Catholic Trends/Summer-2014


This sister just wants to have fun. At the risk of conveying very old news, If you haven’t had the chance, check out Sr Christina Scuccia, a 25 year old member of the Ursuline Sisters who won the singing competition on The Voice of Italy, a show comparable to America’s American Idol. Sr. Christina wowed the four judges by her talent and habit. Their stunned response to her rendering of Alicia Keys No One is something you won’t forget. The Sicilian sister said that she is using her singing/performing gifts for God’s purposes: “I’m here to evangelize.”

While Pope Francis has not publicly acknowledged Sr. Christina’s unique contribution to the New Evangelization, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi did weigh in as he commended her for sharing her talent with the Italian people: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others” (1 Peter 4:10).


Meanwhile, what’s happening with the Sisters of Perpetual Victimhood—aka LCWR. By way of qualification, may we make a distinction between the 60,000 or so American sisters/nuns and their representative body, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious? I would hope so because while one can hold a deep appreciation for the contribution that consecrated women religious have made to the Church in North America, one can have, at the same time, major reservations regarding the LCWR, which seems to have been hijacked by ideologues. Most troublesome was a presentation given a few years ago at their annual conference in which speaker Sr. Laurie Brink said that American women religious may have moved beyond Jesus and the Church. With vocations in free fall (from 180,000 in 1960 to 60,000 today), the Church in Rome prudently did an inquiry and survey regarding women religious in the United States. While the LCWR is not the problem with American religious, it is symptomatic of a malaise and drift, which is why the organization is now under the direction of Bishop Sartain of Seattle, WA. To put it mildly, the LCWR has been chaffing under the Vatican rebuke and it’s going to be interesting to see how their August meeting goes, especially the acceptance speech by Sr. Elizabeth Johnson (C.S.J.)—a theologian whom the U.S. bishops have criticized for doctrinal errors.


The LCWR does have its defenders (cf. National Catholic Reporter). Sr. Janet Mock (C.S.J.) says the organization is a “microcosm of women in the church.” Really? Does the heterodoxy serve the People of God, the Church, in her mission to cooperate with Jesus’ mission to save souls and proclaim the Good News, or does their activity cause division and implosion?


Some religious orders are thriving. Can you guess which ones? Mother Assumpta Long (O.P.; foundress of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist) in Ann Arbor, MI, attracts droves of young women, who take up veils and habits, and are committed to community life and worship, as well as to traditional apostolates like teaching and nursing.   Meanwhile, Sr Joan Chittister (0.S.B.) announced on CNN IN 2012 that highly educated, modern sisters no longer do such antiquated things.


Pope Francis on the American Idol. From his first Papal Exortation, Gaudium Evangelii, to his Wednesday audiences, weekday homilies, interviews, and off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that he has concerns   regarding American-style capitalism, which has been described as “ a new tyranny” and a form of idol worship as it exploits the poor. Francis’ critique is as much anthropological as it is theological. Given our inherent dignity, the Pope rightly asserts that human beings should be the center of economic, political, and social institutions. Instead, profit is the driving force of economic enterprise, which make human beings secondary and expendable. Other prominent church leaders have gone further: Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras and a member of the Pope’s Council of Eight, said that “This economy kills. That is what the pope is saying.”

How does it kill? Our government will use war preparation and conduct to preserve our economic interests. In an interview with

L’ Vanguardia, Pope Francis said, “We discard a whole generation to maintain an economic system that no longer endures, a system that to survive has to make war, as the big empires have always done. But, since we cannot wage the Third World War, we make regional wars. And what does that mean? That we make and sell arms. And with that the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies—the big world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money—are obviously cleaned up.”


Of course, Francis is not an economist, nor is he a Marxist as Rush Limbaugh would have us believe or a Leninist according to The Economist. But, as someone who has a discernible charismatic relationship with the triune God and the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, his words do have binding force. We should not deceive ourselves that he’s talking about third world, banana republic dictators or corrupt bureaucrats that are the only tormentors of the poor. No, he’s blaming us and we have to look at his prophetic witness.


The Sense of the Faith. With the recent consultation of the faithful throughout particular Churches and the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family, renewed interest is being directed at the sensus fidei fidelium (the sense of faith among the faithful), which means the entire People of God are capable of discerning ways the Gospel is relevant today. The International Theological Commission (ITC) published a document titled Sensus fidei in the Life of the Church, which is obtainable on the Vatican website (


What is the sensus fidei? To begin with, not all opinions circulating among the faithful, even if those views are in the majority, may be drawn from the sensus fidelium. For example, the slight majority of American Catholics do not subscribe to the Real Presence in the Eucharist, support contraception, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, cohabitation, and are pro-choice. These views would be a false sense of the sensus fidelium and are rejected by the Church.


So, what is the sensus fidei? It’s not the Magisterium promulgating certain doctrines and the laity passively receiving them. It is the capacity of the whole Church to maintain and transmit apostolic Tradition without error. As such, it involves an interaction of the Magisterium, theologians, and the laity, who is 99% of the People of God. So, it is an instinct of faith, which pertains to the whole community. The Magisteriuim (pope + the college of bishops) serves to articulate the Truth that is already present and accepted within the Church.

So, how does one decide whether a belief represents the sensus fidelium. The criteria, according to the document is twofold. First, is conformity to the apostolic tradition. A conviction that cannot stand as a homogenous development of the apostolic faith cannot be an expression of the sensus fidelium. That’s why the above-mentioned opinions, while representing a slight majority of American Catholics, would not be accepted because they don’t meet this standard.


The other criterion is subjective. The qualities that are required for believers to truly be “subjects” of the sensus fidelium is ecclesiality, that is, active participation in the life of the Church. Again, when practicing Catholics (those who attend Sunday Mass regularly, 3x/month) are surveyed, the vast majority (70%+) subscribe to the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence and assent to the teachings on sexuality (with the exception of artificial contraception). So, while public opinion does have a proper place within the life of the Church, it’s not the benchmark of sensus fidelium. Indeed, authentic sensus fidei has often been upheld by a “small flock” of faithful to Gospel teaching.


Besides active participation in the life of the Church, other dispositions that are manifested in the sensus fidei include (2) attentive listening to the word of God, in a spirit of thankfulness and praise. That is, being biblically literate is a prerequisite; as St. Jerome once said, “Not to know Scripture is not to know Christ.” Another disposition (3) is an openness to reason as a vital partner to faith. Can one rely on beliefs that are consistent, coherent, credible, convincing, and comprehensive within our Tradition. Along this line is (4) a willing attentiveness to the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church. If one does not recognize the teaching authority of the Magisterium, one has become disconnected to the Church and it’s difficult to say that one is operating under the sensus fidei. A fifth criterion is holiness with its companion qualities of humility, freedom, joy and peace, which identifies the saints. And, finally, criterion (6) is the edification of the Church, building others up and avoiding division.

The document ends by encouraging consultation (cf. the recent survey), being cognizant of public opinion in the sense of the loving and lively exchange of ideas between participating members of the Church. Such an exchange within the context of the above criteria would be the means to gauge the sensus fidelium.


            The Rich Get Richer is the title of a recent article in Sojourners (August 2014). When Pope Francis dropped the tweet heard around the world in April that “Inequality is the root of social evil,” coupled with French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there arose the public perception that the economic and political systems are rigged against the Common Good and do not serve human beings, who should be the center of these enterprises. How rigged is the American system? The richest 400 people in the U.S. have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. With such concentrations of wealth, can democracy survive such disparity?


Julie Polter, a senior associate editor of the magazine, thinks not:

“Extreme wealth inequality carries the seeds of economic and social destruction: As more people are excluded from opportunity, the bulk of the economy as a whole slows and becomes less sustainable, and the social fabric strains and tears. Extreme inequality unravels participatory democracy and leads to the rule of the few over the many. It fails to uphold ethical standards of fairness and the common good. Instead of markets servicing human needs and dignity, money becomes an idol, and people and values are sacrificed to serve what Pope Francis calls a “deified market.”


            It wasn’t always this way. From the post-World War II years through the early 1970s, wages, employment levels, social benefits, infrastructure development did increase and benefit the majority of Americans. But, conditions were different then. During that period, as economist and Berkeley professor Robert Reich notes, “Tax rates on top incomes in the U.S. never fell below 70%, a larger portion of our economy was invested in education than before or since, over a third of our private-sector workers were unionized, we came up with Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor, and built the biggest infrastructure project in history, known as the interstate highway system.”


Now, tax rates on the top incomes have been lowered to 39.6%. Wages for the majority of Americans were stagnant for three decades after the ‘70s. Today, a smaller portion of our economy is invested in education. The share of the workforce has declined to 13.1%. While Medicare and Medicaid continue to be safety nets for some of the most vulnerable, escalating health care costs are buffeting the middle and lower classes. And, the big infrastructure project—from interstate highways and bridges to urban sewage systems and our electrical grid—are badly in need of repairs or upgrades.


Since the Great Recession of 2008, nearly all the income growth in jobs have occurred with those over $75,000/year (about one-in-eight jobs). Almost a third of the 153 million Americans with a job made less then $15,000. In contrast, 95% of all economic gains went to the top 1% earners, according to economist Emmanuel Saez. Those making less than $100,000 a year—roughly 80% of U.S. households—are not fairing as well.


With such grim economic numbers, why doesn’t the body politic change this state of affairs by electing responsive representatives who will promote the Common Good. Don’t we operate under “One person, one vote?” Not so much, according to Polter.   One of the most damaging consequences of income/wealth disparity is what it does to our democracy. What has emerged are “economic elites” and organized groups that support plutocracy and have substantial impact on U.S. government policy. In other words, the economic elites dominate the political scene. Northwestern political theorist Jeffrey Winters described the U.S. as a “civil oligarchy,” where the wealthiest citizens dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth and income protection.


We see that played out with the likes of the billionaires Charles and David Koch who convert their wealth to political power and influence They exert political pressure at the national level, where they fund the Tea Party and oppose policies that address climate change. They are also the primary funders of Americans for Prosperity, which works nationally and locally, on everything from the Wisconsin’s governor race to a successful bid to stop a small tax levy to support the Columbus, Ohio zoo. I kid you not—from the macro to the micro level, the Koch brothers are in.


Very briefly, there is a way out of this new Gilded Age through public policy. Polter advocates the following:

  • Investing in education and infrastructure can address inequality by promoting economic growth for those in the middle class and below.
  • Raising the minimum wage. In early June, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance to gradually increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. A worker should enjoy a salary that would pay a living wage. To do less, such as what happens in the fast-food industry, is simply immoral.
  • Supporting efforts that raise wealth for citizens at the low end of the economic pool.
  • Strengthening the estate tax. The so-called “death tax” can raise revenue from those with the most means by encouraging dispersal of wealth and charitable giving prior to death and to slow the creation of wealth dynasties.

The estate tax also serves to modestly mitigate the “large tax breaks that extremely wealthy households get on their wealth as it grows, which can otherwise go completely untaxed.”


Pope Francis bluntly names “an economy of exclusion and inequality” as a danger to both bodies and souls. “Such an economy kills,” he writes, pointing to those who starve from lack of food while others throw food away, and warning that the “culture of prosperity deadens us” and saps compassion and empathy.


A shift of consciousness is not going to happen within the existing American political parties. As Albert Einstein once said, “The consciousness that created the problem cannot solve it.” The churches, on the other hand, are natural places for reversing this kind of self-absorbed, unjust, and exploitive culture. People of faith have the overarching narrative (The Good News) and the motivation to bring justice to our society by organizing efforts to promote solidarity and the Common Good. Churches can foster political and social relationships across class lines and the means we learn about the cares of others.


Again, Pope Francis challenges us that the stakes for addressing this problem could not be higher: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality no solution will be found for the world’s problems or for that matter, to any problems.”

Jesus calls us to be attentive to the “least of these” and one way we can do that is to keep our eye on the gap, and to create ways to resolve it.

–compiled by Deacon Jim McFadden




One comment on “Catholic Trends/Summer-2014

  1. Thanks Jim. After reading your section on The Rich Get Richer (which I have sent to several friends here) I wonder why we never hear this message of Pope Francis in our churches from our priests. Not once have our priests brought this to our attention. Might that be because the wealthier parishioners do not want to hear it and might withdraw their financial support?

    Our clergy does speak to the first part of your summary, that the clergy are the only ones who can speak for the church and that women will continue to be second class parishioners. I do think that the American Catholic church is split beyond repair and that makes me sad. Perhaps the only way to heal this is to allow women priests but we both know that will not happen in our lifetimes but it will happen or there will no Catholic church in the future. Increasingly religious orders of sisters are frustrated with the Church and who can blame them. Yes, they can be teachers and hospital workers and they also can keep their mouths shut. Granted, there are conservative orders of sisters who attract new members. But they are leading backwards by excluding others. The Christian churches in the valley are thriving. We on the other hand have dissolved three long-time parishes to consolidate into one simply because we don’t have enough priests. And half of those (1 out of 2) for the last several years cannot be understood by most of the parishioners because they haven’t mastered the English language. I feel for them but it points to the weakness of the Church.

    I read the first part about who can have a voice in the church and actually had to laugh about the convoluted message. The 99% are important but only if they don’t expressed their voice and do not question clergy. Hmmmm.

    I also wonder if Pope Francis is trying to put all his energy into reforming the Curia. Frankly, I hope he can. That is the 1% of wealth and power in the church today.

    The world is coming apart at the seams in so many areas. I think it is because of the rapid technological advances over the last 10-15 years and the concentration of wealth in so few hands: these have taken us beyond common understanding and this creates a backlash.And of course, the sexual scandals have set the Church back enormously. But what do I know, I’m just a woman.

    As always, I look forward to your yearly update on the Church and feel both encouraged and despairing. Sorry about my angry message. Miss talking to you.

    Boise, ID

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