Ministry and Power


January 25, 2019

On January 3, 2019, the Boston Globe published an article by the Catholic journalist and historian, Gary Wills: “Celibacy isn’t the cause of the church sex-abuse crisis; the priesthood is.” Writing about clerical sexual abuse he noted “The church response has consistently been to doubt, dismiss, or minimize reported acts of abuse. “ He asks as well “How, we have to wonder, can men dedicated to the Gospel allow or abet such a response?”

I am not commenting about celibacy or clerical sexual abuse this week end but about ministry and power.

Wills correctly pointed out, I believe, that sexual abuse is about power over people. We know today that it has existed for a long time because institutional leaders wanted to preserve and protect their institution and their own institutional power.

For Wills, however, the problem comes down to “priesthood” which he sees as “an affront to the Gospel,” because priesthood is historically about power over people. I would like to quote from Gary Wills’ article and then offer my own reflections about ministry and power.

Wills: “There are no priests in the Gospels, except the Jewish priests, some of whom plotted against Jesus. Jesus is only called a priest in the late and suspect anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, where he is made a priest in the line of a mythical non-Jew, Melchisidek – and even there he is the sole and final priest. Peter and Paul never call themselves or any other Christian a priest. Outside the Letter to the Hebrews, the only New Testament titles for service to the community are episkopos (overseer), presbyter (elder), apostolos (emissary), and diakonos (servant), never priest (hiereus).

None of these offices gave any of them a pivotal role in what would later become the seven sacraments. Baptism was, from the outset, the entry ritual for the Christian community, but it could not originally be administered by priests, who did not yet exist.

As the priesthood was gradually developed in the Middle Ages, it tended to subordinate all Christian activity to priestly superintendence – from childhood (baptism), to adolescence (confirmation), to mid-life (matrimony, sacred orders), to devotions (eucharist, penance), to the end of life (last rites). No wonder church leaders would try desperately to protect this imperial rule over the whole of Catholic life, trying to mute or erase any demeaning revelations of priestly predation.”

I resonate with Gary Wills in his biblical and historical analysis. For some Catholics, however, it becomes a very sensitive point, because they still understand “priests” as superior to Protestant “ministers.” Nevertheless, there were no Christian priests in the early church and the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. Christ is present when we gather for community worship not because we have a priest but because of the assurance we read in the Gospels: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

As the Catholic Church now moves into the necessary and inescapable third millennial reformation, I hope the words “priest” and “priesthood” will gradually fade away. For a renewed vision of church, we need to change our vocabulary, because old words often come with their own particular baggage. The baggage of “priesthood” is institutional power, patriarchy, and clericalism. Yes of course I know many very fine and wonderful “priests” (and came close to being one myself). The key issue here, however, is ministry.

I prefer to speak about “ministry” and “ordained ministry.” (The only place where I still use the word “priest” is when writing about “women priests,” because I see that as a way of affirming that these Catholic women are indeed bonafide Catholic ordained ministers. The day will come, however, when we can drop the term “women priests” and recognize, acknowledge, and support women and men who are ordained ministers: married, single, gay, and straight.

Ministry is about service. It is not about power. Matthew 20 reminds us that Jesus did not come to be served but to serve…. Ordained ministers are called and appointed to be reliable Christian guides. They help us understand and live in the Spirit of Christ. Their ministerial words and actions are expressions of service: inviting conversion and building community, promoting acceptance and belonging, bringing healing and strengthening, and offering forgiveness and reconciliation.

Ministry is not about power over people. Institutional church leaders are not here to be served. They are called to serve and promote unity and collaboration. As brothers and sisters in the community of faith, we must also call them to that as well….

– Jack

All you need is………


January 18, 2019

There is so much big news exploding around us, that I offer a very brief but pointed reflection this week end……….

As it concluded its meeting in Cyprus, on 16 January, the World Council of Churches (WCC) Planning committee released a report about the 11th WCC Assembly, to be held in Karlsruhe, Germany in 2021. The theme will be: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”

In its report, the planning committee described the 11th Assembly as “a place of listening to each other, building trusted relationships, discerning together the way forward, encouraging each other to work together for change, and celebrating Christ’s gift of love.

Timely to say the least. We don’t have to wait until 2021!

The gospels make it very clear that Jesus was not focused on himself. He focused his attention on others.

The word “love” is used a lot. So often that we miss the power of what it means. We forget that it is really what we are about.

My friend, Joseph Martos, observes in his excellent little book Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments:

The Greek word, agápē, is usually translated as “love” in the New Testament, but it really means care or caring. When Jesus tells his followers to love one another (John 13: 34–35), he is telling them to care about each other and to take care of one another. Even when he tells them to love their enemies (Matthew 5: 44), he is not telling them to like the people who don’t like them. Rather, he is telling his followers to care about people who don’t care about them, and to take care of them if they are in need, for doing that is the best way to get them to change hateful and suspicious attitudes.”

All you need is agápé. All we need is agápé.

Already in the second century, the early Christian author, Tertullian, observed that Christian love (agápé) attracted much pagan notice: “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies,” he wrote is our loving kindness. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another.’ ”

May we all find ways of listening to each other, building trusted relationships, discerning together the way forward, encouraging each other to work together for change, and celebrating Christ’s gift of love.

Jack

Looking Ahead: Change on the Horizon


January 11, 2019

For almost forty years, my major area of research has been religion and values in American (USA) society. My brain still works and my vision is clear. I try to keep up to date with professional literature and I do on-site research each year. About religion and contemporary society today I am a realist. About tomorrow I see big socio-cultural changes on the horizon and I am guardedly optimistic.

Perhaps it is my age – old men dreaming dreams – but my special interest and focus these days is more and more on the young people who are creating tomorrow.

I have written about Millennials before and have no desire to repeat that here per se. Some people are rather negative about Millennials. I am not. I find the stereotypes of Millennials as entitled, self-centered, and shallow as great distortions and misrepresentations of an entire generation of young people. All major studies about Millennials reinforce a more positive viewpoint, as does my own regular interaction with Millennials at my university.

In 2019, Millennials are expected to overtake Baby-Boomers in our US population, as Millennial numbers swell to 73 million and Boomers decline to 72 million.

Most demographers and researchers see the start of the Millennial generation in the mid-to-late 1970s until around 1996. For the Boomer generation, researchers use starting birth years from the early-to mid-1940s and ending birth years ranging from 1960 to 1964. Baby Boomers peaked at 78.8 million in 1999.

Baby-Boomers will be mostly gone in fifteen years. By midcentury, the Boomer population is projected to dwindle to 16.6 million. A very significant shift.

In their social and political views, Millennials are clearly more accepting, than older Americans, of homosexuality and more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation of human life. Millennials are also the world’s most connected generation. Some 80 percent sleep with their cell phones next to their beds. Some three-quarters have profiles on social networking sites. Millennials are also more climate change and social justice oriented than Boomers.

A Public Religion Research Institute study also found that Millennials are considerably more racially and ethnically diverse than the general population, with less than 6 in 10 self-identifying as white. Thoughts about white Christian America? When it comes to religion, Millennials are the least overtly religious American generation in modern times and have mixed feelings about contemporary institutional Christianity.

Millennials of course are just part of the contemporary big change story. And no, I am not thinking right now about Donald Trump and his big wall changes nor about Pope Francis and his major institutional sex abuse problems. Those issues are big but something much bigger is happening with major implications for political and religious life. The post-Millennials have arrived…..

Already, we see a new post-Millennial generation of (USA) Americans taking shape and moving towards adulthood. I am very interested in their attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyle. More than the Millennials, I believe they will change the demographic fabric and socio-cultural make-up of the United States.

A new Pew Research study finds that the “post-Millennial” generation is already the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in US history. Only a bare majority of 6- to 21-year-olds (52%) are non-Hispanic whites. Most are still pursuing their K-12 education; but the oldest post-Millennials are enrolling in college at a significantly higher rate than Millennials did at a comparable age. This is greatly due to the fact that the parents of post-Millennials are more well educated than the parents of Millennials and those of previous generations. More than four-in-ten post-Millennials (43%) are living with at least one parent who has a bachelor’s degree or more education. Interestingly, the high school dropout rate for the oldest post-Millennials (ages 18 to 20 in 2017) is significantly lower than that of similarly aged Millennials in 2002.

The changing patterns in educational attainment among post-Millennials are driven in part by the shifting origins of young Hispanics. Post-Millennial Hispanics are less likely than Millennial Hispanics to be immigrants. Contrary to what Mr. Trump asserts, the post-Millennial generation is being shaped by changing immigration patterns. Immigration flows into the USA peaked in 2005, when the leading edge of the post-Millennial generation was age 8 or younger. As a result, the post-Millennial generation has fewer foreign-born youth among its ranks than the Millennial generation did in 2002.

Some other demographics:

Post-Millennials are more metropolitan and more racially and ethnically diverse. One-in-four post-Millennials is Hispanic. A bare majority (52%) of post-Millennials are non-Hispanic white. The share of post-Millennials who are black (14%) is nearly identical to the share of Millennials who were black at a comparable age (15%). Black representation among the nation’s youth has changed little since the early Boomers in 1968.

Asians account for 6% of the post-Millennial generation, up slightly from the 4% of Millennials in 2002 who were Asian. The remaining 4% of post-Millennials are non-Hispanics of another racial identity, mainly youth of two or more races.

Already a majority of post-Millennials are nonwhite in urban areas and in the USA Western states.

While it’s still much too early to draw conclusions, initial signs suggest that post-Millennials are on track to become the most well-educated USA generation yet. Black post-Millennials are also outpacing the previous generations of black youth in terms of college enrollment. Post-Millennial women are also showing major strides in college enrollment. In 2017, 64% of women ages 18 to 20 who were no longer in high school were enrolled in college. That’s up from 57% of Millennials.

More than any other generation before them, post-Millennials do not stress a religious identity. They may be drawn to things “spiritual,” but they have a different starting point from previous generations, many of whom, “back then,” received a basic education in the Bible and Christianity.

Post-Millennials tend to see organized religion and the Bible as working against generally accepted anthropological understandings. Here issues of evolution and human sexuality stand out. They have far more flexible views about sexual preference and gender identity. They are far more likely to reject societal conventions when it comes to ideas of masculinity and femininity, which they see as evolving and changing. For them LGBT issues are simply facts of human life..

My concluding observations: The post-Millennial influence on our culture, values, and political system will be driven by who the post-Millennials are and who they are becoming —- more educated, and more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. They really are – even more so than the Millennials — a transitional generation sitting between what America was and what it will become.

Post-Millennials may not solve all of the country’s ongoing challenges when it comes to climate change, poverty, and health care, or to discrimination whether it’s based on gender, race or religion; but they may very well take us one big step closer. Yes I am guardedly optimistic.

Jack

The Future in Our Hands


Epiphany 2019

For better or for worse, 2018 is history. We cannot change history. We can, however, learn from history and shape the future…..

Reviewing 2018 events, I have been struck again by how some news-making Christian leaders have not empowered people but exercised their power OVER people: Roman Catholic ordained ministers, who support women’s ordination, have been quickly removed from their ministry. Highly qualified and respected gay people, after announcing they are getting married, have been fired from teaching or parish ministry positions. Theologians offering new insights and or critical observations about institutional leadership have been sidelined or fired. And of course continued sexual abuse of children, men, and women. Yes there is a very warped RC institutional understanding of human sexuality; but the key issue here is power. In a vertical power pyramid, the guys on top take advantage of those beneath them. The most recent revelations, hitting the news this week, are about a decades-long sexual abuse of nuns in India by RC ordained ministers, while their bishops looked the other way. In the ecclesiastical pyramid the old boys club remains very powerful. The patriarchal pyramid.

Nevertheless, POWER OVER PEOPLE is not a Christian virtue; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

++++++

As we begin 2019, I have four short reflections about Christianity and power: (1) a bit of history, explaining how Christian leaders became power bosses; then (2) two Gospel readings about Jesus empowering people; (3) some contemporary observations; and (4) a bit of self-defense.

(1) Historical Reflection:

In the fourth century, Christianity emerged as an accepted and welcomed part of the Roman Empire. Ironic to say the least. As the Christian religion, with strong Roman Empire support, developed a more defined institutional structure, a major paradigm shift was underway. Sometimes people and institutional leaders neither see nor understand the long-term implications of what they are getting into…….

In the autumn of 312 CE, Constantine and his soldiers, according to the old legend, had a profound military-religious experience, encouraging them to fight under the sign of Christ. Fighting under the insignia of Christ, at the Battle of the Tiber’s Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s troops defeated his major rivals, especially fellow emperor Maxentius, whose head was triumphantly carried through the streets of Rome. Constantine became the single Roman Emperor. He converted to Christianity (but was not baptized until shortly before his death in 337). Historians wonder if he really became a Christian or very pragmatically used the growing Christian religion to tie together his unsteady empire……

Constantine was certainly pragmatic and hoped to unify the Roman Empire by promoting just one religion for all. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity one of the legally recognized religions in the Roman Empire. Then, in 325, he convened a council of all Christian bishops in Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey). They formulated the Nicene Creed – still used today — and demanded that all Christians accept it. For Constantine it was another step in unifying his empire. Although Constantine died in 337, forty-three years after his death his dream was realized with the 380 CE Edict of Thessalonica, which declared Nicene Christianity to be the ONLY legitimate religion for the Roman Empire. Church and state were becoming one. Church leaders became imperial leaders in power, influence, courtly attire, and imperial protocol. The bishops of Rome gloried in it.

Curiously, the Nicene Creed of 325 said nothing about what Jesus had taught, beyond the idea that God is a Father. It said nothing about loving one another, about compassion, or forgiveness, or helping the poor and needy, or renouncing violence, or building bridges with one’s enemies.

Thanks to Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, institutional Christianity shifted its identity focus from correct Christian conduct to doctrinal fidelity and institutional obedience. It was indeed a major shift.

(2) Gospel Reflections:

We begin with Luke chapter 7:19-23: “And John, calling two of his disciples, sent them to Jesus, saying ‘Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ And that very hour Jesus cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits. To the blind he gave sight. Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news preached to them.’”

Jesus did not OVERPOWER people. Jesus EMPOWERED people.

Jesus taught by example not dogmatic decree. See Luke 10:25-37: “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ “

(3) Contemporary Observations:

If fidelity to Christian doctrine is the sign of an authentic Christian, rather than correct Christian conduct, some very strangely behaving people carry the label “Christian.” They can say “I believe” and continue oppressing the poor, denigrating women, mishandling immigrant children, and destroying the environment. When Christian leaders ignore the ethic of Jesus, they become strange proclaimers of the Gospel. Right now I am thinking about those USA evangelical pastors who see Donald J. Trump ushering in the second coming of Christ. They proclaim as well that opposing DJT policies is satanic.

We need Christian leaders but not self-protective and ignorant power bosses. The church is a community of faith. The church is the People of God. The church is a life-giving community of men and women with active concern and lived-out conviction.

(4) Offering critical reflections is hardly anti-Christian

Despite what some occasionally suggest, I am neither anti-Christian nor anti-Catholic. Church criticism, indeed, must be constructive; and it should be characterized by objectivity, informed understanding, open conversation, and constructive dialogue.

*************************************************

Throughout the coming year I hope we can better appreciate the full picture of what it means to be a Christian. I hope we can become better informed, more collaborative in our decision-making, and more courageous in our critical words and constructive actions.

Warmest regards and every good wish for 2019.

Jack