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Vatican enlists influencers to get young, disenchanted Catholics to answer Synod survey

null / Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Aug 9, 2022 / 16:34 pm (CNA).

Last fall, Catholics around the world began gathering in church basements and school gyms to, in the words of Pope Francis, “look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say.” These listening sessions were the first phase of the two-year-long Synod on Synodality that will end in 2023 when the bishops meet to chew over what they’ve learned.

Now that parishes have recorded testimony from the faithful and compiled it in official reports, the Vatican is sending the message that they want to hear from those they may have missed – young or inactive Catholics who failed to show up at the parish meetings.

Jimmy Akin, a Catholic apologist and a host of the popular radio call-in show Catholic Answers Live, is one of several lay Catholic “influencers” the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications asked to reach out to those unaccounted-for Catholics. 

Akin’s radio audience includes many non-Catholics, agnostics and atheists who try to trip him up with challenges to the faith. He answers respectfully, using logical arguments to defend the teachings of the Church, reminding his listeners that as a convert, he too faced similar obstacles before deciding to become a Catholic.

On Twitter Monday, Akin invited his 21,800-plus followers to participate in the Synod by filling out a survey. 

“The Vatican is doing an online survey to be submitted to the Synod of Bishops. They are interested in hearing from a wide range of people who may or may not be active Catholics. You can share your views here. The deadline is August 15,” he posted.

The survey, which he links to his website, asks respondents questions about their faith, how often they go to Mass, and whether they have had a personal encounter with God. 

Other questions, concerning attitudes towards the Church, provoked a negative reaction from some who took issue with the phrasing of the multiple choice answers.

One survey question, for example, asks, “Which of these attributes best define the Church?”

Survey takers are asked to select three adjectives from the following list: “supportive,” “selfish,” “authoritarian”, “participative,” “innovative,” “outdated,” “close,” and “distant.”

Another question, asking why people leave the Church, didn’t include enough options, some Twitter users suggested:

One Twitter user wrote, in response to Akin’s post, “I’m sorry Jimmy but this survey is rubbish, it is very clear that the one who made it is out of touch with the real challenges facing the Church nowadays (lack of reverence, suppression of tradition, relativism, religious indifferentism, going with the Zeitgeist etc. etc.).”

 

While the overwhelming majority of comments to Akin’s post were negative, there was some praise for the Vatican’s efforts:

Akin told CNA he wasn’t surprised at the reaction to the survey.

“Many people are suspicious of the upcoming Synod on Synodality, and that itself would generate concerns. Also, from filling out the questionnaire myself, it was clear that whoever composed the questions and answers was not thinking from the perspective of many active, engaged, orthodox Catholics,” he said.

“I expected that there would be individuals who saw the questionnaire as slanted towards a particular set of viewpoints and answers,” Akin added.

On the whole, he thinks it is worth completing the questionnaire.

“My view is that if the Vatican asks for your opinions, it is better to cooperate and give them, even if the instrument is imperfect. Having your voice heard is better than not having it heard at all,” Akin said.

Akin added that he was glad to help when asked.

"I recognize that the Holy See is a place with people who have many different views, and nobody except the pope has the final say on a thing. But I believe in being helpful and constructive when asked, so I was happy to help the Dicastery for Communications," he said.

The Vatican, he said, was also aware that Akin’s audience and that of the other influencers is not representative of active Catholics.

“Someone at the Vatican clearly understood that they would not be getting the views of people who don't go to Mass from the diocesan surveys. They made a point to us that participants do not need to be active Catholics to share their views. They want to hear from people of goodwill who are willing to engage with the Church in some form, even if some do not presently practice the Faith,” he said.

The Vatican’s communications office conducted a similar campaign in France and in Spain, employing “priest influencers” to reach out to young people who failed to attend the parish Synod meetings.

"Following the synod, from which young people were largely absent, the dicastery met with a group of Spanish influencers," Father Gaspard Craplet told the French Catholic website La Croix.

"They said that the digital world should be consulted and submitted the question to the pope, who replied that we should go for it," he said.

Craplet told La Croix that the dicastery contacted him and other priests who have a following on social media and asked them to pass along the survey. 

"Unlike a parish, influencers reach people who follow them freely, like sheep choosing their shepherd," he said.

The survey distributed in Spain sparked backlash because a possible gender identification was reportedly listed as “I do not know.”

That part of the survey was said to have been amended to read, “Don’t want to respond,” the answer that was subsequently adopted by the American version of the survey distributed by Akin.

The Synod on Synodality was announced in March 2020. It is focused on discernment with the whole people of God, journeying together, and listening to one another.

It began with a diocesan phase, in which each bishop has been asked to undertake a consultation process with his local Church. The results of these consultations are to be sent to the Vatican by Aug. 15.

This will be followed by a continental phase, from September until March 2023. It will conclude with a Synod of Bishops held at the Vatican in October 2023.

Lightning strike causes major fire damage to historic Illinois Catholic church

Firefighters work to put out a roof fire at historic St. James Catholic Church, in Rockford, Illinois, on Aug. 8, 2022. The Diocese of Rockford said a lightning strike was a possible cause. / Screenshot of Rockford Diocese video

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 9, 2022 / 15:10 pm (CNA).

A lightning strike caused a roof fire Monday that severely damaged a historic Catholic church in Rockford, Illinois, and left three firefighters injured, authorities said.

The Rockford Fire Department determined that lightning set the roof on fire, Mike Rotolo, the department's fire prevention coordinator, told CNA Tuesday. The damage to the church may exceed $3 million, he said.

The city's building department posted a yellow sign with the message “Condemned: Do Not Enter” outside the church Monday, Rotolo said. This means that the building is not safe to use in its current condition, he said.

The church is located outside the Chicago metropolitan area in the far northern part of the state. The church was first blessed in 1853, according to the parish’s website.

In a statement, the Diocese of Rockford said the fire broke out before 7 a.m. on Aug. 8. The diocese posted a video on its Facebook page showing firefighters responding to the blaze.

No one was inside the church during the time of the fire and the pastor safely removed the Holy Eucharist from the building, the diocese said.

Three firefighters responding to the scene suffered non-life-threatening injuries, the fire department said in a tweet.

“Bishop David Malloy extends his profound gratitude to all the first responders, the vigilant neighbors, and all those around the diocese who have offered prayers during this extremely sad and unfortunate event,” the diocese’s statement said.

“Prayers are also being offered for those three courageous firefighters reported to have sustained injuries while fighting this fire,” the statement added.

Reacting to pontifical academy, theologian says teaching of Humanae vitae can't change

St. Paul VI / public domain

Denver, Colo., Aug 8, 2022 / 19:01 pm (CNA).

The teaching of Humanae vitae on contraception is an instance of the ordinary and universal magisterium, and as such is irreformable, a moral theologian has said in response to a statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Father Thomas Petri, O.P., president of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., noted that even critics of the teaching on contraception have “acknowledged that this was always the Church’s teaching” and that nowhere in the Church’s teaching has there been permissiveness, of any form, of contraception.

“This suggests that this has always been the teaching of the Church, so it's part of the ordinary, universal magisterium,” Petri said. “So even if it's the case that any particular encyclical” such as Humanae vitae “is not infallible, the teaching that it presents is in fact irreformable, because it's part of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church.”

In Humanae vitae, his 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth, St. Paul VI wrote that “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means” is “excluded,” as an unlawful means of birth control.

The Pontifical Academy

The Pontifical Academy for Life, an institution associated with the Holy See but which is not itself a magisterial body, hosted a 2021 seminar on ethics in which a participant discussed “the possible legitimacy of contraception in certain cases.”

A synthesis of the seminar was recently published by the Vatican Publishing House, which has given rise to questions about whether the Church’s teaching on birth control is reformable.

The Pontifical Academy for Life has defended the discussion it hosted of the permissibility of contraception, tweeting Aug. 5 that “History records by Abp. [Ferdinando] Lambruschini confirmed that Paul VI said him directly that HV were not under infallibility.”

Then in an Aug. 8 statement, the academy wrote that “many people on Twitter seem to believe that Humanae Vitae is an infallible and irreformable pronouncement against contraception.”

It noted that “when the moral theologian of the Pontifical Lateran University Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini presented Humanae Vitae in a press conference … he stated under the mandate of Paul VI — that the encylical Humanae Vitae is not to be considered part of the infallible pronouncements. Lambruschini stressed that Humanae Vitae did not express a definitive truth of faith granted by ‘infallibilitas in docendo.’”

The statement added that as Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła asked Paul VI to define Humanae vitae’s teaching as infallible. “Pope Paul VI did not do it and neither did Pope John Paul II during 26 years of his pontificate," the academy's statement said.

Father Petri’s response

Petri noted that St. John Paul II had confirmed Humanae vitae’s teaching as part of the ordinary and universal magisterium. 

“In Veritatis splendor — which the Pontifical Academy does not note — in Veritatis splendor John Paul II does say that contraception is an intrinsically evil act, so there can be no reason or purpose for contraception. Benedict XVI gave several speeches in which he spoke about contraception, and it can't be changed. What was true yesterday is true today.”

While there can be “legitimate discussions of how to present it or how to help people understand it, or how to help people who are in difficult situations, whether medically or even because of moral pressure,” the teaching itself is not a topic for debate, explained Petri, author of "Aquinas and the Theology of the Body" (Catholic University of America Press, 2016).

“There could be a real discussion about how to do that, but there can't be any sort of rollback of the teaching, because it's what’s always been taught, and that's how Catholic theology, and Catholic doctrine, works.”

“These things aren't really meant to be argued over Twitter,” he reflected. “It's not the forum to sort of put these things out there.”

Petri added that “It's not helpful to simply focus on infallibility and what is named infallible in an extraordinary way. The First Vatican Council, when it spoke about papal infallibility, was very clear that it was supposed to be an extraordinary act.”

Petri compared an infallible statement to an ecumenical council. He described it as “a very extraordinary act, and which usually only happens when the matter at issue, whether it's a doctrinal matter or a moral matter, has become so entirely embroiled in conflict … that it requires such an extraordinary act as a pope or a council declaring something infallibly.”

“That's not normally how Church teaching works — that's why the ordinary magisterium is important.”

When a pope does not intend to teach infallibly, “that doesn't mean we're supposed to ignore what he's teaching, or to act like his opinion is just one opinion among many," Petri said.

“Even if he's not intending to proclaim something infallible, especially when he's teaching things that popes have been teaching for centuries, it has a certain weight to it.” 

While one might disagree with how things are expressed, “that doesn't mean that what he's teaching is up for grabs," Petri said.

“All the more so when you're talking about a teaching which multiple popes have repeated over multiple decades. And in the case of contraception we could say centuries," he said.

"You simply can't say, ‘Well, Humanae vitae wasn’t declared infallible, Paul VI didn’t declare it infallible, therefore because it’s not infallible, it’s up for grabs.' This is not a binary.” 

A similar point was made in a 2019 article by Augusto Sarmiento.

Sarmiento wrote about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1990 instruction on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian, which discusses various levels of magisterial statements. The article appeared in “Dizionario su Sesso, Amore e Fecondità,” edited by Father José Noriega and René and Isabelle Ecochard.

A professor at the Univerisity of Pamplona, Sarmiento noted that “the pope, with Humanae vitae, did not will to propose an extraordinary teaching of the Magisterium ex cathedra.”

To support this, he quoted from Lambruschini’s comments at the press conference presenting the encyclical: “However, it is always an authentic pronouncement, especially since it is part of the continuity of the ecclesiastical magisterium.” 

Sarmiento wrote: “On the nature of the authority with which the norm of Humanae vitae is proclaimed, there is no doubt that it is part of the ordinary, universal magisterium,” and that the encyclical “is a teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium of the Pope and of the bishops that must be considered definitive.”

Humanae vitae and its precedents

In Humanae vitae St. Paul VI taught that “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive” is thereby “intrinsically wrong.”

The pope discussed artificial birth control in the context of defining and analyzing marital love and responsible parenthood.

“The Church … in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life,” St. Paul VI wrote, adding that this doctrine has been “often expounded by the magisterium of the Church.”

He presented his statements as a reply, given “by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ,” to questions on the moral doctrine of marriage.

St. Paul VI referred especially to the teaching of Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world. 

Gaudium et spes stated that spouses “must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel … Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate.”

This statement, in turn, referred in a footnote to Casti connubii, Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on Christian marriage, which proclaimed “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

In that encyclical Pius XI referred to “frustrating the marriage act” as a “criminal abuse," and said that “those who in exercising [the conjugal act] deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”

Casti connubii also states that “Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime,” and cites St. Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture as such.

The present day

Pope Francis was asked about a re-evaluation of the Church’s doctrine on contraception, or whether the use of contraceptives may be considered, on his July 29 flight from Canada to Rome.

The pope responded that “dogma, morality, is always on a path of development, but always developing in the same direction.” He cited St. Vincent of Lerins as saying “that true doctrine, in order to move forward, to develop, must not be still, it develops … it is consolidated over time, it expands and consolidates, and becomes always more solid, but always progressing. That is why the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection. You cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front. Then it is up to the Magisterium to say, ‘No, you’ve gone too far, come back.' But theological development must be open, that’s what theologians are for. And the Magisterium must help to understand the limits.”

He referred to the acts of the Pontifical Academy for Life’s seminar, saying, “those who participated in this congress did their duty, because they have sought to move forward in doctrine, but in an ecclesial sense, not outside of it, as I said with that rule of Saint Vincent of Lérins. Then the Magisterium will say, ‘yes, it is good’ or ‘it is not good.'”

Mónica López Barahona, a board member of the academy, told ACI Prensa last month that “It’s not true that the Church or the Magisterium have changed their moral criteria regarding some questions of bioethics; not even that the Vatican has begun a process of reviewing these issues.”

López stressed that "the book is not an official declaration of the Pontifical Academy for Life on these issues" and that it does not represent "the moral criteria of all its members,” adding that “some were disconcerted when they saw the news about the publication of the book and the seminar, about which they knew nothing until that moment."

Drive-by gunshots target Denver-area Catholic church

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Adams County, Colorado, sustained thousands of dollars in estimated damage from a pair of drive-by shootings Aug. 6 and Aug. 8, 2022. / Courtesy of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church

Denver, Colo., Aug 8, 2022 / 17:30 pm (CNA).

A gunman shot at a Denver-area Catholic church in separate early morning incidents Saturday and Monday. No one was hurt, but one estimate suggests the gunshots caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

Parish staff stressed the need to pray for the perpetrator and emphasized that they are taking the utmost security precautions.

“We are praying for the conversion of whoever did this,” Deacon Derrick Johnson of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church told CNA Aug 8. “If there’s any opportunity to speak to that person, we’d be happy to speak with them and have a dialogue.”

Johnson spoke after two separate rounds of gunshots hit the parish church in unincorporated Adams County just north of Denver. The Adams County Sheriff's Office is handling the investigation.

“In the early morning of Aug. 6 and 8 there were two separate incidents of shootings that hit the front doors at Assumption Parish,” Johnson recounted.

Security footage of the first incident, the deacon said, appears to show “a single motorcyclist shooting what we believe to be a pistol as he drove by.”

“These incidents happened after hours,” Johnson said. “We don’t believe they are targeting people. Just targeting the church for whatever reason.”

Photos of the church sent to CNA show damage to the church exterior, including a bullet hole in a window. Doors and doorframes also were damaged. Photos show a broken outer window above a set of double doors, with shattered glass beneath.

“The first morning we discovered three shots, two into the door and one through the stained glass in the door,” Johnson said. “Two of the bullets were recovered and given to the Adams County sheriff.”

“On Monday morning, another bullet impact was discovered, this time above the doors, impacting the protective layer of the stained glass. The projectile was also given to the sheriff’s office,” the deacon added.

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Adams County, Colorado, sustained thousands of dollars in estimated damage from a pair of drive-by shootings Aug. 6 and Aug. 8, 2022. Courtesy Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Adams County, Colorado, sustained thousands of dollars in estimated damage from a pair of drive-by shootings Aug. 6 and Aug. 8, 2022. Courtesy Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church

News of the shooting has not yet become widespread among parishioners, Johnson said, though the first incident took place hours before a wedding.

Johnson wanted parishioners to know that parish staff is committed to their safety.

“We are absolutely conscious of security, between our security team and ensuring that we have adequate camera coverage and lighting in front of the parish. We’ll do our best to make sure that whoever did this is prosecuted,” he told CNA.

Though the bullet fractured one outer window, it did not break through a stained-glass window behind it.

The church’s custom-fit doors were recently completed at a cost of $75,000. The deacon described Assumption as a “very, very old parish.” The parish church was first dedicated in 1912, though the structure has gone through several renovations and expansions incorporating the original building.

Johnson estimated the damage at about $75,000.

The parish church is on the same property as Assumption School, which serves about 130 students in pre-K through eighth grade. The shooting has not affected the school, as the school year has not yet begun.

“Hopefully it’s limited to a late-night incident,” Johnson said. “We will be taking the highest security precautions for the school like we always do.”

Though the parish wants the perpetrator brought to justice, the parish is praying for its attacker.

“We’re praying for whatever is going on in the life of the person who did this,” the deacon said. “The parish is here for them.”

CNA contacted the Adams County Sheriff for comment but did not receive a response by publication time Monday.

Indiana’s broad abortion ban overshadows another pro-family law passed the same day

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signs bills in Indianapolis, March 10, 2022. / Governor Eric Holcomb via Flickr (public domain)

St. Louis, Mo., Aug 8, 2022 / 17:04 pm (CNA).

The same day last week that Indiana adopted an abortion ban with limited exceptions, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law another measure the state’s Catholic conference says has the potential to help families.

Known as SB2, the legislation, which received broad bipartisan support, provides for a tax exemption for an adopted child, cuts the state’s tax on children’s diapers, caps the gas tax, and increases the adoption tax credit, the Indy Star reported.

It also creates a $45 million fund for a variety of family-related programs and initiatives, the Criterion, the newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese, reported.

“The Catholic Church has a history of providing aid, comfort, and support for mothers and families,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, the Criterion reported.

“It hopes that the allotted $45 million will improve the lives of Hoosiers by supporting adoption, pregnancy planning, the health of pregnant women, postpartum mothers, and infants, along with supporting the needs of families with children less than 4 years old,” she said. “Additionally, there are funds to address the barriers to long-acting reversible contraception.” 

The legislation was overshadowed by the sweeping abortion ban Holcomb signed into law the same day, Aug. 5.

The law represents the first state abortion ban passed in the U.S. following the June 24 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, giving states the authority to regulate abortion.

Set to take effect Sept. 15, Indiana’s law outlaws all abortions with exceptions for abortions performed to preserve the life of the mother, as well as exceptions for instances of rape, incest, or “fatal” fetal anomaly.

The law stipulates that doctors must certify in writing to the hospital or center in which the abortion is to be performed that the abortion is necessary, under their reasonable medical judgment, to preserve the mother’s life or health, or that the unborn baby will not survive because of an anomaly. 

The Indiana Catholic Conference wrote ahead of the final vote that it supports the measure, while also highlighting the bill’s flaws.

“Most importantly, the bill needs stronger enforcement mechanisms and a continued tightening of the language around exceptions,” the Indiana Catholic Conference wrote July 27. On that point, the conference has noted that while direct attacks on unborn human life ought to be prohibited, that need not preclude medical interventions that indirectly result in a loss of unborn life when the intention is to save the life of the mother. 

Any abortion law should, however, convey the equal dignity of the mother and child, the conference said. 

Alexander Mingus, associate director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, said the conference supports the bill under the teachings of St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which urged support for laws that would limit the harm done by intrinsic moral evils such as abortion if a complete ban is not politically possible.

The new Indiana law came just days after voters in Kansas failed to approve a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state’s legislature to pass new abortion restrictions. A 2019 Kansas State Supreme Court ruling found that the state’s constitution supports a right to abortion, preventing lawmakers from passing new restrictions on abortion beyond the current 22-week limit.

Evolution & Revelation

In Why We Believe, the anthropologist Agustín Fuentes has written a clear and concise account of belief in light of his extensive knowledge of human evolution. Fuentes, who has taught at Notre Dame and is now a professor at Princeton, has written several books and articles that strive to present a biologically informed but non-reductive account of human nature. While himself religiously unaffiliated, he has frequently worked with theologians and scholars of religion in various collaborative science-and-religion projects. For an evolutionary thinker, he has a remarkable openness to what can be learned from religious traditions, religious philosophers, and theologians.

His new book is intended to show that, while we are the product of evolutionary processes and belong to the biological world along with countless other organisms, our distinctive capacities for imagining, feeling, and thinking give us special responsibilities to shape our societies more justly than we have in the past. Fuentes wants to explain “why we believe” partly in order to correct what he calls the dueling “fundamentalisms” of, on the one side, religious people who refuse to allow their view of human nature to be shaped by the impressive and growing body of knowledge about human evolution and, on the other, secular intellectuals whose enthusiasm for scientific methods of investigation has led them to embrace “scientism”—that is, the assumption that science alone provides the kinds of explanations that count as real knowledge. Fuentes rejects the assertion of scientism that “beliefs” are mere subjective opinions that educated adults should not take seriously. He argues instead that, while the sciences do yield a vast array of insights into how things work, there are many other paths to knowledge that involve believing claims we cannot justify on scientific grounds. Most of what we think is true is not “immanently generated knowledge,” as Bernard Lonergan points out in Method in Theology, and our reliance on the division of labor means that “belief plays as large a role in science as in most other areas of human activity.”

Fuentes appropriately begins his book by laying out what he means by “belief” and “believing.” In popular discourse, the act of believing is often taken to mean affirming the truth of a claim without having any empirical evidence for it. Philosophers have produced an enormous body of literature debating whether there are necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for “propositional knowledge.” A great deal of that literature is critical of the (purportedly) traditional theory of knowledge as “justified true belief.” But rather than wading into these waters, Fuentes draws on Terry Eagleton’s conception of believing as a state of being “completely in love with a concept, an experience, a knowledge.” The capacity to believe is based in our distinctively human capacity “to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, and to infuse the world with meaning.”

Believing is a pervasive part of human experience and by no means the sole preserve of the religiously devout. Fuentes distinguishes between our core ability to believe and our believing that this or that particular proposition is true. Here he unknowingly resonates with the Catholic vision of faith as comprising both fides qua creditur (the faith with which we personally assent to a truth) and fides quae creditur (the content of what we believe). Living faith, in the Christian sense, is not simply believing that God exists, but believing in, trusting, and loving God. This is not Fuentes’s concern, but Catholics will have no trouble understanding his distinction between our capacity to believe and the particular ways in which we exercise that capacity in our lives.

 

Our ancestors transformed the world not only for transactional but also for transcendent motives. The formation of beliefs about how things could and ought to be proves central to our ability to improve our lot.

Why We Believe is divided into three parts: How did we as a species come to believe? How do we believe now? And what do we believe now? We came to believe because of the social, emotional, and cognitive resources that emerged in our primate ancestors. We evolved from intelligent mammals who were highly adept at cooperating and forming strong groups. Fuentes understands human behavior as embedded in particular “niches,” which he defines as the “dynamic multidimensional space in which an organism lives.” The distinctively human niche is not only material, biological, and ecological, but also “imagined, perceived, and constructed”—in short, “meaning matters” and therefore so do beliefs. Organisms shape their habitats and vice versa. Human beings have shaped their habitats according to what they believe.

Evolution has made believing possible. Fuentes explains that between 2.3 and 1 million years ago our prehuman ancestors underwent significant changes in nutrition, the structures of their bodies and brains, and practices of caring for their young, making tools, avoiding predators, and obtaining supplies of food. In the past half-million years, massive growth in communication and social coordination led to better ways of understanding the world, imagining better alternatives, and then acting to transform it. These developments eventually led contemporary humans to produce innovations in food acquisition and storage, the domestication of plants and animals, the establishment of large residential settlements, and the identification of specific places, times, and relationships as sacred. Readers of Commonweal will appreciate Fuentes’s recognition that our ancestors transformed the world not only for transactional but also for transcendent motives. The formation of beliefs about how things could and ought to be proves central to our ability to improve our lot.

Part two of Why We Believe provides an account of how the human imagination enables us to combine cognitive and social resources to shape our world. “Believing is thinking beyond the here and now and investing to the extent that thinking becomes one’s reality,” Fuentes writes. Though he does not cite William James, his vision resonates with James’s “will to believe.” Belief is made possible by culture, a rich fund of meaning from which we constantly draw and to which our daily actions contribute. We are “not unique in having culture,” Fuentes writes, but the human niche is “completely intertwined with language, socially mediated and reconstructed history, institutions, and beliefs.” He insists that we not only “have” culture but actually “are” our culture: “literally, it is us and we it.” The experiences, memories, and thoughts made possible by our collective cultural resources help form our very bodies through their “neuroendocrine systems.”

Culture is obviously a necessary condition of mind—the set of “skills and processes that enable us to think and act”—and the distinctive core of the human mind is the imagination. Fuentes adopts the philosopher Anna Abraham’s theory of imagination as operative in our powers of sensation and movement, emotions, memory, “novel combinatorial” (generative) capacities, and “altered states.” The physiological structures of the human brain allow us to create symbolic and emotionally compelling mental representations of states of affairs that do not yet exist but could in the future.

Our evolutionary history makes such productive beliefs possible, but their particular forms are shaped by the distinctive cultures within which we live. This does not mean that our shared commitments and deeply held beliefs are in fact nothing but “mere” cultural constructs. “Cultural constructs are real for those who hold them,” Fuentes writes. “That is the way the human mind works.” Such a position allows him to take religions—and religious people—much more seriously than do some of his peers in evolutionary theory. The problem with the dominant evolutionary explanations of religion, he notes, is that they “largely ignore what the religious experience is for believers.” Fuentes knows that third-person analysis is valuable but cannot fully capture religious experience that takes place in the first and second person—when, as Martin Buber puts it, an “I” encounters the absolute “Thou.”

Part three of Why We Believe spells out the implications of this analysis for what people believe. Fuentes does not assume that evolution provides any help explaining the content of what people believe (e.g., why Presbyterians believe in double predestination or Catholics in transubstantiation), but he does think knowledge of our evolutionary past can shed light on why we develop religions, economic arrangements, and patterns of affiliation.

 

We can take the key features of his discussion of religion, economics, and love in order. First, Fuentes distinguishes religiousness from “religion” in general and particular “religions.” He not only acknowledges that the vast majority of people describe themselves as religiously affiliated, but—with a laudable mixture of respect, intellectual humility, and genuine curiosity—wants to understand why they do so.

Fuentes describes “transcendence” as being “beyond the limits of any possible experience” but then refers to religiousness as an “experience of transcendence.” “Transcendence” and “religious experience” are both notoriously vague concepts. There is a huge range in the different ways we experience going beyond the flow of everyday life. Such experience includes attending an exquisite musical performance, witnessing an extraordinary act of generosity, viewing a luminous work of art, and being awestruck at the birth of a child. All these experiences can be described as “transcendent” in at least three senses: first, they allow us to experience goodness, beauty, or truth in moments that surpass what we normally encounter in everyday life; second, religiously sensitive people often read these experiences as disclosing what is “most real” in human life; and third, these experiences can be called transcendent because they elicit feelings of piety, reverence, and gratitude for their divine source.

Agustín Fuentes (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Creative)

Fuentes takes seriously the experience of particular persons and communities but, unlike William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Fuentes’s book doesn’t take into account the specific testimonies of such persons or communities. His underdeveloped and rather abstract references to “religious experience” are not particularly satisfying. It would have helped if he had incorporated what the philosopher John A. Smith calls the “religious dimensions of experience”—a more accommodating concept than Fuentes’s “religious experience.” Fuentes might also have considered what Karl Rahner called “the experience of self-transcendence” involved in any true act of knowing or loving.

Fuentes argues that early human beings evolved to become highly social, meaning-making animals, who at some point began to have beliefs about supernatural agents. These beliefs were later taken up and extensively developed by religious institutions that arrived with the development of complex, large-scale societies between four thousand and eight thousand years ago. Fuentes rejects the two dominant evolutionary theories of religion. One of these holds that religion evolved because it was biologically adaptive; the other views religion as an accidental by-product (a “spandrel” in the language of Stephen Jay Gould) of cognitive and social traits that were themselves biologically adaptive. Neither of these approaches provides a satisfying account of the centrality of religion in the lives of so many people. Religious experience and beliefs offer ways of addressing a human need. Once their basic material needs are met, human beings naturally strive to go beyond the mere here-and-now and to relate themselves to larger purposes and schemes of meaning. Belief in transcendent reality thus provides the foothold for the later development of institutional religions, with their rituals, codes, and practices.

Fuentes’s own social and ethical concerns are on display in his chapter on economics, which he defines as “an organized system of activity involving the production, consumption, exchange, and distribution of goods and services.” Here he strongly challenges the assumption, common in modern and modernizing societies, that free markets are the most “natural”—and therefore the most rational and efficient—way to organize an economy. The dominance of free-market ideology is rooted in a widespread cultural acceptance of the myth of Homo economicus, according to which human beings are best understood as rational economic actors always seeking to maximize their self-interest. Fuentes reminds us that theories of behavioral ecology that describe “market competition” as pervasive in nature miss the richness and complexity of actual animal behavior. He worries that an uncritical acceptance of free markets as “natural” leads us to treat massive global inequality as “inevitable.” Though some part of us may still believe that real human beings are more complex and less predictable than Homo economicus, this reductive model is now “deeply ingrained in [our] communal psyche.”

The rise and growth of permanent large-scale settlements, cities, and then nations brought with it a shift from egalitarian to hierarchical social orders. Adam Smith argued that modern markets would produce a more extensive distribution of wealth, but today a global market economy coexists with massive inequality. Fuentes is not an economist and he does not propose his own alternative economic theory. His goal is simply to undercut the widespread view that human beings are essentially selfish, that free markets are the most “natural” way to organize economic systems, and that radical inequality is just the way things have always been—and always will be. Fuentes urges his readers not to passively accept current inequalities: “We made them, and we can change them.”

 

The last chapter of Why We Believe focuses on matters of the heart. “Love” and related terms have many meanings even within the history of Western culture. Love has been identified with eros (desire), philia (friendship), agape (self-gift), or with some combination of these. The strongest part of this chapter is its discussion of compassion; the weakest, its treatment of sexual love.

Fuentes argues that the evolution of biological, psychological, and behavioral traits made possible the emergence of maternal-offspring attachment and therefore enhanced the likely survival of human newborns, who are exceptionally immature. He theorizes that the maternal-offspring bond eventually facilitated the pair bonds of mating couples, and then extended further to promote a broader array of social and physiological bonds within the larger group. Drawing on the work of the anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, Fuentes argues that evolution has produced in us a strong “affective hunger” that leads us to form social bonds far beyond what we see in any other species. Our ancestors extended compassion not only to their own offspring but to other members of their groups. Archeological evidence indicates “the emergence of consistent caring behavior that kept at least some of the injured, sick, and aged alive and part of the community” and produced a capacity to care for others “unrivaled in any other species.” Our strong in-group social cooperation, however, can sometimes be accompanied by hostility toward those outside the group.

Sex and marriage are the most controversial topics addressed in this book. We tend to draw sharp lines between sexual attraction, parental care, friendship, and other deep attachments, and often experience these kinds of relationship as fundamentally different from each other. But Fuentes claims that, “aside from slightly different hormone levels and other physiological responses related to sexual activity, romantic love is not biologically different from any other kind…. The idea that romantic love is distinct from other deep attachments is a product of cultural beliefs and worldviews, not our biology.” Fuentes argues that a great deal of anthropological literature challenges the assumption that we are naturally ordered to form exclusive, lifelong procreative pair bonds. (Catholics might think here of Pope Paul VI’s teaching about the “unitive” and “procreative” ends of sex.) According to Fuentes, sexual pair bonds are characterized by mutual sexual attraction that is preferential but not necessarily exclusive, reproductive, monogamous, or even marital. When he refers to marriage as “a recent occurrence in human history,” he seems to mean the natural history of our species rather than recorded history.

Fuentes rejects normative traditions that confine sexual activity to marriage, though he would perhaps be willing to have marriage continue as one lifestyle option among others. This is the direction in which Western cultures have been trending for decades. These anthropological observations are valuable for underscoring the challenges faced by those of us who endorse monogamy and would like others to do so as well. 

We might respond to that challenge by first asking how Fuentes moves from the “is” of diverse human social and sexual practices to the “ought” of moral standards. For most of recorded human history, there was no awareness of—let alone commitment to—human rights. These, too, are the “product of cultural beliefs, not our biology.” Belief in human rights is also “a recent occurrence in human history.” But rather than discount human rights for being of relatively recent vintage, we regard our belief in them as evidence of moral progress. Why can’t we say the same about the development of monogamous marriage, especially since the historical record shows that polygamous relationships have usually allowed powerful men to dominate their wives (and concubines)? More fundamentally, the social and ethical norms governing sexual behavior cannot be derived from knowledge of either our evolutionary past or our contemporary sexual proclivities, many of which reflect the impact of market forces, consumerism, and social media. Fuentes’s chapter on economics is sharply critical of the radical individualism of free-market ideology, but his chapter on love seems to endorse a radical individualism in sexual matters.

The norms governing sexual behavior cannot be derived from knowledge of either our evolutionary past or our contemporary sexual proclivities, many of which reflect the impact of market forces, consumerism, and social media.

The fact that we aren’t hard-wired to be monogamists does not mean we shouldn’t strive to be monogamous, any more than the fact that we are not hard-wired to be truth-tellers implies that we shouldn’t strive to be honest. The Christian tradition appreciates the special goods afforded by monogamous marriage, including deep interpersonal intimacy, acceptance, and the trust born of lifelong fidelity. In religious terms, the Protestant description of marriage as a lifelong covenant of love and the Catholic and Orthodox account of marriage as a sacrament both pledge the couple to love each other so truly that their relationship offers a glimpse of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:30–31). Many of us are glad that civil marriage is now available to gay couples, and we applaud religious bodies that bless these unions. These developments extend the logic and benefits of monogamy.

Fuentes is strangely silent about families (both nuclear and extended), which seems odd for a thinker so attuned to our sociality. His criticism of belief in monogamous marriage does not mention the extensive social-scientific literature that shows that children raised by single parents are more likely to be poor, to have lower cognitive skills, to drop out of school, to have health problems, and to give birth outside of marriage themselves (see Kimberly Howard and Richard J. Reeves’s 2014 paper “The Marriage Effect: Money or Parenting”). Fuentes cares about the poor and laments inequality, but he does not acknowledge that the decline of marriage seems to contribute to both inequality and poverty (along with other factors, of course). Between 1980 and now, the rate of births to single mothers has doubled, from 20 to 40 percent. We are engaged in a massive social experiment that does not seem to be benefiting children. Of course, Fuentes is not against biological parents living with, and taking responsibility for, their children, but he doesn’t want society to put any pressure on parents to legally bind themselves to one another for life. Yet the legal and social bond of marriage is a stronger, more reliable form of commitment than the informal agreements of couples who cohabitate, and it is therefore a preferable arrangement for child rearing. Not taking into account the well-being of children is, at the very least, a significant oversight in Fuentes’s analysis of our beliefs about love.

 

Still, the strengths of Why We Believe significantly outweigh its weaknesses. Fuentes ought to be appreciated by readers of Commonweal primarily for his open-minded, non-reductive and non-polemical approach to religious matters. He has the confidence to think about nuanced and complex matters of belief that are often grossly oversimplified by popular writers. The very title gives a clue to the book’s tone: an aggressive secularist would be more likely to talk about “why they believe,” not “why we believe.” Fuentes does not say, “You (simple people) believe religion provides the path to God but we (scientists) know it is really nothing but a social institution constructed to serve certain social ends.” His non-reductive attitude to religion contrasts sharply with what we are used to getting from Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists, who believe society can be divided between the “brights” (who inhabit the “community of reason”) and the “dulls”—those incapable of rationality or invincibly ignorant.

Fuentes’s openness is remarkable. “Unlike many of my evolutionary explanation-oriented colleagues,” he writes, “I’m fully comfortable leaving open the possibility that some form of transcendent revelation plays a role in a religion’s particular beliefs.” This intriguing statement is partly just an expression of disciplinary self-restraint: as a scientist, Fuentes can reject only those claims that run against well-established scientific knowledge, and so he will not dismiss religious truth claims that can be neither proved nor disproved. This kind of humility should be normal; because it is not, it requires real intellectual courage. It will be met with mockery by militant atheists, and with gratitude by religious readers. Fuentes’s refusal to rule out the possibility that a religious tradition might really be shaped by divine revelation raises a host of questions, but these must be answered by theologians and philosophers rather than by anthropologists and evolutionary theorists.

Why We Believe provides a superb and very readable summary of one influential approach to our evolutionary past. Written in a graceful style, it briskly covers a vast amount of scholarly terrain in less than three hundred pages. And, like the best books in any field, it will leave the reader wanting to learn more.

Why We Believe
Evolution and the Human Way of Being
Agustín Fuentes
$28 | 280 pp.

Issue: 

Meet Michael McGivney Schachle, the miracle baby who helped make his namesake a Blessed

Daniel and Michelle Schachle with their son, Michael McGivney Schachle, 7, at the annual convention of the Knights of Columbus held Aug. 1-4, 2022, in Nashville, Tennessee. / Joe Bukuras/CNA

Nashville, Tenn., Aug 7, 2022 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Seated in a small black wagon pulled by his father, 7-year-old Michael McGivney Schachle happily rolled along the hallways of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville last week, innocently unaware that people were staring at him in awe as he passed by.

His parents noticed. They’re used to it by now.

“He's like a living relic,” his mother Michelle Schachle said.

Numerous U.S. prelates and other Catholic dignitaries attended the Knights of Columbus’ annual convention at the hotel on Aug. 1-4. But few could match Michael’s star power, which radiated from his megawatt smile.

Doctors gave Michael McGivney Schachle "zero" chance of survival before his birth. Thanks to the intercession of Father Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, he was miraculously healed in the womb of a life-threatening condition. Courtesy of the Schachle family
Doctors gave Michael McGivney Schachle "zero" chance of survival before his birth. Thanks to the intercession of Father Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, he was miraculously healed in the womb of a life-threatening condition. Courtesy of the Schachle family

For good reason: Michael, whose family lives in Dickson, Tennessee, is the boy whose miraculous healing in his mother’s womb from a life-threatening condition led Pope Francis to beatify Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, placing him one step from sainthood.

Michael’s parents — his father Daniel is a knight and an insurance agent for the fraternal order — spoke to CNA at the convention about their son, their faith, and the miracle that will follow Michael for the rest of his life.

‘Zero’ chance of survival

Michelle found out that she was pregnant with Michael, the couple’s thirteenth child, in December 2014. It was only one month later that Michael, who was originally intended to be named Benedict after Michelle’s grandfather, was diagnosed with Down syndrome.

In February 2015, an ultrasound revealed another complication: Michael had a rare condition called hydrops fetalis, in which fluid builds up in the baby’s tissues and organs, causing swelling. The doctor told Michelle that the baby’s condition was fatal and encouraged her to abort the child.

According to Michelle, the diagnosing doctor said that she had worked at the hospital for 30 years and had never seen a child survive as severe a case of the condition as Michael had.

“Daniel wanted a percentage [for chances of the child’s survival] and he was hoping she'd say like 10% or 15%,” Michelle recounted.

“She said, ‘Zero. There’s no chance.’”

Because of their Catholic faith, however, abortion was not an option.

So, the couple turned to prayer. 

It was Daniel who decided to seek the help of Father McGivney (1852-1890), an Irish-Catholic priest who ministered to immigrant families in New Haven, Connecticut, and founded the Knights as a mutual aid and fraternal insurance organization.

“Father McGivney, we both need a miracle. Please pray if it's God's will that this cup will pass from me and that my son will be healed. But not our will, but his will be done,” Daniel says he prayed, kneeling in his bedroom, the night after the diagnosis.

Daniel said he promised that if his son were cured, the boy would be named after the Knights’ founder.

He had not consulted with this wife on that part of the deal, however.

“She was like, ‘We're gonna name him Benedict. You can't change his name!’” 

The next day the couple began asking their friends to pray for their son’s healing through Father McGivney’s intercession.

Despite the dire diagnosis, the couple decided to go forward with a pre-planned pilgrimage to Europe sponsored by the Knights.

The couple said they were given many signal graces on the trip. One of those graces came in Rome, while their priest, Father Michael Fye, offered Mass at the Vatican. Daniel said that the priest chose a random chapel in the church to celebrate Mass, and it turned out to be the same chapel that the Knights of Columbus had paid to restore an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Help, a few years earlier.

The Schachle family of Dickson, Tennessee. Courtesy of the Schachle family
The Schachle family of Dickson, Tennessee. Courtesy of the Schachle family

A watershed moment came in Fatima, Portugal.

As the couple was praying for a miracle during Holy Mass, they were astounded by the scripture reading of the day from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. In the reading, a royal official whose son was sick in Capernaum asks Jesus to heal the boy.

Jesus responds, “You may go; your son will live.” Hearing those words, the Schachles were stunned. Daniel’s jaw dropped.

“There were just a thousand little things like that that happened on the trip,” Daniel said. “So, by the time we left, I was almost sure that God had done something because of all of those signs.”

‘A kiss from God’

When the couple arrived back home, Michelle went for her next ultrasound. What she saw that day would later be accepted as evidence in support of McGivney’s beatification.

After reviewing the image, Dr. Mary Carroll told Michelle that she would need to see a certain pediatrician with expertise in caring for Down syndrome pregnancies because the baby could be born a month early.

Confused, Michelle said that she thought the baby had a 0% chance of survival and that there was no hope. 

“Honey, you just came back from Fatima. There's always hope,’” Michelle remembers the doctor telling her. Their son still had Down syndrome, but the ultrasound showed there was no trace of hydrops.

It was that day that the child received the name Michael McGivney Schachle, Michelle said. 

Michelle began to weep. But according to Michelle, Carroll said to her, “Sweetheart, don't cry. That's the prettiest baby I've ever seen in my life.” 

Mikey Schachle, whose life was saved by an officially recognized miracle through the intercession of Fr. Michael McGivney. Photo courtesy of the Schachle Family.
Mikey Schachle, whose life was saved by an officially recognized miracle through the intercession of Fr. Michael McGivney. Photo courtesy of the Schachle Family.

Michael was born on May 15, 2015. Providentially, May 15 is the anniversary of the chartering of the first Knights of Columbus council.

The Schachles have other curious connections to McGivney: Michelle and McGivney have the same birthday, and both Michael and McGivney were born into families of 13 children. The family also had named their homeschool after McGivney.

Michael’s miracle was approved by Pope Francis on May 27, 2020.

Today, “Mikey,” as he’s known, loves making people laugh with his jokes. He knows he was healed in his mommy’s tummy and says he loves God.

And those who know his incredible story stop and smile when he’s around.

On Aug. 2, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly made a special mention of the Schachles in his annual address. A large video screen showed Daniel raising his smiling son in the air.

The crowd cheered.

Seeing him, his mother says, is like “a little kiss from God — proof that God exists and that he loves you.”

Unborn babies are tax exempt under Georgia’s heartbeat-based abortion law

The Georgia capitol in Atlanta. / Rob Wilson / Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Aug 5, 2022 / 19:00 pm (CNA).

An unborn baby is now recognized as a dependent who will qualify expectant parents for a $3,000 deduction in Georgia tax rules, under the same law which bans abortion based on a detectible fetal heartbeat.

Georgia’s Department of Revenue issued new guidance stating that “any unborn child with a detectable human heartbeat” is eligible for Georgia’s individual income tax dependent exemption, National Public Radio reports. A heartbeat is detectable about six weeks into pregnancy, sometimes before women know they are pregnant.

A woman six weeks pregnant as of July 20 may list her unborn child on her tax returns next year, with relevant medical records or other supporting documentation. More specific instructions are expected later this year, the New York Times reports.

Georgia’s 2019 law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectible recognizes the unborn child as a “natural person.” The same law which allows expectant parents to claim their baby as a dependent also requires a father to pay child support for “direct medical and pregnancy-related expenses” for an unborn child.

In June the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which mandated legal abortion nationwide in 1973.

In light of that decision, a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on July 20 ruled that Georgia’s abortion ban can become law.

Legal protections and benefits for the unborn child and expecting parents have drawn criticism from some abortion advocates, but there are also legal questions to be answered.

In a July 2020 ruling against the state law, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones questioned whether a pregnant woman with an eating disorder could be found guilty of child cruelty and whether health care providers required to report child abuse could be liable for failing to report a pregnant woman living with an abusive relationship partner, the Georgia Recorder reports.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, the campaign manager of Georgia’s strongly pro-abortion rights Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, questioned whether a woman who claims the tax deduction but later miscarries could be investigated for tax fraud and procuring an illegal abortion.

However, the Georgia law exempts miscarriages, stillbirths, and ectopic pregnancies from legal penalty.

The law allows abortions in cases of medical emergencies to prevent the death or physical impairment of the pregnant woman.

Though the law recognizes the unborn child as a person, it still allows abortion up to 20 weeks into pregnancy targeting unborn children allegedly conceived in rape or incest, if an official police report was filed.

Alabama and Arizona also have abortion laws that broadly define the unborn child as a person.

Another 40 states, including Texas and California, define the unborn child as a legal person in cases involving homicide, the New York Times reports.

Some states have passed pro-abortion laws explicitly stripping legal rights from an unborn child. A 2022 Colorado law, the Reproductive Health Equity Act, says that “a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have independent or derivative rights under the laws of the state.”

Two-year-old lawsuit accusing Theodore McCarrick of repeatedly raping boy still pending in NJ

Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick arrives at Massachusetts' Dedham District Courthouse for his arraignment, Sept. 3, 2021. / Andrew Bukuras/CNA

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 5, 2022 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

One of the more graphic sexual abuse lawsuits against former cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick is still pending in New Jersey after the parties recently failed to settle the nearly two-year-old case, court filings show.

The civil lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark in September 2020, accuses McCarrick of raping and sexually assaulting an unnamed adolescent boy on more than 50 occasions from 1985 to 1990.

The lawsuit also names the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen as defendants, alleging that they failed to protect the boy from McCarrick while he led those New Jersey dioceses. All the defendants deny the claims against them.

The parties met with a private mediator June 23 but were unable to settle the case, court records show.

“At this juncture, the parties do not believe that another settlement conference will be productive,” the plaintiff’s lawyers, Mark Lefkowitz and Kevin Mulhearn, wrote in a July 21 letter to U.S. District Court Evelyn Padin.

The lawyers revealed in the letter that the Newark Archdiocese has produced 172,734 pages of documents requested by the plaintiff’s legal team, which is still reviewing the records.

Depositions of McCarrick and the plaintiff, who is now in his late thirties, have taken place, the letter said. Other individuals have yet to be deposed.

McCarrick, 92, was dismissed from the clerical state by Pope Francis in 2019 after a Vatican investigation found him guilty of sexually assaulting minors and adults.

Dozens of alleged assaults

The New Jersey lawsuit is one of several civil complaints still pending against McCarrick.

The disgraced prelate also faces criminal prosecution in district court in Dedham, Massachusetts, for allegedly sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy in 1974.

In that case, McCarrick entered a not guilty plea in September 2021 to three counts of indecent assault and battery. Each charge carries up to five years in prison.

No trial date has been set in the criminal case. The next hearing date is Sept. 8, a spokesman for the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office told CNA Friday.

The New Jersey civil case involving the alleged rapes of an adolescent boy has received significant media attention due to the graphic nature of the allegations. The 108-page lawsuit also chronicles in detail McCarrick’s steady rise up the Catholic hierarchy, despite multiple warnings and complaints about his alleged predatory behavior toward minors, seminarians, and young priests.

According to the lawsuit, McCarrick was “deeply revered, respected, and highly trusted” by the plaintiff’s “extremely devout Catholic” parents and extended family.

“Plaintiff’s parents were thrilled that McCarrick, a high-ranking Catholic bishop whom they viewed as God’s emissary, had decided to single out their family (and their son) for special attention and could not even begin to imagine that McCarrick’s desires toward Plaintiff were sexual or predatory in nature,” the lawsuit states.

“They thus strongly encouraged Plaintiff to spend considerable time with McCarrick, as they viewed his actions toward Plaintiff as a blessed manifestation of God’s grace,” according to the complaint.

In 1985, while McCarrick was bishop of Metuchen, the then-12-year-old boy stayed overnight at the Metuchen rectory with his parents’ approval, the lawsuit states.

The next day, McCarrick took the boy to a beach house owned by the diocese in Sea Girt, New Jersey, where McCarrick sexually assaulted the boy for the first time, the lawsuit alleges.

Subsequent sexual assaults allegedly took place in a variety of other locations, including the rectory in Metuchen, a fishing cabin in the woods at the Eldred Preserve in the Catskills in New York State, and a hotel in Ireland, the lawsuit states.

The assaults continued when McCarrick became archbishop in Newark, the lawsuit states. In one incident alleged to have taken place at McCarrick’s private Newark residence, McCarrick brought another, unidentified priest to the apartment.

“This is my friend. He’s like us. We all do the same thing,” McCarrick allegedly told the then 13- or 14-year-old boy by way of introduction, according to the lawsuit. “I’m gonna leave now. And you two enjoy yourselves.”

The other priest then sexually assaulted and raped the boy, the lawsuit states. After the priest left, McCarrick raped the boy again, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that McCarrick’s alleged predatory behavior was known within the dioceses and spoken of at high levels of the Catholic Church, yet nothing was done to stop him, in part “because McCarrick was an exceptional fundraiser for the Catholic Church, and was charismatic and viewed by many as a rising star in the Church.”

Lasting damage alleged

The plaintiff had been a straight A student prior to McCarrick's abuse, the lawsuit states.

"Upon suffering sexual abuse by McCarrick, however, Plaintiff’s grades slipped dramatically, as he was unable to concentrate, and his behavior at school worsened considerably," the complaint alleges.

"Plaintiff attended three separate high schools, as he was expelled from several high schools for excessive fighting and general bad behavior. He became a wild, unruly child, prone to bursts of anger and untamed aggression, and frequently got into fights with other children (particularly when other boys touched him, as he hated physical contact with other males)," the lawsuit states.

The plaintiff never attended college and instead joined the U.S. Coast Guard, requesting to be stationed in Alaska "to separate himself from McCarrick and his nightmarish experiences to the greatest extent possible," the lawsuit states.

Lawyers for McCarrick, the Archdiocese of Newark, and the Diocese of Metuchen could not be reached for comment Friday.



  




Little Sisters of the Poor to close Denver nursing home after 105 years

Little Sisters of the Poor. Courtesy of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. / null

Denver, Colo., Aug 5, 2022 / 17:00 pm (CNA).

After years of service to the elderly in the Archdiocese of Denver, the Little Sisters of the Poor announced this week their intention to withdraw from a nursing home they have operated for more than a century, citing the need to dedicate resources to other projects. 

The Mullen Home complex, located in Denver’s West Highland neighborhood, received its first residents in 1918 after the sisters moved in the year prior. The home includes private rooms for assisted living, apartments for the elderly, a library, and a chapel. It was expanded and renovated between 1975 and 1980. 

The order’s leader in Denver said the decision to close the home had come about following a “lengthy period of prayer, much consultation and much study.”

“As part of a strategic plan aimed at strengthening our ministry and the quality of our religious and community life, we Little Sisters have recognized the need to withdraw from a certain number of Homes in the United States, while at the same time dedicating our resources to much needed upgrades and reconstruction projects in others,” Mother Julie Horseman said in an emailed statement Aug. 3. 

“While it is always difficult for the Little Sisters to withdraw from any of our Homes, know that our immediate concern is for our Residents and Staff members. We will be working with all of them in the coming weeks and months, assisting with this difficult transition.”

According to the Archdiocese of Denver, the land on which the nursing home sits was given to the Little Sisters by John K. Mullen and his wife Catherine in 1917. Mullen was a Denver-based Irish-American entrepreneur and philanthropist who supported many Catholic causes in Denver and elsewhere.

The deed by which Mullen transferred the land to the religious order had a provision whereby the land and buildings would be transferred to the Archdiocese of Denver if the Little Sisters ceased operating the nursing home. The archdiocese is “studying its new purpose with prayerful consideration,” the Little Sisters said. 

“Their intention is to use it to further the mission of the Church and preserve our legacy in the Denver area,” Mother Horseman said. 

The Little Sisters of the Poor began in France in 1839, when the order’s founder, Saint Jeanne Jugan, offered her bed to an elderly woman who was blind and lying paralyzed in the cold. Today, the order serves in 30 countries, with 27 homes in the United States. Because the sisters care for the low-income elderly, they trust in God for financial support. Sources of income such as Medicaid and pensions from the residents generally only cover about half of their expenses, so they beg for the remainder. 

Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver thanked the Little Sisters for their more than 100 years of ministry in the city, adding that the archdiocese is “still in the process of determining the next steps for the property.” 

“I want to offer my heartfelt and sincere gratitude for their work. Whenever I would visit Mullen Home as a priest and later as a bishop, I was always edified by their witness to the Catholic faith and their living out of the corporal works of mercy. Their compassionate care for the elderly provided a witness to Jesus Christ and his love for the poor and the sick,” Aquila said. 

The nearest Little Sisters-run nursing homes to Denver after the Mullen Home closes will be in Gallup, New Mexico and Kansas City, Missouri.