Watch Your (Catholic) Language!


America magazine has announced it will no longer use the words “liberal” or “conservative,” when describing people or positions. Great idea!

Actually I suggest it is time for a major clean-up of our language used in liturgy, writing and speaking about people and movements, and of course when addressing people like your local bishop, archbishop, or cardinal.

To begin with of course, we need to use inclusive language, in our writing, in our speaking, and in our prayer. None of that “for us men” stuff. It is offensive and simply incorrect. When I say a prayer publicly or read from the Scriptures at a liturgy, I always use inclusive nouns and pronouns. This is not a “nice” thing to do. It is the correct thing to do. If the authorities are upset, that is their problem not mine.

Next we need to deal with pompous hierarchic nomenclature. Never again refer to a bishop as “your excellency” or a cardinal as “your eminence.” The middle ages have been gone for more than a few centuries.

Now for the pope. How refreshing when Francis appeared on the balcony, some long minutes after the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel, and announced that he was the new “Bishop of Rome.” Let’s follow his example. Drop “his holiness” and “supreme pontiff.” As well as other Renaissance superlatives. “Bishop of Rome” is fine and fitting.

Now for some appropriate adjectives for our Catholic brothers and sisters:

When they know little or nothing about Catholic history or biblical exegesis, they are Catholic “illiterates” or “ignoramuses.” A few bishops deserve these descriptive nouns, unfortunately.
When some Catholics would rather live in the former century of Vatican I, like the former Bishop of Rome now in poor health, we should not call them “conservative” but “rooted in a nineteenth century ethos.”

And when these people cannot accept any other vision of God, humanity, and church, let’s be honest and call them “Catholic fundamentalists.”

Well this is a starter. We need to clean up our Catholic vocabulary.

I no longer use the word “priest” but prefer a much more Christian term “ordained minster.”

And I don’t like calling the twenty-five year old ordained minister, whom I helped educate over four years, “father.” I should really call him “son” 🙂

But for now, his first name will do and perhaps “Reverend” In public. I call my doctor “Arnold” and my dean and professorial colleagues by their first names. And I call one of my best older hierarchical friends simply “Cardinal.” And he calls me “Jack.”

And I call my wife of nearly 45 years “honey-bunch.”

We still have linguistic work to do. Not an unimportant issue.

Words have consequences.

Thank you America!

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Putting the Pope in Proper Perspective


We have now had a hundred days since the election of Jorge Bergoglio as the new Bishop of Rome.

The international press and pundits, across the theological spectrum, are still trying to figure out what Francis is all about. Is he a contemporary Catholic reformer like the jovial 1960s John XXIII? Or is he just a high-placed and clever ecclesiastical operator, whose papal packaging is more contemporary than that of Benedict but whose theology may be just as archaic and oppressive?

Right now the New York Times wonders, for instance, how Francs will handle the intrigue and corruption orchestrated by a gay network within his Curia Romana. CNN reports the Vatican, with an increasingly tight budget, has not yet resolved its credit card crisis. The flow of tourist credit card cash into the Vatican bank is still blocked. That river of dollars and euros is important. Right now, with two living popes, papal souvenirs are abundant and attractive. The Vatican would like to cash in on, once in a lifetime, papal duo souvenirs during the summer tourist season.

In any event, these days we have more than enough babble about the Vatican and the new Bishop of Rome.

I suggest it is time to put this pope and all popes in proper perspective. They exist, like all bishops, to serve and not to be served.

When thinking about the history of the papacy in the Roman Catholic Church, we need to be clear about a few historic realities.

The historic Jesus did not appoint anyone pope. He did not appoint anyone a bishop nor did he ordain anyone. Contrary to what one often hears, flowing unctuously from episcopal lips, no one at the Last Supper was ordained by Jesus nor designated a bishop. Ordination came much later in the early Jesus Movement as a kind of quality control mechanism: to protect Christian communities from incompetent or deceptive leaders. So the plan, anyway…..

And Peter? Contemporary biblical scholars and historians give us a rather clear picture of the young man. Peter and his wife belonged to the group of young men and women (probably in their late teens or early twenties) who were Jesus’ close disciples. Jesus recognized Peter’s leadership qualities and designated him as the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Peter could also be stubborn and head-strong. Jesus and his friends called Peter by his nickname “Rocky.”

Some years before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, Peter travelled to Rome. James, “the brother of the Lord,” had already succeeded Peter as leader of the Jerusalem Christian community. Peter was never bishop of Rome because the Christian community in Rome was governed not by a bishop but a group of elders: what today we would call a steering committee. Peter was held in high regard by the Christians in Rome; but he may or may not have been a member of the steering committee. We don’t know. Peter was martyred in Rome. The legend of his being crucified upside down is probably a bit of pious fantasy.

Long after Peter’s death, the Christian community in Rome did come under the leadership of a single overseer, as bishops were called. At first the Bishop of Rome had little broader- church importance. He was one of several key “papas” (popes) in the Christian world: one of several “papa” or “father” bishops. Later, because Rome was the seat of the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome held an honorary position of “first among equals.” His equals were, among other popes, the Pope of Alexandria, the Pope of Antioch, the Pope of Byzantium/Constantinople, etc.

Note well! The Bishop of Rome did not make important doctrinal or ecclesiastical decisions FOR the other popes but WITH the others. The practice —even when heated and argumentative — was collaborative with shared decision-making. At Vatican II we called this “collegiality.” Though often ignored, collegiality it is an old Catholic practice. “Traditional” Catholics who reject shared decision-making in the church need some adult education!

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the role and prestige of the Papa of Rome — the Bishop of Rome — increased significantly. Then when the Roman Empire fell apart, the Bishop of Rome stepped in and took over the clothing, pomp, ritual, and imperial authority of the Roman Emperors. In the Bishop of Rome, Caesar and God became one. Historically I can understand how and why this happened. Nevertheless, it was an unfortunate development and frankly a great aberration.

In the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire, there were of course some exemplary Bishops of Rome; but many of them often more “Caesar” and less “God.” A high point in the evolution of autocratic papal power came in the nineteenth century with Pio Nono: Pope Pius IX.

In the first year of his ministry as Bishop of Rome, Pius IX was open-minded and pastoral. He was, one could say, a breath of fresh air. The situation changed dramatically however with the Italian Unification Movement. Pio Nono lost his army and a very big chunk of land in the center of Italy: the Papal States. He was not pleased and morphed into an authoritarian despot and an egotistical, nasty old man. In 1870 at Vatican I of course he declared himself “Infallible.” A very strange man. Shortly before his death he began telling people he was part of the Holy Quartet: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Pope!

The Bishop of Rome is indeed head of the world-wide Roman Catholic Church. As a tradition-rooted Roman Catholic, I have no problem with that. The pope is like the Roman Catholic CEO; but my daily life and my contemporary faith experiences are neither shaped by nor controlled by the pope. Nor do I stay awake at night wondering what he will do tomorrow…..

We live in Christ not the pope. As I have written here before, I endeavor to be a faithful follower of Jesus of Nazareth not a Jesus of Rome. I am also a Roman Catholic historical theologian. When theological or ethical disputes arise within the church (and we will always have such disputes), they should be resolved through study, reflection, and mutual and respectful face to face dialogue —– not through one-sidedly covert condemnation and overt intimidation and punishment, as was so often the practice under Benedict Pope Emeritus.

And what about that young man Peter? Was “Rocky” the first pope? Well yes, if you use a bit of creative historical imagination.

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A Culture of Encounter


Pope Benedict XVI, as well as his predecessor, continually reminded us that we live in a world characterized by a “culture of death.” With the new Bishop of Rome, I hope the official Catholic stress will now shift to viewing the world through the lens of a culture of encounter.

Certainly a culture of encounter resonates better with our traditional Catholic understanding of the Incarnation: The contemporary world, our daily life events, the people and things around us are the place — the only place — where the Divine-human encounter occurs. God is not “up there,” nor “out three” but “in here.” We need to unhinge our church-talk from a supranaturalistic and mythological worldview that increasingly people find totally meaningless; and we need to shift the official rhetoric from fighting phantom evils of birth control, homosexuality, and women priests and direct our attention instead to signs of the Divine in places like shopping centers, unemployment lines, and shelters for the homeless.

A couple months ago, one of my university students said religion bored her to death, but she would really like to experience God. Indeed, the time is ripe for a culture of encounter. Contemporary-rooted people are not interested in a religion that simply hands out lists of things one has to swallow. They are far more interested in a faith that responds to the question: “what is there to eat?”

One of the most central and distinctive features of our Christian Faith is the deeply intimate and personal relationship with the Devine summed up in Jesus’ word “Abba” : “Daddy.” It is this relationship, at the heart of the universe, and at the very core of reality, for which Church leaders today must find contemporary expression. The time is ripe.

I am reminded of a poem by Christopher Fry, that continues to energize and motivate me:

The human heart can go to the lengths of God,
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, and begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul humans ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.

Yes I continue to work for church reform and yes I remain a critical Roman Catholic; but more and more I want to shift the conversation. I want to engage people and engage with other people in the journey — in the exploration. I want to challenge our bishops, our theologians, and all church leaders at every level to move from harangues about the culture of death to the creative openness of a culture of encounter.

It’s an exciting life journey; but we need people who are trust-worthy map-makers to guide the way. without good maps, contemporary people cannot travel far without losing direction. If maps are absent or defective, all exploration into God will simply goes around and around in circles.

As an older theologian I now understand that the church cannot define God but it can point the way. Then, each woman and each man must make the journey……and if I understand Jesus correctly, he did say that it helps to have fellow faith-filled travelers along the way.

A life-giving culture of encounter.

Now I need to adjust my GPS…….

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Aggiornamento : Contemporary Belief — Contemporary Language


Pope John XXIII died fifty years ago today. I think his greatest gift to us was the spirit of aggiornamento: probing our tradition and our contemporary faith experiences and then UPDATING our language, symbols, and rituals to better convey what we experience.

Some contemporary refections about aggiornamento:

(1) We all possess great capacities to sense, understand and respond to real events of transcendence in our everyday existence. A sense of the transcendent, or what we can call an instinct for the Divine, responds to real disclosures within the natural and historical: in all of our daily life realities. Very often we simply have to take time to reflect.

(2) And then we need to speak about these disclosures in our own language: a language that is readily understood, easily communicated, and a language that inspires and motivates people rather than annoying them, condemning them, or putting them to sleep.

(3) “God” names the who and the what actually present in the people, the power, depth, and scope of daily life. Right before our eyes. But they are often closed. We need a language that opens us to disclosures of divinity within the natural world and the historical realities of human life.

(4) Critical thinking – careful and care-filled reflection – is a necessary moment in the interpretation of Divine disclosures. A vigilant faith, a resolute hope, and abundant love open doors to the Divine. We need a Christian humanism that promotes attitudes and feelings of heartfelt gratitude, steadfast humility, and demanding compassion. Such deeply established attitudes and feelings can disclose and reinforce our shared humanity and bring the always-near Divine into our awareness and experience.

(5) Such a Christian humanism discloses and affirms that in spite of sorrow, pain, and agony, human life is nevertheless grounded in the Good. Responsible human action draws together that goodness into a complete life with others and for oneself. At the heart of our Christian humanism is a deep affirmation for life: a yes to existence, despite its loss and occasional terror. Christianity must still proclaim Good News.

Let us thank Pope John for reminding us about aggiornamento and let us renew our commitment to put it into practice.

For last year’s words
Belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words
Await another voice.

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