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The Sublime Joys of Celibate Adultery

In April, Pope Francis issued Amoris Laetitia where he called for a more pastoral approach in dealing with Catholic couples who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment of their Catholic marriage.  He suggests that each case be considered on its own merits.  He did not make any changes to Catholic doctrine in this document, so what he meant by "pastoral" was, as usual, interpreted by each in their own way.

In July, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, who is considered very conservative, responded by saying:

Catholics in Philadelphia who are divorced and civilly remarried will be welcome to accept Holy Communion – as long as they abstain from sex and live out their relationships like “brother and sister”.

I found this to be a remarkably liberal statement coming from him.  But I also found it disturbing.  Is he saying that adultery begins with sexual relations?  Or is he using sexual relations as a convenient and unambiguous dividing line?  Will sexual relations become the new standard of adultery?

I present to you a story of a failed Catholic marriage.

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A Non-Synodal Reception for a Post-Synodal Exhortation

Three months after the publication of Amoris laetitia ("The Joy of Love"), the reception is underway, and various commentators already are noting the wide differences in the hermeneutics of the post-synodal exhortation. If we want to identify the two main approaches, we can say that one has a rather constrained view of the text and, especially, of the two synodal gatherings. It focuses on categorizing different kinds of couples, telling them what they can do in the church and what the church can do for them, while generally ignoring the novelty of the exhortation when it comes to enforcement of discipline toward people who are divorced and remarried or homosexual.  Favoring this approach are those such as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, selected by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to coordinate an “informal working group” of five bishops assigned the task of “furthering the reception and implementation” of Amoris laetitia across U.S. dioceses.

The other interpretation focuses on the exhortation’s renewed emphasis on conscience as opposed to legalistic approaches to moral theology, and its acknowledgment of the need for theological and pastoral attention to new situations. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has articulated this position, most recently in an interview with Antonio Spadaro in the semi-official Vatican publication La Civiltà Cattolica: “Amoris laetitia is the great document of moral theology that we have been waiting for since the time of Vatican II and that develops the choices already made by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by [John Paul II’s] Veritatis splendor.” 

How will this “interpretation gap” play out in the global Church? Schönborn’s view is much closer to Francis’s and offers something very close to the authentic (even though not official) interpretation of Amoris laetitia, not only because he expressed it in interviews in La Civiltà Cattolica, but also given that Schönborn was invited by Francis to present the text in the Vatican to the press on April 8, 2016. Now sides also appear to be forming in the U.S. Catholic Church; for example, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich in a July 7 tweet recommended the interpretation offered by Cardinal Schönborn. But it is not clear how many bishops and pastors will follow Schönborn, and how many will follow Chaput. The problem is that reception seems to be a matter of individual interpretation. In other words, some see relativism in Amoris laetitia, but the way the bishops are receiving the text is precisely an example of the relativism of the church hierarchy: every bishop by himself, without coordination at the national level.

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Is There a Place for ‘Catholic Internationalism’?

Last week was an interesting time to be in Ireland attending the Loyola Institute’s conference at Trinity College Dublin, “The Role of the Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?” Pope Francis was on a historic trip to Armenia, the Pan-Orthodox Council was underway in Crete, and the Brexit referendum was being held in the United Kingdom. (For good measure, Vice President Joseph Biden showed up on the last day of the conference, although the timing was coincidental: He was at Trinity receiving an honorary degree.)

The conference had international appeal and featured speakers from a number of different countries; among those present were Commonweal’s Peter and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels. The location was also notable, in that Ireland is geographically at the junction between continental Europe and North America, and is undergoing transition from a solidly and proudly Catholic country to one in which the role of religion and the church has changed, and not only because of the sex abuse scandal. I left the conference with three distinct impressions of the current debate on the role of the Catholic Church in modern society.

The first was of the divide between European Catholicism and North American Catholicism on perceptions of secular modernity. Many Americans, for instance, see as problematic the unproblematic acceptance of secularity in European Catholicism since the mid-20th century. But Europe is more secular than the United States for a reason, with European Catholics viewing secularity and especially the secular state as a guarantee against the manipulation of religion for political purposes and of the church by the state—authentic concerns after fascism and Nazism. In the United States, meanwhile, a kind of new political Augustinianism has taken root, with radical orthodoxy and the recent shift in the reception of Vatican II undoing the reframing of the relationship between the temporal and the supernatural that the council, along with Gaudium et spes, had introduced.

The second impression concerns the ecclesiological consequences of two different visions of modernity.

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The Popes’ Secretaries, from Capovilla to Gänswein

Cardinal Loris Francesco Capovilla died on May 25, 2016, at the age of one hundred. He was the oldest living cardinal, but more importantly he had served as secretary for Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli—Pope John XXIII—from the latter’s appointment to the patriarchal see of Venice until his death on June 3, 1963. Capovilla was only made a cardinal at the consistory of February 2014, by Pope Francis, after John Paul II and Benedict XVI—who created two-hundred-thirty-one and ninety-three cardinals, respectively—had forgotten him. They had had their chances, especially after 1995, when Capovilla turned eighty, the age at which a cardinal loses the right to vote for pope and when such an appointment would have been electorally meaningless. It would have been a good way to thank him for his service to the global church in keeping alive the memory of John XXIII and of Vatican II.

As executor of Roncalli’s will and secretary of his archive, Capovilla played a critical role in helping establish the late pontiff’s legacy. Rather than jealously guard the personal diaries and other writings of Roncalli until the time was deemed right, Capovilla acted on Roncalli’s desire as a historian to have them published and made part of the reception of the pontificate and of Vatican II. Coupled with his efforts in the publication of Journal of a Soul just nine months after John XXIII’s death, this work not only helped in defining the perception of John XXIII’s spirituality, but also made possible the wave of scholarly research on Roncalli that commenced in the early 1980s. Capovilla had donated the personal archive to Paul VI, but only after having provided a photocopy of the entire contents to the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, where historians had access to it. The work they did proved crucial in the beatification of Pope John in 2000 and his canonization in April 2014. It was also instrumental in helping us learn more about Vatican II (especially the decision to call the council in the first place) and about the background of the John XXIII’s pontificate. Capovilla was averse to saccharine devotional portraits of “il papa buono,” and the letters, journals, and scholarly and spiritual writings he helped bring to light significantly impacted the work of scholars like my mentor Giuseppe Alberigo, Alberto Melloni, and Giancarlo Zizola. Thanks to this paper trail—which also included daily diary entries from the time Roncalli was a teenager in seminary—we know more about John XXIII than we do about any other pope.

But there is another important reason to remember Capovilla. As secretary of the pope succeeding Pius XII, who governed in almost total isolation, Capovilla had the delicate job of navigating the arcana of the Roman Curia, where many saw Roncalli as a dangerous and naïve outsider. Audiences and meetings that resulted in some of the most consequential decisions by John XXIII were made possible by Capovilla, who bypassed the obstacles put up by the Curia. This helped John XXIII do what John XXIII wanted to do. But Capovilla operated differently than did his successors—namely, the secretaries to John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

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Can Francis’s Idea of European Catholicism Work Against Trumpism?

Exactly one week after the May 6 speech Pope Francis gave in accepting the prestigious Charlemagne Prize (awarded for work done in the service of European unity), another in a series of planning meetings for this summer’s World Youth Day in Krakow was held. The choice of Krakow as the venue is a tribute to John Paul II, who held the World Youth Day of 1991 in Czestochowa. That was just a few months before the Bishops’ Synod Special Assembly for Europe, eastern nations of which had only recently liberated themselves from communism. The future of Europe looked somewhat brighter then than it does today. The future of European Catholicism also looked different, as did the papal teaching on Europe.

Francis has reinterpreted and updated the positions on Europe of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, putting the accent on the relationship between Catholicism and Europe and emphasizing the pluralistic roots of the continent. This was clear in his May 6 speech; he did not mention the “Christian roots” (or “Jewish-Christian roots”) to which the European Union should return, which was something of a mantra for his predecessors. Instead, he referenced Erich Przywara, one of his favorite theologians, in advancing his main point: “The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures. The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.” The church has a part to play in the revitalization of Europe, according to Francis, but it is not the role of guardian in modern Europe’s cultural conformity to a hypostatized Catholic tradition. Rather, it is the role of witness to the Gospel: “Only a church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe. In this enterprise, the path of Christians towards full unity is a great sign of the times and a response to the Lord’s prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).”

While Francis’s position on Europe is not quite that of his predecessors, I believe the difference is more marked between Francis and Benedict than it is between Francis and John Paul II. Francis, it should be pointed out, is also one of the few Catholic bishops in Europe who has the courage to repeat John Paul II’s teachings on social issues like capital and labor, human rights, and migrants and refugees. It is noteworthy that those Catholics who cite John Paul II in opposing any possible change in the church (especially on marriage and family) seem forgetful of his words on these other issues.

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Is Now the Time for Women Deacons?

"Perhaps it won’t be long before the many words spoken about women as deacons will be overtaken by actions." That was Phyllis Zagano, writing in Commonweal in 2012, when she made the case for ordaining women to the diaconate. Yesterday, commenting on Pope Francis's announcement of a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, she told NCR: "It's very hopeful. It displays Francis's openness to scholarship, to history and, most importantly, to the needs of the church."

In her Commonweal article, Zagano specifically addressed scholarship, history, and needs of the church: 

While women were included in the order of deacon, not only in the early church but at least until the twelfth century in the West (and in the East up to modern times), the historical fact of women ordained as deacons is apparently not sufficient to call women back to that order today. Early documents point to bishops selectively ordaining—or not ordaining—women according to the needs of their dioceses. While the church has changed in many respects since women deacons were common, the fact that the church calls forth the people it needs for certain ministries has not changed. ...

[I]f reconciliation with the women of the church—especially with the women of the church in the United States and the developed world—is an issue of interest, then ordaining women as deacons becomes a genuine necessity. But even the most convincing political argument will not hold sway unless the church as a whole agrees with individual conferences of bishops, and then individual bishops, that the ordained ministry of women is necessary in their dioceses, their provinces, and throughout the world.

Diaconal ministry—of the word, the liturgy, and of charity—is clearly necessary everywhere. The service provided by the deacon at liturgy is the smallest part of the deacon’s charge—even as it is the most symbolic. The ministry of the deacon is to carry the gospel, literally as well as symbolically, and with it the charity of the church in all its forms. When deacons are involved, the soup kitchens and the religious education programs, the homeless shelters and the adult formation meetings gain new connection to the parish and ultimately to the bishop.

Of course, this small excerpt doesn't fully convey the scope of Zagano's piece. Whether or not you read it when it originally appeared in 2012, it's worth reading today in full

Catholicism’s Post-Vatican II ‘Narrative Gap’

In praising Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò on his retirement from the post of apostolic nuncio to the United States, George Weigel wrote that there is “no honorable retreat from what some deplored as ‘culture wars.’” Weigel was obviously alluding to what some consider Pope Francis’s inappropriate positions on divisive issues, especially sexual morality. But in fact the social justice Catholicism of Pope Francis does not signal a retreat from the culture wars. It is simply part of the reception of Vatican II by much of the rest of global Catholicism. Our perception of what Catholicism is today is influenced by the way we perceive its recent history. It is not simply a matter of theological or political options that shape our understanding of the church. It is also a matter of periodization, that is, our way to frame what happened, and when.

I recently spent a week in Santiago, Chile, in seminars and meetings at the Jesuit University Alberto Hurtado and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile with colleagues studying Vatican II and the post-Vatican-II period in Latin America. What this experience confirmed for me is that, when it comes to contemporary post-Vatican-II Catholicism, there are different narratives in different parts of the world, with a particular gap between the European-North American narrative and the Latin-American one.

For much of the west, the post-Vatican-II period is marked by Humanae vitae (1968), which for many seemed to solidify how the church saw its relationship to the modern world, and which consequently set off a sociopolitical shift, especially in “sub-narratives” linked to issues of family and marriage. In the United States, for example, a key moment came with 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision; in Italy, it was a series of popular referenda on both divorce and abortion in the 1970s and ’80s.

In Latin America, however, the key issues post-Vatican II were different.

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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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