do not be masters of doctrine

During an ordination ceremony on Sunday, Pope Francis stressed that

…priests are not “masters of doctrine” but must be faithful to it. Francis described the pain he feels when he hears of people that no longer go to confession because they fear being told off; they felt the church was slamming the door in their face. “Please don’t do this,” Francis urged priests, stressing the importance of mercy.

The next day, he spent an hour in a question and answer session with seminarians and young priests in Rome in which he stressed the danger of “academicism”,

“There are four pillars to a priest’s education:” “spiritual education, academic education, community education and apostolic education.” “I would not be able to understand a priest who comes to study for a degree here in Rome but doesn’t lead a community life – this will not do – or who does not look after their spiritual life, taking part in daily mass, daily prayer, the lectio divina and personal prayer with the Lord.” “Academic purism is not good” in this sense. If you only focus on the academic side, there is a danger of slipping into ideology and this is not healthy” because we become “macrocephalus” and “this is bad, it is a sickness.”

I agree wholeheartedly. We need doctrine. We need academics who are willing to do the hard work of studying the faith in order to teach others. What we do not need are doctrinal bullies who use church teachings as a hammer of orthodoxy to force us into unquestioning submission. And, we do not need a narrow, judgmental view of faithfulness that focuses only on doctrinal “purisms” and disregards our personal relationship with God through prayer and our attempts to live this relationship in our works and deeds.

And, yet, the image of church leaders as masters of doctrine continues to not only haunt us but to also make its presence known. Recent headlines have been disheartening to say the least.

The religious women of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) are once again in the lime-light. In a recent meeting with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the women were told in no uncertain terms that they and their work are still under suspicion. (NCR has ongoing coverage of the LCWR story here.)

Theologians continue to be threatened with censure. The latest is Fr. Michael Amaladoss, a Jesuit from India and author of The Asian Jesus. The LCWR was also reprimanded by Cardinal Müller for awarding its 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award to “a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings.” This theologian is the well known and much respected Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.

“Masters of doctrine”, for me, brings with it images of past, inquisitorial times. Inquisitions are used to regain and maintain purity in the church, but at what cost? They encourage an atmosphere of accusations rather than dialogue, secrecy rather than transparency, and cruel emotional and spiritual torture rather than mercy.

Sadly, today’s inquisitions are showing a growing disconnect between the words and actions of Pope Francis. The reform that Francis has called for, the reform that has given so many of us hope, is in danger of morphing into the counter-reformation style of doctrinal purification that was the distinguishing factor of the previous two papacies.

If Pope Francis truly believes in a church of mercy, a church that does not slam its door in the faces of her own, it is time for him to rein in the modern day inquisitors.


synod for the family questionnaire – do we finally have a voice?


I was in Rome when news arrived that a questionnaire was being distributed to all Bishops in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family. Every Synod begins with working documents, lineamentas, and questionnaires. The difference this time? The Bishops are encouraged to open wide the doors to a greater dialogue among all the faithful. This was received with much jubilation and excitement. Obviously this is the work of Pope Francis, we thought. FINALLY, we will have an opportunity to speak out and be  heard. We soon found out that the request was being interpreted differently around the world.

The Bishops of England and Wales gained much support by swiftly posting the questionnaire as an online survey, inviting all the faithful to respond.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops dragged their heels, arguing that this questionnaire was no different from previous Synod working documents. Therefore they would proceed as usual, leaving the onus on each bishop to decide how representative his response would be. Three dioceses in Iowa eventually put the survey online in its entirety. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia posted an edited version. But, there was no united effort by the USCCB to produce a national survey response.

Here in Canada, the Bishops are encouraged to consult with pastors and laity in their diocese and forward the diocesan responses to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is the same process used in past Synods.

Joshua J. McElwee, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, provides an insightful summary of previous attempts at collecting insights from the laity as well as the many challenges with this present attempt.

A quick read of the introductory preparatory document and actual questionnaire shows that this is no simple, multiple choice survey. This is a heavy weight document that reads more like an essay based exam. In fact, you need a certain level of education and theological know-how to even understand the questions. And, some of the questions have several questions hidden within them. Which do you answer?

Also, how in heaven’s name are they going to collect, read, and summarize all these long essay answers within the short time frame? Much time is needed to process a simple, multiple choice survey. Experts are needed to not only add up the check marks, but to interpret their meaning based on demographics. And, with a world-wide questionnaire, those demographics are going to be formidable indeed.

Optimistic souls are urging us to look beyond the clumsiness of the effort to the positive message it brings. An honest attempt is being made to listen to the voice of the faithful. The method may be imperfect, but we should work with what is given at this moment.

Is there a better way? Of course there is. News of this questionnaire wouldn’t be such a gob-smacking surprise if we were used to being asked for our opinion on matters concerning faith, family and church life. Bishops and priests wouldn’t have to be scrambling to collect our opinions if the lines of communication were already open. Dialogue would be a given, and genuine collaboration would be the modus operandi; not merely an interesting experiment to try out.

If a survey is used, the questions should be less of a theological exercise and more a pastoral and personal reflection. If you want to know what women and men think, ask us the questions that we are already asking; for we have many questions…and answers, too. You may not like the answers, but at least you will know what we are thinking.

clerical bullies…what to do?

Bullies have been on my mind lately. The issue of bullying in schools and among young people is finally getting much deserved attention. Bullies are present in academia, the work-place, cyber-space, governments and (sadly) in our churches.

It’s time for pro-action. We need to identify and name the bully for who and what they are. And, we need to do something about it.

Among the ordained, bullying too often goes hand in hand with clericalism. A culture that claims and promotes a sense of entitlement, exclusivity, and superiority needs to be carefully defended. As with most insecurities, the sense of self is protected by keeping others “in their place”. The paradigm of hierarchy is clung to as an absolute truth. Centralized authority and demands for obedience feed the beast.

We experienced this clerical bullying first-hand many years ago. I wish I could let it go…but I can’t. This experience, in many ways, formed the woman I am today. I’m saddened and maddened at every church news story of priests and bishops who reflect an aggressiveness or abusiveness that belies the gospel message they are preaching.

It breaks my heart to hear that so many have experienced clerical bullying first hand. Some learned from the experience, digging deep to embrace the core of their faith. Others experienced such hurt that they left their faith behind, locked up with the bad memories.

Yes, I have many friends who are priests of integrity. They are good and faithful men, who have chosen a life that is becoming harder and harder to defend. The dysfunctional clerical culture has hurt them too.

What do we do? I really do not know. All I have is my own experience and the lessons learned from it. We need an open discussion and sharing on this issue. I wrote an NCR Today blog post on this topic. The discussion boards produced some thought-provoking responses.

I hope the discussion continues….