A Theory of Relativity?


The Vatican issued a document this week, an instrumentum laboris or point of reference, for the October 2014 Synod on the Family. Much of it reads like a regurgitation of the, less than inspiring, 1980 Synod on the Family. Marriage and family life today, it asserts, are in trouble. The key reasons are: “the mass media, our hedonistic culture, relativism, materialism, individualism, and growing secularism.” The old enemies.

The instrumentum laboris acknowledges that large numbers of contemporary Catholics reject the church’s teachings on birth control, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, premarital sex, and invitro fertilization. Is it possible that “the faithful” realize something that church leadership does not see? The “instrumentum,” however, doesn’t answer that question and blames, rather, two inter-related contemporary trends: a rejection of natural law and contemporary relativism.

“The natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy,” the document reports and continues: “in not only the west but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology, and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not ‘scientific.'”

The bigger evil of course is our “culture of relativism,” regularly condemned as the source of all contemporary evils by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and condemned by Pope Francis as “another form of poverty.”

“There is another form of poverty!” Pope Francis told the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, on March 22, 2013. “It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism,’ which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”

And so my reflection this week: Is truth relative? Is Catholic belief relative? Is our understanding of the “natural law” relative? Where have we been and where are we going?

My quick response would be: Truth is not relative; but we are still moving toward the truth. No single person, and no institution, has truth all locked up in a box. (Just like no church has Jesus locked up in a tabernacle box….but that is a reflection for another time.)

What is natural? Are men naturally better equipped for ordained ministry than women? Are black men naturally more endowed with big genitalia, but smaller brains, than white men? That is what I was taught in Catholic high school biology class. Is heterosexuality more natural than homosexuality? Was it natural for Pope Innocent VIII, in 1484 AD, to proclaim: “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature….It should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

Was it natural….. in conformity to “natural law”……that during the 17th and 18th centuries, three to five thousand boys per year in Italy were castrated so they could continue to sing in papal and other Catholic Church choirs? The church created quite a market for castrated boys by hiring them for its church choirs. Parents, in need of money, took them to barber shops where a professional sideline, with ecclesiastical approval, was removing boy child testicles for church ministry.

The Catholic understanding of natural law has certainly been rather relative. And our belief statements, even from pious papal throats, relative as well.

Words ….even official church dogmatic words…..are never the total truth. They are only statements and understandings and interpretations along the way TOWARD the truth. Are they “relative”? Probably; but I prefer to say they are provisional and subject to modification tomorrow. Each day we learn and grow…or we should learn and grow!

Words point to reality…they do not capture reality.

No words employed by anyone at any time can be totally objective, infallible, or inerrant.

It is a kind of religious fundamentalism then that misleads religious leaders to assert that they alone are the interpreters of God’s will and custodians of infallible truth. What is true and what is natural is anchored in a certain relativism because no one has the total picture.

Dialogue is essential. Openness and mutual respect are essential.This means of course that individuals and institutions must get off their arrogant high horses and acknowledge that they (like you and me I) don’t have all the answers. We are all learners.

Our Catholic faith expression, if it is going to have real relevance for people today and tomorrow, cannot be just a system of solemnly defined dogmatic statements formulated in a limited context of time and space.

I would like to think our Catholic belief is a doorway to transcendence with an open and expanded vision. Let’s make it so.

A good theory of Catholic relativity………..

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Building a Civilization of Truth and Love


On Thursday, June 19, 2014, San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, was a key participant in the second March for Marriage in Washington DC, leading supporters of “traditional marriage” along a half-mile route that concluded at our U.S. Supreme Court building. On that site last year, two major Supreme Court decisions encouraged federal judges in eight U.S. states to overturn existing same-sex marriage bans and in another four states to issue rulings in favor of same-sex marriage.

Archbishop Cordileone, his Roman Catholic Church, the Mormons, and Evangelical Protestants continue to strongly protest same-sex marriage as immoral and socially destructive. Nevertheless, American support for same-sex marriage, even among U.S. Catholics, increases each year.

A solid majority of people, who identify as contemporary religious mainliners, now favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry. In a survey the Pew Research Center conducted in February 2014, 62% of mainline U.S. Protestants said they now favor same-sex marriage. Just 34% favored same-sex marriage a decade earlier. Roman Catholics? Today at least 58% of white U.S. Roman Catholics and 56% of Hispanic Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. (Some studies say the support for same-sex marriage among American Catholics is now at 70%.) A majority (83%) of Jewish Americans also favor legalizing same-sex marriage. Vox populi vox Dei? The infallibility of the People of God?

In his March for Marriage speech, titled “Building a Civilization of Truth and Love,” Archbishop
Cordileone stressed that marriage is “a key to individual and societal flourishing.” Indeed. Perhaps that is a strong argument as well for same-sex marriage?

“No justice, no peace, no end to poverty, without a strong culture of marriage and the family,” the Archbishop of San Francisco emphasized. I could not agree more. I doubt that they were; but perhaps they should have been cheering for him in The Castro when he concluded: “This noble cause is a call to love we cannot abandon, that we will not give up on, and that in the end we know will triumph.” Well yes……Marriage is good for gays as well, I think. It is a noble cause and truly a call to love.

As an historian, I know that across the centuries nature of marriage has varied according to different cultures, different religious traditions, and different times. It has found social importance as an institution because it contributes to societal stability and because it enhances intimate and sexual interpersonal relationships. Marriage as well can create an environment of support and caring which is ideal for child-rearing.

A strong rhetorical theme among opponents to same-sex marriage is that children, for their healthy development, need “a father and a mother.” (They forget of course that some fathers and mothers can be absolute monsters.) After doing research on values formation and development for about forty years, I am convinced that what children need most of all for healthy human development is loving parents.

And so once again, at all levels in the church, let’s drop the venomous, judgmental language. Let’s learn to listen and to grow and to work together. And yes, let’s learn how we all can build a civilization of truth and love.

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Tomorrow’s Church? : The Changing Religious Landscape


A few days ago, while constructing a power-point presentation I will use this autumn as part of an adult faith discussion group, I was struck again by the ages of Jesus’s followers: the young men and women who were his disciples and later apostles.

Most were in their late teens or early twenties: young people (some already young parents) searching for meaning and direction in their lives. Then (serendipity?) I got an email from a young graduate student, writing at the suggestion of his girl friend, who had been in one of my university classes, last semester.

Here, I will call him Walter. He hoped he was not bothering me; but Walter hoped as well that I could give him some guidance. He said he was a non-believer but had been baptized in the Catholic Church and had done “the Holy Communion thing.” He said he could not relate at all to the contemporary Catholic Church and found the local archbishop a pompous ignoramus. (That is actually a pretty good assessment of the fellow.)

Most importantly, however, Walter wrote that he and his girl friend were searching for God and, for reasons they could absolutely not explain, they felt attracted by the historical Jesus and wanted me to guide them through an informed and reflective reading of the New Testament. Would I be willing to listen to their questions? Could I guide them and help them to really discover who Jesus was and who he is for young people like them today?

Yes of course. I replied that I would help them, as long as they understood that ALL of us are on the same journey……exploring together who Jesus is and probing what it means to be his follower today.

Walter and his girl friend are hardly atypical. Young people ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older people, and 25% are unaffiliated with any particular faith. They belong to the Millennial Generation; and their’s is a changing religious landscape.

Millennials, in fact, are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s); and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s).

Increasingly, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

Nevertheless, as an old Baby Boomer who still spends a lot of his time teaching and listening to “the Millennials,” I like these young men and women; and I am optimistic about them. They are open-minded and eager; and their search is genuine. In their own way, they are searching for an authentic spirituality; and they are also the foundation for tomorrow’s church. It will of course be a very different kind of church!

Todays Millennials make me think of those other young men and women who were followers of Jesus. In Jesus they found someone who respected them, listened to them, and searched and explored with them. Not someone who, like Walter’s pompous archbishop, would have condemned them for their “secularized” lifestyles and values.

In their social and political views, today’s young adults are clearly more accepting of homosexuality and same-sex marriage than older men and women. They are more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation for human life; and they are less prone to see Hollywood as threatening their moral values. At the same time, according to the Pew Research Center, Millennials are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. Their estrangement from organized religion, however is very real.

Compared with their elders today, young people are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. One-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) are unaffiliated and describe their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular.”

I wonder about those young men and women — later disciples and apostles — attracted to the historical Jesus. Were they perhaps Jewish drop-outs or agnostics who felt institutionalized religion had lost its credibility? A hypothetical question of course; but Jesus was indeed highly critical of organized religion in his day.

There are no hypothetical questions about today’s Millennials, however.

Like Walter and his girl friend, they are looking for trustworthy spiritual guides……..

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A Provocation Against the Holy See…..


Authoritarian church leaders, when they are either ignorant or simply short-sighted, often respond to theological observations they don’t comprehend by issuing speedy condemnations.

A few days ago, Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, did just that when he reprimanded representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for giving an “Outstanding Leadership Award” to Elizabeth A. Johnson.

Johnson is an eminent contemporary theologian, deeply rooted in our Catholic tradition. Mueller argued that due to “the gravity of the doctrinal errors” in her writings, LCWR’s award to Johnson was an “open provocation against the Holy See.” Quite a statement and more than a bit of overblown rhetoric. The CDF condemnation becomes even more puzzling when one realizes that, true to a pattern established a few centuries, the CDF has again condemned without indicating what has been condemned. An old bullying tactic.

Our USCCB Committee on Doctrine has also strongly criticized Johnson for her “errors” and “ambiguities.” Some members of that committee, I suspect, could use refresher courses in New Testament exegesis and historical theology.

I have read all of Elizabeth Johnson’s books and have never read anything that undermines our Christian tradition; and frankly I have a pretty good reputation for being an objective historical theologian. If an author seems to stray from our tradition in a “grave” way, I have no problem expressing my concern or alarm. (And there are indeed contemporary theological authors on the left and on the right of center who depart from authentic Christian belief.)

Two of Elizabeth Johnson’s books that I very much like (and strongly recommend) are: She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1991) and Quest for the Living God (2007.)

She Who is was a well-developed attempt to integrate feminist categories such as women’s experience and emancipation into classical Catholic theology. (When this book came out thirteen years ago, one of my U.S. bishop friends — who never even bothered to read the dust-jacket — denounced Elizabeth Johnson and her book, cynically yelling “why can’t she acknowledge that God is our Father?” I responded with a friendly chuckle, “why can’t you acknowledge that all God-talk is analogical and perhaps many of our sisters and brothers in the faith relate better to God as a loving mother than a judgmental father.”)

Guest for the Living God is a masterpiece. I used it last autumn in an adult faith discussion group and will do that again this coming autumn. Johnson understands so very well that people of faith are seeking God, the Divine, not in abstract medieval doctrines but in sincere and deep reflection on our everyday experiences, struggles, and hopes. Her chapter headings say it well:

• Gracious Mystery, Ever Greater, Ever Nearer
• The Crucified God of Compassion
• Liberating God of Life
• God Acting Womanish
• God Who Breaks Chains
• Accompanying God of Fiesta
• Generous God of the Religions
• Creator Spirit in the Evolving World
• Trinity: The Living God of Love

Elizabeth A. Johnson is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University.

And Gerhard Mueller? I am sure he is a fine fellow, like my bishop friend. These ecclesiastical authorities must learn, however, that theological exploration is the responsibility of ALL in the church. And we only make progress in our quests for the Living God when our conversations are mutually respectful, and open, and honest: without secretive hidden agendas.

Now go buy a copy of Johnson’s book………and organize your own adult faith discussion group!

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