Doing What Comes Naturally?

Posted July 19, 2014 by JAD
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


In October 2014, there will be an “Extraordinary Synod on the Family,” a big Roman Catholic gathering of bishops to consider important issues of Catholic belief and practice.

In preparation for that October gathering, the Vatican sent out questionnaires; and now the results have been processed and a Vatican “working document,” called an instrumentum laboris has been written.

The questionnaire results show that large numbers of Catholics around the globe neither accept nor follow official Roman Catholic teaching on: birth control, sterilization, in vitro fertilization, homosexuality and homosexual unions, cohabitation before or without marriage, and recognizing the legitimacy of marriages for the divorced and remarried.

Some open-minded Catholics, encouraged by the apparently open-minded and friendly behavior of Pope Francis, are expecting big changes in October. That may occur; but the instrumentum laboris seems to reiterate the same old teaching, in a rather judgmental manner. It stresses that many Catholics do not accept church teaching because they have been distorted by the individualistic, relativistic, and secularistic cultures in which people live today. To summarize: Catholic people do disagree with official church teaching: but the people are misguided and wrong. Food for though.

In a recent article in The Tablet (July 12, 2014), Charles Curran, formerly of the Catholic University of America and currently Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, sees two current problems in official Roman Catholic ethical statements: (1) natural law as an outdated approach to ethical decision-making and (2) the papalization of moral truth.

Natural law: As I mentioned here a couple weeks ago, the official church understanding of what is “natural” has changed greatly over the centuries. Our understanding of what is appropriate human behavior and appropriate Christian human behavior is open to growth and development. We rely on human reason and we rely on Christian scripture and tradition, always realizing that our human and Christian understanding is always more contextual than something static and unchanging. We travel in time in and with the Spirit of Christ. We are the People of God in process. We are moving toward the truth.

Papalization of moral truth: Only in the last two centuries — and greatly emphasized more recently in the papacies of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI — have we seen an exaggerated understanding of Catholic ethics that would identify Catholic moral teaching with papal teaching.

It seems very clear to me, as I reflect about what Catholics around the world have been saying in their Synod on the Family questionnaire responses, that there is indeed a strong sense of the active and engaged belief of the faithful, what Catholic tradition has called, for centuries, the sensus fidelium. The official understanding of natural law and a strong sense of the papalization of moral truth appear to be out of sync with the contemporary beliefs of the People of God.

It will be interesting to see what happens in October.

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The Great and Holy War

Posted July 14, 2014 by JAD
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


On July 28th we will commemorate the centennial of the launch of World War I. In Leuven/Louvain, Belgium, in August, we will commemorate “the flames of Louvain” when homes and businesses were torched. When men, women, and children were pulled from their homes and quickly executed, to teach “Louvain citizens” respect for German soldiers.  Those soldiers also burned our university library, destroying a couple hundred thousand books, 750 irreplaceable medieval manuscripts, and more than 1,000 incunabula (books printed before 1501).

I have been reading a lot of books about the Great War. (My son has helped write one of them.) Today I would like to recommend one in particular: The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins. This book, to my knowledge, offers the first comprehensive look at how religion created and prolonged the First World War and made a lasting impact on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The world’s leading nations in 1914 presented the The Great War’s conflict as a holy war. Patriotic and military rhetoric spoke of a holy crusade, of the apocalypse, and Armageddon. Throughout the war there was a widespread belief in angels on the battlefields and heavenly apparitions supporting both sides in the conflict.

The English poet, Rupert Brooke, welcomed the war: “Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour….Nobleness walks in our ways again.”

The Anglican Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, wrote in a newspaper article in 1915 that it was the Anglican Church’s explicit duty “to mobilize the nation for a holy war.” Later in a sermon, much quoted by historians of twentieth century religion, he urged British soldiers: “Kill the Germans — do kill them. Not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends….As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.”

In France at the same time, French Catholics (who felt France had become strongly anti-Catholic) were now whole-heartedly supporting their president Raymond Poincaré, who would lead the people of France into a “sacred union” to defeat their German nemesis and restore the glories of Catholic France.

Meanwhile aggressor Germany’s leading theologians issued a manifesto supporting the war and asking the world’s people of learning and culture to appreciate Germany’s position. Karl Barth, then a young pastor in neutral Switzerland, reacted with shock and alarm: “I discovered (among those supporting the manifesto, JD) almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated….I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, nineteenth century theology no longer held any future.”

The First World War raised serious questions about a Christian religion that denigrated or simply ignored the Christian Faith. One hundred years later the questions continue. This time of course the loyalties to Christian religion have become the terrain of Christian fundamentalists; and “mainstream” churchgoers continue their exodus from organized religion.

The Christian Faith is neither gone nor dead. It needs however more courageous believers anchored in a contemporary Christian faith experience, alert to the signs of the times, and willing to speak out and stand on church limbs.

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A Catholic Fourth of July Reflection

Posted July 5, 2014 by JAD
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


This (for me) rainy Fourth of July weekend, I started reflecting about American Catholicism at the birth of the New Republic.

John Carroll, born in Upper Marlboro, Maryland in 1735, was our first American Roman Catholic bishop, serving as the ordinary of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He was elected by his fellow priests. He was also the founder of Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic university in the United States.

John was genuinely Catholic and authentically American in the true spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which his cousin Charles Carroll signed. (The only Catholic to sign the Declaration.) John – American, Catholic, and a bishop – has long been a symbol of what it truly means to be an American Catholic in every good sense of the word.

He understood and appreciated the separation of church and state.

He was keenly alert to shared decision-making; and he had the courage to act on behalf of Catholics in America without first begging for approval from the Vatican.

John Carroll had respect for the Vatican but strongly felt the Vatican should acknowledge and respect the church in America as well and not meddle in American church affairs. In 1783 when he learned that the Vatican, independent of the American clergy, was in the process of appointing a superior for the American church he was angry. “This you may be assured,” he wrote to his friend Charles Plowden in England, “no authority derived from the Propaganda will ever be admitted here; that the Catholic clergy and laity here know that the only connection they ought to have with Rome is to acknowledge the pope as the spiritual head of the church; that no congregations existing in his (i.e. the pope’s) states shall be allowed to exercise any share of his spiritual authority here.”

Carroll was selected Bishop of Baltimore by the clergy of the new nation in April 1789 by a vote of 24 out of 26 and on November 6, 1789 Pope Pius VI in Rome approved the election, naming Carroll the first Roman Catholic bishop in the newly independent United States.

Bishop Carroll took the lead in restoring the Society of Jesus in Maryland in 1805, without informing Rome, by working through Russian Jesuits, who had been protected from suppression by Catherine the Great.

He insisted that the readings of the liturgy be read in the vernacular, and was a strong advocate of “The Carey Bible,” an edition of the English-language Douay-Rheims translation.

He promoted the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy, two hundred years before Vatican II. In some areas of the New Republic, for a while, priests began their own impromptu English-language liturgies. “Can there be anything more preposterous than an unknown tongue,” Carroll wrote, and went on “to continue the practice of the Latin liturgy in the present state of things must be owing either to chimerical fears of innovation or to indolence and inattention in the first pastors of the national churches in not joining to solicit or indeed ordain this necessary alteration.” Now that is chutzpah!

In later years, Archbishop Carroll, under pressure from the Vatican, under pressure from a growing number of pro-Vatican foreign priests, and personally alarmed by the chaotic aftermath of the French Revolution, became a more conservative old man.

Carroll’s shift to neo-conservatism, perhaps, is a warning for us in the contemporary church. Some hierarchical old men can regress, and then they need a strong push and a courageously critical word from younger-minded people, like the young dynamic John Carroll.

As the Scriptures remind us: old people dream their dreams but young people see visions.

I would like to see a lot more vision in our contemporary church.

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A Theory of Relativity?

Posted June 28, 2014 by JAD
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


The Vatican issued a document this week, an instrumentum laboris or point of reference, for the October 2014 Synod on the Family. Much of it reads like a regurgitation of the, less than inspiring, 1980 Synod on the Family. Marriage and family life today, it asserts, are in trouble. The key reasons are: “the mass media, our hedonistic culture, relativism, materialism, individualism, and growing secularism.” The old enemies.

The instrumentum laboris acknowledges that large numbers of contemporary Catholics reject the church’s teachings on birth control, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, premarital sex, and invitro fertilization. Is it possible that “the faithful” realize something that church leadership does not see? The “instrumentum,” however, doesn’t answer that question and blames, rather, two inter-related contemporary trends: a rejection of natural law and contemporary relativism.

“The natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy,” the document reports and continues: “in not only the west but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology, and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not ‘scientific.’”

The bigger evil of course is our “culture of relativism,” regularly condemned as the source of all contemporary evils by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and condemned by Pope Francis as “another form of poverty.”

“There is another form of poverty!” Pope Francis told the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, on March 22, 2013. “It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism,’ which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”

And so my reflection this week: Is truth relative? Is Catholic belief relative? Is our understanding of the “natural law” relative? Where have we been and where are we going?

My quick response would be: Truth is not relative; but we are still moving toward the truth. No single person, and no institution, has truth all locked up in a box. (Just like no church has Jesus locked up in a tabernacle box….but that is a reflection for another time.)

What is natural? Are men naturally better equipped for ordained ministry than women? Are black men naturally more endowed with big genitalia, but smaller brains, than white men? That is what I was taught in Catholic high school biology class. Is heterosexuality more natural than homosexuality? Was it natural for Pope Innocent VIII, in 1484 AD, to proclaim: “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature….It should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

Was it natural….. in conformity to “natural law”……that during the 17th and 18th centuries, three to five thousand boys per year in Italy were castrated so they could continue to sing in papal and other Catholic Church choirs? The church created quite a market for castrated boys by hiring them for its church choirs. Parents, in need of money, took them to barber shops where a professional sideline, with ecclesiastical approval, was removing boy child testicles for church ministry.

The Catholic understanding of natural law has certainly been rather relative. And our belief statements, even from pious papal throats, relative as well.

Words ….even official church dogmatic words…..are never the total truth. They are only statements and understandings and interpretations along the way TOWARD the truth. Are they “relative”? Probably; but I prefer to say they are provisional and subject to modification tomorrow. Each day we learn and grow…or we should learn and grow!

Words point to reality…they do not capture reality.

No words employed by anyone at any time can be totally objective, infallible, or inerrant.

It is a kind of religious fundamentalism then that misleads religious leaders to assert that they alone are the interpreters of God’s will and custodians of infallible truth. What is true and what is natural is anchored in a certain relativism because no one has the total picture.

Dialogue is essential. Openness and mutual respect are essential.This means of course that individuals and institutions must get off their arrogant high horses and acknowledge that they (like you and me I) don’t have all the answers. We are all learners.

Our Catholic faith expression, if it is going to have real relevance for people today and tomorrow, cannot be just a system of solemnly defined dogmatic statements formulated in a limited context of time and space.

I would like to think our Catholic belief is a doorway to transcendence with an open and expanded vision. Let’s make it so.

A good theory of Catholic relativity………..

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Building a Civilization of Truth and Love

Posted June 20, 2014 by JAD
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


On Thursday, June 19, 2014, San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, was a key participant in the second March for Marriage in Washington DC, leading supporters of “traditional marriage” along a half-mile route that concluded at our U.S. Supreme Court building. On that site last year, two major Supreme Court decisions encouraged federal judges in eight U.S. states to overturn existing same-sex marriage bans and in another four states to issue rulings in favor of same-sex marriage.

Archbishop Cordileone, his Roman Catholic Church, the Mormons, and Evangelical Protestants continue to strongly protest same-sex marriage as immoral and socially destructive. Nevertheless, American support for same-sex marriage, even among U.S. Catholics, increases each year.

A solid majority of people, who identify as contemporary religious mainliners, now favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry. In a survey the Pew Research Center conducted in February 2014, 62% of mainline U.S. Protestants said they now favor same-sex marriage. Just 34% favored same-sex marriage a decade earlier. Roman Catholics? Today at least 58% of white U.S. Roman Catholics and 56% of Hispanic Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. (Some studies say the support for same-sex marriage among American Catholics is now at 70%.) A majority (83%) of Jewish Americans also favor legalizing same-sex marriage. Vox populi vox Dei? The infallibility of the People of God?

In his March for Marriage speech, titled “Building a Civilization of Truth and Love,” Archbishop
Cordileone stressed that marriage is “a key to individual and societal flourishing.” Indeed. Perhaps that is a strong argument as well for same-sex marriage?

“No justice, no peace, no end to poverty, without a strong culture of marriage and the family,” the Archbishop of San Francisco emphasized. I could not agree more. I doubt that they were; but perhaps they should have been cheering for him in The Castro when he concluded: “This noble cause is a call to love we cannot abandon, that we will not give up on, and that in the end we know will triumph.” Well yes……Marriage is good for gays as well, I think. It is a noble cause and truly a call to love.

As an historian, I know that across the centuries nature of marriage has varied according to different cultures, different religious traditions, and different times. It has found social importance as an institution because it contributes to societal stability and because it enhances intimate and sexual interpersonal relationships. Marriage as well can create an environment of support and caring which is ideal for child-rearing.

A strong rhetorical theme among opponents to same-sex marriage is that children, for their healthy development, need “a father and a mother.” (They forget of course that some fathers and mothers can be absolute monsters.) After doing research on values formation and development for about forty years, I am convinced that what children need most of all for healthy human development is loving parents.

And so once again, at all levels in the church, let’s drop the venomous, judgmental language. Let’s learn to listen and to grow and to work together. And yes, let’s learn how we all can build a civilization of truth and love.

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Tomorrow’s Church? : The Changing Religious Landscape

Posted June 15, 2014 by JAD
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


A few days ago, while constructing a power-point presentation I will use this autumn as part of an adult faith discussion group, I was struck again by the ages of Jesus’s followers: the young men and women who were his disciples and later apostles.

Most were in their late teens or early twenties: young people (some already young parents) searching for meaning and direction in their lives. Then (serendipity?) I got an email from a young graduate student, writing at the suggestion of his girl friend, who had been in one of my university classes, last semester.

Here, I will call him Walter. He hoped he was not bothering me; but Walter hoped as well that I could give him some guidance. He said he was a non-believer but had been baptized in the Catholic Church and had done “the Holy Communion thing.” He said he could not relate at all to the contemporary Catholic Church and found the local archbishop a pompous ignoramus. (That is actually a pretty good assessment of the fellow.)

Most importantly, however, Walter wrote that he and his girl friend were searching for God and, for reasons they could absolutely not explain, they felt attracted by the historical Jesus and wanted me to guide them through an informed and reflective reading of the New Testament. Would I be willing to listen to their questions? Could I guide them and help them to really discover who Jesus was and who he is for young people like them today?

Yes of course. I replied that I would help them, as long as they understood that ALL of us are on the same journey……exploring together who Jesus is and probing what it means to be his follower today.

Walter and his girl friend are hardly atypical. Young people ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older people, and 25% are unaffiliated with any particular faith. They belong to the Millennial Generation; and their’s is a changing religious landscape.

Millennials, in fact, are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s); and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s).

Increasingly, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

Nevertheless, as an old Baby Boomer who still spends a lot of his time teaching and listening to “the Millennials,” I like these young men and women; and I am optimistic about them. They are open-minded and eager; and their search is genuine. In their own way, they are searching for an authentic spirituality; and they are also the foundation for tomorrow’s church. It will of course be a very different kind of church!

Todays Millennials make me think of those other young men and women who were followers of Jesus. In Jesus they found someone who respected them, listened to them, and searched and explored with them. Not someone who, like Walter’s pompous archbishop, would have condemned them for their “secularized” lifestyles and values.

In their social and political views, today’s young adults are clearly more accepting of homosexuality and same-sex marriage than older men and women. They are more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation for human life; and they are less prone to see Hollywood as threatening their moral values. At the same time, according to the Pew Research Center, Millennials are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. Their estrangement from organized religion, however is very real.

Compared with their elders today, young people are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. One-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) are unaffiliated and describe their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular.”

I wonder about those young men and women — later disciples and apostles — attracted to the historical Jesus. Were they perhaps Jewish drop-outs or agnostics who felt institutionalized religion had lost its credibility? A hypothetical question of course; but Jesus was indeed highly critical of organized religion in his day.

There are no hypothetical questions about today’s Millennials, however.

Like Walter and his girl friend, they are looking for trustworthy spiritual guides……..

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A Provocation Against the Holy See…..

Posted June 7, 2014 by JAD
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


Authoritarian church leaders, when they are either ignorant or simply short-sighted, often respond to theological observations they don’t comprehend by issuing speedy condemnations.

A few days ago, Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, did just that when he reprimanded representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for giving an “Outstanding Leadership Award” to Elizabeth A. Johnson.

Johnson is an eminent contemporary theologian, deeply rooted in our Catholic tradition. Mueller argued that due to “the gravity of the doctrinal errors” in her writings, LCWR’s award to Johnson was an “open provocation against the Holy See.” Quite a statement and more than a bit of overblown rhetoric. The CDF condemnation becomes even more puzzling when one realizes that, true to a pattern established a few centuries, the CDF has again condemned without indicating what has been condemned. An old bullying tactic.

Our USCCB Committee on Doctrine has also strongly criticized Johnson for her “errors” and “ambiguities.” Some members of that committee, I suspect, could use refresher courses in New Testament exegesis and historical theology.

I have read all of Elizabeth Johnson’s books and have never read anything that undermines our Christian tradition; and frankly I have a pretty good reputation for being an objective historical theologian. If an author seems to stray from our tradition in a “grave” way, I have no problem expressing my concern or alarm. (And there are indeed contemporary theological authors on the left and on the right of center who depart from authentic Christian belief.)

Two of Elizabeth Johnson’s books that I very much like (and strongly recommend) are: She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1991) and Quest for the Living God (2007.)

She Who is was a well-developed attempt to integrate feminist categories such as women’s experience and emancipation into classical Catholic theology. (When this book came out thirteen years ago, one of my U.S. bishop friends — who never even bothered to read the dust-jacket — denounced Elizabeth Johnson and her book, cynically yelling “why can’t she acknowledge that God is our Father?” I responded with a friendly chuckle, “why can’t you acknowledge that all God-talk is analogical and perhaps many of our sisters and brothers in the faith relate better to God as a loving mother than a judgmental father.”)

Guest for the Living God is a masterpiece. I used it last autumn in an adult faith discussion group and will do that again this coming autumn. Johnson understands so very well that people of faith are seeking God, the Divine, not in abstract medieval doctrines but in sincere and deep reflection on our everyday experiences, struggles, and hopes. Her chapter headings say it well:

• Gracious Mystery, Ever Greater, Ever Nearer
• The Crucified God of Compassion
• Liberating God of Life
• God Acting Womanish
• God Who Breaks Chains
• Accompanying God of Fiesta
• Generous God of the Religions
• Creator Spirit in the Evolving World
• Trinity: The Living God of Love

Elizabeth A. Johnson is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University.

And Gerhard Mueller? I am sure he is a fine fellow, like my bishop friend. These ecclesiastical authorities must learn, however, that theological exploration is the responsibility of ALL in the church. And we only make progress in our quests for the Living God when our conversations are mutually respectful, and open, and honest: without secretive hidden agendas.

Now go buy a copy of Johnson’s book………and organize your own adult faith discussion group!

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