Pressing Church Issues

          From Andrew Chesnut, Virginia Commonwealth University 

Is Latin America Still Catholic?

Latin Americans have been defecting to Protestantism for decades. Now many are rejecting organised religion altogether.

One of the major reasons why a Latin American was elected the first pope from the New World almost five years ago is the long-term decline of the flock in the most Catholic region on earth. Just five decades ago, in 1970, Latin America was 92 per cent Catholic. Mexicans, Argentines and Brazilians, for example, were born into the Church and lived out their lives as Catholics, although most of them were not regular churchgoers. However, after a half-century of precipitous decline, Latin America, home to 39 per cent of the world’s 1.3 billion faithful, will no longer be majority Catholic by 2030.

A new survey by the respected Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro finds Latin America now to be only 59 per cent Catholic, down from 80 per cent in 1995. The landmark 2014 Pew survey of the Latin American religious landscape, for which I was the lead academic consultant, reported that the region was 69 per cent Catholic.

It’s in this context that cardinals elected one of their confrères from Latin America with the hope that, if Europe is lost, there still might be time to halt or even reverse ecclesial hemorrhaging in the New World.

The Latinobarómetro poll is the first to reveal that, almost five years into his papacy, the Argentine Pontiff has been unable to stanch the bleeding. In 2013, the year he became Pope, 67 per cent of Latin Americans told Chilean pollsters they were Catholic. Thus, the percentage of Latin Americans who are Catholic has dropped by eight points since Francis was elected.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t contain detailed data on each country polled. In the one nation for which there is more detail, Chile, the decline is even more dramatic. During Francis’s tenure, Chile has become a nation in which Catholics no longer constitute the majority of the population. In 2013, the region’s most prosperous country was 56 per cent Catholic, and in the span of just four short years the figure has dropped to 45 per cent, giving Chile the distinction of being the second South American nation, after Uruguay, to lose its Catholic majority.

While updated comparative national figures are lacking at this point, there’s a very good chance that Chile’s 11-point decline over the past four years ranks among the sharpest in the region. If we go back to 1995, the benchmark year of the Latinobarómetro survey, Chile’s decline from 75 per cent Catholic to 45 per cent ranks as the fourth greatest drop in Latin America. Honduras leads the region, plummeting from 76 per cent Catholic to 37 per cent in the 22-year span. In fact, the violence-plagued Central American nation is the first country in the region in which Protestants now outnumber Catholics (39 per cent to 37 per cent of the Honduran population).

Returning to Chile, which the Pope has just toured along with Peru, the new poll reveals that the greatly accelerated decline commences with the sexual abuse scandal of Fr. Fernando Karadima, who made headlines in 2010 with revelations of his chronic and serial molesting of minors. In what has been the most intractable issue of his papacy, Francis antagonized Chileans by appointing a protégé of Karadima, Juan Barros, as bishop of a southern diocese, despite vehement opposition from locals alleging that Barros, as part of Karadima’s inner circle, had conspired to cover up the crimes.

By the end of the Pope’s visit to Chile it appeared that he had made great strides in repairing the damage caused by the Karadima-Barros affair. He had not only offered a heartfelt apology to victims during his speech to President Bachelet and government officials, but also held an impromptu meeting with abuse survivors in which he shed tears of sorrow for their victimization at the hands of clergy.

However, on the last day of his visit he managed to erase most, if not all, the goodwill he had created by energetically defending the embattled bishop when a Chilean reporter inquired about him. “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” the Pope declared, adding: “There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

One can imagine that his vigorous defence of a much-reviled bishop on the last day of his tour will be the image that many Chileans are left with. This is likely to contribute to the continued erosion of the flock.

Beyond Chile, the Latinobarómetro poll reveals that six other countries in the region are also no longer majority Catholic. Uruguay, the most secularized nation in Latin America, figures as the other South American country at 38 per cent Catholic, while Guatemala (43 per cent), El Salvador (40 per cent), Honduras (37 per cent) and Nicaragua (40 per cent) make for a Central American region that is no longer Catholic-majority.

Over in the Caribbean, Cuba, after six decades of socialist dictatorship, is home to Latin America’s smallest Catholic population but was not included in the Chilean poll. Nearby Dominican Republic is the sole Caribbean country surveyed that is no longer majority Catholic, at 48 per cent.

Returning to South America, Brazil, which is home to the largest Catholic population on earth (and also the largest Pentecostal community and second-largest Protestant population), remains majority Catholic at 54 per cent. But not for much longer. As a Brazil specialist, I had predicted that it would lose its Catholic majority by 2030. However, in light of the new data, I am moving that date forward to 2025.

For Latin America overall, it’s quite likely that the region will no longer be majority Catholic by 2030. Until the past decade or so the primary beneficiary of Catholic loss was Pentecostalism, as evidenced by Brazil now having a larger Pentecostal population than that of the US, where the dynamic branch of Charismatic Protestantism was born a century ago. After five decades of impressive growth, Pentecostalism has been able to claim some 70 per cent of all Latin American Protestants, and its influence and competition for religious market share has resulted in the Charismatic Renewal becoming the largest and most dynamic Catholic lay movement across the region and throughout the Global South. In both Brazil and Guatemala, where Pentecostalism has found especially fertile soil, more than 60 per cent of Catholics identify as Charismatic, according to Pew.
Published in the Catholic Herald. Posted with permission of the author.



From Hosffman Ospino, Boston College

The ecclesial imperative of educating Hispanic children in Catholic schools

Millions of Catholics in the United States were educated in Catholic schools during the last two centuries. It is no secret that such education has yielded amazing fruits for this particular faith community and for the larger society.  One could highlight the impact of Catholic education in “worldly” measures such as exposure to a holistic curriculum, preparedness to attend and complete higher education and even social mobility. 

According to the National Catholic Educational Association, 99 percent of students from Catholic high schools graduate and 85 percent of graduates go to a four-year college. That is an impressive record. 

The list of well-known social, political, economic, intellectual and artistic leaders who attended Catholic schools is long.  By the middle of the 20th century, more than half of Catholic children, mostly Euro-American, attended Catholic schools. Today, Euro-American adult Catholics constitute one of most educated bodies in our society. Simply connect the dots.  

Yet, the “worldly” measures tell only one side of the story. Perhaps the most important measures when highlighting the value and impact of Catholic schools are “ecclesial.” In other words, Catholic schools exist to be at the service of the church’s evangelizing mission. Catholic schools are spaces where faith and life engage in dialogue in explicit ways. The spiritual dimension is the axis upon which the life of these institutions revolves. In Catholic schools, religion matters.  

The vast majority of Euro-American Catholic priests, women religious and Catholic school teachers and administrators attended Catholic schools. So did most of the U.S. Catholic theologians and pastoral leaders I have met throughout my life. When I meet Catholic women and men with awe-inspiring life commitments, clearly living the Gospel values at the service of God and others, I often ask them whether they ever attended a Catholic school. The answer most of the time is yes. 

Just as these institutions have served well many generations of U.S. Catholics, with remarkable effects upon church and society, they also need to serve well the next generation of Catholics in our country.

There are about 14.6 million school-age Catholic children in the U.S. Of these, 8 million are Hispanic. Our Catholic schools presently enroll close to 1.9 million students. If anything, we should be building new Catholic schools -- or at the very least, not closing those that already exist! 

Those 8 million school-age Hispanic Catholic children will play a significant role defining the present and the future of Catholicism in the United States. We cannot afford to take them for granted. As a church, we cannot lose them.  We know that the number of Hispanic children enrolled in Catholic schools is remarkably small, compared to the size of the population: 315,610 during the academic year 2016-2017. That is 4 percent of the 8 million.  

There are many social, economic and even political reasons to educate Hispanic children in Catholic schools -- they will be the Catholic voice in this country when casting their votes, serving in public office and advancing their careers a few years from now. But the most important reason, I think, remains ecclesial. The Catholic Church in the United States needs priests, women and men religious, Catholic school teachers, lay ecclesial ministers, theologians. It needs well-rounded Catholic social, political, economic, intellectual and artistic leaders. It needs solid families. 

Where will they come from? If we look closely at demographics, most will come from the Hispanic Catholic population.  Who will prepare them with the best education to serve church and society? Catholic schools definitely must play a central role. They have done it in the past. They can and should do it today. 
Previously published in Catholic News Service, January 2018.


          From Jeffrey Morrow, Seton Hall University

Serving the Church by Changing Diapers, and other Mundane Activities

One of the spiritual issues in the church today, one I think is underexplored, is the potential spiritual value of ordinary life. As a professional theologian I am often asked if I am a Catholic priest. When I explain that I am not, I sometimes get greeted with one or another response. Some lament that married priests are not the norm on the church. Others encourage me to look into becoming a deacon. When I assure them that I have no interest in either route, they look on me with incomprehension. I esteem greatly the priesthood and the diaconate, but one thing I find lacking among those who take their faith seriously, is the value that often lays hidden in ordinary things.

In the title of my reflection, I bring up “changing diapers,” because I am the father of six children (ages 11, 9, 7, 5, 3, and not quite 1). I’ve changed a lot of diapers. Often when people who have never had children find out I have six, they bring up diaper changing. Hence my title is intended as a somewhat playful symbol of parenting. And yet, anyone who has raised children knows that changing diapers is such a small part of parenting, and isn’t even really a big deal (especially compared to the sleep deprivation which is far more taxing). I bring up parenting here not because it is the only way to live ordinary life—far from it—but that it is one very large way in which I live ordinary life. My striving (and failing) to love and serve my wife as her husband, to love and raise my children, and take care of our home, is, I think, the most important calling I have as a lay Catholic who is married with children. It’s certainly the most difficult and underappreciated part of what I do.

I think many in the church have a real misunderstanding about what it means to serve the church as a Catholic. If you’re not a priest, or a deacon, if you don’t lector or distribute the Eucharist at Mass, etc., then what are you doing to serve the church? These are all worthwhile ways of serving the church. Striving to live love in family life is as well. In fact, such ordinary, “secular,” activities is what typifies the laity. The Second Vatican Council said as much when Lumen Gentium stated that, “What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature” (no. 31). We laity “live in the world…in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations” (no. 31). We “live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life” (no. 31). What is more, Lumen Gentium states that we laity “are called there by God” that we “may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (no. 31).

Lumen Gentium’s teaching on the role of the laity in the church, in its fourth chapter, is closely connected to what it has to say about the “universal call to holiness” in its fifth chapter. I think this too is much misunderstood. It is not a universal “declaration” of holiness; as if everything and everyone were already holy. Rather it is a universal “call.” I think it is important that those of us who are lay members of Christ’s faithful learn to recognize the potential for serving the church in the ordinary lives that we lead. This is not to make an excuse for not serving where we might. Rather it is a call to learn to love in the little corners of the world that we inhabit on a daily basis. Not only is a husband’s attempt to love and serve his wife, to help his children learn and grow in the cardinal and other virtues, something holy, but God is present in the world of ordinary family and professional life. One can practice the presence of God while changing diapers. One can even offer this for a specific intention. Such a life is not apart from the sacramental life of the church, but rather is nourished by a life of prayer, the Eucharist, and confession. I think it is important that we learn to view the ordinary life around us as potential for living out a robust spirituality that involves service to others (including especially within the family as domestic church), and thereby service to the church.


         From Marti R. Jewell, D.Min., University of Dallas

Parish as Institution or Communio?

Ask anyone to define “Church,” and you will hear some version of “Oh I know. It’s not the building. We are the Church.” We got this one right. Vatican II speaks of the Church as the People of God, the Body of Christ. Yet, somehow, this doesn’t seem to have filtered down to the parish level which, for the most part, functions with a pre-Vatican II understanding of church as institution. On the local level this looks like there is a literal visible institution called ‘parish.’ It has buildings at a location: in a small town, tucked into a neighborhood, or downtown at the corner of Fourth and Main. This structure has a chief officer, the pastor, and a staff. It has its own set of by-laws and governing principles, somehow summarized in just two documents: the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism. If you know and follow these documents you are a member in good standing. Decisions about governance or conduct are made for members by the pastors who function as owner/operators but report to a central headquarters. Parishioners are members who join through initiation, are served as customers, and welcomed as volunteers. Adult initiation happens in RCIA which is offered as instructional classes where people learn the institution’s beliefs and code of conduct. Ask any parish staff person and they will tell you only about 20-30% of parishioners are active. No one knows about the rest.

While this may seem a bit irreverent, the mental models we live by are subtle, deep, and often unexamined; images of how the world works which shape our behaviors. We live in a world of institutions and at some level assume they all operate similarly. But “institution” is not the only model of church. There is hierarchy, of course, but also church as communio, the model developed by Vatican II. We have equally deep mental models of communio: community and mission.

How might our understanding of parish be different if we lived out the Vatican II model of church as organic, communal, and relational? The vine and branches. The Body of Christ. The People of God. In parishes which are structured as communio every member of the community matters. Adult initiation is formational rather than instructional, forming disciples, and community with one another and Christ. Parishioners care for each another and share faith, whether on the parish campus or not. Parish and sacramental life focus on forming and nourishing missionary disciples, a community sent out on mission. Leaders serve as catalysts for calling forth and developing the community as a whole in serving the mission. In this model, there is still a need for institutional memory and guidelines for how to live together. But these structures are there to support the People of God in their mission. Not the other way around. Parishioners are the Church, not members of it.

What mental models do we have for communio? There are models of a “body” with which we are familiar, such as a student body in a university. Here we immediately think of the persons who are the students. Although different, freshmen are as important as seniors to the health of the school; our task the kindling of the flame of learning and personhood in our students. All aspects of the school are structured to this end. Other models might include a choir in which the voices are different, but the alto is every bit as important as the tenor or bass. What about the experience of being on a school sports team? The three musketeers: One for all and all for one! Years and years later these connections still inspire loyalty. And what’s more, each of these “communities” has a purpose, an outcome. For parish communities that outcomes is missionary discipleship and living out the mission of the Church.

Parishes operating as communio do exist, and their pastoral leaders have a different vision of the purpose of parish. The most recent study of parish life, Catholic Parishes in the 21st Century, found the elements that most attract parishioners are a parish’s open and welcoming spirit, and a sense of belonging. This is true across all races and ethnicities. In an era in which the Church is hemorrhaging people, and we have learned to talk about young adults as ‘nones’ there are practical and theological consequences to these mental models, and serious implications for us as professors. Whether we are talking about sacrament courses, for example, or the formation of clergy and lay ministers, or even the task of shaping our students as future leaders, mental models matter. Can we ask ourselves about our own mental models, and how they are shaping our theology? We got it right. We are the Church. Can we begin to say: We are the parish?


          Francis Berna, La Salle University:

Celebrating Marriage – Is it time to adapt?

Pastors will tell you they are having fewer weddings. Some of this is simply the disconnection between young adults and the Church. For others, it is the allure of the “wedding industry” offering packages from ceremony through reception. Often enough the sales people state that your priest, minister, or rabbi can conduct your wedding in a beautiful gazebo, on the nearby beach, or in the hall with windows looking toward the mountains.

Early Christians in Rome married according to Roman law. Some subsequently sought a blessing from the Church. As Europe later descended into chaos, the Church took on some of the official roles of government, including marriage. An outcome of the Reformation was that Protestants could have either a civil or religious marriage, while Catholics remained bound to a church wedding. Until more recently even marriages between A Catholic and a Protestant or non-Christian had to be conducted by a priest.

While good sacramental theology grounds all of the sacraments in everyday life, marriage more than any of the others stands as a “sacrament of the secular.” A good theology of marriage appreciates that a woman and man drawn to each other physically and emotionally, vowing to be faithful for life, makes really present to the world God’s gracious love. The sacrament consists of everyday work, daily communication, and good sexual activity. For some, it will include children and all of their everyday activities.

Generally, sacraments are celebrated in a church. However, the church is first and foremost a gathering of the faithful. Additionally, the ritual for the anointing of the sick states that the celebration of the sacrament, even in the context of Mass, may take place in the home of the sick person, a hospital room, or other suitable place. Most parishes conduct infant baptisms after the community has gone home (certainly not my preferred style!).

Current church practice in the United States requires all marriages between Catholics or a Catholic and another Christian must take place in a church building. In order to better meet young adults “where they are at” is it time to adapt?

Some of my colleagues have tried one or another of these approaches:

- A ceremony at church with an alternative ceremony – exchange of rings, unity candle, blessing at the venue.
- A small church/chapel ceremony (couple, witnesses, and perhaps parents) followed by a more formal ceremony at the venue – really not permitted.
- The official ceremony at the venue with the marriage registered in the parish. This is permitted for a Catholic and a non-Christian as it is defined as a non-sacramental marriage.
- Have the couple be civilly married at the venue and provide convalidation at a later date.

Recently I did have “success” in meeting with a couple, listening to their wishes, explaining why we Catholics do what we do, and suggesting ways to make it work for them. I don’t know if it was our conversation, or their realization that a church wedding would be less expensive, that had them choose the church over the reception hall.

What are your thoughts?


          Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, Creighton University:

Liberating Conscience: An End to Magisterial Authoritarianism

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has done a great service to the Church by re-establishing the centrality of conscience, its role, function, and authority in the moral life. He notes, “We…find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful…. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (n. 37, emphasis added). We deliberately use the term, “re-establishing,” since the authority and inviolability of personal conscience, especially since Vatican I and, more recently, during the papacies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has largely been reduced to obedience to “magisterial authority.” The standard and long-traditional Catholic approach to making moral decisions, however, acknowledges the authority and inviolability of an informed personal conscience.

Already in the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas established the authority and inviolability of conscience. “Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, impose a demand that offends against his clear conscience, should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience” (In IV Sent., 38, 2, 4). After Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870, this teaching became submerged in claims for the doctrinal authority of Pope and Bishops. The way that Catholics were to make a moral decision was best articulated, perhaps, by Pope Pius X: “The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock.” The latter have “one duty…to allow themselves to be led and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors” (Vehementer nos, 8). It could not be clearer: to make a moral judgment in this context all a Catholic need do is to follow the instructions of Pastors in hierarchical power. Pope John Paul II seemed to reaffirm this model of conscience in Veritatis splendor as do Catholic philosophers like Germain Grisez and John Finnis and Archbishop Chaput. This position is summed up well by Grisez: “For her members, the Catholic Church is the supreme moral authority under God. Catholics ought to conform their consciences to her teaching in every question, every detail, every respect. If they are faithful, they will.” Or again, “A Catholic conscience should conform absolutely to the Church’s teaching.”

Pope Francis’ view of conscience is quite different and reflects the role, function, and authority of conscience in Aquinas and the Second Vatican Council: “In all his activity a man [and, of course, a woman]is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God…. It follows that he is not to be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 3). According to this perspective, an individual Catholic makes concrete moral judgments by following his/her personal conscience, a practical judgment that he/she should do or not do this particular action. Given universal human weakness and finitude, any such practical judgment of conscience can be in error. If the error cannot be ascribed to moral fault, failure to gather the necessary evidence, to engage in the necessary deliberation, to take the necessary counsel, for example, the practical judgment of conscience not only can but also must be followed. When we have done all we can in our circumstances and within our limitations to gather information, to take appropriate counsel, to deliberate, to discern, we can and must fall back on the practical judgment of conscience, even if, as Aquinas argued, it is contrary to Church authority.

This traditional Catholic model of conscience promotes a mature faith, commitment to internalizing the values behind Church teaching, though not necessarily the absolute norms (e.g. norms against contraception and homosexual acts) that attempt to codify those values, and empowers the faithful to be active and valued members of the Christian community who, in the words of Gaudium et spes, are called to join with all people “in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships” (n. 16). This model reflects well the literal meaning of the Latin word con-scientia,knowledge together, perhaps better rendered as to know together. What is lacking in the institutional Church—although the 2014 and 2015 synods that invited lay input on marriage and family issues are a move in the right direction— is the infrastructure to empower lay people with plural perspectives to be active participants in the discernment and formulation of doctrine. The current institutional Church structure is an antiquated, patriarchal, hierarchical, feudal, and all too-often oppressive relic from the Middle Ages, which has no place in the 21st century. The consciences of the faithful or sensus fidelium, guided by the Holy Spirit, prayer, discernment, and the four sources of moral knowledge—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—should have a participatory voice in the Church today.


Daniel Lloyd, Saint Leo University, North Charleston

Apologetics as a Critical Feature of Catechesis

About 75 years ago, C. S. Lewis made the observation that Christians “in the old days” might not have needed too many complicated ideas about God. His point was that even in the 1940’s the times had changed significantly, and the average layperson really needed to listen to theology: “Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones…” (Mere Christianity, Book 4.1). Lewis thus argued that all Christians needed to familiarize themselves with a more complex understanding of their faith. Such a viewpoint is even more important today. Since Lewis’s time, the Western world has seen major shifts away from traditional religiosity and Church participation. Such shifts mean that fewer and fewer people, including many Christians, understand what Christianity teaches and why. This period has also seen a significant rise in prominent articulations of atheism and agnosticism, which themselves often begin by rejecting faith as a rational and just expression of human life. For Christians today, and really any other religious group intent on sharing its faith with family and society, a hard look at some of the major obstacles for catechesis is called for.

The educational industry in America is not often explicitly linked to the topic of catechesis, but Christians should consider paying far more attention to this connection. Those who do come to Church, listen to the sermons, participate in adult education programs, or otherwise attempt to guide their children into a mature faith, are, or will be, products of this system in one way or another. With the statistics pointing to an overall drop in critical reading and thinking skills for average and below average high school students, religious communities need to think about how to promote a more sophisticated understanding of theology to help all members grow in an increasingly sophisticated world. To think with any amount of theological sophistication requires a good amount of critical thinking skills, and these skills are often tied to reading skills. If the response of religious communities over time becomes reactive, such as by simplifying sermons which might themselves be the only contact with theological education many parishioners receive or by turning to an emphasis on advocating ethics without doctrinal understanding, then the issues are compounded in a negative way.

In my parish, some of the most well-attended adult classes have been those on apologetics. Such anecdotal evidence supports the basic perception many have that parishioners don’t feel like they know how to explain or defend the doctrines and the positions that the Church takes. On the one hand, this is good news for the basic life of the Church. That adults want to know more and want to hear more about the intellectual support of the faith is an indication of spiritual health. That many adult Catholics have little foundation in such matters, on the other hand, is an indication of a failure in the spiritual formation within the contemporary Church. In a cultural environment in which the Church is often criticized or ridiculed for its beliefs, focusing more attention on apologetic programs at the parish level is one clear and necessary way to support parishioners whose faith is being tested and who might have limited resources in the way of critical reading and thinking skills to investigate matters on their own effectively.

Even longer ago than Lewis, G. K. Chesterton recommended a return to studying Saint Thomas Aquinas as a countermeasure to a society which, he argued, was becoming less rational and rigorous intellectually. Here too, the situation in Western society seems to have travelled further down the road than Chesterton could have imagined. It is more common today to see beliefs and ideas rejected out of hand because they do not easily or clearly fit into categories of social justice which dominate the media and culture. In the face of a situation in which many Westerners experience the inability to converse about important topics, Catholic teachings about the sanctity of life, sexuality, and the option for the poor, for example, can be felt as mills around the necks of parishioners who have never been introduced to the tools to understand why the Church teaches what she does. I am personally a great fan of Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire ministry. Between the books, video clips, catechetical materials, etc., this ministry is helping to answer the call for a much needed diversity of resources, which can cater to different people in different situations. Some see such ministries as ultimately an emphasis on the delivery method, namely the electronic, social media that has become integrated in most aspects of life. But delivery method doesn’t, by nature, directly respond to the issues related to comprehension. In many instances, much of the catechetical material available for use today presumes a foundation in history and theology which many parishioners don’t have. The Church must thus be attentive to answering the call of the New Evangelization while not jumping the gaps in the critical thinking skills and the intellectual foundations of many Christians.

To be clear, I am not advocating faith formation programs or sermons built on studying Thomas’s works specifically. Reading or teaching Thomas is simply one example of a healthy response to a society unused to forms of rigorous intellectual investigations of matters related to faith. More directly, this piece is advocating the increased use of apologetics in general, whether it be in faith formation classes, sermons, videos, etc. Apologetics done well includes an intellectually comprehensible and systematic approach to the faith. A focus on apologetics will, no doubt, seem regressive to some Catholics today who argue that spiritual growth and sophistication come with more consistent attention to many voices, especially those of dissent. However, this has not been my experience teaching courses on Christianity to adults. My experience includes adults expressing a profound sense of wonder and gratitude that Catholicism, in particular, grounds its teachings and practices on rigorous intellectual foundations. Only after carefully learning a systematic and traditional understanding of the Christian faith do many students say they can really understand and vocalize their own beliefs. A turn to apologetics in all manner of parish life will, I believe, lead to accessibility to spiritual growth otherwise lacking to many. That apologetics promote, by example and format, critical thinking skills because of their systematic nature, is the important point here, and it is one important way which the Church today can counterbalance the lack of a critical engagement of the faith.


Christopher Denny, St. John's University

The Ascetic Corrective

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical letter “Laudato Si’” cites a 2003 address delivered in Norway by Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew. Delivered in Norway, the speech was titled “The Ascetic Corrective,” and in it the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches said:

“The environmental crisis will not be solved simply by sentimental expressions of regret or aesthetic formulations of a creative imagination. It will not be altered by fashionable programs or ecumenical catch-words. It is the ‘tree of the cross’ that reveals to us the way out of our ecological impasse by proposing the solution of self-denial, the denial of selfishness or self-centeredness. It is, therefore, the spirit of asceticism that in the final analysis leads to the spirit of gratitude and love, to a rediscovery of the sense of wonder and beauty.”

While the focus of ecological initiatives is often directed at governments and large corporations, a recent analysis by faculty at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology demonstrates that 60 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 80 percent of the world’s water use are due to consumer use, once the cost of production for purchased consumer goods is taken into account. (Diana Ivanova et al., “Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 20/3 (June 2016): 526-36.) A technological solution to the environmental crisis, one in which we rely on even more consumer goods to solve the problem of overconsumption, does not seem close at hand.

Two years ago the Wake Up, Lazarus! forum addressed the issue of ascetic relevance, with participants confronting the declining profile of asceticism in contemporary spiritual life, noting the impossibility or inadvisability of reviving traditional ascetic practices in the contemporary era. Is the ecological crisis a wake-up call to revive and adapt traditional practices of asceticism? Can traditional Christian practices of fasting and self-denial be reinterpreted and expanded in a quest to limit consumption, or are those spiritual disciplines inadequate to meet today ecological problems?

Should Catholics revive the practice of Friday fasting from meat to make more efficient use of grain and agricultural land, expanding fasting beyond the Lenten season to the entire year for multiple days a week?  Might churches reduce their reliance on air conditioning to consume less electricity and shrink a community’s carbon footprint, and encourage parishioners to do the same in their homes?  Could the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas be times in which the gospel message’s incompatibility with unbridled consumerism is consistently highlighted in the liturgical celebration through encouraging donations of surplus clothes and goods rather than the purchase of new items?  Organizing carpools or using available forms of mass transit might reduce the need for the massive paved parking lots in suburban parishes that go unused during most days of the week.  Can suburban and rural churches transform some of their land currently used for automobiles into sites for community-based agriculture, producing organic food that can be distributed to those in need in the local community? 

Are these suggestions feasible?  What other practices could be undertaken so that religiously-motivated environmental asceticism is supported by Christian communities?


Gerald Vigna, Alvernia University:

To Reform the Liturgy, Reform the Church

I remember the last straw. Hurricane Sandy was coming in. The Gospel was an episode of Jesus healing a blind man, or so I recall. What I recollect most vividly was the presider talking about how he disliked going to his mother’s shore house the day before and covering the windows in preparation for the storm. If the homily lasted ten minutes, the first eight were dedicated to his complaints masquerading as confession of wrongful filial aloofness. It closed with an indolent allusion to the Gospel. Homily. I guess.

Okay, so that seems truly too minor an incident to trigger as strong a reaction as I had. But there are straws and there are camel’s backs. So what led up to Labor Day weekend 2012?

I very much like the prayers said at mass, even the ones that are the same or nearly the same every week. The Gloria, the Creed, the entire Eucharistic canon of the mass. And when I go I find the mass satisfying because I listen carefully to those prayers and repeat them conscientiously when required (although I still sometimes say, “And also with you”). These prayers have a certain intrinsic spiritual value. They also acquire, however, a certain transactional value that accrues from the quality of the entire liturgy. Thus we have the emphasis among those who care about the mass on the homily, among other elements such as the music and even the quality of the lectors. As the final blessing and dismissal direct, however, the Eucharistic Liturgy must also connect to the rest of one’s life, and here was the sticking point.

I felt let down in all the areas surrounding Church. Pastor, bishops, employer, bishops again, homilies. I am one of those rare birds whose life is entirely surrounded by the Catholic Church. I was quite active in the parish. I work for a Catholic institution. My job leads me to pay particular attention to the bishops’ statements, especially as they relate to Catholic universities. Although not a victim, I am closer to the sex abuse scandal than most. Unfortunately, the sacraments cannot be a shining, bright light untouched by all these things. If rites are undergirded by a sacramental imagination that sees God’s grace in all things, then the converse is also true. It can be difficult to separate God’s grace from the muck of human misbehavior.

Allow me to gently name some of the specific issues that at first annoyed me and then became much more onerous. None of these settled matters in themselves, but cumulatively, well, they led up to Labor Day weekend 2012.

A new pastor arrived. Quickly it became clear that he was a bit of a careerist and that his method, in the words of a fellow parishioner and old friend was, “My way or the highway.” He immediately dissolved the parish council, as was his right under canon law. Unfortunately, he did so dismissively rather than pastorally and offended some members, including me. Realizing that I did not want to work closely with him, I dropped off committees. Meanwhile, the bishops were aggressively resisting the consequences of the sex abuse scandal and threatening state legislators who might favor lifting the statute of limitations imposed on sexual assault allegations. The university began to go through the corporatization that has been transforming higher education in the U.S. in recent years, including the damage to shared governance and the reduction of tenured positions. And salaries are low. The bishops again stepped in it with criticisms of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and Sr. Margaret Farley. The first statement, a subtle threat to academic freedom, was directed at Sr. Johnson’s work and suggested that we not assign it to undergraduates because it might confuse them in their faith. I bristle at nothing more than someone recommending what I should not teach in a classroom. Around this time, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, whom I had admired for his stand on immigration, was implicated in a cover-up of the sex abuse scandal in Los Angeles.

And then there was that homily.

Vatican II issued a document on reforming the liturgy. It also issued a document on reforming the Church and yet another on reforming the world. The faith is organic, truly a seamless garment. The complaints I have put forward seem to have their origin in a desire to control rather than shepherd prudently, a certain cowardice, too much careerism, and bad homilies. The last results from shaping them in the direction of a personal piety of the laity and rarely if ever pointing to the Church’s concern for the world’s systems and their sinfulness. The liturgy must embrace the fullness of the faith; the faith must fully engage the promise of the liturgy. Thy Kingdom come. 

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