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Editorial: 'Querida Amazonia' has flaws of omission but gives us plenty to act on

This article appears in the Synod for the Amazon feature series. View the full series.

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Pope Francis is pictured with Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, during a procession at the start of the first session Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 7, 2019. (CNS/Vatican Media)

Querida Amazonia, the document containing Pope Francis' thoughts on the recently concluded synod on the Amazon, is a profoundly loving and detailed embrace of an endangered segment of the globe and of its indigenous cultures.

That embrace is only possible because of the searing critique it also contains of the rapacious nature of dominant economies, originating largely in what previous popes have termed "the rich North," that savage the land and destroy culture. This current apostolic exhortation is not an expression of blind love but rather a love tested by enormous risk. Placing the church on the side of the powerless inhabitants of the Amazon region and squarely in the path of those, many Catholics included, who live well at the expense of that region, is not a route to easy popularity.

While the exhortation keys primarily on the effects of powerful forces that marginalize huge numbers of people and mindlessly exploit the planet, it also confronts the reality of sacramental poverty that endangers the very soul of communities throughout the Amazon region. Given that context, the undertaking was daunting from the start and disappointing in some respects at the end.

If there is consensus in the wide-ranging analysis of Francis' "synodal process" it would be that it is different from the past. And it certainly is.

Where once synods constituted a kind of papal performance art, discrete events well-choreographed, with clean lines, dull scripts and predictable outcomes, Francis from the outset raised new expectations. He drained the process of the fear of being wrong or of offending prevailing certitudes. He consistently invites the kind of "messiness" that can be disconcerting to some but is a result of a community that is not static and self-satisfied.

Francis has requested robust discussion, specifically encouraged those who disagreed to speak up and repeatedly said no topics are off the table. It is very clear he has sidelined those who loved to throw about anathemas. He has closed off the inbound lane once filled with the traffic of theologians and other thinkers who kept some offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith busy finding ways to silence them. Not even his severest critics, who range wildly into fantasies of papal heresy, are called before the court.

All of that unprecedented openness understandably sets up unprecedented expectations. Can substantial change be far behind?

The tension between such reasonable expectations and what in actuality can happen is evident in the pages of the document itself. Its soaring rhetoric, which inexorably bends toward poetry as the only adequate expression of certain themes, its boundless, cosmic portrayal of Christ in time and nature, all of it comes squarely against a stifling conformity. The expansive and generous depictions of inculturation — in symbol, practice, ministry — come hard against a seemingly ossified understanding of community.

A considerable gap exists between the vision that sacred imagination can provide and the rigidity of our laws and customs. The document can rebuke those who think the only way to evangelize is the imposition of Western traditions on Amazonian culture, but in the end, dealing with the most essential spiritual needs of the community, that is precisely what happens. Our laws have not yet caught up with our imagination. We remain stuck thinking that unity is synonymous with uniformity.

Another significant difference in Francis' approach to synods is his understanding of these meetings as part of a far more extensive process than previously imagined. He has taken steps to decentralize the church and to divest the clerical and especially hierarchical culture of its privilege and isolation from ordinary believers. He apparently sees the gatherings in Rome as special moments, but only moments on a continuum along which synodality — a kind of collegial approach to making decisions about the life of the community, from the local to global levels — is a guiding practice.

It is a magnificent vision, inherently trusting of God's activity in ordinary lives and places. But it also, in practice, requires skills alien to bishops who have risen through a culture hostile to unsettling questions. It is disorienting for those hierarchs who served under previous popes when power was highly centralized and adherence to law and dogma was paramount. It requires acceptance of change and ambiguity. It requires entering deeply into the life of the community.

We're obviously not there.

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Indigenous people stand on the banks of the Xingu River during a media event in Brazil's Xingu Indigenous Park Jan. 15, 2020. (CNS/Reuters/Ricardo Moraes)

Another major shortcoming in the synodal process as envisioned by Francis is a lack of method for getting from one point to the next. The flaw is evident in his exhortation. It is small consolation to women to have a pope advocate for inculturation and to speak glowingly of women's role in preserving the church but refuse to budge on the question of ordaining women deacons. What precisely does it mean to allow women "access to positions … that better signify the role that is theirs" and that "reflects their womanhood"? Little but dissonance is generated by that last phrase when employed with certainty out of an all-male, secretive culture that has, for centuries, demonstrated how ill-informed it is about women.

And what happened to the request for ordaining respected and elder lay men in the community? Why did that disappear from Francis' consideration? It is a puzzling omission, particularly given the fact that bishops from the region requested such consideration and that exceptions to the celibacy rule are abundantly evident in the developed world and Eastern rite churches in union with Rome.

It is further confounding because bishops who spent an enormous amount of time preparing for and participating in the synod overwhelmingly asked for the exception only to find it completely ignored in the pope's reflections. What expectation can Francis have of the good faith of other bishops when they know that their work and requests can be simply disregarded?

Synodality, if it is to be a process, is in need of more predictability and accountability.

And so, perhaps, we just add to the messiness. It is not an idle observation, however, to say that compared to what went before, we prefer the new pathway that Francis has opened, as well as the language he has given the community. Those of us in the rich north, discouraged as some might be by the lack of movement on certain issues, have more than enough to ponder and to act on, given our participation in a global economy at the heart of the problem. As the document states: "The interest of a few powerful industries should not be considered more important than the good of the Amazon region and of humanity as a whole."

The charge to all of us is implicit in Francis' appeal that we "sit around the common table, a place of conversation and of shared hopes."

Editorial: Hypocrisy on display in Duquesne's religious liberty win

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A crucifix created by Austrian artist Jos Pirkner is seen on the campus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. (Wikimedia Commons/Alekjds)
A crucifix created by Austrian artist Jos Pirkner is seen on the campus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. (Wikimedia Commons/Alekjds)

The First Amendment enshrines principles that our nation needs to uphold even when we deplore the outcome. The protections of speech and of the press allow Fox News or talk radio hosts to say deplorable things. The right to assembly extends to the Ku Klux Klan, and the right to petition the government can result in lobbyists seeking preferential treatment for their clients that hurts the common good.

No rights are absolute, however. The people's right to life limits anyone's right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded auditorium when there is no fire. The KKK can gather, but their gatherings cannot incite violence. A lobbyist can seek to persuade a public official, but cannot offer a bribe. When rights conflict with one another, the courts must step in to adjudicate.

In recent weeks, the courts rendered decisions in two cases involving First Amendment guarantees of the free exercise of religion. We agree with both decisions, but we deplore one of the outcomes.

In Arizona, four activists who belong to the group "No More Deaths/No Más Muertes," an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, were charged with breaking the law when they placed water and food for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

The plaintiffs argued that they could not be prosecuted because the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars the federal government from placing a substantial burden on their exercise of their religion in the absence of a compelling state interest. What is more, the government must pursue that compelling interest in a manner that least burdens the religious exercise in question.

The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are exceedingly clear on the moral necessity of caring for the migrant. Matthew 25 — "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink ... a stranger and you welcomed me" — is presented by Jesus as the measure by which we shall be judged. There is no more central ethical command than this.

The government failed to provide any good, let alone compelling, rationale for its action against the activists. At one point in the case, the government argued it had a compelling interest in preventing littering in the refuge. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Marquez was not buying it: "The Court finds that Defendants demonstrated that their prosecution for this conduct substantially burdens their exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs, and that the Government failed to demonstrate that prosecuting Defendants is the least restrictive means of furthering any compelling governmental interest."

The other case started in 2012, when adjunct faculty of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh voted to form a union, and the local labor relations board certified the election. In 2018, a panel at the National Labor Relations Board agreed with the local decision, and the university sued, citing its First Amendment right to freely exercise religion without government interference, also appealing to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sided with the university, citing multiple precedents denying the NLRB jurisdiction over religious institutions.

We appreciate the constitutional rationale for keeping the government out of religious institutions' business, but unlike the activists in Arizona, Duquesne University was not exercising the Catholic faith, nor acting in accord with a sincerely held religious tenet, when it refused to allow its workers to unionize.

In fact, Duquesne and other Catholic schools that have fought adjunct unions are opposing a long-held tenet of Catholic social teaching: that workers have a right to form unions and bargain collectively for a just wage, as Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Pope John Paul II called unions "indispensable" and dedicated his first social encyclical to the dignity of work. Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate wrote:

The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

The lack of a "deeply held belief" is one of the requirements to defeat a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There is no "deeply held belief" that is also Catholic that justifies Duquesne's stance. The courts should be skeptical when a religious organization fails to live up to the standards set by its own most obvious teachers.

The last thing we want is for the federal government to begin deciding what is and is not an orthodox belief in our church or in any other. But it is well past time that the myriad organizations of the Catholic Church — most especially schools and hospitals — stop providing a counterwitness to the teachings of the church by blocking workers' attempts to organize.

This is especially acute, given that the workers in this case are among some of the most mistreated in what some call the "gig academy." Contingent faculty — including part-time adjuncts paid by the course and graduate students who teach — make up 70% of all higher education faculty, according to data shared at a 2018 meeting of the College Theology Society.

The average adjunct in the U.S. earns less than $3,000 per class and receives no benefits. If they are able to patch together a full course load, adjuncts still make only $25,000 a year or less. Nearly a third of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line, and a quarter receive Medicaid or food stamps, according to the 2018 College Theology Society presentation.

The U.S. bishops have made the protection and promotion of religious liberty a central concern in the past decade. When their pursuit of that principle leads them to look the other way when their organizations run roughshod over their own social teachings, something is awry.

If they want the social teachings of the church to be taken seriously, they should begin practicing what they preach. The protection of religious liberty they claim to want is surely most endangered by the kind of rank hypocrisy on display at Duquesne University.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Feb 21-March 5, 2020 Hypocrisy on display in Duquesne's religious liberty win

Editorial: Heroes of the impeachment imbroglio

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A political protester is seen Feb. 5 on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trump was later acquitted by the U.S. Senate on two articles of impeachment that same day. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

It's reasonable to feel that the U.S. Senate's failure to convict President Donald Trump, or even hear needed testimony, is cause for despair about the future of the country.

Yet there were bright spots in the process, heroes who stepped up and recognized truth at a time when falsehood is the coin of the political realm.

The highest profile among them belongs to Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Republican to vote to convict Trump. He spoke in the Senate chamber and righteously declared he was inspired by religious faith to take seriously his oath to God. Romney, of course, is the nation's most famous Mormon. His brief but powerful explanation of his vote on the Senate floor was a lesson for all in engaging principle and conscience. His speech only made more apparent the absence of an appeal to conscience among other Republican politicians, Catholics and others, or discussion of moral obligations. We heard lots about what a political mistake impeachment was.

Less recognized were the Democrats holding tenuous seats, who were willing to do the right thing and vote to convict this president. They include senators from slightly red leaning states such as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and those representing bold red states, such as Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — two places where Trump garnered more than 62 and 68% of the vote, respectively, in 2016. It is hard to see anything but an exercise of conscience in service of principle, especially for Jones and Manchin, given the fact that they knew ahead of time that their votes would have no effect at all on the outcome, and could only present them with political jeopardy.

Others, on the periphery of the process, stepped forward. Among them was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who, after Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky sneakily slipped him a question intended to divulge the name of the civil servant who blew the whistle on the Ukraine escapade, declined to play along.

George Conway, a Federalist Society conservative lawyer, has been zealous in calling out the crimes of the Trump Administration, clearly risking his Republican bonafides in the process, and, perhaps, disturbing the domestic tranquility of family life with wife Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump.

Special attention belongs to those of lower rank, laborers in the vast federal bureaucracy, who when called upon, simply told the truth of what they saw and heard. These heroes included Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, who compellingly testified to the harassment she experienced from the Trump outlaws while doing her job in a sensitive and unglamorous diplomatic outpost.

Fiona Hill, the former White House Russia expert and aide to John Bolton, said what her boss didn't. She has a lot to lose as part of the Republican apparatus and will be left adrift, still representing a bygone era when Republicans could be counted upon to warn about Russia.

William Taylor Jr., career diplomat, came out of retirement to serve as ambassador to Ukraine, and questioned the quid pro quo the Trump team was promoting.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated war veteran, now attacked by the acolytes of the draft dodger president who, as a young man confronted with the Vietnam-era draft, conveniently suffered from mysterious bone spurs. Vidman questioned the notorious call to Ukraine early on, and was transferred out of the White House as a result.

Unsung hero Jennifer Williams, aide to Vice President Mike Pence, apparently told the truth about Pence's communications with Rudolph Giuliani, and the discussions about the machinations around her boss avoiding the Ukraine presidential inauguration. Her career is still young, and she is likely not feeling welcome around the White House these days.

It took Gordon Sondland a while, and he is not all that sympathetic as a million dollar fat cat donor to Trump, but he did testify truthfully, in his role as ambassador to the European Union, that Trump's expectation of a quid pro quo was beyond doubt.

So, take heart, not everyone failed. Many provided inspiration in this imbroglio, heroes who stepped up and did the right thing. But there were enough goats as well, those who failed miserably, making it easy to question the state of the nation in this Age of Trump. There remains reason to fear that more heroes may be required before this national nightmare is over.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Feb 21-March 5, 2020 Heroes of the impeachment imbroglio

Editorial: Reaping what we sow in the impeachment trial

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The U.S. Capitol in Washington is seen at night Jan. 21. The Senate debated the rules for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump that same night. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)
The U.S. Capitol in Washington is seen at night Jan. 21. The Senate debated the rules for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump that same night. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

As President Donald Trump was ready for acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial, a brief discussion of the role of Christian faith emerged amid the chaos.

For those believers who never bought into the Trump cult, even when he has dangled tax cuts and Supreme Court appointments, the Scriptures offered some solace.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black provided pertinent words in his opening prayer for the trial session Jan. 31. Those who listened carefully to Black over the trial noticed how he was offering, not just prayers, but some heavenly counsel to the gathered Senate jurors. He didn't disappoint those seeking hope amid the political orgy of dishonesty offered by the president's defenders. Every day, Black would plead to the heavens for courage and integrity.

Alas, he got little of both.

While Trump slipped through the Senate trial, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), while saying he would vote to acquit the president*, at least provided a rationale that acknowledged truth.

That is a low bar. But the fever that afflicts the former Party of Lincoln, now largely consigned to a cult around the man who dominates the political landscape, caused most Republican Senators to abandon even that pitiful standard.

Alexander, who is soon to retire, was able to say what the long-televised trial, which at times had the numbing impact of watching a croquet tournament, undoubtedly proved. Trump had in fact called for the announcement of an investigation into a domestic political rival in exchange for the promise of aid for Ukraine. Yes, there was a quid pro quo.

It happened, but we'll just look the other way this time, Alexander proclaimed, ending a distinguished career, not as a profile in courage but landing in midair.

Give Alexander some credit, however. He was willing to jump off the flat earth caucus among his fellow Republicans, acknowledging what was clear.

"The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did. I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election," said Alexander, who added, "Let the people decide."

That was at least better than formerly prestigious Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. In his defense of Trump, Dershowitz said that Congress should not convict Trump if the president’s actions in pursuit of re-election were motivated by a belief that his reelection would further the greater interests of the nation.

Some worried that the Senate had conferred kingly power on to the president. Hail the Great Leader! We have just nudged a bit closer to North Korea.

Wannabe witness John Bolton will now testify, not in a Senate trial, but on his book tour, offering nuggets of revelations of skullduggery and cover-up, while Republican senators try to explain why they didn't want to hear from a prime witness.

It was left to Black to summarize the proceedings with his Jan. 31 prayer.

"Remind our senators that they alone are accountable to you for their conduct," Black said. "Lord, help them to remember that they can't ignore you and get away with it. For we always reap what we sow."

Amen, brother.

*This article has been edited to clarify Alexander's stance.

Editorial: We are wary of answers for sale

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(Unsplash/Metin Ozer)

In the opening of one of his sales-pitch videos, Matthew Kelly, entrepreneur and self-styled evangelist, says that he gets asked all the time what the Catholic Church in the United States will look like a decade or two from now.

It's an essential question. Whether his answer is the correct one is quite another matter. But he's got an answer, and it is for sale. The three-part series that posted Jan. 15-17 lays out in detail how one of the most effective marketers — and he is hardly alone — on today's ecclesial landscape is using a mix of motivational talk and business-speak logic all wrapped in smiling evangelistic fervor to offer a path out of what he constructs as a kind of Catholic malaise.

We have spent a great deal of time and effort during the past five years reporting on the effect of money on Catholic image and practice in the United States. It is a peculiarly American capitalist approach to problem solving that has swooped into the leadership vacuum created in an episcopal culture shackled by sex abuse and money scandals.

Our previous reporting documented how wealthy individuals and organizations, through non-profit mechanisms, are able to fund other entities such as think tanks and news outlets that are highly ideological and lie primarily on the conservative to extremely conservative side of the spectrum. With enough funding, they develop the clout to fashion a narrow and deeply flawed Catholic narrative for the wider culture.

Kelly and his Dynamic Parish program is an example — arguably the most prevalent of many — of a new breed of ecclesial entrepreneur, in his case using a sometimes questionable combination of for-profit and non-profit entities, attempting to influence the conversation within the Catholic community. He is not a political or religious ideologue. Quite to the contrary, he is interested in numbers, enthusiasm and financial reward, not fidelity to a party and its issues.

As NCR's National Correspondent Heidi Schlumpf explained in the series: "Dynamic Parish joins myriad other parish revitalization and consulting programs that have sprung up in the past decade, as Catholic congregations face threats from decreased institutional affiliation among younger Americans, negative press from the decadeslong sex abuse scandal and increasing financial pressures."

Into this precarious and unsettled reality comes Kelly full of hope and confidence. In his video, he sets the scene by raising the scary specter of European churches that are empty, containing in his words "more tourists than believers." Where are the young people, the young professionals, the young families, he asks? Where is the next generation of Catholics?

He has answers. His words come against a backdrop of happy music and video showing a group of smiling and engaged white folks around a table bearing uncorked bottles and wine glasses waiting to be filled. There's a quick cut to a happy couple on what appears to be a balcony, dancing and smooching (young Catholics on a romantic vacation?) and then to a shot of people carrying what appear to be full plates of food down a set of stairs. All the while, Kelly is talking about his vision of parishes that are "dynamic" (pay attention, that word is important!), fully engaged, with people wanting to be part of the parish not only on Sunday but every day of the week.

He's all about big dreams and a future of great things for parishes. His Catholic dream includes gauzy photos of a priest walking about holding a monstrance and an attractive young woman poring over her thick floppy bible in a coffee shop. There are children with sparklers and young people sitting on a beach. "In one way or another," he says, his business, Dynamic Catholic Institute, is involved in some 10,000 parishes in the United States. "And we're just getting started!" The offices of Dynamic Catholic are full of enthusiastic young people, he says, who are "laying down their lives" for his mission. Whew.

And then, of course, the pitch. Kelly can't do all of this dreaming and plotting and planning on his own. He needs you to step up and organize an event in your area, to volunteer to teach a confirmation class using his books, to hand out more of his books after Christmas Mass this year — oh, and to pay $10 a month to become an "ambassador" (translate, "pay to help advance my business"). Cue the smiling faces and flame-driven balloons escaping into the night sky that melts to a sunlit horizon. Just imagine the possibilities.

Kelly asks an essential question but leaves out the very difficult questions that the real church actually faces. If the video is indicative of his dream, there's not a black or brown face in his church, no undocumented persons, there are no unhappy people, only those "less fortunate," who will, in the new church, be helped in "sustainable ways." It is a "can do" campaign ad, a corporate pep talk, a gospel of smooth paths.

The value of the content of his multiple books is a matter of debate among Catholics, and it should be. In the end, what is being produced is part of a business model that, say some who have been involved, pushes the boundaries of ethics and legality.

The information we were able to gather from tax forms, former company officials and other materials raises serious questions about the propriety of the relationship between his non-profit and profit-making companies, as well as the extent to which the Catholic Church in the United States has become an easily exploitable market. What is clear is that Kelly heads three for-profit companies that benefit from the non-profit, Dynamic Catholic. While any salary he might take from Dynamic Catholic is negligible, the non-profit, over the period 2011 to 2017, the latest years tax documents were available for, provided three of Kelly's for-profit companies with $48 million — $6.8 million a year — in book sales, consulting fees and rent.

And much of that money, beyond book sales, came from gifts and grants and from those $10-per-month "ambassadors," of which Dynamic Catholic says there are tens of thousands.

Perhaps it is an irony that only the Catholic Church in America could produce: That some of the greatest beneficiaries of lay engagement in the post-Vatican II era are the entrepreneurs who understand the advantages of being an individual seller to a captive audience in a top-down organization where the hierarchy is, for all practical purposes, dysfunctional.

Maybe the offerings are splendid. Maybe some people are persuaded to return to the fold or investigate the faith because of them. It is essential, however, that the rest of the community, the people who are the church, remain informed of what's happening around us — of what we're being sold and who's selling it.

The bottom line? This is no longer the church of your grandparents or even of your parents, where the extra ask might be for a few bucks to help the missionary who's in the pulpit this week or for a new wing to the parish school.

We have become, instead, a passive market for the latest program promising revival and new purpose. It is our obligation to understand that many, if not most, of these offerings share a basis not in Christian Scripture but in American business principles. And we all know that the ultimate purpose of business is happy customers. Beware contentment. Jesus did not commission a sales force.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Feb. 7-20, 2020 We are wary of answers for sale

Editorial: Dolan investigating DiMarzio points up flaws of 'Vos Estis'

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shares a light moment with New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, left, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, outside St. Patrick's Cathedral during the Columbus Day Parade in New York City Oct. 14, 2019. (CNS)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shares a light moment with New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, left, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, outside St. Patrick's Cathedral during the Columbus Day Parade in New York City Oct. 14, 2019. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

We have long held unabashed admiration for Pope Francis. But events keep raising issues about the shortcomings of Vos Estis Lux Mundi, his signature intervention to address the church's sex abuse crisis.

Latest case in point: According to press reports and statements from the dioceses involved, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, under Vos Estis provisions, is investigating Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, his neighbor across the East River.

DiMarzio has been publicly accused of sexual abuse of a minor dating back 45 years to a parish in Jersey City, when he was a priest in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. DiMarzio has adamantly denied the charge. He has won a reputation as a no-nonsense responder to sex abuse issues both in Brooklyn and in the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, where he previously served. DiMarzio should earn the presumption of innocence. And it's proper to keep in mind that while a lawsuit has been threatened, as of this writing it has not been filed.

Yet for ecclesial purposes, for the confidence of the people of God in New York and beyond, the serious charges cry out for an investigation. Our problem is with making Dolan responsible for leading an inquiry.

Pope Francis issued Vos Estis in May 2019 to deal with the scourge of the sex abuse crisis. It rose out of last February's summit on the topic held at the Vatican.

Vos Estis established procedures for reporting on allegations, involving abuse against minors or vulnerable people by clerics, bishops or members of religious orders. It also held church leaders responsible for cover-ups of sex abuse. Among its mechanisms is a provision that calls for senior bishops to investigate fellow bishops who have been accused.

Not only do DiMarzio and Dolan share the same ecclesial province, they are the only ordinaries in this country to share the same city. By the nature of their two roles, they have had to cooperate and make common cause over dealing with a complicated metropolis, from the trivial — such as Catholic holidays to be used for alternate side street parking waivers — to the serious, such as addressing issues around charter schools in former parochial school buildings, joint responses on issues such as city regulations on Catholic foster care, or making common ground on issues such as affordable housing and anti-Semitism. In the media capital of the world, it is an imperative that the church be seen as speaking with one voice.

With that in mind, the two leaders have forged a collaborative working relationship. That kind of relationship, as anyone in a working setting knows, can run the gamut from admiration to loathing. Once again, issues with bishops investigating fellow bishops naturally emerge in this setting.

We have reached this point in a massive conundrum, where church leaders are duty-bound to investigate sex abuse cases, even as it has been bishops who failed so miserably in the past. That makes it even more imperative to get these investigations done in an atmosphere that rises above suspicion.

Perhaps the format should be modified so that the investigating bishop is from a different province, a different part of the country, where objectivity can be better guaranteed? Appearances matter, no more so than in these cases. Any implication that this serious charge can be investigated in a clubby clerical atmosphere only mitigates against the public confidence in any conclusion.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Feb 7-20, 2020 Dolan investigating DiMarzio points up flaws of 'Vos Estis'

Editorial: US foreign policy belies the veneer of noble purpose

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A man celebrates in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 8 after the country launched missiles at U.S.-led forces in Iraq. (CNS/West Asia News Agency via Reuters/Nazanin Tabatabaee)
A man celebrates in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 8 after the country launched missiles at U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Iran attacked two bases in Iraq that house American troops with a barrage of missiles early Jan. 8 in retaliation for the U.S. killing an Iranian general Jan. 3. (CNS/West Asia News Agency via Reuters/Nazanin Tabatabaee)

In August 1999, the United Nations Children's Fund released a report concluding that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 were directly related to a decade of U.S.-backed economic sanctions. The information was based on a survey of women and children in Iraq, the first since 1991 when the first Gulf War ended.

The "ongoing humanitarian emergency," in the words of UNICEF officials at the time, was, we now know, nowhere near ending. Nor was the war. Nor was the growing conviction in-country that the United States was less conducive of the values it liked to apply to itself than it was of chaos and cultural disintegration.

The same year the U.N. released the report on Iraq, another report by the independent organization Historical Clarification Commission — created during a U.N.-overseen peace process among warring factions in Guatemala — concluded that Guatemalan forces, aided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, had committed acts of genocide, primarily among the indigenous Mayan community.

"The commission listed the American training of the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques as a key factor that ''had a significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation,'' according to a report in The New York Times. More than 200,000 people were killed and many more were tortured during the country's 36-year civil war. The most violent period occurred during the early 1980s.

The history is significant, if sparingly acknowledged, given the current situation in the Middle East, where the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani has occasioned a new round of all-too-familiar rhetoric about enemies deserving of death, even if questions are being raised about the strategy and its subsequent fallout.

The commentary and analysis in the United States always seems to stop at the water's edge of a vast and growing sea of history that might prove treacherous to baked-in presumptions of the superiority of our intentions and of how noble they always are when compared to those of other countries. It is a presumption that Stephen Kinzer in his book Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq describes as a "persistent strain in the American character … the belief that the United States is a nation uniquely endowed with virtue."

There are yet unique virtues in place in this noble experiment in self-governance, but their relevance is diminished if we refuse to take an unvarnished look at our activity beyond our borders and how others perceive us.

The lofty and image-laden language of a Ronald Reagan shining-city-upon-a-hill farewell speech or a morality-laden George W. Bush justification for invading Iraq sought to make virtuous what was otherwise quite clear: The cost of war was justified in order to gain access to or protection of resources — Iraq's and Kuwait's oil, or Guatemala's abundance of mineral and other assets. The harsh reality is that in the mid-1950s, the United States overthrew duly elected democratic governments to procure our interests.

Each of those acts, and more, had lasting consequences still reverberating today. The cycle of violence between Iraq and Iran, and the tangle of U.S. involvement, first one side and then the other, during the past 40 years muddle the claims of noble intent. Such incidents may recede quickly into our rearview mirror, but the cultures affected don't quickly forget.

A persistent reality abides: What America has done in so many instances is the timeless business of nation-states able to take what they want by force. "What distinguishes Americans from citizens of past empires," wrote Kinzer, "is their eagerness to persuade themselves that they are acting out of humanitarian motives."

With President Donald Trump, the pretense is not even worth the effort. The language of noble motives and moral purpose just doesn't fit. Instead, we live with the results of impulse unrestrained by anyone with diplomatic or military experience who might, if for no other reason than self-preservation, point out the possible ugly implications of assassinating another country's general.

All the "adults" have left the room and the prospects become terrifying, given the fact that from at least Bill Clinton forward, the Oval office, thanks to technological advances, has increasingly become the spot from which an individual can make decisions about the use of force previously unimagined.

"The use of lethal drones has inaugurated a new and dangerous phase in modern warfare that raises very serious moral and legal questions," said Marie Dennis, former co-president of Pax Christi International. She was one of several Catholic ethicists and peace experts who raised serious questions about the killing of Soleimani.

Even if Soleimani was viewed as a legitimate target under just war theory because he had killed Americans, said theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill, "There is not firm evidence that Soleimani posed an imminent threat."

And one might reasonably ask what that makes of those who ordered sanctions that killed half a million little kids?

Gerard Powers of the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, noted some positive points that evolve from the questioning of the Soleimani assassination, one of which is that "the public debate suggests that we might be beginning to learn some of the right lessons about the country's two longest wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of those lessons, the results of the recently released "Afghanistan Papers," is that another consistent element of recent U.S. war-making is the layer of official deception that accompanies our seemingly endless involvement in a perpetual use of force.

It is time to stop trying to embellish endless conflict and destruction of cultures with a veneer of noble purpose. Experience has demonstrated that contemporary wars are often futile and failed attempts to get what we want. They don't defend anyone, they don't guarantee safety at home and, in the modern era, they seem never to end.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Jan 24-Feb 6, 2020 US foreign policy belies its noble veneer

Editorial: Finally, the Legion's terrible truth

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Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, leads students in taking an oath at a Legion of Christ school in Ireland in this circa 1962 photo. (CNS)

Fr. Marciel Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ.

It is stunning the degree to which that phrase represents, in the individual and the organization, the deep corruption that has existed in the heart of the Catholic community — and at its highest levels — during much of the past century.

All of NCR's coverage of the Legion of Christ investigation can be found here. Jason Berry's story on Pope Benedict XVI and the Legion of Christ can be found here.

Some of that stark reality has finally surfaced in a report from the Legion, hardly the last word on the matter, that found that 33 priests and 71 seminarians of the order sexually abused minors over the past 80 years. A third of the priest abusers were themselves abused by Maciel. Many of them went on to abuse others, an intergenerational nightmare of evil begetting evil. A total of 175 minors were abused by the priests, according to the report. No number is recorded of those abused by the seminarians, many of whom were not ordained or left the order.

NCR knows well much of the story that precedes these tallies, for we documented what was going on as it occurred over decades. Links to a fair representation of that coverage can be found accompanying this editorial. We need to remember the history.

The church also needs to elevate and acknowledge the courage of the survivors, Maciel's many victims and his victim's victims. It owes a special debt of gratitude and acknowledgement to those men who, years ago, were so appalled at the fawning privilege bestowed by Pope John Paul II on Maciel that they dared to speak out. They were ignored and dismissed by John Paul and denigrated by his acolytes, particularly among the Catholic right in the United States.

The church at large also owes a significant debt of gratitude to Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner, who initially pierced the cloying veneer of piety to expose the duplicitous activities of the Legion. One of the earliest pieces ran in the Hartford Courant, where Renner was religion editor. NCR ran a report of that early story. Berry persisted, after Renner's death, to dig deeper into the founder's history of abuse and also documented the money that Maciel distributed around the Vatican, essentially buying protection from multiple investigations and the scrutiny of those who understood the layers of fraud upon which his reputation rested. Much of Berry's later reporting appeared in the NCR print issues and website.

The history is important — and millennials especially should take heed — because it is an important cautionary tale that warns we should all exercise a healthy skepticism in assessing the latest religiously charismatic persona who appears on the horizon, holier than holy and convinced that he or she has all the answers. A slight turn on the old saw applies here — if he or she seems too good to be true, that's probably the case.

One should also beware the money. Maciel was an absolute standout as a fundraiser even as he was sexually assaulting young students in his seminaries and fathering children by at least two women on different continents. One can only conclude that those in charge overlooked an enormous amount of evidence to the contrary to remain convinced that he was the exemplar of Catholic priestly vocation.

Finally, be careful about those priests, particularly the cohort of younger ones who idolize John Paul and his idea of "heroic priesthood," which he viewed as best exemplified by Maciel, the cleric he once described as an "efficacious guide to youth." Indeed. It is a model of priesthood built on sand and grand delusions about ontological differences and other hierarchical nonsense.

The caution should apply as well to Regnum Christi, the secular group attached to the Legion. It is built on the same foundation as the Legion itself.

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Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, greets Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square in this 2000 file photo. (CNS/Catholic Press Photo)

Such skepticism would have served well in the past when the intellectual architects and stalwarts of the American Catholic right, those who constructed the rigid mandates of contemporary "orthodoxy," hailed Maciel and his Legion as indicators of the best future for Catholicism. God spare us.

One of the principals of that cabal, which included such Catholic right luminaries as George Weigel and Mary Ann Glendon, was the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. He vilified the reporters and publications, NCR at the top of his list, who persisted in digging into the story of Maciel's corruption.

In March 2002, Neuhaus, in First Things, the far-right publication he founded, penned a reflection under the subhead "Feathers of Scandal," and "occasioned by an attack on Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the eighty-two-year-old and much revered founder of the Legionaries of Christ, one of the more vibrant and successful renewal movements in contemporary Catholicism."

It was a wordy and windy screed, denigrating reporters, their publications, and asserting that asking such probing questions was evidence of a "hostility" toward Maciel and the Legion.

Neuhaus' pomposity knew few limits, and he concluded in the same piece, that "after a scrupulous examination of the claims and counterclaims, I have arrived at moral certainty that the charges are false and malicious."

Given the usual glacier pace of life in the Catholic world, history acted quickly to reveal the truth, and where the false and malicious actually lay, in the Maciel/Legion case.

Maciel was banished from public ministry in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, after an extensive investigation turned up abundant evidence of his abuse of minors. Maciel died the following year.

Something unsettling attaches to such a damning announcement released days before Christmas, whether or not intentionally timed. But if there is a consolation to be found in the intersection of this disturbing Legion report with our observance of the Incarnation — perhaps it has to do with a rediscovery, through the pain of this sordid recent history, of the redemptive humility of the crib.

God in this most vulnerable state has nothing to do with an ecclesiology or a manufactured orthodoxy that trades on privilege, power and deception. Perhaps as an institution, the church is being forced to the most authentic observance of Christmas, in all of its sparseness.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Jan 10-23, 2020 Finally, the Legionaries' terrible truth

NCR's 2019 newsmaker of the year: Nancy Pelosi

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional leadership meet with President Donald Trump Oct. 16 in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Wikimedia Commons/Official White House photo/Shealah Craighead)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional leadership meet with President Donald Trump Oct. 16 in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Wikimedia Commons/Official White House photo/Shealah Craighead)

For steady and thoughtful service to the nation at a time of extraordinary challenge and for exemplifying, in all its complexity, a public and, in this case, political role in which her Catholicism acts as a kind of moral bedrock, NCR names Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as our Catholic newsmaker of the year.

The life of the nation has been dominated by President Donald Trump for four long years. His dominance has been all the more remarkable because no one, not a Republican nor a Democrat, not a politician nor cultural critic, seemed up to the task of challenging him or exposing him for the morally bankrupt character he is. Until Pelosi became speaker. The photograph of her standing in the White House Cabinet Room, hand outstretched and finger pointed straight at the president while a group of mostly white men sit with heads bowed, became an icon for all of us who have been hoping and praying for someone capable of standing up to Trump.

We now know that the photograph captured a moment when Pelosi was criticizing the president for his hasty decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, effectively abandoning our allies the Kurds, and strengthening the strategic position of — who else? — Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump released the photograph saying it showed Pelosi in the midst of an "unhinged meltdown." What we actually see is a public servant who has spent the better part of her life defending the interests and ideals of the American republic confronting this president for his failure to defend those interests and ideals, and doing it in a way that few have attempted.

Trump is not only derelict in the duty of protecting the republic. By denigrating public servants, demeaning diplomats, taking the word of Putin over that of his own intelligence apparatus, attempting to coerce a foreign government into doing opposition research to benefit his political ambitions, and deeming all inquiries into his bizarre and dangerous behavior "a hoax," he actively undermines vital democratic institutions.

We've understood Pelosi's reluctance to pursue the impeachment of the president after the Mueller report when, with some help from Attorney General William Barr's deceitful synopsis, that report failed to galvanize public opinion against the president's demonstrated abuse of power. But, this summer, when a whistleblower showed that the president had not learned his lesson and was intent on garnering foreign interference in the upcoming 2020 election, clear evidence of his contempt not for Democrats but for democracy, Pelosi authorized the beginning of an impeachment inquiry.

Because of her support for abortion rights, some Catholics will be distressed that we characterize Pelosi as exemplifying public service by a devout Roman Catholic. The resilient fact is that since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the issue has been captured, for all practical purposes, by the extremes — roughly 20% for no restrictions, a position unfortunately that has become the rigid orthodoxy of most Democratic Party leaders, and 20% for a total ban, the Republican position.

Consistently since 1975, polling has shown that more than 50% of Americans have an opinion that rests between those extremes.

Advocating a ban on abortion has given cover to politicians who want the "pro-life" label, while ignoring or exacerbating the plight of immigrants, the effects of poverty, the reality of climate change, increasing income disparity and other social issues because they give "preeminence" to abortion.

We may be disappointed that someone of Pelosi's political acumen and status has not taken the opportunity to move the party to the broad middle on abortion. But we also understand the messy limits of politics in an environment where even the nation's Catholic bishops, given 40-plus years of trying, have been unable to persuade public opinion, including among Catholics, any further in their direction.

We also note that Pelosi has resisted efforts by pro-choice groups to make abortion rights a litmus test for Democratic candidates. "I grew up Nancy D'Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family; fiercely patriotic; proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic," she told an interviewer in 2017. "Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I'm kicking them out of the Democratic Party?"

On almost every other issue — climate change, universal health care, anti-poverty efforts, gun control — Pelosi has stood four-square for policies also supported by the nation's bishops. Her enthusiasm for the popes of this era — "I loved Benedict's writing and his speeches," she told an interviewer — is unfeigned. Her frequent and favorable comments about the School Sisters of Notre Dame who taught her as a child point not only to Catholic formation but also to female leadership in her formative years. It is not hard to believe her when she says she prays for the president all the time.

Nor is it difficult to believe her when, asked by a reporter if she "hated" Trump, she responded that she grew up in a Catholic household and was taught to hate no one. "So don't mess with me when it comes to words like that," she said.

This September, Pope Francis, who previously had referred to politics as a noble, if messy, undertaking, said in one of his weekday sermons, "[Politics] may be dirty, just like any profession can be dirty. ... We are the ones who dirty something but it is not so by nature. I believe that we must convert our hearts and pray for politicians of all stripes, all of them!"

Politics in America today is, as we recently editorialized, upside down from a moral perspective. The president pardons war criminals and demeans real patriots who dare to question his attempt to bribe the government of Ukraine. In Donald Trump's America, the rich are not sent away empty. And while all politicians have a somewhat tenuous connection to truth-telling, never in our history have we had a president who lies almost every time he opens his mouth.

Our politics has been captured by the shrill practitioners of ideological purity. On the Republican side of the aisle, that movement has morphed into a cult of personality, membership in which requires, apparently, a blind and absolute obedience. Catholicism lived responsibly in the public square is not expressed in ideological or religious purity. It works, instead, for the greatest common good within the framework of a pluralist and imperfect democratic republic.

The 79-year-old mother of five who learned not to hate in her Catholic household also learned a lot about politics as a youngster. She is the youngest of seven children of Annunciata and Thomas D'Alesandro, who was a Democratic member of Congress when she was born. He later became mayor of Baltimore.

Pelosi graduated from Trinity College in Washington with a degree in political science. She is currently in her 17th term and served as speaker of the House for the first time from 2007 to 2011. She was elected speaker again this year when Democrats took over the majority of the House following midterm elections.

Standing up to the president has placed Pelosi in the brightest of spotlights. But it is also for tirelessly advocating for the poor and migrants, for defending the Constitution and distinguishing between run-of-the-mill political issues and those that warrant impeachment, and for being willing to demonstrate publicly that faith can and should be an inspiring force in society, even when things get messy, that NCR applauds Pelosi as Catholic newsmaker of the year.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Dec 27, 2019-Jan 9, 2020 NCR's 2019 newsmaker of the year: Nancy Pelosi

Editorial: If a little Catholic confusion exists, maybe it is a blessing

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Pope Francis signs a papal blessing as he visits mentally disabled people at Il Ponte e l'Albero community on the outskirts of Rome Dec. 7, 2018. (CNS/Vatican Media)
Pope Francis signs a papal blessing as he visits mentally disabled people at Il Ponte e l'Albero community on the outskirts of Rome Dec. 7, 2018. (CNS/Vatican Media)

When Georgetown University launched its Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, the venture benefited from the popularity of a relatively new pope.

People packed the university's Gaston Hall one October evening in 2013 for the first of what would become a series of conversations on "The Francis Factor."

As we reported at the time, John Carr, director of the initiative, opened the event "by wondering what a publisher, pre-Francis, would say to the outline of a book that began with the first resignation by a pope in 600 years and was followed by the election of an old Jesuit who rode the bus to work as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina; who announces a church for and of the poor; lives in a guest house instead of the papal palace; and spends Holy Thursday washing the feet of young people in prison."

"He'd say don't waste your time or mine," Carr said. "Well, I can't wait for the next chapter."

The chapters since have not disappointed in terms of Vatican intrigue and departure from past practice. Francis' papacy has been nothing if not consistently interesting and challenging — an open, inclusive, approachable and warmly pastoral approach with an emphasis on those in the margins that goes far beyond words in a papal document.

Six years later, a capacity crowd in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel heard described some of the jitters and "confusion" rippling across the community in the wake of Francis' approach to church governance. Those attending the recent event also heard an archbishop speak of the scandalous organized opposition to a pope who is highly critical of two particularly American idolatries: money and militarism.

At home or on the road, the lens capturing this papacy has moved from the previous spectacle of crowds in thrall of a commanding stage presence to a somewhat bowed figure surrounded by refugees and the disabled, in the midst of those whose neighborhoods represent the most destitute on Earth, kneeling to wash the feet of the incarcerated.

Catholic identity, once a calculus of rigid rule-keeping, has shifted more to a practice of mercy and accompaniment.

Francis has moderated the recent excesses in the use of law to determine membership in the community, and he has opened up new possibilities for grace to work in the lives of those seeking the embrace of God. He has replaced the image of the border-patrol bishop, making sure that no one unworthy gets in, with that of the shepherd accompanying the flock, acquiring the smell of the sheep, at times shuffling over and blurring the boundaries.

Perhaps in the same way that rigid legalisms were viewed by some segments of the Catholic community as inhuman and obstacles to God's grace, this new approach, with its inherent messiness and lesser regard for the letter of the law, may be off-putting to others.

The word "confusion" is often applied by those who find unsettling Francis' more pastoral approach compared to recent papacies. His language and even his daily routine follow his clear intent to remove the stench of royalty and privilege from the world of Catholic leadership.

Maybe we need to understand that the differences we perceive are facets of the same infinitely diverse and compassionate God. No single papacy or interest group in the community captures it all.

What should be intolerable in any quarter, however, are the ad hominem attacks on Francis, some of the loudest clearly questioning his very legitimacy. Such attacks are transparent attempts to maintain ecclesial privilege and status or to disguise the faith in the comforts of the prevailing culture.

In the United States, as we have amply documented in this space, "conservative" or "orthodox" is often shorthand for describing a faith ensconced in American economics and national ambitions. Francis, in his critique of an economy that "kills" or in his absolute condemnation of the possession of nuclear weapons, as well as his severe criticism of the excesses of the clerical culture, has certainly afflicted the comfortable on many levels and in more than a few corridors of power.

Opposition to papal positions or teaching is nothing new. But the displays of disdain for Francis seem of a different caliber quantitatively and qualitatively, a reality acknowledged by Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory during the recent Dahlgren Dialogue.

"The thing that I think makes [the opposition] different now is social media. The opposition now has a microphone that has no volume control on it," he said, adding, "What's different, however, is that this is organized, and it is well-funded, and it is prominent in social media. I think it's scandalous, personally. I don't think Francis is afraid of criticism. He's a Jesuit. What does cause him headaches is the insidiousness of the opposition."

If Christianity were nothing more than a moral code with unambiguous teachings that never changed, we wouldn't still be finding infinite meaning in the words of Jesus and endless fascination with the implications of the universal Christ. Instead, we are confronted with a God of love, we say repeatedly. It is a God of infinite compassion and mercy who engages us in profound matters of the heart, the dimensions of which are incalculable. For the Catholic Christian, there should not be anything confusing about modeling that compassion and the embrace of those whose lives might fall outside some perceived ideal.

Francis has quoted his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, explaining that faith is not a matter of philosophy or dogma, but an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Helen Alvaré, a law professor, noted pro-life advocate, and Dahlgren Dialogue participant, said, "I think of Francis' pontificate as an extended meditation on the good Samaritan story. He is highlighting who are the people strewn on our path right now, and that's been a change over time over different papacies."

If a little confusion exists, maybe it is a blessing, leading, if not to absolute answers, then, far more important, to correct questions. If the original Twelve who encountered the living Christ are any example, we can take serious consolation. They are the best indicators that faith is not a matter of certainty and that confusion can be a path that sends us deeper into the mystery.

Here's hoping for a lot more chapters ahead.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Dec 13-26, 2019 Some Catholic confusion may be a blessing