Catholic Crossroads and Catholic Conflict

October 5, 2018

The Pew Research Center reports this week that, as allegations and investigations of sex abuse in the Catholic Church continue to become more widespread, U.S. Catholic confidence in how Pope Francis is handling the crisis has plummeted. Only three-in-ten Catholic adults say Francis is doing an “excellent” or a “good” job. This is down 24 points since 2015 and 14 points down from when the Pew Research Center last asked the question in January of this year.

The declining confidence in Pope Francis is broad-based, occurring across a wide variety of subgroups of U.S. Catholics. Since 2015, for instance, the share who gave the pope “excellent” or “good” ratings for his handling of the sex abuse issue has declined by 24 points among Catholic men and 23 points among Catholic women. Similarly, both younger and older Catholics have become increasingly critical of the pope’s handling of the still growing problem.

Even among Catholics who say they attend Mass regularly, the share who give Francis high marks for his handling of the sex abuse crisis has been cut in half since 2015. Just 34% in this group now give him “excellent” or “good” ratings. In 2015, 67% gave him a positive evaluation.

Meanwhile, within the American Catholic Church, the culture war is about to get even stronger and much more problematic.

A group of wealthy American Catholics, called “The Better Church Governance Group,” have banded together to fund what they describe as a public investigation into every member of the church’s College of Cardinals. They want to prevent a repeat of the 2013 conclave which elected Pope Francis.

As the Catholic news site CRUX reported on Monday, October 1st, the group has assembled almost 100 academics, investigators, journalists, and former FBI agents to produce what it’s calling the “Red Hat Report.” This Catholic watchdog group plans to spend more than $1 million in its first year, with the goal of naming “those credibly accused in scandal, abuse, or cover-ups.” They will also check what they consider the orthodoxy of the world’s cardinals. A contemporary Catholic witch hunt?

The goal of the new Better Church Governance Group, as the CRUX story makes clear, is to influence the election of the next pope, who will be chosen by a subset of current cardinals. “What if we would have had someone else in 2013 who would have been more proactive in protecting the innocent and the young?” the group’s operations director, Jacob Imam, asked attendees at the group’s inaugural event at the Catholic University of America. In other words: What if we could have prevented the 2013 selection of Pope Francis?

The wealthy Americans behind Better Church Governance are crusading not just against Pope Francis’ leadership, but against cardinals who do not adhere to “traditional values”— particularly against homosexuality in the church.

There are two Francis issues here and people are not making distinctions: (1) the clerical sex abuse issue and (2) an issue of moving beyond a rigid nineteenth century Catholic theological ethos. One can ask serious questions about the leadership of Pope Francis; but I see people, without critical reflection, using Francis as the scapegoat for both problems. The situation is much more complex. Too many people today would rather not think and just react according to their feelings. Frankly, I think Pope Francis has indeed opened some important doors. I also see Francis as an older fellow who is stuck in the theology of his years-ago seminary formation. If one looks at his administrative actions — and not just his airplane interviews and offhand remarks — he is basically homophobic and sexist in an old-fashioned clerical way. (Yes, many of my friends get angry when I say these things; but I try to be objective.) Regardless, we need to look at issues in a calm, rational, and mutually respectful way. When I look at movements like the Better Church Governance Group, I see more signs of clandestine suspicions maneuvering than mutually respectful behavior.

Contemporary Catholic intrigue is indeed becoming curiouser and curiouser. The American arch-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke is now collaborating closely with the arch-conservative, and former White House chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, to promote the agenda of the far right Dignitatis Humanae Institute.

Benjamin Harnwell, the founder and director of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, located in the ancient Abbey of Trisulti, 75 miles south-east of Rome, told Reuters that Bannon has been helping to build up the institute for about half of its eight-year life. Cardinal Raymond Burke, president of the Institute’s board of advisers, said Bannon will hold a key position within the institute and his collaboration reinforces the Dignitatis Humanae Institute’s intention to create a new Catholic leadership movement far from what Burke considers to be Pope Francis’ questionably orthodox ideas: leaning towards an old style conservative and traditionalist establishment. Very Burkean for sure.

Cardinal Burke told Reuters he looked forward to working with Harnwell and Bannon “to promote a number of projects that should make a decisive contribution to the defense of what used to be called Christendom.”

The third millennial Catholic game change is underway…..


(PHOTO: Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke attends a consistory as Pope Francis elevates five Roman Catholic prelates to the rank of cardinal, at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo)

Airplane Mode

29 September 2018

This week end, looking for a bit of calmness in the storms, an adaptation of an older reflection.

Current political and religious world events remind us that it is time to refocus and develop new ways of seeing, thinking, and living. Not everything is falling apart. Socio-cultural autumn has returned with lost credibility and new uncertainties. Spring, however, with sanity and new life, WILL return.

Waiting for a flight from Washington DC to Brussels, not so long ago, I was re-reading Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson. A young passenger, with earphones tucked into his ears and texting on his iPhone, looked over at my book and me. “I used to believe in that God stuff,” he said. “I can’t believe in the old guy up there in heaven, running the show down here,” he continued. “I can’t either,” I replied with a chuckle.

Then he glanced at the name-tag dangling from my attaché case, which identified me as an ‘historical theologian.’ (The fellow had good eyesight!) “You are a theologian,” he said. “But you don’t believe in God?” “I do,” I said “but not the old image of God we inherited from the Middle Ages….I think God is right here with you and me and all the people waiting for the flight to Brussels.”

He pulled his earphones from his head, put his iPhone down, and for the next half hour we talked about faith experiences, contemporary life, his lack of interest in any religion — he was raised a Belgian Catholic — and yet his real desire to experience something ‘deeper in life….something spiritual.’

I told the young guy, on his way home after two weeks in Washington DC, that I meet a lot of people who are turned off by institutional religion. They are turned off by lost institutional credibility and feelings that the institution does not speak to them in a language they understand; nor does it speak about human life issues they find important. As one of my friends said, the church needs to change the conversation……

Over the noise in the airport, our boarding group was called. We were both in group three but our seat numbers were far apart. As we started walking to the gate, I remembered a quote from my spiritual guide, Richard Rohr: “In solitude, at last, we’re able to let God define us the way we are always supposed to be defined—by relationship: the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence itself. Not performance but presence.”

“You know,” I said to the young guy as we got closer to the agent checking boarding passes, “I really think you will find the divine presence you are looking for if you put yourself on ‘airplane mode’ from time to time. We all need quiet time to simply be and reflect. We need to disconnect, occasionally but regularly, from all the noise around us.”

“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living,” Richard Rohr once said. “We live ourselves into new ways of thinking…”

Sometimes it takes a long time for us to ‘really get it’: What makes something secular or profane is precisely whether one lives only on the surface. It’s not that the sacred is here and the profane is over there. Everything is profane if you live on the surface of it, and everything is sacred if you go into the depths of it. Now is the time for deeper exploration.

We cannot not be in the presence of God. God is either in all things, or God is in nothing. As Richard Rohr again once said: “Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry trying to break down the false distinctions between ‘God’s here’ and ‘God’s not there.’ He dared to see God everywhere, even in sinners, in enemies, in failures, and in outsiders…..God is patient with all of us and with history itself.”


Reality in an Historical-Critical Perspective

September 22, 2018

This week-end a brief reflection, as a follow-up to my comment last week that we need “a broad-based implementation of an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, church teaching, and church history.” A number of people have asked me for more explanation…..

The historical-critical method, also known as historical criticism or higher criticism, began as a way to investigate the origins of ancient biblical texts in order to understand the world and meaning behind those texts. It gained broad recognition in the 19th and 20th centuries. It begins with an examination of the cultural and religious background of the authors of biblical texts and the meaning of their words written back then. Next the focus shifts to: (1) how one should understand the narrated past events today and (2) the best way to translate those scriptures into contemporary language.

Not everyone is happy with an historical-critical approach. Opponents, I would say often unfairly, accuse historical-critical scholarship of reducing Sacred Scripture to just a collection of old myths and pious legends. I don’t agree with that but In my writing and speaking I try to avoid the word “myth” because it is often misunderstood and can create more confusion than illumination.

Certainly, the historical Jesus did exist. The Gospels honestly attest to what he said and did. A the end of his life, as a man in his early thirties, he was tortured and crucified by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem. He was judged to be a threat to Roman control of the area and some Jewish religious authorities found him to be a dangerous trouble-maker. He challenged the authenticity of their faith. But then, God raised Jesus from the dead; and today we strive to live with and in his abiding Spirit. He is our way, truth, and life.

As we read the Scriptures, we do indeed find various kinds of “literary forms”: historic accounts, symbol, parables, and creative imagination. When we read the Jesus infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, for example, we find not much historic detail but much creative imagination, used to convey the great meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth. God with us. Rich symbols contribute to the narration: a guiding star, angels singing in the sky, surprised shepherds in the fields, wise men with rich gifts, a census that is not historic, and a long journey over rough terrain to King David’s city with a very pregnant wife about-to-give-birth.

When one takes a serious historical-critical look at Sacred Scripture, our understandings develop and change. Today, for example, we no longer say, as was taught when I was a young man, that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Contemporary scholarship stresses that those scriptures evolved from various oral and later written traditions over a period of centuries, in a process that was not concluded until long after Moses (whether a legendary or an historic person) would have been dead and gone. Nor do we understand Adam and Eve as an historic couple who launched humanity on our planet. (There are still occasional interpretive exceptions. Yesterday I read a paper written by a young, British, Catholic ordained minister. Therein he explained that Adam was created a MAN directly by God; but that, since Eve came from Adam’s rib, she and all women do not come directly from God but are basically DEFECTIVE males! I am glad he is not one of my students….)

I am an historical theologian and suggest, as we examine our Christian tradition and contemporary belief, that we need to apply an historical-critical analysis to church teaching and church history. Today I can only indicate some selective examples of what I mean.

Some time ago I was chatting with a well-known U.S. East Coast cardinal and suggested, with a chuckle, that perhaps the Nicene Creed should be changed to “I believe in God the Almighty Mother…” he was not amused and sternly reprimanded me and reminded me that, “as the church teaches, God is a MAN!”

God of course relates to us very personally, but God is not a person. We can use many analogies to describe our experience of God: Father, Mother, Lover, etc. Right now, in my life, I understand God as my close and supportive traveling companion. God keeps me going.

The early translators of the Bible and early and medieval theologians were all men. An historical-critical analysis today reveals their strongly male and occasionally misogynist bias. Today we would say, they looked at reality through male-tinted glasses. It is important to understand this when church authority — not the teaching and witness of Jesus — limits the roles of women in the church. Some “Fathers of the Church” were extreme, to say the least. Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 CE) thought a woman was not only “the gateway of the devil” but also “a temple built over a sewer.” And he is often called “the father of Latin Christianity.”

Gathered around Jesus at the Last Supper were his disciples. We know that he had male and female disciples. Contemporary scholars suspect the Last Supper had men, women, and children present: very different from the Leonardo da Vinci image that has come down to us.

In Paul’s letters as well as in Acts of Apostles, we find the names of several women who were Jesus’ disciples and apostles and ministers in the early church. This is historic fact. Some biblical translators over the years have tried to masculinize there names. Today we know better. They were women. I still remember an early Christian mural in Rome, clearly showing a woman presiding at Eucharist. A few years ago, before people could visit and see the actual mural, a reproduction of that mural was made and displayed in a public viewing area. What a surprise. In the public-display reproduction the breasts were removed and the person presiding at Eucharist became a flat-chested man with a beard. This was done of course so that “the faithful would not be confused.”

For centuries, Western Christianity depicted Mary Magdalene as a one-time licentious prostitute. This misogynist calumny began in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604 CE) asserted that Mary Magdalene was in fact the anonymous sinful woman mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Fortunately, contemporary scholarship today presents a very different understanding of Mary Magdalene and regards her as one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples. She stood by him to the end, while his most devoted male disciples did not. Don’t forget: she was the first disciple to testify to Jesus’s resurrection. A woman!

Today we need to clean-up our liturgical language, our biblical translations, and our ecclesiastical publications: removing sexist language and replacing it with inclusive nouns and pronouns. We are brothers AND sisters in the community of faith. It is “humanity” not “mankind.” Jesus did not come to bring salvation only “for us men.”

With an historical-critical awareness, we also need to challenge falsehood. Today in my Catholic tradition there are still very high-placed churchMEN who insist that women, because they are women, cannot be ordained. Pope John Paul II was very firm about this. Pope Francis is still firm about this. History demonstrates, however, that they are wrong, because their knowledge of historic realities has been so one-sided and incomplete. Indeed a major shortcoming in the Catholic tradition has been the hierarchy’s inability to accept women as fully capable human beings. The exclusion of women from all forms of leadership and service is no longer acceptable.


Take care. May the Holy Spirit guide us with her wisdom, strength, and support.


The Third Millennial Catholic Reformation

September 15, 2018

Melinda Henneberger is an editorial writer and columnist who, reporting from Rome, used to cover Catholic issues for the New York Times. On September 8, 2018, CRUX published and interview with her by Charles Camosy, Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. I open this week’s reflection with a citation from that interview.

When asked about her opinion of Catholic Church reform after six years of Pope Francis, this was Melinda’s reply:

Until recently, I would have given a nice mixed answer. But in the current context, the ship is on fire and sinking while the captain chooses this of all moments to stay silent, the crew argues on like nothing has changed, and the passengers are jumping into the lifeboats. Bye!

“I’ve been very supportive of Francis, but doesn’t he have anyone around him who will tell him how serious this crisis is? Bottom line, the last three popes and who knows how many before that have failed to protect children. They haven’t seen how central a failing that’s been, either, or why if the Church can’t get that right, nothing and I mean nothing else matters.”

Sorry to say, I do believe the Catholic ship is on fire and sinking; and the passengers are jumping into lifeboats, or just jumping to get off. The Catholic crisis is serious and world-wide; and I fear we are only seeing the beginning of a major institutional breakdown. The Protestant Reformation was small stuff in comparison to what is now happening.

Constructive change and rebirth are possible; but it will require some major changes and a born-again Christian faith experience.

This week end I have three sets of observations: Ethical, Structural, and Theological.

Ethical Observations:

(1)Large numbers of Catholic ordained ministers — priests and bishops —over a period of several years have engaged in or supported gravely sinful behavior, sexually abusing children, adolescents, and adults. It continues today: a pernicious moral malignancy. The most recent revelations have been shocking, sickening, and terribly demoralizing.

So now we have the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report about sexual abuse and the episcopal cover up of sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses. You can be sure that more disturbing reports will be coming out from the remaining nearly two hundred dioceses. Several state attorneys general have already launched investigations in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and New Mexico. More will come. We still see just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Then we have the case of (former-cardinal-still-archbishop) Theodore Edgar McCarrick. There is now bonafide proof (I am not writing about the questionable observations from the disgruntled old papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.) that the Vatican was informed in 2000 that McCarrick, AKA “Uncle Ted,”was fond of playing sex games with seminarians and young priests. The Vatican was informed in 2000…….. That means reports were available to the “saintly” Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.

Finally, the scandal and the scourge of clerical sexual abuse is hardly limited to the United States. In India Catholic sisters have broken ranks with the church by openly protesting in the streets of the Kerala state capital against a bishop accused of raping a nun. Former nuns have raised allegations of sexual exploitation by priests and other male clergy in the state’s church; but the latest case has prompted unprecedented publicity and calls for investigation. It is like a long-ignored virus. In Germany a new report reveals that more than 3,600 children have been sexually abused by Catholic clergy over the past 70 years.

(2) For me the big ethical issue is a morality — and an immorality — based on a distorted understanding of human sexuality. (I wrote about this on August 17th.)

Perhaps if we had had married priests and bishops as well as women priests and bishops the situation would have been better? A healthy understanding of human sexuality is not based on power over people to achieve personal gratification. Healthy human sexuality is about intimacy, mutual respect, shared pleasure, love, affection, and an openness to new life in a variety of ways.

I still recommend a book that came out in 1977: Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, a study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America and edited by the Reverend Anthony Kosnik. Yes this book was condemned by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1979. The problem here was not the book but a flawed understanding of human sexuality within the CDF.

(3) Yes indeed, the hierarchical homophobic rhetoric is strong these days. Prominent bishops are condemning and scapegoating gays as the source of sexual abuse. This explanation is unfair, unfounded, and rejected by professionals researching sexual abuse. Heated homophobic rhetoric always makes me wonder. Of course I would never make any personal accusations; but, from what I have read and seen over the years, those who so often are publicly condemnatory and homophobic are often privately very actively gay. Some people protest too much..

(4) The Catholic Church needs to humbly acknowledge, confront, and do penance for gross immorality and decadent behavior. The guilty priests and bishops should he defrocked and sent to jail.

(5) At all levels, Catholic Church leadership is in dire need of remedial sex education. I would suggest that the Catholic Theological Society of America take on the project of re-educating U.S. bishops about “Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought.” They could organize workshops, conferences, and produce contemporary study guides that could be used across the country for ongoing education programs for lay and ordained.

Structural Observations:

The Catholic Church still has an imperial monarchical structure, with the pope at the top of the pyramid. Power and obedience are key ecclesiastical values. As the Franciscan spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, stressed not so long ago, it all began in Rome!

Before 313, the church was on the bottom of society, which is the privileged vantage point for understanding the liberating power of the Gospel for both the individual and for society. Within the space of a few decades, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas….When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed…..

“An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible.”

Today, much of the old imperial Catholicism is crumbling; and some Catholic traditionalists are working feverishly to resuscitate it — and dump Pope Francis in the process. Reuters reported this week that former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon is helping to draw up the curriculum for a leadership course at a right-wing Roman Catholic institution in his efforts to promote conservative thinking in the church. Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, not far from Rome, told Reuters Bannon had been helping to build up the institute for about half of its eight-year life.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading Catholic conservative, who is president of the Institute’s board of advisers, told Reuters he looked forward to working with Harnwell and Bannon “to promote a number of projects that should make a decisive contribution to the defense of what used to be called Christendom.” Bannon and Burke of all people.

Nevertheless, there are some healthy structural steps people can begin to take right now:

(1) Starting at the local level, let our parishes be genuine communities of faith in which male and female equality is our ministerial practice, and shared decision-making our rule of pastoral life. For our leaders there should be clearly agreed upon ministerial goals and objectives. Based on these goals and objectives, there should be annual performance appraisals. Perhaps we should return to the early American Catholic practice of lay trustees, which Catholics learned from Congregational churches.

(2) In every diocese there should be a pastoral leadership council, composed of lay and ordained representatives from each parish. Their role would be to oversee diocesan ministerial projects, finances, and performance appraisals of their bishop. The prevent their becoming too anchored in their own power machines, bishops should be appointed for a six year term, with the possibility of a second six year term. After that a new bishop should be appointed, based on recommendations from the pastoral leadership council.

(3) To clearly demonstrate that church leadership is about service to people and not paternalistic power over people, all medieval ecclesiastical titles should cease immediately. Just stop using these titles. I did years ago. No more “monsignor,” “your excellency,” “your eminence,” etc. Certainly no more “princes” of the church. When I write to a bishop, I say “Dear Bishop,” or if he was one of my friends or former students, “Dear Ed, Dear Paul, etc.”

(4) The dress and comportment of church leaders should be contemporary and simple. No more crushed silk cloaks and gowns in purple and red. No more colorful slippers. No more fancy episcopal walking sticks (croziers) that cost thousands of dollars. When Cardinal Raymond Burke dresses-up for a Pontifical High Mass, it costs about $30,000 to outfit him……… But on the other hand, plain old bishops can be much less expensive.

(5) How about the Jesus perspective? “Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The religious authorities (scribes and Pharisees) sit in Moses’ seat but their deeds are done for people to see. They broaden their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces….Woe to you religious authorities (scribes and Pharisees) you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.’” (Matthew 23)

(6)These days the church needs not just a face-lift but a heart transplant. Getting back to the heart of what we should be about: Jesus and the Gospel

(7) The bigger institutional church needs of course a major restructuring. The old Roman imperial model is finished. Reform and restructuring do take time. In our USA history we know, by way of example when the founders rejected monarchy, that the Declaration of Independence came in 1776; but the United States Constitution was not ratified until 1788. Our first president, George Washington, was inaugurated in 1789.

(8) I strongly suggest that the Catholic Church needs not a Third Vatican Council of bishops from around the world. It needs a THIRD MILLENNIAL CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION.

This Catholic constitutional convention, with lay and ordained theologians, historians, pastors, and sociologists must (1) draw up a constitution for the Catholic Church and (2) delineate a new administrative structure that covers all aspects of ecclesiastical governance and (3) clearly establish that the pope — elected for a limited term of office by an international body of lay and ordained representatives — is not a monarch but the chairperson of the board of directors.

Yes, I think “cardinals,” as the papal electoral college, are a relic of the past. The old gentlemen should be retired, and the College of Cardinals permanently abolished.

(9) The new process for electing the pope should rely on lay and ordained representatives from every diocese around the world. No need to use the Sistine Chapel and the smoking stove. These can remain historic tourist attractions.

Votes can be cast around the globe by secure Internet connections.

Later, papal performance appraisals could be done the same way. The days of papal monarchy should be brought to a close.

Theological Observations:

The big theological issues will only be resolved by a broad-based implementation of an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, church teaching, and church history.

(1)Catholics need to move away from their barrel-vision self understanding as the only “one true church.” The Church of Christ is large indeed with many traditions: Christians as a broad-based community of faith under “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6) In the 1950s, I attended a Catholic grade school in SW Michigan. Our local priest regularly told my religion class that Protestants were members of a “false religion.” Once we were even told to search our homes for “heretical Protestant Bibles” and to “throw them in the trash.” My Mother was Catholic but my Father was Protestant. I never thought of my Bible-reading and prayerful Dad as belonging to a false religion. When I told him that the parish priest told us kids to rid our homes of Protestant Bibles, my Dad replied “Father C. Is a kind but stupid old man. You will not throw God’s Word in the garbage can.”

(2) Catholics have said for centuries that only their priests were validly ordained through an imposition of hands going back to the Apostles. “Apostolic succession” was a big issue. Today of course we know that Jesus did not ordain anyone in his group of disciples. We know that ordination was a creation of the Christian community many decades after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Apostolic succession has nothing to do with a tactile imposition of hands. It is succession in the faith, witness, and ministry of the Apostles. Yes, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, etc., along with Catholics, have apostolic succession.

(3) The historical Jesus did not establish or lay down ANY pattern or plan for church structure. He did not establish the papacy nor the first pope. Christians can and must adjust their institutions to meet contemporary needs. And as I said above there is absolutely no virtue in copying the long-dead and not-so-holy styles and structures of the Roman Empire.


Well friends these are my thoughts right now. The situation is grave. Big steps are needed. Let’s move ahead…..

Take care


Understanding Americans Today : Religious Typology

8 September 2018

Traditionally, many U.S. Americans describe themselves as Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, Mormon, or Muslim, etc. Others describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religious affiliation.

A new Pew Research Center analysis, however, looks at U.S. Americans’ beliefs that cut across many denominations: traits that either unite people of different faiths, or divide them. The result is a new typology of religious belief in American society.

This new classification sorts Americans into seven groups based on their religious beliefs: how they practice their faith and the value they place on it.

The seven classifications are:

(1) Sunday Stalwarts

The “Sunday Stalwarts” are the most religiously active group. They are largely Protestant, but also include Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others. They actively practice their faith, and are deeply involved in their religious congregations: 82% attend weekly religious services. They hold many traditional beliefs and tilt toward the right on social and political issues. Republicans make up a majority of “Sunday Stalwarts,” who are the more likely than any group to see immigrants as a threat. A third of the “Sunday Stalwarts” are 65 or older.

(2) God and Country Believers

Closely aligned with the “Sunday Stalwarts” are the “God and Country Believers,” but only 27% of them actually attend weekly religious services. They are strongly nationalistic with 58% approving Donald Trump’s job performance

(3) Diversely Devout

Racial and ethnic minorities make up a large part of the “Diversely Devout.” They include fewer Protestants and more unaffiliated people, often called “nones.” (“Nones” is a category composed of people who identify, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”) Only 12% of the “Diversely Devout” attend any kind of weekly religious services. The majority are non white, and more than 50% are between the ages 37 and 32. I find it noteworthy that the “Diversely Devout” and the “God-and-Country Believers” have the lowest levels of educational attainment. About six-in-ten, in each group, have a high school degree or less.

(4) Relaxed Religious

Seven-in-ten “Relaxed Religious” say they believe in the God of the Bible; but relatively few attend religious services or read scripture. They almost unanimously say it is not necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. More than 50% are between the ages 31 and 25.

(5) Spiritually Awake

“Spiritually Awake” Americans hold at least some New Age beliefs (views rejected by most of the “Relaxed Religious”) and believe in God or some higher power. Institutional religion is not important for them; but some kind of “spirituality” is a personal value. Many do not believe in the biblical God and relatively few ever attend religious services on a weekly basis. Close to 60% are between the ages 33 and 26.

(6) Religion Resisters

“Religion Resisters” generally do believe in some higher power or spiritual force, but not the God of the Bible. Many have some New Age beliefs and consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They have strongly negative views about organized religion. Overall, they think religion does more harm than good. “Religion Resisters” tend to be liberal and Democratic in their political views. More than 60% are between 40 and 21.

(7) Solidly Secular

The “Solidly Secular” are the least religious of the seven groups. They are relatively affluent, highly educated U.S. adults, mostly white, and male. They tend to describe themselves as “neither religious nor spiritual” and to reject all New Age beliefs as well as belief in the God of the Bible. Their median age is 40.

One can read the entire Pew Center report here:


Some personal reflections as a believing Christian observer:

(1) The religious typology groups tend to move from oldest to youngest when going from the most to least religious. Have we forgotten young people? What are they thinking and saying? How can we better listen to them? A bishop friend told me, last year, that we should get all the young people together and “teach them to respect what the church teaches.” I suggested that we get all the bishops together and let young people teach the bishops about their experiences and thoughts about contemporary life…..

(2) “Religion Resisters” and the “Solidly Secular” have the highest levels of education, when compared with the other groups. “Sunday Stalwarts” and the “Spiritually Awake” have slightly lower levels of educational attainment. And the “Diversely Devout” and “God-and-Country Believers” have the least amount of education.

How do we present Christian belief to the “uneducated” as well as the “educated”? This is not an “elitist question,” as one of my friends told me recently. It is the reality. The Gospel is for all; but we don’t need a dumbing-down in the Christian community of faith. Anti-intellectualism is not a Christian virtue. How do we promote good education? Good education is handing on correct information, helping people access information that is not “fake,” and helping people develop critical thinking skills.

(3) The Pew study reports that the most actively engaged religious Americans tend to be the most politically and socially conservative, with strong elements of xenophobia. So what does this mean? Yes, we all need a sense of comfort and security; and yes, my faith is my anchor. Faith, however, is about much more than patting oneself on the back or warm Sunday fuzzies. It is about feeding the hungry and lifting up the oppressed. That, Jesus and our faith says, is where we meet the living God.

(4) Thinking about religion in our contemporary America, the big issue for me remains distinguishing between “religion’” and “faith.” They are not the same. All religions are formally structured interpretations of belief. There are healthy interpretations as well as unhealthy ones. Unhealthy interpretations turn religious structures, rituals, and symbols into idols: objects of idolatry. History shows that idols and idol worshipers use and abuse people. (And of course bishops, cardinals, and priests can become idols, demanding reverence and veneration.)

(5) The Pew Center report tells me as well that we really need to engage in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration. We need to grow in our understanding of all religious traditions. In particular we need to explore SPIRITUALITY. No single religious tradition has God neatly locked up in a tabernacle or temple……How does the belief and wisdom of a particular religious tradition help people in their exploration of the Divine? How does it help people relate to God, who is at the heart of Reality? I know so many young people — and so many older people turned-off by clerical sexual abuse — who are indeed searching for the Divine…..

Next week some thoughts more particularly about Catholicism and what I would call the “Third Millennial Reformation.” It has really just begun but the impact will be, depended on one’s viewpoint, devastating or wonderfully renewing.


What We are About

September 1, 2018

This week end, Catholic conflict continues to swirl around the Vatican and Pope Francis. Clerical sexual abuse is pushed to the back page. As an editorial in August 30th National Catholic Reporter noted: “The enemies of Francis are, without conscience or nuance, seizing this moment of turmoil as an opportunity to undermine his papacy. We question their commitment to keep children safe.” Concern for the abused as well as sanity seem to have been thrown to the wind.

What we see today will have a far greater impact on Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, than the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. Michael Sean Winters, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, this past Thursday, captured the drama and reality of what is happening:

“Bella Figura died last Saturday night after a series of illnesses, culminating in a painful bout of full-body cancer. The death was announced at LifeSiteNews in the form of an 11-page dossier authored by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and, we now know, rightwing journalist Marco Tosatti. Funeral arrangements are pending but it is not expected the now bruta body of the deceased will be subjected to an open casket.

“Bella Figura was 1,705 years old at the time of her death. She was born in February, 313, in the city of Milan when the Emperors Constantine and Licinius ended the persecution of the Christian Church, thus denying one of the clear marks of identification between the founder of the church and her members. As the church became embroiled in politics, first in central Italy and later throughout Europe, Bella grew out of genuine concern to keep the church pure, and served usefully as a kind of check on egotistical and irreligious clerics whose only concern was power. Eventually, however, Bella found herself consumed by the cancer of power, and she became instrumental in the creation of a clerical culture that valued appearances more than truth, more than integrity, more than the church’s own children.”

In a week or so, I will have some pointed personal observations. Right now I am observing and thinking. We all need to observe, reflect, and then speak. Too many people today are speaking, with limited observation and without reasoned reflection. Contemporary Catholic intrigue, fierce rhetoric, and in-fighting are very strong. It is ecclesiastical temper-tantrum Trumpism.

Yes, I am upset: I grieve for all who trusted in the church and have been used and abused. Their suffering has not been adequately recognized. I grieve as well for truly good priests and bishops (yes there are many) who suffer discrimination and rejection because of their brothers’ sins and decadence. Lastly, perhaps I don’t grieve for myself; but I am angry. I have spent my entire professional life as a Catholic educator. I have enjoyed that ministry and still do. Like so many of my colleagues, I have also experienced first hand the lying and deceit of “respected” ecclesiastical officials. My consolation comes from seeing my former students grow, mature, and do well as clear-thinking and responsible men and women.

This afternoon I thought again about Ephesians 4:25-27 : “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry….” We are called to live an authentic Christian ethic. We pick up and move ahead. The institution will be reshaped for sure. I suspect we really don’t know what form or forms it will take.

The first concern right now is what form our lives take. With current events churning in my head, my focus this week end returns to the Teacher from Nazareth.

The stores are full of back-to- school supplies and the new school year begins this coming week. My teacher reflection today is about Jesus the Great Teacher.

What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the Rabbi: the Great Teacher; and I offer my own commentary on Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount” and the “Eight Beatitudes.” That is what we are about:

The Teacher then said….

1.How blessed and fortunate are those people, who are humble in spirit.

The humble in spirit realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. Power and control over people have no place in the community of faith. We do not sacrifice people nor the truth to preserve the ”good name of the church.” The humble in spirit realize they are not masters of the universe. They understand they cannot survive on their own. They need to collaborate with sisters and brothers. They need to listen to the Spirit and be attentive to the signs of the times.

2.How blessed and fortunate are the gentle.

The gentle are the meek: those people who can make room for someone else, even for the “losers.” They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. Arrogant and crude belittling of other people has no place in the behavior of those who claim to be followers of Christ – even when they sit in high political office or wear colorful clerical uniforms. “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them; and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.” (Matthew 20:25-26)

3.How blessed and fortunate are those who mourn, because they have compassion.

The compassionate can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They do not simply send their “thoughts and prayers,” and then do nothing. They lift oppressive burdens from the shoulders of the old, the rejected, and the impoverished.

4.How blessed and fortunate are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires.

We are fortunate if we have high ideals, strong values, noble goals, and the motivation to build up what is best in others and in ourselves….. But the temptations are strong: to conform, to do what everyone else does, to simply read the news, and then not rock the boat. In the contemporary church we see the results of those not wanting to rock the boat.

5.How blessed and fortunate are those who show mercy to others.

Merciful love is assistance without conditions. Genuine Christians are not fear mongers who scapegoat gays, as Archbishop Viganò is doing, or feminists, as many conservative Catholics are doing, or racial groups, as white supremacists and some militant “Christians” are doing. The Biblical concern for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor gets lost; and the white cultural values of homogeneity, obedience to authority, and strict gender roles are stressed as Christian values.

6.How blessed and fortunate are the pure of heart.

The pure of heart are honest-hearted. They are not two-faced, with hidden agendas or secret desires to advance themselves by using and abusing other people. They do not brag and joke about the different or unfortunate. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not lie and fabricate “facts.”

7.How blessed and fortunate are those who work for peace.

Those who work for peace do not erect walls. They are bridge builders. They cooperate rather than compete. They struggle to resolve political, social, and religious polarization through tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect. To paraphrase, in contemporary style, Matthew 25:52, “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”

8.How blessed and fortunate are those who suffer persecution because they truly live the Gospel.

There are a lot of phony Christians in high places these days. They love to denigrate their critics. They profess love of Christ; but in reality they only love themselves. Matthew’s Jesus is adamant about this. He spoke of religious leaders who wore impressive religious garments and talked God’s values but never lived God’s values. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus said “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see. (Matthew 23:3-5)

In the old days we said pax vobiscum. These days I would say to all of you very simply: Peace. Be well……


PS For my USA friends: Have a great Labor Day week end! In my Michigan hometown I remember participating, years ago, in many Labor Day parades…. 🙂

Looking for a Trustworthy Guide

August 25, 2018

What does one do when institutional leadership misleads? When some of the “shepherds” are really wolves? Where does one find a trustworthy guide for life? Where does one find inspiration and hope for tomorrow? After so many ecclesiastical disappointments and ongoing revelations, many are turned off or disappointed. The questions abound.

To start, I suggest we need to focus on the church not primarily as a religious institution but a gathering of believers. One of the unfortunate mis-translations in the New Testament concerns the word ecclesia. It is usually translated “church.” In fact it should be more correctly translated as an “assembly” or a “convocation” of those called together under Christ: people of faith, brought together, inspired, and enlivened by the message and spirit of Jesus.

My reflection today is not a bunch of pious old rhetoric. It is a contemporary plea to take Jesus seriously.

Perhaps we need to dismantle and deconstruct some church structures before credibility can be restored.

The lifestyle and teaching of Jesus are indeed our anchor in restless times and our blueprint for personal, group, and institutional regeneration.

Re-reading the Gospels this week, these Jesus virtues challenged me:

HUMILITY: Jesus was a humble man from a humble town: Jesus of Nazareth. People joked about Nazareth. In the Johannine Gospel, we read: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Torah and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” (John 1:45-46)

In Luke 14 we read “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” When putting on a meal, Jesus said “Don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”

We can live humbly with each other. How does one live humbly in an institutional church well known for grandeur, fancy dress, and imperial pretense?

GENDER EQUALITY: Jesus was not an old boys club kind of guy. Among his disciples were men and women. The first disciples to discover and announce that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women. Luke’s Gospel gives us the account of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary. The whole point of the narration is that Mary can be a disciple just like the guys. The New Testament scriptures strongly attest to women disciples, women apostles, and women ministers.

If today we could have an abundance of women ordained ministers and bishops, we would witness a marvelous ecclesiastical transformation.

NOT A PATERNALISTIC PATRIARCH: Jesus was not an authoritarian leader. He did not exercise power OVER people. He empowered people. His virtues were compassion, forgiveness, and challenging people to do better.

In the community of faith we must discover ways to move ahead with honesty, clear judgment, respectful ministry, and dialogue.

FAITH IS MORE THAN RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE: Some of Jesus’ strongest words were criticisms of religious leaders. One finds them throughout the Gospels. Here I recall an account in Matthew 23: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.’”

STRUCTURES SPRING FROM FAITH: The historical Jesus was not an institutional organization man. He did not establish an institutional church, did not ordain anyone. He did not create bishops, dioceses, or a pope. Jesus left structural systems to his followers: to the community of faith.

The community of faith, the assemblies of believers, need to do some re-structuring today.

NOT A WHITE SUPREMACIST: Jesus wasn’t white. He was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jewish fellow. He was neither xenophobic nor racist. His social morality is clearly explained in the narrative about the Good Samaritan.

WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW: Looking at Jesus, there is much we do not know. Things he didn’t talk about. Was he single? Married? Gay? Straight? For the evangelists these were not important questions. Perhaps they are really not important for us either, although some get hung up on just these issues.

GOD WITH US: Jesus is the revelation of God for us. He is the “image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) He is also the revelation of authentic humanity. He is for us “the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

Now let us reform, rebuild, and restructure a church worthy of Jesus Christ.


[Photo: Recent research by Joan Taylor (professor at King’s College London) suggests Jesus may have been of average height, with short black hair, brown eyes and olive-brown skin. Credit: Painting by Cathy Fisher, showing shorter clothing and hair for Jesus, in accordance with Taylor’s research.]

Sex in Church

August 17, 2018

“With revelation after revelation, a new wave of sexual abuse scandals is rocking the Roman Catholic Church and presenting Pope Francis with the greatest crisis of his papacy.” — Chico Harlan observation in the Washington Post on August 12, 2018.

Then on August 14, 2018, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an 884-page report on sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. In often chilling detail, the grand jury report details how the Catholic Church spent decades covering up sexual abuse claims against 300 “predator priests” who abused nearly 1,000 children. The report covers 70 years of clerical misconduct and a negligent church response. One can find the report here:

I have been reluctant to write about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, because so many have been writing about it. It is a major issue. It is clearly not going away. It may very well reduce the Catholic Church to a mostly conservative Christian sect.

A longer reflection this week end, since many readers have been asking me for my thoughts about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. So, at last, I agreed to offer my own reflections.

Five opening observations:

(1) I am indeed a Catholic theologian. My big concern continues to be: coming to a better understanding of what it means to be a contemporary believer.

(2) Some suggest that I am basically anti-Catholic. Very truthfully I am NOT anti-Catholic. I am committed, however, to seeking evidence, examining reasoning and assumptions, and analyzing basic concepts. I am a critical thinking and critical speaking Catholic, because as an historian I know that it is a dangerous development when institutional leaders say one cannot ask questions or challenge the accuracy or truthfulness of ecclesiastical pronouncements. (The same holds true for political statements and positions; but I am staying clear of politics this week end.)

(3) I have worked for Catholic educational institutions – schools, parishes, and universities — all my professional life — for more than fifty years. For a good twenty-five years I was very actively involved in the education and formation of Catholic seminarians and ordained ministers (priests), and the continuing education of ordained ministers and men and women in lay pastoral ministry.

(4) I have known, and still known, a great many wonderful priests, bishops, and cardinals. They are genuinely fine people who deserve strong affirmation and public support. Over the years I have tried to be particularly supportive of young ordained ministers, who have also suffered from the bad press generated by abusive clergy. I remember well one young priest, one of my former students, who wrote that he never wanted to wear a Roman collar in public. When he did, he said teenagers would pester him and run after him yelling “Hey Father! Having fun? How many kids did you screw today?”

(5) I have also known some bishops who were deceptive and immoral men. Some, for example, were strongly anti-gay in public but privately ran after young men or had live-in boyfriends often disguised as “nephews” or “private secretaries.” A broken clerical culture can only be repaired when church leaders openly confront the truth. Unfortunately, even the Vatican has had a tradition of soft-glove treatment for predatory bishops. The latest example of course is no-longer-cardinal-but-still-archbishop Theodore McCarrick.

I should share a bit of personal history. I was never an ordained minister but came very close. I went to seminary high school and college. Never witnessed any abusive sexual experiences there, but it was a healthy place back then. After college, my bishop then sent me, in 1965, to the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium (his alma mater) for my formal theological education. Louvain (today we say more often LEUVEN) had a big impact on me. My Dad often said “Jack was never the same after Louvain.” Louvain professors encouraged me to think, to question, and to do research using original documentation. I learned the “historical-critical method.” Asking critical questions became a major part of my life outlook. It changed my life as well in big ways.

After three years in Louvain, and just one year before my ordination, I realized I did not want to spend my life as a life-long “celibate” bachelor. And I had some theological issues like the prohibition of artificial contraception and extreme clericalism and misogyny in the church. I realized my “calling” was to become a critical-thinking theologian and teacher, not an ordained minister. I informed my bishop. He was not just disappointed in me but became furiously angry. He told me I had sold my soul to “1960s humanistic sex-craving secularism.”

Some months later, one of the bishop’s key advisors invited me to have a “friendly chat” with him. We met in his rectory. He welcomed me with a Scotch on the rocks and we started talking. Very friendly. Then he became very serious: “You know of course that the bishop is very disappointed in you. The bishop and I want you to come back. Please come back. Forget that marriage nonsense. Most married people are unhappy and the sex is not always that good. We want you to understand that, as a priest, you can always have a boy or a woman whenever you need sexual relief.” That was my introduction, and invitation, to clerical sex abuse. As I sat there, speechless, staring at him, my host started laughing and continued “God loves his priests and will always give his priests cute guys and sexy women for their sexual comfort.” I put my glass on the table and walked out. Never saw the man again.

Clerical sexual abuse springs from a warped and unhealthy understanding of human sexuality; but it is primarily about power over people. It is not about love or intimate affection. It is about using and abusing people, for selfish personal sexual gratification.

Last week, Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who spent much of his life studying the roots of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, died in San Diego. He was 85. I had great respect for him. His research into celibacy and sexuality within the clergy helped establish a foundation for those studying and responding to the ongoing sexual abuse crisis. Sipe estimated that 6 % of all priests were sexual abusers of children and minors, and that, at any given time, only 50 % of priests were celibate.

“Sooner or later” Richard Sipe wrote in a 2016 letter to Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego “it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among, and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children….When men in authority — cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors — are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.” Well we have now seen that in the revelations about the sexual lifestyle of former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, with seminarians and young priests.

People interested in the complete letter from Richard Sipe to Bishop McElroy can find it here:

In the church and outside the church we need to educate and help people form a healthy understanding and / experience of human sexuality. Human sexuality is not just about genital acts. It is about a way of being: the way people experience and express themselves physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

What are the moral values in human sexual behavior that promote the wholistic growth and development of the human person? I am a theologian not a sexologist; but here — gathered from my own reading and reflection — are some human sexuality values that I believe are a good start. They apply to people in all kinds of relationships, genders, and lifestyles.

(1) Sexual activity should be other-enriching. Healthy human sexuality gives expression to a genuine concern for the well-being of the other person. It is, therefore, sensitive, compassionate, and supportive. It does not use people.

(2) It must be honest. Healthy human sexuality expresses openly and truthfully the depth of the relationship that exists between people.

(3) It must be faithful. A healthy sexual relationship is characterized by a consistent pattern of concern and support. Fidelity promotes stable relationships anchored in mutual respect.

(4) Healthy sexuality is socially responsible. Healthy sexuality is not just about individual responsibilities but acknowledges the responsibilities of individuals for the larger community. A healthy sexual relationship and sexual behavior should promote and help sustain the common good.

(5) Every expression of human sexuality should be life-serving. A healthy relationship that brings life and/or promotes and sustains life.

(6) And finally, healthy human sexuality should be joyous. Human sexual expression is meant to be enjoyed without feelings of guilt or shame.

Here I remember the observations of my old 1960s Louvain professor of moral theology. I was in his class with a group of seminary classmates. Our venerable professor was talking about marriage and sexual intercourse. He smiled and said it was “wonderful, a blending and a union of body, mind, heart, and spirit. Something wonderfully unique, wonderfully human, and a taste of the divine.” One of my classmates leaned over to me and whispered: “If this is true, what are we doing here in the seminary?”

Next week some thoughts about contemporary Christian belief.


Muslims in the USA

11 August 2018

This week end some brief reflections about our USA multicultural and multi-religious society. This reflection is prompted by comments from two young postgraduate university students. One asked me: “Aren’t you afraid that fanatic Muslims will take over the United States?” Before I could respond, the other a young doctoral student replied with a chuckle, “I would be more afraid of fanatic Christians.”

My paternal ancestors were English immigrants. They were Quakers from Chester, England and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. When they arrived, what would become the United States of American was already multi-cultural and multi-religious.

People sometimes only look at our history through Christian-tinted glasses. This is not an anti-Christian comment. Just an objective observation. We all wear different kinds of glasses or none at all.

Right from the beginning, the USA was multi-religious: Christian, Muslim. Jewish, and (not to forget) Native American religious in a variety of forms. In general, it was not always easy but we have learned to live together, support one another, and grow in our understanding of Divinity. No single religion controls God. When a religion tries to do that, society slips into idolatry and authoritarian inhumanity. Religious freedom — much talked about today — means the freedom to be and practice your own religious belief.

Not all history books are clear about this; but Muslims arrived in North America long before the founding of the United States. Not just a few, but thousands. Muslims arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually composing 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. Muslims from the Middle East did not begin to immigrate to the United States as free citizens until the late 19th century. Key USA “Founding Fathers” demonstrated a marked interest in Islam and its practitioners, most notably Thomas Jefferson. A few months after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state. Writing, in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration,” he noted: “Neither Pagan nor Mahometan (Muslim) nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”

Later, as President Jefferson, he welcomed to the White House, in 1805, the first Muslim Ambassador to the United States. Because it was then Ramadan, the president moved the state dinner from 3:30 p.m. to be “precisely at sunset,” a recognition of the Tunisian ambassador’s religious beliefs, though not quite the first White House official celebration of Ramadan.

Yes, Islam in America is a tradition with deep roots. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims. They were not “citizens” but slaves. Scholars debate the number of Muslim slaves brought to the Americas. The estimates range from 40,000 (in the USA) up to 3 million across North and South America and the Caribbean. [In the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (1525-1866), 12.5 million Africans were “shipped” to the New World.]

Charles Ball, an enslaved African-American from Maryland, best known for his 1837 account as a fugitive slave, The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, wrote: “I knew several who must have been, from what I have since learned, Mohamedans; though at that time, I had never heard of the religion of Mohamed. There was one man on this plantation… who prayed five times every day, always turning his face to the east, when in the performance of his devotion.” Ball’s grandfather, from a prominent African family, was enslaved and brought to Calvert County, Maryland around 1730.

I suspect very few contemporary U.S. Americans know that many Muslim slaves were educated and literate in Arabic; and that they occupied leadership roles in the jobs that slaves performed on plantations in the American South. Historians researching Muslim slaves, in antebellum America, have discovered that the presence of such slaves stratified slave society, by creating the category of the superior “Moor” over the inferior “Negro.” Nevertheless, conversion to Christianity was the most widespread method by which most African Muslims had to reconfigure their religious practices and beliefs to adapt to their new societal context. Therefore, American-born children of African Muslims did not practice Islam nor did they self-identify as Muslims. Nevertheless, when Islam was fading among communities of slaves and former slaves, millions of new Muslim immigrants began arriving in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them, tens of thousands from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

The United States’ first mosque was built in Chicago, in 1893. Frankly it was an “attraction” at the World’s Columbian Exhibition. The second mosque built in the United States was located in Highland Park, Michigan. It was completed in 1921. This time it was built, not as an exotic or foreign cultural attraction, but to witness to an authentic American faith tradition —just like the nearby Christian churches and synagogues. It was built for Muslim worshipers: Muslims who were truly American citizens.

Subsequent to the 1965 “U..S. Immigration and Naturalization Act,” more than 1.1 million new Muslims arrived in the United States, before the end of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the contemporary “Islamophobia industry,” heavily funded and heavily biased with often factually inaccurate information, is working hard to spread the falsehood that Muslim Americans are dangerous, violent, sinister, and un-American. This is racist, xenophobic propaganda, and fake news.

Today Islam is the third largest religion in the United States after Christianity and Judaism; but one must pay close attention to the percentages. Contrary to certain contemporary political rhetoric, neither a Jewish nor an Islamic takeover is imminent. According to the 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, approximately 69% of Americans are Christian; Judaism is the religion of approximately 2%; and Islam represents approximately 1% of the total U.S. population.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey of U.S. Muslims, Muslim Americans have great optimism and positive feelings about being Muslim and about being American. They are proud to be Americans. They believe that hard work generally brings success. They are satisfied with the way things are going in their own lives – even if they are not satisfied with the direction of the country as a whole.

Especially noteworthy is the Pew finding that American Muslims largely share the general U.S. public’s concerns about religious extremism. In fact U.S. Muslims may be more concerned than non-Muslims about extremism in the name of Islam. They stress, there is little support for extremism within the U.S. Muslim community, and very few say violence against civilians can be justified in pursuit of religious, political, or social causes. Overall, eight-in-ten Muslims (82%) say they are concerned about extremism in the name of Islam around the world. This is similar to the percentage of the U.S. general public that shares these concerns (83%). We do need correct information these days and a balanced perspective on all contemporary Americans not just the narrow-minded ones.

There is a particular urgency for Christians and Jews to become participants in dialogue with Muslims, their brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. Anti-Muslim prejudices in the United States are very real and damaging. In recent years, Anti-Muslim protesters have broken into mosques, destroyed copies of the Qur’an, spray-painted vulgar language on Muslim buildings, accompanied by threats of other violence, arson attacks, and even murder. (It reminds me of the nineteenth century U.S. “Nativist” prejudice and the burning of churches and convents, and murderous attacks against Catholics.)

Religious, cultural, and political polarization is a contemporary evil. It does not have to be that way……For our survival it MUST NOT be that way. The house divided against itself will not stand….


NPD : A Personal Disorder — Our Moral Challenge

4 August 2018

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) involves a distorted self-image and is a psychological disorder, with moral implications. It affects approximately 1% of the population, with a greater prevalence in men. Historically we have often seen it in men in leadership positions. Their emotions can be unstable and intense; and they display excessive concerns about personal prestige and power, stressing personal “greatness.” They also tend to lack compassion, have an exaggerated sense of superiority, and enjoy bullying people. Nothing Christian in such behavior. The Gospel is good news. Not fake news propaganda.

Below are some of the most common characteristics of people with a narcissistic personality disorder life orientation:

1 They have an insatiable appetite for the attention of others, by claiming to be the smartest, the most popular, and the most loved.

2. They exaggerate, fabricate or simply lie about achievements, talents, and importance.

3. They take advantage of others to achieve a personal goal, without regret or conscience.

4. They create facts or simply re-shape the truth to mislead, confuse, and control people. Their focus is not reality news but propaganda. Any media coverage unfavorable to them is rejected as part of a fake news “hoax” against them. Paranoia prioritized.

5. They lack empathy, or the ability to understand the feelings of others. They disregard, joke about, or demean others’ feelings.

6. They react to criticism by denigrating their critics in racist and xenophobic diatribes.Their toxic rhetoric and propaganda stimulate and support hate groups and racist movements.

7. They use women as playthings and brag about their sexual exploits in immature and adolescent boyish fashion.

8. Whatever they crave or yearn for must be “the best” because they are the best and deserve the best.

9. They clandestinely or openly take advantage of others so they can move forward in life and/or get what they want, with no remorse toward the ones stepped on, used, and abused.

10. Narcissists are toxic people. They are proudly self-obsessed, arrogant, tough-minded bullies, and immature people lacking healthy emotions.

What to do?

People with NPD need help. Psychotherapy. For many, the disorder lasts a lifetime. Nevertheless, they still have moral responsibilities toward other people and within the institutions in which they operate. One cannot excuse their behavior.

People who are victimized by people with NPD, or who are alarmed by the power and negative influence of people with NPD, need to network and collaborate in curtailing their power and influence.

I first encountered an NPD person when he was pastor of a nearby parish. The situation went from annoying to bad then to very bad. Eventually the parish council, with abundant documented evidence about his erratic behavior and psychological disorder, told the local bishop that the pastor was “very unwell” and had to go. Within a few days, a healthy “pastoral change” was made. Change is possible when conscientious and courageous people work together.

I suspect one could make a list of famous people with NPD. Reflecting, as an old historian, on Western European history, I think immediately about people like Henry VIII, Napoleon, Generalissimo Franco, and Hitler of course. In the church I think of men like Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878). “Pio Nono” was pope for more than 31 years. He started out good but then regressed. Loss of papal influence and power, and then the the loss of the Papal States twisted his brain. He could not make the papacy great again. He was the last Pope-King before the Catholic Church’s broad temporal power was swept away. He became the quintessence of ecclesiastical obscurantism and intransigence. He is famous for papal infallibility (personal papal power) and his 1864 “Syllabus of Errors” : a strong condemnation of liberalism, modernism, and separation of church and state. (He also supported President Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy in the US American Civil War.)

In contemporary political life there are also people with NPD. Vladimir Putin is just one key example.

NPD is a pressing contemporary challenge. People who recognize this disorder in political and religious leaders need to deal with the problem constructively and effectively. The clock is ticking.

As the Spanish-born, US American/European philosopher and novelist George Santayana (1863 – 1952) said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”