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The Archer Misses The Mark: A Review of Taylor Swift’s “Lover”

According to Aristotle, if we know about the greatest good, then we will have a target at which to aim. And if we miss the mark, at least we will know where to aim in the future. But not everyone knows about the greatest good, so some people will aim at a lesser good and hit a lower target, which is what Taylor Swift has done on her latest album, Lover. Musically speaking, and in terms of its production, Lover is a great success, as Swift and her favorite collaborator Jack Antonoff seem to have absolutely no trouble making an iconic pop record; but in terms of lyrical content, her aim is off. Swift’s favorite number is 13, so let’s start there, on the thirteenth track of the album with a song entitled, “False God.” Swift’s false god is romantic love, which in itself is a good, but it is not…

Evangelization, Catechesis, and the Art of Toddler Car Seat Negotiation

When I was finishing my graduate studies in theology, I imagined that I would spend my days as a theologian in an office surrounded by leather-bound books pouring over the translation of a particular Scripture passage, or I’d be in a classroom scrawling on a dusty chalkboard some phrase in Classical Hebrew script, or I’d be lecturing in a hall about the historical-critical method’s place in the rich history of biblical hermeneutics. It’s funny now, I think I imagined myself as a feminist theologian version of Indiana Jones. I never thought that I would spend an inordinate amount of my adult life repeating the same phrase over and over and over again: “Get in your car seat!” Most of the time, it was followed with an affectionate “Please?” Sometimes it was followed with an equally affectionate “Or else.” Nevertheless, I found myself repeating this phrase multiple times a day to…

Confronting White Supremacy

In an urgent, beautifully written letter on racism, “Night Will Be No More,” Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, has given every Catholic bishop (or any religious leader) a model for how to reflect on injustice in ways both prophetic and pastoral. At this political moment, when every utterance can be scrutinized and seized on for partisan purposes, the easy choice would be to remain silent and avoid confrontation. But Bishop Seitz clearly understands that this moment does not allow for silence. 

The letter opens forcefully and with necessarily blunt language referencing the August shooting in El Paso that left twenty-two dead: “Hate visited our community and Latino blood was spilled in sacrifice to the false god of white supremacy,” the bishop writes. “Words like ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ make us uncomfortable and anxious and I don’t use these labels lightly…. Challenging racism and white supremacy, whether in our hearts or in society, is a Christian imperative and the cost of not facing these issues head on, weighs much more heavily on those who live the reality of discrimination.”

Seitz also isn’t afraid to call out political leaders. “Our highest elected officials have used the word ‘invasion’ and ‘killer’ over five hundred times to refer to migrants, treated migrant children as pawns on a crass political chessboard, insinuated that judges and legislators of color are un-American, and have made wall-building a core political project,” the bishop writes. The letter describes the border wall as “a powerful symbol in the story of race” and a “monument to hate” that has helped “to merge nationalistic vanities with racial projects.” In a reminder that increased militarization of the border didn’t begin with the Trump administration, Bishop Seitz connects economic and racial exclusion in discussing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), legislation passed under the Clinton administration that was a boon for corporations but devastating for poor Mexican workers. “We saw steel barriers go up at the time of NAFTA; at the very moment when NAFTA ensured the right of wealth to cross the border freely we limited and criminalized human mobility,” the bishop writes.

Fr. Raymond Kemp, a Georgetown University professor who worked at the historically black St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade, compared Bishop Seitz’s letter to a seminal document developed by Latin American bishops at a 2007 meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, of which then-Cardinal Bergoglio served as the principal author. “There are so many bishops wearing French cuffs who are cut off from the direct experience of people and they don't get it,” Kemp told me. “This bishop is clearly in the trenches. There is no sugarcoating. He is coming straight at it with all his heart and soul.” Seitz’s “Night Will Be No More” is now immediate required reading for Kemp’s “The Church and the Poor” class at Georgetown.

Racism and white supremacy remain enduring realities that must be continually confronted.

Bishop Seitz’s reflection comes only a few months after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a national pastoral letter, its first major treatment of racism in several decades, Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love. Seitz describes his contribution as an opportunity to “complement those efforts and to reflect on these issues from the perspective of the border.” The USCCB letter was welcome, offering timely reflections that should spark dialogue in parishes across the country. But Bishop Seitz provides a more systemic, comprehensive treatment, buttressing it with a history of the region:

After its entry into the United States, Texas saw dramatic mass migration into the state from White settlers from other parts of the country. These settlers brought new industrial farming practices which cleared desert brush and cacti as well as the expansion of the railroad network and impressive economic growth. But they also brought with them harsh, prejudicial attitudes towards Mexicans, Mexican Americans and Indigenous in the region as well as legalized discrimination against African Americans. In their wake came ‘Juan Crow’ laws of segregation, the prohibition of then-common interracial marriage, new racial hierarchies, the dispossession of tribal communities, efforts to disenfranchise Mexican residents and a true campaign of terror. This campaign included the lynching and murder of likely thousands of Latinos, terror undertaken just as much by vigilantes as by official state actors like the Texas Rangers, and often in concert.

And, perhaps most importantly, he draws a direct line from that historical racism to the racism of the present day. “We in the borderlands understand in our bones the reality of hate directed at Mexicans and how people can be ‘othered,’” the bishop writes:

We can see uncomfortable parallels in the treatment of asylum seekers from Mexico during the time of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s and in current policies like the deployment of troops to the border, the punitive Remain in Mexico policy and the forced detention of families. Then as now, fears were callously whipped up and there was talk of ‘invasion’ which led to brutal actions against refugees.

Religious leaders can play a critical role in helping rescue history from the myths that anesthetize us, and in providing sacred spaces for healing and reconciliation. This process must include Christian institutions reckoning with their own legacy with racism, as, for example, Georgetown University has begun to do with its involvement in the slave trade. “A sober reading of the history of colonization can discern both the presence of a genuine Christian missionary impulse as well as the deployment of white supremacy and cultural oppression as tools of economic ambition, imperial adventurism and political expansion,” Bishop Seitz writes. Centuries later, racism and white supremacy remain enduring realities that must be continually confronted. The sins must be named, and this political ideology must never be allowed to succeed.

Saint Luke, the Artist

St. Luke is known as a fellow worker with St. Paul, an evangelist (the author of the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles) and a physician. For iconographers, St. Luke is revered as the first (according to tradition) to write an icon of the Blessed Mother. In iconography, the verb “to write” is used rather than “to paint,” as an icon is considered visual theology. Now, to my knowledge, there is no known or authenticated icon that can be directly traced back to the hand of St. Luke, but I for one have no problem with considering this tradition a possibility. Luke was obviously a well-educated and gifted man with many skills and abilities. In the first few verses of his Gospel Luke establishes that his sources were some of the very people who were “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Luke is the only…

An Improbable Saint

John Henry Newman, who was canonized last Sunday in Rome by Pope Francis, is the most intellectually and culturally significant addition to the church’s calendar of saints in centuries. His literary reputation is international; his major books like An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent and The Idea of a University are never out of print. Nonetheless, Newman’s path to sainthood was highly improbable. Indeed, if it weren’t for American Catholics he might never have been canonized at all.

A brilliant preacher and a leader of the Oxford Movement within the Church of England, Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845 at the age of forty-four enraged English Protestants, prompting Newman’s classic spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It also cost him his deepest personal friendships—his sister refused to speak with him again—and expulsion from his dearest institution, Oxford University, which at that time still barred “papist” students and professors.

Newman’s first few decades as a Catholic brought mostly misery. “As a Protestant I felt my religion dreary, but not my life,” he confided to his diary, “but as a Catholic, my life dreary, but not my religion.” The majority of Catholics in England at the time were poor, undereducated Irish immigrants governed by conservative bishops who regarded their celebrated convert with suspicion. He criticized the dogma of papal infallibility as untimely and unnecessary when it was defined by Vatican Council I in 1870 amid much controversy. He would, he quipped, drink a toast to the pope, but only after toasting conscience first. His conviction that Catholic doctrine had developed over time and is thus historically conditioned was one of many of his positions that were deemed unacceptable under several subsequent popes but were officially embraced seventy-five years later by Vatican Council II.

Despite his controversial theological stands, by the end of his life Newman had won favor in Rome as well as England—including, at age seventy-seven, a cardinal’s hat. At his death upwards of fifteen thousand people accompanied Newman’s body from the Birmingham Oratory, which he had founded, to his grave seven miles away. The Times of London was not alone among British publications in noting Newman’s suitability for canonization.


To call Newman a theologian is to limit his intellectual range.

Why, then, did it take more than 125 years to proclaim Newman a saint? There are a number of reasons. One, certainly, is that the English Catholic Church at the time of Newman’s death had just emerged from legal suppression dating back to the reign of King Henry VIII: it had neither the resources, the leadership, nor the pedagogical know-how to pursue anyone’s canonization.

Another was cultural. English Catholics typically do not indulge the cult of the saints with anything like the zeal of Catholics in southern Europe. “Awful nuisance,” is the way one member of the Birmingham Oratory put it in 1986, when the community realized that if Newman was declared a saint, they would have to put his remains on display for pious pilgrims who wanted to venerate his relics.

But the chief reason Newman’s canonization took so long is simply that he wrote so much. To call him a theologian is to limit his intellectual range and the significance that imagination as well as reason played in his understanding of religious faith. He was that more comprehensive figure, a Christian humanist in the mold of Erasmus, a superb literary stylist whose output of letters (twenty thousand), books, essays, sermons, poetry, hymns, and two novels already ran to ninety volumes when I visited the Oratory back in the 1980s. And then there were between fifty thousand and seventy thousand letters to and about Newman written during his lifetime, which also had to be scrutinized, not to mention the tens of thousands of letters, biographies, and autobiographies written after his death to be mined for evidence that Newman enjoyed a posthumous reputation for holiness—a requirement for canonization. Pope Paul VI, a highly cultured Italian, was a huge fan of Newman’s work and had hoped he could beatify the Englishman (the penultimate step before canonization) in 1975. But by the time the commission in charge of Newman’s cause delivered up its staggering 6,483 pages of documentation, Pope Paul had been dead sixteen years.

While Newman himself admired many saints, he was not impressed by the church’s saint-making process. He was particularly critical of the way the positio (the final text on which the candidate’s virtues are judged) dismembers a saint’s life into discrete proof-texts. “They do not manifest a Saint,” he wrote, “they mince him into spiritual lessons.”

Neither did Newman imagine that he himself would ever be regarded as a saint. “I have nothing of a Saint about me, as everyone knows,” he wrote while working on his first novel. “Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales.” Newman certainly was “a literary man”: he is still remembered as one of the great prose stylists of the nineteenth century.

But Newman was not canonized because of the elegance of his writing, or even because of his brilliantly argued defense of the church he joined. Excellence of intellect is not proof of holiness. On the contrary, it was Newman’s profound humility—manifest especially in his patient endurance of the lack of appreciation for, and underuse of, his talents by the bishops of his adopted church—that counted most when Vatican officials judged his cause. That and his dedicated pastoral work with the ordinary folk in the Oratory’s Birmingham neighborhood.

Even so, without his very public life as a religious thinker and his literary achievements, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought Newman a saint. In fact, these were the reasons why he was widely known, especially in North America, where the push for his canonization finally took hold. The first cards with a prayer to be said in support of his cause were printed and distributed in 1935 at the direction of the Archbishop of Toronto. Six years later, America, the Jesuits’ weekly magazine, stirred a public clamor for Newman’s canonization by running letters in support of it for four straight months. And when a formal cause was finally introduced, the church official appointed to steer the cause to completion was an American Jesuit who had edited a volume of Newman’s letters for his doctoral dissertation at Harvard.


For decades Newman’s intellectual admirers argued that his splendid prose should itself be considered a miracle worthy of a saint.

Despite all this, Newman’s cause remained hobbled by a major handicap: his supporters lacked a posthumous miracle attributed to his intercession, which the church requires as confirmation from God that the candidate is truly with Him in heaven.

Newman’s problem was that the Catholics who admire his prose and the fineness of mind usually are not the sort of Catholics who pray for miracles in times of need, while those who do pray for miracles typically do not address their pleas to saintly figures known chiefly for how well they think and write. Indeed, for decades Newman’s intellectual admirers argued that his splendid prose should itself be considered a miracle worthy of a saint.

Again, it was Americans who ended up supplying the required miracles. The first, from Massachusetts, was accepted for his beatification in 2010. The second occurred three years later in the Chicago area and was made known earlier this year. The subject is Melissa Villalobos, a Northwestern Law School graduate who, in 2013, was pregnant with her fourth child when she began bleeding from what doctors determined was a blood clot wedged between the placenta and the uterine wall. This condition imperiled the life of both mother and unborn child, and her doctors had no medical or surgical solution. At one point, when Villalobos found herself lying in a widening pool of blood on her bathroom floor, she prayed to Newman, to whom she had developed a strong devotion. Within minutes the hemorrhaging stopped. Days later her doctors told her that she and her child were medically safe—and that they could not explain the sudden and complete healing. Neither could the teams of doctors who examined her case for the church’s canon lawyers.

Newman had his miracle, but in a way the priests and brothers of the Birmingham Oratory also had their own answered prayers. When Newman’s tomb was opened for the examination and transportation of his bones to the Oratory, all that was left of his mortal remains was a handful of dust.

Benefit of the Doubt?

Two national news stories about sexual abuse coincided late last year. On August 14, 2018, the grand jury investigating abuse by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania released their report, documenting hundreds of cases and rekindling public indignation at the long history of crimes and cover-ups committed by priests and bishops. Meanwhile, in July, Christine Blasey Ford told her congresswoman in California that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her thirty-six years earlier, when they were in high school. By mid-September, Ford’s allegation, which had been forwarded to the FBI, was blazing across the media landscape, where it dominated the headlines for the next three weeks. The controversy continues to smolder a year later.

Public reaction to the first story remains markedly different from public reaction to the second. Any allegation against a priest or bishop tends to elicit swift and near-universal denunciation of the accused, on the assumption that any skepticism would only compound the wrong done to the putative survivor. Ford, by contrast, has been met with almost as much suspicion as sympathy. True, more Americans believe her than him, according to polls conducted shortly after their Senate testimonies; in explaining why they find her account credible, some women cite their own experience. At the same time, however, Kavanaugh benefits from an army of media advocates who defend his innocence with vigor, picking apart the case brought by Ford and, in effect, putting her on trial, accusing her of lying and defaming Kavanaugh or, at best, of being confused about the identity of her assailant.

His defenders, her opponents, begin with the legal principle that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. Although Ford v. Kavanaugh was not a court trial, it assumed the form of one, so the inclination to consider him innocent until proven guilty was not irrational. It meant, however, that Ford was presumed to be dishonest, or honest but mistaken. Few of us these days would presume that of anyone filing an accusation of sexual abuse by a priest. Behold the double standard.

Someone who alleges that he was abused by a priest is probably telling the truth, according to the bulk of available statistical data. In the first John Jay report (2004), we read that of 5,681 cases investigated by dioceses and religious orders, only 1.5 percent stemmed from allegations that in the end were deemed to be false. Granted, that figure does not reflect the thousands of allegations that were filed but never investigated or that church officials investigated but never pursued to definitive conclusions. It is, though, in line with research findings that, in society at large, false allegations of rape account for less than 10 percent of all rape allegations. (The exact figure varies from study to study.) Then again, the social scientists who examine the question often work from records of criminal-justice systems and have no way of knowing how many false accusations were among those that were filed and investigated but never prosecuted.

No honest observer can claim to know the truth with perfect certitude—no one, that is, except the putative victims and abusers, as one might suppose. But even they may be subject to unreliable memories, especially when the crime or misconduct is alleged to have been committed decades earlier. The possibility of false-memory syndrome is never fully absent. It was invoked often in Kavanaugh’s defense. If you maintain that Ford testified in good faith but got the identity of her assailant wrong, you can defend him without vilifying her. In turn, some of Ford’s supporters attributed a version of false-memory syndrome to Kavanaugh, suggesting that he was a heavy drinker who might have been prone to blacking out and then waking up without recollection of anything he had done the night before.

She said, he said—the grimly intimate nature of sexual coercion means that third-party eyewitnesses are rare. Most states and the federal government require no corroborating evidence for a conviction of sexual assault. Even so, the prosecutor usually produces at least some circumstantial evidence that jurors can construe as corroborating if they are so inclined. The legal standard in criminal court is usually proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And what is that? In the end, whatever the jurors say it is.

Legal standards of evidence are more subjective than we often pretend. In civil cases we speak of a “preponderance of the evidence,” for example, as if the credibility and significance of the different elements of conflicting testimonies and putatively relevant facts can be put on scales, one of which will hang visibly lower than the other. It’s never that simple in practice. One judge or juror may deem the bearing that a piece of circumstantial evidence has on a case to be greater than his peers do. Or he may judge certain testimony to be less credible than they do but still more likely to be true than untrue. The binary nature of a verdict—guilty or not guilty—can never conform to the limits of our knowledge or to the necessarily probabilistic shape of our reasoning.

Frederick Thieman, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, is a veteran of the review board for the Pittsburgh diocese. Asked by the Pittsburgh Catholic about the grand-jury report, he noted the fragility of many of the cases that came before him on the board. They were “extremely difficult in the sense that there were oftentimes complicated factual situations,” he said. “Cases were often many years old and people’s memories were understandably not as precise as they might have been.” He thought that, even without a statute of limitations, not many of them “would have made it into the courtroom. Certainly not a criminal court. Quite likely not even a civil court.”

You might therefore conclude that survivors are more likely to be believed—and to find satisfaction—before a diocesan review board than in a court of law. Jason Berry is quick to remind me, though, of the history of mendacious bishops concealing files and obstructing justice. He thinks that diocesan review boards have been largely ineffectual, “created as part of a damage-control strategy,” and that cases are best adjudicated in the legal system, beyond the church’s reach.

In the past year, eighteen states and the District of Columbia have extended the statute of limitations for sex-abuse cases. The changes will enable untold numbers of survivors to file lawsuits. More states are poised to follow. For years, survivors and their advocates have campaigned for such reform. They seem confident that prosecutors will be able to persuade juries, who, after years of church scandals and, more recently, the #MeToo movement, may be more predisposed to believe the accuser than to presume the innocence of the accused.


Catholics often do an about-face when discussing allegations of sexual abuse outside the church.

The church’s deplorable record on sexual abuse has provoked condemnation from both the left and the right. Catholics on the right who think like a prosecutor in this matter tend to situate the scandals in the context of the sexual revolution that swept through the culture in the 1960s and that, in their view, corrupted a critical mass of the hierarchy. The same Catholics often do an about-face when discussing allegations of sexual abuse outside the church. Staving off what they regard as dangerous excesses of “Believe women” activism, they adopt the mentality of a defense attorney, affirming the need to uphold the principle that an accused man is innocent until proven guilty. They emphasize holes in the accuser’s testimony while ignoring or minimizing facts that might weaken the defendant’s case.

When Sen. Chuck Grassley tried to cast doubt on Ford’s account by asking why she had waited so long to come forward, either he had not learned from the church scandals or he calculated that much of his intended audience hadn’t. When the FBI curtailed its investigation, Ford’s supporters protested, but Kavanaugh’s were unfazed. You would think that anyone believing that truth was on his side, and looking to dispel all reasonable doubt, would favor the collection of more evidence. When the most widely distributed version of the grand-jury report released by the attorney general of Pennsylvania was shown to be missing more than four hundred pages of responses from priests and bishops who disputed the accusations against them, few people raised any objection. Most of us are not much interested in counterarguments and counter-evidence that could complicate the consensus that the Catholic Church is guilty of all that it has been accused of, and more.

If in the Kavanaugh matter we demand a high standard of evidence and then conclude that the accuser failed to meet it, we should be equally skeptical of those who bring accusations against Catholic priests. But perhaps in the latter case we shouldn’t give so much wiggle room to the accused. If we don’t, we shouldn’t in the Kavanaugh case either. When we presume that the accused is innocent, we thereby presume that the accuser is wrong, perhaps lying. We lay that burden on the morale of a survivor and call it the burden of proof. If in courts of law and in the court of public opinion we have quietly begun to presume instead that someone who claims to have been sexually abused is telling the truth, our doing so is not unreasonable. Neither, of course, is it unproblematic. In any event, we should examine what we’re doing and be consistent. If we decide that the accuser in a sex-abuse case deserves the benefit of the doubt, we should apply that principle equally, when the accused is a federal judge no less than when he’s a Catholic priest. Beware of double standards.


‘I Won’t Hurt You’


All names have been changed.

“You took all of this on, Lord.” This was my prayer after I visited “Peter” in the mental-health unit in a prison in Philadelphia. The twenty-five-year-old man had murdered a neighbor in a fit of rage for unclear reasons. Since his arrest, he had been confined in prison, awaiting assessment to determine if he would stand trial. I was already at the prison visiting other inmates when the supervisor of the Catholic chaplaincy called to ask me to visit Peter.

I walked down the bare stone corridor to the mental-health unit. When I asked a nurse if I could speak with Peter, she and the other nurses gave me a wary glance. I knew this was a risky encounter; Peter’s mother Tracy had told me he was likely psychotic, and had been placed under suicide watch. I asked the nurse again, adding, “His mother wishes that I see him.”

She brought me to the Central Control Office, sealed with what I imagine is bulletproof glass, where a few uniformed officers run the lockdown units from a safe distance. The nurse stood quietly until the head officer looked at her. “The chaplain would like to visit Peter Grambling,” she said. He too gave a look that said to me that I must be crazy. “I’ll just say hello,” I uttered like a fool, indicating with a wave of my hand how I planned to do so. He shrugged and got up to lead me to where Peter was held in solitary confinement.

I had been to these cells a few times before. First, a thick gray door with a slim rectangular slit of a window; past it, mentally ill prisoners alone in their cells; nothing in each room but a narrow cot to sleep on and a stiff padded blanket to cover oneself with (a blanket that couldn’t be used for self-harm), a toilet, and a sink. As we approached his cell, I spotted Peter’s name on the door and the warning signs written in large capital letters: “ASSAULT RISK. SUICIDE RISK.” Yes, Peter must be gone, I thought—a murderer, and probably insane. On some level I hoped he was insane.

I remembered how the newspaper article had described his crime. It said that Peter stormed out of his family’s house and used a garden tool to beat his neighbor to death. The victim was a forty-three-year-old man who was the caregiver for his mother.

As the world fights in fear of each other, and wonders where you are, I give you thanks that you have brought me here.

The thick door was swung open. On the cot in the white-walled room sat a young man, head shaven, solidly built, naked from the waist up. His lower body was draped with the quilted blanket.

Dead blank eyes—coming-out-of-sleep eyes?—stared across the room at me. The officer held the door open and waited for me to move. I was dressed in my black clerical shirt and trousers, collar unbuttoned, in case a roman collar would upset Peter. I searched his eyes for anything at all, and saw a growing hostility. All of my handbook ideas of pastoral care flew out the window.

“Peter,” I said in a soft voice, “Your mother wanted me to see you.” I tried a slight smile. I could sense the officer by my side wishing I would see the futility—even the danger—and let it be.

“I’m Father Paul.” Again I could hear my voice, smooth and tender, as though I were reaching out to a skittish animal. I won’t hurt you. You must be totally lost and devastated in some awful place I could never imagine. No wonder you might want to kill yourself. I hoped that something familiar might register through the chaos. I continued, “I am a priest from Villanova. I’m the Catholic chaplain here.”

I remembered how his mother had told me in a muted and weary voice on the phone, “Peter was my baby.” Stall for time. “Your mother and your brothers are concerned about you. Everyone is.” The glare never eased.

Desperate to find a connection—to find his soul, if it were still alive—I asked, “May I say a prayer?” I reached my hand out toward him.

The hard eyes changed ever so slightly—into pain?—and he gave an almost imperceptible nod. It was the first indication that Peter was not totally unreachable. Stunned, I began an awkward tumble of words that might move God or Peter if either were present.

“Oh, God, many people are concerned about Peter—his mother, his brothers, his friends. Be with him Jesus, so he doesn’t feel so alone.” I kept my eyes fixed on his. My hand hung open between us.

Then there arose from the young man’s catatonic face the faintest glimmer of recognition. The barest nod of the head. His lips formed a soundless thank you. I felt as though I was at Lazarus’s tomb as he emerged.

The officer moved to escort me out. “I will try to see you again in a few days,” I said to Peter as the door was closed and bolted.

As the two of us walked side by side back to Central Control, the officer stopped for a moment. “He has been here over two weeks,” he said. “That is the first time I have seen him show the slightest sign of life.” Overwhelmed, all I could mumble was my own “thank you.”

That night, I prayed before the crucifix. “Oh, Lord, thank you for being within Peter. For being in his mother’s pain and love, for taking on the crucifixion of insanity, murder, total estrangement—the kind of horror that would make death seem a blessing.” I said through tears, 

“As the world fights in fear of each other, and wonders where you are, I give you thanks that you have brought me here—to gaze at you across the padded cell, to realize your unbounded love for all of us.”

St. John Henry Newman

To meet Ignatius Harrison, the Oratorian tasked with promoting the canonization cause of John Henry Newman, is to catch a little glimpse of the saint himself. Fr. Harrison lives with other Oratorians in the house Newman designed and built in Birmingham, England, and follows his prayer life as closely as possible. He is portly and jowly where Newman was beak-nosed and spindly, yet Fr. Harrison’s black cassock with its crumpled white collar is identical, as are his shyness and exquisite Englishness, and that soft Victorian way of speaking that belongs to the age before television.

At the Vatican press office the astonished indignation of our waiting scrum of reporters and camera crews on being told Harrison won’t give TV interviews was priceless. When the Tablet’s Christopher Lamb and I sat down with Harrison, he was still shaking his head at all the “fuss,” worrying that our taking of his photo was “vanity.”

But then he began speaking in perfectly modulated, TV-friendly soundbites. Harrison is not only soaked in Newman’s thinking but also has the saint’s forthrightness and clarity and bold openness to new things. Newman, he tells us, would have been delighted by the way the church has developed since his time. “His main ideas, that seemed to some in Rome at the time dangerously liberal, have now become embedded in the mind of the church and seem to most of us quite normal and normative,” he points out, citing as examples his insistence on the divine origin of human conscience, his insistence on the protagonism of the laity, and above all his “carefully elaborated” understanding of the true development of Christian doctrine, the way doctrine becomes more true to itself as it grows in response to new times and challenges.

Asked about Pope Francis and the synod on Amazonia, Harrison refuses the role of curmudgeon. “It seems to me—not that I have any prophetic insight—this is going to be even more important in the future than it was to Newman when he was writing, because the church is exploring, as we know, the peripheries, looking at possibilities and opportunities that we really hadn’t considered before,” he says.

He would certainly not be in the opposition camp. “I think John Henry Newman would say, fine, now let’s look at that in the light of the church’s tradition, and in the light of our belief that the Holy Spirit guides the church in every age and at every moment.”

Newman’s mind was so refined and supple that he can sometimes seem like a helicopter that never lands. Thus, his zinger quote in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk—“I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”—has long been brandished to justify Catholic dissent, whether by liberals annoyed at John Paul II twenty years ago or nowadays by rad-trad opponents of Pope Francis’s magisterium. But Newman saw conscience as an “aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” one that leads eventually to submission to a dogmatic and institutional Christianity.

So while conscience is the “first principle,” it “does not repose on itself,” as he puts it in Grammar of Assent, but “dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions.” It searches restlessly, one might say, until it comes to rest in submission to the papal magisterium, “like coming into port after a rough sea,” as he famously described his conversion in the Apologia.

The great Jesuit Erich Przywara said that for Newman the “principle of conscience” and “the principle of dogma” turned out to be “one living principle: the dawning and consummate manifestation of the One God—from the beginnings of His appearance in conscience, through to the fullness of His appearance in an authoritatively infallible Church.” And yet—you can’t talk about Newman without these qualifiers—he was no ultramontane, and was wary of papal autocracy. His opposition to the declaration of infallibility came from his accurate prediction that weaponizing the papacy in the nineteenth-century equivalent of the culture wars would end up feeding the false polarization of faith and freedom.

He was prophetic, too, in deploring long pontificates. “It is not good for a Pope to live twenty years,” he said of Pius IX. “It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a God, and has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.” (During the twenty-six-year papacy of John Paul II, Benedict XVI reached the same conclusion.)

Newman’s mind was so refined and supple that he can sometimes seem like a helicopter that never lands.

It is almost a cliché to say Newman resists easy categorization. “It would be very imprudent to label him either a traditionalist or a progressive, a liberal or a conservative, because his whole life was a humble pursuit of truth led by the kindly light of the Holy Spirit at every step,” says Father Harrison. That makes Newman, as others have often said, the patron saint of the postmodern searcher, who has to pick up every rock to see what is underneath it before she will rest on it. But Newman is very unpostmodern in believing that along the road there will be the Rock, and that meeting it is not a matter of coldly weighing up arguments and options.

Indeed, the distrustful self-witholding of the postmodern self is the very opposite of Newman’s turbulent love affair with truth. His journey, recounted in his Apologia, is essentially a story of passionate conversions, each one revealing more of the Rock, as he boldly sets out to live faithfully in the tension of opposites.

So while Newman was no liberal in the common sense of the word, his was a deeply liberal frame of mind. His Idea of a University—the best book in the English language on the nature and purpose of university education—draws from the assumption that, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin put it in a lecture at the Irish College in Rome on Friday, “faith is more than intellectual assent…. It always contains an element of continuous searching and seeking, and therefore an element of risk.”

That is why, as Harrison told us in his interview, Newman “would have been a Remainer” in the Brexit debate. “He would say: ‘Why would England want to cut itself off, spiritually speaking, from Christian Europe, from Christian, Western civilisation?’” Harrison adds: “I think he would opt for anything that would contribute to a closer spiritual unity between different countries and different nationalities.”

When I put that quote to Archbishop Martin after his lecture on Newman’s ultimately failed attempt at creating a Catholic university in Dublin, the audience burst into laughter at the idea that England’s first saint in three hundred years had a view on Brexit. But the archbishop agreed with Fr. Harrison. “The idea of a university as a place of universal learning can only come from a person who has a broad understanding of relationships and culture and of our common history,” the archbishop said.

Prince Charles, who is representing the Queen at the canonization, says much the same thing. Newman, he has written in the Tablet, could “advocate without accusation, could disagree without disrespect and, perhaps most of all, could see differences as places of encounter rather than exclusion.” That makes him especially relevant at a time of “grievous assaults by the forces of intolerance on communities and individuals, including many Catholics, because of their beliefs,” the prince adds.

Could this now be Saint John Henry Newman’s role in the church and the world—as one who teaches us how to seek with rigor and honesty in a post-truth era?

Like Pope Francis, Newman was relaxed about theological conflict and disagreement, says Fr. Harrison. “He says this is our lot, this is how it has always been, but what matters above all is seeking God.” He is happy that Newman is declared a saint now, for it means “he no longer belongs to us exclusively. He’s the saint for the universal church and for people of goodwill.”

As Matthew D’Ancona explains “post-truth” in a recent book of that title, it is essentially an emotional phonomenon. “It concerns our own attitude to truth, rather than truth itself.” The epistemology of post-truth urges us to choose sides rather than weigh evidence. In a post-truth world, we construct narratives that feed our grievances or offer to protect us from what we fear, and the facts are arranged to suit the narrative. It is no longer enough to drive out lies with well-chosen facts, for there is no longer a distinction between opinion and facts. Nor can there be any hope to dislodge the emotional apprehension of truth by reverting to the cold science of reason. The means of correcting post-truth have to match the prevailing culture.

Who better to restore our relationship with truth than Saint John Henry Newman? He understood that truth lies outside and beyond us, yet beckons to us through our consciences, and that the end of all our strivings is not an idea but a person, who is reached not firstly through reason but “through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description,” as he wrote in Grammar of Assent. Newman shows us that by embracing what often appears to the mind as contradictions and opposites and trusting in the kindly light to lead us, we will eventually come into port. That’s what makes him, in a post-truth time, the saint our age badly needs. 


Religious Sisters on the Border

The day I arrived in El Paso to work with refugee families, my friend Sr. Margaret McGuirk invited me to join her and three other women religious on a visit to Tornillo, a camp built by the Trump administration to house teens who crossed the border alone. In January 2019, protestors were still camped outside Tornillo’s gate, but the vast tent city in the Texas desert was at last being dismantled; there was hope that public outrage had triumphed over government callousness. This was before the news broke of the jail-like border-patrol facility in Clint, Texas, where hungry, dirty immigrant children were left to care for each other. I was the lone layperson in our group, and the visit to Tornillo was my first encounter with the sisters I would live and work with for ten days.

We weren’t allowed inside the camp, so an activist guided us around the perimeter. From outside the high fence, we watched workers strip the walls from an enormous dining tent. Guards marched a gaggle of teens off the soccer field. When our guide found a stray soccer ball in the weeds, the sisters wrote blessings and signed their names. Our guide hurled the ball back over the fence.

I signed, too. But my inner skeptic asked: Blessings on a soccer ball? What good would that do?

Because I was traveling with Margaret, a Dominican sister, I was able to stay at a former convent across an alley from a family refuge. A dozen sisters from around the country—many fluent in Spanish—were also living there. Like us, they had answered a call to provide emergency help to Central American families seeking asylum at the southern border.

To work with sisters is to understand the power of persistent acts of care.

Each day, we crossed the alley to greet dozens of young parents and children newly arrived from ICE custody. We made their meals, found them bedding and clean clothes, and helped arrange for them to travel to family or friends across the country. Once there, they would await their immigration-court hearings. This was before the Trump administration ordered that asylum-seeking families remain in Mexico while they waited for their hearings.

To work with sisters is to understand the power of persistent acts of care. As Mother Teresa wrote: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Earlier in their lives, these sisters had done “great things”—run schools, trained teachers, built missions, started clinics. Now in their seventies and eighties, they were making peanut butter sandwiches, telling weary mothers how beautiful their children are, signing soccer balls.

There was Sr. Katherine from Boston, all energy and wit, with an arthritic shoulder and the logistical skills that make a good ward boss or mayor. At the refuge, she supervised the crowded clothing room, where young mothers pawed through piles of donations to find fresh shirts for themselves and their children. “There’s no point telling them what looks good,” Sr. Katherine told me. “People know what they like.” At day’s end, we straightened shelves for the next wave of asylum-seekers. Other times, Sr. Katherine stood in the front hallway, encouraging anxious families as they waited for rides to the airport or bus station. “I don’t tell them how hard it will be.”

Sr. Therese from New Jersey noticed some kitchen rags needed bleaching. Sr. Laverne from Delaware jimmied a lock and retrieved fleece blankets for departing families. Resourceful, yes, but also clear-eyed and tough-minded about the failings of the church they have served for decades. When I asked how the Catholic Church can recover from the sex-abuse crisis— the shame of its silence, betrayal, and self-protection—Sr. Andrea from Portland answered drily: “Start over with twelve.”

During my mid-century childhood, I experienced religious sisters as teachers, disciplinarians, models of women dedicated to something other than marriage and children. Hair and bodies hidden behind veils and habits, they were objects of respect, fascination, and occasional terror. As an adult, I’ve often seen sisters’ intelligence, their formidable organizational skills. I’ve heard their laments about their aging communities, their fear that their charisms will be lost. For me and others (see the organization Nuns and Nones) religious sisters are model advocates—examples of how faith, community, and practice sustain hope and work in the face of overwhelming odds. The sisters I met in El Paso know well the intractability of poverty, disease, and violence. That does not keep them from working to relieve them.

On previous visits to El Paso, Margaret had noticed how many immigrants wore shoes shredded by their journey. Her quiet appeal to parishioners back home in Minnesota raised $5,000, enough to buy 250 pairs of new sneakers. Her request this Christmas will be humbler still: money to buy socks and underwear.

When the Amazon Meets the Tiber

The opening days of the Amazon Synod have been marked by the familiar polar tensions at the heart of the Catholic Church: between center and periphery, universal and local; between the demands of the law and the pastoral needs of a particular people. But now there is something new, something that is tilting the balance in favor of the peripheral, the local, and the particular.

You could see it happening in the gentle battle over liturgical space in the run-up to the synod’s opening. On October 4 in the Vatican Gardens and on the following night at a church not far from St Peter’s, dozens of indigenous leaders and church workers led offerings and prayers, using objects and forms of worship from the region: a canoe, a mandorla, the image of a pregnant woman, as well as placards of Amazon martrys such as Sr. Dorothy Stang. It was joyful, generous, and unmistakably Amazonian: the faithful People of God speaking and praying and dancing in their own way.

Yet at the big papal Mass in St Peter’s the next morning, Amazonia was all but banished. If the pope in his zinger homily hadn’t invoked the Holy Spirit to “renew the paths of the Church in Amazonia, so that the fire of mission will continue to burn,” you would have had no idea the synod was even taking place. Indigenous leaders sat at the front and brought up the gifts but were silent: there were no intercessions for the region, no readings in an Amerindian language, and almost everything was Italian and solemn. The center was back in charge.

But not for long. The next morning the Amazonian people were in St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Francis, along with the canoe and the martyrs and Our Lady of the Amazon. In a remarkable move, unprecedented at previous synods, the pope processed from the Basilica with the indigenous peoples, in their midst—el pastor con su pueblo—as they joyfully chanted, “The sons and daughters of the Forest, we praise you, Lord.”

As they left St. Peter’s and crossed the square to the synod hall, I thought of Jeremy Irons in Roland Joffé’s film The Mission, the Jesuit who walks with his people into a hail of colonialist bullets. There had been no shortage of rhetorical bullets in the run-up to the synod:  superannuated cardinals telling Amazonian Catholics they were heretics for proposing to ordain married men; a panel of traditionalists (Cardinal Burke in the front row) claiming the synod would not “civilize the savages” but would instead “make the civilized savages”; and an EWTN-owned news outlet reporting that the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens—in which native peoples honored God’s creation—was an essentially pagan, pantheistic affair. In his speech opening the synod, the pope spoke of his pain at overhearing someone at the previous day’s Mass mock the feather headdress of the leader who brought the gifts to the altar. “Tell me,” the pope asked the 300-odd participants, “what difference is there between wearing feathers on your head and the three-cornered hat used by some officials in our curial departments?”

In that opening address Francis was clear about where he and the synod would stand. They would look at the Amazon region with the eyes of disciples and missionaries, respectful of the ancestral wisdom and culture of its peoples, and rejecting any approach that was colonialist, ideological, or exploitative. They would not try to “discipline” the locals. For whenever the church has had this mindset, Francis warned, it has failed utterly to evangelize. The Jesuit pope reminded the synod’s participants of the ill-fated sixteenth-century missions of the Jesuits Roberto Di Nobili, SJ, and Matteo Ricci, SJ, whose bold attempts at inculturation, in India and China respectively, were quashed by the pettiness and colonialist mindsets of church leaders at the time. Without being planted in the local culture, the Gospel cannot take root: “homogenizing centralism,” said Francis, is the enemy of “the authenticity of the culture of the peoples.” This synod would go the other way. “We come to contemplate, to understand, to serve the peoples.”

What matters, then, is the people of Amazonia, and especially the 3 million or so indigenous gathered in 390 peoples who, for the first time, are the central concern of a synod. It is their welfare, their pastoral needs, that are at the heart of this gathering, as well as the natural world to which they are deeply, symbiotically connected. Both are threatened with destruction as never before. This life-or-death urgency demands, in turn, that the church examine the nature of its presence, how it can be embedded and inculturated, how it can it stand with, and promote the life of, its peoples in an area where one “regional vicariate” might be the size of half of Italy yet have just a handful of priests.

The issue is one of agency. The synod is a test of the church’s ability to implement the vision of Laudato si’ in a region that almost daily dramatizes that encyclical’s call to conversion. Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ—a key drafter of Laudato si’ who will also be drawing up the final document on which the synod will vote on October 26—told Commonweal that because “the Amazon region exemplifies the inextricable connection between the social and natural environments, the fate of people there and of their natural surroundings” there could be “no more concrete manner than this [synod] to lift Laudato si’ off the page and put it into action.”


Most Amazonian native peoples live not in parishes but in remote village-size communities with strong social structures.

This is the first ever “territorial” synod. More than 80,000 people were consulted in preparation for it. The bishops who make up the overwhelming majority of its 185 voting members are there not because their national bishops’ conferences chose them as delegates, but because their dioceses are in Amazonia. The bishops may be from nine different nations (there are fifty-eight Brazilians, fourteen Colombians, twelve Bolivians, eleven Peruvians, seven Ecuadorians, seven Venezuelans, plus four from the Antilles) and speak four different languages, but they have far more in common with one another than with many members of their own national conferences. (“The bishops in the south,” a Brazilian Amazonian bishop lamented to me, “haven’t got a clue what we face. I have much more in common with a Peruvian or Bolivian Amazonian bishop.”) Meanwhile, the other voting delegates—fifteen elected by the missionary religious orders, thirty-three chosen by the pope—are either embedded in the area or deeply sympathetic to it. That leaves just thirteen heads of curial departments as jokers in the pack.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that there is automatically a consensus; most bishops agree on the challenges—the working document captures them brilliantly—but most have not arrived in Rome with a list of solutions. Yet my informal soundings of Amazonian bishops and those who know them well suggest that around two-thirds of them are wholly supportive of the synod and its proposals for the ordination of elders and some kind of recognition of women’s ministries. Bishop Erwin Krautler, the retired bishop of Xingú, confirmed that two-thirds figure on Wednesday, and argued there was no choice but to ordain married elders if the church wants a stable, autochthonous clergy in the region.

The other third are said to be more tentative, waiting to see what emerges. There is even a small rump of conservative resistance, centered in the Brazilian archdiocese of Belém do Pará. While his rhetoric is a long way from the astonishing attacks on the synod—“Heretical! Pantheistic!”—of Cardinals Burke, Müller and Brandmüller, Dom Taveira Corrêa and his auxiliaries have been less than enthusiastic participants in the pre-synod consultation process, with the archbishop complaining about the need for “more evangelism and less ecologism.”

Yet it is precisely evangelization—the spread and deepening of Catholic life and spirituality—that this synod is designed to improve. Most Amazonian native peoples live not in parishes but in remote village-size communities with strong social structures. Religious life is entrusted to the community’s leaders; they are likely to be the catechists and “animators” of the local church. A missionary priest might pass through once or twice a year, to celebrate Mass and hear confessions, which is a cause for great celebration. But the rest of the time, in their gathering round the Word alone, the Catholic Amazonians look indistinguishable from Evangelicals. All too often priests arrive to find that the whole village leadership has succumbed to what a synod father has described as “the dizzying proliferation of Pentecostal churches.” Nowadays these are likely to be powerful megachurches that proselytize aggressively and preach a version of the Prosperity Gospel.

The threat from the Pentecostals is a delicate subject. Few talk about it openly at the synod, because to do so is considered politically incorrect. The European missionary priest who spelled the problem out to me asked not to be identified by name or nationality.

“The indigenous Catholic communities in the Amazon today are among the best reflections of the first Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles,” he told me. “It’s natural for them to share, and no one ever goes hungry. People hunt and fish for what their people need, but no more. But all that changes when the Pentecostalists come in. What happens is that soon everything gets sold: the wood, the fish, and so on, to get money, because prosperity is seen as a gift of God—and of course the pastors get their share. It’s really sad. The communities cease to be communitarian. Their mentality becomes one of accumulation and exploitation. I saw it happen over and over.”

That’s why, the missionary said, the question of ministries is so important, because only when the Catholic Church and its sacraments are embedded in the lives of the communities can their way of life and the environment on which they depend be conserved and promoted. “That’s why the ordination of elders matters,” he told me. “On this depends not just the future of the church but of Amazonia itself.”


It is possible to allow diversity in its structures and disciplines for the sake of inculturating the Gospel.

“Everything is connected,” as Pope Francis famously says in Laudato si’. The defense of the natural world of the Amazon depends on the conservation of a communitarian indigenous culture, which in turn depends on embedding the sacramental life and inculturated liturgy of the Catholic Church in the life of the native peoples. At present there is a disjuncture. The Eucharist is at the heart of the Catholic community, but in Amazonia it cannot be at the center of community life.

The authority to celebrate the sacraments lies outside the authority structure of the community. “There are communities where they don’t take a decision for a year because they’re waiting for the priest to come,” says the missionary. “But when the priest comes he’s often in a hurry, and that leaves a bad feeling. In Amazonia they have a different sense of time; it might take you a week to go to the nearest town. You have to forget your watch to be completely present among them. That’s what so hard when you’re applying a modern European model of sacramental life to what is much more like the early Christian communities.”

Hence the proposal for the ordination of elders, which is essentially modeled on the early church, where priests were generally chosen from the community not as young men who were then sent off to be trained, but as respected, mature men with families and professions who had an eye for the welfare of the community. The synod’s working document carefully restricts itself to noting that the people of the Amazon are asking for the ordination of elders and the recognition of female ministries. But a document with a more detailed proposal is likely to be introduced at the synod to assist the discussion. It will urge the “community presbyters” model associated with South African bishop Fritz Lobinger and developed in Latin America by the Brazilian diocesan priest-theologian Antonio José Almeida, whose book Procuram-Se Padres (“Wanted: Priests”) distils the best thinking on the topic.

The community presbyters would be fully priests, but of a different kind, complementing seminary-trained celibates. Their faculties would be restricted to their community or area. If married and employed, they would not give up their wives or their work, but ideally be part of a small team who would take turns presiding at the Eucharist. They would not be sent away from their communities for training, but they would receive sufficient formation to carry out their duties. They would look, ideally, like the epískopo profiled by Paul in his First Letter to Timothy (3:7): the husband of just one wife, austere in lifestyle, sober in habits, with a track record of good governance of his own household, and respected in the community.

In many of the remote communities, church life is run by women. To recognize their  ministries, Almeida believes that the first step is to open up the non-ordained minor orders of acolyte and lector to women. This can be done by amending the term in the Code of Canon Law (230) from viri laici to Christifedeles laici et laicae. There is strong support for this among the delegates, and also for women deacons. “We talk a lot about giving women more value, but we need something concrete,” said Bishop Kräutler, “I am referring to the female diaconate, and I say: Why not?”

If these proposals achieve consensus in the synod—and my guess is that at least some of them will—Francis will accept the arguments for implementing them as pastorally compelling. Although he has made it clear that he will not end the discipline of mandatory celibacy for the western Church, he is clearly open to exceptions for pastoral need. The genius of this synod is that the usual argument against change in the church has been neutralized: what matters in the discernment of the synod is not the imperative of universal consistency, but the pastoral welfare of the People of God in the forests of the Amazon. That means that the need of the Amazonian peoples for access to the sacraments and the 24/7 presence of the church will not be sacrificed in order to assuage European and American conservatives who are allergic to change.

Indeed, the fruit of the Amazon synod may well be permanent protection for the church from “homogenizing centralism.” There is talk of creating a special Amazonian Rite, along the lines of the church’s nineteen other rites or special structures, almost all of which allow some form of married priesthood. In a new book titled Perspectivas de sinodalidad: Hacia una Iglesia con rostro amazónico, Mauricio López, executive secretary of the church’s pan-Amazon network, REPAM, which organized the synod, says he foresees a new “pan-Amazon ecclesial and episcopal structure” to emerge, independent of the national bishops’ conferences, but sitting under the pan-Latin-American episcopal council, CELAM. The idea of an Amazonian bishops’ conference was first floated at a bishops’ meeting in Iquitos, Peru, in 1971.

Such a body would, of course, be a powerful witness in the defense of the Amazonian peoples, raising its voice against the plunder of the region by extractivist industries, and against the destruction of native cultures by technocrats. But for the church, too, it would be a sign: that it is possible to allow diversity in its structures and disciplines for the sake of inculturating the Gospel. As Cardinal Czerny put it to Commonweal: “The present-day challenges for the church and for the world are generally huge and quite unprecedented. It would be odd to expect the church to respond successfully by sticking only to the tried-and-true.


This article was made possible with support from Commonweal's Paul Saunders Fund.