Speaking of the Devil : Polarization in the Roman Catholic Hierarchy

Posted October 25, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, is “very disturbed” that there are debates about official Roman Catholic teachings about people with a same-sex orientation and remarried Catholics receiving Eucharist. In fact, Chaput said in a New York, earlier this week, that this month’s Vatican summit sent a confusing message; and he stressed that “confusion is of the devil.”

“I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod, the Archbishop said. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.” Archbishop Chaput also condemned gay activists for their “dishonesty” and “hatred” of gay marriage foes; and he said portrayals of them as homophobic are “dishonest and evil.”

Over in Providence, Rhode Island, Bishop Thomas Tobin offered his “random thoughts” on the recent Synod of Bishops: “In trying to accommodate the needs of the age, as Pope Francis suggests, the Church risks the danger of losing its courageous, counter-cultural, prophetic voice, a voice that the world needs to hear,” he wrote. “The concept of having a representative body of the Church voting on doctrinal applications and pastoral solutions strikes me as being rather Protestant.”

The Bishop of Providence did have kind words for Pope Francis: “Pope Francis is fond of ‘creating a mess.’ Mission accomplished.” His highest praise, however, went to Cardinal Raymond Burke: “Wherever he serves, Cardinal Burke will be a principled, articulate and fearless spokesman for the teachings of the Church.”

If he hasn’t already done it, Cardinal Burke will soon be emptying his desk and handing-in his office key at the Apostolic Signatura. Burke, well-known for his high Renaissance ecclesiastical dress, finds Pope Francis far too lenient with liberals who would water-down Catholic teaching. He and other far-right bishops were highly critical of the open-minded interim document released halfway through the recent synod. That report had suggested that the Catholic Church should be “welcoming to homosexual persons” and open to lifting the no-Communion ban for remarried divorcees.

Burke has accused Pope Francis of harming the Church by allowing free-ranging discussions on key contemporary issues. For Cardinal Burke homosexual men and women are “intrinsically disordered” and homosexual acts are “wrong and evil.” Perhaps “intrinsic disorder” is in the eyes of the beholder? A majority of U.S. Catholics, today, now favor same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless….Roman Catholic hierarchical polarization is a fact of life. Perhaps it is good to shake-up the institution from time to time. A continually reforming church is a healthy thing. Let the discussions continue, let transparency be the operative value. Let us think, reflect, and debate at all levels in the church. I think the Holy Spirit thrives in this kind of environment.

Blaming the devil for opposing Catholic viewpoints? Maybe we are simply too close to Halloween…….

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Young U.S. Catholics on the Move

Posted October 19, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


Sometimes I fear the Catholic Church in the United States will soon be a conglomeration of grey heads, far-right political protesters, and assorted other people who resonate more with a nineteenth century ethos than with contemporary realities. The final report from the recently concluded synod in Rome – hopeful midway – is less encouraging at its conclusion.

My reflection this week, however, is about young Catholics. While the Vatican vacillates about accepting gays, the Pew Research Center reports that nearly 85% of self-identified Catholics (between the ages of 18 and 29) believe gays and lesbians should be accepted by society. And 75% are in favor of same-sex marriage.

One of my friends reacted to the Pew finding with the comment that “these young Catholics are hardly Catholic.” He may have a point. Another recent study indicates that 80% of today’s young Catholics will have left the Catholic Church by the time they are 23. Change in the wind….

In any event, I have gone back to re-read a book I may have mentioned earlier: Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church. (Oxford University Press) The book is based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, which in 2002 began to study the evolving religious values of 3,290 young Catholics, when they were 13 to 17 years old. They are now, of course, young adults between the ages of 23 and 27.

The book offers some sobering realities. Like climate change, we can begin to take things seriously or ignore the findings and let things – people – go.

• Young Catholics are less knowledgeable about their faith. They don’t understand it, and it doesn’t draw their interest.

• They are more lived-experience-based than church-teaching-based. Their own experiences and those of their peer group shape their understanding of Christian truth and value.

• While they tend to solidly affirm central Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ, they clearly disagree with the church when it speaks about human sexuality, gender differences, birth control, and abortion.

• In general the church does not play a big role in their lives; and they are increasingly less involved in it, e.g. regular liturgical participation.

• Like a growing number of Americans, young American Catholics see themselves as “more spiritual than religious.” Yes I know, this phrase invites a lot of reflection….

• Young American Catholics therefore are more open-minded about and tolerant of people who belong to other Christian traditions and other religions. The Catholic Church for them is simply one denomination among many. It may be of value today but perhaps not tomorrow.

Older Roman Catholics….and Roman Catholic leaders….have a lot to ponder these days. Putting heads in the sand is very tempting.

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Contemporary Catholic Belief: Change in the Air?

Posted October 14, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


On October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican council, much to the dismay of his nemesis Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ottaviani would work hard to undermine and derail the work of the council. In the end, of course, John’s vision prevailed. History here offers a contemporary reminder.

Theological polarization at the managerial-hierarchical top of the institutional church is nothing new. Fifty-two years ago, it was Pope John and people like the Belgian Cardinal Suenens on the “progressive” side. Today we see Pope Francis and people like Cardinal Kasper in theological dissonance with “conservative” hierarchs like Cardinal Raymond Burke and the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who warn that adherents to the Kasper viewpoint are “heretics.” So what is going on here?

John Allen, formerly of the National Catholic Reporter and now at the Boston Globe and most recently as well at Crux, says it is the reappearance of “gradualism” in Catholic theology. In fact “gradualism” is a euphemistic way of saying that life changes, our understanding of life changes, and therefore our theological and ethical understandings change. Our developing understanding of the human condition has always had major theological and ethical implications. Fifty years ago, we called that “reading the signs of the times.”

Frankly, I really don’t like using the terms “conservative,” “traditional,” and “liberal” or “progressive.” They don’t help today. Many of my friends call me a “progressive” Catholic, yet I would contend that I am very much anchored in Catholic “tradition” and trying to “conserve” it.

A far better way of understanding contemporary Catholic polarization is to see two approaches to living-out our faith today: (1) a theology of unquestioning adherence to official doctrinal formulations — many more than a thousand years old; and (2) a theology that reflects on contemporary lived-faith experiences.

Cardinal Müller would strongly uphold the first approach. Cardinal Kasper the second. Although it is still difficult to clearly read what is gong on at the Synod in Rome, there are indications that more than a few bishops would now align themselves with Kasper rather than Müller.

This past Thursday, October 9, the head of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, for instance, said he saw a major shift — a new starting place for theological reflection — by bishops at the synod.

What’s happening within the Synod, Durocher observed, is that we are seeing a more inductive way of reflecting; starting from the true situation of people and trying to figure out, ‘what is going on here?’….We are finding that the lived experience of people is also a theological source…a place for theological reflection.

Not all Catholics and Catholic organisations, like “Voice of the Family,” are pleased with the life-based approach of people like Archbishop Durocher.

This morning, October 14, I read the reactions of Patrick Buckley, Voice of the Family’s Irish representative. He writes:

The Synod’s mid-way report represents an attack on marriage and the family. For example, the report in effect gives a tacit approval of adulterous relationships, thereby contradicting the Sixth Commandment and the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the indissolubility of marriage.

The report undermines the Church’s definitive teaching against contraception, by using the coded language of ‘underlin[ing] the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control.’ This language is the code of those who wish to reduce the Church’s doctrines to a mere guide, thus leaving couples free to choose contraception in so-called ‘conscience.’

The report accepts wrongly that there is a value in the homosexual orientation. This contradicts the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.

Nevertheless….the days of the flat-earth society are over. (Even Medieval Latin has been finally jettisoned as Vatican-speak meeting language.) Lived-experience theological reflection is contemporary and real; and it challenges completely the rigid doctrine-based-rule-of-life approach of people like Cardinal Burke and groups like Voice of the Family. Their theology often leads to archaic solutions for contemporary problems, because it is so closed-minded and rigidly unchanging.

Catholic belief and official Catholic teaching do and must always change. We are discovery people, always on pilgrimage. And we believe that the Spirit of Christ had not abandoned us.

Unchanging Catholic teaching? Not my experience, actually. I remember when official teaching said women were inferior to men, that Protestants (like my Dad) were followers of a “false religion,” that the “ordained” were, thanks to their sacramental character, intrinsically superior human beings and on a higher spiritual plane than “ simple lay people.” I remember when the “insidious Jews” were denounced as “Christ-killers.” And I will never forget when eating a hamburger on a Friday was a one-way ticket to hell, unless one got to confession….But…..we grow in our understanding….and we move on.

A word of warning: when reflecting about doctrine-based belief and contemporary-life-based belief, I am not saying it is matter of choosing one system over the other. It is both and…… The “and” is that each theological approach must critique and help clarify the other. That is no small task. It demands and requires mutual respect, clear and open dialogue, and a great deal of humility. No one has all the answers. We travel toward the truth….and we must travel together. That is the nature of a community of faith.

I really don’t know what will finally result from the current Synod in Rome. I don’t know what the lasting impact of Pope Francis will be. I have no doubts however that contemporary Roman Catholic management people have now accepted the fact that theological pluralism, like multilingualism, is now a contemporary Catholic reality.

Who knows what this will bring?

I had a dream last night….A future head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith went on Vatican radio and television and solemnly proclaimed: “Progress in Catholic belief is now our most important product.”

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Youthful Inspiration………An Unfinished Reflection

Posted October 4, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


Several images of highly motivated young men and women passed through my old head this past week.

The first was of John Condon, at his grave outside Ypres, Belgium. John was a fourteen years old soldier, killed in the “Great War.” I spent about fifteen minutes at his grave – alone and with old-man watery eyes. What motivated him? Who inspired him? He lied about his age so he could leave his parents and friends and go to war. What we’re his life dreams?

Later that day, my son, two very good friends visiting from Michigan, and I passed along the graves of tens of thousands and tens of thousands and tens of thousands of young men who gave their lives in WWI fighting the “enemy.” Their inspiration? Many of them, when one reads the notes they left behind, were highly idealistic….Others of course went because they had to.

On our Ypres visit that day, we stood as well at a mass grave — a bit larger than my living room — containing the remains of twenty thousand First World War enemy (German) soldiers. In their own way, they too were once young and idealistic. In another corner of the same cemetery, the somber graves of a group of soldiers, who had been the best and brightest graduates of the University of Berlin. The enemy.

Simultaneous memorials….The same day the four of us were visiting WWI burial sites In Belgium, my friends (high school and college classmates) back in Detroit were gathered for the funeral of our classmate and friend, Father Charlie.

Charlie and I were once idealistic young seminarians, answering our own calls and entering Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary at age fourteen. Answering our own calls took us in different directions. The calls nevertheless were real. About that I have no doubts. The year Charlie was ordained, my wife and I celebrated our engagement. We have now been married close to forty-five years.

Getting home and checking end-of-the-day news on my little iPad, I marvelled at the energy and courage of youthful pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Their leader a charismatic young man about sixteen years old. Who inspired these young people? From whence their courage to protest? What will they do when the protest is over?

The next morning’s newspaper had a major report about another kind of youthful protest. Driven by grievances, resentments, and frustrations, young second generation immigrants in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Germany who are now signing-up and becoming heartlessly savage and cruel young soldiers in support of the Islamic State. Their inspiration? Who motivated them? Why? All very young men and very young women. Leaving family and friends. For a cause they find noble?

Last night, before going to bed after a long and busy day, I read a few pages from the Gospel According to Mark. I thought about those other young young men and women – in their late teens – who followed Jesus from Nazareth. Today we call them disciples and apostles.

Where do young people today find their inspiration? Who or what motivates them? Who or what animates them to such a degree test they are willing to sacrifice their young lives?

And of course….what is our responsibility – as individuals and as church – in all of this?

Frankly, I have no simple answers…..

May Charlie, old friend and once also young and idealistic, rest in peace.

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An Alternative for Confronting ISIS……

Posted September 26, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


Trying to control radical religious fundamentalists, by bombing and shooting them, is like trying to control a forest fire, by burning down the entire forest — forgetting, of course, that sparks will be carried by the wind into neighboring forests.

This year we commemorate the centennial of the “Great War to End all Wars.” A major accomplishment of that First World War was setting the stage for the Second World War.

When will we begin to understand that increased military violence simply leads to a continual cycle of violent interventions, that never really address the root causes of conflicts: poverty, ignorance, social inequality, cultural blindness, religious discrimination, and economic imperialism?

What would the ethic of Jesus say about dealing with ISIS? How would that ethic have us respond to the situation in Iraq, Syria, and points East and West today?

I am not a professor of political science; but an historical theologian, who, necessarily, has studied a lot of wars and Christian violence over the years.

When, under Constantine, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s state religion, it lost much of its counter-culture influence. It quickly put on the breastplate and ideology of administrative torture and violence, for dealing with wayward people and various kinds of enemies.

After 1,700 years not much has changed. We have been stuck in cycles of violence, with little or no capacity to reflect and realize there can be other ways of dealing with violent and destructive human beings: non-violent resistance, better education and enlightenment, multi-cultural understanding and acceptance, inclusive governance and diplomacy, sustainable development, and community-level peace and reconciliation processes.

Perhaps we are slow learners. Arming some or all rebel groups in Syria makes about as much sense today as support for the Afghanistan “freedom fighters” did in the 1980′s. And……lest we forget……George Bush Jr’s invasion and military engagement in Iraq contributed to the current sectarian divides, and helped lay the foundations for today’s extremist ideologies, including the growth of ISIS.

If the West is going to send or drop anything in the Middle East, it should be humanitarian aid not more bombs and destruction. It should contribute to the building-up of the infrastructure instead of destroying it. It should halt the proliferation of (produced in the West and sold by Westerners) weapons in the region, promote education, promote broad-based access to unbiased knowledge and information, really work to eliminate poverty, and provide health care.

There are other ways to deal with ISIS. For example, ISIS has gained control of massive oil reserves in the Kirkuk area. Why not an international purchasing embargo that would stifle their resources?

There are other realistic and effective non-violent ways to proceed today.

Concerned individuals, groups, and nations have to be willing to work at it. It is analogous to environmental awareness and climate change policies. The United States and the United Nations need to put on their thinking caps. Christian, Islamic, and Jewish religious leaders (representing the three great Abrahamic religious traditions) need to commit themselves to serious reflection, study, dialogue, and mutual collaboration.

And of course…..Arabs and Muslims need to reflect about how such a violent fundamentalist Sunni death cult like ISIS could emerge in their midst; and they need to acknowledge their own responsibility for allowing this to happen……and their responsibility to correct the evil. They could have and should have seen it coming.

Another non-violent proposal. For starters, in every major city in the United States, England, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, civic leaders should begin inter-religious think-tanks and action-groups to deeply reflect, seriously discuss, and concretely plan how men and women today can live and learn together to defuse and counteract inhumane fundamentalist movements.

They should focus particularly on young people and ask themselves: What have we done and what are we now doing that motivates young men and women to become global terrorists and fundamentalist murderers? What is the appeal of radical fundamentalism? How did the image of God become so twisted into a vengeful and violent being, who delights in the torture and death of the “infidel”? Who, in fact, are today’s “infidels”?

Just as we have moved well beyond the eleventh hour in global warming, we have moved well beyond the eleventh hour in global violence. In both cases, we are all at fault. We all bear the burden of re-configuring the world around us.

Yes, one can bomb and kill fundamentalist fanatics. In the process, however, one risks turning oneself into an equally-evil counter-fanatic and accelerating the growth of still more fanatic fundamentalist movements.

We cannot run from today.

We all bear responsibility for tomorrow.

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The Latino Challenge: The Catholic Survival Challenge

Posted September 18, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


Not so long ago, one of my bishop friends slapped me on the back and told me to “brush up on my Spanish” because “Latinos are the future of the Catholic Church in America.”

My friend had a point, because right now most young Roman Catholics in the United States are Latinos. My friend can’t see the other side of the picture, however, because Latinos are now leaving the U.S. Catholic Church at a striking rate. Especially the young.

For years the Catholic Church, in the United States and in Latin America, has been losing members to evangelical Protestantism, and, especially, to Pentecostal and other charismatic churches. Now however, particularly in the United States, another form of faith-switching is underway: More American Latinos are leaving the Catholic Church and becoming religiously unaffiliated. A strange scenario: a rising percentage of American Catholics are Latino while a falling percentage of American Latinos are Catholic.

Nearly one-quarter of Latinos in the United States are former Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center. By comparison, about 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.

The religious affiliation of Latinos has great significance for researchers (like me) and others interested in the future of religion in the United States, because Latinos make up such a large and growing part of the U.S. population.

By 2030 more than 22% of the U.S. population will be Latino. By 2050, 29% will be Latino and 47% “white” with the percentage of “whites” going down quickly after that…. The times will certainly be “a changing.”

What I call the “Catholic eclipse,” will be striking among Latinos. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 % of U.S. Latinos identified themselves as Catholic in 2013, down from 67 percent in 2010. About 22 % of Latinos today identify themselves as Protestant — including 16 percent who say they are evangelical or born-again — and 18 % say they are “unaffiliated.”

Religiously “unaffiliated” Americans are a growing trend especially among younger Americans, who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” (If I were a bishop I would not denigrate them but spend a lot of my time and energy listening to these “unaffiliated.” They are our contemporary God-seekers and tomorrow’s “believers.”)

The Pew researchers find the rise in the number of Latinos, who say they are unaffiliated, particularly strong among Latinos under age 30. But this under-age-thirty unaffiliated trend is equally strong among “white” American Catholics as well.

The Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project has found that four out of five Catholics who have left the church and haven’t joined another church did so before the age of 24.

So what does all of this mean? I would say the Roman Catholic institutional church has a major Roman Catholic theological problem on its hands, that cannot be ignored by simply complaining that people are becoming “increasingly relativistic and secularized.”

Theology is faith seeking understanding.

A lot of people whom I call “God-seekers” are indeed seeking understanding for their faith and their “spiritual” searching. They are asking for bread. Far too often the institution — at all levels — still seems to excel in giving them lifeless old stones.

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The Church — Misogyny and Patriarchy and Paternalism

Posted September 10, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church


Forty years ago, when I was a somewhat younger fellow and DRE in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I found myself the only man at a table with seven women, during a diocesan conference on the role of women in the church.

When our small group gathered, for the first time, I was the first to start speaking. With a big smile and a lot of enthusiasm, I began talking about the terrific lecture we had just listened to. I spoke a bit too long. (Yes that happens.)

One of the women in our group, with obvious dislike for my long-winded observations, looked right at me and said: “Well isn’t that just what we need in a conference on women in the church: another pontificating phallus? Why can’t you let us women speak? Why can’t you really listen to what women are thinking and saying?” Some criticism stings….

I thought about my Kalamazoo pontificating experience, a few days ago, as I read about Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s ongoing criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The CDF Prefect claims over and over that LCWR is promoting doctrinal errors, radical feminism, and heretical gnosticism. LCWR leadership continues to assert that the Cardinal Prefect doesn’t listen and is simply unable and unwilling to try to understand what they are saying. Last week L’Osservatore Romano – the voice of the Vatican — carried an interview with Cardinal Müller. “We are not misogynists,” he said. “We don’t want to gobble up a woman a day…” he quipped.

A humorous remark? A serious statement of ecclesiastical management style? Or simply a way to avoid confronting the issues?

Does Pope Francis have a similar style? Early in his papal ministry, when asked about misogyny in the church, he joked that the first woman was “taken from a rib.” More seriously the Bishop of Rome then observed: “Priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers.”

And the point is?

In less than a month, we will witness (more or less depending on which news source one follows) the Synod on the Family. Great preparations. Numerous consultations around the world. Great hopes raised.

This week we have been informed that over one hundred and seventy-five celibate male clerics will be entitled to vote. No women will be able to vote of course, although there will be some lay women and men as “observers.” The voice of the faithful? Vatican II’s sense of collegiality?

At some point truly genuine dialogue has to begin. In so many ways today, women, around the world, continue to be gobbled up; and there is nothing comical about it.

In her most recent column in the National Catholic Reporter, Jamie Manson observed: “…. the truth of the matter is, women are indeed being ‘gobbled up’ by poverty, lack of education, inadequate health care, slavery, and sex trafficking. They and their children bear a disproportionate burden of the hunger, violence and discrimination that shatter this world every day. And all of these injustices are rooted in the misogynistic idea that women are not of equal value, ability, and dignity to men, an idea that the hierarchy, with its blind insistence on preordained gender roles, perpetuates.”

Patriarchy in a church environment — well in any environment — has a negative impact and creates an environment more susceptible to the abuse of women than one characterized by mutuality and shared leadership between men and women.

The virtue of mutuality must replace subjugation. The virtue of harmony must replace man-over-woman power-struggles.

Certainly in the church, men need women not as subordinates but as partners. It started that way, actually, in our Christian beginnings….

Mary of Magdala, for instance and not one of the “apostolic” guys, was charged with proclaiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead. No small proclamation. Early Christians were counter-cultural….and more much more inclusive and woman-friendly than later “fathers” of the church.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however, has put the Leadership Conference of Women Religious under male hierarchical control. What happened to woman-friendly counter-cultural and inclusive Christian leadership?

Sometimes our contemporary Catholicism becomes curiouser and curiouser.

In an event….let serious and respectful dialogue truly be encouraged at every level in the church, starting of course in our own parishes and neighborhoods……

Last week I was having a friendly chat with a fellow about Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God. I had recommended the book for an adult faith-sharing discussion group, that will resume in October. My friend said: “That feminist heretic! Absolutely not!” I asked if he had ever read anything written by Elizabeth Johnson. He said “no!” I asked if he knew that she was a distinguished professor of theology at Fordham University. He said: “No…but I know she is just another one of those dangerous and radical feminists.” I asked how he knew all that…..No response at first. Then he muttered: “Rome doesn’t like her.”

Ignorance is not bliss. And there can really be no excuse for ignorance among supposedly intelligent and well-educated people.

Maybe a lot of us men — whether we wear neckties, Roman collars, or red skull caps — need to keep quiet and really listen before speaking so authoritatively.

Patriarchal paternalism and misogyny are still very much alive in our church. They are not Christian virtues.

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