All posts by Ellen Romer Niemiec

Paris and Denying Refugees – How evil sneaks in

The attacks around Paris have left me with a significant heaviness in my heart that, to be quite honest, surprised me a bit. I was living in Boston at the time of the bombing at the Boston Marathon and have visceral memories both of the day of the Marathon and the day the city shut down to hunt down the suspects. I studied in Paris and spent part of my honeymoon there. Paris has significant gravity for me, always calling me back. It’s a strange reality to know two places that have been home for me have been violently attacked in a very personal way.

But Boston isn’t Paris. The brothers Tsarnaev are not ISIS. In many ways Paris frightens so many not just because ISIS is particularly terrifying but because – unlike places like Beirut or Kenya – Paris feels close to home. A Western developed country that feels ‘safe’ to so many. I would like to think that between my connections to Boston and Paris, I am not so naive as to the realities of evil in the world. Though as someone who is in many ways still distant and does not know the much starker reality of living under the threat of violence, I realize I still have much to learn about evil, but am not utterly separated from it myself.

Evil is a strong word and a very serious undertaking by any means. I do not hesitate in naming the attacks in Paris as acts of evil. I do not hesitate in naming ISIS as an agent of evil in the world. But these things are also the easy side to evil. It’s easy to name and fairly obvious that these heinous and horrifying events are just that. This is also where I worry that the other side of evil comes alive without us knowing, the sneaky and quietly malicious side of evil.

What happened in Paris calls us to grieve, to take the time to let the reality of what happened sink in and to process what it is to lose so many people in such a manner. But as disciples, we are always called to go beyond grieving in the wake of evil actions. There are many cries for justice rising into the air now – but if justice is to be more than vengeance, to truly seek right relationship, we would be remiss if we did not pause to reflect on how we – as Christians, as Catholics, as citizens of the United States and of the world – may perpetuate evil or be complicit in other acts of evil.

While we rightfully ought ask ‘How could they have done this?’, such a question rings hollow if we do not also inquire as to how we got to where we are in the first place. How we may have allowed the situation to progress to how it is. We also then must ask ourselves how we move forward and seek justice that is truly justice and not trumped up vengeance.

As days pass, it seems that evil is creeping its way in, whether through blaming all Muslims collectively for the actions of ISIS, or – the popular new move – blaming refugees.Despite the role of a French-born man in the attacks, having one possible refugee involved seems justification to refuse to accept refugees. Regardless of whether or not state governors have the power to refuse or accept refugees, the effort on the part of so many to keep refugees out betrays the sneaky way evil sneaks into our hearts and convinces us to act on its behalf. Refusing refugees means condemning these people to suffer the fate which we so fear ourselves that we are willing to justify their suffering in place of our own.  Evil manages to twist our logic so that we can feel confident in denying a safe haven to others to allegedly ensure our own.

It’s easy to claim courage when condemning the obvious evil of the acts of ISIS, an evil that has no easy or obvious solution and will continue to try our courage as a whole human race. The real courage comes when one is willing to examine how they might perpetuate evil on their own. Real courage comes to life when we are willing to say ‘we will take in those most in need, fleeing this evil we fear and abhor, even at the risk of suffering it ourselves.’ Denying refugees does not guarantee that we will not suffer the evils of ISIS. Accepting them means that we resist causing others to suffer from the evil that breeds within us and quell it instead.

Jesus did not call his disciples to seek self-preservation, but to give up one’s life for their friends. Jesus himself, with all of the Holy Family, sought refuge from persecution in a strange land. As we enter into Advent, may we remember that Jesus suffered for all, not just for some, and that ultimately we are called to do the same.

Holy Family, who were refugees in a foreign land, pray for us.

Jesus, light in a darkened world, pray for us.



Pope Francis & Congress: A listening heart and when not to boycott

Pope Francis has begun his first trip to the United States. I, for one, am extremely excited and intrigued to see what will transpire over the next few days and the ways in which Pope Francis will challenge everyone in their lives and in their faith. I will not be heading to any events as giant crowds are not my favorite and I am openly jealous of those with the opportunity to encounter Pope Francis in smaller settings. Knowing how special this trip is, I was surprised to hear that Catholic Rep. Paul Gossar (R-AZ) has decided to boycott Pope Francis’ address to Congress due to the apparent likelihood that Pope Francis will focus a great deal on climate change. I have read through his statement and am left confused by his choice.

Rep. Gossar says he has “a moral obligation and leadership responsibility to call out leaders, regardless of their titles, who ignore Christian persecution and fail to embrace opportunities to advocate for religious freedom and the sanctity of human life.” If one does read “Laudato Si,” they will find abortion is addressed there, as an issue for care of all of God’s creation (LS 120). Human life is sacred and also finite, limited and reliant upon an environment that supports it. Care for the world around us is vitally important in itself but human life cannot sustain in a world unable to support it.

Other Catholic politicians have openly criticized Pope Francis’ decision to focus on climate change in “Laudato Si,” including Rick Santorum stating that “the church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we are probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”  There is a presumption that theology and morality have no bearing on how one ought to approach an issue such as climate change. Is climate change a scientific matter? Absolutely. But, like many other aspects of science, climate change has a great effect on all of God’s people in the world – especially the most vulnerable. Climate change – whether or not one believes human behavior has contributed to it – will affect the poorest among us who do not have resources and means to navigate the effects of a changing environment. Humanity will have to respond to changing climate at some point in time and, as with any choices that must be made, determine the ethical implications of our choices and the impacts those choices will have.

Rep. Gossar says that his Jesuit education taught him to “think critically, to welcome debate and discussions.”  Debate, discussion and critical thinking are vital to navigating the application of theology and one’s personal faith to how one approaches the world and decisions in general. The world remains complex which does require cautious and intentional action but that complexity also requires human beings as disciples to keep an open heart and an open mind so that we may always be open to how God continues to reveal in the world. Boycotting Pope Francis’ address is an outright refusal to be open to what our Holy Father may share. And – as with anything he does – one can never be completely sure what Pope Francis will say or do. He may talk about climate change. He may tackle a completely different topic. He may very well call attention to the persecution of many peoples or to abortion in regards to current funding for Planned Parenthood. He says a lot of things I am happy to hear – and plenty of things that hold me accountable and make me uncomfortable. But then I can try to wrestle with why that it and what this discomfort may be calling me to.

Listening to someone we think is wrong is never easy and at times can be difficult to stomach. If as disciples we cannot keep an open heart, we are going to miss something. We never know what someone else is going to say or what it is we may hear. A dialogue can never happen if one side is missing. We can also never know how what we say will be received and if we are creating an experience of grace for another. If we aren’t even open to listening we have no idea what we may miss out on. Rep. Gossar is choosing to miss out on an incredible opportunity that few have simply because he is unwilling to listen. How can we let ourselves truly hear everything that is said, not only what we want to hear? How can we all keep listening hearts open not only for Pope Francis but for anyone we may encounter?

First Observations on Reformed Annulment Process


By Ellen Romer Niemiec

Pope Francis issued two motu proprios concerning reforms to the annulment process. While it is currently only available in Italian and Latin and we aren’t particular scholars of those particular languages here at Catholic How, I have read as many reports and translations as I can before a second cup of coffee (though I did like the bullet points in Crux’s coverage).  As with most reports and news about the Church, I would recommend you inform yourself as best you can. From everything I have managed to read, here are my initial observations:

  1. Greater empowerment of the local church and attention to our smaller community. Echoing the tone of Pope Francis’ extension of discretion to forgive women who’ve had abortions, the local church is brought into greater focus as bishops are given a stronger role in the lives of their people. It is a reminder that while much attention is paid to Rome and the leadership that resides there, the church is far more widespread and the life of the Church is lived everywhere.
  2.  Process reforms with real pastoral effect. Reading about ‘reform’ and ‘processes’ can absolutely feel a little bit cold, especially when the reforms include things like fewer judges. If you’ve known someone who has tried to navigate the annulment process, you know it’s never actually simple. Taking money out of the equation removes a barrier and takes away the feeling of the Church as a business. Allowing appeals to be judged locally means that someone doesn’t have to feel that a major decision affecting their life isn’t being made by some person far away. A simplified process still respects and values the sacramentality of marriage but also respects the real lives of those experiencing the breakdown of a relationship and the challenges of civil divorce that all have to come even before the annulment process begins..
  3. Annulments are simplified – now what? These reforms will (hopefully) have a real impact on the lives of people trying to navigate what life looks like after marriage. Concrete adjustments such as these will have a pastoral effect, but what other pastoral care is offered to couples and families throughout this process? If focus is turned toward the local church, how can our local communities better support their members, not only through annulments, but through marriage prep, marriage counseling, divorce, etc? If the family is its own local domestic church, how are we tending to them when they experience difficult and sometimes traumatic change?

On Motherhood and Loving Unconditionally

By Ellen Romer

Today is my least favorite day of the year to go to Mass. And yes, it’s because it is Mother’s Day.

I am not a fan of sitting in a pew dreading a homily that quite often focuses on a very gendered view of mothers. I particularly cringe as the pressure is put on to be like Mary, the only woman who ever managed to be a mother and a virgin. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe I will manage to achieve that myself.To be clear, I think Mary is pretty fantastic. I just always sit there as I hear “Hail Mary, Gentle Woman” and think to myself that someone ought write a song titled, “Hail Mary, She Who Was Tough as Nails.”

Continue reading On Motherhood and Loving Unconditionally

Feminist Catholic and 50 Shades: A Review

By Ellen Romer


I read 50 Shades of Grey right after my first year of grad school. I felt intellectually exhausted and wanted something lazy to read as I headed into summer. I tore through the three books in maybe a week. It was garbage. Delightfully vapid garbage. I will state here that they are poorly written books and leave it at that. However, this isn’t the first smutty romance novel to be written (terribly). But the amount of attention it has garnered, especially since it has been made into a film, creates a huge audience absorbing the themes. Dakota Johnson, who starred in the film, even hosted Saturday Night Live this past weekend with a plethora of awkward sexual jokes. With so much attention, these themes require a response. I have seen a lot of feminist critiques and a lot of Catholic ones, so here are just a couple of my (hopefully) integrated responses as both a Catholic and a feminist.

CONSENT CONSENT CONSENT Three times in bold ought to do it, right? It cannot be stated enough that consent is important – and intricate. This is where traditionalists and stronger liberals seem to agree – that consent issues undermine human dignity. Consent plays a strong and important role in any relationship and forms the basis for how real mutuality acts in a relationship. There are many shades of consent – not because sometimes it isn’t clear but because it is an ongoing part of a relationship. There is never just a one time yes to anything. The pressure put on Ana in the books from Christian from his badgering and his gifts and his back and forth with his own emotional struggles manipulates her consent. Neither of these characters exercises the patience and honesty to respect their own limitations let alone the limitations of the other. This is where lust becomes a problem – when it overrides the emotional and spiritual needs of the people in the relationship. Consent is always an ongoing conversation, whether it’s deciding what to watch on television or expressing concern mid-coitus. Limiting consent to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ignores the complexity of human relationships and the stages in which persons grow in relationship. Putting pressure on another’s person’s consent makes it about that person and what they want without much consideration of the other.

Continue reading Feminist Catholic and 50 Shades: A Review

More than PreCana – Part I, Building a Holy Family

By Ellen Romer and Brian Niemiec


Ever since the Feast of the Holy Family we have been struggling with the question of what it means to be a holy family.  Talk about big shoes to fill, can you imagine what an argument at the dinner table looked like between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus?

“Mom can I go out and play with my friends?”

“Now Jesus, you haven’t eaten your pomegranate yet.”

“But Mom, I’m full!”

“Alright well go ask your Father.”

“Mom, he never answers the way I want him to.”

“I answer you all the time son.”

“Not you Joseph, whenever I talk to my Dad all I get is Doves from Heaven. Like that’s a real help!”

Ok, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, but when the Son of God and the human born without Original Sin are both in the same family, it can get intimidating. What can we learn from that family as we move ever closer to the day when we (Brian and Ellen) become a family of our own? (Disclaimer – Brian wrote the cheesy story. Not Ellen)

Well, let’s start with the two of us. We are incredibly lucky that we are coming from some pretty holy families to begin with. We have examples of great love and sacrifice, wonderful marriages and just very different families to remind us that families aren’t all the same and ours will be like no one else’s. from our own experiences we have picked up some useful tips from our families that will help us form our own.

Continue reading More than PreCana – Part I, Building a Holy Family

Why Cardinal Burke’s Interview Breaks My Heart


By Ellen Romer

It has been a few weeks since Cardinal Burke’s interview with the New Emangelization began to cause quite a stir. A number of fantastic folks have already written pieces that name a lot of my frustrations with what was said. A lot of anger has subsided and some still remains with me, but I realized that what was said ultimately makes me quite sad.

Though I have a variety of objections to what was said in the interview, I have been struck by the dangerous and problematic reliance on a strict gender binary. Assuming that there are two genders that are exclusive and completely inflexible would certainly produce the sort of response that Cardinal Burke gives and that spurs a project like the New Emangelization to begin with. But responses to the interview itself make it quite clear that people do not think and react according to their gender. While I know many women who were infuriated by the interview, there are many other women who saw no problems with it. Cardinal Burke writes about men as one group of people that have one particular experience, though many men I know do not identify with such an alienating experience of the Church.

Now, there is something to be said about how being a man or a woman or even someone born intersex affects how we live and understand ourselves as individuals and as part of communities, but it is not the only determinant of who we are. But committing to only two visions of how a person can be, either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine,’ ignores the incredibly possibility and wonder that comes with the diversity of creation that God has given us.  While it seems an obvious statement to make, it is absolutely remarkable and astounding that there have been so many people throughout all of time and that God has made no two the same. God never seems to run out of new and creative ideas when forming each of us lovingly. Believing that all men are the same and all women are the same leaves out the wonderful variance that such great diversity in humanity brings to the Church. It also is contrary to the image of the Body of Christ. We are many parts, not simply many people fit into two categories and therefore two sets of gifts. We are cheating ourselves out of amazing people and amazing possibilities when we see and value one another primarily by their gender. Continue reading Why Cardinal Burke’s Interview Breaks My Heart

O Key of David – Open the Door! Let Me In!


By Ellen Romer

I have a lot of keys. My apartment requires four, between front and back doors, mailbox and deadbolt. Keys to my office, the larger office I am in, the building I work in. Keys can be quite helpful. I locked myself out of my apartment by leaving my keys at my friend’s house. That was annoying. I needed them so that I could get in.

Losing keys sometimes isn’t just annoying, but it can make you feel unsafe. Keys keep others out. They give permission for some to enter and for others to be locked out. Whoever holds the keys decides who is let in. And in letting others in, we make ourselves vulnerable. Being vulnerable and open is scary. So often we just keep our doors locked so that we can be safe and untouched.

So Jesus, the Key of David, How much does God want to let us in? God wanted to let us in so much that God decided to be just like us. God wanted to be so vulnerable that coming as a baby was the way to go. A tiny little baby that needs someone else and has to let others in because that’s the only way to survive. Jesus, our God-with-us, shows us that when we have the power to keep every one out, the best thing to do is open ourselves and let everyone in to see us in our weakest, neediest, most vulnerable state.

Continue reading O Key of David – Open the Door! Let Me In!

Borrowing a pencil, or being a neighbor? A Kids Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time


By Ellen Romer

*For my preaching course, the assignment was to preach the week’s readings as if we were at a family Mass and/or talking to young people. This is what I came up with.

I hate borrowing things from people. I really do. It makes me feel so weird inside. When I was growing up I was always the kid who forget their pencil. Or their homework (even though I had done it!). Or their lunch money. I even forgot to brush my hair a lot. Were you that kid in school, like me? Or were you like some of my friends, who always had their hair neatly pulled back into a ponytail with the ribbon, who had very neatly organized pencil box? I found pencil boxes to be a bit of a waste for me, because everything ended up in the bottom of my bag or under my bed or somewhere and then I had no pencil. I didn’t mean to be careless I just am not the person who remember pencils. Even now, I have to keep a secret stash of pens in my desk at work. Being the forgetful one, it was always the worst to have to ask for a pencil. Or to go get something out of my locker. Or to scour in the bottom of my bag for loose change so I could get some lunch. Continue reading Borrowing a pencil, or being a neighbor? A Kids Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time