A Prophetic Bishop

26 August 2016

When church leaders speak out courageously and prophetically, they deserve to be acknowledged and supported. I wish to do that with Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, of Parramatta, a suburb and major business district in the metropolitan area of Sydney, Australia.

Vincent Long Van Nguyen was born in Vietnam and is an Australian Roman Catholic bishop. He and his family came to Australia as refugees in 1980. This year, Pope Francis appointed him the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, on 5 May 2016 and he was installed just two months ago on 17 June 2016. 

As reported by Bob Shine, from New Ways Ministry, in his blog “Bondings 2.0,” Bishop Long gave a talk last week titled “Pope Francis and the Challenge of Being Church Today.” In that address he explored the meaning of real church inclusiveness.  

Bishop Long:  

“By that (inclusiveness) I mean there must be space for everyone, especially those who have been hurt, excluded or alienated, be they abuse victims, survivors, divorcees, gays, lesbians, women, disaffected members. The church will be less than what Christ intends it to be when issues of inclusion and equality are not fully addressed. That is why you heard me say that I am guided by the radical vision of Christ. I am committed to make the church in Parramatta the house for all peoples, a church where there is less an experience of exclusion but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness, and solidarity. 

“We cannot be a strong moral force and an effective prophetic voice in society if we are simply defensive, inconsistent and divisive with regards to certain social issues. We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, while at the same time colluding with the forces of oppression in the ill-treatment of racial minorities, women, and homosexual persons. It won’t wash with young people especially when we purport to treat gay people with love and compassion and yet define their sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ This is particularly true when the church has not been a shining beacon and a trail-blazer in the fight against inequality and intolerance. Rather, it has been driven involuntarily into a new world where many of the old stereotypes have been put to rest and the identities and rights of the marginalized are accorded justice, acceptance, affirmation and protection in our secular and egalitarian society.” 

In his closing remarks, the Bishop of Parramatta stressed that the church must reform itself by becoming:   

(1) Less a role of power, dominance and privilege but more a position of vulnerability and powerlessness.  

(2) Less an experience of exclusion and elitism but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness, and solidarity.  

(3) Less a language of condemnation but more a language of affirmation and compassion. 

You can express your support for Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, by writing to:  



Speaking of God…..

19 August 2016

Yuri Gagarin, who died in 1968, was a Soviet cosmonaut and the first human in space, on 12 April 1961. I remember the day well. Commenting about Yuri’s time in space, Premier Nikita Khrushchev told the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see God there.” Today I guess we would say, Nikita’s statement was more about an old cosmology than about theology. The question of God and God’s presence, of course, is more than ever contemporary. 

How people contemplate and speak about God has critical consequences. It shapes people’s identity and behavior. People who see God as a warrior, and praise the way he smashes his enemies to bloody pulp, end up promoting and justifying their own aggressive behavior: “kill the bastards.” Or they see God sending flooding waters to Louisiana to punish people for living the gay lifestyle. People, who understand God more lovingly, are motivated toward care for their neighbor and mutual peacemaking. Pick your cause and then pick your god? 

Theologians today – thanks to the increased number of women theologians — are much more conscious that the old patriarchal conception of God, in the image and likeness of the powerful ruling man, had the effect of legitimating strong male authority in social, religious, and political structures. The male Lord, King, and Father God ruled over all; and it gave men the justification to control, dominate, and marginalize women. 

Actually, the human mind can never really and fully know the essence of the Divine. We can never satisfactorily wrap our minds around this great mystery. Nor can we exhaust the divine reality in our words, concepts, symbols, and rituals.

Thinking about God is not primarily a matter of using our intellect but of connecting with our experience. How do people experience and live their faith in different historical periods and in different cultures? 

Traditional African religions, for instance, suggest names for God that are shaped by strong communal experiences: “Wise One, the One who sees all, the Greatest of Friends, the Great Spirit,” etc. 

If we turn to the ancient Hebrew tradition, we see God, in the Book of Exodus, promising to be with his people throughout their future troubles: God is “I am who I am,” as well as “I am who I will be.” This understanding of God was much richer of course than the highly anthropomorphized God on his heavenly throne high up at the summit of the Hebrew three layered earthly cosmology. 

The God questions are essential spiritual questions for us today: “How do we experience God? Do we experience God? How do we conceptualize God? Father? Mother? Ground of being?” 

A number of twentieth century thinkers, with whom I resonate, would say that God is not a person, but that God affects us personally: The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty described God as “a force that is not compromised with the world of adversity, and who agrees with us against it.” The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, remarked: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity; but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

I cannot understand God as external to our life and in that sense “super-natural”…a God who periodically intervenes in our world from outside…..Yet I have absolutely no doubts about my experiences of God. 

Nevertheless, I cannot relate to a God who is a macho-man.  

For some nineteen hundred years, institutional Christianity (to whatever degree it was authentically Christian) lived quite comfortably with prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. They saw it as God’s way. Yet when we look to Jesus Christ, we get a very different perspective. 

My old professor at the University of Nijmegen, Edward Schillebeeckx, called Jesus Christ the “sacrament of the encounter with God.”  

In the the Fourth Gospel, for instance, we read…”I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus restrict the “they” to only men, only whites, or only heterosexuals. Nor does Jesus restrict the “they” to just one religious group. 

Prejudices do strange things to the human imagination. They distort reality. It struck me last week that all those people who believe Barack Obama is a sinister Muslim are the very same people who believe Donald Trump is a good Christian. 

In her wonderful book Quest for the Living God, Sister Elizabeth Johnson courageously delineated the spiritual and institutional problems created by a conception of God that limits God to male images, patriarchy, and male superiority. I can understand why so many bishops have condemned her book. It pulls the carpet from beneath their feet. 

How easily we forget the message and the meaning of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came down on that group of men and women, gathered in fear in the upper room. The manifestation of God’s Spirit on that group of disciples broke through every human boundary of language, culture, and geography. The disciples were called to a new life and a mission to promote a humanity open to all people, because that is where one encounters the living God. That is the gift of Jesus: calling people to step outside of their defenses, to courageously move beyond fear, and their feelings of insecurity, to embrace in a new way of living what it means to be human.  

Thanks to Jesus, divinity is seen in the fullness of humanity: when prejudicial limits are removed, hatred fades away, and what the Apostle Paul calls “a new creation” emerges. 

Christianity’s message is not just about being. It is about human evolving and becoming: where the human enters the very life of God. Tremendously exciting. 

Now….younger theologians need to work this out for the millennial generation….. 

Faith to Faith and Face to Face

12 August 2016

We are caught today in a socio-cultural climate change. Angry self-serving rhetoric and fanatic religion are turning “God” into a fierce combatant, who protects “us the good people” against “them our enemy.” Control freaks manipulate their god to justify terrorism and slaughter. Not good Christianity. Not good Islam. Not good Judaism. Unhealthy religion….So many people seem to have forgotten that God is love.

Around the globe, the religious climate shows the danger signs of people edging toward the old fascism. History saw it in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Pétain’s Vichy France, Franco’s Spain, Suharto’s Indonesia, and several Latin American regimes. Fear becomes the great control mechanism. Exaggerated ultra-nationalism replaces patriotism and displaces democracy.  

People become easily persuaded that human rights can be ignored; and religion too often becomes a tool to kill people and to manipulate public opinion. In February 2016, for instance, Defence for Children International accused the Israeli army of the intentional killing of Palestinian children in the West Bank. It said that the army had killed more than 180 Palestinians since the escalation in October 2015, including 49 children. In May 2016, a Muslim mob in Niger burned Christian churches and killed four people because of a ‘blasphemous’ post on Facebook. Around the same time, in the United States, the well-known Christian evangelist and Focus on the Family founder, Dr. James Dobson, said Christians should shoot transgender people using public bathrooms. He also called President Obama a tyrant, determined to destroy Western civilization…….The examples go on and on. Within all religions and between religions. 

It is time for a change. And healthy religious people have a serious responsibility to be alert to the problem and to accept the challenge to critique and halt religious violence. 

In all of our religious institutions and religious traditions, we need to embark on in depth intra- and inter- religious dialogue that is intelligent, well-informed, humble, respectful, and mutually collaborative in constructing a more humane way of life for people at home and around the globe. Faith to faith and face to face. In can happen in religious education programs in our schools; in adult study and discussion groups; and even by inviting a group of neighbors for coffee and conversation. 

Some suggested guidelines: 

1. Being faithful to one’s own religious tradition is no justification for violence or for arrogantly dismissing or demeaning the religious tradition of another. God is bigger than all of us; and no religious tradition has all knowledge about God completely captured in a text, doctrines, or ritual. 

2. Healthy and constructive inter-religious dialogue assumes the equality of all partners and creates opportunities for a free expression of opinions, perspectives, and beliefs.  

3. Participants in faith to faith and face to face dialogue have a double responsibility: to become better informed about their own religious tradition and then better informed about the other religious tradition. Healthy dialogue assists in avoiding prejudices and misinterpretations of all religious traditions. When 9/11 happened, for example, I read all kinds of nonsense about what was supposedly written in the Quran. It was prejudiced, ignorant, and untrue. 

4. If we do our job well, inter-religious dialogue can offer a way towards more peaceful coexistence, better global education, and more fruitful collaboration: all lessening the risk of religious and political extremism. It’s a bit like decreasing CO2 emissions in the religious world climate. 

5. Yes. Religions can play a vital and constructive role in the society, promoting the common good.  

 I close with some reflections from my old friend, and University of Louvain fellow alumnus, Ron Rolheiser:

 Different peoples, one earth

 Different beliefs, one God

 Different languages, one heart

 Different failings, one law of gravity

 Different energies, one Spirit

 Different scriptures, one Word

 Different forms of worship, one desire

 Different histories, one destiny

 Different disciplines, one aim

 Different approaches, one road

 Different faiths – one Mother, one Father, one earth, one sky, one beginning, one end.

Next time……some thoughts about God.

Catholic Confrontations in a Pluralistic Society

6 August 2016

Carl Anderson, the thirteenth and Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and a very influential U.S. Roman Catholic said this week that since abortion far outweighs all other issues in the current presidential campaign, American Catholics cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights. His meaning is clear: Catholics cannot vote for Hilary Clinton.

At the end of July, Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, posted a message on Facebook: “Democratic VP choice, Tim Kaine, has been widely identified as a Roman Catholic. It is also reported that he publicly supports ‘freedom of choice’ for abortion, same-sex marriage, gay adoptions, and the ordination of women as priests. All of these positions are clearly contrary to well-established Catholic teachings; all of them have been opposed by Pope Francis as well.” So good Catholics should not vote for bad Catholic Kaine?

And now, heating up the Catholic political debate, Vice-President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, officiated at a gay wedding on August 2nd, at the Naval Observatory, the vice-president’s official residence. Biden has never officiated at a wedding before, and had to get temporary certification from the District of Columbia to make it legal.

The reaction from leading U.S. Catholic bishops has been swift. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, issued a statement on August 5th, saying: “When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of two people of the same-sex, confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics.”

A few reflections:
(1) Abortion far outweighs other issues:
I have long considered myself pro-life. Nevertheless, I would like to see a well-informed and respectful discussion about abortion. I am not convinced that all procedures done under the term “abortion” are taking human life. Nor am I convinced that it is always the greatest moral evil. If, for example, saving the life of a mother results in the death of a fetus, I would argue that saving the life of the mother is the morally better thing to do. So is abortion always wrong? I think not. I remember a now deceased Roman Catholic cardinal who was a strong public opponent to abortion – until. His sister, who was a Catholic nun working in an African country was attacked and raped. When informed, the cardinal ordered that his sister be taken to the nearest hospital “to be cleaned out so she won’t have a baby.” When I asked him about this, he nervously chuckled and said “questions of morality are rarely clear-cut.”

So abortion is not clear-cut? Are any moral issues ever clear-cut? What about raping adult women and men? What about the sexual abuse of children? What about torturing political prisoners? What about white supremacy and racial discrimination? I find it hard to believe that these actions are ever justifiable.

I find it cruelly ironic, for instance, that so many conservative Christians express their outrage at abortion but ignore and often oppose legislation and aid programs to assist, aid, and educate impoverished children. That is indeed an outrage.

(2) Rights and responsibilities of Catholic politicians: It is an old discussion but never seems to ring home. Sometimes I think it is time for a civics lesson for some religious leaders. The concepts of civil rights and of civil law are both functions of the concept of a pluralistic civil society in which people have the right to live according to their conscience and in conformity to civil laws established to promote the common good and maximum freedom for its citizens. Separation of church and state means that the United States is not a theocracy and religious institutions have no right to impose their institutional morality on civil society. Religious leaders can and should critique what is happening in the greater society but they cannot control civil society. Same-sex marriage is a civil right in U.S. society. Even Roman Catholics have a civil right to officiate at such civil ceremonies. John F. Kennedy understood this very clearly.

When JFK was running for president, people raised concerns about his “divided loyalty,” suggesting that a Catholic chief executive would be torn between his loyalty to his faith and the Catholic hierarchy and his oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. In an often quoted statement, Kennedy replied: “Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decisions in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.” Kennedy said he believed in an America “where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners how to vote.”

Yes…..The concepts of civil rights and of civil law are both functions of the concept of a pluralistic civil society in which people have the right to live according to their conscience and in conformity to civil laws established to promote the common good and maximum freedom for its citizens. Separation church and state means that the United States is not a theocracy and religious institutions have no right to impose their institutional morality on civil society.
Representatives and members of religious institutions (like the Bishop of Providence and the head of the K of C can certainly express their ethical viewpoint and engage in conversation – respectful dialogue – with legally recognized leaders of civil society about the most appropriate civil legistaion for the civil state. In the end, if they wish to continue living as members of the civil state, representatives and members of religious institutions must respect civil law.

(3) Clinton and Trump, my only comment about them (I think):  In this blog I have generally tried to avoid taking sides with any political party. I come in fact from a long family line of Republicans. My parents were Lincoln Republicans and very active in the State of Michigan Republican Party. (They were also exceptionally wonderful parents.) I too was a Republican until it came to the 1960 Nixon vs Kennedy election. Change is also part of life. Frankly I have never been a strong supporter of Hilary Clinton – for reasons one need not explore here. For me, however, the key issues in this very strange presidential campaign of 2016 are not Republican or Democratic party politics but questions of personal integrity and trustworthiness (values and morality), intellectual honesty, psychological maturity, and political wisdom, experience, and competence. Based on these criteria, I am ready to vote.

Terrorize and Paralyze?

All terrorists aim to terrorize and paralyze civilian life, creating a chaotic environment so they can seize power and take control. We cannot surrender. We cannot allow terrorists to turn us into terrorists.

          Christians, especially, should be people who do not allow fear to rule their lives. We know and we believe: resurrection follows the way of the cross and death. Christians can and must be prophetic people who are clear-headed and courageous. It was Adolf Hitler who said: “How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think.”

          Terrorism can be defeated when terrorists see that their terrorism doesn’t work. It will take time and people have to work together and support one another. People can pick themselves up and move ahead. On March 22, 2016, terrorist bombs destroyed the departure hall, slaughtered dozens of people, and injured hundreds of others at the Brussels International Airport. In June I was a traveler at that same airport. In the very spot where it all happened. The departure hall has been rebuilt. It is now more attractive, more efficient, and very welcoming. This week end, more than 200,000 vacationers will pass through the Brussels airport.

          I know first-hand what disaster and alarming uncertainty do to a person. People very close to me came close to being blown apart in the Brussels bombings. Watching the news on March 22 (five days before my 73rd birthday) I was frightened and anxious. I kept saying to myself: Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Then I recalled a line from C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains….”

          Christians need to fortify themselves with and in authentic faith and virtue. Too many people these days are reverting into a form of pseudo-Christianity, preaching self-serving pseudo-virtue. They look out for themselves while denigrating others. We see them succumbing to demagoguery and mindless populism. Malfunctioning democracies should be fixed not destroyed; and people should rely on facts not popular fantasies. The thought struck me last week, for example, that most of the terrorist activity in the United States in recent years has come not from Muslims, but from “Christian” religious fanatics and white supremacists. Hardly the way of Jesus.

          Jesus of Nazareth, living and working in the socio-cultural context of his day, was a prophetic non-violent person. He was a threat of course to his contemporary vested interest people: authoritarian leaders for whom religion was more important than faith and politics more important than the men and women it should serve.

          As we confront the perplexing political, economic, and social problems of our time, we need to practice and promote authentic Christian virtue. Yes of course, people who behave in a criminal and inhuman way need to be sanctioned and restrained; but crude militarism and violence alone will never resolve our contemporary national and international terrorism crises. They will only increase and promote a more savage kind of militarism.
          The world’s wealth and resources must be used to promote human life and dignity everywhere. Why are young people drawn to zealous fanatics? Can we not promise and provide a better life for them? Many of them yearn for a sense of community not yet found. They seek and need an understanding and supportive group: people who can give them an anchor in a changing world. Can we not offer them a more humane community? Can we not enhance their sense of identity? Can we not promote their self-worth far better than political and religious fanatics?  

          We need to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give shelter to the homeless. Races and cultures are shifting around the globe. Immigration is a fact of life. It is nothing new, but has now shifted into fast motion. So how do we deal with it in a rational and Christian way? Certainly we citizens of the United States should have a keen sensitivity to immigrants and the great migrations of people. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”
          Jesus respected people and promoted their dignity and sense of self-worth. The key element in the narrative about the woman about to be stoned. He honored her self-worth. He restored her sense of self-worth. And, as I wrote in my reflection last week, the key element in the narrative of the Good Samaritan. These are not just old pious stories. They are exhortations about what should be part of our rule of life, if we really take Jesus seriously.  

          International dialogue and inter-religious dialogue must replace arrogant self-serving rhetoric. Our church communities should become centers of prayerful study and reflection. Centers of Christian excellence. What is the challenge of being a Jesus-person in our days of contemporary anxiety, change, and impending chaos? How can we be messengers of truth when all around us the media shout fabricated falsehoods; and exaggerated news stories so conveniently frighten and paralyze people?

          Franklin Roosevelt said “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Jesus more importantly said “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”


Civility — Change — Leadership

Years before George Washington became president of the United States, he penned 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.” His writing project was more an exercise in youthful penmanship, because he copied a translated older text, originally written by French Jesuits. Nevertheless, the focus of Washington’s observations was civility: polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. 

A few of Washington’s rules struck me recently, as I was thinking about the current presidential campaign: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those present.”…….”When you reprove another be without blame yourself.”…… “Let your conversation be without malice or envy.”……”In all causes of passion allow reason to govern.”

Our early American leaders lived in times of tremendous social change. Sometimes we overly romanticize their lives, forgetting their environment of fear, social unrest, “Indian” atrocities, counter-reaction colonialists’ atrocities, slave rebellions, fear-mongering propagandists, intercultural conflicts, and the terrorism spread by rumors of foreign intrigue.

In a letter written to his wife, our second president, John Adams, confided to Abigail about his “fear that in every assembly members will obtain influence by noise not sense.” His letter went on to warn about the dangers of political leaders not acting with respect and decency to such a degree that the government would eventually fall apart. 

Almost two decades into the third millennium, our country and our world are changing even more dramatically. Fear and anxiety are byproducts. The pace of change is accelerating. A bit ironically, a great many contemporary people are anxiously trying to maintain their identity as their very identity itself is changing. White Christian America, for example, is diminishing as a new form of immigrant America is taking shape: multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious. For a growing number of people, however, it is also an America increasingly disconnected from institutional religion. Perhaps that is more our challenge than our danger?

Millennials have now surpassed the Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. By around 2020, more than half of America’s (USA) children will be part of a minority race or ethnic group. Today 12.3% of our U.S. population is black. According to the latest projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population is expected to reach 28.6% by 2060.. ..A great mix of various cultural traditions and values. And of course one cannot ignore evolving gender and sexual identities. More than 8 million adults in the United States are lesbian, gay, or bisexual: comprising 3.5% of the adult population; and majority public opinion in the United States now supports same-sex marriage. 

Reflecting about social change in our contemporary world — the Republican and Democratic conventions, the political crisis in Turkey, killings in Orlando and Dallas, the truck massacre in Nice, the latest shopping center killings in Munich, etc. — the first word that comes to my mind is leadership. Human problems require human solutions. We all need to be leaders, working together. Otherwise we disintegrate in feverish chaos.

In our families, schools, churches, and community organizations, we need to educate and equip young people with constructive leadership skills. At the same time we need to critique and disempower those “leaders” who do not lead but control. Those people are really not leaders but self-promoting authoritarian managers. The leadership responsibility rests on our shoulders.

What qualities characterize genuine and constructive leaders? 

(1) Constructive leaders are honest and transparent. They have integrity. They neither manipulate people nor play with the truth.

(2) Constructive leaders create a vision of the future that is realistic and compelling. They are not afraid of change, but see it as a continual human challenge. They understand the changes on the horizon as new opportunities for human transformation and growth.

(3) Constructive leaders inspire and motivate. They help people engage with the present and build a more humane tomorrow. They reflect deeply on the signs of the times.

(4) Constructive leaders analyze and solve problems. They observe, judge, and act in collaborative problem-solving. Yes they are often recruited, trained, and chosen to solve problems. But they don’t do it alone. They cannot do it alone.

(5) Some people are very content to sit back and watch the world go by. Or they long to return to some romanticized former time, like the 1950s…..Constructive leaders have a higher level of perseverance. They have vision but are not daydreamers. They can be counted on to get things done. They move ahead. They don’t live in the past.

(6) Constructive leaders build on solid foundations of mutual respect and trust. They do not denigrate people but lift them up. The stronger the relationships, the better the leadership. 

(7) Constructive leaders communicate with their people. They listen to them. They stimulate and promote collaborative leadership.

We are all called to leadership. Civility is a virtue. Change is a fact of life.

The New Tribalism

ANOTHER VOICE – Posted 14 July 2016

The natives are fearful, restless, and angry…… An alarming development in the United States, across Europe, and even at the Vatican is the rise of the new tribalism. It is fierce and destructive.
The new tribalism polarizes and compartmentalizes people into friends and adversaries. Much of it is irrational. It rejects dialogue and democratic decision-making. In the USA we see “born again” politicians and evangelical Christians defending and promoting the new tribalism. Much of what they promote is politically suspect and theologically contrary to the life, spirit, and message of Jesus of Nazareth.
In summary, it is: Tribe first. Morals second. Faith forgotten. Reason out the window….
In Dallas the megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, has said he would vote for Donald Trump and “run from” a presidential candidate like Jesus Christ, because he doesn’t feel that someone like Christ is the type of leader the United States needs right now. “You know,” he said recently “I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’” “Heck no!” Jeffress said. “I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.” He went on to say that he really doesn’t care how despicable a person is, just as long as they’re “tough.”
Over at the Vatican the natives are restless as well. Earlier this week, a group of 45 Catholic scholars, clergy, cardinals, and bishops sent an appeal to the College of Cardinals asking that they petition Pope Francis to “repudiate” what they see as “erroneous propositions” contained in his April 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The group of 45 argue that Francis’ document contains “a number of statements that can be understood in a sense that is contrary to Catholic faith and morals.” A key agitator in the anti-Pope Francis tribe is the U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke.
When people feel insecure or find their beliefs challenged they often succumb to dogmatic and close-minded ideologies: a kind of “circle-the-wagons, we’re under attack” tribal unity. Dialogue stops, mutual respect is scoffed at, and polarization gets firmly established. Inhuman values and behavior are applauded in the name of tribal unity. In the end chaos erupts and authoritarian leaders take control – often with religious blessings.
History is full of examples: Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler in Germany. Our contemporary daily news, of course, gives abundant and frightening reports of hard-nosed and vicious tribalism, much of it now linked to the coming presidential election campaign. Sorry to say, I don’t think the situation will improve after this month’s political conventions are behind us. It will be a long hot summer.
Tribalism ignores the dignity and value of a person and sees only stereotypes of distrusted and despised enemy people. A Trump-friendly tribe argues that gays are a threat to family life; that Mexicans are rapists, drug addicts, and criminals; that blacks are stupid and lazy. And….of course that Muslims are terrorists. Too many people believe and want to believe the Fox News stereotypes. It gives them comfort to know not “I” but “they” are the problem.” And of course “they” are changing everything.
Yes we do live in a time of dramatic and extensive socio-cultural change; but change is and always has been a part of human life, especially in the United States where “new and improved” has always been better than “old.” Except perhaps in far-right politics and fundamentalist religion.
Like it or not, the rate of change in coming years will accelerate not diminish. One can argue whether or not human nature changes; but there is no debate about the fact that our understanding of human nature has changed and grown tremendously. New knowledge brings changes in social institutions, ethical values, and moral behavior. Slavery, once blessed even by the churches, cannot be tolerated nor morally justified today. Women we know today are not inferior to men. That is an improvement and a great change from what the “Angelic Doctor” Thomas Aquinas taught, when he said that women by nature are defective and misbegotten males. (Some bishops still believe Aquinas was correct!) And of course, we know today that gays are neither innately disordered nor per se prone to immorality. And we are still discovering a lot of new dimensions to our human sexuality and gender.
New perspectives bring new understandings. They also create alarm for people who would rather live in the past.
Our challenge is to use our brains without forgetting to use our hearts. Every woman, every man, every person deserves respect and positive acknowledgement. Jesus understood that, even if some of his contemporary followers don’t.
I think one of the best scriptural texts about the evils of tribalism is Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable in the Gospel According to Luke (10:25-37). A traveler, probably a Jew, as the story goes, was robbed, stripped of clothing, beaten-up, and left half dead along the side of the road. Along comes a priest. He looks at and ignores the miserable traveler. Then another religious functionary comes along: a Levite. (Levites helped around the temple and had some political responsibilities as well.) He leaves the bleeding traveler along the roadside and moves on. Then a Samaritan comes along.
In Jesus’ day hatred between Jews and Samaritans was fierce and long-standing. “Good” Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans were divided by racial and ethnic barriers. Different tribes. In our own days, we know very well what that means. Just stand up and say “Black Lives Matter.”
In Jesus’ parable the Samaritan is deeply moved when he sees the injured fellow at the side of the road. He bandages his wounds, puts him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn where he will be safe and recover. Since the injured man had been robbed of everything he had, the Samaritan even pays the man’s bill at the inn and pays the innkeeper to take good care of him.
Jesus told the Samaritan parable in response to a Jewish lawyer’s question. Jesus had reminded his audience that “Love your neighbor as yourself” was part of their biblical law (Leviticus 19:18). Many of those listening to Jesus, however thought a “neighbor” meant only a Jew: someone belonging to their own tribe. So a lawyer asked Jesus: “Just who is my neighbor?”

What to do about the new tribalism:
(1) First of all each of us needs to do some serious self-examination. Have I become a member of a closed-group, narrow-minded tribe? Have I become or are my leaders more authoritarian control freaks than genuine leaders?

(2) We need to be and to support prophetic people. Prophetic people speak out. Prophetic people courageously criticize. Prophetic people are positive change-makers. A lot of contemporary political rhetoric is pure nonsense; and a fair amount of extreme religious commentary is ignorant and often cruel. Prophetic people need to say so. The Archbishop of Philadelphia has just issued new regulations for Catholics in his archdiocese. Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, as well as cohabitating unmarried couples, must “refrain from sexual intimacy” if they wish to receive Holy Communion in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The archbishop from the city of brotherly love leaves little room for informed and rational discourse here. And then….. I wonder who is going to check-up to determine whether or not couples have “done it” before going to church.

(3) We do need to be anchored in Scripture and Tradition; but a proper understanding of Scripture and Tradition requires historical critical awareness and insight. A young priest told me recently that Jesus condemned homosexuality. That is an ignorant statement. Jesus said absolutely nothing about being gay or straight or about transgender people. He did say “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus’ exhortation covers a lot of moral behavior.

Yes the tribes are restless. We need to be clear-headed people of faith. We need to really support one another in the days ahead.

Next week some more thoughts about change……

What Young Millennial Christians Believe

As vice-president of ARCC, I am pleased to announce an important conference this coming October in the Washington DC/Baltimore area. I would appreciate your passing on the information.


“Changing the Conversation — The Millennial Generation: Their Values, Belief, and Thoughts about Church.”

               Date and Time:       October 29, 2016 — 1:00 to 3:00 PM

               Location:                   Best Western at BWI — 6755 Dorsey Rd, Elkridge, Maryland

Our Presenter is Todd Salzman — Professor of Theology at Creighton University


Todd has a PhD in Theology from the Catholic University of Leuven. He completed his dissertation in 1994, taught at the University of San Diego from 1995-1997, and came to Creighton in 1997. He has published six books and over 50 scholarly articles, and presented numerous papers at national and international conferences.

One of his special interests is the belief and ethical values of the Millennial generation.

He is married to Katy Salzman, and they have identical twin boys and a daughter.

To help with our planning, we appreciate a pre-conference registration and a donation of $5 per person, payable on site at the conference.

To register or for more information, please write:    arcc.millennial@gmail.com 

For more information about ARCC:    http://arcc-catholic-rights.net

At My Desk Again: Another Voice

For this older historian, July is a good month to resume Another Voice reflections. My travels are over for a while and I am back home a bit more relaxed and ready to observe, reflect, and type. And — of course — great changes are certainly in the air. 
          First of all a moment of reflection about today: on July 1st 1916 the Battle of the Somme began. Also called the Somme Offensive, it was the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front. The armies of the British and French empires at war against against the German Empire. They slaughtered each other until November 18th, leaving more than one million wounded or killed. It was one of the bloodiest battles in human history. I am re-reading Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, as my spiritual reading. Still…..today the war cries continue; and it is difficult convincing people that war never resolves human conflicts.
          As this July begins, the implications of BREXIT are breaking out. Once upon a time Great Britain may soon be just a not so merry old England: a former UK island, holding hands with Wales. On July Fourth, of course we citizens of the USA will celebrate and reflect once again on the meaning of our independence. On July 14th the French will celebrate “La fête nationale” — the French National Day commemorates the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789: a key event in the French Revolution. And closer to home, this July 2016 we will know for certain the identities of the Republican and Democratic candidates for the White House. (My preference would be HC rather than DT, although many still consider DT the solution to all our problems and a stalwart Christian on top of that.) 
          After July 28th, when the Democrats conclude their convention in Philadelphia, the tempo and the temperature of the USA 2016 presidential race will shape just about everything on the Internet. Heated election rhetoric. Much of it unfortunately will be anchored in fear, anger, paranoia, and ignorance. Vices proclaimed as virtues for people seeking security in a changing world. “Of the people, by the people, and for the people” is getting an authoritarian new twist.
          In coming weeks I would like to reflect more seriously on the meaning, scope, and implications of our changing world: human, social, cultural, theological, and religious — and where a person really finds security today and tomorrow. A special area of reflection will be where “God” fits into change and who God is for us today.
          I would like to reflect as well on the immense problem of historical and contemporary ignorance. It really is a problem. Ignorant people (even the “well- educated” ones) are frantically working to put a mask on change and convey a false sense of security. Thinking is always dangerous, because thinkers eventually start asking questions. (I was fortunate in my education. In my first year of high school — at a seminary at that — my religion teacher encouraged me to question everything.) I suspect a lot of political propaganda from both parties, in the coming months, will be based on and promote historical and contemporary ignorance. And I know very keenly the dangers created by religious leaders who proclaim their religious falsehoods as faith.
          A third area for my reflections will be the whole area of leadership: political and religious. We have far too many civil and religious leaders, these days, who are simply blind guides. Their vision stops at their noses. One of my earlier Roman Catholic heroes, Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University for thirty-five years, said it very well: “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” Well, there is a lot of uncertain trumpet noise these days.
          More July re-launch comments……An old acquaintance said a couple weeks ago that I am really an “old leftist liberal.” I chuckled and said that words like “leftist” and “liberal” really cannot capture my take on life. Nor do words like “conservative” or “traditional.” I know as well that some friends — and even some members of my family — dislike and take issue with some of my theological and political positions. 
          I mean no offense, but I have to interpret reality the way I experience it. Everyone has to do that. 
          And we all have to practice a kind of mutual respect and tolerance based on the realization that no one has or sees all the truth. No one. No single political party. No single church. No single religion. We are all travelers on the human road, discovering for better or for worse as we move along. God is much greater than all of our religious constructions; and I think the historical Jesus of Nazareth would have been in agreement with that.  
          How would I like to be described? I am an 65+ guy — husband, father, theologian — with an historical critical approach to understanding the human journey. That journey entails interpretation, reflected experience, new discoveries, and new interpretations of old truths. I see no other way to live.
          I look forward to traveling with you once again!

(Brief comment about the attached photo: An earlier photo of my wife and me, as we were looking across the River Tarn in Albi, France — thinking about the tenth century Albigensian Crusade, a 20-year military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III, in 1209, to uproot and eliminate Cathar heretics. Arnaud-Amaury, the Cistercian abbot-commander in the crusade, reported to the pope that more than 20,000 heretics were put to the sword.)

Catholic Complexity

During her early adventures in Wonderland, Alice cried out that things were becoming “curiouser and curiouser.” Her statement could be applied as well to the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, which is becoming a complex cacophony of ecclesiastical sounds. Three observations:

Stern Warnings for Americans 

Tuesday, May 17th, was the twelfth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. About a thousand prominent Roman Catholic clergy and lay people gathered at 7:00 am in the Marriott Marquis hotel and conference center to pray, have breakfast, and listen to Cardinal Robert Sarah, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Sister Constance Veit, from the Little Sisters of the Poor.  

This week, as you recall, the United States Supreme Court “vacated” all of the lower court cases and required them to reconsider the claims, brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor, that regulations promulgated by Obamacare violate their freedom of religious exercise, in light of the government’s admission that it could indeed provide contraceptive coverage, without the Little Sisters’ collaboration.  

In his address, Paul Ryan, echoed the position and concerns of the Sister Constance and her community, stressing that “religious liberty is under assault” in the United States and that the Obama administration “has shown a total misunderstanding of faith.” 

Cardinal Sarah, however, was the keynote speaker; and he was strongly condemnatory of a contemporary American culture disfigured by gender ideology and relativism. Cardinal Sarah was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in 2014. Is he also part of the “Francis effect”? 

In his address, the Cardinal said: “Sadly the advent of artificial reproductive technologies, surrogacy, so-called homosexual marriage, and other evils of gender idolatry will inflict even more wounds in the midst of the generation we live with.” The Cardinal warned the Prayer Breakfast group about signs of “the Evil One” in the United States: “The legalization of same-sex marriage, your beginning to accept contraception within healthcare programs, and even bathroom bills that allow men to use the women’s restroom and locker rooms.” His comments about “bathroom bills” drew applause and chuckles from his audience. 

Curing Pseudo-homosexuality 

According to a report, this week, from Religion News Service, over a period of several years, superiors of seminaries around France sent seminary students to Monsignor Tony Anatrella, a prominent French priest and therapist, to counsel them about their struggles with homosexuality. (Anatrella, as I mentioned in an early blog, was also the Vatican appointed speaker at a conference for new bishops. There he told the new bishops that they did not have to report clerical sexual abuse to civil authorities.) 

Monsignor Anatrella has long condemned homosexuality and argued that gay men cannot be ordained as priests. In 2005 he helped the Vatican, then under Pope Benedict XVI, to draft guidelines aimed at keeping gay men out of the priesthood. Around that same time, he wrote an article for L’Osservatore Romano, stating that homosexuality demonstrated “an incompleteness and a profound immaturity of human sexuality.”  

Today, Monsignor Anatrella’s former seminarian clients are coming forward with accusations that the highly-respected-at-the-Vatican monsignor therapist tried to cure their “pseudo-homosexuality” by engaging in sex acts with them. One former client, again a former seminarian, said he was counseled by Anatrella for 14 years, from 1997 to 2011. After the first few years, the client said, Anatrella began “special sessions” with him that included episodes of mutual masturbation. Curiously, in February 2016, Monsignor Anatrella was the chief organizer of a major conference on priestly celibacy, held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.  

Women and Women Deacons in the Church 

As Jamie Manson wrote in the National Reporter this week, “(Pope) Francis’ theological imagination makes it impossible for women to achieve equal decision-making power and sacramental authority in this church. And its time we faced it.”  

Last week Pope Francis agreed to launch a commission to study the role of women deacons in the early church. Immediate press reactions greeted this with hopeful observations that the Catholic Church would soon be welcoming women to diaconate ordination. The Vatican quickly dispelled such expectations. 

What journalists failed to observe was that, in his remarks about women deacons in the early church, Pope Francis reasserted all of the old Roman Catholic theological arguments that prevent women from any kind of ordination in the Catholic Church.  

“There is no problem for a woman — religious or lay — to preach in a Liturgy of the Word…” Pope Francis said, “But at the Eucharistic Celebration there is a liturgical-dogmatic problem, because it is one celebration: the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy. There is unity between them; and he who presides is Jesus Christ. The priest or bishop who presides does so in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a theological-liturgical reality. In that situation, since women are not ordained, they cannot preside.” As Manson observes, there is still a phallic problem in the Catholic Church. Women do not have the same kind of genitalia that Jesus had.  
Curiouser and curiouser for sure. Reflections this week are neither anti-Catholic nor anti-Francis. They are simply expressions of serious concern. We are united in one faith, one Lord, and one baptism. I am not convinced however that everything coming from Rome these days is truly holy, catholic, and apostolic. Seriously hypocritical behavior has no place in church leadership; and everyone in church leadership, even the pope, seriously needs broad-range biblical and historical theological updating.  

Thoughtful Catholics need to think through the contemporary Catholic cacophony. They need to chart a new course for the Catholic Church. They can do that. They can speak out. They can change the conversation. They can continue to transform the venerable institution. If they fail, the eclipse of the Roman Catholic Church is sure to succeed.  

[With this week’s reflection I am shutting down my computer for a few weeks, to once again do some vacation research about Christianity in post-communist Eastern Europe. I hope to return in early July.]