Fr. Richard McBrien

In Memoriam

Richard McBrien — priest, theologian, mentor — passed from this life on 25 January 2015. Archbishop Leonard P. Blair will preside at his funeral liturgy on Friday 30 January.

“The theologian’s job,” McBrien said, “is one of critically reflecting on that tradition or raising questions about it, even challenging it, and that’s how doctrines evolve and move forward.”

When asked about the greatest need in theology today, Father McBrien replied:

“I think our greatest need is for well-informed, generous moderation. We live in a culture that is increasingly polarized: in politics, in public discourse, in social institutions, even in the church. The “culture wars” continue to grow more intense, and to paralyze us. To my mind, we especially need Catholic thinkers who are deeply conscious of the roots of Catholic teaching and practice in the Scriptures and in the great classical writers of our tradition, and who are confident enough of what the church has thought and thinks to be able to know what forms of further development are possible. A thoughtful and sympathetic understanding of tradition—as the theologians of the “ressourcement” showed us in the 1930s and 1940s—frees us to imagine what the church can best be today and tomorrow.”

The process continues; and the challenge and the task are passed on to a new generation….


Adult Maturity or Stunted Faith Development?

For many years now I have been interested in the thinking of James W. Fowler (born 1940). His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and that of those around me; and he has greatly influenced my own approaches to catechetics, religious education, faith formation, and continuing education.

Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University in Atlanta, he was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.

Fowler is perhaps best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he outlined his understanding of the developmental process in “human faith.”

Reflecting on religious fundamentalism today, polarization in a variety of religious institutions (not just the Catholic Church), and my own real-life experiences of what I would call healthy and unhealthy religion, I still find Fowler’s analysis helpful and challenging. In the end it is about growth and maturity….or stunted development and locked-in immaturity.

Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg. He defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions about how one is related to others, the world, and the divine.

Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith: From birth until about age 2, people are greatly shaped by their experiences of a safe or unsafe environment. One develops either a sense of trust and safety or distrust about the universe and the divine. How important early childhood environment!

Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Religion is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people?

Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith: At this stage, elementary-school-aged children develop an anthropomorphic sense of the divine. Metaphors and symbolic language are often taken literally.

Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith: From about age 12 to adulthood. This stage is characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage. One fears inconsistencies and what challenges authority. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements.

Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith: From the mid 20s to mid 30s. This is a stage of angst and struggle as one begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs. One begins to see that issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. This stage is Important turning point as one either accepts ambiguity and the need to explore or one simply shuts the door to faith challenges. Is this why some young people become missionaries and care-givers in difficult situations, while others become terrorists and suicide bombers?

Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith: This is the time of the mid-life crisis. People in this stage acknowledge the paradoxes found in human life and can begin to resolve conflicts about reality through a complex understanding that human life is grounded in a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained in any particular institution. Everyone is a truth-seeker.

Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith: Some call this “enlightenment.” The individual realizes that all people — regardless of their sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, or culture – must be treated with compassion, guided by universal principles of love and justice. I think Jesus of Nazareth arrived at this stage when he was close to 30……..And he hoped his followers would arrive there as well. Some did of course……and some still do.

Closing reflection. In all segments of the community of faith – members, teachers and leaders in the church – we need to ask: How are we alert to and ministering to babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults? In not just what we say, but in what we do, are we stimulating and promoting healthy human development and growth in authentic faith? Or…..are we, by actions or inaction, contributing to interpersonal environments that stunt human growth and faith development, and distort individual and group religious understanding?


More Episcopal Polarization: A Sign of the Times?

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday (January 16, 2015) agreed to decide whether all 50 states must allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The court’s announcement made it likely that it would resolve one of today’s great civil rights questions before its current term ends in June.

If indeed same-sex marriage becomes legal across the United States, what will be the reaction of our U.S. Catholic bishops? My guess would be even more of a stormy and polarizing polemic, if recent developments in Miami are any indication.

Same-sex marriage became legal in the State of Florida on January 6, 2015. Immediately, Thomas Wenski, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Miami, went into action and sent a memo to all church employees reiterating that any expressions of support for gay marriage — even if only a tweet or a Facebook post — could cost them their jobs.

Archbishop Wenski is convinced that those in favor of same-sex marriage are doing so “solely for adult gratification” and has said that same-sex marriages “will lead to polygamy.” How that works, I don’t understand. In any event, he has no tolerance for people advocating an expanded understanding of marriage.

“Whatever the role in which you serve within the Archdiocese, you publicly represent the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese in everything you do and say,” Wenski wrote to church employees and included an excerpt from the Archdiocese of Miami employee handbook, stating that all archdiocesan workers “are expected to conduct themselves in a moral and ethical manner consistent with Catholic principles.”

The handbook goes on to state that conduct inconsistent with Catholic teachings could lead to an employee’s being fired, “even if it occurs outside the normal working day and outside the strict confines of work performed by the employee for the Archdiocese…..Employees should exercise discretion when posting on social media sites, and note that online activity indicative of prohibitive behaviors may subject an employee to disciplinary action or termination.”

Archbishop Wenski chairs the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. Is there some irony here? Justice? Human development?

Across the Atlantic in Belgium, Johan Bonny, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, sees life differently.

The official teaching that the Catholic Church can only recognize male-female committed relationships has to change, Bishop Bonny said in 2014 a few days after Christmas. “There should be recognition of a diversity of forms,” he said. “We have to look inside the church for a formal recognition of the kind of interpersonal relationship that is also present in many gay couples. Just as there are a variety of legal frameworks for partners in civil society, one must arrive at a diversity of forms in the church….The intrinsic values are more important to me than the institutional question. The Christian ethic is based on lasting relationships where exclusivity, loyalty, and care are central to each other.”

Bonny made headlines in September 2014 when he issued a letter to the Vatican in preparation for the Synod on the Family in October. At that time, Bonny stressed that the church urgently needs to connect with contemporary society, showing more respect for homosexuality, divorced people, and modern kinds of relationships.

“In his or her life,” the Belgian bishop said “everyone has to deal with relationships, friendship, family, and children’s education. We should not deny that dealing with these issues within the church has brought injuries and traumas. Too many people were excluded for a long time.” Bonny said the open-minded spirit and pastoral focus of Pope Francis have given him the courage to speak out about issues that are important and pressing for today’s believers.

The Catholic bishops of Germany, according to various news reports, will soon approve a change in policy that will allow people in same-sex marriages and people divorced and remarried to still work for church agencies. Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau said that the German bishops would change their existing policy to preserve the “credibility” of the Church. The German bishops had scheduled a vote on the policy for their November 2014 meeting, and reportedly were prepared to endorse the change; but the vote has been postponed until April 2015.

Polarization. It won’t disappear tomorrow. Some of it is quite serious. Some of it is courageously prophetic. Some of it is silly but nonetheless frightening…..Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly of St Louis, Missouri, warned a few days ago about the feminization of the church. He blames altar girls for a shortage of vocations to the priesthood; and he blames women for clerical sexual abuse. How that works I don’t understand either.

Cardinal Burke has launched a program called “the new eMANgelization” of the church (my emphasis…). Burke wants to put more (more?) men in charge and get women out of the sanctuary. “Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women…” Burke said, and continued “…the activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.” I call this cardinatial gynophobia. It is a serious disease.

One thing for sure: the Catholic Church will not be dull in the coming months.


Religious Fundamentalism

The events in France this past week have led me to share once again some reflections about religious fundamentalism, especially when it becomes radical fanaticism. Religious fundamentalism — whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or any religion — is a problem that will not be solved this week or next. If we are going to live on this planet together, however, it has to be solved and it can be solved.

Reflections about Religious Fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalism is fundamentally flawed because it takes one element of the truth and proclaims it as the WHOLE TRUTH.

Fundamentalists pick and choose from their scriptures, using certain texts to justify their narrow vision and actions. Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on their own perceived doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they sacrifice those values basic to the world’s great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring.

In their overwhelming seriousness about their exaggerated religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social process to ensure that society is forced to conform to the values and behaviors their basically static worldview requires. For fundamentalists cultural change is the great threat to their identity.

Fundamentalists are their own justification.

Fundamentalism appeals for a variety of reasons.

For people who feel unimportant or insignificant, fundamentalism says you are important because you are God’s “special messenger.”

For people who feel dislocated in a “foreign” culture and who see their identity threatened, fundamentalism says the foreign culture is their enemy and God’s enemy.

For people who are fearful, fundamentalist leaders say: “you can’t be saved without us…join and be saved.”

For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine nor even be educated in it. Just agree and obey.

Fundamentalism makes the fundamentalist feel good about himself or herself. It is self-stroking.

Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another, because it believes that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist’s worldview.

For people burdened and hopeless about their socio-economic status, fundamentalism says: “It is not your fault but the fault of the ‘foreign’ world out there. ‘They’ are the oppressors.”

Fundamentalism appeals to people burdened by guilt and shame because it exempts them from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame. Fundamentalism says…if you are one of us, you are OK.

Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination; and it justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance and hatefulness.

What should we do about fundamentalism?

The best way to confront ignorance is not through indoctrination but through real education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills. Real education stresses the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Fundamentalists work in opposite fashion.

In all religious traditions we need to stress the importance — the absolute necessity — of an historical critical understanding of all sacred scriptures and religious teachings. And we need to help people understand that change is a fact of life…whether secular or religious.

In the Muslim world, an historical critical understand of the Quran — across the board — is essential for the survival of a healthy Islam and essential for our survival as well. Here, particularly, non-fundamentalist Muslims bear a heavy responsibility.

We need to establish channels for dialogue and institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.

In our parishes and community centres, we need to establish inter-religious study sessions, discussion groups, and shared prayer. We need to combat the kind of religious arrogance that makes one religious tradition “true,” and the others “false.”

In our world with its great migration of peoples we need to study what cultural identity means today and the process of cultural assimilation and change. The great migration of people’s is not going to stop.

We in the West need to practice a genuine humility that enables us to really see the rest of the world and the rest of the world’s socio-economic needs.

We need to translate our vision-gained-from-humility into concrete and achievable socio-economic actions and strategies.

None of this will come easily……..Right now people in France are huddled in grief and fear. My thoughts and heartfelt sympathy go out to them……..A big challenge stands before us; but it is a challenge none of us can sidestep.


A Catholic Agenda for 2015…………

I am an ecumenically-minded fellow, but this first reflection for the New Year (which I originally thought I would post on Epiphany) is directed to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters….


Reviewing the past year and looking forward to 2015, I see seven key action projects for contemporary Catholics:

(1) Keeping the pope in perspective: Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, appears to be a genuine and friendly fellow, and an outspoken leader with some keen pastoral sensitivities. Let’s not however make the old mistake of making the pope – superstar or not — the center of our Faith. Our inspiration, and the foundation for our Faith, is Jesus of Nazareth not the Bishop of Rome. Papal superstars come and go. Christian life, witness, and ministry, however, are the responsibility of all in the church.

(2) Change is a fact of life: We live in a time of gigantic global migrations and cultural shifts. Some speak fearfully about a clash of civilizations. Cultural change, questioning, and temporary cultural estrangement are unavoidable. Let’s not see this as terrible and frightening but challenging and hopeful. The ways in which we understand both God and the church move in dialogue with ongoing changes in human culture, our changing knowledge, and our expanding consciousness. In any event — no matter how hard the fundamentalists try to convince people otherwise — there really is no turning back. We are all on a new journey…..and we are all travellers and explorers.

(3) Sexism is sin: Rush Limbaugh, known for his somewhat comic and always conservative proclamations, has warned of those who are working today to “chickify” contemporary society. What he means is that radical feminists are taking control of society and the media and subverting and subjugating men. I don’t think so. Sexism in civil society and in the church remains as strong as ever. It is unjust and inhumane and of course unchristian. We don’t need a “theology of women.” We need a theology, an attitude, and a language that are all inclusive. You and I must make it happen.

(4) Ignorance is not bliss: In our church, and especially in our ordained leadership, there is great historical and biblical ignorance. Together let us seek good and correct information. Let’s insist on theological updating and continuing education for our bishops and educators. Let us think critically and ask the critical questions. And……may we do this without demeaning the other; but never flinching either from challenging those who make ignorant and sometimes stupid church pronouncements. No one has all the truth. Together we must all be truth-seekers.

(5) Human sexuality: Perhaps it comes, in part, from a centuries-old tradition of having ordained ministers who are officially celibate. Nevertheless, the official Roman Catholic understanding and official Roman Catholic teaching about human sexuality – in it’s great variety of forms and expressions – is terribly medieval. Change here will come slowly; but it will not come at all, unless we all challenge ignorance and protest the institutional sin and hypocrisy that allow sexual ignorance and discrimination as well as sexual abuse to continue unchallenged.

(6) Prophetic church movements: Around the world there are a great number of prophetic church movements, many inspired and animated by prophetic ordained women. They deserve our recognition and support. They not only belong to the Church of Christ but may indeed be its best hope for the future.

(7) God-seekers:
Most importantly, ever mindful of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, let us be God-seekers: explorers of the Divine and creative interpreters of the Divine who in words, symbols, and songs can speak about God’s presence in human life. The number of God-seekers is growing among those who are “spiritual but not religious.” Their journey is our journey as well.

We have some exciting projects ahead of us……..


The Way of Jesus: Beyond Benevolence

As we prepare to officially and ritually commemorate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, I offer a brief reflection. I will return after Epiphany with some longer reflections about contemporary faith and life…..

Last week, at my local train station, a very down-and-out looking fellow with a worn-out looking old dog was begging for money: sitting on the floor holding a tin cup. I had just bought a magazine for my wife and had the change, a bunch of coins, in my pocket.

As I passed the fellow, I quickly dropped the coins in his cup. He muttered something but I didn’t understand what he said. Behind me an older lady did the same as I: dropped a few coins in the tin cup.

Rushing to catch the train we both ended up standing next to each other on the platform. “I always give them something at Christmastime,” she said. “Yes,” I replied with a chuckle, “Do unto others…” Then we both boarded the train and continued on our separate journeys.

Sitting in the train, as it moved across the city and into the countryside, I started reflecting about Jesus; and about how easy it was for me to drop coins into the beggar’s tin cup. I didn’t even have to look into his eyes.

In the Gospels the devotion of Jesus to the men and women around him was something much more than mere benevolence: more than simply wishing them well or being eager to do things for them. Much more than simply dropping coins into their tin cups.

Jesus’ devotion was an expression of sympathetic identity with people: in their troubles and sufferings, as well as in their joys. Their life became his life.

To say that Jesus was also Son of God, means that God indeed is one with us in our daily life, with its joys and sorrows and its certitudes and uncertainties. Divine love is not essentially benevolence. It is a sympathetic sharing in life. Emmanuel – God-with-us.

If I truly believe that God walks and lives with me – as well as with the beggar at the train station – I need to move beyond kindly dropping coins into tin cups……And that is not so easy.

Dear Friends
My very best wishes for Christmas
And may the new year 2015 be full of life and grace for all of us



An old saying, attributed to Socrates, says: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” One of my old Louvain professors stressed in his classes long ago: “An essential element of belief is asking the right questions.”

Asking-questions brings us to greater self-knowledge, to a more realistic life-understanding, and lays the foundations for personal conscience-formation and a greater sense of personal responsibility.

All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” By asking these kinds of basic questions they were able to start the processes that lead to tremendous breakthroughs in human and scientific understanding.

Jesus of Nazareth asked: “Who do people say that I am?”

Some people of course are afraid to ask questions or believe it is wrong to ask questions. Fundamentalists – whether religious or political – are the big anti-question people. When confrontation with other people and other cultures challenges their own identity, they become anxious and fearful. Asking questions further threatens their identity and opens doors to change. Fundamentalists, anchored in an old ethos, don’t like change.

Authoritarian leaders – whether religious or political – don’t like people who question and therefore start to challenge their authoritarian leadership. Authoritarian leaders demand that men and women keep quiet and become their subservient and blindly-obedient followers. They insist that some questions can neither be asked nor discussed. Pure nonsense of course.

One of the greatest developments in the Catholic Church over the past fifty years has been the shift in attitude and practice, among Catholic laypeople and many ordained ministers, from a compliance-oriented approach (that accentuated the authority of the hierarchy) and a conscience-oriented approach that emphasizes Catholics’ need to question, think, and follow their own consciences. (Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI worked hard to re-impose the compliance approach; but, fortunately, most Catholics have rejected that. Others, unfortunately, have given up on a meaningful church and simply walked out the door. Catholic fundamentalists, like Cardinal Raymond Burke, on the other hand, are now even upset by Pope Francis and continue their angry noise-making.)

On this second Sunday of Advent, it is time to plan ahead and make one good New Year’s resolution: To ask more questions about Catholic belief and practice, to support those who question; and to explore together, in respectful and earnest dialogue, the complete range of answers……and no doubt further questions. We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived.

There are a lot of areas where we should be asking questions. Some questions are more easily answered. Others demand deeper reflection and a sharing of experiences.

Historical and biblical scholars tell us, for example, that the historic Jesus did not ordain anyone; and that Jesus chose men AND women to be his closest disciples. Why then do church authorities still insist that women cannot be priests because “Jesus called only men to the priesthood” ? Why, for instance, do some church leaders continue to protect or downplay punishment for sexually abusive priests and bishops? Why do so many of our bishops – when all sociological studies indicate that a high percentage of our bishops and priests are gay – do they still insist that homosexuality is an intrinsic aberration? Why is it ok for Catholic schools and parishes to employ gay people for many years but immediately fire them, when they announce they are getting married? The social teaching of the church? Professional ethics? A threat and a challenge to the sexual identity of closeted church leaders?

The bigger questions, however, are rarely being asked these days. Far too often, when they are proposed by theologians, church authority condemns, sanctions, and tries to shut up the questioners. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been effectively gagging people, since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

The bigger questions touch on a contemporary understanding of Jesus Christ and a contemporary understanding and experience of God. To me these are the really Big Questions that contemporary believers are struggling with……especially the growing number of people who are “ spiritual but not religious.” Institutional churches will have to answer these questions or close-up shop. It is difficult to be a genuine follower of Jesus without confronting these kinds of searching questions.

These are also the questions being asked by my young university students. One young fellow – not a seminarian but a well-informed student in my MA course – asked me some weeks ago, “Which is the more real ‘Real Presence’ of Christ? In that little communion wafer kept in the tabernacle or in the people sitting next to me in church? His girl friend had a more practical question about the Mother of Jesus. “Why is it,” she asked “that when more and more biblical scholars see the virginal conception of Jesus more as a theological symbol than a biological fact…..and the New Testament clearly speaks about Jesus’ brothers and sisters…..why is it that the church still insists that Mary was always a virgin?”

Questions about God are my big questions these days: Who or what is God for us today? What images of God are really meaningful today? What does it mean to experience God today? Last year I asked a bishop friend about his experience of God. After a long day of meetings, we were having a drink and a very serious conversation. At one point I asked him, “when was the last time you really experienced God’s presence in your life?” At first he didn’t want to answer, but I insisted and pushed him in a friendly way. Then, with a bit of sadness in his eyes, he rather softly said, “The last time I experienced God was when I was fifteen years old and thinking about becoming a priest.” He paused then continued, “Since then I have been operating on automatic pilot……saying and doing what people expect bishops to say and do.” (I later sent him a copy Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God.)

So…..let the questions come. Let us be and be with the questioners! We are all followers of Jesus and God seekers!


This week I am off to Moscow to deliver the keynote lecture for an international conference on fundamentalism and contemporary religious movements in Eastern Europe. And I have a lot of questions racing through my head……..


Happy Thanksgiving

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.


A Bishop with an Orientation Problem

In his November 21, 2014 diocesan newspaper column, titled “Looking to the East,” James D. Conley, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska explained his orientation concerns.

Appointed Bishop of Lincoln by Pope Benedict in 2012, he is very in sync with the old-times-theology of his predecessor Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz as well as that of his mentor Archbishop Charles Chaput from Philadelphia.

Bishop James will go public, this Advent, with his orientation problem and explained it this way:

Since ancient times, Christians have faced the east during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to remember to keep watch for Christ. Together, the priest and the people faced the east, waiting and watching for Christ. Even in churches that did not face the east, the priest and people stood together in the Mass, gazing at Christ on the crucifix, on the altar, and in the tabernacle, to recall the importance of watching for his return.

The symbolism of the priest and people facing ad orientem—to the east—is an ancient reminder of the coming of Christ.

More recently, it has become common for the priest and the people to face one another during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The priest stands behind the altar as he consecrates the Eucharist, facing the people. The people see the face of the priest as he prays, and he sees their faces….

But the symbolism of facing together, and awaiting Christ, is rich, time-honored and important. Especially during Advent, as we await the coming of the Lord, facing the east together—even symbolically facing Christ together at the altar and on the crucifix—is a powerful witness to Christ’s imminent return….

During the Sundays of Advent, the priests in the Cathedral of the Risen Christ will celebrate the Mass ad orientem. With the People of God, the priest will stand facing the altar, and facing the crucifix.

When I celebrate midnight Mass on Christmas, I will celebrate ad orientem as well. This may take place in other parishes across the Diocese of Lincoln as well.

In the ad orientem posture at Mass, the priest will not be facing away from the people. He will be with them—among them, and leading them—facing Christ, and waiting for his return.

Very interesting. Eucharist reverts once again to being the priest’s action; and the people are reduced to pious spectators of the priest’s derrière….

And so, according to the Bishop of Lincoln, it is better for the Eucharistic presider to gaze upon a lifeless crucifix rather than look into the faces of very alive men and women out there in church.

Etiquette in almost every cultural tradition says one does not turn his or her back on people….More surprising for a bishop, it seems to me, is an apparent dismissal of the broad-based significance of the Incarnation and the presence of Christ in the community of faith.

In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus says: “Where two or three are gathered, there I am…” When one looks into the faces of the women and men gathered for liturgy, an ordained minister is looking into the face of the living Christ. Even the almost-forgotten (and not yet canonized) Pope Pius XII understood this when he wrote his encyclical about the “Mystical Body of Christ.”

Perhaps the bishop from Lincoln has a problem with eye contact? Looking at people eye-to-eye does have certain ramifications….

People who face other people eye-to-eye generally value warm and personable friendships. They are seen as leaders who are personally engaged with people; and they are perceived as trustworthy, honest, and sincere.

As I review biblical imagery, it is clear to me, at least, that turning one’s back on other people is a dangerous sign. It often indicates deception in human relationships and goes hand in hand with turning one’s back on God.

But…on the other hand, I am not from Lincoln, where life may be different.


A Casual Attitude Towards Catholic Teaching….

According to a Catholic News Agency report published this week, young American Catholics are “exhibiting an alarmingly casual attitude towards accepting church teaching.”

So is this a failure by young Catholics to understand church doctrine or a failure by church doctrinaires to understand young Catholics?

What puzzles the bishops is that young American Catholics “feel completely Catholic even while disagreeing with the church,” according to Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami. At the most recent meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops in Baltimore, he summarised the responses given by young people to a survey conducted on behalf of the U.S. bishops.

For more than three years, a USCCB research group conducted a study about finding more effective ways to communicate Catholic belief. Researching a variety of segments of the U.S. Catholic population, they examined motivations, challenges, and expectations facing people in the U.S. Church. Young adult Catholics – those still in the church — stood out for their insistence on being part of the church while exhibiting a “causal disregard” for parts of Catholic teaching. If any Church teachings conflict with their own perceptions, Archbishop Wenski said, young people simply “tune out” the teachings. “They agree to disagree with the church.”

Furthermore, the archbishop observed, young Catholics are sensitive to language that could imply judgment. “For them, language like ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ means ‘hate the sinner.’”

Perhaps many bishops didn’t get the message; but shifting attitudes among young Catholics were pointed out by the Pew Research Center last year. Fully 85% of self-identified Catholics ages 18-29, for example, said in a 2014 Pew study that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with just 13% who said it should be discouraged. Older age groups were less likely to favor acceptance; but even among Catholics ages 65 and older, 57% said that homosexuality should be accepted.

One of my bishop acquaintances observed that our bishops need to teach more effectively. He would like to revamp parish and school catechetical programs so that they put more emphasis on church teaching.

I would suggest, frankly, that our bishops revamp their own leadership styles and put more emphasis on communication that starts with listening.

Speaking of listening, I wonder how many bishops were really listening to the Scriptures during their festive liturgy in Baltimore’s famous basilica. The first reading was from the letter to Titus (1:1-9), which told the assembled bishops to “appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children….”