In Depth Analysis

Extended commentary and thoughtful Catholic essays on complex topics.

The perfectly legitimate public authority of the Church

In the first three essays in this series, I have been arguing against our modern cultural prejudice that all religions are essentially the same, that they are all merely different forms of a personal and private sentiment. Though it may not always have been obvious, I have been probing the nature...

Refuse to breathe thin air: Know the source of your convictions, challenge others on the source of theirs

I’ve written recently about the deliberate exclusion of informed religious faith as an influence in the political and social life of the West (see “Time to give the lie to a culture in denial” and “Dangerous! Both religious exclusion and religious common cause”)....

Dangerous! Both religious exclusion and religious common cause

In my essay “Time to give the lie to a culture in denial?”, I suggested that we need to take seriously that Christianity is publicly revealed by God. Such seriousness is necessary to challenge one of the most deeply cherished and incontrovertibly false assumptions of our contemporary...

Catholic renewal in the long defeat: Engaging Conor Sweeney

I’ve just finished a fascinating new book by Conor Sweeney from Angelico Press entitled Abiding the Long Defeat and subtitled “How to Evangelize Like a Hobbit in a Disenchanted Age”. While I do not think every emphasis in this book is directly on target, important insights leap...

The Church’s latest foray into economics: Brief, clear, on point

[B]usiness management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of...

What IS the proper relationship between Church and State?

My last commentary (Crosses on public buildings: Yes or No?) indirectly raised the question of the right relationship between Church and State in a well-ordered society. This is a relationship that has been deeply distorted by the division of Christianity in the sixteenth century, and further...

Insistence on the Church’s authority is required for growth.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my frustration gets such an upper hand of me,...

Why can’t the Church stop harping on purity?!

In the wake of yesterday’s conviction of comedian Bill Cosby for sexual assault, we might well revisit what many regard as the obnoxious Catholic emphasis on purity. While we hear less about it in a secularized Church, everybody knows the traditional emphasis is always just beneath the...

Political holiness? More on Gaudete et Exsultate!

In my essay on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on holiness (Challenge yourself with Gaudete et Exsultate!), I promised to write separately about the Pope’s emphasis on the equality among all moral issues. Francis wrote that it was wrong to use attention to grave bioethical issues...

Challenge yourself with Gaudete et Exsultate!

If people do not think they can learn anything about holiness from Pope Francis, they need to think again. The Pope’s latest Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad): On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, recapitulates and develops several favorite themes...

A Church of kids: Will the Synod on Youth get it backwards?

I am one of those who is not sure whether to laugh or cry at the effort of the Catholic Church to devote a Synod of Bishops to youth. It goes without saying that the Church can do many good things with and for young people. But the prospect still raises all of my red flags. Sure, I’m a...

The Genesis Wars: Forgetfulness of Christ?

I’ve had several interesting discussions lately probing the account of Creation in Genesis, on the one hand, and the scientific theory of evolution, on the other. Discussions of human origins are endlessly fascinating! Too often, however, they carry a high emotional cost. They may even...

Practicing apologetics upon ourselves: Five models

When I first wrote on this topic in the last months of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, I did not realize how much more important it would become under Pope Francis. But the following assertion has become increasingly obvious over the past five years, namely, that apologetics is often more...

Four ways to grasp natural meaning from the God Who Is

I have set myself a bit of a task here, and it is all the fault of four excellent authors who have tackled the modern dismissal of God in four significantly different ways, all during the past fifteen months. I say “tackled the modern dismissal of God”, but they might not all conceive...

On the “kidnapping” of Edgardo Mortara by Pope Pius IX: Who is right?

Vittorio Messori’s recent book, Kidnapped by the Vatican?, has created quite a furor. Different wings of the Church are at odds over the issue raised by the late-nineteenth century case of Edgardo Mortara, who was taken from his Jewish parents to be raised a Catholic after he had been...

The priorities of Catholic leadership today, and how they must influence praise and blame

A reader raised a thorny problem the other day: Since there is good reason to criticize many things that Pope Francis says in order to dispel confusion and avoid spiritual discouragement, is it also right and proper to praise Pope Francis when he says or does something very good? The reader had in...

Vatican enforcement: Why does the Church lack teeth?

It’s just not the thing. It just isn’t done. The Catholic Church does not enforce its own laws. This is, of course, the mark of a very badly run institution. It isn’t clear to anyone in the Church—priest or layman, bishop or religious, cardinal or deacon—what it...

Renewal in secular cultures: The need to distinguish between sheep and goats

Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to effect a widely effective renewal within the Church in our time? After all, individual Catholics too numerous to count have made this their top priority since the mid-1960s. The Church herself, in the whole process of calling, holding and implementing...

Looking for Justice? Try the Second Book of Chronicles.

Justice is a slippery concept. So often we are punished for things we do inadvertently (consider a traffic accident), and even more often we receive no punishment for evil words or deeds in which we willingly engage. The same is true for all, which makes justice in this world very slippery indeed....

Key perceptions of—and at—the Second Vatican Council

Most of us have our own convictions about the nature and significance of the Second Vatican Council. Surprisingly, we often hold these convictions without having read the documents. At this point, over fifty years after the close of the Council, it is hard to insist that people go back and read...

Theories that Francis is not the Pope destroy the credibility of the Church’s Divine Constitution.

I am sorry to have to return to this topic (see On the lunatic fringe, Francis is not the Pope), but it is clear that some Catholics are missing a piece of the confusing puzzle that is the contemporary Church. There is a critical Catholic piece missing in current claims that, owing to heresy,...

Human respect: Not only a sin in our time, but a theology

Not long ago I described the Book of Jonah as a cautionary tale against “human respect”. I did not consider at the time how confusing this term can be today. I intended “human respect” to be recognized as a grave sin, yet many assume it to be a fundamental good. I need to...

Victimhood and responsibility: Fargo’s critique of feminism

Fargo, Noah Hawley’s anthology series inspired by the classic 1996 Coen brothers film, has been one of television’s most acclaimed dramas since it began its run on FX in 2014. It has rightly been praised for its innovative cinematography, surprising music choices, sharp writing and...

Previewing confusion? The Pope’s new book-length interview

On Thursday, the French edition of a new book-length interview with Pope Francis was published and available for sale on Amazon, if you have $49.95 to spend on a paperback. Catholic News Service (the news agency of the American bishops) announced and previewed the book on September 1st,...

A thumbnail guide to new Catholic books: Choose what appeals!

I am going to turn a necessity into a virtue. Books have been piling up on my desk all summer. Even after giving about half of them away without a third glance, I am left with more than a dozen which are clearly worthwhile, but which I simply have not had the time to read and review individually....

Making sense of the Old Testament God

In Priestly Atonement, by the Numbers, when I mentioned the apparently harsh measures (such as plagues) which God took to make sure the Israelites did His will, I acknowledged how “difficult it may be for us to grasp the importance of teaching the Israelites in this particular way”....

Priestly Atonement, by the Numbers

As I continue this excursion through the somewhat trying Biblical books of Leviticus, Numbers and eventually Deuteronomy, one of the most important concepts in Numbers that I’d like to introduce is that of atonement. The idea of atonement is absent in Genesis, makes a slight appearance in...

The problem with doctrinal obscurity

The most important thing I read while on vacation this month was Phil Lawler’s June 23rd commentary, “A papal commission reconsidering Humanae Vitae? No, but...”. This is not because Phil proved anything, but because he raised exactly the right question: What is going on, under...

Original Sin: What is it really and why does it matter?

I had a very interesting exchange over the weekend with a man who raised two important questions: First, does the Church teach that the human soul is created at conception? Second, how does the soul contract original sin from Adam? A great deal can go wrong in considering both of these...

How can the laity renew the Church?

In March and April I suggested that what the business world calls rightsizing is absolutely critical to the renewal of the Church. My point was that if the Church does not learn once again to exclude those who, within her own ranks, have rejected her official teachings on faith and morals, then...

Cardinals who take up the slack

During a pontificate that is often confusing and even self-contradictory, we are fortunate to have two outstanding cardinals in charge of two key congregations. The Guinean Robert Sarah leads the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and the German Gerhard...

Reading the news between the lines

For someone who covers the news every day, it’s frustrating to read a story and know that important information has been left out. In such cases, when I have no good way to dig out the missing details for myself, I’m left with the uneasy feeling that I don’t know the real truth;...

Obstacles to “Rightsizing” the Church

“This refusal to demand a desire for transformation in Christ cannot continue to be the way of the Church in our time. Her members must learn again to exclude those who refuse to respond to God’s mercy, lest these make a mire of the Gospel, polluting the work of God at its...

Let’s get this straight: Concern about Pope Francis is not rooted in dissent, but in dismay.

One wonders where Pope Francis finds the people who provide articles to L’Osservatore Romano which attack those who raise questions about his leadership. The latest is Father Salvador Pié-Ninot, who has criticized what he calls “dissent in the form of public criticism” of...

Church Fathers: The Lesser Alexandrians

Though Clement and Origen were by far the most important members of the School of Alexandria, a number of other associated figures from the third and early fourth centuries are worth mentioning. Their writings are only extant in fragments, if at all. Ammonius was probably a contemporary of...

Why is there a resurgence of infidelity among Catholic leaders?

Earlier this week, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus stressed the need to “discern” the meaning of Christ’s teachings rather than simply accept the way Catholic doctrine states these truths. This triggered an email from an obviously same-sex attracted reader who...

Warning: Our strengths are often our weaknesses. Same with the Pope.

How many times have you fallen into the traps set by the very strengths of your own personality? This is one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life. As we come to grips with divergent personalities within the Church, it is worth thinking about. I’ll start with a personal example....

Bad—I mean really bad—arguments for changing the Church

Cultural change, as we all know, has a profound impact on our convictions. Very large numbers of people cheerfully form their values according to the signals received from the dominant culture in which they live. Since human cultures undergo continuous change, so do human values. It seems not to...

Reopening the question of women priests: A theological travesty and a spiritual tragedy

La Civilta Cattolica has published an essay by its deputy editor, Father Giancarlo Pani, which seeks to reopen the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. This journal, published by the Jesuits but vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State, has long been a means of communicating lines...

Is there a “morality gap” in the way Pope Francis presents his favorite themes?

I find myself wondering whether Pope Francis does not sometimes undermine his own favorite themes, such as Divine mercy and Christian unity, by his obvious reluctance to articulate their significant moral character. I consider this an important question because the Pope’s key themes are...

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