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A Contentious Trip to Canada

It was not the typical papal visit. Yes, there were the political dignitaries, the popemobile, and the larger-than-usual press corps. But the reason for the visit was different, the tone was different, and Pope Francis was different: he was in a wheelchair for a good part of his July visit to Canada.

He was there to honor a pledge he made in March of this year to the various representatives of the Métis, First Nations, and Inuit communities of Canada who had travelled to Rome to meet Francis personally and to ask on Vatican soil that he come to their soil on Turtle Island. They did so because they wanted him to apologize for the role of the Church in administering the Residential Schools that had been established by the federal government in the nineteenth century with the express purpose of ensuring total Indigenous assimilation into the white Victorian Christian society that was Canada at the time. The schools were in operation between 1869 and 1965, although the final school didn’t close until the mid-1990s. Over that time these institutions housed more than 150,000 children. Of that number, several thousand died while in custody.

At the behest of the government, Canada’s churches were charged with overseeing the residential schools and were funded to that end. Many denominations were involved, including the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Canada. But most schools fell under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, principally under the control of several religious orders, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate being the primary one.

As Duncan Campbell Scott, an esteemed Canadian Confederation poet and the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Residential Schools, observed in 1910, in response to criticism over the high number of Indigenous children who were perishing in the schools: “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem.” The historical resonances of the phrase “a final solution of our Indian problem” are unnerving if not frightening. Scott certainly saw his task as nothing less than “killing the Indian in the child,” as the first prime minister of Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald, so inelegantly put it.

The legacy of the schools has been a national scandal for decades: intergenerational trauma, disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates, astoundingly high youth suicides, rampant addiction, inadequate education, poorly maintained reserves for status Indians, appallingly poor self-esteem infecting every aspect of Indigenous life. Canada was shamed into recognizing this sordid history with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report of 2015—a chronicle of suffering that was a thorough, unflinching, unqualified indictment of decades of abuse. The government and the churches were severely criticized, and in short order various steps were implemented to provide financial compensation for survivors and the descendants of survivors, along with commitments to educate the Canadian public on the history and scope of what the TRC commissioners identified as systemic discrimination culminating in cultural genocide.

The report contained ninety-four calls to action, among which was a potent summons to accountability by the bishop of Rome. “We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

Indigenous communities saw the appearance of the pope on their land as an historical correction, as he apologized for the Church’s role in running the residential schools and more besides.

The onsite apology didn’t happen in a year—it took another six—and the reasons for the delay are many, the key ones of which I explored in Commonweal in 2021. The tepidity of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ response to the request, the failure of the Catholic Church in Canada to meet its financial obligations—in sharp contrast with its sister churches—and the relentless exposés of clerical abuse in the media combined to damage episcopal authority, outrage lay Catholics, and eventually create national momentum for the pope’s trip that could no longer be resisted or sidetracked.

Francis heeded the request of the Indigenous representatives in Rome, responded positively to the pro forma invitation from the CCCB, set about familiarizing himself with the reality on the ground; he was aware too that for many his Canadian trip would be a test case for subsequent papal travels. The trip was not a state visit; there was no addressing the House of Commons and Senate in Ottawa. Although he was welcomed in Quebec City by Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person in Canadian history to serve as the Governor-General, the Queen’s Representative, and he was twice in the company of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the political class was largely absent. This trip wasn’t about them, and you could feel their collective relief.

But Francis quickly found himself the center of contentious and competing priorities. For many in the Indigenous community, his visit was about bringing some closure to the process initiated by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement of 2007, which ushered in a new era of political and ecclesial accountability. The prospects emerging from this agreement were promising, and the way forward, although not without its hurdles, eschewed the moral murkiness of past treaties with their broken promises. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work in earnest, it did so in the context of the larger history of Indigenous-settler relations, post-confederation (1867) Canadian expansion, and centuries of neglect by the Crown. It was an ugly history, and an anguished First Peoples’ cry for recognition and reparation was the backdrop for Francis’s visit. Dissatisfied with government prevarication and foot-dragging, the Indigenous communities saw the appearance of the pope on their land as an historical correction, as he apologized for the Church’s role in running the residential schools and more besides.

That “more besides” became a defining feature of the trip and came close to hijacking Francis’s spiritual pilgrimage. What I am alluding to is the centrality accorded the Doctrine of Discovery and calls for its revocation by many in Canada. Heavily controverted by historians, canonists, theologians and moral philosophers, the “doctrine” is situated in the bull, Inter Caetera, issued by the Spanish Borgia pope Alexander VI in 1493. Alexander, largely at the behest of their Most Catholic Majesties of the new Spain granted to the conquistadores—working, of course, on behalf of their monarchs—possession of any lands 100 leagues west of the Azores on condition that they were not already under the jurisdiction of any other Christian ruler. A previous pope, Nicholas V, had likewise offered “full and free permission” to the Portuguese crown to build a Christian empire in regions pagan and Saracen.

The messy politics of crown-and-cross alliances has never been ideal, and these pacts have been effected in circumstances where both parties are seen as mutual beneficiaries. But very early into the 16th century, Rome began to think differently, and with Paul III and his bull Sublimus Deus (1537) there was a radical departure from the Borgia pontiff’s teaching: “We define and declare that said Indians and all people who may be later discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ: and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”

The venality of kings and the rapacity of viceroys eclipsed the moderating humanism of theologians and preachers.

Fine and noble words, in keeping with the Gospel, but Paul III was swimming against the stream. The venality of kings and the rapacity of viceroys eclipsed the moderating humanism of theologians and preachers like Antonio de Montesinos, Francisco de Vitoria and Bartholomé de las Casas who made compelling arguments advocating for the inviolable dignity of the First Peoples. However, in the end, it was the courtiers and conquistadors who won. They found validation of their behavior in philosopher Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda’s argument that the Indigenous were by nature disposed to servitude. This argument was instantiated in law by the United States Supreme Court in 1823, with Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in Johnson v. McIntosh that Native Americans were entitled to hold a right of occupancy but did not have complete sovereignty over their own land. Canada in turn relied on Marshall’s reasoning and judgment to ensure “exclusive power to extinguish” Indigenous claims and rights within its borders.

Throughout his time in Canada, Francis faced repeated demands that the Doctrine of Discovery be rescinded and done so publicly. The fact that Alexander’s Inter Caetera had been abrogated or rescinded shortly after its initial promulgation and its propositions repeatedly refuted by subsequent pontiffs appeared not to have penetrated media consciousness. In fact, a Statement by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See at the UN in 2010 made clear “the fact that juridical systems may employ the Doctrine of Discovery as a juridical precedent is therefore now a characteristic of the laws of those states and is independent of the fact that for the Church the document has had no value whatsoever for centuries.” Although this statement and a subsequent detailed analysis provided by the Commission for Justice and Peace of the CCCB—“The Doctrine of Discovery, Terra Nullius, and the Catholic Church: An Historical Overview” (2016)—were essential resources for any enlightened discussion, they were noticeably absent in any exchange, relegated to relative obscurity until the last moment, and then hastily provided to a media that had since moved on.

It was a communications disaster by any definition. Francis himself seemed puzzled by the frenzy, responding to a reporter’s query on the plane back to Rome that if the Doctrine of Discovery is about colonization and its myriad ills, then the Church emphatically rejects it. In addition, he made clear that he accepts that what happened at the residential schools was cultural genocide, although he never used the term in his scripted locutions and homilies in spite of numerous pleas from Indigenous leaders to do so. The advice he received from his Canadian hosts—principally the Archbishop of Edmonton, Richard Smith—appears to have been inadequate. Accompanied by two knowledgeable Canadian Curial cardinals, Francis was well prepared for his spiritual pilgrimage of penance and healing but ill equipped to navigate the tumultuous political and ideological seas.

Yet he charmed and moved the crowds, was honored with a traditional Indigenous headdress, and managed his physical challenges with grace. But as everyone says—regardless of their position and perspective—this papal trip was only the beginning. In the months before Francis’s visit, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland released a report on federally run Native boarding schools, which American Jesuits played a substantial role in operating, and called for a Truth and Healing Commission to examine that history. Francis’s experience in Canada could provide some instructive lessons.

Beyond Bans

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.


It was foreseeable that a decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe would not end abortion in the United States, but would instead result in a patchwork of starkly disparate laws and regulations so that what might be regarded as a right in one state would be treated as a felony in another.

Already we are witnessing what can happen to women and children who live in states where abortion has been seriously restricted or criminalized. The ten-year-old rape victim denied an abortion despite the substantial risk that pregnancy would pose for her physical and mental health. The woman whose water broke at eighteen weeks and who endured a dangerous and agonizing wait for the fetus’s cardiac activity to cease before doctors would complete her abortion. Women with ectopic pregnancies who are not treated until their lives are on the cusp of being lost. Even where laws provide for termination of pregnancy when the mother’s life or health is threatened, doctors and health-care institutions are unsure about what “counts” as life-threatening and what the options are. Must the woman be at imminent risk of dying? What if a woman has preeclampsia and her blood pressure is rising dangerously? How serious does a health risk need to be for termination to be allowed? Does a woman whose diabetes or renal disease can be exacerbated by pregnancy qualify?

And who decides? The lack of legal clarity leaves doctors caught between their oaths to help their patients and the risk of losing their licenses or going to prison. Dana Stone, a doctor in Oklahoma, which has banned almost all abortions, told the Associated Press, “We’ve asked some legislators, ‘How are medical providers supposed to interpret the laws?’ They say, ‘They’ll figure it out.’”

Though it’s already well documented, it’s worth repeating that states with the most restrictions on abortion already suffer some of the highest rates of maternal mortality. Louisiana, which bans abortion after six weeks, ranks forty-eighth in the nation in maternal and child health; from 2016 to 2018, maternal mortality rates rose 16 percent. We also know that the burden of bans will not be borne equitably. Jack Resneck Jr., president of the American Medical Association, made this point in his statement on the Dobbs decision: “Access to legal reproductive care will be limited to those with the sufficient resources, circumstances, and financial means to do so—exacerbating health inequities by placing the heaviest burden on patients from Black, Latinx, Indigenous, low-income, rural, and other historically disadvantaged communities who already face numerous structural and systemic barriers to accessing health care.”

We’ve also seen how those who insist on a legal prohibition of abortion often downplay or ignore the structural economic forces that can lead women to terminate their pregnancies. According to data cited by Luu D. Ireland, assistant professor of obstetrics & gynecology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, 73 percent of women seeking an abortion say they cannot afford another child. (More than half are already mothers.) The most common reason women give for seeking abortion is lack of social support: they say that “pregnancy would interfere with education, work or ability to care for dependents.” A study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, shows that women who are denied abortions face greater likelihood of long-term economic insecurity, of remaining in contact with a violent partner, and of serious health problems than women who have them.

Dobbs was not decided in order to enact Catholic magisterial teaching in the public square. But since it was celebrated by many in Church leadership, and since post-Roe abortion bans are the subject of vigorous and munificent Church lobbying, that teaching is worth a quick summary.

Catholic teaching across the centuries has focused almost exclusively on the philosophical quandary of when a developing embryo or fetus is a human person—that is, a being endowed with rights, including the right to life. Personhood, though, is a philosophical determination, while biological development is a continuum with a number of points at which personhood might be imputed. Indeed, in a footnote to 1974’s Declaration on Procured Abortion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made this quandary clear:

There is not a unanimous tradition on [when a fetus becomes a human person] and authors are as yet in disagreement. For some it dates from the first instant; for others it could not at least precede nidation. It is not within the competence of science to decide between these views, because the existence of an immortal soul is not a question in its field. It is a philosophical problem.

The footnote concludes with a defense of regarding the early embryo as a person from conception; subsequent Church documents still refrain—barely—from declaring a zygote a person. This does not imply any approval of abortion: the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes declared that “abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” Abortion imposes latae sententiae excommunication on the responsible parties. According to the ethical and religious directives that guide Catholic health-care institutions, no direct action to terminate a pregnancy, or even a direct abortion of an extrauterine pregnancy, is licit, although in some cases involving double-effect reasoning (one classic example is the reasoning that accepts removal of a pregnant woman’s cancerous uterus), one may pursue treatment that is foreseen but not directly intended to cause the death of an embryo.

Those giant posters of apparently free-floating fetuses seen at pro-life rallies sell a biological fiction: there is no such thing as a living, developing fetus that is not utterly dependent on he well-being of its mother.

Finally, Catholic teaching makes no logical exception for cases of rape or incest, since neither crime against the mother affects the ontological status of the fetus. Pope John Paul II also ruled out considerations like a mother’s “desire to protect certain important values such as her own health or a decent standard of living for the other members of the family.” He declared that “in no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor!”—thus apparently ruling out self-defense claims aside from those justified under the terms of double-effect.

Other religious bodies harbor different opinions on the moral status of the early embryo and the morality of abortion; some of those are now protesting abortion bans on religious-freedom grounds. As for U.S. Catholics, most say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. More Catholics have abortions than members of other religious groups: 24 percent of all women who have abortions are Catholic, compared to 17 percent who are mainline Protestant and 13 percent who are Evangelical Protestant (38 percent have no religious affiliation).

Taken together, all of this suggests to me that we need a new starting point for thinking about abortion. First, let’s take biology seriously. While an embryo, from conception, does have different DNA than its mother, it is also true that from implantation until viability the developing fetus is intimately and exclusively bound to the mother. Those giant posters of apparently free-floating fetuses seen at pro-life rallies sell a biological fiction: there is no such thing as a living, developing fetus that is not utterly dependent on the well-being of its mother.

Taking biology seriously means accepting that sometimes a fetus or embryo can be an unjust attacker—pace John Paul II—even though completely without evil intent. In other words, sometimes it is pregnancy itself that occasions a threat to the mother’s life or health. “Whenever the embryo is a danger to the life of the mother, an abortion is permissible,” John T. Noonan Jr.  wrote in “How to Argue About Abortion,” not long after Roe was decided. “At the level of reason nothing more can be asked of the mother.”

How to make these decisions? We must restore the place of medical judgment—medical prudence—in cases when the mother’s life could be at risk. Discerning whether a pregnancy poses a significant threat to a woman’s life or health involves assessing a matter of medical probabilities and likelihoods, a matter of standards of care that were clear before Dobbs and remain clear in states where abortion is still legal. In keeping with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, shouldn’t these decisions be made by those closest to them: the pregnant woman, her partner, and the physician? The Biden administration has declared that the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which requires physicians to intervene in life-threatening situations, preempts state laws banning abortion. This protects the ability of doctors to exercise medical judgment in some cases, but it does not guarantee protection from all legal exposure. It also seems to require a delay in action long past when a prudent practitioner might have recognized and dealt with the potential threat before it became an emergency.

Further, rape and incest must be allowed as justifications for legal termination of pregnancy if the mother wishes. Otherwise, we are in effect allowing a man to legally commandeer a woman’s body for nine months, after which she is faced with the agonizing choice of whether to raise or give up for adoption a child conceived by violence, who is the child of her attacker and is also her own. This is a violation of the personhood of women.

We must also strike a stance of solidarity with women who face serious structural hardship from pregnancies. Writing in the Journal of Religious Ethics in 2018, Cristina Traina, the Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, Chair of Catholic Theology at Fordham University, argued for systemic change:

Women with unwanted pregnancies need mercy or forgiveness. But they also need compassionate solidarity: prophetic, active efforts to transform the social structures that make material harm and moral failure, and consequent moral anguish and moral injury, inevitable for many pregnant women.

Ideally, effective systemic and individual reforms would have been established before we would ever consider banning abortion. Now that Roe is gone, Church leaders might lobby against enforcement of abortion bans until there are adequate protections for mothers in place.

And a final thought from Catholic moral theology. Aquinas argued that the purpose of the law is not to legislate all of morality, but to serve the common good. It seems clear that post-Dobbs bans and restrictions are not merely confusing, not merely cruel and unjust, but also a direct assault on the common good. Abortions will be less safe where bans are in place. More women will die unnecessarily. More women and children will suffer from poverty. Many women will be forced to bear and likely raise unwanted children. Women of child-bearing age will count as somewhat less than full persons. This is the post-Dobbs United States that all Americans, especially Catholic Americans, should prevent from coming to be. 





Good Samaritans?

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.


In one of the most vulnerable moments of her 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood discloses the vertigo she feels whenever abortion debates come up:

The twinge you are feeling right now is the twinge of wondering whether I am really right-thinking, whether I am really on the right side when it comes to this subject. I put that twinge in because I sometimes feel it myself. But after all that, you must understand that I had to leave right-thinkingness behind.

Lockwood was raised in a weird, wonderful, devoutly Catholic family. We learn that she’s skeptical of metaphysics. She bristles at the patriarchy. We squirm when she recounts a traumatic childhood visit with her mother to a protest at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Nevertheless, Lockwood feels a twinge that there is something significant about abortion that is missed by her family’s politics and even by her own carefully tended outlook.

The Dobbs decision returns the questions surrounding the legality of abortion to the states and the consciences of their residents. There is a confidence on the part of Justice Alito and the court that we will be able to think through abortion in the same way we have hashed out different state-level policies regarding, say, gambling or recreational marijuana use. For the past fifty years, the debate about abortion has centered on the arbitrary gestational cutoffs that Roe and then Casey drew to settle when fetal life has legal significance. We have now—surprisingly—managed to multiply that arbitrariness. In 2022 the same procedure involving the same two lives is deemed routine medical care in Buffalo, but felony malpractice in Biloxi. “Personhood” under American law now depends not only on time of development but also place.

Moral philosophy helps us manage arbitrariness, and this is especially important in times of social disruption. As we grapple with another revolutionary change in abortion policy, it can help to revisit the most important philosophy paper of the Roe era. In 1971, Judith Jarvis Thomson was in her early forties, a tenured professor at MIT, and one of astonishingly few women who could get a job as a philosopher. She published “A Defense of Abortion” in the first issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, just as Roe was entering the Supreme Court. Thomson’s article helped make abortion a major research topic in moral theory. It has been cited and reprinted countless times, and has become a fixture of syllabi.

It begins with a thought experiment. Suppose one day you wake up in a hospital and discover your kidneys are linked up to an unconscious man next to you. The hospital director tells you that the man suffers from a grave infection and your kidneys are keeping him alive while he recovers. It turns out he is a talented violinist. An extremist group of violin aficionados has kidnapped you and arranged this scenario. The director assures you they will be prosecuted and that you will receive good treatment at the hospital. The man in the next bed will die unless you remain connected with him long enough for his kidneys to recover. They estimate it will take nine months.

The thought experiment appears in so many introductory philosophy courses because it is an approachable example of how philosophers work. Thomson grants for the sake of argument that a fetus at any stage of gestation is a person, with dignity and access to moral rights. She then asks what fetal personhood would entail about the moral significance of abortion. We can have a difficult time reasoning through this by directly thinking about pregnancy; we worry about conforming with “right thinking” in a superheated political debate. But we can consider instead this purely hypothetical case of one person being biologically dependent on another. We don’t have social scripts to follow about involuntary dialysis; the musical detail makes it still more surreal. Thomson’s ingenious strategy is to test our moral judgments about this thought experiment, and then see how those judgments shed light on real-world cases of pregnancies caused by rape or abuse. (She suggests other thought experiments for failed birth control.)

Thomson draws two conclusions from the method. First she thinks the violinist does not have a moral right to the use of your kidneys, even if he clearly has a right to life more broadly understood. By analogy, she infers that fetuses can have a broad right to life, but not a right that requires a woman to gestate. Most discussions of Thomson’s paper focus on this attempt to distinguish the relevant rights. There isn’t any philosophical consensus on whether she’s successful, and it is probably hard to determine whose rights take priority if we just have contrived thought experiments to go on. When moral rights conflict, actual historical details and context become very important.

As a matter of biological complexity and social dysfunction, women in the United States spend nearly half of our lives on a reproductive Jericho road.

To my mind, Thomson’s second point is more interesting, though often neglected. She spends much of that 1971 article arguing that beyond debating competing rights, there is nevertheless something deeply morally significant about someone who would offer themselves to enable another person to live. She calls this the issue of “good samaritanism.” A good Samaritan is someone who perceives a strong moral reason to sacrifice for another person, without that person having any standing to demand their sacrifice. While you might exercise a right to unplug the violinist, she argues, we can still wonder whether your act was brave, cruel, heedless, or tragic. Crucial (and controversial) to Thomson’s analogy is granting that a fetus is like a stranger in need, at least in cases of unintended pregnancy. In a key passage, Thomson suggests we should invoke the idea of “minimally decent samaritanism” to capture the twinge we feel about some abortions. She presses her case:

I am inclined to think it a merit of my account precisely that it does not give a general yes or a general no. It allows for and supports our sense that, for example, a sick and desperately frightened fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, pregnant due to rape, may of course choose abortion and that any law which rules this out is an insane law. And it also allows for and supports our sense that in other cases resort to abortion is even positively indecent. It would be indecent…to request an abortion and indecent in a doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad.

For Thomson, this kind of samaritanism comes in degrees, and importantly, no outside party has the standing to compel someone to be a good or even minimally decent Samaritan.

When I teach Thomson, I ask my students if she understands samaritanism in the same way Christians do. The concept comes to us from the famous parable in the Gospel of Luke. A man is robbed and beaten while traveling down the Jericho road. Two passersby—both religious elites—see the man in need, but ignore him. Then a Samaritan comes across the man and is moved with compassion. His response is intimate and intense: he bundles up the man, takes him to an inn, cares for him throughout the night, and promises the innkeeper to pay any expenses “over and above” what is needed to help him fully recuperate. Jesus offers the parable as an answer to the question of how to understand the Greatest Commandment, the foundation of Jewish and Christian moral life. We are meant to be moved to love others, including strangers, in a way that expresses radical generosity. The moral pressure is interior rather than social, a vulnerability to the significance of someone else. Moral life involves coming to respond to the twinge.

Do you feel it? Would you stay plugged into the violinist? My students often complain that Thomson’s thought experiment is under-described. They want to know if they can move around the hospital room while they are plugged in. They want to know if they will lose their jobs or if their partner will dump them if they devote themselves to this for nine months. They wonder how traumatic the kidnapping was. I note that the passage in Luke also tells us next to nothing about the Samaritan or the man who was hurt. Readers are left to imagine the details. Most commentators suppose that the beaten man was Jewish. The Samaritan was a regular guy on his way to conduct some business. In the Ignatian tradition, we are directed to contemplate the parable by imagining ourselves in the role of each character, including the passersby and the innkeeper. We think about their possible intentions, and in the process shape our own consciences.

What if we imagine the Samaritan as a graduate student, personally secure and set on a busy course that doesn’t involve an all-night detour in an inn? Or if we imagine the Samaritan as a scared ten-year-old? What if handling the stranger’s body would make the Samaritan dangerously sick? What if the passersby are unwilling to stop to help people of a particular gender or people with cognitive disabilities? Is the innkeeper responsible for helping the Samaritan? How we understand the moral significance of an act of samaritanism or a refusal surely depends on such details.

You may worry that a Samaritan approach to abortion makes the issue purely a matter of personal morality, that it has nothing to say about the policy debates we now face. But samaritanism is also deeply political. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commentary on the parable focuses on the Jericho road itself: How on earth did each of these men find themselves in such a dangerous place? As a matter of biological complexity and social dysfunction, women in the United States spend nearly half of our lives on a reproductive Jericho road. For those of us inclined to think of the abortion debates in Samaritan terms, the Dobbs decision returns the wrong issue to the states. Legislatures are directly responsible for “road maintenance,” and they have a special obligation to work with physicians, family services, and employers to build systems that alleviate the unconscionable risks that still come with pregnancy.

Such work requires a commitment to non-coercive love that seems quite absent from our social lives at the moment, in part because of the efforts of Christians. The Texas abortion-restriction law functions by turning neighbors into informants on one another. National political parties have built strategies that depend on abortion remaining an issue that persistently divides voters. In universities where moral questions are meant to be contemplated and consciences are meant to be formed, there is a definite reluctance to study the Dobbs decision in any way that might amplify views that are at odds with the local moral consensus. I worry that after fifty years, both Thomson and her critics will be dropped from philosophy textbooks.

Pope Francis has taken up the role that samaritanism plays in Christian political life very directly in recent discussions of polarization, wars of aggression, and the pandemic. In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti, he offers an extended meditation on the Good Samaritan, and a harsh judgment for how we have let our politics disintegrate our moral integrity:

There are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different. Faith, and the humanism it inspires, must maintain a critical sense in the face of these tendencies, and prompt an immediate response whenever they rear their head.

Many people today assume that Christians are anti-intellectual or out of touch with serious moral philosophy, especially on issues like abortion. And Americans are, without doubt, experiencing the 2020s as an unprecedented crisis for the common good. Rediscovering our commitment to Samaritan love could help restore our integrity on both issues. 





Only God Could Join Us to God

In 2010, a friend sent me a link to an essay by David Bentley Hart, a takedown of the so-called New Atheists. Hart caricatures Christopher Hitchens’s arguments in God Is Not Great as syllogisms whose major premise has been omitted:

Major Premise: [omitted]
Minor Premise: Timothy Dwight opposed smallpox vaccinations.
Conclusion: There is no God.

But it was Hart’s conclusion that really won me over: “The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche.” Here is a hint of the independence of thought that Hart’s readers prize: an Orthodox theologian laments atheism’s decline from Nietzsche’s “intellectual courage” into “historical errors, sententious moralism, glib sophistry.”

I later reviewed a few of Hart’s books for various outlets, which eventually resulted in an email from him in 2016, and we have been corresponding ever since (as I note below, within a few weeks he was sending me ridiculous claims like “Entwistle, Townshend, and Moon were each immeasurably better musicians than any member of the Stones”). I just texted David to ask how he first became aware of me, whether from one of my reviews of his work or something else, and he said, “Probably reading you in the New Yorker or somewhere, I don’t exactly recall. I knew of you before any review from you.” Recently, for no reason at all, we decided to record the following conversation held over Zoom. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Michael Robbins


David Bentley Hart: We should clarify what’s going on here: that it’s entirely a conversation, not an interview, right? So, reciprocal disclosures—if I say anything embarrassing, you’re morally obliged to say something humiliating about yourself.

Michael Robbins: Well, I don’t recall that in our preliminary—

DBH: I think that was in the contract. I think you haven’t checked the fine print. But, anyway—so you are Michael Robbins, the esteemed poet, whose most recent book, Walkman, has been praised, but not given the awards it deserves by the philistines. And I’m David Bentley Hart.

MR: And you are the author, most recently, of You Are Gods, Tradition and Apocalypse, and the Gnostic fantasy Kenogaia, which did win an award—which is not to say that you have won all the awards you deserve.

DBH: Well, yes, for Roland in Moonlight alone, which is my other recent book.

MR: Yes, I don’t have a hard copy of that one here with me.

DBH: I have the three volumes of poetry that you’ve published, and with my typical genius in organizing books, because they just keep mounting up by several thousands, I don’t know where your books are. I went looking for them last night, and to be honest I couldn’t find them.

MR: It is a problem I fully understand. There are books that I’ve ended up buying three times because I thought that I had lost a copy of it.

DBH: I think we’ve all had that experience; or you’ve just simply forgotten that you owned a copy. As I grow older and more forgetful, I forget that I just bought a copy last month. So tell me—

MR: Well, before we get started with your question, I just want to point out that we began our correspondence, however many years ago now, with a dispute over the relative greatness of the Who and the Rolling Stones—you a Whovian and I with sympathy for the devil. And I think both of us came to a greater appreciation of the other’s favorite band.

DBH: Yeah, yeah, well, actually, the Who were never my favorite band. I’m afraid that I’m that most sublunary of creatures—

MR: The Beatles.

DBH: The Beatles, yeah, were always my favorite. I’m a sucker for melody, and since they could generate melodies at a rate that Schubert couldn’t have kept up with—that and chord progressions. I mean those chord progressions, getting richer and richer and richer. But I loved all of the British invasion bands as a kid. Still you’re right, I had soured a bit on the Rolling Stones, mostly, I think, because they went on and on and on, past their great period, and this cast an unflattering light back upon their great period.

But I wanted to ask you what everyone’s been asking you since Walkman came out, and we’ve talked a bit about it. Of course, the cover and the title lead one to expect yet another iteration of the inimitable Robbins voice, which in the past I would have characterized as—I don’t know—militantly sardonic, terse, sarcastic...but formally very precise, using a certain sort of formal mastery in order to contain a fairly disruptive irony. In any case, the words that spring to one’s lips immediately are not “tender,” “lyrical.” To be honest, I have to say, if I were asked for my normal reaction to your first two volumes of verse, it would be something like “a bitter appreciative laugh.”

But Walkman isn’t formally rigid—it’s formally accomplished, but in a more sprung way. I’m not saying it’s sprung rhythm all the way through, but it is basically the case that it’s not in strict meter. There’s just a sort of lilting cadence through all the long poems—and most of the poems in the book are long. But also, I have to admit, I had not been prepared for the vulnerable Michael Robbins. There’s a quiet lyricism that goes with the rhythm of the verse and the images, without being lush and opulent in the way I would be, in my late-nineteenth-century perversity. But it has some lovely images—I mean, somehow you make a Kinko’s late at night, with cashiered copying machines, seem oddly atmospheric and inviting—and the melancholy and the almost confessional tone running through it remain for me the most interesting changes. I was just hoping you might talk about that for a bit, because there’s something going on there and I don’t know if it’ll show up again in your next collection or not.

MR: Well, I’ve actually been writing new poems fairly inspired by one of my favorite contemporary works, Chelsey Minnis’s Baby, I Don’t Care.

DBH: Somehow I would expect you to like that.

MR: When I’ve been asked this previously, I always say that I didn’t want to stagnate, I got bored with what I was doing, and that’s all true enough, but that’s also an evasion of the question—

DBH: I don’t think, if that were all it were, you would just naturally switch to reflective melancholy, giving this sense of something wounded. I’m not trying to overburden this with descriptions, but I mean it can’t just be that you were trying out a new style.

MR: Right. Well, the impetus was reading James Schuyler. I read all of Schuyler while I was at a loss about where to go from the second book. And as I say in “Walkman,” the title poem, “Schuyler was too tender / for me then, but now / he is just tender enough.” And there’s something about growing older. I was still in my thirties when I wrote Alien vs. Predator, and a couple of those poems are from my twenties. And growing older sucks—

DBH: Yes, indeed.

MR: So lately I’ve begun thinking about age, as I’ve gotten back into Keats and Blake and Wordsworth, who were loves of my youth. When I was writing the poems in Alien vs. Predator, I was much more likely to be reading John Donne or Marvell, and not necessarily their very earnest poems, but their wittier, catchier poems. And I think about the change you refer to a little bit as the difference between Donne and Wordsworth, the difference between a sort of formal display of wit, not personal—you know, you don’t get a sense of who John Donne is in his daily life. Whereas reading The Prelude or “Tintern Abbey”—Wordsworth was twenty-eight when he wrote “Tintern Abbey,” but Wordsworth also turned fifty when he was around twenty-five. And then my anger at the ecological crisis, the crisis of capitalist society, it was easier to take a sardonic stance with that anger in my twenties and thirties. As I age, as the angel watches the past pile up before it as it’s blown into the future, it gets harder and harder to maintain a stance of militant humor rather than of militant despair. I wanted to write something that captured my increasing lack of hope. I guess you can do that in a nihilistic death-metal way, like the band Cattle Decapitation, or you can do it in a sort of Wordsworthian way.

My image of European civilization now is the old man standing on his porch yelling all the time at the kids, because all he remembers now is that he’s angry about something.

DBH: There’s an elegiac, not a polemical, tone in the book—it’s neither satire nor savage commentary, that is, but it’s definitely elegiac. It has a plangency to it. As you say, it’s partly your age, and you’ve mentioned going back to Wordsworth and Keats. We think of the Romantics as writing young men’s poetry, but the truth is it’s also the poetry of reflective middle age. As you begin to grow old, you go back to it, and it has a completely different meaning for you now. And I too have been reading reams of Wordsworth and Keats in recent years, and both German and English Romanticism more and more, which I used to keep a certain distance from, to be honest, because I was corrupted by T. S. Eliot when I was young. And I shouldn’t have been, because his critical essays say some incredibly stupid things about poets who aren’t either Metaphysicals or Moderns.

MR: I think that’s right, and, you know, how could Keats write poems of reflective middle age? Well, partly because European civilization was in its reflective middle age at that time, and it’s now—

DBH: —in its gibbering senescence. In fact, my image of it now is the old man standing on his porch yelling all the time at the kids, because all he remembers now is that he’s angry about something.

MR: Well, perhaps that provides a segue to my first question for you. I have, I think, identified three themes that are common to your latest work, Roland in Moonlight, You Are Gods, That All Shall Be Saved, and Tradition and Apocalypse. I would identify them as your preoccupations, and I wonder what you think or have to say about it. In descending order of complexity: first, the idea that thou art that, or that Atman is Brahman, which I take it for you is simply a way of expressing in a different conceptual grammar the proposition that “you are gods.” Second, the idea that it is logically impossible for persons ultimately to reject God, so far as it is constitutive of the rational will to seek him as its ultimate end. And third, how shall I put it? The increasing divergence between what Frederick Douglass called the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ. Which is to say, if you were a Martian, and you came down to the United States and you wanted to deduce from the statements and behavior of its adherents, without access to the scriptures, what Christianity was, what the gospels taught, I think you would have to conclude that Jesus spent most of his time denouncing homosexuality, insisting on the inviolability of gender, counseling the acquisition of wealth, and railing against immigrants.

DBH: You’ve left out guns. It’s a curious thing, of course. Let’s start there, then, rather than with the more metaphysically abstruse issues. So, every age of Christendom has been something of a jarring contradiction to the language of Christianity, as preserved in Scripture and liturgy; but I honestly believe that America uniquely is the land where Christianity went to die, and that the proof that it died here is that it could be so easily supplanted by a completely different religion called “Christianity,” and yet no one noticed the absurdity of it.

MR: Frederick Douglass noticed. John Brown noticed.

DBH: No, right, I mean right now. I don’t mean that no one ever noticed, or that there are no Christians here. I always get attacked for this—“He’s saying there are no American Christians.” No, there’s no American Christianity. The Christians that are here, the ones who are still practicing actual Christianity, have their Christianity from elsewhere. But I mean what’s native to America, the American religion, to use Harold Bloom’s phrase—and he was actually quite good on that. He didn’t get all of it right, but he was right in recognizing that the American Evangelical religion is simply not the thing called Christianity, either faithfully or unfaithfully, throughout Christian history.

If you were to go online and look at the sermons of, say, someone like Reverend Jeffress, one of the most popular Evangelical figures today, assuming you were that Martian you mentioned, and you took him as your guide to Christianity, and you listened faithfully to his sermons over a course of many months, you would come away believing that Christianity is a religion of salvation, freely given no matter what; but then otherwise it’s a creed about patriotism, about libertarian rights—mostly gun ownership, private property—and a rather militant distaste for Muslims (which slips out from time to time), and generally the virtues of great wealth and military power. And that would be the whole religion. It would not be clear, either visually or from the content of what you were hearing, that the flag that’s always right there next to the lectern or the pulpit and the cross in the back—well, it would be very difficult to discern which of those was meant to be the holy symbol of the faith.

As I say, Christians have always betrayed Christianity, and they have always misunderstood it. They’ve always in a casual way assumed that it was meant to affirm whatever it was they wanted to be valued. But I don’t think that there’s ever been another culture that could so sublimely corrupt and so sublimely efface the original Gospel and replace it with something else—with a counterfeit that’s not just a dissemblance, but almost a polar opposite—in the way that American religious culture did. I don’t know what else to say about America. We’re the most religious country in the developed world, supposedly, but it’s definitely not Christianity that forms our religious consciousness.

MR: Yeah, that’s the thing. From the time of Constantinople—ahem, from the time of Constantine

DBH: The time of Constantine is, in fact, the time of Constantinople.

MR: I’m dealing with my cat as we talk. From the time of Constantine, there has been an official religion called Christianity that one would would hesitate to fully identify with the Christianity of of the Gospels. But there is something new—

DBH: At least there was a continuity. Just read some of the Church fathers who preached in Constantinople: you read John Chrysostom, for instance, and Bakunin seems like a tepid conservative. They were still very much proclaiming the Gospel of the poor. “Christians are supposed to be looking after the poor; in fact, you have no right to the wealth you possess. It is an abomination that you claim this for yourself just because you got there first.” Rhetoric of that sort. You find this language in Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and two of those were Patriarchs of Constantinople speaking to an imperial audience, as well as to the larger crowd. And right through the Middle Ages you can see that even when the values of the faith were corrupted or betrayed or somehow twisted in a way that would allow for, say, the execution of heretics, the actual knowledge of the content of the Gospel was not lost. I mean, it was still there. You know, St. Francis doesn’t have to go looking for some lost truth. He’s still using the language that he hears in the liturgy and in readings and sermons. That’s something that’s qualitatively very different from what we are talking about. It’s as if, as soon as Europeans reached these shores, there was the possibility of reinventing the faith in this utterly odd, Orphic way—antinomian in some ways, and very legalistic in others.

The Great Awakening, you know, is a very curious phenomenon, one in which a new fervency is taking shape; but you can already see within the actual religious phenomena of the time an odd movement away from the moral core of the faith. Yet even that doesn’t explain to me modern American Evangelicalism. And what I find especially curious is that it’s not just Evangelicalism we mean; there’s something about America that has the power to transform everything. Orthodoxy in America—when I converted more than thirty-five years ago, when I joined the OCA—was still immersed in a Russo-Parisian, urbane, very cosmopolitan sort of culture...I mean, Schmemann and Meyendorff and figures like that. It’s now been absolutely colonized by former Evangelicals, who didn’t actually cease being Evangelicals in order to becoming Orthodox. Instead, they brought the ethos, the narrowness, the strange legalism and aridity of Evangelicalism into Orthodoxy; and the Orthodox, not being very good at knowing what the hell is going on around them as a rule, just let them pour in. And American Catholicism, too. I mean, rad-trad Catholicism may seem to be an emanation of the culture of Franco’s Spain, and you can see its roots in the European far Right; but here it has an especially American ferocity and fundamentalist tenor about it.

We’re a special people, we’re a people apart.

MR: You probably don’t want to get into the abstruse reactionary Catholic interpretations of Thomas that you refute in You Are Gods.

DBH: Well, maybe I do. I actually didn’t want this to be a theological conversation predominantly, but I am willing to talk about that, because that’s interesting.

MR: Well, I talk about poetry all the time.

DBH: This is like, you know, Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot having dinner together. Eliot wanted to talk about Duck Soup and Groucho wanted to talk about The Waste Land. People make you talk about the things that they associate with you—although I’m going to point out that, of my published work, theology is only about 30 percent.

MR: I know, and Roland in Moonlight is a good entry point to some other issues I want to discuss. But I do want to say that I just reread Perry Miller on Jonathan Edwards, and I know that we’re not to take Miller’s account without a grain of salt, but it is just a masterful account of the milieu in which these ideas had their germination that we’ve been discussing. One of his great points is that the opponents of Edwards were as motivated as they were by anything by the desire to consolidate their business and land holdings.

DBH: This is true, and it’s always been the case. I mean, it’s the reason, you know, neither Gregory nor John stayed in the patriarchal see of Constantinople very long; it’s not a new phenomenon. There comes a point where even a Byzantine princess says, “Is he talking about me? I think I just realized he’s talking about me.”

MR: Yeah, the history of the meddlesome priests. By the way, partly out of a cheeky desire to nettle you, I try as often as possible to point out your resemblance to certain aspects of the thought of Karl Barth. Obviously not American, but as recently as Barth, we hear again and again an emphasis on “the striking breaches of the contemporary (and not only the contemporary) industrial and commercial and economic order.” He’s talking about the Gospel, obviously, and he says, again, “Above all we must take up again the question of [Jesus’] relationship to the economic order and how he radically calls it in question.” That’s just gone out the window.

DBH: Oh, well, I mean the curious thing, of course, is that Christian socialism was the default position of the more orthodox wings of Christian thought for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ve been attacked for talking about Christian socialism by people in this country, like the Pakaluks, who—never mind, I’m trying to avoid personal abuse, especially when it involves fish in barrels. Literally, though, one of them wrote, “No Christian can be a socialist.” It’s a good thing that Jesus was a Jew, because he’d have been kicked out of the Church, apparently.

MR: Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton—how many people have said that in order to be a Christian, you have to be a socialist, or in fact a communist?

DBH: C.S. Lewis said it, for God’s sake. These people, you know, Americans who think they understand the Inklings...I’ve actually had someone, I won’t say who—let’s just say he was a younger fellow at the architectural school at Notre Dame—who was shocked when I mentioned the somewhat radical politics of Tolkien and Lewis. Fellows like that love the Inklings, but they don’t seem to understand, you know, that Tolkien was radically anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist. He praised people who wanted to blow up power plants for destroying the environment, thought that if you cut down trees you probably go to hell, described himself as an anarchist-monarchist—meaning he wanted a king, but with absolutely no power. He wanted a purely symbolic government that was powerless, so that otherwise society would function as a kind of radical subsidiarity. If you were actually to play that out, his politics seem pretty close to Kropotkin’s. And then C. S. Lewis just came out and said, you know, a Christian social order would be a socialist one. On politics, he would criticize both sides of government, but it’s well known that he he was very much in favor of the postwar British settlement that created the National Health Service, that provided milk subsidies, free glasses, and dentistry for children; he was on board with that as being a deep expression of an established Christian nation’s conscience. And he’s in a long tradition there. You know, Charles Gore, the greatest Anglo-Catholic theologian of the turn of the century, and all the other Christian socialists at that time, they were basically in the mainstream of Christian social thought. It’s that British Christian socialist tradition that probably had the greatest influence on me. But it never even occurred to me that this could possibly be controversial, at least in terms of the claim that it is grounded in Christian principles. That just seems so starkly obvious. And of course, it doesn’t even fit within the the normal spectrum of what we in America call conservative or liberal. Ruskin, who was sort of the father of it in many ways, was also a Tory and a Royalist. R. H. Tawney, probably the greatest economic mind of that tradition in Britain, said that in many ways he was conservative; he wanted to conserve things that were small and fragile, and conserve community by looking after the least of these, remembering that we’re all one family.

Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton—how many people have said that in order to be a Christian, you have to be a socialist, or in fact a communist?

MR: Yeah. Well, that tradition can and does veer into a kind of eco-fascism.

DBH: Oh, yeah, sure, if it becomes a matter of preserving the fragile and the local by denying the universal; but none of them was guilty of that, and certainly not Tawney. There’s a person who would do everything he could—who fought—to see refugees welcomed into British society and protected. But this is always the danger, right? I mean socialism can be, in fact, so detached from our notion of right and left that it can be appropriated, obviously, as we know, by nationalist movements and eco-fascist movements.

MR: All this is why I rest on the anarcho-communist left, what Lenin denounced as the infantile disorder of left communism. But we should move on. I do want to mention Blake, whom we were talking about the other day, for whom the one worshipped by the names divine of Jesus and Jehovah is Satan. Obviously, you know, as a metaphor here.

DBH: Well, you know, truly, Satan, thou art but a dunce.

MR: But I said to someone just recently, you know, if the 80 percent of evangelicals—I’m sorry, 80 percent of white Evangelicals—

DBH: That’s another thing about American Christianity. It’s the most segregated version of Christianity in the world.

MR: If the 80 percent of white Evangelicals who voted for Trump in the last, I think the last two elections—if they are Christians, then I must be a Satanist.

DBH: I would hesitate there, however. Don’t go saying that too much. Someone might be listening. He’ll try to convince you that well, you might as well go all in—in for a penny, in for a pound.

MR: Yeah, well, I listen to a lot of black metal, so I’m inured to Satanism.

DBH: And I listen to too much Wagner.

MR: Let’s talk about Blake. I don’t remember who it was who said if William Blake was a Christian, no other man ever was. And that was not intended to impugn his Christianity, but to express what Kierkegaard called the difficulty of being a Christian in Christendom.

DBH: No, I think Blake was very much, obviously, an idiosyncratic Christian, and he’s been appropriated also—I knew Harold Bloom, by the way—

MR: Yeah, I noticed you’re cited in his last books a few times.

DBH: Yeah, right, he mentions me a few times. That’s the fruit of the conversations we had about the New Testament. He was actually quite pleased to learn that the Apostle Paul really was not opposed to works of love as the way of sanctification. And there are other things about my translation of the New Testament he liked. Obviously it would appeal to him, because I keep bringing out all the archons and powers on high, and pointing out that Second Temple Judaism’s angelology is crucial to understanding certain passages. But one of the last conversations we had was about Blake. And he asked at one point, “Do you think Blake would be closer to a Christian of the first century? He was concerned for the poor, he cared about little children, he had a fierce sense of justice. He denounced any religion that is the religion of powerful and the hypocritical.” Bloom was very interested in this question, because, of course, Blake was part of his, you know, his Gnostic pantheon for years and years. And in the conversations we had at the end, he was more and more open to thinking that maybe, actually, there was an aboriginal Christianity that he had misunderstood. He was very open-minded, I have to say, for a guy who published these gigantic books making huge claims all the time; he didn’t seem to have any problem saying, “Oh, I may have been wrong about that.”

MR: You know, he was important to me as a young man. He became progressively less so over time, and then I found myself by the end absolutely opposed to to his thought.

DBH: He did help free me from the spell of T. S. Eliot, from the critical writings. He was the one who, when I was young, made me go back to the Romantics and see that there was a lot of absurdity in Eliot.

MR: Yeah, I took the opposite course. I began in the Romantics with Bloom, migrated to Eliot and the Metaphysicals, and then rejected both Bloom and Eliot. They’re both so annoying. But I held on to the poets. I’ve come back to the Romantics after a long time away, partly because my friend Anahid Nersessian recently published a tremendous book, Keats’s Odes, and made me revisit a poet whom I hadn’t thought about in twenty years.

But I wanted to say that Bloom wrote in some ways a very bad book called The Shadow of a Great Rock. It’s great as a commonplace book of passages from the King James, comparing them to Geneva and to Tyndale. His generalizations are as sweeping as ever. But he gives really short shrift to the New Testament—and he’s a Gnostic Jew, you know, who can blame him. But he simply has no patience for Paul, he basically accepts Nietzsche’s view of Paul. He doesn’t seem to have read even E. P. Sanders.

DBH: That’s what I mean, that’s what I found interesting about these last conversations. He got in touch with me after he’d read the New Testament translation to talk about just that. The last time we corresponded was the night he died, actually, or the night before; I don’t know if he died the next morning. But he had read That All Shall Be Saved. I couldn’t believe it; I mean, why would that be of interest to him? He said he found it very moving, but he did not agree with it. Well, why would you agree, why would you have any opinion? You know, you don’t have to say what is or is not plausible within the context of Christianity. And I was really fascinated by that. I wanted to know what he thought, but then he said, I’m not feeling well today, so we will have to revisit it in future.

MR: And, well, if you were right, then you can talk to him about it at some point.

DBH: That’s true. In fact, I fully expect that.

MR: But Bloom’s lack of concern about the Christian afterlife brings me to a very broad thing that I wanted to say. I wonder if there is a tension between the claims of the Christian faith and the broader theistic tradition, say, of Brahman or of the One, or what have you. And it hinges of course on the person of Christ. You’ve been accused of pantheism. You’ve been accused of not even being a Christian of late by various—

DBH: Yeah, I know. What I think most funny is when it comes from Evangelicals, because I’m always wondering exactly where they are getting their doctrinal authority from. Because if they think what they believe could just be taken from fact, where are they getting their authority for believing that Scripture is revelation?

MR: And people have said similar things to me, and my response is always: that’s fine. I’m happy not to be a Christian, you know, I’ll just be a follower of the Way. But there is a sticking point, where I hit a kind of apophatic wall, which is that if, as I’ve certainly confessed many times in my life, Yeshua of Nazareth was God, then it becomes difficult to square the truth claims of Christianity with those of, say, Islam or Judaism or Hinduism, which I do believe are no less valid.

DBH: We’re now getting into territory that can easily become a three-hour disquisition on on all sorts of things. I have also of late tried to convince people that the concept of “religions,” in the plural, is a modern anthropological concept that would not have been intelligible in either antiquity or the Middle Ages. Even in Thomas Aquinas religio is a singular, it’s a virtue that everyone practices; we’re all involved in the same practice, with obviously varying degrees of knowledge and varying degrees of a hope of salvation. So the first thing you have to do is step back from the modern context in which we’ve created this artificial category, you know. What would have been called cultus in the past have become something like separate propositional systems.

MR: So let me just see if I’ve got this right. So the idea of “the one true faith” would not even be legible in the earlier conceptual grammar.

DBH: “One true religion” wouldn’t have been, and even “one true faith” would have been problematic. Better to say faith with greater or lesser degrees of illumination. And not always in a purely consistent way. For Thomas Aquinas it’s clear that on certain aspects of the doctrine of God a Muslim like Ibn Sina might have got things right more than any of his contemporaries in the Christian world, and he has no problem saying this. You know, go and read Nicholas of Cusa on the true faith, and see what you discover; and read that alongside his Cribratio Alkorani, in which he’s trying to discover how much revealed truth or wisdom and spiritual nourishment can be found in the Qur’an for Christians.

MR: Let me just point out that you have a chapter on Nicholas in You Are Gods.

DBH: Well, Nicholas is very important for me in a number of ways. There it’s because he’s a phenomenological genius regarding the nature of rational desire, and why its only end can be infinite.

But you mentioned pantheism, which is one of those meaningless words, really, because you can interpret it in any way.

MR: Jonathan Edwards was accused of the same. I’m just bringing all my Protestant heroes into this conversation.

DBH: Well, the problem with Jonathan Edwards is he’s a metaphysical genius, but he preached a really abysmal faith; there you want to free his metaphysics—

MR: We’ll stipulate that the Calvinist doctrine is barbaric in several respects.

DBH: Too many people remember him only as the preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but the metaphysical system is extraordinary. It has traces of Cambridge Platonism in it, but not, it seems, through direct acquaintance; and Gregory of Nyssa, but I don’t know how—

MR: There’s no way he read Gregory of Nyssa, but he’s there. And he got it from John Locke, as far as I can tell!

DBH: This is one of those curious facts of history. And he was, of course, a native genius. I mean, you just have to accept the fact that he just had a brilliant mind.

But anyway, there are ways of talking about the uniqueness of Jesus that make it a kind of catastrophic uniqueness. That’s my problem with the early Barth, the dialectical period, especially the first edition of Der Römerbrief. There the uniqueness is so catastrophic that it doesn’t have any analogical continuity in nature, history, or anything else. It’s incoherent, it’s philosophically meaningless, for reasons that you can extrapolate from those places in You Are Gods where I’m talking to Thomists about their understanding of nature and supernature. That is, you could from that extrapolate many of the same conclusions regarding the way grace and nature are configured in the Reformed tradition and in Barth’s early period, and through much of his work. And there’s a whole school now that seems to have sprung out of Boston College of these young guys calling themselves Neo-Chalcedoninians; some very, very intelligent and gifted scholars, among them a fellow named Jordan Wood who’s a very fine Maximus scholar. But the actual system, to my mind, is just as philosophically incoherent, again because there’s this catastrophic uniqueness to the hypostasization of Christ. Anyway, the problems with it philosophically are so insurmountable, and theologically too, that it’s simply a dead end as a project.

It also comes with a sort of rejection of the analogical. You mentioned Brahman-Atman. Obviously, the sort of monism to which I’m drawn is a metaphysical monism of a more Neoplatonic or Vedantic sort; so let’s talk about that. What’s it saying? Thou art that. Not, that is, that your finite psychological personality is God; in fact, that’s explicitly denied. What it says is that within you dwells, at the ground of your ability to be a person at all, sakshin, the perfect subject, but one who acts as well, who is atman, which literally means, like all words for spirit, “breath,” “the wind.” Like pneuma and pnoe in Greek, or neshama, nephesh, ruach in the Hebrew. And we’re told that God’s neshama, his breath or spirit, is what brings life to to Adam, right? Well, let’s say on the one hand, then, that it’s true that, not in our empirical ego, not in our subjective psychology, but at the ground of our beings is that atman, that neshama, that pneuma breathed into us by God—that spark, the Fünklein of Meister Eckhart—and that to varying degrees the individual empirical selves that we are are transparent to or opaque to that ground. A holy person, a sannyasin or someone who is a saint, is someone in whom that divine image shines forth with peculiar clarity, right? Well, if there’s one—let’s say just one for now—person in whom that transparency is so perfect that there is nothing between the self—the psychological personality, the finite empirical subject, the human being, the human nature—and that divine ground, then that’s God incarnate. But what’s interesting about that is, on the one hand, it’s unique; but it’s a uniqueness of degree, because it’s also universal in its embrace, for what’s true of him is true of us in nuce or in imperfect form. And that’s why, you know, most of Christian doctrinal history has encompassed the notion that the purpose of the incarnation is the deification of human beings. Maximus actually speaks, just like Gregory of Nazianzus before him, of our becoming the equals of God, equals of Christ, and even becoming uncreated. So the very uniqueness of Christ becomes also the universal truth, the universal destiny of human beings. Well, if you start from that as your understanding of Christology, and you accept an analogical ontology—one that doesn’t involve this catastrophist notion that in order to affirm the uniqueness of Christ you have to say that in Christ absolute contraries are united in some way, which somehow the dynamism of personality has the power to confect, and that this also determines who God is, and God becomes who he is, and his determination towards the man Jesus, and all this other rubbish from twentieth-century Lutheran thought and other sources—and instead you realize that what’s really splendid and magnificent about this more original understanding of deification is that God’s incarnation in Christ is also going on in everyone, everywhere, at all times, then that seems naturally to lead to a sort of universalization of the claims you can make for the faith. The beliefs of all the traditions as imperfect but nonetheless real participations in this union of creatures and God.

God’s incarnation in Christ is also going on in everyone, everywhere, at all times.

MR: There’s the formulation that’s always cited, it’s in Irenaeus, but I don’t know if he was the first to formulate it, that the patristic tradition is concerned to show that God became a human so that humans could become God.

DBH: Well, in fact, all of Christian doctrinal history—during, that is, what the Orthodox would consider the conciliar period, which ends with the Seventh Council—is premised entirely on that. That is the ground of all Christian doctrine. Again, I’ve been attacked for pointing out what is simply historical fact about the Council of Nicaea: that the Nicene doctrine was arrived at not based on a long dogmatic tradition, which made its theology obviously more authoritative than the theology of those it was struggling against. Quite the opposite, in fact. At least, it was much more a creative and hermeneutical retrieval of the past and also a synthesis. But what gave it its strength was that it was the only adequate way of expressing a Trinitarian theology—and then a Christology, in the following councils—that answered the aporias of the Arians, or the Eunomians, and then in time the various Christological factions or parties who were struggling with one another and against Nicaea. This was what carried the day—it’s only God who could join us to God.

MR: You bring that out very well in in Tradition and Apocalypse, that there’s no way you can get to Nicaea directly from the New Testament. You do need that hermeneutical work.

DBH: The word homoousios isn’t in the New Testament, but it is a brilliant theoretical formula for trying to express something that comes to the fore in say John chapter 20 or in other places in the New Testament; and it’s also part of the logic of the notion that in Christ humanity is really joined to God, not just to an intermediary.

MR: And I want to emphasize that when you speak of traditions as imperfect reflections, you include Christianity itself as also an imperfect reflection. You’re not doing the Catholic thing where you say, well, Christ participates mysteriously in other faiths.

DBH: No, quite the opposite. I’m saying absolutely nothing of the sort. I am saying that doctrinal claims about Christ are not exclusive claims in the way that they’re understood to be. Whether I fully understand them in the way that I’m expected to understand them is a different question, to be discussed sub rosa rather than in a public forum like this, for the simple reason that anything I would say without taking the time to sit down and write it down very carefully—well, actually, that doesn’t work either. I’d still get attacked for that. So I guess I might as well say anything. Hail Athena.

MR: I have been accused of practicing “cafeteria Christianity,” you know, picking and choosing.

DBH: Who doesn’t?

MR: The truth is that there is no other way of practicing any faith.

DBH: There are radical-traditional Catholics who like to say of their less rigorist kith, oh, this is cafeteria Catholicism. But these are the same people who largely reject Vatican II. They refuse to accept the authority of the current Pope on matters of teaching and discipline, which is an inalienable appanage of the papacy according to Catholic doctrine. Not only are they cafeteria Catholics, they’re cafeteria Catholics who insist on just going to the 1950s-style automat that hasn’t been closed down for some reason at the edge of town, where you can still get four-day-old sandwiches wrapped in plastic for a nickel. They’re the most ridiculous kinds of cafeteria Catholics.

MR: Ah, the analogia sandwichi.

DBH: I want to ask you, though, to shift back to where we began, because I am actually curious about this, are you still, I mean right now, writing in voce from Walkman?

MR: No, though in this case it’s not a question of being bored but of feeling like I did what I wanted to do in that form, and were I to continue, I would worry that I’m just producing facsimile poems, which is something you see—I’ll just name names—John Ashbery, Charles Simic, Robert Creeley, after a while they’re not writing new poems, they’re writing John Ashbery poems, Charles Simic poems.

DBH: Ashbery would be my top example of that. After a while you kind of wish he had gone through epochal shifts.

MR: He went through that one shift where he read James Tate, and started being even sillier. So I don’t want to start doing that; no one seems able to recognize when they’re doing it.

DBH: Well, Yeats did. Yeats reinvented himself twice, and he just kept getting better, you know. He starts as a sort of Pre-Raphaelite lyricist, and sure, it’s beautiful, I love all the early stuff, I can recite reams of the early Yeats, because I just love pretty things, I’m just a fancy kind of guy in that regard. And the middle Yeats has a kind of rich austerity to it. Then the late Yeats—you know, I love that sort of hermetic intensity, and the density of the lines, though I’m not asking you what your opinion of it is.

MR: Oh, no, you know, “The woods of Arcady are dead, / And gone is their antique joy”—this is all from memory, from when I was fifteen or sixteen, “Of old the world on dreaming fed; / And truth is now her painted toy.” I think I got a couple of words wrong, but that’s the first poem in the collected poems. I started there, because why not start at the beginning, and you think, okay, I know what this is, you know, even as a sixteen-year-old, this is some pretty poetry about nature, about Irish myth, and then all of a sudden we’re consulting spirits, and by the end we have this sort of world-weary, almost cynical—I love all of it. Each of his periods has its splendors, but probably my favorite Yeats is the Yeats of “Easter, 1916,” right around there, but the last poems, “Lapis Lazuli,” “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”—

DBH: “A terrible beauty is born”: you know, that iambic trimeter pace and the repetition—“Wherever green is worn / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born”—that actually in some ways came to mind when I was reading Walkman, because you too—well, it’s not as strict a meter, but the cadences are kind of trimetric in places—it does have that kind of flow. Maybe it’s just because it looks like that on the page.

MR: No, no, actually, I teach “Easter 1916” every semester, and one thing I always ask is, what meter is this, and it’s very easy to realize that it is trimeter, but it’s not so easy to identify accentually what it is, it’s not precisely iambic, it varies in a way you don’t notice when you read it aloud. It seems perfectly metrical, but once you start listening to where the accents are falling, it’s kind of all over the place but in a really tight, beautiful way, and I spent a lot of time wondering how he achieved that effect. Auden did it too, but only because Auden copied Yeats in that respect. If you read, you know, “September 1, 1939,” it’s just the loose iambic trimeter of “Easter 1916,” or his elegy for Yeats, he also achieves a metrical effect without quite strictly following an accentual pattern.

DBH: That’s true in the first parts of the poem. At the end of course it gets very strict, right? “Follow poet, follow right / To the bottom of the night”; “In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start. / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.”

MR: Well, there he’s imitating a different Yeats. What always irritated me is the best quatrains of that last part are the ones he excised later, after

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

DBH: I love this, of course, and all the stuff about Kipling and Paul Claudel.

MR: Right—

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

DBH: I had a wonderful vacation in Ireland recently. I found that when I was there, in the Ring of Kerry, the early Yeats was irresistible; because as I say I could recite lots of Yeats, and I always loved “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” and I was driving my son mad, and I was reading out “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea,” which I love just for the last lines, “And fought with the invulnerable tide”—such a nice perfectly metrical ending. And then he started reading the early Yeats.

I think my favorite of the late stuff, if it’s not “Lapis Lazuli,” is probably “Among School Children.”

MR: “Among School Children” is marvelous, “A sixty-year-old smiling public man.” “An aged man is but a paltry thing,” as he says elsewhere. The poetry of the youth and the poetry of the paltry thing are in beautiful tension with each other in Yeats, because it’s easy as a young person to dream of plucking till time and times are done the silver apples of the moon. But when you’re walking among the school children as an older man, you’re realizing that you will never pluck the silver apples of the moon. It’s one thing to dream romantically as a youth, and it’s another thing—this goes back to what I was talking about at the very beginning—it’s another thing in middle age or late middle age to regret that that’s only a fantastical vision.

DBH: But another truth is that you can; and I think Yeats did. I think you can recover something of it, reflectively. As I said, it’s in “Among School Children,” “Labour is blossoming or dancing where / The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, / Nor beauty born out of its own despair”—and of course then the “great rooted blossomer”—

MR: Well, as I put it in Alien vs. Predator, “How can we know the anteater from the ants?”

DBH: Yes, that’s the Michael Robbins of old. That’s the voice that conquered the hearts of millions. Though it’s blasphemy, of course.

MR: Well, there you see also the influence of the Pink Panther cartoons. But, yeah, that question, How can we know the dancer from the dance?—now I’m reaching the limits of my ability to express what I mean, but there’s a sort of romantic yearning for fairyland, I guess, silver apples of the moon, and I think that’s instinctive, as a quasi-Neoplatonist, I guess I think that might be something that we are imbued with. And then there’s a kind of falling away and a disappointment that this is instead what we have, that we will never actually reach the consummation. But the dancer and the dance are an expression of the unity, one might call it even pantheistic, of the medium and the subject—

DBH: Well, I think it inverts the impulses of youth.

MR: Yeah, that’s what I mean.

DBH: Because in youth you want that immediacy, you want to merge with, be part of the pulse of life, and with everything. All is vitality. And then you get older and, from a different vantage, there’s a release. Now it seems that an actual, real merging means you’re letting go—

MR: Yeah, the youth wants to retain the fire of who he or she is, the youth wants to be a psychological individual frolicking in fairyland, and the old person has to sort of realize that becoming fairyland is the best one can do.

DBH: Right, but it’s autumn now, it’s not all the new growth of spring. It’s time to understand that what that merging entails, ultimately, is the disappearance of the self that wants to merge with the all.

MR: “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too”—someone whom, of course, Yeats read quite closely. Even if he pokes him a few times.

DBH: Oh dear!

MR: Perhaps this is a good place to close.

DBH: Yeah, it is. You’re making me feel old.

‘There Will Be Surprises’

ROME – August is really no time to be in the Eternal City. With temperatures in the upper nineties and the Mediterranean sun scorching the cobblestones for more than thirteen hours a day, most Italians have the good sense to simply stay away until September. Pope Francis, however, has other considerations. On August 27, during the weekend when most Romans are enjoying a gran finale at the beach or in the Alps somewhere, the pontiff instead held a consistory in St. Peter’s Basilica for the creation of twenty new cardinals, including San Diego’s bishop, Robert McElroy. What’s more, on August 29 and 30, Francis is hosting meetings with nearly two hundred of the world’s cardinals, for discussions about his recent reorganization of the Vatican’s central bureaucracy. It’s the first time he has convoked the entire College of Cardinals since 2015.

This rare event comes as the pope has been seen using a wheelchair in recent months because of persistent knee pain, and there is speculation in some quarters—especially quarters unhappy with Francis’s nearly ten-year papacy—that he is setting up a sort of “end game” for his time as bishop of Rome: call the cardinals to Rome, add some preferred voices to their ranks, and prepare the stage for the election of the next guy. But Francis doesn’t appear to have anything like that in mind. Instead, he seems to be encouraging a style of dialogical leadership, in the mold of his unprecedented, two-year global process for the upcoming Synod of Bishops, which will culminate in a month-long meeting in Rome in October 2023.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s peace and justice office, had a one-word answer when asked in a recent phone interview what he is expecting from the next months of Francis’s papacy: “synod.” “The synod, in a truly inspiring way, is the carry-out, is the follow-through, is the huge next step in the whole papacy,” said Czerny, who is also the prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

For his part, McElroy said on August 26 that he believes the objective of the synodal process “is to change the culture of the Church in a lasting way.” “That would be my overarching belief in what is truly important in what is going on in the life of the Church in this moment,” McElroy said in an interview at the Pontifical North American College, the day before he was formally made a cardinal by Francis.

McElroy said the outcome of the process, which has already involved hundreds of thousands of consultation meetings globally at the diocesan level, “is not pre-determined.”

“We don’t know exactly where this is going to lead us,” said McElroy. “We just know that being the type of Church we’re called to be in synodality leads us to be a more Gospel-oriented, more Christ-oriented Church.”

“There will be surprises, not just from this pope, but from where God leads us all in this process,” he said.

The formal agenda of the unusual meeting this week among the cardinals and pope is to discuss Praedicate evangelium, the apostolic constitution Francis signed in March to reorganize the Roman Curia. One major innovation of that document is its declaration that “any member of the faithful”—including laypeople—can lead a Vatican office. It also makes clear that evangelization is the key goal of the whole Vatican structure. In its listing of the Vatican’s sixteen primary offices, known as “dicasteries,” first on the list is the newly constructed Dicastery for Evangelization, not the once seemingly all-powerful Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“There will be surprises, not just from this pope, but from where God leads us all in this process.”

Although the constitution, and this week’s meeting, do not formally deal with the synod process, both Czerny and McElroy described the intention of the gathering in ways that mirror how Francis has spoken about the synod. Priority is given to bringing together a diverse set of voices, listening to what everyone has to say, and adapting to the realities experienced by the Church on the ground in various places around the globe.

Czerny described a two-part process: hearing from the global cardinals about their hopes for the Vatican reforms, but also helping them think through how they might echo those reforms back home. “While Praedicate evangelium is primarily directed to the reform of the Roman Curia, it’s not exclusively so,” said Czerny. “There’s a very strong ‘knock-on effect.’ In other words, somebody who comes from an archdiocese somewhere and sees how the Curia is expected to be reformed and is reforming, what lessons are there for him? What light does that shed on how you run an archdiocesan Curia or a diocesan Curia or a bishops’ conference?”

McElroy summarized the major goal of the new apostolic constitution as trying to stress the “missionary identity” of the entire global Church. He said he sees the “primary opportunity” for the Rome meeting as the “integration of the principles of the document into the wider life of the Church.” “The meetings with the cardinals…will be the act of integrating this new orientation, or this thrust of missionary discipleship, into the very workings of relationship between the Curia and the local dioceses and churches,” he told me. “That’s not something that can be designed or decided here in Rome alone. That’s something that has to be collaborative…and it seems to me this could be a fruitful beginning of co-participation on the integration of those principles.”

The group meeting with Francis on August 29 and 30 will be one of the most diverse ever convoked at the Vatican. The pope has made a priority of appointing cardinals from far-off places, including those that have never before had representation in the College of Cardinals. Among those Francis has just made cardinals is Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad, India—a member of the Dalit community (formerly known as the “untouchables” within the Hindu caste system)—and apostolic prefect Giorgio Marengo, who leads the Catholic Church’s presence in Mongolia, representing about a thousand Catholics in a country of some 3.3 million. Also included was South Korean Archbishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, the new head of the Vatican’s clergy office, and Virgílio Do Carmo Da Silva, the archbishop of Dili, East Timor.


Of course, there is still one major group that won’t be represented in the meeting: women. Paola Lazzarini, president of the group Donne per la Chiesa (“Women for the Church”), which seeks better inclusion for women in Church leadership, said in an interview that she is not “particularly impressed” with the purpose of the gathering. “From my point of view, it is rather disappointing that the reform of the Curia would be discussed only among cardinals, especially when the reform has as among its novelties the opening up of positions of responsibility to laymen and laywomen,” Lazzarini told me. “At the moment it is really difficult to understand if a significant change is taking place.”

Lucetta Scaraffia, the former editor of Donne Chiesa Mondo (“Women Church World”), a monthly women’s magazine insert in the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper, said that she, too, was disappointed. She said that while it is a “good thing” that the pope’s reform opens up the possibility of appointing women to positions of leadership at the Vatican, she suspects any women who are chosen will be selected “for their known obedience” toward male hierarchs.

Czerny praised the pope for appointing cardinals from a variety of places around the world, and said Francis wants “to reflect the real Church as it really is.” But Czerny also acknowledged that “there are many other aspects of the Church that don’t get reflected in the naming of cardinals, beginning with the women members of the Church.”

When I asked McElroy about the lack of women in the room for the meeting among the cardinals and pope, he pointed to the effect that the 2021–23 synod process is already having on the Church. The San Diego prelate, who has publicly indicated he is in favor of ordaining women as deacons, said he has read about a dozen of the synod reports released by various dioceses in the United States, from a range of places. “What was said was more or less the same in every place,” McElroy told me. “One of the major themes was inclusion. LGBT inclusion, and, very predominantly, the inclusion of women. I think the synodal moment hopefully will be one in which we wrestle with that in much greater depth. I think that will have to be an outcome of this process.”

Making Pregnancy Safer

In the weeks since the Supreme Court’s momentous ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, much of the news coverage has focused on the relative safety of abortion versus pregnancy. A New Yorker article announced that “pregnancy is more than thirty times more dangerous than abortion.” The Huffington Post published the prediction that “in 2022 alone, the Supreme Court’s decision will directly cause the deaths of hundreds of people as their bodies are used by the state against their will. Abortion is significantly safer than pregnancy—period.” On Twitter, the actor Halle Berry declared that “[t]he treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is an abortion. The treatment for a septic uterus is abortion. The treatment for a miscarriage that your body won’t release is abortion. If you can’t get those abortions, you die. You. Die.”

Some of these claims may be disputable or misleading, but they’re all rooted in a concern for maternal mortality. The Dobbs decision has sparked a long-overdue reckoning with the abysmal state of maternal health in the United States. It’s no secret that we have the highest maternal-mortality rate among developed nations. According to the Pew Trust, “[p]regnancy-related deaths among American women have risen markedly over the past 30 years, despite an overall downward trend worldwide.” Between 2000 and 2017, UNICEF reported that the United States averaged roughly nineteen maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. During the same time period, Chile, Ireland, and Poland—all countries where elective abortion was illegal at the time—averaged, respectively, thirteen, six, and two deaths per 100,000. Canada, where there are fewer restrictions on abortion than in the United States, averaged ten deaths per 100,000, while the United Kingdom averaged eight, and Australia averaged six.

More recent data suggests that the high maternal-mortality rate in the United States has not declined. According to the CDC’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System, the maternal-mortality rate rose 140 percent between 1987 and 2018—from 7.2 to 17.3. The agency’s National Vital Statistics System reports that in 2020 the maternal mortality in the United States climbed to 23.8 deaths per 100,000. Meanwhile, the rate in other industrialized countries has either remained stable or declined.

Given this context, it is understandable that many people have expressed concern about how Dobbs could affect women’s health. Will a shift in medical practice endanger pregnant mothers and further widen the maternal-mortality gap between the United States and other developed nations? Will outcomes for white women and women of color continue to diverge? In recent weeks, stories about delayed care of pregnant women facing medical emergencies and a lack of access to life-saving intervention have been all over the press, and there is increasing anxiety about what may now happen to women who experience miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, or other serious medical complications. Many insist these undeniably agonizing cases are direct evidence that unrestricted access to elective abortion is essential for safeguarding women’s health. But this poses a false dichotomy: either maintain one of the most permissive abortion regimes in the world or condemn mothers to die from medical complications of pregnancy. This argument distracts from what is otherwise a critical conversation about maternal health, and from legitimate concerns about how new abortion restrictions are being implemented, and how they are being interpreted or misinterpreted by doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies in an already overwhelmed health-care system.

This poses a false dichotomy: either maintain one of the most permissive abortion regimes in the world or condemn mothers to die from medical complications of pregnancy.

Such conversations must start with important distinctions in terminology. Some diversity of opinion exists among Catholic bioethicists and medical professionals about how to talk about abortions and other medical interventions that are performed to treat conditions like septic uterus, ruptured membranes, and ectopic pregnancies. In a clinical context the term “abortion” refers to any pregnancy loss that occurs before twenty weeks. Within this broad category, we can identify three distinct “types” of pregnancy loss. The first is a “spontaneous abortion,” or the death of a fetus in utero before twenty weeks’ gestation, more commonly called a miscarriage (a death after that is called a stillbirth). The second is what bioethicists have long referred to as an “indirect abortion”: any procedure that ends a pregnancy but does not have as its aim the death of the unborn child. This includes all procedures intended to preserve the life of the mother—procedures that ought to have been performed in nearly all the cases that have recently made headlines. Finally, there is “elective abortion,” which directly intends the death of a living fetus or embryo. Most of the estimated 50 to 66 million abortions that have been performed in the United States since 1973 have been elective abortions. And it is this third type of abortion that new laws are intended to restrict.

Obfuscation of these essential distinctions is evident on both sides of this issue. On the one hand, many abortion-rights advocates seek to expand public funding of elective abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, claiming that anything less puts women’s lives in jeopardy. Never mind that every law currently in effect, including Texas’s “Heartbeat law” (see section 170A.002), makes it clear that physicians are not only allowed but expected to intervene to save the life of the mother even if this intervention requires the termination of her pregnancy by means of an indirect abortion. On the other hand, a vocal minority of “abortion abolitionists,” such as Scott Herndon, a Republican candidate for the Idaho senate, support the elimination of all exceptions to abortion bans, even those that would save the life of the mother, as well as the criminal prosecution of women who procure abortions. These abortion abolitionists refuse to make any distinction between direct, elective abortion and indirect abortion, and their legislative proposals have provoked serious concern that, after Dobbs, we are on our way to total bans of the medical interventions necessary to save the lives of pregnant women. Pro-lifers should reject all legislation that fails to make an explicit and feasible exception for such indirect abortions. There can be no ambiguity about this.


That brings us back to the relationship between elective abortion and maternal health. Pro-choice activists insist that new restrictions on elective abortion will inevitably result in the deaths of thousands of women. Last month, a piece in the New Yorker cited a study claiming that a “hypothetical total abortion ban” would lead to a 21 percent rise in pregnancy-related deaths. In an L.A. Times op-ed published shortly after the draft leak, three social scientists argued that “losing abortion rights puts women’s lives at stake.” During a panel discussion hosted by the New York Times, Laura MacIsaac, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, claimed that “maternal mortality without the availably of abortion will absolutely go up. We’ve seen it since the beginning of time and it will continue,” without providing any evidence to back up this claim. Assertions like these are so common, and so confidently presented, that the average layperson does not dare to question them.

But is abortion really safer than pregnancy? This turns out to be a hard question to answer because of two factors: the difficulty of measuring pregnancy mortality and the difficulty of collecting accurate abortion-related data. The first difficulty is fairly straightforward: it is hard to accurately assess the rate of maternal death without a uniform definition of “maternal death.” Different organizations and reporting bodies use different definitions, depending on different criteria and covering different postnatal periods.

There are other statistical challenges. Pregnancy mortality is measured per live birth, not per pregnancy. This means that the pregnancies of women who have early miscarriages usually go uncounted. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that a third to half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Eighty percent of these miscarriages happen early in pregnancy, many before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. All of these pregnancies are excluded from the data because they do not result in live births. They show up in the statistics only if a woman dies.

This creates serious problems for accurately assessing the actual risk of pregnancy. The Elliot Institute’s Amicus Brief in the Dobbs case points out that this method of statistical accounting reduces the relevant baseline population “by excluding cases of pregnancy losses (no live birth), yet the total number of deaths still includes those maternal deaths resulting from these very same excluded—uncounted—pregnancies.” This might suggest that our maternal-mortality rate is lower than currently thought (though still higher than that of other wealthy countries that use the same standards of measurement). And that would be very good news. The fact remains, however, that the current statistical parameters make it almost impossible to offer definitive comparisons between the safety of pregnancy and the safety of abortion. Indeed, in 2004 the director of the CDC, Dr. Julie Louise Gerberding, wrote that maternal-mortality rates and abortion-mortality rates “are conceptually different and are used by the CDC for different public health purposes.” This alone should keep us from making sweeping claims about the relative safety of abortion.

The second challenge of collecting accurate abortion-related data is significantly more complex. It is really a set of challenges, rather than just one. The United States lacks universal mandatory reporting for abortions and also for medical complications and deaths related to abortion. Because of this, determining the relative safety of abortion is nearly impossible. CDC data is based on voluntary state reporting, and it is not always consistent with that of other reporting institutions. For example, the Guttmacher Institute often reports significantly higher numbers of abortion than the CDC, even though their data is also based on voluntary reporting. According to Guttmacher, several key states—including California, Maryland, and New Hampshire—don’t report abortion data at all. In other states, like New Jersey, the state health department does report abortion data, but its data is based on voluntary reporting by physicians. It is worth noting that California, Maryland, and New Jersey are among the states with the highest annual abortion rates, yet their data is not reflected in CDC reporting.

If the standards for reporting abortion itself are uneven, the standards for reporting on the health risks of abortion are downright abysmal. Only twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia require the reporting of complications from abortion. And even the states that require reporting lack enforceable penalties for abortion providers who fail to comply. This means that we do not have a reliable measure of abortion-related complications, and, without that, there can be no useful comparison between the risks of abortion and those of pregnancy.

If the standards for reporting abortion itself are uneven, the standards for reporting on the health risks of abortion are downright abysmal.

This challenge is compounded by the fact that abortion-related complications and deaths are often reported as pregnancy-related complications or deaths. In 2017 an otherwise healthy twenty-three-year-old Black woman named Keisha Atkins died of a pulmonary thromboembolism (a blood clot in the lungs) during a late-term abortion: she was twenty-four weeks pregnant at the time. (Ninety-two percent of abortions take place before the thirteenth week of gestation.) According to the medical examiner, Atkins had begun the abortion process and was at a clinic preparing for the final stage. While there, she began to experience symptoms of distress—cramping (normal during an abortion), but also shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels. She was transferred to a hospital, where she continued to have cramping, an elevated heart rate, and low blood-oxygen levels. Further testing revealed fluid in her lungs and reduced heart function. The medical examiner goes on to explain:

Due to rapid decomposition in her clinical status (requiring the placement of a breathing tube) and the concern for a significant infection, she was taken emergently to the operating room to complete the abortion procedure. During the operation, she sustained a cardiac arrest. Extensive resuscitation efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

The medical examiner notes that Atkins had a septic uterus due to the abortion procedure itself, and the autopsy “revealed a well-developed, well-nourished young woman with extensive medical intervention.” Her family went on to sue the abortion clinic and hospital, which settled for $1.26 million in May 2022. Still, Atkins’s death certificate reports her cause of death as “pulmonary thromboembolism due to pregnancy.” The CDC would not say whether her case made it into the national statistical data “because all states do not report to the CDC.” While New Mexico, Atkins’ home state, does report abortion data to the CDC, it does not report complications. Thus, even though she died during an abortion procedure, her death would be categorized as a pregnancy-related mortality, not an abortion-related mortality.

Another challenge in assessing abortion-related risk is that statistics often lump together abortions at every stage of gestation. Pregnancy is not a static physiological phenomenon but one that dramatically changes over the course of forty weeks. Dr. Monique Chireau Wubbenhorst, an ob-gyn and former professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University School of Medicine, notes that the risk of abortion mortality increases with gestational age, just like the risk of pregnancy-related mortality. A study led by Dr. Linda Bartlett that was published in the journal, Obstetrics & Gynecology, shows that death from abortion increases exponentially by 38 percent for each additional week of gestation. The same study shows that abortion mortality for women of color is three times that for white women. Other data also suggest that after eighteen weeks’ gestation the mortality rate for vaginal childbirth (3.6 deaths per 100,000) is less than half the mortality rate for abortions performed during the same period (7.4 deaths per 100,000). This directly contradicts the undifferentiated claim that abortion is safer than pregnancy.

Some abortion-rights advocates have suggested that the increased mortality rate associated with late-term abortions is due to the fact that they are much more likely to be the result of medical emergencies that threaten a pregnant woman’s life. Appearing on Face the Nation in the wake of the Planned Parenthood fetal-tissue scandal in 2015, Hillary Clinton said, “I think that the kind of late-term abortions that take place are because of medical necessity. And, therefore, I would hate to see the government interfering with that decision.” The Annenberg Public Policy Center fact-checked this statement: “A spokesman for Clinton’s campaign told us that she meant that many late-term abortions—not all or even most—are because of medical reasons. But that’s not what she said. Her statement left the impression that the majority, if not all, late-term abortions are medically necessary. The available evidence does not support that assertion.” Most available data suggest that late-term abortions, such as the one Atkins underwent, are not medically necessary. In 1997, Dr. Ron Fitzsimmons, the then-executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, told the New York Times that “the procedure is performed far more often than his colleagues have acknowledged, and on healthy women bearing healthy fetuses.” We can thus conclude that, after a certain point in gestation, a healthy pregnant woman is safer giving birth to a child than aborting it. Yet abortion-rights advocates often claim that even late-term abortions are safer than live childbirth. The L.A. Times op-ed made this very claim even though the article they cited in support of it includes no maternal-mortality statistics.


In our current debates, economically vulnerable women and women of color are routinely held up as the reason we need to maintain unrestricted access to elective abortion. The previously cited L.A. Times op-ed claims that “scientific and medical research consistently shows that childbirth is far riskier than terminating a pregnancy, particularly for poor and minority women.” Women of color, especially Black women, are three times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than white women, regardless of income or education. This is not evidence of the efficacy of abortion, but an indictment of our failure to address inequities in maternal health. Setting aside the challenges of assessing abortion-related data, we might ask ourselves why abortion is so often presented as the silver bullet for addressing poor maternal-health outcomes for poor women and women of color despite the fact that the poor and people of color are more likely to oppose abortion than wealthy and white people. Evidence from other industrialized nations also suggests that our failure to address maternal mortality among women of color is not related to abortion access, but to our failure to provide adequate health care.

The Dobbs ruling is no doubt polarizing, but it may also give us a rare opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus around ways to address maternal mortality, particularly for the most vulnerable women. A recent study from the Commonwealth Fund, a non-partisan independent research organization, concluded that “high maternal mortality in the U.S. is not the result of any single factor, and reducing it will require an integrated effort involving policy and practice changes to improve hospital and community care for all women while advancing racial equity.” The report goes on to note “the shortage of maternity care providers (both ob-gyns and midwives) relative to births,” adding that “in most other countries, midwives outnumber ob-gyns by severalfold, and primary care plays a central role in the health system. Although a large share of [U.S.] maternal deaths occur post-birth, the U.S. is the only country not to guarantee access to provider home visits or paid parental leave in the postpartum period.” It is worth noting that the researchers do not include abortion access in their list of policy recommendations, but focus on bolstering health care, insurance coverage, postpartum care, and parental leave.

Addressing our scandalous level of maternal mortality will require that all states—especially those like Texas and Mississippi that have passed strict restrictions on elective abortion and where maternal-health outcomes are among the worst in the nation—increase funding for programs that provide mothers and their children with the support they need. Any state that invokes the sanctity of life needs to start from a principle formulated by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: “the poor deserve the best.” This would require that all women have access to quality health care—before, during, and after birth, when they are still vulnerable to life-threatening infections and other complications. A focus on reducing maternal mortality would mean prioritizing underserved populations and addressing health inequities between white women and women of color. First, it is vital to ensure that women receive quality health care before they become pregnant, as many pregnancy-related deaths stem from underlying health conditions. Second, women must have access to quality prenatal and postnatal care, and should be encouraged to use it. Third, it is critical to ensure paid parental leave for all employees, especially those who work entry-level or hourly positions. Fourth, states ought to invest in robust midwife-led care, which is proven to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality. Such measures will require major investments in vulnerable communities and in the education of nurses and midwives.

Pro-life activists should not imagine that one can build an authentic culture of life without greater public investment in health care and social services. But pro-choice activists, politicians, and journalists should not pretend that the only way to protect women from life-threatening complications of pregnancy is to ensure that they have unrestricted access to elective abortion, or that we know more about the relative risks of abortion and pregnancy than we actually do. The sooner we come to terms with these realities and let the needs of vulnerable mothers and babies dictate our policies, the sooner we can do the important work of making pregnancy as safe in the United States as it is elsewhere in the world. Liberal abortion laws did not keep us from having the highest maternal-mortality rates among industrialized nations, nor will new abortion restrictions alone be adequate to meet the needs of pregnant mothers and lower the maternal-mortality rate. Maternal mortality is not mainly a function of abortion access; it is a function of how well or poorly we provide for expectant mothers.

Earnest Desire

Pope Francis’s June 2022 letter on liturgical formation is a fascinating reflection on how liturgy forms us, and what sort of process we ourselves must undergo in order to celebrate and live the liturgy fully. One might have thought that a letter about liturgical formation would be concerned with highlighting what the Church ought to do to establish programs of formation in parishes and dioceses, or that it would admonish us about things we are doing wrong. Programs are duly mentioned in the letter, and bad habits are noted for correction. But from the very beginning, Pope Francis reverses the assumption that this sort of business will provide all that is needed. No, something more is required, and the letter shows us what it is. Liturgical formation must be grounded not in what we do, but in the faith-filled discovery of what Christ has done and is doing for us.

Francis’s exposition begins with desire—not our desire, but the desire of Jesus. The letter starts by recalling Jesus’ earnest desire to eat the Passover meal with his disciples and, by extension, with all people through time. The point here is that the whole program of liturgy originates in God’s action, not our own. If we miss this foundational fact, we will misunderstand everything else.

The title of the letter is therefore important. It is something of a tongue twister (Desiderio desideravi), but its great virtue is that it highlights the intensity of Jesus’ desire to share this meal with us. “I have earnestly desired [Desiderio desideravi] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” Jesus says in Luke 22:15. In that small text from Luke’s Gospel, Francis discerns the opening to a profound mystery. It is “the crevice [spiraglio] through which we are given the surprising possibility of intuiting the depths of the love of the persons of the Most Holy Trinity for us” (2).

The way in which Francis reverses expectations, placing the desire of Jesus in first place, bears a striking resemblance to the passage on prayer found at the outset of the fourth section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see CCC 2560–61). There, the image of the woman at the well is used to make the point that prayer begins not with our thirst for God, but with God’s thirst for us. The section on prayer, considered by many as the most poetic and beautiful portion of the Catechism, was written by Jean Corbon (1924–2001), a Maronite Catholic liturgical theologian who was also the author of the influential book The Wellspring of Worship. Although Francis does not mention him explicitly, Corbon’s influence can be felt in this section. Most of Francis’s reflections are strongly Christo-centric, reflective of Western thinking, but here he makes reference to the action of the Trinity—a nod to the East.

At the end of the letter, Francis also refers to the liturgy as “the first wellspring of Christian spirituality.” Liturgical formation entails cultivating a spirituality in which prayer and liturgy are intertwined. A relationship with the living Jesus is passionately proposed as essential in the letter. “Knowledge of the mystery of Christ, the decisive question for our lives, does not consist in a mental assimilation of some idea but in real existential engagement with his person,” Francis explains (41). The work of the Spirit in the liturgy is to draw us to Christ so closely that we become him.

The work of the Spirit in the liturgy is to draw us to Christ so closely that we become him.

“This is the purpose for which the Spirit is given, whose action is always and only to confect the Body of Christ. It is that way with the Eucharistic bread, and with every one of the baptized” (41).

Francis’s letter is in many ways like a retreat—offering “prompts” or “cues” for reflection rather than structured arguments or practical to-do lists. This pastoral approach is of a piece with the strategy he pursued with the bishops in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis, first in Chile and then in the United States. He knew that the bishops would want a program, a solution, a way to regain the control they felt they were losing. But he wanted to lead them to a conversion of a deeper sort. So, he thwarted their impulse to move directly into problem solving, insisting instead that they first go on retreat. In a similar way, his letter shows us that the work of liturgical formation cannot really begin without first meeting Jesus anew, in prayer and contemplation, startled and amazed by the immeasurable gift of God’s love poured out in Christ’s paschal mystery.

The ease with which Francis proposes an imaginative identification with figures in scripture bears witness to his own formation in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola; one can imagine him as an effective retreat director. With Christ at the center, we are also given numerous people from the Bible with whom we may identify, so that we can learn from their encounters with Jesus the deep meaning of the sacraments: “I am Nicodemus,” Francis writes, “the Samaritan woman at the well, the man possessed by demons at Capernaum, the paralytic in the house of Peter, the sinful woman pardoned, the woman afflicted by haemorrhages, the daughter of Jairus, the blind man of Jericho, Zacchaeus, Lazarus, the thief and Peter both pardoned” (11). In other words, we meet Jesus not only in the story of the Last Supper, or in the accounts of his passion, death, and resurrection. We meet him in his life and ministry through the Word that is proclaimed, and which invites our active listening.

Still, the paschal mystery remains at the center. The American bishops in their recent statement on the Eucharist (“The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church”) abandoned the primacy of the conciliar language of paschal mystery (or Pascha) to speak of Christ’s action in the liturgy—the term appears only once. Pope Francis, however, uses it constantly (11, 12, 20, 21, 23, 25, 36, 43, 49, 62, 65), and therefore guarantees it a prominent place in our understanding of the task of liturgical formation. “The Liturgy gives glory to God not because we can add something to the beauty of the inaccessible light within which God dwells (1 Timothy 6:16),” Francis writes, “nor can we add to the perfection of the angelic song which resounds eternally through the heavenly places. The Liturgy gives glory to God because it allows us—here, on earth—to see God in the celebration of the mysteries, and in seeing Him to draw life from his Passover” (43).

In the face of so great a mystery, humility is essential. Francis makes reference to “being small” as a precondition of receiving Christ’s gift in the liturgy no fewer than five times (3, 38, 47, 47 bis, 53). There is no room for arrogance or self-aggrandizement here. Tellingly, he brings this point home when discussing a wide range of “inadequate models” of the priest presiding over the liturgy. 

After Francis gives us a piquant list of distortions we all can recognize—“rigid austerity or an exasperating creativity, a spiritualizing mysticism or a practical functionalism, a rushed briskness or an overemphasized slowness, a sloppy carelessness or an excessive finickiness, a superabundant friendliness or priestly impassibility”—he delivers the punch: “I think that the inadequacy of these models of presiding have a common root: a heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expressed a poorly concealed mania to be the center of attention” (54). “Being small” is quite the opposite of this


Francis makes reference to ‘being small’ as a precondition of receiving Christ’s gift in the liturgy no fewer than five times.

A good deal of the early commentary on Francis’s letter has noted that beauty is a theme, but this assertion is easily misunderstood. He says in paragraph 22: “The continual rediscovery of the beauty of the liturgy is not the search for a ritual aesthetic.” When Francis speaks of beauty, therefore, it is never about handsome objects or fine clothing, graceful gestures or sensory pleasures. The entire section devoted to the ars celebrandi (the art of celebration), which demands the artful use of material things, never once mentions beauty. Rather, for Francis the beauty of the liturgy is the “beauty of the truth” (21, 62). It is the “powerful beauty” (10) of the encounter with Christ in his paschal mystery. “In the Eucharist and in all the sacraments we are guaranteed the possibility of encountering the Lord Jesus and of having the power of his paschal mystery reach us” (11). When Francis warmly affirms, as he does, the sacramental use of created things as “a manifestation of the love of God” (42), he moves immediately to affirm even more strongly that the fullness of that same love is manifested in the cross and resurrection of Jesus—to which all creation is drawn.

When I first saw that Francis was using the language of “amazement” in his letter I wondered if he was borrowing this idea from Pope Saint John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (“On the Eucharist and Its Relationship to the Church”). John Paul’s stated aim in writing this encyclical was to “rekindle…amazement” at the mystery of the Eucharist. Upon careful reading, however, it becomes clear that what Francis has done is really something quite different. John Paul was intensely focused on the role of the priest in the Eucharist. In fact, so much of the “amazing” role of Christ is absorbed by the action of the priest in the Mass, in his telling, that little is left for the people, aside from the reception of Communion. He acknowledges the Church as the Body of Christ, but assigns them no particular agency in the liturgy. What he does instead is devote thirteen paragraphs at the end of the encyclical to the “Marian” role of the people, complementing the Christic role of the priest.

Francis’s invocation of Eucharistic amazement could not be more different. He finds amazement in the paschal mystery itself. Christ’s Passover is amazing. The fact that his Pasch is made sacramentally present and accessible to us in the today of the liturgy is amazing. The role of the priest is of irreducible importance to Francis, but he is after something wider and more all-embracing when he talks about being amazed at the liturgy. “Wonder is an essential part of the liturgical act,” Francis explains. “It is the marvelling of those who experience the power of symbol, which does not consist in referring to some abstract concept but rather in containing and expressing in its very concreteness what it signifies” (26). Guided by the writings of the German liturgical theologian Romano Guardini (1885–1968), Pope Francis discusses in some detail the challenge modern (and postmodern) people face in learning to speak the language of symbol. This challenge is essential to meet, however, because liturgy speaks in the language of symbol, and so we must continue to listen and learn.

Several times, Francis uses the striking expression “the Bread broken” to refer to the Eucharist (7, 16, 52, 65). This expression is found in the first-century document The Didache, and the fact that it comes easily to Francis demonstrates how a “return to the sources” cultivated by the liturgical movement of the first half of the twentieth century has left its mark. The expression “Bread broken” is richly symbolic. It points to the Eucharist’s communal nature, because bread broken is bread shared. As the Italian liturgical theologian Goffredo Boselli pointed out in his book on mystagogy, it is precisely in its being broken and shared that the sign of bread achieves its fullness in the Eucharist. Francis joyfully points out that “from Sunday to Sunday the energy of the Bread broken sustains us in announcing the Gospel” (65).

Francis situates the letter as the second in a series, the first of which was Traditionis custodes (“On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970”). That motu proprio, issued to promote ecclesial communion, stated that the liturgy as it was reformed following the Second Vatican Council “is the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” It strictly curtailed the use of the liturgical forms prior to Vatican II, a permission that Benedict XVI had greatly expanded in 2007.

Francis continues to promote the unity of the Roman Rite in this new letter. It remains a priority for him, both for ecclesiological reasons (for the unity of the Church in communion with the pope and the bishops), and also as a foundation for moving beyond polemics and tensions that have marred our liturgical life in practice (what some have termed “the liturgy wars”). In this letter, he gives no ground to the liturgical traditionalists or to those who might wish to “reform the reform,” and indeed he doubles down on the importance of accepting the liturgical reform that proceeded from the Council (31, 16, 61). The larger goal of Desiderio desideravi, however, is to move from disciplinary to theological and pastoral themes, offering “prompts or cues for reflections” to “aid in the contemplation of the beauty and truth of Christian celebration” (1).

Francis urges the study of liturgy, both in seminaries and in venues suitable for the faithful more generally, but he does it in a particular way. He stresses that such study should always be linked to and supported by the experience of lively and life-giving celebrations of the liturgy in practice. He makes the distinction between being formed “for” the liturgy and being formed “by” the liturgy, but this does not mean that the two exist apart from each other. He clearly expects that growth in knowledge and experiential formation will go hand in hand.

The letter states the problematic of liturgical formation in positive terms: “The fundamental question is this: how do we recover the capacity to live completely the liturgical action?” (27). This alone would signal a refreshing change from the approach typically taken during the John Paul and Benedict years, which focused on eliminating “liturgical abuses”—as if such a course of action would be sufficient to guarantee the liturgy’s proper “use.” Francis is saying here that we are called to enter into a fuller way of living our rites: he is focusing on their use. This conviction opens onto such topics as how to avoid “the poison of spiritual worldliness” (17–20), learning how to “read” symbols (44–45), and regaining a confidence in creation in order to grasp the meaning of sacrament (46).

He makes the distinction between being formed ‘for’ the liturgy and being formed ‘by’ the liturgy.

Perhaps most significantly, however, Pope Francis clarifies the question of agency in a way that both challenges and affirms the People of God as a whole. Who “does” the liturgy? According to Francis, “the subject acting in the Liturgy is always and only Christ-Church, the mystical Body of Christ” (15). Liturgical participation by the People of God, therefore—the goal so much desired by Vatican II—is a calling for the whole Body of Christ, by virtue of our baptism. Understanding this raises the stakes of liturgical formation considerably, making it the care and concern of all the faithful and their pastors. Pope Francis reiterates and emphasizes the point strongly: “Let us always remember that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that is the celebrating subject and not just the priest” (36). Although Francis reflects upon the role of the priest and the gift of Holy Orders, and even presents a kind of mystical vision of the priest plunged into a furnace as the intermediary between the fire of Christ’s love and the fire in the hearts of Christ’s people, it is clear that liturgy is never just about the priest. It is the work of Christ in all of us.


Desiderio desideravi ought to be a wake-up call to the American Church, which used to support a large number of enthusiastic national organizations devoted to liturgical formation but no longer does so. There used to be diocesan support for such work, too, but now there is little money set aside for such undertakings. There are two main reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs. First, the legitimation of traditionalism introduced confusion over direction and created divisions concerning what ought to be taught concerning the liturgy. Second, the costs associated with the sex-abuse scandal emptied the coffers of local churches. Many dioceses have shut down worship offices and let go of qualified personnel who might have done such work in better times. This trend has created a ripple effect, and there are now fewer candidates for liturgy degrees because there are no jobs for them when they graduate. Priestly formation always commands resources, but this is a tiny percentage of the work that needs to be done. Sadly, the formation of the laity is now increasingly left to chance.

It does not have to remain this way. Pope Francis has done the Church an enormous service by cracking down on traditionalism and reaffirming the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. There should be no more confusion concerning the content to be conveyed in programs of liturgical formation or the direction that they ought to take. We now have a single, unified template for the Roman Rite, and Pope Francis has spoken quite movingly about the spirituality that undergirds the reformed liturgy we celebrate.

The second problem may be more challenging, but it can be addressed by making liturgical formation a budgetary priority. Rather than pouring resources into one-time events that have the quality of a rally (consider the $28 million U.S. bishops are spending on the 2024 Eucharistic Congress), the Church needs to invest in quotidian formation events that progress gradually, and that take full advantage of the formative nature of liturgy well-celebrated as the indispensable partner of a prayerful study of the rites. In reviving liturgical formation, a good place to start might be in the promotion of this very letter of Pope Francis. Let us “go on retreat” with him, and dialogue with his “prompts and cues” that invite us to meet Jesus anew in the liturgy.


Smothering the Coptic Church

On August 14, a fire broke out during Sunday Mass at a Coptic church in a working-class neighborhood in Cairo. Forty-one people, eighteen of them children, died of smoke inhalation or in the resulting stampede. Many of the children were in the church-run daycare center on the bottom floor, where the fire is believed to have started. Witnesses described people jumping from windows at the top of the four-story building to escape the flames.

The fire at Abu Sefein Church was accidental, the result of an electrical problem that caused either a generator or an air conditioner to catch fire. Destructive and deadly fires are not rare in Cairo, where infrastructure is poorly maintained and residences or businesses are often built with little enforcement of safety standards. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi extended his “sincere condolences to the families of the innocent victims that have passed on to be with their Lord in one of his houses of worship.” He ordered Egypt’s armed forces to rebuild the church immediately.

For decades, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have accused the government of restricting the number and size of churches that can be built and making it difficult to renovate or restore the churches that already exist.

For decades, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have accused the government of restricting the number  and size of churches that can be built and making it difficult to renovate or restore the churches that already exist. As a result, Copts have been forced to set up worship spaces in unsuitable or overcrowded buildings. This is true in the case of Abu Sefein Church, which had been an apartment building. After the fire, Tawadros II, the Coptic pope, said that the church had been too small to hold the number of members it served, and he called on the government to allow more churches to be built. Anba Angaelos, the archbishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in London, tweeted that the fire at Abu Sefein is “a direct result of a painful time when Christian communities could not build purpose-designed churches, and would have to covertly use other buildings, not fit for the purpose and lacking the necessary health and safety features and escapes.” In 2016, el-Sisi removed some restrictions on the building and renovation of churches, but local governments still have the power to limit church construction. A U.S. State Department report on religious freedom found in 2021 that the building of churches in Egypt is “subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.”

Copts, who make up 10 percent of the total population of Egypt, have long endured violence and discrimination. In 2011, a crowd of Muslims burned several churches in Cairo, and Coptic churches have also been the target of terrorist attacks. Some observers accuse the government of restricting the building of churches out of fear of these Muslim extremists, who believe Christian churches undermine the country’s “Islamic character.” In this charged atmosphere, churches also serve as important community centers for Christians, offering a haven from violence or harassment.

When a church in Africa is attacked by Islamic militant groups like Boko Haram, it often makes international news. But there are other ways to make a religious minority feel unwelcome. “Copts are forced to live in the shadows and worship in silence,” one Copt told Middle East Eye. In the days following the tragedy at Abu Sefein, two more accidental fires broke out at two other Coptic churches. No deaths were reported, but the danger remains. As one woman who lost two relatives in the Abu Sefein fire lamented, “No one can believe that children went to pray and never came back.”


Transgressive Traditionalists

It is always interesting to see what the New York Times chooses to publish about Catholicism in its opinion pages. It’s especially interesting to see the things it chooses to publish by conservative or traditionalist Catholics. I’ve written before about Matthew Walther, a contributor to various conservative outlets and editor of the Lamp, a proudly “orthodox” Catholic literary magazine. One of his pieces for the Times was about why American politics needs Catholic social teaching. The provocative lede championed the editors of Triumph, a “decidedly reactionary” Catholic magazine, for embracing the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Rioting, Triumph explained, was an understandable response to the “terror that always haunts men confronted by meaninglessness.” It was also an understandable response to the “soulless tyranny of secular liberalism” by those “yearning to make contact with the divine.” In another piece for the Times (“Overturning Roe Will Disrupt a Lot More Than Abortion. I Can Live With That”), Walther warned his fellow pro-lifers that Roe’s demise will bring about the birth of many unwanted children whose lives will be lived in “utter misery.” But for a Catholic of unblinking conviction, that is no reason to be timid. “What is right is very rarely what is convenient,” Walther concluded.

The Times’s most recent effort to provide a glimpse of how traditional Catholics think comes from Julia Yost, a senior editor at First Things. Yost’s op-ed is titled “New York’s Hottest Club Is the Catholic Church.” She describes a Manhattan “scene” frequented by young Catholic-curious artists and intellectuals and propelled by “a network of podcasts and upstart publications.” Unlike “senior churchmen,” who mistakenly try to “make Catholicism palatable to modernity,” these nascent Catholics are “more transgressive than progressive.” The soulless tyranny of secular liberalism is once again in the dock. “Reactionary motifs are chic: Trump hats and ‘tradwife’ frocks, monarchist and anti-feminist sentiments.” These fashionable New Yorkers, like all avant-gardes, are rebelling against the “banality” of career and peer pressures. “There’s not a problem in the world that three Hail Marys can’t fix,” says one of them. “No hell, no dignity,” says another. Fumbling with one’s rosary beads, the “paraphernalia of the underclass,” is a way to reject the demands of the meritocracy while showing solidarity with the lower orders. Even if some of these “scenesters” are faking it, they are still taking a step in a transcendent direction. “The church has long embraced theatricality, and it welcomes converts with motives other than sheer religious zeal,” Yost notes. “It is a properly religious act to observe the forms of faith even in the absence of perfect belief.” Despite its excesses and inadequacies, Yost argues that this “scene” has “the chance to revitalize the church for young, educated Americans.”

Ritual requires constancy, not flighty trendsetting.

Yost is not wrong about the value of religious ritual in the absence of perfect faith. As the theologian Paul Newman (playing an alcoholic Boston Irish lawyer) explained in The Verdict, “In my religion, they say, ‘Act as if you have…faith, and faith will be given to you.’” But I am less optimistic than Yost about the likelihood that such countercultural trendsetting will build up the Church. If Catholicism has long embraced theatricality, it has also tamed and routinized it. And for good reason: ritual requires constancy, not flighty trendsetting.

Yost’s traditionalist hipsters remind me a little of Richard Gilman’s memoir Faith, Sex, Mystery, a book I reviewed for Commonweal an eon ago. Gilman was a distinguished theater critic and longtime professor at Yale’s Drama School. He converted to Catholicism in his twenties, entranced by the Church’s robust philosophical claims and the “I wanted to kiss a leper” ecstasies of his spiritual director, a former actress he calls a “secular nun.” He worked at the Catholic art magazine Jubilee for four years before briefly becoming Commonweal’s theater critic. Moving on to Newsweek and the Nation, he shed the turmoil and disappointments of his youth as well as his recently acquired faith. His infatuation with Catholicism lasted about six years. As his career advanced and his sex and family life sorted itself out, Catholicism “seemed irrelevant.” Drama was what he was really after, and he discovered it was best to take it straight up without the rosary beads.

Catholicism can seem exotic, especially to young people looking for meaning and community in a largely secular world that offers little of either. But an overly romantic vision of the Church is a fragile one. Of course, there are wonderful and transporting realities disclosed by the Church’s rituals, disciplines, and teachings. But the deepest, most sustaining realities of Catholicism are often beneath the surfaces and beyond the disciplines; they are mystical, which is to say hidden. Those searching for a refuge from banality may soon be disappointed by the everydayness of the faith. As the theologian Karen Kilby reminds us, the “beautiful, orderly ideal” of Christian truth and life also needs to include “thinking about the boredom, the conflicts, the inadequacies, the sheer ordinariness that marks so much of most Christians’ experience of being a Christian and being in community with other Christians.”

I sometimes wonder if the Times publishes op-eds like Yost’s and Walther’s just to confirm the prejudices of its skeptical readers—to provide them with a little “hate reading,” as the kids call it—rather than to explain a religion that challenges many contemporary assumptions and values. I’m not questioning the convictions of these traditionalist Catholic writers, but I would remind them both that, while provocation can be good journalism, it rarely succeeds as evangelization.

Work of Human Hands

Over a long career, Justo L. González has written prolifically and responsibly in the field of historical theology, and in his eighty-fourth year offers a brief but deeply informed introduction to the formation and interpretation of Scripture as the Church’s book. His target readership is the mythical educated layperson rather than fellow professionals. His prose is correspondingly free from scholarly affectation, his tone that of the patient expositor. He grinds no axes and airs no grievances. And while he does not touch on everything an interested neophyte might want to learn, he manages to convey a considerable amount of information in less than two hundred pages.

The book has three parts that treat, respectively, the shape of the Bible, the use of the Bible, and interpretation of the Bible. González focuses mainly on antiquity but some of his discussions move into medieval and even modern times. An extensive “cast of characters” at the back of the book provides thumbnail sketches of the authors González discusses in his text.

In his discussion of the Bible’s “shape,” González deals primarily with the material dimensions of Scripture, beginning with its contents. What were the cultural contexts and languages employed in the writing of the Old Testament, and how did Hellenistic Judaism’s Greek translation (the Septuagint), which was adopted by the first Christians, lead to two distinct canons that even today distinguish Catholic and Protestant versions of the Old Testament? What were the factors at work in the formation of the New Testament canon? While the points he makes are historically responsible, and are certainly helpful to readers totally ignorant of such matters, I found it puzzling that González gives no attention to the kind of prior questions that most demand consideration: What sort of experiences among the tiny and insignificant people of ancient Israel led to the production of such breathtakingly original and compelling writings in the first place? And what sort of experiences impelled the followers of a failed messiah to compose the writings that make up the New Testament, the most tension-filled religious literature ever written?

Concentration on the material aspects of the Church’s book continues through the remainder of Part One, as González treats in turn “the physical appearance of early Christian Bibles,” “chapters and verses,” “the transmission of the text,” and “from manuscripts to printed Bibles.” In these discussions, each of them well informed and instructive, González considers mainly the physical evolution of the New Testament through the centuries, making the simple but important point that the printed and translated Bible that is held and read by present-day Christians did not fall from heaven but is, down to its very punctuation, a “work of human hands.”

In Part Two, González takes up some of the ways in which the Bible was used in the ancient Church, beginning quite properly with its use in worship. Here, the time he spent on the material aspects of the Bible shows its pertinence: before the invention of printing, the experience of Scripture was necessarily liturgical. For most believers, Scripture was not read but heard, and such an oral/aural engagement continued for some fifteen hundred years. González notes the importance of the reader as an ordained position in a largely illiterate population, and the significance of preaching as the primary site of patristic theology. He shows how the shape of the Christian liturgy built on the practice of the synagogue, but he could also perhaps have devoted some attention to the way in which the classic forms of the Eucharist also drew their very language from the Old and New Testaments, so that Scripture was embodied and enacted in the practice of prayer.

Christianity appealed to Scripture as it stood against the idolatrous claims of empire.

As González goes on to show, the liturgical enactment of the Bible is found especially in the communal singing of the psalms, a practice that goes back to the very beginning of the Christian movement. The practice was then extended from common worship to the monastic practice of chanting the psalms, and also to private reading among those with access to texts (or who memorized the psalms through constant repetition). Every observation González makes on this topic is pertinent, and it is legitimate to draw the conclusion that abandoning the practice of such communal singing of the psalms has led to the loss of what can be called a “scriptural imagination”—that is, the capacity to imagine the world as the psalter imagines it, a world porous to the presence and power of God.

From this liturgical starting point, González shows how, despite the paucity of manuscripts and the scarcity of literacy, the private, devotional reading of Scripture was by no means unattested among believers in the patristic and medieval periods. Such personal reading was not the invention of Protestantism and the printing press, although those ideological and technological revolutions can serve to obscure their more modest precedents. Similarly, the Bible was the essential tool for efforts to shape a distinctively Christian education, one that drew from the riches of Hellenistic culture while simultaneously subverting and transforming that culture. An essential element in this education was a vision of a righteous social order drawn from the Old Testament and New Testament alike. As a young sect, Christianity appealed to Scripture as it stood against the idolatrous claims of empire; as the authorized religion of the empire, it made Scripture the basis for social teachings and practices that ameliorated the complexities and corruptions of the establishment.

Part Three deals with interpretation of the Bible. González first shows how the New Testament continued the Old Testament’s practice of rereading earlier texts and events, in three modes: the prophetic (statements made long ago find their “fulfillment” in the present), the typological (events of the past anticipate and find expression in present events), and allegorical (texts bear not a single meaning but several levels of meaning). By showing how these modes are found in the New Testament itself, González makes the subsequent use of these modes by Christian interpreters appear less innovative or even alien.

The payoff of all this patient exposition is found in substantive chapters devoted to the patristic interpretations of three “crucial texts”—those concerning creation, the exodus, and the Word. In these discussions, González displays his impressive command of early Christian literature as he elucidates the issues in the texts with which the ancients struggled, notes the variety of opinions found among diverse authorities, and identifies the points of agreement among them. These discussions serve to show less-knowledgeable contemporary readers that intellectual struggles with Scripture are not new, that the Church’s tradition has included a diversity of opinion even on “crucial texts,” and that Christians today have much to learn from such ancient conversations.

In a succinct final chapter, González draws three lessons: first, we would not have the Bible at all without the countless believers who not only preserved Scripture but shared it; second, as we observe the errors that entered into the process of transmission, we need to learn humility in our own handling of Scripture; and third, we ought not to be fearful of further transformations in the appearance of the Bible. The Word of God can speak as well in a laptop as from a manuscript: “The Bible is the Word of God not because of its format or appearance but because God speaks to us in it.”

This small book is a gift from a seasoned scholar that combines great learning, clear prose, and rare wisdom.

The Bible in the Early Church
Justo L. González
$19.99 | 204 pp.