Focus on Faith


May 17, 2019

All religions go through a 4-stage evolution. They begin with an energetic, charismatic, and loosely structured foundation phase, in which faith communities develop where people live in the spirit of the founder. In the history of Christianity, we see this first stage in the early Christian communities, characterized by creativity.

The second stage arrives when the original disciples begin to die-off and people become concerned about passing-on their faith heritage to the next generation. In stage two, beliefs are written down, sacred scriptures (like Paul’s letters and the Four Gospels) take a set form, and specific rituals, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are more uniformly established. This is the institutionalization phase. It is necessary and really unavoidable.

Often many years later, stage three arrives. A religious hardening of the arteries and barrel-vision gradually set in. Doctrinal statements, rituals, and church structures that once sustained people become narrow restraints and barriers to growth and life. The church which once pointed to God now begins to point more to itself. People start being evaluated more in terms of doctrinal fidelity and obedience to ecclesiastical authority. People understand faith in Christianity as largely a matter of believing things to be true or false (faith as intellectual assent) instead of giving people concrete practices (faith as life in the Spirit) so they can live as Jesus lived. Being an institutional man is important. And knowing that the men are in charge is important for institutional women.

Stage four is REFORMATION. That’s where we are today. And today’s reformation involves all Christian traditions.

In the current reformation, we need to move from a belief-based religion to a practice-based religion.

Richard Rohr describes very well what happened to Christianity in stage three: “We morphed into “Churchianity” more than any genuine, transformative Christianity….Today, many Christians do not even know what we mean by the ‘Gospel life’ because it became a belief and belonging system more than a full lifestyle….

“In Europe, this took the form of highly academic theology, and in America the form of narrow ahistorical fundamentalism. Both of these are largely in the head—and the left brain at that—showing little interest in issues such as human suffering, healing, poverty, environmentalism, social justice, inclusivity, care for the outsider, or political oppression. In recent centuries, the Christian churches were on the wrong sides of most human reformations and revolutions, until after these reformations succeeded. As a result, Christianity has often become ineffective or even in-credible to much of the world. Our history now works against us.”

The agenda now is reform. I really don’t write to change anybody’s beliefs. I hope to change the way people understand those beliefs. Christian Faith Is more about how to believe than what to believe.

Winter is over and Spring is in the air.

Jack

Targeting Pope Francis


May 10, 2019

Catholic fundamentalists are taking aim on Pope Francis. On April 30, a group of 19 Catholics, called more or less “prominent,” released an open letter to the bishops of the world, accusing Pope Francis of heresy.

Certainly, a formal public accusation of heresy against a pope by a group of Catholics, associated with Catholic universities and institutions, cannot simply be ignored. When one examines their accusations, however, one sees a list of what I would call more administrative and public relations issues than strict theological problems: Francis’ efforts to expand relations with China, his work in interfaith dialogue, and what I would call his “perceived” openness to L.G.B.T. people.

The papal critics also take issue with “Amoris Laetitia,” the 2016 apostolic exhortation on family life issued by Pope Francis. Some bishops have interpreted it as opening the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. This is more about church discipline than theological heresy. In the days of widespread Catholic clerical sexual abuse of children, men, and women religious, enabling divorced people to receive communion is not high on my list of Catholic worries.

Finally, the singers of this anti-Francis letter lapse into complete foolishness when they complain that, at the opening mass for the Synod on Youth in 2018, Pope Francis carried a staff in the form of a “stang” an object used in satanic rituals. No. Francis is neither satanic nor diabolic. Some of his theological critics however are devious old demons.

Francis is not a heretic. There will be no burning at the stake in front of St. Peter’s. But is Francis blameless? I don’t think so…. Francis can appear friendly, down to earth, and like-able. I do criticize him, however, for his leadership short-comings.

A number of my friends are appalled that I would dare criticize Pope Francis. My criticism, however, is constructive. It is neither nasty nor demeaning. Constructive criticism helps the individual as well as the institution.

I suggest that Pope Francis is a well-intentioned old time administrator trying to save his collapsing institution. He cannot see that his Catholic Church needs major structural change and rebuilding. It is time for the Church of Rome to become less Roman.

If I were to write a letter to the Pope Francis, here are the concerns I would mention:

(1)PR PACKAGING: Be careful about the public relations trap of saying the catchy phrase, that draws applause and headlines, like “who am I to judge?” And then you fall back into the old ecclesiastical homophobia. (Which in today’s Vatican is quite ironic to say the lest.) Positive words need positive action. You praise women but then complain that “every feminism ends up being a machismo with a skirt.” You have a clever speechwriter but people are getting mixed messages. And nothing really changes.

(2)REORGANIZATION: I think it is great that you want to reorganize the Roman Curia. It is greatly needed. So far it looks to me, however, like you are still locked in a bureaucratic institutional mindset. You are still re-arranging the deck chairs on what appears to be a sinking ship. Disband burdensome structures. Decentralize, and decentralize ….Retire the old bureaucrats. Maybe you should move them into an old folks home in Castle Gandolfo. Give more decision-making responsibility, around the world, to local committees of bishops, lay and ordained experts. They know local conditions and needs. The days of imperial Rome, with its overpowering central administration, are gone. Over. Finished. Let’s move ahead.

(3)CLERICAL CLOTHES: Signs and symbols are important. Please stop the wearing of outlandish medieval and Renaissance clothing by church leaders. It is outdated and silly. It doesn’t fit. It is offensively archaic for church leaders who proclaim simplicity and solidarity with the poor. I understand it costs about $6,000 to put a cardinal in his “simple” red uniform, from red hat to red socks. And that is just for starters….

(4)INFLATED TITLES: While you are at it, drop the archaic language of “monsignor,” “your eminence,” “your excellency,” etc. We are brothers and sisters.

(5)SISTERS: And yes, we are brothers and SISTERS…. In the community of faith we are equal. We don’t need a papal commission to determine this. We know who we are today and we clearly understand our history.Get on with it. Acknowledge the many women today who are already ordained ministers: deacons, priests, and bishops. And let all ordained ministers get married if they so choose — men and women, gay and straight. There is great richness in the community of believers. Let’s acknowledge it and promote it. It would certainly provide a more realistic, balanced, and healthy church environment.

(6)INTELLIGENT REALISM: Speaking about being realistic, lets acknowledge that we grow in our understanding of human nature, of history, and of course in our understanding of Sacred Scripture and theological tradition. If we are solidly anchored in our Faith, we understand the need for development in our Belief. We do not fear it. Healthy growth in understanding promotes a healthy Faith life. We either grow or we become old relics. I do respect you, but you really do need remedial theological education. You and most of your close collaborators.

(7)OPUS DEI: Speaking of your collaborators, I realized long ago that many of them belong to Opus Dei: a very secretive, very powerful, and ultra-conservative Catholic organization. For me, this is a very big red flag. Opus Dei behavior is often closer to the style of Franco of Spain than to Jesus of Nazareth. This is a serious issue. Unlike the DaVinci Code it is not fiction.

(8)POWER: The Catholic institution is still caught up in a distorted understanding of power as power OVER people. Often unexplained and secretive. Indeed, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith used to be called “the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.” Thanks to Constantine and a long line of popes who followed his example, power over people became the Catholic way. But now seriously, Brother Francis, Jesus was not an imperial power boss. He understood that pastoral ministry is a ministry of support and empowering people to take charge of their lives. It is not an exercise of power OVER people.

A CONCLUDING NOTE: Like you I am an old Catholic. I am not anti-Catholic. I am grateful for the many ways in which our Catholic tradition has educated and formed me as a person and a believer. Right now however, I fear that our tradition is on its death bed. It is not finished, however. You can help change course before its too late. And Francis please don’t allow those old unhappy traditionalists, who call you a heretic, to get under your skin. Be strong.

Please do acknowledge however that you do need better advisors. Talented young men and women from a variety of disciplines. Not just a bunch of aging bishops in colorful dress.

And you do need to put constructive action behind your pleasant-sounding words.

Your old friend, Jack

My Religion, Your Religion, Our God


May 3, 2019

Theological understandings change over time. My own theological understanding of world religions has been greatly influenced by the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. It was issued on October 28, 1965, shortly after my arrival as a younger man and a theology student in at the University of Louvain/Leuven.

In our time,” the document stressed, “when day by day humankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the church examines more closely its relationship to non-Christian religions. In the church’s task of promoting unity and love among all men and women, indeed among all nations, it considers above all, in this declaration, what people have in common and what draws them to fellowship. One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal: God. God’s providence, God’s manifestations of goodness, God’s saving design extended to all people.” [My inclusive language translation.]

Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking about Christianity and would religions are: Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999) by Roger Haight, S.J., and Theologies of Religion (also Orbis Books, 2002) by Paul Knitter.

My own understanding has moved beyond three more or less rigid viewpoints about the relation of other religious traditions to Christianity: pluralism, exclusivism, and inclusivism.

Pluralism. Pluralism is generally the position that all world religions are true and equally valid. Well, I remain a Christian and an historical theologian. We all live and grow where we have been planted. The essential structure of the Christian faith in God is that it is mediated by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus remains uniquely the center of Christian faith insofar as it is he who was and is the medium and focus of a Christian’s faith in God. I would suggest that the validity or truth of Christian beliefs is displayed by a thoughtful examination that shows its reasonability and credibility within common human experience.

Exclusivism. Exclusivism is the theological position that maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Exclusivists insist that there is no salvation in non-Christian religions. This position, today, is most often identified with conservative evangelical Christians. The main objection to exclusivism is that it contradicts the message of the New Testament. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all. When we read the New Testament, we see absolutely no indications that the God proclaimed by Jesus was interested in saving just a distinct minority of human beings.

Inclusivism. While exclusivism is clearly a minority theological position today, the same is not true of the inclusive view that Jesus causes the salvation of all. In one form or another this has been the dominant theology of mainline churches for some time. Inclusivism maintains that God is present in non-Christian religions but only through Christ. This viewpoint gave rise to the concept of the “anonymous Christian” by which God saves through Christ, even when the believer knows nothing about Christ or Christianity. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner popularized this “anonymous Christian” understanding.

I am not ready to be burned at the stake but would suggest, however, that a close and careful reading of the texts indicates that the witness of the New Testament runs in a direction quite contrary to inclusivism. Theologians like Roger Haight and contemporary biblical scholars are strong in their assertion that Jesus did not preach himself but the Reign of God.

The message of Jesus is theocentric: God saves and God is love.

Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. A theocentric perspective on Jesus – where I am today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions.

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we have to work together in what the Catholic theologian, Paul Knitter, has called a kind of “unitive pluralism.” We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions and develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer…. Moving from tolerance to collaboration. From collaboration to genuine appreciation. From appreciation to learning from the other.

Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future.

Yes. We are all on this journey together. Our enemies are not Jews and Muslims but arrogant self-righteousness, ignorance, and xenophobic paranoia……