QUESTIONING IS A VIRTUE


Almost fifty years ago, a young fellow from Michigan went to study theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. His academic advisor was Edward Schillebeeckx, the well-known Dominican theologian. Schillebeeckx was masterful; but he gave the young man many headaches and some sleepless nights.

Thanks to Schillebeeckx, I began to question my belief in God, my undersigning of Jesus Christ, my understanding of divine revelation, my ministerial career, and my own identity as a person. I walked out of his classes each week with more questions than answers. One day, after class, I confronted Schillebeeckx and told him that, thanks to him, I was questioning everything! He chuckled and said: “Then perhaps I am a good teacher. Now you must be a good critical-thinking student and pursue the answers.” For me that was a moment of grace. I gradually began to realize that questioning is a virtue.

Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I learned from Schillebeeckx, and many others over the years, that far too often unexamined belief, sanctifies ignorance and leads people astray. We read distorted-religion stories in the news each day: Islamic fundamentalists in Syria, doing God’s will, raping and decapitating “infidels;” Roman Catholic bishops in Nigeria, safeguarding Catholic belief by condemning homosexuality and supporting Nigerian legislation criminalizing it; and in Kenya Roman Catholic bishops telling their people to boycott immunizing children against polio. The bishops, in their consecrated ignorance, argue that the polio vaccines were secretly designed to stop Kenyans from being able to have babies. They said similar things when the government began a campaign to immunize people against tetanus. Not so holy ignorance really.

Is something true because people believe it, want to believe it, or have vested interests in believing it? I ask this question about contemporary church leaders but also about contemporary politicians with presidential ambitions.

Far too often, people who reject critical thinking become slaves to their own unreflected conformity and then endeavor to en-slave others.

Slaves don’t ask questions……Slaves to the church consider it their duty to NOT ASK those questions that might give the church or church leaders “a bad name.” For decades, slaves to the church (bishops, priests, lay institutional administrators) refused to acknowledge and effectively deal with clerical sexual abuse. Other slaves to ecclesiastical conformity refuse to question the church’s official opposition to women’s ordination, finding it more comfortable and more secure to not rock the ecclesiastical boat.

Many people, who are slaves to power and position, are unable or unwilling to ask the questions that might render themselves powerless. One evening, after dinner, a bishop friend and I were talking about religious experiences. I asked my friend (he is still a friend and now an archbishop) “when was the last time you really felt close to God?” At first he didn’t respond; but I asked him again with honest sincerity. He thought. His eyes began to water a bit. Then he looked at me and said: “forty years ago when I was a newly ordained priest. I was in love with God.”  “And today?” I said. He thought for a while then rather sadly said: “Everything has changed…I owe my soul to the company store.”

Questions…….for church leadership men and women:

  1. In my ministry do I build bridges between people or construct barriers, by reinforcing old prejudices or creating qualitative classes of people?
  1. Do I strengthen or weaken a basic sense of trust and relatedness to people?
  1. Do I encourage and promote other people’s personal responsibility; or do I block it, because I find it personally threatening?
  1. Do I oversimplify the human situation or do I help people deal with life’s often tangled complexity?
  1. Do I encourage intellectual honesty and stimulate interest in learning and exploring?
  1. In what I say and do as a church leader, is my primary concern surface behavior — good PR packaging for the church — or the underlying welfare and health of the people to whom I minister?
  1. In what I say and in my own behavior, do I emphasis love, compassion, and growth? Or do I promote fear and anxiety?
  1. Do I cry and laugh easily?
  1. Can I ask for personal forgiveness when I fail; and can I forgive others unconditionally?

Questioning is a virtue. It opens us to authentic life and genuine Christian belief.

Jesus of Nazareth of course was a good questioner. Just a few examples from the Gospel According to Matthew:

  1. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matthew 5:46)
  2. If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? (Matthew 5:47)
  3. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
  4. Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? (Matthew 9:4)
  5. Do you believe that I am able to do this? (Matthew 9:28)
  6. What did you go out into the desert to see? (Matthew 11:7)
  7. If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?  (Matthew 12:11)
  8. Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? (Matthew 12:48)
  9. Why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:31)
  10. Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3)

download

Today’s reflection….


Due to a Micrsoft 10/Wordpress/JDick problem,  some people received multiple listings today….Sorry about that! I know it is annoying!
What I intended to send was this:

——

Seduction by Religious Fever and Fervor

AUGUST 20, 2015 J. A. DICK

    
Each day we learn of the fierce fanaticism of the Islamic State. As I write this, the morning news reports that 82-year-old Khaled Asaad, who worked for about 50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra, Syria has been beheaded by ISIS militants and his body has been hung on a column in a main square of the historic site. His crime: idolatry by managing Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” To date ISIS has carried out sweeping anti-idolatry campaigns, laying waste to vast amounts of precious artefacts in the areas of Syria and Iraq under its control.
Nevertheless, young people from England, Europe, and the United States are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. Efforts by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to recruit young Americans are raising concerns with U.S. law enforcement, warning of the effectiveness of their fundamentalist social media message, which urges young people to travel to Syria and engage in jihad. According to a United Nations report, more than 25,000 foreign fighters have now travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Countries around the world are being confronted by the reality of their young people eagerly trying to get to Syria and Iraq to play their part in the establishment of the “caliphate” ISIS is seeking to establish. The process has been going on for some time. Last October for instance, three teenage girls from Denver, sisters aged 15 and 17 and a 16-year-old friend, were apprehended in Germany, en route to Syria. And there are many others….
But why?
Certainly conditions of poverty and feelings of cultural alienation are strong factors in motivating some young people to join ISIS. They believe it will give them a greater sense of self-worth and a better life. Their ignorance is their bliss.
On the other hand, there are a number highly educated young people from around the world, with strong self-images, who are enthusiastically joining ISIS. A few weeks ago I read about three 15 & 16 year old girls from London England — all at the top of their class — who have traveled to Syria to become “ISIS brides.” Islamic State fighters want young “unblemished” girls for their wives. For these new brides, their ignorance, I suspect, may be a rather temporary bliss.
It is easy to label would-be recruits to ISIS as naive and misguided. The ever-increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join, however, leads one to ask deeper and more uncomfortable questions.
What is happening in OUR neighborhoods, communities, schools, and parochial outreach for young people? Islamic fundamentalism, channeled to young people via a very well organized and youth-focused propaganda network, is highly appealing and seductive. Young people are being seduced by the appeal of an all-life-encompassing fervent fundamentalism that denigrates the “decadent” West.
For young people, being recognized and validated by others is very important. And they have a strong need to belong. ISIS propaganda and propagandists enthusiastically befriend and welcome new recruits, promising instant affirmation and supportive community engagement.
Young people find assurance and security in such fundamentalism:
For people who feel unimportant fundamentalists say: “you are important because you are God’s special messengers.”

For people who are fearful, fundamentalism says: “you can’t be saved without us…join and be saved.”

For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine just believe and obey.

Questioning is dangerous and disloyal.

Fundamentalist membership makes a recruit feel good about himself or herself.

It is self-stroking. If one is following the path of truth, self-doubt is silly.

Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another;

It believes that God hates those who do not conform to their worldview.

ISIS soldiers have no qualms about killing non-Muslim men and boys or raping “infidel” women.

Fundamentalism exempts people from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame.

Fundamentalism says: “if you are one of us, you are OK. No questions asked.”

Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination.

It justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance and hatefulness.

Regardless whether it is Islamic, Jewish, or Christian fundamentalism, all religious fundamentalism is fundamentally flawed because it takes one element of the truth and proclaims it as the WHOLE TRUTH. Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they sacrifice the very values so basic to the world’s great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring. In their overwhelming seriousness about religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social process to ensure that society is forced to conform to the values and behaviors the fundamentalist worldview requires.
And so what do we do for young people who experience lives of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction, and self-harm?
What mission and vision can we offer them that attracts and appeals to their youthful zeal and energy?
Doesn’t Christianity have a better and far more healthy and humane answer to the mysteries of life

than ISIS fanaticism…..

Shouldn’t we be working to promote healthy religion?
In many ways, the ball is really in our court.

Seduction by Religious Fever and Fervor


Each day we learn of the fierce fanaticism of the Islamic State. As I write this, the morning news reports that 82-year-old Khaled Asaad, who worked for about 50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra, Syria has been beheaded by ISIS militants and his body has been hung on a column in a main square of the historic site. His crime: idolatry by managing Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” To date ISIS has carried out sweeping anti-idolatry campaigns, laying waste to vast amounts of precious artefacts in the areas of Syria and Iraq under its control.

Nevertheless, young people from England, Europe, and the United States are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. Efforts by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to recruit young Americans are raising concerns with U.S. law enforcement, warning of the effectiveness of their fundamentalist social media message, which urges young people to travel to Syria and engage in jihad. According to a United Nations report, more than 25,000 foreign fighters have now travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Countries around the world are being confronted by the reality of their young people eagerly trying to get to Syria and Iraq to play their part in the establishment of the “caliphate” ISIS is seeking to establish. The process has been going on for some time. Last October for instance, three teenage girls from Denver, sisters aged 15 and 17 and a 16-year-old friend, were apprehended in Germany, en route to Syria. And there are many others….

But why?

Certainly conditions of poverty and feelings of cultural alienation are strong factors in motivating some young people to join ISIS. They believe it will give them a greater sense of self-worth and a better life. Their ignorance is their bliss.

On the other hand, there are a number highly educated young people from around the world, with strong self-images, who are enthusiastically joining ISIS. A few weeks ago I read about three 15 & 16 year old girls from London England — all at the top of their class — who have traveled to Syria to become “ISIS brides.” Islamic State fighters want young “unblemished” girls for their wives. For these new brides, their ignorance, I suspect, may be a rather temporary bliss.

It is easy to label would-be recruits to ISIS as naive and misguided. The ever-increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join, however, leads one to ask deeper and more uncomfortable questions.

What is happening in OUR neighborhoods, communities, schools, and parochial outreach for young people? Islamic fundamentalism, channeled to young people via a very well organized and youth-focused propaganda network, is highly appealing and seductive. Young people are being seduced by the appeal of an all-life-encompassing fervent fundamentalism that denigrates the “decadent” West.

For young people, being recognized and validated by others is very important. And they have a strong need to belong. ISIS propaganda and propagandists enthusiastically befriend and welcome new recruits, promising instant affirmation and supportive community engagement.

Young people find assurance and security in such fundamentalism:

  • For people who feel unimportant  say: “you are important because you are God’s special messengers.”
  • For people who are fearful, fundamentalism says: “you can’t be saved without us…join and be saved.”
  • For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine just believe and obey.
  • Questioning is dangerous and disloyal.
  • Fundamentalist membership makes a recruit feel good about himself or herself.
  • It is self-stroking. If one is following the path of truth, self-doubt is silly.
  • Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another;
  • It believes that God hates those who do not conform to their worldview.
  • ISIS soldiers have no qualms about killing non-Muslim men and boys or raping “infidel” women.
  • Fundamentalism exempts people from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame.
  • Fundamentalism says: “if you are one of us, you are OK. No questions asked.”
  • Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination.
  • It justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance and hatefulness.

Regardless whether it is Islamic, Jewish, or Christian fundamentalism, all religious fundamentalism is fundamentally flawed because it takes one element of the truth and proclaims it as the WHOLE TRUTH. Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they sacrifice the very values so basic to the world’s great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring. In their overwhelming seriousness about religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social process to ensure that society is forced to conform to the values and behaviors the fundamentalist worldview requires.

And so what do we do for young people who experience lives of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction, and self-harm?

What mission and vision can we offer them that attracts and appeals to their youthful zeal and energy?

Doesn’t Christianity have a better and far more healthy and humane answer to the mysteries of life

than ISIS fanaticism…..

Shouldn’t we be working to promote healthy religion?

In many ways, the ball is really in our court…..

51dwc53r9bl1 (2)

When the Pope Goes Back Home 


Despite a drop in a recent opinion poll, Pope Francis is still wildly popular in the United States. He delights Democrats with his teachings on climate change, social justice, and immigration. His continuing stress on the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional opposition to abortion and his de facto opposition to same-sex marriage comforts Republicans.

In just a little more than a month the Bishop of Rome will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House and give a first-ever papal address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Francis is expected to urge lawmakers to act on climate change, a move almost certain to come under attack from some conservative politicians, who oppose his intervention in the debate. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a Catholic, said right before publication of the pope’s environmental the encyclical that he doesn’t “get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”
In any event, following the pope’s historic address to Congress, according to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Pope Francis “has expressed an interest in making a brief appearance” on the Capitol’s West Front — the iconic facade facing the National Mall where presidents have been inaugurated since 1981. After DC the pope will go on to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly; and then to Philadelphia to help wrap up the World Meeting of Families.

Historic events for sure; and I have no doubts that Pope Francis will have strong observations about climate change, economics, poverty, and immigration. And it is all very interesting, as the United States gears up for the 2016 presidential election. No doubt candidates in each party will use papal rhetoric to support their causes.

But what happens when the papal plane has lift off and Francis returns to Rome?
One of the first things of course is paying the bills for papal security, clean-up, and returning streets, parks, and buildings back to normal. As an older theologian, however, my concerns are more about the post-Francis-visit U.S.A. church agenda.

According to the Pew Research Center, the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. The Roman Catholic Church loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination, with nearly 13 percent of all Americans now describing themselves as “former Catholics.” The number of religiously unaffiliated adults in America has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007. There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S.; and this group — sometimes called religious “nones” — is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants.

Some of my friends scoff when I say that a great many “unaffiliated” describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I don’t scoff for a second. I think millions of Americans (like many of my colleagues, students, and friends) are searching for a taste of the Divine. They are looking for depth in their lives and a genuine Christian faith experience. And they are not finding it in the institutional church.

We need to focus on spirituality rather than continually pontificating about abortion and same-sex marriage. We could learn something from contemporary spiritual masters like Joyce Rupp and Ron Rolheiser. Perhaps the U.S. bishops should dedicate one of their semi-annual meetings to “exploring a contemporary American spirituality.”

The other part of the Pew Research Center report that keeps me scratching my head is about young people. They are the largest group turned off by the church and dropping out. And they will not be returning if and when they start having babies.

In every parish and every diocese — and wherever bright and idealistic young people congregate — we should start listening sessions. We need to hear them speak about their experiences, their questioning, and their search for meaning and depth in their lives. And then we need to appropriately respond, with fresh ideas, creative liturgies, and renewed parish structures and programs.

I applauded Pope Francis when he said about homosexuality “who am I to judge?” But there is a lot judging going on in Francis’ church. Catholic schools and parishes — often following orders from the local bishop – continue to fire gay teachers and employees. Some anti-gay episcopal rhetoric is not only offensive it is downright demeaning and cruel.

We need to concretely support and defend gay people working for the church and in civil society – not just say kind things about “’respecting them as people.” I have worked for the institutional church (high schools, universities, and seminary) for about forty years. The institutional church’s homophobia is ironic to say the least. There are lots and lots of gay bishops and priests out there. Most of them are very fine people. I really wish they would simply have the courage to come out. I think they would get standing ovations in their cathedrals and churches. Honesty and humility.

The shortage of ordained ministers (priests) in the church has now moved beyond the crisis point. It’s like our churches are burning and our leaders don’t want to call the fire department……or our parishes are entering cardiac arrest and no one dares call an ambulance. Pick your own analogy. The situation is grim. And it is crazy. A group of courageous and pastorally minded bishops could start solving the problem tomorrow by ordaining already qualified people. They could also welcome back a large number of those very qualified ordained ministers who left ordained ministry to get married. They could also start ordaining women deacons.

And about women. The clock is ticking for ordained women in the Roman Catholic Church. At some point it has to happen, because it should happen, and is already happening in “Catholic” communities cut off from the larger institution. If the church doesn’t change its archaic views on women, it risks becoming a religious institution that survives on the fringe of an open-minded and progressive society.

In every parish and in every diocese we need to have study sessions and discussion groups about women in the church and in ordained ministry: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And again… We need some courageous and pastorally minded bishops who will start ordaining women right now. If they are called to Rome and disciplined, brother bishops must defend them and come to their support. It is a correct and appropriate thing to do.

My last comment this week is about sexual abuse. The problem is far from over. (And it is hardly limited to the USA.) Many of the bishops who have allowed it to happen are still functioning in their dioceses. It is an old sin and an old crime. As David Clohessy, director of SNAP, reminds us made so far Pope Francis has offered a lot of reassuring talk but taken little meaningful action about removing bishops who allow abuse. In our parishes and dioceses we need to study, inform, and set up action committees to get something done.

The pope back in Rome must set up a process to hold complicit (sexual-abuse-allowing) bishops accountable. He has SAID he’ll set up a process. So far he has not yet done so. If not dealt with dramatically and effectively, clerical sexual abuse will be the undoing of the Roman Catholic Church.
Understandably people will be cheering and applauding Pope Francis in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. They are also the people who must assume responsibility for the church when Francis goes back to Rome. The primary responsibility rests with us and concrete action begins at home.

When the Church Closes Shop


images

Across the United States, the Roman Catholic Church is closing churches. In some cases appeals to the Vatican have resulted in the re-opening of the closed churches; but the trend is well-established and growing.

The big dioceses of course always get the headlines. I first started paying closer attention to the trend in the spring of 2004, when Boston’s Archbishop (he became Cardinal in 2006) Seán Patrick O’Malley announced, in what may be the largest loss of parishes by an American Catholic diocese at one time, that 65 of the archdiocese’s 357 parishes would close by the end of the year. Philadelphia made headlines in the spring of 2014 when the Archdiocese announced that 46 churches would be closed.

And now this summer, thousands of Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York are attending final liturgies in parishes Cardinal Timothy Dolan has set to close. The Archdiocese announced that 112 parishes will be merged into 55 larger new parishes. In 31 of those new parishes, one of the churches will no longer be used for regular services, meaning those churches will be effectively closed by August. East Harlem, home to successive waves of Catholic immigrants for generations, is among the most affected neighborhoods. Three of its seven Catholic churches will be closed.

The reasons usually given for church closings are “demographic changes” and “the growing shortage of priests.”

“Demographic changes,”  of course, can mean a lot of things: parishes with older people, who cannot afford building maintenance; parishes with mostly low-income ethnic groups who cannot afford the costs of church upkeep; people moving from inner cities to the suburbs; and of course the growing number of people simply dropping out of the Roman Catholic Church. Finances are a big issue, often included under “demographic changes.” In New York City, Cardinal Dolan has to pay for the “restoration” or renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When announced in 2012, the restoration was projected to cost roughly $175 million and is to be finished in December 2015. Some conservative and wealthy Catholics, turned off by the anti-capitalist rhetoric of Pope Francis, have warned Cardinal Dolan that they are re-considering their contributions. Looking at the list of New York Archdiocese churches to be closed, one sees that there are nine in Manhattan. If the Archdiocese could sell those properties, I suspect there would be fewer headaches about paying for the refurbishing of St. Patrick’s. Just a thought.

“The growing shortage of priests,” is a big problem for sure. It could be solved tomorrow, actually, if some courageous bishops would begin to ordain already qualified men as priests. (I would suggest women as well, but our US bishops are not ready for that step. Some might be encouraged to ordain women deacons however.) Another solution of course would be to move in the direction of “intentional Eucharistic communities” in which non-ordained people preside at Eucharist. (My old professor at the University of Nijmegen, the Belgian “Dutch theologian” Edward Schillebeeckx, often said “there is no reason for a community to be without Eucharist.”)

Consolidating parishes is part of the trend. Some observers suggest that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is moving toward a parochial model of super-sized parishes, along the lines of the mega-churches. As symbolic of the change they point to the Diocese of Orange California, which purchased Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, now said to be able to accommodate 5,000 people, to be the new cathedral for the Diocese of Orange.

So what is happening in this parochial reconfiguration of the US Roman Catholic Church? Is a bigger parish necessarily better? To me the clarifying issue is understanding the church as a community of faith.

The church as a community of faith is not like a chain of supermarkets, where people come in, put their money in the box, get their religious product from an increasingly anonymous person, and stand in line to get communion — and then head home.

A vibrant – graced-filled and life-giving – church is like a neighborhood store, where people know each other, share concerns, and get not just a product but service with a knowing smile. Christian ministry.

It struck me as pastorally poignant (and pastorally irresponsible) that at least two of the churches being closed in the Archdiocese of New York are prime examples of what the church should be as a community of faith: the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Agony.

The Church of the Nativity, in New York City’s East Village, is a simple cinder block and brick building. Its parishioners are immigrants, working families, young professionals, poor people, and homeless people, who are welcomed inside the church for refuge. All parishioners consider it their spiritual home.

A hundred blocks, or so, north of Nativity, in a poor and mostly Hispanic neighborhood, one finds the Church of the Holy Agony. It ministers to East Harlem’s Roman Catholic, mainly Puerto Rican, community. This church is packed every Sunday.

Both the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Agony have similar histories. They were established in the 1950’s and 1960’s to serve immigrant or non-English-speaking communities with money raised by their congregations not New York’s Archdiocese. Nativity has seen its numbers diminish a bit as the East Village gentrifies, while Holy Agony’s pews are filled for Eucharist every Sunday.

What I find most surprising – and most baffling – is that both of these Archdiocese of New York churches are active faith communities and financially solvent. They are still paying their own way and have little or no debt.

They may be very well-organized institutions; but supermarket churches leave me cold. We already live in an increasingly too impersonal world. I really prefer the smaller local neighborhood communities. They are personal and intimate. They have qualified leaders – whether ordained or lay – and they have a truly face-to-face pastoral presence. Aren’t they really more Christ-like?

When the church closes shop, it loses more than just an old building.

Pluto – New Horizons – God: A Contemporary Meditation


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

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

  

July Closing


  

Dear Friends,

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

Jack

Marriage Milestones : June 26, 2015


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

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

1. Arranged alliances

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

2. Family ties

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

3. Polygamy preferred

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

4. Babies optional

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

5. Monogamy established

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

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

6. Monogamy lite

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

7. State or church?

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

8. Civil marriage

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

9. Love matches

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

10. Market economics

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

11. Different spheres

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

12. Partnership of equals

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

13. “Gay marriage” gains ground

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

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

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

  

Climate Change in the U.S. Catholic Church


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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