timing of the encyclical’s release, and Laudato si’ served as a moral charter for the agreement. But, almost alone in the world, the Paris agreement is being opposed by key U.S. political interests—because they are beholden to those very same vested interests condemned by Pope Francis.

Third, the business activities of the Kochs cannot be deemed ethical. In terms of assessing ethics in business, the best starting point is "The Vocation of the Business Leader," put out by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This document is currently being updated to encompass the wisdom of Laudato si’. And Pope Francis makes a compelling point about business ethics that bears repeating in this context. He notes that businesses profit from not paying the true costs of their activities. “Only when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations,” he says, “can those actions be considered ethical.” It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the business model of the Koch Brothers is simply unethical, period.

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What Does the Sanders 'Invitation' Say About the Vatican, and Sanders?

The Vatican’s “invitation” to Bernie Sanders to speak at a conference of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences (PASS) on Friday has sparked a range of reactions. There are those who say it’s irresponsible for Sanders to travel right after his Thursday night debate with Hillary Clinton to give a ten-minute talk in Rome, just four days before the New York primary. There are those who see in it an attempt by the (male) Catholic establishment to block the election of a woman to the White House. Some see it as an endorsement of “the Jewish progressive agenda,” others as a direct attempt by Francis to advance a leftist agenda in U.S. politics.

None of this is true, so it’s not worth the time to dispute the accusations (except the one about Francis meddling in U.S. politics; we’ll get to that). But this comedy of errors does reveal something interesting about Francis’s Vatican and its politics.

It’s clear by now that the invitation, word of which emerged April 8, didn’t come from Pope Francis, or from the Secretariat of State, or from anyone who usually invites political leaders or accepts requests for audiences. It came instead from Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo (originally from Argentina), chancellor of PASS. He bypassed Margaret Archer, its president, who was not shy in making public her surprise, saying it was a “monumental discourtesy” for Sanders to ask for an invitation without going through her office. Bishop Sorondo responded that Archer was aware of the invitation, in effect accusing her of lying.  

At some point over the weekend of April 8, somebody in the Vatican who is close to Pope Francis was told of the potential negative consequences of letting an American presidential candidate speak at the conference–a candidate who by that time had claimed on MSNBC that the invitation had come “from the Vatican” and who on ABC’s “The View” confirmed that the invitation had come from Francis, and that he would be meeting with the pope. 

It is highly unlikely that the Vatican would have issued such an invitation just as Amoris Laetitia was being released; also unlikely is that it would risk a Sanders visit distracting from Francis’s meeting with refugees and the Patriarch of Constantinople in Lesbos, Greece, on April 16. But at this point it was too late for the Vatican to disinvite him; Sanders had announced his visit publicly.

What is not unimaginable is that the Vatican did its best to dissuade Sanders from coming by scheduling him to speak at 4 p.m. Rome time (10 a.m. Eastern) on Friday, which would be just hours after the end of his Thursday night debate in Brooklyn. If it was meant as a signal—“please don’t come”—it either wasn’t received by the Sanders team, or wasn’t interpreted as such. Next, the Vatican tried to ignore Sanders and downplayed the pending visit; over the course of several press conferences, Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, never once mentioned Sanders. Only today (April 14) did he do so, officially announcing that Francis would not be meeting with the candidate.

We will see what actually happens in Rome on Friday. But for now, it’s worth considering the following.

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A Church with Authority that Serves? The Path of 'Amoris Laetitia'

Pope Francis has made no secret of his feelings towards those whom he singles out as “doctors of the law.” He identifies them clearly with the Pharisees of the Gospel, as opponents of Jesus’s approach both to the law itself and to sinners as defined by that law. And he believes that this whole attitude constitutes one of the great barriers to the Church’s real task: to facilitate the fundamental encounter with God.

With Amoris Laetitia, the pot has now reached the boiling point. The document comes after a process of ecclesial conversation that, whatever its flaws, looked much more like the kind of collegiality that seems crucial to the Vatican II vision of the Church. The process had missteps, but even those missteps—a perhaps overly-biased mid-term report at the first synod, a spate of sometimes-uncharitable public conflicts—may have been learning experiences that ultimately benefitted the Church. The process was that of a Church that is alive.

But what about the outcome? The rich document contains much that is beautiful and powerful about the family, as well as admirably connecting the typical concerns of social ethics to the family. But on the point that received the most attention, the question of communion for the divorced and remarried, the outcome is… ambiguous. This ambiguity is appropriate in a number of ways: it is part of how the Church’s teaching does develop, and it is part of dealing with a complex, varied set of circumstances. It’s also challenging. It means that misunderstanding is inevitable, and such misunderstanding can and will produce hurt. It puts pastors in challenging positions. But I think most of all, it points us to a larger issue of how to understand what the Church is and how individual Catholics understand their relationship to the Body.

The final sentence of the New York Times op-ed published today contains what I think is an unintentional but telling problem:

Opposing sides will find ample evidence for their positions. But I don’t think Francis cares. I think he’s far more concerned with encouraging millions of Catholics to think again about what the church can offer them in their family life, and that starts with an honest appraisal of how much better the church can do.

Jesus is the leader who serves, the king who washes feet. So too the Church’s mission is service. But somehow that service must be distinguished from “customer service,” a notion of service with which we tend to be more familiar in our culture. There are many ways that the Church could provide “better customer service,” of course, in the day-to-day life of a parish… and many of these overlap with the kind of customer service standards that excellent businesses observe.

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What Is Francis Saying with 'Amoris Laetitia'?

Amoris Laetitia, the fruit of the long “synodal process” that unfolded between 2014 and 2015, is in keeping with what we’ve come to understand as Pope Francis’s pastoral and nonacademic style. The exhortation draws from his previous catechesis and that of John Paul II, as well as from the documents of bishops’ conferences around the world. And, at 52,500 words, it is very long. But how does the document actually address the at-times contentiously debated issues that arose in the course of the two synod gatherings in Rome?

If there’s an interpretative key, it’s this statement that appears early on in the text: “I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” Yet Amoris Laetitia is a carefully constructed document that will give none of the most vocal factions on opposing sides of an issue any reason to claim “victory” or “defeat.” Pope Francis has issued an exhortation that represents the first attempt by a pope to demonstrate how the episcopal collegiality of Vatican II is supposed to work. Relying heavily on the final synod reports of 2014 and 2015, the document takes into account the real and divisive debates that took place at the synod on the issues of family, marriage and divorce, and homosexuality. In its section on the pastoral accompaniment of difficult situations, for example, Francis quotes extensively from the three paragraphs of the synod’s final 2015 report that  received the highest number of negative votes: Paragraph 84 (seventy-two “no” votes); 85 (eighty “no” votes); and 86 (sixty-four “no” votes).  

Amoris Laetitia is generally characterized by three identifiable types of text. The first type draws from Francis’s previous teaching to help illustrate his intentions and where he wants to lead the Church; another seems to strive for compromise between the orientations that became evident in the course of synodal debate. The third touches on gender, on the masculine and the feminine, and on education in the family; it is the weakest part of the document.

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The Exhortation Expectations Game

Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s post-synod apostolic exhortation, will be released this Friday, and the secrecy surrounding it is greater than usual. No doubt this is partly because of the sensitiveness of the issues involved, but it's also likely because the Vatican wants to guard against a leak like the one that allowed early publication of Laudato si' last June. Still, this hasn’t discouraged a pre-publication exercise in managing (or spinning) expectations.

Amoris Laetitia will plainly be a hugely important document on family and marriage, a substantial update of John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981). And that explains the interest and commentary preceding it. Consider interviews given this week to Crux’s John Allen by two of the most visible prelates in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Each reveals something about the relationship between the American church and this pontificate.

Cardinal Dolan’s comments on the exhortation are illustrative of the worries some have about the “Francis effect” on American Catholicism. He sounds in some ways like the successor to the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in how he expresses surprise and qualms at just what Pope Francis is doing. He gives the pontiff the benefit of the doubt perhaps—but little else. “There’s a clarity and precision in the message of Jesus that we can’t tamper with, and that I don’t want to tamper with, nor do I believe Pope Francis wants to,” Dolan says, reporting on what he has heard from a fellow Catholic about the “confusion” caused by Francis without really disputing it: “Some wag said to me, and I think he was onto something, ‘Probably what we’ll get after the apostolic exhortation is some confusion, which would not be new, because that’s what we’ve got now.’” It’s clear where Dolan stands from how he answers a question about the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics: “Of course, there’s a conservative approach to the internal forum solution that the most conservative canonists and theologians have defended forever,” Dolan says. “I think the fear among many of us, however, is that if anything, things have become a little bit too lax.” This is actually the opposite of Francis’s take on the role of the law in the church (here's just one of the many possible examples). Surprisingly, Dolan seems to approach the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics in terms of their numbers, characterizing those who want to come back to full Eucharistic communion with the church as “a very distinct minority.” “I wish there were more,” he tells Allen. “Most people have said, ‘I didn’t know that’s what the church teaches,’ or 'They have no right to teach that, so I’m not going to obey them,’ or, ‘Who cares, I don’t go [to Mass] anyway.’ And the last group is the largest one.” The issue of inclusivity in the church, whether it’s through restoration of Eucharistic communion or some other way of welcoming back those who’ve left it, seems to be absent from Dolan’s pre-publication comments about Amoris Laetitia.

Meanwhile, in an interview that appeared twenty-four hours later, Cardinal Wuerl reminds Catholics (and his fellow bishops, as he did during the Synod last October) that Francis is the pope and that you don’t get to pick and choose among popes.

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Ted Cruz or Pope Francis?

A group of prominent Catholics, led by Robbie George, has decided to endorse Ted Cruz for president. The case they make is a weak one. Instead of appealing to the principles of Catholic social teaching, they appeal to the American secular constitutional order. “[Cruz] will foster a culture, from the top down, that honors the Constitution,” says George. No word about a culture than honors the gospel or the common good.

How should we judge this endorsement, or indeed, any Catholic discernment of current political choices? I would argue that the best yardstick is Pope Francis’s address to Congress last September. More than anything else, this speech lays out the pope’s views on the moral principles that should animate American political life and policy choices at this particular moment in history.

If you recall, the speech was structured around the relevance for today of four exemplary Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Lincoln defended liberty for all. King pushed for full rights and inclusion for all people. Day worked for justice and for the oppressed. And Merton promoted dialogue and peace between peoples and religions.

Pope Francis discusses the contemporary relevance of each of these exemplars. To keep things simple, I will try to distil it into two takeaways from each (and I am simplifying—please read the speech for the full flavor). And for each category, I will attempt to assess Cruz’s positions against these yardsticks.

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Aristocrat or Zealot? Another Way to Think about Bishops

One of Pope Francis’s biggest challenges is how to contend with the character of the current episcopate. Over the last few decades, the culture and the temperament of Catholic bishops have changed, and not just in the United States. But rather than viewing this in terms of the usual “liberal” vs. “conservative” dichotomy, there may be another way to look at the situation.

I recently discovered a brilliant article from 1982 by French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Monique de Saint Martin, titled “La Sainte Famille” (“The Holy Family”), which examines the relationship between the French episcopate and clerical power in the 20th century. The authors argued that in 20th-century France there were basically two kinds of bishops. One type, “les héritiers,” came from the Catholic “aristocracy,” not in the sense of being descended from earls or counts but in the sense of being sure of their inherited Catholic identity, able to wear it comfortably while mediating between modern theology and modern culture. Les héritiers typically studied “secular” disciplines in secular or non-Catholic institutions and didn’t feel compelled to over-emphasize their Catholicism to affirm themselves in their social network, in their cultural environs, or in the Church. They didn’t worry too much about having a good career in the Church because their social capital, their intellectual formation, and their emotional investment were not tied to the Church alone.

The second type of bishop—whom the authors refer to as “les oblats”—came from more humble backgrounds. Less confident of their Catholic identity and their role in society, they thus dedicated themselves to the institution of the Church, studying theology only, and only in an ecclesiastical setting. They were prone to making statements not only vis-à-vis modernity but also vis-à-vis the Church establishment. With Catholicism providing entry into a new social realm, les oblats became, according to the authors, “zealots” and administrators whose deep care for the institutional Church sprang from the fact that the institutional Church was almost all they had.

Bourdieu and Saint Martin detected a rapid change in the French episcopate between the 1930s and the 1970s, with social background shaping its culture, even if not in a determining way. It is a fact that the 20th century was the first century in modern Church history in which members of the European aristocracy (in the traditional sense of the term) no longer had privileged access to the episcopacy. Yet some remained, and some still do: Cardinal Christoph von Schoenborn of Vienna (one of the most prominent students of Joseph Ratzinger, a fine theologian, and now a backer of Pope Francis) is the descendant of one of the most prominent families in European Church history. His complete name is Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert Graf von Schönborn-Wiesentheid.

How to apply the analysis of Bourdieu and Saint Martin to the episcopate of today?

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Pope, Synod, Contraception

Did Pope Francis’s unrehearsed comments on the morality of using contraception in the context of the Zika virus constitute a change in church teaching?  I leave to others the fine arts of papal exegesis and applying the principle of double effect and lesser evil.  For anyone a little less papal centric, what the recent Synod on the Family had to say—or, better, not say—about contraception may be as noteworthy.   

The precedents cited to render Francis’s statement consistent with standing teaching strike me as a stretch.  Despite the pope’s own fleeting allusion to what is in fact a historically obscure episode involving nuns threatened by sexual assault in the Congo in the early Sixties, Francis was not talking about an apparently proactive prevention of forced conception from rapes that may or may not occur.  He was not talking about prevention of transmitting a virus, parallel to HIV, from one marital partner to another.  He was talking about the prevention of pregnancy. 

And Humanae Vitae condemns any use whatsoever of contraception to prevent pregnancy—even as a “lesser evil … even for the gravest of reasons … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.” Nor, according to the encyclical, can “a whole married life of otherwise normal relations” justify such a single or temporary use.

My wager is that Pope Francis just doesn’t believe that.  He respects it.  He admires its author.  He looks for the truth in it.  But he doesn’t buy it. 

But that’s pure guess on my part.  The inability of church leaders, including the Holy Father, to speak straightforwardly about contraception has been a great disappointment.   

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'What the Pope Is Doing Is a Miracle'

My favorite quote  in the coverage of Pope Francis' dramatic final day in Mexico was in a Los Angeles Times story. It came from Claudia Diaz, a forty-four-year-old New Mexico woman who lacks legal status in the U.S. With the pope celebrating Mass across the Rio Grande in Mexico, she was among the five hundred people permitted onto a levee that was the closest point in the U.S. To get there, she walked "past Border Patrol agents and a highly fortified U.S.-Mexico border fence." She observed:

"This right here, what the pope is doing, is a miracle because he has permitted for people like us to be at this place — in these lands that are so guarded, so militarized, where so many have died trying to cross this river,” she said, pointing to the Rio Grande, which was mostly parched.

“For us to be here at this moment is very big.”

It was indeed a big moment, as the pope celebrated a Mass that mystically transcended a dividing line that is the focus of so much hatred in American politics. It is the sacrifice of Christ enacted in a place of so many other sacrificial deaths that, in their way, are also the result of political decisions. As always, Francis sought to put a human face on the immigration crisis (via Zenit):

The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today.  This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.  They are the brothers and sisters of those expelled by poverty and violence, by drug trafficking and criminal organizations.  Being faced with so many legal vacuums, they get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest.  Not only do they suffer poverty but they must also endure these forms of violence.  Injustice is radicalized in the young; they are “cannon fodder”, persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs, and what about the many women whose lives have been unjustly torn apart?

Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts like the Ninevites, open to his call heard in the suffering faces of countless men and women.  No more death!  No more exploitation!  There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance, time to implore the mercy of God.

What will it take?

Francis & Mexico's Place in Global Catholicism

It was only four years ago that Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico, the world’s second-most populous Catholic country after Brazil. But the arrival of Pope Francis this weekend signals something different – in part, but not only, because he’s the first Latin American pontiff.

The Mexico that Francis will see is beset by multiple problems, maybe even more than it was four years ago. There’s the unimaginable violence of the drug cartels and the thousands of desaparecidos (not so different from Chile and Argentina during the dictatorships); there’s the blatant failure of the rule of law and administration of justice and the dire conditions of migrants from other Central American countries. Nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, fanned by a number of Republican candidates for president, further complicate the picture, given the intimate social and economic ties between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the Mexican economy is now fourteenth in the world, owing largely to the extraction of natural resources in indigenous regions, whose inhabitants see few of the fruits of development. The pope who published Evangelii gaudium in 2013 and Laudato si’ in 2015 is bound to view the situation in a way his predecessors didn’t; it’s not that his social message is all that different, but rather that his background is.

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Pope Francis & Patriarch Kirill: Diplomatic 'Controversies,' Ecumenical Concerns

The announcement of the two-hour meeting to be held between Pope Francis and Patriarch of Moscow Kirill on Friday in Cuba has brought a lot of excitement—along with some criticism over Francis’s decision to have the meeting at all. There are three basic lines of critique.

First, there’s the political-diplomatic dimension of the meeting. The pope is going to meet the leader of a church that is seen more and more as part of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and an ideological support for his neo-imperial foreign policy. This criticism stresses the risks to Francis’s credibility, especially if considering the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in supporting Putin’s military actions in Syria and in Ukraine. (Kirill was, however, more cautious about Ukraine, given the potential consequences of the loss of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine for inter-Orthodox relations between Moscow and Kiev).

Second, there’s the internal politics of the Orthodox churches, in light not only of the historical rivalries between Moscow and Constantinople for supremacy within Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of the upcoming Great Synod of the Orthodox Churches on the Greek island of Crete in June. Some see Francis as naïve in regard as to how the patriarchate of Moscow could use the meeting to assert a new supremacy at a critical time for the future of the Orthodox churches. Here too the war in Ukraine factors into the equation.

Third, there’s the ecumenical dimension of the meeting. The Russian Orthodox Church has been far less engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church than the patriarch of Constantinople has; in agreeing to meet with Kirill, Francis is accused of sitting at the table with a leader who has not shown the minimum amount of ecumenical spirit required to start a conversation with the pope.

Francis is a risk-taker, and this meeting certainly involves risks.

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Mother Church & Her Battered Daughters

Archbishop Baurillo Rodríguez of Toledo, Spain, drew deserved social media scorn from around the world for remarks in his Feast of the Sacred Family homily on December 27, 2015. Addressing the rise in divorce and perceived causes for family division, Rodríguez demonstrated his—and by extension, the church’s—view of the relationship between women and men as a fundamentally hierarchical one. “Most women who are murdered by their husbands,” the archbishop said, “do not accept them, or have not accepted their demands. Frequently, the macho reaction has its origin in a time when the woman asked for a separation.”

Put aside, if you can, the archbishop’s blaming of the victim and exoneration of the murderer. There’s also a big problem with his logic. Domestic violence can’t be adequately solved by “just talking it out” because abuse isn’t just about disagreement between male and female; it’s about power and control. Emphasizing the differences in gender in this context serves to legitimatize male dominance.

The United States Catholic bishops say as much in a relatively unknown document on pastoral responses to domestic violence, "When I Call for Help": “Domestic violence is learned behavior. Men who batter learn to abuse through observation, experience, and reinforcement. They believe that they have a right to use violence; they are also rewarded, that is, their behavior gives them power and control over their partner.” In complete contradiction to Baurillo Rodríguez, the bishops write: “Ultimately, abused women must make their own decisions about staying or leaving,” and “violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.”

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Asymmetric Culture War in the Church of Francis

There’s a rift in the Catholic Church in Italy between “Pope Francis Catholics” and those who favor a more muscular response when “non-negotiable values” (an expression Francis never uses) are at stake. The split is particularly visible at the moment because Italy is close to joining other European countries and the West with a law on same-sex unions. It won’t happen without protest.

On January 30, an organization of lay groups (including the Neocatecumenal Way) will hold a rally in Rome to protest the Italian parliament’s consideration of the law. The rally is not the initiative of the Italian bishops, but it has their “external” support, if in an ambiguous way. The president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (appointed president of the conference by Benedict XVI in 2007, likely to be replaced in 2017) strongly voiced his backing, while the powerful secretary of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino (appointed by Francis in March 2014 and now the most visible spokesperson for Francis among the Italian bishops) emphasized that the Catholic laity have the right to organize the rally but did not come out strongly in favor of it. Most Italian bishops support the rally; those who do not are very cautious in establishing distance between themselves and the Bagnasco camp.

The rally is called “Family Day,” and it’s modeled on the 2007 event held by Italian Catholics who turned out in huge numbers to support the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi and the Italian bishops in their protest against a proposal by the center-left Romano Prodi to legalize same-sex civil unions (as distinct from gay marriage). Family Day 2007 marked the height of the clash between the political theology of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on one side, and the political tradition of Catholic progressivism in Italy on the other. Since then, Catholic progressivism in Italian politics has all but disappeared (though not only because of Family Day).

This is relevant for the whole church because Francis has taken a different position than John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

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Washing Feet: Now All the People of God Are Invited

I woke up this morning to the very welcome news that Pope Francis has revised the Holy Thursday rite to include women as well as men in the ritual of the washing of the feet. Or, as the Vatican Radio headline so wonderfully puts it: "Pope changes Holy Thursday decree to include all people of God."

Until now the rubrics for the Mandatum -- the foot-washing ritual, which takes place after the Gospel and homily at Mass on Holy Thursday -- specified that the people whose feet were washed were "men." And that's not the English "men" that sometimes (in a totally not sexist way, as many a mansplainer will tell you) is supposed to mean "men and women"; it's the Latin "men" that means "males." Many bishops, priests, and parishes had been including women anyway, not least, as you are probably well aware, Pope Francis himself. But those who preferred an all-male lineup had the letter of the law on their side. No more: the revised text approved by Francis refers not to the "men" whose feet are washed, but to “those chosen from among the People of God.”

I've seen three basic reactions to this news in my travels online. The first is my own: Hooray! It's about time! The second: Wait, you mean washing women's feet was against the rules before? And the third, well:

Some people are displeased.

I've long argued that if you really believe that the church's refusal to consider ordaining women to the priesthood is a matter of being bound by Tradition, and definitely not just long-entrenched sexism, then you should welcome any opportunity to involve women in the life of the church. An announcement like this, like the inclusion of both females and males as altar servers, should be good news to everyone. But it doesn't always seem to work that way, in part because those most committed to preserving and defending the all-male priesthood are often those least likely to celebrate any elevation of the "people of God." If you see altar servers mainly as priests-in-training and foot-washing mainly as part of Jesus's Last Supper ordination ceremony, then those things should be limited to men, too, to protect the privileges of the priesthood. But the Mandatum isn't only or chiefly about ordination; it's about Jesus's commandment to his disciples -- and thus to all of us -- to love one another as He loved us, and to express that love in humble service. It makes no more sense to exclude women from that rite than it does to exclude them from the Communion line (when Jesus commanded, "Do this in memory of me," did he mean only men?). Pope Francis's letter explains that he changed the rite “so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Last Supper, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity” ("la sua carità senza confini").

So, yes, it's overdue. And yes, it is a big deal, at least if you're a practicing Catholic who thinks how we celebrate the Eucharist is important.

"But it's still just a suggestion, right?" is another reaction I've seen in a few places. "The priest doesn't HAVE to include women."

One big difference I would note between this and the announcement that females are permitted to be altar servers is that this time there is (so far as I know) no hand-wringing letter from the CDW about how confusing it could be to the faithful, about how they will need it to be carefully explained to them if their bishop or pastor should choose to include women. (Instead, there is this from the pope: " I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen." An opportunity for catechesis!) And there is no language carefully preserving the priest's right to go on excluding women if he so chooses. Sure, it's technically still possible, as far as I can tell, for a priest to decide that in the case of his community a group of men alone is most appropriate. He could also now opt for only women, at least as I read the rubrics. But let's remember that the liturgy is the work of the people of God -- to use a phrase Pope Francis is bringing back into vogue -- and not a performance put on by the priest for an audience of laypeople. Your parish priest could decide to ignore Francis's desire that the Holy Thursday Mass more fully express the limitless love of Christ. But why would he? And why, now that the stickler-for-the-rules excuse has been removed, would the people of God put up with it?

The Migrant Crisis & Europe's Christian Leaders

The two most important leaders in Europe advocating for more humane policies towards immigrants are Pope Francis and German chancellor Angela Merkel. They are Christians trying to make a case, on the basis of the Gospel, for a more welcoming old continent. But their message is now more unpopular than ever.

In Germany, the position taken by Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor and an unapologetically public Christian, is politically under attack in the wake of the violent assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Among those who recently joined calls for her resignation because of her generous immigration policies is The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, who not only said that “Merkel must go,” but also called for closed borders and “an orderly deportation process for able-bodied young men.”

Pope Francis’s message on refugees—a message he repeated and defended in a speech to the diplomatic corps on Monday—is similarly unpopular. Four months after his Angelus prayer of September 6, when he called on European parishes and religious communities to offer shelter to migrant families, it is not clear how many European Catholics responded to his appeal, but the impression is that the number is not high. This reveals some of the complexities of the relationship between the pontificate of Francis and the ecclesial-political status quo in the West, and especially in Europe. The church of Francis is not anti-political, nor irredeemably disenchanted by the gap between the Christian utopia and the real world. Pope Francis is trying to address the inconsistencies between the Gospel and the institutional Church: the Church must behave less like a pillar of the Western political establishment and more like a Christian community.

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Faith in Innovation, but Works?

The trouble with justified optimism is that it’s sometimes accompanied by the foolish kind. Many acknowledge the accomplishments of the Paris climate summit in December—getting close to 200 hundred nations to agree on a basic if nonbinding framework for combatting climate change is no small feat—but also note the significant challenges that remain. Yet with all the necessary reminders and caveats come excited pronouncements on the unnamed innovations that will save the planet from ourselves, and expressions of faith in their inevitability.

You can hear it in the statement of Secretary of State John Kerry after the close of the summit: “It won’t be governments that actually make the decision” about how to tackle climate change, he said—“It will be the genius of the American spirit. It will be business unleashed.” You can hear it in the words of Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, whose city increasingly finds itself endangered by rising sea levels:

“I believe in human innovation,” he said. “If, thirty or forty years ago, I’d told you that you were going to be able to communicate with your friends around the world by looking at your watch or with an iPad or an iPhone, you would think I was out of my mind.” Thirty or forty years from now, he said, “We’re going to have innovative solutions to fight back against sea-level rise that we cannot even imagine today.”

Of course, belief in American ingenuity is as old as belief in American exceptionalism, if not the same thing. But when it comes to climate change, waiting for innovation to come to the rescue amounts to a kind of complacency, the exceptionally American kind that arises from abiding belief in the beneficence of the market.

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Trump, Berlusconi & the Church

The rise of Donald Trump among Republican presidential candidates has led many to compare him with my fellow Italian Silvio Berlusconi (see Frank Bruni and others). There are indeed similarities between the two. But a big difference is that Berlusconi had no real opponents within the center-right in Italy in the first decisive elections after the end of the Cold War, in March 1994, which he won after a blitzkrieg campaign that lasted only about ten weeks (but which he had prepared in secret for a few months). The Christian-Democratic party had since the momentous election of 1948 come to dominate the political system that pivoted around a Catholic political elite until the early 1990s, and Berlusconi came to dominate the Italian political system (as prime minister and then as leader of the opposition) for the following twenty years.

But more relevant than the similarities and differences between Trump and Berlusconi is the importance of the Church’s attitude regarding the rise of these populist, demagogic financiers in democratic elections.

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Where Bishops and Theologians Still Talk

I had the opportunity to deliver one of the keynote lectures at the Vatican II conference at the Katholische Akademie in Munich this month, and to respond to the lecture given by Cardinal Karl Lehmann (Bishop of Mainz and former chairman of the Conference of German Bishops) on the legacy and the future of Vatican II. Most of the roughly two hundred people in attendance were German or German-speaking, though there were scholars from other European countries, as well as from Africa, Latin America, and the United States (including James F. Keenan of Boston College and Brad Hinze of Fordham). Several generations of scholars were represented, many inspired by or having studied under the Tübingen systematician Peter Hünermann, founder in 1989 of the European Society for Catholic Theology (full disclosure: I studied with him in Tübingen between 1999 and 2000). There were also students of his students, along with systematicians, historians, ethicists, and canon lawyers. And it was evident that Vatican II remains at the center of Catholic theology in Germany.

The final document is representative of the sensus concilli. In five pages and twelve bulleted points it makes a case for the renewed role of Vatican II in Catholic theology and the church of today: freedom of religion globally and freedom of theology as Wissenschaft (systematic research); a new relationship between theology and the magisterium; reform of church structures; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; the church and Judaism; liturgy and inculturation; the church and the public square; and the environment.

But it wasn’t just the final statement that made the conference interesting.

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So Much History, So Little Study

The annual conventions of America’s theologians and scholars of religion are great opportunities for non-American academics (like me) to get a sense of what’s happening in the field. Yes, the old country has its European Society for Catholic Theology (founded in 1989), but it can’t yet aspire to be a hub of important activity like the Catholic Theological Society of America, the College Theology Society, or the American Academy of Religion (AAR).

Case in point: catching my attention at the recent AAR annual convention in Atlanta were the translations from French into English of the private journals of two of the most important Catholic theologians in the 20th century, whose work was decisive in the theological developments of Vatican II: Yves Congar and M.D. Chenu. Congar’s journal of the council is already known to the English-speaking audience (it was translated and published in 2012), but here we have now an even more dramatic and personal diary: Journal of a Theologian 1946-1956. Here is an excerpt from the section devoted to the dramatic weeks in the summer of 1950, when Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis (bearing the date August 12) was used to silence scores of Catholic theologians, Congar included.

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Neo-ultramontanism?

“I would like to have a papal bull every morning with my Times at breakfast,” declared the 19th-century ultramontanist William George Ward. Are we currently suffering a case of liberal neo-ultramontanism?  Or quasi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or semi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or some such?      

Many others have raised that question, but most of them don’t like what Pope Francis has been doing.  I do. That includes the restoration of collegiality in the two synods on the family, regardless of the tremors caused by truly open discussion.  That obviously includes Francis’s efforts to reform Vatican offices.  That includes the remarkable series of talks he has given this fall on topics ranging from change in the church to “synodality.”

At the same time, I have to admit that liberal reception of Laudato Si’ has not been free of what used to be called “creeping infallibilism.”  And not every statement of Francis is beyond reasonable criticism.  And, in all honesty, although the homilies in my liberal parish are quite fine, I’m wearied by hearing Francis referred to in the pulpit more often than Jesus.   

What makes me raise this question now, however, is more subtle, the coverage of the meeting this last week of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  My impression is that the overriding framework for covering the meeting was this: Are the bishops aligning their agenda and priorities with that of Francis? 

That’s a perfectly legitimate framework.  (Of course, there are other possible ones, like whether the bishops are aligning their agenda and priorities with the needs of American Catholics or the challenges of American culture.)  The chosen framework has more than a whiff, however, of an ultramontanist assumption, that the bishops should be aligned with the pope and there’s something wrong with them if they are not.

Personally, I believe that there’s a lot wrong with the bishops’ conference, and a lot of it would be repaired if the bishops were closer to Francis’s outlook.  But not if it means turning on a dime.  Not if it means just following the leader, as has happened too often in the past. 

The liberal neo-ultramontanist impulse is understandable. 

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