Dominus Vobiscum Catholics

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

Happy Pentecost

Christian Decline : Christian Challenge

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

Americans are shifting away from organized religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christian Democracy: Amazing Grace

Continuing last week’s reflection about the theocratic distortion of Christian life……

The church as theocracy always gets in the way of accepting the church as democracy, the community of faith. (I have a couple bishop friends who get red-faced and throw pontifical fits when I speak about democracy in the church. They are good men but terribly short-sighted.) Theocracy blinds people to the full human reality of the Incarnation: God with us in the human journey. Not out there or up there passing judgment on lowly humans down below. Closer to us than the air in our lungs.

The Christian democratic experience is symbol and reality of God’s presence in human life. Leadership in the church should not be the old vertical pyramid but a horizontal circle of members and leaders in community and in conversation with each other: shared discussion, shared responsibility for the community, and shared decision-making. Vatican II called it collegiality. One of my old Louvain professors called it the infallibility of the people of God.

Indeed. Sometimes in fact church “members” see things more clearly than church “leaders.” It was that way from the beginning. The first followers of Jesus who gave witness to and announced that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women members of the community of disciples. (An important reminder for certain men at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith….)


Vox populi vox Dei is an old understanding: the voice of the people is the voice of God. Sometimes it takes a very long time for certain Christian realities to sink in. Across the globe, the people of God have been speaking clearly about issues of marriage, gender, sexuality, liturgy, and leadership in the church. Many leaders up there in their ecclesiastical pyramids still remain deaf, blind, and paralyzed like old (and occasionally young) static sphinxes.

Last month, for instance, students at the Catholic University of Santiago launched a demonstration against Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, because of his dismissal of a prominent liberation theologian, Professor Jorge Costadoat. The widely-respected Jesuit priest and professor of theology has been outspoken on the social mission of the Church, about a contemporary and broader understanding of sexual morality, and about Communion for divorcees who have remarried.

In a letter to the newspaper, El Mercurio, Fr Costadoat said he did not know what the cardinal, who is Grand Chancellor of the university, was accusing him of. Fr Costadoat told El Mercurio that there were other professors at the university who were “fearful” about their future, feeling they were “being watched” because of their contemporary theological views.

Often in the news, Cardinal Ezzati, is one of Pope Francis’ group of nine advisers and one of the first bishops whom Francis had made a cardinal. He is also a conservatively controversial figure in the Chilean Church.

Cardinal Ezzati was accompanied at last month’s event, where the student demonstration took place, by the newly-appointed Bishop Juan Barros, who was also targeted by the protesters. Bishop Barros is alleged to have colluded in or covered up the child abuse committed by the priest Fernando Karadima, who was banned from ministry by the Vatican. More than a thousand Catholics have protested the appointment of Barros as Bishop of Osorno and have petitioned Pope Francis to have him removed. Barros still remains in place.

In Chile the old power structure appears deaf and blind to the protests. In California as well, where in an unprecedented move, more than 100 prominent Roman Catholic donors and church members have signed a full-page ad running  in The Chronicle that calls on Pope Francis to replace San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone for fostering “an atmosphere of division and intolerance.”

Such vertical leadership blindspots are hardly limited to Santiago and San Francisco….

Nevertheless, in the Gospels we see  the historic Jesus stressing the importance of open eyes and ears in the community of faith. In the Gospel of Luke, he reminds the community: “The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me; and the one who rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” And in the Gospel of Matthew: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus, “Son of God,” was not very theocratic. Reading the scriptures, we are continually reminded that the church is a community: a body with inter-related and inter-dependant parts, animated by God’s Spirit. Without distinctions and hierarchic positions, as Paul reminded the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Christian life is an amazing grace. It takes some Christians, however, a long time to really understand it….

Theocracy: Seduced by Power and Authority

After Easter, my wife and I visited Huguenot territory in the South of France. A bit of vacation in the sun and a chance to visit the terrain of my Huguenot ancestors. The Huguenots were French Calvinists and strongly critical of sixteenth century Roman Catholic theocracy. 
[I am you see a critical-minded Roman Catholic historical theologian with strong Protestant DNA from my father’s family. They were French Huguenots and English Quakers, both arriving in North America in the seventeenth century.]

During the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of reform-minded but “heretical” men, women, and children were hunted, tortured, and executed by emissaries of the Roman Catholic theocracy. 

Theocracies are always dangerous and usually end up as inhumane manipulators of human beings.

A theocracy is a form of government in which the clergy have special sovereignty and official policy is governed by officials considered divinely constituted. The word comes from the Greek words θεός (Theos) “God” and κρατία (kratia) “power.” 

The understanding – the official theology of theocracies – is that the king/emperor/pope has divine authority and power given to him (usually a him) and he rules “by divine right.” All of this is affirmed and approved by the theocratic leadership.

A bit of history….

In the old Roman Republic, the Pontifex Maximus (“highest pontiff”) was the highest official in the state religion. After the establishment of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar became Emperor and Pontifex Maximus in 63 BCE, making him the “chief priest” of the Roman state religion. 

When Constantine the Great (also called “Saint Constantine” by some) became the first Christian Roman Emperor, in the fourth century CE, the official religion of the Roman Empire changed to Christianity. (I am not so convinced Constantine was really a Christian but that is another discussion…)

Surrendering power and authority, however, is never easy.  

The first Christian emperors still retained the title of Pontifex Maximus. It was Pontifex Maximus Constantine, remember, who had called the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) to settle the Arian controversy and re-emphasize his own divinely-given power and authority. 

Constantine’s Council at Nicaea did more than simply reaffirm the divinity of Jesus. By basically cutting-off philosophical discussion about the nature of reason, (a long discussion about Jesus being the Logos) Western philosophy became trapped in a notion of truth that was absolute, unchanging, and eternal and Christianity, especially its Roman Catholic expression, became obsessed with defending static and unchanging expressions of truth, by asserting that only the Church of Rome possessed the complete truth.

In any event….The Roman Emperor Gratian (c. 360 CE) finally gave the pope the title Pontifex Maximus. 

The fourth century, therefore, brought a major paradigm change for Christianity. The century that began with the Roman Pontifex Maximus torturing and murdering Christians…to please and placate the Roman gods….ended with Christians torturing and murdering non-Christians under orders from the pope – the new Pontifex Maximus – parading through the streets of Rome with his pontifical retinue. The purpose was the same: to please and placate God by destroying God’s enemies. 

Thanks to Constantine, the Christian understanding of God was modified as well. God became the distant task-master who, like the old displaced Roman gods, could be occasionally sadistic and sick: a god who needed to be constantly appeased and always obeyed, a god who needed the death of his opponents, a god who manipulated people through fear and anxiety about this or the next life, and a god who required the death of his Son to compensate for human sinfulness. Very sad.

Terribly far removed from God the loving Father of Jesus of Nazareth. Far removed from God is love.

Gradually all power and authority moved into papal hands and the popes began to dress and behave like Roman Emperors. For centuries, they were very good at it. The papal title Pontifex Maximus was used right into the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who, red shoes and all, replicated Roman imperial style and authority in grand style…. 

Fortunately the title of Pontifex Maximus is no longer on the list of official papal titles. Questions about power and authority, however, are very much with us.

 Christianity is not about power and authority OVER people. God is love and Christianity is about reaching out to people, offering forgiveness, calling to growth and conversion. We show our love for God by loving the people around us. Jesus was hardly a power-crazed manipulator of men and women.

Fortunately, the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, has greatly downplayed the papal imperial pageantry so greatly loved by Benedict and other illustrious predecessors. 

Time will tell if Francis can have a lasting impact on changing the understanding and use of papal and episcopal power. (Some bishops on both sides of the Atlantic have obviously not yet heard the message.) 

Perhaps the “Holy Year of Mercy,” announced by Pope Francis and starting at the Vatican, on December 8, 2015, will do that….

Next week some reflections about moving from static Romanized-Christian theocracy to developmental Christianized democracy.


A Contemporary Resurrection Reflection: Life is Changed

Around 33 CE, Jesus of Nazareth was executed in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities, with the collusion as well by certain Jewish leaders. Jesus had a way of upsetting people more committed to religion than to faith. After his death, the women (first) and the men who were his disciples experienced him very much alive. 

Jesus of Nazareth was not raised from the dead like a resuscitated corpse. After death on the cross, his followers experienced him alive in a new way: alive in God in a new form of life far beyond the restrictions of a physical body and the imaginations of the human mind.

Jesus’ resurrection introduced a major paradigm change in understanding the human condition: life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hatred, people more important than regulations, and the old regulations don’t work anymore.

Christian moral responsiveness and leadership – proclaimed in the Resurrection of Christ – is a journey with God in human life and history, a journey of cross and resurrection that transforms everything. It challenges self-understanding, institutional life, and the very nature of Christian witness and ministry.

I suggest it is far better to speak of a Christian spirituality than a Christian ethic. As we stand at the resurrection and look back at the life of Jesus, we see now perhaps more clearly that Jesus did not just show kindness to the sinner, but subverted the whole division of the world into the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous. 

Far too many people require the existence of the bad against whom they then secure their own goodness, living in a perpetual state of self-righteous comparison and judgment. Every day in the news, we see examples of “Christians” proclaiming their “goodness” by denigrating others as bad.

This past week Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law a sweeping bill allowing individuals to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT people and other minorities. Legislators from Arizona to Indiana have now conceded that the intent of their bills, on behalf of “religious liberty,” is to protect business owners from having to serve gays and lesbians.

Closer to home in the Catholic camp, Cardinal Raymond Burke has spoken out again, telling an interviewer that gay couples and divorced and remarried Catholics, who are trying to live good and faithful lives, are still living in sin just like “the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people.”  

Far too often, Christians too easily and too comfortably forget what Jesus was all about.

Jesus refused to allow himself to be designated as good (Mark 10:18). He understood God to be unconcerned with our division of each other into good and bad categories, because God “makes the sun rise on the evil as on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) and gives the worker, who has worked least in the fields, the same wage as the one who had worked longest (Matthew 20:1-16).

In his life and ministry, Jesus was not simply proposing a new principle of moral life, or a new form of judgment within an alternative system of goodness. Jesus was making available a far deeper way of being Good.

One could argue, perhaps, that the antidote to the moral and spiritual danger self-justification and self-righteousness would be to refuse to prescribe norms of goodness, since without norms there would be no bases for envious comparison and assessment. The problem however is that a mere rejection of norms would not transform the dynamic that underlies the human tendency towards envy, competition, and threatening others. It is precisely this tendency that is inimical to the possibility of true human fellowship, true Goodness.

What then is the deeper order of Goodness to which Jesus gives us access? Jesus opened up new possibilities for human being that are interdependent, with the possibility of participating in God’s Goodness: a Goodness beyond categorizing people as good and evil.

It is in the experience of finding ourselves in communion in a deeper way with other people, with the energy of divine life, so that we can begin to realize the extent to which we had been previously isolated. 

The healing of the self and of human community is dependent on our letting-go of the illusion of both the possibility and the necessity of self-making, by learning to accept our vulnerability and dependence on others without fear of annihilation. This, I suggest again, is the way to understand the experience of salvation for those women and men who were Jesus’ disciples. 

Jesus himself modeled freedom from any project of self-making, entrusting himself entirely to God as the source of his life and meaning. By freely allowing himself to become the victim of the system of goodness in his day, Jesus was able to unmask the mechanism by which the identity and the goodness of the group was secured by denigrating the designated other. Indeed, many people become victims of systems that reinforce the identity and goodness of one group at the expense of those who are cast out.

As Paul reminded the Galatians (3:13) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

Through his own exercises of hospitality and his resurrection from the dead, Jesus enacts God’s endlessly giving life in the human world; and he invites the disciples to “follow me” in that same trusting dependence. Just as the mystical tradition has discovered it: as the self comes to know and embrace its own nothingness, it can finally authentically become itself and receive the fullness of being.

Happy Easter!

(I will be away from my desk for a few days and will return later in April.)


One Nation Under God

Kevin Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University. In April his new book comes out: One Nation under God and his provocative thesis is: “How Corporate America Invented Christian America.” Perhaps the book should be required reading for people in both parties, especially as we gear up for the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In the middle of the 20th century, Kruse argues, corporate titans and evangelical activists rewrote U.S. history and created a pervasive misunderstanding that America was, is, and always will be a fundamentally Christian nation.

As Kruse argues, the belief that America is fundamentally and formally a Christian nation originated in the 1930s when businessmen enlisted religious activists in their fight against President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Corporate leaders from General Motors to Hilton Hotels poured funds into conservative clergymen, and encouraged them to attack FDRs New Deal as a program of “pagan statism.” So began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity in opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal. 

Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders launched a new American ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal government libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting the ideology’s appeal in conferences and PR campaigns. Generous funding came from General Motors, U.S. Steel, and DuPont; and prominent businessmen like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag, and Henry R. Luce.

Following WWII, their “freedom under God”campaign led to the election of their ally Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. 

Ironically, however, in President Eisenhower’s hands, a corporate-religious movement created in opposition to the government became instead a national campaign that fused faith and the federal government in ways never seen before. 

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower revolutionized the role of religion in American political culture; and created new American “traditions” like inaugural prayers and  National Prayer Breakfasts. In 1952, Billy Graham went to Washington and made Congress his congregation. Congress happily collaborated and added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and made “In God We Trust” the country’s first official motto. Active church membership rose to an all-time high of 69%; and for the first time, Americans began to think of their country as an officially Christian nation. (Often forgetting of course increasingly active Jewish Americans.)

Kevin Kruse is a respected historian. Books such as his are invitations for further study, reflection, and discussion.  I suspect, however, that many people will find his book, One Nation Under God, more than a bit provocative as it details an unholy alliance of money, religion, and politics that continues to define and divide contemporary Americans, now so anxious about alien theocratic movements within Islam. 


A Lenten Reflection about Tunnel Vision

Tunnel vision is the loss of peripheral vision resulting in a constricted circular tunnel-like field of vision. For people with tunnel vision, driving a car, crossing a road…..or speaking on behalf of a religious community…..the consequences can be fatal. For the vision-impaired as well as for the community.

When one cannot see beyond his or her restricted little circle, reality becomes unreal, truth becomes personal ideology, and virtue can become vice. Tunnel vision in church, mosque, or synagogue produces unhealthy religion.

Some tunnel-vision-church-leaders look at the community of faith and see only men. Or only married people. Or only married parents. Or only straight people. Or only those in the pews, ignoring the growing exodus of “believers-but-not-religious.” Make your own list. Expressions of belief — official “church teaching” — are then formulated with only these groups in mind.

Impaired vision leads to impaired belief, and impaired statements of belief, even when written and proclaimed in grand style. We have seen that it in U.S. political history as well, although some people bristle when I say it. In 1776 a group of men — the Founding Fathers — gathered in Philadelphia and issued our Declaration of Independence. That historic document proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” The Founding Fathers ignored, however, the dignity and rights of African Americans and Native Americans; and did not acknowledge that women could vote or be members of Congress.

Official belief and teaching — especially in the church —  is a work in progress. Never static. We study, we explore, we learn, and we re-formulate. The “we” involves non-ordained believers, theologians, and ordained leaders. An essential element in the process is being alert to the day-to-day experiences of believers: the signs of the times.

Rooted in Scripture and Tradition we ask: What does it mean to be a believer today?  What is appropriate ethical behavior today? Are my young neighbors bad Christians or bad parents if they have a child through in vitro fertilization? What institutional structures need to be adapted or simply abandoned to meet the needs of contemporary believers? Should bishops live in episcopal palaces and wear Renaissance clothing and ornaments that cost thousands of dollars? While people in their dioceses cannot make house payments? Where are our institutional blind spots today? What does it really mean to be a church of mercy? Mercy for the divorced and remarried? Mercy for the young boy or girl who cannot be altar servers because their parents are gay? Mercy for the teacher in a Catholic school who loses her job because she wrote on Facebook that she supports same-sex marriage? Can an institution move beyond its human sexuality blind spots if its leaders are still a group of older, unmarried men? How long can covertly gay bishops continue to publicly condemn other gay men as innately disordered? What do people really believe today? Why? Most Roman Catholics in the United States see no immorality in artificial contraception. They favor women priests. They respect the dignity of gay and lesbian people and have no problems with same-sex marriage. They do not resonate with the teaching of their bishops. Men and women today are looking for spiritual direction and a deeper understanding of God. Many do not find God in church. Why? What do you believe today? Why? What again is your experience of God? How would you explain that to your teenage neighbor or to the young people in your classroom?

At every place and within all groups in the church, we need to acknowledge and combat pious tunnel vision. So what is your reform agenda? What is your reform strategy? Which group in the church will you endeavor to empower? All church is local. Nonsense and ignorance have no place in the community of faith.