It is not a numbers game!

I am a humanities person by temperament and academic formation, and although I hold my social science friends in high esteem and value their professionalism and scholarship, I harbour a deep skepticism when it comes to their reliance on polls, surveys, and statistics.

I am not inclined to accept at face value Mark Twain’s famous quip in his autobiography when he writes that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics, ” but I do take his point.

I was reminded of my agnosticism when it comes to polls, etc. while attending a performance by an artist this week who, in her preliminary remarks, observed that one million people leave the church every day.  I presumed she meant the Roman Catholic Church and given that there are 1.4 billion Catholics, if 365 million leave every year it won’t be long until this ancient body is emptied, a mere shell of its former self.  I don’t know what source she was quoting—she didn’t say—and it may well be that her remark was designed for some kind of rhetorical shock, but it is in fact a ridiculous assertion.

Still, it does show the power of polls and statistics to shape opinions, for although they are useful tools as indicators of trends, shifts in popular behaviour and conviction—and to that degree when employed judiciously and with critical attention to their deficiencies, can be a useful measure for political leaders, citizens, and media mavens—they remain markers and not apodictic truths.

Lawrence Martin, in his Globe and Mail column headed “We’re trapped in a system where naysayers are in command,” draws on various polls to demonstrate the sorry state of international leaders and their public ratings.  Except for Italy, no European leader has a popularity rating above 50% and many are pathetically well below that cutoff, U.S. leaders are wallowing in disapproval and Canadian leaders have been humbled by our own national statistical data.

The reasons for such plummetings are many: the proliferation of disinformation, the rise in vitriolic expression, the unchecked enabling of social media, the corruption of discourse, the ascendency of bile and discourtesy.  What a mess.

One international figure who does seem to enjoy a great deal of popularity is Pope Francis. He is an oasis in a whirligig of negativity.  For sure, he has his opposition—mostly from within Catholic ranks and much of it U.S.-based—but a recent Pew Research Center poll found that among U.S. Catholics he has a favourability rating of 75%.  Although this is down from early ratings, and although conservative Catholics poll more negatively than progressive Catholics, his overall rating among detractors and fans, as well as partisans of every political hue, is well above any political competition, save that provided by Putin and Jing.  No surprise there.

In the end, of course, the numbers need to be interpreted with nuance and scientific scrutiny.  And glib comparisons are not always helpful.

But the Head of the Vatican City State has a polling success rate democratic leaders worldwide can only envy. I suspect, however, that he doesn’t pay much attention to pollsters and pundits.

He doesn’t need statistics to do his job as a moral witness in a time of global fractiousness and peril.  And maybe that’s why he rates so highly.

Too Risible by Half

An old friend and teaching colleague invited me recently to a play he directed for a community theatre and I was delighted to re-connect.  The play, The Pope, by the filmmaker and dramatist Anthony McCarten of New Zealand, is not an especially polished work:  its first act is transparently contrived, its interpersonal dynamic constrained, the result being more closet drama than animated theatre.

Its subsequent re-appearance as the film The Two Popes is superior art in every regard. There has been a tightening of the script and an artistically enhanced scope courtesy the power of the medium.

The play and the movie are about a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a meeting during which the two men—the current pope and his soon-to-be successor—work out their not-inconsiderable differences, struggling to understand each other’s ideas and experience around leadership in the church, pastoral and credible witness in a world of aggressive secularism and quiet indifference, and fidelity to the Tradition.  The two grow from an initial wariness and timidity through honest and heated exchanges to a position of mutual respect and affection.

The script is as factual and historically accurate as Peter Morgan’s The Crown, however. There is no evidence of the two ever having met to discuss succession and their conversations about strongly contested issues of dogma and moral teaching devolve quickly into the declamatory, the oracular and the tiresomely apodictic.  What saves the play and the film are the precious moments of revelation, the deeply human self-disclosures, the caring intimacy of the two protagonists.

As the Italians say, “Se non è vero, è molto ben trovato” (if it is not true, it should be). Fiction, invention, can reveal truths fact can only approximate.

With Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as the future Pope Francis we have a chemistry that is both winning and credible.  The play, however, reads as an early version of what would become a highly moving encounter between two towering figures of contrasting temperament bound together in a new relationship.  The film refines the play; perfects it indeed.

Having seen the film I was keen on seeing the onstage version and the actor who played Bergoglio delivered the goods with a masterful presence.

I was entertained.

But I was also disturbed.  Not by the play or performance but by the discovery that the play was performed in a Baptist Church because some chancery apparatchik in the local Catholic curia had determined that the content might disturb some people, scandalize the faithful. Incroyable!!!!!

Certainly, there may be reasons for not mounting a drama in a Catholic Church—logistical, structural, insurance and liability issues, for example—but to use the argument that people might be disedified, shocked to their very core by the content, is simply outrageous and illustrative of that clerical inclination to protect the laity that is no more than infantilizing.

The Pope is as spiritually subversive as The Sound of Music.

Synodality or Schism: the staggering risks

I have a new book coming out shortly that I think you might find of some interest. Here are the details provided courtesy of House of Anansi Press:

The Jesuit Disruptor: A Personal Portrait of Pope Francis

(House of Anansi, Sept. 2024)

Pre-order from: Bookshelf (Guelph) • Words Worth Books (Waterloo) • Westminster Books (Fredericton) • IndigoBarnes & Noble • your local independent bookstore!

Now, to this week’s blog…

As things kick into gear—a momentum regrettably that has yet to be fully realized in the context of the Canadian Catholic Church—for the Second Session of the Synod on Synodality in Rome this October, we need to keep in mind the words of the Maltese prelate and key Synod player, Cardinal Mario Grech, “that there is no shortage of those who claim that statements about synodality are cosmetic, and that in reality, the verticalist and centralizing logic that has been in force in the Church of Rome for centuries has not changed…[but] they do not understand the synodal dynamic, which is founded on two principles in balance only on the condition of continuous circularity: diversity and unity. Unity is not uniformity; diversity is not division.”

The Church in Ireland has something called the Synodal Pathway, a national synod really, and Eamonn Conway of Notre Dame University in Australia, a priest of the Archdiocese of Tuam and an adviser to the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops—a worldwide body—spoke frankly to The Tablet’s Sarah MacDonald when he said that “if synodality doesn’t work, we will have schisms in the global church.” This is not an ominous conclusion but a practical one surveying the universal tensions and gifts of the church and recognizing that “uniformity is no longer an option.”

And talking about circularity: unity in diversity was a theme and mantra of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Those who argue that the principle of synodality is discontinuous with the teachings of the Council need to revisit the texts.

In a way, we are coming full circle but with new insights and with a heightened urgency.

The Big Man

He was always the Big Man for me: big of heart, big in size, and big, super abundant, with his intellectual and spiritual energies. And when he died on April 2, I was unaware that Pat Walsh was no longer with us.

It was our mutual friend, Terry Downey, who wrote to tell me. Terry was travelling at the time of Pat’s death and only heard when he returned to Calgary, the city where Pat spent the last decades of his life, many of them working with Terry when the latter was President of St. Mary’s University.

And it was in the post-secondary education orbit where I first encountered Pat. Although I never had a class with him—he was a professor of English literature with a special fondness for the Romantics and the Celts—it was impossible to avoid him on the St. Francis Xavier University campus: he was ubiquitous, working tirelessly in the theatre world of this small Maritime community, advocating for students during times of upheaval, bonding with new faculty, firmly committed to the ideals of Catholic higher education, uniting town and gown as only he could.

When I first went to Ireland in 1971 he was there for me, housing me with his young family, working to get me temporary digs in Dublin, taking me in hand as he talked widely and wildly about his passion for Hibernia and its literature.

When I returned as one of the two remaining candidates for the presidency of STFX in the 1990s he was there for me, campaigning with vigour and conviction, aligning groups of alumni and faculty, building momentum, and providing emotional and strategic support. The committee went for the other fellow but Pat remained stalwart and kept in touch as my career took me elsewhere. A friend for life.

The influence he had on those who took his classes was brought home to me when two of his former students and friends of mine wrote me speaking of their admiration for this giant spirit. Tony Tremblay, Emeritus Professor of St. Thomas University in Fredericton and a past Research Chair in New Brunswick Studies, rightly asks “where are the Pat Walshes of today? We’ve cultivated a climate of timidity (or lack of imaginary boldness) that sees us (professors) tiptoe around what we profess to love best. We’ve perfected professional caution so as to not risk offending anyone. We’ve sought the swift currents of ideological conformity so we don’t call attention to ourselves. And we’ve done this entirely to ourselves, despite our penchant for blaming students. A sad and regressive state indeed.”

Tony laments, and I agree with him, the disappearance of the Walsh model in the professoriate. We are all the poorer for it: a diminished robustness of university life, the loss of a healthy engagement with ideas fetterless and fearless in their expression.

Bill Burke, a priest and an inspiring presence in the Canadian Catholic Church, also studied under Pat and he recalls a man who “exemplified what university education is meant to be—thirst for understanding or at the very least grappling with the mystery, openness to diversity, a sense of awe and wonder, good food, good drink, stories and laughter. Enjoy the ride we call life and embrace the mystery yet to unfold.”

Bill captures perfectly the living credo of Pat Walsh: he had a Chestertonian passion for the rich pleasures of the questing mind coupled with a celebration of the physical things that enrich our existence.

He loved generously, and his legacy, his impact, lives on in the copious memories of those who knew him and whom he befriended.

Magus, Prophet and Poet for our Dark Times

This blog post is re-printed here courtesy of the Sacred Heart University’s ecclesial reform blog Go, rebuild. It appears on that blog today.

Broadview, a Canadian magazine that focuses on “spirituality, justice and ethical living,” is a firmly and historically-rooted United Church publication. Similar to the storied U.S. Sojourners magazine in its ecumenicity and biblical focus, it often serves as the conscience of the nation.

The current April/May issue is given over to the “The Climate Issue” and not unsurprisingly it can make for grim reading. In the article “Poetry for the End of the World” by John Danakas, the author quotes from Robinson Jeffers, the American poet with a taste for the apocalypse, who lamented humanity’s “using and despising the patient earth” and anguished over the absence of “one mind to stand with the trees, one life with the mountains.”

Well, there is such a mind and such a life. It is that of John Moriarty’s. I have been revisiting this master with his profound if quirky taste for mollusk and Moses while preparing my lectures for a course I am to teach this summer at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas: “The Eco-Spirituality and Sacramental Vision of John Moriarty.”

Moriarty was not a doomsayer nor reconciled to humanity’s seeming passivity in the face of global catastrophe; rather, he summoned his considerable resources as a gardener-philosopher, lyricist of the heart and the imagination, and lover of soul and soil to witness to the beauty and tragedy of our planet.

For sure, this Irish hermit/mystic/ecologist who prognosticated from the windy wilds of Connemara was not alone in inveighing against those multiple mentalities and practices that imperil Creation’s flourishing.

He had been reading the entrails for decades by the time of his death in 2006. The failure to plan ahead, to face with stark attention the threats ahead of us, has long defined humankind’s resistance to planetary responsibility. He would have none of it. “We are going the wrong way,” he thundered with moral conviction and unwavering clarity, his listeners and readers mesmerized by his intensity, rhetorical skill, and gift for narrative.

Moriarty mined his own history—personal, cultural, spiritual and anthropological—in order to paint on the larger canvas, to move from the particular to the universal, seeking always the consolations of contemplation, the sanctuary of isolation, the wondrous admixture of the primitive with the sophisticated, the elemental with the embellished.

Moriarty understood the power of art, the power of story, the redemptive possibilities inherent in myth, the often dangerous allure of nature, and the devastating luminosity of the dark night of the soul.

He was part pioneer, part preserver and part renegade. He re-thought sacred truths, re-framed conventional beliefs, and re-imagined ancient rituals for a new and impoverished time.

His own uniquely structured narrative was built around his philosophical ruminations and theological probings, his psyche bleeding onto the pages he wrote not as therapy or as authorial contrivance but as his way of discovering himself in his conflicted and yet joyous quest for integration.

Moriarty was quintessentially Irish. In spite of his half-dozen years at the University of Manitoba, his mystical forays into the geological wonders of the Grand Canyon, and his apophatic struggles in a Carmelite priory in Oxford, he remained a denizen of the west coast of Ireland, a proud product of County Kerry, their premier storyteller and myth maven.

But what you discover as you read him is that this Kerry visionary is really universal property, his sometimes disturbing spirituality an invitation to a deeper understanding of faith, his boundary-less intellectual wanderings an invitation to push beyond the parochial limitations humanity often imposes on itself.

As fellow Irish writer John Banville observed of one of his characters in his novel The Singularities—and it could easily be Moriarty that he had in mind as a prototype: “For him, everything was animate, especially trees…. He perceived pure being in all things, in the antics of madness as surely as in the most exacting refinements of religious ritual, in the crudest roisterings of farmers’ sons no less than in the action of the sweetest sonnet.”

I also find in Moriarty’s work a splendid congruence of sympathy and idea with the work of Pope Francis. The Argentine pontiff’s articulation of an “integral ecology,” his sensitivity to the monstrous mutilations of our earth by the craven and the venal, his deep Franciscan sensibility, and his call for a new visioning, resonate well with Moriarty’s capacious understanding of our stewardship of the earth.

Moriarty asks in the face of our ecological crisis: what to do?

And here is his answer: “That the Earth is an evolutionary success all the way forward from its beginnings is an opportunity for us to be other than how we have been. Indeed, if the Earth is to continue brightening our corner of the universe we must be other than how we have been. Starting from the lowest parts of the Earth, Jesus pioneered a trail all the way back to the Divine Source. He pioneered it for all things, for stegosaurus and rhinoceros as well as for mollusk and Moses. In the interest of our further and final evolution we need to select this trail.”

And now.

Not much of a surprise, really

Reading papal documents—of whatever iteration or authority—is sometimes like experiencing Purgatory. You know it is good for you—in part—that you have merited going there—as opposed to the other place further south, and I don’t mean Australia courtesy Oscar Wilde’s remark—but how long, O Lord, how long till I get out.

The prose is dense with a predilection for papal references galore, detailed arguments built upon age-worn philosophical and theological premises, and all peppered with a high earnestness befitting the topic under scrutiny.

So, when the recent Declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was issued this week—Dignitas Infinita (On Human Dignity)—media folk, pundits, advocates of various hues and credibility, all zeroed in on sections 48-50 on surrogacy followed by sections 55-60 that deal with gender theory and sex change. The other 50-plus sections were lucky to get a paltry mention.

Too bad. The careful unfolding of an argument grounding human dignity in biblical, philosophical and political contexts, outlining the universality of human worth, exploring the uniquely Christian contribution to human rights and freedoms, highlighting the numerous threats to their relevance, integrity and flourishing—the “drama of poverty”, “war",” the “travail of migrants,” “human trafficking,”, “sexual abuse,” “violence against women,” “abortion,” “euthanasia and assisted suicide,” “the marginalization of people with disabilities,” and “digital violence”—deserves a careful and largely appreciative reading.

But it is the teachings on surrogacy, gender theory and sex change that have drawn the fire and focus. And understandably. They are a lightning rod for many who subscribe to a broader inclusion of sexual differentiation, who respect the fluidity of sexual identity, and who champion the rights of those wrestling with infertility. A document that is rooted in a traditionalist biblical anthropology, and framed by Thomistic categories embedded in natural law theory, is not constituted in such a way as to be open to redefinitions of what it is to be human and created in the likeness and image of God.

There’s the rub.

The Vatican is in dialogue with the sciences, higher learning and the challenges posed by new thinking, but somehow when it comes to the “gynecological issues” things get misty and muddled.

There is much that is good in Dignitas Infinita. It is worth reading in its entirety. You won’t get out of Purgatory reading a media release or executive summary.

Who Would Have Thought

For many years now I have either registered for an 8-day directed or self-directed retreat at Loyola House, the Jesuit retreat centre in Guelph, for Holy Week, or for the more shortened version focused on the Triduum.

One of the many pleasures that comes from this sequestered time is using the opportunity to read both salient and classical works of spiritual literature.  Makes sense given the setting and time.  Also provides ample freedom for my spouse, Krystyna, to do the detailed musical preparations for Holy Week without me in her way.

And there are always surprises.

The compilation of correspondence between editor and writer Robert Ellsberg and BBC celebrity-nun Sister Wendy Beckett, Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship, is surprising in many ways.

Ellsberg manages to adroitly tease the contemplative nun—an anchorite or hermit really in the tradition of the storied Julian of Norwich—to self-disclose around matters of the heart, personal opinion, and her own unique spiritual history that is gratifying and illuminating.

She is a marvel.

For sure, many of us remember her as the BBC/PBS host whose insights regarding great works of art held us captive—especially since she eschewed prudery—and in the process prodded our jaded sensibility to see anew, to expand our often narrow artistic horizons, to revel in the joy generated by works of visual beauty.

But I also happened upon a dimension of the Beckett mind and spirit I hadn't seen before: her arrestingly liberal view on matters canonical and theological.  She abhorred factionalism, saw no need for the contentious tone so dominant in Catholic ecclesiastical circles, and deplored the personal attacks on Pope Francis.

At one point in an email exchange with Ellsberg concerning the recently named Venerable (a stage on the way to sainthood) of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic and abbess, Juana de la Cruz Vazquez y Guiterrez, the enclosed nun of Quidenam, England opines with startling forthrightness on matters of gender and sexuality.  The abbess believed that God was Father and Mother, Jesus was both male and female, and that the human soul is both as well.  Mystical rapture? Inclusive anthropology?   New Age warble?  How would Sister Wendy respond to Pope Francis's moving the cause of Mother Juana along the sacred path to canonization?

Here's how: "Dearest Robert: I am taken aback by your Spanish venerable.  She couldn't make a more timely appearance than in these days of gender confusion.  How wonderful that the Pope sees through all this psychological muddle and responds to what is completely unmuddled: her relationship to God.  I think that it's absolutely fundamental that God is to us what we need.  He answers our deepest desire, the truth of us, and if we need a mother or a comforter or a teacher or a lover, whatever--that He will be to us.  My own feeling about gender is that it doesn't really matter.  It seems to me that what we love in our friends is their humour and their goodness and their intelligence.  And what gender they are doesn't play any part in this.  I've been told that I am wrong, and that women and men are basically different, but I simply can't see it.  There are probably superficial differences, as there are physically; but the essence of a person seems, to me, quite unrelated to the gender they are."

I think this could unsettle the denizens of chancery and seminary.  And from a contemplative nun no less.

The Francis bishop before Francis

We could not do much better than to look to Remi De Roo as a model of the synodal bishop that Pope Francis yearns for the church.  He was a bishop accustomed to listening, attuned to subsidiarity, active in empowering the laity, deeply collegial at heart, Gospel-focused in his ministry.  His long service as a bishop was not without its flaws, misjudgements, and omissions but it remained throughout the decades a beacon of honesty and authenticity.

On February 24 the University of Victoria's Centre for Studies in Religion and Society hosted  "The Prophetic Vision of Bishop Remi De Roo: A Symposium" that drew handsomely on an impressive array of talent and experience embodied in the likes of a former senator and ambassador, a foreign affairs maven, social justice activists, theologians, an Anglican bishop, a Muslim pharmacist-entrepreneur, among others.

I had the privilege, and it was a privilege, to deliver the keynote address. Please follow the link below to access a recording of the full Symposium. (My talk begins at 10:32).

Halik and Ivereigh

How do we respond to the arch critics of the Bergoglio papacy when they have so clearly set their minds against Francis’s efforts to reform the church?

As evidenced by Demos 2, the forces of restoration are poised to do their mischief undermining the pope at every level.  But they won’t succeed because their zealous adherence to the ancien regime runs counter to the thrust of history, the workings of the Holy Spirit, and just bloody good sense.

Nostalgia is not an antidote to spiritual and intellectual dislocation; it proffers comfort through the reclamation of a past encased in golden memories and the surety of certitude. And in the end, that rings false.

This simply won’t do as revealed in an illuminating piece of reportage/interview/commentary by papal biographer Austen Ivereigh in his article “Out of this darkness” published in The Tablet (London) on March 4 of this year.

Ostensibly about the life and work of the Czech priest and polymath Tomāš Halik, specifically in light of the recent English publication of his stunning Afternoon of Christianity: The Courage to Change, its arrival during the period between the two Synod on Synodality sessions is nothing short of providential.  It is as much a tuba mirum as a profile.

An expert at the Synod, Ivereigh has provided an assessment of Halik’s new work that deftly situates Afternoon of Christianity within the context of the history-shaping work being done in Rome.  Halik’s book is not unlike in impact the work of Bishop John Robinson in the early 1960s when he published Honest to God.  It is a call to look at things afresh, to respond to the challenges of the time with imagination and verve rather than with fear and paralysis.

Halik is among other things a sociologist, psychotherapist, writer and memoirist but most importantly for our time a riveting theological thinker.  He summons the church to an invigorating engagement with secularization and asserts that the very future of Christianity “depends primarily on the extent to which Christians relate to the spiritual seekers among the nones” (the growing number of people who are intentionally disaffiliated with institutional religion and who identify as such in national surveys and censuses).  

Ivereigh writes:

In his new book Halik shows how impoverished is

the believing-non-believing distinction, how not just

institutional Christianity but also dogmatic atheism is

in crisis.  Young people’s allergy to churches is more

often the result not of unbelief, he points out, but

something more like faith: a conviction that the

Church has become alienated from its mission,

captured  by identitarian ideology, aloof from

contemporary questions and concerns, and

something like a corporation, interested only

in itself.  Halik sympathizes.  When he hears

certain sermons or bishops’ declarations, it

strikes him “that we should not only investigate

why people leave, but also where the ones who

remain get their strength and patience.”

The options are clear:  the fury of the Demos 2 crowd or the empathetic pastorality of Halik. Although it is not scientific, whatever that quite means, but anecdotal, I asked one young, highly educated woman after reading the Ivereigh article why she chose to disengage from active membership in the Catholic Church and here is her response:

While in uni I found my community elsewhere than

the church—in theatre, in the writing world, with the

people I met at school.  I do believe in God, and I see

the importance of religion in people’s lives but I don’t

feel that need myself.  Things might shift, I might find

myself back there later in life, but for now, what I

look for in church—community—I am finding

elsewhere in ways that are more honest and true

to who I am.

These are precisely the kind of people the church is called to dialogue with, not ignore nor condemn.

The Holy Land has arguably never seen such brutal political and religious turmoil

This week’s blog was published in The Globe and Mail on March 23, 2024, and is reprinted here courtesy of the Editor.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Holy Week with Palm Sunday, the day of triumphant entry into Jerusalem by Jesus. It will initiate a series of dramatic re-enactments and representations of his last days, carrying the believer through the Last Supper, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest, trial, torture and then public execution on Golgotha. This is followed by the deposition from the cross, the entombment, the “harrowing of hell,” all culminating with the empty sepulchre.

This holy recounting of the Paschal Mystery – the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus – is the liturgical highlight of the Christian year concentrated in three days, in the Catholic tradition termed the triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday/Easter Vigil.

It is a time of the most resplendent of liturgies, the holiest days of the Christian calendar, a time of deep communal prayer, ritual sorrow culminating with the unsurpassable joy of the risen Jesus.

This sacred narrative is centred in Jerusalem, which translated means “city of peace or search for peace,” or as Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum notes of Jerusalem: “it is a teacher of assembling, a teacher of cure and healing, put at the gates of Eden, to remind us that they only open if we assemble together.” This holy city – sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam – has rarely known such assembly, riven as it has been by conquest, suppression, displacement and slaughter. The current iteration is the latest in a sad litany of political and religious turmoil that racks the Holy Land, although arguably the most brutal.

It has also been roiled by jurisdictional squabbles in the-not-so distant past among the various Christian entities that have a say over the custody of the holy places – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in particular – with many Patriarchs from different Christian denominations claiming oversight.

But it is, in fact, the current mad rampage engulfing Gaza and Israel in this latest and most deadly danse macabre that poses special challenges for Christians. The Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular, feels under siege, with them as a beleaguered minority.

For many in the Holy Land, Christians are a residual reminder of the old days of Crusader triumph, and more recently of the European imperial sovereignties which, following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, created a new world of regional dislocation.

The Christians remain, however, an ancient and essential presence and this year’s Holy Week ceremonies – in Jerusalem, in Rome and throughout the Christian communities worldwide – will be overshadowed by the mindless carnage that has so radically restricted their lives.

Pilgrims are a disappearing act; public rites will be performed under tight security constraints if at all; peaceful co-existence is under the greatest threat in a half-century.

I remember an occasion when as a board member of the Canadian Friends/Les Amis de I’École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, we were taken along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, that is reputed to be the road on which Jesus trod bearing his cross to his crucifixion, with one security officer, gun unholstered, in front of us, and another officer bringing up the rear. Although this happened at the very end of the Second Intifada in 2005, the menace and the threat of violence remained ubiquitous.

It was also during this trip that I tasted firsthand the economic suffocation and constrained reality of Palestinians living in Bethlehem, as we had to cross through a wall constructed by the Israeli government to curtail the activities of suicide bombers, a not unreasonable security measure in itself, but nonetheless a wall that bifurcated the land.

Getting access to the town of Christ’s birth and to the iconic Church of the Nativity was a herculean task and when we did get access, the town was empty, its merchants desperate, its clergy inactive, its young and unemployed inhabitants restive.

For Christian pilgrims and scholars, the ready availability of the holy sites – archeological, cultural and devotional – is the sine qua non of a successful pilgrimage or research undertaking. But a war zone, whether muted as it was when I was there, or in full throttle as it is now, displaces every priority, ransacks our collective conscience, and makes people of faith cringe with horror in the face of the formidable resistance to compromise, to mutual respect, to peace on both warring sides.

Not that efforts, political and ecclesiastical, to mediate for a resolution to the current spate of savagery have been lacking. They have been simply aborted from the outset.

The Latin Rite Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, offered himself in exchange for the Israeli children held hostage by Hamas and exhorted all Israelis and Gazans “to have the courage of love and peace here, today, which means not allowing hatred, revenge, anger and pain to occupy all the spaces of our hearts, of our speech, of our thinking.”

The Patriarch’s words have fallen on deaf ears because few can hear in the babel of fury. But Cardinal Pizzaballa’s own boss, Pope Francis, is nothing if not an agent of hope in a dark landscape.

Repeatedly calling for the cessation of the conflict, the creation of an “immediate and lengthy ceasefire,” and the release of the hostages and prisoners, Pope Francis has inserted himself directly into the political quagmire by trying to insinuate his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, into whatever political mediating process there is. But Israel has formally rebuked Cardinal Parolin for remarks he made calling Israel’s response disproportionate, accusing the Vatican of using a discourse that betrayed “linguistic ambiguities and terms that allude to a false symmetry.” So that door is closed.

Francis remains convinced that we “are experiencing a third world war fought piecemeal” and that the only way out of this spiral of despair and violence is to give birth to “a great new chapter of history.” What better place to start that in the Holy Land for that is where the first Easter occurred, ground zero for the Christian faith.

Holy Week is the consummation of the Christian liturgical year and although celebrated universally its original locus, Jerusalem, remains foundational to understanding the final days and salvific role that the faithful see in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Anointed One.

Father David Neuhaus, a Jesuit political scientist who has lived the majority of his life with Palestinians as an Israeli citizen, insists that the role of the Christian remnant must continue to “uproot the weeds of racist discourse, whether directed at Jews or Muslims, Arabs or Israelis.” Both they and the Christian community at large must create “a language about, and a vision of, the Holy Land in which peace based on justice is not just a rhetorical device, but a real possibility.”

In doing so, the followers of Jesus can serve as a bridge to peace in the land of the Prince of Peace.

The Return of Demos

It has been that kind of week.

Two pieces of tantalizingly provocative, although utterly unlike, examples of Catholic journalism appeared on my desk—figuratively speaking—at the same time. They represent contrasting ecclesiological perspectives and are markedly different in style, but both neatly represent Catholic reality on the ground when it comes to the challenges faced by the Bergoglio papacy and by the fierce and unrelenting opposition to this very papacy itself.

The Daily Compass, which purports to be the product of a “group of Catholic journalists united by their faith,” posted an “exclusive” piece by yet another anonymous critic of Pope Francis, self-named Demos II following on the tawdry display of cardinalatial pique exhibited shamelessly in a bromide against Francis written by the late Cardinal George Pell (Demos I).

The nameless cardinal who penned the current Demos iteration insists that he drew upon extensive consultations with other cardinals and bishops and that they have all chosen to remain unidentifiable because of their collective fear of retaliation by a Vatican administration run amok, prey to an unsavory Jesuit influence, the questionable orthodoxy of the Doctrine chief, and a “small oligarchy of confidents with excessive influence within the Vatican.”

Dan Brown-Steve Bannon stuff.

The gist of the argument we have heard several times:  the Bergoglio papacy is off-centre; papal authority has been undermined by a wayward papacy; restoration of creedal matters over other issues is paramount; the College of Cardinals needs to be better deployed; and the pope should stay put rather than globalizing.

But mostly it is whining by a sour remnant of politically displaced prelates scoffing at a pope whom they perceive as hostile to their loyalist (read: obscurantist) views on church matters. And it is also strategic: persistently questioning the legitimacy of the current papacy and thereby preparing for the next pontificate by cultivating Demos-minded fellow travellers to think seriously of getting the right candidate at the next conclave.

The antidote to this antiquated clerical restorationism I will look at in next week’s blog.

Not Everything is a Field Hospital

The one place where our humanity is at its most vulnerable, our equality on full display, our acute dependence on others most in evidence, is the hospital.

I know that it is depressingly common—indeed, it has become a trope of provincial politicians of all stripes and disgruntled Canadians in every corner of the land—to lament our healthcare system, to pump money into its labyrinthine operations, to bemoan the paucity of trained personnel, to berate the feds for their poverty of imagination, and to sympathize with our overworked and underappreciated health professionals.

And there is much truth in all of this.  But it is not the full picture, as I was reminded yet again how extraordinary the system actually is in spite of seemingly numberless flaws and fractures.

What follows is a departure from what I usually write on in this blog—more anecdotal and visceral than observational and analytical.

A week ago I was admitted—twice—to Emergency at Guelph General Hospital with what was eventually diagnosed as a serious jaw infection, the result of a sinus problem that had gone rogue.  An altogether nasty experience of worry and pain but not without its luminous moments.

Spending several hours—14 hours over 2 visits—allowed me the time to watch how the system works up close and, despite the valid criticisms levelled at our political overseers on the matter of efficient healthcare “deliverables,” what I saw at the human level, the level of encounter, was soul-lifting.

Again and again, without complaint and with seemingly infinite reserves of patience, nurses tended to the anxieties and physical discomfort of their patients: an older woman who could only be calmed with a recording of Raffi songs; a young student whose surgery was brought forward by an attending surgeon, who spent much time explaining what was to happen; disoriented elderly patients confused by their medical problems and the complexity involved navigating a large hospital. Each one received the calm and focused attention of overworked healthcare professionals.

Hospitals are sacred ground; they are the places where we congregate when not at our best but where we meet caregivers who attend to us when we are most fragile.

Of course, there are exceptions, those who are utilitarian and even grumpy when dealing with the sick, but they are the rarest of the rare.  

Pope Francis speaks eloquently about the church as a “field hospital,” and it is certainly that, but our own neighbourhood hospitals, less elevated centres of human encounter perhaps but just as sacred, are holy environments of compassion that allow us to see our fractured humanity served by the noblest of human callings: the healing ministry.

Undoubtedly, we have much to fix in our “health industry,” but we have much to rejoice in as well as I discovered, and not for the first time, the sweet mercy of our healthcare givers.

The Visionary from Victoria

We could not do much better than to look to Remi De Roo as a model of the synodal bishop that Pope Francis yearns for the church.  He was a bishop accustomed to listening, attuned to subsidiarity, active in empowering the laity, deeply collegial at heart, Gospel-focused in his ministry.  His long service as a bishop was not without its flaws, misjudgements, and omissions but it remained throughout the decades a beacon of honesty and authenticity.

On February 24 the University of Victoria's Centre for Studies in Religion and Society hosted  "The Prophetic Vision of Bishop Remi De Roo: A Symposium" that drew handsomely on an impressive array of talent and experience embodied in the likes of a former senator and ambassador, a foreign affairs maven, social justice activists, theologians, an Anglican bishop, a Muslim pharmacist-entrepreneur, among others.

I had the privilege, and it was a privilege, to deliver the keynote address. Click below for a copy of my talk.

On the cusp of a new era of church life and self-understanding, we can all benefit from Bishop De Roo's struggles, steady witness and personal courage.

Metaphysical Roof

It continues to be a source of persistent irritation to me that our media neglects religious faith as a deeply constitutive dimension of human meaning.  Never more is this in evidence than when some prominent figure dies and religion is excised by editorial design or simply omitted by writerly indifference.

John Bruton, a former Taoiseach or Irish Prime Minister, received a seemingly comprehensive obituary in The New York Times by the paper’s longtime London correspondent, Alan Cowell, who managed to list Bruton’s many accomplishments, challenges, and deficiencies without at anytime alluding to his abiding, foundational and determinative Catholicism.

By contrast, the homily by Bruton’s friend, the Jesuit Bruce Bradley, made much of the politician’s faith underscoring its centrality and importance to his personal life but also as it was lived out in the public domain of service.  Bradley noted that Bruton “was an instinctive, reflective Catholic.  He was rooted in his faith.  His life cannot be understood properly apart from that.”

Shortly after Bruton’s natural death we had the unnatural death of Russian activist, lawyer, and intellectual Alexei Navalny.  As I pored over the numerous tributes, commentaries and obits I could find only one reference to his faith in God, and that in an article by Serge Schmemann.

What gives?

For sure, Navalny is a brave witness to the liberating power of truth and to the corrosive effects of totalitarianism.  He is firmly set within the radical tradition of Russian political dissidents, but he is also a member of that especially august and Russian coterie of faith-filled opponents to tyranny that includes Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn.  I would argue that theirs is a greater and more enduring company of witnesses.

Perhaps it is time for the chattering class, the architects of quick commentary, and the political influencers (God, how I hate that word) to take note of Seamus Heaney’s salutary observation, quoted in Bradley’s homily, that we often live in exile, in “a universe with no up or down, no internalised system of moral longitude or latitude, no sense of a metaphysical roof over our head.”

Bruton and Navalny, in their own way and in their own respective historical-cultural context, understood that.  Time now for their obituarists to read more deeply into their lives. To discover the “metaphysical roof.” And maybe even ask why it is missing.

Time to re-spark

This week’s blog is a link to a presentation I made last week to students and faculty in Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut as part of their Spring Speaker Series. The subject concerned covering the synod from the outside as an academic and journalist and why this synod matters greatly. Both the US and Canadian hierarchies provide little evidence of enthusiasm for synodality and that may be attributable to myriad reasons, ranging from the pragmatic to, dare I say, the ideological.

Time to re-spark.

“Was the Synod an earthquake, a mild tremor or a nothing moment?”:

And furthermore...

Following up on last week’s reflection on the decline of the Humanities in post-secondary education and the diminishment of our humanity as a consequence, I would like to think further about why the study of the Humanities is a vital imperative.

Two examples might well indicate our dilemma.

When the Goldman Sachs Group—the New York headquartered global investment management operation—recruited a platoon of professional ethicists to interview and analyze their employees to ascertain why there were so many flagrant ethic flaws in their behaviour during the 2008 international financial meltdown, they were stunned to discover that the employees under scrutiny were simply uncomprehending when it came to their ethical missteps. What ethical mistakes?

When Martha Nussbaum examined the causes behind the Gujarat massacres of 2002 she observed that in an Indian state in which the congregation of professional engineers and technologists was the highest, where you could taste the prosperity and affluence in the air, that very state was the scene of horrific slaughter first by the Hindus and then by the Muslims. What was lacking in their educational formation was the study of philosophy, the religious texts that shaped their society—the Upnaishads, the Quran—the deeper issues beyond equations and algorithms.

We need our scientists and engineers. Without them our lives would be seriously impoverished.  But we need the Humanities—and indeed the Social Sciences—to fill out the picture.

And we need public intellectuals—not just commentators, pundits, and academic authorities—to facilitate societal understanding of the sinister currents that undermine our common humanity.

Given the uncontained proliferation of opinion—informed or otherwise, substantive or glib—so easily enabled by social media, the ever-ascending rise of populist sentiment, the resurgence of authoritarian demagogues in former fascist countries and the emergence of such figures in traditionally stable parliamentary democracies and republics, the vituperative temper of the times (fueled by reckless if not dangerous radio and television anchors) and the increasing personalized hostility in the academy combine to make the need for public intellectuals of credibility, lived integrity and civility of manner hyper-urgent.

Yikes, that paragraph is one sentence.  I gave in to my Victorian impulses.  But you get the point.

It is hard to witness in a closet

Gilles Routhier, a prolific and eminent Canadian priest-theologian, in a recent address at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, titled “Theology in Universities is Changing: What’s Next?,” identified some key challenges confronting not only theologians but all people of faith irrespective of their religious allegiances.

Although his address was less than stimulating in delivery and more summary in substance than original, he did alight on two fundamental problems besetting religion in contemporary society: the widening fissure between cynical agnostics and zealous fundamentalists and the inattention to religion in the public square, providing in the process an analysis of the role of theology.  While addressing these and other issues Routhier drew specifically on the thinking of Pope Francis and what constitutes a synodal church.

For sure, religion continues its relentless disappearing act on the national scene surfacing only when dangerous scrabbles and rumbles between competing diasporic communities generate alarm.  The understanding of religion as a ligament that holds society together is positively archaic for most and public broadcasting has practically erased the religious presence in the country.  CBC and Radio Canada have over the last couple of decades eliminated such programs as Man Alive, Second Regard, Meeting Place, Celebration, Testament, OpenCircuit and most recently, Tapestry. Enrollments in theology and religious studies have in many institutions precipitously declined and in other cases barely stabled following programme renaming, curriculum revamping, and spastic bouts of hyper-marketing.

There are now only 1.5 religion correspondents in the print media left in the country.  Diet counsellors, social media influencers, and real estate mavens have a prominence religion columnists can only dream of.

What gives?

I think it is reasonable to say that this is not the result of a secular agenda out to eradicate religion from the national landscape.  Rather, it reflects the increased privatization of faith and the peripheralization of religious matters, in no small part because of the generally held perception that religion and the public space can be a toxic mix.

But the problem is surely broader than this.  In an illuminating piece in the Report on Business in The Globe and Mail, “Focusing on STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] degrees has its own economic costs,” the author, Victoria University academic Ira Wells recounts such shattering statistics as a 50 percent drop in humanities enrolments in Canadian universities in the last three decades.  American statistics are even more arresting.

The consequences of this decline are long ranging and culturally debilitating. Wells quotes from Christian Madsbjerg’s Sensemaking: the Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm: “Our fixation with STEM erodes our sensitivity to the nonlinear shifts that occur in all human behavior.  We stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start seeing them as the truth—the only truth.”

When we reduce truth to a measurable reality, a quantifiable entity and deny other modes of knowing we pave the way toward a reductionist and instrumentalist vision of the human.  We need both the scientific and the sapiential. As Thomas Merton would have it: we possess knowledge but we are possessed by wisdom.

Creative, bold and temerarious theologians can reset this cultural reality; they need to because all of us are diminished when religion and the study of religion are consigned to the closet.

I say rejoice, rejoice in the blessing

A couple weeks ago many of us celebrated the 90th birthday of Retired Superior Court Judge, poet and essayist James Clarke. It was a madly raucous affair held at Loyola House, the Jesuit retreat centre in the city that has been his home for decades: Guelph, Ontario.

The liturgy with the wonderfully spry 91 year-old Bill Clarke, SJ (unrelated) presiding was an enthusiastic gathering made up of family and friends, all with a precious mite of order and distinguished more by its rich spontaneity than its adherence to prescribed ritual.  Not that there was anything unorthodox about the Mass.  It was a celebration of heart and spirit with all the necessary bits in place to keep the canonist quieted and the liturgist amazed.

It was just so Clarke in its tone, pace and spirited reverence.

We often talk about blessings—the rubrics, the pastoral practice, the theological significance—and in the process lose sight of the truth that our lives are blessings and that they radiate out through channels of connection to others, deepening friendships, binding faith communities more closely, conduits of grace in times of darkness—personal, familial, social and political.

Jim Clarke is just such a blessing.  And it is as a poet that he best expresses the plenitude of his gifts, gifts that he shares with others by being attentive to those he encounters, exercising justice with mercy, loving unconditionally.  Language is a means of being human, a portal onto the transcendent and it grounds him in the real, the domestic, the banalities of court, the burdens and joys of parenting, the wild flux of love and devotion.

But he puts it best when he says in his collection The Long Arc of Hope:

                We are blessed when we stand astonished

                before the universe with its trillion stars

                spinning through the night, knowing we have

                the gift of life, are beloved of the earth. (“Blessings”)   

Time to get off the merry-go-round and decide

The Maltese prelate (although born in Toronto) Charles Jude Scicluna impresses again.  Having successfully conducted inquires and authored reports on clerical sex abuse allegations, crimes and institutional dysfunction for the Vatican, he surfaces now as an advocate for including married men in the diocesan presbyterate.

He boldly declared in the Times of Malta that priestly celibacy was optional for the first millennium and “it should be optional again.”  He asked: “Why should we lose a young man who would have made a fine priest, just because he wanted to get married”?  Like many, I would have thought that obvious.  So why no change?

Francis has been reluctant to make a change in church discipline—because that is what we are talking about, not doctrine—as he focusses on other matters, but it is always a feature of the Bergoglio pastoral strategy that questions surface, open debates ensure, consensus builds, the Spirit emerges.

Scicluna, besides being Archbishop of Malta is also a curial official, close to the Cardinal Prefect who heads the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Victor Fernandez, and a professional jurist, would not speak openly about so sensitive a topic without either informing his superiors—Francis and Fernandez—or safely intuiting that they would not disapprove of an honest airing of an opinion that is not subject to the restrictions of dogma.  That’s the synodal way, after all.

A few decades past an Ontario bishop of markedly conservative persuasion once said to me that John Paul II’s inflexibility regarding a change to the celibacy rule was Protestantizing the Catholic Church by depriving people of the eucharist.  And that’s coming from a canon lawyer bishop of inarguable loyalty to the pontiff.  And he was right.

Time for a full and transparent consideration of a change to a legal practice of dubious theological legitimacy.  A married priesthood co-existing with a celibate one is not a panacea; it is not a corrective to declining vocations; it is not an easy fix.  But it would be an enlightened development with more positives than negatives.

And Scicluna isn’t the only one who thinks so.

The toxic sundering

We are awash in words and they are not healing words.

Recently, I heard from a reader in Toronto distressed by the visceral reaction of a parishioner to the recent Vatican statement regarding blessings, gays and irregular marriages.  The parishioner, an ostensibly devout woman given to pious recitation of the rosary, had no hesitation in denouncing the very pope she had just affirmed with her intercessory petition. She said the church would be well rid of Pope Francis and when her interlocutor argued that his compassion is bred by his pastoral attention to the street, she remarked that that is where he should be: on the street.

I suspect Francis wouldn’t mind for after all he has been, from the very onset of his Petrine ministry, emphasizing the smell of the sheep over the aroma of faux sanctity of too many of the church’s clerics, high and low.

Words imprudently wielded hurt.  And the wild proliferation of words has been greatly abetted by public figures indifferent to truth, hellbent on scoring points, suborning the electorate with words that twist and deform.

This year promises to be momentous and ominous—geopolitically and ecclesially—and we all need to attend to how we receive and how we use words.

The American poet and essayist, Christian Wiman, cautions us all when he says: “One grows so tired, in American public life [and not only American], of the certitudes and platitudes, the megaphone mouths and stadium praise, influencers and effluencers and the whole tsunami of slop that comes poring into our lives like toxic sludge.”

We have serious cause to fear the relentless and toxic sundering of words.

Grumpiness might be a sign that Pope Francis is in it for the long haul

Today’s blog was first published in The Globe and Mail on January 1, 2024 and is published here courtesy of the Editor.

While I was in Rome in October to cover the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, I had dinner with an old friend, the saucy Vaticanista Robert Mickens. Although he is an admirer of Pope Francis, he confessed to some serious reservations over his style and disposition.

In recent times, Mr. Mickens finds Francis frequently grumpy, offhanded with his staff, and indifferent to the niceties of high liturgy. Certainly, popes have known times of desolation — periods of enervation and depression — as we saw when Pope Paul VI, nearing the end of his life, had to deal with the murder by the Red Brigades of his friend Aldo Moro, the former prime minister of Italy. Paul’s personal pleas for clemency having gone unheard, he preached at the politician’s funeral in the Cathedral of St. John Lateran and upbraided God for, in the words of his biographer Peter Hebblethwaite, “allowing this appalling deed to happen.” John Paul II had to cope with the physical and emotional consequences of an assassination attempt that nearly claimed his life in 1981. And in 2012, Benedict XVI had a butler who absconded with his private papers and then released them to the press, ushering in a series of mishaps that contributed to Benedict’s decision to call it quits as pontiff.

So Francis is not alone when finding himself out of emotional sync with his job. He has had to deal with a recalcitrant Texas bishop, Joseph Strickland of Tyler, who has not only repeatedly criticized the Pope in public but actually accused Francis of “undermining the deposit of faith.” This is a serious and reckless charge — after all, the very job of the pope is to ensure the integrity of the faith — and Bishop Strickland’s provocation forced the Pope’s hand. The Texan was sacked from his diocese.

Not long after, Bishop Strickland’s model and mentor, Cardinal Raymond Burke, found himself purged of his emoluments and privileges. A high-placed Vatican apparatchik, canonist, and devoted fan of ecclesiastical finery — the more exotic, the better — he thinks the church is adrift and has been a rallying point for those discontented with the Bergoglio papacy. Cardinal Burke and Bishop Strickland would find ample evidence of Francis’s alleged infidelity with his Dec. 18 approval of same-sex blessings, though there are no doctrinal, liturgical, or canonical changes involved.

In addition to dealing with rebellious prelates, Francis has been despondent over the climate crisis and the failure of governments to take seriously his urgent call for remedial action to save our common home; the failure of his diplomatic efforts to mediate in both the Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Hamas wars; to say nothing of the depressing data recently released by the Catholic University of America in Washington that shows that priests who self-identify as progressive have dropped from 70 percent among those ordained in the late 1960s to five percent for those ordained in 2020 and later. It is the progressives who support Francis, and in the very seedbed of opposition to his papacy — the United States — those numbers are on a downward slope.

But when Mr. Mickens speaks of Francis’s desolation, he has something else in mind besides being grumpy. Desolation in Jesuit spirituality is counterbalanced by consolation, both of which are movements of the heart. The former, in Francis’s own words, are feelings of “interior unrest and dissatisfaction. Such movements are in fact a challenge to our complacency and an incentive to growth in the spiritual life.” Consolation, by contrast, is an “interior movement that touches our depths. It is not flashy but soft, delicate, like a drop of water on a sponge. Consolation pushes you forward, in service to others, to society, to people.”

If Francis has been in desolation for a time, evidence of his now being in consolation is abundant. In an interview with a Mexican broadcaster on Dec. 13, he robustly asserted his desire to remain Pope and not resign, to continue his demanding schedule — “they tell me that I am reckless because I feel like doing things and moving about but it is a sign that I am quite well” — and his resolve to put all slights and attacks in perspective.

The new President of Argentina, Javier Milei, has invited Francis to visit his birth country. And Francis is keen on accepting. This is the president who previously called Francis “an imbecile who defends social justice” and “a son-of-a-bitch preaching communism.” Not an ideal specimen of diplomatic politesse. But Francis is unmoved by Mr. Milei’s past intemperate language and opts instead to move forward. It’s another sign that Francis is in it for the long haul. And that is a consolation.

A Necessary Remembrance

Last week's blog was a hefty and long one so this week's will be mercifully short.

It will also be the last one for this year.  Pontifex Minimus will reappear on Friday, January 5.

I wish you a serene and peaceful  Christmas.  It is a cliché to say, of course, that we live in parlous times, but it does seem that at every level of social and political engagement things are more unsettled, prospects for prosperity dimmer, and hope in shorter supply.

All the more reason then to remember the disruptive power of the Incarnation and the immense love it ushers in, to remember beyond the tinsel, the Victorian sentimentality, and the ersatz cheerfulness that clogs the airwaves, there is the tireless witness of the Prince of Peace.

A necessary remembrance.

And thank you for being attentive readers, responding with items, reflections, and comments that inspire and sustain me.  I know that many of you pass on to others a particular blog that may appeal to you and please know that I welcome and encourage that.

Until January 5th then.



Where is TM when you need him?

December 10 is the anniversary of the death of one of the more remarkable peace activists of the last century: Thomas Merton. Although a Trappist monk secure for decades in his Kentucky cloister, the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton was very much of this world and had no hesitation in addressing the ills of our war-loving global pathologies.  He did so candidly, compassionately and with more than a dollop of personal courage.

Merton knew something of war:  he was born in the south of France in 1915 during the Great War; his brother perished in a bombing expedition in 1943 during the Second World War; he came to maturity during the tensions, spats and menace of the Cold War; he wrote about the psychological and spiritual ravages of totalitarianism in his novel My Argument with the Gestapo

But there were those who hated his writings on war, peace, violence, pacifism—the geopolitics of his time.

Although his life ended on December 10, 1968 his witness remains—steadfast, unnervingly relevant, spiritually provocative.  Given our own current global malaise, I find much of what he says—although often specific to his time and especially to the nightmare nuclear politics and near apocalyptic collisions that defined the 1960s: the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and the Tet offensive, the upheavals of 1968, the suppression of the Czechs, etc.—his prose and his poetry speak with sometimes lacerating pertinence to the conflicts that assail us NOW.

Dr. Henry Kissinger is dead.  A complete centenarian. A survivor, unlike the millions who perished as a consequence of his role as President Nixon’s National Security Advisor and President Ford’s Secretary of State.  He liked to think of himself as a descendant of the likes of the Prussian Otto von Bismarck, the Anglo-Irish Robert Stewart known as Castlereagh, the French Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, and Austria’s Prince Klemens von Metternich, and to some degree he was deploying a politics of ruthless alliance and morality-free pragmatism that in some cases would have appalled his aristocratic mentors.  He always struck me, this model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (although the director denied the association), as the classic immoralist, utilitarian, focused on results irrespective their trajectory, settled in his self-confidence, a master at hauteur and yet keen on imbibing US popular culture.  Like many Germans: he loved westerns.

Kissinger and Merton were, for a time, contemporaries. They lived in the same country, a country in which they were not born but whose citizenship they acquired. They represented their time in distinctly dissonant ways:  one the moral prophet and the other the supreme strategist. They were polar opposites.

We have a good idea what Kissinger would have thought of the Ukraine-Russian war and the Israel-Hamas War.  They were enveloped in his inescapable realpolitik; as for the many other wars, Syria, Sudan, Myanmar—mere skirmishes by subordinate nations whose respective fate relies on how the politics of the big boys plays out.

But Merton understood the ravages of war in the particular—the pathologies of power, both personal and institutional, the seductions of sin ubiquitous, but he focused on the individual against the backdrop of the universal conflicts.

How easy it is for us to obscure the real and personal and concentrate on the hideous political war theatre that engulfs us and makes us, in its perverse way, feel less complicit if not complicit at all.  We blind ourselves with our Manichaean psychology and negate the enemy:

                  We can never get anywhere unless we can accept

                  the fact that politics is an inextricable tangle of good

                  and evil motives in which, perhaps, the evil

                  predominate but where one must continue to hope

                  doggedly in what little good can still be found. (“The

                  Root of War is Fear, “ 1961).

Pope Francis has prayed for both Ukrainian wounded and dead as well as Russian wounded and dead and, as a result, has had heaps of scorn poured on him.  Can he not distinguish between the aggressor and the victim?  Does he presume that there is moral equivalence when there is none?  Can he not see the blanket evil and condemn unequivocally because there is no room for dialogue, no space for encounter, when the stakes are, as we now say, existential? 

Remember Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, who prayed for both the Argentinian and British dead in the Falklands War and incurred the wrath of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?  The casualties of war include not only innocent civilians but innocent combatants as well.  I recall an especially poignant moment when in the early stages of the Russian incursion a young Russian soldier was on the phone to his mother crying. And why not: he was likely in his late teens, conscripted as fodder in Putin’s villainous campaign, unaware of why he is fighting and where he is going.

Of course, our primary sympathies must be with the Ukrainians who have borne the brunt of this pitiless struggle for Russian hegemony rooted in a Tzar wannabe’s demonic ego.

As Merton writes with regard to the self-deadening of our souls:

                  The awful problem of our time is not so much the

                  dreams, the monsters, which may take shape and

                  consume us, but the moral paralysis in our own souls

                  which leaves us immobile, inert, passive, tongue tied,

                  ready and even willing to succumb.  The real tragedy

                  is in the cold, silent waters of moral death which

                  climb imperceptibly within us, blinding conscience,

                  drowning compassion, suffocating faith and

                  extinguishing the Spirit. (“Christian Action in World

                  Crisis,” 1962).

Merton understood that despite the strategems of nations, the ambitions of acquisitive potentates, and the dangerous allure of sabre-rattling, we all bear responsibility, marked by the seal of our baptism, to bear witness to the author of peace.

But how do we do this if our hearts have yet to be broken?

I recall a powerful moment when doing research on a book on the Jesuits with my colleague and friend Douglas R. Letson.  We had travelled to war-torn San Salvador and to a Nicaragua roiled in civil dissension and we tasted something of the fear that was the daily companion of the people we met, but only something, and, of course, we would leave their bloodied lands and they could not.  They inspired us with their quiet heroism.  But it was in the slums of West Kingston, Jamaica, while staying with Canadian Jesuits at St. Peter Claver that we understood in the most visceral way what having your heart broken actually means.  Father Jim Webb was taking us through the slums—the heat merciless, the smells overbearing, the energy seeping out of us—when we encountered young children clinging to Webb, not out of desperation but out of affection.  He had time for them; he loved them not in spite of, but in the very midst of,their desperation. Unconditionally.

For Merton, our hearts are broken when we see with the arresting clarity of prayer and action the world before us as is, not as fantasy, ephemera, or hallucination but, as is.

He writes:

                  We have to become aware of the poisonous effect of

                  the mass media that keep violence, cruelty and

                  sadism constantly present to the minds of unformed

                  and irresponsible people.  We have to recognize the

                  danger to the whole world in the fact that today

                  the economic life of the more highly developed

                  nations is in large part centered on the production

                  of weapons, missiles, and other engines of

                  destruction. [The exponential growth of the war

                  industry in the US as it feeds its beleaguered allies

                  is now a major driver of the nation’s economy and

                  in Canada Bombardier is aggressively marketing its

                  new militarized aircraft and General Dynamics Land-

                  Systems Canada is working overtime with LAVs and

                  other defense industry products.  Canada is not


                  We have to consider that hate propaganda, and

                  the consistent heckling of one government by another

                  has always inevitably led to violent conflict. We have

                  to recognize the implications of voting for politicians

                  who promote policies of hate [think Boris Johnston,

                  Donald Trump, Maxime Bernier].  We must never

                  forget that our most ordinary decisions may have

                  terrible consequences. (“Breakthrough to

                  Peace,” 1962)

Social media proliferation of misinformation, disinformation and plain prevarication, politicians’ reckless playing with the incendiary capacity of rhetoric, and a growing emotional and spiritual malaise afflicting society, all combine to make for combustible matter.  With startling prescience Merton scribbled in the last year of his life a portrait of the landscape we now inhabit:

                  The illness of political language—which is almost

                  universal and is a symptom of a Plague of Power that

                  is common to China and America, Russia and Western

                  Europe [we can now include Eastern Europe as well,

                  especially with the rightward shifts in Hungry and

                  Slovakia]—is characterized everywhere by the same

                  sort of double-talk, tautology, ambiguous cliché,

                  self-righteous and doctrinaire pomposity, and

                  pseudoscientific jargon that mask a total callousness

                  and moral insensitivity, indeed a basic contempt for

                  mankind.  The self-enclosed finality that bars all

                  open dialogue [contrast with Bergoglio’s parrhesia,

                  transparency and openness to the Other] and

                  pretends to impose absolute conditions of one’s own

                  choosing upon everybody else ultimately becomes

                  the language of totalist dictatorship, if it is not so

                  already. (“War and the Crisis of Language,” 1968)


Merton could read the political and spiritual landscape of his time.  He has also read ours.  Break your heart.  While watching CTV News the other night, insulated like so many of us against the barrage of visuals too painful to acknowledge so we shield ourselves with a carapace of stoical detachment until something shatters us, permeates our protective covering, I was overwhelmed because that something happened to me.  It happened with the sight of a young boy sitting in rubble in Gaza stunned, and then there was a sound of a bomb and he stood, screamed and ran—so helpless, so alone, so afraid.

Our moral turmoil was Merton’s moral turmoil. He saw clearly, spoke plainly, and summoned us to a higher human dignity than censored outrage and spineless moral conformity.

Time to be shattered. 


Could it happen? Why not!

In a recent conversation with a veteran cleric in the hoary and wind-swept wilds of Sydney, Cape Breton Island, a cleric less hoary and wind-swept than the local climes but who has survived not a few episcopal intrigues over his several decades of priestly life, ruminated on the sorry state of hierarchical leadership in so many jurisdictions in our universal church.

Why, he asked plaintively, do nuncios or papal ambassadors ignore the advice you give them?

Why, indeed.

But that may be changing; actually it must change.  One of the proposals put forward in the Synthesis Report of the Synod on Synodality is quite arresting when you consider long-established practice.  It is a sign that the concerns around the appropriate candidacy of future bishops and their credentials and their track record for competent pastoral leadership have truly global resonance.  Here is what the document says:

“It is necessary to implement, in forms yet to be defined, structures and processes for regular review of the bishop’s performance, with reference to the style of his authority, the economic administration of the diocese’s assets, and the functioning of participatory bodies, and safeguarding against all possible kinds of abuse.  A culture of accountability is an integral part of a synodal church that promotes co-responsibility, as well as safeguarding against abuses.”

Episcopal performance reviews are essential and their implementation worldwide would significantly contribute to the revival of a credible pastoral leadership and prevent, or at least reduce, the sacking of venal, irresponsible and mindlessly divisive zealous prelates.

Francis has fired more than a few.  A proper vetting system of candidates with timely and comprehensive performance evaluations would have rendered many of these firings unnecessary,  at the same time working to ensure an episcopal leadership that is accountable, transparent, and synodal.

Charisma is a funny thing

I have been thinking lately about what we mean when we talk about a charismatic personality. A recent article in Maclean’s on the slimy activities of a man now dubbed the “Edmonton guru,” John deRuiter, highlights, yet again, the corrupt and corrupting power exercised by charismatic personalities on vulnerable, credulous, and emotionally desperate people.  It has been forever thus:  think of some of the characters that people Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Holy frauds and mountebanks proliferate throughout our history and in all religions.

But it is not just in religion that we come across people—men predominantly—who exercise outsized charisma.  Think Caesar or more to the point, Napoleon.

I am an unreconstructed biopic spectacle fan when most such artistic ventures are often subject to ridicule.  Even when the movies fail or fall short of excellence—and they invariably do—the grander the spectacle the more engaged I am.  It is a serious cinema addiction and I am held eternally in its thrall.

No contemporary filmmaker feeds that addiction more generously than Sir Ridley Scott and his latest, Napoleon, doesn’t disappoint.  Meticulous attention to historical décor, grand battle sequences, sets and backdrops to die for (and if you were a member of La Grande Armée you probably did) and some rousing dialogue intermittently interrupting insufferably long lapses of dialogue, combine to make for a riveting historical drama.

Except, they don’t.  Scott only alights on what actually makes Napoleon tick.

The charisma remains inexplicable. But the consequences aren’t and to his credit the filmmaker doesn’t avoid the obvious:  the Corsican, his ego twice his physical size, was, in the end, a military butcher.  Those who perished on his fields of victory (frequent) and defeat (infrequent but definitive) number three million.  Quite a tally.

Brutish and yet sentimental, unpolished politically but astonishingly adept at diplomacy, Napoleon was more than a master general and military strategist of genius.  But we still know him principally for his battle prowess and bouts of personal courage.  But do we know him at all?

Like all charismatic figures he is hyper dramatic and we are drawn to drama.

But are there not other kinds of drama than the sweeping and epic performances that reduce nations to ash and ruin?  I was thinking of Jean-Marie Vianney, more popularly known as the Curé d’Ars, who was a contemporary, for a time, with Napoleon. His modest pastoral digs, limited resources, and remoteness from the corridors of power (any power) stand in sharp contrast to the sweep and range of the Emperor of France.

Not much happening on the surface with the Curé but his own quiet charisma touched tens of thousands of lives. Although his sermons were decidedly apocalyptic in tone and too summary and easy in their judgement, he was a living contrast to their severity. Multitudes loved him, as indeed multitudes loved Napoleon, but each offered a different salvation.

Charisma is a funny thing.

Dear Friends:

This week's blog is the full issue of the latest edition of The Synodal Times, courtesy of the Editor.  My column, “Refreshing candour”, is on page 30 but if synod stuff interests you what precedes my column is a healthy dose of engaged commentary.  Worth more than a gander.

Not sure why the editor used an old photo and outdated bio for my column.  A synodal mystery.

This is my last piece on the synod for a while; time for some new topics. But be assured:  this synod has signalled a tectonic shift in Catholic life and governance.

Remembrance Day, my father, and the ravages of war

Not unreasonably, I associate Remembrance Day with my father, Joseph Michael Higgins or Joe as he was generally known. Even now, perhaps especially now that he is no longer around, the human costs of war are fixed in my memory in a way that brings back my father for me.  The human costs that I see in the news photos of Ukrainian soldiers are reflected in their hollow eyes, their bodies limp with exhaustion, their emotional energy depleted.  And this applies as well to the Russian soldiers, Putin’s merciless fodder and fuel for his imperial ambitions.

The Hamas-Israel conflict is not without relevant parallels.

Do returning soldiers ever recover from the horrors they have witnessed, the horrors that have entered their lives in the form of spectral nightmares, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the residual guilt attached to slaughter?

I have no direct experience of war.  I have walked through the sanitized battlegrounds of some of the mightiest moments of military heroism and unquantifiable butchery like Gettysburg, Waterloo, the Alamo, Batoche, etc. and the ghosts of the fallen stir my sense of history.  But not my emotions. The sites are too remote, too disembodied.

It is through my father that I try to understand the wretched whirligig of post-war psychological turmoil.  He is my still point.  He knew something of the lingering turbulence, the aftershocks of war, not at a distant desk, in a scribbler’s studio, or attached to a command centre, but on the ground, the bloody ground of engagement.

My father was not a natural solider, by which I mean, he was not a professional.  He joined the Canadian Infantry during the Second World War and because of his musical and mathematical skills was made a wireless operator, adept at Morse code, dispatched into dangerous terrain, his cyanide pill and grenade at the ready should he ever be caught by the Nazis.  I doubt he ever used his revolver.  Violence appalled him.

And that has always been an abiding irony for my family: that a gentle man, born of British immigrants in the United States en route to Canada, with no taste for donnybrooks and scuffles, should enlist as soon as he reached the minimum age to fight in a war that was for him centred in the European theatre.  It is impossible to know his motives, as he refused to talk about his war years. It was terra incognita, land that would remain unknown to us.  Save, maybe, to my mother.

I knew that he had landed in Normandy,  that he was a participant in the military actions to close the Falaise Gap, and that he was present for the liberation of  the Dutch city of Nijmegen.  The latte struck him as especially important, although he remained stubbornly diffident and unforthcoming about the details.  I learned firsthand of the continuing affection in which Canadian troops are held by the citizens of Nijmegen when I happened to be attending an international conference of university presidents and we were asked by the mayor to say what university and country we hailed from. When I mentioned Canada, the mayor and his aides openly and vigorously applauded—to the amazement of my peers—and eloquently noted that Canadians are always warmly welcome to his city.

Memory of the Canadian troops’ reception by the inhabitants of Nijmegen was the only luminous spot in a dark landscape of war experiences for my father.  The only other war stories he told my brothers and me—and they only ever surfaced in the pacific afterglow of several beers—were frustratingly few for his eager-to-hear sons.

One concerned the decapitation of his motorcycle driver while he sat in the sidecar just a few inches below the driver. It was a not uncommon tactic to put near invisible wire across a roadway and my father’s doomed driver paid the heavy price.  My father must have been traumatized, but it was war and he survived.

A second story concerned his shock and incomprehension when witnessing firsthand the death of a young SS officer who refused a blood transfusion that could have saved his life on the grounds that it could be non-Aryan or Jewish blood. Nazi poison ran deep and my father saw its madness played out in the death of a soldier likely his own age.

These are the only stories he told.  But there must have been countless others sealed in his memory—untouchable because too painful.

After being demobbed in 1945, he put his young life in order.  He declined the opportunity to join a big band in California and opted instead to get married in Toronto and begin a family. He upgraded his training as an accountant by taking courses through La Salle University in the States (he always resisted being identified as an accountant and chose the more humble bookkeeper designation), and set about addressing his frustrated music ambitions by forming his own jazz ensemble: the Toron-Tones.

All these things he did in part to distance himself from the ravages of Europe because he carried the scars of his war experience within him.  He was never violent, emotionally explosive, or clinically depressed, but my brothers and I knew that when he appeared especially agitated, restless, and impatient these were the afflictions of war.  He carried these wounds to his grave in his 80th year having outlived many of his war companions, but I never knew my father in his pre-war iteration, could never calculate the costs the war exacted on his personality, and could only hope to scramble together something of what the war did to him with the occasional shards and snippets of his oral recollections.

The brutalized soldiers in the current Ukraine-Russia war will live with the consequences of what they saw, of what they did, for decades after the hostilities cease.  That is the long reach of war.

And that is why Remembrance Day matters. It connects us to the enduring personal costs.

A two-fold blog

This week’s blog is two-fold.  First is the link for The Globe and Mail column “The Vatican gathering signals a new approach for the Catholic Church”, published in that paper today and shared here courtesy of the Editor. Second, find a link for the Synod Forum with Cathy Clifford, Chris White, and Dan Rober.  Both are uber current and, I hope, helpful in understanding something of the very subtle tectonic shift occurring in the Catholic Church.  Please feel free to distribute freely. 

Click for The Globe and Mail article.

Click for the Synod Forum.

WHO IS THE REAL FRANCIS: the Scrum Guy or the Censoring Guy?

This is an early version of an article that will appear in next week’s The Tablet. It is posted with the permission of the Editor.

My introduction to what a synod is—or was—occurred in 1985 at the Extraordinary Synod convoked to celebrate and assess the legacy of the Vatican Council two decades after its official closing.

I had been to Rome before but never as a journalist and academic so the experience was as fresh as it was daunting. If I was Dante trying to make sense of this often unreal world, the storied Vaticanologist Peter Hebblethwaite was my Virgil.

Hebblethwaite, a respected papal biographer and an astute observer of the political intrigues and undercurrents of the Holy See, initiated me into a new world of sources, networks, discourse and gestures that were enormously helpful. Alas, he also introduced me to carbonara, the consequences of which are more deleterious than beneficial.

The Press Office of the Holy See—the wonderfully alliterative La Sala Stampa della Santa Sede—and its byzantine workings struck me at the time as a highly controlled operation with a preference for obfuscation over illumination. That was my sense as well of subsequent synods that I covered during the John Paul II papacy. Redacted passages peppering already sparse summaries of the circuli minores, or language-determined discussion groups composed of the synod bishops, added little to our pool of knowledge of the inner workings in the synod hall.

But we did have the published versions of the individual interventions by the bishop-delegates; we did have ready access to the bishops who often spoke their minds for both background and for attribution; we did have ready access to press-produced materials, both ancillary and substantive on synod matters, and in a timely matter.

Still, accurate coverage could be derailed by clever subterfuge or by the firm oversight of Opus Dei’s Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls or by the Jesuits’ Father Federico Lombardi. I thought at the time they were the dragons at the gate but recent developments prompt me to long for the return of their like.

I assumed before I arrived in Rome that writing a book on the Synod on Synodality—the Francis project par excellence—was going to be a piece of cake. After all, he has changed the very makeup and operation of the synod itself: expanded membership including lay women and men with the right to vote; a two-year preparation including the most extensive consultation prior to a Vatican event on record; an astonishing degree of openness regarding process and procedure, the much vaunted parrhesia; a breadth of composition hitherto unheard of. In other words, a joy to witness, record and analyze.

And then Francis dropped a bombshell practically on the eve of the Synod’s opening: there is to be custody of the tongue, a “fasting of the word,” with delegates instructed not to give interviews to the media, or provide parallel commentaries on the proceedings in the Paul VI aula. The reasons for such an unprecedented restriction are grounded in the pope’s conviction that synodality needs to be experienced in an atmosphere of mutual trust, participants must feel free to share in an environment enveloped in prayer that respects their own vulnerabilities, “conversations in the Spirit” will be compromised if there is a steady flow to the microphones and the scribblers, and the primary purpose of collective discernment threatened by fanciful speculation, willful invention, and the toxin of gossip.

Francis has a point. This synod assembly is as much a spiritual undertaking as an intellectual one and if this can only be secured within a shroud of secrecy or constricting discretion, so be it. But there is a price to pay, a price Francis may have decided was worth it or a price whose exacting cost he hadn’t anticipated.

When you foreclose the transmission of information, and curtail contacts by insisting on non-disclosure of discussion content, you don’t create a healthy relationship with the media. And remember, this is a pope who loves a scrum with journalists, delights in the occasional kibbitz, and has publicly valued the importance of the media to the church with their morally necessary investigative work.

By reducing access to the players in the synod, the pope has created a vacuum and the media fill that vacuum in different ways. For the ultraconservative press, and their presence in numbers and focused tenacity are much in evidence, they fill the vacuum with a barrage of queries addressed at the daily press briefings to the Vatican press team and their guests from the synod hall, around such matters as Divine Revelation and doctrinal clarity, the nature of this synod’s authority, the wobbliness around moral teaching in relation specifically to LGBTQ+ issues, the prioritization of process over content to the detriment of the Catholic Tradition, and more besides, all designed to expose Francis’s strategic and hidden agenda to re-create the Catholic Church. They are having a field day and the cautious and fair responses of their interlocutors—all of them keen on addressing synodality as the defining dimension of the synod thereby underscoring the generativity of idea and prayerfulness of disposition of the delegates—doesn’t really satisfy them and they come back again and again to the trough.

By contrast, the progressive media folk, vigorously supportive of the Francis papacy and the reformed synod format, have nothing by way of substance to work with. Enter the gossip, the silly, the inconsequential: a retired dicasterial cardinal leaves the aula in a huff; a celebrity bishop is grumpy over inattention to his media expertise; a prominent Jesuit spiritual writer is berated by an Eastern Rite cleric of high rank who picks up his water bottle in holy dudgeon and changes tables. Not the stuff of probing commentary.

Dr. Navarro Valls and Father Lombardi presided with a professional gravitas. The current team are a version of the Keystone Cops, easily rattled, fearful, and running about in all directions. After the press room was vacated following a press briefing I asked an assistant if I could use one of the empty rooms for a brief 15 minute interview with a young doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley whose work will centre on synodality. I was told that my request was reasonable but that it had to go to his superior. She, in turn, found the request not out of order but she needed to secure the permission of her superior. At this rate, it seemed to me, my request could end up on the desk of the Roman Pontiff. But no, a surly factotum came to see me and said that it was out of the question and I would have to conduct the interview on the street. Astonishing. I suggested in a rather animated way that a press office is conventionally designed to enable the press to do their work and not to erect obstacles for them. He was unpersuaded and dismissive.

This incident followed immediately after I sought out in one of antechambers the sharp and affable Sister Pat Murray (appointed to the Synthesis Commission charged with drafting the Final Report) to bring her greetings from the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters) in Toronto as well as from friends in Thornbury, Ontario. I had to do this with dispatch as I feared being tasered by her scowling minder.

This is not an ideal working relationship. It has soured many in the profession. We want a scrum-friendly Francis back and quick.

It would have been better to set aside the first week or two, following Timothy Ratcliffe’s imaginative and inspiring retreat meditations, to initiate the delegates into the new synodal way of doing things—ensuring the buy-in spiritually and intellectually—and then to move to a different modality outside the aula allowing for forthright engagement with the media.

The Catholic world has invested so much in this synod, they need to hear the good news, and from what has surreptitiously leaked, there is lots of good news.

Why it won’t go away

Every press briefing—and there is at least one a day—highlights the skills of evasion and the tenacity of believers.

Although every briefing hosts a sample of synod delegates—clerics, lay, bishops—and they courteously disport themselves in the face of media inquiry, the end result is never satisfactory.

Partly it is spin. They uniformly enthuse over the process of synodality, the universality of the synod membership, their personal conversion to its methodology, and their firm conviction that Francis is leading us into a new way of being church.

They also studiously avoid answering any questions that would require disclosing what is actually going on at their respective tables. They religiously abide by the pope’s injunction that they fast from the word.

No journalist of integrity can settle for this anodyne display of information-sharing. And so we probe and they deflect.

After the press team and the synod delegates hosted for the day finish with their ferverini the floor is then open to questions from the media. Invariably, at every briefing, questions around women and ministry and LGBTQ issues surface with regularity, even when they are clearly not on their agenda or the focus of the day’s discussion in the aula.

The delegates never disclose their own opinion but rather reaffirm the genius of the synodal process, the value of sharing with freedom, and the role of their conversations in the Spirit which draw them to greater convergence even as they recognize the reality and wisdom of divergence. Good stuff surely but the preserve of the delegates.

For the moment.

We are regularly reminded that this is the first session of the Synod on Synodality and that the questions will be answered in due course at the second session following an intervening year of synthesis and discernment.

When a questioner from the conservative, and indeed ultraconservative, press asked a question of the President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, whether as an African prelate he was comfortable with LGBTQ issues raised at the synod given that a liberal lobby was undermining traditional church teaching, the Cardinal Archbishop of Kinshasa responded solomonically by saying that the reporter will need to wait until the end of the synod on synodality in 2024 for his answer, which he will get then. Biding time, perhaps, and therefore strategic, but also prudential in that the raging questions around alternate sexualities, gender, same-sex unions and blessings, require an extended gestational time.

For the conservatives this won’t do. They raise regularly the 1986 document, Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, that was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith. This document, they argue, is authoritative, definitive, and unnuanced.

They also fear change on the horizon. So reporters from Life-Site News, The Catholic Herald, National Catholic Register, and others of similar disposition push for a re-affirmation of that document’s teaching, for clarity on matters of Divine Revelation, for a strengthening of magisterial authority in a time of unprecedented slippage.

They don’t get the answers they want but neither does the progressive press either. We are told that process is primary, cultural sensitivity a priority, honest exchanges of opinion protected from outside scrutiny.

But symbols work, optics count, and during the same week that a Latvian bishop turned himself into knots of opacity trying to distinguish Catholic teaching from pastoral practice, that a bishop from Oceania disapproved of the Western habit of labeling everyone, opting for the use of a Fillipino word for all humans irrespective gender, and a nineteen-year-old from Wyoming warbled on agreeably regarding synodal process and the Holy Father, the pope met with Sister Jeannine Gramick, the pioneer advocate for LGBTQ issues in the Catholic Church who has experienced calumny and suppression from previous high-ranking prelates but who has formed a relationship with Francis, principally by correspondence and now in the flesh, that is bearing fruit. Her meeting with him, accompanied by three members of New Ways Ministry, cannot avoid inflaming the pope’s critics, persuaded as they are of a hidden agenda, an openness to reform, and a determination to usurp church teaching.

The conservative press is having all the fun; the progressives have only snippets and shards.

Highlights and Lowlights

A mighty whirlwind of activity, intrigue, and confusion set against the background of intense and unremitting Roman heat: that’s the Synod on Synodality I have been tasting, chronicling, and suffering through for two weeks now.  The suffering is entirely attributable to the heat and I don’t mean the heat in the Press Office of the Holy See, the wonderfully alliterative La Sala Stampa della Santa Sede, I mean the Roman temperature (unseasonal and surprising to the locals).

Here are a few reflections generated in the past fortnight: highlights and lowlights:


  • the globality of the church is on wonderful display.  Francis is showcasing the universality of the church in dramatic ways, both visual and logistical

  • the prominence of women speakers at the press briefings is a strikingly good development. When they open themselves up to close questioning and respond with focused deliberation, they are especially impressive.  This stands in stark contrast with the press briefings of the John Paul II synods which were overwhelmingly clerical, stilted in delivery, and essentially useless exercises in media optics

  • the press office offers respite from the heat

  • the Generalate House of the Order of Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the community with whom I am resident, is large, with abundant food and drink, gorgeous grounds, and reasonable proximity to Vatican action. But more important still is the quality of the men with whom I eat daily and with whom I converse liberally on diverse topics and with great hilarity.  The seminarians, student priests, and members of the general governance council hail from numerous countries, relish their time together, and exhibit a beautiful spirit of hospitality.  I am making new friends and I rejoice in particular spending some time with an old friend, Raymond Mwangala, whose doctoral dissertation on Henri Nouwen I supervised at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio.  It is wonderful to see him flourish in his new leadership position in his Order

  • the press office offers respite from the heat

  • Jan Unterschaft, the nom de photographe of Cape Breton’s own Tom Penney, is diligently snapping up a storm of impressive stills


  • the unrelenting heat

  • the maddening confusion over papal instructions regarding the synod delegates and their relationship with the media.  It appears that Francis wants a “fast from the word” — encouraging, if not mandating, synod participants to avoid commentary, gossip, and ideological posturing.  Fair game.  But there is a cost.  No pope has been more open with journalists than Francis, he has insisted on transparency, and he has exhorted everyone to speak freely.  But only in the Pope Paul VI Aula it would appear.  One synod delegate told me that Francis spoke to the participants and said they should communicate with the media and not spurn them. So how do you square the circle?

  • the flood of materials that preceded the Synod, coupled with the tranche of official stuff that appears daily on the virtual Bolletino, strike me as resonant in discourse of the worst features of strategic planning and visioning jargon, more opaque than luminous in conception and execution.  A felicitous style wouldn’t hurt

  • and speaking of style: the deliciously literary prose of the English Dominican Timothy Ratcliffe (he conducted the spiritual retreat for the synod participants prior to its opening) offers an appealing alternative to the turgid prose that is our daily diet

  • and, of course, the heat

More next week.

Synod on Synodality

This blog is posted with the permission of the Editor of the Globe and Mail. Note: I will be in Rome at the Synod as an accredited journalist starting tomorrow and will blog on the Synod weekly.

This is the Francis project—ten years in the making, a risky endeavour enveloped in hope: the Synod on Synodality in Rome (for the month of October).

It is not a blip on the ecclesiastical scene, another in-house tribal conflab. It is a church-shaping event, the most ambitious expression to date of Francis’s pastoral outreach. This event is Francis saying to the world that the Catholic Church is a credible witness to the life and ministry of mercy of Jesus of Nazareth: listen to us as we will listen to you.

The Church of Rome is not generally recognized as a church open to dialogue. It is perceived by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike as an institution more accustomed to declaiming than listening. Francis has been changing that perception from the very outset of his papacy and the October synod—Part One actually as there will be a follow-up in October of 2024—may well prove the culmination of his strategy of engagement and encounter.

The theme of this synod, For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission, might appear on the surface to be nothing more than a bland exercise in church-speak, a gathering in Rome for a talk fest for Catholics by Catholics. A sort of spiritual therapy for a riven church.

But Francis had something else in mind. He has crafted the synod as an inclusive, free and view-sharing environment wherein delegates are to speak their minds, without fear of a punitive response from the senior Vatican authorities when they go off script. After all, the scrum-loving Francis has set a model for candid no-holds-barred speaking with his airplane Q and A’s, and with his easy departures from his prepared speeches, giving ample room for spontaneity and inspiration and generating ample nervousness among his script-adhering aides.

A synod—from the Greek word synodus, to walk together—is not a uniquely Roman creation. In fact, both the Orthodox churches and the Eastern Churches in union with Rome, as well as the churches of the Anglican communion, have far more extensive experience with synods as means of governance and doctrinal clarity. Rome, under Francis, is doing catch-up. Big time.

Francis has radically altered the makeup of the synod’s composition. Although still a predominantly episcopal gathering, the bishop-delegates will now be joined with seventy non-bishop members, ten from each of the seven global conferences, including women as well as youth. In addition, he has extended the right to vote to all of them, an astonishing change for an exclusively clerical and male enclave.

And that worries his detractors. Opening up the church to such wide inclusion, inviting conversation around “settled” issues, and fueling the convictions of those eager for church reform, all combine to make this coming synod a potential bousculade or wild scramble, a carnival of cacophony and confusion.

Cardinal Christoph Schönbron of Vienna, a veteran of many synods and a sophisticated theologian, identifies next month’s synod as “an historical phase as important for the Church as that of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), but with a communal and universal dimension, a form of global Gospel School open to all.”

Not insignificantly, the publication of Francis’s follow-up to his widely-admired 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, on care for our common home, will be released on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, at the very beginning of the synod. Francis has limited interest in self-referential discussions; he wants to address the anxieties and joys of all humanity.

But the synod is also about the reality of Catholic Church life internally as well. Exhortations addressed to the world to attend with renewed passion and urgency to human justice issues without including the serious issues of injustice within the church compromise its credibility from the outset. To that end, many groups of lay Catholics from around the world will conduct their own mini-synod as a complement to the official synod, ensuring thereby that the on-the-ground challenges are not lost sight of, challenges that have either been relegated to footnote status, taken off the agenda, or clothed in anemic canonical language. These include LGBTQS+ acceptance, fairness in the adjudicating processes determining annulments, the exclusion of women from ministerial orders like the diaconate and priesthood, etc. Such groups include Canada’s own CNWE or Catholic Network for Women’s Equality, and they are intended as companions in solidarity with the official synod members and not as a negative alternative.

Will the synod sink under the weight of unrealistic expectations? Will it implode because of bureaucratic chaos or papal mismanagement? Or will it be the richest opportunity since the close of the Second Vatican Council to make sense of our Christian call in a darkening global landscape?

For me, it will be a bit of a bousculade but ideally a ragout of numerous strands coming together in a tapestry of unity in diversity.

What’s with Poirot?

For many years I did film reviews for CBC Fredericton  and NPR Fairfield. I especially liked my weekly gig at WSHU and delighted in my producer’s assignments.

Well, mostly.  

Once I was dispatched to review one of the Twilight vampire flicks and found myself the only non-teenager in a large cohort of screaming female adolescents. And the only male. Not the most wholesome looks I received when I exited the cinema afterwards in time to encounter patient and tired parents waiting for their offspring.

But this pales by comparison with my experience reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey. Once again the cinema was packed and this time with middle-aged females with only me as the lone and suspicious male.

I kept my head down fearing identification. And then it happened: “Dr. Higgins, why are you here?”  It was one of many members of staff at the showing.

Fifty Shades of Red.

But film reviewing, irrespective of audience and context, remains an abiding passion for me.  Cinema is the premier art of our time; like opera, the product of a comprehensive aesthetic.

So it annoys me considerably when a gifted, if inconstant, talent turns the art into a form of butchery.

What has Irish filmmaker Kenneth Branagh done with Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective?

Hercule Poirot, portrayed on the screen by the likes of Peter Ustinov, David Suchet and, brace yourself, Tony Randall, for the last few years has found new life with Branagh’s portrait of this exotic sleuth who delights in using his “little grey cells.”

Branagh’s latest foray into Christie/Poirot land, A Haunting in Venice, is a rich phantasmagoria of lighting, backdrops, twisted aerial shots, weird people and is mildly entertaining withal.  But frustrating for this viewer and, I suspect, disappointing for most  Poirot purists.

Now I can live with additions and deletions to the script, a directorial focus that is unconventional, and a reframing of character.  But reframing is one thing and deconstructing is another.

The Poirot brilliantly captured by Suchet—highly intelligent, fastidious, and devout—has been turned into a cynical atheist.  A Poirot for our time? 

But it doesn’t  work.  And ultimately it rings false, precisely because it upends Poirot’s deep moral foundations, his moral wrestling with his God, his anguish over guilt and human depravity, and reduces him as a consequence to an empty and angst-riven post-war Nietzschean.  

Now there is a noble place for angdt-ridden post-war Nietzscheans, and arguably we need more of them, but Poirot doesn’t fit the bill.

The little Belgian, as nuanced by Suchet (himself a convert to Anglicanism), has been mutilated by a trendy director.

Time for Branagh to make more films about Belfast and to leave our Belgian alone. In the name of propriety; in the name of art.

NOTE: many of you forward blog items that appeal to you to friends, and possibly foes, and I am grateful for that. Thank you. But you can also forward their email addresses to us and we will contact them to see if they would like to be added to the list. We would NEVER had anyone without their permission. The blog is free, weekly, and growing in outreach.

Please contact Sarah if you would like us to follow up on a potential subscriber: .

The Basilica and the Retreat House

Lex orandi, lex credendi (easy translation: the law of prayer is the law of belief, or how and what we pray is intimately linked with how and what we believe).

This is a story of two different ways of being Catholic; it is the story of the Basilica and the Retreat House. And, as they say in the media world, it is based on a real story. No place for fantasy or ideology in this telling. Well, not overt anyway.

The Basilica is a formidable Gothic structure perched majestically on a hill. The interior is as imposing as its exterior. It knows its place in the diocese and in the city and it delights in its history and physical position. A mite triumphalist perhaps.

The Retreat House is on the periphery of the city and its structure is unpretentious. It serves a wide, indeed international community, yet its tone is modest. More than a mite humble.

The Basilica provides a steady diet of conventional liturgies. It is blessed with an impressive choir and an acoustic that concert maestros would covet. Its eucharistic liturgies are stately without being rarified, but although they include young girls as acolytes, all the big parts—thurifer and crucifer—are for males. The liturgies are reverential but with the laity functioning more as receptors than actors, listening, kneeling, and, of course, praying. The priest-presider is given to exaggerated gestures of piety, and his controlling role in the recitation of shared prayers—the creed and Lord’s Prayer, for instance—are aggravatingly funereal with a pace designed to induce collective somnolence. The permanent deacon is inclined to homilies of crushing banality that rarely invoke the current reality on the ground and have the formulaic style of packaged sermons.

The various activities sponsored by the Basilica include Regina Caeli lamps and a book study group of young adults that focuses on Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married. A rather surprising selection.

This is the old church.

The Retreat House, in contrast, has no major choir accompanied by an impressive organ. Rather, the gathered community is the choir and the music minister has a modest keyboard at hand. Mass is intimate, the rituals authentic, the rubrics followed, and the atmosphere is familial. The homilies are carefully constructed, the intelligence of the congregation respected, the quality of composition and delivery invariably of a high order. It has outreach through diverse ministries ranging from ecological initiatives to spiritual direction. Its extensive library is post-Sheen.

This is the new church.

As Catholics globally prepare to participate either directly or vicariously in the Synod on Synodality in Rome this October, they should know that there is a place for the old in the new, as historical and spiritual continuity are key Catholic gifts after all. But a hyper-sacerdotalized church is a thing of the past. A post-conciliar and Bergoglian church should, of course, incorporate competing ecclesiologies and spiritual traditions, but a truly catholic church, a church nurtured by grace and defined by mercy, is not a church treasuring nostalgia over Gospel-inspired inclusivity.

I can worship in both the Basilica and the Retreat House.

But in the end I prefer the priestly intimacy of the Retreat House to the priestly theatre of the Basilica.

It ain’t going away

On three separate occasions this summer friends, couples from across the country, confessed to being mystified by the general inarticulacy of teenagers that they had in their company while granting a brief holiday respite for their beleaguered parents.

Because they are childless couples they can be forgiven the shock of discovering that many teenagers find engaging in conversation a foreign occupation.  Of course, teenagers are much occupied by other more pressing things than talking to adults—wrestling with hormonal adjustments, finding space away from their parents and overseers, struggling to ensure social acceptance by their peers, making sense of the emotional turbulence of their lives, etc.

So, the taciturnity our friends happened upon is in great measure an age thing and they shouldn’t take it personally.  But there are some factors at play in our world that exacerbate teenage withdrawal, isolation, and heightened anxiety over peer affirmation. And that is, as we all know, social media.

Our youth generations—morphing quickly from one sociological moniker to another—are the most connected of all time.  They are high priests of social communication, but they are despairing drifters in the world of social communion.

Communion and communication are not the same thing.

We need as a society to work on the former with its capacity for cohesion, shared humanity, meaningful spirituality, and invigorating hope.  And we need to loosen our dependence on social media as a reliable cohesive of sharing, to exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion when dealing with the plethora of spin and banal pseudo-commentary that define the ersatz democracy proffered by social media.

It ain’t going away and we need to assess the consequences on the human sensorium of social media’s hegemonic power.

We owe it to our kids.  Our shell-shocked friends and their hapless charges can attest to that.

A Time of Judgement

It is a time of judgement; it is a time for judgement.

Caught as we are in a seemingly irreversible spiral into greater and greater planetary ruin—and this past summer has underscored this incontestable reality in as dramatic a way as possible with firestorms, scorched earth, cataracts of raging fury, toxic air, massive displacements of people, destroyed lives, and mounting human despair—we need to take stock while there is still stock to take.

In a deeply unsettling and detailed piece on the perils engulfing our common home by science journalist Anne Shibata Casselman, a piece that appeared as “Canada in 2060” in Maclean’s (September 2023), Casselman writes in an arresting paragraph at the very beginning of her report:

                  Across the region, roads buckled, car windows cracked and
                 power cables melted.  The emerald fringes of conifers
                 browned overnight, as if singed by flame.  Entire cherry
                 orchards were destroyed, the fruit stewed on the trees.
                 More than 650,000 farm animals died of heat stress.
                 Hundreds of thousands of honeybees perished, their
                 organs exploding outside their bodies. Billions of
                 shoreline creatures, especially shellfish, simply baked
                 to death, strewing beaches with empty shells and a
                 fetid stench that lingered for weeks.  Birds and insects
                 went unnervingly silent.  All the while the skies were
                 hazy but clear, the air preternaturally still, not a
                 cloud in sight.  The air pressure was so high they’d all

Apocalypse, thy name is Lytton.

But what happened in Lytton, British Columbia, last year is happening this year in countless new places and with even greater ferocity.  The local and particular has become the universal and ubiquitous.  What we could consign to a regional area as a one-off has now become the boundary-erasing reality of climate ravages that show no mercy.

For sure, there are no quick cures, there are many culprits and there are many causes, but we can do something more than mourn, deny, and decry.

I was struck shortly after reading Casselman’s blisteringly forthright article by various Report on Business items speaking of the shift in emphasis by Exxon, Shell, and Suncor CEOs away from sustainability priorities to their now trumpeted strategies of maximizing the shareholders’ returns.  This isn’t just an ordinary business decision with only business consequences.

The planet matters more than the bottom line and the future matters more than the all-consuming present.  We live not only for ourselves and our economic well-being; we live in communion with others and with, not just on, the earth.

The timing of Pope Francis’s follow-up to his innovative and revolutionary 2015 encyclical, Laudat Si: on Care for our Common Home, to be released on October 4, feast day of Francis of Assisi, is designed to help “put an end to the senseless war against our common home. . .a terrible world war.”

Everyone should read it.  CEOs of fossil fuel industries should be commanded to read it by their shareholders.

What you can discover in a bookstore when least looking

My wife, Krystyna and I, just this week spent several days in our favourite city—the incontestably beautiful Fredericton, New Brunswick.  Besides seeing and dining with many treasured friends, we were fortunate in having four days of blissful weather.  A gem of a moment.

One afternoon I went into the local independent bookstore—Westminster Books—to see what regional stuff I could revel in once back in Ontario.  I saw many of my own books, which although gratifying to see, appeared to have a thick patina of dust overlaying their precious contents suggesting that there hasn’t been a rush on purchasing them. But I don’t discourage easily.  A mob of enthusiasts, I am confident, is on the horizon.

But what I did see that cried out to be bought is the most recent study by American Historian David I. Kertzer: The Pope at War: the Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler.  This is classic Kertzer terrain and there is much that repeats earlier work, but with one outstanding exception: this is the first time the Vatican Archives on Pius XII and the Second World War years have been fully opened for researchers to do their work in assessing the historical record.  This much sought-after resolution to the highly fraught debates around full disclosure of the wartime documents and the pope’s role in the conflict, most specifically his role during the extermination of the Jews, so long in its delay is now bearing fruit.  Once again we need to thank Pope Francis.

Kertzer is only of many historians of the period and we are sure to have other significant studies emerging, but his highly readable narrative style, his fluency in the primary tongues, his diligence and intellectual drive, and his personal stake as a Jew in seeking the truth—murky and subterranean though it may be—has a moral urgency about it.

As Catholics continue to war over the legacy of Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) and his cause for sainthood, any new data that can help settle disputes around his “silence,” his strategies of compliance and evasion, and the tortured questions around accountability that roiled the Vatican is data that is much welcome, however distressing.

We have our work to do: Francis opened the gates; the first out is Kertzer.  And now we wait for other scholarly investigations to come to light, drawing on sources that once were enshrouded in the dark.

Fearful of souring the emotional equanimity of the holiday, I waited to get on the return plane before starting to read Kertzer.  And I haven’t stopped reading him since.

Vive la différence

I like the summer. Not because of the bbqs, fine weather (when there is some in our time of massive fluidity) or parks, swimming, and hiking.

No, it is because of the arts festivals: the Elora, the Shaw and Stratford, in particular. Although the regional and fringe festivals are just as appealing.

In the last month, I have seen The Clearing by Helen Edmundson at the Shaw and Morris Panych’s balletic interpretation of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley—reconceived as Frankenstein Revived—at the Stratford, and both performances have highlighted for me the moral urgency of respecting the reality of difference.

The buzz words we use to champion difference often ring hollow because for too many, far too many, difference is collapsed into diversity, seen more as something to be respected in isolation under the rubric of equity and not seen as something to be reverenced for itself.

And so, in the interests of an “enlightened” homogenization, we seek to eliminate differences in the interests of a higher all-absorbing truth, whether it be a religious, cultural or political orthodoxy.

That is the road to intolerance and once taken leads to tyranny.

The Clearing is about the mid-17th century conflict in County Kildare between Cromwell’s English occupiers and their suppressed Catholic resisters, and Frankenstein Revived is about human hostility toward the new and foreign.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom, when speaking about the Tower of Babel, argues that the biblical account of the multiplicity of cultures and diversity of languages actually teaches us not to fear difference but “to be different, so as to teach humanity the dignity of difference”.

The differences that we encounter—whether ideas or species, systems of belief or our companions in nature—are not there to be obliterated as the opposition but embraced as the Other.

Vive la différence.

Like Father, Like Son?

This week’s blog was first printed in The Tablet on August 12, 2023. It is printed here courtesy of the Editor.

“Je t’aime, Pape.” These words transfixed when Justin Trudeau spoke them at the end of his eulogy following the Requiem Mass for his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The softly dramatic delivery, the quiet sincerity of a child’s love, Justin’s placing his head on his father’s coffin and weeping, brought the notables gathered in the Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal and the millions watching via television to a special place of reverence for the deceased. And just as importantly signalled to the country that there was another Trudeau around to reckon with. The year was 2000.

Fifteen years later Justin would win a majority election for the Liberal Party and trumpet not only the return to power of a party that had languished for years, but the arrival of another charismatic Trudeau to lead it.

The Trudeaus are akin to the Kennedys: Catholic aristocracy of privileged back-grounds, media magnets of enduring intensity, possessed of a star quality that holds

admirers and detractors enthralled. Their private loves are fodder for public scrutiny. Justin and his wife Sophie Grégoire cut an image as the glamorous political couple,

featured on the front covers of countless magazines around the world. They were style; they were presence; they were a potent political duo.

And so the announcement on 2 August that Justin and Sophie were separating after 18 years of marriage focused the attention of every breathing Canadian on this next chapter of the Trudeau legacy. Not only was this big news in Canada, it also attracted international attention, as Trudeau is the longest serving leader in the G7, his presence a fixture in all the major global political set pieces during his tenure.

But now what?

The announcement, made on their private Instagram accounts with their own signature voices, spoke of their mutual solicitude for their three children – Xavier (15), Ella-Grace (14) and Hadrien (9) – their amicable parting, and their commitment to making sure that the stability and emotional cohesion of the family remains their shared priority.

Justin is only the second Canadian prime minister to have separated from his spouse during his tenure: the other was his father in 1977 after six years of marriage to Margaret Sinclair. In other words, the only prime ministers in Canadian history to have separated while in power were both Roman Catholics: Trudeau pére and Trudeau fils.

Pierre took his Catholicism very seriously. His faith was constitutive of his life and thought. After the civil divorce from Margaret he never remarried, although the strictures of conventional Catholic sexual morality sat lightly with him, and his many affairs provided rich material for the media. He also fathered a fourth child, whose appearance at his funeral stunned many. Shades of François Mitterand.

Trudeau senior was a figure of formidable intelligence, a politician who effected changes in the federal legislature that decriminalised homosexual behaviour, liberalised the laws on abortion, and placed individual freedoms above communitarian orthodoxies. The Canadian bishops found him problematic, quixotic, both friend and foe to the Church. He was his own Catholic. But as Jacques

Monet, the Jesuit historian, notes of Trudeau’s Jesuit formation, his fervent colloquies with eminent Dominicans, and his appropriation of the Benedictine meditation practices of John Main and Laurence Freeman, were all “evidence of a man firmly rooted in a close relationship with Jesus Christ; a man spiritually dedicated to seeing God in all things”.

Justin’s Catholicism is cut from a different cloth. Although, like his father, educated in the elite Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in the fashionable Outremont area of Montreal, married in a Catholic ceremony, and on one occasion self-describing as a Catholic when in an audience with Pope Francis, he has also advocated political policies that distance him from the Church establishment – his implementation of legislation on MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) that places Canada in the forefront of legally approved euthanasia is the most striking example of his ultra-liberal instincts. His pro-choice advocacy borders on an ideological rigidity that alarms even some of his fellow Catholic parliamentarians.

He is not one for turning.

Given his very public battles with the Canadian hierarchy over accountability for the residential schools for Indigenous children and his tendency to oracular pontifications

couched in discourse to bring his anti-woke critics out in hives, the bishops who shed a tear over his eulogy for his father are not likely to evince much sympathy over his current travails.

In the end, the separation will be weaponised; the private will become public (think Harry and Meghan); conservative Catholics will be vindicated and in some cases gleeful, whereas progressive Catholics will be saddened, but in most cases disinclined to judgement.

Another episode in the Trudeau national saga.

Clerical Shocks

It was disconcerting what I heard this week: the result of a flurry of email exchanges among distressed and perplexed friends trying to make sense of a decision by an Ontario bishop to discipline a priest, a priest who is our friend with a long history of effective ministry.

The available evidence suggests a punitive response by the bishop out of proportion to the controversy involved. The priest remains in good standing but is now unemployed with little likelihood of redress in either canon or civil law.

I am not at liberty to discuss the particulars of the case—and to be fair, I have heard only one side—but the whole issue raises a larger ecclesiastical matter: who is appointed a bishop and why.

Catholics know something of the how: the nuncio gathers data from the nation’s bishops, and then forwards a terna or list of three candidates to the Vatican body charged with oversight of the bishops, the Dicastery of Bishops. Eventually it ends up on the desk of the Pope to sign off.

It is a tried and respectable process in most respects, appropriately but not exhaustively rigorous, and scrupulously secretive. But it is also seriously flawed. The wrong candidates occasionally—perhaps more than occasionally in some jurisdictions—get through in spite of the scrutiny, lay consultations are minimal and restricted in range, the old boys’ network ensures safe promotions, episcopal careerism is rampant, with prophetic and “troublesome” priests eliminated from the list.

The result: safe managers rather than inspiring leaders.

The recent case involving the resignation of Bishop Robert Byrne of England’s Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle is a perfect, if a rather lurid and dramatic instance, of what happens when the wrong man gets in. Byrne’s taste for clerical favouritism, his indifference to complaints around clerical sex abuse in his own cathedral, and his astonishing insensitivity to the political and spiritual consequences of his behaviour, are stark reminders that poor and irresponsible pastoral oversight can be disastrous for morale and mission.

We need better and more reliable structures and procedures for identifying priests who have an empirically verifiable record for stellar pastoral service. Pope Francis’s injunction that we bring forward servant-leaders who have the “smell of the sheep” about them has yet to be fully implemented.

It is time for enhanced lay involvement; it is time for cultivating candidates with a history of unblemished and bold service rather than a history of safe deference to authority and custom.

It is the right moment for a new breed of leadership—and there are many signs that that is in fact already happening. Too much depends on intelligent and credible leadership to subscribe to modified past practices. We need an overhaul.

Francis shows, once again, that he is a Pope like no other

An astute reader of this blog identified a transcription error that has GKC a contemporary of Led Zeppelin. Born in 1974 INSTEAD of 1874. Apologies to both parties.

The blog this week was first printed in The Globe and Mail on July 24, 2023. It is reprinted here courtesy of the Editor.

Recently, Pope Francis has been racking up his momentum of change in church governance to an astonishing degree. You can see this in the appointment of young archbishops to several major Sees – Madrid’s José Cobo Cano, Buenos Aires’s Jorge García Cuerva, and Toronto’s Frank Leo – all youthful men in their 50s who are in sympathy with the Pope’s vision of a church shorn of the trappings of power and close to the poor, a church that is not timid but bold in its moral witness. Of course, the proof will be in the ecclesiastical pudding, but the signs are auspicious.

In addition, Francis has created a new batch of cardinals, drawn from both traditional and peripheral jurisdictions and illustrative of his continuing commitment to strengthening the diverse composition of a College of Cardinals that is numerically, and not just symbolically, representative of a global church. This strategically augmented college – the majority of its members created by Francis – is in position to elect a successor whose pastoral vision aligns with the current Pope, thereby ensuring a much-desired continuity.

But the most striking and original personnel change is at the helm of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. This Vatican body, or department, has undergone many nomenclature adjustments over the past few centuries, from the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to the now-renamed Dicastery. In the minds of the curial locals, it is often simply referred to as La Suprema. In every era, its mission has been to protect the Catholic faith and morals.

The Dicastery’s roots are complex and layered. In the 13th century, it was a Papal Inquisition largely run by friars; in the late-15th century, the Spanish Inquisition was created; the Roman Inquisition was instituted in the 16th century as a way of combatting the new heresies of the reforming Protestants. All of these structures were eventually abolished, but something of their style and mission remained part of the Holy Office up to 1965.

Admittedly, “inquisitor” is not a role most clerics want to have listed on their CV, and the role of Chief Doctrine Invigilator has been coloured by a history more ignominious than glorious. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, the Dominican inquisitors in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, to say nothing of the quirky and demonic cadre of faith enforcers found in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code universe, do nothing to enhance the job description. Until now.

Francis has reconceived the role of the doctrine office and put in charge an Argentinian theologian-adviser of long acquaintance: Victor Manuel Fernández. One of the new cardinals Francis has just created, Fernández is well equipped for the position: he is a prolific scholar, shares Francis’s pastoral sensibility and priorities, and has had his own brush with this Vatican policing body, so he personally knows something of how it works.

And how it works has been a problem. Many modern Catholic thinkers, including such prominent names as Americans Charles Curran, Elizabeth Johnston, Roger Haight, Belgian Jacques Dupuis, and Canada’s André Guindon, have experienced the power of La Suprema. Because they ran afoul of the Roman authorities as a result of their scholarship, or because they were informed on by Catholics suspicious of their Catholic credentials, cases were opened, inquiries made, and pressure applied – all under the veil of secrecy until such time as those under scrutiny were contacted and invited to address certain propositions the authorities defined as erroneous or leading to misinterpretation.

For years, Catholics have complained about the Dicastery’s process: accusers remain anonymous, and the burden of proof is on the accused to establish their innocence. One of the most respected priest-theologians in the Catholic Church, Bernard Haring, observed in his memoirs that he was interrogated many times by both the Gestapo and the Holy Office and concluded: “I would rather stand once again before a court of war of Hitler.”

It’s time to end this way of proceeding. When naming Fernández to his new job, Francis indicated in his letter of appointment that, in the past, the Dicastery used “immoral methods” in its pursuit of remedying doctrinal error. Rather, the church must now foster differing “currents of thought in philosophy, theology and practical practice … for this harmonious growth will preserve Christian doctrine more effectively than any control mechanism.”

Francis knows that the church needs an oversight body tasked to safeguard the faith, but also an oversight body that does not operate by repression, imposition and fear – instead, by openness, persuasion, and love.

Fernández has his mandate letter. And he knows what needs to be done. The Francis reform of the church continues.

Larger than Legend: Saving Chesterton from the Chestertonians

A recent debate in the hallowed pages of The Tablet around the publication last year of a new book on Gilbert Keith Chesterton—The Sins of G. K. Chesterton by veteran journalist and former editor of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams—reminded me that for many people now GKC is known principally if at all for his popular BBC/PBS Father Brown mystery series.  They have very little to do with the original three dozen stories that were actually written to provide GKC with some capital for his financially precarious publication, G.K's Weekly,  but they do appear to have wide appeal.

Ingrams's book is informative although the scholarship is a bit unsteady and the authorial tack too oracular for my tastes, but gripping nonetheless.  All this put me in mind of an article on GKC that Commonweal published a decade ago and that I think, remains germane to assessing his many contributions.

Shortly after the article appeared I went to see Richard Liddy, the Director of the Bernard J Lonergan Institute at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.  His office is across the hall from the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture and they told Dick they were very unhappy with my article and they made themselves scarce during my visit.  Being banned by the Chesterton establishment is something I think GKC would find puzzling.

Below is the article, first published in Commonweal on April 1, 2013.

Richard Linklater’s bittersweet 2008 film Me and Orson Welles tells of an impressionable teenager who gets the chance to work with his idol, Orson Welles, in the famed Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar, and in the process learns a great deal about the seductions of hero-worship. Unlike the Welles devotee in Linklater’s movie, I never got to meet my hero, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (he died twelve years before I was born), but I did study under one of his G. K.’s Weekly staff members, Michael Sewell. By the time I met him, decades later, he was Brocard Sewell of the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance—an author, editor, and esteemed biographer of fin-de-siècle writers. Thanks to Sewell I read a list of eccentric English writers, including John Gray, Olive Custance, Montague Summers, and Cecil Chesterton. And through Cecil I encountered the brother in whose shadow Cecil lived.

Over four decades I have maintained an abiding interest in Chesterton, the gentle Catholic giant whose commanding breadth of interest, inexhaustible curiosity, and plenitude of mind and spirit make him an enduring inspiration. I have published on him, organized an academic conference on his life and thought, and written a radio play titled GKC versus GBS: On Socialism, Sex, and Salvation. The pleasures of Chesterton and Shaw are endless—intellectual adversaries whose exchanges over the decades were graced by civility and grand style. Chesterton delighted in mocking Shaw’s Puritanism, teetotalism, and vegetarianism, and during one debate chided his fervid interlocutor for having distorted a claim, made by Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, on behalf of that most common and beloved of drinks: beer. Noting that “Belloc and I are not maintaining that beer is a glory, only that it is a normal habit and a natural right,” Chesterton quipped, “We do not get excited about beer. It is Shaw who gets excited about beer. And it really seems a pity to get drunk on beer when you have not even drunk it.” Through many such bantering exchanges Chesterton and Shaw remained respectful and affectionate friends, as the letter GBS wrote to GKC’s widow, Frances, poignantly demonstrates: “It seems the most ridiculous thing in the world that I, eighteen years older than Gilbert, should be heartlessly surviving him,” Shaw wrote. “The trumpets are sounding for him; and the slightest interruption must be intolerable.”

Chesterton was thoroughly contemporary; he lived in his time and addressed it as an active, critical thinker. This is not to suggest that his thinking was without prejudice or blinders. Despite his prophetic denunciation of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, he was prey to the casual anti-Semitism endemic in Britain; his flirtations with the corporatist state disposed him, initially at least, to a sympathetic view of Mussolini; and his view of women was more courtly than enlightened. He opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that women already ruled the world from the home. Yet when he died in 1936 his status as the Catholic of record seemed unassailable. His popularity in the public realm—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—easily surpassed that of many of the modern theological giants of the tradition, whether Karl Adam or Lord Acton. Despite his lack of formal training in the sacred disciplines, Chesterton seemed to be the voice of Catholicism in the first half of the twentieth century—and this despite the fact that he did not convert from Anglicanism until he was forty-eight years old.

But things changed. By January 1959—the month Pope John XXIII announced his decision to hold an ecumenical council that would become Vatican II—Thomas Merton was noting in his diary, with a large dollop of acerbity, that Chesterton’s reputation was on the wane. Chiding Chesterton for his “complacent windiness,” Merton dismissed him as “badly dated,” with a “voice [that] comes out of the fog between the last two wars.” Chesterton, he complained

evokes problems that stand to become, for him, a matter of words. And he always
     has a glib solution. With Chesterton everything is “of course,” “quite obviously,”
     etc. etc. And everything turns out to be “just plain common sense after all.” And
     people have the stomach to listen and to like it! How can we be so mad?

Half a century later, people again have the stomach for Chesterton’s style, and a Chesterton revival is well underway, especially among “orthodox” Catholics. Several biographies over recent decades chart the path. Dudley Barker’s G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (1973), Michael Ffinch’s G. K. Chesterton (1986), William Oddie’s Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC 1874–1908 (2008), and Ian Ker’s magisterial G.K. Chesterton: A Biography (2011) all signal renewed interest in a man who was a literary force of nature—raconteur, controversialist, columnist, cartoonist, novelist, short-story writer, poet, essayist, editor, biographer, and popular historian.

The revival has been a long time in the making. Merton was right to suggest that in 1959 Chesterton’s sensibility and attitude were dismissed by many as so much dated triumphalism; and the next decade or so witnessed Chesterton’s near-complete eclipse. Then, in 1974, an entrepreneurial priest of the Congregation of Saint Basil, Ian Boyd, who did his doctoral dissertation on Chesterton at the University of Aberdeen, founded—with a cohort of like-minded enthusiasts—the Chesterton Society at Spode House in England, which published a journal called the Chesterton Review.

Initially the society was not seen as partisan; its vice-presidents included a liberal Canadian cardinal, George Flahiff, and the progressive U.S. public intellectual Garry Wills (author of one of the best books on Chesterton), and the journal’s advisory board included such writers and critics as Hugh Kenner, Sheila Watson, and Marshall McLuhan. If the orientation was generally conservative, it was a broad conservatism, neither ideological nor narrowly Catholic in its appeal. In time, however, and especially after the election of John Paul II, the “official” Chestertonians became increasingly more assertive about GKC’s place in the Catholic pantheon, extolling his special love for Poland—increasingly seen as the geographical and spiritual heart of Christian civilization in an age of godless barbarism—and trumpeting his thought as the ideal expression of John Paul’s social and economic teaching. Aligning themselves with right-wing think tanks in the United States and abroad, they became increasingly negative about postconciliar developments in the church. Today the Chesterton Review is published by the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture at Seton Hall University, and promotes a version of the Chestertonian vision that is traditionalist, if not downright reactionary.

Given GKC’s radical love for the church, the affable intellectual pugilism that enabled him to demolish the arguments of his adversaries without a trace of personal contempt, his enviable ease with emissaries of the media, and his prominence not only in British society but throughout the world, it is easy to understand why many Catholics want to retrieve Chesterton from the battles of the past and ready him for the wars of today. But which wars? As noted, the Chesterton restoration is especially rife in the precincts of the theologically “orthodox.” There is growing support for GKC’s sainthood among powerful boosters—including Benedict XVI—who view him as the perfect British complement to the American television prodigy Fulton J. Sheen. Both men are model pillars for the architecture of a new, tradition-minded evangelization that is determined to resist secularization and committed to the recovery of lapsed Catholics, especially Catholics alienated by the reforms of Vatican II. Chesterton and Sheen fit the bill as media stars whose orthodoxy is considered beyond reproach.

What is it that makes Chesterton so appealing as a model for the new apologetics? In great measure the answer can be found in his confident epistemological realism. Things may not be what they appear to be, Chesterton averred, but they are what they are; when we distrust common sense, we dislodge the anchor that holds us to reality and readily become hostage to solipsism and antinomianism. His appeal can also be found in his repudiation of intellectual elitism, his profound belief in the democratic instincts of the ordinary person, and his corresponding disdain for the narrow cleverness of professional savants. Chesterton had little truck with those who created utopian systems, who misread dogma as constraint rather than creative limitation, or who preferred the novel to the traditional.

It’s not difficult to see the attractiveness of Chesterton as a champion for Catholicism today. In a world where Christianity routinely faces derision, when its singular role in the shaping of Western civilization goes unacknowledged in the E.U. Charter, when its institutions and mores are increasingly proscribed, and when the authority of Peter is regularly devalued, Chesterton’s modus operandi offers solace to a beleaguered body of the faithful, the holy remnant. But this is precisely where moderate Chestertonians like myself experience some unease; we flinch at the prospect of such a big-tent thinker—a writer possessed of a rare expansiveness of insight—recreated simply as Mr. Orthodoxy, both champion and captive of a cadre of rigorists who view themselves as sole gatekeepers to the Truth.

For these hounds of orthodoxy, Chesterton offers certitude in a time of disconcerting flux, stability in a time of chaos. In him they find reassurance that the essentials of the Christian tradition, the undiluted power of the gospel, and the saving function of the church can be communicated with amiable but passionate conviction—not because you need to persuade, but simply because what you say is true. They find in him the joy that comes with certainty. Journalist and evangelical polemicist Michael Coren views Chesterton as the model Catholic journalist, “who wrote the truth of permanent things, of first things, of Catholic things.” The British writer Joseph Pearce sees in him the supreme expositor of orthodoxy, one who influenced such prominent English converts as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. And the prolific Chesterton aficionado Dale Ahlquist acclaims him “the complete thinker”:

Just as Chesterton warned that the popularization of Darwin would lead to a belief
     in mindless progressivism in politics, he warned early on that the popularization of
     Einstein would lead to an acceptance of relativism in philosophy.

Even an admirer of Chesterton, however, can see that this isn’t complete thinking on Chesterton’s part; it’s partial, lazy thinking. He was a professional journalist who had not one but several daily deadlines, and his arguments sometimes suffered as a consequence. Chesterton could deflate the self-assured and the pompous with matchless facility; but he could also indulge in cheap caricaturing, deploy reductio ad absurdum arguments profligately, and play indulgently with paradox—in the process frequently confounding profundity with whimsy.

Ever the journalist, GKC was more interested in distilling the truth into his era’s equivalent of a sound bite than in tentatively essaying its legitimacy. This is not to say he was incapable of an extended exploration of an idea, insight or thesis. His biographies of Blake, Dickens, Robert Browning, and others amply demonstrate his ability to weave a big tapestry—of work, life, and legacy—that introduces us afresh to figures we thought we already knew. But Chesterton’s true métier, his genius really, was to probe, prod, and prognosticate. His analysis of the unchecked damage inflicted by market capitalism and Socialist statism looks impressively prophetic after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the global economic collapse that continues to afflict us. In The Well and the Shallows Chesterton makes clear the reasons for his detestation of capitalism: it undermines the family unit, corrupts domestic values, corrodes morality, usurps the right order of relationships by making the employer more important than the parent, and encourages “for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers.”

And lest the socialists or Communists think they have their man, Chesterton thunders in his Autobiography:

I had early begun to doubt, and later to deny, the Socialist or any other
     assumption that involved a complete confidence in the state. I think I had begun
     to doubt it ever since I met the statesmen.

When it came to the church, however, this probing, prodding, and skeptical method—his calling into question the prevailing ideologies of his time—was never deployed. GKC could see no role for the committed Catholic dissenter, the institutional reformer. Translated to the ecclesial world, those very qualities that made him a perceptive critic of the corporate and political establishment, that ensured his independence from the dominant aesthetic and philosophical theories of the salon and the academy, simply fell apart.

Marshalling Chesterton’s formidable gift for exposing cant and intellectual shallowness, many of his current disciples claim him as the apologist par excellence for Rome’s new evangelization. But this claim fails to acknowledge how far the ecclesiastical world Chesterton so eloquently represented—the official church world, that is, leaving out the silenced Catholic giants in philosophy, theology, patristics, and liturgy who would be rehabilitated after the Second Vatican Council—has given way to a different theological environment. The Pilgrim People of God has replaced the societas perfectae; the laity today does more than simply submit faithfully to the miter, and the secular order is less to be feared and more to be embraced—albeit cautiously—as the place of God’s enduring love.

The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, drawing on Robert Wuthnow’s distinction between “seekers” and “dwellers,” describes the former as those who wrestle with “the enigmas that accompany a life of faith,” and the latter, in contrast, as those who rest secure in the organic tradition that feeds them, at peace and in deep conversation with an authority they trust. The aching search for authenticity in our postromantic and postmodern world—an incontrovertible sign of a transformative cultural shift—doesn’t fit the religious imagination and discourse of the dweller. A Catholicism that traffics in easy certainties, meanwhile, may not seem credible to the religious seeker.

To a moderate Chestertonian like me, the reclamation of Chesterton as a seeker rather than a dweller represents perhaps the only way to free him from the stranglehold of his present-day champions. There are excellent reasons for doing this. The Chesterton who wrestled with the insecurities and trials posed by conflicting worldviews, who understood viscerally the dread of nihilism and unreality, and who sought the mystery of being with a capacious thirst—this is the Chesterton who can appeal to a twenty-first-century Catholic. Chesterton, one should recall, was no stranger to despair. As a youth, and particularly as an art student at the Slade School of Art, he drank from the trough of contemporary pessimism and experienced, as he writes in his Autobiography,

a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this
     nightmare. But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from
     philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift
     mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence,
     reduced to its most primary roots, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything
     was magnificent as compared with nothing.

In other words, Chesterton allowed himself to explore possibilities outside the orthodoxies of his age and culture; in order to be truly orthodox he needed at one point in his life to be genuinely heterodox. The seeker in him saved him, and made possible the dweller.

Those drawn to Christianity in the twenty-first century, meanwhile, will find in Chesterton a figure of fascination—a towering Victorian polymath whose range of intellectual curiosity was as expansive as his girth, and a writer at once amusing and very serious. The opening paragraph of Autobiography speaks volumes of a man who wrote volumes; it speaks to that grand magnanimity of spirit that drew me to read him so many decades ago:

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the
     tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the
     time by experiment of private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on
     the twenty-ninth of May, 1974, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptized
     according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St.
     George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not
     allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and indignantly deny
     that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of west
     London to turn me into a Christian.

Playful, for sure, but ever earnest: these qualities attracted a wide audience among his contemporaries and continue to do so in our time. But the agreeable prose and warm persona would not be sufficient to command a perduring relevance by themselves. Similarly—and despite the stratagems of those who would now have him do battle on behalf of their assertive brand of theological conformity—one must note that as a Catholic apologist Chesterton is not timeless; indeed, his time came and went. As a Catholic thinker, however, a thinker for whom religion is constitutive of human meaning, and for whom the quest for God is a wondrous admixture of romance, myth, imagination, and reason—as this kind of thinker, Chesterton goes deeper and lasts longer. He is not about to fall back into obscurity

A Symphony of Absences

I am not morbid by nature—although I was once invited to give an address to the Headstone Carvers of Ontario—but lately I have been thinking about those I miss, those who now live in memory as a symphony of absences.

Since the onset of the pandemic I count 20 deceased—though none of them died because of Covid directly or indeed because of Covid-related policies.  I suspect that the cumulative impact of these losses is really the result of aging and demographics.

Still, loss is loss.

Longtime friends, family members, and colleagues, they include in their number a novelist, a poet, a dentist, a philosopher of law, a priest, a banker, a centenarian, a couple of nonagenarians, and many more not to be defined by their job but by their capacity to love generously.

And they live still in my memory—those who have died (I loathe the “passing” euphemism)—triggered by a sound, a smell, a treasured object, echoes of a conversation, living shards of memory.

Of all the doctrines of the Catholic faith the communion of the saints, the living and the dead, makes the most practical sense to me, not as a cheap salve for loss, but as an aperture to universal connection, the ushering in of a new mode of companionship.

And then I think how privileged and bourgeois of me.  The slaughtered of Ukraine and their like elsewhere on our riven planet taste daily fear and the pain of incalculable deprivation without the balm of easy ruminations like mine. 

Their symphony of absences is an eternal requiem.

When they get it right, we are all in their debt

How often do you hear the lament that the media can’t be trusted, it is the media’s fault, the media is the chief polarizer, etc. etc.

And although there is some truth in that easy cry of outrage, it is much more often the case that the media is the one thing we can trust.  When it does its work, when it is true to its function as an arbiter of justice, a vehicle in the service of facts not their fictional simulacra, a portal unto the complex terrain of truth, then the media is indispensable to the maintenance of democracy, the final guarantor of our fragile freedom.

I was reminded of the media’s critical role when the 2021 and 2022 Michener Awards for public-service journalism were given to two collectives of exceptional investigative journalists at The Globe and Mail.

Tavia Grant, Tom Cardoso, Tanya Talaga, Patrick White, Kristy Kirkup and David Milstead won the prestigious award for “their investigation of the Catholic Church’s net assets in Canada, revealing the church’s unfilled commitments to residential-school survivors and the effect of decades of abuse.”

Because of the thoroughness, doggedness, and investigative skills of these reporters and columnists national pressure was applied by infuriated Catholics and non-Catholics alike seeking justice and enlightenment on a matter of moral murkiness and episcopal intransigence.

The media threw light on an issue enveloped in opacity, spin-doctoring and evasion and in so doing rendered a great service to the church.  Of course, our national media can be mindlessly anti-Catholic, it can be a purveyor of ingrained and unexamined prejudices—I work in the media and have encountered numerous examples of this kind of unacceptable bias—but when the investigative journalists do their work, put on hold their own personal views, and dig deep they do essential work for the church.

As Michael Swan, the just retired veteran journalist of Canada’s premier Catholic diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Register, sagely observed in his final column:  “It is tempting to think of a news story as just a sequence of events distilled into prose… In fact, stories do not live in black and white on the page (or screen), but in our imaginations.  The purpose of those wordsis to draw a picture.  The purpose of that picture is to draw us into a different, greater, expanded reality.”

And that reality, truth, liberates us from the cultural restrictions and narrow intellectual perspectives that bedevil us all.  And if that isn’t the function of the media—secular and religious—when faithful to its noble calling, I don’t know what is.

An unholy obsession with papal health

The blog this week was first published in the June 23 2023 issue of The Globe and Mail (Opinion). It is reprinted here with permission of the Editor.

Why does the media obsess over the health of old men in white on the Tiber River?

Largely because the death of one pope and the election of another is media catnip, and the world’s attention is guaranteed as these moments unfold. Both the Catholic and the non-Catholic world are held captive to the arcane rituals, panoply, political intrigues and competing personalities – the sheer theatricality of it all – that take place when one Bishop of Rome is replaced by another.

The machinery of coverage is elaborate, hotel bookings and preferred site settings for cameras are arranged by major networks long in advance and obituaries are regularly updated. Perfect media preparedness in action.

This is all germane as Pope Francis has been in and out of the hospital several times recently. This month alone he spent nine days at Rome’s Gemelli University Polyclinic undergoing surgery to repair an abdominal hernia. In March and April, he spent three days there for acute bronchitis, and his chronic sciatica and knee problem have seriously limited his mobility (as we saw clearly during his “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada last summer). In July, 2021, he had 13 inches of his colon removed because of severe diverticulitis.

But certainly, the most threatening challenge to Pope Francis’s health occurred some 60 years ago, when he was in the second year of his seminary training in Buenos Aires. It was Aug. 13, 1957, when he was taken to a hospital with a respiratory infection, resulting in the removal of part of his lung. He spent months struggling to stay alive.

He has spoken candidly with his biographer and occasional collaborator Austen Ivereigh about his 1957 hospitalization in Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, noting that “I have some sense of how people with coronavirus feel as they struggle to breathe on ventilators.” He also learned from that experience a couple of things he would carry into his eventual ministry as a priest: the importance of avoiding cheap consolations with excessive talking and empty clichés. “After my experience, I made the decision, when visiting the sick, to speak as little as possible. I just hold their hands.” And during his time of convalescence when he had considerable time to think and discern, he made the life-shaping decision to enter the Society of Jesus. Ergo, we have a Jesuit pope.

Francis’s various medical ailments are newsworthy, but it is the death of popes that is real news. The papal death watch has moved from the secretive and hyper-solemn to the expansive and accessible. The death in 1963 of John XXIII ushered in a new era of papal passings. Beloved by multitudes, the Peasant Pope was media savvy, and although his pontificate was short – just shy of five years – the impact of his leadership reverberates still. The world gathered in Rome to mourn a celebrity.

His successor, Paul VI, died of a heart attack in the year of the three popes: 1978. His successor, John Paul I, died after less than a month in office and the circumstances surrounding his death have been the subject of hyper-charged conspiracy theories as well as more serious investigations. His successor, John Paul II, the youngest pope in centuries (elected at the age of 58) had a long reign, and his prolonged dying often verged on the lugubrious. Benedict XVI resigned as pope for various reasons, including health concerns, after eight years at the helm. His health actually improved as an Emeritus Pope and he lived for another decade, dying at 95.

Francis is a vibrant 86, if periodically immobilized by chronic but non-life-threatening issues, and gives no indication of diminishing his workload. Papal gendarmes carried boxes of material to his sick bed so he could stay on top of things. No lessening of the papal agenda.

And that has his detractors feeling anxious. It is hard to plan for his successor when he bounces back so quickly from any medical setback. Books have already been published canvassing the wide spectrum of papabile (those cardinals considered electable). The anti-Francis faction in the Catholic hierarchy is desperately looking for a candidate who will right Peter’s Barque after years of a tumultuous papal regime, and they despair over Francis’s remaking of the College of Cardinals, stacking it with men who are in alignment with his vision of the church, thereby assuring a successor who is Francis-friendly.

Francis’s frequent bouncebacks are enough to make a critic of his papacy apoplectic. And that can’t be good for one’s health.

Enough of these trees

This month alone has seen more than a few political upheavals and scandals. Three in particular have managed successfully to stir a great deal of anger in me, in part, I suspect, because they highlight what I consider an abiding perversity of our time, an evil which we appear individually and as a society to fail to correct:  our enthrallment by the cult of celebrity.

Our media feeds us—because we crave it—with stories about people whose hold on us is their norm-defying hauteur, their liberal recklessness, their contempt for the rules.  I am not talking about bona fide rebels and non-conformists, the type of anti-institution visionaries who help us see beyond the cultural and intellectual brackets that diminish our humanity.

No, I am talking about the moral renegades who command our attention.

Sylvio Berlusconi, the entrepreneur, media conglomerate honcho, and four-time Prime Minister of Italy, entertained and bedazzled many with his bunga bunga parties and sleazy television programmes.  In reality, he was not much more than Tiberius on Capri, an emperor with a fondness for depravity and ruthlessness. He died this month and The New York Times obituary quoted The Economist saying that “In any self-respecting democracy it would be unthinkable that the man assumed to be on the verge of being elected prime minister would recently have come under investigation for, among other things, money-laundering, complicity in murder, connections with the Mafia, tax evasion and the bribing of politicians, judges and the tax police.  Berlusconi is not fit to lead the government of any country, least of all one of the world’s richest democracies.  He won the election anyway.”

Donald Trump is not much different. His disregard of all civility, his gift for generating rancour in the corridors of power, his gargantuan appetite for belittling those who refuse to kowtow to his every whim, puts him in the dangerous fantasy world of a Nero.

Andrew Coyne succinctly sums up the outrage that is Trump: “This is what makes Mr. Trump so dangerous.  There’s no plan. There’s no purpose.  It’s all id.  That’s all he is: a bloated, incontinent bag of every conceivable vice, belching forth at irregular intervals and covering everything within reach.  Had he any of the normal human impulses—for respect, or dignity, or even self-preservation—he would be more easily recognizable, and thus comprehensible.  But as it is he is invincible.  It isn’t his vast wealth that is the source of his power, or his mastery of social media, or the bottomless cynicism of his enablers in the Republican leadership. It is his utter shamelessness, his refusal to be bound by any norm, convention or law, even the laws of logic.”

Ditto Boris Johnson.

These self-aggrandizing egos exhaust our attention and they shouldn’t have the platform we give them. But as Pope Francis says: “The media only writes about the sinners and the scandals, but that’s normal, because a tree that falls makes more noise than a forest that grows.”

Still, time to dull at least some of the “noise.

Is Pope Francis Pope John Redux?

This was first printed in the “Go, Rebuild My House” ecclesial reform blog of Sacred Heart University on June 8, 2023. It is reprinted here courtesy of the Editor.

It’s all in the name. When Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli chose the name John XXIII on his election in 1958, he did so in great part because he admired the previous John—the XXII—because he continued the papacy in France, and Roncalli, former Vatican ambassador to the “eldest daughter of the church,” was a devoted Francophile. And just think of the French periti who would shape the Ecumenical Council he would call: Congar, de Lubac, Chenu, Danielou, etc.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, 2013, he chose to be known as Francis. The first of many firsts that have come to define the Bergoglio papacy, he knew that by choosing a name foreign to the annals of papal names, he was breaking with convention, just as Albino Luciani and Karol Wojtyla had done when they chose the double-barrelled John Paul. He knew that he needed to explain why Francis and he did so at a large gathering of journalists three days after the conclave that elected him, demonstrating his own comfort level with the media, his preference for transparency over speculation, and his resolve to embrace the legacy, and not only the name, of Il Poverello, the Poor One of Assisi:  “For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who protects creation. . . .How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.”

Working toward creating a church of and for the poor has proven to be a titanic task for Francis.  Bishops and cardinals accustomed to fine living, sumptuous housing, and the perks and privileges ratified by centuries of convention, were stunned to discover that the newly elected pope from Argentina preferred a stripped-down papacy: not for him the Apostolic Palace but the comparatively simple digs of the Casa Santa Marta. Protocol was streamlined, the princely dignities of office much modified.

By taking the name of Francis, Bergoglio signaled his intention to direct the church in new ways and to do so from the very beginning of his Petrine ministry. This first Jesuit pope elected to travel to Lampedusa, an island off the southwest coast of Italy, to visit the migrants from north Africa who had braved unsteady seas to escape tyranny, war and poverty. These are the ones he is called to serve. This was a first. Previous popes on their inaugural trips outside the Vatican went to their homeland—Poland and Germany—but Francis, to the dismay of his officials, opted for Lampedusa and sent a message to the world.

This trip wasn’t a photo op, a media ploy, or a dramatic papal visit to territory distant from Vatican concerns. On the contrary, the gesture was a visually arresting pilgrimage to the peripheries and therefore a key component of the Francis agenda. Throughout his papacy, Francis repeatedly underscores the role of the peripheries—geographical, political, economic, cultural and theological—that must be the focus of the center. For too long those on the margins have been made to feel either alienated or of secondary concern. No longer. The peripheries have moved to the center of the pope’s priorities.

From the outset, many in head office—the Roman Curia—sensed that their new boss was not going to follow established ways, would opt for spontaneity over script, would shuffle things around and make, as he urged Catholic youth to do, a mess.

Think again of John XXIII: he was a great shuffler of curial staff, astonished his aides and attendant cardinals with his smiles, wit, unpredictability and sweet, if startling, spontaneity. He often appeared to the suave and sophisticated members of his court as a bit of a bumpkin. He was anything but: he was a serious church historian; philosemitic when many others were the opposite; a polyglot; a seasoned diplomat negotiating in dangerous and complex circumstances; and a man of great tenacity. He brought about the Council in the face of stiff, if undemonstrative, resistance from the Roman Curia.

When Bergoglio’s old friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a fellow Argentine, scientist and the leading Jewish figure in the country, was asked about the growing perception in conservative Catholic circles that Francis was out of his depth in the Vatican, that he would be sidelined by the Curia, that his ambitions for change would be squandered by internal disputes, and that he would be dismissed as a lightweight by the old guard keen on securing a deferential continuity with the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies, the rabbi thundered, “They don’t know my Jorge.”

But they have come to know Jorge very quickly. When Benedict XVI resigned as pope, it was clear to the cardinal-electors that his successor would need to reign in a Curia out of control, handle the spiraling morale issue around the many scandals—venal and venereal—swirling about the Vatican’s many offices and deal with a Catholic hierarchy unhappy with decades of centralized management. No easy feat, but Bergoglio’s candidacy provided a light at the end of the tunnel. He was not implicated in any Vatican dysfunction, was unfamiliar with the Roman manner of doing things and was disinclined by temperament to adjust to it. He was a fresh face, and he would unsettle the status quo.

Just like Roncalli, he was seriously underestimated. The peasant pope would alter the face of the church in the modern world, and no one saw it coming, apart from his trusted confidant Loris Capovilla, and the Argentine pope would bring the contemporary church to a new, if unsettling, threshold of reform in and by the Spirit.

The blog this week was first published in the June 3 2023 issue of The Tablet. It is reprinted here with permission of the Editor.

Travelling our road again

The Church is reiterating its early disavowals of the ‘doctrine of discovery’, which nonetheless lives on in secular form in the US and Canadian legal system.

Popes are not unaccustomed to protests. But the one that Pope Francis encountered in Canada must have surprised him as much as it unnerved the Canadian bishops in attendance. In March this year, two Indigenous women of the Batchewana First Nation unfurled a banner reading “Rescind the Doctrine” on the steps of the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec. Earlier they had been among the protesters at the high altar where the Pope presided at Mass. The phrase had become a leitmotif throughout the Pope’s “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, undertaken to atone for the abuses inflicted on the Indigenous community by the Church’s complicity with the federal government in imposing the residential school system. The symbolism was intended; Indigenous Catholics for centuries have maintained a special devotion to St Anne, Jesus’ grandmother, in large part because of the reverence accorded Native elders.

But what precisely is “the doctrine of discovery”? It has its genesis in a series of papal bulls issued by Popes Nicholas V (Dum Diversas in 1452 and Romanus Pontifex in 1455) and the Spanish Borgia, Alexander VI (Inter Caetera in 1493), which dealt with trading rights, rival territorial claims and missionary jurisdictions in the interests of their Catholic majesties of Spain and Portugal.

It is Inter Caetera that has become the focus of the controversy. Subsequent popes took a sharply different direction when speaking of the New World and its pre-European inhabitants. Pope Paul III’s 1537 Sublimus Deus declared that the Indigenous were not in any way subhuman and their property should not be seized, nor should they be subject to any form of enslavement. He also declared any previous authorisation as null and of no effect: abrogation pure and simple.

In a statement issued by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations on 27 April 2010, the Vatican made clear that Inter Caetera was first abrogated by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, by numerous encyclicals and decrees subsequently, including Sublimus Deus, as well as canon 6 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. But no matter how many times it has been revoked, abrogated, superseded or rescinded it won’t go away. Why?

Part of the answer might be found in the “advice to white people” given by the African American novelist and essayist James Baldwin. “Go back where you started, or as far back as you can,” he wrote. “Examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.” And that is what the Indigenous are asking the Canadian Catholic Church to do – despite the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) producing a credible and balanced historical overview of the doctrine of discovery in 2016; despite the CCCB as well as the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council formally rejecting “the assertion that the principle of the first taker or discoverer, often described today by the terms doctrine of discovery and terra nullius, could be applied to lands already inhabited by Indigenous Peoples”; and despite the Permanent Mission statement making clear that the doctrine of discovery is not Catholic teaching, that it has no enduring legal status in the Church, and has been formally repudiated many times.

On 30 March, the Vatican issued a rare joint statement from two dicasteries – Culture and Education, and Promoting Integral Human Development – reiterating earlier statements on the nullity of the papal bulls that failed to “adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples”. The joint statement also made clear that these bulls were “manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers” and that, in the words of Pope Francis, “never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others”.

But the real test will be in the political arena. As the well-respected Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, made clear to the Associated Press: “The Holy Father promised that upon his return to Rome, they would begin work on a statement which was designed to allay the fears and concerns of many survivors and others concerned about the relationship between their Catholic Church and our people, and he did as he said he would. Now the ball is in the court of governments, the United States and in Canada – but particularly in the United States, where the doctrine is embedded in the law.”

It is largely because of its controverted legal status that the doctrine of discovery continues to command attention. An 1823 decision of the US Supreme Court that held that private citizens could not purchase lands from Native Americans – known as the Johnson vs M’Intosh case – codified the doctrine and established the precedent or principle in American common law that private citizens could not purchase land from Native Americans because such purchases could only be authorised by the US, which “had received this exclusive right of sovereignty from Great Britain, which had obtained it by discovery”.

Bruce McIvor, a Métis historian and lawyer from Manitoba and author of Standoff: Why Reconciliation Fails Indigenous People and How to Fix It, persuasively argues that although it is true that the Church has invalidated the doctrine, the state continues to use its secular legal iteration with its underpinning argument for property law as a way of asserting Crown sovereignty. The doctrine lives on when you see Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and their attack dogs cordoning off women and children protesters.

On his return flight from Hungary earlier this month, Francis, while speaking of returning Indigenous artefacts from the Vatican Museums to their places of origin, observed that “the Seventh Commandment comes to mind: if you steal something you have to give it back”. Nations are not likely to do that with conquered property, hence ongoing court cases.

But for the Church, there is a way forward that moves beyond acts of abrogation, formal statements of contrition and pledges of financial reparation. It is captured in the words of Canadian theologian Jean-Pierre Fortin: “For the controlled and controlling words of pre-formulated and self-justifying apologies and requests for forgiveness to lead to authentic repentance and decolonising reform, the Church must now make itself vulnerable and listen in order to learn about itself (as an agent of colonisation) from Indigenous peoples and their stories directly encountered and heard (and to be re-encountered and reheard).”

That is why we repudiate and apologise; that is how we as a Church travel our road again and again and tell the truth about it.

Moral Whirligig: A David Adams Richards mosaic

David Adams Richards is not shy of dealing with theological themes in his fiction, and is quite willing to take on the prevailing political and socio-cultural orthodoxies, as he sees them. This week’s blog is a review of his most recent novel. The blog this week was first published in the June 2023 issue of The Literary Review of Canada. It is reprinted here with permission of the Editor.

The fiction of David Adams Richards is unmistakable. It has salient features that distinguish his novels and short stories in the same way that a single paragraph can instantly signal a Mordecai Richler. For some critics and readers, this consistency illustrates a deficit of imagination. For others, the predictable recurrence of a signature prose with its stylistic peculiarities and recognizable plot patterns provides an opportunity to explore at greater length the layered intricacies of a flawed and heroic humanity.

The Tragedy of Eva Mott offers readers familiar Richards territory. This latest novel is set mostly in contemporary rural New Brunswick, the Miramichi principally, and filled with ordinary folk fated to be neglected, stereotyped, and derided by outsiders who claim a superior wisdom. Locals and interlopers alike are caught in lethal webs of prevarication and desperate rationalization. In the book’s prologue, the omniscient narrator introduces us to Eva Mott, as well as “her tragedy and the tragedy of those who caused hers,” by quoting from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

The characters in The Tragedy of Eva Mott, both major and minor, have riven hearts — the result of betrayals, demonic malice, beatific naïveté, and a changing world. Eva, for example, is tossed about by her bad decisions, her preternatural innocence, her misplaced hopes and loves. As happens not infrequently with Richards characters, she survives and has an epiphany or two. With her once spurned lover, Torrent “Torry” Peterson, Eva is assured at the novel’s end a “fulsome chance at a new life, a new beginning, a new and holy destiny, here as well as in all the world.”

But along the way there is a great deal that’s tragic. As with the proverbial stone thrown into an undisturbed pond, the ripples alter reality — sometimes irreversibly. Eva is at first a bit player, her role peripheral, her life a series of pathetic misunderstandings. As the engaging plot unfolds, however, she moves slowly to centre stage.

The other players in this regional but universal drama are a heady band of misfits, mischievous and maladroit bunglers, calculating brigands, hypocritical self-described luminaries, brave and doomed losers. In other words, they constitute a classic Richards mosaic, as easily identifiable as a Fellini circus. One of them is particularly noxious, influential, and morally corrosive: the American professor Wilbur Dykes is a purveyor of ersatz culture, a proponent of every ideological trend that usurps privilege — save his own. “Dykes himself had come from a well-to-do family in Indiana who made auto parts,” the narrator explains. “He often wore a diamond ring, and gold cufflinks.“ Dykes, who lectures people about “class struggle and religion,” despises Catholicism. In this, he’s not alone. Many bien pensants viscerally hate the Catholic Church, and they find easy allies in their loathing. “The priests have become affected by the age, pretentious social workers, and no longer follow the faith,” one man says. “They were frightened to stand for Christ but using what Christ taught to anoint themselves. They had all become critics of the world instead of defenders of the faith.”

With two standard pillars of moral and intellectual probity compromised — the academy and the church — where do you look for direction? How do you make sense of life’s turmoils? How do you navigate the dangerous waters of human ambition and cupidity? The answer is both simple in its nature and complex in its unfolding: you are good when your heart is good. But this does not mean that those characters whose goodness is blisteringly self-evident — like Torry Peterson or his father or the heroic Byron Raskin — are inured to the seductions of evil. “The best of my characters seek freedom from sin,” Richards has written elsewhere, “They are plagued by sin — sinning themselves and being more sinned against than sinning.”

The author’s standard proposition — that individuals and society are unwound by a lie that breeds even greater lies, entombing all in festering vapours of evil — finds expression in The Tragedy of Eva Mott with mismatched marriages, misplaced hopes, and simple venality. His taste for Dickensian melodrama is in full view in his juxtaposition of Chester and Dexter Raskin, humble titans of industry, with Shane and Mel Stroud, infamous low-lifes. This is an author who delights in upending the customary socio-political axiom that the labourers are enlightened and the entrepreneurs benighted.

When the heart is good, sacrifice is imperative. Richards populates his novels with the misread: men and women whose intentions are misconstrued, whose actions are maligned. The consequences are disastrous. To do good, to persist in acting out of a kenotic love, is sublime heroism, and here Torry Peterson’s selfless love for the flighty and damaged Eva Mott is the cantus firmus around which the polyphony of spiritually estranged, criminally disposed, and intellectually vapid people play their parts. Put another way, Richards probes providential elisions of character and circumstance. Individuals collide and interact in a moral whirligig. It is all rather Shakespearean. And it all unfolds on New Brunswick turf — recognizable by its remoteness, wildness, isolation, and unforgiving beauty.

The inhabitants of this singular landscape are encased in dread, a compulsion or power that drives them to do what is not in their best interests, to allow themselves to become beholden to charismatic leaders and the will of the majority.

An abhorrence of such political management by the arbiters of correct judgment was on ample display in late January, when David Adams Richards spoke in the Senate during the third reading of Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. A sitting senator, he berated the government for courting “ideological manipulation in the name of national purity,” for advocating identity politics at the cost of an independent citizenry, for pitting of ethnicities against one another. “You see, we have gone back to the age of Cicero without even knowing,” he told his colleagues in the Red Chamber. “In that age, scapegoating was considered a blessing and mob action against one person was considered justice. It was Christ actually who taught us that scapegoating was a great lie and pleaded with us by his death never to return to that state.”

Wilbur Dykes, the risible and modish academic whose sway is personally and socially destructive in The Tragedy of Eva Mott, and whose lies are counterpoised with truth bearers like Byron Raskin and the Petersons, is precisely the model of conformist thinking that Richards had in mind when addressing the Senate. Whether in his writing or his public service, Richards is a committed contrarian. He deplores what he considers the complicity of the academy with ideological strategies that undermine commitments to free thinking; he decries the “smirkers” who demean local culture. And he does so relentlessly in this novel.

The Ashen Feather

I had the privilege of attending—if only briefly and at the end—the Birds Weekend Retreat at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario, facilitated by Greg Kennedy and Matt Iles. I showed up for the concluding prayer service where I happened upon a moving piece by the internationally respected environmentalist Sandra Steingraber.

The article, “The Fall of a Sparrow”, speaks movingly and poetically of the precipitous decline of the worldwide sparrow population, speculates on the reasons why, laments the implications for all of creation, but ends on a poignant and hopeful note. She writes:

On an unusually warm evening, I met a colleague in the
    courtyard of a downtown restaurant. We looked
    together at the latest breast cancer statistics. The
    ivy shivered with sparrows, and their incessant chirping
    made conversation difficult. An ashen feather fell
    into my wineglass. I was happy, happy to receive it.

And we should be happy to receive all that creation offers in its abundance, its variety, its richness. Because the alternative is with us everywhere—a terrifying ubiquity—that diminishes us all.

As the nature mystic and visionary John Moriarty observed in Invoking Ireland:

Our soul isn’t only in ourselves. It is in the trees
    we are felling and in the seal pup we are clubbing
    to death. It follows that our world doesn’t only
    environ us. It is in us and we are in it. From this
    it further follows that all damage to the world is
    damage to ourselves and all damage to ourselves
    is damage to the world.

The ashen feather offers a road to recovery. The alternative is the raging fire around us.

Doctrine of Discovery Revisited: a robust debate

Please visit either of the links below to watch a webinar hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI). Moderated by Ken Coates of the MLI, the powerful webinar engages Dr. Bruce MacIvor — author and Indigenous lawyer — and Dr. Michael W. Higgins — author and Catholic public intellectual.


MLI website:

This article was first printed in Commonweal on May 3, 2023. It is reprinted here by permission of the Editor.

A “Toxic Nucleus” Within the Church
The L’Arche report confirms the worst about Vanier

A little over three years ago, L’Arche International published its preliminary findings on allegations of sexual abuse and other transgressions against Thomas Philippe, OP, and Jean Vanier, the principal figures in the L’Arche movement. The organization noted at the time that “the stakes are high for L’Arche, following the death of its founder and revelations which mark a break in its history, there is a need to reread the past.... An in-depth study is to be carried out to gain a better understanding of the personality and input of Jean Vanier and the relationship dynamics at work between the founder and those who knew him.”

That in-depth study, “Abuse and Hold: An Investigation of Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier and L’Arche,” was released in January. It’s a nine-hundred-page document comprehensive in scope, scale, and methodology. Its main conclusion is made plain in the accompanying cover letter, in which L’Arche admits “our institutional responsibility for failing to spot these abuses, report them and forestall them. At the same time we feel that our founder’s adherence to the doctrines of Thomas Philippe and the reproduction of his practices, their concealment and the lies that followed, constitute a serious breach of trust towards L’Arche and its members.”

The commission that L’Arche charged to undertake the investigation consisted of six researchers from several disciplines: history, sociology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and theology. They were assisted in their work by a group of experts from diverse fields and positions of authority. The investigation covered the period from Vanier’s birth in Geneva in 1928 to his death in Trosly in 2019. The commissioners held 119 interviews with eighty-nine individuals and examined fifteen books written by Vanier in order to get as complete a picture as possible of the thinking behind his behavior, and they made clear that “by publicly reporting the results of its investigation, the to make available to all solid elements, rigorously sourced and cross-checked, capable of offering an enlightened understanding of the alleged facts.”

Understanding Vanier’s spiritual and sexual abuse of multiple women associated with L’Arche first requires underscoring his relationship with the controversial and disgraced Dominican Mariologist, Thomas Philippe. Philippe’s “Marian maximalism” originated in an intense experience in 1938 in a convent chapel in Rome in front of the fresco Mater Admirabilis, an affective experience of divine enrapture resulting in private revelations and mystical graces that would determine the direction of his theological thinking and ministry. It blurred the distinction between the mystical and the erotic, rationalized sexual behavior—often deviant and clothed in the language of Marian devotion—and facilitated his predation on young and vulnerable women, religious and secular, all behind a screen of avowed sanctity.

Vanier fell under Philippe’s influence almost from the moment he first met him in 1947. Throughout the 1950s, Vanier cemented his relationship and dependence on Thomas, initially as a student of his esoteric Thomism, but eventually as an initiate in his secret society of Gnostic libertines glossed as devout votaries of Mary and her son. No less a French Catholic luminary than Jacques Maritain judged Philippe’s Marian spirituality “mad,” writing in a letter to Charles Journet that his “mannerism of wanting to make the Holy Virgin her Son’s bride infuriates and shocks me.” As the L’Arche Report notes: “The mystique of T. Philippe is based in particular on the affirmation of incestuous sexual relations between Jesus and Mary during their earthly life and continuing in their heavenly life. This religious vocabulary encloses people in a gangue.”

Philippe would actually be investigated by the Holy Office in 1956, found guilty of and condemned for sexually abusing women, compromising the sacrament of penance, and arranging for an abortion—all of which was camouflaged as mysticism. Vanier, however, saw the Vatican’s censure as an injustice, expressive of the Church’s blindness to the mystical genius of his “spiritual father” and issued only to assuage disgruntled Dominicans unhappy with Philippe’s teachings. He worked behind the scenes to enable the quiet and hidden flourishing of what the report commissioners identify as a “perverse mystico-sexual and toxic nucleus.” Philippe and Vanier were so deeply intertwined that in a 1975 document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith noting the punishment of Philippe “for serious offenses of a pseudo-mystical nature (di natura pseudo mystica),” Vanier is called “il piu fanatico dei discepoli P. Philippe (the most fanatical of Fr. Philippe’s disciples).” As late as 2009, Vanier recalled how “listening to him and in his presence, I had a taste for God, to love Jesus and Mary.... I felt transformed in his presence.... This shows how deeply Jesus used him to enter into me.”

Nevertheless, the L’Arche study makes a point of distancing the sins of the spiritual son from those of the father:

“In Jean Vanier’s case, there was no perverse organization with the resulting pleasure of destroying, humiliating or reducing others to manipulated objects. He was, however, trapped by the absolutization of a Love that excluded him from any idea of Evil. He was a prisoner of his adoption of Thomas Philippe’s delusional ideas and system of abuse.”

The study also makes clear that the abuse was not related to pedophilia; nor did it involve people with disabilities. The commissioners raise the issue of a possible homosexual relationship between Philippe and Vanier, but they conclude that homosexuality was not a defining feature of the abuse allegations.

Philippe’s perfidy was deep-seated, long-lasting, and intricate in its rationalization. Evidence of his behavior dates back to his collaboration with Mother Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus of the Nogent Carmel in the late 1940s. His sexual predations there and at other Carmel convents are chronicled at length not only in the L’Arche study, but also in the Vatican investigations, the archives of which were available to the commissioners. The sordid story reads like a mélange of the fiction and fact that you find in the notorious case of alleged demonic possession, collective perjury, and sexual hysteria in the French Ursuline convent of Loudun in 1632, with its seductive priest Urban Grandier, novelized by Aldous Huxley, rendered on the stage by playwright John Whiting, and filmed by Ken Russell.

Philippe was practiced and proficient in his operations, disguised as they were as mystical moments of grace. They were laced in the ascetical language of the Carmelite masters and embedded in a culture of secrecy and coded phrases—an enclave of elect intimacy that the commissioners call, using French writer André Malraux’s phrasing, “a little heap of secrets.”

The vulnerable women were drawn mostly from a socially elevated and well-educated sector, spiritually and sexually naïve, emotionally fragile, and utterly trusting. The principal members of the predatory cell included Philippe’s equally dissolute brother and fellow Dominican, Marie-Dominique—codenamed Did or Didier—as well as Anne de Rosanbo and Jacqueline d’Halluin. It is the latter who initiated Jean Vanier on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The sexual proclivities of the predators run the usual gamut, but in Jean Vanier’s case in particular they are often justified as chaste sexuality because of the absence of coitus. Vanier persistently, and tragically, furthered the mystic-erotic legacy of the Philippe brothers—their sister, Mother Cécile, a Dominican prioress, functioned as a religious Ghislaine Maxwell, servicing the sexual appetites of her siblings as well as herself—and in so doing Vanier enabled a psychologically crippling and spiritually depraved environment to continue.

This raises the pertinent question of how Vanier managed to function so freely and without suspicion for decades. The study establishes his flawed theology by examining his many books, orations, newsletters, publicly available correspondence, addresses to both religious and secular constituencies, and transcribed interviews. His exegesis of the Gospel of John is riddled with inaccuracies and eccentricities. On many points of theology he operates at best on the fringe of the ecclesial community. His spirituality of covenant and communion is interlaced with his peculiar nuptial fusions, and his enthusiastic incorporation into the patterns of his spiritual master betray his disturbing Gnostic tendencies.

The commissioners write that Vanier for “many years passed as a most saintly man, the living embodiment of the Gospel, a man whose charisma was there for all to see, a ‘starets,’ the lodestar of the Catholic renewal of John Paul II’s pontificate.” We now know that his strategy of holy self-effacement was really a concerted strategy of self-erasure.

Certainly, Vanier basked in the light of Catholic celebrity. And the ascendancy of the ecclesial communities that flourished during the Wojtyla papacy in no way diminished the special place in the spiritual constellation accorded L’Arche and its co-founder. However, many of the new communities—one indeed founded by Marie-Dominique Philippe, the Community of St. Jean—have had their share of scandals and are under Vatican investigation.

The commissioners do not hesitate, however, to remonstrate with the Vatican when they see egregious displays of official approbation:

“Given the many people who suffered from Thomas Philippe’s spiritual and sexual abuse, directly or indirectly via followers who shared his delusion and reproduced his actions, and in the first instance his brother Marie-Dominque and Jean Vanier, this can be described as a perverse toxic nucleus within the Catholic Church. The photograph of these three men received by Pope John Paul II speaks volumes about their ability to infiltrate, seduce and deceive, whereas the Vatican was supposed to be aware. It also speaks volumes about the dysfunctions of the ecclesiastical institution.”

Think Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement. The sexual crimes, predations, rapes, pedophiliac assaults, and emotional abuse inflicted on fellow Legionaries, seminarians, family members, and others by Maciel are a matter of record resulting in the end with his being sentenced to a life of prayer and penitence by Pope Benedict XVI. Various investigations and reports followed Maciel’s death in 2008 as the Vatican sought to reform the order. What was unearthed was shocking: in addition to his long record of sexual abuse, Maciel enjoyed the confidence and support of both Pope John Paul II and his long-serving secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in no small part due to Macieil’s flooding the Vatican with generous gifts and troops of fervent priests.

The L’Arche study recognizes that “the institutionalization of charismatic authority...could constitute a breeding ground favourable to the development of configurations of control and the perpetration of abuse,” and that certainly applies to Maciel and his co-abusers in the Legionaries. But the L’Arche commissioners conclude that the toxic microsystem, the “perverse mystic-sexual nucleus” that developed at the heart of L’Arche, the parent house in Trosly-Breuil, did not appear to extend into the L’Arche network of homes elsewhere.

The disclosures of manipulative emotional behavior and sexual abuse by Philippe, Vanier, and the other initiates cut to the very root of L’Arche’s identity, and have unsettled many in and outside the community. Its survival is not imperilled by the study, however, given that the commission operated with the “conviction that exposure [of the abuses] in full light is the essential condition for their extinction” and that we should not lose sight of a verifiable truth that “as head of L’Arche Vanier developed actions with quantified benefits for people with disabilities. To use a Buddhist symbol—a flower grows out of the mud—or precisely—despite the mud.”

As Hazel Bradley of L’Arche UK writes of L’Arche as a federation: “[We are] re-weaving our story together, to recreate a garment of colour, life, hope...discarding what is not of God, and building on what is. It is never too late to begin again.”

Data of Doom Spawns Searching Analysis

Friday, May 5, 2023

This week’s blog is a link to a program on church upheaval across Canada, aired on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. It is arresting and informative and Paikin is a master. It was wonderful to work with him again.

The News from Paderborn ain’t Good

It was a long shot anyway but still disappointing.  The venerable Vienna correspondent for The Tablet of London, Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, noted recently that the Vatican sent a message to the Archdiocese of Paderborn, Germany, that their request that the 14 lay members of the cathedral chapter work with the 14 clerical members of the chapter to draw up the list of recommended candidates to replace their retiring archbishop, Hans-Josef Becker, has been denied.

There has been a long-standing tradition in some European countries where the cathedral chapters in the dioceses actually do the electing of their bishop with Rome confirming.  This practice— in Switzerland and various German dioceses—has been expanded by Paderborn to include laity in the makeup of the cathedral chapters and have them work with the clerics or canons of the chapter to choose their next bishop. But Rome says no.  There remain limits to what the laity can do when it comes to having a voice over episcopal leadership it would appear.

At a time when synodality has become a byword for church reform, at a time when process is prioritized over set conventions, at a time when lay empowerment should actually be celebrated and not feared, this Vatican decision is lamentable.

Restore Their Faces

In a recent address to the community of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut on Pope Francis and synodality, the affable, anecdote-friendly and viscerally pastoral Cardinal Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, Joseph Tobin, reminded his impressive and impressed audience that the current pope “knows more than his prayers.”

This is the pope, Tobin reminded us, who once quipped—whether it is apocryphal or not, it is true at its core—that when he shared a drink from a common cup without security clearance, thereby prompting a reprimand from his security folk that he could have been poisoned, he retorted: “these people whose cup I shared are Argentines not cardinals.”

This pope knows his history.

He also knows that when you are an agent of spiritual and structural change you sow opposition. And that Francis has done, not because he relishes being a disruptor but because the Spirit blows where it will and we

must attend to its whisperings. We do so through respectful dialogue, free and unhindered by protocol, politics, and even, prudence.

We need sometimes to be bold. To go like Francis to the Lampedusas of the world, those places where the violently uprooted are hastily gathered, those places where migrants are retained or incarcerated, those places to which the marginalized are inhumanly dispatched.

This pope is the pope of immigrants, exiles, and the displaced. He is their universal pastor.

Tobin, a bishop who has prioritized the migrants and is in full sympathy with the pope’s perspective on this global crisis, nicely concluded his address by exhorting his listeners to not erase the faces of our adversaries, as the odious Cutis LeMay of Nagasaki and Hiroshima infamy once quipped with brash military bravado, but to restore the faces of our enemies, our victims, the “other” that we fear.

This pope knows his history—its pathologies and its anguished yearnings for peace


Some years ago while visiting Kirkwall, Orkney I came across the towering cathedral of St. Magnus. Impressive in so many ways with a rich and murderous history, it made me wonder about the 12th century earl and declared martyr Magnus. While in Orkney I made my way in a desolate winter landscape to the town of Stromness, birth place of the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown, a poet, short story writer and novelist who has long appealed to me.

One his many works, arguably his best, is the poetic and weirdly experimental novel, Magnus. I bought a copy but never read it until now, as part of my Lenten reading spurred on to do so by Alban McCoy of The Tablet. One passage, exquisitely conceived and executed, about the coat of state to be worn on special occasions by the Earl of Orkney, is an extended metaphor for the communion that is the church, and more especially, for me, a metaphor for a truly synodal church. The coat is a richly embroidered tapestry made up of a plenitude of people and their gifts, a holy and imperfect mosaic.

Let me quote from the text as it can speak eloquently on its own: “In a mystical way it [the coat] gives warmth and dignity not to the chosen wearer alone, it enwraps the whole community. For consider, all the people have contributed to the making of it. The shepherd, he has set aside the sheep of his flock with the whitest finest wool. Certain women have dyed the wool with colours both natural and exotic, and afterwards spun it out on their wheels into long threads. The weaver, he has fixed the same into his loom, and thrown warp upon woof until the desired fable began to take slow shape under flying shuttles. Then arrived tailors who were cunning with shears and with needles. And this merchant, he has given a pearl to be sewn on the coat, and this other, he has given a rough knuckle of silver to be melted down and fashioned into buttons. At last this coat-of-state is worn by the earl on a day of trumpets and high hooves. Yes, but there is a deeper sense yet in which it may be said that all the people from the highest to the lowest help in the creation of this marvelous coat. . . .Many simple acceptable things sing together in harmony on that garment.”

Such is synodality

Storm Center of the Universe

Good Friday is a shattering day—if we allow it to be. And we should.

Although the empty tomb is the supreme image of hope, the perfect validation of faith, it is preceded by the consummate image of love: the cross.

I have been thinking of this violent and unnerving juxtaposition of images in light of listening to a homily by Bill Burke for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, also called Solidarity Sunday. A gifted liturgist and persuasive preacher, the pastor of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys parish in Sydney, Cape Breton Island, knows how to connect the wisdom of the scriptures with the imperatives of justice.

At the heart of Lent is the call to conversion and conversion, Burke argues, invoking his mentor the Benedictine liturgist Aidan Kavanaugh. It is nothing short of coming to “the storm center of the universe” where the “ultimate conflict between good and evil, hatred and love, life and death” are dramatically and viscerally played out. Not in the academy, the courts, the sanctuaries of religion, but on the Calvarys of our life and time, universal and local: the scorched and ravaged citizenry of Ukraine, our deprived and wounded Indigenous, the anguished outsiders in Jerusalem, the disposed loner on one of Toronto’s sidewalk heating grates, the Guelph woman with her shopping cart of meagre memories.

They are the “storm center of the universe,” the Good Friday people, the ones calling us to conversion, calling us to a shattering.

I don’t hunt or shoot, but I can entertain

Although this coming Fall’s Synod on Synodality is not specifically about the nature and charisms of the laity, it does involve the laity at every stage in a way unprecedented and hugely welcome. Even with its deficiencies.

The Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, in his seminal and prescient book Lay People in the Church (1957), observed that a “complete theology of laity will be a total ecclesiology: it will also be an anthropology, and even a theology of the creation in relation to christology.”

He wrote this BEFORE the election of Pope John XXIII and the convocation of bishops known as the Second Vatican Council. And he helped shape the work of the Council in very substantial ways.

But understanding the gifts and pluriform roles of the laity remains a work in progress.

We have some serious work ahead and the Synod will be a major way station along the path.

Still, it is good to know how far we have already come. There was a time, not too long ago, when a churchman like Cardinal Aidan Gasquet, in his essay The Layman in the Pre-Reformation Parish listed three positions for the lay person: kneeling before the altar, sitting below the pulpit, and putting his hand in his purse.

Wasn’t much different for the laity in a post- Reformation parish either if you consider what George Talbot, a papal chamberlain to Pope Pius IX and a relentless and vitriolic delator of the now -sainted John Henry Newman, wrote to his friend Cardinal Henry Edward Manning regarding the duties of the laity neatly encapsulated as “to hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all.”

I don’t hunt or shoot so my options are either to entertain or to meddle.

We have come a long way from the worlds pictured by Gasquet and Talbot. Another English Catholic, Cardinal George Basil Hume, in a 1985 address to French journalists underscored the need for much deeper thinking about the role of the laity and encouraged the laity to do much of that heavy lifting themselves.

The coming Synod will provide precisely such an opportunity, maybe even a kairos moment. It was, as improbable as it may seem at first, Pope Pius XII who noted in 1946 that “the laity are in the front line of the church’s life. . . .They, above all, ought to have an evermore clear consciousness, not only of belonging to the church but of being the church. . . .They are the church.”

Eugenio Pacelli got it right. Time for Jorge Mario Bergoligo to move that “clear consciousness” to centre stage. At that point, I might take up entertaining

Insulting and risible, but mostly insulting

Shortly after I wrote a column for The Globe and Mail in 2007 on Pope Benedict XVI and his recent motu, proprio Summorum pontificum, in which he allowed for the co-existence of two liturgical rites in the Latin Church: the pre-conciliar 1962 version and the post-conciliar reform version of 1969, I received a call from Jim Weisgerber, the Archbishop of Winnipeg and the President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. He wasn’t disputing the contents of my column; he simply wanted me to track the response in the Comments section of the paper and suggest ways the CCCB could cope with the onslaught of abuse they were experiencing on social media. I was reluctant to do it because I found reading the comments unhelpful and disappointing. But he persisted and I felt obligated to help.


There were a few hundred comments and they were universally negative. I was likened to Ratzinger and denounced as a Nazi. Extraordinary stuff, off-the-wall, silly when not offensive. I reported back to the archbishop and recommended that he and his episcopal colleagues simply ignore the comments. I also resolved not to look at the comments again and for nearly 2 decades I haven’t.

Until last week.

I was motivated to do so because my column of March 13—reproduced for you as last Friday’s blog—appeared on the same day as an article on the Canadian Jesuits and their published list of sex abusers. The concatenation of two pieces on Jesuit matter—one on a Jesuit pope’s anniversary and one on Jesuit accountability—is a rare occurrence and I wanted to see what response was generated.

So, back to the Comments page.

Not a wise move. There is the usual bile and pettiness spiced with a few rational observations, and more animosity than objective fairness. One comment spoke of Jesuit murderers—this vile accusation was subsequently edited out—and quite a few shots at me. I am accustomed to the turf but one comment particularly irritated me. I was dismissed as a lightweight.

I haven’t been a lightweight for years, as my physician can attest.

No more reading the Comments page. Until the next time.

On the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’s papacy, his critics have become more brazen

This article was first printed in The Globe and Mail on March 13, 2023. It is reprinted here by permission of the Editor.

If there is one thing that consistently defines the life approach of Pope Francis – born Jorge Mario Bergoglio – it’s his gift for spontaneity. He loves a media scrum, delights in departing from his scripted texts, and revels in the unrehearsed and immediate response. In fact, he doesn’t even attempt to disguise the occasional inconsistency. Popes can change their minds and this Pope does so – and publicly.

A perfect example can be found in his ever-altering opinions about yet another papal retirement. He has variously spoken about retiring – where, when and how – and has valued the precedent of the head of his own religious order, the Jesuits, sometimes dubbed the Black Pope, when he chose to step down from a position traditionally seen as a life sentence.

So when he mooted to a group of Jesuits recently while on his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo that he saw the papacy as a “for life” calling, few were surprised and many were relieved.

This capacity for change is illustrative of his papacy: speak your mind, free up others to speak their mind, and mess things up because complacency and easy compliance to tradition stifle the work of Holy Spirit. Fearless Francis is an inspiring pope for many and a reckless pope for others.

Will no one stifle this meddlesome pope, you can hear them exclaim in quiet – and, in some dissident circles, vocal – desperation.

On this 10th anniversary of the Bergoglio papacy, their cries have not diminished, and in some cases following the death of Benedict XVI, they have become more brazen. We see this with the late Cardinal George Pell labelling the Francis pontificate a catastrophe, Cardinal Gerhard Müller deploring the papacy’s direction, or Archbishop Georg Gänswein whining over the Pope’s inattention to the wishes of Benedict on liturgical reform. But for the vast majority of Catholics, this papacy, with its drama, unpredictability, and warm humanity, is a welcome reprise of an earlier papacy: John XXIII (1958-1963).

To understand what Pope Francis has been doing during this past decade, it is key to review what John began in 1962: ushering in a new age for the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council. The many changes you find in modern Catholicism – as well as its seemingly endless turmoil – are the result of the church wrestling with the insights and teachings of this unprecedented moment of historical renewal.

Following any huge structural upheaval there is a period of restoration, a stabilizing or balancing polity designed to calm the waters, and that is what the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were about. With Bergoglio, we have Roncalli Redux. Time for some more upheaval.

When the seasoned Vaticanologist and papal biographer Peter Hebblethwaite wrote his biography of Paul VI, the pope who succeeded John XXIII and presided over the remaining years of the Council when John died after its first session, he called him the “Pope of the Council.” But that appellation is best reserved for Pope Francis. He understands the Council and the implications of its shape-altering thinking and pastoral thrust better than his predecessors.

If John threw open the windows for updating – aggiornamento – Pope Francis has unbarred the doors. Not because the church needs to accommodate itself to society, but because it lives in society as a leaven and as a beacon. Using his preferred metaphor of the church as a field hospital, Pope Francis has prioritized mercy over rules, inclusion over tight club membership, anguished questioning over religious certitude, the marginalized over the centre, the intuitive over the ratiocinative, chaotic unity over a procrustean conformity.

As Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio or Vatican ambassador to the United States, recently observed of his boss in his lecture Pope Francis: Origins and Destination, Leading the Synodal Journey, Pope Francis understands that “human life is always teeming, chaotic, in flux” and that reform of “ecclesial realities, liturgical expressions, legal systems, and so on” requires “evolution, plasticity and dynamism.”

Pope Francis is drawn more to the creative frenzy of an ecclesiastical universe analogous to quantum physics than the sublime architecture of a Ptolemaic one. In short, he prefers reality to metaphysics. And the difficult task of making the Gospel the entry point for a deeper humanity, the church a big tent, a home in which all women and men are welcome, is the task he has embraced as the Successor of Peter. His election in 2013 was a zeitenwende, or epoch-turning point, for the Catholic Church, and he has much more in store as he enters into his second decade

Jean Vanier Public Lecture

Please find below a link to watch the Jean Vanier Public Lecture, hosted by Dr. Higgins on March 7, 2023.

The talk is called “How Did It Come to This?”, and was given at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.

Beats Disneyland

I had never been invited to “present” at the RECongress in Anaheim, California and when I was—encouraged and sponsored by Paulist Press—I was asked to give two presentations, one on Newman and the Laity and the other on the Catholic Public Intellectual as a Disappearing Species.

Primed and ready to deliver, when I actually arrived at the Anaheim Convention Center (adjacent to the original Disneyland Resort) I discovered that the three-day event was predominantly catechetical, liturgical, and well, rather pentecostal in its exuberance. Wasn’t my ordinary venue.

Had I been more attentive to the materials sent out in advance I would have known this and as a consequence I would have changed the mode of delivery, tone and focus of my talks. And that would have been a mistake.

The richness of the programme is one of its draws—it is an unabashedly Catholic event with multiple workshops, liturgies, book kiosks, and more religious habits on display than I have seen outside a Vatican workday. That was not especially to my liking as I am not keen on clerical uniforms of any nature—outside liturgical celebrations, of course. And it was the latter that most impressed me: the concluding Mass held in the arena.

Mega eucharists are not my preferred mode of praying and so I was inclined to pass on the Closing Eucharistic Liturgy. And that would have been a mistake.

The Mass was a wonderful celebration of what it means to be Catholic. I don’t mean the homily, teetering as it did like too many homilies on the threshold of the banal and clichéd, but rather the lush panoply of the senses on sumptuous display: the liturgical dancing, the wild swings of the enthusiastic thurifer, the well-choreographed movements of the candle bearers, the rousing but stately music sung in three languages, and the measured and subdued drama of the scriptural readings. Pure theatre, pure liturgy, pure Catholicism. All the senses at prayer: smell, sight, sound, bodily movement. And there was joy.

Beats Disneyland any day.

The Synodal Times

The blog this week is a column published in The Synodal Times, drawn from a lecture I gave on the Vanier Affair at All Hallows’ College, Dublin, in January. The publisher/editor has kindly given permission for its reappearance in blog form.

The Synodal Times is unique in the Catholic world and its comprehensive coverage is fair and balanced. Click below to access the articles.

A volcano about to explode

This article was published in The Tablet on February 25, 2023 and is reprinted here courtesy of the Editor.

Whoever thought it would come to this: selling off the Archbishop’s cathedra. But that is what is happening in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’s youngest province – it joined the Confederation in 1949 – though the first stretch of North America’s eastern coastline to be explored by Europeans. Inhabited by Indigenous peoples for millennia, some say that St. Brendan scooted across the fierce Atlantic waves and landed on “the Rock”, as it is affectionately known, but more reliable historical memory and scholarly attestation make the case that Norsemen were the first arrivals.

What matters now, though, has little to do with the Old World. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s, the Metropolitan See of this sparsely populated island province (half a million souls), is in turmoil. Again.

In 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear an appeal against the ruling of the Supreme Court of Appeal of Newfoundland and Labrador that the Church was vicariously liable for the heavy financial obligations following on the abuses suffered at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in the previous century.

Mount Cashel was ground zero for the Canadian experience of clerical sexual abuse. The institution was established and operated by the Irish Christian Brothers. Systemic and relentless abuse of young boys by a lengthy list of employees – brothers, lay workers and some priests – had been rumoured for decades. Police investigations in 1975 and 1982 had been either truncated in their remit or limited in their prosecutions. But in 1989 revelations, inquiries and litigations exploded with a devastating force unparalleled on the Canadian scene.

Although the net was cast wide, including not only the Irish Christian Brothers but the archdiocese and indeed other dioceses in the province, Mount Cashel remained the critical locus, generating mass media coverage and national outrage. Commissions were established and reports made; and heads rolled, including that of St. John’s Archbishop Alphonsus Penney. Penney acknowledged his failure to recognize the toxin of clerical paedophilia and apologised for his “deficiency in leadership, ministry and management”. He submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II – in sharp contrast to the disgraced Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, Bernard Law, who scurried off to Rome and never fully owned his responsibility for the widespread clerical sex abuse in the most fervently Catholic of American sees.

There were other demoralising moments in the ecclesial life of the province: the conviction of the popular and media-savvy Fr. James Hickey, sentenced to several years in a New Brunswick penitentiary for his serial predation of altar boys. And the death by apparent suicide of the much admired social justice activist, Fr. Des McGrath, just prior to a court appearance over an abuse allegation. The province was reeling, although efforts at spiritual renewal and moral repair were making slow progress.

And then the Supreme Court decisions arrived confirming the archdiocese’s liability for Mount Cashel. The building itself has been demolished, in part as a way of exorcising its ugly legacy. But the spectre of the orphanage endures in the local memory.

In order to make good on the court decision, the archdiocese moved expeditiously into compliance mode with parish accounts seized and rectories sold. Even cemeteries were offered for sale, prompting such a push-back by lay Catholics that in the end the dead were left undisturbed. The Archbishop of St. John’s, Peter Hundt, underscored his priority: “Since the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the application for leave to appeal, and the vicarious liability of the archdiocese for abuse by the Irish Christian Brothers of Mount Cashel had been established,” he told me in an email exchange, “I have focused on addressing the claims of the victims.”

The process has been a painful one. Catholic parishes have been clustered, merged, partnered, rebordered and suppressed as a result of abuse compensations, ageing congregations, diminishing clergy and rising indifference to religious affiliation among the newer generations. But the offloading of the cathedral, the mother church of the archdiocese, constructed using limestone and granite quarried in Galway and Dublin and the largest church in North America when it was completed in 1855, has been a step too far for many local Catholics. They have been galvanised to take action to save the church in St. John’s from its archbishop.

The Basilica Heritage Foundation, originally established as an independent charity to preserve the fabric and contents of the building, placed a bid said to be “north of $3 million” to save the cathedral and several adjacent properties, including a Catholic school and an ice rink, from the developers. The bid was successful and was approved by the courts in July last year. Signs that the rescue operation has been successful are auspicious but the final resolution – legal and financial – is still pending.

The Newfoundland Church could be excused for thinking this development more than passing strange. After all, the Catholic community has weathered numberless crises since John Cabot arrived with some Augustinian friars in 1497. It has faced down anti-popery, the hardships induced by the Penal Laws, the opposition from Governor Thomas Cochrane to implement the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act in his colonial jurisdiction, and social hostility to Irish Catholics omnipresent in the British establishment for centuries.

To now have to face yet another indignity heaped upon it, this time by its own, is especially hard to stomach. The merger of the denominational school boards – Salvation Army, Anglican, United Church (Presbyterian) and Catholic – throughout the province into one publicly funded entity in 1997, following a fiercely contested constitutional change to how education was delivered in the primary and secondary sector, added to the serious damage done to the Church’s social standing in light of the Mount Cashel and related scandals. All these combined to create a deep feeling of disquiet and fear over the future of the Church.

Novelist, editor and critic Leo Furey has spoken in his novel, The Long Run, of the “sadness sickness” that gripped a young charge at Mount Kildare Orphanage – a fictional stand-in for Mount Cashel – as “a soulful, different kind of sickness” and one can easily see that such a description as aptly applies to the Catholic Church in the province as it does to Nowlan, the young victim of the “night walker”, a Brother stalking his next abuse victim.

To have resurrected the memories associated with the noxious legacy of failed accountability and widespread ecclesiastical casuistry – courtesy lawyers and actuaries keen on privileging capital assets over gospel imperatives – following the Supreme Court’s decision requiring a new tranche of compensations is one more pain to bear.

Archbishop Hundt was right in moving expeditiously and decisively to liquidate and sell off properties, effect structural changes that will meet the court’s injunctions, achieve a continued measure of justice for the victims and ensure the institutional survival of the Church, even though much diminished in bricks and mortar as well as moral stature.

But Hundt is not without his critics. Many church-going Catholics are distressed by what they see as his insensitivity and ham-fisted tactics. Mark McGowan, professor of history and Celtic studies at the University of Toronto, pulls no punches in his assessment of what is happening in St. John’s: “The ‘Upper Canadian’ [read: Ontario] bishop is characterised as unfeeling, ignorant of the history and heritage of the diocese, unmoved by the enormous sacrifices made by Irish Catholic people of the region to create a church infrastructure despite periods of vicious anti-Catholicism in Newfoundland… He is considered an outsider with a tin ear to local concerns but, in fairness, the institutional Church parachuted him into an archdiocese that was a volcano ready to explode, and the Canadian hierarchy and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the [soon-to-retire] prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, should be held accountable for this unfortunate appointment.”

Hundt is not the only bishop in Atlantic Canada facing institutional upheaval, chronologically challenged clergy, restive Catholic intellectuals, mission drift in many of the Church’s health and educational agencies and crippling deficits. Thomas Penney, a former Catholic high school chaplain, social worker and church activist long associated with Maritime Catholicism, has observed that “one Nova Scotia bishop dismissed his own council of priests and rarely surfaces in his diocese, and a New Brunswick bishop is out of sync with many if not most of the priests and laity of his diocese. Obviously, the nunciature needs to pay attention.”

How the final chapter of the St. John’s Basilica Cathedral caper plays out is still to be determined. It won’t be the first time Newfoundland’s lay Catholics have struggled to keep the structures that mediate their faith alive and flourishing; it won’t be the first time that they have picked up the shards of a broken Church to vision anew; and it won’t be the first time they have had to address the sins of the clergy.

Imagine having to buy back from the Church a cathedral built several generations previously by your lay Catholic ancestors. Regardless of the fiduciary counsel, legal obligations and limited options, ecclesiologically it makes no sense. It is time for repair and redress in St. John’s. It is time for a vigorous expression of lay leadership that is respectfully listened to by church authorities. For, as St. John Henry Newman once observed of the laity, “the Church would look foolish without them”.

Sid and Richard

I was in Morristown, New Jersey earlier this week to give the Founder’s Lecture at St. Elizabeth University. The topic: Machine Entities or Enfleshed Spirit—What does it Mean to be Fully Human? The students, faculty, staff and administration were exceptionally hospitable and engaged but I struggled to find the best way to enter a subject that invites a frenzy of abstract thinking. And then it struck me that there were two seemingly unconnected events last weekend that highlighted two of the major points I wished to make: our humanity is in great part measured by our tactility and our physical presence.

Last Saturday as my wife, Krystyna, and I headed to northern Ontario we received a distraught call from our son, Andrew, whose cat, Sid, while returning from a veterinary clinic for his annual shots, did a runner. He is a house cat and our son lives at the juncture of St. Clair and Dufferin, on one of the busiest intersections in the city. Chance of survival: close to nil. But with the assistance of his youngest sister, Alexa and her partner Ian, they recovered Sid, cowering, nervous and nearly immobile in a neighbouring backyard. The first thing Andrew did was to hold Sid, communicating through touch the bond of affection that unites them, assuring the uncharacteristically wayward feline that he was safe, that he was home.

It was tactility.

Around the same time, as Krystyna and I headed north to the home of her now recently deceased brother, Richard, and his large family, we were relieved at the cat recovery but anxious about what awaited us. A death, specifically the death of a sibling, is sometimes complicated terrain to navigate. But it was a grace-filled time, some tears flowed, bodies embraced, silent moments alternating with loud ones, memories savoured, gratitude abundant for a life well-lived.

It was presence.

And this is what it means to be human—not an algorithm, not a digital mediation, not a virtual encounter. We need the latter, of course, but we must not be defined by them.

Pell and the boys

“Give me a break”, Pope Francis must think as he wakes every day to a new assault of the embittered, resentful and vindictive. No sooner is his predecessor buried than various prelates closely associated with the Benedict papacy decide to vent their spleen.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s private secretary, whines in his exposé/memoir about how shabbily he has been treated by Francis. The pope took away his job as Prefect of the Papal Household because he was less than forthright over the endorsement by his former boss of a book by the liturgy impresario Cardinal Robert Sarah.

An indiscretion with a major fallout for Gänswein’s career.

And then Francis’s disgruntled former Prefect of All Things Doctrinal and Authoritative, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, off loads his discontent in yet another one of those book-length interviews prelates of a certain age and disposition think is fashionable to have someone else do the actual work.

If you are going to write a memoir, bromide, lament or apologia at least take the time to actually write it yourself, no ghostwriter, no selected and sympathetic journalist/interviewer whose impartiality is compromised by their emolument.

And, then, of course, we have the late Cardinal George Pell of Australia whose unexpected death following hip surgery has created an international avalanche of commentary on his pugilistic personality, fiducial expertise, unbending theological sentiments, and controversial time in jail following allegations of sexual abuse. His case was reviewed by a higher Australian court and his conviction quashed, but his reputation in many quarters remains sullied, if unfairly.

Now it appears that he is the author of a memorandum written under the pseudonym of Demos in which he deplores the direction of the Bergoglio papacy saying with the customary directness that his allies and adorers value that the papacy is “a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe.” And this from a cardinal, one that the pope would have reason to expect would owe him respect if not loyalty.

As Vaticanologist and Jesuit priest Thomas Reese has rightly noted: “It is one thing to argue with the pope behind closed doors; it is another to stab him in the back. You don’t do that to your boss, especially when he had stood by you when you were indicted. Shame.”

When my colleague and co-author Douglas Letson and I were in Australia doing research on our book Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads (2001) we spent some time interviewing scholars attached to the Melbourne campus of the Australian Catholic University as well as Catholics from various professions outside the university, and there was near total unanimity around how Pell was perceived by both the clergy and the laity. And it wasn’t pleasant.

Of course, there are many sides to a person and a reductionist approach is unhelpful. Pell had his strengths and he retains support from some surprising as well as predictable circles, but Reese has the right measure of the man.

Pell, Gänswein, and Müller. And those are just the big names from last week.

This article was published in The Globe and Mail on February 3, and is reprinted here courtesy of the Editor.

Can L’Arche escape the twisted legacy of its own founders?

It is monstrous in size and in content.

L’Arche International’s full report, Abuse and Hold: An Investigation of Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier and L’Arche, is almost 900 pages long, but even the detailed synopsis and conclusion are weighty enough in their own right to call for concentrated attention.

What we find in these distillations is a detailed examination of the roots of a spiritual and psychological pathology that has infected L’Arche – an international organization given over to the care and flourishing of the intellectually disabled that has been a model to the world – and Jean Vanier, a Canadian icon whose lineal pedigree and universal acclaim as a great humanitarian were once without parallel.

Shortly after Mr. Vanier’s death in 2019, various testimonies by women claiming to have been abused by him surfaced. L’Arche International, keen on getting ahead of the narrative, released the information and pledged to mandate a commission to undertake an exhaustive review of the origins of L’Arche and the role of its two co-founders, demonstrating full transparency, rigorous scholarship and untrammelled freedom to dig into the deepest caverns of the organization’s history and the two men.

It was a no-holds-barred investigation, involving historians, theologians, a sociologist, a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. The stakes were high; the integrity of L’Arche itself could be compromised.

Unearthing the truth in a history layered with myth, prevarication, twisted theology and emotional dysfunction, to say nothing of the vulnerability of those they preyed upon – dozens of nuns and other women who worked for L’Arche at its original location in Trosly, France – is no easy feat. The ministry and legacy of L’Arche must be disengaged from the two men whose corrupting vision and spiritual fraudulence have been revealed to be at the core of its origin story.

Thomas Philippe was Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual father.” His peculiar blend of Marian theology and mysticism was an esoteric system of spiritual direction that insisted on erotic intimacy between the spiritual father and the one trusting his confidence. It was a strategy of seduction couched in mystical language.

Père Philippe was a delusional Dominican friar who had repeatedly run afoul of his brother Dominicans, as well as the Vatican. He had been investigated by the Vatican’s Holy Office, and his teachings and behaviour were formally condemned in 1956. But the sanctions were ineffectual, the result of resistance by those who believed he was being maligned – despite the seriousness of his dangerous ideas.

In 1938, he wrote about a mystic union with the Blessed Virgin Mary in the chapel of Trinita dei Monti in Rome: “I was caught in my whole body, all night, in recollection and very intimate union with Her. It was like knowing Mary anew.” In one sense, this is rather conventional piety invoking mystical discourse to speak of a deepening spiritual relationship with the mother of Jesus. But Père Philippe goes much further; for him, the “very obscure graces” he receives legitimize his erotic urges. His sexual organs thus become means of initiating nuns and young laywomen into his mystico-sexual practices, a way to explore the very relationship between Jesus and Mary.

This is the stuff of blasphemy. No less a French intellectual luminary than Jacques Maritain wrote in his diary that “to my mind, Fr. Thomas is mad. Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe knows that fact and says that his brother is a saint, everything is O.K. Another madman. The devil is raging in this incredible affair. … For me this is an extraordinary case of schizophrenia – too rich a wine [a sincere craving for sanctity etc.] in a double-bottomed goatskin, the rot of which had made the wine turn into perversion.”

What Mr. Vanier knew that Mr. Maritain did not was that the cabal of initiates gathered around Père Philippe, including his brother Marie-Dominique, and his sister, the Prioress Mother Cécile, were apparently as adept at sexual predation as the spiritual master himself. His sister was a grooming enabler, the Ghislaine Maxwell of this sordid drama, accused in the L’Arche report of pushing her nuns “into the arms of her brother” and of “incestuous” relations. The rot was extensive, insidious, encased in secrecy and ruthless in nurturing a culture hidden in plain sight. And Mr. Vanier was fully onside. He wrote in his autobiography that Père Philippe “loved me and accepted me the way I was. It was liberating for me. It is wonderful to be seen, to be recognized as a person who has a destiny and a mission.” That destiny and mission were, in great measure, defined by Père Philippe.

As the L’Arche report notes: “Philippe was convinced he was announcing a new age for the Church. His message was too innovative to be understood. … This attracted hostility, and, in his view, the disgrace of being considered mentally ill.” The Vatican condemnation also sealed the loyalty of Père Philippe’s followers and ensured that at some point he would resurface in a new capacity, drawing on his special spiritual gifts.

And he would resurface in 1964, with the founding of the first L’Arche home in Trosly – a return from the wilderness of exile facilitated by Mr. Vanier himself. This allowed Père Philippe to continue his predatory behaviour unhindered, building a network held together by the notion that the initiates, the tout-petits or little ones, were “chosen” to be the recipients of his “mystic graces.”

The Philippe cult was an aberration of Catholic mysticism, a Gnostic sect with its own antinomian code, in which its mesmerizing leaders held in their thrall the young, the impressionable and the vulnerable, making the case that they were special in the new world of spiritual freedom wherein the erotic is divinized.

Both Père Philippe and Mr. Vanier drew on their self-invoked privileged relationship with the divine to channel their lust as they perfected their seductions in sacral terms: “It’s not us, it’s Mary and Jesus” and “Jesus and I are not two, we are one … and it is Jesus who loves you through me” – two phrases that appeared in some of the victim testimonies. Mr. Vanier at one point describes his genitals as a “sacrament of love.”

Rome was blindsided. Although Cardinal Paul Philippe (no relation) tried his best to monitor the cult in its early years, the two L’Arche co-founders’ careful veil meant that effective supervision was limited. As was customary at the time, the Vatican conducted its investigations in secret, so knowledge of Père Philippe’s spiritual modus operandi was limited to a few people. The Dominican Order itself was negligent in exercising its authority, and now there are formal investigations of the order’s own failures, initiated by the order itself.

The L’Arche report’s investigators note that this “narcissistic perverse nucleus within the Catholic Church” has spread to other spiritual or ecclesial communities, including many that are now being vigorously reformed or suppressed by Pope Francis. The commission also raised the point that Mr. Vanier’s spirituality is distinctly his own, born of his eccentric anthropology, unconventional reading of Scripture and exaltation of the heart over reason in opposition to the hierarchy of the institutional Catholic Church that declined to ordain him a priest. They write: “Jean Vanier’s mystical discourse proves to be elusive, disjointed and not very credible on both the rational and theological level.”

But it cannot be denied that his profile before his fall was extraordinary. He was seen as a living saint in our time, admired by multitudes irrespective of their faith, the darling of monarchs, pontiffs, presidents and prime ministers. And now that reputation is in tatters.

L’Arche, however, will endure, in no small part because it did with its report what Harvard historian Jill Lepore described, when speaking of the recently released Jan. 6 committee report: “For all its weight and consequence, [it] never asks why anyone believed Donald Trump.” The L’Arche report does ask why one would believe Père Philippe and Mr. Vanier, and in doing so proves that L’Arche is trying, with integrity, to make sense of the consequences.

Encouraged to Die?

This article was published in Commonweal on January 10, and is reprinted here courtesy of the Editor.

When Ross Douthat wrote about Canada’s love affair with the “holiness of euthanasia” in a December New York Times column, he hit a nerve. His primary argument is reductionist, facile, and oracular but correct in its essentials: “What if a society remains liberal but ceases to be civilized?” Is Canada, in truth, Douthat’s moral dystopia, the inexorable endpoint of a corrupting liberal trajectory? A cautionary tale for an American society caught in an embattled landscape of irreconcilable philosophies?

Yes and no.

What provokes Douthat is the pending law before the Canadian Parliament that will expand its Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) legislation. In 2016, medical assistance in dying became legal in Canada as long as certain conditions were met, including the restriction that only patients with terminal illness were eligible. Indeed, the natural death of the patient must be deemed as reasonably foreseeable and the suffering irremediable. In 2019, a Quebec judge ruled that this legal restriction was unconstitutional and that Parliament needed to amend the MAiD legislation to include adults who didn’t have a reasonably foreseeable death. In 2021, the revised MAiD came into force and almost immediately there were cries for even further amendments, including the right for those suffering from mental illness to elect their time of death. Parliament imposed a two-year study period before any further alterations, with new legislation to be debated and most likely enacted in March.

But this appears to be a step too far for many Canadians—liberal creatures that we are—and pushback has been formidable. The Association of Chairs of Psychiatry in Canada—the lead psychiatrists of Canada’s seventeen medical schools—called on the federal government to delay the expansion of assisted dying to people with mental illness.. These psychiatrists, and many others in private practice, are especially vexed over the law’s irremediable condition clause, arguing that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict accurately who will and who will not recover from a mental disorder. The Chairs Association makes the point that experts will need to find some common ground on “operational definitions of irremediability for different mental disorders” because no such consensus currently exists. In addition, many psychiatrists are disturbed by the simple clinical reality that physicians might find it challenging to distinguish between a client who is suffering from acute suicidal ideation, and one who is rationally seeking an assisted death as the final remedy for unendurable pain.

It is important to acknowledge that the primary concern of the psychiatrists is not the law per se, but its expansion to include mental-health candidates without any kind of training regimen established for evaluating these candidates. Medical school curricula need to be upgraded, safeguards put in place, and the full airing of contentious issues around prognosis assured before any expansion of the legislation is enacted.

Professional associations of psychiatrists aren’t alone in raising concerns. The executive director of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Sean Krausert, has cogently argued that “ending the life of someone with complex mental-health problems is simpler and likely much less expensive than offering outstanding ongoing care. This creates a perverse incentive for the health system to encourage the use of MAiD at the expense of providing adequate resources to patients, and that outcome is unacceptable.”

This use of MAiD as an option for those suffering grievously, and with little access to a timely and comprehensive health network, is more than unacceptable; it is outrageous. Nuala Kenny, a pediatric physician, bioethicist and Sister of Charity (Halifax)—and a vocal critic of MAiD from the outset—has watched with dread the persistent efforts to further liberalize the legislation:

“Bill C-7 legislating medically assisted death is titled incorrectly Medical Assistance in Dying. Good medical and palliative care provide assistance in the process of dying. MAiD is assisted death. The legislation at the beginning provided safeguards for a ‘reasonably foreseeable natural death,’ professional medical assessments, a ten-day waiting period, and ongoing study of difficult issues. All this has now been overturned or liberalized. MAiD provides a quick, cheap, technological response to human, familial, social, and spiritual matters. It is the antithesis of compassion.”

Although the number of known cases of unethical pressure on those burdened with great suffering to consider MAiD as a rational choice with an easily expedited protocol is low, such cases exist and are surfacing in the media. The most egregious have involved Canadian war veterans who were counseled to consider assisted dying. The public outcry forced both the veterans affairs minister, Lawrence MacAuley, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to assure Canadians that this was the recommendation of one misguided employee, now terminated—and that this is not government policy, nor will it ever be.

These official denials, however, are less than persuasive. The case of retired corporal Christina Gauthier, a former paralympian, highlights the insidious allure of the quick fix. Suffering from a deteriorating medical condition as a result of permanent knee and spine injuries incurred during military training, Gauthier testified to a House of Commons Veterans Affairs Committee that a caseworker from Veterans Affairs Canada offered her MAiD after her failure over five years to a get a wheelchair ramp installed in her home. Although this may be a rare occurrence, as the authorities insist, it is a logical outcome in a society that finds itself with a stretched and cumbersome health-care system, that struggles to provide appropriate-level palliative and hospice care across a widely dispersed population, and that is, as a consequence of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, willfully captive to the doctrine of personal autonomy.

There is liberal, and then there is liberal. The country that passed same-sex marriage legislation long before the United States, that has banned capital punishment for decades, that was one of the first nations to sanction South Africa over apartheid, and that welcomed more Syrian refugees than any other Western power is the same liberal nation that, under the rubric of compassion and free choice, is about to usher in an assisted-death law that knows no limits.

The Toronto Star recounted the story of a man suffering from a chronic but not terminal illness. His condition was exacerbated by social and emotional factors that included childhood sexual abuse, mental-health stresses, and poverty. His government allowance left him with only a couple of hundred dollars a month after he had covered his rent expenses, and he was unable to walk the two flights into and out of his residence. Under the current legislation he qualified for MAiD, was approved, and died last summer. Had the state seen to his needs, provided support for his various maladies, and given him a decent government income that allowed him to live with some dignity, he could have managed his chronic illness. MAiD was his escape, his solution, his free choice.

But was it really a free choice? William Sweet, professor of biomedical ethics and philosophy of law at St. Francis Xavier University, thinks it was anything but. “As for extending MAiD in cases of mental illness, reducing morality as a conseqence to a matter of consent when that clear consent can be compromised by their condition shows minimum concern for the value of life and the dignity of the person. On this point many secular medical experts are in agreement with the majority of Catholic ethicists.”

Public outcry and protests from medical associations at the speed with which the government is moving has prompted it to delay indefinitely the March deadline until there is a greater consensus among parliamentarians and the experts.

It is clear that the government will not rescind the current legislation but will consider more carefully the extension of MAiD to those suffering from mental illness. Perhaps in the process they might listen to the advice of Theo Boer, a Dutch bioethics professor who cautioned the French government over its proposed assisted-suicide legislation by citing the experience of the Netherlands: its policy of legalized euthanasia was at the outset for mentally competent adults suffering from a terminal illness, but that has since been expanded to allow for young children to seek it as well. “If the most defined and controlled system in the world can’t guarantee assisted choice remains a last chance,” Boer wrote in Le Monde, “why will France do better?”

Or indeed, Canada.

The Fall of the Mighty

This week’s blog is published courtesy of Go, Rebuild, the ecclesial reform blog of Sacred Heart University.

I remember the day clearly. The phone call from Oslo took me by
surprise. It was the publisher of the Norwegian edition of my book
Logician of the Heart and I was especially chuffed to be published in a
Scandinavian language. After all, Higgins, in Irish O hUiggín , means
descendant of a Viking and I have always been much taken by this
tenuous connection to the Norsemen.

I wasn’t chuffed after the phone call.

I was informed that my book was being pulped, extinguished,
made a distant memory only. Within a couple of days of receiving this
desolating news I was told by Liturgical Press in Minnesota that they
were doing likewise and that all catalogues listing the book were to be
similarly purged. To be twice pulped in one week struck me as more
than bad timing.

You see, the logician of the title was Jean Vanier, the now
disgraced spiritual genius whose fall from the heights of honour was
traumatic for countless people. The co-founder of L’Arche—a
movement for the intellectually challenged—and a spiritual counsellor
and writer for multitudes, an eminence with few equals in both the
Catholic world and beyond with every possible dignity bestowed on him
by pontiffs, prime ministers, presidents and monarchs, was discovered
shortly after his death to have been in a series of relationships with
women that were judged to be not only morally inappropriate but

His halo was expunged and it is no exaggeration to say that
millions were disillusioned if not devastated. For those of us who were
Vanier biographers it was a grim time with the media. How could all of
us have missed his sexually exploitative behaviour? Easy enough, when
there is neither a public record nor a private correspondence to suggest
such behaviour, when no one came forward with allegations until
shortly before his death, and when an international investigation into
the accusations of the five complainants was conducted entirely sub
, until, in other words, the damage surfaced into the light.

The bravery of these women is extraordinary given Vanier’s
exalted status.

But Vanier is only one of many spiritual and artistic luminaries in
the last few years whose time of reckoning has come. David Haas, the
popular composer of liturgical music, is the subject of numerous civil
suits for serial predation, has conceded that his behaviour with scores
of young women was reprehensible, and has seen his music delisted by
his publisher and banned from performance in numerous churches and

And, now, the case of the Slovenian artist, mosaicist, and Jesuit
spiritual director, Marko Rupnik has the Catholic universe in turmoil.
Rupnik has been accused of the spiritual and sexual abuse of many
women who belong to a religious body he is associated with called the
Loyola Community. The Society of Jesus has imposed penalties, and the
Vatican has both excommunicated him and subsequently lifted the
excommunication; the authorities have restricted his priestly activities,
censured his behaviour in strong canonical terms, but in the end appear
to have done all of this in a cloud of opacity. Numerous Catholic
outlets, many of an obscurantist and anti-Pope Francis disposition like
The Pillar, The National Catholic Register, and Catholic World Report,
were quick in moving on the unfolding scandal of Rupnik’s behaviour,
Rome’s perceived tardiness, and what many have judged to be
cumbersome Jesuit media footwork.

Rupnik’s work—individual or through his artistic collective the
Centro Aletti—is to be found all over the world, including in Portugal,
Italy and the United States. In fact, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at
Sacred Heart University has his artistically inventive rendering of the
Harrowing of Hell that has generated wide admiration in both
professional and devotional circles.

Like that other great Catholic artist, Eric Gill, whose masterfully
conceived and executed sacred and secular sculptures are to be found
throughout Great Britain, and whose incestuous and pedophiliac
exploits shocked the world when revealed in 1989, appreciation of
Rupnik’s art is now seriously compromised by his nefarious behaviour.

In the end, although this is not likely to be the end, it is possible to
draw some conclusions about the Vanier, Haas and Rupnik scandals.
Although it is understandable that a process of erasure and indictment
has its psychological and political rationale, to decimate the legacy
entirely does disproportionate damage. To lose access to the writings
of Vanier, in particular his seminal Becoming Human, is to compound
the tragedy. A moral blitzkrieg has collateral pain.

What we have learned from all these instances is that the
explosive combination of spiritual and erotic intimacy should be seen
for what it is—manipulative predation—rather than how it is
rationalized by the moral culprits as a special innocence, an entitled
relationship. The deep pathology that runs through centuries of
Catholic teaching on sexuality—a pathology marked by a deep fear of
sexual pleasure with its body-versus-spirit dualism—needs to be
recognized for its destructive potential. And the aftershocks of
patriarchy reverberate throughout all of society. It’s time for a new and
healthier anthropology.

Benedict: final thoughts

The pope is dead; long live the pope.

The obsequies, the sacred requiem, the ecclesiastical panoply were all on display as Benedict XVI was given his solemn farewell. But it didn’t take long for the carping, speculating, tactical maneuvering, and game-scoring to once again rise to the surface.

The church mourning quickly became the church political.

Nothing new in this except the transition was unconventional. One pope burying another is not common practice. And papal burials do not usually involve the interring of old rivalries. If anything, these rivalries can surface with a vengeance and ferocity long suppressed.

Although Georg Ganswein, Benedict’s long time private secretary, and the Duke of Sussex, Harry the Bolter as John Fraser dubs him in his Funeral for a Queen, have little in the way of shared lineage and rank, they both have books out telling their story in a time of grief.

More than any pope in living memory, Benedict has attracted admirers and critics who are not shy in expressing their respective loyalty or opposition. Sometimes, it is civil, collegial and indeed charitable, but all too often the lionizing and the demonizing reduce this pope and his papacy to caricature.

There are many already calling for his quick canonization and that is as unwise in his case as the speedy sainting of John Paul II was in his. Give the process time, allow for the appropriate scrutiny. On this point, Benedict preferred a cautious and considered approach and eschewed John Paul II’s fast tracking method. It was not the only issue on which their papacies differed.

The papacies of Benedict and Francis differ as well, and those differences are likely to become more stark as we work through the implications of Francis’s ecclesiology and pastoral spirituality.

There are many constituencies—if I can use that word—in the Catholic community that found in Benedict a polished certitude, an organic thinking that avoided the pitfalls of the trendy and evanescent, a liturgical sensibility that treasured continuity and ordered ritual. But there are many others who found in Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and subsequently Bishop of Rome, a mentality of resistance to fresh ideas, an intolerance for alternate models of loving, a frustrating incomprehension of the universal movement for ecclesial equality for women.

Two dear friends and regular readers of this blog wrote to me about their feelings regarding Benedict and they speak a rough and yet eloquent truth, free of acrimony but steeped in pain.

David Coppola, a laicized priest, husband, father, theologian, Catholic-Jewish dialogue expert and for many years a higher education mandarin wrote: “he put several of my friends out of work, which forced them to teach in secular or Protestant universities and seminaries, so my perspective is skewed. Of course, my friends eventually worked it out (because they had to!), albeit with significant financial stress.”

And John Montague, a former seminarian, retired social worker, and gay Catholic activist who is schooled in Ignatian spirituality observed: “Joseph Ratzinger was no friend to LGBTQ Catholics. When asked if he ever met a gay person, he is quoted as saying that when John Paul II went to Berlin, he saw some gays demonstrating. Surrounded as he was in the Vatican by gay clerics, his psychological awareness was myopic. His preoccupation with abstract theology prevented him from understanding human sexual behaviour in its complexity.”

For many people, renegade, dissenting or even mildly curious theologians and advocates for a broader appreciation of the concrete realities of our sexual nature might seem like special interest groups no pope should kowtow to. But they are not special interest groups, any more than women are a discrete, benevolent entity. They are all part of that messy thing, that field hospital, as the current pope calls the church.

Laus Deo.

Pope Benedict XVI, Part # 2

I have received some very interesting and thoughtful reactions to last week's blog and would like to spend some time processing the legacy of the Benedictine papacy that rises above the flood of holy waffle and pious piffle emanating from the conservative wing of the church and the harsh and visceral commentary issuing from the liberal wing.

It was a complicated papacy for sure: there were exceptional moments of compelling aesthetic beauty and spiritual uplift and there were depressing instances of repressive ecclesial behaviour.

How to make sense of it all?

I thought I would start by looking at how I envisioned the new papacy at the time of its inauguration. And so, here is "The New Benedictine Order" that appeared in The Globe and Mail in April of 2005. As you can see from the concluding paragraph things did not unfold as I hoped. It would be his successor who would act boldly and make “the church an hospitable place, a healing place.”

The new Benedictine order

Published in the Globe and Mail, April 20 2005.

Few have said it as well as St. Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century when he observed of the papacy that it is a primacy of confession and not of honour, a primacy of faith and not of rank. One could be forgiven for missing the truth of this statement in light of the high ritual and pontifical grandeur that have defined the papal obsequies and preconclave rubrics of the past couple of weeks.

Ambrose, one of the great Fathers of the Western Church, was prepared to acknowledge Rome as the centre of communion for the universal church but reserved the right to differ from Rome on certain issues, should they arise. Peter, the first pope, was primus inter pares or first among equals, for sure, but he was not Caesar's heir. Rome without the imperium. That's the ideal at least.

John Paul II's newly elected successor, Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the former professor of theology at Regensburg, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a onetime theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), is a man who has certainly not been inclined to delimit Rome's authority. The new Pope is a sophisticated theologian with a taste for the metaphysical and the ontological. His writings are impressive and betray a breadth of mind akin to his colleague, the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In tenor and substance, they are as far away from his onetime theological companion Hans Kung as, say, Mother Teresa is from Christopher Hitchens.

Cardinal Ratzinger's thinking is attractive, seductive even; it offers in many ways the comfort and assuredness of Europe's best Catholic thought, but it is out of sympathy with its time, its ecclesiology classicist and contained. I have read Cardinal Ratzinger's work for many years and am deeply admiring of its organic and substantive nature; I have heard him speak many times, most notably his Magna International-sponsored address to many thousands gathered in the mid-1980s at Toronto's Varsity Stadium, on which occasion St. Michael's College president James McConica smartly quipped that the Cardinal's lecture was a veritable "soul on ice."

While researching the biography of Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter of Toronto, I interviewed Cardinal Ratzinger in an opulent antechamber of his headquarters in Rome -- once named the Holy Office of the Inquisition -- and he was anything but opulent in person. When people speak of high-ranking ecclesiastics dressing simply in a black cassock, as if it were a public sign of their native humility, you quickly discover it is more often an affectation. Not so with this Cardinal. Urbane, generous with his time, and courteously inquiring, he conformed to the image of the pastoral and intellectually solicitous academic so many who knew him personally celebrated. And then I met him again at the globalization conference held at the Vatican and co-sponsored by the International Federation of Catholic Universities just two years ago. He seemed almost serene.

But his will is like steel and he sees the world as an adversary, with the church, the Body of Christ, battered and bruised by hostile forces without, and weakened within by intellectual and spiritual accommodations, however well-meaning, that sunder the authentic message of salvation. Like John Paul II, and it is my personal opinion that he is the superior theologian of the two, Cardinal Ratzinger will have no truck with philosophical, exegetical, and ascetical trends that undermine or compromise orthodox teaching. The deposit of faith is secure in his keeping.

The cardinals have elected the man they are persuaded is the right man at this juncture in history. And they know that popes are not simple replications of each other. It is instructive, I think, that Cardinal Ratzinger took the name of Benedict, as the previous Pope Benedict, the XV (1915-1922), was an irenic figure, seeking peace in war-racked Europe, trying to make sense of and provide moral direction to a society, the old order of which, lay in ruins. Will this Benedict prove as peace-seeking? Will he prove more collegial as a pope than he has been as a Prefect of the Supreme Congregation? Will he be kinder and more understanding of bishops than he has been of dissenting theologians?

Certainly, collegiality, the recognition of the shared responsibility of the entire college of bishops in the governance of the church, will have to be a matter of some priority to Benedict XVI, although in his own writings as prefect he was steadfast in insuring that the universal church is in no way held hostage by the local or particular church. But what puts flesh on the skeleton of collegiality is respect for the local exercise of authority in most areas of ecclesial behaviour.

For instance, in Canada, why is it not an appropriate exercise of collegiality for our bishops to ordain married men drawn from our native peoples? Why is it not an appropriate exercise of collegiality to approve translations in the vernacular of liturgical texts that are culture-specific adaptations and that are gender-sensitive? Under Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments seriously undermined the authority and competence of those best charged to bring a living liturgy to a living people. The fervid determination of the Roman authorities to eliminate, for example, the third form of the Rite of Reconciliation called General Absolution because of its perceived potential for abuse has deprived multitudes of Catholics of this valid experience of healing and forgiveness.

More than once, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council reiterated the wise maxim invoked often by such Eastern-rite bishops as Hakim and Hermaniuk that we must celebrate diversity in unity because genuine unity is not commensurate with uniformity. If Pope Benedict XVI gets collegiality right, then he will find enormous support from his brother bishops on the common front: globalization, interfaith dialogue, biological and nanotechnological challenges to human self-definition, marshalling the energy and spiritual insights of youth for the new evangelization so vigorously advocated by John Paul II, etc.

However, if collegiality is the church's structural priority, then the non-reception by a sizable percentage of the laity and many clergy of the church's teaching on matters of sexuality and the family is arguably the pastoral priority. Confronted with either stubborn resistance or benign indifference to Roman teaching on the matter of artificial birth regulation, bishops, priests and lay people have found themselves upholding the teaching without conviction, shelving the teaching, or vigorously promoting the teaching with little chance of wide acceptance.

It is time to revisit the teaching itself. Clearly, this teaching has a logic, philosophical coherence and natural integrity to it, but its failure to be "received" by so many in the church cannot be dismissed as moral laxity, spiritual waywardness or intellectual flabbiness. The reason why this is important for all Catholics, and not simply those in the West wrestling with cloning, euthanasia and same-sex marriage can be seen in the nuanced disagreement among senior Catholic prelates and ethicists over the use of condoms in combatting HIV/AIDS. This is not a task, however, that Benedict XVI is likely to take to heart. Although it is alleged that he exercised a cautioning role in advising John Paul II not to retroactively claim infallibility for the church's position on contraception, he certainly shares John Paul's loathing of all forms of moral relativism and all efforts to tinker with the church's natural-law doctrine.

The new pontifex maximus must garner his not inconsiderable moral authority -- compromised in some cases and augmented in others but still without universal rival -- to summon all humankind to address the threats that imperil our collective survival. According to Sir Martin Rees, the recently selected president of the Royal Society in Great Britain, we have only a 50/50 chance of reaching the end of the 21st century, facing as we do nuclear war, biological terrorism, ecological disaster and magnum asteroids with a Bruce Willis attitude.

John Paul II, Paul VI and John XXIII were consistent champions of peace, spoke about it, wrote about it, and worked to make its prospects greater. So, too, will the new Benedict whose name honours that of the Pope of Peace of the Great War of 1914-18. But he will also need to put onto his pontifical palm pilot an item of compelling importance: the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church.

John Paul II, who numbered many women among his friends, valued the spiritual leadership of women, was even buried between two women, and never tired of writing about women from the Virgin Mary to Edith Stein, refused to consider women in presbyterial life. It simply couldn't be done in his mind -- theologically, mystically, anthropologically, psychologically, symbologically -- and to that end, he foreclosed all discussion on the matter. Pope Benedict XVI will not be disposed to depart from his predecessor on this. But he will know that women constitute the largest and most generous resource in the church, that they can be found at the heart and not on the periphery of spiritual renewal, and that their numbers studying in the theological disciplines, at least in the West, are by far the majority in many jurisdictions.

In the end, Benedict XVI will be wise to remember that although the First Vatican Council (1869-70) affirmed that the pope is the principal, the symbol of ecclesial unity, he is also the one who, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, "presides in love."

Irish novelist and writer Colm Toibin has it right when he says that a church, his church, unhindered by incredible restrictions, would likely grow in spiritual strength and moral influence.

No pope ever acts precipitately (at least not in recent centuries). And that is good. But this new Pope can act like Peter. Boldly. And there is deep wisdom in that. But like that other Pope Benedict, he must also be a peacemaker, and like the sixth century proto-Benedict (the founder of Western monasticism), he must make the church an hospitable place, a healing place, a locus of unity and not of judgment and denunciation.

Death of a Pope, a Pope Emeritus

This article was published in The Globe and Mail on December 31, and is reprinted here courtesy of the Editor.

It is not surprising that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – the former cardinal born Joseph Ratzinger who passed away on Saturday at the age of 95 – has requested to be buried where St. John Paul II was interred in the Vatican. Although the two were unlike in temperament and aesthetic sensibility – Karol Wojtyla’s preference was for rousing Slavic folksongs, whereas Cardinal Ratzinger relished a Mozart piano concerto – they both worked in tandem to address a world they saw enmired in dangerous thinking, doctrinally unmoored, spiritually adrift.

No surprise, then, that John Paul II chose Cardinal Ratzinger as his papacy’s theological heavyweight, plucking him from the Archdiocese of Munich in 1981 and bringing him to Rome as prefect to run the Suprema (then known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), the Vatican department that ensures orthodoxy. An accomplished theologian with an impressive pedigree, Cardinal Ratzinger did not hesitate to enforce on the ground what John Paul II vigorously proclaimed on his universal platform. Whereas John Paul’s vision was epic in scope and dramatic in style, as befits an actor and poet, his number two’s approach was meticulous, specific, forensic.

The cardinal didn’t hesitate to admonish Catholic thinkers he felt were wayward, prone to celebrity, insufficient in their love for the church and reckless in disturbing the faithful. As a consequence, many of the most fertile and engaged theological minds in Catholicism were censored, silenced or expelled from religious life. Neither the pontiff nor his prefect would have seen this as a purge; rather, they saw this as the “righting” of Peter’s barque after the turbulence of modernity and the perceived flabbiness of institutional governance that followed the Second Vatican Council, between 1962 and 1965.

In many areas of Catholic thought, they were of similar mind and worked conjointly. Few, however, envisioned that the German prelate would succeed the Polish pontiff when he died in 2005. But if the cardinal electors wanted continuity at all costs, the choice was obvious: Cardinal Ratzinger knew the mind of John Paul II better than anyone else in the Vatican.

Appropriately, given the cardinal’s abhorrence of Western civilization’s drift from religious authority, he chose the name Benedict, after the great monastic thinker and founder who helped shape the future of Christianity out of the ruins of empire and the assaults of barbarism. And like his predecessor Benedict XV, whose papacy spanned the First World War, he would rebuild Christian Europe out of the universal carnage.

But almost from the outset, the new pope was embroiled in controversy. His address to an academic audience at the University of Regensburg whipped up an international storm resulting in estrangement from the Muslim community (although he was able to go some way to repairing the damage). He bungled his attempts at rapprochement with a schismatic group, the Society of St. Pius X, when he re-admitted various dissenting figures without appropriate scrutiny, failing to excise a notorious antisemite from their number. The Vati-Leaks scandal broke, implicating the Vatican in all kinds of sexual chicanery and venality. The German episcopate relentlessly opposed his leadership. And the clerical sex abuse scandal, with its endless disclosures of leadership complicity, worsened while he was pope.

But there were high points as well, including his remarkable trip to Great Britain when he beatified the Victorian thinker John Henry Newman, spoke at Westminster Abbey, drank orange Fanta with Queen Elizabeth, and surprised this most secular of countries with his charm and intelligence. (His public speeches were typically deadly in their lack of theatre and emotion but remarkable in their intellectual architecture.) A scholar’s scholar, he also produced a handful of uniformly penetrative encyclicals.

Indeed, Benedict XVI remained the old-school academic. Although the quality of his work was variable, books such as Introduction to Christianity and Principles of Catholic Theology are classics in their field. Throughout his life he was a major shaper of Catholic thought, a definer of the Catholic sensibility.

David Gibson, a sympathetic but critical biographer, rightly notes that “he was a pontiff who wanted to be a bridge but he wound up as a wedge.” I believe that this, ultimately, was the principal reason behind Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation in 2013. He was certainly tired, as he said, his energy sapped by factionalism in the Vatican, his health fragile, his leadership diminished. But he also knew that the pontifex maximus had become an obstacle.

That was his first exit, when he became Pope Emeritus. And now we have his second. Requiescat in pace..

30%, you say?

What is it with the leadership we are saddled with? Whether political parties, corporate financial structures, media empires, sports fiefdoms, or entertainment conglomerates, we seem to have unimaginative folks at the top, keen to preserve their perks, hostile to probing investigative journalists, impervious to their ethical obligations, shut off from reality and floundering.

And then there is the church.

Christopher Lamb, Rome correspondent for The Tablet (London), in his December 17 column wrote about several recent bishops who have tendered their resignations well before their due date. Swiss, French and British bishops, their reasons are variously “too great a burden,” “burnout,” and “inner fatigue.” The Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Dicastery of Bishops, the Vatican body charged with the task of canvassing the talent pool of future bishops and then making recommendations to the pope, has publicly admitted that the number of episcopal candidates who decline the offer to become a bishop has increased from 10% to an astonishing 30% in the last decade alone.

What’s up?

Werner G. Jeanrond, professor emeritus of systematic theology at the University of Oslo, and immediate past Master of St. Benet’s Hall at Oxford, bluntly observed in his article “Twilight of the patriarchs” that “if the current model of church leadership has become unfit for the purpose of preaching the Gospel to a world that yearns for it, then it has to change.”

I was thinking of this recently in light of a comment made to me by one of Canada’s senior Catholic reporters who observed that, in an effort to better understand the new bishops appointed in Canada, he asked each one individually in an interview what they were currently reading. Several were gobsmacked by the question. They struggled to answer, and at least two opined that they didn’t have time to read, and when they did it was canon law articles. Well, I suppose that is something. But certainly a bare minimum.

Effective leadership, in any quarter, is nourished by ideas, fresh thinking, combative arguments, and alternate points-of-view. When you don’t read, those channels dry up and you have a desert.

A couple of decades ago I was in Washington with several hundred presidents of Catholic universities when Cardinal Godfried Danneels admonished the U.S. Church for its anti-intellectualism, and then provocatively queried why there were no bona fide Catholic intellectuals in the American episcopate.

He knew the answer as well as those in attendance. When you prioritize management skills over innovative thinking and orthodox compliance over a questing spirit, you get the men you deserve.

This doesn’t explain the disinclination of various potential bishops to take the job. But it does help to explain the historical context.

Time for bishops who do more than read canon law articles. That is my fervent 2023 New Year’s hope.

These Three

I was quite late coming to the poetry of Mary Oliver. My loss. Her volume of verse, Devotions: the Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, is a treasure trove of insight, empathy, mystical attunement, and astonishing craft. I read four poems per night as part of my modest spiritual reading and prayer and her sonnet, “Of the Empire,” has a meaningful and arresting resonance and not just for me, I wager:

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

As a melancholy portrait of our time, it is both pertinent and disturbing. Even more so, given our current litany of political woes, ecological traumas, and social atomization. And there is, of course, our spiritual malaise directly connected to this sorry litany that cannot be addressed by decrees, dogmas, anathemas or apostasies but by genuine lived examples that show us that the heart need not be “small, and hard, and full of meanness.”

This past 12 months have been marked for me by many deaths. This is likely as much a consequence of my maturing chronology as anything but several of these deaths—sad as they are—have also been reminders to me of the capacity of the human heart to be large, and soft, and full of kindness.

Wayne Hornicek, a laicized priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minnesota, was a beautiful soul. His social justice commitments, his steep schooling in Benedictine prayer, and the extraordinary partnership he and his wife, Nora, had as a spiritual and artistic couple (he the poet and she the visual artist) was an enrichment for all who encountered them. I am grateful for knowing him.

Joan Schmidt, a former teacher and social activist, embodied a ministry of compassion that impressed and edified me for decades. Her gentle approach complemented the more prophetic and oracular personality of her husband, Ted, and bore witness over many years to the enduring power of a teacher’s integrity on her students. I am grateful for knowing her.

Dianne Gallagher, also a former teacher whose students adored her, was a dear friend for over half a century. She introduced me to my wife, shared in the lives of our children, nurtured the good and sensitive in all who befriended her as her gift for friendship was an abiding feature of her open personality. She would lovingly attend on others to a remarkable degree. With her husband Patrick, she relished human connections and all with her irrepressible sense of humour. She certainly saw the absurd in me. I am deeply grateful for our long friendship.

It may seem like a peculiar thing to reflect on the death of friends at Christmas time, but the Feast of the Nativity is all about gratitude, the overflowing generosity of divine love, the ever-reverberating power of the unconditional love of friendship.

The heart that is large, and soft, and full of kindness.

The Scourge that Never Lifts

In just the last month we have seen numerous disclosures and investigations around the ever-vexatious issue of clerical sex abuse. The damning 2021 Sauvé Report in France reverberates still on the continent—some 300,000 instances of abuse over some 70 years—and although those figures and the matrices used to determine them are the subject of honest academic scrutiny and contestation, the reality of abuse and its scope cannot be gainsaid.

Lawsuits and allegations have resurfaced with Vancouver College, the venerable Congregation for the Holy Spirit (the Spiritans) are under vigorous public examination in Ireland for past abuses and coverup by senior leaders, and Marko Rupik, the esteemed mosaicist and ecclesiastical visual artist has been suspended from his priestly duties by his Jesuit superiors as they consider the allegations of abuse leveled by several women of his Ignatian-inspired religious community in Slovenia.

And, of course, outside church circles it is as bad if not worse. Hockey Canada, sports coaches, cinema celebrities, politicians, media moguls, the Canadian military command, etc. Every professional network from the altruistic to the venal has a history of abuse, mismanagement, and moral culpability. But then every institution has its shadow side. None are spared.

The December issue of Maclean’s has a profile/investigation—“Monster in the Classroom”—of a married and charismatic Alberta teacher whose predations, careful groomings, calculated sexual and emotional exploitations of young teens, and pathological lies combine to make for a comprehensive indictment of the public education system in Calgary, the inertia of teaching staff, the abject failure of school leadership, the deplorable inaction of Board personnel, and the myopic preoccupations of the teachers union. None are spared.

In some key ways, the church has learned from its avalanche of scandals and in many jurisdictions has put in place safeguarding and accountability mechanisms that society at large could benefit from replicating. But the primary toxin in the ecclesial system has still not been fully addressed: clericalism. Everyone denounces it—popes, prelates, rectors, ethicists, educators, spiritual directors, journalists, survivors and their advocates.

But beyond the rhetoric and outrage I see very little in terms of a demonstrated strategy of correction. What are we waiting for?

This article was published in The Globe and Mail on December 3, and is reprinted here courtesy of the Editor.

The Vatican should rethink its diplomatic approach toward Moscow and Beijing

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once observed of the papacy that it is not much more than “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” It has already survived that empire by centuries and will for many more because it negotiates with the larger powers in the interests of its constituents and mission. That skill of surviving, even flourishing, sometimes comes at a great cost. The Vatican’s current approach to Beijing and to Moscow provides a stark illustration of the limitations of diplomacy when it threatens to compromise mission.

Although Stalin’s derisive query “How many divisions does the pope have?” underscores the practical limitations of the papacy’s political power (platoons of Swiss Guards coursing up the Moskva River are not imminent), the soft power exercised by the Vatican is considerable.

The “holy alliance” composed of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, U.S. president Ronald Reagan, and the papacy’s John Paul II was undoubtedly critical in facilitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Other recent events showcasing the efficacious professionalism of Vatican politics include Pope Francis’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings resulting in the Barack Obama-Raul Castro rapprochement. Unfortunately, although Pope Francis had done his work effectively, that critical breakthrough normalizing American and Cuban relations fell apart under Mr. Obama’s successor. Still, there was the opening, and it is for such openings that Francis and his team of seasoned political churchmen – Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary of Relations with States, Paul Gallagher – have diligently applied the formidable expertise and resources of the Vatican’s diplomatic machinery.

But with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, Francis’s stalwart commitment to dialogue under any circumstances may be doomed. In fact, the Vatican’s perceived failure to pass harsh judgment on totalitarian regimes gathered greater momentum recently when Italophile, novelist and professor Tim Parks observed, of the silence of Pope Pius XII regarding the Jews during the Nazis’ “thousand-year reich,” that his record is likely to continue to be a fight between his defenders and critics “especially in light of the present pope’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

Mr. Parks’s judgment is unfair, even reckless. There is no parallel between Pope Pius and Pope Francis, given the striking dissimilarity of their historical contexts.

Still, Mr. Parks is dead right in seeing the dangers inherent in a false moral equivalence. Calling for dialogue with a ruthless aggressor like Russia may appear to ensure papal neutrality in a time of catastrophic belligerence, but for Ukraine, the invaded nation experiencing thousands upon thousands of deaths, dialogue is an illusion, and the Vatican will pay a steep price as a consequence. Francis, however, persists in seeing the papacy as a counterweight to the rabid and holy patriotism of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who shares Mr. Putin’s abhorrence of the political and cultural West.

Ukrainian Catholics are, by contrast, offended by the Pope’s peacemaking initiatives and understandably puzzled by the Vatican’s overtures to the Kremlin to serve as a mediating force for peace. But from Francis’s perspective, dialogue is the only way forward to avoid greater carnage because the demonizing of adversaries is counterproductive. Only out of dialogue comes encounter, and then mutual understanding.

If Francis has got it wrong on the Ukraine-Russia question, his position on China has been an equally anguished puzzler for many of his supporters. Francis’s determination to build bridges with China has been a constant during his pontificate. The Holy See signed an agreement with the People’s Republic of China in 2018, which was renewed in 2020 and then most recently in October of this year. The agreement assures the Vatican the right to nominate its own bishops and allows it to merge the two discrete Catholic churches hitherto operating in China: one loyal to Rome and underground, and the other compliant with Beijing. In return, China has some say in the appointment of bishops but insists on the Sinicization of religion, guaranteeing that Catholicism consequently will have a Chinese face.

The chancellor of Oxford University, Christopher Patten, was the final governor of Hong Kong and he negotiated with great skill in 1997 its transfer of power from Britain to mainland China. Lord Patten is a veteran in political matters and a committed Catholic of progressive persuasion who has served Francis as a communications adviser, but he has taken a very public stance against what he calls the Pope’s policy of appeasement with Beijing. Lord Patten told the BBC that “when the Pope said, you know, you have to take a long-term view in China, well, that’s a cop-out frankly. When things are wicked, when things which are done are wicked, we should call them out as wicked.” Lord Patten said that the Vatican’s decision to negotiate with China, when atrocities have been committed against Chinese Christians, the human rights of Muslim Uyghurs viciously suppressed and Hong Kongers hung out to dry, is delusional at best and, “to be blunt, unsavoury.”

Pope Francis knows that realpolitik has its value. But in the end, he is the successor of Peter and not Henry Kissinger on the Tiber. Pope Francis and his church statesmen might want to recalibrate their political priorities.

Is Pope Francis an ecclesiastical Robespierre?

While speaking with an ecclesiologist earlier this week I was impressed by her argument that the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are key to understanding Francis’s reform agenda or pastoral strategy.

No disagreement on that front save for the use of the term reform and what it implies. Is Francis an agent of renewal, a reformer or a revolutionary?

For sure, the pope’s commitment to the Second Vatican Council is a mark of his loyalty to that Council’s logic of church renewal. And undoubtedly his efforts to shake up the atrophied structures that resist the impulsions of the Spirit remind us that he understands viscerally ecclesia semper reformanda.

But I think he is more, much more, than a renewal agent or vehicle of reform. I think he has the credentials of a revolutionary and by that I don’t mean someone attached to anarchy, ruthless re-making, comprehensive subversion, a Maximilien Robespierre or a Vladimir Lenin or a Donald Trump. Francis is not about the abolition of old ways of thinking, devotional traditions, structures of accountability, and networks of cultural and spiritual connectivity. He is not a demolisher. He is a radical synthesizer reconceptualizing what we mean by church, drawing on diverse sources both within and without the Catholic tradition, summoning us to attend to reality as it is, not as sifted through ideological systems, a priori metaphysical abstractions, or deadening pieties.

A friend at the University of British Columbia, a scientist with deep reservations about Catholicism accompanied by an ever-growing admiration of Pope Francis, sent me an article by Tony Barber in the UK Financial Times titled “Pope sets off contest over future of Catholic Church” that has one illuminating historical reference that I find especially tantalizing. In his article Barber addresses the 2023-24 Synod on Synodality and the expectations and fears it generates. He writes: “the Synod represents uncharted waters for the Vatican—and there is a cautionary historical parallel for Francis’s initiative. It is found in France on the eve of the 1789 revolution. With the monarchy in crisis, Louis XVI summoned the Estates General—the future National Assembly—to break the deadlock on reform. All across France, constituencies submitted so called “cahiers de doleance”, or lists of grievances, as Catholic dioceses have done over the past year. A sort of nationwide opinion survey, the process prompted delegates meeting in Versailles to conclude that there was a public mood in favor of representative institutions, individual liberty, equality under the law and an end to absolutism. In the second half of 1789, the tide of revolutionary change became unstoppable.”

A cautionary tale, perhaps, but then Francis is no Louis so hold the tumbrel.

Is all desiccation and ruin?

This Fall has seen the publication of the latest Statistics Canada data on the state of religion in our land. Actually, it is not much more than a snapshot of the vitality of our religious institutions and it only confirms what we have known for some considerable time: the seemingly irreversible decline in official institutional membership or affiliation.

The factors for this decline are legion and many social scientists who measure these trends are hard pressed to provide meaningful analysis beyond the crushingly obvious.

The proportion of those who elect to identify as non-religious has increased over the last two decades from 16.5% to 34.6% and no matter how you cut it that is one significant increase.

Sociologists of religion, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme and Joel Thiessen, provided an overview of the current decline in a shared lecture session on November 17 at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo. They offered an explanation grounded in their review of three current theories—Stages of Decline Theory, Individualization/Spiritualization Theory, and Polarization Theory—and spoke openly of their own reservations regarding these theories, conceding that they are valid, but incomplete and far from conclusive or definitive. But they are of great value in trying to make sense of a decades-long decline, in spite of their provisionality.

Religion is an immensely variegated national reality—what may be true for mainstream liberal Protestant denominations is not true of endlessly effervescent mega churches of the Pentecostal persuasion—so caution is imperative when employing sweeping generalizations. And this true of the ever-expanding mosaic of non-Christian faiths in Canada as well.

For Catholicism, the signs are both ominous and fecund. If we conclude that church structures as we know them—the parish, the seminary, the chanceries and rectories—are objects of faith, enduring entities of ontological consequence, unchanging sacred realities, then we should settle into an era of ceaseless ossification and irrelevance.

But if we believe in the resilience of the human imagination, the welcome creativity that attends on the proddings of the Holy Spirit, and the rich possibilities emerging from a new birthing of structures and modalities that respond to human need rather than the false imperatives of historical preservation, then the latest Stats Canada data need not intimidate us. In fact, they can inspire us to fresh thinking, some new ways of being ecclesia.

Father Louie and Sister Wendy:

What a Combo!

A recent excerpt in America magazine of the correspondence between the storied nun-art critic celebrity Wendy Becket, and the prolific American editor and Catholic spirituality authority Robert Ellsberg, provides a fascinating portal through which to view competing views of the personality and legacy of the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (in the monastery he was known as Louie as his name in religion, his spiritual patron as it were, was St. Louis IX, a king of France, the country where Merton was born in 1915).

Sister Wendy takes issue with Merton’s persona, his controverted fidelity to his monastic vows, his frighteningly volatile perspective on the failures of others. Robert seeks, with some clear success, to provide the British anchorite with a more measured view of Father Louie’s radical swings of mood and analysis.

Sister Wendy’s discomfort with Father Louie’s often acerbic judgements on the imperfections of his fellow monks and his frequent broadsides against those who would uphold a desiccated monasticism, is perfectly understandable. In his private journals and diaries—now published for the world to read—Merton is often uncharitable, quick to condemn what he saw as the dangerous tilt to authoritarianism in monastic life, and merciless in excoriating the hypocrisies of cloistered life and episcopal leadership.

But there are countless other examples that offset his over-the-top zeal to denounce with marvelous instances of affirmation, understanding and abundant sympathy.

I remember meeting in the late 1960s a former cheese monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, Merton’s home for close to 27 years, who had just recently left monastic life. A native Torontonian like me, Bill Balfour spoke of his undiminished affection for Louie and of his capacity to be present for the other monks despite his exalted status. Bill gave Merton a collection of his own poems, knowing that the mega-producing Cistercian would likely have no time for his own modest scratchings, but Merton did find time and wrote a brief and sensitive commentary for him.

The poems were unexceptional and did not augur a career as a poet, but Merton was nurturing and not dismissive.

I was given the task several decades later of introducing many of Louie’s conferences or talks to the novices and scholastics at Gethsemani (they were recorded) and one of the outstanding features of these talks is the revelation of Merton’s extraordinary gifts as a teacher: he attends to the young monks, entices them to query, respects their opinions even as he corrects, flavors the high seriousness of the topics with down-to-earth humour, and clearly delights in being with them.

I recall a time when Bernie Lucht, the then Executive Producer of CBC’s Ideas radio documentary program, and I were interviewing monks and others who knew Merton— Merton the cenobite, Merton the hermit, Merton the poet and savant, Merton the spiritual quester—and we discovered that the underlying affection they had for him was a constant. For sure, he could be troublesome, emotionally adolescent-like, and intolerant of others, but his searing honesty, probing and incisive mind, and limitless capacity for friendship provided a living demonstration of William Blake’s Balancing of the Contraries and Chang Tzu’s Complementarity of Opposites. Two foundational Merton mentors.

When I asked TM’s fellow monk and psychiatrist-abbot, Dom John Eudes Bamberger, what kind of monk Merton was, he paused, ruminated, and then said: “He was a great Merton monk.” Precisely. A singularity of spirit and mind.

Rather like Sister Wendy.

A Noble Passing

When long and noble lives pass we should notice. Even in a time of pandemic and war with many deaths, their cumulative number crushing us with the imperative for remembrance, we should notice.

All the more reason then to remember the passing of a valiant spirit outside the strictures of plague and battlefield carnage.

Last week, I heard through a mutual friend of the death of a genuine polymath, a man with a soaring imagination and a sweet if intimidating personality: John Reeves.

Broadcaster, producer, composer, mystery novelist, poet, and a formidable runner, John died at 95 with an active mind and a willful personality still in firm hold.

I valued him as a friend, although our encounters were few since his retirement from the CBC decades ago. Still, by letter (he was not one for email) and by visitation to his rural home in Clarksburg, Ontario, we remained connected. Over the years I taught some of his Sump and Coggin detective novels—there were 5 in the end—and I wrote an appraisal of his grand oratorio, Salvador Mundi, that premiered at St. James Cathedral in Toronto in the 1980s and that featured an interview with his friend and the conductor of the work, Elmer Eisler. A freshly minted Ph.D and still gestating journalist, I wasn’t really up to the task. I felt terrifyingly inadequate. But John approved of the result and that mattered. To me, at least.

Over the years I published some of his poems in Grail: an ecumenical journal, and I wrote radio scripts for him on such literary and philosophical figures as Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal, Thomas Merton, Margaret Alison, and R. S. Thomas, in addition to work on our shared love of, and admiration for, the photographer-novelist and civil rights activist, John Howard Griffin. Reeves was always a purist, often a pedant, and a relentless perfectionist. He would hold up production for the right pronunciation of a word, and his abomination of cliché knew no limits. He was a taskmaster and none, most especially himself, escaped his demanding scrutiny and high expectations.

John has bequeathed to those who attach great value to the political and spiritual fruits of an all-embracing aesthetic, an impressive body of written and musical works, and to those who knew him personally, a fertile memory of abiding love.

A Veritable Gallimaufry of Offerings

This past week we had a refreshingly informative forum composed of representatives of various U.S. Catholic constituencies with impressive credentials, of diverse backgrounds, and with a range of ages.

I am including the YouTube link for your pleasure and edification. It is the second in a series created by Sacred Heart University’s ecclesial reform blog, Go, Rebuild, and the participants are regular bloggers for the site.

Quo Vadis: Where is U.S. Catholicism Going?

In addition, you can find below a live streamed panel discussion organized by the Canadian group, Concerned Lay Catholics, providing a variety of voices from across the country articulating the wisdom of lived experience through a platform for synodal stories of hope. The event is this Sunday from 2-4, Ontario time.

Synodal Stories of Hope

Sun, Nov 6

2:00 – 4:00 pm ET

sign up to attend:

And related to all things synodal, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto will be hosting on Thursday evening, Nov. 10, a substantive exploration of the theology underpinning Pope Francis’s daunting and inspiring thinking on synodality. “Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries” will consist of an impressive panel of informed individuals and will be moderated by the distinguished Canadian Catholic historian, Mark McGowan.

Panel discussion: “Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries” report

Thurs, Nov 10

7:00 – 9:00 pm ET

RSVP to attend in person:

RSVP to attend online:

for more info:


Bad Catholics, you say?

One of my favorite screenwriters and directors is Jimmy McGovern. His work includes such films and television series as “Cracker,” “Broken,” “Hillsborough,” and “The Lakes,” among many others. In relation to his most recent series, the prison drama “Time,” he observed that “religion sounds boring to some, contentious to others. To me it is a wonderful source of stories about what is to be human.”

This wonderfully wild Liverpudlian Catholic gets it right. Religious stories are not the stuff of a devotional divertissement, they are not proselytizing tracts, and they are not fodder for a theological excursus.

Artists explore the religious sensibility in ways that expand and not constrict our intellectual horizon. They help us connect to our deepest selves; they help us make sense of the whirligig of life, the shattered bits, the shards and detritus of human longing.

A dear friend, the poet and essayist J. S. Porter, forwarded in my direction a brief blog essay entitled “Why Bad Catholics Make Great Art” by American writer Nick Ripatrazone.

It is not an especially insightful piece, the style is pedestrian, and its very length—3 pages—ensures its restricted range. But it is informative. The author lists among the crew of “bad Catholics”—the “bad” quality appears to be limited to lapsation rather than moral turpitude—such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon. He also manages to throw in other artists such as Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen and Sting. Quite the motley collection.

Very C/catholic, that.

I think discussions around the theological or religious status of individual Catholic artists to be essentially beside the point. It is not their past or continued membership in the Catholic tribe that matters but rather the way they draw on the richness of the tradition to feed their imaginative works. There are those for whom it will be constitutive and for others it will be vestigial. For some, like James Joyce and Eugene O’Neill, it will be marked by a scarring anger, and for others, like Elizabeth Jennings and Antonia White, by a searing luminosity.

For me, although mildly interesting to know of the conversion to Catholicism by the likes of Bob Hope, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, and of the cradle Catholicism of Gregory Peck, Danny Thomas, Bradley Cooper, Mark Whalberg, Andre Dubus and Andy Warhol, it is actually the anguished Catholic struggles of Robert Mapplethorpe and Martin Sheen that I find compelling.

Conflicted and not bad Catholics make great art.

The Broken Majesty of “The Waste Land”

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” This poem, an epic disclosing of the anguish to be found between the wars, continues to exercise its wide influence over not just a generation but a century, and then some.

If Eliot captured the spiritual unease of a time sandwiched between conflagrations, if Eliot opened poetic vistas hitherto untried, he did so out of his own questing for meaning in a time of shattered certitudes.

But “The Waste Land” is more than a chronicle of a desiccated age; it is a powerful evocation of an atmosphere, a tone, the poignant memory of a lost order, a devastating isolation, a collapse of cultures and all as personally experienced.

I love this poem for its bold breadth, its unconventional musicality, its surprises, rich mixture of voices, pan cultural resonances, and weird humor. I was overwhelmed by its broken majesty as an undergraduate when first introduced to it and I fell under its inescapable allure as a graduate student when I had the privilege, although I did not appreciate it at the time, of studying Eliot for a year under one of the earliest Eliot scholars, D. E. S. Maxwell. His book, The Poetry of T. S. Eliot, was an early study, 1952 to be precise, and was especially illuminating on “The Waste Land.”

But perhaps most importantly Maxwell taught us to read the poem for its lyrical beauty, he introduced us to the immense possibilities of vers libre, and he alerted us to its occasional bouts of whimsy. I have taken footnotes with a grain of salt ever since.

In many ways the poem’s multi-textured sensitivity to religion—its allusions to several sacred scriptures, for instance—was a forerunner, a presage of his later more intense interest in the metaphysical and mystical, as in “Four Quartets.” “The Waste Land” predates his own conversion to the Church of England by several years but in its genesis is its consummation, its ending in its beginning.

But mostly it is a poem to be savored more than devoured. It is a portal unto the modern soul. As writer Anthony Lane astutely observes in his New Yorker tribute to the poem’s centenary: “You may not know “The Waste Land,” and you may not like it if you do. But it knows you.”


Ogle and Hogan: we need their like again

While reading Shannon Proudfoot’s informative and moving eulogy/obit to politician and pastor Bill Blaikie in The Globe and Mail of October 1, I was struck by many things: the remarkable life of service of this long-serving Manitoba NDP MP; the integrated and sapiential way Blaikie managed to inform his politics with his faith; the paucity of high quality candidates for political life in our country; the deplorable injunction against Roman Catholic priests serving their community in public life.

Canada groans under the weight of unimaginative political leadership. We anguish over the reasons why candidates of skill and vision decline to serve, especially women who have become particularly vicious social media targets, and we spiral as a consequence into a cynical morass of indifference and despair. But it needn’t be that way.

Blaikie, a United Church minister, built a strategy of serving Canada that made room for his faith, a faith grounded in the Social Gospel tradition of his church, a faith that defined his twofold ministry. There have been other ministers of religion in Canadian legislatures provincial and federal and they have had inspiring careers. We need more of them not because we want to replicate the sorry state of religion in political life we find in the United States with its theocratic leanings, soul-destroying polarization generated by the bizarre admixture of faith and politics—and all of this against a backdrop of state-church separation—but because Canada can provide an alternative model that works.

When we allow it to.

There is no compelling reason for the continued exclusion of Catholic clerics from serving in the chambers of political governance. I understand the current reasoning, the sanctions against such involvement in the political order, the canonical restrictions, the episcopal anxieties. But I also recall the exemplary service provided by Bob Ogle of Saskatoon and Andy Hogan of Glace Bay-Sydney—priests in good standing both—who were also NDP federal parliamentarians. They were required to relinquish their right to seek re-election following papal pressure. John Paul II was not partial to priests in politics as he made clear in his censure of four Sandinista priests in Nicaragua—one Maryknoller, one Jesuit, one former Trappist and a diocesan. In addition, Jesuit law professor and dean Robert Drinan was required to give up his Massachusetts Democratic seat. So Ogle and Hogan couldn’t be spared.

No role for the clergy in politics, it seems, unless you are Pontifex Maximus.

Of course, for priests or sisters for that matter, serving in the political arena is fraught with challenges. So much can go wrong. But so much can go right, as well.

But first of all a clear delineation between vocation and profession is essential and the openness of political parties to allow for conscience-determined exemptions in matters of morally contested legislation is imperative.

Worth considering when we look about us, mourn the loss of leaders like Bill Blaikie, and appreciate the growing need for Canadian Catholics to repair damage done to the church’s national image.

This week’s blog was published in Inside Policy on October 4, 2022. Click to see that article.

Understanding Pope Francis’s pilgrimage of penance:

Michael W. Higgins for Inside Policy

Faced with our tragic history of residential schools and their embodiment of a culture of contempt, we need to accept with contrition and humility our personal and collective responsibilities.

In a recent interview in Sojourners, Harry Lafond, a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, an educator and a Roman Catholic deacon, spoke of his meeting with Pope John Paul II and identified him as a kichci kehtiyinew, a cherished holy man, a grandfather. That meeting occurred in 1997.

John Paul was not unfamiliar with Canada as he had alighted on Canadian shores three times – 1984, 1987, and 2002.

But none of these papal landings in Canada have been as electrifying, polarizing, or turbulent as the recent pastoral “pilgrimage of penance” of Pope Francis.

Swept up in a whirlwind of conflicting narratives, political point scoring, failed expectations, a soured Canadian public, anxious Catholics, and far from neutral nationwide media coverage, it seems a mite outrageous to say that it was a success, but it was precisely that.

In honouring his pledge in Rome last spring to the Indigenous representatives that had travelled to ask him for an apology for the dreadful legacy of the church-administered residential schools for Indigenous children, Pope Francis knew that this was going to be a journey of pain. But, in spite of his physical impairment, he was resolved to come, offer apology, connect with Indigenous communities on their land, and offer a way forward to meaningful and credible truth and reconciliation.

The situation is fraught. The aftershocks of the residential school system – intact for over a century – have grown in intensity; the Catholic Church, which ran 60 percent of the schools on behalf of the federal government, has faced an onslaught of criticism regarding its failed stewardship. And the “discovery” of some 200 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which had been under the aegis of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, unleashed a torrent of rage and calls for action.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has not handled this file well, in sharp contrast with some individual bishops like Don Bolen of Regina and Michael Miller of Vancouver, and as a consequence Francis’s visit is a repair operation.

In his address at Vespers in the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Québec, Francis adroitly acknowledged the special significance of such Quebec-born thinkers as Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan, with a generous nod to St. François de Montmorency Laval, the first Roman Catholic bishop of Canada and a seminary builder par excellence (an institution whose best-before date has long expired). In the process, he paid subtle tribute to the role his two Canadian cardinals have played in preparation for this trip: Marc Ouellet and Michael Czerny, both Quebeckers, one by birth and the other by early formation.

In quoting Taylor on secularization, he notes that it represents a challenge for our pastoral imagination, “an occasion for restructuring the spiritual life in new forms and new ways of existing.” In applying this bold exercise in pastoral imagination to the Canadian context, indeed the New World context, Francis is calling for nothing less than a spiritual revolution. How do we address the corrosive effects of colonization, the deliberate and systematic effort to eradicate the cultures and spiritualities of the First Peoples, the appalling record of Euro-centric hegemony with its presumed civilizational superiority, in a way that moves beyond theory, exhortatory rhetoric, and deft political manoeuvring?

Theologian Frederick Bauerschmidt concisely encapsulates the options: “Christians must take as their model not Sepúlveda [the Spanish Renaissance humanist], who justified the conversion by conquest of the Americas, but the martyred Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who died because they would not abandon their Muslim neighbors.”

The option is either aggressive proselytization or authentic witness. For centuries, we chose the former and the consequences are clear. Francis repeatedly has called for the recognition of the special genius of the Indigenous peoples, their harmony with creation, the richness of their languages, which we ruthlessly suppressed, and the paramount need to move through truth to reconciliation and forgiveness.

Although official Catholic thinking on matters of missiology, interfaith sensitivity and religious freedom have changed profoundly as a consequence of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), centuries of encrusted prejudice, racial superiority and ecclesial triumphalism retain their residual power. This must end.

Faced with our tragic history of residential schools and their embodiment of a culture of contempt, we need to accept with contrition and humility – qualities much prized in the tradition of Catholic piety – our personal and collective responsibilities.

Francis understands this at the most visceral and compassionate level. For me the most telling and effective moments that spoke to the pastoral instincts of this pope were his kissing of the hand of an elder and his return of a pair of child’s moccasins to a former chief as he had promised when first he received them last spring in Rome. Tactile moments; moments of embrace; gestures of connections.

For sure, the political squabbling and ecclesial debates in the background often moved for the foreground, but Francis relished the personal encounter over the ideological jostling and political posturing.

And, of course, once freed from script and protocol, he spoke his mind freely on the plane back to Rome, conceding that indeed what happened to the Indigenous peoples was genocide, and that the controverted “Doctrine of Discovery” reflected a colonial mentality that must be repudiated.

His critics got what they wanted. But on his terms. The “pilgrimage of penance” would not be compromised. The personal encounter would be prioritized, the deepest empathy assured, and reverencing the “other” made an imperative.

Deacon Lafond has spoken about “wahkohtowin which in Cree refers to building relationships and connections; we have laws of behaviour about how to treat human beings. To reset the relationship between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples, we have to follow processes that take us there.”

Now back to the Canadian bishops.

Michael W. Higgins is Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, a Senior Fellow at Massey College, and Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

University as Pastoral

Some further thoughts on what it actually means to be university educated

There are not a few university administrators and faculty who believe—adamantly, I might note—that the function of a university is for thecquisition of knowledge. PERIOD. Any approach that departs from the dispersal of data, that falls under the rubric of “pastoral” or formation, is anathema, foreign to the university’s purpose.

I am not in their number.

With John Henry Newman, I believe that the university—any post-secondary institution worthy of the name really—is not a recruitment centre, storage hold for the potentially employable, a “foundry, mint, or treadmill.”

The utter bankruptcy of an education that does NOT touch the moral fibre of a person has been dramatically etched for us in the terrifying apotheosis of twentieth-century barbarism: the Wagner-loving, Goethe-reading culture of the supreme automaton: the ruthless servants of the Reich. Think Amon Goeth of Pƚaszów [Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List] or Reinhard Heydrich, SS supremo [Kenneth Branagh in Conspiracy].

It is the job—the indispensable, necessary job—of education to produce fair critics of both received and of untried ideas for this is what a university must do: provide an environment wherein an exacting and disinterested search for the truth is conducted.

The Catholic university must add to this enterprise three specific and defining characteristics:

a) An ambient tenderness: a caring sanctuary where the person is treasured as a person and the little things that define our humanity as in being solicitous of someone having a bad day, holding the door for a stranger, smiling when encountering the downcast, paying attention to others by shattering our self-protecting bubble

b) A gentle and not pugilistic openness to dialogue: a healthy engagement with the ideas of another is not license to excoriate. In a society where polarizing rhetoric is the norm and when scoring nasty and brutalizing points on your opponent is approved if not lauded, the only antidote to the madness that now besets us is a respectful attending on the Other

c) A Christocentric focus that is pastoral and not dogmatic.

In the end, a university is a humanizing reality. When dehumanizing aspects threaten its integrity they should be resisted, not indulged, called out, not ignored, faced down, and not fled from. Such aspects have no place in the academy.

Memory of John O’Malley

John O’Malley is dead. The learned and intellectually indefatigable Jesuit historian died this month in his nineties. He had few equals in his time. His formidable studies of the three determinative church councils of the modern era—Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II—are essential reading for Catholics—progressive, conservative, or simply unsure and curious.

I have read his work for years and admire still his lucidity, rigour, generosity of spirit, and abhorrence of facile historical judgements. I met him twice, once on the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctorate from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, a University whose genesis during a Council gives it a unique status in the United States. The other occasion we met was the time when one of his esteemed disciples, Massimo Faggioli, was similarly being honored by Sacred Heart.

On both occasions the president, John Petillo, hosted a dinner in his home ensuring both a delectable dinner and a rich, fully engaged and transparent debate around issues of consequence for the church. When speaking, O’Malley was consistently fair; he eschewed easy denunciations of the platoon of obscurantists who decried Francis but was firm in his own postconciliar credentials and support of the pope.

I asked him what he thought of the furor, in some circles at least, around the ontological status of the Catholic priest. He gave me a wry look and said: “I have never met an ontological priest.”

And then returned to eating his soup.

Proclaiming the Queen a saint is not outside the realm of possibility: Anglicanism does not require miracles

This week’s blog was published in The Globe and Mail on September 19.

No Western institution so skillfully orchestrates elaborate, arcane and profoundly moving ritual as the Vatican. With the exception, of course, of the British monarchy. Evidence of such mastery of panoply and sacred theatre has been in abundance these past weeks, culminating with the funeral of the Queen today. And there will be more to come with the formal coronation of Charles at some future date.

There is another parallel between the Vatican and the British Crown that is both arrestingly relevant and provocative at the moment, and that is canonization or sainting. The world watched the requiem for Pope John Paul II and marvelled at the breadth of his popularity. That popularity rose to fever pitch as his coffin was led from the Piazza di San Pietro into the Basilica when calls erupted from the huge crowd for “santo subito” – to proclaim him a saint immediately by way of acclamation. It didn’t quite happen that way but the saint-makers in the Vatican took note.

The situation isn’t exactly the same at the Queen’s funeral, although the emotional intensity, the feeling of loss and the impulse to veneration, are easily comparable to that accorded John Paul II.

The sainting of the Queen is not outside the realm of possibility. Queen Elizabeth was Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith – a key fixture in the religious establishment of the land. She knows what it is to be an Anglican. And Anglicanism does have a place for saints, although its history regarding “saint craft” and relics is a fraught one.

As always, Anglicanism found the middle road between an outright abhorrence of anything to do with saints on the one hand and a replication of the Roman system of invoking saints on the other. It created its own criteria:

Miracles would not be a requirement, a complex sainting process would not be necessary, and honouring the saints would be a devotional option without the force of law and tradition. A casual glance at the names included in the Anglican Common Worship Calendar of 2000 reveals an inclusive mosaic of holy ones – those in the words of Anglican scholar Kathleen Jones “whose lives had the merit of personalizing theology – bringing the great issues of Christian living down to the human level, and providing models for others to follow.”

Queen Elizabeth certainly fulfills that rubric.

The problem with sainting is the general public misperception about what holiness actually means. Elevation to a status of perfection it is not. Rather, it connotes personal integration, authenticity and integrity. It means placing the needs of others and the demands of office above one’s own preferences and priorities, and in the Christian tradition it means, as the Queen herself said in her Christmas 2000 address: “For me, the teachings of Christ, and my own personal accountability before God, provide a framework in which I try to live my life.”

Her vocation as Queen requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is duty lived fully and unrelentingly. As a Globe editorial phrased it: “In a world of charlatans and fakers and self-actualizing hypocrites … she was the real deal.”

To be the “real deal” is a mark of her exceptionality as a human being, a sign of her “heroicity of virtue” as the Roman Catholic saint-trackers dub it. It means that your life as a witness to the truths and commitments that define you is a life of unwavering fidelity.

The Royal family – “The Firm” as they call themselves – is a collectivity of broken oath takers, dysfunctionality, philandering princes, engorged egos, corrosive entitlement and crushing mediocrity. Such is not the full history, for sure. Lessons have been learned, accountability has been rendered, and an unaccustomed humility is surfacing periodically to call into check those Royals who think destiny, c’est moi.

If the Queen has successfully navigated the ship of state – within the constraints of her constitutional status – she has also ridden the tumultuous seas created by her wayward children. That alone is sufficient ground for sainting.

There have been monarchs who preceded her that are included in the Anglican calendar – Edward the Confessor and Charles I, for instance – and then some who didn’t quite make it (Henry VI comes to mind). There have also been other continental rulers “raised to the altars” that can serve as precedents, including the entire Romanov family, which was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church (mercifully Rasputin didn’t make the cut).

But no precedents are needed. Queen Elizabeth was a model Christian. She was the real deal.

A Contentious Trip to Canada
Pope Francis fulfills a pledge, but it’s only a start.

This week’s blog was published in Commonweal Magazine on September 4, 2022.

It was not the typical papal visit. Yes, there were the political dignitaries, the popemobile, and the larger-than-usual press corps. But the reason for the visit was different, the tone was different, and Pope Francis was different: he was in a wheelchair for a good part of his July visit to Canada.

He was there to honor a pledge he made in March of this year to the various representatives of the Métis, First Nations, and Inuit communities of Canada who had travelled to Rome to meet Francis personally and to ask on Vatican soil that he come to their soil on Turtle Island. They did so because they wanted him to apologize for the role of the Church in administering the Residential Schools that had been established by the federal government in the nineteenth century with the express purpose of ensuring total Indigenous assimilation into the white Victorian Christian society that was Canada at the time. The schools were in operation between 1869 and 1965, although the final school didn’t close until the mid-1990s. Over that time these institutions housed more than 150,000 children. Of that number, several thousand died while in custody.

At the behest of the government, Canada’s churches were charged with overseeing the residential schools and were funded to that end. Many denominations were involved, including the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Canada. But most schools fell under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, principally under the control of several religious orders, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate being the primary one.

As Duncan Campbell Scott, an esteemed Canadian Confederation poet and the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Residential Schools, observed in 1910, in response to criticism over the high number of Indigenous children who were perishing in the schools: “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem.” The historical resonances of the phrase “a final solution of our Indian problem” are unnerving if not frightening. Scott certainly saw his task as nothing less than “killing the Indian in the child,” as the first prime minister of Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald, so inelegantly put it.

The legacy of the schools has been a national scandal for decades: intergenerational trauma, disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates, astoundingly high youth suicides, rampant addiction, inadequate education, poorly maintained reserves for status Indians, appallingly poor self-esteem infecting every aspect of Indigenous life. Canada was shamed into recognizing this sordid history with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report of 2015—a chronicle of suffering that was a thorough, unflinching, unqualified indictment of decades of abuse. The government and the churches were severely criticized, and in short order various steps were implemented to provide financial compensation for survivors and the descendants of survivors, along with commitments to educate the Canadian public on the history and scope of what the TRC commissioners identified as systemic discrimination culminating in cultural genocide.

The report contained ninety-four calls to action, among which was a potent summons to accountability by the bishop of Rome. “We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

The onsite apology didn’t happen in a year—it took another six—and the reasons for the delay are many, the key ones of which I explored in Commonweal in 2021 (“The Wrong Men”, July 30). The tepidity of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ response to the request, the failure of the Catholic Church in Canada to meet its financial obligations—in sharp contrast with its sister churches—and the relentless exposés of clerical abuse in the media combined to damage episcopal authority, outrage lay Catholics, and eventually create national momentum for the pope’s trip that could no longer be resisted or sidetracked.

Francis heeded the request of the Indigenous representatives in Rome, responded positively to the pro forma invitation from the CCCB, set about familiarizing himself with the reality on the ground; he was aware too that for many his Canadian trip would be a test case for subsequent papal travels. The trip was not a state visit; there was no addressing the House of Commons and Senate in Ottawa. Although he was welcomed in Quebec City by Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person in Canadian history to serve as the Governor-General, the Queen’s Representative, and he was twice in the company of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the political class was largely absent. This trip wasn’t about them, and you could feel their collective relief.

But Francis quickly found himself the center of contentious and competing priorities. For many in the Indigenous community, his visit was about bringing some closure to the process initiated by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement of 2007, which ushered in a new era of political and ecclesial accountability. The prospects emerging from this agreement were promising, and the way forward, although not without its hurdles, eschewed the moral murkiness of past treaties with their broken promises. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work in earnest, it did so in the context of the larger history of Indigenous-settler relations, post-confederation (1867) Canadian expansion, and centuries of neglect by the Crown. It was an ugly history, and an anguished First Peoples’ cry for recognition and reparation was the backdrop for Francis’s visit. Dissatisfied with government prevarication and foot-dragging, the Indigenous communities saw the appearance of the pope on their land as an historical correction, as he apologized for the Church’s role in running the residential schools and more besides.

That “more besides” became a defining feature of the trip and came close to hijacking Francis’s spiritual pilgrimage. What I am alluding to is the centrality accorded the Doctrine of Discovery and calls for its revocation by many in Canada. Heavily controverted by historians, canonists, theologians and moral philosophers, the “doctrine” is situated in the bull, Inter Caetera, issued by the Spanish Borgia pope Alexander VI in 1493. Alexander, largely at the behest of their Most Catholic Majesties of the new Spain granted to the conquistadores—working, of course, on behalf of their monarchs—possession of any lands 100 leagues west of the Azores on condition that they were not already under the jurisdiction of any other Christian ruler. A previous pope, Nicholas V, had likewise offered “full and free permission” to the Portuguese crown to build a Christian empire in regions pagan and Saracen.

The messy politics of crown-and-cross alliances has never been ideal, and these pacts have been effected in circumstances where both parties are seen as mutual beneficiaries. But very early into the 16th century, Rome began to think differently, and with Paul III and his bull Sublimus Deus (1537) there was a radical departure from the Borgia pontiff’s teaching: “We define and declare that said Indians and all people who may be later discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ: and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”

Fine and noble words, in keeping with the Gospel, but Paul III was swimming against the stream. The venality of kings and the rapacity of viceroys eclipsed the moderating humanism of theologians and preachers like Antonio de Montesinos, Francisco de Vitoria and Bartholomé de las Casas who made compelling arguments advocating for the inviolable dignity of the First Peoples. However, in the end, it was the courtiers and conquistadors who won. They found validation of their behavior in philosopher Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda’s argument that the Indigenous were by nature disposed to servitude. This argument was instantiated in law by the United States Supreme Court in 1823, with Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in Johnson v. McIntosh that Native Americans were entitled to hold a right of occupancy but did not have complete sovereignty over their own land. Canada in turn relied on Marshall’s reasoning and judgment to ensure “exclusive power to extinguish” Indigenous claims and rights within its borders.

Throughout his time in Canada, Francis faced repeated demands that the Doctrine of Discovery be rescinded and done so publicly. The fact that Alexander’s Inter Caetera had been abrogated or rescinded shortly after its initial promulgation and its propositions repeatedly refuted by subsequent pontiffs appeared not to have penetrated media consciousness. In fact, a Statement by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See at the UN in 2010 made clear “the fact that juridical systems may employ the Doctrine of Discovery as a juridical precedent is therefore now a characteristic of the laws of those states and is independent of the fact that for the Church the document has had no value whatsoever for centuries.” Although this statement and a subsequent detailed analysis provided by the Commission for Justice and Peace of the CCCB—“The Doctrine of Discovery, Terra Nullius, and the Catholic Church: An Historical Overview” (2016)—were essential resources for any enlightened discussion, they were noticeably absent in any exchange, relegated to relative obscurity until the last moment, and then hastily provided to a media that had since moved on.

It was a communications disaster by any definition. Francis himself seemed puzzled by the frenzy, responding to a reporter’s query on the plane back to Rome that if the Doctrine of Discovery is about colonization and its myriad ills, then the Church emphatically rejects it. In addition, he made clear that he accepts that what happened at the residential schools was cultural genocide, although he never used the term in his scripted locutions and homilies in spite of numerous pleas from Indigenous leaders to do so. The advice he received from his Canadian hosts—principally the Archbishop of Edmonton, Richard Smith—appears to have been inadequate. Accompanied by two knowledgeable Canadian Curial cardinals, Francis was well prepared for his spiritual pilgrimage of penance and healing but ill equipped to navigate the tumultuous political and ideological seas.

Yet he charmed and moved the crowds, was honored with a traditional Indigenous headdress, and managed his physical challenges with grace. But as everyone says—regardless of their position and perspective—this papal trip was only the beginning. In the months before Francis’s visit, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland released a report on federally run Native boarding schools, which American Jesuits played a substantial role in operating, and called for a Truth and Healing Commission to examine that history. Francis’s experience in Canada could provide some instructive lessons.

The modern university faces challenges — but it is not in decline

This is the online version of the Globe and Mail article sent earlier today — a little more personal. Enjoy!

Michael W. Higgins is Basilian Distinguished Fellow in Contemporary Catholic Thought at St. Michael’s College, and a distinguished professor emeritus and senior fellow at Massey College.

I started my life in the academy as an undergraduate in 1966, and entered the professoriate with the humbling title of special lecturer in 1977. But this past Labour Day weekend was the first in several decades in which I wasn’t toiling in the groves of academe – or at least in those groves that house senior administration. Retiring from those responsibilities provides me with the luxury of taking a macro rather than micro view of higher education in the country, and seeing how things are very different now.

The poet, essayist and scholar Eli Mandel once remarked in a graduate course on Browning and Tennyson that although both nostalgia and metaphor lie, the latter is an inventive construct that suggests imaginative connections where there are none; nostalgia, on the other hand, sifts the past of reality and restructures in a golden haze. Metaphor feeds intellectual curiosity; nostalgia deadens it with the weight of false memory.

It is easy then to look at university life as a withering scene. To many, it is no longer the sanctuary for freedom-mad 1960s adventurers, but a factory churning out workers for the diverse industries that drive our economy and our success. But such a perspective is reductionist, unhelpful and misleading.

Certainly, the postsecondary landscape has changed, and irreversibly so. The citizenry expects different things from universities than was once the case; tuition fees and residential costs have increased considerably; expectations around the deplorably dubbed “deliverables” cast universities in a different role from the one they had in the not-too-distant past; the notion of collegiality has undergone profound mutations; and what was once considered an elite entry for the privileged has since become a necessary portal for survival.

And that is sad. But what is not sad are the many instances of accommodation and creative adjustment that define the university world in Canada today. Where once the exclusive mode of delivery was magisterial, and where once the professor was the premier embodiment of knowledge to whom deference (even when cynical or sardonic) was expected – that has all been replaced, for the better, by the Socratic method of shared discovery.

The university is the quintessential generator of new and fresh thinking; it is the place where ideas collide and ferment, and where contestation of view is the critical engine that expands knowledge. In a time when truth is regularly upended, when facts are eviscerated, when the pulsations of unreason destabilize us, and when polarizing rhetoric becomes normative, the university is existentially indispensable.

This is not to suggest that the university is an Edenic enclave – the locale where the bien-pensants hang out, while the rest of society writhes in turmoil. The university itself is a fraught institution, where conflict is endemic and ferocious opposition is tolerated. And those are good things as they constitute the nature of the university as a laboratory of ideas, and not as a mausoleum of settled thinking.

Whereas some see the university in decline, viewing its dumbing-down as the inevitable result of deteriorating literacy as marketing and commodification become the driving force of university growth, I see these as serious challenges to a vibrant university life, rather than as defining ones. After all, the university’s plasticity is greater than its stolidity. And key to that plasticity are its faculties of humanities and social sciences, those arenas wherein new models of thinking are constructed and deconstructed, where tradition and revolution play off each other, and where intellectual daring is applauded rather than feared. That is why they need to flourish; they keep the university true to itself.

I have been a part of the university for nearly half a century now. I know firsthand that it is a shape-shifter, making alliances both political and economic, while struggling to balance continuity with substantive and evanescent trends.

Whatever new contortions and threats await it, the university will rise to them precisely because it has done so in the past. For me, the university environment retains something of those qualities that fuel young and old minds: intellectual curiosity for its own sake, the spirited testing of unexplored ideas, the fruitful playfulness that comes with doing something you love. They are not as much in evidence now as I think they should be, with the needless burdening of our students with high seriousness too early in their lives. The university can be as much an oasis as a cauldron; its genius lies in securing that balance.

What I relish are memories of savouring the words of Oscar Wilde, trying to figure out what Nicolas Malebranche was all about, visualizing the Venice of John Ruskin.

That may well be nostalgia on my part. But the old can also dream afresh and wish the same for the young.

Quebec lawsuit is the latest chapter in a legacy of clerical sexual abuse

Special to The Globe and Mail, published August 19, 2022.

Michael W. Higgins is distinguished professor emeritus, senior fellow at Massey College. He is currently writing a book about Pope Francis.

What a dark week for the Catholic Church in Canada. A class-action suit against dozens of clergy in the archdiocese of Quebec seemed like just another sadly predictable iteration of a common theme: the enduring legacy of clerical sexual abuse. A reminder, as one venerable monsignor remarked to me, that it is like Chinese water torture. Will it ever come to a merciful end? Will it end at all?

The recent revelation was shattering owing to the inclusion of allegations against one of the “princes of the church,” Cardinal Marc Ouellet. The allegations against the cardinal have yet to be tested in a civil court, although Pope Francis has concluded that there is insufficient evidence for a full canonical investigation. In a statement Friday, Cardinal Ouellet said he “firmly denies” the allegations, calling them “defamatory.”

A woman, currently identified as “F,” alleges that while working for the archdiocese as a pastoral agent during Cardinal Ouellet’s tenure as archbishop (2003-2010), he inappropriately touched her various times. She concluded later that his alleged behaviour constituted sexual assault. She complained to the archdiocesan authorities and then to the Pope himself, and that’s where it stood – until she joined a class action and the cardinal’s name surfaced in the context of other names.

I am in no position to judge the merits or veracity of the charges, but the mere fact that the allegation now has public exposure raises genuine issues of abiding concern for reform-minded Catholics. This is far from the first instance of a senior prelate like a cardinal finding himself at the heart of a controversy involving sexual impropriety, assault or predation.

Hermann Groer, the archbishop of Vienna from 1986 to 1995, was removed from office as a consequence of a multitude of complaints about his sexual behaviour with seminarians. The tardiness of Rome’s response – John Paul II stood adamantly behind Cardinal Groer for a long period – seriously damaged the reputation of the Austrian church. Keith O’Brien, the archbishop of Saint Andrews-Edinburgh (1985-2013), the senior-ranking U.K. prelate at the time, stood down as a cardinal – a hitherto unprecedented action – and retired from public life because he was accused of sexually exploiting seminarians and young priests. He relinquished his right to attend and to vote in the conclave that elected Pope Francis. Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington (2001-2006), fell from grace with a thunderous ferocity. His well-chronicled history of allegedly seducing and exploiting young priests whom he nefariously dubbed his “nephews” resulted in a minutely detailed report from the Vatican – again unprecedented – culminating with his removal from the cardinalate and reduction to the lay state, the severest sanction Rome can impose.

The most controverted case to date is that of Australian George Pell, the cardinal chosen by Pope Francis to introduce and preside over financial reforms of the Vatican economy. Cardinal Pell was accused of preying on altar boys while Archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001) and was extradited to his homeland, tried and sentenced to jail. Upon a successful appeal, his case was overturned, and he resumed residency in Rome.

This is the pool in which Cardinal Ouellet now finds himself. Whatever judgment or conclusion emerges in his case, the shadow of accusation alone is sufficient to ensure that his status as papabile (considered Pope material) is now permanently gone.

Cardinal Ouellet has held many portfolios in and outside Rome, is a polyglot, an able administrator (specifically as head of the Dicastery of Bishops), a sound if conventional theologian and a cleric who believes in a vital priesthood and the efficacy of seminaries. In fact, he is a priest of the Society of St. Sulpice, a French-founded order committed to educating priests.

It is a depressing irony that the scandals surrounding Cardinal Ouellet and other clerics are in part the result of seminary formation itself, the very incubator of the clericalism that infects the church from the top down. As the priest-psychologist Henri Nouwen observed of his own seminary training in Holland, although the courses were interesting and the fraternity of like-minded individuals welcome, the two pivotal things he did not learn was how to pray and how to be intimate, the two indispensable qualities of any effective priestly ministry. And by intimate he did not mean an invitation for an erotic free-for-all; he meant being comfortable in your own skin, having an integrated sexuality.

To achieve the latter, the church needs to rethink how it shapes its priests. It needs to shift the mindset away from the clericalist mentality of entitlement and invulnerability – and bring an end to the culture of abuse.

A Humble Roman

Today’s blog comes to you courtesy of Go, Rebuild My House through Sacred Heart University.

When Julius Caesar informed the Senate of the Republic of Rome of the successful military defeat of an enemy by his legions, he is reputed to have said Veni, Vidi, Vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.

Two millennia later, another Roman came, saw and conquered. Except in this instance, the people he addressed had already been conquered for centuries, knew the personal price of defeat and dispossession, and he came not in triumph with a wreath of victory, but on a “pilgrimage of penance.”

Pope Francis traveled from the Tiber to Canada to honour his pledge to deliver an apology on native soil to the First Peoples of the New World for the colonizing crimes of the past, specifically the church-administered residential schools. These schools were often enclaves of segregation, cultural genocide, brutalizing behaviour by overseers, large dormitories of physical and sexual abuse, places where children were involuntarily submitted to a process of rigorous assimilation to the dominant power. These schools were the creation of the federal government, but the political leaders in Ottawa discharged operational responsibilities to several Christian churches—United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Mennonite and Roman Catholic—the lion’s share of which fell under the auspices of Catholic religious orders. For over a century, some 150,000 Indigenous children went through the schools. Thousands died due to disease, malnutrition and neglect, while intergenerational trauma damaged the lives of countless survivors and their descendants. The social and political consequences of a policy born of Victorian high mindedness and arrogance are with us still.

Expectations for this papal visit—held last month in three discrete areas of the country (Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit)—were high and the pope knew that he was being dropped into a political and spiritual maelstrom. Still, he masterfully focused on the mission at hand—a healing mission distinguished by its genuine contrition and moral imperative for healing. He knew that for all the words written for him by his Canadian hosts, curial support team and cardinal advisors, in the end he needed to impart sincerity by gesture, silence, attentive listening and tactile moments of embrace and reverenced kissing.

Francis knew that he needed to create a momentum of tenderness because he knew, as that very Catholic Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor knew, that when tenderness is just theory and “cut off from the person of Christ … its logical outcome is terror.” To be tender is to be accountable, to be present to the other and to honour the other.

When Francis came to Washington to address both Houses of Congress, he highlighted some of the moral visionaries of the land, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He also included in their number Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and made much of their intellectual and spiritual contributions to America.

Likewise, when Francis came to Canada, he drew on the wisdom of two of the land’s globally recognized Catholic thinkers: political philosopher Charles Taylor and philosophical theologian Bernard Lonergan, a fellow Jesuit. In quoting Taylor on secularization, the pope noted that secularism constitutes a formidable challenge for our pastoral imagination and prompts us to look at “restructuring the spiritual life in new forms and new ways of existing.”

As I have said in my guest column, “View From Guelph” (The Tablet, August 6, 2022), “in applying this bold exercise in pastoral imagination to the Canadian context, indeed the New World context, Francis is calling for nothing less than a spiritual revolution. How do we address the corrosive effects of colonization, the deliberate and systematic effort to eradicate the cultures and spiritualities of the First Peoples, the appalling record of Euro-centric hegemony with its presumed civilizational superiority, in a way that moves beyond theory, exhortatory rhetoric and deft political manoeuvring? Theologian Fredrick Bauerschmidt concisely encapsulates the options, “Christians must take as their model not Sepúlveda [the Spanish Renaissance humanist] who justified the conversion by conquest of the Americas, but the martyred Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who died because they would not abandon their Muslim neighbours.” The option, in other words, is either aggressive proselytizing or authentic witness. For centuries, we chose the former and the consequences are clear.

Francis repeatedly calls for the “recognition of the special genius of the Indigenous peoples, their harmony with Creation, the richness of their languages, which we ruthlessly suppressed, and the paramount need to move through truth to reconciliation and forgiveness.”

What happened in Canada is now unfolding in the United States following a detailed investigation initiated by the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, examining the legacy of the Native boarding schools, the role of Catholic orders in their administration and the need to find a process for moving forward with national healing.

Francis’ Canadian journey can prove a workable and inspiring template.


In a gloomy time, a time of political upheaval, wars, insurrections, a time when sedition is rewarded, integrity sundered, morality compromised—a time like our own, with a former U.S. president fomenting rebellion, a Czar wannabe invading a sovereign land, an English prime minister too comfortable with falsehoods, and Canadian senior politicians strutting and preening rather than leading—we have cause to despair.

I was thinking these gloomy thoughts when I came across a couple of articles by my favourite contemporary Catholic spiritual writer, Timothy Radcliffe.

I never had the chance to speak with him personally, although we did correspond, and our major opportunity to connect—a lecture at Sacred Heart University—never happened because his worldwide speaking tour was interrupted with a serious bout of cancer of the jaw. There was a minor opportunity in London, but it didn’t quite pan out.

I was in England with a colleague and former chaplain and managed to attend a retreat day directed by Radcliffe at St. Margaret’s Church, directly across from the House of Commons and adjacent to Westminster Abbey. I was impressed by his sincerity of voice, gentle if sometimes unsettling insights laced with humour and self-deprecation, and by his ecumenicity of vision. But mostly I was impressed by his grounded hope.

I had planned on speaking with him after the retreat but he slipped out of the church and took a train back to his home at Blackfriars, Oxford. And a Blackfriar he is. In fact, he was Master General of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, for an eventful tenure that saw him in numerous areas of strife standing beside his companions as they faced adversity.

Sudie MacDonald, the Nova Scotian who served as Superior General of the Congregation of the Resurrection, and long a resident in Rome once told me that there was no more admired a religious leader in the city than Radcliffe and that many thought he should have succeeded Basil Hume as Archbishop of Westminster. No matter, he alighted on his true métier: spiritual counsellor and writer.

When you read Radcliffe you discover how hope-suffused he is and how with that gift he offers the searchers, the distraught, the aimless, and the despairing an antidote to their gloom. Not a facile optimism, not a glib religiosity, but a genuine hope rooted in a living faith. As he says: “We share our faith implicitly by how we live. We believe that our faith is true, and human beings can only thrive in the clear air of truth. The Lord of the truth summons us to live now. And we do this by letting go of the burden of the past and opening ourselves to promise in the future. If this frees us to live, people may wonder why. We may even be on fire a little, like the burning bush that Moses saw. He then said, ‘What’s going on here? Let’s have a look.’”

Radcliffe’s specific audience here consists of young people discerning their future lives as Dominicans. But it applies as well to us all: seekers of spiritual authenticity in a time of Babel.

View from Guelph

This week’s blog is drawn from The Tablet—a reflection on the recent papal visit for an international audience. The piece is on page 27, but I am providing you—courtesy of the Editor—with the full issue, for your pleasure. This British weekly is a publication of unparalleled superiority in the English-speaking world. I admit to my bias—and be assured this is my sentiment and not the Editor’s, necessarily—but its literary and theological pedigree, its reputation for critical fidelity, and its history (it’s been around since 1840) guarantee a consistent high quality journal.


The Pope’s visit highlights his gift for meaningful engagement

No previous papal visit has been like it. When John Paul II first alighted on our shores in 1984, his travel across the country was akin to a Roman triumph: massive and adoring crowds, church and state pomp of the highest order, a festive atmosphere sometimes accompanied by a populist frenzy. And it was media saturation.

When John Paul came back for a quick visit to Fort Simpson in 1987 to honour a promise to the Indigenous peoples of the North, it was a quiet moment, a pledge fulfilled, sans controversy. But when he arrived for World Youth Day in 2002 – his final visit – the excitement was muted. He was seriously impaired by illness: It was an ecclesiastical rock star event without an invigorating, crowd-pleasing star.

The “penitential pilgrimage” of Pope Francis is in stark contrast with all three of his predecessor’s Canadian journeys. And for me, the most important by far.

Pope Francis came to Canada because he was invited to do so at a critical juncture in church and national history; he came to Canada because he heard in his heart the cries of the suffering and because he felt great humiliation and indignation. He came because he had to.

His time in Canada – July 24 to 29 – has also been a pilgrimage of pain, a chronicle of remorse, a litany of shame. The history of the Catholic Church’s role in administering residential schools, its complicity in a national strategy to eradicate Indigenous culture through the suppression of language and spirituality, its willing participation in a program of family-shattering and inter-generational trauma, have all been in the public court for years. And unlike other churches, the Roman Catholic Church in Canada dragged its feet on many accountability issues, falling short on some of its financial commitments, sidestepping the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report Call to Action #58 that expressly asked for the Pope to come to Canada to issue an apology.

And then came the Kamloops Indian Residential School unmarked graves exposé in the spring of 2021 and all was altered – irrevocably.

Pope Francis’s time in Canada has all the hallmarks of his gift for meaningful human encounter. He has apologized several times – although debate over the comprehensiveness of these apologies has not abated – and he has personalized the interactions with Indigenous leaders by being present to them outside script and protocol.

The two most powerful moments for me – and I have covered many papal occasions over the years – were Pope Francis’s simple human gestures of engagement. Not the photo ops with the Prime Minister and Governor-General, but kissing the hand of Alma Desjarlais and returning a child’s moccasins he had been given in Rome by former chief Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier, fulfilling his promise to bring them back with him.

Expectations for this visit were high and Pope Francis knew that he was being dropped into a vortex of demands, conflicting political and religious pressures, and gruelling schedules. But he successfully and adroitly avoided being caught up in the politics swirling about him; he remained focused on the mission at hand, a mission of contrition and not facile appeasement. He came to ask forgiveness, to stay firmly rooted on the path to reconciliation, to acknowledge the consequences that must flow from addressing a deplorable legacy with its “burden of failure.”

Pope Francis knows the power of silence, especially its curative potential. Of course, his visit was in many ways a cascade of words and relentless activity – masses and other liturgies, speeches, formal conversations, homilies, baby-kissing – but the solemn moments at a cemetery, the prayerful disposition in a wheelchair, the sacred time for recollection, define this Pope’s pastoral approach beyond words.

As outrageous as it may sound, given the din created around the demands to revoke papal bulls that have in fact long since been abrogated and given the reactions of many survivors and their families to apologies that they deem insufficient, Pope Francis remained focused on creating a momentum of tenderness. He knew, as that very Catholic Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor knew, that when tenderness among Christians is just theory “cut off from the person of Christ ... its logical outcome is terror.” To be tender is to be accountable, to be present to the “other,” to reverence the “other.”

Only genuine Christian witness can counter the culture of contempt that marks our residential schools legacy. Pope Francis knows that in his bones as much as he knows that a true pilgrimage of repair must originate among Canadian Catholics – clerics and lay – and that the Bishop of Rome is but one player in an historic unfolding of truth and reconciliation.

Published with permission from the editor of The Globe and Mail. Read the original here.


If you’d like to receive Pontifex Minimus in your inbox every Friday, subscribe here!


The Jesuit Disruptor: A Personal Portrait of Pope Francis

(House of Anansi, Sept. 2024)

Pre-order from: Bookshelf (Guelph) • Words Worth Books (Waterloo) • Westminster Books (Fredericton) • IndigoBarnes & Noble • your local independent bookstore!

Pontifex Minimus is written on the ancestral territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabewaki, Attiwonderonk and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation peoples, who have stewarded these lands since time immemorial.

Intuit Mailchimp logo