Thanksgiving 2015

Thanksgiving in the United States has been observed on various dates throughout history. The date for Thanksgiving varied from state to state. Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same date by all states in 1863 by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. 

          President Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to build American unity between the Northern and Southern states. Due, however, to the Civil War (1861-1865) a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not realized until Reconstruction in the 1870s.

          In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. 

          Thanksgiving, as a national holiday, is indeed a day to “give thanks” for the blessings family, food, and freedom. 

          Perhaps most importantly, for all of us today, Thanksgiving is day to overlook our festering religious and political polarization, forget our differences, and truly realize that e pluribus unum is not an historic ideal but a contemporary life necessity. Giving thanks is building bridges. 

          We need a lot of bridges in 2015. Not just in our United States but across the globe. And we are all gifted and called to be bridge-builders.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

As we say in the great Christian thanksgiving prayer, the Eucharist, “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God…..”

The Rage of Religious Fanaticism

The bombing of a Russian passenger jet, suicide bombers in Beirut, and terrorist attacks in Paris. The Islamic State pretends to be a new caliphate, aimed at uniting Sunni Muslims throughout the world. In fact, it is a radical fundamentalist death cult – an extremist mis-interpretation of Islam — attracting young volunteers who long for a glorious martyrdom, as they commit acts of savagery. The group has strayed from the path of true Islam, and its actions do not reflect the religion’s true teachings or virtues.

How do we solve a problem like the Islamic State?

It certainly cannot be solved by any one country — least of all the United States whose credibility in the Arab world has never been lower. Solving this problem will require long-term international and inter-religious collaboration.

Short term satisfaction with long term results? Instant military responses, after terrorist attacks, are always very tempting. No political leader can survive if he or she does not immediately respond to the aroused fears and anxieties of his or her people.

Nevertheless, as long as the primary response to fanaticism is to keep throwing bombs on people and responding with our own violence to the phenomenon, we will not solve the problem. Bombs always boomerang. As Mahatma Gandhi said, if people follow the law of “an eye for an eye” long enough, everyone will become a one-eyed person! Military action can only be one part of a broader strategy that will have to be pursued over many years.

And so my own reflections about a strategy for understanding and solving the problem:

(1) Powerful Muslim nations, notably Saudi Arabia, simply have to stop paying for and politically enabling the mosques, imams and paramilitary groups that fuel extremists and their violent perversions of Islam.

(2) Difficult to understand, as it may be, many people sitting at Boko Haram and the Islamic State really consider us as the enemy. They are convinced we in the West are no good. They are convinced that Westerners are trying to marginalize Muslims, humiliate and belittle them, and give them no justice and no rightful position in the world.

(3) Thousands of non-fanatic Muslims across the world repudiate and condemn the actions of fanatic jihadists. We need to support them, dialogue with them, and collaborate with them.

(4) In place of providing weapons to Arab countries, we must begin providing humanitarian aid: rebuilding countries, building schools, offering financial aid, stimulating and supporting local agriculture and industry, providing housing, health care, etc.

(5) We need to study, and collaborate with Muslim scholars and political and religious leaders to understand and address the very real socio-cultural issues that promote fundamentalism and attract fanatics. Far too often when a Muslim arrives at the border of a country, he or she is picked out and humiliated. Thousands of Muslim refugees are now moving – or trying to move — across Europe from Syria and Iraq. Their humiliation feeds their view of history. What is our best humanitarian response?

(6) In parishes and synagogues and mosques, we need to set up continuing education programs: better educating people about the traditions and beliefs of people in all three Abrahamic religions.

(7) We need to establish international and inter-religious institutes – like the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in the Hague – to study and better understand what promotes and feeds terrorists and to develop strategies for dealing with their anger, objectives, and goals.

None of these strategies requires or should lead to demolishing the values at the heart of democratic societies, including the free flow of people and information. Certainly banning all refugees, as some in America and Europe are demanding, would be an ineffective and tragic capitulation to fear.

Around 420 BCE, the prophet Malachi – recognized in all three Abrahamic religions – spoke these words: “Have we not all one Father? Has not God created us all? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our Father?” Good questions for sure ……. For everyone.



A day before the Paris attacks that left at least 120 dead and the country in lockdown, suicide bombings in Beirut left 43 dead and 239 wounded. The attack was reportedly carried out by an ISIS cell sent to Lebanon from the group’s stronghold in Syria. 

The Delhi-based, Indian blogger, Karuna Ezara Parikh has written a poem that has gone viral since the Paris attacks. “It’s not Paris we should pray for,” she wrote. “It is the world. It is a world in which Beirut, reeling from bombings … is not covered in the press.”

Today I am still reflecting on Karuna Ezara Parikh’s poem, which has now been reproduced on the Internet thousands of times.

She explained why she wrote the poem: “I woke this morning deeply disturbed by the news from Paris, but more amazed by the attention it received on social media. I understand Paris is a beloved and familiar space for a lot of people, but it troubled me that Beirut, a city my father grew up in, had received so little attention after the horrific bombings two days earlier. 

“It also troubled me that Baghdad, a place I have absolutely no connection with, received even less attention after the senseless bombing that took place there last week.

“Worst of all, I found the understanding of the refugee crisis skewed and simplistic. If you’ve been following the journeys of the people leaving their homes around the world right now, perhaps you’ll understand why the words SyrianRefugeeCrisis are just as devastating as PrayForParis. It’s time to pray for humanity. It is time to make all places beloved. It’s time to pray for the world.”

Next week end — following my university lcture on that subjct this coming week — some reflections about ISIS: what and why……..and what to do.


Religious Fanaticism

A few days ago an old friend in Ohio told me how happy he was that (unlike me) he still lives in the USA. I told him I am happy he is happy. “Unlike you, over there in Europe,” he said, “we don’t have to worry about Muslim fanatics.” I told him I didn’t worry about them either but that if I were living in the States right now, especially with the selection of presidential candidates in full swing, I would be more concerned about Christian fanatics. Well that launched a heated discussion that I don’t care to narrate here…. (But we remain good friends.)

          Case in point: The National Religious Liberties Conference, organized by conservative Christian radio pastor Kevin Swanson, was held this past week in Des Moines, Iowa. An array of far right activists were present, like representatives from Christian Patriarchy and Christian Reconstructionism.  

          Swanson strongly supports the hardline Christian Reconstructionist position that the death penalty for gay people is just. He said it’s ok to attend a gay couple’s wedding, only if one carries a sign telling them they should be put to death. Strange observations. Swanson gave an emotional cry about the United States, insisting “America needs to hear the message. We are messed up.” His examples: the Girl Scouts are dangerous, because their cookies “promote lesbianism.” Flooding and fires in Colorado were the result of “decadent homosexual activity” and women wearing pants; and of course hurricanes Sandy and Katrina were divine punishments of “pro-homosexual” cities. Referring to transgender people, and citing Deuteronomy 22:5, he called men wearing women’s clothing “an abomination.” Pastor Swanson also stressed that cannibalism and vampirism are increasingly acceptable. Was he speaking about contemporary America or his own Halloween fantasies?

          Nevertheless, three GOP candidates – Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee – saw this National Religious Liberties Conference as a key opportunity to put their faith on display. (Other Republican candidates were invited but declined to attend.) “Christians are under physical assault all over the world and Christian values are under assault right here at home,” warned Bobby Jindal. “Four more years of these radical left policies, we won’t even recognize our country anymore.” Stressing that a U.S. President must fear God, Ted Cruz stressed “Any president who doesn’t begin everyday on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief.” Ok fine. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister noted for his evangelical views, told the just under two thousand conference participants that, thanks to President Obama, “Our religious liberties are under assault.”

          These three presidential hopefuls (whose chances of making it to the White House, I think, rather slim) jumped at the chance to speak at Swanson’s two-day conference. Do they really resonate with many of Swanson’s extreme ideas and those of other conference speakers?

 A selection — of other positions expressed at the conference: 

                The Rose Bowl parade would be much better with a float where gay people get stoned to death.

                 Natural disasters in Colorado were likely caused by gay people and women in pants.

                 The movie Frozen makes kids gay.

                 Gay people deserve the death penalty.

                 Gay people are like serial killers.


                  American Christian fundamentalist fanatics are scary people. So much of their rhetoric resonates with the National Socialism of the 1930s and 1940s over here in Europe. Televangelist Pat Robertson said last week that gay people in the United States should be forced to wear specially-colored clothing so that, in his words, “regular people would know that the person wearing the said color is a deviant sodomite and that they need to stay away from them at all cost, as well as keep their children away from their reach.” 
Right now I think Christian fanatics are more of a threat to the USA than the Muslim variety….. 

NB: Please note. I am not condemning conservative Christians. I am speaking-out against those who claim the name Christian but have absolutely no understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ! 

Twelve Irish Apostles

To be an apostle, has always meant being a special messenger. Today, November 1, twelve Irish Roman Catholic priests have issued their courageous message, calling for equality for women in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a message that should be posted and promoted in every diocese and every parish throughout the world.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3, 28)

In the Catholic Church women, despite being equal to men by virtue of their Baptism, are excluded from all positions of decision making, and from ordained ministry. In 1994 Pope John Paul II declared that the exclusion of women from priesthood could not even be discussed in the Church. Pope Benedict reaffirmed, and even strengthened this teaching by insisting that it was definitive and that all Catholics were required to give assent to this view. Pope Francis has said that Pope John Paul II had reflected at length on this matter, had declared that women could never be priests and that, therefore, no further discussion on the ordination of women to ministry is possible. In reality, Pope John Paul II did not encourage or facilitate debate on the ordination of women to priesthood or diaconate before he made his decision. Furthermore, there was virtually no discussion on the complex cultural factors which excluded women from leadership roles in many societies until recently.

We, the undersigned, believe that this situation is very damaging, that it alienates both women and men from the church because they are scandalized by the unwillingness of Church leaders to open the debate on the role of women in our church. This alienation will continue and accelerate.

We are aware that there are many women who are deeply hurt and saddened by this teaching. We also believe that the example given by the Church in discriminating against women encourages and reinforces abuse and violence against women in many cultures and societies. It is also necessary to remember that women form the bulk of the congregation at Sunday Mass and have been more active in the life of the local churches than many men, mirroring the fidelity of the women who followed Jesus to the end, to his death on Calvary. The command of Jesus “Go, teach all nations” was addressed to all his followers, and by failing to accept the full equality of women, the church is not fulfilling this commission.

The strict prohibition on discussing the question has failed to silence the majority of the Catholic faithful. Survey after survey indicates that a great many people are in favor of full equality for women in the Church. But it has managed to silence priests and bishops, because the sanctions being imposed on those who dare to raise the question are swift and severe.

We believe that we can no longer remain silent because to do so colludes with the systemic oppression of women within the Catholic Church. So, in the spirit of Pope Francis constant encouragement of dialogue, we are calling for free and open discussion concerning the full equality of women in all facets of Church life, including all forms of ministry. If this were to happen, the credibility of the Catholic Church would gain strength, especially when it addresses women’s issues.



Airplane Mode

Waiting for a flight from Washington DC to Brussels, a couple days ago, I was re-reading Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson. A young passenger, with earphones tucked into his ears and texting on his iPhone, looked over at my book and me. “I used to believe in that God stuff,” he said. “I can’t believe in the old guy up there in heaven, running the show down here,” he continued. “I can’t either,” I replied with a chuckle.

Then he glanced at my nametag dangling from my attaché case, which identified me as an ‘historical theologian.’ (The fellow had good eyesight!) “But you are a theologian,” he said. “But you don’t believe in God?” “I do,” I said “but not the old image of God we inherited from the Middle Ages….I think God is right here with you and me and all the people waiting for the flight to Brussels.”

He pulled his earphones from his head, put his iPhone down, and for the next half hour we talked about faith experiences, contemporary life, his lack of interest in any religion — he was raised a Belgian Catholic — and yet his real desire to experience something ‘deeper in life….something spiritual.’

I told the young guy, on his way home after two weeks in Washington DC, that I meet a lot of people who are turned off by institutional religion. They are turned off by the institution because it does not speak to them in a language they understand; nor does it speak about human life issues they find important. As one of my friends said, we need to change the conversation……

Over the noise in the airport, our boarding group was called. We were both in group three but our seat numbers were far apart. As we started walking to the gate, I remembered a quote from my spiritual guide, Richard Rohr: “In solitude, at last, we’re able to let God define us the way we are always supposed to be defined—by relationship: the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence itself. Not performance but presence.”

“You know,” I said to the young guy as we got closer to the agent checking boarding passes, “I really think you will find the divine presence  you are looking for if you put yourself on ‘airplane mode’ from time to time. We all need quiet time to simply be and reflect. We need to disconnect, occasionally but regularly, from all the noise around us.”

“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living,” Richard Rohr once said.  “We live ourselves into new ways of thinking…”

Sometimes it takes a long time for us to ‘really get it’: What makes something secular or profane is precisely whether one lives on the surface of it. It’s not that the sacred is here and the profane is over there. Everything is profane if you live on the surface of it, and everything is sacred if you go into the depths of it

Prophets of Gloom?

On October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. I still remember that historic moment and especially these lines from his opening address:

“In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.
“We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world was at hand.
“In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human efforts and even beyond human expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”  

Pope John’s words, over the years, have animated and encouraged me in my educational ministry. I have never felt at home with the prophets of gloom, who “have learned nothing from history.” Jesus brought good news. The church too should be about good news.
As I continue checking news updates about the Synod on the Family now meeting in Rome, what strikes me most is the developing polarization — often fierce — that is reflected in the remarks of some influential Synod “fathers.” (What a sad commentary on church leadership and what an irony for a Synod on Family Life that there are no mothers who are high level participants in the discussions and no mothers who can vote about synodal decisions. Does Father always know best?)
It was certainly refreshing and hopeful to read about Quebec Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher’s intervention at the Synod on Octber 6. He noted the “sad and dramatic reality” that women “continue to suffer discrimination and violence at the hands of men, including their spouses.” He asked the bishops to state clearly that there is no scriptural justification for such a bias; and noted as well that New Trstament passages in which the Apostle Paul speaks about wives submitting to their husbands “can never justify the domination of men over women, much less violence.”
Archbishop Durocher, who recently ended his term as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, then asked that the Synod recognize that women can and should be given “decision-making” posts in the church, and in the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy. Finally, he said the Synod should establish a process for opening the diaconate to women. Encouraging indeed. 
But then, a few days later, we began to hear strong (overly exaggerated) reactions from the other side of the hierarchical divide.
Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, and head of the powerful Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Vatican’s top liturgical post, told the Synod that divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage in the West, and Islamic fundamentalism in Africa and elsewhere, both had a “demonic origin” that the Synod had to combat. Adding more emphasis to his remarks, he stressed that “What Nazi-fascism and communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.”
As Robert Mickens reported in his Octber 14 Letter from Rome, “It has been known for quite some time that a number of cardinals and bishops, both in Rome and abroad, are—to put it mildly—uncomfortable with the way Pope Francis’s pontificate is unfolding. Well, this week it all spilled out into the open when it was unveiled that several cardinals—including three top Vatican officials (Cardinals Pell, Müller and Sarah)—wrote a letter to the Pope that basically criticized the way he is running the Synod of Bishops.”
New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who signet the letter, is also one of those “uncomfortable” with Pope Francis
I really have no idea what the Synod will end up saying. Regardless of the synodal outcome, the contemporary Roman Catholic leadership divide is serious, deep, and very real. This is a major turning point for the church. If no good news comes from the Synod, the Roman Catholic exodus will accelerate for sure.
While the debates continue in Rome, the Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, John Myers, has already made up his mind and has given his priests strict guidelines about refusing Communion to Catholics who, for example, support gay marriage or whose own marriage is not valid in the eyes of the church. In a two-page memo, Myers also ordered parishes and Catholic institutions not to host people or organizations that disagree with church teachings. So much for being merciful and inclusive in encounters with the other. Myers is obviously an “uncomfortable” archbishop.
We have a polarized Roman Catholic climate for sure. One can survive in a such a polarized climate, however; but only by observing some spiritual survival strategies:
(1) Truly believe and act on the belief that the Spirit speaks to and through everyone in the church, and that the hierarchy must listen to more people than just themselves.

(2) Be anchored in contemporary life not in an antiquated vision and cultural understanding of the human person that is more medieval than modern.

(3) Continue to educate yourself and insist on continuing education for everyone in the church, starting with your local bishop. Everyone needs a better understanding of Sacred Scripture, of Christian tradition, and contemporary psychological and socio-cultural understandings of the human person in all its variety and richness.

(4) Practice the way of Jesus that calls us to mutual respect for everyone in the church. At the same time, dialogue, question, and challenge perceptions and beliefs that appear to be unfounded, antiquated, or simply wrong.

(5) Understand that the old RCC status quo is finished. The church is headed down a new road; and there will be bumps along the way. 

(6) Realize that being critical is also the way to be constructve.

(7) Realize that speaking the critical word is not enough. We need to be prophetc change agents, or just keep quiet and let those who have learned nothing from history take control.



Voices of the Contemporary Believers

A great number of people responded to my request for their personal reflections about living the faith today. I cannot use all of them here but offer a selection. I greatly appreciate the thoughtful responses of everyone who took time to write. Some people indicated I could publish their names others asked that I not publish their names.

We begin with reflections by Patricia:

Greetings, and thank you for the opportunity for me to communicate some thoughts toward what I believe should be important to all Catholic Christians, and to all Christians.  My name is Patricia Squires, and I am a 65 year old Catholic Christian.  I am a convert of 30+ years and I must admit I have been very disappointed by my Church in recent years.  This is primarily due to American Bishops/Priests seemingly aligning themselves with the far political right of America, leaving me, a liberal American, feeling a bit lost in “my” Church, and wondering if there is a place for me, as a Catholic, any longer.  Then, along came Pope Francis, and he gave me a bit of hope.  I continue to search for others, in our faith community, who consider the following thoughts/issues of utmost importance.  Please feel free to use my name should you wish to…..the Catholic Church seemed to be side-tracked, with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, from the progress begun in Vatican II. They seemed to be more “rules” oriented, rather than showing love and compassion.  Pope Francis seeks to bring us back to that path, and I believe that we desperately need to return to being a more loving, compassionate, and welcoming group of Christian people.  We need to concentrate more on what Jesus taught us.  If we are truly Christians, we must be followers of Christ, and his real teachings, rather than what the hierarchy from centuries ago, deemed to be most important.

A few older priests sent often touching observations. Here I give one example. The other asked me not to publish his name:

I am a retired priest and I am angry and disappointed. I studied philosophy and theology for eight years and more than fifty years after ordination, I find myself in an organization which has grossly lacked leadership and intellectual integrity. The clergy are not required to keep current with the best theological thinking of the day nor assisted in doing so. Bishops feel safer this way since what you don’t know will mean that you won’t think for yourself or challenge anything the Church says. This means that traditional formulations of doctrine are perpetuated without any development and encourages unthinking careerism…..So with parishes closing or consolidating and average clergy becoming older and fewer, ranking hierarchy stand firmly against allowing the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist and we cannot even discuss the discipline of celibate clergy. Instead of discussing the glaring problems within the Church, the hierarchy are campaigning against same sex marriage, with no success, and the perceived loss of religious freedom…..”

Sister Joyce from New York offered a nine-point reform program:

1. Addressing Climate change and accompanying environmental issues in systematic ways. I think this to be the most critical in our times…2. Gender equality and all that it can mean for decision making and for ministry at every level, including ordination of women to the deaconate and priesthood. 3. Restructuring of the papal office and the teaching magisterium so that it reflects a horizontal approach, so that invited to the table of conversation are theologians of every discipline and in conversation with scientific, economic and psychological scholars of some repute today. 4. Getting rid of the hammer of excommunication and replacing it with ongoing conversation on all thorny issues…. 5. Banishing all clerical titles such as Monsignor which one thought was supposed to have been eliminated after Vatican II and all excessive medieval garb a la Burke style who is an embarrassment to the church. 6. Providing a comprehensive pastoral response and welcoming of people whose fundamental sexual orientations are varied…. 7. Think and respond differently to homiletics. It is a well-known fact that homilies are terrible in many local faith communities. Create a policy requiring a priests to get real training in homiletics. Also invite the laity with some background in theology to participate in homiletic training. 8. Make social justice a priority in every parish and provide diocesan training….9. Require all pastoral staff to get training in ethics and morality a la Vatican II plus. To that end, rethink and reverse the church’s teaching on birth control. It makes no sense at all.

Joris reminds us

…Jesus of Nazareth realized that to be devout in any way at all, one must first be adult–authentic, self-actualized, contrite, grateful, and aware.

Pamela, a few years younger than I, introduces herself as

…a 69 year old Catholic woman who reads a lot. My sources are Global Pulse, Commonweal, America, NCR, NY Times. I live in the diocese of Phoenix, so while I support my diocese, I have asked them not to send me the diocesan paper so as to avoid aggravation. What is the biggest challenge facing Christians today?  My answer: welcoming the stranger. What is the biggest challenge facing Catholics today?  Ignorance of the broad richness of the church’s thinking…..

And I conclude this week’s reflection with keen observations from my good friend, Sue, who is a very fine historical theologian:

It won’t surprise you to know that I think the deep-level misogyny lurking in our Church is the most important issue to address — and the thorniest. The research I’ve done on the old churching rite of women after childbirth turns up a 2000-year-long history of fear of women’s bleeding anywhere in proximity to holy places.  I believe there’s a direct tie-in to the utter refusal to even countenance any discussion of ordaining women.  I suspect that a fear of women’s bodies results in the overemphasis on “pelvic” issues in moral theology and, at least in the U.S. church, the embarrassing overemphasis on “religious liberty” as reinterpreted to cover the teaching on contraception to which only an infinitesimal number of Catholics would assent. Until the Church fully accepts that males and females have received the same Baptism (you wouldn’t think that would be an issue!)  we cannot hope for a level of credibility that will permit us as a Church truly to preach the Gospel and be heard.


“Once people start to believe change is possible, 

the drive to achieve it accelerates.”

Patrick Edgar, President, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church


Encounter – You have the Soap Box!

Following up on my thoughts last week about the importance of ENCOUNTER, I am writing this week to invite you to share some thoughts with me.

Please write – you can send your thoughts to me at – I would appreciate your telling me who you are and whether or not you want your observations identified or simply listed as anonymous.

I want to know what YOU think are the important issues for Christianity today. Your concerns. Your hopes and wishes. I will publish what I consider the most thoughtful and/or original pieces that come my way…..or I may summarize if I get a lot of responses.

In October 1517, Martin Luther issued his own observations about Christianity in his day……..

I await your observations.



Promoting the “Culture of Encounter”

During a mid-day prayer service with American bishops, on Wednesday September 23,  at Washington’s St. Matthew Cathedral,  Pope Francis told the U.S. bishops that they should not close in on themselves but engage in dialogue as promoters of a “culture of encounter.”

Good advice for all bishops, for all popes, and for all of us: building bridges, learning together through constructive dialogue, as we engage in and promote a culture of encounter.

Interested in trends and movements, I see at least four areas for a contemporary Roman Catholic cultural encounter: a polarized church, institutional discomfort with an historical-critical understanding of scripture and tradition, an institutional blindness toward women priests, and a questionable institutional environmental morality…..Of course there are many other areas for “encounter.”


Writing in the Boston Globe on September 21 (“Pope Francis’ balancing act”), historian Gary Wills observed that there are now two Roman Catholic churches and each is in some degree alien to the other: “our church” which is people-oriented and “the other church” which is hierarchy-oriented.

Our church wants married priests (72 percent in a March 2014 Pew poll), wants women priests (68 percent), and uses contraceptives for family planning (77 percent). The “other church” remains opposed to these realities. Priests in “our church” know that their parishioners do not agree with the official positions of the “other church,” but they do their best to listen, support, and minister to them. Priests committed to “other church,” as Wills notes, “do not look around at their congregations. They look up at the hierarchical ladder they mean to climb. They are not pastors but careerists.”


Our religious knowledge, ideas, and beliefs are not static. One cannot correctly understand Sacred Scripture without an historical-critical understanding: how the culture, language, and life environment of people back then affected the meaning of the texts back then.

But this holds true as well for all official doctrinal pronouncements. They too need to be understood in their own historical contexts, over the centuries.

We do not have the same cosmology, philosophy, or cultural world view of the churchmen who wrote the Nicene Creed, for instance. We really could use a contemporary creed. (In one of my theology classes, I asked my students to write their own creeds. The results were wonderfully uplifting because they gave witness to genuine belief.)

When it comes to an historical-critical understanding of Catholic belief, “other church” people really need some in-service updating. I have often thought that bishops (including popes of course) should be required to take and satisfactorily pass a certain number of continuing education courses every couple years, in order to maintain their certification as trust-worthy and knowledgeable leaders in the church. If they don’t pass, they could be given a year’s leave of absence for further study, or be simply asked to retire.

All doctrinal formulations are provisional. They worked yesterday. Some work today. Others need to be reformulated in the light of contemporary theological understanding and the continuing growth in human understanding. Contemporary people, for instance, would not follow the advice of a medical doctor anchored in nineteenth century medical practice and understanding. Why then should it be good religious practice to follow the prescriptions of church leaders still anchored in an antiquated culture, language, theology, and world view?


In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis wrote: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” Here of course we need a bit of historical-critical reflection.

Certainly the historical Jesus did not ordain any women. On the other hand, he didn’t ordain any men either. A man of his time, the idea of ordination probably never entered Jesus’ mind. We do know that in the early church those who presided at Eucharist were the leaders of small Christian communities. We know as well that among those leaders were men and women. Just as we know that among Jesus disciples were men and women; and among the early apostles there were men and women.

Of course women presided at Eucharist in the early church. And of course they do so today.

Women’s ordination is a contemporary reality, as it should be. It is a reality that institutional leadership needs to “encounter,” acknowledge, accept, and promote. With all due respect to those who still repeat it, asserting that women cannot be ordained ministers (priests) is an ignorant observation. And we all know that such ignorance is never bliss.


Pope Francis has been a strong advocate for human responsibility for the environment. He regularly urges the world to phase out highly-polluting fossil fuels. In his encyclical Laudato  si’ (dated 24 May 2015 but officially published on 18 June 2015) he stressed: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels … needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” Some of his fellow U.S. bishops, however, are still not getting the message.

According to Reuters (see September 22, 2015, “In clash with pope’s climate call, U.S. Church leases drilling rights.”), in the very heart of U.S.A. oil country, several dioceses and other Roman Catholic institutions are leasing out drilling rights to oil and gas companies to bolster their finances. In the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, for instance, church officials have signed three new oil and gas leases – and this after Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical.

A Reuters review of county documents in Texas and Oklahoma has found 235 oil and gas leasing deals signed by Roman Catholic Church authorities since 2010. These two states, most recently, have been at the forefront of a boom in U.S. energy production. Church authorities receive a royalty ranging from 15 to 25 percent of the value of what is taken out of the ground. Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley signed the most recent deal on September 3, 2015, giving privately held oil company Comanche Resources rights to operate on 160 acres in Major County in exchange for 18.75 percent of the value of the oil and gas produced.

During his September 23 address to the group of about 300 U.S. bishops, Pope Francis told the bishops to dialogue fearlessly. Indeed, we must all do that if we will promote “encounter.”

Genuine dialogue only happens, however, when the dialogical partners accept two principles of co-operation:

(1) No one is excluded because of gender, sexual orientation, or theological stance.

(2) No one has all the truth.

We dialogue because we humbly acknowledge that we still have a lot to learn from the other, about the other, and about ourselves.