Catholic Studies Lectures

Highlights from recent guest speakers


Helen AlvareAlvare is one of the most prominent Catholic women in American public life, having served for 10 years in the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the leading Catholic spokeswoman on abortion, euthanasia, feminism, capital punishment, population control and many other related topics. More recently, she has served as the chair on the Committee on the Protection of Children and Clerical Conduct for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. She is currently an associate professor at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She spoke last spring on “The Church, the Crisis, and the Call of the Laity.”

On the meaning of crisis in the Church: The areas I have addressed over the years include the abortion issue, the question of clerical sexual abuse and the way the Church was responding to that, and now the question of marriage, family and human sexuality. I therefore have come to understand what one might mean by crisis in the Church and the call of the laity in a rather broad way. I mean some deep division or disconnect or distrust between the Church and the world. This is natural in a way. It is a perpetual condition of the Church, and it ought not to surprise us. We are the people of God who are in the world but not of it. So there is going to be a natural disconnect, if you will, between the Church and the world. That said, it is also the case, in the words of Christifideles Laici, that the world is made by God, and the world is destined to glorify God. It is the place for the faithful to fulfill their vocations to holiness as individuals and in community. So there is obviously hope, there is work worth doing, and there are always those longings in the human heart inside and outside the people of God, reaching across this apparent divide, that provide us the point of contact for our work as laypersons.

On working for the bishops: I remember reporters assuming that if a woman was doing this sort of work, it was because she was being directed by a group of men and that it was not of her own intellectual accord. A major question I received was, “Aren’t the bishops hiding behind your skirts?” And in the beginning, I did have some misgivings about it. I remember the day I was appointed, The New York Times did a huge piece on me. The story was, “Look, the bishops went and got themselves an Ivy League-educated Hispanic woman who calls herself a feminist.” So I was sensitive to this, but it was in the way that the bishops and the clergy and then the laity received my contributions – specifically as a female – that put all of those matters to rest for me. It was clear to me that there was, in the abortion issue, always going to be a credibility gap if women did not assume leadership roles. While men are always going to be welcomed to speak as well, there is a special credibility a woman brings as one who knows what it is to be pregnant, to miscarry or to long for a child, to lose a child, to have a sick child, or to do the all-nighters while you are trying both to meet a deadline for work and to care for a child. So I came to understand that I could offer a gift and a perspective and my very femininity and what that brought to the table, without it ever being used improperly.

On serving Christ with one’s intelligence: In the course of my work I’ve learned the truth of Etienne Gilson’s advice to those who would claim to be placing their intelligence in the service of Christ. He said that however you intend to place your talents at the service of the Church, of the people of God, pursue that discipline as if it were an end in itself. Be the absolute best in that discipline. And then know theology so that you will know how to place that intelligence, that great gift, truly where it belongs – back in the service of the one who gave it to you. The difficulty is if you start to be part of the leadership of that discipline. Once it is more important to you to have a seat at the table than what you say should you get a seat at the table, then you no longer are placing your intelligence in the service of Christ. You have to pursue that discipline in order to be the best possible contributor. But the risks are great. And the better you are at your discipline, the greater the risks are.

On the role of the laity after the clerical sexual abuse scandals: When we finished [in Philadelphia], I think we made about 105 recommendations. The diocese said, “It is going to take us a year even to find the people you tell us we need.” So I am saying to you that dioceses are going to need – and this is not just about clerical sex abuse; you will see that this branches into questions about human sexuality and marriage and family life and the full meaning of chastity and human sexual reality – dioceses are going to need your expertise. They can’t have this limited number of people who always are going to be their friends and tell them what they want to hear. They are going to need highly trained theologians, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, communication consultants, victims’ assistance coordinators, people who are skilled at communicating to parishes and to victims groups what’s happening and how all the right things are being advocated for. Priests need lay assistance with fully being able to communicate what their celibate life is about and receiving a response back. Priests need true friendship in light of what has gone on in the last year. They always have needed it, but now it is needed in a more poignant way, in a more direct way. At the same time, the Church is going to need in these other fields a raft of experts who also are theologically knowledgeable and have a true call to the Church in holiness.

On marriage, family life and sexuality: This is a whole other area of crisis out there in the Church, and it’s what I hope I can devote my scholarly career to from now into the future. The Church considers marriage, family life and human sexuality as fundamental human facts, intrinsic parts of who we are as creation and as social beings. The Church considers marriage as permanent in a way that reflects Christ’s love for us as parents to children. It is supposed to be a glimpse of this unconditional love that God has for His people. That is who we are supposed to be as spouses; it is supposed to be the first glimpse our children have. Because of this, what the Church teaches about cohabitation, about sexual relationships outside of marriage, about birth control and abortion, they are of a piece with this.

The lay role here is critical. The Church has a history, a patrimony, a series of documents, particularly under John Paul II. It has Natural Family Planning offices. It has the Marriage and Family Life offices full of couples who, according to surveys, have pretty darn happy marital lives. We should share this. This is not the time to be squeamish. If you don’t talk about sex, Oprah Winfrey will talk about it day and night, and she will form the society. Someone is going to, why not us? We have a message that is reflective of who human beings long to be. And if not the laity, with the joy and happiness of living according to the disciplines of the Church and experiencing their fruits, then no one is going to do it. To me this is an area of crisis.

George WeigelWeigel is a senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington, D.C., and has written broadly on issues of Catholicism and culture. He is the author of Witness to Hope, the authoritative biography of Pope John Paul II, and was recently in Rome covering the consistory for NBC. His talk, titled, “Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of John Paul II’s Pontificate,” was delivered on Oct. 6.

On the Church after John Paul II: That the church of the 21st century is being formed in the image of this remarkable pontificate and this great pope seems very clear. It’s also clear as we approach the pope’s jubilee that even this most energetic of popes has left a few things unfinished for the rest of us to do after he is called home to glory. There is an unfinished agenda. Some things will be unfinished because it will take the Church some time to absorb the teaching of John Paul II and give it practical effect in the lives of local churches. Some of the pope’s agenda will be unfinished because history just wasn’t ready for an initiative of the pope’s to be implemented rapidly, perhaps as rapidly as he would have liked. And then in the third category there are some items that seem certain to be on the agenda in the first several decades of the Church’s life in this 21st century, that the pope himself has left relatively unaddressed or untouched.

On the Church as an evangelical movement: This idea is going to take a while to be absorbed in a Church accustomed for centuries to thinking of itself primarily in institutional terms. Now we can already see some parts of the Church taking on this renewed image of the Church as an evangelical movement, “putting out into the deep” as the pope said in his apostolic letter completing the jubilee year. Where is this happening? I think you see it primarily in renewal movements around the Church, you see it in new religious communities in the Church, you see it among younger Catholic intellectuals, you see it and feel it in places like your own Center for Catholic Studies here at the University of St. Thomas. Wherever you see that going on, wherever you see people absorbing that into their lives, you see the unfinished agenda getting a little bit closer to being finished.

On the theology of the body: [O]ne of the great tasks for catechesis, for preaching in the Church over the next 20 years is going to be bringing this remarkable corpus of thought to a level where it can be engaged by high school students, by college students, by marriage preparation programs, to bring this into the homiletic practice of the Church. This is an extraordinarily rich body of material, terribly important in terms of meeting the challenge of our popular culture today. But also important for creating the foundation on which Catholics can lift up and affirm the gift of sexual love within the bond of faithful and fruitful marriage as a good in its own right, and as a model for the thinking about human community, human dignity, the givenness of certain things in human life that is absolutely essential for dealing with the biotech issues roaring down the track at us at a very fast pace.

On the pope’s ecumenical efforts: This is a pontificate that has made an enormous investment in ecumenism. No Christian leader for the past quarter century has been more insistent than John Paul II that the quest for the unity of the Church has to be at the heart of the Church, and I think one has to say that the response to that from other Christian communities has been disappointing. I think the pope really believed at the beginning of the pontificate that it was possible by the turn of a new millennium to effect ecclesial reconciliation between Rome and the churches of the Christian east. The ecumenical initiatives of this pontificate, intense as they have been, seem to be a set of issues on which history was just not prepared to move with sense of urgency that the pope would have liked.

On pastoral discipline: This pope seems to have taken the view that his primary task is to encourage and nurture what is good and true and growing in the Church, and to leave what is off the reservation to die eventually of its own implausibility. Yet I think we have seen in our own country that the fact of a culture of dissent in the Church can do enormous damage to what I would call the ecology of the Church, to the environment of the Church. So the question of how the structures of pastoral discipline in the Church – not simply with respect to theology, but with respect to liturgy and the organization of pastoral life – how these structures are going to be renewed and revised in the future seems to me a large issue that the next pontificate is going to have to take up.

On religious orders: No period of reform in the history of the Church has been successful without a reform of consecrated life. We can see around us growing new religious communities, very much eager to be formed in the image of this pontificate, but the question is what is to be done about religious communities that have not reformed themselves according to the mind of the council, that are full of corruptions of various sorts? What happens to the institutions these religious communities are responsible for? These are all questions that, I think, have to be addressed in a more forthright way in the years ahead.

On summing up John Paul II: This is the great Christian witness of our time. This is the man who more than anyone else has embodied the truth of Christian discipleship for the Church and for the world. And that is why if history does remember him as John Paul the Great, it will remember him for that reason. Everything he has done has been an expression of that conviction so deep within him that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life. What we are now watching, as we see him in pain, is a man turning his entire life into a living prayer of self-sacrifice. The world is watching the pope walk the way of the Cross all the way to the end. What an extraordinary witness that is, what a great, graced time these 25 years have been and what an enormous amount of work he has left for the rest of us to do. Thank God he has given us a model for doing that.

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