Latinos Leaving the Catholic Church

November 15, 2019

In what some see as a landmark decision, the American Catholic bishops, during their Fall meeting this week in Baltimore, have elected Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He is the first Latino to hold the highest leadership position in the American Catholic Church. The the 67-year-old Mexican-born bishop has been a strong advocate of immigrant rights, and public supporter for newcomers as they face growing restrictions by the Department of Homeland Security and other US federal agencies.

For many years the US Catholic bishops have looked to Latinos/Latinas to maintain a strong Catholic presence in the United States. Now however, they are confronted with a new US Catholic development: Latinos/Latinas, in growing numbers, are saying “Adiós” to the Catholic Church.

Ten years ago, according to the Pew Research Center, 57% of US Catholics were Latino/Latina. Today that figure is 47%, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 report.

Curiously, we see as well a rise in the number of American Latinos/Latinas who are becoming Muslims. In 2009, only 1 percent of Muslims identified as Latino/Latina. By 2018, it was 7 percent. The American Muslim Association of North America, based in North Miami, says heavily Latino/Latina South Florida in particular is home to a rising number of Latino/Latina Muslims.

Why the Latino exodus?

In part, the decline of Catholics among Latinos/Latinas reflects religious changes underway in Latin America, where evangelical churches have been gaining adherents in a region that historically has been overwhelmingly Catholic. It also reflects religious changes taking place in the United States, where the Catholic Church has an ongoing problem of loosing adherents through religious switching/conversion, and, especially among younger people, through the growth of the religiously unaffiliated.

Latinos/Latinas leaving Catholicism have also reacted against a perceived ongoing clerical sexual abuse problem, a belief that most priests are gay, and a growing religious impersonalization as parishes, due to a shortage of priests and falling parish membership, become larger amalgamations of closed but formerly open churches. Larger churches handle crowds but do not create personalized communities. Latinos/Latinas are drawn to smaller born-again, Pentecostal, or evangelical Protestant communities where people know each other and form networks of friends. They seek as well a personal and direct connection with God, without the interference of an institution or clergy.

The phenomenon of Latino/Latina departure covers a broad spectrum. The recent changes in religious affiliation are broad-based, occurring among men and women, those born in the United States and those born abroad, and those who have attended college as well as those with less formal education. The changes are also occurring among Latinos/Latinas of Mexican origin (the largest single origin group) and those with other origins.

The departure changes, however, occur primarily among Latino/Latina adults under the age of 50. Among Latinos aged 18-29, virtually all movement has been away from Catholicism and toward no religious affiliation: joining the “nones.” Among those aged 30-49, the movement has been away from Catholicism and toward evangelical Protestantism or no religious affiliation. Among Latinos/Latinas ages 50 and older, the changes in religious identity are not statistically significant.

Latinos/Latinas, like other Catholics, are also showing and reacting to a kind of Catholic fatigue. They are tired of weakened Catholic credibility, tired of the slow pace of change about issues of women in ministry, sexual abuse, and now a fierce polarization between supporters of Pope Francis and those, like the US Cardinal Raymond Burke, who are convinced Francis is a dangerous heretic destroying orthodox belief. Since the late 1970s, conservative Catholics and evangelicals have also become allies in the culture war that has shaped American partisan politics. (Since the 1970s non-Latino/Latina white Catholics have voted majority Republican while a majority of Latino/Latina Catholics have voted Democrat.)

Yes I call it “Catholic fatigue.” A contemporary fatigue-generating example: In their November 12th meeting, the US bishops have voted to approve close to 300 new hymn texts for the Liturgy of the Hours. The US bishops must now receive confirmation from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which can take months or a year to process. Hymn texts are certainly a pressing issue these days…

Among the other issues considered on November 12th, there was much discussion about new materials to complement “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the USCCB’s long-standing guide to help Catholics form their consciences in public life, including voting. Pondering the 2020 election, the bishops voted to approve the new version, including an addition that abortion is the preeminent social issue of our time. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the outgoing president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, observed that global warming is an important issue but not urgent. Fortunately for him, he doesn’t live in Venice.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles urged the bishops to promote social media in their dioceses as one way to re-link young people with the Catholic Church. He said the church is losing young people in greater numbers and must face the challenges of how to get the religiously unaffiliated young people, back to the Catholic Church. He presented a three-minute video on the issue; and his presentation led to a discussion that lasted for more than an hour. Bishops from across the country are in agreement that the issue is of great concern. They shared ideas for bringing young people back to the church, which primarily involved more and better catechism instruction and an increased devotion to the Virgin Mary.

As a friend wrote this week, “The ultra conservative men and their followers are about to drive me from the church, along with clericalism and the pedo scandal. I am not able to set these basic things aside and still be a practicing Catholic. I love my friends in the church, but my own fragile spirit has taken a beating for years.The little time I have left on this earth, must be spent in joy filled peace.”

And so, we continue on in our faith journeys.


Political Religion

November 8, 2019

Re-reading a bit of political philosophy, I came across a 1939 quotation by the French philosopher Raymond Aron (1905-1983) who warned of ‘notre époque de religions politiques.’ If Aron were around today, he would have much to wrote about.

It is certainly no secret that the current presidential administration embraces its own brand of religion. The president speaks often of his defense of “Judeo-Christian values,” while far-right Christians like Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence have become powerful and long-serving officials in the administration. To what degree their values are genuinely Christian, however, is a question worth considering…..

Billy Graham (1918-2018) the renowned USA preacher who died last year, aired regrets later in his life about having “sometimes crossed the line” in his involvement in politics. His son Franklin has no such regrets and continues to strongly support the policies and person of the current US president. According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 13,800 people attended Franklin Graham’s early October evangelistic Trump rally in Greenville, North Carolina. Current polling still reports an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals who consistently express approval of the president’s handling of his job since his 2017 inauguration.

Franklin Graham calls the Trump impeachment inquiry an “unjust inquisition,” and claims that the Bible directs Americans to pray for the president. He also made a special plea last week that Americans purchase a “Pray for 45” T-shirt being sold through his organization’s website, for only $15.99. In an October 31st anti-impeachment Facebook post, Graham stressed: “Pray for President Trump today, for God to give him wisdom, protection, and guide each and every step he takes. I pray that he and Melania will sense the presence of the Lord through this unjust inquisition.” Ironically, despite Graham’s ardent opposition to the impeachment inquiry into Trump, he was one of the most vocal proponents of impeaching former President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. Apparently sexual deviance is ok for a Republican president but not for Democratic president?

The extreme Christian right promotes a very selective kind of gospel.

Paula White, a televangelist based in Florida and personal pastor to President Trump since 2002, has now joined the Trump administration in an official capacity. “When I walk on White House grounds, God walks on White House grounds…the White House is holy ground,” she said recently. She will work in the Office of Public Liaison which is the division of the White House overseeing outreach to groups and coalitions organizing key parts of the president’s base, and giving religious groups more say in White House decisions. White wrote and delivered the invocation at Trump’s January 2017 presidential inauguration in Washington, becoming the first clergywoman to lead the inaugural prayer.

White, who preaches the “prosperity gospel,” asks Americans to make a donation to her ministries to honor the religious principle of “first fruit,” which she said is the idea that all firsts belong to God, including the first harvest and, apparently, the first month of one’s salary. “If God doesn’t divinely step in and intervene, I don’t know what you’re going to face” she said. As the President prepares for a second term political campaign, he cannot afford to lose support from the religious conservatives who voted for him in 2016 in significant numbers. He is hoping that his spiritual advisor, Paula White, can help make it happen again. White is weaponizing religion for political success. She told the New York Post recently that the impeachment investigation “wears on” Trump. Nevertheless, she is unconcerned about his 2020 reelection chances: “I’ve never seen the base more energized than it is now.”

In other news this week, the Evangelical Christian Pastor, from Tennessee, Perry Stone, has claimed that Democratic lawmakers “have demons in them” and are “trying to place hexes and curses” on President Donald Trump. Stone, who founded Perry Stone Ministries and is described as a best-selling author, made the claims during a Thursday night prayer meeting last week. He argued that Trump’s demon-possessed political opponents are “trying to place hexes and curses on President Trump.”

“I have never, in any nation of the world … seen people raised up with demons in them [like] in Washington,” Pastor Stone said. “They have demons in them. You can look at their eyes when they almost start foaming at the mouth,” he said. The pastor then took aim at Democratic House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff, claiming that the representative’s “eyes get as big as saucers and it looks like he is having a seizure when you bring up [Trump’s] name.”

Stone also sells a meal package on his ministries’ website. He calls it the Lord’s Supper, and claims if you buy it from him you’ll be healed of any sickness or disease.

These “Christian” characters undermine and distort authentic Christianity. In Luke 4, we hear Jesus saying:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free.”

Unfortunately, strongly politicized segments in various American Protestant and Catholic churches today look away from justice for the disenfranchised. They love especially themselves and love only those neighbors who meet their approval.

We do need prophets and a new reformation.

Closing reflection: Over 10,000 migrant children are now in US government custody at 100 shelters in 14 states. Political religion? The Gospel Message here?


Faith: Development or Stunted Growth

November 1, 2019 All Saints

Thinking about some well-known public personalities who, despite their age, are still rather adolescent in their beliefs and behavior, I went back to James Fowler’s understanding of faith development.

James W. Fowler (1940-2015) was an American theologian who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was a minister in the United Methodist Church.

Fowler described faith as a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life: the way one finds coherence and meaning in the multiple forces and relationships that make up our lives. In his book, Stages of Faith, he proposed that faith development occurs in six predictable stages, though not everyone progresses through all six stages; and some people get stuck in earlier stages, primarily because they cannot move beyond their own self-centeredness.

Pre-stage: Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith

Before Stage 1, Fowler described a Pre-Stage, of Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith, roughly from birth to age two. This is the time of developing “Trust vs Mistrust.” Here Fowler stressed that, “the quality of mutuality and the strength of trust, autonomy, hope and courage (or their opposites) developed in this phase underlie (or threaten to undermine) all that comes later in faith development.” Indeed, this stage provides the foundation for the future.

Holding my recently-born great-great niece a couple weeks ago, I felt so happy for her because she has been born into a warm and loving family network. Trust vs Mistrust.

Stage One: Intuitive-Projective Faith

Most typically for children aged 3 to 7. Intuitive-Projective Faith is learned through stories, images, feelings, and actions from significant adults. The child’s imagination plays an important role in this stage of faith development. The child’s religious descriptions may not make sense logically, because they are symbols, images, and stories that fit together in seemingly random patterns.

The Stage 1 child learns self-awareness, without understanding that others may have a different perspective.

Stage Two: Mythic-Literal Faith

In the Mythic-Literal stage, the young person begins to take on the stories, beliefs, and observances that symbolize belonging to a community. Faith stories are understood as logical, concrete and literal.

In Stage 2 the young believer learns to distinguish between real and make believe. Justice is based on fairness, with rewards and punishments are given based on adherence to moral rules. The person in this stage is better able to take on the perspectives of others.

God is thought of in anthropomorphic terms, described with human qualities and actions. This stage is mostly found in school age children, but some adults remain locked in this stage for their entire life. (A very important understanding for pastoral ministers….)

Stage Three: Synthetic Conventional Faith

Synthetic Conventional Faith generally develops during adolescence when personality and self-identity emerge. Interpersonal relationships and being known and accepted by a group are extremely important in this stage, because self-identity is formed as a member of the group.

Since self-identity is still developing, there is often little independent perspective beyond that of the group to which the person conforms.

Synthetic Conventional faith relies on external authority. For these reasons, many religious institutions (but political ones as well) work best with a majority of committed people locked in Stage 3. Many church authorities can be quite satisfied when most of their members maintain a Stage 3 faith of unquestioned commitment to the beliefs and practices of the church. (I remember a bishop telling me, when I was a high school teacher on Michigan, “your duty is NOT to question but to obey.”)

The beliefs and value system of Stage 3 are unexamined and tacitly held. Like fish in a fish bowl, people in Stage 3 are unable to view their system from the outside and unable to understand that there are other systems, other fish bowls.

Transition to Stage 4 can only be precipitated by the experience of leaving home, either emotionally or physically, or both. This can occur through marriage, going to college, entering the workforce, or joining the military, when the Stage 3 person encounters people from other groups and different perspectives.

I was edged out of Stage 3 when, as a young man, I left Southwestern Michigan to become a graduate student in Louvain, Belgium. It was exciting but unsettling as well.

Today, I try to nudge people toward a higher stage of faith development, through educational trips, engagement with other cultures, and interfaith dialogue: placing people in contact with other people with differing world-views.

Some people of course don’t want to be confronted with a differing world-view. They regress or retreat to a fundamentalist or even fascist perspective. Donald Trump and his supporters are found here; although one can really question whether or not DJT has any genuine Christian faith.

Stage 4: Individuate-Reflective Faith

Individuate-Reflective Faith usually begins in young adulthood with exposure to the wider world of diverse cultures and perspectives. This can be a time of disequilibrium as unexamined beliefs and values are called into question and compared to alternative value systems.

Authority in Stage 3 comes EXTERNALLY from the group. In Stage 4, authority shifts INTERNALLY to the self, with an emphasis on individuality, independence, and self-fulfillment. The individual makes her- or his own judgments about values and beliefs.

Previously accepted religious symbols, practices, and biblical narratives can be rejected as naïve. People at this stage often reject traditional faith of any kind. Today, a lot of millennials and post-millennials are at this stage, as well as the people whom sociologists call the “nones.”

As an older fellow, I am especially interested in this group, because they are often asking all the right questions.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

Conjunctive Faith is rare before midlife. With it comes a greater acceptance of diversity, complexity, mystery, and paradox.

Conjunctive Faith is often called the “second naïvete.” Previously rejected religious symbols and practices are now reaffirmed as tools that help one encounter God and the truth, rather than as merely ends in themselves. One begins to appreciate life as a journey of discovery.

Knowing reality in Stage 5 is characterized by a willingness to let reality speak its word. One develops wisdom and an appreciation in knowing things as they are, without seeking to modify, control, or order them to fit one’s prior categories.

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith

Stage 6, Universalizing Faith is extremely rare.

James Fowler mentions people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as examples of people who reached a Universalizing Faith. People at this stage can become important religious teachers because they have the ability to relate to anyone at any stage and from any faith. They are able to relate to others without condescension but at the same time are able to challenge the assumptions of those in other stages.

The perspectives and actions of Stage 6 people often run counter to the surrounding culture. They see all men and women as part of a universal family. They selflessly serve others. Many of them are persecuted and martyred in life, but later revered in death.

Concluding thoughts: While there is some predictability due to age and intellectual development, progression through these stages of faith is not automatic. Some people move more slowly than others from one stage to the next. And some people remain in earlier stages throughout their adult lives.

In all of this, the Christian community plays a key role. A kind of “sponsorship” by the community can make a significant difference as people move from one stage to the next and they grow in their faith. A sponsoring – ministering – community can provide affirmation, encouragement, guidance for a person’s ongoing growth and development.

May we continue our journey together …..


Trust, Truthfulness, and Together

October 25, 2019

A short reflection as I sit in the airport in Chicago, listening, watching, and chatting with people around me awaiting my flight across the Atlantic and back to Leuven/Louvain….

Some people, depending of course on one’s personal and/or religious values — and who often make a lot of noise in public — think of public morality as primarily a way of regulating sexual behavior: prostitution, same gender marriage, pre-marital sex, pornography, matters of dress and nudity, and pornography. I find those very same people often tend to ignore issues like ecclesiastical corruption, political leaders who are regular liars in official public statements; and who certainly ignore personal and group responsibilities connected with the environment, immigration, income inequality, misogyny, and racism.

I would contend that public morality is what motivates and holds a society together. It is based on a social covenant of truthfulness, trust, and respectful collaboration. Sometimes I fear, in our highly polarized society, that we live in a time of a broken public covenant.

Public morality should keep us from killing each other, enable us to respect individual life, respect people’s property; and promote constructive and effective social interaction.

Ideally, public morality should be a set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors TRANSMITTED and REINFORCED by all social institutions: church, family, school, neighborhood associations, the workplace, and government.

Looking at the contemporary signs of the times, the traditional shapers of public morality have lost much of their effective voice because of lost institutional credibility, uncertainty about truth and falsehood, and a cultural impoverishment that disconnects people from tradition, history, literature, and a sense of common human identity.

Some people fall back on the one thing they have: an exaggerated sense of individualism. Then individual experience and personal sentiment determine what is true. A young fellow at the airport said he didn’t know much about Nazi concentration camps, thinks much is probably made up, but that if he had lived “back then,” he might have supported the anti-Jewish movements in Germany “because, well after all they ARE just a bunch of selfish crooks.”

And yes, today we do have a growing secularization that perceives God and religious institutions as unimportant and simply a matter of personal taste. Christian values become personal and individual values and not matters of public virtue.

I am truly convinced that gradually a new public morality will take shape – a new consensus in our pluralistic society. Before that happens, however, various religious and political fundamentalisms will try to take charge and control individuals, groups, and society in general.

We need to be alert travelers. It will be a bumpy and turbulent flight…..

Take care.


Changing Religious Landscape: Decline of Christianity in USA Continues at Rapid Pace

October 18, 2019

According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the religious landscape of the United States continues to change ever more rapidly. Based on surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults now describe themselves as Christians. This is down 12 percentage points over the past decade. The religiously unaffiliated share of the population, people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%. This us up from 17% in 2009.

One of my friends suggested that this was primarily a Catholic problem due to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, not exactly. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) now identify as Catholic, down from 23% in 2009.

Meanwhile….. in the religiously unaffiliated population – the religious “nones” – we see the numbers swelling. Self-described atheists account for 4% of U.S. adults. This is up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009. Agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.

Religious “nones” are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, although their ranks are swelling in both parties. And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults. Christianity is losing contact with young people.

So how does one interpret this? The simple answer is to say that people are simply becoming more sinful and secular. Period. Frankly I find that too simple and an unfair response.

We need a new Christian Reformation. I fear too many church leaders want to preserve churchianity not Christianity…… We need to seriously reflect about what it means to be a believer today. We need to examine our own “Christian” behavior. We need to better communicate what we are all about as contemporary believers.

And yes…..I would like to see our Christian communities MORE actively listening to young people and truly involving them in life and ministry in our communities. And in our communities of faith, we must absolutely affirm and support our gay, lesbian, and transgender people. People should not be fired or expelled from our institutions because of their sexual orientation.

Quick but serious thoughts. I am in the air this week end. Going to Chicago!


Today’s Special Anniversary

October 11, 2019

For observers of Christian history, and especially for Christians in the Catholic tradition, October 11th is an important date.

Fifty-seven years ago today the Second Vatican Council opened in St. Peter’s Basilica In Vatican City. Between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops and thousands of observers, auditors, women religious, laymen, and laywomen gathered at St. Peter’s between 1962 and 1965. Pope John XXIII opened the Catholic Church’s windows for what was called “aggiornamento”: bringing the Catholic Church up to date. At the time, I was in my second year of college in Detroit and one of my professors, with a bit of dry humor, observed “the old pope is opening the windows and the winds of change will shake-up everything.”

The winds of change actually preceded Vatican II, starting in the 1940s and 1950s with a non-hierarchical theological movement called la nouvelle théologie – the “new theology.” For some people the term was a negative put-down. Nevertheless, the nouvelle théologie theologians we’re truly prophetic. One of them, Edward Schillebeeckx, ended up being my professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the late 1960s. He had a profound impact on my life and thinking.

The nouvelle théologie arose especially among certain groups of French, Belgian, and German theologians. Their shared objective was a fundamental reform of how the Catholic Church was approaching theology. The movement reacted against the dominance of nineteenth century neo-scholasticism which insisted on a rigid adherence to the thought, methods, and principles of the 13th-century thinker Thomas Aquinas.

The new theology advocated an historical-critical understanding of the written “sources” of Christian belief, and a methodological approach known by its French name ressourcement “return to the sources”). It rejected, for example, the then official Catholic teaching that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The new scholarly consensus had affirmed that the Pentateuch had multiple authors and that its composition took place over centuries, starting in the late 7th or 6th century BCE. It pointedly observed that Moses died around 1592 BCE. (Some contemporary scholars understand Moses as a legendary figure and not an historical person; but I don’t care to get into that today!)

The new theology also advocated a genuine openness to “the signs of the times” and to dialogue with the contemporary world on issues of human meaning and Christian belief and understanding. That dialogue of course must be ever ongoing.

Today, on this anniversary day, it is appropriate that we all commemorate and NOT forget the prophetic message of la nouvelle théologie, the opened windows of the Second Vatican Council, and the message of its life-giving theology.

Vatican II stressed that humanity and the human condition progress through time. Cultural understandings and the ways in which we think and express ourselves change. The “signs of the times” deserve in depth reflection and concrete action rooted in that reflection. Yesterday’s understanding of the human condition is not necessarily today’s and may not be tomorrow’s. Church teaching, like all theology, is time-bound. Healthy theology dares to ask questions and dares to formulate answers that echo the tradition and resonate with the experiences of contemporary believers.

Pope John XXIII smiled at the world and opened the windows. Today there are some – like the red-hat critics of Pope Francis — who dream of a fantasy-land glorious past and want to slam the windows shut, and keep them tightly closed. They are constitutionally unable to function in fresh air and with fresh ideas. Well, perhaps we need to open even more old windows….

Post-Vatican II, we have our own contemporary theological challenges: How do we speak today about our experiences of the Divine? Who is God for contemporary believers? Two thousand years after he walked the earth, who is Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead, whom we proclaim Lord and Christ? And what does it mean to be a human person? And how do we develop and live a system of values that respects that humanity in all its cultural, historic, religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender varieties? And how do Christian believers collaborate to turn back the contemporary tide of racism, xenophobia, and authoritarian political leadership?

These are our contemporary issues. With faith and fortitude, we can meet the challenge.

As Vatican II said (using an inclusive language translation of the Latin text) in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs, and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts….”

The windows are open…..




October 4, 2019

The gift of prophecy is listed among the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and Romans 12:6. The Greek word translated “prophesying” or “prophecy” in both passages most properly means to “speak forth.”

Many people misunderstand the gift of prophecy as the ability to predict the future. Knowing something about the future may sometimes have been an aspect of prophecy; but it is really a gift of proclamation (“forth-telling”) and not of prediction (“fore-telling”).

Prophets and prophetic movements are agents of social change. We need them. We also need to support and take on the prophetic challenge. In my RCC tradition, I greatly value the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement. These ordained women are courageous contemporary prophets.

We need prophets in religion and of course in politics and environmental issues. I find Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist, a contemporary prophet.

Maybe we need to set up formation centers for training prophets, who can be effective change agents….A good parish project for Advent or Lent? A project for youth ministry?

I see five qualities necessary for effective prophetic change agents (drawing from the book THE INNOVATOR’S MINDSET, by the Canadian educator George Couros):

1. Having a Clear Vision – The change agent does not have to be the person in authority, but does have to have a clear vision and has to be able to clearly communicate that to others. A clear vision does not mean that there is only one way to do things. Having a clear vision means one can draw on the strengths of the people one works with and can help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common objective. Interactive dialogue is important. Know-it-all little dictators are not bonafide change agents.

2. Being patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight. To have sustainable change, it must be presented as something truly meaningful and something people see as important and something they should embrace. In our push-button culture, many people get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough and they lose sight of the vision as something that can really be achieved. Effective change agents need to help people see that every step forward is a step closer to the goal. This helps people to continue moving ahead.

3. Asking tough questions – When a solution is someone else’s, there is little accountability for seeing it through. When people feel a personal connection to something, however, they can truly move ahead. Asking questions and helping people come to their own conclusions, based on their experience, is when people truly take ownership in what they are doing. Effective change agents ask questions to help people think. They don’t just tell people what to do.

4. Being knowledgeable and leading by example – Effective change agents have character and credibility. They are not just nice people. They are knowledgeable in what they are speaking about. If one wants to create change, one must not only be able to articulate what that change would look like but actually show it to others. What I like, for example, about the women priests movement is that women are truly and effectively ministering as ordained ministers.

5. Having strong relationships built on trust – All of the points above, mean just about nothing if one does not have solid relationships with the people one is serving. People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person who is pushing for change. Change agents must be extremely approachable and reliable. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to have respectful but tough conversations. That also builds trust. Trust is built when one knows someone will deal with things and not be afraid to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable.

A friend asked me last week what changes I would like to see in our communities of faith. There are three I would stress right now:

First of all, I am very concerned about young people. I would like to see our Christian communities actively listening to young people and truly involving them in life and ministry in our communities. A Catholic bishop acquaintance told me, not so long ago, that he was going to meet with about a hundred young men and women from his diocese. I said: “Terrific. What are you going to do?” He replied: “I have a list of things to tell them, because, as their bishop, I am their teacher.” I chuckled and replied: “But maybe you should first of all just listen to what they are thinking and want to say. Perhaps they are YOUR teachers.”

Next month I am starting a new course about Jesus, his disciples, and the early Christian communities. In my first class, I will point out to my students that the men AND WOMEN who were Jesus’ disciples were YOUNG — most likely all under 20 and some quite possibly as young as 15 or 16.

Secondly, in our communities of faith, we must absolutely affirm and support our gay, lesbian, and transgender people. People should not be fired or expelled from our institutions because of their sexual orientation. Jesus said, as I stressed in an earlier post, absolutely nothing about sexual orientation. I find especially repugnant the ecclesial hypocrisy of church leaders who are publicly homophobic and privately abusively gay. I am thinking right now of a bishop who died this past year. In public he was strongly anti-gay and proclaimed that they were “innately disordered.” Privately he was a regular sexual molester of handsome young seminarians.

Thirdly, I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Church leaders have no business telling people for whom they should vote. Church leaders, however, do have a responsibility to encourage believers to Observe, Judge, and Act: (1) Observe how our political leaders are speaking and behaving, (2) Judge whether or not their rhetoric and actions are consistent with their often-professed Christianity, and (3) if there are obvious values failures and shortcomings, to take appropriate Action. There are many contemporary applications here…..

May we all be prophetic,


Contemporary Values Clarification

September 27, 2019

Values are basic attitudes about human life that shape our thinking and behavior. Our values help us find human life meaningful and worth living.

Last week’s reflection was on being an open-minded believer. I continue that reflection this week, with a reflection on values clarification: being an open-minded believer also requires an ongoing personal and group values clarification process. (In the old days, I guess we called this “an examination of conscience.” )

In the values clarification process, there are two areas to examine: (1) one’s personal values and (2) the values upheld by one’s contemporary culture. For example — Since I claim to be a Christian believer, the first question therefore is this: Is my speech and my behavior consistent with authentic Christian belief? Second question — Do the values of my parish, my school, my fellow Christians truly reflect authentic Christian belief?

Without becoming too political, one can ask the same kinds of questions about being a citizen. For example — Although an “expat,” I am still very much an American (USA) citizen. I am an active member of my US political party. I vote and I help with voter registration of USA students. And I encourage other expats to vote. I do believe in the core USA values of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. First question — In my life as a citizen, do I truly live those values in my words and behavior? Second question — Is the contemporary rhetoric and behavior of our leaders consistent with the key values of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness for all Americans?

If one answers NO to any of the above questions, there are some major challenges in his or her values journey.

Moral dilemmas are an unavoidable part of our human experience and development. We develop and promote our moral self-concept based on our daily experiences. There we have to make decisions and regulate our behavior, coping with new challenges and contemporary social influences. We observe. We judge. Then, we act. Just observing and then doing nothing is a cop-out.

I conclude this values reflection with a personal observation about the values conflicts that I see in contemporary Western culture (not just the USA). These demand our Observation, Judgment, and Action:

Some Contemporary Values Questions

Is the institutional church’s real value CHRISTIAN MINISTRY to all men and women or SAFEGUARDING ECCLESIASTICAL power, paternalism and homophobia?

In our political life, do we want DEMOCRACY or an exaggerated AUTHORITARIANISM that grows ever closer to a revival of FASCISM?


Do my words and actions promote LOVE OF NEIGHBOR or EGOTISTICAL SELF-LOVE?

Do we respect the PERSONAL DIGNITY of each person or simply USE PEOPLE for their

temporary utilitarian worth?

Is a key value in our society UNITY of word and action or DUPLICITY in speech and deeds?

Is the key church or political value today institutional LOYALTY or a non-critical ADORATION of institutional leaders?

When it comes to Christian values, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Christian community in Corinth:

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.

If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.

It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.

Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Take care,


Being an Open-Minded Believer

September 20, 2019

A friend wonders if I am becoming too negative, with a doom and gloom mentality. I hope not. I do have a lot of concerns these days. I remain, however, generally optimistic. I still believe that problems created by human brings can be solved by human beings – although it may take some time.

I also strive to be an open-minded believer and I hope I will never become a sourpuss, closed-minded old guy. A negative and grouchy outlook displays a short supply of Christian joy, generosity, and tolerance.

Being open-minded can be tough sometimes. It shakes a person loose from beliefs and values once so comforting. It enables a person to appreciate that some beliefs and values are temporary and provisional stages along life’s journey. As friend and fellow-blogger, Joris Heise, recently wrote: “Faith is the readiness to change, to grow, to admit blindness and deafness—to become open.”

We learn new things. We adjust our vision and beliefs. We re-shape our values, as we go along life’s road. The journey always leads, I believe, to sunrise at the horizon. I remain the perennial optimist. But we do indeed change….as our world changes; and we confront its ups and downs.

I once thought, for instance, as I was taught in a small Catholic grade school in Southwest Michigan, that Protestants adhered to a false religion. Then one day I looked at my Protestant father, reading his Bible, and I started thinking: my dad is really a great guy who follows the way of Jesus and believes in God just as I do. Nothing very false about that. I was taught as well, by our parish priest, that priests were ontologically superior to lay men and that all men are inherently superior to women. Contact with many men and many women over the years convinced me, long ago, that men who maintain and proclaim such beliefs are inherently ignorant fools.

There is much to be learned and appreciated from opening the doors to one’s mind and letting new ideas and beliefs come in. Over the years I have tried to help my students become informed and open-minded critical thinkers. Critical thinking is a skill, greatly needed today. And I have had to deal –- sometimes with great difficulty — with sourpuss, narrow-minded priests and bishops, who were my “superiors” and controlled my paycheck. They were unable, however, to read the contemporary road signs; and, unfortunately, their cars only went in reverse. One had to carefully maneuver around them. I survived.

Yes of course, there are indeed some fine younger and older people in ordained ministry. And more and more wonderfully pastoral women in ordained ministry today. They deserve our appreciation and, even more, our moral and public support. Their’s is not an easy life these days….

Being an open-minded believer greatly enriches a person’s life. I can think of seven ways, but I am sure there are more:

(1) It enables one to explore and discover. A person allows himself or herself to experience new ideas and fresh thoughts that stimulate personal growth as they challenge old visions, understandings, and beliefs. It can be a very liberating look at one’s contemporary world through an open mind. Remember Paul in First Corinthians: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

(2) It promotes personal change and transformation. Opening up our minds to new ideas allows us the opportunity to change what we think as well as our view of the world. This doesn’t mean one will necessarily change basic beliefs. It does give one the option to adjust beliefs, when one begins to think with a more open mind. I once thought it impossible for women to be ordained. I once thought Jesus’ disciples were all guys. Now I know that both beliefs/understandings are pure nonsense.

(3) It also makes oneself vulnerable. This is more scary. In agreeing to have an open-minded view of the world, we acknowledge we don’t know everything; and we accept that there are possibilities we may not have considered. This vulnerability can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The jar is half full or half empty. It depends on one’s perspective.

(4) It helps one see and acknowledge personal mistakes. With an open mind one begins to see things from others’ perspectives; and one can recognize the mistakes one has made. From time to time, we all fail and fall. The challenge is to acknowledge it and then get back up again and continue the journey. That is the virtue of Christian humility and courage!

(5) It strengthens oneself and gives stability. Open-mindedness presents a platform upon which a person can build, putting one idea on top of another. With an open mind, one learns about new things; and one uses new ideas to build on old ideas. In my field we call this ongoing theological development. Dangerous stuff for the old guard at the Vatican! Nevertheless, everything a woman or a man or a child experiences adds up. It strengthens who one is and what one believes. Note well: It’s very hard to build on experiences without having an open mind.

(6) It helps one gain confidence. When a person really lives with an open mind, he or she develops a stronger sense of self. One can respect and appreciate, but is no longer confined by, the beliefs of others. Then the respectful dialogue can and should begin….

(7) It promotes self-honesty. Being open-minded means admitting that one is not all-knowing. Even if one is a bishop or a pope….or an older theologian! Whatever “truth” one holds, each person must realize that the underlying reality in its depth has more to it than anyone realizes. This understanding creates a sense of honesty that characterizes anyone who lives with an open mind.

For some people, being open-minded is easy. It seems to come as effortlessly as breathing. For others, having an open mind can be more of a challenge. But for anyone who wants to travel the road of life, it is absolutely essential. We remember the words of Jesus in the Gospel According to John: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Take care,


Cults: Faith Gone Awry

September 13. 2019

Cults arise when people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers, and lose contact with genuine faith. They thrive on what can be called a kind of cultural fatigue and profound ignorance. Historically, for example, when Moses went up into biblical Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites became restless and fearful in his absence. Turning away from God, they directed their devotion to worshiping the Golden Calf. It was immediate, provided simple answers, and required no thinking.

There are of course more contemporary examples, where people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers to life’s big issues and problems. They stop thinking. Their critical faculties decline and they surrender to the simple but phony propaganda of cultic leaders. And they are usually supported by far-right movements with strong racial supremacy. Sometimes the beginning of these movements tends to be relatively quiet and gradual; but they remain sinister red flags nonetheless.

Quite often the line between conventional religion and a cult is not so clearly defined. Cults are exclusive, highly secretive, and authoritarian. Some religions of course are that way as well. Some cults even proclaim Christianity, but bear no resemblance to anything truly and authentically Christian. There are as well political cults, which attract and control because they act like captivating religions, whose only demands are obedience and unquestioned loyalty.

A typical cult has a somewhat theatrical and unaccountable leader, who persuades by coercion and exploits the cult’s members economically, sexually, or in some other way. Cult leaders often get people to react to what they are doing by saying something they don’t really or fully believe. Cultic leaders shun and ostracize members who don’t accept the cult’s exclusive claims to truth. When it comes to truth, cult leaders gradually turn fantasy and fiction into accepted truths by continually repeating false statements in rhetoric, propaganda, and the media.

The ninety-three years old American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence, delineates three characteristics, which are the most common features of destructive cults:

(1) A living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

(2) A process of indoctrination, persuasion or thought reform, commonly called “brainwashing.” In this process, members of the group often do things that are not in their own best interest, but in the best interest of the group and its leader.

(3) Economic, sexual, social, and political exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The warning signs of cultic development are clear:

• It advocates authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. Leaders, if not downright evil are self-centered, mediocre, crass, and juvenile.

• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Dissent and criticism are not permitted. Those who dissent are marginalized, excluded from decision-making, and labeled “troublemakers” or “dangerous,” or even demonic.

• No meaningful financial disclosure for the leader such as an independently audited financial statement.

• The leader promotes exaggerated and misguided fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophes, evil conspiracies, and persecutions.

• The group leader is always right. The leader becomes the exclusive way of knowing and passing on the “truth.”

• History and the past become malleable constructs that the leader can adjust to meet the needs and agenda of the cult. Genuine facts become fake news. Actual fake news becomes the new accepted truth.

• Members of the cult believe their leader was sent by God to change the world; and all must therefore be obedient and loyal to the leader.

We all need to be alert to cultic leaders and groups. They are unhealthy and pernicious. We need to have the courage to speak out. They are people who thrive on fear and fear of social change; and they take advantage of people by controlling information and promoting fear. In the process, they support a very unhealthy kind of religion.

Healthy religion builds bridges between people. It strengthens a basic sense of trust and inter-personal relatedness to people and promotes personal responsibility. It encourages intellectual honesty and does not run away from questions or doubts. It does not oversimplify the human situation or its sometimes tangled complexity. And yes: it emphasizes love and growth not fear.

Take care,