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An Antidote to Despair

“Dear Polo, we miss you,” wrote a Haitian health worker some twenty years ago, to the physician and medical anthropologist Paul Farmer. “We miss you as the cracked dry earth misses the rain.” At the time Farmer reportedly commented, “After thirty-six hours? Haitians, man. They’re totally over the top. My kind of people.”

When Paul Farmer passed away in February at the age of sixty-two, the deluge of tributes on social media and major news outlets reminded us that his kind of people could be found in every place he had gone—and in some places where he hadn’t. Young and old, rich and poor, atheist and Hindu and Catholic, people from many walks of life took inspiration from Farmer’s quest to cure the world. Our aim, as he once put it, “is nothing less than the refashioning of our world into one in which no one starves, drinks impure water, lives in fear of the powerful and violent, or dies ill and unattended.”

Like many of the other people Farmer mentored, I discovered his work by way of Tracy Kidder’s inspiring biography Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003). Hearing about the book as a college freshman, I put it on my birthday list and received it as a gift that May. I recall sitting down to read it one morning and finishing late in the evening of the same day. My eyes were aching, yet somehow I felt more energetic than I had in years. It was my first exposure to the idea that poor health is a kind of social injustice, and it gave me new eyes for the story of my brother, who was adopted from an orphanage in Guatemala City when he was four. Kidder’s book also offered an irresistible image of Farmer as a real, imperfect, modern, funny, endearingly human person, one who was pursuing what seemed to me a saintly life. The book was just a snapshot of that life, and no doubt it concealed as much as it revealed. But anyone who read it would want to know more, and by the end of that summer I was deep in the pages of Farmer’s own books.

I was not often taken to church as a child, and, perhaps for that reason, I was slow to appreciate the reverent, almost devotional quality of Farmer’s following. Obituaries described him as a “giant of public health,” the world’s “most extraordinary medical humanitarian.” Bill Clinton said he was “one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known.” John Dear, a Jesuit priest who knew Farmer for decades, has argued that the Church should recognize him as a saint. On Twitter, the indie rock band Arcade Fire wrote that “Paul Farmer changed our lives forever. He showed us how to work harder for others than for yourself. He was the punkest mother f***er WE ever met. Steal from the rich and give to the poor. Make yourself useful. WE will keep fighting for Haiti until the end of time.”

Many of the tributes published since Farmer’s death celebrate his bedside manner and his work as a builder of hospitals, health systems, universities, and the movement for health equity. How on earth did he do it all? With the help of many others, as he was always quick to recognize. But then why did so many people want to help him? How did he spark such an earnest moral reckoning among such a diverse and devoted following? I believe we can begin to answer this question by turning to his own writing.

Farmer’s scholarly writing spans several decades and a few different academic disciplines. Some of his books and articles are more approachable than others. Farmer’s writing is often personal, describing the world as he saw it and walking readers through his own surprises, setbacks, and delights. Years ago, as I began to make my way through his books and scholarly articles, I discovered that his writing is unambiguously Catholic. He was not just a good Catholic who also happened to be a very good doctor, nor was he simply motivated by his faith to produce compelling secular ideas for a secular milieu. In order to understand his books and grasp the full power of his moral vision, I discovered I would need to study not only ethnography, infectious-disease ecology, and systems design, but also the gospels. I would also need to understand the emergence of liberation theology as a countercultural movement within the wider tradition of Catholic social teaching. These sources seemed to be an indispensable context for Farmer’s writing, first because he referenced them frequently, but later because my increasing exposure to Catholic social thought allowed me to read between the lines of Farmer’s work and see a deeper meaning in his project. He used the resources of the Catholic tradition to understand human suffering, to rebuke the principalities and powers that maintain the sorrows of the poor, and to nurture the fierce hopefulness for which he was so well known.


“Bearing witness” is a term with deep religious roots that were lost on me when I first encountered it in Farmer’s 2003 book, Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. The first part of this book bears witness to poverty and poor health in Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and Russia. In one instance, Farmer and Ophelia Dahl, co-founders of the health-care charity Partners In Health, found themselves in northern Guatemala. A local indigenous organization had requested their assistance for a mental-health project. The aim was to locate and disinter people whom the Guatemalan army had buried in mass graves during the country’s thirty-six-year civil war. Why?

Because the victims had been “buried with their eyes wide open.” And neither they nor their kin would know peace until they were buried properly. “So that their eyes may close,” explained Miguel, who, along with Julia, spoke as their leader. My own eyes were stinging, but not from the smoke. Again, a silence fell over us, this time a silence of complicity and solidarity. Ophelia spoke first, saying that we who would never know their suffering would try to do our part, and also that we would bear witness in the hope that such crimes could not be committed so readily in the future.

This scene beautifully conveys Farmer’s humanizing vision of health equity. Here to “bear witness” is a pragmatic expression with broad appeal. Yet Farmer did not shy away from the term’s religious roots, though he addressed the issue ethnographically rather than philosophically, by reflecting on the faith of the people he encountered in his work. In the following paragraphs he describes looking up from this meeting to see a small portrait of the recently martyred Bishop Juan José Gerardi, who was bludgeoned to death in 1998 after releasing a report that indicted the Guatemalan army for deaths and disappearances during the conflict. Farmer quotes the bishop’s final speech before his death:

In our country, the truth has been twisted and silenced. God is inflexibly opposed to evil in any form. The root of the downfall and the misfortune of humanity comes from the deliberate opposition to truth, which is the fundamental reality of God and of human beings. This reality has been intentionally distorted in our country throughout thirty-six years of war against the people.

The impulse to blame the poor for their problems is often connected to claims among the wealthy and powerful that we have little obligation, and perhaps little ability, to come to their aid in solidarity.

Here we find a more biblical injunction against bearing false witness, not in Farmer’s own words, but in a prophetic voice that he wanted us to hear.

“Structural violence” is one of the concepts Farmer relied on to make sense of poor health in such circumstances. To grasp the power and importance of this concept, we must first acknowledge that the poor are very often blamed for their own plight, as if personal choices or cultural differences could explain their condition. In the 1999 book Infections and Inequalities, Paul writes:

The most frequently encountered and easily circulated theories about women and AIDS are far more likely to include punitive images of women as purveyors of infection—prostitutes, for example, or mothers who “contaminate” their innocent offspring—than to include images of homelessness, barriers to medical care, a social service network that doesn’t work, and an absence of jobs and housing. Dominant readings are likely to suggest that women with AIDS have had large numbers of sexual partners, but are less likely to show how girls...are abducted into the flesh trade.

The way scientists and the media portray people living with HIV has improved since those words were written, but the underlying problem remains. As Farmer observes in his 2020 book, Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History, “discussions of epidemic disease in Africa make frequent use of the colonial era’s exoticizing language: game becomes ‘bushmeat,’ burials become ‘funerary rituals,’ and the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘native’ appear regularly, in proximity to each other, as code for ‘primitive.’” The impulse to blame the poor for their problems is often connected to claims among the wealthy and powerful that we have little obligation, and perhaps little ability, to come to their aid in solidarity. Farmer’s distinctive way of writing about the ravages of history forcefully dispels these myths. Centuries of slavery, resource extraction and ecological devastation, predatory international trade and debt policies, foreign support for violent dictators, and a raft of other obviously global problems create the conditions for Ebola, HIV, opioid abuse, and all the other modern plagues. “Structural violence” is one way of describing how these wider economic forces and ongoing social arrangements—systems we are all caught up in—put people in harm’s way. In “Health, Healing, and Social Justice: Insights from Liberation Theology,” which originally appeared as a chapter in Pathologies of Power, Farmer explains how liberation theology shaped this line of thinking, noting that what he calls structural violence has been described by many Latin-American priests and bishops as structural sin. Farmer cites Jon Sobrino, who describes such sin as an “absolute negation of God’s will.”

Understanding how large-scale social phenomena like sexism, racism, and poverty become evident in the failing health of oppressed people is particularly important when no individual wrongdoer can be singled out as the perpetrator of any particular act of violence. As Farmer would often say, real service to the poor involves understanding global poverty. He brought this insight to bear on his work with Partners In Health (PIH), whose mission statement bears quoting in its entirety:

Our mission is to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care. By establishing long-term relationships with sister organizations based in settings of poverty, Partners In Health strives to achieve two overarching goals: to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair. We draw on the resources of the world’s elite medical and academic institutions and on the lived experience of the world’s poorest and sickest communities. We are dedicated to providing the highest level of clinical care possible while alleviating the crushing social and economic burden of poverty that creates obstacles to health. At its root, our mission is both medical and moral. It is based on solidarity, rather than charity alone. When our patients are ill and have no access to care, our team of health professionals, scholars, and activists will do whatever it takes to make them well—just as we would do if a member of our own families—or we ourselves—were ill. We stand with our patients, some of the poorest and sickest victims of poverty and disease, in their struggle for equity and social justice.

Farmer always described PIH as a secular organization, yet this mission statement’s opening mandate—to provide a preferential option for the poor—is a straightforward affirmation of liberation theology’s central teaching. While liberation theology has sometimes been controversial within the Church, the preferential option for the poor has always been widely embraced, in part because there is such clear precedent for it in the gospels—and, specifically, in the example of Jesus. The preferential option means something more than giving people things. It means standing with the poor in solidarity, whatever the cost. As Archbishop Óscar Romero put it, “there is a criterion for knowing whether God is close to us or far away: all those who worry about the hungry, the naked, the poor, the disappeared, the tortured, the imprisoned—about any suffering human being—are close to God.” An undergraduate at Duke University when Archbishop Romero was martyred, Farmer often mentioned how greatly this event affected him. As John Dear recalls in his February 23 America magazine tribute, “He attended the little prayer vigil that night on the campus, and as he later told me, it felt as if the scales fell from his eyes; he suddenly realized that to be a Christian meant you had to be on the side of the poor and to serve Christ in the poor.”


For Farmer, accompaniment was not only what desperately ill patients needed, it was also the kind of consolation and insight he found in the work of theologians like Gutiérrez.

PIH has provided a preferential option for the poor in many ways, and one strategy in particular has come to define the organization’s inspiring global impact: making community health workers central to care delivery. Community health workers (CHWs) are trusted neighbors who live in the communities they serve, and under the same circumstances as their patients. When equipped with a few months of on-the-job training, good supervision, a living wage, supplies, and strong connections to local clinics, CHWs can make a remarkable difference for people who face barriers to health care. PIH conducted the first studies to demonstrate that, with the support of CHWs, people in the poorest places on earth could complete complex treatments for afflictions such as HIV and drug-resistant tuberculosis and achieve cure rates on par with those in the United States. Since then, study after study has confirmed that CHW programs are exceptionally affordable ways to improve health outcomes in poor areas. What makes a good CHW program successful is not any one clinical practice. The model is based on wrap-around social support—on making house calls, being available to come running when called, advocating for patients as needed. PIH’s community health workers in Haiti are called accompagnateurs, because they accompany patients in the journey to good health.


The theme of accompaniment permeates Farmer’s work but is perhaps most evident in his 2013 book In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez is regarded by many as the father of liberation theology, and this book offers an intimate view of his decades-long friendship with Farmer. In the introduction, Michael Griffin and Jennie Weiss Block explain that Farmer and Gutiérrez both subscribe to what they call a “theology of accompaniment.” Later in the book, Farmer explains what Fr. Gustavo’s theology and accompaniment meant to him:


I was surrounded in central Haiti by something that felt violent and oppressive—namely, deep poverty and the tail end of the Duvalier dictatorship. Violence was both everyday and structural—in the words of one woman I met: it was the fight for wood, and water, and food. The people with whom I stayed lived in a squatter settlement because some of them had been displaced by a hydroelectric dam. This was their experience of structural violence. How does one make sense of this landscape of violence as a twenty-three-year-old American? I read a lot about the history of Haiti. I read great books that were about Haitian culture, including one about that particular valley where I lived, but I really took a lot of consolation from Gustavo’s work.

In another part of the book Farmer remarks,

As long as poverty and inequality persist, as long as people are wounded and imprisoned and despised, we humans will need accompaniment—practical, spiritual, intellectual. It is for this reason, and for many others, that I am grateful for Father Gustavo’s presence on this wounded but beautiful earth.

For Farmer, accompaniment was not only what desperately ill patients needed, it was also the kind of consolation and insight he found in the work of theologians like Gutiérrez. Accompaniment was also how Farmer talked about his relationship with students like me.

In A Theology of Liberation (1988) Gutiérrez writes that “if there is no friendship with the poor and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.” When I read this, I recalled the time Paul Farmer had affectionately called me an idiot for asking him to autograph a copy of In the Company of the Poor that he had given me as a gift. We laughed as he showed me where he had already signed it. I sensed that the tone of my question had put him on too high a pedestal. He wanted friends, not fans. Paul had many friends in the universities and the halls of power, but he wanted to make friends in the squatter settlements of the world, too. This interpersonal philosophy may help explain his radical rejection of material comforts. Many, including his biographer Tracy Kidder, seemed amazed at how long this esteemed Harvard University professor lived in a small home in Haiti with a tin roof and no hot water. People who knew him could tell you many similar stories: how he slept in a church rectory to save money during medical school; how he sent his paychecks to PIH only to go broke himself; how he skipped lunch because he’d given his meal to a homeless man; how he needed to borrow socks from a friend because he’d been traveling too long and simply ran out. He was like a twenty-first-century mendicant in travel-worn suit and tie. If Paul’s ideas were deeply Catholic, so were his sacrifices, and his humanizing way of life—as he would put it, totally over the top.


Let’s return to the question with which we began: how did Paul Farmer find himself at the center of an extraordinary global movement for a more humane world? It’s unlikely he could have attracted such a devoted following through works alone, by brilliance or work ethic or luck. The dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, Ashish Jha, got closer to the mark when he claimed in the Atlantic that Farmer redefined the global health field to make it more human, in part by being so wonderfully human himself. Bill Gates wrote that there will never be another Paul Farmer. That’s true in a certain obvious sense, but we do ourselves and Farmer a disservice if we assume that he was simply born that way, that he was so very much better at being good than very nearly everyone else we’ve met, as if virtue were a quirk of personality. To call him a saint is perhaps no less extravagant a claim, yet thinking of him in this way places him within a group of other wonderfully human people, and suggests something important about how he became who he was. I believe that Farmer chose his way of life, and that he understood it in spiritual terms. If we dare to challenge ourselves the way Farmer often challenged us, we could acknowledge that each of us has opportunities every day to make decisions that would turn our lives in a direction more like his. Farmer’s books still provide important signposts for the journey. They are now, sadly, the only way we can still call on Farmer to accompany us in our struggles.

Or so I thought, when I started writing this article. A few days after Farmer died, a dear friend sent me a message to tell me he had been thinking of me. He said, “I know Paul would fully expect us to continue walking together. I also believe he equipped you, and all of us, and will continue to do so, for this journey.” That friend and I co-founded Medic together many years ago, a global health non-profit that—like Muso, Pivot, GlobeMed, MASS Design Group, Community Health Impact Coalition, and many others—was inspired by Farmer and only possible because of his pragmatic solidarity.

I was still pondering this message a week later, as I was working on this article. It was Ash Wednesday, so I had gone to Mass and was picturing where this journey had taken me—around the world and back many times, to St. Gabriel’s Hospital in rural Malawi, among other places. We launched Medic’s first project there, and it was in that hospital that I had really learned to pray. Eventually I was baptized in the hospital’s little chapel. Just over a decade later, as my local parish prayed to “all the angels and saints,” I realized that I was picturing Paul’s face. And then, reluctantly, I understood that Doctor Paul would still accompany me in prayer, should I find myself facing down a failure of imagination or striving for an antidote to despair. In the grief at his passing, many of us have wondered how the movement for health equity will go on without his tireless accompaniment. If we were to ask him, there’s a chance he’d say, with a wink and a smile, that he’s passed another mountain top and is just getting started.


Rome on Mission

Many of us who are interested in reform of the Church’s central governing body have been misled: we were told that the new constitution for the Roman Curia would contain few surprises. We knew it was called Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), and that its unifying idea, taken from Evangelii gaudium, was making the Church suitable for the evangelization of today’s (secular) world rather than for its self-preservation in a vanished Christendom. We knew that Vatican bodies would no longer be divided into sheep and goats—lofty “congregations” with juridical clout and lowly “councils” producing unread reports—but would be level-pegged as “dicasteries,” from the Greek dikastērion, meaning law-court. We knew other things too: that women and lay people would rank high in some of the dicasteries, that the dicasteries would merge existing departments, and that the whole operation would be slimmed down. So what would be truly new in the ecclesial governance of the Eternal City? After all, the structural makeover has been in process on an experimental basis since 2015, visible to the naked eye. Praedicate, we assumed, would merely render de jure what was already de facto.

This turned out not to be true, but you wouldn’t have guessed this from the way the Vatican released Praedicate, dampening the drumrolls. The first new constitution of the Roman curia in more than thirty years landed in inboxes on a Saturday, without the usual notice, devoid of commentary, and only in Italian. The press conference two days later also seemed designed to keep corks in bottles: three Italian clerics read from a twenty-three-page commentary, which included a painstaking account of the way Praedicate had been drafted and redrafted over a period of nine years, in forty meetings of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors, then sent to cardinals and curia heads and on to every bishop’s conference, until it was finally ready in June 2020—only to be further niggled over by the soon-to-be-renamed Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the Council for Legislative Texts. One thing was clear: the fifth apostolic constitution on the Roman curia in the Church’s history—after those of Sixtus V in 1588, Pius X in 1908, Paul VI in 1967, and John Paul II in 1988—is the fruit of an exhausting level of consultation, according to the ancient principle that “what affects all should be discussed by all.” Praedicate is built to last well into the next generation.

So what was new? The main news headline was that any baptized person can now head any dicastery, “depending on their competence, power of governance, and function,” as the fifth of the Principles and Criteria puts it. As this was reported (“Pope to allow…”), it was not, in fact, news: the Dicastery for Communication has been headed by a layman, Paolo Ruffini, for years, and a half-dozen women (mostly women religious and members of movements) have long occupied important posts in the Curia—women such as Francesca Di Giovanni, entrusted with the Holy See’s relations with the United Nations and other multilateral bodies. Yet there was something new here, something momentous, in the justification for that principle: “any of the faithful” can in principle head a dicastery because authority in the Curia is exercised vicariously, on the pope’s behalf, with power delegated directly from him. 

Now it is true that John Paul II’s constitution also made clear that the Curia’s power is exercised vicariously, through power received from the pope. But Pastor bonus assumed that this power was delegated only to cardinals and bishops, because, well, since 1588 that had been the case. In the press conference to launch Praedicate, however, the Jesuit canonist Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda showed that the assumption should, if anything, be the opposite. If the power is the same (vicarious, delegated by the pope) whether exercised by a bishop, priest, religious, or layperson, then it settles a longstanding ecclesiological disputatio—namely, whether the power of governance is conferred by the sacrament of Orders. If it were, then lay people could not receive any office in the Church which involves the exercise of this power.

The Second Vatican Council did not want to settle the question and it was left open in the revised 1983 Code of Canon Law. But now, according to Ghirlanda, whose work has been on this very topic, Praedicate “confirms that the power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of Orders, but from the canonical mission.” Hear that? Rome has spoken; the matter is settled. The fact that Ghirlanda was asked officially to present the constitution can only mean that this broader implication is what the pope intends, and it is law. Never has clericalism been dealt such a deadly, final blow.

In this and so many other ways, the understated presentation of Praedicate was at odds with its import, as the pope, who hates triumphalism, doubtless intended. For Praedicate distills into law the essence of the Francis reform, showing not just what the Roman Curia is for, but what the Church is for—and what shape and culture both must have if they are credibly to perform the Gospel they preach in the third millennium.


They wanted the Roman Curia to be an inspiration and model, not an embarrassment; to facilitate rather than block relations between bishops and pope.

This, at last, is the reform “strongly wished for by most of the cardinals gathered in the pre-conclave general congregations” in 2013, as Praedicate recalls at the end of its preamble. The date of the constitution’s release—March 19, the ninth anniversary of Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass—is a reminder of those days, when cardinals in the wake of Benedict’s resignation stood up, one after another, to urge the next pope to turn a dysfunctional, inward-looking court of self-aggrandizing cronies into an effective, outward-looking organism of service to the whole Church. They wanted the Roman Curia, which had spent much of 2011 and 2012 deep in scandal, to be an inspiration and model, not an embarrassment; to facilitate rather than block relations between bishops and pope; to be a help in evangelizing, rather than a counter-witness.  

Anyone who heard those pleas would see at once how Praedicate specifically addresses them. While St. John Paul II’s constitution, Pastor bonus, was called simply “Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia,” Francis’s Praedicate evangelium is called “Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia and its service to the Church in the world.” The most common complaint—after finances, which occupied the early years of Francis’s reform—had been that the Curia was a law unto itself, self-referential and haughty, wedging itself between the local Church and the papacy. The Curia famously treated bishops with contempt, as they found on their ad limina visits to Rome (so called because every few years a country’s bishops pay an official visit ad limina apostolorum, “to the threshold of the apostles,” touring the dicasteries and meeting the pope.) Many bishops say the attitude was encouraged by St. John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolos suos, which all but denied any standing to bishops’ conferences.

That has long since changed. Bishops are now amazed by their reception in Rome under Francis: curial officials are keen to hear and learn from them, and to assist them. In its preamble, Praedicate praises the key role of bishops’ conferences and regional collegial bodies, calls for a “healthy decentralization”—that is, autonomy regulated by the principle of communion—and says clearly that the Curia “does not place itself between the Pope and the bishops, but is at the full service of both.” Reflecting the hierarchical nature of the Church, which is both primatial and collegial (the bishops govern “with and under Peter”), the service of the Curia is organically tied to the bishops, as the pope is; and its remit is to build bonds of collegial governance and communion by acting as a nerve center for creative ideas and contacts between bishops’ conferences. Six articles of Praedicate (38–43) are dedicated to the ad limina visits, placing great importance on them, and stressing the role of the Curia in facilitating them.

Another complaint at those cardinals’ meetings in February and March 2013 was about the Vatican’s working culture: curial officials drawn from a narrow Italian pool too often turned out to be incompetent yet self-important obstructionists, prone to nepotism if not actual corruption, spiritually dried-out careerists and clericalists detached in every sense from the People of God. Expressing on paper years of Francis’s reforms, Praedicate’s second chapter says that curiali should be distinguished by their spiritual life, pastoral experience, sobriety of life, and love of the poor, as well as their competence and capacity for discernment, and that they should serve in a spirit of collaboration and co-responsibility.

They may be selected from among bishops, clergy, religious, and lay people alike. What matters is not their state in life, but their spirit of service and mission. They should be from different cultures to reflect the Church’s catholicity, and return to their dioceses or religious congregations after five years, which can be extended to a maximum of ten. According to their state of life, those who work in the Curia must attend to “the health of souls” in addition to their office tasks, be committed to regular personal and communal prayer, and carry out their work “with the joyful awareness of missionary disciples at the service of the entire People of God.” Indeed, the function of the Roman Curia is not, primarily, bureaucratic-administrative but pastoral: as Article 3 of the General Norms puts it, the Curia carries out “a pastoral service in support of the mission of the Roman Pontiff and the bishops in their respective responsibilities to the universal Church.”

There are many other important changes in Praedicate. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, for example, now falls within the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, resolving an enervating identity crisis in which some commissioners tried to turn it into a vehicle for holding the pope accountable to victim groups. That meant it was kept at arm’s length by the Curia, weakening it. Now it will have real heft along with a degree of autonomy. On finances, there is now a healthy distance between the bodies that administer finances and those that hold them accountable—and sophisticated oversight mechanisms to detect wrongdoing.

Finally, the whole operation has been streamlined to prevent bloating and duplication. In addition to the Secretariat of State, four justice and six finance “bodies,” and three offices to run the pope’s household and liturgies, Praedicate reduces John Paul II’s twenty-one congregations and councils to sixteen juridically equal dicasteries with clearly distinct responsibilities, helping to prevent turf wars and allowing for greater “inter-dicasterial” collaboration and co-responsibility.


But the real punch of Praedicate—its evangelizing power—is in its vision of the Church, drawn from Evangelii gaudium and the Acts of the Apostles. The preamble reminds us that Christ’s mandate to preach the Gospel is the Church’s primary task, and that it does so by witnessing to the mercy it has received through acts and words of humble service: touching the suffering flesh of Christ in the poor and the sick. To enable this witness, the Church is called to a missionary conversion, to which the reform of the Roman Curia contributes by harmonizing the daily work of the Vatican with that broader call to evangelize that Francis believes God is now making to the Church.

It is a shift from confidence in human power to receptivity to the Spirit, away from a command-and-control vertical Church to one where authority is service.

Hence the new ranking of the dicasteries. Where St. John Paul II put the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith first, Francis puts the Dicastery for Evangelization first, with himself at its head. The faith dicastery comes second, followed by the new Dicastery for the Service of Charity, because the Gospel is preached in both words and actions. The other dicasteries follow in no particular order: for the Oriental Churches; for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; for the Causes of Saints; for Bishops; for the Clergy; for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; for Laity, Family, and Life; for the Promotion of Christian Unity; for Interreligious Dialogue; for Culture and Education; for the Service of Integral Human Development for Legislative Texts; and for Communication.

The new thing here is a discreet but definite theological and ecclesiological shift. Pastor bonus focused almost every paragraph of its introduction on the Curia assisting the pope in his task of preserving the unity of faith and discipline. Communion in St. John Paul II’s constitution is identical with unity, described as “a precious treasure to be preserved, defended, protected and promoted.” This is the primary ministry, the telos, of the Supreme Pontiff, and therefore of the Curia. In Praedicate, by contrast, communion is not the object of the Curia’s efforts but rather the life made possible by Christ’s self-donation, to which the Curia witnesses by its internal culture. Communion “gives to the Church the face of synodality: a Church, that is, of mutual listening, in which everyone has something to learn: the faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: each listening to the other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit…to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches.”

The difference matters. The Curia is not an instrument of power by which the pope unifies the Church through his efforts, but a witness to the communion of the life of the Church made possible by the Holy Spirit. It is a shift from confidence in human power to receptivity to the Spirit, away from a command-and-control vertical Church to one where authority is service. It is a synodal Church of mutual listening and reciprocity in which all participate, whatever their state of life, under the guidance of the Spirit, after the model of the early Church. Francis is explicit about this model: the purpose of the renewal of the Church, and therefore of the Roman Curia, is to “enable the community of believers to come as close as possible to the experience of missionary communion lived by the Apostles with the Lord while He was on earth, and, following Pentecost, in the first community of Jerusalem under the effect of the Holy Spirit.”

A synodal Roman Curia, marked by reciprocity and participation, fired by the Spirit for mission, dedicated to service, modeled on Acts? Wouldn’t that take a miracle? That thought may have occurred to Pope Francis, for the new constitution goes into effect on June 5, the Solemnity of Pentecost. Perhaps on that date we can allow ourselves to uncork some bottles and at last let the drums roll.


‘No Schools, No Churches!’

On Monday, April 5, 1971, representatives of Baltimore’s Black Catholic Lay Caucus traveled to the motherhouse of the Oblate Sisters of Providence (OSP) for an urgent meeting with Mother Mary of Good Counsel Baptiste. Distraught over the threatened closing of scores of Black Catholic schools across the nation, the caucus’s members aimed to develop a long-term solution with the sixty-four-year-old superior. They also sought to warn Baptiste of a duplicitous local campaign then underway. “Some priests have initiated long range plans to close black schools staffed by the Order,” the delegates charged. “In order to shift attention from their plans and motives they will attack and deliberately antagonize the Sisters in hope that the Order will withdraw. They will then place the blame for the school closings on the sisters.” The caucus warned that the assault would only “escalate and intensify,” and stressed the need for “strong black leadership” and unity among Black Catholics. They also called for rejection of the survival tactics many Black Catholics had long employed to remain in their Church. “The traditional Negro Catholic responses that ‘white is right’ must be replaced with an objective and analytical assessment of the role we, as blacks, have played in the perpetuation of the oppression of our people,” the delegates asserted. Although the representatives acknowledged the unique pressures that Black sisters faced from both “black and white Catholics” to “defend [either] the Church or their people,” they cautioned Baptiste against timidity. “We will hang together or we will hang separately,” the delegates warned.

In the early 1970s, no issue was of greater concern to the African American Catholic community than the survival of the Black Catholic educational system. Before 1965, Church- and state-mandated school integration had closed or merged (with other schools) several long-standing southern Black Catholic schools, many of which were led by the Black sisterhoods. Although members of the Black laity and sisters often protested these closures, the lack of a national Black Catholic apparatus left impacted communities with few options. However, the crisis of the late 1960s threatened the Black Catholic educational system with extinction. Between 1968 and 1969 alone, 637 U.S. Catholic schools closed, with schools in inner cities whose student bodies had transformed from white to predominantly Black or all Black following the Great Migrations and white Catholic withdrawal hit especially hard. Because Catholic schools had historically been the primary vehicles for evangelization in Black communities, many observers viewed archdiocesan and diocesan decisions to close Black Catholic schools (almost always without consulting Black faculty or parents) as proof of a concerted Church effort to abandon African American communities. Some even understood it to be part of massive white Catholic resistance to the civil-rights movement and increasing demands for racial justice within the Church. As such, the nation’s Black priests, sisters, and lay Catholics organized on local and national levels and fought back.

In a daring 1971 move, the leaders of the newly formed national Black Catholic religious and lay organizations, including Sr. M. Martin de Porres Grey, president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC), traveled to Vatican City to present their grievances to Pope Paul VI. During their meeting with Vatican secretary of state Giovanni Bennelli, second in power only to the pope, the delegates argued that the Catholic Church was “dying” in the Black community, citing enduring racism in the Church, the interconnected crises of Black vocation losses and Black Catholic school closings, and the pressing need for Black leadership. However, the meeting did not produce tangible results. Bennelli remained skeptical of the delegation’s complaints, noting they were “in conflict with the reports from white American bishops.” As a result, the Italian prelate advised the group to take a “slow and measured” approach to addressing their grievances. In interviews given upon her return to the United States, however, Grey demurred. “The reality of the black Catholic situation in America is and has been one of separatism created by the domin[ant] culture of the American Catholic Church,” she declared. In addition to noting that Black Catholics had already demonstrated heroic patience with white Catholic racism, the NBSC president argued that the present crises demanded immediate action. “Within five years, most parochial schools in Black communities will be non-existent,” Grey declared, adding, “It does not have to happen.”

Like all sister leaders in 1971, the heads of the African American sisterhoods and the NBSC were knee-deep in an institutional crisis that few had predicted. After decades of steady exponential growth, the U.S. Church was in distress. In the previous five years, thousands of religious men and women had departed their congregations. Among sisters, the figures were especially stark. In 1966, the national sister population had reached an all-time high of 181,421. By 1971, that number had plummeted to fewer than 147,000, not including deaths. Equally distressing was the state of the U.S. Catholic educational system. Between 1965 and 1971, over 1,500 Catholic elementary and secondary schools closed, and thousands more were threatened with extinction. Northern cities already experiencing massive white Catholic suburbanization, such as Milwaukee, Saint Paul, Chicago, Detroit, and Denver, recorded enormous one-year drops in Catholic school enrollment and closed scores of parochial schools, including some of the region’s oldest. Thus, as the 1970s began, most sister leaders, especially those whose congregations staffed Catholic schools, were faced with two herculean tasks: reversing the decline in their memberships and keeping their order’s institutions viable.

Many Black Catholic leaders of the 1970s viewed the dismantling of the Black Catholic educational system as part and parcel of the larger white Catholic backlash to the civil-rights gains.

For the nation’s Black sisters, however, these crises were substantially more acute. Not only was the rate of African American departures from religious life double that of white departures, but Catholic schools in predominantly Black inner-city communities were more likely to face closure or merger than their white suburban counterparts. Most Black faithful had welcomed desegregation on principle. However, both Catholic and secular school desegregation had resulted in the closure of long-standing Black schools and the token integration of some Black students and a handful of Black teachers into previously all-white institutions. In many cases, Black parents voluntarily withdrew their children from Black Catholic schools to support government- and Church-mandated desegregation. However, thousands across the country, especially those skeptical of white-directed integration and wary of violent massive resistance to desegregation—remained committed to the survival of Black Catholic education, especially institutions led by Black nuns. In fact, many Black Catholic leaders of the 1970s viewed the dismantling of the Black Catholic educational system as part and parcel of the larger white Catholic backlash to the civil-rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s—something Black Catholic activists felt had to be contested and stopped.

Without Black Catholic religious and schools, many Black faithful reasoned that the Church would lose all credibility and cease to function effectively, if at all, in the African American community. Because Black Catholic schools had also played leading roles in the education of thousands of non-Catholic Black professionals, segments of the wider African American community also took notice and threw their support behind Black Catholic leaders struggling to preserve African American access to Catholic education. During the 1970s, Black sisters and their supporters employed a host of tactics, from strategic accommodation to direct-action protest, to keep surviving Black Catholic schools open. However, their efforts would be met with formidable resistance from forces bent on maintaining the racial status quo and evading the Church’s moral responsibilities for equality and justice.


In 1965, the U.S. Catholic Church operated the largest private school system in the world. As early as the 1950s, though, a small contingent of Church officials questioned the wisdom of having expanded it so rapidly. Citing the common overcrowding of Catholic classrooms and the strain placed on teaching sisterhoods, a few clerics even argued that parish schools should begin limiting rather than increasing their enrollments. Otherwise, the quality of Catholic education would suffer. In 1956, Msgr. William McManus, the assistant director of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Department of Education, surveyed twenty-eight archdiocesan and diocesan school systems and found them all strained beyond capacity, turning away hundreds of students annually. For McManus and others, the Church’s goal to have every Catholic child in a Catholic school was simply unrealistic. Even with peak enrollments in 1965, the system educated only 47 percent of the Church’s children.

Between 1965 and 1970, though, enrollments in U.S. Catholic primary and secondary schools dropped by over 21 percent, from 5.6 million to 4.4 million, and the number of schools declined from 13,1396 to 11,352. While demand for Catholic education remained relatively high, especially among African Americans and white Catholic suburbanites, declining numbers of sisters translated into higher tuition rates, since schools had to hire lay teachers to supplement depleted teaching staff. Unable and in many cases unwilling to pay the higher costs, thousands of middle- and working-class parents moved their children to public schools. This, combined with the steady white Catholic flight to suburban areas, where the parochial school system was much less developed, caused Catholic school enrollments to plummet. Between 1965 and 1968, elementary school enrollment alone dropped from 4.5 million to 3.9 million students. In response, archdioceses and dioceses across the country began closing hundreds of schools. No area of the country was exempt, but Catholic schools in inner-city and predominantly Black communities were hit especially hard.

The 1971 Black Catholic delegation to Vatican City (Photo courtesy of the National Black Sisters’ Conference)

New state laws banning federal aid to private education, on which many white Catholic schools depended, also drove the crisis. However, these factors alone do not adequately explain what happened with Black Catholic education. While white Catholic school enrollments plummeted between 1965 and 1970, African American enrollments increased. In 1965, for example, approximately 99,245 Black youths were enrolled in over 349 Catholic elementary and secondary schools. By 1970, Black enrollments reached an all-time high of 112,987, despite the increasing precarity of Black Catholic schools. Over the next five years, Black Catholic school enrollments would drop to 107,313, largely because of school closures and mergers, not declining Black support for Catholic education. A 1970 study by the National Office for Black Catholics highlighted that support, revealing that African American parents, regardless of class background, consistently paid higher Catholic tuition rates than white Americans of the same class, an average annual tuition of $400 per child, while their white counterparts paid $160. The study also found that African American parents often paid more for one child’s education than whites paid for five children, underscoring both how highly African Americans valued Catholic education and how unequal the Catholic school system was.

African American parents repeatedly demonstrated their dedication to Catholic education. That fact, and the insufficiency of other arguments to explain the crisis, suggest that it had an additional root: white Church leaders’ long-standing, overtly racist opposition to substantial investment in Black Catholic education and evangelization.

While Black Catholic priests and sisters achieved a host of monumental firsts during the civil-rights era, meaningful integration and racial justice proved elusive. Archdiocesan and diocesan plans (generally devised by white clerical and lay leaders) to integrate the Church’s institutions, particularly its schools, almost always demanded closing Black schools and resulted in the token entry of a handful of Black youth into previously all-white Catholic schools with nonintegrated faculties. Moreover, across the nation, white Catholics mounted powerful campaigns against racial integration with the direct and indirect support of many Church leaders, prompting many Black Catholics to question publicly the sincerity of white Catholic commitment to racial justice. During a “confrontation group” at the 1969 meeting of the National Black Sisters’ Conference in Dayton, Ohio, for example, participants pointed out that twenty-seven white priests from the city had written a paper “opposing desegregation of the school in the south.” Others noted that while members of the Episcopal hierarchy, other Protestant leaders, and some Catholic sisters and priests participated in the Selma protests of 1965, “the Roman Catholic Church in the form of its hierarchy neglected to commit itself during the freedom marches.” Such clear examples of individual and institutional fidelity to racial segregation in the Church were searing. So, too, was the pernicious resentment that some white sisters increasingly directed at Black sister-educators who began amplifying long-standing African American complaints about the detrimental impact of white sisters’ educational ministries in Black communities.

At the first meeting of the NBSC in Pittsburgh, the sisters’ small group discussions drew specific attention to the cultural incompetence and general unfitness of many white sisters teaching in Black schools. These discussions also emphasized the need for all sister educators of Black children to be able to instill Black pride in their pupils. Speaking to a national group of white sisters ministering in the African American community at a Department of Educational Service conference in Chicago in 1969, a NBSC member explained how white-administered Catholic education often propagated white supremacy and enforced racial self-hatred in Black children. “You’ve done our children too much harm already with your stories of white angels and a white God,” the sister declared. “And the devil’s black isn’t he, in the stories you’ve crammed down our children’s throats?... I’ve heard you in and out of the convents, reassuring one another. ‘The black children love the white nuns more than they do the black nuns.’... Because you’ve taught our children to love white and to hate black.... You’ve taught our children to love you and to hate themselves.” Speaking at the same meeting, School Sister of St. Francis Daniel Marie Myles testified about her gut-wrenching experiences of racism while desegregating her order, which was perceived to be a champion of racial equality. Myles also documented how the white members of her order who taught Black children with her in Chicago condemned her membership in the NBSC and continued to exclude her in explicitly hateful ways. “We’re rejected, resented and hated, and we [Black nuns] know it,” Myles stated. While a few white sisters in attendance acknowledged their moral and educational failures in the Black community, one white nun told an observer, “Do you really think those black people in the ghetto could get along for one month or one week without our committed white sisters?” The persistence of such paternalistic and racist attitudes among white sisters ministering in Black communities left many Black Catholics wondering if staying in the Church was worth the cost. While many Black Catholics opted to leave, others vowed to stay and fight. This was especially true of those who believed that preserving and transforming Black Catholic educational institutions was the key to dismantling white supremacy.

In the late 1960s, public protests against the mass closings and mergers of Catholic schools in inner-city and predominantly Black communities erupted across the nation. From New Orleans to Chicago, Charleston to New York, and Cincinnati to Detroit, African American Catholics demanded that Catholic schools not only remain open and accessible but also become true sites of Black educational liberation. Activists accused white ecclesiastical authorities, priests, sisters, and school boards of deliberately abandoning their professed commitments to Black Catholic education and giving in to massive white (Catholic) resistance to civil rights and demands for racial equality. While many Black (and some white) observers charged that the closures and mergers resulted from anti-Black racism, ecclesiastical and school board officials (overwhelmingly white and male) dismissed such claims. They cited instead the declining number of teaching sisters, increased operating costs, and the large presence of Black Protestants in formerly white Catholic urban neighborhoods as the chief catalysts, especially in the inner city. However, ever-increasing African American Catholic school enrollments and the demonstrated willingness of African American parents to pay substantially higher tuition rates than their white and suburban counterparts belied claims that Black schools were no longer viable investments. Simultaneously, white Church leaders directed substantial resources to building a new educational system to accommodate white Catholic suburbanization, itself in part an effort to circumvent racial integration.

African American Catholics demanded that Catholic schools not only remain open and accessible but also become true sites of Black educational liberation.

From the perspective of Black Catholic leaders, the decision to close inner-city and predominantly Black Catholic schools while steadily investing in suburban schools for richer white Catholic families was tantamount to racial genocide. Black Catholic leaders took drastic measures to direct national and secular attention to the crisis. In Detroit, protesters led by NBSC member Sr. M. Shawn Copeland and National Black Catholic Lay Caucus president Joseph Dulin responded to the archdiocese’s 1970 proposal to close 75 percent of its schools, including its only Black Catholic high school, St. Martin de Porres, by seizing the all-Black Visitation Catholic Church on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Adopting the tactics of the civil-rights movement, the group sat in and blocked the church’s entrance. “No schools, no churches!” the group proclaimed to reporters and the parishioners prevented from attending Visitation’s three Sunday morning Masses. Because St. Martin de Porres High School had been established to correct the widespread exclusion of Black youth from most white Catholic schools in the archdiocese, protesters feared its closure would lead to “a systematic phasing out of Catholic education in the inner city.”

Such dramatic actions in Detroit brought Cardinal John Dearden to the table with three hundred Black Catholic leaders and parents in early December 1970. However, the meeting only exacerbated the tensions between the protesters and the white-led archdiocese. The group charged Dearden with addressing them in a cold, dismissive manner and giving evasive answers to their questions and demands. The archdiocese maintained its decision was driven by the new state law banning public aid to private schools and pointed out that it “took up a special collection [that] year to aid 21 financially troubled inner city schools,” which were three-fourths Black. The protesters argued that Church leaders who had unapologetically upheld segregation and exclusion could find the will to support Black Catholics in their “number one priority in the inner city...EDUCATION.” “Blacks have demonstrated, picketed, protested, prayed, cried, and believed in the White racist Church in an unfruitful effort to become full human beings and total members of the Church,” local Black sisters and lay leaders said in a statement. “This in itself is a failure on the part of the Church.” Across the country, Black Catholics kept the pressure up.

Since their institutions were usually the first targeted for closure by white-led archdiocesan and diocesan councils in the early years of desegregation, the leaders of Black teaching sisterhoods had been the earliest to recognize and confront the crisis. As the progenitors of Black Catholic education, these orders had built an impressive and mostly accredited network of seventy-five elementary and secondary schools across the United States during Jim Crow. However, between 1954 and 1965 alone, five schools administered by the Oblate Sisters of Providence (OSP), including their St. Rita Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, and seven schools administered by the Sisters of the Holy Family (SSF) closed or merged. While the SSF opened three new educational ministries during that period, two of them in Los Angeles, in 1966 four SSF schools closed, and one in Klotzville, Louisiana, merged with another Black Catholic school, St. Augustine, in 1967.


Because Black nun principals were among the earliest to decry racism in archdiocesan and diocesan decisions to close or merge Black Catholic schools, they were also among the first to experience the white clerical backlash to Black demands for the survival of Black Catholic education. White priests began pressuring Black leadership councils to remove “militant” Black sisters from leadership positions in Catholic schools. Most often, the sisters targeted were NBSC members who emphasized Black pride among their students, joined local protests, and revised their curricula to incorporate and champion Black studies. In 1969, Fr. André Bouchard, the white rector at Saints Paul and Augustine Catholic Church in Washington D.C., penned a letter scolding OSP leader Mother Mary of Good Counsel Baptiste for assigning Sr. Majella Neal as the school’s principal. Bouchard described Neal, a NBSC foundress, as “a woman who has no concern for the community or a willingness to understand it.” While he admitted he was to blame for “a misunderstanding” at the beginning of their relationship, he nonetheless advised Baptiste “to advise and council [sic] Sister Mejella [sic] so that the experience [at Saints Paul and Augustine would] be a fruitful one both for the school and for this community.”

Black-administered Catholic schools like Saints Paul and Augustine were often attached to Black parishes led by white priests who held racially derogatory views of Black people and opposed Black leadership. Historically, Black superiors had counseled their members to find ways to work with paternalistic and hostile white priests to ensure the survival of their schools. However, by 1969, even the most cautious of Black superiors refused to let blatant disrespect for their members by offending white priests go unchallenged.

Baptiste, for example, took exception to Bouchard’s characterization of Neal and her commitment to the Black community. She wrote, “You mention that Sister Mary Majella has no concern for the community or a willingness to understand it. It would be interesting to know the basis for this statement considering the fact that she has been there hardly a month…. There are several sides to every question, Father, and unless we are totally involved it is very difficult to sift the fact from personal opinion.” Moreover, instead of heeding Bouchard’s demand to get Neal in line, Baptiste suggested Bouchard “assist [the OSP] by a real spirit of communication and support.”

An Oblate Sister of Providence with students at St. Pius in Harlem, New York (Photo courtesy of the Oblate Sisters of Providence).

Despite Baptiste’s efforts to assuage tensions, Bouchard and his successor, Fr. Leonard Hurley, continued to harass Neal, forcing her to transfer or risk termination in 1970. Such was also the case for Sr. Marilyn Hopewell, who was forced to transfer from her teaching position at the historically Black Holy Comforter Catholic School in Washington D.C., after several run-ins with a white teacher (formerly a brother) during the same academic year. After Hopewell’s removal and the forced transfers of all five OSP members assigned to Saints Paul and Augustine for the 1969–70 academic year, Black lay Catholics in D.C. protested what they called “the politics of genocide being performed on...the Oblate Sisters by the white hierarchy of Washington, D.C.” Black parents cited the “persistent, sinister pressure...constantly exerted on the black women of the Oblate Order to ‘keep them in their place’ and to ‘whip them into line.’” They also championed the commitment of Neal and Hopewell to the Black community, noting that “those who come under the most merciless attack are the faithful, loyal women who have the courage and stamina to defend the rights and interests of black children.”

One month after members of Baltimore’s Black Catholic Lay Caucus met with the OSP superior to express their concerns over the mistreatment of Black sister principals by white priests, the group held a sit-in at the Josephite headquarters in the city. Since the Josephites’ arrival in the United States, many white members had undermined the leadership of Black Catholic women—especially those whose influence could not be usurped by white religious—in the African American educational apostolate. By 1971, though, many in the Black Catholic community were steadily fighting back. In addition to calling for the Josephites to “make black priests and brothers more visible in black communities,” the protesters demanded the order implement an antiracist and Black awareness training program for all Josephites through the National Office for Black Catholics, support programs for “the development of real Black leadership,” and create a diaconate program “relevant to Black people.” This protest, combined with internal struggles within the Josephites, led to an all-out revolt against white and Black faculty members regarded as “insensitive, irrelevant, white paternalists or as black Uncle Toms.” While some Josephite faculty members were transferred, the failure of the order’s leaders to adopt an antiracist praxis prompted most of its Black seminarians and some white seminarians to defect from the order. Four Black ordained Josephites also resigned during the 1970s, leaving a significant void of Black clerical leadership when the Black community needed it most.

Black lay Catholics also directed significant attention to the increasing retreat of white sisters from inner-city and predominantly Black schools, believing their decisions were racially motivated. While the experiences of Black youth in the increasingly Black inner-city Catholic schools of the North, Midwest, and West were never free of racism and paternalism, many upwardly mobile African American parents still preferred the Catholic system over the public one. This became even more true as select schools led by white sisters began to incorporate Black-studies curricula and some orders stopped barring Black women and girls. However, when in the late 1960s and 1970s many white orders began closing their inner-city and predominantly Black schools and diverting resources to their increasingly suburban schools and academies for white Catholic families, Black Catholic parents protested.

In 1970, for example, Black Catholic parents supported by Fr. Edward McKenna, a white assistant pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church on Chicago’s West Side, publicly charged the Religious Sisters of Mercy with racism after the order unexpectedly announced that it would soon close the parish’s elementary school. While the Mercy leadership in Chicago initially denied the charge in letters to the editors of the city’s newspapers, the evidence and the fight to keep St. Thomas Aquinas open over the next two years revealed that anti-Black racism was indeed the chief driving factor. In a letter to the editor of the News Journal in Chicago, Fr. Michael Rochford, a pastor at Resurrection parish, not only outlined that “the Sisters of Mercy have not been open to, or attracted black vocations” but also pointed out that the order had withdrawn “from neighborhoods when they turned black.” Regarding St. Thomas Aquinas, Rochford noted that “some white schools announced as withdrawal schools have made a ‘deal’ to keep the Sisters.” He also noted that at the white sisters’ initial meeting with Black Catholic parents, they “admitted...that they could not get their Sisters to teach at black schools,” and that this was “the real reason” behind the proposed closure. While there were notable cases of white sisters taking public stands against racism in white Catholic schools and unnecessary withdrawals from inner-city schools in the 1970s, white congregations by and large made minimal commitments to preserving Catholic schools in inner-city communities at a moment when Black parents regularly proved to be their most passionate champions. In one highly publicized exception from 1971, ten Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters assigned to the all-white St. Raymond School in Detroit resigned in protest after the white parish council admitted that they did not want the school to close chiefly because it might lead to a decline in local property values, forcing people to leave and letting “undesirables...move in.”

Although Black congregations remained firmly committed to the survival of Black Catholic education, their institutions’ financial vulnerability and their own legacy of strategic accommodation to white racism placed Black leadership councils in increasingly precarious positions. Faced with strident white opposition to Black self-determination and clerical pressure to clamp down on outspoken Black sisters, some Black superiors soon proved unwilling to support militant and creative struggles to preserve Black Catholic education. However, individual Black sisters kept up the pressure. Working within Black Catholic organizations and in alliance with white-led sister organizations opposed to white flight, Black sisters rallied to keep remaining inner-city and Black Catholic schools open by any means necessary. And as the 1970s continued to unfold, this increasingly meant advocating for community control.

This excerpt is adapted from “‘No Schools, No Churches!’: The Fight to Save Black Catholic Education in the 1970s,” in Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle, pp. 200-230. Copyright 2022, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, and the Publisher.


Love & Common Sense

I thank my good friend Paul Lakeland for his response to my piece on Margaret Renkl. Although he suggests otherwise, we are in agreement in thinking that the Catholic understanding of sexuality and sexual morality has changed over time. I welcome such change but, unlike Lakeland, I also think it must be more continuous with traditional Catholic beliefs, including beliefs about gender.

Lakeland argues that we need to “step away from outdated anthropology and trust our God-given eyes.” That, of course, is what contemporary culture urges us to do all the time. One of the things I value about Catholicism is how it questions what I am inclined to think or predisposed to see or want. There is still much of value in the Church’s traditional anthropology, which after all places a high value on self-abnegating love and abiding commitments. Lakeland celebrates what Johann Baptist Metz called Catholicism’s “productive non-contemporaneity,” but it is not clear where Lakeland thinks that countercultural perspective ought to apply. Not to sexual ethics or identity politics, evidently, nor to ecclesiology, as far as I can tell. 

The invocation of love does not trump Scripture and tradition.

The scientific analogies Lakeland deploys are not very useful in thinking about sexual morality. What new telescope allows us to see human sexuality more clearly than our ancestors did? Homosexuality, after all, has existed since the beginnings of the human race; it is not a modern discovery. Yes, we now have more knowledge of how the body works but, if our current sexual confusions are any indication, no more knowledge of the human heart. When Lakeland writes that “common sense says that human beings know how to employ sexual relations responsibly,” I wonder what planet he is living on. Something closer to the opposite seems to be the truth, today as in the past. The Church has not always been right on these issues, but it has been more often right than wrong on how easily all of us deceive ourselves about sex, love, and many other things. We live in a broken world, and human nature itself is broken and in need of redemption. That, at least, is the traditional teaching. The invocation of love does not trump Scripture and tradition. Love is the excuse of every adulterous couple; love of country the justification for countless crimes. As I note in my most recent column, love was the reason Amy Bloom helped her husband commit suicide. I do not doubt the authenticity of that love, but I do question what she did in the name of it. I welcome the sort of interrogation the Church offers when I am inclined to think my desires or ambitions are my business alone and affect no one else.

Obviously, Genesis is not a scientific text. But the “biological distinctions” found in Genesis, which Lakeland considers theologically trivial, pervade Scripture and Church teaching. Heterosexual marriage is the metaphor used to describe God’s love of Israel and the relationship between Christ and the Church. Sacramental marriage itself is understood to participate in the mystery of Christ’s love for his Church. In Revelation, the coming of the Kingdom of God is described as a wedding day. (Talk about productive non-contemporaneity!) Setting all of this aside as just so much outdated anthropology, or as an instance of sexualizing the Godhead, turns much of the Church’s teaching and plain language upside down. Such an approach stymies, rather than advances, reform.

Finally, as I wrote in my piece on Renkl’s recent NYT columns, different Catholic communities will come to terms with same-sex marriage in different ways. I proposed that we wait and see which communities flourish. Lakeland is impatient with that sort of gradualism; he thinks I can’t see the forest for the trees. I just don’t want to see a lot of old trees cut down before we inspect the saplings that are supposed to replace them.

Pressure at the Seam

It is sometimes argued that every story has already been told, that all the narratives can be reduced to something we’ve heard before—star-crossed lovers, hubristic self-destruction, disillusionment with youthful ideals. For many, this is the draw of literature and film: the hope that through the embellishments of setting or character we might catch a glimpse of our own plot. Simple reiteration is undeniably a human impulse. We see it in folk tales, myths, and the Gospels.

We also see it in literary fiction. The twentieth-century novel has running through it a thick thread that is distinctly Christian, and one fiber of this thread is a particular kind of story retold in many books and films over the past century—that of a Church leader under pressure at the seam where the modern world and an ancient faith come together like two tectonic plates.

It would be wrong to suggest that any version of this story is an exact retelling of any other. Each reimagines and borrows from earlier versions. The overlaps can be as small and local as an echoed phrase, or as large and general as a character or a theme. But there are some reliable markers: a pastor failing to connect with his or her flock from the pulpit, struggling with lust, alcohol, depression, or bodily illness, and ultimately confronting a crisis of faith.

Among the most recent examples of this kind of story is Hanne Ørstavik’s 2004 novel The Pastor, which was translated into English by Martin Aitken and published last year by Archipelago Books. Ørstavik’s novel begins in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer at a church in a remote fishing village in northern Norway. Despite being a fairly new arrival, Liv, the pastor, is already disillusioned not only with the job but with herself. Her sense of uncertainty is due in part to how she came to her vocation, having abandoned a theology doctorate after the sudden death of an intimate friend, Kristiane. Liv’s self-consciousness is potent: even as she administers the Eucharist to the members of her congregation, she recalls her embarrassment at the boredom she put them through during her first sermon, when she spoke for half an hour until people eventually started to get up and leave.

This scene is familiar: versions of it appear in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light, which begins with Pastor Tomas Ericsson looking out onto a nearly empty church, ready to perform the Eucharistic rites. Paul Schrader’s 2017 film, First Reformed, opens the same way. Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest begins with its title character reflecting that his parish is “like all the rest. They’re all alike. Those of to-day,” by which he means plagued by the “leprosy of boredom.”

These pastors are balanced on the cusp between hope and despair, and they struggle to keep their balance not with saintly equanimity, but with fumbling, strained humanity.

The plots of these books and films are driven by the pastor’s interactions with his or her parishioners, and it is a given that one of the pastor’s main duties is to quell the anxieties of the faithful by helping them confess their sins to God. But these stories are about a modern age in which the faithful have secular anxieties and approach their pastors not to confess their sins but to demand answers for their questions about a world from which God often feels absent. These pastors, themselves not immune from such doubt, are balanced on the cusp between hope and despair, and they struggle to keep their balance not with saintly equanimity, but with fumbling, strained humanity.

This fumbling is especially painful when the ordained protagonist is called upon to provide solace to the bereaved after a suicide, a plot point that becomes a through line for these narratives. In such moments, we sense that the pastors do not even believe their own empty words of comfort. In Winter Light, Ericsson, in an attempt to reassure a suicidal man, can do nothing but talk of his own doubt: “If there is no God, would it really make a difference?”

The impenetrable solitude evoked by suicide is counterbalanced by a second challenge facing the pastor in the form of a looming societal evil. For Bergman, it’s an ambient dread of the atomic bomb; for Bernanos, the past tragedy of World War I and the imminence of the second; for Schrader, climate change. For Ørstavik, it’s the past and present oppression of the indigenous Sami people by settlers in the north of Norway.


Liv feels alienated not only from her parish but also from her past. As a university student, she gave up her studies in social economics because she was unable to find meaning in the subject, as “the variables in the economic models were trucks that drove this way and that, shifting their crates and pallets, great stacks that were wrapped up and sealed, meaning I couldn’t see what was inside.” There’s no sense of her spiritual life before her conversion scene, which is brief and relatively quiet: caught in the rain while walking across campus, she stops for a moment and then heads straight to a lecture in the department of theology, an academic subject for which she admits she does not have a natural aptitude. Even now she has only this to say about why she chose it when she did: “The ground just caved in beneath me.”

Her inner turmoil—insofar as the reader is allowed to glimpse it—has less to do with God than with the few people in her life: Nanna, a woman who lives in the pastor’s residence, and her daughters, a teenager named Maja and a young girl named Lillen, who form a kind of adoptive family for Liv. As they grow closer to her, their own demons become apparent. Liv is haunted by her memories of Kristiane. There are no indications of any intimacy beyond friendship, but there was undeniably an intensity of feeling between them. The relationship (lasting just forty days—a detail rather too on the nose) shaped Liv’s perception of herself as an intellectually driven person unable to connect with people emotionally. Kristiane, an exuberant empath, eventually took her own life, prompting Liv’s departure north.

Hanne Orstavik, 2019 (Agence Opale/Alamy Stock Photo)

There is also a faceless character in the novel who persistently agitates Liv’s consciousness. This particular region of Norway is home to the Sami, a community of Norwegians descended from aboriginal people. The Sami have been oppressed by the state’s efforts to force them to assimilate and the Church’s efforts to force them to convert. Liv’s dissertation had drawn on the correspondence between a bishop and a pastor in the time leading up to and during the 1852 Kautokeino Rebellion, when the Sami people of the area staged a violent uprising after years of suffering physical abuse and disruptions to their community caused by the introduction of alcohol. Pages of this correspondence appear in italics between the novel’s scenes, the pastor’s cruel condescension rattling like hollow wind through the text.

Both of Liv’s vocations, pastoring and scholarship, are logocentric in way that bothers her:

I’d always found it silly, the idea that you can make things happen with words alone. There has to be something else, something more. Words need to encounter something other than words if they’re to be meaningful, they have to emerge from something in life, something that comes from within, or at least from some other place, something that can lend them fullness and weight.

Both her sermons and her dissertation—and the letters on which her dissertation is based—are impotent words. They make nothing happen. Liv struggles to reconcile her profession of belief at church with the world as she experiences it.

But is Liv really a believer? Ørstavik carefully rations the reader’s access to Liv’s inner life in a way that makes this question hard to answer. After a frustrating conversation with Kristiane about her research, Liv thinks, “It was more the feeling that I was so alone with it, alone within it. Alone in something that was so important to me. That was the reason for my despair, I’d felt utterly alone. That was what she hadn’t seen.” But readers can only see what we are shown, and much of Kristiane’s experience remains unavailable to us. Ørstavik, like Bergman, makes use of the Nordic landscape to set a frigid emotional tone. “The flat, open vista seemed to make everything so plain, but still felt like I couldn’t get a hold on anything, as if I was so very far away.” Ørstavik’s writing can be like this vista: the untroubled glassy surface of the prose is deceptive; it does not provide a clear window through which to see into the heart or soul of Liv. The unrelenting cold of the novel’s setting becomes a symbol of the barrage of tragedies that confront Liv in her ministry—among them the suicide of an adolescent girl. Liv’s fumbling attempts to minister to the girl’s parents are met with a clipped “We are not church people.”


The younger priest isn’t satisfied with comforting his parishioners; he also wants to educate them.

The Pastor’s literary lineage can be traced back to the 1936 novel The Diary of a Country Priest. Near the beginning of that book, the young priest of the title, newly installed at a parish in a remote French village called Ambricourt, identifies the enemy of his vocation: boredom, which settles over everything “like a dust.” He recognizes that boredom has always been a factor in humanity’s dissatisfaction, but wonders if the condition has become more intense in his own time—an acrid apathy rising from the body of “Christianity in decay.”

The young priest is sincere, if more than a little self-serious. He is thrown into relief by M. le Curé, an older priest painted in shades of Falstaff. M. le Curé enjoys telling his younger colleague about a time when priests lived comfortably and ate well. (The younger priest, meanwhile, is sustaining himself on rotgut wine and the occasional hunk of bread, the consequence of poor pay and a familial background of poverty.) But the decadence of priesthood past, M. le Curé argues—in the first of many long speeches recorded in the young priest’s diary—was preferable to current poverty in that it provided a sense of vicarious comfort to those in the pews. And it’s comfort above all, he argues, that a good parish priest provides to his flock. He does this through his daily ministry and through example, not just his preaching. “You don’t expect the church to teach them joy in one wretched half-hour a week, do you? And even if they knew all the articles of the Council of Trent by heart, I doubt it would cheer them up very much.”

But the younger priest isn’t satisfied with comforting his parishioners; he also wants to educate them. He rides his bike from house to house, offering spiritual guidance (often to wearily tolerant listeners). He is able to bring a countess who had strayed from the Church back to her faith over the course of a long conversation, one of the novel’s major set pieces. Yet, like Liv, he has his own doubts. He writes in his diary that he is aware “of an invisible presence which surely could not be God—rather a friend made in my image, although distinct from me, a separate entity.” In his biography of Bernanos, Robert Speaight quotes a letter in which Bernanos says only that his priest “will have served God in exact proportion to his belief that he has served Him badly. His naïveté will win out in the end, and he will die peacefully of a cancer.”

There are two doctors in Bernanos’s novel. Near the beginning, the first commits suicide, and in doing so puts a crack in the priest’s spiritual confidence; he begins to worry about loss of faith, while also deriding the whole concept of losing faith as “one of those sayings of bourgeois piety.” Yet after the suicide, he admits, “In my soul nothing. God is silent.” His fatal cancer is diagnosed by an anticlerical doctor who turns out to be an opium addict. However little solace faith may offer, science, represented by medicine, offers none.

Robert Bresson would adapt Bernanos’s novel to film in 1951. In 1963, Ingmar Bergman made Winter Light, a film with many similarities to The Diary of a Country Priest. Bergman’s Pastor Ericsson is a man made cruel by grief, and wracked by his own religious doubts. Bergman’s plot is far sparer than Bernanos’s or Ørstavik’s; it occurs over a single day and follows one set of doomed parishioners—a pregnant woman and her husband, a man driven to suicide by his despair at the threat of nuclear war. What it means to take one’s own life, and what might lead a person to do so, are questions in the background of all three of these works. The questions are never directly asked—much less answered—but the reader hears their thrum behind much of the dialogue.

Ethan Hawke in ‘First Reformed’ (AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Explicitly remarked upon are the worldly concerns that plague the lonely pastor and his flock, concerns that shift to align with the moment in which these books and movies were released. War’s evil effects, rippling ever outward, are felt throughout The Diary of a Country Priest, which was written on the cusp of World War II. In Winter Light, it’s the atomic bomb. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (which quotes directly from The Diary and borrows heavily from Winter Light) follows a minister and a churchgoer both radicalized by ecoterrorism. One of the protagonist’s final conversations in The Diary is with a veteran of World War I, who savagely dresses Christendom down for ceding to modern politics and the attendant thirst for war, declaring, “You’ve secularized us. The first real secularization was that of the soldier. And it’s some time ago now.”

Like Bernanos’s book, The Pastor suggests that science provides no satisfactory solution to our existential problems. The science that Liv is skeptical of is not medical but social. She has turned away from economics to study theology because the economic model of understanding human behavior seems to her too certain of itself. Ørstavik appears to share this skeptical view of the science, which cannot, for example, correct for the depth of the injustices the Sami people have been made to suffer. Unfortunately for Liv, however, theology also seems powerless to redeem those injustices. “Wasn’t that what the Bible said? That they [the Sami] were equal unto others? Shouldn’t they then be heard?...But it didn’t work that way.”

There is no theology that can articulate with sufficient intimacy and nuance the sense of disillusionment these characters feel.

How best to describe succinctly what these books and films have in common? Is it an argument, a mood, or just a common set of circumstances? The ministers in all these stories are caught in the liminal space between belief and unbelief that we know as doubt. This doubt finds expression through art because there is no theology that can articulate with sufficient intimacy and nuance the sense of disillusionment these characters feel. It cannot be resolved, systematically, doctrinally, or otherwise. Narrative art, whether novels or movies, offers an honest depiction of the spiritual displacement of modernity, and gives voice to its intense loneliness. And though such art foregoes easy resolutions and consolations, it does not refuse hope. Bergman ends his film with Pastor Ericsson once again in his pulpit, though his pews are empty. Bernanos’s novel ends with his young priest’s dying words: “What does it matter? All is Grace.” In The Pastor’s final scene, Liv dons her vestments, “scared that there was no truth,” that she is binding herself in “layer upon layer of something that wasn’t truthful, until at last I’d be unable to extricate myself”—and then extends her hand to the bereaved mother. Winter Light “penetrated certainty,” in Bergman’s words, but what Liv is looking for is not certainty exactly. In any case, certainty is not available to any of these characters; they are all too mired in the muck of this world, no less so than the people to whom they minister.

It’s a troubling tension familiar to many religious believers today, as they try to fit an ancient faith into a modern world that often seems to have no room for it. They look to stories to aid them in this task, and the stories that succeed neither pretty up nor condemn our modern world, but in their honesty continue to hold our attention. On Manhattan’s Upper East Side, there is a Dominican church where one of the friars will often stand on the steps smoking a cigarette, dressed in his cassock. Passersby notice him and double-take with a smile at the sight of him, a visible conjunction of the ancient and modern, his nonchalant stance evoking both the relics of Christendom and smoky barrooms. A faint glimpse of all that exists where those two worlds meet lingers like the wisp of smoke from his fingertips.


Joyful Palms & Crying Stones

As a child, Palm Sunday was always a highly anticipated event for me. My parents would buy an elaborate palm-weaving from a street vendor outside our San Bernardino, California, parish. The church would be packed with people standing in the aisles and the narthex, with the overflow spilling out of the doors. All had gathered to experience, within one liturgy, Jesus’ triumphant, joyful entrance and the heartbreak of his passion. My siblings and I, having collected single palms, would wave them during Mass as holy water came sprinkling down, and we’d laugh when it landed on our faces. My mother would always make sure it had reached us, and on those rare occasions when we hadn’t felt it, she’d wipe drops from her own skin and bless us. (After Mass, my father would help us weave our palms into crosses that for the next year we’d keep in our rooms.) My siblings and I enjoyed the first half of the liturgy more than the second half, when the community’s mood would become somber upon Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Our joy was innocent. We were happy because we were children. As I got older, I began to see the joy of the procession with palms through the lens of the injustice in our world, the same injustice that leads to Jesus’ crucifixion.

The Gospel reading at the procession with palms this Sunday is from Luke. It concludes with the following:  

[The disciples] proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to [Jesus], “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19: 38-40)

A brief look at the New Jerome Biblical Commentary will tell you that when Jesus responds, “if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” he is referencing Habakkuk 2:11. The prophet Habakkuk calls to God, expressing woe over the injustice and violence of the time. God responds to Habakkuk with a rebuke of tyrants and their motivations, and says, “For the stone in the wall shall cry out, and the beam in the frame shall answer it!” The decrying of injustice and violence perpetuated by tyrants cannot be contained, and in the same way, the joy of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem cannot be contained. 

The disciples are joyful precisely because they have witnessed much pain.

The disciples’ praise and joyful proclamation is also a witness to the injustice and violence that the “king who comes in the name of the Lord” has come to defeat. Jesus’ response—“if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”—reminds us that we joyfully praise Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem because, on Palm Sunday, God has heard our expressions of woe. I’m reminded of something Saint Oscar Romero said: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” The Pharisees in the crowd who ask Jesus to rebuke the disciples are unable to see the Messiah before them, since they have gained wealth and power through injustice and violence that the disciples have cried over. But the disciples are joyful precisely because they have witnessed much pain.

Palm Sunday teaches us that joyful praise and woeful tears can be one in the same. Both are acts of faith and expressions of hope in a new way of being. Silence in this case would amount to hopelessness. Lent is intended to prepare us for a new life in the resurrection.  We are invited at the end of this Lenten season to be silent no more. If one chooses to remain silent in the face of injustices, the truth of these injustices will inevitably be revealed because Jesus’ salvation is one of liberation.

When I see children laugh during the sprinkling rite on Palm Sunday, I think of the importance of childlike vulnerability that the Easter Season invites us to surrender to. This vulnerability reminds us that our lives are dependent on our creator, and that the present moment is a moment of joy because we are children of the Divine. The joyful procession with palms reminds us of the Resurrection. Though the Palm Sunday liturgy ends in sorrow, sorrow is not the end.

This is the fifth in a series of reflections for each Sunday in Lent. You can read the others here.

Never Again, Again

On the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in 1965, in the middle of a historic visit to New York City, Pope Paul VI ascended the rostrum before the United Nations General Assembly and summoned the world to peace. The visit came two and a half years after John XXIII’s Pacem in terris refashioned the Catholic social and ethical lexicon, and two decades, almost to the day, after the 1945 establishment of the UN itself. The pope ended his address by invoking the refrain of mourning and determination that became a global mantra after the Holocaust and served as the UN’s raison d’être: “Never again.” Speaking, he declared, on behalf of both living and dead—the victims and survivors of war, the poor and disinherited, the youth who dream of a better world—the pope issued a solemn call for an end to armed conflict:

Never again the one against the other! Never again! Nevermore!… It suffices to remember that the blood of millions, that numberless and unheard-of sufferings, useless slaughter and frightful ruin, are the sanction of the pact which unites you, with an oath that must change the future history of the world: No more war, never again war! Peace, it is peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind!

The speech’s tone was humble and determined, permeated by faith in the possibility of international goodwill and human progress. It bore the same sense of open-palmed, non-defensive solidarity with the world that, two months later, would suffuse Gaudium et spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Before the UN, Paul previewed a phrase he would later include in Populorum progressio, calling the Church an “expert on humanity” ready to offer its humane, integral vision of peace and dignity to a world laboring to make itself new.

Soon after the 1965 visit, Time-Life Books produced a special edition commemorating the whirlwind, daylong papal trip to New York. Among other things, the volume included an English-language transcript of the UN address, which appeared alongside Life magazine photos documenting armed conflicts unfolding around the world. Opposite the final page of text, a full-page, black-and-white image shows U.S. Marines trudging past a North Vietnamese man lying on his back, dead in the sand. His half-closed eyes gaze outward, his fingertips graze his abdomen; he wears shorts and a button-down shirt; he is barefoot.

The commemorative publication heralded Paul VI’s visit to the UN as a “call to conscience.” The juxtaposition of his elegant plea for world peace with images of intractable war was meant to evoke the urgency of this call. Seen through the eyes of history, however, it also suggests a tragic irony. At the top of the page, an italicized pull-quote declares, “The hour has come for a halt.” The Vietnam War would rage for another decade. In the end, it gave way not to peace but to desolation and generations of haunted dreams.

The summer after the pope came to the UN, British-American poet Denise Levertov completed “Life at War,” which she composed in response to the Vietnam War. The poem laments war’s numbing effect, the banality with which we—she writes in the first-person plural—have trained ourselves to regard images of death and dismemberment and innocent suffering, our resistance to the horror-response they ought to evoke in us, our willingness to mollify our consciences by entertaining the supposed necessity of the whole thing. “The disasters numb within us / caught in the chest, rolling / in the brain like pebbles,” the poem begins. One can only imagine what Levertov, who died in 1997, would think of the modern newsfeed—or, more accurately, of the doomscroll reflex with which we imbibe images of war today.

War reaches into the future to destroy a world not yet born.

Three stanzas in, she writes, “the same war / continues.” Every war is the same war, Levertov seems to suggest. Interpreted primarily as a commentary on Americans’ willingness to depersonalize overseas conflict, there’s a temptation to read in these lines a cynical desperation: it’s just one far-away horror after another. But Levertov’s work rejects cynicism in the same way that Paul VI’s UN plea for peace requires a level of earnestness that today feels inconceivable. I take Levertov to mean something different: every war is made, ultimately, from the same stuff. The monsters of war shapeshift here and there, like a rash that appears on the face, then the hands, then years later on the back—not three different rashes, as you had thought, but the same rash, fruit of the same subdermal virus, breaking out all over, receding from view but never gone.

It is wrenching to revisit Paul VI’s UN address today, as Russian missiles rip through Ukrainian neighborhoods, flattening schools and theaters and maternity wards. Thousands are dying and millions are fleeing their homes in a war of aggression that feels catastrophically tailor-made to set off a domino effect of global conflict and, impossibly, to dredge up the same nuclear anxieties behind the nearly six-decade-old papal address. For Paul VI, and seemingly for Levertov, there is nothing that can be said of one war that cannot be said of every war. In this sense, Russia’s bombing of a Mariupol maternity hospital on March 9 serves as an apt, nauseating metaphor for war itself. War reaches into the future to destroy a world not yet born. The only hope for humanity is peace.

But, however prescient as they were, Paul’s words also feel like a space-age vestige of some past future, an artifact that belongs in the same aesthetic category as Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and Corita Kent lithographs and the UN headquarters. 1965 was hardly a simpler time: when, midway through the address, Paul refers to “those terrible weapons that modern science has given you”—weapons that “produce nightmares” even before they “produce victims and ruins”—he is calling to mind the acute possibility of global nuclear annihilation. Yet I am struck by how thoroughly we—Levertov’s we—have lost the taste for world peace. We know too much and too little. Indeed, throughout decades of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, Americans heard remarkably little about peace, even aspirationally. In a post-9/11 world, the other side of war was not peace but merely less-visible war, war that was drone-operated and remote and ignorable, where the sort of conscience-stirring images to which Levertov alludes are kept far away from the front page.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has rendered such examinations of conscience inescapable. And because this is so, the times demand of us what, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, we might term a second naïveté about peace—a re-embrace of the thing that we once felt too wise and world-weary to allow ourselves to keep wanting. In stirring video addresses to his compatriots and world leaders, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seems to be coaxing the world toward precisely that kind of embrace. Of course, his immediate aims are more concrete: come to our assistance; look at the truth of what is happening here. But behind these strategic demands lies a deeper, spiritual plea, one captured in the final lines of Levertov’s poem:

nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.

The time is right to retrieve world peace from the punchlines of Miss America jokes and restore it, unabashedly, to its rightful place atop the wildest dreams and highest aspirations and most zealous prayers of humankind.


Created to Love

I agree with a lot of what Paul Baumann says in his rebuke of Margaret Rankl for being too liberal (“From the Church to the Woods,” March 23, 2022). First and foremost is his challenge to her decision to leave behind a community of faith she liked and a pastor who preached fine homilies in favor of a walk in the woods. There is nothing wrong with communing with nature, but it misses the Catholic point that from the first moment of creation of humanity we are beings-in-relation. Hence, we encounter God as members of a community, not as individuals, disgruntled or otherwise. Catholics gain what spiritual strength they have from their local parish community much more than from the global Church. Even John Paul II thought that the hope of the Church lay in the best of U.S. Catholic parishes, though the International Commission on English in the Liturgy of some years ago threw out the tradition by returning to the Credo of “I believe,” abandoning the much more theologically solid “we.”

Baumann is also right that it is just too easy to dismiss difficult or sensitive and also probably conflicted issues because they do not fit some time-conditioned version of liberalism. There is something to be said for Johann Baptist Metz’s insistence that the genius of the Catholic view of things lies in its “productive non-contemporaneity.”

I am not so sure, however, that Baumann gets it right when he asks, “How is one to make sense of Catholicism’s traditional anthropology and sexual ethics if marriage, long solemnized as an act performed by ‘a man and a woman’ before God, is no longer defined by such God-given identities?” Phrasing his question this way might seem eminently sensible until we recognize that it is the wrong question. Let me rephrase it: “How is one to make sense of Catholicism’s traditional anthropology and sexual ethics if marriage, long solemnized as an act performed by ‘a man and a woman’ before God, is no longer defined by the biological distinctions found in the creation story of Genesis?”

It seems to me a mistake to assume that sexual ethics can be tied to an “unchanging” anthropology.

I am afraid that the short answer is that we cannot, not because we are liberals but because we respect the advance of scientific understanding. When we ask the question this way, we are forced to ask about the valence of “traditional anthropology.” Is anthropology impervious to or absolved from the historical process? If not, should the male/female identities as Baumann here seems to understand them be so confidently described as “God-given”? It seems to me a mistake to assume that sexual ethics can be tied to an “unchanging” anthropology. Sexual ethics depends upon anthropology, for sure, on our understanding of what it is to be a human being. Philosophical or theological anthropology is no more immune to changing historical understanding than was geocentrism, or indeed than was the heliocentrism that replaced it for a time. What is unchanging in the vision of Genesis is to be found in the theological truth that human beings are dependent upon a creator God, who chose to make them in the divine image and likeness. The rest of the story, the details, are what the author of Genesis lays upon the Creator, extrapolating from what the author or authors knew to be the case in their own times to the origins of life billions of years before. When science comes to understand more fully what it is to be human, science is not disproving our dependence on a creator God; rather, it is advancing our knowledge of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

Among the salient historical facts of our present moment that seem to require an adjustment to Christian anthropology are two of great importance. First, men and women who have same-sex sexual attraction are following their natural inclinations, and seem in all or almost all respects to live and function in our modern world in precisely the same way as do their heterosexual fellow citizens. A corollary to this is the fact that sexual activity has been decoupled from procreation. The instinct-driven sex drive of the animal world has now found its way to the opportunity for truly human responsible sexual choices. Biology says that sexual intercourse between men and women tends towards procreation. Catholic theology has said for a very long time that sexual intercourse that is not open to the possibility of procreation is objectively sinful. Common sense says that human beings know how to employ sexual relations responsibly, whether in the service of procreation or in that of loving intimacy and mutual sexual pleasure.

Second, it is beyond dispute that same-sex relationships, whether blessed by ritual or not, are marked by loving mutuality just about as much as heterosexual relationships are. One of the most momentous changes in our world today is that there is what is still a relatively new openness about sexual identity, in consequence of which we all know men and women who are gay or lesbian or transgender, and we can see that they are not better or worse than anyone else, and that they succeed or fail in life in about the same percentages. In other words, they are normal in all the important ways. And nothing is more normal than the wish to love and to be loved.

When we bring these two thoughts together, and we insist on the Creator’s intent to make human beings in the divine image and likeness of God—an image that is neither gendered nor sexualized—and on the impossibility of frustrating that divine will, it is surely clear that to be made in the divine image is to be created to love. Wherever there is genuine love, there is God. When we step away from outdated anthropology and trust our God-given eyes, there is no rational way to deny that genuine love is not confined to heterosexual relationships. If the Church were to reflect on these facts, both the biological and the theological, it might find its way to celebrating loving unions wherever it is fortunate enough to find them.

Escaping the Straitjacket

Nouvelle théologie is not exactly a household term, except perhaps in some Commonweal-reading households. A report on “new theological currents” in France first appeared in L’Osservatore Romano in 1942. “New” was not then a favorable adjective in theology, and the nouvelle théologie was soon under full-scale attack in Rome. 

Associated with Jesuit scholars like Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou and Dominicans like Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu, the nouvelle théologie was condemned by the encyclical Humani generis in 1950 and further impugned a few years later by the Vatican’s suppression of the French worker-priest movement. Despite these setbacks, the work of the nouveaux théologiens managed a subterranean survival, influencing German theologians like Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, the Belgian Edward Schillebeeckx, and the father of liberation theology Gustavo Gutiérrez. Ultimately it proved to be the chief theological wellspring of Vatican II.  

It is this drama of innovation, condemnation, persistence, and vindication that sums up what many Catholics know about the nouvelle théologie, whether or not they recognize the term or what exactly it entailed. For Catholics advocating further changes in the Church, the drama has planted the hope of future acceptance and vindication. For Catholics embattled against the council or what has been wrought in its name, the lesson, ironically, is much the same.  

Soldiers of God in a Secular World, subtitled “Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics,” superbly expands our knowledge of the nouvelle théologie and corrects this simple morality tale. The book describes a movement begun in exile and youthful rebellion, tested in clandestine anti-Nazi resistance, and shaken by political turmoil and ecclesiastical opprobrium before eventually remaking the face of the Catholic Church. 

At the center of Sarah Shortall’s history is the heroic action, in 1941, of a group of Jesuits who launched the clandestine publication Témoignage chrétien warning France’s Catholics against “losing your soul” to the pro-Nazi regime of Marshal Pétain’s National Revolution. Reinforcing a web of other resistance activities, Témoignage campaigned relentlessly against the anti-Semitism, nationalism, and authoritarianism of the Vichy government and the Nazi occupation. This witness, Shortall writes, “was the logical extension of the theologicalwork that de Lubac and his friends had been doing since the 1920s and 1930s”—work that began in exile and rebellion. 

The exile was literal. Stung by Catholic monarchist opposition to France’s Third Republic, then later outraged by right-wing Catholic militancy during the Dreyfus Affair, France’s anti-clerical leaders banished the Jesuits and Dominicans, along with other religious orders, from the country. Young Jesuits had to begin their journey to the priesthood on the Channel island of Jersey, Dominicans across the border in Belgium.

The rebellion was intellectual—and spiritual. Although isolated in their separate institutions, these seminarians were united in frustration with the neo-scholasticism that dominated their training. Hardened in post-Reformation and Enlightenment polemics, and now cemented in place by Rome’s purge of “modernists,” this neo-scholasticism was a derivative form of Thomism. In the eyes of these future theologians, it was ahistorical. Its almost Euclidean rationalism had no place for human subjectivity and the active inquiring mind. It was closed to religious  experience and mystery. And it unwittingly reinforced the secularization it was meant to combat. The high wall of separation that neo-scholasticism erected between the natural realm of reason and the supernatural realm of grace may have been intended to protect the Church’s prerogatives in matters of faith, but it did so at the cost of rendering Christian faith otherworldly, private, individualist, and increasingly evacuated from public life. In France, moreover, the sharp distinction between natural and supernatural was used to justify the pragmatic alliance of Catholics with the anti-parliamentary and anti-Semitic Action Française, headed by the Comtean non-believer Charles Maurras.

To what extent could Catholics work with secular institutions and ideologies to achieve their ends?

Breaking out of this neo-scholastic straitjacket meant engaging currents of modern philosophy, both nineteenth-century masters from Hegel to Kierkegaard and contemporary thinkers like Bergson, Blondel, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Georges Bataille, and Raymond Aron. Above all, breaking out meant delving into the earlier sources of Catholic tradition, particularly the Fathers of the Church in the case of Jesuits like de Lubac and Daniélou, and the original writings and historical context of Aquinas in the case of Dominicans like Chenu and Congar. This ressourcement, which eventually became the basis for the aggiornamento of Vatican II, revealed a Church more mystical, biblical, sacramental, and Eucharistic than juridical, institutional, and Aristotelian; more communal than hierarchical; more embedded in the flux of history than immutable; more engaged in the struggles of its times than standing in judgment over them.   
It was this “new”—although in truth often old—theology that brought these theologians under suspicion in the 1950s but a decade later made them the braintrusters of Vatican II. But what did it have to do with politics? 

For Shortall, the “key question” these “soldiers of God in a secular world” confronted was “not whether to embrace modernity but which aspects of the modern settlement were compatible with Catholic teaching. To what extent could Catholics work with secular institutions and ideologies to achieve their ends? Conversely, how could they articulate an explicitly Catholic vision of community and human life without excluding non-Catholics?”

Shortall, it must be said, is much more focused on the negative than the positive side of this challenge: avoiding compromise and corruption rather than articulating a vision and pursuing it effectively. That emphasis has a lot to do with the three episodes she highlights. The first one, the Catholic attraction to Action Française, was already half resolved before the nouveaux théologiens came into their own. Although Pope Pius XI had condemned Maurras and his movement in 1926–27, controversy about his action continued to roil French Catholicism. The second episode was the temptation of Catholics to welcome the Vichy regime’s National Revolution as, in the phrase of Maurras, a “divine surprise” that finally routed their Third Republic adversaries. The third episode was the debate about whether to grasp the “outstretched hand” that the Communist party and Marxist intellectuals had periodically extended to left-wing Catholics since 1936 in the name of solidarity with the working-class and anti-capitalist revolution.  

Shortall traces two distinct theological responses to these challenges, and in doing so enriches our understanding of the nouvelle théologie’s complexity. One response was patristic and eschatological in character, the other was Thomistic and incarnational. The former, associated with the Jesuits of Témoignage, measured Catholic political engagement against the eschatological horizon of divine judgment and human fulfillment in Christ’s second coming. The latter response, associated with the Dominicans and especially their support for the post-war ministries to the unchurched like the worker-priest movement, stressed the incarnational presence of grace in human structures and milieus beyond the reach of the Church.

This is a division with important theological and political implications. Shortall is clearly a fan of Team Jesuit, the real protagonists of her book. The Dominican nouveaux théologiens are definitely the second string. Their incarnational emphasis was also compromised, as Shortall tells it, because, like Thomism itself, it came in several flavors, some of which were used in support of unsavory alliances, whether with Action Française, Vichy, or the Communist party. 

Recounting this theological complexity is essential for understanding the nouvelle théologie. But Shortall is arguing a point beyond that. Only by including theology and theological categories in their scholarly toolkits can historians achieve a full understanding of French political and intellectual life—indeed, of modern Europe generally.

Reading Soldiers of God struck a strong personal note in me. On page six, I encountered, for the first time in decades, the name Yves de Montcheuil. In the summer of 1960, between my first and second years of college, I was working on trucks delivering wooden cases of 7 Up to supermarkets, snack shops, and mom-and-pop grocery stores in the Chicago area. During the commute to work and downtime on the trucks, I was reading Montcheuil’s A Guide to Social Action, a staple of our Young Christian Students circle. Retrieved (miraculously!) from my shelves sixty-plus years and a half-dozen moves later, the booklet sits before me as I write, along with Montcheuil’s slightly longer For Men of Action. In 1960 I was alert to John XXIII’s announcement of a council, but I’m sure that I had never heard the word ressourcement or even eschatology. How exactly Montcheuil influenced my lifetime of trying to link faith and politics I cannot say exactly, but I have no doubt that he did. A close friend of de Lubac and a core member of the Témoignage resistance, Montcheuil is rarely mentioned among the nouveaux théologiens who influenced Vatican II. That is understandable. He was shot by the Gestapo in 1944.

Like any groundbreaking book, Soldiers of God stirs questions and the desire to know more. This is definitely a book about the nouvelle théologie, not the nouveaux théologiens. I longed to know more about these men beyond their common revolt against an outworn neo-scholasticism. What were their various temperaments and personal experiences? Stern or cheerful? Did they vote? Read detective stories? Love any movies? Fume at any politicians or at one another? Ever struggle with faith or prayer?  

And though Shortall’s subtitle alludes to “twentieth-century French politics,” in fact it actually concentrates on French politics from about 1940 to the mid-1950s, with a brief flashback to the condemnation of Action Française. What, I wondered, had been the responses of these theologians to the political run-up to the stark moral crises of France’s military defeat, Nazi occupation, Vichy collaboration, and post-war coalitions? What about the economic impact of the Depression, Hitler’s shredding of the Versailles Treaty and Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, the 1934 anti-Republican riots in Paris, the Popular Front, Spanish Civil War, Munich, and France’s military policy? I cannot believe that the nouveaux théologiens were lacking in reactions to such political challenges. What captured their attention? What did they read? Whom did they trust? How did these shape their eschatological or incarnational perspectives? 

Shortall mentions two books that Gaston Fessard—the Jesuit author of the cri de coeur, “France, Beware of Losing Your Soul,” that launched Témoignage chrétien—wrote about pre-war issues, such as pacifism, the Spanish Civil War, and the military threat of the Third Reich. A leading participant in the revival of Hegel in France as well as the spiritual director of Gabriel Marcel, Fessard is an intriguing figure who deserves more attention in English. Shortall sketches philosophical aspects of his work but not its prewar political conclusions. 

The mettle of political theologies cannot be tested, it seems to me, only in the fiery furnace of yes-or-no moral crises. Those theological perspectives must also speak to the “ordinary” politics that Max Weber described as the “slow boring of hard boards”—all the concrete, complex, fact-laden, difficult, but seemingly less existential choices that determine whether those awful moments of moral crisis ever occur. Here I do not find Shortall’s repeated references to a “counter-politics,” as developed, for example, in the work of William Cavanaugh, either clear or helpful.  

Shortall is no antiquarian. The questions she explores in fine detail “remain just as relevant today,” she writes, “as they did in the 1940s.” I strongly agree, and because I do, two features of the story she tells leave me dissatisfied. One is her treatment of liberalism. The other is her treatment of the secular. Thinking about both topics has advanced since the heyday of the nouvelle théologie; even the meaning of the terms has shifted, in some parts of the world more than in others.  

Shortall mentions liberalism only occasionally. She takes as unproblematic the rejection of it by the nouveaux théologiens (as well as, in fact, by neo-scholastic reactionaries and by Thomist progressives like Maritain). 

She does not define the liberalism they had in mind. Was it primarily the individualism and self-seeking of “bourgeois man,” the preeminent rights of private property, the disruption of community by the market’s cash nexus, plus, perhaps, Enlightenment irreligion? Did it also include parliamentary democracy, freedoms of speech, press, and religion, regular elections, majority rule, minority rights, and judicial independence? Liberalism has always been a multi-dimensional, evolving tradition. Can its rejection be unproblematic for any theology claiming contemporary relevance?  

In contrast to liberalism, Shortall frequently mentions the secular, secularism, and secularization. These words run from the book’s title to its final sentences. Here too there is a frustrating lack of precision. A secular world is clearly a world in which the Church and Christianity no longer hold the controlling positions they once did. The nouveaux théologiens welcomed the change in some respects, deplored it in others. They did not appear to agree on what brought it about, though they all thought a defensive, stultifying neo-scholasticism had  actuallyworsened the situation. Nor were they of one mind on what positions the Church and Christianity can aspire to in the changed world and by what means. Shortall is nonetheless convinced—and I tend to agree—that the nouvelle théologie, and especially its eschatological current, have much to teach us. But what? A lot depends on one’s understanding of the “secular world.”   

Shortall is well versed in the recent literature challenging the assumption of old-fashioned secularization theory that modernity and the decline of religion always go hand in hand. The reality, these analyses demonstrate, is much more complex and variously shaped by region, history, religion, and culture, but is nevertheless profound. Obviously, Shortall can rehearse only so much of this in a book about French theology, but given the importance of this theme in her story, I regret that she does not at least try to disentangle what might be meant by “secular,” “secularization,” and “secularism.” These terms can encompass everything from government neutrality toward religion to the emergence of spheres of activity— such as science, economics, and psychology—largely governed by internal rules apart from religion to a polite label for atheism. All these modern developments come in different shades and flavors; all are vulnerable to critique. Shortall, unfortunately, uses the terms interchangeably and without explication.  

When it comes to the contemporary political relevance of the nouvelle théologie, Shortall may be more impressed than I am with a few interlocutors in the left-wing academy who could be described as post-liberal or post-secular. She may also be more occupied with the drama of political resistance than the slog of political participation. But no one should imagine that she is not a subtle analyst. She often qualifies the binaries she sets up between eschatological and incarnational and between patristic and Thomist. She recognizes overlaps between the two camps and diversity within them. She acknowledges limitations in the eschatological theology she clearly favors.  

Soldiers of God in a Secular World is an outstanding book by a young and brilliant historian, well-launched into a career of integrating religion and theology into intellectual and political history. If this reviewer is left with some nagging questions, Shortall, should she so choose, has plenty of time to answer them.

Soldiers of God in a Secular World
Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics

Sarah Shortall
Harvard University Press
$49.95 | 352 pp


Authority, Participation, and Women

The Gospel reading (Cycle C) on this fifth Sunday of Lent is a well-known one. “The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’” (John 8: 3-5) This is not one of my favorite readings. The thought of a group of men, religious leaders, forcing a woman into the streets for public humiliation and execution is jarring. I know it’s important to read scripture in context, but the context is patriarchal and misogynistic, and while the Church doesn’t drag women into the streets for public shaming and violent judgment, women are nonetheless shamed and judged in the U.S. Church simply for being women.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked at a parish where the pastor instructed a relatively newly ordained priest and me to collaborate on a pastoral plan for accompanying members of our youth and young-adult ministries through their vocational discernment. I was excited about this opportunity to lead, and the priest and I worked creatively together. We also collaborated with other leaders at the parish, and at one point I met with a woman who had a position of authority. She seemed supportive and friendly as I presented our plan. She explained how she imagined her participation in it, but then she suddenly shifted the conversation. “So, you’re working with Father?” she asked. “You should be careful. People could start rumors about you.” I asked her what she was getting at. “You’re young and pretty and you’re around this young priest,” she answered. “People could say you’re tempting him.”

The future of the Church depends on the work of women, and so there must be a preferential option for their ministry.

I can still recall my shock. I didn’t know how to react, and, in that moment, I felt uncomfortable in my body. What she was really doing was expressing her disapproval of young lay women working in close proximity with a priest, but obscuring it with false concern about my well-being. Indeed, she might as well have placed me in the middle of the parish community to be objectified, judged, humiliated, and dehumanized. She was right about one thing, though: I was young, and my inexperience at the time kept me from responding the way I now wish I would have. Instead of questioning her own internalized sexism, I responded to her outrageous indirect accusation by saying I would never think of doing such a thing. One week later, the pastor told me that this woman had spoken to the young priest, my colleague, to warn him against working with young women, and he in turn asked the pastor to end our collaboration. That priest never spoke to me again.

The Gospel reading continues with Jesus saying to the scribes and Pharisees, “’Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’… and in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders” (John 8: 7,9). Jesus invites the woman to see that no one is left to condemn her. Often in scripture we find that the sins of the men who are religious leaders are sins rooted in the abuse of power, pride, and avarice, but one never hears of their objectification of women. The authors of the Gospels wouldn’t know to do so. Therefore, though the scribes and Pharisees recognized themselves to be sinners, I’m not sure they understood their sin against her, their inability to see her as a whole person, and similarly women in the Church today continue to be objectified. The “adulterous woman” may have survived the altercation, but her reputation would be forever marred within the community.

“Authority and Participation” is one of ten themes selected in the Synod on Synodality process “intended to highlight significant aspects of ‘lived synodality’” (Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality). Some of the prompting questions that accompany this theme include: How is authority or governance exercised within our local church? How are teamwork and co-responsibility put into practice? How are lay ministers and the responsibility of lay people promoted? Based on the experience I just shared, I would offer the following to the synodal conversation. My assignment to work with the young priest had the potential to be an exemplary example of collaboration between young lay women and clergy. The project offered me a share in the authority that only the clergy possessed in this community, but it was short-circuited by ingrained sexist beliefs and the perceived threat it posed to one person in leadership. Authentic collaboration in the Church is possible only when women are seen as whole and necessary, not as challenges or threats to the “purity” of clergy. In our current national climate and in a time of decline in trust in institutions, young women are less likely to tolerate the kind of behavior I experienced because their ability to recognize and name these sins, these injustices, is greater. The future of the Church depends on the work of women, and so there must be a preferential option for their ministry. Their authority cannot hang simply on the whims and permission of men. In today’s first reading, from Isaiah, the Lord says, “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the wilderness I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers” (Isaiah 43:19). This the Lenten promise and my hope for the Synod.

This is the fifth in a series of reflections for each Sunday in Lent. You can read the others here.