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Chicago priest apologizes for same-sex blessing, saying it violated Church norms

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CNA Staff, May 14, 2024 / 07:48 am (CNA).

A priest in Chicago has apologized for the controversial way in which he blessed a same-sex couple in April, calling it a “very poor decision” that violated Catholic Church’s new guidelines.

In a statement dated May 8, Father Joseph Williams, the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish near downtown Chicago, offered an apology in which the priest said he “regrets the language of the blessing and the use of vestments and the church itself, which he now recognizes were a violation of the norms approved by the Church.”

The priest blessed a same-sex couple in the city parish in April. In a video of the event posted to social media, Williams — wearing priestly vestments — can be seen asking the couple if they “freely recommit yourselves to love each other as holy spouses and to live in peace and harmony together forever.” The two women respond, “I do.”

Williams in the video asks God to “increase and consecrate the love” the two women have for each other, stating that the “rings that they have exchanged are the sign of their fidelity and commitment.” 

The priest had initially suggested that the Vatican’s December 2023 document Fiducia Supplicans allows the type of blessing he administered in April. That document said that Catholic priests can bless same-sex couples as an expression of pastoral closeness without condoning their sexual relations and without making the blessing seem like a wedding. 

The way in which he conducted the blessing “came about due to my attempt to provide for them a meaningful moment of God’s grace,” the pastor said in the statement.

“I wanted to do it well,” he said. “A week or so after the fact, I viewed the video. I immediately realized that I had made a very poor decision in the words and visuals captured on the video.”

The controversy “has been a valuable learning experience” for the priest, the statement said. 

“I am deeply sorry for any confusion and/or anger that this has caused, particularly for the people of God,” Williams said. 

The statement was issued by the Congregation of the Mission, also called the Vincentians, who administer the downtown Chicago parish. 

The Archdiocese of Chicago did not immediately respond to an emailed query on Tuesday morning.

Fiducia Supplicans generated global controversy after it was announced on Dec. 18, with bishops around the world either declaring their support for it or stating their intention not to implement it. 

The Vatican declaration, which also applies to Catholics civilly remarried without having received an annulment as well as to couples in other “irregular situations,” underscored that such blessings cannot be offered in a way that would cause any confusion about the nature of marriage.

“The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith said when the document was released.

Mary, Mother of Persecuted Christians gains a shrine in Wyoming

Bishop Robert Pipta of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio, celebrates a Divine Liturgy on Saturday, May 11, 2024, at the Byzantine chapel at Wyoming Catholic College, on the occasion of the installation and blessing of the new shrine. / Credit: Julian Kwasniewski/Wyoming Catholic College

Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 14, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

Bishop Robert Pipta of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio, dedicated a shrine and an icon on Saturday, May 11, at Wyoming Catholic College directed to prayer specifically for persecuted Christians. 

In a response to CNA, Pipta wrote of the event: “To be reminded that the Theotokos continues her motherly care for persecuted Christians throughout the world is of great value to the Catholic faithful in our communities.”

Pipta celebrated a Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine chapel at the college and was accompanied by its chaplain, Father David Anderson; Father Benedict Kiely; students; and faculty. 

Bishop Robert Pipta blesses the icon of the Virgin Mary of Persecuted Christians at Wyoming Catholic College on May 11, 2024. Credit: Julian Kwasniewski/Wyoming Catholic College
Bishop Robert Pipta blesses the icon of the Virgin Mary of Persecuted Christians at Wyoming Catholic College on May 11, 2024. Credit: Julian Kwasniewski/Wyoming Catholic College

Pipta blessed the chapel and an icon of the Virgin Mary of Persecuted Christians, which was painted by Syrian Melkite Greek Catholic Sister Souraya of the Basilian order, who resides in Lebanon. The icon is inscribed “Mother of the Persecuted” in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. This is the fifth such chapel in the world, with a sixth to be dedicated next year in Spokane, Washington, at the request of Bishop Thomas Daly.

In an interview with CNA, Kiely said there are two reasons why Christians should take note of the dedication of the chapel and icon.

“The first and most important is that St. Paul, when he was Saul, was on the way to Damascus, he was knocked from his horse by Jesus,” he said. “To Saul’s question came Jesus’ answer, which should be one of the most important things in a Christian’s life. It was when Saul asked, ‘Who are you Lord?’ Jesus said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’ He didn’t say ‘You are persecuting my church.’ He said, ‘You are persecuting me.’ Anywhere in the world where a Christian is persecuted, it is Christ himself being persecuted. If that isn’t a priority in the so-called free West, then we have a problem.”

Kiely, 60, is a native of England and a priest of the Anglican Ordinariate who founded Nasarean.org, a charity based in Vermont that seeks to provide support to persecuted Christians.

With funds provided by the charity, Kiely said that Christians living in Iraq, for example, have been given the means to start small businesses to support their families. According to Kiely, the shrines are intended to assure persecuted Christians that their co-religionists in the West do care about them. The shrines, he said, offer opportunities to pray for the deliverance of Christians and encourage giving aid.

“As Christians, we believe that prayer is not the last resort but the first resort. I’ve been to Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere nine times in recent years. The very first thing that people ask me to do is pray for them and ask Christians to pray for them. They don’t ask first for aid but for prayer. A place specifically dedicated to pray for them is responding to those two things: that it is Jesus who is being persecuted and that they have asked for prayer,” Kiely told CNA.

In December 2023, on the feast of St. Stephen Protomartyr — the first martyr recorded in the Acts of the Apostles — Pope Francis observed: “Today, 2,000 years later, unfortunately we see that the persecution continues.”

Kiely said in the interview: “If enough people were praying for persecuted Christians, they might find freedom and peace.” In the past, Kiely has suggested that the current synodal process has not sufficiently focused on the issue. 

According to the Open Doors World Watch List, 317 million Christians face persecution and discrimination. One in seven Christians are persecuted worldwide, one in five Christians are persecuted in Africa, while two out of five Christians are persecuted in Asia, according to the group. Apart from the Middle East, which has been ravaged by war and groups such as ISIS, countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and China are of special concern.

This icon of the Virgin Mary of Persecuted Christians was painted by Syrian Melkite Greek Catholic Sister Souraya, who resides in Lebanon. The icon is inscribed “Mother of the Persecuted” in Aramaic. Credit: Father Benedict Kiely
This icon of the Virgin Mary of Persecuted Christians was painted by Syrian Melkite Greek Catholic Sister Souraya, who resides in Lebanon. The icon is inscribed “Mother of the Persecuted” in Aramaic. Credit: Father Benedict Kiely

“I only install an icon in a diocese where the bishop will bless it,” Kiely said. This is to signal the importance of prayers for the persecuted. The installation of the icon at Wyoming Catholic College was forwarded by Anderson, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest at the college, and approved by Pipta.

“This is the first dedication of the icon in a college, and it is especially important because young people, the students, will pray for the persecuted,” Kiely said.

The first shrine of the Blessed Mother dedicated in 2017 to persecuted Christians was at St. Michael Parish in New York City. This was followed by another shrine in London and in Worcester, Massachusetts. The most recent installation was at a Syriac Catholic parish in Stockholm. The dedication in Massachusetts was accompanied by the world premiere of the “Mass for Persecuted Christians” by Catholic composer Paul Jernberg.

Why do so many Catholics use contraception? Experts weigh in

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CNA Staff, May 14, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

Recent data from the federally administered National Survey of Family Growth shows large majorities of Catholics report using at least one form of artificial contraception — with over 90% having used condoms and more than 60% having used the hormonal birth control pill. 

Experts say this is “a crisis of catechesis within the Church” and one that requires both a compassionate response and a firm application of Catholic sexual ethics. 

The Catholic Church for centuries has taught that all forms of artificial birth control are illicit and forbidden to married couples. This teaching was formalized in 1968 by St. Paul VI, who in his encyclical Humanae Vitae declared that “any action … specifically intended to prevent procreation” was “absolutely excluded” as a lawful means of regulating the number of children in a Catholic marriage. 

Though Church teaching on the matter continues to be unambiguous, large numbers of Catholics have reported high usages of artificial contraception over the years. A 2011 Guttmacher study, for instance, found that “​​among women who are currently at risk of unintended pregnancy,” fully 87% of Catholics “use a method other than natural family planning.”

John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology and ethics at the Catholic University of America, told CNA that the data around Catholic contraception usage have been “known for some time.”  

“I think that this points to a crisis of catechesis within the Church,” he said. “Whatever we are currently doing to form people in the faith is not working well because this data shows that they are being catechized by the gospel of the sexual revolution rather than the Gospel proclaimed by the Church.”

Grabowski argued that Catholics who use artificial contraception “don’t realize that in choosing to contracept they are bringing something toxic into their marriages.” 

“In some cases, the contraceptives they use are physically toxic such as oral contraception, which has a whole range of negative health effects [both] physically and psychologically on women,” he said. 

“In some cases they are actually not genuinely contraceptive but actually work as abortifacients (such as some versions of the IUD),” he continued. 

“In almost every case, fertility is treated as a disease rather than a gift and a healthy function of the human body.”

The “gift” of one’s fertility has long been a part of Catholic sexual ethics; in Humanae Vitae St. Paul VI stressed the need to “experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception.”

The “sexual faculties,” the pope wrote, are “concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source.”

Instead of artificial contraception, the Church promotes natural family planning (NFP) for both avoiding and achieving pregnancy. NFP methods, which are all based on the natural signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle, can include the use of fertility monitoring devices and apps. NFP respects both the unitive and procreative meaning of sex within marriage.

Gregory Popcak, the founder of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, which helps Catholics align their marriages and their lives with the Catholic faith, told CNA that there “isn’t a lot of quality research on NFP.” 

“According to the available data, the NFP usage rate among Catholics tends to be fairly consistently about 2%-3%,” he said.  

“That said, I believe there may be a small bounce in NFP usage because of the use of sophisticated apps that make NFP easier and (potentially) more effective to use,” he noted. 

Popcak argued that the Church’s teachings on birth control were “more front-and-center” under prior popes but that it has gone “largely silent” under Pope Francis. 

He argued that marriage advocates and Church leaders need to “recenter the conversation about NFP and stop making it about whether people are following the rules or not.” 

“That is the most superficial way we can have the conversation,” he said. “We have to proclaim the notion that marriage, along with all the other sacraments, is meant to be an instrument of healing. Matrimony is key to God’s plan for healing the generative nature of the human person.”

“We particularly don’t know — on our own — how to love another person the way God wants us to,” he said. “Matrimony exists to heal the damage sin does to our ability to love rightly — especially through our bodies.”

Birth control has ‘a long history’

Theresa Notare, the assistant director for the Natural Family Planning Program at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth, acknowledged that contraception itself is nothing new. 

“The whole idea of birth control, of family planning, has a long history of tapping into what people think is good, what they think they need and want, not only for themselves but for their children,” she said. 

Notare pointed out that contraception has been practiced on a wide scale for centuries and for a variety of reasons. In many cases it was driven by the belief that parents “should be able to take care of the children they have” and not overtax potentially scarce family resources. 

The Church has regularly acknowledged the potential necessity of delaying childbearing for such reasons. St. John Paul II said in 1992 that husbands and wives are “deeply affected by social and economic circumstances” and that “conditions of poverty” can “cause a couple to be unprepared for the gift of new life.”

Though Church teaching has for years allowed for NFP in such cases, Notare said that our current technological zeitgeist has created “an impatience for anything that takes slow change.” 

Periodic abstinence as dictated by NFP “means you have to change your sexual behavior; that takes discipline,” she said. 

“People in the West, especially Americans, we just hate that sort of thing,” she said. “Why bother when you could pop a pill, open up a package, use a device?”

Notare argued that the laity “have not generally heard the Church’s good message on sex.” 

“For years they heard ‘guilt’ and didn’t hear the positive side of teachings,” she said. Once Humanae Vitae was promulgated, meanwhile, “too many priests had stopped speaking on the birth control issue.” 

“In that void, the culture imposed itself,” she said. “The majority of Catholics, at this point in time, are victims of the culture. They don’t know it. They’re absolutely ignorant of it.”

What can the Church do? 

Church leaders and lay advocates have for years been working to counteract the huge Catholic uptake in contraception. The U.S. bishops promote natural family planning through a variety of means, for instance, such as its directory of NFP instructors, while groups like the Couple to Couple League offer classes and resources for engaged and married couples. 

Grabowski said the Church needs to use its evangelization resources to better educate Catholics on Catholic sexual ethics. 

“As the Church in the U.S. is trying to better form people in the Catholic belief of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist in this Eucharistic revival, we need a similar kind of effort to better form people in a Catholic vision of the human person and sexuality,” he said.

Notare suggested that the faithful should look to Humanae Vitae as a good start. “The language is easy. It’s so beautifully laid out, talking about the nature of married love and the gift of procreation,” she said. “I would encourage people to read that. It’s very clear.”

Popcak, meanwhile, acknowledged “the real challenges that NFP brings out in a relationship.”

The Church “needs to be providing actual pastoral support and guidance for couples” who are using it, he said. 

“We need to help couples understand that the challenges that NFP forces to the surface are the very problems that God is asking them to work through so that they can have healthier, happier, and holier relationships,” he said. 

Catholic couples who struggle with NFP and aren’t assisted by their spiritual leaders can often just give up on the practice altogether, he said, leading to widespread claims that natural family planning simply doesn’t work. 

“Frankly, that’s always been the case, but it’s particularly true now,” Popcak said. “Catholic couples deserve better.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. retracts ‘full-term abortion’ support, backs viability limit

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. visits “Fox & Friends” at Fox News Channel Studios on April 2, 2024, in New York City. / Credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 13, 2024 / 15:31 pm (CNA).

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is walking back his recent statement of support for “full-term abortion” on demand and conceding to some restrictions on abortion once a fetus reaches viability, which occurs around 23 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The Catholic Democrat-turned-independent embraced the legality of on-demand “full-term abortion” in an appearance on “The Sage Steele Show” last Wednesday. The candidate told Steele — who is a Catholic — that abortion should be legal “even if it’s full term.” He said that he does not think “it’s ever OK” to abort a full-term child but that “nobody sets out to do that and there are always some kind of extenuating circumstances that would make a mother make that kind of choice.” 

After facing backlash from numerous pro-life organizations and eliciting confusion within his own campaign, Kennedy walked back that position. 

In a post on X late Friday night — just two days after his comments — Kennedy said he “would allow appropriate restrictions on abortion in the final months of pregnancy” and highlighted that even the now-defunct Roe v. Wade ruling allowed for such rules.

“Abortion has been a notoriously divisive issue in America, but actually I see an emerging consensus — abortion should be legal up until a certain number of weeks and restricted thereafter,” Kennedy said.

The presidential candidate wrote in his post that he trusts “women’s maternal instincts” and said he is “leery of inserting the government into abortion” because of instances such as the unborn child having “some fatal condition that ensures it will survive just hours or days after birth in intense suffering.” In those situations, he asked, “can we, should we, legislate such painful decisions and take them away from the mother?” 

“I had been assuming that virtually all late-term abortions were such cases, but I’ve learned that my assumption was wrong,” Kennedy continued. “Sometimes, women abort healthy, viable late-term fetuses. These cases of purely ‘elective’ late-term abortion are very upsetting. Once the baby is viable outside the womb, it should have rights and it deserves society’s protection.” 

Kennedy said in his statement that he “learned this because I was willing to listen — to my family, advisers, supporters, and others who shared their perspectives” and added that he promised to “continue to listen and incorporate what I learn into my decisions.”

The presidential hopeful added that he supports “the emerging consensus that abortion should be unrestricted up until a certain point” and that he believes “that point should be when the baby is viable outside the womb.”

Kennedy then referred back to previous statements he has made on abortion, claiming that “the biggest reason [women obtain abortions] according to studies is affordability.” He plugged his “More Choices, More Life” abortion reduction plan, which would seek to address affordability with government-subsidized child care so “abortion isn’t their only choice.”

In a statement to CNA last week, a Kennedy spokesperson said that the independent candidate also supports legislation to codify the abortion standards set in Roe v. Wade. This would make abortion legal nationwide and prevent states from implementing legal protections for unborn life in earlier stages of pregnancy. In an interview with EWTN last month, Kennedy said he opposes states being allowed to control their own abortion policies.

Pro-life groups react to Kennedy’s policy change

Following Kennedy’s shift on full-term abortion, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told CNA that Kennedy “has taken a variety of positions on abortion throughout his campaign.” 

“Most late-term abortions in the U.S. involve healthy moms and healthy babies, as even the abortion industry admits,” Dannenfelser added. “We’re one of only eight countries, alongside China and Vietnam, that allow abortion on demand with no national protections for unborn babies at any point in pregnancy.”

However, Dannenfelser said, “even Kennedy’s latest shift of no protections until a baby can survive outside the womb — well past the point when the child can feel pain — still leaves America as a global human rights outlier.” She encouraged legal protections for unborn children at the federal level at 15 weeks of pregnancy. 

National Right to Life President Carol Tobias told CNA that it appears Kennedy realized the unpopularity of on-demand abortion up until the point of birth.

“Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said the abortion decision should be up to the woman, even if that meant an abortion at any time up to birth,” Tobias said.

“He, obviously, received so much pushback that he again changed [his] position, moving it back to sometime around viability,” Tobias added. “Kennedy realized that the American public at large does not accept abortion for any reason throughout pregnancy. [President] Joe Biden is now the only candidate supporting that radical position.”

How Kennedy compares with Biden and Trump

Biden has backed efforts to codify the abortion standards previously held in Roe v. Wade. The language of the text would legalize abortion nationwide until the point of viability — however, it would not set a clear week-based limit but instead allow the unborn child’s viability to be determined by the woman’s treating physician, who may be the abortionist.

Kennedy did not say whether he would support a specific week-based limit to prevent late-term abortions or whether he would support the same language. 

Biden also supports repealing budget language that prevents federal agencies from directly funding abortion.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said in April that he would not sign a national abortion ban if Congress sent one to him. Rather, he supports states making their own laws regarding abortion. 

“Many states will be different,” Trump said in April. “Many will have a different number of weeks, or some will have more conservative [policies] than others, and that’s what they will be.”

After the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, more than 20 states passed pro-life laws that imposed stricter limits on abortion than were permitted under the now-defunct ruling.

Consecrating Error?

Consecrating Error?

Once upon a time, in a land known as Christendom, a man died rather than betray his conscience, which is to say, his “convictions about what it is right and wrong to do.” That man was Thomas More (1478–1535), who, if you are a certain kind of law professor writing in the year 2020, you can imagine “erupting with amazement and anger” over some of the more liberal pronouncements of the U.S. Supreme Court before it was rescued by the three appointees of a twice-impeached president.

Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century: 

Four centuries earlier, an eminent Catholic jurist, Thomas More, had resigned from the office of lord chancellor and had refused to take a mandatory oath, suffering execution as a consequence, out of faithfulness to his church. Now the situation was flipped: [the Catholic Supreme Court Justice] William Brennan emphasized his fidelity to the judicial oath as a way of demonstrating his independence from his church, and thus his suitability for high office.

Decline has come upon the land. “Ideas and movements that were fresh in the sixteenth century…seem to be floundering or decrepit today.” One such idea is that of conscience. A book might be written “[r]eflecting on the changing meanings and importance attributed to conscience” at several “decisive turning points at which Western civilization changed from what it had been in premodern times to what it is today.” Indeed, a provocative, entertaining, even theatrical book of this kind has been written! But also a book too clever and coy, a book that exults in rhetorical questions and abounds with sentences like, “Let us return and take another look. Just in case.” 

Steven D. Smith’s The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity has three protagonists: Thomas More, James Madison, and William Brennan. Now and again, Smith seems to lose the thread of his story, and the reader’s patience is sorely tried, but the book’s basic argument is clear and its exposition lively. Smith wants to unspool the logic of conscience as a concept—from its zenith in late medieval times to its nadir in our own time.

First, then, Sir Thomas More, one of two “illustrious Thomases” Smith admires (the other is, of course, Aquinas). For More, conscience was fundamentally religious: God wills that you do the right; to betray what you believe in conscience is to act against God. As Smith explains, More believed “you should form your beliefs about what is right not on the basis of your own private judgment but rather according to what Christians have always and everywhere believed”—that is, “the ‘consensus’ or ‘common faith’ of Christendom.” That consensus, however, was already passing during More’s lifetime. By his own lights, he did what he could to preserve it—by persecuting Protestants—but with his death “ended…an extraordinary age. Even a world. Or…we might say that thus began a new era, or a new world.”

Enter Madison, who also conceived of conscience as “in its essence a religious faculty,” but whose interest in it was more political than personal. Smith repeatedly refers to conscience’s “capacity to consecrate error.” The idea is that you would do wrong to act against your conscience because, in doing so, you would be choosing to do what you take to be wrong, and that can never be right—even if you’re wrong about what’s right and wrong. If it’s always wrong to act against your conscience, does it follow that it is always right to act in accord with it? Smith is too quick to answer in the affirmative. According to him, the correct reasoning is: “You believe God wants you to do this; God knows you believe this; and therefore God does want you to do this (even though…in a different sense God might not want people, presumably including you, to do it)”—because what you believe is wrong. But that’s misleading. In fact, you’re responsible not only to your conscience, but for it. If it’s poorly formed, though you would do wrong to act against it, it wouldn’t be right, in the sense of good, for you to act in accord with it. Presumably, what God would really want is for you to reconsider whether your conscience is working as it should.

Conscience, then, does not “consecrate” error: nothing is made holy or true just by being dictated by someone’s conscience. It is, therefore, incorrect to claim that, for More, “it was Christianity that consecrated conscience,” while, for Madison, conscience consecrated religious liberty in the New World. Smith attributes to Madison the argument that, since all the different sects and denominations understood themselves to be doing God’s will, God must have willed that they believe and act differently from one another—which is to say that he willed religious diversity and liberty. This argument is clever, but not supported either by the historical record or by the logic of conscience. A better argument for religious liberty is that knowledge of matters religious and moral is fallible, and so a person of conscience should tolerate some diversity in judgment by other persons of conscience. (John Rawls, a bogeyman in Smith’s text, called this the fact of reasonable pluralism.) The limits of religious liberty and freedom of conscience have to be worked out over time, in conjunction with the duties of citizenship and the rights of other citizens.

If it is incorrect that conscience “consecrates” error, it is also incorrect that “the religious conscience,” as Smith calls it, “implies that for the existentially crucial purposes of this life and the next, it doesn’t really matter much whether what you believe actually is true, so long as you believe it is true.” He presents that implication as the next step in the disintegration of conscience and the decline of modernity. “If what matters is sincerity, not truth,” Smith writes, “why risk compromising your sincerity by reflecting or investigating, and perhaps thereby digging up complications and stirring up doubts?” Here it is worth pausing to ask whether you do in fact hold a belief “sincerely” when you refuse to reflect on it, or to investigate its truth. But Smith will not be denied his conclusion: “This elevation of the self was also a sort of culmination of a development denied and yet hinted at in Thomas More’s ideas and somewhat more self-consciously adopted in Madison’s—namely, the detachment of conscience from a commitment to truth.”

And here at last, slouching toward Gomorrah, comes William Brennan. He is presented as “a willingly, willfully fragmented man,” whose jurisprudence, relegating “religion and other ‘comprehensive doctrines’ to the private domain,” brought “a similar fragmentation for his fellow citizens.” Yet, Smith asks, “How can citizens meaningfully debate…issues [with a strong dimension of morality or justice] when they are admonished not to invoke what they most fundamentally believe?” The upshot is that the public square is vacated of substance. What fills this void is “the sanctity of the self,” whose “deeply felt convictions or commitments regarding how he or she should live” should never be questioned or subject to critical scrutiny, but instead accommodated as much as possible. To make his point, Smith discusses two Vietnam-era cases of conscientious objection, United States v. Seeger (1965) and Welsh v. United States (1970). In these cases, he writes, the Supreme Court “suggested that respect for conscience is based on respect for the individual subject. The sincere objector should not be forced to violate, or to be unfaithful to…himself.” God falls away, but somehow the warrant to respect conscience remains, even without “the historical commitment to formulated theological truth.”

Smith hints that this situation is unstable and perhaps untenable. “[W]hat would be the sense or authority of conscience,” he asks, “if it is detached from God?” Further, “[W]hy is conscience so weighty or so authoritative? And, more troublingly, why should government respect and attempt to accommodate the consciences of people whom government…believes to be mistaken or misguided in their judgments?” Smith ignores the work of others who have written about these questions, such as Cécile Laborde (see my “Protecting Religious Liberty,” May 2018). It is also curious that he doesn’t discuss two later Vietnam-era conscientious-objection cases, Negre v. Larsen and Gillette v. United States (1971), which already show the pendulum swinging. Guy Gillette appealed to humanistic principles for his refusal to serve in Vietnam, whereas Louis Negre, a Roman Catholic, sought discharge after consulting with a Jesuit at the University of San Francisco. That Jesuit, Fr. James Straukamp, advised Negre that “under the beliefs and teaching of the Catholic Church he [was] obliged to examine and form his own conscience in respect to participating or refusing to participate in the war at this time.” But this time the Court interpreted the Universal Military Training and Service Act more strictly than it had in Seeger and Welsh. Thirty years later, Negre’s lawyer, the distinguished Catholic scholar and jurist John Noonan, summarized the majority opinion thus: “What was truly sacred was not the claim of conscience but the security of the nation.” (See “A Right Not to Fight,” December 2017.)

After all this book’s drama (“Who knows what the situation will be by the time the book is finished and you read these words, if indeed that ever happens?”), a reflective reader might well wonder whether Smith has his villains right. His book takes several swipes at President Biden as another fragmented man in the broken mold of William Brennan. Fragmentation, however, might seem like the least of our worries. It is striking that the man with seemingly no conscience, former president Donald Trump, is not mentioned in Smith’s book. In the prologue, Smith tells us that he finished writing this book in mid-2020, before the presidential election. He couldn’t have foreseen the insurrection at the Capitol, or the resurrection of Trump from the ashes for this year’s election. It’s true that our republic is at a moment of peril, but it’s not at all clear that Smith’s story of decline captures the dynamics that have brought us to this point. 

The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity
Catholic Ideas for a Secular World
Steven D. Smith
University of Notre Dame Press
$55 | 286 pp.

Bernard G. Prusak

Mother of the Unborn God

Mother of the Unborn God

In seven years, the Church will celebrate the 1,600-year anniversary of the Council of Ephesus, the third of seven great ecumenical councils common to East and West. The Council came at a time of civil and ecclesial unrest. Rome had been sacked in 410; in 430, St Augustine died as Vandals besieged the walls of Hippo. The controversies of the previous century over Christ and the Trinity were more or less settled. As ever, however, settled business begets more business. The answers to one set of questions generate new questions.

One of those new questions concerned the mother of Jesus. If Jesus is God, as the bishops at both Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) had affirmed, then what does that make Mary? In her song of praise to God, she had prophesied that all generations would call her blessed. At the same moment, St. Elizabeth called her “the mother of my Lord.” So Jesus is the Lord, and Mary is his mother. Does saying so settle the question? It doesn’t—though some future theologians, such as John Calvin, wished it had. Among the faithful, a title arose for Mary: “Theotokos.” The verbal root of the Greek tokos means “to bear.” Hence Theotokos refers to the God-bearer: Mary is the one who bore God in her womb.

Could a woman really do that? Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople, argued the negative case. Mary, he acknowledged, was the mother of the man Jesus and thus the mother of the Messiah. But she could not have been the mother of God himself, for God has no mother. God is uncreated, and it is unseemly and misleading to say otherwise. St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, disagreed. If Jesus is God and Mary his mother, then it follows quite plainly that she is the mother of God. Qualify it as much as you like—say, for example, that Jesus is God in the flesh—but the title stands. As does the scandal. For the scandal of the Theotokos is the scandal of the Gospel itself. The good news of Jesus is that his name is Immanuel: God with us. The Incarnation trips up the world because it says not only that the Creator became a creature, but that he became like you and me in everything but sin. He was a man who could suffer and die. He was a boy who could run and cry. He was an infant, nursing at the breast. He was an unborn child, gestating in his mother’s womb.

Is the womb a fitting residence for the Creator of the universe? Could God become small enough to occupy a uterus? As small as a clump of cells? Infinitesimally tiny—this, the infinite God? Gestating, growing, developing, all the while hidden from view? A secret known only to his mother, his adoptive father, and a few relatives? To all this Cyril said: yes. “He did not consider it beneath him to follow a path congruous to this plan”—namely, the plan that he become human so that we might become divine—“and so he is said to have undergone a birth like ours, while all the while remaining what he was.” As St. Bernard of Clairvaux would say centuries later, “There was never any moment…when that fullness which he assumed at the instant of his conception in the womb was in any way diminished or augmented. He was perfect from the beginning.” And so Cyril concludes: “He was God in an appearance like ours, and the Lord in the form of a slave. This is what we mean when we say that he became flesh, and for the same reasons we affirm that the holy virgin is the Mother of God.”

At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Cyril’s position won and Nestorius’s lost. Two decades later, at the Council of Chalcedon, the title of Theotokos was reaffirmed as orthodox. And ever since, the Church has reaffirmed the truth that, because Jesus is God, Mary is God’s mother.

 

Does Mary as Theotokos bear on any of the Church’s moral questions? It does, and in the most profound way. God almighty was conceived in the womb of a Galilean girl a little over two thousand years ago. God underwent the typical course of embryonic and fetal growth common to human beginnings. God was born: a baby boy, utterly dependent and defenseless, loved and cared for by his parents. The conception and birth of Jesus thus bear directly on the question of abortion. It is my contention that, even if Christians had no other resources for thinking about abortion, the doctrine of the Theotokos would be more than enough.

Abortion raises theological, moral, and legal questions. In that order, I should add. The theological question concerns the status of unborn human life before God: What is this life? What does God say it is? The moral question follows: How should we treat this life, given what God says? The legal (and political) questions are last: Should the state protect unborn life, and if so, how? Those last questions are far from unimportant. They’re the ones that pro-life Christians in the United States focus most of their attention on. And not just Christians: ask an American about abortion, and he or she will immediately start to talk about laws and policies and constitutional rights. 

But the moral question was never in serious dispute in the Church’s history—at least, not until recently. Christians had a reputation in this regard. In the ancient world, they were the ones who did not expose their infants, even when the child was unexpected or physically flawed. They were the ones who welcomed human lives in all their variety, particularly when they were vulnerable or voiceless. So today: the Church does not wonder whether an extra chromosome justifies an abortion. How could it? Each and every human being is created by God, in God’s image. For the sake of each and every soul on earth, inside or outside the womb, Christ died on the cross. In Christian terms, these conclusions are not difficult to reach, however they may conflict with common non-Christian intuitions, and whatever they may imply for the politics of a pluralistic liberal democracy.

But moral judgments are only as firm as their foundations, and the Christian moral teaching about abortion requires theological, indeed metaphysical, grounds. The doctrine of Theotokos supplies these grounds. To be clear, I don’t mean that opposition to abortion was historically underwritten by confession of Mary as Mother of God. I mean that the Theotokos—together with the larger constellation of beliefs about the Incarnation—is part of the deep grammar of a Christian understanding of human origins, unborn life, and God’s intimate presence in procreation. Nor do I mean to suggest that a properly Christian view of abortion is the result of divine revelation alone: natural reason and the empirical sciences offer complementary paths to the same conclusion about life in the womb and the moral demands it places on us. What laws or political strategies follow from this conclusion is another question altogether. That question tends to pull everything within its orbit. For that very reason, I want to bracket it so that we can instead recall the beginning of the Gospel and reconsider the moment when the Incarnation began.

Anyone who has visited the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth can tell you the highlight. There are many things to choose from, not least the row upon row of icons and paintings of Madonna and Child offered as a gift by every nation and culture on earth. The message of these images takes you by force: the God who became a Jew is the God not only of Jews but of gentiles, too. In assuming Jewish flesh, he assumed human flesh. As the one in whom all the nations find their desires fixed and consummated, as the one who draws all peoples to himself, he is infinitely translatable, infinitely depictable. As a Jew to the Jews he is also, and therefore, an Ethiopian to the Ethiopians, a Frenchman to the French, an Indian to the Indians, a Chilean to the Chileans. When they clothe him in their garb, they are honoring the child Christ and the mother whose flesh he took. Yet somehow this is not the most memorable feature of the Basilica. As one descends to its depths, one approaches the cave where, tradition reports, the angel Gabriel announced the good news to Mary. There on the altar is a Latin transcription: verbum caro hic factum est. It’s taken from the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel: “the Word became flesh.” Except one word has been added, hic: “here.”

The Word became flesh here. In this place. At a specific time. In the womb of a woman who said yes, like father Abraham before her. Called, he went; called, she replied: fiat mihi. And as God created the heavens and the earth with his fiat lux, so through Mary’s fiat the Spirit begins the work of new creation. The new Adam starts to form inside her. As Eve was taken from the first Adam, so this Adam is taken from a new Eve. In anticipation “the whole world is waiting, bowed down at your feet,” as St. Bernard writes, addressing Mary. “And rightly so, because on your answer depends the comfort of the afflicted, the redemption of captives, the deliverance of the damned; the salvation of all the sons of Adam, your whole race.” In his poem “For the Time Being,” W. H. Auden has Gabriel say to Mary: “[C]hild, it lies / Within your power of choosing to / Conceive the Child who chooses you.”

This mystery has never been far from the Church’s heart, its teaching, or its theological reflection. St. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to say that, strictly speaking, Christ did not need to suffer and die for our sins. “From the beginning of his conception Christ merited our eternal salvation,” he writes. The work of Jesus for our sake does not begin in Jerusalem. The story of Jesus does not begin in Bethlehem. It all begins in a cave in Nazareth, in the womb of Mary. Our redemption starts there.

In much recent academic theology, there is a strange silence about Jesus’ life in the womb. We are told that what it means to be human finds its norm and pattern in Jesus. Yet his person and work are presented as if they began either at his birth or at his baptism. But the Annunciation was not cooked up by some overeager pro-lifers; it’s right there in the gospels. St. Luke dedicates two leisurely opening chapters to it. The Apostles’ Creed makes the crucial distinction: conceived by the Holy Spirit / and born of the Virgin Mary. In this distinction lies all we need to know about unborn human life and its relationship to Christ.

 

Consider the implications if all the following is true. Jesus is God incarnate. The Incarnation begins not with Jesus’ birth, but at his conception. Jesus is like us in every respect except for sin. He is fully God (consubstantial with the Father according to his divinity) and fully man (consubstantial with us according to his humanity). He became human precisely to share all that we are, that we might share all that he is. Jesus, in a word, is the God-man from conception to birth and beyond. The Incarnation therefore comprehends not only natality, but fetality; not only born life, but unborn life; not only the public and the visible, but the private and the hidden. Jesus is God in the flesh. Thus, Jesus is God in the womb. And if he is God in the womb, he is man in the womb, too. What is true of Jesus is, mutatis mutandis, true of all humanity. The unborn are sisters and brothers of Jesus. They, like us, are persons for whom Jesus died. They make claims on us—or rather, through them God makes claims on us. Our response is to be modeled on Mary’s. We welcome and protect these gifts from the Lord. For they, like him, are unseen. And like him, they are destined for glory.

“Universal joy has arrived today! God is on earth, God is from heaven, God is among human beings, God is carried in the womb of a virgin, he who is contained nowhere.” So St. Andrew of Crete cries out in praise, and continues: “You are truly blessed, who alone of all mothers was made ready to be Mother of your Creator.” Do we subtract from Christ in praising Mary so? By no means, according to St. Bernard: “Whatever we say in praise of the mother touches the Son, and when we honor the Son we detract nothing from the mother’s glory.”

Christ’s solidarity is total: in every nook and cranny of human life, he is there. He is there because he was there, beginning with the womb. For nine months, Mary was the ark of Israel. Wherever she went, she carried the Lord’s presence with her. This is why St. John leapt at her approach: like David before the ark, he couldn’t help himself. We shouldn’t help ourselves either. Each unborn life is a little Christ waiting to be born—waiting to be received and held and clothed and loved. We rejoice with Andrew and bow with Bernard and leap with John and fall to our knees with Cyril. For Christians know what pregnancy means: not the prelude to a life but the first chapter of it. 

Brad East

The ‘Anti-Catholic Memo’ That Wasn’t

The ‘Anti-Catholic Memo’ That Wasn’t

When investigators in Henrico County, Virginia searched twenty-three-year-old Xavier Lopez’s bedroom, they photographed a large Nazi flag hanging vertically on the wall, with a crucifix and rosary fastened above the swastika. But that wasn’t what prompted police and federal agents to arrest Lopez in the case that led to what’s been dubbed the FBI’s “anti-Catholic memo.”

Rather, the issue was the weapons Lopez had accumulated in violation of federal law. His cache included eight homemade firebombs: bottles that mixed gasoline with polystyrene, a foam that could create a napalm-like flaming jelly that adheres to whatever it strikes, an FBI agent testified. There were also cloth wicks and all-weather matches designed to light up like a Fourth of July sparkler even in high winds. Also recovered: twenty-five rounds of 9-mm ammunition, which prosecutors said matched the caliber of a handgun kit he’d bought. He had a 3D printer, which investigators said was intended for making gun parts.

After Lopez’s arrest on November 13, 2022, FBI agents in nearby Richmond delved further into his contacts, including at a church where the Tridentine Mass is celebrated. The ensuing investigation and a leaked but heavily redacted FBI intelligence memo ignited charges that the FBI was “targeting” Catholics based on traditionalist religious belief.

After much outcry that the FBI was investigating those Catholics who prefer to worship in Latin,  an investigation by Department of Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz completed in April found that there was no evidence that the Richmond FBI agents looked any further into Lopez’s church than necessary “to determine whether he was planning or inciting violence.”

Nonetheless, the controversy over the “anti-Catholic memo” shows that it’s time to review how the FBI gathers intelligence on any religious or political group that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” (RMVE in FBI parlance) may be exploiting for illegal purposes. The problem is that the FBI’s practice of probing the “radicalization process” can lead into religious or political activity that is protected under the First Amendment.

The agency returned to these practices after the 9/11 terrorist attack, according to Michael German, a former undercover FBI agent who’d once probed white supremacists and is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. German said it’s “comforting” to know that the agents who investigated Lopez had cause to do so. But, he added, the practice of gathering intelligence based on ideology is ineffective and unfair. He’s written that “modern radicalization theory is used to justify targeting American Muslim communities with oppressive surveillance, infiltration with informants, guilt-by-association smears, and selective prosecution, based not on evidence of wrongdoing but on their religious and political activities.”

The FBI’s own internal investigation of the “anti-Catholic” memo faulted the Richmond-based agents for not adhering to FBI standards. But the real fault may be with ambiguous federal guidelines, rather than with what the agents did.   

That leaves a vital role for congressional oversight. But, as tends to happen with House Republican investigations, the House Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government started its probe with the conclusion first before finding out the facts, prioritizing political talking points over constitutional principles.

 

The starting point for understanding the “anti-Catholic” memo is the overlooked criminal case that initiated it, explaining why FBI agents found it necessary to place an informant within a Richmond church, and why analysts wrote an internal memo on larger concerns the investigation raised. Documents that prosecutors filed in the case U.S. v. Xavier Lopez at U.S. District Court in Richmond tell the story of a young, unemployed, and possibly mentally unstable man who, released from prison, began amassing deadly weapons, spreading neo-Nazi ideology, and issuing specific instructions as he advocated violence, especially against Jews.

As portrayed in these documents, the FBI agents had reasonable grounds to fear that their investigative target would act on the detailed, highly antisemitic threats he was spreading on social media, and also that he was trying to recruit helpers at the Catholic church he’d begun attending. Critics of the FBI—right-wing media such as Fox News and EWTN, House Republicans, conservative advocacy organizations like Catholic Vote—have missed this context in their rush to portray Catholics, an important voting bloc, as victims of government overreach.

Among other evidence, the Lopez file reveals a chilling letter that authorities said he wrote to his aunt. It’s postmarked May 28, 2021, sent from Henrico County Jail, where Lopez was close to completing a one-year sentence for felony vandalism. Although a felon barred by law from possessing firearms, he was aggrieved that his aunt, whom he’d lived with, would not let him acquire new weapons. She’d already turned over to police his AR-15 rifle, a thousand rounds of ammunition, multiple gun magazines for feeding the ammunition, and enough components and kits for an FBI agent to later assert that Lopez had created a functioning firearms manufacturing setup, according to court records.

“All that needs to be done is for us to truly unite in Christ Jesus and make total war against the Satanic occultist government and the Zionist devil worshiping bankers who control it, and the Lord God will give us victory,” he wrote to his aunt, adding: “Jews, liberals, communists, degenerates, Zionists, progressives, capitalists, globalists, and Green Party PETA-type environmentalists are the greatest enemies of God and the primary representatives of the devil himself in the spotlight and everyday life. Learn to spot them and how to destroy them.”

The letter spells out his own twisted theology, using nine biblical passages to build a case for violence: “We are too pacifist, squeamish and ultimately cowardly to follow the Lord’s command to remove the synagogue of Satan and this Zionist Occupation Government since doing so would require killing them.” The letter adds: “It must be said that unless I am able to build guns, explosives & other forms of weaponry & store them in my room without fear of the law finding out it about it from you, I cannot fully trust in anything you say or do.” It’s signed with his name and “21st century crusader.”

After his release from the jail, Lopez moved back in with his aunt; police and the FBI soon tracked Lopez as allegedly he began seeking new weapons. An FBI agent testified that Lopez’s aunt drove him sixty miles to Charlottesville, where he looked at firearms in two stores and inquired about building a rifle.

On Gab, a social media platform attractive to Christian nationalists, Lopez used the account name Cru54d3r to dribble out his white-supremacist message, authorities said. A September 1, 2022, post welcomed “Fascist whites” as immigrants, and urged them to “arm yourself to the teeth” and beat up Blacks and Jews. It added: “Have no tolerance for cops. if they come to your house, that’s your cue to shoot them…have absolutely zero regard for the ‘law and order’ of the kike system that hates you.”

Investigators needed to learn whom their suspect was communicating with in these messages. A post in early October 2022 described “how to have a proper organization” without attracting law-enforcement attention: “All real weapons should be built, not bought. this can be done with a 3D printer and a parts kit.” It gave specific instructions on the kinds of firearms, ammunition and gun magazines to use, to be handled “with gloves on,” as well as hydration packs, tents, sleeping bags. Also: “Being a convicted felon is not a valid excuse for remaining unarmed.”

Federal prosecutors presented this evidence to a magistrate who ordered Lopez detained without bail, based on “clear and convincing evidence” that he was a danger to the community. The magistrate said factors included apparent mental-health problems, prior arrests, evidence of a previous assault on police, paramilitary activity, and “expression of extremist ideologies including white supremacy.”

By the time the inspector general issued his April 18 report, Lopez had pleaded guilty to possession of a destructive device, punishable by up to ten years in prison. (He is awaiting sentencing; his lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The IG report says that the FBI had been monitoring “Defendant A”—the details of the case match up with Lopez’s—since 2019, including posts that advocated murdering police officers and “conducting a mass shooting at a school for special needs children,” and manufacturing bombs and 3D-printed weapons.

Early in 2022, the report says, he began attending a church that “associated with an international religious society that advocates traditional Catholic theology and liturgy but is not considered by the Vatican to be in full communion with the Catholic Church.” The “religious society,” identified as “Organization 1,” is clearly the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX. The local church is identified only as “Church 1.” Our Lady of Fatima Chapel in Richmond, which is affiliated with SSPX, declined to comment and referred me to James Vogel, U.S. spokesman for SSPX. He didn’t return an email and phone messages.

Lopez liked that his new church “was a traditional church that isn’t totally kiked,” as the report said he put it in a social-media post. SSPX has so often been linked to antisemitism that it maintains a web page for the news media stating, “Anti-Semitism is not Catholic.” That is, SSPX says its dispute is with Jewish beliefs, not Jews.

The IG report indicates that Lopez was apparently disappointed that his neo-Nazi views were not endorsed at the parish, where, according to the FBI memo, he was taking a catechetical class to prepare for baptism. The report said he posted on social media that he “had to deal with the priest and some (thankfully not all) the parishioners talking about how ‘Hitler bad’ though thankfully they do acknowledge that the allies were evil.”

The inspector general reports that, based on Lopez’s online communications, FBI agents determined that he “was attempting to actively recruit other individuals with similar belief systems into Organization 1 and had begun talking about an attack.”

The social-media posts became more overt, the report says, explaining that “Defendant A’s advocacy of violence included communications with two individuals who attended Church 1 in which he made antisemitic comments, discussed the purchase of a pressure cooker, and used other terminology consistent with building a pressure cooker bomb.”

At that point, the FBI agents in Richmond, concerned that their suspect was trying to recruit help for an attack, decided that they needed to put an informant inside the church to interact with him. The IG report said the Richmond office did in fact notify the FBI’s Sensitive Operations Review Committee in May 2022 because of First Amendment implications. The informant was instructed to report only information about the suspect, not about the church generally or about other parishioners, the case agent told the inspector general.

Further, the FBI rated its suspect under its Indicators of Mobilization to Violence, used to determine investigative priorities in terrorism probes. In a footnote, the IG’s report notes “Defendant A” was ranked the No. 4 overall threat in the country, adding that the FBI’s fifth-ranked subject was convicted in the May 14, 2022 shooting in Buffalo in which a white supremacist murdered ten Black people.

According to the IG report, “Defendant A” took further steps that sounded alarms for the FBI agents: He bought equipment that could be used to chain shut the doors on commercial buildings, “similar to what the Virginia Tech shooter did to prevent victims from escaping,” referring to the murder of thirty-two people in 2007.

The night before Lopez’s arrest, he bought a truck, “which he said in a video posted on his social media account would be the final step in his plan for an attack,” the inspector general’s report says.

After the arrest on November 13, 2022, the FBI case agent interviewed the priest, the choir director, and others at the church. I couldn’t get their perspective on the interview but, according to the inspector general’s report, the agent found that “everyone knew that he was calling about Defendant A because of Defendant A’s ‘unusual’ and ‘concerning’ behavior and openly racist views.”

By that time, the IG report says, FBI intelligence analysts in Richmond had already begun working on what became the leaked memo, which was dated January 23, 2023.

A key part of this saga is that when the “internal use only” memo became public on February 8, 2023, the information about Lopez’s case was either blacked out or covered over with another sheet of paper. Also blacked out was that the Portland, Oregon FBI office had investigated possible weapons violations by another white supremacist who had “gravitated to the SSPX.” It said that Robert Reynolds, who was deceased by the time the memo was written, had posted pictures of himself inside a church with the caption, “The holy sacrifice of the mass. Join the Catholic Taliban.” Likewise, the redacted memo eliminated a paragraph on a southern California extremist who attended an SSPX-affiliated church and was a member of the antisemitic group Legio Christi.

The fuller version of the memo that the FBI later provided to Congress would have shown that agency was not “targeting” SSPX churches; it was trying to enlist their help to deal with a dangerous situation.

 

Still, it’s jarring to see a government document that defines religious belief based on ideology. It defines “radical traditional Catholics” as Catholics who reject the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis, and who frequently adhere to “anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and white supremacist ideology.” This group, the memo makes clear, is small and “separate and distinct from ‘traditionalist Catholics,’” who prefer the Tridentine Mass and pre-Vatican II teachings, “but without the more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric.”

It's a clumsy way for law enforcement to approach a problem, since the legal issue isn’t “radical traditionalist Catholic” theology but whether some individuals are planning violence. But as the Lopez case indicates, there are dangers that need to be taken seriously, especially the evidence developed in the memo and in court that a small number of violence-prone extremists were trying to misuse faith communities to find co-conspirators.

The FBI memo, hastily withdrawn after the leak last year, had suggested that prominent traditionalist Catholics could help alleviate these dangers by publicly distancing themselves from “RMVE ideologies.” Instead, the reaction to the memo has mostly been defensiveness, denial of the danger, and deepened resentment.

Paul Moses

Distorting the Gospel

Distorting the Gospel

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When I began studying theology and religion as an undergraduate student, I had no idea there were Catholics who supported the ordination of women. I had attended Catholic school through twelfth grade and, as far as I knew, the prospect of women in the priesthood was the stuff of fantasy. A new world of possibility was opened to me upon reading the works of thinkers like Ann Patrick, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, whose advocacy on behalf of women forced me to reconsider an experience I have come to understand as a “call” when I was a little girl. A precocious child, I began reciting parts of the missalette and forcing my sisters to “play church” with me as the priest. Ritz crackers and apple juice stood in for the bread and wine. We did this often until my father told me I shouldn’t pretend to be a priest because I would never have that chance in real life. Devastated, I ran away (for a few hours) until my mother retrieved me from the steps of the corner bodega.

Years later, in a doctoral program in theology, I studied alongside colleagues who would go on to be ordained in their respective denominations. To actualize my priestly vocational call, they encouraged me to consider the Episcopal and Lutheran churches. But I couldn’t do that because, for me, the question had grown much larger than my fulfillment of a personal vocational call. If I left, I would be forfeiting my ability to challenge the Catholic Church, not just on its stance regarding ordination but also on the many ways it perpetuates white supremacy. Was I willing to do that? I decided to stay, always on the margins, to push the Church to see the connection between its stance on women’s ordination and its dependence on a colonial mentality.

Last year, the Vatican issued a statement repudiating the doctrine of discovery, which has been used for the past five hundred years as a religious and legal rationale to seize lands, objectify entire peoples, and impose white-supremacist authority. I have come to see that the structure of the Catholic Church—with its exclusively male leadership—is connected to its relationship with peoples and lands as a colonizing entity that must be decolonized. For this reason, I’m less interested now than I was in graduate school in the question of women’s ordination on its own. Now, I want to explore the connection between sexual and institutional violence against women and colonial violence against lands and peoples. I believe both derive from an unequal power structure of subject over object, upheld by a hierarchy that maintains the status quo. 

 

What are the alternatives to maintaining the status quo of colonization in our Church? The crumbling of the institutional Church—due in part to the sex-abuse crisis and diminishing clerical credibility—is a sign that the powerful hold of a colonizing mindset is wearing thin and being recognized for the distortion of the Gospel that it is. While promoting women in ordination is important—I would never dismiss its importance—the process of decolonizing our Church requires more than allowing women to lead from the altar. The corrective to colonization of women’s bodies in the Church requires us to learn from women’s ways of “being Church,” particularly those found in Latinx culture and theology. This decolonization has at least five components.

First, it must be centered on accompaniment and solidarity rather than preserving hierarchy or the status quo. Latinas know what it means to walk with one another through misery, hardship, and strife, and of the power of acompañamiento y solidaridad in every facet of our lives. Latinas encircle those who are in need regardless of social status or religious affiliation; I have witnessed this in my own family and in my broader community, as an embodied commitment to never allowing another to walk alone.

Second, our focus must be less on doctrine and more on popular religiosity. Women have told us that the Church’s doctrine is less authoritative than the practices of faith that are life giving and life affirming. From Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Yolanda Tarango’s seminal text, Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church, to María Del Socorro Castañeda-Liles’s Our Lady of Everyday Life,women’s spirituality resides in prayer, acts of charity, and movements for justice, often in spite of the hierarchical systems within the Church.

Third, we must invest in our communities and not in the institution. If we center our understanding of community as the “body of Christ,” the communal body that nourishes us and calls us to new life in Christ, then this is not bound by an institution or an official Church, but by the people who love us, surround us with care and support, and protect us from harm. 

Fourth, we must continue to challenge the institution to be better. While we should be embracing new forms of “being Church,” we can’t let the current institution off the hook. On the contrary: as women, we must lift a mirror up to the Church to show how it has fallen short of its own Gospel message of love and justice.

Fifth, we must remember the injunction to “be not afraid.” Some scholars suggest that a form of “fear not” or “be not afraid” appears over three hundred times in Scripture. Colonization instills fear, which keeps us from changing. The oppression and violence experienced by women also instills fear—and fear of excommunication, isolation, and alienation leads to paralysis. What if women had spaces and places of protection and community, of comfort and autonomy, where they could find refuge and be free from fear? Isn’t this what “Church”—the body of Christ—is supposed to be? “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).

This kind of sweeping decolonization involves the discomfort of living in an uncertain space, an unfinished space. We have to reconsider what it means to be a woman—in relationship to each other, to men, and to the Church. We have been given a framework that upholds the status quo, and it can be disorienting to question it. But this discomfort can be a catalyst for creativity, rather than something that dooms us to complacency. In fact, what emerges out of a place of dis-ease is the prophetic voice, which can motivate a people to change that which is seemingly unchangeable. This is our decolonizing challenge as Catholic women. 

This article is adapted from a presentation at the Georgetown University conference in April 2023. It is part of a symposium on women and the priesthood. Read the other articles here:
Women at the Altar” – Jane Varner Malhotra
Moving the Center” – Mary E. Hunt
Why Not Women?” – Alice McDermott

Teresa Delgado

Moving the Center

Moving the Center

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In 1975, when the Women’s Ordination Conference began, we knew what a woman was, why men got ordained, and who was involved in the conversation by who was registered for the conference. Fifty years later, these matters are infinitely more complicated. Gender fluidity expands the definition of women; clericalism shows the limits of ordination; and what was once a weekend meeting has become an important part of a global movement. However, there are still no validly and licitly ordained Roman Catholic women deacons or priests, even though many Catholic women are engaged in myriad ministries.

Since then, the Roman Catholic Church has rendered itself all but irrelevant. By permitting women to be ordained, it could have expanded its workforce, improved the quality of its ministry, and claimed some moral status in a hurting world. But the world has moved on. The loss is not so much for women as for the Church and, more importantly, for the people who need the resources a two-thousand-year-old institution can provide. 

The Church has failed spectacularly for half a century to right the wrongs of patriarchy. Despite happy talk about a synodal Church, there is little evidence that expanding the gender of those in the diaconate or presbyterate is in the offing. There is even less reason to think that such moves would do anything more than co-opt what is already unfolding: women and nonbinary people do so much of the Church’s ministry today. Their ministry often happens extra-institutionally, and it results in many and varied creative kinds of work. In these roles, they redefine what counts as the margins or the center of Catholicism.

 

If Vatican officials had been smart in 1975, they would have jumped at the chance to control women in ministry by ordaining them. Instead, patriarchal power-holding overwhelmed strategic sense, and the institution doubled down on its rejection of women for ordained ministry. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’sdeclaration Inter insigniores, insultingly and brazenly dated “15 October 1976, the feast of Saint Theresa of Avila,” was their response to the 1975 conference and women’s requests for ordination. It was a resounding no.

Pope Francis still clings to that no with his insistence that revelation and the historical practice of excluding women somehow prevent the institution from ordaining women today. He tries to soften the blow by saying that women have a much more important role than mere priesthood. He is at a loss to explain what that is. With sacramental ministry, including the Eucharist and Reconciliation, officially out of the toolkits of women in ministry, one wonders what he values. More to the point, since priesthood comes with jurisdiction—that is, decision-making power—women are not able to make most decisions in a parish or diocese. 

Fortunately, none of this has stopped women from ministering. Many have simply decoupled their efforts from institutional constraints and gotten on with it. But it is unfair and wasteful that a Church that belongs to the whole Catholic community is held hostage by the few cardinals and bishops who make the decisions. The synodal process does not appear to have put a dent in that, as the papal fiat on same-sex blessings made abundantly clear.

The institution has sown confusion and scandal about what most people believe is really important in ordained ministry: intent and effectiveness, not gender. When people are excluded from the clerical caste, the many contributions of women and nonbinary people are lost to those who could benefit from them. Eliminating the clergy–lay split would be one solution, and my preferred option. But as long as the split endures, those who respect it deserve the right to have all qualified people as presiders, deciders, or confessors at their disposal.

 

Many people are perplexed about who is “really” Catholic. When they want to collaborate with Catholics on a common project, like an interfaith service, or a social issue like health care, who counts? They do not want to offend the institutional clerics, and yet they accept women and nonbinary people in ministry as their colleagues. They are unsure of how to proceed with, for example, joint ecumenical efforts involving Catholics other than clergy. Recall the hierarchy’s furor when President Obama invited Catholic nuns rather than Catholic bishops for the signing of a more expansive health-care plan than the bishops could stomach. The meaning and dimensions of “Catholic” are changing in many arenas.

One reason is because groups like Roman Catholic Womenpriests, the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, people in the Women-Church movement, and many others in small base communities and organizations are doing effective ministerial work, most of it beyond the institutional Church. These people join hundreds of Catholic women ordained as ministers in the Lutheran, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and other denominations. Despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church excommunicates all women who are ordained as Catholic priests, these women are no less Catholic. For example, one could say that a Catholic woman ordained as a Lutheran is a Catholic Lutheran priest—expanding the boundaries that, when held, serve no one but those in power.

Many Catholic women work in schools, campus ministries, hospices and hospitals, prisons, and traditional parish settings. What distinguishes their ministries from ordained men’s is that many work as volunteers, and others are paid low wages for the same work for which men get salaries with cradle-to-grave benefits. One woman told me recently that when she was asked to serve several Catholic parishes in a rural part of Canada, she functioned as the pastor, including for most sacramental ministry. But when she finished her much appreciated service and returned to an urban center, she was right back to being someone’s assistant with a greatly reduced scope of responsibility and sacramental options. That benefits exactly no one.

Things are changing—not just for women, but largely thanks to them. Alyssa Duffner, a current master of divinity student at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, recalled meeting new students in her program: 

One accepted student mentioned being LGBTQ+. Then, one by one, I and every other accepted student in the room said, “Me, too.” After a momentary pause, we all erupted in laughter, surprised and delighted to share this space together in the classroom of a Jesuit theology school. The laughter was followed by our sharing of how meaningful it was to be in a room full of other LGBTQ+ people pursuing theology and ministry despite the inevitable obstacles ahead of us working in the Catholic Church. Already, each of us paved our own separate ways through exclusionary sentiments and doctrine in the Church to get to that room.

They are hardly the first majority-queer class in a Catholic seminary. But they are pioneers in bringing their full, out, honest selves. I predict that their wholesome honesty will improve the quality of their ministry. How wonderful! They, like people before them, have no idea what their job possibilities are or how they will be received in Catholic ministry settings. But minister they will in a needy world, even if not under the auspices of a shrinking Church.

Their very existence is a sign that the “center” of Catholicism is not the institutional Church but the world’s people. People in need of medical care, food, housing, jobs, and support are at the center of Gospel-based faith. Luckily, thanks to the women who got the process started, the paradigm is shifting. Those on the margins now are Church officials who hoard the resources, both material and spiritual, that belong to and are needed by everyone. With a change of heart and practice, they, too, can be part of the whole; it helps no one for anyone to be marginalized. The challenge is to blur the lines of center and periphery, leaving no willing hands idle when it comes to creating justice.

This article is part of a symposium on Women and the Priesthood. Read the other articles here:
“Women at the Altar” – Jane Varner Malhotra
“Distorting the Gospel” – Teresa Delgado
“Why Not Women?” – Alice McDermott

Mary E. Hunt

Why Not Women?

Why Not Women?

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Otto Preminger’s film The Cardinal was released in 1963, when I was ten years old, so I guess it was some years later that it appeared on TV. I recall watching it with my mother. I watched many movies with my mother.

Early on, there’s a scene where a young priest tells his pregnant sister’s doctors that they must let her die in order to save her unborn child. I turned to my mother in disbelief. Would that really happen?

“Oh yes,” my mother assured me, placidly enough. “That’s the rule in the Catholic Church. The baby’s life comes before the life of the mother.”

Until then, I’d always pestered my mother about having another baby. I was the youngest of three and the only girl. I wanted a sister. But after seeing The Cardinal, I prayed she would never again take that risk. I knew I needed her far more than I needed some imagined baby sister. Her life was the life I cherished above all others, the life most essential to my own. I suppose I was too young at the time to realize that the pregnant sister who must die could, someday, be me.

This, then, was my first encounter with the diminished value my Church assigns to the lives of women. Not the last, of course.

In those days, I could not be an altar server, as my brothers were, simply because I was female. Throughout my grammar-school years, I watched the middle-aged nuns who taught us—formidable, dignified women—bow and scrape and even giggle whenever the parish priests, some of them mere twenty-somethings, deigned to visit our classrooms.

In my all-girls Catholic high school, we were challenged by our female teachers to read widely, to know world history and Church history, to understand economics—and not just home economics. We were encouraged to debate cogently, whether our subject was politics or poetry or Plato’s cave. We were assured that the big news of the era was true: women could do, could become, anything they set their minds to. And yet we were able to celebrate Mass or line up for Reconciliation only when a local priest agreed to fit us girls into his busy schedule.

Years later, my own daughter asked Sr. Nina, her fifth-grade teacher, why there were seven sacraments for Catholic men, but only six for Catholic women. Sister’s reply? “Good question.”

Our all-male clergy is no big deal, I’ve been told over the years by Catholic men and many Catholic women. Just a small matter of custom or ritual, a harmless tradition. Jesus was a man, the old argument goes; how confusing it would be to the faithful if Christ were represented on the altar by a non-man, a woman. Of course, we don’t worry about that confusion when we make references to Mother Church with all her feminine pronouns.

“Oh, come on,” a smiling cardinal replied with a wink when I pressed him on the issue of women’s ordination. “It’s you women who really run the Church.” In a similar discussion, a laughing monsignor assured me that his priests were “terrified” of the Mothers’ Club at his school. “Talk about power,” he’d said. All in good humor.

But how to separate this “small matter” of an all-male clergy from the insidious effects of ritual misogyny? In his book Turning Point, Robert McClory tells the “inside story” of the Papal Birth Control Commission of the early sixties. The commission, which included married Catholics, found an overwhelming desire among faithful Catholic couples to be able to use birth control—for the good of their marriages but also for the health of the women in the marriage, too many of whom knew the toll of multiple pregnancies, miscarriages, or husbands who must be denied. These were faithful Catholic couples who requested access to birth control in order to protect the very life and physical well-being of Catholic women. We all know how that turned out.

 

In the early part of this century, I had dinner in Boston with a group of Catholic-school teachers, all women, some of them nuns or former nuns. The abuse scandal had just broken and their collective cry was one of opportunity missed. They could have protected these children from priestly predators, they said, if only the male hierarchy had told them which priests to look out for. If the male hierarchy had shared what they knew about those “troubled men,” the women were certain they could have run interference whenever a suspected priest called a child out of their classrooms.

These women didn’t want to change the power structure in the Church. They weren’t particularly interested in ordaining women. They didn’t even want to see the scandal exposed. They simply wished the cardinal and the other male pastors had trusted them, confided in them, enlisted their help for the good of the children. They wished they had been treated as equals, worthy of full participation in the life of the Church, even in its cover-ups and its failings.

Over the course of my adulthood, I have watched our Church abandon any sincere attempt to confront the complex moral issues that pertain to reproduction in exchange for a simplistic legal solution: overturn Roe. I’ve seen the leadership of the Catholic Church reject the challenge to convince, to counsel, to comfort, or to discern, in favor of promoting secular laws that will only coerce.

All the while, as one war followed another, Catholic men were told by their priests that joining the military and taking up arms is a matter of conscience. Each should follow his own understanding of just war, what counts as morally acceptable self-defense or justifiable homicide for some greater good. They were told military service is a personal, prayerful choice.

I recall another conversation with a charming bishop, who listened sympathetically when I described a young friend’s tragic experience of the in-utero death of her infant. “We who are pro-life need to keep such circumstances in mind,” he said kindly. But then he added, “What I object to are these women who have abortions simply because they want to go on holiday.” I told him I called this the Jezebel defense of abortion bans. He said he didn’t consider these women Jezebels; he thought them hardly human.

 

I attended Mass the Sunday after the Dobbs decision. I love the Mass. I love the Eucharist. For all the anguish my Church has caused, in the world and in my own heart, I have never been denied the peace, understanding, and renewal of hope and love that the celebration of the Mass has always afforded me. But on that day, I saw my presence in my own church as a kind of collusion—collusion with misogyny, with hypocrisy, with the conviction that to be female is to be the other, to be lesser. Less complex, less moral, less valuable, less intelligent, less worthy, less human.

As Catholics, we are aware of—we celebrate—the outward signs of inner grace. Our rituals are built on the importance of those signs and symbols, and our Church, our spirit, thrives on them as a source of good. But if there are outward signs of inner grace, then surely there are outward signs of inner corruption, signs that betray our faults, our sinfulness, our blindness, our failings. The all-male priesthood of the Catholic Church, my Church, has become for me just such a sign. And so I persist, with varying degrees of hope. I ask and ask again: Why not women? I pray for change. 

This article is adapted from a presentation at the Georgetown University conference in April 2023. It was published as part of a symposium on women and the priesthood. Read the other articles here:

“Women at the Altar” - Jane Varner Malhotra
“Moving the Center” - Mary E. Hunt
“Distorting the Gospel” - Teresa Delgado

Alice McDermott