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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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Who Knew Romero?

In ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, reporter, teacher, and translator Gene Palumbo—who has lived in El Salvador since he moved there to cover the civil war in 1980—has written a unique remembrance of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It is comprised of stories from priests and nuns who knew him throughout his clerical life: as a young "docile" auxiliary bishop of San Salvador passively aligned with a corrupt social order; as a rural bishop who spent full days visiting residents of far-flung hamlets and when necessary confronted the National Guard to demand prisoners be released; and as the prophetic martyr "spontaneously proclaimed... a saint" at his funeral by the people of El Salvador and beatified by Rome one year ago yesterday.

The vignettes Palumbo compiles reveal just how much the people influenced Romero, more than how Romero influenced them. As one example, years after a shouting match with parishioners during a Mass in San Salvador, Romero returned and apologized for the incident, saying:

I now understand what happened that day, and here before you I recognize my error.

I was wrong and you were right. That day you taught me about faith and about the Church. Please forgive me for everything that happened then.

The shouting match had started when the parishioners asked Romero to explain why he had justified, on behalf of the bishops conference, a military invasion of the National University. His late apology was received with tearful applause and—as one nun attested—"all was forgiven."

Read the full article here.

 

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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‘We Seek to Open the Eyes of Our Friends’: Daniel Berrigan in the Pages of Commonweal

The funeral Mass for Daniel Berrigan, SJ, will be celebrated Friday morning at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York. Over the course of several years in the 1960s and early '70s, Commonweal featured a number of pieces both by and about the noted peace activist and poet. Here we present a selection of articles from our archives, with excerpts.

From “How to Make a Difference,” by Daniel Berrigan, August 7, 1970:

What we seek, acting coolly, politically, out of the truth of our lives and tradition is to pull the mask of legitimacy from the inhuman and blind face of power. We seek at the same time, to open the eyes of more and more of our friends, to bring a larger community of resistance into being. We seek moreover to awaken to the facts of life, those Americans who continue to grasp at the straws of this or that political promise; and so put off, day after day, year after year, the saving act of resistance, allow innocent men to be imprisoned, guiltless men to be kicked out of America, good men to die.

But if even a few men say no, courageously, constantly, clear-sightedly, more men will be drawn to say no; fewer men likewise will continue to say yes, and so to lose their manhood, their soul, their brothers.

From “Selma and Sharpeville,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 9, 1965:

The Gospel of Saint John, in the Zulu tongue, so strange to American ears; sibilants and the clicking of tongues, with only the names Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, coming through. And about the third hour, they crucified Him . . . . A white priest, in the pulpit of the black church; my fellow Christians. He can hardly remember what he had to say to them. But at the end, the veneration of the Cross. A, great wave starts forward: mothers with children, young men, the very old. Three priests move among them, holding the crucifix to their lips.

And spontaneously, as is the way with Africans, the chant starts; first, as one voice, hardly rising above the sough of bare feet, that sound which above all sounds is like the sea, on a mild evening. The song is the Zulu dirge for a fallen warrior. They are bearing Him homeward to his village after battle. His name is Jesus, great King, black Warrior. Easily, with infinite delicacy and naturalness, the song breaks into harmony; two parts, then four, then eight, as a yolk divides, or a cell . . . Jesus, great Warrior, we mourn you. O the beauty, the youth, the empty place. Who shall plead for us, who shall lift our faces, who shall speak wisdom?

The Zulus have a saying: he who is behind must run faster than he who is in front. Even to the Cross. Even when the Cross is held in white hands. Shall the white man time us, even to the Cross? Does he any longer even know the way?

From “Notes from the Underground, or, I Was a Fugitive from the FBI,” by Daniel Berrigan, May 29, 1970:

May 7 marks exactly a month since I packed the small red bag I had bought in Hanoi, and set out from Cornell, looking for America. So far, it has been a tougher and longer voyage than the one which set me down in North Vietnam some two years before.

In the course of that month, I have changed domicile some six times; this in strict accord with a rule of the Jesuit Order, making us, at least in principle, vagabonds on mission; 'It is our vocation to travel to any place in the world where the greater glory of God and the need of the neighbor shall impel us.' Amen, brothers.

It may be time for a modest stock-taking. The gains sought by such felonious vagrancy as mine, are in the nature of things, modest to the point of imposing silence on the wise. The 'nature of things' being defined simply as: power. It is entirely possible that any hour of any day may bring an end to the game; the wrong chance meeting, a thoughtless word of a friend, a phone tip the possibilities are without end. But one takes this for granted, and goes on, knowing that practically all of us are powerless, that the line dividing the worth of one's work from inertia and discouragement is thin indeed. (What manner of man today exudes confidence, moral spleen, righteousness, sense of messiahship at once cocksure, and dead serious? God, who grants us very little these days, at least keeps us from that.)

From “My Brother the Witness,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 26, 1968:

[I]n general, the bishops have played the war straight American. And the war's end will probably find few of them in any way interiorly changed in their understanding of the Church, of the meaning of violence, or indeed of their own office.

Which is not to say that the Church has felt no tremors. It is only to suggest that in the Catholic instance, the power structure has followed the culture, its sedulous ape. Still, in an exciting and even unique way, the war has altered the face of the Church as no former American war has done. For the first time in our national history, significant numbers of Catholics, including a few priests, are in trouble.

The war has also seriously thrown into disarray the timetable of renewal which the Church had set for itself. That schedule included beyond doubt the building of strong, open and affectionate relationships between the bishops and their communities. Alas, alas. The war has deepened and widened a tragic cleavage which issues like birth control, school systems, speech and its freedoms and unfreedoms, control of properties and income, had already opened.

From “Taking Fr. Berrigan Seriously,” by the Editors, August 7, 1970:

There are various ways of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. The easiest is to dismiss him, his brother and the other destroyers of draft files at Baltimore, Catonsville, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, as "kooks" or "romantics" … There is, however, another, more sophisticated way of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. Which is to follow his exploits vicariously while avoiding one's own responsibilities, to nod admiringly at his words, and then to return him to that corner niche conveniently reserved for plaster saints. …

Father Berrigan is far too significant a figure to be dismissed in either of these ways without risking great loss. He, and his brother Philip, are calling for a moral revolution, a regeneration that is based on the personal conversion of individuals through acts which break them off from established powers of the world and which link them, through suffering and the fate of being outcast, with the poor and the oppressed. Now that message is not exactly "political," as we have come to understand politics in the age when ideologies are supposedly outdated. The Berrigans' message is sometimes mysterious, incomplete, paradoxical; and we confess to suffering something of a "metaphor gap" with Daniel Berrigan when he writes of future political change as putting on a "new garment," creating "a new mankind." Their message, to the scandalizing of some and the embarrassment of many, is however very much the message of the Gospel; and the problems they present, mystery and metaphors and all, are precisely the problems the Gospel presents.

We do not want to dismiss Daniel Berrigan, nor to canonize him, nor to co-opt him. We wish to respond to him from our own position, agreeing and disagreeing, hoping that the dialogue may prove useful to the antiwar movement and the church.... [continue reading here]

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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Holy Week Staff Picks: 'Holy the Firm'

Back in the spotlight with the release of a new collection of old essays, Annie Dillard recently described in an NPR interview how it took her eighteen months to shake off the pressure of winning the Pulitzer prize and write her seventy-six-page masterpiece of 1977, Holy the Firm:

I kept trying to build myself up into a pitch where I could even understand what I'd written the day before. It's metaphysics. And it turns out that not a lot of people are comfortable with that, but I was. I guess that's why they told me I had a masculine mind.

I’m honestly not sure what she means by “masculine mind,” but like so many of her provoking, confusing phrases, I’m sure it will linger in my own mind like a hypothesis, or a dormant revelation.

For Dillard hypotheses are dormant revelations and for Dillard God does reveal truths to humans in the language of metaphysics as much as in the language of theology; in the form of a poem as much as in the form of a joke; and most likely in the form of nothing our minds can comprehend but which regardless physically exists as—for example—time does.

Holy the Firm is set on northern Puget Sound in Washington, where Dillard lived for two years in a one-room cabin with her cat Small. Over the course of three days, the first-person narrator asks herself questions about time, reality, salts, minerals, sacrifice, death, and the will of God.

Day one is glorious. In awe, the narrator observes the landscape, seascape, shifting patterns of sky in “this world, a dream forced into my ear and sent round my body on ropes of hot blood.” Her descriptions hint at the presence of an animating force beneath the surface of everything. (“The hill creates itself”; “The sky is gagging on trees”). She repeatedly introduces us to “the god of today,” whose characteristics are manifold: “rampant and drenched"; "pagan and fernoot”; “wholly here and emptied.” Day two is violent. A little girl’s face is burned off—her skin melted—by a spout of jet fuel burst from the wing of a falling plane. That day God is “a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged.” She questions faith, and whether God has any “willful connection with time whatsoever, and with us.” By day three she “only know[s] enough of God to want to worship him, by any means at hand.” In the last pages of the book, through an acrobatic display of theological, scientific, poetic, and crude language, the narrator somehow resolves nearly all of her unresolved questions.

Some surmise that the three-part, three-day structure of Holy the Firm is meant to accompany the three days in the Triduum. Dillard hasn’t confirmed this, but it nevertheless seems plausible. Try Holy the Firm this year. I promise you’ll want to read it again soon.

Holy Week Staff Picks: 'Faith Beyond Resentment'

When I think of what makes something “spiritual” reading, rather than informational or intellectual, I think of the disciples at Emmaus recalling that their hearts were “burning within” them as they listened to Jesus interpret the Scriptures. That passage from Luke came to my mind when I first encountered the theologian James Alison and picked up a copy of his book Faith Beyond Resentment (Crossroad, 2001).

Alison’s biography is already known to Commonweal readers from this profile by Christopher Ruddy and this interview by Brett Sakeld. He is an ordained priest and a former member of the Dominican order; a scholar of Rene Girard; a gay man interested in working through the obstacles that official church teaching creates for human flourishing among LGBT people. Faith Beyond Resentment caught my attention because it includes several essays on that subject, aimed at talking to gay Catholics about how their presence in the church can make the truth about Christ’s saving work more fully known. He discusses the disconnect between church teaching on homosexuality and the actual lived experiences of gay people, and also explores the scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up then erupting in the church. I am eager to see the church move past the defensive postures that push my LGBT friends and fellow Catholics to the margins, and reading Alison makes me hopeful that the day will come when we can commit more fully to supporting human flourishing for all—not by abandoning the faith tradition we live now, but by embracing its invitation to life more fully.

Beyond his attention to “matters gay,” Alison’s writings in this and other books illuminate the very basics of Christian discipleship for me. Following Girard’s mimetic theory, Alison reveals how accepted interpretations of Scripture tend to implicate God in the violent cycle that traps humanity, to place God “wholly within the framework of human violence and rivalry.” Instead, focusing in this book particularly on passages from the Gospel of John, Alison explains how God, through Jesus, offers a way out of that violent cycle. His readings of the stories from John gave me that heart-burning-within-me sensation of understanding something I thought I knew well in a new and clarifying light. Time and again I found him taking up a passage that I’d always found troubling or obscure and making it seem clear and vital. From Alison I learned to approach the Gospels from what he calls “the space of the heart-close-to-cracking,” to hear how the message of Christ sounds different, both more comforting and more personally challenging, more urgent, when “read from amongst the ruins.”

That the Gospels take on a new urgency for me when I hear what Alison has to say is an important point, because I know how easy it would be for me to be seduced by a take on Jesus’ message that challenged me less than the standard homily, that flattered my prejudices and then let me off the hook. Such a reading would end up leading me further from God by telling me that I’m close enough already. That’s not what I take away from Alison. His books, as Rowan Williams put it, “leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian.”

Progressive Catholic Architecture & the Death of Revolution

A theologian can be very picky about the architectural style of churches, especially when the theologian (like me) was born and raised in Italy. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak in Brazil, where I visited the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, named after one of the most famous architects of our time. Inside there’s a temporary exhibition on Brazilian architect Vilanova Artigas (1915-1985), who designed the Architecture and Urbanism College, University of Sao Paulo (known as FAUUSP) in 1969. Writing of the building in 1984, Artigas said it “refines the holy ideals of the time: I thought of it as the spatialization of democracy in worthy spaces, without entrance doors, because I wanted it as a temple where all activities are lawful.”

Among the interesting things I discovered was the relationship of leftist (Communist, in fact) intellectuals like Niemeyer and Artigas with the Catholic Church in Brazil. It was a relationship that, for the more famous Niemeyer, went beyond his work on the Brasilia cathedral (built between 1958 and 1970) and the Church of St. Francis in Belo Horizonte (which was completed in 1943 but not consecrated until 1959: archbishop Antonio dos Santos Cabral proclaimed the church “unfit for religious purposes”). Niemeyer also had had many exchanges with Paulo Freire, founder of critical pedagogy and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The architecture of Niemeyer and Artigas was deeply embedded in the shift of Latin American Catholicism from a status quo church—pillar of a non-democratic and authoritarian system—to one both politically and theologically instrumental in the turn toward a non-authoritarian and democratic system.

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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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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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Francis Has a Message for the Italian Church

Now well into the post-Synod period, we may yet learn if there will be a “Francis effect” on the U.S. bishops gathering in Baltimore for their annual general assembly (November 16-19). But something is definitely happening in the Italian church, which historically has focused on the special relationship between the pope and the Italian bishops.

Last week, Florence was temporarily the ecclesial capital of Italy, as 2,500 delegates from dioceses and associations convened for a gathering organized by the Italian bishops’ conference and held every ten years. It could prove to be the most important act of reception of Francis’s pontificate by the church in Italy.

This was the fifth ecclesial conference since 1976, and its theme was one chosen when Benedict was still pope: “In Jesus Christ the New Humanism.” But it looked more a “national synod” than the previous pre-cooked events, especially those of 1995 in Palermo and of 2006 in Verona. This is noteworthy because in post-Vatican II Italian Catholicism, the format of ecclesial conferences—tightly controlled by the bishops’ conference and the Vatican—is meant precisely to preclude resemblance to anything like a national synod (and thus to avoid something like German Catholicism’s “Würzburger Synode” of 1971 to 1975, an ecclesial event that dealt with the post-conciliar conversion of Joseph Ratzinger and his position within German theology).

Pope Francis gave a great speech to open the gathering, and in this sense we could say that the 2015 conference looked like the conference of 1985 in Loreto. Then, John Paul II gave clear instructions to the Italian Catholic church and to the bishops: change course from the dialogical ethos of the 1970s (a decade when 70 percent of Italians were dividing their votes evenly between the Christian-Democratic Party and the Communist Party) toward a more assertive Catholic church politically; emphasize the role of the elites and church movements (especially Communion and Liberation) and reject the more conciliar organizations of Italian Catholic laity (such as Catholic Action and Italian Catholic Boys and Girls Scouts); and re-Catholicize Italian culture and politics. Some called it John Paul II’s “Polish model” for the Italian church, and did it ever work. The early 1990s saw the end of the political dominance of Christian-Democratic Party in Italy and opened the door to media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated the political scene for the next twenty years.

But it is my impression that the ecclesial conference of Florence is actually closer to the first conference, of 1976, which took place at the end of a tumultuous decade of reception of Vatican II in Italy. Francis made clear in his remarks how he sees the future of the church: no to the dreams of conservatism and fundamentalism; no to the “surrogates of power and money”; a clear statement on the issue of the pro multis in the Missal (“The Lord shed his blood not for some, or for a few or for many but for all”); a call for a more dialogical and socially engaged Italian church.

But unlike John Paul II, Francis with his speech did not create a new paradigm.

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A Nobel Prize for Catholic Social Thought?

The 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences—commonly but less than accurately referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”—was awarded this month to Princeton’s Angus Deaton “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.” (I personally was rooting for someone from Columbia, mainly because I thought there might be a party we grad students could crash.)

Deaton’s voluminous research spans a range of economic subfields. Among the contributions cited by the Nobel committee were his work on measuring and comparing poverty and inequality across nations, and his pioneering use of household surveys in poor countries. He has earned a reputation for following the evidence wherever it leads, and his nuanced perspectives on a number of important policy questions have made it hard to pigeonhole him ideologically.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Since the prize was announced, commentators from across the political spectrum have cited his work as vindicating their own views. His former Princeton colleague and fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman quotes him favorably in a blog post on the capture of the American political system by financial elites. The libertarian Cato Institute, which hosted Deaton in 2013 for a forum on his book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, also finds him simpatico. Writing for the Cato at Liberty blog, Ian Vásquez highlights Deaton’s skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid:

When thinking about aid, the developed world would do well by heeding Deaton’s advice and by not asking what we should do. “Who put us in charge?” Deaton rightly asks. “We often have such a poor understanding of what they need or want, or of how their societies work, that our clumsy attempts to help on our terms do more harm than good…We need to let poor people help themselves and get out of the way—or, more positively, stop doing things that are obstructing them.”

To anyone accustomed to thinking in terms of the usual conservative-liberal binary, it might sound like Krugman and Vásquez are talking about two different people. It’s not often you hear someone inveighing against the corrosive effect of money in politics and then arguing in the next breath that we’re doing too much on behalf of the global poor. In reality, Deaton’s views evince a clear logic. When considered through the lens of Catholic social thought and its workhorse concepts of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good, they actually make a great deal of sense.

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'He Came Not for the Healthy'

Hervé Janson, the superior general of the Little Brother of Jesus, is the only non-priest who is participating in the Synod on the Family with voice and vote, having been elected to represent the Union of Superior Generals. The following is a translation of his intervention at the synod.

First of all, I would like to clarify the uniqueness of my situation among you, bishops from all over the earth, since I am a simple brother, the moderator of a religious congregation which is international, to be sure, but very modest, with less than two hundred brothers: the Little Brothers of Jesus, inspired by the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

My brothers of the Union of Superior Generals told me that they voted for me because, by our vocation, in the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, we live among the people in their neighborhoods, shoulder to shoulder with very simple families who often struggle as best they can to live and bring up their children. We are witnesses of so many families who, for me, are models of holiness; they are the ones who will receive us into the kingdom! And sometimes, I suffer from what our mother the church imposes on their backs, burdens which we ourselves would not be able to support, as Jesus said to the Pharisees! For there are many women and men who suffer from being rejected by their pastors. Through a very special grace which dumbfounds me but for which I should thank you, I find myself the only brother who is a full-fledged member of this synod of bishops which is reflecting on the situations and mission of families. Astonishment and trembling, all the more so in so far as the status of the sisters is different, the same as that of the families. But we cannot ignore the fact that families make up the immense majority of the People of God that we are. But what value do we give to our reflection upon them?

There is an Oriental proverb that says: “Before you judge anyone, put on his sandals!” The paradox of this affair: we are all celibates, for the most part. But can we at least listen to people, listen to their sufferings, their propositions, their thirst for recognition and proximity?

I am thinking of these African Christian women I knew when I lived in Cameroon, spouses of a polygamous Muslim husband: they felt excluded from the church, unaccompanied, very much alone.

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Paul Baumann on 'St. Paul'

Featured at the Washington Post is Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s review of St. Paul, the new book from the “popular and prolific authority on religion,” Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, according to Paul (Baumann),

wants to rescue Saint Paul from the reputation he has acquired as an authoritarian and misogynist. According to her, such accusations are the result of misreadings or tampering by later, less egalitarian-minded editors with Paul’s “authentic” New Testament writings. Instead of the often oblique and even inscrutable Paul we find in scripture, Armstrong’s apostle is a kind of gloried community activist, or a first-century Bernie Sanders.

But the “famously inept equestrian,” Paul notes, was “a far stranger and more elusive character than Armstrong imagines, and his legacy more paradoxical still.” The headline of the review, courtesy of the Post: “Was Saint Paul Really Such a Jerk?” Read the whole thing here.

Elizabeth Johnson: "Is God's Charity Broad Enough for Bears?"

At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”

The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made no room in heaven for such noble creatures: "Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?

“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.

Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.

In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?

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