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.


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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.

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