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Ora et labora: the great “Amen!” to a Benedictine masterpiece


Often our most valuable pieces of art are our most valuable pieces of history. The historic component of a work of art adds to its value because of its character, exclusivity and insight into an age passed through which we glean a portrait of a younger but equally impressive and imaginative humanity.

This will certainly be the case for the Saint John’s Bible, the first hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery since the printing press was invented over five hundred years ago. The seventh and final volume of the Bible, consisting of the New Testament Letters and the book of Revelation, will be presented to Pope Francis on Friday, April 17th during a special audience in Rome. It will be the great symbolic conclusion of more than a decade of tireless labor.

The Bible, which was written in English using the New Revised Standard Version translation, was first commissioned in 1998 by the Benedictines of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota (Ironically, the Abbey also boasts one of the most celebrated theological printing presses in the English-speaking world, the Liturgical Press). The original Committee on Illumination and Text brought together artists, theologians, biblical scholars and art historians to reflect on the purpose and process of the project. Of central importance was the notion of creating a Bible for the 21st century, that is, one that venerates the Word of God by bringing it to life for the people of our time. The various art forms and representations in the 160 illuminations signal a team mentality of inclusivity and dialogue that are so important for the Church today.

At the same time, by using the manuscript writing techniques of the monks of previous ages—including calfskin vellum, hand-cut quills and lamp black ink—the team revived an activity that was once at the core of the living patrimony of the Church and indeed of the entire human civilization.

The Artistic Director and head scribe was Donald Jackson, who works for the Queen of England’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in London. It was his lifelong dream to hand-write and hand-illuminate a Bible, an undertaking he once called “the calligraphic artist’s supreme challenge, our Sistine Chapel, a daunting task.” Jackson wrote and illuminated the entire Book of Revelation himself.

Apart from being a glorious work of art, the Saint John’s Bible is significant in the life of the Church for these other reasons:

Firstly, as I mentioned, the Bible preserves tradition in the best sense of the word. We tend to think of tradition as something old or outdated, conservative and narrow. Tradition literally means “to hand over” or “to pass on.” It is the opposite of what is commonly and falsely assumed as something “to hold on to.” In the case of the Saint John’s Bible, it’s not incorrect to say that the Benedictines have preserved tradition by creating something new.

Secondly, the Bible testifies to the authority of Scripture in the Catholic tradition. Until midway through the 20th century, Scripture was less a source of life and inspiration in the Catholic community than long-standing traditions and official edicts of the Magisterium. After Vatican II, the Catholic Church was able to rebalance these sources of divine revelation, though practically speaking Catholics generally still lack a solid Scriptural formation. The Saint John’s Bible provides an opportunity for Catholics—and non-Catholics—to engage the divine Word in new and exciting ways. It can contribute to the mission of the Church, as Pope Francis sees it:

“The study of the sacred Scriptures must be a door opened to every believer. It is essential that the revealed word radically enrich our catechesis and all our efforts to pass on the faith. Evangelization demands familiarity with God’s word, which calls  for dioceses, parishes and Catholic associations to provide for a serious, ongoing study of the Bible, while encouraging its prayerful individual and communal reading.” (Evangelii Gaudium 175)

I was fortunate enough to attend university with the Benedictines in Collegeville and see the original Bible on a number of occasions. My work at S+L gave me the opportunity to produce a short video on the Bible that you can view here:

Colbert Catholicism: faith meets funny


Last month’s Pew Research survey shows that Pope Francis is more popular than ever in the United States. For a country so often defined by its political polarization—even among its Catholics—it’s quite remarkable that a leader of a particular group could garner a 90% approval rating.

 But for Americans, Pope Francis is not the only beloved Catholic. Strangely enough, a man famous for his sharp political satire boasts his own following that numbers in the millions and boarders on religious craze. He is Stephen Colbert (the “t” is silent), former host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report (the “t” in Report is also silent), and future host of The Late Show on CBS set to premiere this September.

Many Colbert fans, myself included, have been going through withdrawal since The Colbert Report wrapped up last December, and so I was thrilled to learn that Stephen agreed to do a series of interviews with S+L. The big day happened last week. Through our work I’ve met many high-ranking church officials—including the Pope—and some other famous people, but none of those meetings felt quite like this. Colbert is a celebrity, sure, but he is also one of the most skilled comedic minds on the planet; some would put him at the top, and with good reason.

What he accomplished through his character on The Colbert Report was nothing short of brilliant: a powerful mix of creativity, humor and a keen sense of political and social realities in 21st century America. Posing as an archconservative pundit, Colbert exposed the ridiculous inconsistencies and sometimes blatant ignorance of politicians and other news makers of influence. He was even tougher on corporations and ideologies, sparing none when they reared their heads in various ways; even his own faith community became the subject of a few knee-slappers.

For all of this we might presume Colbert would be furiously disliked. After all, those archconservatives he was impersonating don’t often respond well to such criticism, hilarious(ly true) as it may be. We can be certain there are a number of American Catholics in that camp too.


But the real phenomenon has been the vast number of mainstream, progressive folks who find in Colbert’s wit and charm an amusing escape from the absurdity of political and economic realities in America. Most of them are of a younger generation—students and young professionals—who are sick of politics and disillusioned by the establishment but know the importance of civil engagement and appreciate a 30-minute dose of common sense with a comedic twist each day.

The real surprise of it all is that Colbert is a practicing Catholic and it doesn’t seem to faze all those fans, most of whom are not particularly religious I presume. By “practicing” I don’t just mean going to church on Sundays. I had the chance to speak with him one-on-one last week and he knows his stuff: quoting Scripture, the Saints, the Catechism and other Magisterial teachings, all springing from a sincere life of faith and a desire to put it into practice.

In this way Stephen Colbert is unique. At a time when younger generations have turned their backs to institutional religion, he has managed to keep his faith along with his audience. The saving grace might be the gift of humor, with which he has been particularly blessed, and a degree of light-heartedness that inherently asserts, as Chesterton once did that, “the test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it.”

I often wonder what the “Colbert Nation” thinks of their hero who is also Catholic. Some would dismiss it, some would understand it, some might be intrigued by it, others would be confounded by it, and most would simply tolerate it. It’s a fascinating thing, really, to see a person of enormous influence in the popular culture speak openly about his/her religious affiliation—especially a person infused with the two-edged sword of common sense and a sense of humor.  I can’t help but laugh, and at the same time be impressed by his witness.


Loyola vs. Quebec: the new reality of confessional secularism


The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Quebec’s Minister of Education infringed upon the religious freedom of Loyola, a private Catholic high school in Montreal, by requiring the school to teach all aspects of the province’s Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERC) from a neutral perspective, i.e. from a non-confessional, or specifically non-Catholic perspective.

This decision has sparked an animated conversation across Canada about religious freedom and the role of government, or as it’s traditionally known, the question of the separation of church and state.  One of my colleagues recently wrote on the proper role of the state in matters of religion and morals.  Here I offer the following reflection on another essential consideration, namely, the growing phenomenon of what we might call “confessional secularism,” that is, the transformation of a purely neutral secularism into a belief system; a faith.

A simple timeline of the six-year legal battle between Loyola and the Minister can be found at the end of this column.  For more background information visit Loyola’s website or read the Supreme Court’s decision.

Reading between the lines
From the outset, it is important to note that the dispute was not over the content or goals of the ERC Program.  Loyola does not object to the “recognition of others,” “pursuing the common good,” or promoting “openness to human rights, diversity and respect for others,” as outlined in the course.  On the contrary, these objectives are central to the mission of the school.  And historically speaking, the Catholic Church itself is responsible, in part, for embedding into modern society the fundamental principles of rights, equality, liberty and justice from which these goals originate.

The problem is the Minister’s insistence on the strict implementation of the ERC Program from a “neutral” perspective.  According to the Supreme Court, the Minister’s insistence suggests that, “engagement with an individual’s own religion on his or her own terms can be presumed to impair respect for others.”  In other words, the Minister made an irrational assessment of the Catholic perspective: that from a Catholic perspective it is impossible to teach children to respect others and promote dialogue and the common good, as articulated in the ERC course. (According to the Minister the perspective must be neutral, i.e. secular.)

The Court perceptively refuted this assessment of the Minister. In perhaps the most penetrating statement in the majority decision, the Court went beyond simply arguing that the Minister had violated the school’s religious freedom.  It also stated that preventing Loyola from teaching Catholicism from a Catholic perspective “does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives.”  This observation of the Court can form the basis of our consideration of “confessional secularism”.

Calling a spade a spade
As I understand it, confessional secularism is the result of transforming the fundamental tenets of secularism into a belief system.  It is one thing to promote a secular state that is neutral in matters of religion; it is quite another to promote a secular state that adopts secularism as a religion.  Confessional secularism is like any other religion insofar as a certain belief system is held to be true above other belief systems.

If we keep this in mind and follow the line of thought of the Supreme Court, we find the Minister’s insistence that Loyola teach Catholicism from a neutral perspective to be counterintuitive. We would expect to see the Minister uphold at all costs the integrity of the ERC Program.  Instead, we see the Minister insist on a strictly secular approach to religion and ethics that limits the religious freedom of a Catholic institution and thus undermines the very goals of the ERC Program, which were designed to celebrate openness and diversity.  How can this be?

I remember reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy for the first time, and being struck by a similar phenomenon. In the book, Chesterton reflects on the prevailing anti-Christian attitudes of the early 1900’s in Europe. Like many of his contemporaries he was open to new and progressive ideas, and traditional Christianity was largely seen by the intelligentsia as primitive and authoritarian.  The young and agnostic Chesterton celebrated these various critiques of Christianity, but then became alarmed by the inconsistencies he found in them.  At one point he wrote:

“It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this astonishing thing [Christianity] be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?”

We might pose a similar question to Quebec’s Minister of Education: What is it about the Catholic perspective on issues of religion and ethics that the government is so anxious to contradict, that in doing so it does not mind contradicting its own goals for the ERC Program?

I do not have a definitive answer to this question.  Nor is it the competency of the Court to try to answer it.  However, the Court did conclude that, “A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”

We must acknowledge the reality of confessional secularism in our society today.  Forceful expressions of it seem to spring more frequently out of Quebec, but it is not a stagnant phenomenon and certainly not isolated in Quebec.  The subtle leap from a purely neutral secularism to confessional secularism is one that more and more Canadians are making.  It is indeed a leap of faith.

The difficulty with confessional secularism is not that secularism has become a new religion, but that its proponents sometimes fail to recognize it as such.  The Loyola case proved this definitively.  If confessional secularists are willing to recognize their belief system as a belief system, then Canadians should do as they have always done: welcome with open arms another group into our pluralist society.  But if proponents of this new religion advocate a kind of official atheism in the name of neutral secularism, then Loyola vs. Quebec won’t be the last case of religious freedom before the Supreme Court.

Timeline of events

  • Quebec’s Ministry of Education, Sport and Leisure introduces its Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERC)
  • Loyola applies for an exemption from the course, asking the Minister to allow the school to teach the content and goals of the program from a Catholic perspective
  • The Minister refuses an exemption to Loyola


  • Loyola takes the matter to the Quebec Superior Court


  • The Quebec Superior Court concludes that the decision to refuse Loyola’s request was invalid because it assumed the content and goals of the program could not be taught from a confessional (Catholic) perspective
  • The Minister appeals the Court’s decision


  • The Quebec Court of Appeal overturns the Superior Court’s ruling


  • Loyola takes the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada


  • The Supreme Court of Canada overturns the Court of Appeal and rules that the Minister infringed upon the religious freedom of Loyola

Mercy: the greatest of all the virtues


Perhaps we should be used to the “element of surprise” in the pontificate of Pope Francis.  He was at it again last Friday, March 13 on the second anniversary of his election, when he unexpectedly announced a “Jubilee Year of Mercy” to take place in the Church and around the world from December 2015 to November 2016.

Jubilees have been celebrated in the Catholic Church since the fourteenth century, though the practice dates back much earlier in the Jewish tradition.  The goal, as some will recall from the last great Jubilee of 2000, is the restoration of equality, justice and peace among peoples.  Still, no one was expecting another Jubilee until at least 2025, and so we can chalk up another “surprise!” for Pope Francis.

The Announcement

Like most of his surprising words and actions, there is a deeper significance to note and reflect on.  Francis made the announcement in a homily during a penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica.  Reflecting on the powerful gospel story of the pardoning of the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), the pope said that the woman’s encounter with mercy, and consequently forgiveness, compelled her to show great love for Jesus:  “For her, there will be no judgment except that which comes from God, and this is the judgment of mercy.  The protagonist of this meeting is certainly the love that goes beyond justice.”

Simon on the other hand, “invokes only justice, and in so doing, he errs.  His judgment on the woman distances him from the truth and does not allow him even to understand who his guest is. He stopped at the surface; he was not able to look to the heart.”  Pope Francis concluded:

“We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart to see how much generosity everyone is capable of.  No one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one.  Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness. The greater the sin, so much the greater must be the love that the Church expresses toward those who convert.”

Mercy at the heart of Pope Francis’ ministry

No one can forget that first Sunday after the election of Pope Francis when he prayed the Angelus from the window of the Apostolic Palace high above St. Peter’s Square.  Today we would call it “classic Pope Francis,” but back then it was shocking to see him set aside his text and casually speak about a book written by one of his cardinals on mercy that he said, “has done me such good.”  He expounded on mercy and then spoke the words he has repeated so often since: “God never ever tires of forgiving us!”

It has been two years and many books have already been written on the central role of mercy in the pontificate of Pope Francis, the most authoritative of which is his own apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.  Most people do not require a theological treatise to convince them on the matter—they simply watch him in action.  But we are “the Church of the great tradition” and even Pope Francis submits himself to the established practice of writing lengthy theological works.

In one of the most profound and consequential sections of Evangelii Gaudium entitled, “From the Heart of the Gospel,” Pope Francis quotes St. Thomas Aquinas asserting that “mercy is the greatest of all the virtues” (37).  He explains that the most perfect external expression of our faith is the love we show to others, and that that love stems from an encounter with the mercy of God.  “I am a sinner,” Francis has said elsewhere, and for that reason God’s mercy embraces him and creates in him the capacity to show great love.  It is just as Jesus taught in Simon’s house: the more one is forgiven, the more one is capable of showing love.  Mercy is at the heart of Pope Francis’ ministry because mercy is at the heart of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s faith.

Mercy at the heart of the Church today

Today a common observation is made about the way Pope Francis is being interpreted.  It goes something like this:

“Pope Francis speaks candidly and unexpectedly; he’s taken out of context and people misinterpret or misrepresent what he actually said.  This creates confusion about the Church’s established teachings, and leaves the impression that the Pope is saying entirely new things.”

The response of people who are concerned by this is to put Francis’ words into context, and thus show that he is not saying anything new—in the sense of being foreign to the tradition.  This is more or less a good strategy.  But we must be careful not to succumb to the temptation of criticizing the Pope, or even harboring anger or frustration against him for opening himself to such misinterpretation.  The solution to the confusion is not for the Pope to stop communicating as he does, but rather for Catholics to better understand and then explain how his words come out of our long-standing tradition.  In other words, it’s okay to be unsettled by the way Francis is sometimes misinterpreted, but don’t mistake his remarks as being inconsistent with the tradition.

A perfect test-case for this is the virtue of mercy.  Mercy is at the heart of Francis’ life and ministry, and next year it will be at the heart of the universal Church.  He has spoken so much about mercy that it can appear as though it was never as important in the life and mission of the Church.  This is obviously false, as the words of St. Thomas in the 13th century and the powerful story of Jesus at Simon’s house show.  But even in our times the Church has been consistent in its proclamation of mercy as the highest of virtues and as the necessary expression of our faith to the modern world.

I will give two brief examples of this.  The first comes from St. John XXIII, the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.  In his opening address to the Council he said that today, “the Catholic Church…desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness…”  His words set the tone and direction of the Council that became, as historian Fr. John O’Malley called it, “A Council of outreach and reconciliation.”  The consequences of this are extraordinary, but suffice it to say that Pope John’s insight came directly from the heart of the Gospel: in order to build a better world, the people of today need the Church’s medicine of mercy above all else.

The second is a more recent but related example.  Some might think that Pope Francis is speaking a lot about mercy, which is true.  But another Pope of recent memory—St. John Paul II—spoke even more often about mercy and tried to instill in Catholics a real consciousness of mercy as the heart of the Christian life.  Early in his pontificate he wrote an encyclical on mercy, and described it in this way:

“The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission… The genuine face of mercy has to be ever revealed anew. In spite of many prejudices, mercy seems particularly necessary for our times.”
(Dives in Misericordia, 6)

Mercy and Justice

At the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the Family the virtue of mercy was front and center.  Many of the bishops echoed the cry of St. John XXIII, calling for the Church to accompany families in their joys and struggles, ministering with the medicine mercy, which is available to all.  In the same discussion the virtue of justice arose, as a kind of counterbalance to a deceptive mercy that, as Pope Francis observed, “binds wounds without curing them.”

An overly simplistic reading of the Synod would pit one virtue against the other, as though they were mutually exclusive.  They are not.  But neither are they totally complementary, in the sense of balancing each other on the “virtue scale.” It is quickly becoming apparent that mercy is an essential virtue of singular importance in terms of the Church’s mode of expressing its faith.  And so, building first on the Scriptures, and on St. Thomas, and on Vatican II, and on St. John Paul II, and on countless others, Pope Francis can confidently assert that, “For her, there will be no judgment except that which comes from God, and this is the judgment of mercy… a love that goes beyond justice.”

Leading up to the Jubilee of Mercy, perhaps our first consideration should be the extent to which our understanding and practice of mercy “goes beyond justice.” As St. John Paul II reminds us:

“In every sphere of interpersonal relationships justice must, so to speak, be “corrected” to a considerable extent by that love which, as St. Paul proclaims, “is patient and kind” or, in other words, possesses the characteristics of that merciful love which is so much of the essence of the Gospel and Christianity.”
(Dives in Misericordia, 14)

For Catholics, it is not a matter of doing something new, in the sense of adopting a virtue previously unknown, but rather of remembering who we are by going back to the heart of the Gospel: we are a community of people who have experienced the mercy of God.  As a consequence of this experience–and this is the real question–are we capable of showing great love?

Has it been two years already?!


Today it’s not uncommon to hear some form of the following statement regarding the pontificate of Pope Francis: “I can’t believe he’s only been pope for two years, it feels like he’s been around a lot longer!”

This intuition surfaces around anniversaries when people tend to reflect on what Francis has accomplished. Most would agree that he has accomplished a great deal. For me, the past two years have been filled with excitement and expectation. I never know what the Pope is going to do next. And when you’re sitting on the edge of your seat for two years, it’s bound to feel like you’ve been there a lot longer.

Part of this effect comes from the fact that it was all so unexpected. No one could have predicted the kinds of seismic shifts we’ve witnessed, beginning with Pope Benedict’s unprecedented and deeply humble decision to resign. I remember living through that month of uncertainty in 2013 from February 11 to March 13 and thinking that, whatever happened, everything would be different from then on.

I recently consulted my personal journal from the 2013 papal transition. I haven’t read it since the election. The excitement and expectation I refer to is present in the text, and I share part of it with you now to recall and celebrate the election of Pope Francis as the 266th Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.  May the Lord bless and sustain him.

March 13, 2013

Habemus Papam – Pope Francis! It was about 5:30pm when Fr. Tom and I decided to make our way over to CBC where he would do an interview with Peter Mansbridge for the news that evening. But we stopped in at the convent of Maria Bambina, where the CBS was stationed, to get a coffee and warm up. As we were eating in their cafeteria and staring at the TV (there was a permanent camera on the Sistine Chapel chimney during the conclave)… white smoke… Yes, white smoke! We got up and made our way to the CBC tent on top of the Janiculum hill. The bells of St. Peter’s were ringing wildly. We were the only people moving away from the Square—in fact we almost got run over a couple of times by people sprinting in the opposite direction. The excitement and the cheers of the crowd were incredible. We were with Peter and the CBC crew for the waiting period. We expected the new Pope to appear on the balcony within 45-50 minutes. It was much longer than that. It felt like forever. Fr. Tom and Peter were delaying as best they could. Then it happened. When they said his name, “Bergoglio!” Fr. Tom and I just looked at each other in utter disbelief. It was a complete surprise. We knew that his star rose eight years ago at the 2005 conclave, but everybody thought it had since fallen. After all at 76, wasn’t he too old?

The crowd in the square was stunned and there wasn’t much noise between the announcement and Francis’ appearance on the loggia. I don’t think anyone was expecting it, and most people had no idea who he was. My immediate reaction was, “I can’t believe they elected a Jesuit!” That was the topic of conversation between Fr. Tom and Peter live on CBC. And it is a significant factor.

The rest of the night we ran from tent to tent doing interviews: CBS, CNN, back to CBC, BBC. As the hours passed, we realized how significant this decision of the cardinals was. Imagine, the runner-up in 2005 still appealing to the cardinals after so long. What was it about him then and now that was consistant, appealing? Holiness and simple gospel values?

Even his appearance and speech on the loggia were telling. He chose to keep his bishop’s pectoral cross instead of adopting the traditional golden one. Everything he said about himself being elected pope was within the framework of his primary role as Bishop of Rome. I sensed collegiality growing.

I took Fr. Tom to CNN around midnight and he went on live with Wolf Blitzer. He said some things I didn’t expect, but were faithful to the mood of the people in Rome that night: “Pope Francis didn’t follow the book! Thank Goodness!” And then the best line: “He’s going to build on the beautiful teaching of Benedict, on the outreach of John Paul II, on the smile of John Paul I, and on that magnanimous heart of John XXII!”

On our way back to the Jesuit house, I said to Fr. Tom, “If you had told me on February 11th that we would have a Jesuit pope named Francis, I would have said it was impossible.”

Freedom and authority: not just a church matter pt. 2


Last week I looked at the question of personal freedom vis-à-vis authority in the Church and to what degree public opinion in the Church has been accepted and promoted since Vatican II by Pope John Paul II and now Pope Francis.  The question, as I wrote, is a perennial and penetrating one in the Church, and for that reason requires continual and up-to-date reflection.

But it is not limited to the Church; every community and society must in one way or another respond to this question.  A quick glance across the globe will find any number of different social systems in which freedom of expression confronts the political authority.  In Canada we are seeing a debate around this question as the federal government advances its anti-terrorism bill c-51.

Over the course of this reflection the following will become clear:

  1. The Church has a right and duty to voice its opinions on such public questions, especially one dealing with the question of freedom vis-à-vis authority, and especially under Pope Francis;
  2. The severity of this legislation demands the highest public and political scrutiny, as many Canadians are now saying;
  3. This scrutiny should not be limited to the legislation itself, but be expanded to the methods being used to advance it;
  4. Applying the Church’s teachings to this issue serves to clarify the discussion and results in a stern warning to all Canadians.

The Context

The House of Commons Public Safety Committee is expected to begin hearings on the proposed bill this week.  The New Democratic Party has voiced its opposition to the government’s plan to hold only eight meetings for hearing witness testimony.  The NDP is demanding at least twenty-five meetings and would call former Prime Ministers, former Supreme Court judges and former members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee to testify.  The government, which holds a majority on the committee, will probably not hear from any former PMs, and they rebut that general opposition to the bill disrespects the wishes of Canadians for greater security.  It is expected that the Conservatives will push the bill through committee and into the House to be voted into law.

But not all Canadians agree with the government’s assessment of their views.  In fact, public outcry to the bill has been frequent and fierce and has come from both liberals and conservatives.  If the government refuses to hear from former PMs in committee, as expected, perhaps it is because of a letter four of them wrote calling for greater and independent oversight of Canada’s national security agencies.  (The letter was also signed by eighteen others, among them: former Justices of the Supreme Court, former Ministers of Justice, former Solicitors General of Canada and members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee.)

Other notable critics include Rex Murphy of the CBC, who gave his point of view a few weeks ago insisting that the gravest legislation, such as bill c-51, must be subject to the gravest public scrutiny.

Political commentator Andrew Coyne wrote in a recent article that, “The Harper Tories are the Soviet boxers of Canadian politics, a technicolour stereotype of plodding brutality,” insinuating that Canadians should expect nothing less from this government than steam-rolled legislation in the face of widespread opposition.

In another open letter to Parliament, more than a hundred Canadian law professors called the bill, “a dangerous piece of legislation in terms of its potential impacts on the rule of law, on constitutionally and internationally protected rights, and on the health of Canada’s democracy.”

This widespread and credible opposition stems from two general observations about the proposed legislation:

  1. The powers allocated to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are severe yet broad, and therefore open Canadians to potential abuse of their individual rights;
  2. There are effectively no mechanisms of oversight or accountability proposed along with the new, beefed-up powers granted to these national security services.

What the Church says

This is an example of the tension around our central question of freedom vis-à-vis authority; in this case it can be expressed as a debate over individual liberty vis-à-vis public security (common good).

For her part, the Church must be a voice in the debate.  Her credibility lies in her wisdom which stems from experience, not theory—experience with the centuries-old struggle of freedom vis-à-vis authority.  To her credit, she is always advancing, developing and deepening her understanding of the mysteries of human existence and its collective progress toward God.  Her role through the epochs of history is one of accompanying the human family.  Through the sinfulness and shortsightedness of some of her members, she has made mistakes.  Upon reflection and over time, she acknowledges and amends those mistakes.  But she has—and always has had—at her core a love for the human person, and for their true freedom.

And this life experience has led the Church to a modern understanding of individual liberties and the common good that can shed light on the current debate over bill c-51.  The most authoritative teaching on the matter comes from 1965, in the Vatican II constitution on the Church in the modern world.  Reflecting on the participation of citizens in public life the constitution states:

“The complex circumstances of our day make it necessary for public authority to intervene more often in social, economic and cultural matters in order to bring about favorable conditions which will give more effective help to citizens and groups in their free pursuit of man’s total well-being… But when the exercise of rights is restricted temporarily for the common good, freedom should be restored immediately upon change of circumstances.  Moreover, it is inhuman for public authority to fall back on dictatorial systems or totalitarian methods which violate the rights of the person or social groups.” (Gaudium et Spes 75)

It is clear from this statement that only exceptional cases may justify such an intervention of the state for the sake of the common good.  Notice too, that the goal of such an intervention must be directed toward the free pursuit of our individual and collective wellbeing.  Does the intention, method and action of the government in proposing and advancing bill c-51 live up to these criteria of the Magisterium of the Church?

Clearly there is cause for concern.  The severity of the legislation is itself quite jarring, even in light of our collective consciousness of the global reality of terrorism.  Then there is the fact that a sitting government of one of the most regarded “democracies” of the world seems to be proposing a piece of legislation that by its very nature jeopardizes the foundations of democracy, i.e. individual liberty.  Finally, the government appears to be advancing this legislation in such a way that Canada’s democratic process, by which laws are scrutinized and effected, is being threatened.

Freedom and Responsibility

We must be careful here in our interpretation of the Church’s teaching on individual freedom and its relationship to the common good, and in our application of it to this very serious issue.  There are some in our society who, in the name of individual freedom as an ultimate and absolute good, would jump on board with what has been said so far, yet ignore or dismiss the principle of the common good.  In her wisdom the Church has denounced this one-sided ideology as inadequate.  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s many writings on truth and freedom over the past decades are invaluable resources for understanding why.  He claimed that there is no real freedom without responsibility.  For example, in a 1996 essay he denounced a wholly individualistic approach to freedom in this way:

“An increase of freedom can no longer lie simply in giving more and more latitude to individual rights—which leads to absurdity and to the destruction of those very individual freedoms themselves. An increase in freedom must be an increase in responsibility.” (Communio, 23)

Let us apply this to the government’s method of advancing bill c-51.  It is a fascinating yet disturbing irony that the government, acting as a single group of people, seems to have succumbed to this extreme individualism that Cardinal Ratzinger warned about.  Look closely.  It is true that in bill c-51 the government would effectively surrender the rights of individual Canadians for the sake of the common good.  But it’s also true that the government is advancing the bill despite widespread opposition to its contents and reasonable calls for further debate, and thus disregarding Canada’s established democratic process.  What appears to be an effort to protect the common good is being carried out in offense to the common good.  Vatican II warned against this kind of totalitarian methodology, where a government freely exercises its authority irrespective of the rights of individuals or other groups—in this case, the right to thoroughly debate legislation before it is passed into law.

Responsibility is the necessary counterpart of freedom; this has to be recognized in order to guarantee freedom and to promote the common good.  That is what the Church teaches, and that is what Catholics should say to Canadians in the debate over bill c-51.

The influence of Pope Francis

One final observation to bring the discussion full circle.  As I wrote last week, Pope Francis is rapidly bringing to fruition the fifty-year-old teaching of Vatican II on freedom of expression in the Church.  I reiterate that this is a significant development, not in doctrine, but in practice.  The world is watching the leader of a global community insist on open and honest discussion on matters of great importance.  This has already begun to give the Church, among other things, enormous credibility in terms of her voice in the public square.  It wasn’t too long ago that many in our secular society dismissed the Church’s voice as antiquated and irrelevant on matters concerning individual liberty or the primacy of conscience.  Many still do, in fact, but the inconsistencies of that position will only become more and more apparent.

And this, I think, is part of Pope Francis’ plan.  He wants the institutional Church to be a model of best practices when it comes to governance, finances and communications.  This is why he has spent so much time and energy reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.  As these reforms materialize, the faithful together with the bishops can enter the public square with renewed confidence and equipped with the Church’s transformative message of love, charity, freedom, equality and justice.

It’s true that the Church is not a democracy in the sense that Catholics can elect their leaders.  It is, by the grace of God, something much more than that.  It is a torch, a light, in the midst of all people, to help guide us toward that which we all inherently seek.  And along the way it teaches us how to live freely and responsibly for the good of all.  Canadians, on the other hand, can elect their leaders, and will again this fall.  In light of the debate around bill c-51 and countless other issues, it will be interesting to see how our “democracy” responds.

“With Pope Francis the Church isn’t just speaking, the Church is also listening,” says Scott Pelley


Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect is a S+L series that goes deeper into the important questions surrounding the person and pontificate of Pope Francis.  The series consists of a selection of the full interviews from S+L’s original documentary The Francis Effect.

This week: Scott Pelley

When the question is raised about the number of Catholics living in a particular city, region or country, a distinction is typically made between those who practice the faith, i.e. attend Mass on Sundays, etc. and those who are “Catholic” in name only. Inevitably we are left with two very different numbers. This is primarily a North American and European phenomenon, and has raised questions about catechesis in the local churches.

Since the election of Pope Francis, a new phenomenon has taken shape. Significant numbers of non-Catholics are keeping a close eye on the Pope and the Church. The resuscitation of the Church’s global moral voice cannot be ignored, it seems, especially when the message comes directly from Francis.

In our work covering the Pope we have the opportunity to engage people of different backgrounds and get a sense of the response to what’s developing. It often happens in the course of our conversations that these non-Catholic folks reveal a substantial personal knowledge of Catholicism and a keen sense of the Church. I never cease to be pleasantly surprised by this. At times I walk away thinking, “if only more Catholics knew what these folks knew!”

This feeling was never more apparent to me than when I met Scott Pelley of CBS. He is known across North America and beyond for his acclaimed career in journalism. He is also a practicing Methodist, with a long history of working with and for those on the margins, especially refugees.

When I conducted the interview with Scott for The Francis Effect, I didn’t know what to expect. One never knows how much a person will open up when they’re in front of a camera, especially a reputable celebrity. But, as you will see, his depth of understanding of Catholicism and Pope Francis are evident. The interview, which took place just over one year ago, now conveys an element of the prophetic—insight into what is transpiring under Francis that removes some of the fog created by our own narrow and often predetermined lenses.

The result is that we learn something, not only about Scott Pelley, but also about Pope Francis. We realize the significance of things the Pope has said and done that we may have overlooked, ignored or dismissed. This dialogue with a person of a different perspective encourages us to go deeper into our own and ask the critical questions. It’s the living out of Pope Francis’ words on the work for Christian unity: “It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us.” (Evangelii Gaudium 246)

The Catholic Church, as I said, faces the serious pastoral challenge of catechesis; catechesis that makes sense to modern people in language they can understand. Might it be suggested that the kind of interpersonal dialogue Pope Francis is promoting be somehow incorporated into our understanding and practical application of catechesis? Could dialogue with informed and insightful individuals, like Scott Pelley, become a staple in our systems of formation and personal conversion? This interview would be a good place to start…

Watch Episode 10 of Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect
Airs Sunday, March 8, 2015
9:00pm ET / 6:00pm PT
Only on Salt and Light Television

Cardinal Wuerl: “We have succeeded in electing a pastor.”


Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect is a S+L series that goes deeper into the important questions surrounding the person and pontificate of Pope Francis.  The series consists of a selection of the full interviews from S+L’s original documentary The Francis Effect.

This week: Cardinal Donald Wuerl

On the evening of February 28th, 2013, the world watched the historic departure and official resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. The atmosphere in Rome was somber, and everyone felt a little empty and anxious. As part of our coverage that night I had the opportunity to interview Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, who had generously made himself available to the media.

I asked him, “How do you feel?! Having witnessed all of this, knowing Pope Benedict well, and now turning to the daunting task of electing his successor?” To my surprise, he looked at me and smiled and said confidently, “I have so much hope at this moment! What Pope Benedict has taught us through this incredibly humble gesture, is that we can and should do things differently—that we don’t have to be afraid, because the Lord is with us.”

The next time I saw Cardinal Wuerl he was doing an interview with Scott Pelley of CBS, minutes after Pope Francis had appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s for the first time. It was cold and late on March 13th; the Cardinal was in a satellite studio at the North American College and I was watching Scott conduct the live interview from their studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square. Scott, knowing that he couldn’t get a detailed play-by-play of the election, asked the Cardinal what he and the others had accomplished. The Cardinal, who looked exhausted yet relieved, smiled enthusiastically and said, “We have succeeded in electing a pastor.”

The Church and the world have experienced the “Francis effect” for two years now, and there’s no sign of the Pope slowing down anytime soon. There are many Catholics around the world who have come alive or found a second wind because of his ministry. One of them is Cardinal Wuerl, the pastor and teacher who, as you will see, speaks with conviction and clarity; a shepherd who is close to the people and equally close to Francis; a witness to the joy of the Gospel.

Freedom and authority: not just a church matter pt. 1


A perennial and penetrating question exists within the Catholic Church that goes to the very heart of its institutional being, namely the freedom of individual conscience vis-à-vis authority in the Church. In terms of expressing one’s conscience, the question might be put this way: what are the limits to public opinion within the Church considering that she insists on adherence to central teachings and at the same time upholds and promotes the freedom of each person’s conscience? (CCC, 1782)

This question arose in a dramatic way five-hundred years ago around the criticisms of the Augustinian monk Martin Luther. Naturally, church authorities responded defensively. They couldn’t have predicted what was to come: a veritable tsunami of religious and social reform in the name of freedom that was hitherto unimaginable in the medieval world. The religious, social, cultural and political effects of the Protestant Reformation have been felt up to this day.

The Catholic Church came to terms with the reality of this question—at least officially—at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. In the revolutionary constitution on the Church in the Modern World we find statements that express this development clearly, for example:

Let it be recognized that all the faithful, whether clerics or laity, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and of expressing their mind with humility and courage in those matters on which they enjoy competence.” (62)

Yet, in the five decades since the Council the question of public opinion in the Catholic Church has not gone away. St. John Paul II was pope for half of that period of time, and opinions among the faithful vary as to the degree to which he implemented and embodied this particular teaching of the Council.

One very clear articulation of his belief in it came in a 1995 encyclical called Ut unum sint (On the Commitment to Ecumenism)—a document that gets far too little publicity in the Catholic world but is indispensable for understanding contemporary ecumenism, and more immediately, the bureaucratic reforms of Pope Francis and the manner in which he exercises the Petrine ministry.

John Paul was conscious of the long and painful history of separation between Christians dating back to the Protestant Reformation and beyond. As a Council Father, he was also conscious of the deep and sincere desire for Christian unity expressed by Pope John XXIII and the vast majority of his brother bishops. Reflecting on the difficult work for unity in ut unum sint, he wrote:

“I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.” (95)

To “find a way of exercising the primacy which is… open to a new situation” implies taking an honest and critical look at how it has been exercised up to this point, which in turn raises the question of freedom of expression of those within the Church who wish to offer their critique. The gravity of the question is even more pronounced when we realize that the “primacy” John Paul referred to is not some peripheral teaching, but a fundamental Catholic doctrine.

In his analysis of ut unum sint, Archbishop John Quinn dove into this question of criticism in the Catholic Church, pointing out the long history of disagreement between popes, bishops and the faithful and its implications for today:

“To attempt to create the illusion of unanimity or even consensus where it does not exist and cannot exist is to run the risk of diminishing the moral authority and credibility of the Church. To portray all criticism and disagreement as disloyalty or lack of faith is a grave injustice.” (The Reform of the Papacy)

In light of all this, one can appreciate the import of raising the question of freedom of expression vis-à-vis authority in the Church regarding ecumenism. But as I said above, this is a perennial and penetrating question and therefore transcends any one topic.

It’s fascinating, for example, to look through this lens at the current debate going on in the Church about marriage and family life. I say “debate” quite intentionally because that is exactly what it is. I don’t wish to get into the nuances of each argument. More broadly though, what is truly fascinating is not that the debate is taking place, but that it was sought and initiated by the pope—Pope Francis. He said explicitly at the close of last October’s synod on the family that, “I would be very worried and saddened… if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace.” (Read the address here)

A strong argument could be made that the approach of Pope Francis to the question of marriage and family life today is similar to the approach of Pope John Paul to the question of exercising the primacy back in 1995. Both expressed a desire for openness and honesty in a discussion on matters of grave import. The difference with Pope Francis—and this might account for the sense of novelty we feel—is that he communicates so clearly for all to understand.

The result of Francis’ unambiguous call for open discussion and debate on marriage and family life has been exactly that: open discussion and debate. Suddenly those who—for whatever reason—had previously tempered their call for an honest examination of the issue, now feel empowered to speak. Those who are fearful of any change to the current understanding of the Church’s teaching are equally vocal. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the end, but it is evident that the debate is a fruit of the seeds planted at the Council after a long and tumultuous history, nurtured by John Paul in his own way, and now growing rather quickly under Francis. A development, not in theory or doctrine, but in practice is taking place regarding this question of freedom of expression in the Catholic Church. As the saying goes, the toothpaste is out of the tube.

It was necessary to reflect briefly on this question inside the Catholic Church in order to be able to reflect on it outside as well. Freedom of expression vis-à-vis authority within a civil society is an equally weighty matter, and it happens to be front and center right now as the Canadian government moves forward with bill C-51 that would grant extraordinary powers to CSIS and the RCMP in their battle against domestic terrorism. For Canadians, questions of individual liberty and freedom of expression have been thrust on the table. What are we to make of the Conservatives’ approach to this discussion? How can the Church’s experience on the matter inform the debate? As the story develops, I will reflect on those questions next week…

+Chaput: “Pope Francis is never going to be tamed, nor should he be”


Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect is a S+L series that goes deeper into the important questions surrounding the person and pontificate of Pope Francis.  The series consists of a selection of the full interviews from S+L’s original documentary The Francis Effect.

This week: Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap.

If you have never heard of Archbishop Charles Chaput, that is about to change. The former archbishop of Denver and current archbishop of Philadelphia is hosting the upcoming World Meeting of Families and the first visit of Pope Francis to the United States in September. He has also been selected from among the American bishops to represent the United States at the 2015 Synod of Bishops that will conclude the Pope’s two-stage synod on the challenges to family life.

Archbishop Chaput is known in Catholic circles for his strong advocacy of traditional Catholic values especially relating to marriage, family life and the dignity of every person including the unborn. He is also a Franciscan friar who has embraced a life of poverty and simplicity—a life he holds in common with the current Pope. In this full interview from S+L’s documentary The Francis Effect, Archbishop Chaput speaks about the changes that he sees Pope Francis initiating in his reform of the Church and reflects on the response of Catholics in a time when some are feeling unsettled.

Watch Episode 8 of Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect

Airs Sunday, February 22, 2015

8:30 pm ET / 5:30 pm PT

Only on Salt and Light Television.