Pluto – New Horizons – God: A Contemporary Meditation

In July, after a ten year journey, the New Horizons interplanetary space probe sent back so much data that NASA, and others, will be analyzing and learning more about Pluto for months to come. The exploration has just begun…. So far New Horizons has revealed flowing ice, impressive mountain ranges, and a surprisingly thick atmosphere on Pluto. But no “outer space aliens” …. as of yet.
The galaxy that contains our Solar System, what we have long called the Milky Way is no small thing. The Milky Way contains from 100 to 400 billion stars. Some astronomers say in fact that there are probably at least 100 billion planets in our Milky Way. Do any of them have intelligent life on them? I suspect so, but we really don’t yet know. I would love to have an “outer space alien” land in my back yard and drop in for a visit. (Then I could post the photo on Facebook!)
In many ways, our perspective on Reality is rather narrow. My astronomer friends at the University of Leuven tell me that, according to the best estimates, there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. (Those Leuven professors are very proud, as I am, that the Big Bang theory was proposed by a Belgian priest and professor at our University of Leuven: George Lemaitre.) Twinkle twinkle little star was just the beginning. 
Years ago, my favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I think that applies to galactic realities and to God as well.
I am hardly an atheist. I am an active and strongly committed Christian. Nevertheless, looking at the images sent back by New Horizons, I could ‘t help thinking that our conception of God may be terribly narrow and has been constructed too much in our own human image and likeness. 
Traditionally, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people have always understood God as a kind of heavenly superman: like a human being without human limitations. This theological projection was explained and justified by suggesting that God was so much like a human being because human beings were in fact created in God’s image. Today, however, we recognize that it was the other way around. We portrayed God in OUR image: a powerful supernatural authority, demanding our strict obedience. The heavenly headmaster.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God defends obedient Hebrews and destroy’s their enemies. He (always a “he”) annihilates sinners and the unfaithful. The story of Noah’s Ark is the classic example. In European Christian history, believers understood that God blessed the imperialistic and colonial expansion of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Christians declared that their colonialist domination of the underdeveloped peoples of the world was the very will of God. Under the banner of Christ, native populations — often considered inferior beings — were subjugated and converted and subjugated. 
Christians don’t always pay attention to it; but our Christian tradition really does aim to help us live and walk with the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God. I think it points me to God. 
At the heart of all Reality is what we have called “God.” We are personally touched by God. I still feel personally touched by God. Although we use human poetry to describe God — God as “Mother,” or God as “Father,” God is not a person. God is at the heart of all Reality; and that means that at the heart of our own lives, we find God. I think Jesus, in a remarkable way for a man of his time, understood this very clearly. No wonder our tradition calls him Emmanuel: God With Us.
The more deeply and fully human One becomes, the more one reveals the God of life and being. And that’s the God I find revealed in Jesus Christ. We really need to reflect more and find a way to express the entire Christian experience in the language of our own days. That is the task of contemporary theologians. We need to move beyond viewing Reality in dualistc categories of “natural and supernatural” and “physical and metaphyscal.” We could also update the Nicene Creed of 325 CE with a better and more contemporary statement of Christian identity and mission. 
God is at the heart of all Reality and all Reality is in process. Process philosophers and theologians, with whom I resonate, suggest that God is also in process…unlimited in possibilities. Not limited by culture, language, time, or space. God, the galaxies, and humanity are all in process. 
Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” If he could have travelled to Pluto in a shuttle like the New Horizons, I think he would have said: “Our galaxy is charged with the grandeur of God.” 

Back on planet earth, it was the grandeur of God that animated Jesus of Nazareth. His challenge remains constant wherever we go: unconditional love, mercy, and compassion. A message addressed to all peoples, in all parts of our world.


July Closing


Dear Friends,

As we approach the Fourth of July, it is once again time for me to shut-down Another Voice until at least the end of July. A number of “summer projects” await me around the house.


Marriage Milestones : June 26, 2015

Though marriage has ancient roots, until recently love had little to do with it. I am glad times have changed. Today my wife and I celebrate forty-five years of marriage; and we are still in love! Today as well, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for all Americans, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, to marry the people they love.
Some reflections about marriage milestones. 
          Stephanie Coontz, marriage and family life historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia WA, (whom I had to good fortune of meeting a few years ago) sees thirteen marriage milestones. I strongly recommend her book: Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, (Penguin Books, 2006). 

From polygamy to same-sex marriage: the 13 milestones in the history of marriage.

1. Arranged alliances

Marriage is a truly ancient institution; but early marriage was seen as a strategic alliance between families, with the young-to-be-married often having absolutely no say in the matter. In some cultures, parents even married a child to the spirit of a deceased child in order to strengthen familial bonds.

2. Family ties

Keeping alliances WITHIN the family was also important. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we see for instance that Isaac and Jacob married cousins; and Abraham married his half-sister. Cousin marriages remain common throughout today’s world, particularly in the Middle East. Rutgers University anthropologist Robin Fox estimates that the majority of all marriages, throughout history, were between first and second cousins.

3. Polygamy preferred

Monogamy may seem central to marriage now, but in fact, polygamy was common throughout much of human history. Several prominent men in the Hebrew Scriptures were polygamists. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and others all had multiple wives. In 2 Samuel 12:8, God, speaking through the prophet Nathan, said that if David’s wives and concubines were not enough, God would have given David even more. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines according to 1 Kings 11:3. 
In fact, although polygamy may have been an ideal that high-status men aspired to, for purely mathematical reasons most men likely had at most one wife. In a few cultures, one woman married multiple men; and anthropologists point out there have even been some rare instances of group marriages. 

4. Babies optional

In many early cultures, men could dissolve a marriage or take another wife if a woman was infertile. The early Christian church was a trailblazer in arguing that marriage was not contingent on producing offspring. Stephanie Coontz points out: “The early Christian Church held the position that if you can procreate you must not refuse to procreate. But they always took the position that they would annul a marriage if a man could not have sex with his wife, but not if they could not conceive.”

5. Monogamy established

Monogamy became the guiding principle for Western marriages sometime between the sixth and the ninth centuries. Once again Coontz observes: “There was a protracted battle between the Catholic Church and the old nobility and kings who wanted to say ‘I can take a second wife.”
          In Charlemagne’s seventy-odd years of life, he had four wives, six concubines and at least seventeen children. Less is generally known about Charlemagne’s illegitimate children, but contemporary sources indicate that he greatly loved all his children. Many of his illegitimate children attained prominent positions within the Catholic Church. 

The Church eventually prevailed, with monogamy becoming central to the notion of marriage by the ninth century.

6. Monogamy lite

Nevertheless, monogamous marriage was very different from the modern conception of mutual fidelity. Although marriage was legally or sacramentally recognized between just one man and one woman, up until the 19th century, Coontz asserts, men were in fact given wide latitude to engage in extramarital affairs. Any children resulting from those affairs, however, would be illegitimate, with no claim to the man’s inheritance. “Men’s promiscuity was quite protected by the dual laws of legal monogamy but tolerance — basically enabling — of informal promiscuity,” Coontz observes. Women caught stepping out, by contrast, faced serious risk and censure.

7. State or church?

Marriages in the West were originally contracts between the families of two partners, with the Catholic Church and the state staying out of it. In 1215, the Catholic Church decreed that partners had to publicly post banns, or notices of an impending marriage in a local parish, to cut down on the frequency of invalid marriages (the Catholic Church eliminated that requirement in the 1980s). Still, until the 1500s, the Church accepted a couple’s word that they had exchanged marriage vows, with no witnesses or corroborating evidence needed.

8. Civil marriage

In the last several hundred years, the state has played a greater role in marriage. For instance, Massachusetts began requiring marriage licenses in 1639, and by the 19th-century marriage licenses were common in the United States.

9. Love matches

By about 250 years ago, the notion of love matches gained traction, Coontz said, meaning marriage was based on love and possibly sexual desire. Mutual attraction in marriage wasn’t considered important, however, until about a century ago. In fact, in Victorian England for instance, many held that women didn’t have strong sexual urges at all.

10. Market economics

Around the world, family-arranged alliances have gradually given way to love matches, and a transition from an agricultural to a market economy plays a big role in that transition, as Coontz points out in her book. Parents historically controlled access to inheritance of agricultural land. But with the spread of a market economy, “it’s less important for people to have permission of their parents to wait to give them an inheritance or to work on their parents’ land,” Coontz observes. “So it’s more possible for young people to say, ‘heck, I’m going to marry who I want.'”
          Modern markets also allow women to play a greater economic role, leading to their greater independence. The expansion of democracy, with its emphasis on liberty and individual choice, may also have stacked the deck for love matches.

11. Different spheres

Still, marriage wasn’t about equality until about 50 years ago. At that time, women and men had unique rights and responsibilities within marriage. Marital rape was legal in many states until the 1970s; and married women often could not have credit cards in their own names. Women were entitled to support from their husbands, but didn’t have the right to decide on the distribution of community property. If a wife was injured or killed, a man could sue the responsible party for depriving him of “services around the home;” but women didn’t have the same option.

12. Partnership of equals

By about 50 years ago, the notion that men and women had identical obligations within marriage began to take root. Instead of being about unique, gender-based roles, most partners conceived of their unions in terms of flexible divisions of labor, companionship, and mutual sexual attraction.

13. “Gay marriage” gains ground

Changes in straight marriage paved the way for gay marriage. Once marriage was not legally based on complementary, gender-based roles, gay marriage seemed like a logical next step.

Today, June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for all Americans, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, to marry the people they love.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored today’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States, managed to close his opinion with one of the most beautiful passages about marriage that you’ll likely read in any court case:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embod- ies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people be- come something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be con- demned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.


Climate Change in the U.S. Catholic Church

Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change comes out officially tomorrow. Today my brief reflection is about climate change in the American Catholic Church. 
One can say the waters of change are rising. Or, membership is sinking. 
          In seven years, the Roman Catholic Church in the USA has lost about 3 million adult members; and the Millennial generation shows no indication (no interest) in rebuilding church membership. 
          As we boomers (actually I am a pre-boomer, born three years before the boomers started arriving, but have always felt like a boomer) die off, the church will decline even more.

In the last 25 years, the RCC has had a net loss of 2,137 parishes nationwide: In 1990, there were 19,620 U.S. Catholic churches. Today, there are 17,464.

The New York archdiocese announced the consolidation of 112 parishes in October 2014, effectively closing 31 parishes. In December, it announced that it is considering closing another 38 parishes.

The Boston archdiocese has closed more than 125 parishes in the past 25 years. In November 2012, it announced the consolidation of the remaining 288 parishes into 135 “parish collaboratives.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago had 1,000 fewer priests in 2014 than it had in 1980. In last 20 years of Cardinal Francis George’s administration, everything was down: 2,000 fewer women religious, 21 fewer parishes, 74 fewer elementary schools and 11 fewer high schools. There were also 10,000 fewer baptisms, half as many weddings, and 33 percent fewer funerals annually.

Nationwide, Catholic priests may be a disappearing species? Today, there are 3,496 U.S. parishes that have no resident pastor. There are nearly 20,000 fewer priests in the United States than there were 25 years ago.

Half the diocesan priests in the United States will retire in the next five years. Many dioceses in the U.S. do not have sufficient funds to pay their pensions.

Religious orders of brothers and sisters are disappearing even faster than diocesan priests. There are only about 50,000 U.S. sisters today, down from almost 180,000 in 1965. 

The only really bright spot in the Roman Catholic vocations picture is the permanent deaconate. Today there are more than 17,000 permanent deacons, up from about 900 in 1975. When it comes to ordained ministry, maybe marriage helps? 

In St Louis, at their recently completed Spring General Assembly, the U.S. Catholic bishops voted on and approved a draft of their priorities for the 2017-2020 strategic plan and the “Program of Priestly Formation, 5th edition.” They also voted on English translations of the Old and New Testament Canticles.  

          In a 165-14-3 vote, the bishops approved a working draft of the Conference’s strategic priorities for their 2017-2020 planning cycle. Input shared by the bishops from the floor will be provided to the various committees as they write the final version. The resulting draft will be presented for approval by the full body of bishops at the November 2015 General Assembly. The priorities are: 

Family and marriage
Religious Freedom
Human Life and Dignity
Vocations and ongoing formation

          As a specific agenda item, I would also have liked to see “U.S. Catholic climate change.” On the other hand, perhaps one has to be realistc: according to the Pew Research Center, only 47 percent of U.S. Catholics attribute climate change to human activity. Perhaps only 47% of U.S. Catholic bishops feel the same way about climate change in the church?
(Church trends data, thanks to Pew Research Center and Fr. Peter Daly, Parish Diary, NCR)



On Friday night, July 21, 1967, in a rectory on Detroit’s West side, I was having dinner with a couple college classmates and two of our former professors. It was one of those unpleasantly warm and humid July nights. We were chatting and laughing, when another friend arrived. He had a worried look on his face: “The natives are restless tonight,” he said. “There is something in the air.”

On Saturday night and early Sunday morning, July 23, Detroit’s “12th Street riot” broke out: one of the most violent urban revolts in the 20th century. Detroit has still not yet recovered from that revolution.

I have no desire to be melodramatic, and I am hardly a pessimist; but these days there is indeed something in the air. Revolutions, when they begin, are invisible, at least to the wider society. They start with the slow discrediting and dismantling of old — no longer effective — structures and ideologies.

Along with critical historical observers, like journalist and Presbyterian minister Chris Hedges, I am convinced that a very deep cultural shift — a kind of revolution — is now well underway, in the United States and around the globe. It will end up reconfiguring national governments and international political arrangements, global economics, mass comunications, ethics and moral behavior, and of course religion.

Old ideologies are collapsing, as they should: patriarchy, clerical superiority, gender inferiority, racial and ethnic superiority, and nationalistic superiority in a globally inter-dependant world.

Although leaders in my particular Christian tradition continue to condemn homosexuality as intrinsically disordered — and spend millions of dollars each year trying to convince legislators to vote against it — the latest Pew Research Center report indicates that USA public support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally continues its rapid rise: A 57% majority of Americans now favor allowing same-sex marriage. Just five years ago, more Americans opposed (48%) same-sex marriage than supported it (42%).

A key element in shifting American attitudes on same-sex marriage is the strong support for gay rights among younger Americans. Younger men and women have long been more accepting of homosexuality and of same-sex marriage than older generations. As Millennials (who are currently ages 18-34) have entered adulthood, those views have influenced overall public opinion. Nearly three-quarters of Millennials (73%) currently favor legal recognition, with fully 45% saying they strongly favor it.

Are we approaching a socio-cultural breaking point? Quite possibly. Old ideologies are collapsing but the process, for many people, brings anxieties. Polarization is strong and fierce: between races, between religious traditions, in political parties, between the capitalist haves and the no-longer-middle- class have-nots, about migrants and immigration policies, and of course around issues of sex and gender. Bruce-become-Caitlyn Jenner is but a small example.

To begin with, whether people want to admit it or not, racism and prejudice are still very much an issue in the United States, where every 28 hours a person of color, usually a poor person of color, is being killed with lethal force — and, of course, in most of these cases they are unarmed. People march in the streets and people protest; and yet the killings don’t stop. I still remember — during the first year that Mr. Obama was President — a big sign put up in a field not far from where I grew up: “We used to hang Niggers,” it said “but now we put them in the White House.” I doubt that sentiments have changed that much today…..While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for more than 60% of those imprisoned. Pale-faced people are less crime-prone?

And then of course we have our exaggerated American gun culture. A few weeks ago a Catholic priest in Lansing, Michgan blessed his parishioners’ hand guns. I am not surprised.There are some 310 million firearms in the United States, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns. There is no reliable data on the number of military-style assault weapons in private hands, but the working estimate is about 1.5 million. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. I sometimes fear that our US addiction to gun violence marks a nation in terminal decline. (No. I am not anti-American; but I am a deeply concerned American.)

Yes there is something in the air; and we can begin now to take some prophetic and protectve measures by moving away from some of the old ideologies that had maintained our cultural status quo. A good starting point would be to throw-out the old “just-world ” theory.

According to the “just-world” theory, the world is basically just and people get what they deserve. A couple years ago an outoken archbishop, whom I know, proclaimed that when gays come down with AIDS they are getting just what they deserve, due to their disordered sexual behavior. A lot of contemporary Roman Catholic bishops would agree with him. (Perhaps even the ones who are actively but clandestinely gay?)

If one believes that the world is always fair, one can explain or rationalize away just about every prejudice and every injustice: usually by blaming the victim. A local politician asserted not so long ago that young women, for instance, who get raped, are sexually abused because of their suggestively indecent dress. Full of such political wisdom, he also asserted that people live in poverty because they are too lazy to work…..

More just-world ideology. If the Inquisition burned heretics, they only got what they deserved. In Reformation Germany, Catholics burned Lutherans and Lutherans burned Catholics. They all got what they deserved, depending on where one lived. Fascism was a just-world theory. If Jews died in the concentration camps, they got what they deserved. The point is not simply that good people get the good things, but that bad people get bad things. Neoclassical economics, our principal source of economic policy norms, is a just-world theory. As the economist Milton Friedman said: “The ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free market society is, ‘To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.’”

We can only hope that Christian churches will recognize the signs of the times and become prophetic voices in contemporary society. Perhaps they can discover, in their own traditions, the very things that people today are yearning for so passionately: a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction in their lives.

There are of course other dangerous ideologies that we need to combat, during this time of great cultural shift. When people sense their world is collapsing around them, they often grasp, without much thought, the most convenient ideology or fundamentalism. Without thoughtful consideration of where we are and where we want to go, our cultural shift can easily turn into a very disasterous climate change.

Among today’s dangerous ideological groups, the people I fear most are the “anti-government” militia people. Put a gun in their hands and you will have many a sleepless night.

Whenever there’s an instance of police brutality, whether real or imagined, one inevitably finds someone from “Cop Block,” “Open Carry,” or some other fanatical group, who tries to use the situation to promote an anti-government agenda. These people really don’t want police reform and police accountability. Their goal is to smear all law enforcement and abolish the police. They want nothing more than a society in which they alone can impose their own beliefs on people, at the barrel of a gun…..and many of them claim, of course, to be devout Christians. In the same way that IS militants claim to be devout Muslims.

When “something is in the air,” the churches have a lot of contemporary-reality prophetic work to do. They need to reassess their own mission and focus. It is no mystery that one of the main reasons that so many people are distancing themselves from churches these days is because they find them more interested in addressing all the old questions that no one is really asking.

Unfortunately, church members and church leaders have often tended to think of Divine revelation as something over and done. That however is only part of the Christian picture.

If we truly understand and believe what Jesus said, the Divine — also and still — reveals itself to humans directly and intensely in the happenings of the contemporary moment. We need to pay attention to the signs of the times. We need to continually probe and discover more authentically who Christ is for people today, how the Divine is disclosed in contemporary life, and how we can commit ourselves in ever new ways to Christian ministry and mission

When “something is in the air” and short-sighted (and occasionally craz) people are trying to push us in all directions, we need to critically reflect, to listen carefully; and then, hand in hand, to move ahead.


Stationary and Pilgrimage Christians

A couple friends have asked for my projection/predictions about the church fifty years from today. Frankly, I am not good at predicting the future; and fifty years is a long time, especially for a guy who passed his own fifty years, more than twenty years ago.

There are of course trends in the church — in all churches; and I do have some thoughts about where these trends will take us in the coming five to ten years.

Polarization between church leaders and church members, as well as between ideological groups within the church, is now approaching a point of no return. I expect ongoing explosions, confrontations, and further division of the church into smaller and independent churches. I think it is unavoidable.

Regardless what’s happening to the earth’s polar ice caps, ecclesiastical climate change is a fact of life; and it will shape and reconfigure Christian identity and behavior in the coming decade.

First of all we have the melting-away of the church due to departures. Not so much a storm. More a low pressure dissipation. Whether out of frustration, ignorance, or just plain spiritual laziness, large numbers of people will continue to walk away from institutional churches. Especially young people.

Those who remain “Christian” will be either “Stationary Christians” or “Pilgrimage Christians.”

Simply put, “stationary Christians” are those who see change as either a great disruption, a great distortion, or downright evil. They have age-old answers for every age-old question. Even if no one is really asking those questions anymore. In the contemporary Roman Catholic world, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is a clear example of the stationary Christian, incapable of understanding Christianity in the light of ongoing human growth and development. Commenting this week about the Irish same-sex marriage referendum, Cardinal Parolin stressed “I believe that we are talking about not just a defeat for Christian principles but about a defeat for humanity.”

In my Dominus Vobiscum observations here last week, I referred to other examples of retro-catholic stationary Christians. Stationary Christians are now circling their wagons and building fortifications against the evil world, or, as Augustine of Hippo would say, the great confrontation between “The City of God” and “The City of Humanity.” (As we gear up for the coming U.S. presidential election, I suspect we will see a lot of defensive maneuvering by stationary Christians who want to circle their wagons around an America threatened by secularism and Islamic fundamentalists. I just read, for instance, that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida has announced that same-sex marriage is a real and present danger to the United States and to Christianity.)

“Pilgrimage Christians” are believers who experience human life, and therefore Christian life, as an open-ended journey with the Divine. They don’t have ready-made answers for every question. They see Christian life as a process of individual and communal discernment. Tomorrow may bring new and exciting discoveries. It may bring disappointments and misery as well. The cross is part of Christian life. Throughout it all, we make progress. We move forward. Life is stronger than death. We mature. We are not abandoned. We move ahead, more humble and a bit wiser…..

In the coming decade I expect major clashes between the “stationary” and “pilgrimage” people at all levels in our churches. While the Vatican’s Cardinal Parolin sees approval of homosexuality and same-sex marriage as a defeat for Christian principles as well as a defeat for humanity, Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx has called for a “welcoming culture” in the church for homosexuals, saying it’s “not the differences that count, but what unites us.”

Today Vatican authority is being challenged in yet another way as Roman Catholic women act upon their vocations to ordained ministry. Since 2002—when seven women were ordained by male Roman Catholic bishops—more than 190 women have been ordained to the priesthood, including at least a dozen women bishops; and all have served or are serving their faith communities very effectively. Reiterating the teaching of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, remains steadfastly opposed to the ordination of women, stressing that “The church has spoken and says ‘No.’” Not everyone in the hierarchy is in agreement with Pope Francis however. The head of the Swiss bishops, Bishop Markus Büchel of St. Gallen, has spoken out quite openly in favor of women’s ordination, saying that the church should “pray that the Holy Spirit enables us to read the signs of the times.” Hierarchical polarization for sure. (How I would love to hear the head of the U.S. Catholic bishops echoing the voice of Bishop Büchel.)

Polarization is strong and “stationary” and “pilgrimage” groups are going to clash and collide many times and in many places, over the next few years. They will contribute to a further dissolution of large institutional churches into smaller and independent churches. Open to women. Open to all. With no hierarchical distinction between ordained and non-ordained. A variety of roles and responsibilities within genuine communities of faith. Prophetic church movements….Small Christian communities are less capable of exerting the kind of demeaning power over people that one sometimes sees in large institutions.

Because of this further break-up into smaller groups, I see major financial problems for the once affluent institutional church, which will be unable to maintain its large buildings, institutions and services. In the Roman Catholic Church there will be even more dioceses going bankrupt. I don’t necessarily rejoice in this; but acknowledge it as a fact of life.

I see as well major and ongoing explosions about human sexuality and gender issues, coming from more honesty about what is going on and has been going on in the church. Clerical sexual abuse is not over. In addition, one has not yet seen major reports from India and Africa, where my contacts tell me it is a major problem. One African bishop told me he hoped the stories would never come out about clerical sexual abuse of African women religious. A few years ago, my eyes were opened when a bright young African priest arrived at our university to begin working toward a doctorate in theology. I helped him get settled in town. Arriving a few days later, from the same diocese, was a young African sister, dressed in light blue, and sent “to study philosophy.” A few months later, I learned that the young priest’s bishop had sent “sister philosophy student” to be the young priest’s sexual companion to comfort him during his strenuous doctoral studies. An isolated occurrence? I don’t think so.

On the positive side, in the coming decade, I expect to see — in all areas and forms of church life — stronger prophetic action and I expect to to hear more courageous prophetic voices. More prophets like the Vicar General of the Diocese of Essen in Germany, Klaus Pfeffer, who commented about Cardinal Parolin’s recent anti-homosexuality remarks, in this way: “’Defeat(s) for humanity’ are things like violence, terror, war, and inhumanity.” Gospel challenges to contemporary values and behavior….

All in all I am optimistic in my ecclesiastical realism. The Spirit has not abandoned us. And we must not abandon the Spirit.

I cannot predict details but will offer two final thoughts about fifty years from now:

(1) Certainly there will be a major reconfiguration of the Christian Church, because what we are already experiencing is far greater and much more revolutionary than anything springing from the sixteenth century Reformation. Christian institutional structures will change in major ways yet to be seen.

(2) Regardless what happens fifty years from now – or ten years from now – the important issue is what’s happening today: how we read the signs of our own times and how we allow that understanding to shape and enliven our own ministry and witness.

Next week I will be on the road for some summer travel. I may be quiet for a couple weeks, depending on what I see and hear….. And how much sunshine comes my way. That too is part of being on pilgrimage. Many kind regards to all. I do appreciate your own thoughts and observations.


Dominus Vobiscum Catholics

Some of today’s Roman Catholic ordained men enjoy walking around in public, in oldstyle cassocks and birettas; and delight in “celebrating Mass” in Latin. I guess they have a right to do that. Pope Benedict, the emeritus pope, made sure of that. I still wonder these days if all “rights” make certain actions “right.”
Mass in Latin is happening rather regularly in a parish not far from my home. Over the past year I have had some generally friendly conversations with some of the (what I call) Dominus-Vobiscum-Catholics. The “celebrants” are most often young men, born a decade or more after Vatican II. I have often asked why they have reverted (regressed) to a former era? What animates these young clerics? What animates their congregations? They seem so steadfastly sure of themselves. Some of them are absolutely arrogant in their self-righteous speech and behavior.
One of my former students (painful) is a reverted priest. He is an athletic, friendly, and outgoing young guy. He often walks around the neighborhood, however, in a sombre black cassock. (Young kids think he looks like Dracula.) When he processes to the altar for his “Sunday Mass,” he turns his back to the congregation and does everything in Latin, with abundant incense and old bells. Lots of incense. Lots of bells.
Why do young Roman Catholíc ordained ministers (“priests”) enjoy doing this Latin ritual? One fellow told me that Latin is a “holy” language. I laughed a bit and said it is no more holy than English, or Spanish, or French, or whatever…… Actually my working-knowledge of Latin is excellent. Superior to their’s I suspect. Four years in high school and four years in college. Nevetheless, I have absolutely no desire to experience Sunday worship in the old language. I like museums as well, but wouldn’t want to live in one.
Why do people gather behind these Latin Mass ministers?
You really can’t say that people gather around these oldtime-religion priests. They sit, stand, or kneel, looking at the sacerdotal derrière. OK I know. I came of age in the 1960s; but I really prefer looking at people face-to-face. Much more interesting. Human contact. And I really don’t find backsides ,draped in ritual attire, all that charming.
Frankly, I find the Roman Catholic Latin Mass people analogically akin to the Islamic sharia people. They are fundamentalists, stuck in a former time. Unwilling, fearful, and incapable of living in our contemporary world. I understand this, because I was once a fundamentalist. Anxious and unable to cope with a changing culture around me and confused about my own psycho-sexual development, I found stability and security (for a while) in an obedient servitude to a static theological viewpoint that said change is dangerous and deadly. I liked girls, for instance, but my spiritual director said they were an occasion of sin. Counseling me about “sexual feelings,” he told me they were a terrible burden, the result of Original Sin, which brought many a young man close to eternal damnation. Unquestioningly I believed him…..for a while.
One day (truly an amazing grace) thanks to one of my university professors, I started asking: why? He encouraged me. And I had a long list of “whys?” I had come to respect him as a man of faith; and he stood by me and said it was a good, healthy, and holy thing to ask “why?”
Today I ask “why?” when I am with these Dominus-Vobiscum-Catholics. In general they are not bad people but distorted believers, I am now convinced. I understand, because I too was once a distorted believer. I was ensconced in a nineteenth century Catholic ethos, where everything was nicely packaged. Catholicism was the embodiment of Christian truth. No need to think. The answers had been given. Just affirm obediently and say “yes.”
One young reverted-priest told me he liked the “sense of mystery”‘ that Latin added to “his” liturgy. He didn’t have to deal with contemporary people and issues. He doesn’t like to look at people during “his” celebration of liturgy because they are a distraction. I told him one of the greatest real-time divine “mysteries” in my life was being with my wife face-to-face, when our son was born. He replied that I obviously was a very secular man. I told him I thought Jesus was a very secular man as well, but the young cleric had absolutely no understanding of what I meant. (The Incarnation.)
Aren’t we more properly and more truly looking at God when we face our sisters and brothers face-to-face than when we only stare at the back wall behind an altar?
Chatting with another young-but-oldtime-minded priest recently, the young man told me that he was a priest because “priests are ontologically superior” to lesser “lay people” human beings like me. When I reminded him that in the Gospel Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches…..a community of equals with various roles in the community of faith, he chuckled and said (rather unkindly) that “1960s old liberals” like me were, fortunately, now dying-off. (I reminded him that resurrection follows death….)
Change is a fact of life. Pentecost reminds us — reassures us — that God’s Spirit is with us in our ongoing and ever-changing human journey. That should give us ample security and stability in our lives. We are not alone out there in space and time.
Most fundamentally, the Dominus-Vobiscum-people are Catholic fundamentalists. They are religiously frigid….frozen in the past (about which many of them are terribly ignorant). They cannot fathom that people of faith live, change, and grow in their faith relationship and their understanding of our human condition and our Christian belief and practice. Each day is a new discovery. Each day we re-evaluate and re-interpret our history.
We cannot allow fundamentalists to distort the message and run the show. That would be counter-productive and ulimately destructive of what we, as disciples of Jesus, are all about. We must be strong and active. We have to stay alert and be well-informed. On the other hand, like my old professor (close to 100, when he died two years ago) we need to befriend, respect, and challenge fundamentalists — in all religuous traditions — to study, reflect, and continually ask “why?”
This week end we hear again: “Suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as a wind blowing. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking of the wonderful works of God.”
And so we continue on our human journeys, amidst changes that we may or may not understand. The Spirit has not abandoned us, even when our vision seems a bit cloudy.

Happy Pentecost

Christian Decline : Christian Challenge

According to the latest report from the Pew Research Center, Christianity in the United States is declining and the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. 
The drop in Christian affiliation is particularly strong among young adults; but it is occurring among Americans of all ages and of all ethnic and educational backgrounds.

Americans are shifting away from organized religion.

The percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christian has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in seven years — from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. 

Mainline Protestants are declining but Roman Catholics are declining more rapidly both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers. 

Currently there are about 51 million adult Catholics in the U.S. That is 3 million fewer than in 2007; and 13 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics, up from 10 percent in 2007. Just 16 percent of the 18-to-24-year-olds today are Catholic, and that is not enough to offset the numbers lost through aging and switching. The American RCC bishops are looking to the Latinos to save their church. For certain, U.S. Latino population growth over the past two decades has boosted numbers in the Catholic Church; but a new, in-depth analysis shows Latinos’ allegiance to Catholicism is now waning as growing numbers move toward other Christian denominations or claim no religion at all.

One can expect more closed Catholic churches in coming years. Unless…..

One of the most important factors in the declining number of declared Christians is the growth of the unaffiliated. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations. 

Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33). And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. 

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that many of America’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are “spiritual” in some way. Two-thirds of them believe in God. More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” 

Overwhelmingly, the unaffiliated see organized religion out of touch with contemporary life when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality. They think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. Large numbers of Catholics are still not convinced that the horrors of clerical sexual abuse are over.  

Christian decline is our Christian challenge. The unaffiliated have not sold their souls to hedonistic secularity. In their hunger for bread and living water, they too often find their churches handing out dried-up old stones. 

We need to change our focus. We need to help people on their spiritual journeys. We need to see our parishes as meaning of life clinics, where people are listened to, their problems are appreciated, spiritual exploration is stimulated, support communities are built, and people find direction and encouragement in difficult times. Christianity is about life, hope, and future life.

Roles, Rules, and Tools: Breaking the Cycle of Death

How do churches evolve? Can orderly patterns be found in the midst of apparent chaos? 
The cyclical process of birth, growth, breakdown, and disintegration was a perennial theme in ancient philosophy, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks. Jesus of Nazareth introduced a new element in the sequential process: resurrection. We are not caught in a deadly cycle but life goes on in ever new forms. The paschal mystery.
Sometimes people forget the paschal mystery when it comes to the institutional church. They wander blindly amid breakdown, oblivious about the need for change, forgetful that Christian life is about rebirth and hope for new life.
Church history tells the story. Once the institutional church has reached a peak of institutional organization and vitality, leaders often succumb to the temptation to be self-centered, self-protective, and self-righteous. Bishops become lords and pay lip-service to the Lord. It happens to pastors and theologians as well of course.
When too much organizational success at the top clogs the brains of church leaders, the institutional church tends to lose its socio-cultural momentum and starts to decline. Membership drops. Young people move out. Churches are closed. Bankruptcies  spring up and schools collapse. (How many merged parishes and closed churches are there in your region?)
An essential element in this religious breakdown is a loss of prophetic flexibility. When ecclesiastical structures and behavior patterns become so rigid that the institution can no longer adapt to changing conditions, it will be unable to carry on the creative process of critical reflection and theological and institutional adaptation. It will then break down and begin to disintegrate. 
Whereas growing and developing churches display variety and versatility, those in the process of disintegration show uniformity and a lack of inventiveness. Loss of flexibility is one of the institutional church’s capital sins.
More than a few years ago, while thinking as a young man about the Second Vatican Council and change in the Catholic Church, a friend gave me a copy of Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As I read Kuhn’s book, my brain began to vibrate. It still vibrates.
Kuhn introduced the concept of a paradigm. He observed that as long as a paradigm explains most observed phenomena and solves the problems most people want solved, it remains dominant. But as new understandings of reality begin to contradict it, the paradigm succumbs to increasing doubt. As these problems multiply, it is thrown into crisis. 
Today of course one thinks about issues of gender, sexual orientation, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and a church still burdened with a nineteenth century corporate style as we move forward in the third millennium. I think as well about overcoming biblical and theological ignorance that has warped our understanding of authentic Christianity. (I cringed recently when a young ordained minister reiterated from the pulpit that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Not true. That fallacy was created by (misogynist?) Pope Gregory in the sixth century. Mary of Magdala was one of Jesus’ most influential apostles and witness to his being raised from the dead. She was not a prostitute.)
When a new paradigm is articulated, a broad paradigmatic shift occurs. People of course – usually the people down below — make the socio-cultural change that results in the paradigm shift.
Change in the Catholic Church in fact has most often come from below – from courageously prophetic people at the bottom of the Catholic pyramid. 

Catholic Church change most often has followed a three-stage process of development:
(1) Changed understandings lead to changed behavior, which is condemned by church authorities.
(2) When the condemned behavior persists within a large group of believers, church authority allows it as an experiment.
(3) As the experiment becomes actually widespread practice, church authority goes back to the doctrinal and disciplinary drawing board and then canonizes the change as simply part of good Catholic practice.

What’s my point? 
If we want genuine church reform, it is pointless the wait for top administrators to make the changes because they probably are a big part of what needs to be changed, even when they smile and say popular things.
We need to be part of, to animate, and to support prophetic people and prophetic movements. We need to  encourage and support, for instance, Catholic high school students and their parents when a man or woman teacher in a Catholic school is fired because of a same-sex committed relationship. We need to support and encourage those women who are now in fact women priests. We need to encourage and support those men and women who are exploring new forms of ministry and pastoral life, in lay ecclesial movements. 
We need to protest unacceptable behavior as well, when no one else seems to protest. Why for example, is Robert Finn, the convicted criminal and now resigned Bishop of Kansas City still allowed to preside over the priestly ordinations of seven deacons on May 16 in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese? 
This is not an awkward situation. It is a disgrace. Is there not even one of those men about to be ordained who finds it objectionable?
A strategy for change
People need to organize and develop a plan for effective change if there will indeed be a paradigm shift. I offer a six-step program:
(1) The formulation of a goal: people affected by or concerned about a bad church situation need to set a goal, a desired and realistic outcome.

(2) Clear communication: The goal formulators need to communicate their vision to others, beginning with those most affected by the root problem and expanding to a greater community of concern. Email, Facebook, telephone calls, articles in newspapers, public meetings, parish council meetings, and neighborhood discussion groups are some kinds of very effective communication.

(3) Organization: Once the goal vision begins to attract more supporters, some form of organization is required to manage the group and implement a plan.

(4) Goal adaptation: As the new vision gets broader exposure, it can grow and change. Quite often an initial vision is incomplete, especially in its practical details. Some accommodations may have to be made, for instance, to broaden the appeal of the vision.

(5) Socio-cultural transformation: Once the movement has gained enough support within the society, the thrust shifts from communication to implementation. People start doing what should be done. (Years ago I was part of this process in my SW Michigan diocese when it came to receiving communion on the hand, fiercely condemned at the time by the local bishop. I recall one diocesan event when Cardinal Dearden was present and distributing communion on the hand in our local cathedral. The local bishop walked over to him and reprimanded the cardinal saying “we don’t do that in my diocese. Dearden smiled and said “that is your problem,” and then continued to distribute communion on the hand. I know because I was standing in front of him.)

(6) Establishing a new behavior pattern: Once the initial  shift – the transformation — has taken place, the next stage is to establish the new vision as the new but constant practice, which basically means institutionalizing it in various ways. This of course will be fine until, in view of the signs of the times, new goals must be set!

Life goes on……..step by step…..stage by stage. Resurrection.