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Pathways to Holiness

In a recent, highly public dustup, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, raised the question of heresy because of his disgust with calls for greater Eucharistic inclusivity for people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender, or divorced and remarried. His unnamed target was Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, whose article in America Bishop Paprocki cited. Cardinal McElroy responded by repeating his objection to the traditional moral teaching that all sexual sin is objectively mortal sin. That was the trigger for the heresy charge.

The principle itself—that all sexual sin is mortal sin—would not seem shocking to American Catholics who attended parochial schools in the 1950s. “Mortal” signified the rupture of the soul’s relationship to God, and its eternal damnation if its sins were left unrepented before death. As it happens, not a month after encountering this exchange, I discovered the same declaration on page 260 of the book under review, James Keenan’s A History of Catholic Theological Ethics: “All sins of impurity of whatever kind or species are of themselves mortal.” The source for this (endnote 98, p. 384) was unclear, so I looked it up where someone of my generation would have encountered it: in the Baltimore Catechism. And here it is, from Baltimore Catechism #3: Fr. Connell’s Confraternity Edition, intended for those who had been confirmed or were in high school, authorized in 1949 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. This edition was a revision of the original Baltimore Catechism made by Professor Francis Connell of the Catholic University of America, copyrighted and published by Benzinger Bros. in 1949 and 1952. (Baltimore Catechism #3 was one of four age-appropriate levels in the revision, according to the Wikipedia article on the catechism.) I cite from the free site

Question 256. What does the sixth commandment forbid?

The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks, and actions, whether alone or with others.

(c) Immodesty is any deliberate thought, word, or action that tends toward impurity.

(d) When there is full deliberation in any sin of impurity it is a mortal sin. Immodesty may be either a mortal or venial sin depending on the greater or less danger of impurity to which it tends, the degree of scandal, and the intention of the sinner.

Fr. Connell’s parsing of the gravity of sins against the sixth commandment relaxes the absolutism of the original quotation. But the principle itself is reaffirmed: any fully deliberate sin of impurity is mortal.

I begin this way not in order to skewer, once again, the pedagogical shortcomings of preconciliar catechesis. The Baltimore Catechism is an easy target that did its share of harm, though this reviewer thinks it had its redeeming side as well. I begin with it because it offers a direct way into A History of Catholic Theological Ethics. James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor of Theology, director of the Jesuit Institute, and vice provost of global engagement at Boston College. He is the prolific author and editor of more than two dozen books, dozens of essays and chapters in books, editor of two academic series, and the founder of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church. That last distinction has been the focus of his energies in recent years, and the place where this sprawling survey reaches its conclusion. The book is a recapitulation of his three and a half decades of remarkably productive and creative service to the Church and to the theological academy. It reveals his commitment to historical consciousness, to interdisciplinarity, to pastoral practice, to bioethics and issues related to sexuality and gender, and to a global inclusivity.

Despite its ambitious scale, the book sits rather easily with the reader for at least three reasons. First is its relaxed and discursive style. We hear the voice of a writer who is patently a teacher, supportive and encouraging rather than domineering and overweening. He explains at the outset how the book grew out of thirty-three years of teaching: “I am welcoming you into my classroom.” He is a charitable analyst, even of texts whose obsessions with spiritual control and intimidation may irritate many readers. The eighty pages of endnotes tell you how much reading and study went into the assurance of that voice. Fully one third of those endnote pages are from the eighth and last chapter of the book, on “Moral Agency for a Global Theological Ethics”—an indication of the author’s energy and attention for the past dozen years and more.

We hear the voice of a writer who is patently a teacher, supportive and encouraging rather than domineering and overweening.

Second, Keenan has a strong narrative line and an argument that he presses from the beginning to the end. The story he tells is how sin-consciousness gradually captured the Catholic conscience and took hostage the primal message of the Gospel, which is not the conviction of sin but the call to discipleship: “[T]his early classification of such major sins became, I think, the beginning of a terrible mistake, for along the way we lost a sense of the gospel meaning of sin as the failure to bother to love.” Keenan examines in great detail the manuals of moral theology that shaped Catholic life and conscience-formation for the entire period between Trent and Vatican II. But more important than these—or the penitentials of Irish monasticism or the disciplinary regimen of the early Church or the confessional practices of the Middle Ages—are what Keenan calls “pathways to holiness,” the positive call to goodness and to discipleship that is the real message of Jesus:

[I]n lieu of the patristic period as foundational for a sin-oriented ethics that became manifested in the penitentials and the practice of auricular confession, I propose that from the beginning of the church, members sought pathways toward the holy, and the confessing of sin and concern about this matter was only a part of the pathway to holiness and not the overall focus of either the patristic or the medieval period.

That is a large claim and Keenan hangs a lot on it. Chapter Three—at fifty-five pages the second longest in the book—runs us though twelve centuries of history to make the case that the forgiveness of sins was only one stage of the Christian’s growth in the moral life, understood as the cultivation of the virtues and the avoidance of vices by following exemplars of the moral life. There was, he says, a certain dynamism that always pushed the Christian further and further.

From the very beginning, Christianity had the instinct, as in the death of the deacon Stephen, to live beyond expectations, to go further into the land of holiness as Anthony did when, at the age of nineteen, he entered the desert in the third century…the line between the moral life and the life of holiness is not simply found or drawn.

It seems, though Keenan does not say so explicitly, that he chose this language of “pathways to holiness” in order to undo the deeply embedded idea that there is one privileged pathway that sanctions those who take it to be arbiters of the rest who do not—whereas in reality all are on a journey to the same goal, though not by the same routes or at the same pace. I take this to be his way of incorporating the “universal call to holiness” advocated by the Second Vatican Council in order to deepen the dignity of the laity and bridge the lay-clerical divide, grounded as it often has been in the claim to bind or to absolve.

Third, Keenan enlivens his narrative with a gallery of sharply defined portraits of his favorite heroes from the theological tradition. In his Preface, he notes a preference for “innovators” rather than for the “grand achievers” who built on the first steps taken by the innovators. There is Peter Abelard, for Keenan a hero of conscience: “There is no sin, except against conscience,” from Abelard’s unfinished book Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself). Heloise too is featured, for her thought on intentionality. Thomas Aquinas gets fourteen generous pages with special attention to how he shaped the tradition he inherited from Augustine (who is not among Keenan’s heroes) by incorporating Aristotle’s teleology of human nature and thereby opening up the possibility of the virtuous pagan. (In 1992, Keenan published a book titled Goodness and Rightness in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, which was based on a course he taught.) There is Erasmus, celebrated for his “distinctively lay, nonmonastic spirituality that could encompass all Christians.” There is Scottish philosopher John Mair, or Major (1467–1550), author of “the earliest full successful work of casuistry in Europe,” which is also the fruit of “a very late form of scholasticism.”

The pages on Erasmus are some of the freshest and most cheering in the book: “The moral life was no longer understood by the devout Christian as the simple avoidance of sin.” Keenan pairs Ignatius Loyola with Erasmus: both had a christocentric focus, believed in the primacy of the individual’s conscience, and privileged the spiritual over the moral.

Keenan also includes the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria for his adaptation of natural law to recognize what is now called international law, which asserts the rights of all people, by virtue of being human, to their own legitimate dominion—in this case, against Spanish aggrandizement. Keenan pairs de Vitoria with Bartolomé de las Casas, the repentant priest-colonialist who became the great advocate of the Indians, critic of mass and coerced evangelization, and chronicler of Spanish atrocities. Then there is Alphonso Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists, humane confessor, and reformer of moral theology. (Keenan didn’t quite convince me on that one, but where mission preaching is concerned, perhaps grading on a curve is the best one can expect.) By the time Keenan gets to his last chapter on global theological ethics, the parade of names from across the world becomes a little dizzying and an impressive testament to the contemporary catholicity—to invoke a very ancient word—of theological ethics, across every boundary of nation, language, and gender.


The parade of names from across the world becomes a little dizzying and an impressive testament to the contemporary catholicity—to invoke a very ancient word—of theological ethics.

Who is this book for, and what will they get out of it? I have already complimented the book’s readability. I would call it a high-level textbook, though a certain level of theological education is presumed. Keenan helps the reader by staying in touch with primary sources and singling out specific works for extended quotation and discussion. And he is forthright and complimentary about secondary literature he relies on and recommends.

He seems most sure-footed in the long section on the manualist tradition after the Council of Trent (Chapter Five) and the extension of that discussion in Chapter Seven, with manualism’s death in the furor stirred up by Humanae vitae—and its resuscitation in new dress in the long reaction to Vatican II that has now come up against the pontificate of Francis. Keenan’s discussions of the origin, development, and decline of casuistry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are fascinating. So is his coverage of moral-juridical trends like the “probabilism” advocated especially by the Jesuits, and the rigorist and mainly Dominican “probabiliorism” that it provoked in reaction, which in turn inspired the “equiprobabilism” of Liguori and the Redemptorists. The defense of probabilism found on page 198, and attributed to the early twentieth-
century Jesuit Thomas Slater, gives fresh meaning to “jesuitical.” Keenan gives his dry verdict on manualism as the conclusion of Chapter Five: “It is no wonder that for almost four centuries Catholics were fascinated by the principle of double effect. They had nothing else with which to work.”

Keenan’s readers will enjoy the tour in Chapter Eight of contemporary theological ethics around the globe. I found it chastening how few names outside of North and South America I even recognized. Keenan finds two unifying features in all of this diversity: the way attention is now paid to the local and particular rather than to the universal (as it was traditionally conceived); and the focus on suffering—no longer seen as a problem of theodicy (why does a good and omnipotent God allow suffering?) but of human accountability: Why do we tolerate or contribute to conditions and structures that are contingent causes of immense suffering around the world? The registers of suffering run from environmental degradation and climate change to war to gender discrimination, racism, and poverty.

The exhaustion one feels after reading this chapter may tempt one to crisis fatigue and resignation—and perhaps to wonder whether so much talk about others’ suffering can become a cover story of its own: travel, conferences, publications, lectures, as an ersatz reality. But then one remembers the witness of those who died acting on behalf of others’ suffering—and Pope Francis’s indignation against “the sin of indifference,” uttered after the drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean.


From this book readers will not get substantive discussion of specific issues, though some are favored for illustrative purposes—e.g. usury and contraception. Keenan largely leaves to masters like the late Judge John T. Noonan Jr. the enormously important area of the institutional intersection of law, morality, and religion. I don’t think education and schools are even mentioned. Considering how central, even obsessive, they have been in modern Catholic teaching, that is a revealing lacuna. Just consider how much they occupied the published work of someone like John Courtney Murray—or the Jesuits in their entire history. War and even nuclear war don’t get significant attention. Colonialism and empire, on the other hand, are well covered. 

Nor is this a work of history in the normal sense. The treatment of early Christianity seemed kind of disembodied, despite Keenan’s attention to “the body.” It was necessarily topical and tailored to suit the author’s commitment to the importance of mercy over sin as governing motifs. But it wasn’t the primitive Christianity of the first two hundred years or the developed institution of the next four hundred years that I am familiar with. I would have liked to hear more, too, about the changing social and cultural conditions in which the casuists and manualists taught—the early modern preoccupation with certitude and credibility, as revealed in the work of historian Stefania Tutino or Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau, or the growing power of “confessionalization” in the partitioning of Western Christendom. How much did the unwinding of Christendom in the modern period shape how and what moralists taught? Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s Contraception: An American History (2005) shows brilliantly how increased education (especially of women) at first heightened American Catholic reception of Church teaching on contraception (in the modified form permitted by Pius XII after 1951) and then led to the rejection of the Church’s teaching after the promulgation of Humanae vitae.

On the other hand, Keenan is quite frank that he has not written a work of history as such, nor does he intend to be comprehensive. He has, however, tried to think historically. And he is acutely aware (with full knowledge of the work of people like Noonan) of how teaching has had to change to accommodate new conditions, while avoiding the banal relativism of the “situation ethics” that some propagated two generations ago. In a few well-conceived pages, he makes the case for the historical consciousness famously formulated by Bernard Lonergan, which incorporates experience as a crucial personal appropriation of an objective moral horizon as it emerges with time. His three examples of the Jesuit adoption of probabilism, the Jesuit defense of the Chinese rites as civil and not religious, and the defense of the independent rights of the Guaraní in the Paraguayan reductions are well chosen—if forgivably Jesuit in their focus.

Keenan is also acutely aware of, and stunningly well informed about, how the social, geographical, ethnic, and gender status of those who are doing theological ethics today quite naturally affects the work they do. The practitioners of theological ethics are no longer chiefly clergy taught to treat the confessional as “a tribunal” and the priest as a judge, as they were from the time of the Council of Trent. They no longer—as early and mid-twentieth-century moral theologians were increasingly made to do—write with the Roman magisterium as their primary intended audience.

I am guessing that many readers of this book have probably abandoned the weekly confessional practice of their parents and grandparents. My own parish church has eight or ten massive marble confessionals whose utility is not what it once was, much though many American bishops might wish it were otherwise. People simply stopped going, as one of the priests with whom Tentler speaks in her book says in wonderment. Readers of A History of Catholic Theological Ethics will come away with a powerful explanation of why that happened and what serious attempts are now underway to give conscience and discipleship their due.

A History of Catholic Theological Ethics
James F. Keenan, SJ
Paulist Press
$49.95 | 456 pp.


Each a Thread in the Tapestry

I was introduced to death at the age of five in the home of my great aunts, Elizabeth and Gertrude, who lived across the street from my family. My mother dressed me up one day and walked me over to visit the two single sisters in their eighties, who had opened their home to my mother and me for endless afternoons of tea. I remember walking into their home that day and noticing how dark and solemn it was. As my mother and I turned the corner from the entranceway into the living room, I saw Gertrude’s fragile body lying peacefully in a large, cushioned box just inside the bay window. All I remember after that is sitting on a dark velvet sofa and turning to a woman sitting beside me, whom I mistook for my mother, and saying, “It looks just like church!” My mother overheard me from across the room and gently shushed me.

The next year, when I was six, my younger sister, Kathleen, died not long after her birth. I remember my mother’s convulsive grief following her stay in the hospital, which was at the end of our street. The connection between a baby’s death and my mother’s sadness was too abstract for me to understand at the time, but my mother experienced it as an unspeakably painful rupture. The quick trip from crib to coffin was too much for her to bear.

Two years later my mother had another baby girl, her fifth daughter and eighth child. My parents named her Kathleen, too. It was as if I always had two sisters named Kathleen: the one who lived as a shadow of grief and the one who flourished as a gift of grace. One sister brought my mother inconsolable sadness, and the other periods of great joy. The darkness of my sister’s death hovered over my family like a shadow reminding us of our mortality. I could never escape the fierce reality that we live but we also die. As Jesus said, we “know neither the day nor the hour.” We just know it is coming.

As a class officer at my Catholic high school, one of my responsibilities was to represent my class at any wakes and funerals associated with anyone at the school. My father, a public-school principal in the City of Worcester, held the same responsibility for his school. Together, my father and I attended countless wakes and funerals over the years. Without knowing it, my father taught me how to comport myself in an environment where grief is the order of the day and a dead body is near. One of the blessings of this experience is that I learned the great landmarks of a person’s life are the people they loved.

In April 2014, my eldest brother, Brian, who lived with quadriplegia for twenty years, received the sacrament of the sick at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This was the signal that he was on the runway to death. The progressive effects of muscular dystrophy, a disease that has ravaged so many lives—including those of a younger sister and brother—were too great to stave off any longer. With my family surrounding my brother, the hospital chaplain, a Catholic priest, blessed Brian with oil, prayed over him, and, at my request, absolved all of us for any sufferings we may have caused my brother. My request stemmed mostly from my father’s inability over many years to accept my brother for who he was and had always been: a beloved child of a merciful God. Indoctrinated in the old church, my father was raised to associate a sickness of this magnitude with some kind of moral failing. To my father, a ravaged body manifests a lack of right relationship with God. Someone must be to blame. The roster of the accused is long and devastating: self, spouse, parent, grandparent, child, God himself. Who is responsible for this calamity?

Without knowing it, my father taught me how to comport myself in an environment where grief is the order of the day and a dead body is near.

My brother died twelve weeks after he received the sacrament. I was given the responsibility of telling my father, who did not hear well and was living in a skilled nursing facility. I remember having to say several times, with increasing volume, “Dad, Brian died.” When my father finally understood, he reacted volcanically: cries pierced the late-afternoon solitude of the activity room.

Four years later, I was again responsible for telling my father of a death—this time my mother’s. I bent down to tell him, but the words were lodged behind an avalanche of grief rising in my throat. I tried several times to speak, but no sound came out of my mouth. My tears forced me to surrender the task of announcing her death. A nurse, standing beside me, said to my father, “Helen has passed away.” His grief was immediate and torrential. Two months later, my father died.

I continue to be surrounded by death as a chaplain working at a large urban hospital that serves patients from all over the world. The hospital staff bears witness to the full arc of human suffering. Every day, doctors, nurses, coordinators, therapists, and chaplains don their compassion-coated armor to tend to the wounds of body and soul. Amidst patients who are recovering from strokes, burns, heart attacks, sepsis, tumors, and every imaginable permutation of disease, I am frequently paged to attend to a patient approaching the final threshold of life: a fifty-seven-year-old cardiac surgeon dying of metastatic colon cancer, a twenty-three-year-old college student struck by a truck, a forty-six-year-old father felled by a broken neck. Our patients’ pain is many-layered and their loneliness acute. Yet within the mystery of all this suffering, I experience glimpses of the Resurrection: people from all walks of life coming together to help those in need. So many of us—strangers helping strangers—come to see the world anew. Tending to trauma has created a resilient village where the deeply afflicted and we who accompany them transform heart-rending sadness into courage, hope, and joy. By coming together in a spirit of compassion and love, each of us—worker and patient alike—enables hope to take root. Whether it is hope for recovery or hope for peace in eternal life, it is hope that propels, consoles, and uplifts.

As I witness the endless procession of lives marching toward the heavenly banquet, I have come to embrace Death as a wise taskmaster and occasional friend. Its presence, sometimes welcomed and sometimes not, means life is changed, but not ended. Death has taught me that each of our lives is a thread in a consecrated tapestry of divine love entwined with sorrow and hope—a tapestry that survives our bodily surrender and endures forever.


Sister Wilhelmina’s body placed in glass case after solemn rosary procession

Religious sisters of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, sing as the process with the body of their late foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, on May 29, 2023, at their abbey near Gower, Missouri. The sisters exhumed the nun's body on May 18 and discovered that it was apparently intact, four years after her death and burial in a simple wooden coffin. / Joe Bukuras/CNA

Gower, Missouri, May 29, 2023 / 20:02 pm (CNA).

The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, an African American nun whose surprisingly intact remains have created a sensation at a remote Missouri abbey, was placed inside a glass display case Monday after a solemn procession led by members of the community she founded.

About 5 p.m., dozens of religious sisters of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, carried their foundress on a platform around the property of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, reciting the rosary and singing hymns. Some of the thousands of pilgrims who visited the abbey over the three-day Memorial Day weekend followed behind.

The procession, held in bright, late-afternoon sunshine, culminated inside the abbey’s church, where the nun’s body was placed into a specially made glass case. Flowers surrounded her body and decorated the top of the case, where there is an image of St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus. The church was filled with pilgrims, including many priests and religious sisters from other orders. 

Sister Wilhelmina, who founded the Benedictine order in 1995 when she was 70 years old, died in 2019. Expecting to find only bones, her fellow sisters exhumed her remains on April 28 intending to reinter them in a newly completed St. Joseph’s Shrine, only to discover that her body appeared astonishingly well-preserved.

The sisters say they intended to keep their discovery quiet, but the news got out anyway, prompting worldwide media coverage and a flood of pilgrims arriving at the abbey in Gower, a city of 1,500 residents about an hour’s drive from Kansas City, Missouri. A volunteer told CNA that more than 1,000 vehicles came onto the property on Monday but no official count was available.

There has been no official declaration that Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are “incorrupt,” a possible sign of sanctity, nor is there a formal cause underway for her canonization, a rigorous process that can take many years. The local ordinary, Bishop Vann Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, has said that a “thorough investigation” is needed to answer “important questions” raised by the state of her body, but there has been no word on if or when such an analysis will take place. 

Sister Wilhelmina's body was reinterred in a glass display case inside the church of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, on May 29, 2023. Joe Bukuras/CNA
Sister Wilhelmina's body was reinterred in a glass display case inside the church of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, on May 29, 2023. Joe Bukuras/CNA

Before Monday’s procession, pilgrims again waited in line throughout the day for an opportunity to see and touch Sister Wilhelmina’s body before its placement in the glass case, where it will remain accessible for public viewing.

Among those who came on Monday were Tonya and William Kattner of Excelsior Springs, Missouri.

“You've got to experience the magic and the miracle of it,” Tonya Kattner said.

“It’s a modern-day miracle and it was just something we had to come to,” William Kattner said. “Especially with everything going on in the world today, something like this brings hope.”

Kate and Peteh Jalloh of Kansas City, Missouri, said it was a "blessing" to view the apparently well-preserved body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at her abbey in Gower, Missouri, on May 29, 2023. Joe Bukuras/CNA
Kate and Peteh Jalloh of Kansas City, Missouri, said it was a "blessing" to view the apparently well-preserved body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster at her abbey in Gower, Missouri, on May 29, 2023. Joe Bukuras/CNA

Kate and Peteh Jalloh of Kansas City, Missouri, also didn’t want to pass up the chance to see Sister Wilhelmina.

“I strongly believe in the Catholic faith. I believe in miracles and I have never seen anything like this before. I’ve got a lot going on in my life and this is the best time to get that message from a nun,” Kate Jalloh said.

“It could take another hundred years for us to see something like this,” she added.

Janie Bruck came with her cousins, Kristy Cook and Halle Cook, all from Omaha, Nebraska. 

“I came to witness the miracle. I believe we’re in a Jesus revolution and he’s sending us lots of signs,” Bruck said. Kristy Cook, a former Omaha police officer, said she was surprised that Sister Wilhelmina’s body had no odor of decay.

The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, lies in the basement of the church of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus outside Gower, Missouri, on May 28, 2023. Joe Bukuras/CNA
The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, lies in the basement of the church of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus outside Gower, Missouri, on May 28, 2023. Joe Bukuras/CNA

The sisters have publicly thanked the many local law enforcement officers, medical personnel, and volunteers who helped manage the influx of pilgrims over the holiday weekend.

Among the volunteers was Lucas Boddicker, of Kearney, Missouri, who joined members of his Knights of Columbus council based at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in nearby Plattsburgh, Missouri, to guide visiting vehicles to a makeshift parking lot in an open field. Other knights from local parishes helped set up tents and handed out free hamburgers, fruit, and bottles of water.

“That’s one thing the Knights do pretty well,” Boddicker said. “They get the word out when we need manpower.”

Priests heard confessions in a large grass field for hours, some using trees for shade, as young children played on the abbey grounds.

Three religious sisters from the Poor of Jesus Christ order, based in Kansas City, Kansas, said they were inspired by seeing Sister Wilhelmina’s body. 

One of the religious, Sister Azucena, said she “wanted to cry,” while praying at the nun’s side. “I just had this feeling of peace and love. We share a vocation. Her fidelity to the Lord and her love, I could feel that there,” she said.

Jason and Jessica Ewell were excited to coincidentally be in town visiting Trish Bachicha (far right) when they heard about the discovery of Sister Wilhelmina's surprisingly intact remains. Joe Bukuras/CNA
Jason and Jessica Ewell were excited to coincidentally be in town visiting Trish Bachicha (far right) when they heard about the discovery of Sister Wilhelmina's surprisingly intact remains. Joe Bukuras/CNA

A married couple, Jason and Jessica Ewell, both of whom are blind, were visiting Kansas City, Missouri, from Pennsylvania when they heard Monday morning about Sister Wilhelmina’s body.

“It’s just kind of a neat thing to be a part of the beginning of this story,” Jessica Ewell said.

“I was asking for her intercession for children for our marriage,” she said. “A lot of people think ‘Oh, it’s the blindness,’ but no, it’s not that at all,’” she said.

“Yesterday I was kind of in a place where I said, ‘God, I need something right now,’” she said. “We always hear about these miracles. But they’re long ago and far away and always happen to other people.”

Trish Bachicha, Jessica’s mother, said she believes that God is sending a message. 

“He saying ‘I’m alive and well and I haven’t forgotten you,’” she said.

Editor's note: This story was updated on June 2 to correct the date that Sister Wilhelmina's body was exhumed.

Catholic ‘Shark Tank’: Startup founders pitch products with a purpose at SENT competition

Francisco Cornejo of Storybook is awarded the grand prize at “Catholic Shark Tank.” / Credit: Courtesy photo/SENT

Washington D.C., May 29, 2023 / 07:00 am (CNA).

In a “Shark Tank”-style competition with a twist, Catholic founders recently pitched their startups and faced questions from a panel of judges while highlighting the importance of the Catholic faith in their businesses. 

The event was the culmination of the SENT Ventures Summit at The Catholic University of America last month, a gathering of Catholic CEOs and founders looking to foster connections and grow in their faith. 

Zak Slayback, a partner with the 1517 Fund, a venture capital fund supporting startups at early stages, is on the management team at the new Catholic investor group Catholic Angels, which hosted the event. 

Slayback told the National Catholic Register that the competition “provided a chance for faith-driven entrepreneurs to present their startups to an audience of aligned partners and investors.” The winner took home $5,000 cash for their business as well as “credits for various startup resources, swag, and direct opportunities with SENT’s Catholic Angels investor network.” 

The four early-stage startups selected as finalists were chosen out of more than 60 teams that applied to present at the competition. These four finalists told their stories to the judges, emphasizing their faith alignment, qualified team, user growth, the market for their product, and why the product works in today’s market.

Caring for the elderly

Nigel Mould, CEO at StackCare, talked about how his business was born out of the growing need to care for the elderly while preserving both their dignity and the peace of mind of caregivers. 

“StackCare delivers alerts directly to family members and/or caregivers, and we do it all without being intrusive, while being HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant, and making sure that we deliver on our core promise of dignity and independence for seniors and peace of mind for families,” Mould explained.

Nigel Mould, CEO of StackCare. Credit: Courtesy photo
Nigel Mould, CEO of StackCare. Credit: Courtesy photo

While their system is not a medical device, it does provide “insight to developing and/or potential problems: poor sleep, frequency or length of bathroom visits, skipping meals, activity levels, and much more.”

Mould said StackCare already has paid contracts in several states from Connecticut to California and is also establishing partnerships with paid installations at national home-care providers.

“The plea of the elderly in Psalm 71, ‘Do not cast me away when I am old,’ and the lack of caregivers today and in the future, for us is almost an invitation to use technology to allow seniors to age in place as they want to,” he said, “but at the same time letting families and caregivers know when they might need help.”

Reaching the Indian Catholic community

Tania Kottoor, founder and CEO of West by East, began her presentation by telling the story of a first-generation Indian-American woman who grew up in a Catholic community and also enjoyed watching Bollywood films, envisioning herself as a traditional bride in a sari. 

When her wedding planning actually came around, she discovered a shortage of traditional options both online and in the few stores that were hours away. This scenario is how her company, West by East, was born, Kottoor recounted. 

“Our customers can go to our website, they can select a silhouette, color, fabric; and then they can use their phone to take their measurements virtually in 60 seconds,” she said. “This allows us to capture their avatar, to create a 3-D rendering of the complete outfit on their actual body.”

Tania Kottoor, founder and CEO of West by East. Credit: Courtesy photo
Tania Kottoor, founder and CEO of West by East. Credit: Courtesy photo

“My co-founder and I have 20 years of experience in luxury fashion and manufacturing,” she said. “We both grew up in an Indian-Catholic community, as well as an immigrant household, and we realized that you need faith to succeed.”

“The values that we learned in church we brought into our business,” she continued. “Now, we have a crazy waitlist of over 2,000 folks, which equates to over half a million dollars in potential revenue. We have demand, but we’re at capacity. Now, we’re raising $1.2 million to be the market leader and to unlock that waitlist.”

She told the judges that their business has sold more than 1,500 units and 500 of those were to people of Catholic backgrounds. “We really lean into our own community to grow the business,” she said.

She hopes their business can one day expand to other diasporas like East Asian, African, and Middle Eastern communities. “I’ve seen so many brands come and go in the past few years,” she said. “No one’s doing it for other Catholics as well in all these diasporas.”

Making food safer

Paddy McNamara, the founder of Allera Tech, asked audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone with a food allergy. 

“Almost all of us do,” he pointed out, then he shared a near-death experience he had due to his tree-nut allergy. 

“It taught me that allergens are not just a problem for individuals with food allergies but [for] food manufacturers as well,” he said. “The average recall costs $10 million, and allergens are the No. 1 reason for recalls — so allergens are expensive. They’re also life-threatening.” 

He said that for some of these food-manufacturing companies, “their quality-assurance data is entirely pen and paper. So right now, someone on the floor writes it down, pen and paper, hands it to a manager, who manually types it into Excel, and then it’s put into a filing cabinet for five to seven years for FDA audit.”

Paddy McNamara, founder of Allera Tech. Credit: Courtesy photo
Paddy McNamara, founder of Allera Tech. Credit: Courtesy photo

Allera Tech is addressing this circumstance with a software platform to input, store, and analyze data. The system, he said, would replace “pen and paper, which is prone to error.” 

He explained that sanitizing and testing equipment for allergens currently takes a company about 15 minutes. 

“For a food manufacturer, an hour of down time equates to about $40,000,” he said. “Some of these companies do hundreds of tests per week.”

In the longer term, his company is attempting to shorten the time involved in testing. 

The company has several contracts with companies utilizing their software as well as a partnership with a top-10 food producer to build an allergen testing solution.

McNamara was raised Catholic but drifted from the Church. He had a turning point during volunteer experiences serving the poor in AmeriCorps for a year in Missouri and a few months in El Salvador. 

“It was the mystics like Thomas Merton and Teresa de Ávila that taught me how God sustains us through intense service experiences,” he said. “I found myself just always returning to the Catholic expression that I left.”

Family bonding over stories

Francisco Cornejo, co-founder and CEO of the “Storybook” app, and his wife and co-founder, Daniela Vega, came up with the business idea after their experience moving from Ecuador to Australia with their two young children, then ages 1 and 3, as Cornejo was completing his master’s degree. Due to their busy schedule, there was stress and anxiety at home. 

“Daniela realized that she needed to connect with the kids,” he said. “Through faith and prayer, she found out about infant massage and how this was such an important tool to connect through the importance of physical affection; and while she was practicing this with the kids, she used to tell them stories. She had an iPad and candles, and she’d create this fantastic bedtime routine.”

“The kids started to fight each other about who’s going to go first,” he said, “but, more meaningfully, that was the moment we started to really bond with them.”

Francisco Cornejo of Storybook. Credit: Courtesy photo
Francisco Cornejo of Storybook. Credit: Courtesy photo

Their award-winning Storybook app combines relaxation techniques like guided reading and infant massage with bedtime stories and music to improve families’ emotional well-being and physical health. The app is free to download with yearly subscription plans and also has partnerships with schools and health providers.

Their database of more than 100 original audio stories in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, including Bible stories, continues to grow and is for children ages infant through 12. 

“Seventy-nine percent of the parents using Storybook told us that their kids are sleeping better [and] are sleeping up to four times faster,” Cornejo said. “Eighty-nine percent of them told us that they feel more connected with their kids. We have been the No. 1 app in 90 countries. We have been called the ‘best for bedtime’ by Apple. We have surpassed 2.5 million downloads, more than 10,000 five-star reviews.”

And the winner is…

While the judges showed interest and appreciation for all the pitches, the Storybook app won the evening. “The Storybook team impressed our panel of judges with their ability to identify a real problem and bring Christ in a solution to their audience,” Slayback said.

Francisco Cornejo of Storybook is awarded the grand prize at “Catholic Shark Tank.”. Credit: Courtesy photo/SENT
Francisco Cornejo of Storybook is awarded the grand prize at “Catholic Shark Tank.”. Credit: Courtesy photo/SENT

Cornejo told the Register via email that “being among faith-driven founders was inspiring, and winning was a true blessing. It has already opened doors, leading to promising conversations with potential advisers and investors.” He also praised the SENT Summit, calling it “a unique blend of faith and business, a testament to the transformative work God is leading us all to undertake.”

Vega saw the win as “a deeply touching affirmation of our mission.”

“We know that God does not inspire the impossible; we are sure that our company is the work of God and that he uses our small forces to put us to work to rescue the family that today is so attacked,” she said. “This is more than a job for us — it’s a calling.” 

This article was first published May 18, 2023, at the National Catholic Register and is reprinted here on CNA with permission.

Post office in Kansas receives new name in honor of Father Emil J. Kapaun

Father Emil Kapaun celebrating Mass using the hood of a jeep as his altar, Oct. 7, 1950. Public domain. / null

Denver, Colo., May 29, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

After several years in the making, the United States Post Office in Herington, Kansas, will be changing its name to the Captain Emil J. Kapaun Post Office Building on May 30. This endeavor was first introduced in 2021 through a bill written by U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann, who wished to honor the life of the great Kansan and American hero.

“Father Emil Kapaun was a man of God who served Jesus and his country honorably,” Mann said during his speech on the House floor on Oct. 20, 2021.

The May 30 ceremonial day will begin at 11:30 a.m. CST with a memorial Mass at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Herington. The Mass will be concelebrated by priests from both the Salina and Wichita dioceses.

The renaming dedication ceremony will follow at 1 p.m. CST at the post office. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Ron Estes are scheduled to attend the event. The public is invited to enjoy refreshments afterward and visit Kapaun’s Medal of Honor and Taegeuk, the Korean Medal of Honor, which will be on display.

Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kansas, on April 20, 1916. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Wichita on June 9, 1940. Four years later, he began at the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Fort Devens (Massachusetts) and was later sent overseas to serve troops during the Korean War.

During his time in Korea, Kapaun regularly celebrated Mass, at times on the battlefield using the hood of a jeep as a makeshift altar. He brought the sacraments to troops, tended to the injured, and prayed with them in the foxholes.

In 1950, during the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun was captured along with other soldiers by communists. They were taken to a prison camp in Pyoktong, North Korea. While in the camp, Kapaun would regularly steal food for his fellow prisoners and managed to tend to their spiritual needs despite a prohibition on prayer.

Kapaun died on May 23, 1951, after months of malnutrition and pneumonia. He was named a Servant of God in 1993, his cause for canonization opened in June 2008, and he received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in 2013. 

In March 2021, his remains were identified by investigators from the Department of Defense. It was determined that the priest’s remains were among nearly 900 unidentified soldiers buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.   

Kapaun’s remains returned to his hometown of Pilsen in September 2021. Their arrival marked 70 years since the American hero had died in a prisoner of war camp at the age of 35.

During his funeral Mass on Sept. 29, 2021, Bishop Carl Kemme said Kapaun’s ministry as a chaplain was characterized by “a sacrificial and selfless love of others, especially his beloved fellow soldiers … The accounts of his service to his fellow soldiers in those last months, his fellow POWs, reveal so much of the man whose body we honor today with Christian burial. His love was simple, effective, selfless, and deep.”

War & Penance

I was not a Christian when I joined the Marine Corps. I was not a Christian when I deployed to Afghanistan, nor when I returned home. I entered the Church only after I had left the Marines. This has made my thoughts about the relationship between military service and Christian faith oddly disjointed. Not only have I entered the Church since leaving military service; I’ve also become a professor of theology. The disjunction between my life in the Marines and my life as a Catholic theologian allows for—perhaps “demands” is a better word—a kind of reflection on war not immediately available to everyone.

Like many veterans, I found myself more emotionally involved in this past summer’s rapid evacuation of Afghanistan than I thought I’d be. It’s been over a decade since I returned home from the war, but watching the final defeat and withdrawal of U.S. forces from a country where I spent a year of my life was distressing. It helped crystallize thoughts that had been foggy and inchoate. The violent collapse of our two-decade mission in Afghanistan has made it clear to me that the Church needs to recover a theology of sin and a penitential practice capable of accounting for the trauma of war. Calls for prayer, reflexively saying “thank you for your service,” singing patriotic hymns on Memorial and Veterans Day weekends—these aren’t the answer. At best, such gestures make the Church seem generally uninterested in war and its consequences. At worst, they conform the Church’s response to that of the world, in the Pauline sense of that term. Shouldn’t the patriotism of the person who knows her true homeland is not of this world be distinguishable from the civil religion of the United States?

The Church has resources for addressing these questions. Some of them will likely make you uncomfortable—as they do me. But we all have good reason to feel uncomfortable. The end of the war in Afghanistan ought to elicit introspection and compunction, and the Church’s penitential practices are, for Catholics, the most suitable expression of that compunction. Now is a good time for us to examine our consciences, individually and collectively.


Returning from Afghanistan was a stranger experience than going. A seasoned master gunnery sergeant told me it would be: “Nothing you do when you get back will seem as important as this, and you’re going to have to get used to that.” He was right, of course. The stakes of everyday life are less extreme. Decisions are not usually life-and-death. There are more mundane details to civilian life—buying groceries, paying bills, renewing your car registration—than you remember. This adds up to things seeming less important. But it’s his warning that I’d have to get used to it that sticks with me. His point wasn’t that ordinary experiences are less important, but that they seem so. Getting used to that means coming to terms with your time at war.

Much of this happens within your unit. Some of it happens with your friends and family, some with the broader community. Your interactions with all of these people helps you understand what it means to have gone to war and to have returned. The Church has a role to play here, too. One thing the Church does, which distinguishes it from all the others, is provide access to the sacrament of Reconciliation. Those returning home from deployment often have things to confess—sometimes terrible things. The ministry of the Church is there as a means of God’s grace, to deal with sin. But what if that’s not enough?

I don’t mean that the grace of the sacrament isn’t enough. I mean that the Church might not be able to wait passively for penitents to come to the sacrament for healing. One reason the Church can’t stand by and wait is the deep cultural narrative about military service in the United States. According to that narrative, those who serve in uniform are heroes. We must support the troops. What the troops are up to usually isn’t part of the discussion. The thing to do—the only thing to do—is support them.

The roots of this unreflective support are pretty dark. The backdrop of “thank you for your service” is the complete failure of Americans during the Vietnam era to welcome and assist returning troops. I’ll never forget the people waiting to welcome my unit home when we set foot on American soil after a year away. Many of them were Vietnam veterans whose own homecomings had been decidedly different from ours. The veterans waiting for us when my unit stepped off the plane recognized the need—their own and ours—to be seen, and to be seen as honorable. Better, we’ve decided (and it surely is better) to reflexively support those fighting the nation’s wars, to pat them on the back, to call them heroes, than to vilify or ignore them.

But neither vilifying veterans nor heroizing them will help them come home well. Neither helps them come to terms with their actions during deployment. This is where the Church has the tools, and the responsibility, to take action. It can do so by demanding penance from those who have returned from war. To demand penance is not to demonize. Rather, it amounts to an acknowledgment that “evils and injustices accompany all war” (the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2307). War, as the Second Vatican Council tells us, is something we’re enslaved to, something from which we should desire to be freed.

The necessity for universal penance after war turns on a recognition that bloodshed is evidence of sin.

The necessity for universal penance after war turns on a recognition that bloodshed is evidence of sin, of deep brokenness that needs specific attention. Penance can certainly be related to personal sins, and often should be. But we can identify broader reasons for adopting penitential disciplines. Job, “a blameless and upright man” (Job 1:8), adopts the posture of a penitent when he shaves his head and sits on the ash heap. He does so not as penance for his own personal sin, but to lament the common human condition after the Fall.

In his August 29 Angelus message, Pope Francis called on all of us to fast and pray for the people of Afghanistan. He said, “I address an appeal, to everyone, to intensify your prayer and practice fasting. Prayer and fasting, prayer and penance. This is the moment to do so.” Because this was a call to everyone, it included those culpable for wrongdoing in Afghanistan. But it also included many people with no obvious connection to that country. Here, in other words, is an application of penitential discipline to people who have not committed any personal sin.

The work of penance is salutary. It goes to work on the source of grave evil, the human heart. Penance, and ascetic disciplines generally, are meant to bring us into confrontation with ourselves. As St. Gregory the Great puts it, “When we attentively consider our darkness and blindness, we are mentally provoked to tears.” These tears, Gregory insists, are a necessary step toward joy: “The soul sighs before it eats.” Before we’re capable of making spiritual progress, we must be ready to confront ourselves, to be lanced by compunction. This view of penance requires us to speak of sin not just as a particular action, but as an affliction. Sin, St. Paul tells us, is something that reigns (Romans 5:21), enslaves us (Romans 6:9), leads to death (Romans 6:16), and dwells in us (Romans 7:23). If our talk about sin is focused exclusively on personal actions and neglects the way sin infects and corrupts us, the range of things for which we might do penance will be too narrowly circumscribed. Sin is something from which we need to be delivered, not something we can simply avoid. Nothing drives this reality home as acutely as war.

This is not to downplay the moral challenges faced by the individual soldier who has sinned on the battlefield. Some will return from a conflict bearing serious personal guilt. In this case, neither heroization nor demonization will provide the medicine that a wounded soul needs. Demonizing the returning soldiers can drive them to despair, to conclude that Christ’s forgiveness is not available to them. Heroizing soldiers causes the opposite but equally damaging problem: presumption. Even if a returning soldier is aware of his or her guilt, being greeted as a hero is likely to cause some cognitive dissonance: Am I wrong to feel bad about what I’ve done if people are praising and thanking me for it?


The Church needs to act as a physician for those returning from war by calling on them to do penance. In the case of those guilty of personal sins in the conduct of war, this call is salutary. Unlike those caught in despair or presumption, the penitent is able to recognize the spiritual wound sin causes and to receive the salve of forgiveness. The imposition of penance forces an examination of conscience. Some who have gone to war and returned home have never felt the need for forgiveness—not because they haven’t sinned but because they’ve yet to recognize their sin. This might be through lack of attention, or it might be through self-deception. In either case, the call to do penance can spur the returning soldier’s conscience, and then provide a remedy for whatever guilt he or she may feel.

This is something the Church ought to know how to do. The imposition of penances on soldiers was a normal practice in the Middle Ages. You can see an example of this in the Ermenfrid penitential, promulgated after the Battle of Hastings. The ordinance allocating particular penances to those who took part in the fighting provides very specific guidance. A soldier received one year’s penance for each man he knowingly killed, forty days for each man he wounded. This public penitential discipline likely amounted to exclusion from Communion and a diet of bread and water for the prescribed period.

Nor was it only the number of people killed or wounded that was taken into account. One’s intentions also mattered. Fighting and killing for personal gain required the full seven years of penance standard in the case of homicide. But even those who fought in service of their sovereign for what they deemed a legitimate cause, and with no consideration of personal gain, owed three years of penance. In short, it was understood that there were better and worse reasons to go to war, but no matter the reason some penance was always required. This, too, suggests that the Church was concerned not only about the particular actions of individuals but also about the corrupting effects of sin that are abundantly evident in times of war.

This view—that participation in war called for penance—finds support not only in the penitentials that issued penances to soldiers. Hrabanus Maurus, Burchard of Worms, and Peter Damian all insisted on the need for public penance for those who participate in warfare. And no less a personage than Gregory VII, the great reform-minded pope, called the profession of arms one “which could not be engaged in without sin.” This view recognizes that the conditions of warfare are at once the product of sin and the near occasion for sin. War tends to coarsen those who take part in it. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, “warlike pursuits are full of unrest,” and hinder the contemplation of God. But that unrest does us harm in another way when it incites us to violence and hatred.

My own time in Afghanistan brought me face to face with the coarsening I’ve just described. Most of my time in-country wasn’t spent on patrol or in firefights, but on trying to locate specific people so that they could be captured or killed (mostly killed) by conventional forces, special forces, or drone strikes. You get to know a lot about the specific people you’re after. You might think this would breed empathy or understanding. In my case, it didn’t. The time you spend, day in and day out, tracking people whose deaths you hope will contribute to the overall success of the mission leads to dehumanization. Once you’ve settled into a rhythm, the procedures you’ve put in place make your work relatively mechanical. What information do we have on this target? Where will he be tomorrow? Who’s he likely to be with? What’s the expected impact of killing him? You get used to asking these questions. And at such a remove, the impact of the work you’re doing—the spiritual toll it takes—isn’t immediately obvious. It’s there, though.

These effects are much more obvious to those whose jobs require them to stare death in the face, their own and others’. Phil Klay’s book Redeployment presents these effects in stark detail, with a realism that is hard to bear. If you’re trying to understand what I mean by the effects of the War on Terror, his book is a good place to start. We know, too, from the after-effects of war, that not all wounds are physical. The military has gotten better at recognizing and treating the psychological damage suffered in combat. The Church needs to make similar progress in recognizing the spiritual injuries soldiers come home with.

More than four times as many service members have died by suicide than have died on the battlefield since the beginning of the post–9/11 wars. One way to help soldiers to come home is to treat their wounds—physical, psychological, or spiritual. Jesus Christ is the physician of souls, the one capable of binding up all wounds. In order to bring the healing available in Christ to those returning from war, the Church should impose penances on them. In this way, the Church will stand opposed to the evils of violence and hatred that pervade all warfare. It will help all veterans learn to weep for our common condition, force an examination of conscience, and extend the offer of Christ’s peace, both to those who know they need it and those who don’t.


But too narrow a focus on veterans can obscure the fact that the citizens of the United States are collectively responsible for the war and its many failures. We’re responsible because sovereignty in this nation is derived from the will of the people. This includes both our willingness to wage an unjust war and our unwillingness to end it for the past two decades. Sins of commission and omission abound.

The war in Afghanistan—and a fortiori the war in Iraq—failed to meet the Church’s criteria both for going to war in the first place and for waging it justly.

Christians have tools with which to reflect on the justice of war. But if the just-war tradition is to be more than just a device for rationalizing bloodshed, then we have to be prepared for critical self-evaluation—for a national examination of conscience. Christians must ask themselves whether the war in Afghanistan met the standards the Church has established both for going to war (jus ad bellum) and for the conduct of war (jus in bello). I am not a pacifist. I think there are circumstances in which the use of force is necessary and just. But we need to remember that the Christian understanding of just war begins with a bias for peace. Not only are the standards for waging a just war high; the purpose of the war itself must always be the re-establishment of peace.

It’s clear to me that the war in Afghanistan—and a fortiori the war in Iraq—failed to meet the Church’s criteria both for going to war in the first place and for waging it justly. I’m drawing these criteria from the USCCB’s 1983 document “The Challenge of Peace,” which presents the conceptual apparatus of just-war theory in a straightforward manner. It’s evident that the Afghan war failed to meet the just-war criteria of last resort, probability of success, and proportionality.

First, the war in Afghanistan was not a war of last resort. Though the events on 9/11 demanded a response, that response need not have been war. The speed with which the United States found itself in an ever-expanding conflict means that all other means for addressing the problem could not have been exhausted—not on that timeline. The United States had been attacked, and at least part of the reason for the immediate and overwhelming military response to the attack was the need to be seen to be doing something about it. But even if we assume that the United States had exhausted all other options, which seems exceedingly unlikely, two additional criteria were either ignored or abandoned.

Probability of success and proportionality are both crucial components of just-war analysis. To assess this probability of success you’d first need to have fixed criteria for success: What is the desired end state? What would victory look like? The answer to these questions was constantly changing for the duration of the war in Afghanistan. First the goal was to eliminate the threat of Osama bin Laden, then it was to remove a hardline Islamist government, then to contain Iranian influence in the region, then to provide opportunities for women, then to build a stable democratic government, then to train and equip military forces. We were never quite sure what we were doing there. And without being sure of one’s aims, it’s impossible to estimate the probability of success.

But even with the most general and generous view of what might count as victory in Afghanistan, there was another reason to doubt the probability of success: the historical track record. The Macedonians, the British, and the Russians all failed to conquer Afghanistan. Did we have good reason to believe that we would succeed where others had failed? Had the conditions in Afghanistan changed significantly since the last time the Afghan people had defeated a major superpower? Shouldn’t we have expected a protracted guerilla war, with the Afghans receiving weapons and materiel from our international rivals? Again, as the mission in Afghanistan rapidly ballooned out of control, it became evident that we’d bitten off more than we could chew. But even the most basic historical consciousness would have led a reasonable person to conclude, before the war had started, that anything describable as victory was unlikely.

Even more obvious than our failure to meet the just-war criteria of last resort and probability of success, however, was our massive failure to satisfy the condition of proportionality. Here it’s necessary to think not only of the justice or injustice of going to war in Afghanistan but also of how the war was waged. Nearly 3,000 people were killed by the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It was a staggering blow to the nation, a tragic, hateful thing. But the U.S. response to this has resulted in a death toll orders of magnitude higher. The Watson Institute at Brown University estimates the number of deaths caused by the war in Afghanistan at around 176,000. That number includes 53,000 opposition fighters and 46,319 Afghan civilians. The number of Afghan civilians killed by coalition airstrikes—about 5,900—is nearly twice the toll of 9/11. These are just the numbers for Afghanistan; there were even more deaths in Iraq. This also doesn’t take into account the tens of millions of people who have been wounded or displaced in both countries.

In short, these wars were not just. Nor can our collective responsibility for them be shrugged off. It’s something we need to reckon with. And once again, it’s instructive to look at the Church’s past to see how we might do that. St. Ambrose, upon hearing that the emperor Theodosius had massacred the people of Thessalonica, refused to admit him to Communion until he did public penance. Theodosius had committed a grave injustice, killing thousands of men, women, and children. Ambrose demanded penance because Theodosius’s actions contradicted his baptism. They placed him outside Christ’s body, in a state of rebellion against God’s justice. For him to return to the fold required not only acknowledgement of his wrongdoing, but contrition and expiation.

This is where we Americans now find ourselves. We’re in a situation comparable to that of Theodosius. It cannot be the case that shifting sovereignty from one man to all citizens old enough to vote simply extinguishes moral responsibility. We should recognize our complicity in the injustices committed by our elected leaders on our behalf. But just as it wasn’t enough for Theodosius to acknowledge the injustice of his actions at Thessalonica, neither is the mere acknowledgment of our own guilt enough for us. What’s called for is contrition and expiation. We need to do penance. Just as the Church should impose penances on those who’ve returned from war, it should also recognize the corporate guilt of the country that sent them. Like the people of Nineveh who hear Jonah and believe in God, we need a prophetic voice to warn us so that we might all “call out mightily to God” (Jonah 3:8) in repentance. That voice should be the voice of the Church.

The injustice of America’s recent wars poses a pastoral challenge to our nation’s bishops. I’ve argued that our shepherds should institute penances for returning troops. But it’s reasonable to ask how American bishops should teach about military service in general. Would it be fair to tell troops only after the fact that they must do penance for their time at war? The bishops may need to do that now; the shot has been fired, so to speak. But in the future? An adequate pastoral policy would involve informing young men and women of the hazards—bodily, mental, and spiritual—of military service. If it’s true that, as Pope Francis teaches in Fratelli tutti, “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits,” then American Catholics should hear this from the pulpit. American Catholics might need to reconsider military service in light of their country’s recent record of waging unjust wars that devastate innocent civilians as well as combatants. This record remains difficult for me, as a veteran and an American, to confront.

If the Church has a responsibility to demand penance not only of veterans but of all U.S. citizens for their respective roles in the war in Afghanistan, what shape should that penance take? Why not start with the traditional penitential practices: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Specifically, the Church could provide returning veterans with catechetical instruction about praying the penitential psalms and participating in the sacrament of Reconciliation. It could impose a reasonable but serious period of fasting and involve returning veterans in the life of their parish communities. A parish with veterans who have recently returned from war might take the opportunity to join them in penance, to recognize a shared culpability, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). This would be far more appropriate—and surely far more pleasing to the Lord—than another round of patriotic hymns.

This essay was first published in January 2022.


PHOTOS: Thousands visiting Sister Wilhelmina's body over holiday weekend

Thousands of pilgrims have lined up at the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, to view the remains of Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster. / null

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 28, 2023 / 14:05 pm (CNA).

Thousands of pilgrims are descending on a Benedictine abbey outside rural Gower, Missouri, this Memorial Day weekend to view the surprisingly well-preserved body of its African American foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died in 2019.

On Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, an average of 200 vehicles per hour were coming onto the abbey's property, an uptick in traffic from the day before, Clinton County Sheriff Larry Fish said in a Facebook video update. He said he expected 15,000 people to visit the site by the end of the day.

“We’re going to see this probably for months, but right now this weekend is probably going to be the biggest influx of people that you’re going to see in this area,” Fish predicted in an earlier video posted May 25.

A Benedictine sister looks on as visitors offer prayers at the side of Sister Wilhelmina's remains. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News
A Benedictine sister looks on as visitors offer prayers at the side of Sister Wilhelmina's remains. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News

Part of the urgency for those visiting the abbey over the holiday weekend is the limited opportunity to touch the nun’s body, which has been on public display in a room in the basement of the abbey’s church for more than a week.

On Saturday, a photojournalist working for EWTN News witnessed pilgrims touching parts of Sister Wilhelmina’s body with their hands or rosary beads and even kissing her hands. Such direct physical contact won’t be possible after Monday afternoon when the nun’s remains will be placed in a glass enclosure, though her body will still be available for public viewing.

A glass-enclosed case is being prepared to house the remains of Sister Wilhelmina. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News
A glass-enclosed case is being prepared to house the remains of Sister Wilhelmina. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News

No investigation so far

Sister Wilhelmina, a St. Louis native, founded the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in 1995 when she was 70 years old. She died on May 29, 2019, and her unembalmed body was buried in a simple wooden coffin in the abbey’s outdoor cemetery.

Expecting to find only bones when they exhumed her remains on April 28 to be reinterred in their newly constructed St. Joseph’s Shrine, the sisters were astonished to find her body and traditional nun’s habit still remarkably intact. In addition, pilgrims who have visited the body have told CNA they did not smell any odor of decay. The sisters say they have applied wax to Sister Wilhelmina’s hands and face.

The condition of her body has puzzled even experienced morticians. “If you’re telling me that this woman went into the ground unembalmed in a wooden box with no outer container in the ground and it was not sub-zero up in Alaska, I’m telling you, I’m going to start a devotion to this sister, because something special is going on there,” Barry Lease, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, told CNA last week.

Many of the pilgrims brought rosaries to visit the remains of Sister Wilhelmina, who is remembered for her devotion to Our Lady. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News
Many of the pilgrims brought rosaries to visit the remains of Sister Wilhelmina, who is remembered for her devotion to Our Lady. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News

There has been no official determination that Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are “incorrupt,” a possible sign of sanctity, nor is there any cause underway for the nun’s canonization, a rigorous process in the Catholic Church that can take many years.

The local ordinary, Bishop Vann Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who has visited the monastery to see Sister Wilhelmina’s remains, has said that a “thorough investigation” is needed to answer “important questions” raised by the state of her body, but there has been no word if and when such an analysis might take place. On Sunday a spokeswoman for the diocese said she was mistaken when she told CNA last week that Johnston had “been in touch with someone in Rome” about what has happened at the abbey.

Discovery meant to be kept quiet

Over the weekend, the Benedictine sisters posted a new statement on their website, announcing plans to hold a public rosary procession Monday at 4:30 p.m. local time, after which they will place Sister Wilhelmina’s body in the glass enclosure inside the St. Joseph’s Shrine.

In the statement, the sisters also revealed that they had hoped to keep the startling condition of their foundress’ body quiet.

“We had no intent to make the discovery so public, but unfortunately, a private email was posted publicly, and the news began to spread like wildfire.” they wrote. “However, God works in mysterious ways, and we embrace His new plan for us.”

An aerial view of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, as pilgrims arrive to visit the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News
An aerial view of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, as pilgrims arrive to visit the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News

The sisters said that they continued their normal daily routines despite the crowds and worldwide media attention.

“Many have voiced concern about the disruption to our life, but we have, thankfully, remained unaffected and able to continue on in our life of ora et labora, prayer and work, as Sister Wilhelmina would have it,” the statement says.

“Unless we looked out the front windows, or out at the crowds attending our Mass and Divine Offices, we would not even know people are here. An army of volunteers and our local law enforcement have stepped forward to manage the crowds, and we are deeply grateful to each of them, as they allow us to continue our life in peace, while granting the visitors a pleasant and prayerful experience at the Abbey.”

Editor's note: This story was updated on June 2 to correct the date that Sister Wilhelmina's body was exhumed.

Everything you need to know about Pentecost

Depiction of the Holy Spirit in St. Peter’s Basilica. / Paolo Gallo / Shutterstock.

Denver, Colo., May 28, 2023 / 02:00 am (CNA).

This weekend, the Church celebrates Pentecost, one of the most important feast days of the year that concludes the Easter season and celebrates the beginning of the Church.  

Here’s what you need to know about the feast day.

The timing and origins of Pentecost

Pentecost always occurs 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus and 10 days after his ascension into heaven. Because Easter is a moveable feast without a fixed date, and Pentecost depends on the timing of Easter, Pentecost can fall anywhere between May 10 and June 13.

The timing of these feasts is also where Catholics get the concept of the novena — nine days of prayer — because in Acts 1, Mary and the Apostles prayed together “continuously” for nine days after the Ascension leading up to Pentecost. Traditionally, the Church prays the novena to the Holy Spirit in the days before Pentecost.

The name of the day itself is derived from the Greek word “pentecoste,” meaning 50th.

There is a parallel Jewish holiday, Shavu’ot, which falls 50 days after Passover. Shavu’ot is sometimes called the festival of weeks, referring to the seven weeks since Passover.

Originally a harvest feast, Shavu’ot now commemorates the sealing of the Old Covenant on Mount Sinai, when the Lord revealed the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Every year, the Jewish people renew their acceptance of the gift of the Torah on this feast.

What happens at Pentecost?

In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is the celebration of the person of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Apostles, Mary, and the first followers of Jesus, who were gathered together in the Upper Room.

A “strong, driving” wind filled the room where they were gathered, and tongues of fire came to rest on their heads, allowing them to speak in different languages so that they could understand each other. It was such a strange phenomenon that some people thought the Christians were just drunk — but Peter pointed out that it was only the morning, and said the phenomenon was caused by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles the other gifts and fruits necessary to fulfill the great commission — to go out and preach the Gospel to all nations. It fulfills the New Testament promise from Christ (Luke 24:46-49) that the Apostles would be “clothed with power” before they would be sent out to spread the Gospel.

Where’s that in the bible?

The main event of Pentecost (the strong driving wind and tongues of fire) takes place in Acts 2:13, though the events immediately following (Peter’s homily, the baptism of thousands) continue through verse 41.

Happy Birthday, Church!

It was right after Pentecost that Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached his first homily to Jews and other non-believers, in which he opened the scriptures of the Old Testament, showing how the prophet Joel prophesied events and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

He also told the people that the Jesus they crucified is the Lord and was raised from the dead, which “cut them to the heart.” When they asked what they should do, Peter exhorted them to repent of their sins and to be baptized. According to the account in Acts, about 3,000 people were baptized following Peter’s sermon.

For this reason, Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Church — Peter, the first Pope, preaches for the first time and converts thousands of new believers. The apostles and believers, for the first time, were united by a common language, and a common zeal and purpose to go and preach the Gospel.

Pentecost vestments and customs around the world

Typically, priests will wear red vestments on Pentecost, symbolic of the burning fire of God’s love and the tongues of fire that descended on the apostles.

However, in some parts of the world, Pentecost is also referred to as “WhitSunday”, or White Sunday, referring to the white vestments that are typically worn in Britain and Ireland. The white is symbolic of the dove of the Holy Spirit, and typical of the vestments that catechumens desiring baptism wear on that day.

An Italian Pentecost tradition is to scatter rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues, and so in some places in Italy, Pentecost is sometimes called Pascha Rosatum (Easter roses).

In France, it is tradition to blow trumpets during Mass to recall the sound of the driving wind of the Holy Spirit.

In Asia, it is typical to have an extra service, called genuflexion, during which long poems and prayers are recited. In Russia, Mass-goers often carry flowers or green branches during Pentecost services.

This article was originally published on CNA June 2, 2017, and was updated May 26, 2023.

Here’s when Easter officially ends

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov's Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene (1835) / null

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

Catholics recognize Easter — when Jesus Christ rose from the dead after sacrificing his life for all of humanity — as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. But, as it turns out, they can continue saying “Happy Easter” into May or, in some years, into June.

Easter lasts for a total of 50 days, from Easter Sunday until the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, Mary, and the first followers of Christ. 

This year, 2023, Easter was on April 9 and runs until this Sunday, May 28. 

Easter explained

Catholics observe Easter in different stages. Easter Sunday is the greatest Sunday of the year, and it marks the start of the “Easter octave,” or the eight days that stretch from the first to the second Sunday of Easter (also known as Divine Mercy Sunday). The Church celebrates each of these eight days as solemnities of the Lord — a direct extension of Easter Sunday.

The entire Easter season lasts 50 days and includes the solemnity of the Ascension of Christ, which falls on the 40th day of Easter, which this year was May 18 (or May 21 in some dioceses). It ends with Pentecost, which is derived from the Greek word “pentecoste,” meaning “50th.” 

“The 50 days from the Sunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday are celebrated in joy and exultation as one feast day, indeed as one ‘great Sunday,’” according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “These are the days above all others in which the ‘Alleluia’ is sung.”

The USCCB calls Easter “the most important of all liturgical times.”

“It celebrates Jesus’ victory of sin and death and salvation for mankind,” the U.S. bishops say. “It is God’s greatest act of love to redeem mankind.”

In the traditional Roman rite

In the traditional form of the Roman rite, Easter is known properly as Paschaltide, which includes three parts: the season of Easter, Ascensiontide, and the octave of Pentecost. It thus lasts one week longer than the Easter season in the calendar of the Missal of St. Paul VI.

The season of Easter begins with the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday and runs through the afternoon of the vigil of the Ascension. 

Ascensiontide begins the evening before the Ascension, with First Vespers of the feast, and ends the afternoon of the vigil of Pentecost — marking the first novena.

The octave of Pentecost is an extension of the feast of Pentecost, beginning with the vigil Mass of Pentecost and ending the afternoon of the following Saturday, which this year falls June 3.

This article was originally published April 21, 2022, and was updated May 26, 2023.

Reckoning With Birth


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Birth is humanity’s greatest under-explored subject. I had that thought over thirteen years ago, when I first gave birth and realized how very little in my upbringing and education had prepared me for the experience. I believe it still, although I have come to see how birth has been explored more extensively than I first imagined. Humans have thought about and written about birth from the beginning of recorded history, from ancient creation stories to medieval theological tracts, from philosophic manuals to obstetrics textbooks, and from nineteenth-century novels to twenty-first-century memoirs.

Look back at the earliest written sources and there birth is. In creation myths from ancient Egypt to ancient Greece, and from ancient India, Africa, and the Arctic to Indigenous communities in the Americas, the mystery of human birth was probed as a sub-​narrative in the creation of the cosmos. Where did humans come from? How and why were they born? What is this creation they are a part of? The range and creativity of the answers people have come up with are astounding. The first humans are born from dismembered gods (Greek) or from the earth (Israelite). They emerged out of an ear of corn (Maya) or they were vomited out of a lonely god’s mouth (Congolese). They are born by sex or without sex, with mothers or, more often, without any women at all.

But despite birth’s recurring presence in the written record, and despite rumors of some long-​lost matriarchal age and society that privileged a feminine divine and saw birth as the primary axis of imaginative, political, and social power, there is little evidence that birth was ever the foundational experience that any culture organized itself around. Just as women have been seen, in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrasing, as “the second sex,” birth has a sense of secondariness about it; it has long hovered in death’s shadow, quietly performing its under-​recognized labor. Death has been humanity’s central defining experience, its deepest existential theme, more authoritative somehow than birth, and certainly more final. It is a given that humans are mortal creatures who must wrestle with their mortality, that death is the horizon no one can avoid, despite constant attempts at evasion and postponement and despite the recurring fantasy of immortality. Birth, meanwhile, is what recedes into a hazy background, slipping back past the limits of memory, existing in that forgotten realm where uteruses, blood, sex, pain, pleasure, and infancy constellate.

Perhaps it’s a survival instinct: from the time one is born, death becomes the most pressing concern. How to avoid death, how to deal with it as an inevitability—​these are urgent questions. Different traditions have defined a range of ways of confronting death and integrating that encounter into one’s daily life. Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca spoke of death’s omnipresence in our lives: “From the time you are born, you are being led to death.” Our deaths are a point fixed by Fate; we cannot predict that point and we cannot control it. Accepting death and learning how to die were hailed by Seneca as paths to ultimate freedom. It is our love of life, he believed, our attachment to living, that holds us in bondage. “Study death always,” he instructed. “It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die.”

Those who philosophize properly, Plato asserted centuries before Seneca, are those who practice death and dying. In the Christianity that matured alongside such Greek and Roman influences, the crucifix would overshadow the manger as the central symbol of liturgical worship, with Christ’s death and resurrection accruing more theological significance in most communities than Mary’s miraculous birthing. Celibacy and an otherworldly asceticism would be recommended for those on the fast track to salvation; the end was imminent, many early Christians believed, and true seekers should seek not to perpetuate the human race, but to be reborn into God’s kingdom. “Remember to keep death daily before your eyes,” St. Benedict advised a faithful flock of celibate monastics in the medieval period.

Just as women have been seen, in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrasing, as “the second sex,” birth has a sense of secondariness about it.

Or, as Buddhists have insisted for millennia: to be born is to be chained to endless rounds of human suffering. The consequence of birth is death, a Buddhist maxim asserts, and the renunciant’s goal is to escape from this hellish cycle, to gain enough insight into the nature of reality so that at death he or she is freed from birth once and for all. One ancient Buddhist text, the Sūtra on Entry into the Womb, describes the uterus as a place where a body is trapped “amidst a mud of feces and urine…unable to breathe.” The text is unambiguous in its perspective on birth: “I do not extol the production of a new existence even a little bit; nor do I extol the production of a new existence for even a moment. Why? The production of a new existence is suffering.”

By the twentieth century, these philosophic and theological traditions would be reimagined by artists like Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who believed that “the aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul.” And by the twenty-​first century, death was “having a moment,” an Atlantic reporter declared, as millennials joined forces with aging baby boomers in the global death-acceptance movement, creating “death cafés” and “death salons” where people could gather to discuss their mortality while sipping craft beers, eating cupcakes decorated with tombstones, and listening to presentations by hipster morticians.

But where are the birth cafés? And what hipster would ever be seen there? Faced with the resounding, final clap of death, what claims can birth have to existential, theological, or moral significance? To artistic or imaginative grandeur? To political importance? Does it really matter that, or how, we were born, that someone carried us in a uterus and then ejected us into the world through a tight canal headed downward toward the earth, or that we emerged from an abdomen, or that we grew in some test tube? What was that process? Where did it begin and where did it end? How did it shape us and how did it transform the people and places we were born into? What is the place of birth in the widest and deepest human story one might tell? And what does it mean that the greatest power humans have had—​the power to create another human being—​has been relegated in nearly all time periods and all places to a secondary status, a task to be performed by an underclass defined by their gender?

I’ve asked these questions obsessively for over a decade. Birth often felt so huge and untamed, so morally dense and so imaginatively rich, that it continually overwhelmed all human attempts at describing or controlling it. But I’ve wondered what human life would look like if the poets, sages, intellectuals, and political leaders had made statements more like these: “From the time we are born, we are being shaped by birth.” “Study birth always; it takes an entire lifetime to come to terms with our having been born.” “Keep birth daily before your eyes.” “Birth is evidence of our freedom.” “The fundamental purpose of art is to process the strange, painful, and miraculous experience of childbirth.” Imagine what the world would look like if we humans understood ourselves as natal creatures who throughout our lives, whether we like it or not, need to wrestle with our own natality.


I came across the word “natality” shortly after my first child was born. I was in my early thirties working as an editor at a university press about an hour up the coast from where I lived. Each morning I’d drop my daughter off at a small, cramped daycare, passing her into the arms of another woman. She’d wail as I walked down a corridor lined with finger-​paint smudges on colorful paper, out through the heavy double doors and into the crowded parking lot. Fresh from the rapture, alive with birth’s dizzying intensities, I’d drive alone up I-​95, past factories and smokestacks, supermarkets and fast-​food chains, hugging the coast and gripping the wheel with a silent maternal fury. A limb was missing. Who was she, back there with that other woman? And who was I now? What had just happened? I wasn’t the person I had been. I thought the things that many new mothers think after giving birth: Why did no one tell me what this was like? Why did no one prepare me? Where was birth in all those books I’ve read so voraciously since childhood? An hour up the coast I’d go, into the outer world of meetings, conferences, opinions, and ideas. I’d park my car and walk to my office, sit down, and begin reading submissions from the world’s leading experts on various subjects. There were books on just about everything, it seemed. Everything except birth.

And then, there it was: “natality.” One strange word, suddenly appearing in a book proposal I received from a philosopher who was writing on childhood. The term, the philosopher said, had been coined by Hannah Arendt, one of the most celebrated and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century. “Natality” conveys the idea that birth as a beginning represents, in Arendt’s words, “the supreme capacity of man,” a capacity inherent in human life that is the “miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.” Because we all were born, Arendt believed, we are always all capable of beginning again, of starting something new through each human action—​the most prized of capabilities, in Arendt’s estimation. These definitions had an immediate, powerful resonance, the philosopher said, because Arendt articulated them after fleeing Nazi Germany as a childless Jew.

The author casually mentioned natality and then moved on. But the word stuck with me. Natality? Familiar words lurked within it—​“natal,” “native,” “nature,” “nativity,” “nation”—​and yet “natality” itself had an alien ring. “Natality” is in the dictionary, I discovered, but usually with a definition as brief as “1. birthrate.” But Arendt wasn’t speaking about statistics. Her natality planted itself in my imagination with all its foreignness and stayed with me, flowering in unexpected ways over the next thirteen years. In a world bedeviled by destructive tendencies, Arendt’s creative and democratic approach to birth, her entirely worldly and simultaneously miraculous understanding of natality, had a strong, subversive appeal. In her own life, Arendt chose not to have children; natality was not pro-​natalism, not an argument for why women should give birth or become mothers. But she understood that while we may not choose birth, birth has already chosen us.

“Natality” conveys the idea that birth as a beginning represents, in Arendt’s words, “the supreme capacity of man,” a capacity inherent in human life that is the “miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.”

I clung particularly to this challenging insight of hers: that it is not enlightened wisdom to doubt human natality, or to argue against birth’s crucial role in human life. It’s a sign, rather, that one is ripe for totalitarian control. Today, celebrating birth can seem like an oblivious denial of just how dire our political, social, and ecological reality is. But Arendt saw birth and our engagement with it as a deep, direct encounter with reality in all its materiality, rather than as an evasion of it. Totalitarian leaders, she wrote, know neither birth nor death and “do not care whether they themselves are alive or dead, if they ever lived or never were born.” They take power when their subjects have stopped caring too. Totalitarianism thrives “when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed.” Each new thing we add to the world is another birth; our having been born is what guarantees us the ability to act, to work as agents in our societies. Once that creativity, as she defined it—​birth, politics, action, people coming together to create new lives and new realities—​had been completely extinguished, you had a mass society of atomized individuals who could be completely coerced into doing anything their leaders ordered. They had lost touch with reality, a reality that included the fact that they had all once been born and that this birth was evidence of their inherent, miraculous creativity. “Ideologies,” she wrote, “are never interested in the miracle of being.”


Despite Arendt’s fame, “natality” never made it far outside academia. It was virtually ignored by everyone other than specialists, and there is still no single, alternative word to express for birth what “mortality” expresses for death: how birth shapes all human life, defining its limits and its possibilities. Medical advancements have revolutionized birth over the past century, and a simultaneous explosion of writing and research about childbirth has been published in novels, poems, academic studies, how-​to books, and memoirs across the globe. But birth remains a niche topic, a singular event relevant only to those experiencing it immediately.

Most people who have spent time with birth admit its seismic power, either positive or negative. But they often lack the language to articulate what it is or how it works. Birth is beyond language, people tell me, ​too mysterious and contradictory to be captured fully in words. Even as birth is ubiquitous now—​splashed on the covers of magazines, dramatized in reality TV shows, and graced with its own product lines—​it remains somehow shrouded in silence, exiled at the farthest reaches of what can acceptably be talked about in polite company. And so I witness them, mothers gathered in private, sharing birth stories the way veterans share war stories, like a secret upon which a society depends but which lingers in its shadows.

In the twenty-​first century, birth remains unspeakable not only because of its graphic physicality, but also because of its thorough domestication—its reputed role in conserving a mainstream, normative order, one controlled largely by men. Feminism grew up in the twentieth century partially through various women’s radical disavowal of a traditional sexual politics that used birth as the key engine for women’s subordination. A woman who wanted to do anything of significance in this life needed a “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf famously put it, not a house overrun with children. Simone de Beauvoir went further, writing, “Woman has ovaries and a uterus; such are the particular conditions that lock her in her subjectivity.”

Brilliant, radical, second-wave feminist Shulamith Firestone agreed with this point, arguing that women live “at the continual mercy of their biology—​menstruation, menopause, and ‘female ills,’ constant painful childbirth, wetnursing and care of infants, all of which made them dependent on males…​for physical survival.” It wasn’t just men who were to blame. It was nature itself. The biological division of labor had turned women into birthers and that division marked the beginnings of all class and caste systems. It was the first inequality, and it led to “psychosexual distortions” that humanity is still wrestling with. Firestone imagined a cybernetic future in which technology would take over childbearing and the work of raising children would be distributed across a society’s members. Artificial wombs would release women from the tyranny of nature.

Birth was understood as a problem by many leading voices in the movement, and sometimes their critiques of birth have overshadowed the complex and even unparalleled richness in birth found by many self-​described feminists. The feminist critiques came as a needed corrective, and they deserved to be heard. Many women, after all, had died in childbirth since time immemorial. Women were given little agency or credit when it came to birth, but they were forced to deal with the full weight of its consequences. Expectations about birth had essentialized women according to a set of often oppressive ideas about gender, leaving childless women at the margins.

The easiest way around birth’s many conundrums was to avoid it altogether. Other twentieth-century movements made the same recommendation on different grounds, adding fuel to the flames of feminist critiques of birth. A global population-control movement, for instance, sounded the alarm about humanity’s increasing numbers. There are just too many people, Paul R. Ehrlich argued in his bestselling book The Population Bomb (1968). He believed we were birthing our way into extinction. Mass famine was on the near horizon. “Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death,” he anxiously predicted. And not only people. As environmental scientists have painfully illustrated, humankind is a destructive species, a threat to biodiversity. One of the major ways individuals can limit their carbon imprint, protecting other species, is by not reproducing.

By the twenty-​first century, giving birth was not looking like a great option in many parts of the world. Having a child would limit one’s career opportunities and drain one’s finances. Birth would hurt the environment and might entail one’s participation in gender inequalities. It would be a selfish act, some argued, in a world with millions of orphans. Self-​described “BirthStrikers” gathered into a small movement, refusing to have children and expressing their terror at the apocalyptic future any children might face.

It is not enlightened wisdom to doubt human natality, or to argue against birth’s crucial role in human life. It’s a sign, rather, that one is ripe for totalitarian control.

Natality rates are now at record lows. About 44 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty-​nine who don’t already have children say they don’t plan on having children at any point in the future; most of them simply don’t want kids, they report, while about a quarter of them cite medical reasons and about 14 percent cite financial concerns. Rates have fallen across classes and age groups, among the native-​born and immigrants alike. In the United Kingdom, fertility rates in 2020 dropped to about a child and a half per woman, a record low. Global fertility rates likewise plummeted from the 1950s on, with wealthy G7 nations Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan joining the United States and the United Kingdom at the head of the pack.

The declines may be a natural response to positive developments, including the fact that people in these countries are living longer and exercising more control over their reproductive lives. But they are accompanied by troubling and not unrelated trends: growing inequality and loneliness, rising suicide rates, fewer social services, greater political polarization, the spread of false narratives and propaganda campaigns, political setbacks for women, the stalled campaigns for racial justice, and the erosion of democratic norms. These phenomena all point to a profound isolation at the heart of modern life, a pulling back from a shared, embodied, and committed life with other people. Birth, like democratic politics, challenges us with otherness, with the putting aside of oneself to make room for another person, and with the challenges of difference and plurality.

The critiques of birth are not easily dismissed; without them, it is hard to imagine a different and more just social order. The negativity toward birth has had costs, however. It has historically alienated many ordinary women from the feminist movement and stymied a more systematic reappraisal of gender relations by emphasizing the priorities of individuals against the needs of the collective. Declaring birth barbaric or retrograde means undermining many people’s experiences and diminishing the role that women and caretakers have played in the history of human civilization. The aversion to birth that is articulated as an open rebellion against a patriarchal tradition often directly echoes the shame and disgust expressed about birth in that tradition itself.

A barrenness haunts these visions of life beyond birth, but it also haunts the fetishizations of birth that can seem at first like affirmations of it. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, for instance, birth has been used as a powerful moral prop by political movements otherwise deleterious to human life. In terms of political priorities, various pro-natal groups have valued the fetus’s life more highly than that of the struggling mother or the hungry child, the first-grader about to be gunned down in her classroom in a senseless mass shooting, or the species on the brink of extinction. In so exclusively sanctifying the unborn, these groups often approach birth as an unforgivable degradation.

What is missing in the culture war’s heated, polarized debates are the voices that imagine other possibilities, those who intuit a freedom in birth, not from birth. Take American novelist Toni Morrison, a single mom of two boys, who described becoming a mother not as the nail in the coffin of her oppression but as “the most liberating thing that ever happened to me.” She believed that we specifically asked to be born. “That’s why we’re here,” she said. “We have to do something nurturing that we respect before we go. We must. It is more interesting, more complicated, more intellectually demanding and more morally demanding to love somebody. To take care of somebody.”

Minimizing birth means diminishing one of the greatest powers humans have had: the creation and sustenance of life itself, the bringing forth of a next generation that might live better, imagine more, suffer less, and create a more lasting world. This doesn’t mean we need a specified number of people, or that it’s necessary to stay at replacement levels. Maybe we should dial back and hold our own viral spread in check until we’ve found more sustainable ways to live on our planet. But I stop far short of extinction, alarmed by descriptions of our species as a scourge that must be wiped from the earth, formulations all too similar to those used to justify ethnic cleansing.


It remains an open question for me: Are our attempts to rein ourselves in by controlling birth entirely responsible, or are they too tainted by the same destructive and even eliminationist mindset that has made possible genocide and environmental degradation? We, of course, are not separable from nature, hovering above or outside of it, protecting or destroying it. We are nature. Could our tendency to see ourselves as distinct from the rest of creation be part of the problem? These questions are some of the most complex and urgent we can ask in the twenty-first century, and the history of birthing we can draw in wrestling with them doesn’t provide easy answers.

My husband, for instance, was born in 1972 in a small town in Gujarat, India, in the years when a Western-​led campaign to limit the number of children born to poor, untouchable people like his parents reached its apogee. Despite having the youngest and the second-largest population on earth, India also has one of the world’s longest-​standing official family-planning programs. In the early 1950s, not long after the nation gained independence, and while Western countries were experiencing their postwar baby booms, India adopted the world’s first national policy aimed at shrinking its domestic population. Contraceptives, sex education, and, eventually, sterilization were aggressively offered to both men and women. Technologies that Western feminists had celebrated for furthering the crucial cause of reproductive choice were taken up by neo-​Malthusians and eugenicists who saw in birth control, sterilization, and family planning a way to shrink burgeoning populations in other countries. India was a point of particular focus. The Western population controllers who went there and were welcomed by Indian leaders came home horrified by the country’s crowds and by what they saw as its people’s impoverished, unmitigated misery. Their concern was sometimes an expression of genuine humanitarian impulses, but very often it was also infused with nationalistic, eugenicist, and exploitative ambitions and driven by fears of marauding, non​white hordes. Controlling human populations became in the twentieth century an alternative to outright warfare, with other countries kept in check not by the military occupation of their land but by strategic social-engineering schemes targeting their people’s fertility.

Are our attempts to rein ourselves in by controlling birth entirely responsible, or are they too tainted by the same destructive and even eliminationist mindset that has made possible genocide and environmental degradation?

In 1975, three years after my husband was born, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency, giving herself the power to rule by decree. Among the human-rights violations that occurred during the Emergency was a campaign directed by Gandhi’s sons that resulted in the forced sterilization of more than eight million people in a single year—​many more people than were sterilized by the Nazis. The effort, bankrolled by American taxpayers, mandated that men with two or more children have vasectomies, and it also led to the sterilization of many men who were political opponents of the Gandhis, and of men who were poor, uneducated, or disabled. Botched operations killed thousands. The Indian people, still organized in loosely connected states distinguished by different languages, identities, and traditions, generally resisted this centralized government program. Many of the family-planning efforts in subsequent years shifted to the sterilization of women, who seemingly had less power to resist. Still, the campaign has been widely perceived as an abject failure. For a complex set of reasons, not all of them liberatory, many people in India kept giving birth, even when incentivized not to, and even when that birthing was an act of civil disobedience.

My husband’s parents had no more children after he was born. As a Dalit man, was his father subject to forced sterilization? Was his mother targeted? If so, my husband suspects they would have welcomed the sterilizations, burdened as they already were with three children and limited resources. He was glad they limited their family to three children; he grew up knowing how hard it had been for his grandparents to have large families, how difficult it was for his parents even to raise him and his two siblings. But he also grew up seeing the signs that read “Hum Do Hamare Do,” meaning “We Two Our Two.” The message was clear: two parents should have only two children. But there he was, growing up as a third child who violated the generational symmetry; he was the human surplus the posters warned against. This background has fostered my husband’s discomfort with group names like BirthStrikers.

The reality is that pro-​natal norms have rarely been promoted evenly across populations. There have always been groups of people—​the poor, disabled, religious or racial minorities, women on welfare, the gender-​nonconforming, the sick—​whom no government or powerful interests want to reproduce. People in these groups can come to birth with different baggage, histories that ironically help them see in birth opportunities denied to them in the broader culture: familial intimacies, self-​definition, life affirmations, love, continuity with and respect for their ancestors, creativity, and the creation of a better world.

The pressure to procreate may feel very real to many people, and motherhood can be presented as an idealized state, but most mothers can attest to the fact that while motherhood may be superficially championed, at a deeper level it is often undermined by their culture. Motherhood is venerated in places like the United States except when it comes time to pay the bill from the maternity ward, offer maternity leave, feed a mother’s children, or come up with solutions to the child-care conundrum. Birth goes against widespread cultural values in the West: to accumulate and hoard capital, to seek one’s own individuation and success, to create and maintain one’s own private space, to avoid discomfort, and to eschew risk. Birth breaks down most of the dualisms humans use to structure reality: man/woman, mind/body, thought/experience, destruction/creation, self/other, creator/created, birth/death. In challenging those binaries, birth can be an act of resistance and motherhood an expression of alterity. Therein lies the difficulty of talking about birth today: birth is both the norm and its transgression.

And so maybe the twenty-first century is a time to think more carefully and deeply about birth, about what it has been throughout history, is today, and could be in our future. Maybe it is time for all people, and not just new mothers, to wrestle with human natality—to think anew about how birth has shaped our lives and societies, and how it has altered the course of our planet’s history. Can our reckoning with birth’s ubiquity and magnitude, its private and public significance, re-attune us not only to its difficulties but also to what Hannah Arendt called a “shocked wonder at the miracle of Being”? Can it remind us of our innate capacity to always begin again?