Persistent Paradigm Paralysis

In just a couple weeks we will have the second anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as Bishop of Rome. The Tablet calls him the “Root and Branch Reformer,” while many hail the “Francis effect.” Certainly Pope Francis’ style and bearing are a welcomed change after decades of exaggerated Renaissance papal grandeur, so out of sync with our contemporary world. Even when we are often left wondering just exactly what his words mean in contemporary pastoral practice, Francis drops good sound bites, thanks to his former Fox News, high-level Opus Dei, PR guru.

I have nothing against Pope Francis. His style is far better than that of his last two predecessors (with all due respect to emeritus Benedictus who is still with us) but I often feel that people today focus far too much attention on the leader making grand symbolic gestures and ignore life in the local church.

The local church scene still suffers from what I call persistent paradigm paralysis (PPP) —  a religious and theological disease that gets transmitted in closed static environments where there is little fresh thought, vision becomes tunnel vision, and anxiety replaces imagination.

We saw it last month again in San Francisco……..

At the Star of the Sea school, whose pastor has already banned girls from acting as altar servers, copies of “The Examination of Conscience and Catholic Doctrine” were given to students in second through sixth grades. Part of their preparation for Lent. In that examination of conscience, little children were asked questions like, “Did I perform impure acts by myself (masturbation) or with another (adultery, fornication and sodomy)?” and, “Did I practice artificial birth control or was I or my spouse prematurely sterilized (tubal ligation or vasectomy)?” as well as, “Have I had or advised anyone to have an abortion?” Maybe San Francisco has unusual grade school children?

PPP flourishes wherever people are unable or unwilling to a knowledge that we grow in our understanding of Christian belief, that our human life is a pilgrimage through time, and (nostalgia aside) that the good old days were not always that great.

Persistent paradigm paralysis is really fundamentalism. It is a serious disease: a form of malignant religion that ignores human dignity and particularly denigrates contemporary women. The recently concluded Vatican Conference On “Women’s Cultures: Equality And Difference” that never progressed much beyond its rocky start is a good example. Women in our church are still officially considered lower than men and innately incapable of priestly ordination. All those Catholic women  currently exercising ordained ministry (very effectively by the way) are considered defective, invalid, and excommunicated.

PPP of course is the problem we see in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism. We easily see it in them, however, but often ignore it in ourselves. Jesus says it best in the Luke’s Gospel: “Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” Some people find it convenient to ignore or reject paradigm shifts because shifting paradigms threaten their own power structures and personal authority. Many years ago, when I completed my doctoral studies in theology, a bishop acquaintance told me “Guys like you scare me. You know too much.”

For Roman Catholics the biggest paradigm shifts in the past fifty years have been: (1) the shift in theological understanding from an outsider-God to an insider-God, and (2) the shift from understanding the church as an institution run by ordained men to the church as God’s people: a community of faith in which all men and women are equal members. The insider-God of course is the God who journeys with us, who is part of human history and discovery, and who is the intimate spirit animating our lives. These two paradigm shifts are connected of course and they underpin the theology of the Second Vatican Council.

Fifty years after the council, some people are still locked in their antiquated fundamentalist viewpoint. This past September, in my former parish for instance, the new director of religious education announced that for guidance in sacramental preparation and formation programs he would be relying on the teachings of the (sixteenth century) Council of Trent! What a contemporary guy! What absolute nonsense!

Lots of people within the Vatican’s walls are still very uncomfortable with paradigm shifts in the church. In the days of the Francis effect their PPP anxiety may be a bit muted but it remains just as poisonous.

New Ways Ministry, a ministry of advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, sponsored a pilgrimage to Rome two weeks ago for nearly fifty people. To their joy and great surprise they were given VIP seats for the papal Ash Wednesday liturgy and were led by Loreto Sister Jeannine Gramick, who co-founded the organization. Pope Francis, however, completely ignored them and they were introduced as simply “a group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loreto.” As Robert Mickens observed in Commonweal, another example of ecclesiastical “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Ironic when it is well-known that a large number of bishops inside and outside the Vatican’s walls are gay.

Today, in far too many dioceses, teachers in Catholic schools and lay ministers in parishes are being fired because they have expressed an openness to women’s ordination, have questioned official church teaching about birth control, or because they are gay or have committed the offence of expressing openness or support for gay marriage.

An antidote for persistent paradigm paralysis? Like combating HIV or EBOLA it will take concerted efforts and it will take time. There are three steps we can take right now:

(1) When it appears in our parishes or schools, denounce it as nonsense and unacceptable. Non-violent protest may be necessary.
(2) Insist on well-rounded and high-quality education in our parishes, in catechetical programs, in schools, and in adult ongoing education programs.
(3) Do a personal ongoing education check-up. What is our understanding of our tradition, our history? Is our understanding of biblical research, for example, truly up to date?


There are some very big paradigm shifts on the way. Many connected with the rise of the Millennial generation. Exciting times ahead…… Being on the inside track will be much more fun.



























Three Values: A Reflection on What We Do and Why We Do It

Lent is a good time to reflect on personal behavior: about the religious dynamics that guide people’s lives. We have been witnessing a lot of religious dynamics in the news of course: from fundamentalists objecting to anti-measles and anti-polio vaccinations, to Charlie Hebdo in Paris, to the pope making colourful new cardinals, to the bloody IS beheading of Coptic Christians, on and on…..

What are the religious attitudes, the religious values, that shape human action? I see three: reward and punishment, narcissism, and Jesus-based acceptance. These values shape and direct how religious people behave. They can be the basis for a deep and serious self-examination in these forty days of Lent.

Reward and Punishment

Some religious people believe – and at one time many religious people believed – that God rewards or punishes people for their behavior. Reward-Punishment-preachers remind us that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their sinfulness, they remind us about Noah and the flood, and just a few years ago various religious leaders in the United States suggested that Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,836 people, was sent as a divine punishment for the sins of New Orleans. And for far too long, many Christians have seen the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth as a necessary supreme sacrifice to atone for human sinfulness and appease a judgmental and vengeful God, so very distant from the Loving Father about whom Jesus spoke. In the Hebrew Scriptures (what we often call the Old Testament) the prophets called for justice in the face of evil and for reliance on a gracious and loving God.

Actually the concept of the reward and punishment God works best for anxiety-plagued religious people at an early stage in human development. If I don’t behave well, Mommy and Daddy will punish me.

What are the signs of healthy and mature religious development today?


In the Hebrew Scriptures, unfortunately, God’s fidelity to God’s people was too often seen in a tribal way: God was faithful to God’s chosen people. Religious narcissism. Even later Christians taught that one of the joys of the chosen was to see the annihilation of the unchosen. This viewpoint inspired the Crusades of course and the religious wars in the sixteenth century. Even today, some fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians still operate with this kind of religious narcissism.

The notion that God’s grace is for some and not others is highly problematic and pernicious. Quite frankly, however, Western imperialism and colonialism have been one of its most virulent manifestations. In addition, annihilation of the unchosen by the chosen is always very tempting. Yesterday I was informed in an email that, as two friends were leaving their parish church with ashes on their foreheads, one fellow said “well another Lent.” “Yes,” the other fellow replied, “and let’s hope that by Easter we have killed all those Muslim bastards!”

Jesus-based Acceptance

As a Jewish fellow of his own time, I suspect Jesus of Nazareth had to work-through his own understanding of God and grow and mature as a believer. Perhaps it took him thirty years to do that. Jesus had a human mind, a human will, human emotions, and a human body, etc.

Looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, what stands out in amazing clarity is the sense of God’s grace for all. That is the golden thread that links us to the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith and that connects all Christian history – even when Christians, at times, have been miserable failures at living it out.

With the men and women who were his disciples and apostles, Jesus believed in and longed for the Reign of God. And if we pay close attention to the life and message of Jesus it becomes absolutely clear that for us today, if we are truly his followers, there can be no talk of divine vengeance, condemnation, repudiation, or of religious rejection or exclusion of anyone for any reason whatever. All men and women are radically equal before God. And this is Good News for certain. It is also our Christian challenge.



From 4 to 7 February 2015 the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture hosted a conference on “women’s cultures: equality and difference.” The conference got off to a rough start because of the sexist and women-denigrating images used in the Pontifical Council for Culture’s promotional materials.

On Valentine’s Day 2015 Pope Francis is “creating” twenty new cardinals. Some older cardinals, and perhaps some new ones, have expressed anxious concerns about the “feminization of the church.” Certainly news reports and news images about the pope’s up-coming meeting with cardinals new and old reinforce that alarming situation. (See image below.)

To correct the situation in the church, I strongly suggest that the Pontifical Council for Culture host an international conference on “Men’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” Perhaps the Leadership Council of Women Religious would be willing to coordinate this worthwhile project…….

By adjusting the female/male language a bit, they could use the same agenda as was used for the women’s cultures conference. It would look like this;

1) Between equality and difference: the quest for an equilibrium
An historical overview through cultural anthropology and sociological analysis to outline the condition of men in different cultures today, especially men in difficulty. Referring to the categories of reciprocity, complementarity, diversity and equality, this is a reflection trying to avoid the two risky extremes of this process: uniformity on one hand and marginalization on the other.

2) “Generativity” as a symbolic code
Beginning with the fundamental steps of generativity (desiring, bringing to the world, looking after and letting go), this is a reflection on the ways of “giving life” beyond paternity.

3) The male body: between culture and biology
The body expresses the being of a person, more than an aesthetic dimension closed in on itself: the reflection is on the value of the male body and its communicative force and the relational ability of men. Other aspects won’t be overlooked: freedom of choice, aggression against men’s bodies, domestic violence, commercialization, reduction to a unique model of being.

4) Men and religion: flight or new forms of participation in the life of the Church?
The reflection looks at the spaces proposed to men in the life of the Church, and if men are made to feel welcome in light of specific and changed cultural and social sensibilities. The pastors will ask themselves whether the way men participate in the life of the Church functions today.

Happy Valentine’s Day……


Tremors and Rumbles in San Francisco….

“I think the church’s insistence on the distinctiveness of gender, that being male and female is a charism given by God that enables a person to do certain things and not other things, that gender is not just accidental, cannot be changed at whim, is deeply part of the essence of a person — that’s why this is such a big thing in San Francisco.” An observation by Fr. Joseph Illo from San Francisco, as reported in Crux on February 4, 2015. Illo was explaining why he has banned girl altar servers in his parish. To make things very clear, Illo stressed: “The assistants of priests at the altar should be male, because the priesthood is a fatherhood, not a motherhood.”

Illo was a controversial figure at a previous parish, when he told parishioners that if they voted for President Obama they would have to go to confession before receiving communion.

Father Illo’s current parish, Star of the Sea, is the only parish in the Archdiocese of San Francisco that bars altar girls. Illo said, however, that he has the backing of San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

Archbishop Cordileone — well known for his strong opposition to LGBT civil rights and his affection for the Latin Tridentine Mass — has been much in the news this week, because of a proposed new handbook and contracts for teachers in his archdiocesan high schools.

The new documents, approved by Cordileone, call on archdiocesan teachers to avoid publicly challenging the church’s position on “hot-button issues.” Teacher handbooks will be updated for the 2015-16 school year with descriptions of key points of Catholic doctrine. Examples of the new language that will be found in the teachers’ handbook have already been presented in a “Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church.”

The statement stresses that Catholic high school administrators, faculty, and staff “of any faith or of no faith,” are expected to “arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny these truths.” Among the truths one must not deny are: the immorality of artificial contraception, and that all extra-marital sexual relationships are gravely evil along with masturbation, and homosexual relations.


Male chauvinism is never a virtue; and restricting a free exchange of ideas undermines genuine education and derails the search for truth. We need to build open bridges not close them to all traffic.

Sometimes presumed leaders become people managers instead, and authoritarian control replaces visionary leadership.


Fr. Richard McBrien

In Memoriam

Richard McBrien — priest, theologian, mentor — passed from this life on 25 January 2015. Archbishop Leonard P. Blair will preside at his funeral liturgy on Friday 30 January.

“The theologian’s job,” McBrien said, “is one of critically reflecting on that tradition or raising questions about it, even challenging it, and that’s how doctrines evolve and move forward.”

When asked about the greatest need in theology today, Father McBrien replied:

“I think our greatest need is for well-informed, generous moderation. We live in a culture that is increasingly polarized: in politics, in public discourse, in social institutions, even in the church. The “culture wars” continue to grow more intense, and to paralyze us. To my mind, we especially need Catholic thinkers who are deeply conscious of the roots of Catholic teaching and practice in the Scriptures and in the great classical writers of our tradition, and who are confident enough of what the church has thought and thinks to be able to know what forms of further development are possible. A thoughtful and sympathetic understanding of tradition—as the theologians of the “ressourcement” showed us in the 1930s and 1940s—frees us to imagine what the church can best be today and tomorrow.”

The process continues; and the challenge and the task are passed on to a new generation….


Adult Maturity or Stunted Faith Development?

For many years now I have been interested in the thinking of James W. Fowler (born 1940). His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and that of those around me; and he has greatly influenced my own approaches to catechetics, religious education, faith formation, and continuing education.

Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University in Atlanta, he was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.

Fowler is perhaps best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he outlined his understanding of the developmental process in “human faith.”

Reflecting on religious fundamentalism today, polarization in a variety of religious institutions (not just the Catholic Church), and my own real-life experiences of what I would call healthy and unhealthy religion, I still find Fowler’s analysis helpful and challenging. In the end it is about growth and maturity….or stunted development and locked-in immaturity.

Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg. He defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions about how one is related to others, the world, and the divine.

Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith: From birth until about age 2, people are greatly shaped by their experiences of a safe or unsafe environment. One develops either a sense of trust and safety or distrust about the universe and the divine. How important early childhood environment!

Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Religion is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people?

Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith: At this stage, elementary-school-aged children develop an anthropomorphic sense of the divine. Metaphors and symbolic language are often taken literally.

Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith: From about age 12 to adulthood. This stage is characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage. One fears inconsistencies and what challenges authority. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements.

Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith: From the mid 20s to mid 30s. This is a stage of angst and struggle as one begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs. One begins to see that issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. This stage is Important turning point as one either accepts ambiguity and the need to explore or one simply shuts the door to faith challenges. Is this why some young people become missionaries and care-givers in difficult situations, while others become terrorists and suicide bombers?

Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith: This is the time of the mid-life crisis. People in this stage acknowledge the paradoxes found in human life and can begin to resolve conflicts about reality through a complex understanding that human life is grounded in a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained in any particular institution. Everyone is a truth-seeker.

Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith: Some call this “enlightenment.” The individual realizes that all people — regardless of their sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, or culture – must be treated with compassion, guided by universal principles of love and justice. I think Jesus of Nazareth arrived at this stage when he was close to 30……..And he hoped his followers would arrive there as well. Some did of course……and some still do.

Closing reflection. In all segments of the community of faith – members, teachers and leaders in the church – we need to ask: How are we alert to and ministering to babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults? In not just what we say, but in what we do, are we stimulating and promoting healthy human development and growth in authentic faith? Or…..are we, by actions or inaction, contributing to interpersonal environments that stunt human growth and faith development, and distort individual and group religious understanding?


More Episcopal Polarization: A Sign of the Times?

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday (January 16, 2015) agreed to decide whether all 50 states must allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The court’s announcement made it likely that it would resolve one of today’s great civil rights questions before its current term ends in June.

If indeed same-sex marriage becomes legal across the United States, what will be the reaction of our U.S. Catholic bishops? My guess would be even more of a stormy and polarizing polemic, if recent developments in Miami are any indication.

Same-sex marriage became legal in the State of Florida on January 6, 2015. Immediately, Thomas Wenski, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Miami, went into action and sent a memo to all church employees reiterating that any expressions of support for gay marriage — even if only a tweet or a Facebook post — could cost them their jobs.

Archbishop Wenski is convinced that those in favor of same-sex marriage are doing so “solely for adult gratification” and has said that same-sex marriages “will lead to polygamy.” How that works, I don’t understand. In any event, he has no tolerance for people advocating an expanded understanding of marriage.

“Whatever the role in which you serve within the Archdiocese, you publicly represent the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese in everything you do and say,” Wenski wrote to church employees and included an excerpt from the Archdiocese of Miami employee handbook, stating that all archdiocesan workers “are expected to conduct themselves in a moral and ethical manner consistent with Catholic principles.”

The handbook goes on to state that conduct inconsistent with Catholic teachings could lead to an employee’s being fired, “even if it occurs outside the normal working day and outside the strict confines of work performed by the employee for the Archdiocese…..Employees should exercise discretion when posting on social media sites, and note that online activity indicative of prohibitive behaviors may subject an employee to disciplinary action or termination.”

Archbishop Wenski chairs the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. Is there some irony here? Justice? Human development?

Across the Atlantic in Belgium, Johan Bonny, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, sees life differently.

The official teaching that the Catholic Church can only recognize male-female committed relationships has to change, Bishop Bonny said in 2014 a few days after Christmas. “There should be recognition of a diversity of forms,” he said. “We have to look inside the church for a formal recognition of the kind of interpersonal relationship that is also present in many gay couples. Just as there are a variety of legal frameworks for partners in civil society, one must arrive at a diversity of forms in the church….The intrinsic values are more important to me than the institutional question. The Christian ethic is based on lasting relationships where exclusivity, loyalty, and care are central to each other.”

Bonny made headlines in September 2014 when he issued a letter to the Vatican in preparation for the Synod on the Family in October. At that time, Bonny stressed that the church urgently needs to connect with contemporary society, showing more respect for homosexuality, divorced people, and modern kinds of relationships.

“In his or her life,” the Belgian bishop said “everyone has to deal with relationships, friendship, family, and children’s education. We should not deny that dealing with these issues within the church has brought injuries and traumas. Too many people were excluded for a long time.” Bonny said the open-minded spirit and pastoral focus of Pope Francis have given him the courage to speak out about issues that are important and pressing for today’s believers.

The Catholic bishops of Germany, according to various news reports, will soon approve a change in policy that will allow people in same-sex marriages and people divorced and remarried to still work for church agencies. Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau said that the German bishops would change their existing policy to preserve the “credibility” of the Church. The German bishops had scheduled a vote on the policy for their November 2014 meeting, and reportedly were prepared to endorse the change; but the vote has been postponed until April 2015.

Polarization. It won’t disappear tomorrow. Some of it is quite serious. Some of it is courageously prophetic. Some of it is silly but nonetheless frightening…..Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly of St Louis, Missouri, warned a few days ago about the feminization of the church. He blames altar girls for a shortage of vocations to the priesthood; and he blames women for clerical sexual abuse. How that works I don’t understand either.

Cardinal Burke has launched a program called “the new eMANgelization” of the church (my emphasis…). Burke wants to put more (more?) men in charge and get women out of the sanctuary. “Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women…” Burke said, and continued “…the activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.” I call this cardinatial gynophobia. It is a serious disease.

One thing for sure: the Catholic Church will not be dull in the coming months.


Religious Fundamentalism

The events in France this past week have led me to share once again some reflections about religious fundamentalism, especially when it becomes radical fanaticism. Religious fundamentalism — whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or any religion — is a problem that will not be solved this week or next. If we are going to live on this planet together, however, it has to be solved and it can be solved.

Reflections about Religious Fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalism is fundamentally flawed because it takes one element of the truth and proclaims it as the WHOLE TRUTH.

Fundamentalists pick and choose from their scriptures, using certain texts to justify their narrow vision and actions. Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on their own perceived doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they sacrifice those values basic to the world’s great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring.

In their overwhelming seriousness about their exaggerated 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 their basically static worldview requires. For fundamentalists cultural change is the great threat to their identity.

Fundamentalists are their own justification.

Fundamentalism appeals for a variety of reasons.

For people who feel unimportant or insignificant, fundamentalism says you are important because you are God’s “special messenger.”

For people who feel dislocated in a “foreign” culture and who see their identity threatened, fundamentalism says the foreign culture is their enemy and God’s enemy.

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

For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine nor even be educated in it. Just agree and obey.

Fundamentalism makes the fundamentalist feel good about himself or herself. It is self-stroking.

Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another, because it believes that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist’s worldview.

For people burdened and hopeless about their socio-economic status, fundamentalism says: “It is not your fault but the fault of the ‘foreign’ world out there. ‘They’ are the oppressors.”

Fundamentalism appeals to people burdened by guilt and shame because it exempts them from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame. Fundamentalism says…if you are one of us, you are OK.

Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination; and it justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance and hatefulness.

What should we do about fundamentalism?

The best way to confront ignorance is not through indoctrination but through real education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills. Real education stresses the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Fundamentalists work in opposite fashion.

In all religious traditions we need to stress the importance — the absolute necessity — of an historical critical understanding of all sacred scriptures and religious teachings. And we need to help people understand that change is a fact of life…whether secular or religious.

In the Muslim world, an historical critical understand of the Quran — across the board — is essential for the survival of a healthy Islam and essential for our survival as well. Here, particularly, non-fundamentalist Muslims bear a heavy responsibility.

We need to establish channels for dialogue and institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.

In our parishes and community centres, we need to establish inter-religious study sessions, discussion groups, and shared prayer. We need to combat the kind of religious arrogance that makes one religious tradition “true,” and the others “false.”

In our world with its great migration of peoples we need to study what cultural identity means today and the process of cultural assimilation and change. The great migration of people’s is not going to stop.

We in the West need to practice a genuine humility that enables us to really see the rest of the world and the rest of the world’s socio-economic needs.

We need to translate our vision-gained-from-humility into concrete and achievable socio-economic actions and strategies.

None of this will come easily……..Right now people in France are huddled in grief and fear. My thoughts and heartfelt sympathy go out to them……..A big challenge stands before us; but it is a challenge none of us can sidestep.


A Catholic Agenda for 2015…………

I am an ecumenically-minded fellow, but this first reflection for the New Year (which I originally thought I would post on Epiphany) is directed to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters….


Reviewing the past year and looking forward to 2015, I see seven key action projects for contemporary Catholics:

(1) Keeping the pope in perspective: Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, appears to be a genuine and friendly fellow, and an outspoken leader with some keen pastoral sensitivities. Let’s not however make the old mistake of making the pope – superstar or not — the center of our Faith. Our inspiration, and the foundation for our Faith, is Jesus of Nazareth not the Bishop of Rome. Papal superstars come and go. Christian life, witness, and ministry, however, are the responsibility of all in the church.

(2) Change is a fact of life: We live in a time of gigantic global migrations and cultural shifts. Some speak fearfully about a clash of civilizations. Cultural change, questioning, and temporary cultural estrangement are unavoidable. Let’s not see this as terrible and frightening but challenging and hopeful. The ways in which we understand both God and the church move in dialogue with ongoing changes in human culture, our changing knowledge, and our expanding consciousness. In any event — no matter how hard the fundamentalists try to convince people otherwise — there really is no turning back. We are all on a new journey…..and we are all travellers and explorers.

(3) Sexism is sin: Rush Limbaugh, known for his somewhat comic and always conservative proclamations, has warned of those who are working today to “chickify” contemporary society. What he means is that radical feminists are taking control of society and the media and subverting and subjugating men. I don’t think so. Sexism in civil society and in the church remains as strong as ever. It is unjust and inhumane and of course unchristian. We don’t need a “theology of women.” We need a theology, an attitude, and a language that are all inclusive. You and I must make it happen.

(4) Ignorance is not bliss: In our church, and especially in our ordained leadership, there is great historical and biblical ignorance. Together let us seek good and correct information. Let’s insist on theological updating and continuing education for our bishops and educators. Let us think critically and ask the critical questions. And……may we do this without demeaning the other; but never flinching either from challenging those who make ignorant and sometimes stupid church pronouncements. No one has all the truth. Together we must all be truth-seekers.

(5) Human sexuality: Perhaps it comes, in part, from a centuries-old tradition of having ordained ministers who are officially celibate. Nevertheless, the official Roman Catholic understanding and official Roman Catholic teaching about human sexuality – in it’s great variety of forms and expressions – is terribly medieval. Change here will come slowly; but it will not come at all, unless we all challenge ignorance and protest the institutional sin and hypocrisy that allow sexual ignorance and discrimination as well as sexual abuse to continue unchallenged.

(6) Prophetic church movements: Around the world there are a great number of prophetic church movements, many inspired and animated by prophetic ordained women. They deserve our recognition and support. They not only belong to the Church of Christ but may indeed be its best hope for the future.

(7) God-seekers:
Most importantly, ever mindful of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, let us be God-seekers: explorers of the Divine and creative interpreters of the Divine who in words, symbols, and songs can speak about God’s presence in human life. The number of God-seekers is growing among those who are “spiritual but not religious.” Their journey is our journey as well.

We have some exciting projects ahead of us……..


The Way of Jesus: Beyond Benevolence

As we prepare to officially and ritually commemorate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, I offer a brief reflection. I will return after Epiphany with some longer reflections about contemporary faith and life…..

Last week, at my local train station, a very down-and-out looking fellow with a worn-out looking old dog was begging for money: sitting on the floor holding a tin cup. I had just bought a magazine for my wife and had the change, a bunch of coins, in my pocket.

As I passed the fellow, I quickly dropped the coins in his cup. He muttered something but I didn’t understand what he said. Behind me an older lady did the same as I: dropped a few coins in the tin cup.

Rushing to catch the train we both ended up standing next to each other on the platform. “I always give them something at Christmastime,” she said. “Yes,” I replied with a chuckle, “Do unto others…” Then we both boarded the train and continued on our separate journeys.

Sitting in the train, as it moved across the city and into the countryside, I started reflecting about Jesus; and about how easy it was for me to drop coins into the beggar’s tin cup. I didn’t even have to look into his eyes.

In the Gospels the devotion of Jesus to the men and women around him was something much more than mere benevolence: more than simply wishing them well or being eager to do things for them. Much more than simply dropping coins into their tin cups.

Jesus’ devotion was an expression of sympathetic identity with people: in their troubles and sufferings, as well as in their joys. Their life became his life.

To say that Jesus was also Son of God, means that God indeed is one with us in our daily life, with its joys and sorrows and its certitudes and uncertainties. Divine love is not essentially benevolence. It is a sympathetic sharing in life. Emmanuel – God-with-us.

If I truly believe that God walks and lives with me – as well as with the beggar at the train station – I need to move beyond kindly dropping coins into tin cups……And that is not so easy.

Dear Friends
My very best wishes for Christmas
And may the new year 2015 be full of life and grace for all of us