What a debate about Pope Francis’s supposed liberalism says about the future of Catholicism

Ross Douthat and Massimo Faggioli argued over Francis’s legacy last week.

By

Two high-profile Catholic thought leaders duked it out last week in a debate over the five-year legacy of Pope Francis — and what his papacy means for a church in crisis.

Longtime intellectual rivals Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat engaged in a conversation on Pope Francis, hosted by Fordham University in New York. The debate ultimately developed into a far broader question: How far should the church change in dialogue with modern sexual ethics when it comes to issues like women priests, divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage?

And — perhaps even more importantly — the conversation turned broader still, as both participants asked if change should be seen as a theologically necessary part of the Catholic tradition.

Faggioli, a self-professed liberal Catholic, and Douthat, a conservative, have long expressed differing views on Francis’s papacy, and on the trajectory of the Catholic Church more generally through bold rhetoric on Twitter.

Since the beginning of Francis’s time as pope, much secular media attention has focused on what, to non-Catholics, have appeared to be relaxed stances on usually taboo issues for Catholics. Francis’s papacy, while changing little in terms of Catholic doctrine, has nevertheless made welcoming those who fail to follow that doctrine (whether on abortion, LGBTQ issues, or divorce) into the Catholic community a priority.

For example, Francis opened a temporary window for women who have had abortions to seek forgiveness from the church in 2015. One of his most famous early statements may have been asking “Who am I to judge?” when it comes to homosexuality, although Francis has elsewhere maintained traditional Catholic doctrine.

Douthat, a Catholic convert, has frequently been critical of what he deems Francis’s divisive tactics, including using unofficial or “leaked” communications to the media to informally express more controversial views. He also opposes a willingness to, in his view, upend church tradition for the sake of pacifying liberal attitudes and retaining church membership.

For his part, Faggioli, an admirer of the Francis pontificate, has frequently condemned Douthat as an intellectual dilettante, criticizing his lack of formal theological training and what he sees as Douthat’s partisan perspective on church issues.

Their personal disagreement masks a wider debate, not simply between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics, or between “progressives” who want to change the church to fit contemporary cultural mores and “traditionalists” who want to preserve the church exactly as it was.

It’s a debate between those who see a degree of dynamism as already part and parcel of what it means to be Catholic, and those who see it as an exterior, dangerous force.

The debate on Francis is also a debate on the aftermath of Vatican II

Although Faggioli and Douthat’s debate was about the pope, it wasn’t just about the pope. Central to their disagreements were their perceptions of the effects of Vatican II (formally known as the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965), which explored if and how the church should adapt to a changing world.

At that point, Catholics the world over were still responding to the aftermath of World War II, and the Holocaust in particular, leading some Catholics to question the language and tone with which the church approached interfaith issues.

Those changes under Vatican II included an increased focus on ecumenical relations, and on Catholic-Jewish relations. But the relative liberalization of Vatican II (for example, eschewing Latin during Mass) has often been seen by later critics as paving the way for an acceptance of more extreme elements of “modernity,” such as the sexual revolution. That movement challenged the formal Vatican positions on abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce, and premarital sex more generally.

Official church doctrine has never changed on any of these positions (nor, should it be noted, has even the “liberal” Pope Francis ever sought to change them).

Still, the “spirit of Vatican II,” or its overall ecumenical ethos, is cited by proponents and critics alike to refer to post-Vatican-II liberalizing tendencies that exceed the remit of Vatican II’s more narrow reforms. To Vatican II’s critics, a broad definition of this spirit is responsible for a more general “liberalization” in the church.

The subsequent half-century or so of the Catholic Church has been marked by various popes’ differing responses to and reckoning with Vatican II, its spirit, and the question of what “moving forward” even means within a Catholic context. That brings us to the current debate — last week’s and among Catholics in general — around Pope Francis’s somewhat lax views.

Faggioli and Douthat’s debate reflected broader divides

Douthat, a perhaps more natural debater, took a more aggressive approach, referring to a coming “schism” and a “civil war” in the church, and saying that Francis’s approach risked fomenting a “crisis of papal authority itself.”

Speaking specifically about Francis’s opening to providing communion to remarried couples, Douthat warned that, by relaxing rules around communion, Francis risked promulgating the idea that “the papacy allows for changes around these contested issues of sexual ethic,” and thus challenging the idea — central to Catholic theology — that the church’s continuity on issues remains unchanged.

Faggioli, though, rejected Douthat’s very premise. Focusing on continuity as a metric for a “good” pope, he says, and “looking at Catholic doctrine in terms of continuity or discontinuity, in my mind, assumes one thing: that Christianity, at some point … was complete.”

Furthermore, Faggioli said his assessment of Francis’s perspective centered not on doctrine but on pastoral care. The church need not change its teachings, he said, but rather ask itself, “What can the Catholic Church do to make the faithful able to receive sacraments?”

For Douthat, Pope Francis represents a break with tradition so profound that it risks rendering a fundamental principle of Catholic thought irrelevant: the idea that the church exists in continuity with its past traditions and perspectives.

Citing the case of allowing parish priests license to grant communion to remarried Catholics, which Francis has quietly campaigned for, Douthat argued that such a procedure would, in practice, vitiate the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (because, in Catholic tradition, marriage is seen as an irreversible sacrament between the couple and God, divorce is not seen as legitimate).

It is, for Douthat and other Catholic conservatives, a back-door form of Catholic-sanctioned divorce. By advocating for it and similar reforms, Francis, in Douthat’s view, represents a dangerous figure for the church: one too willing to cede ground to modern liberalism.

Faggioli, though, argued that Douthat’s perspective — of “continuity” and “discontinuity” within church tradition — was flawed and ahistoric. He pointed out that Francis is not seeking to allow divorce — something that would be a striking change in church teaching — but only advocating that divorced and remarried couples be allowed to receive the sacrament of communion — and thus participate fully in church life.

Instead, Faggioli said, Douthat’s view failed to reflect the way in which Catholic tradition has long existed in dialogue with itself, and how interpretations of Scripture have consistently grown and developed over time. The Catholic tradition, Faggioli said, “is not a mineral, it’s an animal. It moves. It adapts. It grows.”

Decades after Vatican II, the church faces demographic and social upheaval

While Douthat and Faggioli differ on the degree to which the Catholic Church is in danger, it’s fair to argue that it is — if not in crisis — at least in flux.

Decades of sex abuse scandals have eroded public trust in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Mass attendance has drastically fallen in America and Europe, especially among young adults. There is an increasingly severe shortage of Catholic priests. And the face of Catholicism is changing, too. Catholicism is in decline in Western Europe and America, but drastically on the rise in Africa. Like it or not, the church is changing in demographics if not doctrine.

But the question remains: Where do we go from here?

The debaters’ differing perspectives may be as attributable to their methods as their politics. Douthat’s interest lies in the church as an institution; the questions he asks focus on that institution’s survival and transformation.

In many of his columns, as well as in his forthcoming book, To Change the Church?, Douthat approaches the church as a political scientist might, looking at how different conservative or modernizing factions have jockeyed for support and survival. His questions of “continuity” and “discontinuity” are questions one asks of an institution, rather than a faith.

Douthat comes to the study of the church as a zealous outsider, and that perspective — one that tends to see the church as a holistic, uniform body that, while sometimes under temporary threat, nevertheless remains intact — suffuses his work. That Francis seems to endanger that perceived unity makes him a threat.

Frequently during the debate, Douthat warned of the potential of a schism within the Catholic Church as a result of Francis’s developments: “Things can break … there is a deep conflict.”

Faggioli, however, is both a church historian and a trained theologian, whose concern is both with the church as an institution and with theology as a living, dynamic body of discourse, constantly being shaped by new questions and voices both inside and outside the academy.

As a theologian, he appears more comfortable with the often-murky process by which the exploration of ideas — theological debate — becomes calcified into church doctrine, and the way in which these ideas morph and change over time. Rather than arguing whether or not the church should adapt to shifting culture, he argued that a degree of dynamism is part and parcel of church tradition and always has been.

The Catholic Church’s priority should be on finding ways for the faithful to remain within the church, not expelling those who do not follow its teachings, he says. (And it’s important to stress, in this debate, neither Faggioli nor Francis is necessarily saying that its teachings should change. Faggioli’s point is about access, not ideas).

Both Douthat and Faggioli ask vital questions. And Douthat’s challenge — how does an institution address cultural change without losing its founding principles — is completely valid. Any answer that does not take seriously that for faithful Catholics, the doctrine being debated is a matter of weighty metaphysical truth, not just politics or optics, fails to appreciate the gravity of the question being asked.

Faggioli’s response — that “in order to get close to Jesus, there has to be some kind of discontinuity” — may provide “liberal” Catholics a viable alternative to Douthat’s reactionary historicism, and a way forward for a church that is both weighed down and grounded by its past.

Complete Article HERE!

Crisis in Irish Catholic priesthood revealed at meetings of clergy

Meeting in Limerick hears call for confidential helpline for priests

Priests heard there were “too many Masses in near-empty churches”.

By

Eight priests have taken their own lives in the past 10 to 15 years in Ireland, a meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Cavan has been told.

At another such meeting in Co Limerick, there was a call for the setting up of a national confidential priests’ helpline

Minutes of the latter meeting in Caherconlish quote one attendee as saying: “Our morale is affected because we are on a sinking ship. When will the ‘counter-reformation’ take place? We’re like an All-Ireland team without a goalie. We need a national confidential priests’ helpline. We’re slow to look for help.”

Reports from both meetings appear on the ACP website.

Among reasons given at the Cavan town meeting for the crisis in the Irish Catholic priesthood were living alone, retirement, health issues, sexual abuse accusations, as well as “workload; being gay; clustering; priests rights; bullying; etc.”

There were also very poor welfare supports when a priest gets ill. “We are reluctant to talk and say we are tired, struggling, lonely or depressed. This can be very disheartening,” the meeting was told.

The Cavan meeting was attended by priests from the Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Clogher, Kilmore, and Meath dioceses.

Motions of faith

As disheartening was that so much work by priests was “for people who have so little contact with the church from First Communions to funerals”, the meeting heard. Priests’ confidence “has been eroded when we see so many people going through the motions of faith”.

The Limerick meeting of priests from the Archdiocese of Cashel as well as Killaloe and Limerick dioceses was told there were “too many Masses in near-empty churches. The church has survived in other parts of the world without all the Masses.”

It was claimed priests were “in denial about vocations – not facing reality – we are part of a dying system,” and that “we need to unmask and say ‘I need help.’ There is a great sense of ‘being alone’.”

It was said the Bon Secours Sisters, who managed the controversial Tuam Mother and Baby Home, “did a disservice by not clarifying exactly what happened. They need to do so immediately. It makes our job impossible, especially as we face a storm on abortion next year.”

There was also criticism of how bishops dealt with media at both meetings.

Complete Article HERE!

Liberal Christians Come Out Swinging at Trump, Mostly

samuel-rodriguez

 

By

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first. From what I’ve seen, conservative religious responses to the election of Donald Trump have mostly been along the lines of, “Congratulations, praying for you, looking forward to outlawing abortion, also undoing marriage equality, and oh yeah, religious freedom is really important.” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at least threw in a caution that Catholics weren’t down for anti-immigrant legislation: “We are firm in our resolve that our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees can be humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security.”

Perhaps the most interesting conservative reaction came from Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference: “We must continue the fight to reconcile (the Rev.) Billy Graham’s message of righteousness with (the Rev.) Dr. Martin Luther King’s march for justice.” With Rodriguez, who the hell knows what that actually means, but it at least sounds like they’re not giving up on the fight for immigrant rights.

Mainline leaders were mostly subdued, at least the ones who did react. For example, leaders in episcopal systems, as is their wont, called mostly for prayer and reconciliation in the aftermath of the election. “Let us commit ourselves to the hard work of life together,” wrote Bishop Matthew Gunter of the Diocese of Fond du Lac. United Methodist Council of Bishops President Bruce Ough followed suit, calling on Americans “to put aside divisiveness and rancor and come together for the common good of this nation and the world.” Michigan Bishop Wendell N. Gibbs went so far as to caution protestors not to become divisive or violent.

Still, some bishops were not so keen, mildly. Andrew M.L. Dietsche, Episcopal Bishop of New York, reaffirmed what he called “basic principles of the Christian faith”: the equality and dignity of all people, welcoming the stranger, compassion and relief of the poor, and a commitment to non-violence. Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith gave perhaps the firmest Episcopal note of dissent, articulating a calling to be prophetic in the face of “Othering.”

Episcopalians and Methodist have a strong tradition of the via media and church unity in the midst of controversy. Congregational polities allow for opinions to be expressed more strongly, shall we say. Some of them let it rip. Cameron Trimble, leader of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Progressive Renewal, had this to say:

For the sake of the people we are, the people we love and the planet we live within, you must prepare yourself for leadership. You are now ordained a public theologian, a freedom fighter, a prophet, a disciple, a visionary, a love warrior. You are fierce, and you are wise. Most of all, you are undaunted by hate. You will not tolerate injustice.

Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was equally direct:

The election is finally over. Most of us are shocked, even horrified, by the results. We live in a nation whose deep divisions have been exposed. The wounds of this election will not heal soon. Many of us are emotionally exhausted and deeply offended by what we have experienced.

This is a time to take a deep breath and a long view. Our role as religious progressives committed to democracy, compassion and human dignity is to help bend our culture toward justice. Think of issues like marriage equality and civil rights. The laws change when attitudes change. Our role is to help change attitudes, to lead by example.

Fear, anger, racism and xenophobia have created fertile ground for demagogues. Our voice is going to matter in the coming years. Our role, as always, will be to be a powerful voice for compassion and civil rights. Perhaps, at times, we may even be called upon to join with others to resist flagrant injustice.

For now, let us reflect and draw strength from one another. Together we can recover. Together we can shape the future.

Scott Reed, executive director of the PICO National Network, was downright blistering:

President-Elect Trump should be forewarned that our faith will not allow us to permit him to fulfill his promise to criminalize immigrants by conducting mass deportations, or sit idly in the face of racial profiling of African-Americans, Latinos and religious minorities.

Perhaps I’m biased, because (full disclosure) it’s my denomination and I’ve known John Dorhauer, President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, for a long time. But Dorhauer posted what I thought was perhaps the strongest response to Trump’s election so far:

Because this election sharply separated us over matters of race, gender, human sexuality, faith, economic inequality and political persuasions we all bear a heavy burden moving forward. It is our call, our shared mission, to heed the call of God’s Spirit and to work to repair damages in our deeply wounded and fiercely broken body.

Mr. Trump was able to win this election in spite of clear evidence from him of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and Islamaphobia. This was so blatant that many of his own party’s leaders could not endorse him. Many who voted for him knew this, and yet their fears about what is happening in their lives overrode their distaste for his bombast. In their search for a leader not connected to the power base of a government that has been perceived as corrupt, inefficient, and out of touch – his populist rhetoric appealed to them. He must now lead a country where people of color, women, Muslims, immigrants, the disabled, and an LGBT community all feel the sting and impact of his public speech.

Dorhauer makes the requisite call for unity in the wake of this ferkakte election—as he points out, “united” is right there in the name of the denomination. But he doesn’t back an inch off the call for the church to be agents of social justice. Again, as he rightly points out, justice is at the core of the UCCs newly adopted vision statement.

In fact, it’s almost all of the vision statement. I admittedly haven’t been the biggest fan of that vision—I think it’s reductive—but in these grim days for those opposed to the ascent of America’s Problem Child, I’m sure as hell glad that some Christian body is showing leadership. More like this, please.

Complete Article HERE!

Reflections at a Funeral

By Gabriel Daly OSA

As we laid Seán Fagan to rest after all the suffering and injustice inflicted on him by the leaders of his own church, it became all too evident how divided the Catholic Church has become in Ireland and how so little is being done to heal the wounds of our internal divisions, and this at a time when the church is in grievous difficulties – many of its own making.

Fr Seán Fagan was widely admired and respected as a courageous theologian and compassionate pastor.
Fr Seán Fagan was widely admired and respected as a courageous theologian and compassionate pastor.

Socio-politically it has fallen from a great height, when it was a power in the land and its authority was unquestioned. However, the Holy Spirit is more likely to be listened to in the Irish Catholic Church now that it has been deprived of its privileged national status and has become a humiliated and insecure organization badly in need of public acceptance.

The presence of a bishop at Seán’s funeral would have been a golden occasion to express metanoia and the readiness to respond more sensitively to the the message of the Gospel. It would have meant so much to his family. It would have given witness to the triumph of Gospel values over institutional church attitudes. Regrettably no bishop was present. I believe that this omission was not personal; it was institutional. There were almost certainly several bishops who would have been glad to be there, but something prevented it. One wonders what and why?

It is highly probable that many bishops knew that the Roman Curia had behaved in a thoroughly unjust and unchristian fashion when it attacked six Irish priests who were giving admirable and enlightened service to God’s People. No bishop expressed public disapproval of what was happening, or came to the defence of priests who were being treated so appallingly by men who would have described themselves, somewhat implausibly, as Christians.

The Second Vatican Council made it very clear that diocesan bishops take precedence over curial bureaucrats, even those of prelatical rank. It would mean so much to many Catholics – to say nothing about the victims of curial injustice – if our bishops and religious superiors were to come to the defence of fellow Catholics being treated with no regard for justice or human rights. It would go far to heal the breach between the bishops and those Catholics who are looking for change in their church and receiving no understanding or encouragement from their pastors.

It cannot be said too often that peace, unity and friendship in the church do not depend on agreement about matters that do not belong to the essence of the faith. What the Gospel prescribes is willingness to live together in peace, friendship and respect for ideas and attitudes that one cannot share, and finally, if possible, even to be open to the desirability of reform.

Could our bishops not respect the value of diversity in the church and whole-heartedly reciprocate the offer of groups like the ACP to work in friendship, rather than to meet in polite formality. Pope Francis is leading with words of mercy and healing. Why are we not following?

Complete Article HERE!

Archbishop of Dublin moves trainee priests out of Maynooth seminary

“Strange goings on” and “a quarrelsome” atmosphere led to Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s decision.
“Strange goings on” and “a quarrelsome” atmosphere led to Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s decision.

The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has announced that he will not send trainee priests from his own diocese, the largest in Ireland, to the national seminary at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

When asked about his decision to send three seminary students from Dublin to the Irish Pontifical College in Rome instead of Maynooth later this autumn, Dr Martin said “I wasn’t happy with Maynooth…”

“I have my own reasons for doing this,” the Archbishop continued. “There seems to an atmosphere of strange goings-on there, it seems like a quarrelsome place with anonymous letters being sent around. I don’t think this is a good place for students,” he said.

Martin made his assessment after a series of anonymous letters alleging inappropriate behavior among some of the seminarians in Maynooth made headlines, including claims that some of them may have used the hookup app Grindr, which is primarily used to arrange gay sexual encounters.

Maynooth seminary
Maynooth seminary

But Dr Martin made no comment on those sensational reports to the Irish Times, instead explaining that he had what he called a “certain bonding” with Rome (where he lived and worked for in the Holy See for 25 years) and where he felt the Irish college offered “a good grounding” in the Catholic faith.

Monsignor Ciaran O’Carroll, the rector of the Irish college, confirmed that the three Dublin based seminarians would be “transferring” to Rome, adding this was very much the usual practice, since this was the time of year when bishops nominated students for the college.

It is however extremely unusual for Irish seminarians to be transferred from Maynooth to Rome after an Archbishop cites “strange goings on” in the national seminary as the reason for the transfer.

Maynooth currently has around 60 seminarians in residence and when rumors broke of “inappropriate behavior” earlier this year a spokesperson quickly assured the press that procedures were in place to handle any controversial complaints against seminarians.

The suggestion that a thriving gay subculture exists at Ireland’s national seminary first came to light in May of this year after anonymous letter suggested that both seminarians and staff members at Maynooth had been using the hookup app Grindr.

At the time Monsignor Hugh Connolly told The Irish Catholic the church intended to “thoroughly deal” with any concerns regarding such behavior.

Meanwhile, acknowledging that the number of seminarians for Dublin has dropped, the Archbishop told the Irish Independent “What is more important for me is the quality of the men who come forward and the training that they receive.”

The fact that the Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, in whose diocese Maynooth sits, apparently believes that Maynooth is currently an unsuitable place to train Irish priests is a remarkable development.

Complete Article HERE!