Top Cardinal: Transgender Rights Are ‘Demonic’; Marriage Equality Is ‘Poison’

May 18, 2016

Cardinal Robert Sarah speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast

A top cardinal at the Vatican attacked transgender civil rights as “demonic” and compared marriage equality to “poison” during a speech before high-profile U.S. Catholics.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, keynoted the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning in Washington, D.C. His address about family and religious freedom in the contemporary world narrowed into particularly harsh LGBT condemnations. Sarah attacked transgender equality in his speech, saying family is threatened:

“[T]hrough a demonic ‘gender ideology,’ a deadly impulse that is being experienced in a world increasingly cut off from God through ideological colonialism.”

Sarah said efforts towards “tolerance” were really religious persecution, part of an “insidious war” in the U.S. and worldwide to dismantle Catholic teaching. He criticized transgender non-discrimination legislation being debated in many states by his denial of trans identities altogether. He said “nothing could be simpler” than people assigned male at birth using a men’s restroom.

Sarah used portions of his address to attack marriage equality, too. He said the devil is “intent on destroying the family” through “distorted impositions of the family,” including same-gender relationships. The cardinal said non-traditional family arrangements “cause damage to little children” such that children experience “a deep existential doubt about love.” Marriage equality and other legal recognition of non-traditional arrangements is comparable to “putting bandages on an infected wound” while the wound “continues to poison the body.”

In addition to Cardinal Sarah, the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast featured Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, and Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest of the Arlington diocese who is son of late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Pope Francis appointed Sarah as the Vatican’s top liturgist in 2014. These are not the cardinal’s first or even worst negative words in relation to LGBT people. During the 2015 Synod on the Family, Sarah said the LGBT rights movement had “demonic origins” and compared it to Nazism and fascism.  Bondings 2.0‘s Francis DeBernardo, who covered the meeting from Rome, deemed Sarah’s comments the Synod’s “most homophobic remark”. The cardinal previously said marriage equality supporters sought to “destroy the family in Africa.

Is there a rational response to such repeated and irrational comments by Cardinal Sarah? I offer two thoughts.

First, contextual differences may account for a certain, limited amount of his remarks’ intensity. Speaking about spiritual warfare, including the demonic, is far more normative in Guinea, where he was archbishop, and other African contexts. Referencing the demonic is absolutely jarring in a U.S. Catholic context. Cultural differences, Guinean and Roman alike, may also account for the ways in which he misconstrues religious liberty in the U.S. and feeds a narrative of persecution proposed by this nation’s bishops. Sarah should have avoided partisan politics and spoken in a pastorally-sensitive manner during his address.

What is truly inexcusable are Cardinal Sarah’s metaphors about LGBT people and their relationships as a “deadly impulse” and “poison,” as well as his failure to engage contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality before issuing such harsh condemnations. His address shows almost no attention to pastoral realities, nor even the realities of public policy in the U.S. about which he ostensibly is commenting. Cardinal Sarah’s remarks about LGBT people and their civil rights are inconsistent with Pope Francis’ desire for a church of mercy. Rather, his remarks are dangerous words which he should retract and for which he should apologize.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Are Already Absent LGBT Voices Being Further Silenced in Conversations About ‘Amoris Laetitia’?

May 17, 2016



Craig Ford

Have Catholics’ analyses of Amoris Laetitia, the recently published exhortation on family by Pope Francis, been dismissive of LGBT communities’ reaction and concerns?

Craig Ford, a theology doctoral student at Boston College, claimed on the blog Catholic Moral Theology that liberal Catholics who are not LGBT have too often jettisoned queer and transgender concerns to uphold a belief that Pope Francis is bringing progress to the Church.

“[Q]ueer relationships seem to be beside the point,” Ford wrote in post that not only challenges his academic colleagues in theology but other Catholics who identify as LGBT advocates and allies. Ford noted that when liberal Catholic pundits comment on homosexuality and related issues in the document, these pundits frequently suggest:

“[LGBT people’s] disappointment with respect to development of doctrine on these issues should be tempered by our understanding of Francis’ goals, or by an understanding of Francis’ style, or by the overall context of Francis’ papacy. . .This sort of reaction to issues involving queer persons is positively insulting, particularly when it comes from queer persons’ strongest allies: presumably straight, well-meaning, liberal theologians.”

Dismissing LGBT concerns in this way has helped liberal theologians uphold the idea that there is an “arc of a progressive future towards which Francis is (hopefully) steering the church,” Ford asserted. Such a reading of Amoris Laetitia allows a heterosexist view  drawn from Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, employed by Pope Francis in the new document, to pass unchallenged in liberal analyses. Ford also wrote that reactions from people who are otherwise quite supportive of LGBT equality have suppressed Amoris Laetitia’s problematic treatment of gender identity. He continued:

“[Liberals] decided not to critique Francis’ deployment of what is used to malign the entire field of gender studies—the term ‘gender ideology’. Instead, we sit by with great hope and expectation while Francis and other bishops continue to shame and marginalize the beautiful existences of trans- and genderqueer persons [Ford cited AL section 56 as evidence].”

Ford wondered why liberal theologians who are not queer or trans have allowed Amoris Laetitia’s clear failure on LGBT issues to be treated less critically. In a critique applicable to all LGBT allies, Ford challenged his colleagues in academic theology:

“The entire point of the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is to remind all Christians that, among others, the concerns of queer persons are never beside the point.”

Sadly, not only this latest apostolic exhortation but the entire synodal process preceding it have too often treated LGBT people and their experiences of family as “beside the point.” No LGBT Catholics addressed the assemblies, and access to pre-synodal questionnaires were quite limited globally, further restricting LGBT Catholics’ input.


Annie Selak

Annie Selak, also a theology doctoral student at Boston College, is curious about the missing voices in Amoris Laetitia and what impact greater input from these voices, like LGBT Catholics, might have had. She wrote in the blog Political Theology Today:

“There are many statements and examples in Amoris Laetitia that are not incorrect, but rather miss the mark in fully capturing the realities faced by families. . .voices from people who experience the lifestyles under discussion would enrich the document, and thus add to the robust teaching of the church. What might it look like for church documents to include voices of people throughout the world, most especially those marginalized whose voices are too often excluded?”

Selak proposed the integration of narrative (or story-telling) into church documents as “one way of rooting theology in lived experience and representing a diverse range of voices” and continued:

“The potential use of narrative in church teaching would not be an example of universalizing a particular instance, but rather a method that emphasizes the continued revelation of God in the lives of the people. . .A greater incorporation of voices through narrative can serve to enhance our experience of God’s continued revelation and build connections in the global church.”

If LGBT Catholics themselves addressed the synods, what impact would they have had in the outcome of those meetings and in the ensuing papal document? How would Amoris Laetitia‘s disappointing, even dismissive, approach to LGBT issues be different if Pope Francis had listened more closely to the marginalized persons of the church he leads? What if the stories of LGBT people and their families had been embedded in Amoris Laetitia’s lengthy reflections on family life?

One U.S. prelate, Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich has stated that he would have liked to hear the voices of LGBT people at the synod.  At a synod press conference, Bondings 2.0’s Francis DeBernardo asked Cupich if he felt it would have been better if the bishops heard these voices during their meetings.  Cupich’s reply:

“Yes, it may have been.  I know that myself, when I did the consultation in my diocese, I did have those voices as part of my consultation, and put that in my report, and so maybe that’s the way they were represented.  But I do think that we could benefit from  the actual voices of people who feel marginalized rather than having them filtered through the voices of other representatives or the bishops.  There is something important about that, I have found personally.”

These are questions that liberal and progressive Catholics should be careful not to ignore. If the document is to be a starting point for LGBT issues, an idea Bondings 2.0 explored a few weeks ago, then the first steps must be to include LGBT concerns as central in our analysis and to include more LGBT voices moving forward.

What do you think? Have LGBT voices been further excluded and even silenced by the reactions and commentaries of liberal Catholics? How can LGBT narratives be more included in the church’s reflections on family? You can leave your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

You can read Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of Amoris Laetitia and reactions to it by clicking hereYou can read New Ways Ministry’s response to the document by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


New Ways Ministry Thanks Sisters of Mercy and Mercy H.S. for Continuing Employment of Transgender Man

May 12, 2016

The following is a statement of Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director

New Ways Ministry congratulates and thanks the Sisters of Mercy and the administrators of Mercy H.S., San Francisco, for their Gospel-based decision to continue employment of one of their teachers who identifies as a transgender man. This decision stands as a beacon of hope in the midst of the terrible darkness of the recent trend of firing LGBT employees from Catholic institutions. The decision was announced in a letter to parents of students, which, after describing the teacher’s situation, stated:

“This afternoon, we informed students, faculty and staff about our resolve to support the dignity of each person—regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identification.”

We applaud, too, the courage of English Department chair and teacher Gabriel Stein-Bodenheimer for honoring his gender identity, as well to his commitment to educate students in the Mercy tradition. His personal example will be a most powerful lesson to all in the school’s community, especially because his decision involved a large degree of risk.

This story reflects a true Catholic commitment to respecting the dignity of LGBT people—a principle which is shared by millions of Catholics across the U.S. The experience of this school will help our Church to heal from the pain of too many past negative decisions regarding LGBT people. Our Catholic Church will only be strengthened by this decision.

The Sisters of Mercy offer a courageous example of inclusion and equality that could be replicated by so many other Catholic schools, parishes, and social service agencies when they learn of an employee’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status. This example can be a turning point in what has been a dark chapter of the U.S. Catholic Church, when over 60 faithful employees have lost their church jobs because of LGBT issues.

Their process included wide consultation, reflection, and prayer. As the letter described:

“. . . we collaborated with the Board Chair Diane Lawrence and a team of key administrators while we studied how to respond in a manner consistent with Mercy and Gospel values and your School’s Catholic Identity. We prayed for guidance. We also consulted trusted advisors as we applied these principles to this circumstance.”

Furthermore, the Sisters showed their commitment to caring for the entire school community by having counselors available for anyone–student, parent, staff–to discuss their questions and concerns.

The Sisters of Mercy grounded their decision in the principles of Mercy which form the charism of their community. These same principles of mercy are promoted by Pope Francis, particularly in this year which he declared as a Jubilee of Mercy. Pope Francis’ message of acceptance and encounter with the LGBT community have been given flesh and blood by the Sisters’ decision to continue the teacher’s employment.

New Ways Ministry calls on other Catholic religious communities of Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters–and indeed, all Catholic administrators—to rejoice in the Sisters of Mercy’s example, and to honor it by following it as a way to end employment discrimination against LGBT church employees.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 50 incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

Will Gay Man’s Employment Case Settlement With Catholic School Affect Future Cases?

May 12, 2016

Matthew Barrett has received a settlement in  his suit against a Massachusetts Catholic high school which had rescinded their contract with him to be the food service director after they learned that he was legally married to another man.

The Boston Globe reported that the details of the financial settlement are undisclosed, but that the decision means the school, Fontbonne Academy, Dorchester, will not appeal a 2015 state court decision that the school discriminated against Barrett after listing his husband on an emergency contact form.

Matthew Barrett (left) with husband, Ed Suplee

That earlier decision, which found the school discriminated against Barrett, was the first of its kind, according to legal experts, because it did not allow the school to claim a religious exemption to the state’s anti-discrimination law.  The Globe reported that Barrett’s lawyer predicted that the settlement arrived at this week will have wide ramifications for future employment cases:

“Ben Klein, a lawyer with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) who represented Barrett in the case, said the settlement means the ruling against Fontbonne Academy stands, creating an important legal precedent that bars employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, regardless of religious conviction.

” ‘This is a case that there was not a factual dispute about whether discrimination occurred, but whether they had a permissible reason,’ Klein said. ‘They do not.’ ”

“Klein said he expected the case to have broad and lasting implications.

” ‘This is the first case in the country to rule that an employer has no religious justification for discrimination,’ Klein said. ‘Everyone deserves to be treated on their merits, and not based on whom they love or any other protective category.’ “

I admit that I am not a legal expert, but I am reluctant to share’s Klein’s optimism about this case.   While I sincerely hope that this decision will become a precedent, I fear that the precedent might be limited, at best, to Massachusetts, since this was a state court ruling.  Anti-discrimination laws across the nation are written and interpreted very differently from one another.  I am glad for Barrett’s victory, but I think it will still require more legal disputes to end the terrible scourge of Catholic institutions discriminating against married lesbian and gay employees.

The December court decision about the school’s discrimination was very specific to this particular case.  The news story quoted part of Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins’ reasoning:

“Requiring Fontbonne to retain a food service director who has done nothing more than list a same-sex husband as an emergency contact does not significantly and seriously burden Fontbonne’s expressive situation.”

Religious liberty debates still rage in state houses and courtrooms, and I expect that similar cases will be decided in various ways before one of them makes it to the Supreme Court for a final decision.  As happened in the sexual abuse crisis, it is very disheartening that Catholic leaders and institutions end up being forced to do the right thing because of legal decisions, instead of being moved by the Gospel’s call for avoiding judgmental discrimination.

Leaders at Fontbonne Academy were gracious in their reaction to the court decision, saying in a statement:

“Fontbonne Academy expresses deep gratitude to Mr. Barrett for his willingness to come together with us in a spirit of conciliation, and wishes him well as the school moves ahead in its mission to foster educational excellence and social justice in an open and inclusive community.”

May this renewal of their commitment to social justice and inclusion contain a more open and welcoming attitude than they expressed in Barrett’s case.

Barrett’s own statement about the decision reads somewhat like a hope-filled prayer for the future:

“It’s just a relief to have this off our shoulders. We’ve gone through a lot and we’re happy it’s behind us now. We just hope it doesn’t happen to someone else.”


For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 50 incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article: “Catholic school settles case that pit gay rights against religious liberty”


Inspired by Faith, CUAllies Seeks University Support for LGBTQ Students

May 11, 2016

11947454_996780837020574_1333273936501763390_nOften in our “Campus Chronicles” series, Bondings 2.0 covers the many developments towards LGBTQ support and inclusion occurring in Catholic higher education. Not all Catholic campuses are equal in their LGBTQ affirmations.  Since 2008, The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC,  has rejected student appeals to give administrative approval to CUAllies, which remains  an unofficial LGBTQ student support group. 

As the academic year concludes, Bondings 2.0 spoke with Briana Bee, Stephen Morris, Bryn Molloy, three of CUAllies’ leaders about the group’s status, their hopes, and  how their efforts relate to Catholic identity. Their perspectives reveal the difficult task many students in Catholic education are still faced with when it comes to ensuring schools are safe and welcoming spaces, and the Catholic faith often animating such movements. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.  The interview questions were sent to the three students by Bondings 2.0 writer Bob Shine, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a 2012 graduate of CUA and was active in the CUAllies group as a student.  Unless otherwise noted, the answers provided were the collaborated responses of the three students.

What inspired this latest version of CUAllies, and how does it relate to past efforts to establish this group?

The cancellation of the on campus screening of Milk [the award-winning film depicting the life and death of early gay activist Harvey Milk] in the Fall of 2014 was a pivotal moment for the CUAllies movement. Students saw the very stark reality that LGBTQ+ students at CUA did not have their own community or support, and this helped lead to the level of student engagement and interest to support the LGBTQ+ community that has really allowed CUAllies to be extremely successful in the past year.

The new face of CUAllies is still working towards official recognition from CUA as a student organization. However, CUAllies today is working on a whole range of ways of creating a better experience for LGBTQ+ students here at CUA and also getting more involved in community outreach.

CUA President John Garvey hosted a student town hall a few weeks ago, which was noteworthy because CUAllies was central in the conversation. Could you say a little more about that event?

Many students asked President Garvey about CUAllies, the lack of representation of LGBTQ+ students, CUA’s status lagging behind other Catholic universities with LGBTQ+ organizations, and why CUA is ranked one of the most unfriendly universities to LGBT+ students.

Although we were happy to see the passion that so many students have and are always thankful for the opportunity to directly speak to him, President Garvey provided unclear answers and appeared to be surprised that the majority of the student questions were about CUAllies being recognized by the university.

He mentioned that the counseling center is now offering a group called “Mosaic” as one way that the school is making sure it offers a welcoming and safe environment for all students, but he seemed to ignore that this was as a result of the sustained efforts of CUAllies itself. And unfortunately that was all he mentioned in terms of clear efforts by the administrationn to ensure a LGBTQ+ friendly campus.

Through your combined efforts with the Counseling Center, the Mosaic group, twas launched earlier this spring as an LGBT safe space. This action has been only one initiative that CUAllies undertook on campus. What other CUAllies’ efforts relate to the University’s Catholic identity?

To us, being Catholic and being Catholic students means accepting everyone as a creation of a loving God, warts and all. We look at CUAllies as a fulfillment of CUA’s Catholic identity and a success of our own Catholic education. Greeting all with compassion and fostering understanding of all people ought to be the ultimate goal of any Catholic person.

By not recognizing the LGBTQ+ community and lacking respect for them, the Church and Catholic University are marginalizing a group of individuals that comprise a significant amount of churchgoers, participants, leaders, and humans. By engaging with LGBTQ+ people and identifying them as children of God, we can only make our Catholic experience stronger and more cohesive.

Could you speak a little about your own motivations for being involved with CUAllies?

Brianna Bee, president: My faith is my motivation to help lead CUAllies. As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to show compassion to the marginalized and treat everyone with dignity and respect. LGBTQ+ individuals deserve to be treated equally and flourish as the individuals that God made them to be.

Stephen Morris, vice president: As someone who grew up in a community steeped with bigotry towards LGBTQ+ people, it took me a great amount of time to accept myself as a gay man. My calling at this point in life is to channel my efforts towards fostering a more understanding, loving, and accepting CUA community. Being in CUAllies is my vocation, my mission, and my way to help create a world where no one grows up feeling broken or wrong because of who they are.

Where does Pope Francis fit into all of this?


CUAllies and Dignity/Washington members gathered after Mass

Pope Francis’s papacy has been a huge catalyst in creating the new face of CUAllies. His statement “Who am I to judge” was absolutely revolutionary and fits seamlessly into CUAllies. . .As Pope Francis, who continues to hold fast to the Church’s traditional views on marriage and chastity, also shows the world is not divided into good people and evil people on this issue. There are many shades of grey and we need to work with all types of allies to make progress happen.

Worth noting, too, is CUAllies collaboration with Dignity/Washington, a community of LGBT Catholics in the DC metropolitan area. The two organizations hosted a panel discussion in April on the topic of “Faith, Reason, and LGBTQ Dignity” and are hoping to plan future events.

To learn more about the CUAllies group, you can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram . To read more of Bondings 2.0‘s previous coverage of CUAllies’ struggle for recognition, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Lesbian Student Ejected from Catholic School’s Prom for Wearing a Suit

May 10, 2016

Aniya Wolf

A Catholic high school in Pennsylvania ejected a lesbian student from the prom for wearing a suit rather than a dress.

Aniya Wolf was escorted out of Harrisburg’s Bishop McDevitt High School prom last weekend by a school official who grabbed the student’s arm and threatened to call police. Wolf’s ejection was the culmination of a debate over dress code between Wolf and her family, and Bishop McDevitt administrators.

Wolf said she has “always been more masculine,” wearing a shirt and pants for her school uniform all three years she has attended Bishop McDevitt. But ABC 27 reported that a sudden change in the school’s dress code occurred right before prom:

“The [Wolf] family said a last-minute email explained girls had to wear a dress to prom. . .Wolf’s mom called the school. ‘I told them that I had read the dress code that was given to the students and I didn’t think that it precluded her from wearing a suit.  I said that this was very unfair, particularly at the last minute.  We had gone out and bought a new suit. I think my daughter is beautiful in a suit,’ Carolyn Wolf said.”

Knowing school officials objected to her suit, Wolf went to prom anyway because she had anticipated the event for a while, and believed her experience “shouldn’t be any different than anyone else’s because of something I was born with.” Bishop McDevitt’s student body is generally affirming of her sexual orientation, Wolf said. The manner in which school officials treated her, in contrast, makes her feel like “a mistake.”

In a statement, Bishop McDevitt denied any wrongdoing. School officials claimed the dress code had been announced three months ago, and when they became aware that Wolf would not be wearing a dress, contacted her mother to resolve the situation. The statement concluded with a commitment to “practice acceptance and love for all of our students.”

What administrators ignored was the real issue behind this troubling incident, problems with the dress code itself rather than the timeline of events. I offer three points for consideration.

First, the dress code, as made available by ABC 27, does not specify that female students must wear dresses. It details what are considered acceptable dresses, but does not mandate them, though it mandates that male students “must wear a suite and tie.” Aniya and her family’s reading of this dress code is correct; it does not bar her from wearing her suit.

Second, dress code controversies in Catholic education need not exist, but, sadly, church officials keeping causing them. There is nothing in church teaching to support gender normative clothing, nor is it wise pastoral practice to insist these norms be maintained. Gender-based dress codes have nothing to do with the Catholic faith. Gender-based dress codes are outdated, sexist, and transphobic. Enforcing them so forcefully appears simply to be an attempt by school officials to impose traditional gender norms.

Third, the priorities of Bishop McDevitt administrators are called into question by this incident. To ensure an archaic dress code is upheld, they were willing to ruin a student’s prom night and cause her to feel like “a mistake.” Not a pastoral response.  And they created an issue where there needn’t have been one. The ejection of Aniya Wolf from prom would be a prime moment for reflection for the school’s administrators about how they really can practice acceptance and love for all students.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Fr. Charles Curran Addresses Pope Francis, Church Reform, and Moral Theology

May 9, 2016

Fr. Curran delivers his lecture.

In subtle but profound ways, Pope Francis is making great changes in church government, moral theology, and Catholic life.  That’s the opinion of Rev. Charles E. Curran, who shared his views on these topics in an April lecture entitled “Pope Francis, Reform, and Moral Theology,” hosted by New Ways Ministry.

The occasion for Curran’s talk was the first Fr. Robert Nugent Memorial Lecture, honoring New Ways Ministry’s co-founder who passed away in 2014. Curran described his friend, Fr. Nugent, as a “marvelous combination of pastoral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities.” More than 150 attendees gathered at the Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center in Marriottsville, Maryland, to hear the thoughts of this important thinker who is the Elizabeth Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

“From the very beginning, it was obvious Pope Francis would be a reformer, ” Curran told the  The lecture analyzed Pope Francis in four movements: the significance of his style, the impact of his priorities, the desire he has for the church, and the impact he may have on moral theology

From his first moments as pope, Francis’ style has been shockingly different from his predecessors. He lives in two simple rooms and dines at the communal cafeteria, having shunned the papal palace. Curran was clear, though, that Francis’ reforms are genuinely “more than just style.” Pope Francis’ shifted tone helps make clear his priorities.

These priorities refocus Catholic attention to structural injustices, Curran said. For example, Francis has highlighted the ways in which oppression of the poor is linked to environmental degradation. Included in these new priorities is a critique of the U.S. bishops’ obsession with moral issues, such as marriage equality and contraception.


Fr. Curran answers a question from the audience.

Pope Francis’ priorities include ecclesial reform, too, Curran suggested. The lecturer pointed towards papal efforts towards church decentralization, including the two synodal assemblies on family held in 2014 and 2015. Prompted by Pope Francis’ appeal for honest discussions and undaunted by fear of chaos or confusion,  bishops openly disagreed with one another at these meetings, Curran noted.  These occasions were the first time since Vatican II that bishops openly disagreed with one another.  Curran said that the church must be realistic about differences of opinion and learn to live with diversity. The lecturer also cited Francis’ frequent quoting of episcopal conference documents in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si as a sign that the pope is promoting decentralization.

But reforming structures is not the only or even main way Pope Francis seeks to reform the church. Curran said the pope is reaffirming the essential role the baptized faithful play in church life, especially for evangelization and for the sensus fidelium–the reception of doctrine. Church teaching should emerge from the bottom, he suggestd. Church practiced should be informed by the poor and hurting people of the world among whom the church must be present. For Francis, Curran noted, everyone has a teaching role because he affirms that the Holy Spirit is present in all.

Regarding moral theology, Curran said Pope Francis has explicitly said on multiple occasions that the church’s moral teachings are not what is most important about the faith. Having described himself as a loyal son of the church, Francis will not change moral teachings, Curran noted. In view of this reality, Catholics who seek developments in Catholic teaching should be realistic because, according to Curran, the Catholic Church has an almost impossible unwillingness to admit that its teachings have ever been wrong. Even when the church reversed its teaching on religious liberty at Vatican II, there was no admission that a change had taken place.


Fr. Curran greets a lecture attendee.

Pope Francis instead seeks a pastorally-oriented approach to moral questions that, Curran said.  While admittedly insufficient, this method can create space for further progress. Curran acknowledged that because Francis proceeds in this way, there will be disappointment, but “[n]onetheless, Francis has left the door ajar.” Though the pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia had not yet been released at the time of this lecture, Curran identified rightly the re-emphasis Pope Francis has placed on conscience. The ultimate decision a Catholic makes should be made in the person’s conscience, Curran said, not by one’s parish priest. In a related note, Curran called for the church to reform the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that it will be more viable by resonating with people’s needs.

Appeals to conscience may resolve a number of challenging moral questions, but they cannot resolve every ecclesial problem, Curran noted. He identified the issue of women in the church as a major weakness for Pope Francis and said that, as a structural issue, it cannot be solved by conscience and will therefore be very hard to change.

A vigorous question period followed the lecture. One attendee asked Curran about the future of church reform efforts. He responded that, unlike previous centuries, in an era of instant communication and globalization the church, if it wants to be relevant to the world, cannot wait centuries to change . Curran said, too, that, in the long run, the church has an important and appealing message for young people who are concerned with social issues.

The National Catholic Reporter, in its coverage of the lecture asked a similar question of Bob Shine, social media and young adult coordinator at New Ways Ministry. He agreed with Fr. Curran that the church was in a “new period of openness,” adding:

” ‘We can’t get obsessed with the rules; we have to ask how we’re bringing people to Jesus in the reform movement. It’s going to mean a big revamp of how things exist if we’re taking the needs of the communities who are coming to dominate our church seriously.’

” ‘I think the greatest opportunity we have right now to create permanent and sustainable change is that [Francis] is creating space for lay Catholics to take ownership for our church.’ “

Fr. Curran’s participation in the church as a theologian and as a priest has greatly contributed to church reform already. His academic career laid foundations on which moral theologians have built new theologies informed by contemporary knowledge. His challenge to unjust church structures as early as the 1960s remains a powerful witness for our church. And as this lecture revealed, Fr. Curran continues to turn his powerful and humane intellect to issues important to the church and to the world. Pope Francis would do well to read Curran’s new book, Tradition and Reform: Perspectives on Catholic Moral Teaching.

If you’re interested in ordering a copy of Fr. Curran’s new book, email or call (301) 277-5674. The cost is $32 plus $5 for postage and handling. To view more photos from the Nugent Lecture, click


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