George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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The Next Pope–and Why He Matters to All of Us

[This article was originally delivered as EPPC’s Fourth Annual William E. Simon Lecture on January 12, 2005. It will be printed in the Spring 2005 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, and is used here with permission.]

Let me begin with a disclaimer – anyone who came here this evening expecting hot tips on the front-runners for the papacy is going to leave disappointed. People sometimes ask, “What’s the Ethics and Public Policy Center?” Well, here’s one part of the answer – the Center isn’t Ladbroke’s, or the Potomac office of Off-Track Betting!

I should also say at the outset that the title of this lecture is not intended to suggest that John Paul II is in imminent danger of death. I had dinner with the Holy Father on December 15, and while he is obviously suffering from the effects of his neurological disease, he’s alert and otherwise healthy; his schedule, while somewhat diminished, remains a full and taxing one; and eight days of work in Rome last month convinced me that John Paul remains the center of initiative at the center of the Catholic Church.

By the same token, it’s obvious that we are much closer to the end of this extraordinary pontificate than to its beginning. And as the Pope himself has talked about the impending completion of his mission on several occasions in recent years, there is nothing unseemly in deepening the conversation about what we might call “the work John Paul II will leave for the rest of us.” “The rest of us,” of course, includes the next pope – whoever the 265th Bishop of Rome may be, wherever he may have been born, and whatever his previous experience has been.

All conclaves tend to confound the predictions of pre-conclave prognosticators, but there is one thing of which we can be absolutely certain in thinking about the conclave that will elect the next pope: it will be a conclave in which the legacy of John Paul II looms very, very large.

A New Conversation. The fact that we are even having this discussion – here in Washington, under the sponsorship of a major foundation and an ecumenical and interreligious research institute – is itself a testimony to the accomplishment of John Paul II. Some years ago, a prominent national political commentator who is not a Christian said to me, “You know, in 1978 I could have cared less who the next pope would be. Now it means something to me personally.” I suspect my friend’s sentiments are replicated in hundreds of millions of hearts and minds throughout the world. The papacy has traditionally claimed a global role; the pontificate of John Paul II has given specific meaning and empirical texture to that claim. The cardinals who will elect the next pope know this. And as they ponder the implications of that remarkable fact, they will know something else: they will know that, in an important sense, they will be electing a pope for the world as well as for the Church.

The papacy now matters to virtually everyone. It matters to those for whom it represents the center of the divinely-mandated ordering of Christ’s Church. It matters to those for whom the papacy represents a global focal point of Christian unity and witness. It matters to those for whom the pope is a defender of universal human rights with a global platform. It matters, if in a rather different way, to those Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, and North Korean totalitarians who fear the capacity of the Catholic Church to inspire liberation movements, as it has done during this pontificate in east central Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. And it matters to those who deplore the Catholic Church and its moral teaching as perhaps the last great institutional barrier to the triumph of a utilitarian ethic and the advance of what some genetics researchers unblushingly call the “immortality project.”1 Voltaire would be spinning in his grave at the thought of the papacy as a defender of the “rights of man;” and I rather doubt that Huxley imagined the papacy as a counterweight to the evolution of the brave new world. Yet precisely such hopes – and fears – may be found throughout the world today, in this twenty-seventh year of the pontificate of John Paul II. All conclaves are, by definition, “unprecedented.” But those hopes and fears will help make the conclave that elects John Paul’s successor an unprecedented one in a distinctive way.

A Complex Process. Several other factors will likely make the next conclave a complex and perhaps lengthy business, and it’s worth noting them briefly by way of completing the preliminaries.

As you all know, the next pope will be elected by the College of Cardinals, which has had the exclusive right to elect the Bishop of Rome since the twelfth century. The apostolic constitution governing the next conclave, which was issued by John Paul II in 1996, continues the practice, initiated by Pope Paul VI, of limiting cardinal-electors to those members of the College who have not reached their eightieth birthday on the day the Pope dies.2 Thus we can anticipate an electorate of between 110 and 120 cardinals – the largest in conclave history, an electorate twice the size of that which elected John XXIII in 1958, and one-quarter larger than that which elected John Paul II. But size is not the only distinguishing characteristic of this electorate and this conclave.

The cardinal-electors will be the most diverse such group in history. At present, they range in age from 52-year old Peter Erdt, the primate of Hungary, to 79-year old Alexandre do Nascimento, the archbishop emeritus of Luanda, Angola, once held hostage by rebel forces in his native country during his efforts to mediate Angola’s civil war. The average age of the electors today is 66. 11% of the electorate will come from North America; 19% from Latin America; 50% from Europe (but only 17% from Italy, the lowest percentage in modern conclave history); 10% from Africa; 11% from Asia and Oceania. The overwhelming majority of the electors, almost 80%, are local pastors, not figures in the Roman Curia; and several prominent Curial cardinals were successful local pastors before being called to Rome. 18% are members of religious orders, with the Franciscans boasting the largest number of cardinal-electors (four), while the Salesians and the Jesuits have three each; two cardinal-electors are affiliated with Opus Dei – a number that will doubtless disappoint true believers in the fevered speculations of The Da Vinci Code.

This unprecedented diversity will not only make the conclave more complex logistically; it will make it more complex linguistically. The cardinal-electors don’t share a common language (one after-effect of the decline of Latin in the Church) – and the results of that, for the pre-conclave discussion of issues and the conclave itself, remain to be seen. Then there is the fact that these men, brought together from all over the world, don’t really know each other; the last time most of them were in the same place at the same time was when John Paul II created new cardinals in October 2003, immediately after his own silver jubilee. And while there was some time for conversation during those celebrations, it would be a stretch to suggest that the cardinals, old and new, had then, or have had since, the opportunity to take each other’s measure. (This suggests, among other things, that the world media, and the images it creates of different personalities in the Church, may play a larger role in shaping the deliberations of this conclave than in the past.)

Moreover, the diversity of the cardinal-electors will be magnified in the pre-conclave discussions by the presence of some sixty-five cardinals who, having turned eighty, have lost their vote, but who will be very much part of the conversations about issues and the assessment of possible candidates in the two or three weeks that will pass between John Paul II’s death and the sealing of the conclave to elect his successor.

The cardinal-electors, even when “immured” in the conclave, will also be living far more comfortably than in the past. Previously, Curial offices in the Apostolic Palace were divided into ramshackle cubicles to house the cardinal-electors, most of whom were unaccustomed to sleeping on cots and using chamber pots. Now, thanks to the Domus Sanctae Marthae guest house inside the Vatican, built by John Paul II, the cardinal-electors will live in three-room suites in what amounts to a quite decent hotel with a more-than-adequate kitchen. According to a long-standing tradition, the actual election will take place in the Sistine Chapel; but unlike previous conclaves, the cardinal-electors will, if they like, be able to walk between the Domus Sanctae Marthae and the Sistine Chapel, and indeed in a substantial part of the Vatican grounds, should they choose to do so before or after the day’s electoral work is done. All of which is to say that, in very human terms, the pressures felt in previous conclaves to get the job done expeditiously will not be felt in the next conclave; call it the absence of the “chamber pot factor.”

Above and beyond these material considerations, the next conclave will, as I suggested at the outset, operate within a different structure of expectations than its predecessors. John Paul II’s retrieval and renewal of the evangelical and pastoral papacy – a papacy of preaching, teaching, witness, and encouragement – has changed the Church’s expectations of popes, and the world’s, too. These expectations are already creating a refined set of criteria for assessing possible candidates for the papacy. There is, for example, an emerging consensus among a significant number of cardinal-electors that one of the next pontificate’s principal tasks will be to concretize in the life of the Church the profound and challenging vision articulated by the pontificate of John Paul II: which is another way of saying that the next pope, in the minds of many electors, might well exercise a stronger administrative hand than his predecessor. At the same time, it is virtually inconceivable that the cardinal-electors, given this changed structure of expectations, will elect a man whose only, or even primary, qualification for the job is a reputation for making the trains run on time. The cardinals are well aware that personal holiness, intellectual depth, pastoral imagination, and communications skills are crucial in a 21st century pope – and will be measured quickly, by the world and the Church, in those first crucial moments when the new pope speaks urbi et orbi, “to the city and the world,” on the day of his election and at his inaugural Mass. It would perhaps be too much to expect that the next pope will announce himself in so riveting a way as John Paul II, the self-described man “from a far country” who boldly challenged the world to “be not afraid,” and to “open the doors to Christ.”3 But neither does anyone expect, or really want, the new pope to announce himself by laying out a detailed plan for the bureaucratic reform of the Church – important as certain such reforms may be.

To my mind, and measuring these things in purely human terms (as I have no pipeline to the Holy Spirit’s plans for the conclave), all of this adds up to a complex, possibly difficult, and probably lengthy conclave – one that I could imagine going on for three, four, even five days of voting. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution governing the next conclave permits the electors to move to a simple majority vote from the two-thirds majority requirement, after almost two weeks and some thirty-plus ballots. But I regard this as a very remote possibility indeed; for after five days, much less two weeks, the world media would begin reporting the story of a “Church in crisis,” and I cannot imagine the cardinal-electors wanting that story-line to set the stage for a man who is already going to have a next-to-impossible job – filling the exceedingly large shoes worn by John Paul II.

Could a consensus quickly form around a single candidate in the pre-conclave discussions, as it did in the first conclave of 1978, producing the one-day election of John Paul I? The only candidate in whose favor one might imagine such a scenario unfolding would be the most well-known (and, arguably, most well-respected) of the cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger. But Cardinal Ratzinger will be 78 in April, and, perhaps more to the point, he has critics within the College who may admire his personal sanctity and brilliance but who would not vote for him as pope. Whether those opponents could muster a blocking 41 votes is not something that can be pre-judged. It does seem likely, though, that the only “quick-conclave” scenario is one that produces a Ratzinger papacy.

Clarifying the Issues. But this is to proceed into territory – the terrain of personalities and candidacies – which I said at the outset that I would avoid. Not because such speculations aren’t interesting, but because they are, in the nature of the case, uninformed – even among informed observers. Moreover, and from the point of view of a papacy that “matters to all of us,” some of the most urgent questions will be addressed before the conclave, in the “general congregations” of cardinals that will begin meeting the day after the Pope’s death, and in those informal but important discussions known in Italian as the prattiche (which roughly translates as “exercises”). Here, “the issues” – or, as I put it above, “the work that John Paul II will leave the rest of us” – will be thrashed out. How those discussions evolve, and are resolved, will have a great deal to do with who becomes the 264th successor to St. Peter and the 265th Bishop of Rome. To borrow from Morris West’s famous image: the way in which the cardinals design and measure the shoes of the fisherman will have a lot to do with their choice of a man with the particular qualities needed to fit those particular shoes.

What, then, are the great issues facing the Catholic Church in the early 21st century? And how will the Church’s grappling with those issues affect “all of us?”

At the outset, it may help to clarify what the issues are not. Neither the next conclave nor the next pope is going to change the Catholic Church’s teaching on the morally appropriate way to regulate births, although the cardinals may well discuss how to present that teaching with greater pastoral effectiveness.4 Neither the next conclave nor the next pope is going to endorse abortion-on-demand or euthanasia; the inviolability of innocent life is a bedrock principle of both natural and revealed law, and the Church has no authority to declare the use of lethal violence against innocents morally justifiable.5 Similarly, while the pre-conclave prattiche and the conclave itself may involve some discussion of the effects of the revolution in women’s lives (and the concurrent revolution in men’s lives) on the Church and the world, the Church’s practice of calling only men to the ministerial priesthood is not going to change, because, as John Paul II stated eleven years ago, the Church is not authorized to change that practice.6 There will likely be some discussion of the advisability of ordaining viri probati, proven and tested older married men, to the ministerial priesthood in situations where the shortage of priests is drastically impeding the Church’s sacramental life – but the cardinals well know that this solution, if in fact it be that, will create some problems as well as address others, and we need not expect (nor, from my point of view, should we want) a full-scale retreat from the ancient linkage of celibacy and ordained ministry in the Catholic Church.7

Which is to say that virtually all of what the New York Times imagines are “the issues” for the Catholic Church aren’t, in fact, the issues, and aren’t going to play a significant role in shaping the next conclave and the next pontificate

So what are the issues?

Three large-scale issues are already under discussion within the College of Cardinals and among other senior churchmen, and will certainly weigh heavily in the conclaves’s deliberations, in the next pontificate, and in the Catholic Church’s interface with the 21st century world. The first of these is the virtual collapse of Christianity in its historic heartland – western Europe. The second great issue is the Church’s response to the multi-faceted challenge posed by the rise of militant Islam. And the third involves the questions posed by the biotech revolution. Questions of the Church’s intellectual discipline will also be discussed in the next conclave, and I hope to show in a moment why those questions, properly understood, are of considerable consequence for “all of us”. Then there is a question that may or may not come up in the prattiche, the general congregations, and the conclave deliberations of the cardinal-electors, but which, in my judgment, should be addressed: and that is the question of the Church’s diplomacy, or, to be more precise, the set of ideas that have guided the “foreign policy” of the Holy See for more than two generations now.

Let me address each of these briefly, without by any means exhausting each topic, but drawing out the implications embedded within each of these issues for “all of us.”

Europe. In last year’s Simon Lecture, I proposed a “culture-first” analysis of Europe’s current problems – and particularly the critical problem of European depopulation – and I traced the origins of these dilemmas to the triumph of what Henri de Lubac termed “atheistic humanism” in the high culture of 19th century Europe: an atheistic humanism that displaced the God of the Bible in the name of human liberation. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right, I suggested, when he argued that Europe’s disastrous 20th century had taken place because men had “forgotten God” and had imagined the possibility, indeed the imperative, of politics-without-God.8

The worst material effects of atheistic humanism were defeated in two world wars and the Cold War. But the residues of atheistic humanism – now expressed in the kinder, gentler phenomenon that Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “exclusive humanism” (i.e., a humanism committed to keeping all transcendent moral referents out of public life) – are much in evidence today. They were evident when the European constitutional treaty signed this past October willfully denied that fifteen hundred years of Christian history had anything to do with contemporary Europe’s commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. They were evident when Rocco Buttiglione, a man who would have been considered an adornment of any sane government between the days of Cato the Elder and, well, this past November, was denied an opportunity to serve as European Minister of Justice, not because of his public commitments and record, but because of his personal convictions (informed by both natural law and Catholic moral theology) about the morality of homosexual acts and the nature of marriage. They have been evident in the recent controversy in Britain over Ruth Kelly’s service as Education Secretary in the Blair Cabinet, during which, as the Times of London put it, “Some MPs fear that her religion may cloud her judgment:” her religion being a robust Catholicism and her judgment (which Ms. Kelly believes is informed, not clouded, by her Catholic faith) being on matters of embryo-destructive stem-cell research.9 They are evident when a leading British newspaper warns that Christian churches will forfeit what little moral leadership they now enjoy if they do not recognize that “tolerance” (by which the paper in question means the moral approbation of any sexual activity between any configuration of, and perhaps any number of, consenting adults) is more important than the Church maintaining the historic and biblical integrity of its teaching.10

Apostasy is not the only story-line of 19th and 20th century Europe; there is also a history of Christian renewal movements, tremendous Christian missionary energy, and Christian martyrdom to be conjured with in assessing Europe’s immediate past and immediate future. But, for the moment, the apostates – the exclusivist humanists who believe that only a Europe “neutral between worldviews” (as Jürgen Habermas and the late Jacques Derrida put it) is safe for democracy and human rights – have won. They have won in part because of the collapse of Europe’s Christian communities as effective transmitters of the faith and effective public advocates for religiously-informed moral reason.

No pope in history has been more of a pan-European than John Paul II; no pope in history invested more time, intellectual energy, and personal struggle in calling Europe back to the promises of its baptism. And while the seeds that John Paul has planted may flower in the future, especially among today’s young Catholics, the critical moment for Europe is likely to come in the next twenty or thirty years. Will a depopulating Europe, incapable of taking the hard political decisions that would prevent fiscal chaos and social catastrophe, and increasingly beset from within by an assertive Islamic minority that sees in 21st century Europe an opportunity to reverse the defeat of 1683, become, as Niall Ferguson, Bernard Lewis, and Bat Ye’or have warned, “Eurabia” – an extension of the culture and politics of the Arab Islamic world? What would it mean for the Christian world of the 21st century if its historic heartland were to go the way of the “seven churches” to which St. John wrote the Book of Revelation – if, in other words, European Christianity of the late 21st century looks very much like the Christianity of Asia Minor today?

“Eurabia” would pose enormous strategic and economic problems for the United States and the rest of the democratic world. But even absent such a draconian finish to the story, Europe’s current apostasy – which carries with it, not an indifference to biblical religion but an antipathy toward it – is already hurting the United States. As I indicated in last year’s lecture, the import into the United States of European legal ideas deeply shaped by exclusivist humanism is already making a mark in our federal courts, notably in Lawrence v. Texas. Today and tomorrow, then, Americans and indeed all free peoples have a stake in whether Europe’s current, sad decline can be reversed – and thus a stake in whether the only plausible candidate for leading such a reversal, namely, an evangelically revived and culturally formative Christian Church, in fact emerges in the next two generations. How that might happen is beyond the scope of this lecture; finding ways to make it happen is one of the great issues for the Catholic Church that John Paul II will leave behind. A capacity to jump-start the re-evangelization of Europe will be one of the qualities the cardinal-electors will seek in the next pope. Whether they find such a man will have a lot to do with the rest of 21st century history, for all of us.

Islam. If one looks at the Church in global terms, as the cardinal-electors must, one cannot help but notice a band of conflict that runs from the west coast of Africa eastward, ending in Southeast Asia at East Timor. “Band of conflict” is perhaps too mild a term, however, for the regions south and north of that globe-spanning dividing line are like two enormous tectonic plates, grating on each other – with the occasional, bloody upheavals that such geologic collisions sometimes produce. North of the dividing line are societies and cultures increasingly swayed by militant forms of Islam; south of that dividing line are Christian communities that, from Nigeria through Sudan to Pakistan and on into the Philippines and Indonesia, are often under assault from their Muslim neighbors, and/or governments that abet or turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism.

The Catholic Church’s religious and theological dialogue with the worlds-within-worlds of Islam was shaped in the mid-1960s, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, a time of buoyant (some might say, overly-buoyant) optimism in the Church and of relative calm in the Islamic world. The latter has now changed, dramatically, in no small part because of strains of Islam influenced by the Islamic Brotherhood, the Wahhabi sect, and other proponents of cultural aggression, civic intolerance, and, too often, violence in the name of the one God and his one Prophet. The conflicts engendered by these changes have been evident along the fault-line running from Senegal to East Timor for more than a decade; after 9/11 and the Bali, Istanbul, and Madrid bombings, it should now be clear that this conflict is global in scope. That suggests that the dialogue between Catholicism and the multifaceted Islamic world must also change, dramatically. Which is to say that the Catholic-Islamic dialogue in the immediate future must be framed, from the Catholic point of view, in frankly strategic terms, if it is not to degenerate into yet another exercise in political correctness, with unhappy consequences for both the Church and the world.

To put the case for strategy most simply: can the Catholic Church be of some modest assistance to those Islamic scholars, lawyers, and religious leaders who are working – often at great risk – to develop a genuinely Islamic case for religious toleration in something approximating what we in the West call “civil society”? If a world safe for diversity and pluralism requires a billion Muslims to become good Rawlsian secular liberals, then we really do face the grim prospect of a global “clash of civilizations.” Thus one crucial question for the Islamic future, from the vantage point of the Catholic Church (and, I dare suggest, for free societies throughout the world), is whether Islam can find within its sacred texts and legal traditions the internal resources to ground an Islamic case for important facets of the free and virtuous society, including religious toleration and a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics.

Some may wonder whether the Catholic Church has anything of particular interest to bring to this discussion. What it has to offer, I suggest, is its own recent history – for it took the Catholic Church until 1965 to develop and articulate a thoroughly Catholic concept of religious freedom and its implications for the organization of public life.11 Indeed, one can draw a rough (all right, very rough) analogy between pro-civil society Islamic scholars and religious leaders today and those Catholic intellectuals and bishops who were probing toward some sort of intellectual rapprochement with religious freedom and democracy as the ancien régime was crumbling in Europe throughout the nineteenth century. There may be lessons to be learned from this experience – which eventually led to a dramatic development of social doctrine in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom [Dignitatis Humanae] – that could and should be brought into the Catholic Church’s global dialogue with the multi-faceted worlds of Islam.

Because of its concern for imperiled Christian communities in Islamic-dominated lands, on the one hand, and a rather anodyne approach to interreligious dialogue, on the other, the Vatican has been reluctant to press its Islamic interlocutors to condemn terrorism forthrightly and publicly. But surely the cardinal-electors, well-aware of the threat that aggressive and militant forms of Islam pose to the world Church, will want to examine this reluctance carefully, and consider whether a more forthright approach to manifest aggression is not in order, not least because militant Islam seems to be most aggressive where it perceives weakness. Should the cardinals also agree that the next pontificate must fashion a new strategic approach to the Catholic Church’s relationship with its Islamic interlocutors, this would in turn require a change in the client-centered approach to this relationship that has, in recent decades, dominated the Islamic work of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The point, it would seem, is not to be in dialogue with everyone; the point is to be in dialogue with those Islamic partners best positioned to leverage needed change in their co-religionists’ self-understanding of Islam’s role in public life.

There are, of course, no guarantees that a new, strategic approach to the Catholic-Islamic dialogue will have the desired effects within the Islamic world, given the multiple other pressures at play. Nor am I suggesting that new forms of interreligious dialogue are, in and of themselves, “the answer” to the worldwide threat of militant Islam. They may well be part of the answer, however. Putting them into play is an urgent task for the Church and for the world, a task not only for the next pontificate but for those that follow it in this century, and perhaps beyond.

The Bio-Tech Revolution. Like not a few of us, many cardinal-electors have the sense that the world has, at best, a ten-to-twenty year window in which to build the legal and regulatory structures necessary to channel humanity’s new genetic knowledge, and its marriage to technology, in directions that will lead to healing and genuine human flourishing rather than to Huxley’s nightmare. The cardinal-electors will also be aware, as many of us are, that the dominant public moral vocabulary for wrestling with the issues posed by the biotech revolution is a popularized form of utilitarianism – a utilitarianism reinforced by misplaced notions of compassion, on the one hand, and by scientific hubris, on the other. Changing the grammar and vocabulary of the biotech revolution is thus an urgent issue for both the Church and the world in the next generation. How could the next pontificate address that issue?

Perhaps the greatest contribution the Catholic Church can make to this debate is to demonstrate how careful moral reasoning on the biotech issues, far from being an “imposition” of “sectarian” values on a pluralistic society, in fact contributes to a morally serious theory and practice of democracy. In the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II alerted the world to the dangers inherent in a purely instrumental or mechanical view of democratic governance.12 In the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, he suggested that a robust public moral culture, recognizing the moral truths inscribed in the human condition, is essential in defending such bedrock democratic principles as equality-before-the-law, as well as in managing passions and interests, fighting corruption, and maintaining democratic “inclusiveness.”13 In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Pope demonstrated how legalized regimes of abortion and euthanasia, by placing certain classes of human beings outside the protection of the law, threaten the very moral structure of the democratic project.14 Can the Church develop these insights into a public moral language capable of challenging the utilitarianism that dominates debate on the “culture of life” questions today?

To take one important example: Catholicism proposes a “dignitarian” view of the human person, and challenges certain biotechological procedures, including cloning, on the moral ground that they violate the innate “human dignity” of persons. What, precisely, is the content of that “human dignity?” What are its component parts? How is it violated by certain practices? What are the consequences for democracy of these violations? John Paul II has given us a supple, rigorous framework for reflection on these questions. It is imperative that the Church, in conversation with all those who recognize the dangers in a purely utilitarian approach to devising the human future, begin to fill in that framework in order to shift the terms of the public moral debate.

For more than two decades now, the Catholic Church throughout the world has argued that abortion is not a question of sexual morality but of public justice: a question of the fifth commandment, not the sixth (or, for those of you who count differently, the sixth commandment, not the seventh!). In the next pontificate, and with the biotechnology challenge compounding the challenge of the abortion license and euthanasia, the Church’s social doctrine must d

This article was originally published on Notre Dame Magazine

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