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Opioids & The Ethics of Harm Reduction

Jesse Harvey describes himself as “in recovery.” He has been involuntarily committed five times for substance-abuse disorders—principally addictions to methamphetamine, alcohol, and tranquilizers. He has also used opioids, though he is not addicted to them. He tried to commit suicide before his third involuntary commitment. The treatment facility in Pennsylvania summarily discharged him onto the street with no follow-up plan. Just recently, Harvey relapsed again, was arrested, and checked himself into another treatment program.

The road to recovery is rocky and long. Harvey, who is twenty-seven and lives in Portland, Maine, claims the reason he’s not dead is that he’s had access to sterile syringes and needles and fentanyl testing strips. In 2016, after his fifth involuntary commitment, Harvey founded the nonprofit Journey House, which now oversees four recovery houses in Maine. He became a state-certified recovery coach. He also began distributing, out of the back of his car, sterile syringes and needles, tourniquets, alcohol swabs, fentanyl testing strips, biohazard disposal bins, and the opioid “antagonist” naloxone. It is illegal to distribute syringes in Maine unless one does it under the auspices of a needle-exchange program certified by the state’s Centers for Disease Control. There are only six such programs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Maine had 360 overdose deaths in 2017, which came to a rate of 29.9 deaths per 100,000 people—well above the national average. Harvey operated his uncertified needle exchange as part of another nonprofit he founded in 2018, the Church of Safe Injection (CoSI), which has a board comprised of clergy, physicians, nurses, counselors, people in recovery, and people who use drugs. The police in Portland decided to turn a blind eye when Harvey made his distributions there, but the police in Lewiston threatened him, albeit politely, with arrest.

CoSI is dedicated to what Harvey calls “the harm-reduction gospel” and has as its foundational belief that, as he put it in an interview with me, “people who use drugs don’t deserve to die, especially when we have decades of evidence-based solutions.” As its name suggests, CoSI advocates for safe-injection sites, also known as supervised injection facilities, as one of those solutions, along with needle exchanges. Fundamentally, safe-injection sites, of which there are around a hundred worldwide, aim to keep people who use drugs alive in the hope that they might eventually seek treatment. CoSI, which currently has twenty chapters across nine states, does not itself operate a safe-injection site—they are illegal under U.S. federal law—but one of Harvey’s aims for the organization is “to leverage our collective First Amendment right to gain protection against counterproductive drug laws.” He has sought legal advice and has a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration ready to go. According to Harvey, the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” is “oriented toward killing drug users.” Stigmatized as addicts or junkies, they are cast aside as human trash whose lives are not worth saving. Harvey knows this from experience.

Harvey is a provocateur. Though soft-spoken, he’s not averse to publicity—he and CoSI have been the subject of stories by NBC, NPR, and Huffpost—and he acknowledges that he is drawn to guerilla-theater tactics. He likes to cite Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and he calls naloxone CoSI’s sacrament. Harvey is also, however, morally serious. Commenting on Matthew 5:10 (with an eye to Luke 10), he wrote me that he is “sure we will be judged not by how many politicians and bureaucrats we mollycoddled or placated, but by how many times we did the right thing when we had the opportunity to, when we acted as the Good Samaritan when nobody else would.” He cites, among his inspirations, Dorothy Day. He hadn’t known of the Berrigan brothers when we first spoke, but later wrote me to express amazement and admiration that Daniel Berrigan had been arrested for civil disobedience at least 250 times. (I should add here that Harvey is a 2014 summa cum laude graduate of King’s College, where I teach, though he was never my student and I did not meet him until 2019. It also should be noted that, after his recent relapse, Harvey is trying to focus more on his own recovery program.)

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A branch of Catholic Charities in the diocese of Albany, New York, has been operating a needle-exchange program called Project Safe Point since 2010, so harm reduction is not unknown in Catholic health care. Nevertheless, such programs remain both rare and controversial—there are fewer than two hundred of them in the whole country.  This is partly because they may not be supported with federal funds. One of Project Safe Point’s directors told me that their program was launched in anticipation of the second wave of opioid addiction, when deaths from abuse of prescription drugs were compounded by deaths from abuse of heroin. Predictably, Project Safe Point generated a blizzard of commentary when it was announced a decade ago, as did the 1999 announcement of a safe-injection site that the Sisters of Charity planned to run at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia. That plan had to be abandoned after the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warned the Sisters of Charity that operating a safe-injection site was “extremely proximate material cooperation in the grave evil of drug abuse.”

And there lies the heart of the controversy over both needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites. Do such harm-reduction strategies enable and even encourage drug abuse? When I asked Jesse Harvey whether he has any qualms about his work, he told me that he did find it hard to read the NPR story about CoSI. There a man is characterized as “conflicted about whether getting these supplies makes it easier for him to use drugs.” Harvey quickly added that “the science demonstrates” that people don’t use drugs, or use more drugs, because of needle-exchange programs. Still, he acknowledged that it’s difficult to keep the science in mind “when you’re handing someone a needle.”

Pope Francis has famously likened the Roman Catholic Church to “a field hospital after battle.” He added, “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” Over the past year, the church in the United States has itself become one of the walking wounded, especially here in Pennsylvania. In the wake of this latest annus horribilis, it hardly needs repeating that the church’s moral authority has been deeply compromised. But the church would not be the body of Christ in history if it turned in on itself and gave up on its healing mission. How, then, should Catholics think about needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites? Should Catholics join CoSI, and others, in advocating for and seeking to implement such harm-reduction strategies? Meeting Jesse Harvey raised those questions for me.


It is all but impossible for some people addicted to opioids to give them up all at once: they need to keeping taking the drug just to function.

Before one assesses the arguments about needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites, it helps to know some basic facts. First, there are the facts about the opioid crisis itself. Is there a family that has not been affected? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 700,000 Americans died from a drug overdose between 1999 and 2017; nearly 400,000 died from overdosing on opioids. The number of deaths from opioids increased dramatically from 1999 to 2017. In 2017, around 68 percent of the 70,200 drug-overdose deaths involved opioids. That’s an average of 130 deaths caused by opioid overdoses per day. In 2017, drug overdose was, incredibly, the leading cause of death for people under the age of fifty-five. A recent study commissioned by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene observed that “someone dies from a drug overdose in New York City every seven hours, and more people died from overdose in New York City in 2017 than from suicide, homicide, and motor vehicle accidents combined.” And these are just the numbers for overdose deaths; they do not indicate the full extent of the damage—the lives ruined, families devastated, communities broken by opioid abuse. It’s estimated more than 650,000 Americans are addicted.

The CDC distinguishes three waves in the rise of opioid deaths. The first began in the 1990s with increased prescription of opioids like Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin; the second began in 2010, with rapid increase in the abuse of heroin; and the third began in 2013, with the circulation of deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The New York City study attributes that city’s dramatic increase in overdose deaths since 2014 to fentanyl. As for the causes of the crisis, the moral theologian Joel Shuman—a colleague of mine at King’s College who spent the last academic year working at Duke University on a project related to the opioid crisis—has argued that several factors must be taken into account. To begin with, since the early 1980s, there has been a trend within the medical professions toward elevating the relief of pain as a goal no less important than the treatment of disease. U.S. residents, Shuman reports, consume 80 percent of the world’s manufactured analgesics, while constituting only 5 percent of the global population. Treating the relief of pain as an end of medicine is not problematic in itself, and, as Shuman observes, under the medical paternalism of old “patients were frequently denied a voice in their care [and] their suffering was frequently ignored.” But consider the social and economic context for this change in the understanding of medical practice. In the consumer capitalism of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century America, the patient has come to be treated more and more like a customer, with “patient-satisfaction scores” determining how much hospitals get reimbursed and doctors get paid. At the same time, health-insurance companies have tried to save money by pushing cheap and addictive opioids instead of more costly, less addictive alternatives, while pharmaceutical companies continued to market opioids aggressively after evidence of their addictiveness became conclusive. Finally, there is the disaster of the war on drugs, which casts addiction as a crime rather than a disease.

Needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites might seem like counterintuitive ways to counter opioid addiction. They begin to make sense only when it’s understood what opioid addiction does to a person. By definition, addiction involves compulsion, compromising a person’s capacity to make voluntary choices. Opioids flood the body with feelings of euphoria, while suppressing pain. It is no wonder, then, that people with a history of mental illness, trauma, or abuse are at high risk of addiction to this category of drugs. Chronic use of opioids changes the chemistry of the brain, affecting the expression of genes involved in neurotransmission. Users gradually develop greater tolerance of the drug, so that they need more of it in order to get high and to escape debilitating symptoms of withdrawal, including muscle cramping, diarrhea, and anxiety. This makes it all but impossible for some people addicted to opioids to give them up all at once: they need to keeping taking the drug just to function. Unsurprisingly, after the over-prescription of drugs like OxyContin was finally slowed by regulation, the number of heroin overdoses began to spike. When fentanyl hit the streets, people began dying in yet greater numbers.


There is nothing theological about the ethics of cooperation, though it was first developed by Roman Catholic moral theologians.

The rationale for needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites is that some people will inject opioids—heroin or synthetics like fentanyl—no matter how much others plead with them not to do so, or how much those who are addicted hate what they’re doing, or how likely they are to get arrested, or to overdose. Given that people are intent on injecting opioids despite these considerable risks, it might seem there’s a case to be made that providing sterile syringes and needles, and perhaps even legally sanctioned, medically supervised places to inject drugs, is justifiable under the longstanding principle of the lesser evil. Studies have found that people are more likely to share syringes and needles when they fear arrest for carrying drug paraphernalia, and sharing syringes and needles leads to significant risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis B and C, and bacterial infections. As it happens, the diocese of Albany invoked the principle of lesser evil in explaining its decision to establish Project Safe Point. In the commentary that followed, the Jesuit moral theologian James Bretzke, who teaches at Boston College, noted that the diocese was drawing here on the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and went on to say, “When you cannot reasonably expect a person to avoid the moral evil itself, you can counsel them at least to lessen or mitigate the potential damage of their action and can even help them in doing that.”

This is where the controversy starts. While Bretzke can cite authorities like Aquinas and even recent popes like Paul VI and Benedict XVI in support of the claim that it’s morally permissible to counsel and tolerate the lesser of two evils when a person is intent on doing evil no matter what, the claim that is morally permissible to help a person do the lesser evil remains controversial within the Catholic tradition, as Bretzke well knows. Here we cross over into the ethics of cooperation in evil, which introduces a notoriously difficult set of considerations.

A person cooperates with another when she knowingly and freely facilitates the other’s intended action. For example, imagine that the flight instructors of the 9/11 terrorists had known what the men intended to do and freely agreed to provide the necessary instruction. In that case, the flight instructors would have cooperated—impermissibly—in evil. But there are many shades of cooperation, and some of them may be morally permissible. I take the following example from the philosopher Thomas Cavanaugh at the University of San Francisco: A hardware-store owner whose store is by the sea stocks and sells a kind of spray paint that boaters use because it adheres well in a marine environment. The spray paint is also favored, however, by graffitists, who use it to vandalize property. The hardware-store owner suspects—if she is honest with herself, she even knows—that some of her customers buy the paint with the intention of using it for graffiti. She doesn’t stock and sell the spray paint with the intent of cooperating with the graffitists; she disapproves of what they do and wishes there were some reliable way to recognize them before they purchased her paint, but she judges, perhaps correctly, that the good the spray paint does for her other customers justifies the harm it enables the graffitists to do. Of course, if that harm were truly great, she might have to reconsider that judgment. And if she were unwilling to reconsider it, there would be reason to wonder whether she didn’t in some sense share the graffitists’ intent after all.

Cooperation is always blameworthy when the cooperator shares the principal actor’s wrongful intention. This is called formal cooperation: in such cases, the cooperator’s will is shaped or informed by the very same object that the principal actor has in mind. Had the flight instructors of the 9/11 terrorists known what the men intended to do and freely agreed to help, they would have been formally cooperating in evil, and we would have been justified in holding them accountable for what happened. By contrast, the case of the hardware-store owner, as I told it, is an example of what is called material cooperation. In such cases, the cooperator does not share the wrongful intention of the principal actor, but nonetheless contributes materially to the action, here by supplying something that makes the action possible.

Material cooperation may be permissible or impermissible depending on a number of factors. One has to do with the nature of the harm the principal actor intends: the greater the harm, the harder it is to justify material cooperation. If the graffitists were, say, white supremacists who painted words or symbols designed to intimidate minorities and foment violence against them, the hardware-store owner might reach a different conclusion about whether making spray paint available to boaters justified the risk of its being used by graffitists.

Another factor has to do with whether the cooperation is “remote” or “proximate.” Material cooperation is proximate rather than remote when what the cooperator does provides a probable instrument of wrongful use for the principal actor. As the philosopher David Oderberg has remarked, the question here is about “how close the cooperator is, causally speaking, to the primary act itself.” The closer the cooperator’s action is in the causal chain that leads to the principal’s action, the harder it is to justify the cooperation. A final factor has to do with whether the material cooperation is “immediate, ” as opposed to “mediate” or “non-immediate.” It is immediate when the cooperator’s action overlaps with the principal’s action.

Take the following two cases. If I were to agree to drive the getaway car in a bank robbery, I would be formally cooperating in evil. But imagine I “drove with Uber,” as the company puts it, to make a little extra money. Imagine further that I got a call to pick up someone who was escaping from a crime scene, but that I discovered that he was escaping only after he was in the car and we were on our way. There is nothing wrong, in itself, with providing livery service, but what I am doing in this case overlaps with the criminal’s escape. What’s more, it is necessary to his escape, and the more a particular act of cooperation is necessary for the principal action to come to pass, the harder it will be to justify. In this case, the justification for proceeding had better be awfully great: a lot of money wouldn’t do; a threat to my life probably would. Moreover, if I did agree to proceed on the condition of being paid a lot of money, that would make me a formal cooperator, since it could hardly be denied, in the circumstances, that I had come to share the criminal’s intention of escaping. (I wouldn’t get paid otherwise!) By contrast, my proceeding lest the criminal kill me would be an instance of immediate material cooperation under duress. For, in that case, it would not make sense to say that my intention was to help the criminal escape. I would be greatly relieved if the police caught him and saved me!

It is worth pointing out that there is nothing theological about the ethics of cooperation, though it was first developed by Roman Catholic moral theologians who looked back to Aquinas and beyond him to Aristotle. The difficult issues in the ethics of cooperation are philosophical in nature: they are about the meaning of basic concepts we use to try to make sense of ourselves and our world.


Safe-injection sites are under consideration or in the works in a number of U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco.

The diocese of Albany invoked “the principles of permissible cooperation in evil” when it explained its decision to establish Project Safe Point. The controversy that followed centered on the right understanding of the ethics of cooperation. The controversy over the plan to establish a “supervised injecting room” at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney also centered on the ethics of cooperation. Recall that the CDF warned the Sisters of Charity that operating such a facility would constitute “extremely proximate material cooperation in the grave evil of drug abuse.”

Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, judged Project Safe Point to be formal cooperation in evil, on the grounds that supplying syringes and needles to people who inject opioids is done with the intent that those people use that equipment to abuse drugs. In a position paper on cooperation prepared in 2013, the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia likewise judged needle-exchange programs to be formal cooperation in evil, on the somewhat subtler grounds that it is “impossible to separate [the] intention for [drug users’] good health from the intention that harmful drugs be injected.” Six years later, in 2019, one of the ethicists at the Bioethics Center judged safe-injection sites to be instances of immediate moral cooperation in evil, on the grounds that acts of purchasing and providing sterile equipment to people who inject opioids are of a piece with the act of using the drugs. In 1999, an Australian physician, Joseph Santamaria, made the same argument in the journal Bioethics Research Notes. He even claimed that a Catholic hospital’s operating a safe-injection site would be “similar in kind to providing abortion facilities for an abortionist so that women may have their abortions in a clinically safe environment and in the hope that some women may be deterred from having the abortion or from having further abortions in the future.”

On the other side of the question, the moral theologian Germain Grisez, professor emeritus at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Maryland, was characterized in a 2010 news article on Project Safe Point as holding that “supplying addicts with clean syringes is not necessarily wrong if the intention is to limit the spread of disease.” Grisez went on to claim, though, that the Catholic Church should focus its resources on combating addiction, apparently not realizing that one of the aims of harm-reduction strategies like needle exchange programs is, as Project Safe Point explains on its website, “to develop non-judgmental, meaningful relationships with people who use drugs” and “through these relationships…provide a vital link to the resources people need or want.” Similarly, in 1999, Gerald Gleeson, an ethicist at the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at Australian Catholic University, claimed that “nothing in the establishment of [a supervised injecting room] must imply that those who operate it are in the business of endorsing drug taking as such.” To the contrary, “those responsible for the room can simply be intending that help be available should a person’s life be endangered, and that rehabilitation be encouraged.” In 2017, several ethicists working in Catholic health care in the United States agreed with that judgment in an article published in the Catholic Health Association’s Health Care Ethics USA. There is no reason operators of a safe-injection site could not intend simply to “limit the risk of infection, prevent possible overdoses, eliminate hazardous street waste…. and create an environment” conducive to trust and encouraging of rehabilitation. Providing sterile injection equipment and medical supervision certainly facilitates drug abuse, but it counts, according to these ethicists, as non-immediate material cooperation, which they judge to be morally permissible in the circumstances.

Who is right? To answer this question, we have to consider one more distinction. Traditionally, philosophers have distinguished between effects of action that are intended and effects that, though brought about voluntarily, are not intended but merely foreseen. Let’s return to the example of the Uber driver threatened with death. Does the Uber driver intend to help the criminal escape? It would be strange to say so, even though his driving the car as the criminal directs him to does have the effect of helping the criminal escape. The important point is that helping the criminal escape isn’t what the driver intends. His intention in driving the car as the criminal directs him to is to save his own life, and keeping the criminal satisfied by helping him escape is the means to that end. So helping the criminal escape, though it is undeniably something that the driver does, falls outside his intention. He is not a formal cooperator in evil.

And neither, for the same reason, is the operator of a needle-exchange program or safe-injection site, as long as the operation isn’t corrupt. Drug abuse isn’t one of the ends of these programs; their ends are to reduce infections, save lives, build relationships with the marginalized, and encourage rehabilitation. It is undeniable that one foreseeable effect of both needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites is to facilitate the use of drugs. But, carefully considered, that effect falls outside the programs’ intention.

Is providing sterile equipment and a medically supervised space so close to the act of abusing drugs that it should be considered immediate material cooperation? I doubt whether the answer to that question matters morally. What seems much more important is how “close” the people who use needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites are to doing significant harm to themselves—harm these operations exist to reduce. Much as the threat of death in the Uber example mitigates the driver’s blameworthiness, the risk that those addicted to drugs will overdose or contract a life-threatening infection renders permissible an action that would otherwise be immoral. No morally upstanding person would countenance distributing syringes, needles, and the like to people beginning to experiment with drugs. That would simply encourage drug abuse. But the circumstances in which needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites operate are radically different. Replace the gun at the head of the driver with an infected needle, or a syringe loaded with a lethal dose of fentanyl. Supplying a clean needle and providing medical supervision may or may not be “of a piece” with the injection of drugs, but no one can reasonably claim that these things are done in order to facilitate drug abuse—or done without a very strong reason.

Providing sterile equipment and a medically supervised space does appear to be proximate cooperation, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith claims. There is no way around the fact that giving someone a syringe and a needle is quite close in the causal chain to that person’s injecting drugs. Likewise, there is no way around the fact that providing someone a legally sanctioned, medically supervised space in which to inject drugs is causally close to his or her doing so. But, again, this doesn’t seem to matter morally in the circumstances. The point to keep in mind is that the people who use needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites are intent on abusing drugs no matter what. They are in the grip of addiction, with little power to resist. That is the unfortunate reality to which harm-reduction strategies respond. They are acts of charity toward people whose freedom of will has been severely compromised. Part of the grave evil of drug abuse, to use the Vatican’s language, is that it destroys persons as persons: they become more acted upon than agents themselves.

Safe-injection sites are under consideration or in the works in a number of U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, but they still face opposition from the federal and state governments. Even proponents recognize that, as the New York City study states, there is a critical need for “meaningful community engagement and education” to win over skeptics. Scientific studies of both needle-exchange programs and Vancouver’s safe-injection site, which has been operating since 2003, provide evidence that these harm-reduction strategies save lives, decrease infections, and increase the number of people who end up getting treatment. Health-care professionals have already been won over. In 1997, the American Medical Association called on Congress to revoke the ban on using federal funds to support needle exchanges; in 2017, it called for pilot safe-injection sites. Law enforcement officials and politicians have been slower to come around.

There are still a number of practical matters to consider, such as ensuring that harm-reduction programs don’t draw away funds for prevention and rehabilitation, or overburden communities that already host multiple social services. Nevertheless, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no reason, in principle, to oppose these programs. To the contrary, they are precisely what love of neighbor enjoins in the circumstances. The Catholic Church—meaning lay people as well as the hierarchy—should support initiatives like Project Safe Point and deploy what moral authority we still have to support the basic strategy, if not always the tactics, of activists like Jesse Harvey.


On Being Protected: What I Learned from Evelyn Waugh’s Mr. Crouchback

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. . . . To work out our identity in God. —Thomas Merton The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. —G.K. Chesterton Mr. Crouchback grimaced. It was wartime in England. His grandson Tony was shipping off to continental Europe to liberate the enslaved states from the iron grip of the Nazis. And Mr. Crouchback had forgotten to give him something. Mr. Crouchback was a curious soul in mid-twentieth-century England. Descended from an aristocratic lineage, he was not pretentious. A widower at a young age, he was not lonely. Financially less secure in his older age, he was…

How to Live a Life of Risk and Meaning

A little while back, I heard about a zombie run that a friend was interested in participating in for fun. As it turns out, by signing up for such a race, you are tasked with running safely to a destination without being caught by a legion of zombies: actors fully decked in gruesome, Hollywood-esque makeup. It’s incredible, as these actors literally resemble the undead, complete with decomposed flesh, gore, and blood. I can’t say the rush of adrenaline wouldn’t be fun, and definitely not a bad way to ensure the next coming Saturday is anything but mundane. It’s one of the many modern attractions these days, from various themed runs like The Tough Mudder and The Color Run to a host of cleverly devised escape rooms where you and a team of friends must solve puzzles and riddles in order to escape within an hour. I personally think these are…

Making Ministry Whole

In a recent Commonweal article, my Dominican brother Michael Sweeney presented an excellent overview of the “paradigmatic clericalism” that has marked Catholicism since at least the Council of Trent. This has persisted despite the theological shift that took place at Vatican II, which included such landmark developments as the emergence of “lay ecclesial ministry” and the creation of the permanent diaconate. While these were important steps forward, much of the council’s promise to empower the laity remains unrealized. There are other post-conciliar developments, however, that may prove to be far more significant in declericalizing the church.

Perhaps the most consequential of these is the emergence of “public juridic persons” as a way to maintain the mission and identity of Catholic institutions. Public juridic persons in themselves are not new. Every church entity that has official canonical status—diocese, religious order, parish—is a juridic person. Historically, most juridic persons that were established by law were religious orders. They were founded primarily for the sanctification of their members, even if they eventually undertook various ministries.

Today’s new juridic persons, however, are founded primarily for the sake of ministry. They are the official link between a particular ministry—a health system or a university, for example—and the church, just as religious communities were in the past. That is why they are sometimes called MJPs—ministerial juridic persons—to distinguish them from the kind that aim primarily to promote a way of life and the search for holiness.

These new MJPs are distinctive in a number of ways. For instance, they are not advisory and their authority is not delegated by a bishop or a religious community. Most are “of pontifical right”: they are established by the Holy See and have real canonical responsibility for the church’s largest ministerial commitments. They sponsor hospitals, schools, and social agencies in dozens of dioceses and in some cases even across international borders. While on the local level they are under the “vigilance” of the local bishop and are accountable to him for fidelity to Catholic doctrine, ultimately, they are accountable directly to the Holy See. They consist largely of lay people and, if current trends in the number of clergy and religious persist, they will eventually consist entirely of lay people.         

Granting canonical authority for a ministry of the church to a group of lay people is a very significant development; as far as I can tell, it is unprecedented in the history of the church. Yet these MJPs are virtually unknown to Catholic laypeople and priests and not well understood by most bishops.

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Take the example of the first ministerial juridic person for health care: the Catholic Health Care Federation in Denver, approved in 1991. It is the ecclesial sponsor of Catholic Health Initiatives (now, after a merger with Dignity Health, CommonSpirit) which was founded by several health systems and religious institutes in 1996. The development of Catholic Health Care Federation followed the pattern that became standard for the creation of most MJPs: first there were hospitals sponsored by individual communities, then there were systems that were sponsored jointly by a number of communities and, finally, there was an MJP to which the communities relinquished (“alienated”) their ministries. Catholic Health Care Federation was first, but many other MJPs followed; today there are at least thirty worldwide, eighteen of which are in the United States (the others are in Australia, Canada, and Ireland).

The development of these new MJPs is a kind of church reform—not the kind of reform resulting from corruption or scandal, but the kind that comes from the need for adaptation to changing circumstances; in this case, the increased awareness of the baptismal dignity of all the faithful, and the diminished presence of the founding communities. The stakes are high: our institutional commitments will only survive as ministries if we are successful in developing the MJP as a sponsorship model.      

In his 1950 book True and False Reform in the Church, the Dominican theologian Yves Congar maintained that authentic church reform usually begins on the margins and is gradually incorporated into the heart of the church. That is true, he says, for every religious order. Congar notes, “In the Catholic Church that is so vigorously hierarchical, not one single religious order has ever been created by the central power. All such initiatives come from the periphery.” This is true of the new MJPs, too. Rome did not decide to create a new structure to sponsor these institutions. Rather, the initiative came from the original religious sponsors of the hospitals that eventually became the Catholic Health Care Federation. They made innovative use of existing canon law; their idea was approved by the church and has been replicated many times since, effectively incorporating it into the life of the church.

Until recently most MJPs in the United States were created to sponsor health care, but that is beginning to change. A few MJPs sponsor both health care and education, and some sponsor social services as well. There are plans for new MJPs that will sponsor only educational institutions at the secondary and university levels. Forming MJPs for higher education is a challenge because many Catholic universities were alienated—perhaps improperly—to lay boards before anyone envisioned the MJP model as a way to preserve an institution’s relationship to the church in the absence of a sponsoring religious community. It remains to be seen whether these institutions will remain Catholic “in spirit,” or with the permission of the local bishop, or if they will seek some kind of official sponsorship with a new MJP.

I have been involved in the evolution of the Cristo Rey Institute, an MJP created to support the Cristo Rey Network of secondary schools. This MJP was approved last year to sponsor new schools for which there is no traditional religious sponsor available. It was a historic moment when we went to Miami to ask Archbishop Wenski for permission to establish a Cristo Rey High School. There we were, a priest, a religious sister, and three lay people, carrying our brand new authorization from Rome, asking the archbishop if we, as an MJP, could minister in his diocese. To my knowledge, it was the first time an MJP of pontifical right that was not a religious order had ever asked to establish a secondary school. At some point in the future, the groups seeking such permission will likely be all laypeople.


Who pays for the poor? Who addresses social and economic conditions that lead to disparities in health and health care?

These new MJPs are not just canonical innovations. They are examples of a prophetic movement initiated by the Holy Spirit to ensure the church’s vitality in a time of change. What is required for them to fulfill that promise?

Spiritual formation. I have already indicated that these MJPs are not created primarily for personal sanctification. But they are ministries, and like any other ministry, they require gifts, charisms, authorization, and formation to prepare them for their role. Religious communities provided years of spiritual formation for members. What kind of formation will members of these new entities require? The Catholic Health Association runs a formation program for health-care sponsors, but it does not have the capacity to meet the growing need, especially as MJPs expand beyond health care. These formation programs must include prayer, spiritual practices, spiritual direction, discernment, and deepening of vocational awareness. The development of new spiritual practices, especially if they reflect a particular charism or spirit, will be one of the most interesting outcomes of the MJP model.

Theological fluency. Conversations about a new MJP often start by seeking canonical counsel. This is putting the cart before the horse. Canon law is the how, so canonical considerations only come into play after the mission and purpose are clear. Exploration of a new MJP should start with theological reflection, because theology includes the why. Sponsors don’t need graduate degrees in theology, but they do need a clear understanding of Scripture (and how Catholics interpret it), Christology, ministry, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology if they are to function effectively. This notion of sacramentality is particularly important. MJPs must assure that the ministries they sponsor are visible, tangible, and effective signs of the presence of Christ in the world. Rediscovering this sacramental dimension of our institutional ministries will be a gift to the entire church.

Communal exercise of authority. The sponsor only exercises its authority as a group, so it must find a way to make decisions collectively. I was once on a retreat with a newly created sponsor. I asked the group what they thought they could bring to the church. One of them responded, “Maybe a new model for the exercise of authority?” Yes! In a church where authority is often exercised unilaterally and hierarchically, these new canonical entities can put another way into practice. The hierarchy has its own prophetic function—one of order and continuity. MJPs exercise a prophetic function regarding the innovation and disruption the church needs as well. As Congar says, we need “the principle of continuity or form coming from the hierarchy, on the one hand, and a principle of movement or unexpectedness, even, coming from those inspired to act on the frontiers.”

Ecclesial prudence. In the past when there were problems with a school or hospital sponsored by a religious order, the bishop called the major superior (as a former provincial, I received a few of those calls myself). In the case of MJPs, the ultimate authority is not father provincial or mother superior, but the chair of the MJP. It is to that person, often a lay person, that the bishops will go to demand accountability. The MJP will have to acquire a kind of prudential skill that enables them to be faithful to their charism and mission, maintaining consistency across a large network of ministries while also being sensitive to the needs of the local church and demonstrating respectful obedience to the local ordinary. This is a tension familiar to all religious communities.

Public preaching. Please allow me to indulge my Dominican instincts here. New juridic persons are founded as ministries of the church, but they also have a role to play in the public sphere. They must be faithful to the church, but educational, social, and health-care services are also “external ministries” open to the public. They receive federal or state funding and must be attentive to public-policy matters. MJPs need to be a voice in the public debate about education, social services, and access to health care. Who pays for the poor? Who addresses social and economic conditions that lead to disparities in health and health care? How do we influence society and promote the common good so that it is a reflection of the Reign of God? This requires a kind of advocacy that I like to call “public preaching.” It is not pulpit preaching aimed at the sanctification of the faithful, but rather public witness and testimony that makes a plausible case for Gospel values that are also inherently human values.

In his excellent retrieval of the traditional notion of the priestly, prophetic, and royal aspects of baptism, The Priesthood of the Faithful, Paul Philibert says, “The church’s fundamental mission is not the administration of ecclesiastical institutions and the celebration of sacraments by the hierarchy for the faithful. Rather it is the proclamation of the kingdom of God in both word and action by the whole people of God for the whole of humanity and the whole of the cosmos.” Our new MJPs and the institutions they sponsor are perfect examples of how that can happen.

A Mass of Comfortable Familiarity and Ardent Longing

Sunday in November, 6:25 a.m.: In the palest light, I follow footprints left in the season’s first frost, just a few minutes behind the regulars. The church’s glaring overhead lights are softened by the flame-glow of a few dozen candles—real wax, seven-day candles that burn a constant supplication—and by the shimmer of one gloriously large and eye-catching icon of the Crucifixion scene. I wait to stand my candle as a slope-shouldered older man first places his own and then remains a few moments in wonder before all that beauty. He bows low; his eyes close and his hands press together in prayer, but imperfectly so. Form follows function, and these hands, roughly callused, with knuckles gnarled by age and decades of hard work, reveal the laborer who grounds the esthete. 6:36 a.m.: To the right of the altar, on a worn kneeler, another gray-haired man. He too has lit a…

That Familiar Voice

In case of psychological stress, some people keep therapy dogs around for a comforting nuzzle, but I prefer a strong dose of Flannery O’Connor. I keep The Habit of Being, the 1979 collection of her letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald, on a shelf just above my desk, easily reached in an emergency. A couple of pages of O’Connor and I am chastened, enlightened, cracked up, or all three, able to carry on with a newly installed ramrod for a spine.

Long before the substantial biographies and studies began to appear, O’Connor’s letters revealed her to be ferocious in her Catholic faith and her many literary friendships, but also withering and funny in her judgments and her gossip. While the rest of her prose contains equal measures of wit and dead seriousness, the letters often reveal qualms and doubts. O’Connor seeks counsel of both the spiritual and the writing variety. Often—and more often, as she grows sicker—she asks for prayers.

Now we have this new volume of O’Connor’s “uncollected” letters (those who have read the earlier volume will recognize several reprinted here) alongside a trove of her correspondents’ letters to her and to each other. Since her circle included Caroline Gordon, William Sessions, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, and the writer identified in The Habit of Being as “A” (later revealed to be Betty Hester), this is an enticing volume for anyone anxious to hear O’Connor’s voice again or eager to experience her friends’ idiosyncratic voices. The juxtaposition can be exhilarating (though Caroline Gordon, who provides the volume’s title and lavished attention on O’Connor’s work, can also be mean-spirited and exhausting. As O’Connor confides to Hester, “[Gordon] will sacrifice life to dead form, or anything to grammar.”)  O’Connor’s advice to Hester is more concise: “If you were stupider you would write much better fiction because you wouldn’t conceptualize things so much.”

For O’Connor devotees, the new collection is essential—but not without its frustrations. The order is sometimes chronological, sometimes thematic, which can result in introductory notes explaining what a letter a few pages ahead will soon make clear. The annotations, frequently illuminating and helpful, often blandly summarize what the letter below will say better (and more wittily). The new collection’s editor, Benjamin B. Alexander, is currently professor of English and political science at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He pulls a vast array of references, allusions, and personalities into conversation, and his ability to keep them all talking to each other is impressive. But he sometimes drifts into anachronistic asides when discussing Southern historical contexts. Mel Gibson, for example, makes an appearance in a note explaining the Revolutionary War’s Francis Marion. Ronald Reagan frequently enters the notes, as does a rant on the state of today’s Democratic Party. Much as any discussion of O’Connor requires interdisciplinary approaches, surely the politics of the post-O’Connor era are far afield.

O’Connor’s variant spelling of CommonWheel is as charming as her misspelling of her own publisher.

The politics readers are interested in are O’Connor’s, and hers are complicated enough to keep us all awake at night without bringing Mel Gibson on the scene. If some of us are still recovering from the revelation that she refused to meet with James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr., it is useful to be reminded here of her support for the civil-rights stands of her friends Tom Gossett and Fr. James McCown. Her casually tossed racial pejoratives are excruciating, but just as her later stories show her to be deepening her vision and representations of race, the letters show her growing openness to the heterodox politics of two of her most intriguing and appealing correspondents, Fr. McCown and Roslyn Barnes. Both have personalities to equal O’Connor’s, and that’s saying a mouthful.

James McCown was a Jesuit and a Southerner whose readings of O’Connor pleased her. It is moving to see both sides of their conversation. The priest’s reverence for O’Connor’s art is beautifully balanced between his theological understanding of what she’s up to and his appreciation for her sense of drama. Her growing reliance on his spiritual advice yields the most touching letter in the volume: an inquiry into whether she had committed sacrilege by eating a vegetable that might have been cooked in ham stock on a Friday. “There is something about you can use drippings but you can’t use stock,” she tells McCown. “I hate this kind of question.” It is impossible not to imagine what the scrupulous O’Connor, who was not a fan of movements like the Catholic Worker, would have made of her correspondent’s growing immersion in liberation theology.

O’Connor urged McCown to write to Roslyn Barnes, a fellow Georgian who dedicated her master’s thesis to O’Connor and converted to Catholicism, training with Ivan Illich in Mexico for the missionary work she undertook in Chile (where she disappeared after O’Connor’s death). Her letters to O’Connor are intensely vital as she searches for the best use of her talents. She can be as tart as her mentor—she writes to McCown, “Nobody can play dirtier than religious, Father, when the devil gets into them”––but the letter she wrote to him after O’Connor’s death at the age of thirty-nine is filled with longing for a deeper connection. “Why didn’t any real intimacy happen? I don’t know…. F. invited me to see her—and then she kept her distance.”

If their letters are standouts, the competition is tough. Walker Percy’s objection in Commonweal to the tactics of the Berrigan brothers is one for the ages. And at the risk of again tooting this magazine’s horn, O’Connor’s variant spelling of CommonWheel is as charming as her misspelling of her own publisher. In the case of “Billy Ghrame,” she is absolutely consistent and clearly delivering a message.

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We are in the midst of an O’Connor revival, graced with O’Connor’s recently released prayer journal as well as studies I believe she would have approved of: Richard Giannone’s Flannery O’Connor, Hermit Novelist, and Ruthann Knechel Johansen and E. Jane Doering’s comparative study of O’Connor and Simone Weil, When Fiction and Philosophy Meet. Good Things Out of Nazareth provides a different kind of pleasure. I open it at random to hear a familiar voice: “A Georgian cannot of course be against Coca Cola. We feed it to our babies, serve it to our guests, console the dying with it and expect it to make us loved throughout the world” and “[a] Catholic has to have strong nerves to write about Catholics.” I consider my psyche set straight and my spine stiffened. 

Good Things out of Nazareth
The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends

Edited by Benjamin B. Alexander
Convergent Books, $26, 416 pp.


The Paradox of Pluralism

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story, which will be published by W. W. Norton this month. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Gods here?
Who can know?
Not I.
Yet I sigh
and tears flow
tear on tear.

—Saigyō Hōshi (1118–1190), on visiting the Grand Shrine at Ise.


The United States of America practices many religions, and pluralism in American usage is a term that aims to turn the arguably neutral fact of plural religions into an American value: pluralism. If an American favors pluralism, in other words, then he or she thinks it good rather than bad that America practices many religions and would regret rather than applaud the replacement of the nation’s many religions by some one religion, even his or her own.

Do Americans in fact favor pluralism? Many surely do, if no doubt to a somewhat varying degree. Nonetheless, nearly ten years ago, when newly appointed as the general editor of the American reference work later to be published as The Norton Anthology of World Religions, I chose to assume that American pluralism enjoyed the support of at least a comfortable majority. A majority of Americans, I chose to assume, would welcome a work taking the multiplicity of American religion as not just as a bare fact but also, on balance, as a good thing in our moment of cultural globalization.

I haven’t abandoned that assumption. Yet now that my general introduction to the NAWR is being published as a slender, separate book titled Religion As We Know It: An Origin Story, the moment is at hand to reveal how a nagging, complicating background thought both challenged that first assumption in a surprising way and further shaped the work that W. W. Norton & Company eventually published.

At the time when Norton approached me about undertaking this work, I had been involved in the study of religion for several decades and had taken part in innumerable public discussions of the subject. What nagged at me was something that had occurred repeatedly in those discussions. Time and again, I had heard someone rise to say that one religion or another “is not a religion in the usual sense of the word” or “not a religion in the mainstream sense of the word.” An alternate formulation would sometimes be “is not a religion, it’s a way of life.” Still another would be, “is not a religion, it’s just a part of being x,” where x would be a national identifier. Finally, a frequent formulation would be simply “is not a religion in your sense of the word,” with the referent of “your” left quite vague. Whom did the speaker have in mind?

A given speaker might go on to make a perfectly plausible case for why Hopi folk belief and ritual or Shinto or Daoism or some form of Hinduism or even Judaism was misconstrued when taken to be a religion in the usual sense of the word. But who owned that usual sense? Where had it come from? And did it not claim at least enough continuing validity or relevance to bring people of diverse religions together for discussion and debate?

That question did have to be asked, for why assemble people from various religions to talk of any one religion when that religion is then declared not to be a religion in the first place? And what happens to the notion of pluralism if, in fact, there does not exist a plurality of different religions but only a plurality of miscellaneous activities, all of which people have for some perverse reason been calling religions? And, by the way, who are these presumptuous people? Where and how did they receive or invent their usual sense of the word? And how has their sense of the word acquired such widespread acceptance that speakers still find it necessary to formally dissociate from it? American culture, by the term pluralism, has clearly embraced the threefold notion that there are, yes, many different religions; that they are all somehow comparable to one another; and, crucially, that they are all more or less welcome in the United States. Has this embrace been somehow a huge cultural mistake?

Finally, I had to wonder, when speakers dissociated themselves from the term “religion,” did the dissociation actually work? It often seemed to me that speakers who repudiated the applicability of the word “religion” to their particular non-religion would later circle back and use the word in spite of themselves in the very sense that they had repudiated. However objectionable, had the word in the usual sense become somehow unavoidable or indispensable?


Through most of world history, in most parts of the world, what we are accustomed to call religion, ethnicity, and culture have been inextricable parts of a single whole.

Early in my introduction to The Norton Anthology of World Religions, the reader encounters the following deliberately casual and unchallenging sentence:

What is religion? The word exists in the English language, and people have some commonsense notion of what it refers to. Most understand it as one kind of human activity standing alongside other kinds, such as business, politics, warfare, art, law, sport, or science.

My decision for the organization of The Norton Anthology of World Religions was that we would begin with this “commonsense notion” rather than with a theoretically ambitious definition of religion—an academic definition that I would then be required to impose on my six associate editors, each of whom was far more learned than I about one of the six traditions anthologized. My decision was, first, to acknowledge that various competing academic theories of religion define the word quite differently; second, to note that no theory, no definition, had acquired universal acceptance; but then, third and at length, to proceed to give this very commonsense notion, however academically objectionable it might be, as plausible a history as I could manage, stretching back to its very beginning and forward, at the very end, to the twentieth-first century. The result was an origin story.

What makes the everyday American understanding of religion objectionable when extended to cultures very different from the American or European can be traced to the phrase “one kind of human activity alongside other kinds.” This ostensibly innocuous phrase has an explosive, disruptive potential because it asserts that religion stands indeed alongside the other activities mentioned—in other words, that it is separable from and distinguishable from them. But this is just the assertion that turns out to be objectionable when applied to “religions” that are practiced in a way or in a context that makes them indistinguishable and inseparable from business, politics, warfare, law, and so forth down a familiar list of human activities, not to speak of such larger background realities as language, calendar, marriage, diet, and nationality.

Over the years, those speakers whom I had found most clarifying and instructive, though they may have puzzled me at the time, were those who adopted a stance of disputatious protest against either Christian missionary activity or related Western colonialism and continuing cultural hegemony. Such would be my experience when I would hear an Indian speaker say, “What you people call Hinduism is for me just part of being Indian”; or when I would hear a Jewish speaker say, “Judaism is not a religion, Judaism is a way of life.” Hopi religion exists only in the Western Hemisphere, but I once heard a student of that religion say, and with good reason, “The Hopi do not have a religion in the Western sense of the word.”

Western in that sentence referred not to geography but to culture—namely, to the European culture that started to spread around the world with the great Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the late-fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and went on, through later colonialism and the spread of Western ideas of all kinds, to dominate much of the world. This culture, Western culture, has long approached religion in a way profoundly shaped by Christian assumptions, and Christianity had indeed, and very early on, introduced a separation of what it chose to regard as religiously significant from the rest of its adherents’ worldly lives. This being the case, the story of how just that artificial separation was made for the first time and then how the habit of making it spread to Europe and outward from Europe—through both missionary activity and secular Western colonialism—becomes the origin story of “religion as we know it.” To say that it spread is not to say that it was always welcome, but neither is it to deny that it was often enough borrowed or—its Christian origin quite forgotten—simply taken for granted. Cultures, after all, do borrow from one another and, over time, assimilate and indigenize what has been borrowed. Western coinages like Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and so forth do undeniably squeeze large, complex social and historical realities into the frame of religion as we know it, but at this late date, thanks to globalization and international migration, the option of simply retiring or retracting such terms scarcely exists. The affected populations themselves now have ownership rights and would exercise them.

The “origin story” of Religion As We Know It is told largely in a long section titled “How Christian Europe Learned to Compare Religions,” just as it originally was told in a section by the same title in the general introduction to The Norton Anthology of World Religions. Early in that section, I wrote:

Through most of world history, in most parts of the world, what we are accustomed to call religion, ethnicity, and culture have been inextricable parts of a single whole. How did Christianity begin to become an exception to this general rule? On the one hand, it appropriated a set of Jewish religious ideas—including monotheism, revelation, covenant, scripture, sin, repentance, forgiveness, salvation, prophecy, messianism, and apocalypticism—without adopting the rest of the Jewish way of life. On the other hand, it universalized these Jewish religious ideas, creating a new social entity, the church, through which non-Jews could be initiated into an enlarged version of the ancestral Jewish covenant with God.

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With hindsight, I would now like to refine or extend this claim in three regards.

First, the Jews who founded Christianity began most clearly to abstract the mentioned set of “religious ideas” from the rest of the Jewish way of life in the process of admitting non-Jews to their revised and enlarged sense of the Jewish covenant with God. Jews who became Christian simply by recognizing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah did not at that moment or by that action cease living as Jews. But then, by the same token, Egyptians or Armenians or Macedonians who later embraced a set of dynamic Jewish ideas as part of accepting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah were not required by that act to become Jews or to cease living in other regards as Egyptians or Armenians or Macedonians. Yet the embrace by so many non-Jews of these originally Jewish ideas almost certainly had the effect over time of severing those ideas not just from the rest of the Jews’ way of life but also from the rest of anyone’s way of life. To be sure, an almost equally powerful tendency toward reintegration would repeatedly bring about the fusion of Christian identity with the way of life of one nation or another, even one empire or another. Nonetheless a consequential severing took place in principle and could reassert itself at any time.

Second, the act of abstracting Jewish religious ideas from the rest of a rich and complex Jewish way of life had the tacit effect of defining the rest of that way of life as somehow not religious. For centuries, Jews had distinguished their own true, native worship from the false, alien worship of all others. But now there arose a distinction not between the Jewish God as the one true or “living” God and other purported gods but between the religiously consequential or essential parts of the Jewish way of life itself and the rest of that way of life, now taken to be not wrong but only religiously inconsequential or nonessential. This distinction when first made did not amount to a full-fledged distinction between the religious and the secular, but it laid the egg from which that immensely influential later distinction would hatch.

Before that point would be reached, Medieval Europe would for centuries incarnate the same key distinction by dividing the personnel of Christendom into the “religious” (monks and nuns) and the “laity” (everyone else: all those engaged in “worldly” pursuits). The Protestant Reformation would challenge this distinction, honoring once worldly pursuits as no less holy in principle than formally religious pursuits and the laity, who engaged in such worldly pursuits, as no less holy in principle than the clergy. The Protestant challenge had, to be sure, lasting consequences. However, the “Great Secularization” of the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would paradoxically revive and embrace the prior distinction while gradually elevating secular pursuits above religious ones. Secularization has been a profoundly transformative cultural process, and yet the transformation has necessarily reinforced the originally Christian notion of religion as separable from the range of other pursuits whose autonomy secularization has so insisted on.

Third, the early-modern study of world religions beyond the West was at first essentially the study of those religions naïvely taken as exotic versions of a reality whose domestic version was Christianity. That is, it was the uncritical study of the non-Christian religions of the world as if they all routinely understood themselves to be, like Christianity, separate domains open for adoption by any sincerely interested party. By this assumption, the religions of South and East Asia and the indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas were misconstrued rather as Christendom had long since misconstrued Judaism, Greco-Roman polytheism, and—to a degree—even Islam. In more recent centuries, more sophisticated students of religion have quite successfully challenged this naïve assumption. Thanks to a substantial academic literature, a more integralist understanding has taken hold which posits that religion, culture, and ethnicity are de facto often found in a fusion so seamless and taken for granted that its practitioners scarcely even have a name for it.


Has religion, like the peacock’s tail and like art in all its wasteful madness, been a part of how societies survive, thrive, and reproduce themselves over time?

Yet the now solidly established Western assumption that law, politics, art, science, and so forth are inherently autonomous activities, independent of, and by all means to be kept separate from, the increasingly sequestered realm of religion, has remained influential far beyond the geographical West. Autonomy from religion for all these activities—a derivatively Christian notion whose ancestry is now rarely remembered—has been a crucial element in the rise of modernity. And the encounter with modernity has in turn occasioned a crisis in the histories of all six of the major living, international traditions that Norton anthologizes—beginning, of course, with Christianity itself. In this way, the West—and behind it Christianity, and behind Christianity, Judaism—has been both a disruptive and a formative force in cultures once untouched by the notion of religion as “we” (of the West) know it.

Now, to say that religion is a separate domain is not, when all is said and done, to say all that much about it. If this notion, now so much a part of American common sense about religion, arose somehow two thousand years ago in the abstraction of a set of Jewish religious ideas from the rest of the Jewish way of life, how did those Jewish ideas arise in the first place? What was their source? And if other, contemporaneous or earlier or, for that matter, much later societies developed other, different semi-religious or quasi-religious or equivalently religious ideas, did they all spring from the same source? What is the origin story behind these origin stories, and how far back in human evolution must we go to find it? Was religion an adaptive or maladaptive behavior for prehistoric Homo sapiens? Is its taproot individual or social? If social, can it be regarded as a human social analogue to some of the extravagant, sometimes maladaptive but nonetheless durable animal mating rituals described in Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty? Has religion, like the peacock’s tail and like art in all its wasteful madness, been a part of how societies survive, thrive, and reproduce themselves over time?

Questions like these can so very easily be multiplied. They are entirely legitimate and even deeply engaging. To ask them, however, is to ask about religion not as we know it but rather as we might now proceed to study it. It is to admit that we do not fully understand religion any more than we fully understand such other deep-rooted, universally attested human behaviors as language, art, and play. The Norton Anthology of World Religions acknowledges the existence and importance of theories of religion that attempt to answer these questions but does not explore the answers themselves. The goal of the introduction, now published separately, is simply to trace religion “as we know it” to its origin, then to follow the story of its growth and its spread, and, finally, to acknowledge how this powerful but undoubtedly limited way of knowing has both enabled comparison and distorted it down to our own day. The resulting origin story has some of the interest that all origin stories have. It matters most, however, because its darker consequences linger longer the more they are ignored.


Instagram as an Evangelizing Tool

Hans Urs von Balthasar died in 1988, only a handful of years after the internet became mainstream. In the time since then, the online frontier has grown with breathtaking speed and imagination. Countless advancements have been made in thousands of different fields thanks to this newfound technology. Arguably, one such advancement is social media—websites or platforms built to promote the creating, sharing, and discussing content from one corner of the earth to the other. Instagram is one kind of social media platform and is unique in that it allows millions of users to share images that they find beautiful with the rest of the world. While the goal might not always be for the sake of sharing the beautiful alone (Instagram is also a means of sharing current events, advertisements, recipes; my mother-in-law follows a lot of fly fishing accounts . . . there’s a little bit of everything), the…

If You Measure It, You Can Manage It

Catholic church officials have made significant strides in recent months to address bishop accountability on sexual abuse and other failures of leadership. Whether they can actually restore trust remains to be seen. In June 2019, one month after Pope Francis issued the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi calling on episcopal conferences around the world to put measures in place for holding bishops accountable, the USCCB reacted swiftly and approved a series of directives and protocols aimed at doing just that. But it defined no mechanisms for external oversight or mandatory audits, without which it’s hard to know whether these, or any other procedures put in place since the 2002 Dallas Charter, are being adequately monitored. What happens when there is no meaningful oversight of bishops was made freshly clear last summer with the case of Michael J. Bransfield, the Wheeling-Charleston bishop accused of financial malfeasance, sexual misconduct, and an ensuing cover-up. At their general assembly meeting next week, the bishops have the opportunity to further demonstrate their commitment to accountability and transparency by adopting a principle from corporate best practices: What gets measured gets managed.

This would be the obvious next step, given the measures the bishops adopted in June. These included the establishment of a third-party reporting process, and implementation of a new model whereby reports of abuse or misconduct by bishops would be referred to the appropriate metropolitan archbishop and the papal nuncio. The metropolitan, in turn, would be responsible for making these reports available to civil authorities and for cooperating in any investigation that may ensue. Bishop Jaime Soto, of the diocese of Sacramento, also made a proposal to mandate an audit-review process of the newly approved bishop-accountability procedures.

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Additionally, the bishops recognized the importance of “the counsel of lay men and women whose professional backgrounds are indispensable.” As such, they could look to the expertise of Francesco Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People. He has been vocal in his calls for strengthening the audit process of the Dallas Charter, declaring in a special November 2018 report to the body of bishops that the bar for achieving compliance with the charter is too low. He has also called for fundamental change to the type of audit and the audit instrument itself to ensure it serves as “more than simply a compliance review.” And he has recommended that the charter audit be expanded to include a review of parishes and Catholic schools to ensure the data they self-report is accurate. Cesareo also sounded a strong warning to the bishops: “Today, the faithful and the clergy do not trust many of you. Their distrust will remain until you truly embrace the principles of openness and transparency listed in the [Dallas] Charter.”

Regaining the trust of the public means demonstrating accountability, transparency, and co-responsibility.

One member of the conference who is working steadily to rebuild trust is Bishop Shawn McKnight of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, who has shown himself to be a leader on the matter of accountability. Months before the revelations about former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the release of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report, he had called for a comprehensive response to the sex-abuse crisis. He insisted this include not just lay involvement at all levels, but also a commitment to financial transparency. As part of the latter, Bishop McKnight publicly shared how much his diocese has spent caring for abuse survivors and providing sustenance to clergy removed from the ministry for abuse. Moreover, he requested all religious orders in the diocese publish the names of their credibly accused members in order to continue serving in the diocese.

Bishop McKnight and a growing number of other bishops are modeling for the church a distinct new culture rooted in proactive and responsible management. For these leaders, the Dallas Charter and Francis’s motu proprio are not a ceiling, but rather a floor—they are just the starting point for what can be achieved going forward to effectively address the abuse crisis and the failure of governance that perpetuated it.

These are just some of the specific steps that bishops could take to expand their efforts in episcopal accountability.

● Institute an external audit of the new “Directives for the Implementation of the Provisions of Vos estis lux mundi


● Include lay experts in the investigation of every case of bishop misconduct


● Commit to making the results of metropolitan investigation reports available to survivors and the public


● Adopt the measures proposed by the National Review Board to strengthen the Dallas Charter and implement independent audits based on common standards and guidelines


● Commission longitudinal research—repeated observations of the same variable over time—to gather data and disseminate best practices for responding to abuse


● Mandate external financial audits of every diocese in the country with full public disclosure

Regaining the trust of the public means demonstrating the values of accountability, transparency, and co-responsibility—values that undergird successful leadership and management cultures across many sectors. This new culture and its values must be accompanied by measures that show how people and structures are performing, and steps for taking remedial action when those measures aren’t met. The calls from some bishops to institute an audit program to closely monitor the USCCB-approved motu proprio point to the overwhelming need for a new culture of leadership and management at all church levels, one that includes mandated, external audits to show improvement and restore trust. At their meeting next week, the U.S. bishops have a further opportunity to show the world how serious they are about implementing far-reaching change that can restore the moral integrity of the church and pave the way for its renewal.

Bishops, “Nones,” and the Church: An Interview with Bishop Barron

Next week, Bishop Barron will join his brother bishops for their annual USCCB meeting in Baltimore. At the meeting he’ll lead a panel discussion about the “nones.” With that in mind, and in advance of the meeting, the National Catholic Reporter interviewed Bishop Barron about evangelizing the “nones.” Due to space constraints, they could include just a few quotes from the interview in their published article, so with their permission, we’ve included the full text below. Enjoy!   How has your theology developed over the years? Who influenced it? What effect did Cardinal Francis George have? Bishop Barron: When I was a teenager, two Thomases had a huge impact on me: Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Merton. The first Thomas gave me a vivid sense of the reality of God, and the second Thomas introduced me to the world of spiritual experience. Aquinas has been a theological touchstone all my life.