Reasonably Catholic: Keeping the Faith

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Abraham Lincoln’s Interior Life

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Chief's collection poster

Chief's book coverFrank J. Williams

Frank J. Williams, retired RI Supreme Court Chief Justice, is a Lincoln scholar, a collector of Lincolniana, and author, most recently, of Lincoln as Hero (Southern Illinois University Press).

One week after the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, Chief Williams discusses Lincoln’s spirituality and struggle with depression. Called “melancholia,” it likely would today be called clinical depression. The following poem, “The Suicide’s Soliloquy,” is said to have been written by Lincoln; it was published on August 25, 1838, in The Sangamo Journal, a four-page Whig newspaper in Springfield, Mass.

Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.

Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?

To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
And wallow in its waves.

Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.

Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn’d on earth!

Sweet steel! come forth from your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!


On a happier note, Pope Francis effectively said, “Leave the nuns alone!” by calling an abrupt halt to the inquisition into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Francis and LCWRMembers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious meeting with Pope Francis for almost an hour last week.

Here is a statement from the Nun Justice Project:

The Nun Justice Project is glad to see that the Vatican has removed their mandate against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

Today’s joint statement is testimony to the dogged determination of LCWR sister-leaders to persevere in dialogue with those who unjustly maligned them. It is fitting that in the Year of Consecrated Life, Church officials have at last recognized the good works and impressive leadership of the sisters.

The Nun Justice Project believes that an apology should also have been given to the sisters, but the end of the investigation is a major step in itself. Since no previous Pope ever met with LCWR leadership it is hopeful that Pope Francis met personally with them today. May this meeting inaugurate new era of positive communication between the Vatican and women leaders in the Church.

“As usual, the living example of the women has inspired us,” said Erin Saiz Hanna, a member of the coalition, “The nuns responded to this show of patriarchal abuse by finding ways to resist its intrusion and transformed the process by modeling inclusive dialogue.”

“It is my hope that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will institute similar dialogic processes and procedures for addressing other disputed issues in the Church,” said Francis DeBernardo, another coalition member.

Since the LCWR mandate was announced, thousands of Catholics have stood up to call for the end of this unnecessary and demeaning “investigation.” We are gratified that the immense worth of the work of women religious is being recognized. However, we also remain watchful since some still-to-be-implemented aspects of the joint statement could be interpreted as restricting the conscience rights of sisters.

Over the past five years, the Nun Justice Project organized massive support for women religious. Tens of thousands of Catholics petitioned the Vatican and participated in hundreds of public demonstrations, prayer services, vigils, and media events. Their voices have been instrumental in advancing due process, raising up women’s leadership voice and promoting justice in the Church.

For background on the Nun Justice Project’s work addressing the LCWR mandate visit

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has unexpectedly ended its controversial overhaul of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, cementing a shift in tone and treatment of the U.S. sisters under the social justice-minded Pope Francis.

The Vatican said Thursday it had accepted a final report on its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and declared the “implementation of the mandate has been accomplished” nearly two years ahead of schedule. The umbrella group for women’s religious orders had been accused of straying from church teaching.

The brief report stated the organization would have to ensure its publications have a “sound doctrinal foundation,” and said steps were being taken for “safeguarding the theological integrity” of programs. But no major changes were announced and the direct Vatican oversight that the sisters considered a threat to their mission was over.

“I think there are still some questions about how this is going to play out, but that it concluded early was an overwhelming affirmation of what the sisters do,” said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College.

The report’s tone stood in stark contrast to the 2012 Vatican reform mandate, which said the nuns’ group was in a “grave” doctrinal crisis. Vatican officials said the Leadership Conference had over-emphasized social justice issues when they should have also been fighting abortion, had undermined church teaching on homosexuality and the priesthood, and had promoted “radical feminist” themes in their publications and choice of speakers. The nuns’ group called the allegations “flawed.” But Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle was appointed to conduct a top to bottom overhaul of the conference.

Just last year, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, sharply rebuked the nuns’ group for its “regrettable” attitude and behavior during the process. He accused the LCWR of being in “open provocation” with the Holy See and U.S. bishops because they planned to honor a theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose work had drawn sharp criticism from the U.S. bishops.

But on Thursday, leaders of the umbrella organization and the Vatican officials in charge of the overhaul released statements of mutual respect, and the sisters met in Rome for nearly an hour with Pope Francis. The Vatican released a photo of the nuns sitting across a table from a warmly smiling Francis.

The turnabout suggested possible papal intervention to end the standoff on amicable grounds before Francis’ high-profile trip to the United States in September. The investigation, and a separate but parallel review of all women’s religious orders, prompted an outpouring of support from the public for the sisters, who oversee the lion’s share of social service programs for the church.

The review of the Leadership Conference emerged from decades of tensions within the church over the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Many religious sisters shed their habits and traditional roles, taking on higher-level professional work in hospitals and schools, with sisters increasingly focused on social justice issues. Theological conservatives grew concerned that the sisters were becoming too secular and too political, instead of focusing on traditional prayer life and faith. The tensions worsened as the number of American nuns dwindled from about 160,000 in 1970, to less than 50,000 today, and church leaders searched for a way to stem the losses.

Conservative-minded Catholics argued a return to tradition would help.

The investigation of the sisters’ group began about seven years ago under Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a German theologian who spent a quarter century as the Vatican’s doctrine watchdog, after complaints from conservative U.S. bishops and influential Catholics about the organization’s doctrinal soundness.

The first sign of a different outcome for the nuns’ group came in December, when the Vatican’s investigation of all women’s religious orders ended with sweeping praise for the sisters for their selfless work caring for the poor.

On Thursday, Mueller said in a statement he was confident that the LCWR is now clear in its mission of showing its members a Christ-centered vision of religious life that is “rooted in the tradition of the church.” Sister Sharon Holland, president of the nuns’ group, said in a statement the process had been “long and challenging” but “we learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”

The Vatican asked the sisters and church officials not to comment on the report for a month.

“Given the current moment in the church, with Francis emphasizing mercy and not judging and trying to see the best of what people are doing, they had to find a quiet way out of this,” said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist specializing in the Catholic Church. “What you’d love to hear directly from LCWR leaders is what exactly this oversight means. Who decides what’s really the authentic doctrine?”

LCWR leaders call Vatican meetings ‘rich,’ conversational



Leaders of the main representative group of U.S. Catholic sisters said their recent annual trip to Rome to visit Vatican offices was productive and resulted in “very rich” conversations about problems facing the church and society globally.

Two of the elected representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious spoke to NCR about the trip in an interview Sunday.

The leaders spoke under the condition that they would not talk about last week’s joint conclusion with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR, which saw Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain act as the group’s archbishop delegate for three years.

St. Joseph Srs. Marcia Allen and Carol Zinn, LCWR’s president-elect and past-president, respectively, said in the interview that their conversations with Vatican officials had especially given them a sense of the universality of the church.

Speaking to different Vatican offices throughout their visit, Allen and Zinn said there were many common themes that the conversations focused on, such as problems of migration around the world and to the plight of victims of human trafficking..

The offices, Allen said, “seemed to appreciate, ‘What does this look like from the U.S. point of view, from our point of view?’ ”

“I was impressed just at the universality of their concern as well as some of the things that they were focused on,” she said.

LCWR represents about 80 percent of the approximately 57,000 Catholic sisters in the United States. Headquartered in Silver Spring, Md., it traces its beginnings to the papacy of Pope Pius XII and first formally organized as a conference in 1956. Its members are the leaders of the various orders of women religious around the country.

LCWR leaders have made an annual visit to Rome for decades, normally alongside their counterpart U.S. men’s group, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

The women religious were making the visit this year when news broke of the end of the doctrinal mandate, which was launched in 2012 and saw Sartain appointed with a five-year mandate to oversee revisions of the sisters’ group.

Announcing the end of that process April 16, the Vatican said in a press release that the goal of the oversight “has been accomplished.”

LCWR leaders, including Zinn and Allen, also met with Pope Francis that day in what may have been the first such meeting between their group’s leaders and a pope.

Zinn said the meeting was an “unbelievable experience” because of Francis’ ability to connect with those with whom he is meeting. Comparing their sit-down with the pope to images of him making connections with the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, she said: “It’s real.”

Allen said, “I think you’re aware of his universalist perception but he is individually attentive.”

“He’s very attentive to the moment, and yet when he talks, he talks from a wide, wide perspective,” she said.

Allen and Zinn said the pope spoke mostly regarding topics from his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), particularly about what he has termed the global “economy of exclusion.”

“You can tell that at a feeling level, that he is heartbroken about the suffering in the world,” Zinn said. “Truly, truly heartbroken. He suffers. You can just feel that.”

The two leaders said their yearly visits to Rome are mostly about having conversations with Vatican officials.

“It’s about dialogue,” Zinn said. “That’s what we do every year when we come here. So in some respects, I guess the story is that the work of the Gospel is to dialogue, to listen. And the call of Vatican II is to listen, to read the signs of the times.”

“I would say this entire week [the meetings] have been collaborative … and respectful,” she said.

Allen said their conversations are “mutually influential.”

“That’s nice,” she said. “That means you got what you came for.”


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“Heaven and Earth” at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum: a tour with art historian Fran Altvater

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FranArt historian Fran Altvater, assistant dean of the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College, with Nan Goldin’s “Cupid with His Wings on Fire,” at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, where the exhibit “Heaven and Earth” is on view through April.

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“It’s been a gazillion years since my last confession”: the sacrament we love to hate


Annunciation detailDetail from the Master of the Hartford Annunciation, now showing in the Wadsworth Atheneum exhibit “Heaven and Earth” (which is up through April and a tour of which will be the subject of “Reasonably Catholic”‘s April 7th episode).

Fr JohnPassionist Fr. John Baptist Pesce, interviewed over lunch on the 64th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. He talks about what’s he’s learned from his many years of listening to penitents and absolving them from their sins, some of which don’t even qualify as sins, he says. As much as people don’t partake of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as much as in years past, he says, some people come too frequently. Especially interesting is his approach to confession on LGBT retreats; his question for the penitents, he says, is whether they acted lovingly.