Mary the Magdalene

26 July 2019

Mary the Magdalene is considered an early Christian saint in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. This past Monday, July 22nd, was her feast day, I thought about the irony of it all. Four U.S. congresswomen, labeled “the squad,” by misogynist politicians were being denigrated in the press and political gatherings, while I was working on an article about women in ministry, the Catholic reluctance to ordain women, and the great apostolic woman leader: Mary the Magdalene.

Over the centuries, the Magdalene has been greatly maligned and misrepresented by misogynist churchmen. The man who launched this false and derogatory understanding was Pope Gregory called “the great.” On September 14, 591, Gregory gave a homily in Rome that proclaimed that: (1) Mary the Magdalene, (2) Luke’s unnamed prostitute, and (3) Mary of Bethany were all the same person. From that time on, Mary the Magdalene was Mary the reformed prostitute. Fake news from the papal throne. It lasted until 1969 when the Vatican cleared her name. (Some, nevertheless, still think Mary had been a prostitute. Fake news hangs on for a long time.)

Gregory the Great was an extreme authoritarian, who turned the papacy into a strong international power. His father had been a senator and for a time the Prefect of the City of Rome. His great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III. Gregory had served as the governor of Rome when he was 30 years old; and he brought a strongly male-dominant imperial Roman administrative structure to the papacy.

Back to Mary….John’s Gospel clearly portrays Mary the Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles. Mark and Matthew place her first on the list of women at the cross. Luke names her first in his list of women disciples from Galilee. In the Synoptic Gospels the Magdalene appears first among the women at the tomb and the first person at the tomb in the Fourth Gospel. John elevates her above everyone else in his or any Gospel. She is the person to whom the resurrected Jesus appears.

Curiously, due to an error in biblical translation, just about every English language version of the New Testament gives the name of this great woman incorrectly. In all four Greek versions of the Gospels, the authors always use the definitive Greek article in her name. In Greek, definitive articles are used to emphasize a name. In English we would say “THE” as in “Mary THE Magdalene.” The English translators missed that significant point. (I do a lot of translating and understand the problem. Here it is a bad translation error nonetheless.)

Many religious writers — and even Wikipedia — still use the titles “Mary Magdalene” or “Mary of Magdala.” Some authors suggest this is because the historical Mary came from a town named Magdala. This is an unfortunate mistake. In Mary the Magdalene’s time, there was NO TOWN called Magdala. Mary the Magdalene did not come from a town called Magdala. In the days of Greek and Roman power in Galilee, the town known today as “Magdala” was called “Taricheae.” According to the first-century Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, the town of Taricheae was totally destroyed by the Romans in 67 CE. Much later a new town was built over the ruins of Taricheae, and this town was called “Magdala Nunnayah. During the lifetime of Mary, however, the town on that location was Taricheae.

What then does “Mary the Magdalene” mean? “Magdalene” in Aramaic means “tower or pillar.” Mary the Magdalene was a tower or pillar of strength for Jesus and the early Christians: a companion and source of care and loving support. She was the preeminent ministerial woman: compassionate, hard-working, helpful, and courageous.

There are a couple other questions about Mary the Magdalen that we need to clarify. The first is that she had seven devils cast out of her. Reading the opening lines of chapter eight in Luke, we find: “Soon afterwards he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out………”

Over the centuries, Christian misogynists have used this demon theme to paint a very negative image of the Magdalene and many other women with their “demons.” Just a few examples: “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.” – Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215) ——- “Woman, you are the gate to hell.” –Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225) ——- “Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.” – Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century.

Now back to Luke chapter eight. Clearly Luke held the women accompanying Jesus in high esteem. Contemporary biblical scholars, when considering Mary the Magdalene’s “demons,” tend to agree that her seven demons represent illness, which, as a biblical researcher friend said recently, “could have been anything from epilepsy to psoriasis.” The important point here, nevertheless, is that some of the disciples who journeyed with Jesus were women; and prominent among them was Mary the Magdalene.

One more point to briefly consider….Were Jesus and the Magdalene a couple? In his 2003 fantasy novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown suggests that Mary the Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. Periodically, over the years, writers and some biblical scholars have suggested in fact that Jesus was married and Mary was his wife. To date there is really no solid evidence for this. I suppose it is possible. Some writers also suggest that Jesus was actually gay. To date there is no solid evidence for this either; although I suppose it is possible.

Gay or straight, married or single, Jesus remains the Christ. He remains for all of us, and for all time, “the way and the truth and the life.” Frankly, I really don’t care about his marital state or sexuality and don’t get into those discussions.

I am grateful, however, for Mary the Magdalene and her example and ministry. Let us celebrate, support, and be grateful for her and all those women who are successors of Mary the Magdalene: tower and pillar of strength and apostle to the apostles. And let us support and promote all those women today who are in pastoral ministry or feel called to it.

– Jack


19 July 2019

Recent events emanating from Washington DC compel me to reflect and write about how we treat one another in political discourse. I am not writing about politics but about virtue and public morality.

What were once episodes of ugly verbal abuse are now evolving into a plague of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. A fierce polarization is creating deep divisions. Civility is being replaced by adolescent-type bullying and public denigration of anyone who challenges and questions the administration. There is nothing Christian about such behavior and it creates a threateningly inhumane cultural environment.

Civility means much more than politeness, although politeness is indeed an important first step. Civility is about interpersonal respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences. It is about moving beyond preconceptions and listening to the other and encouraging others to do the same.

Civility is hard work because it means staying present to people with whom one can have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal power in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Civility means that despite different perspectives we still have a shared vision and collaborate to make it a reality.

When civility is replaced by mockery, dishonest accusations, and abusive slogans, people become monsters. History amply demonstrates that monsters create more monsters. History also reminds us that such a scenario never has a happy ending.

The message this week is small. The task awaiting us is enormous. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues, etc. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.

At the end of this week, we all should reflect on the message in Luke 10:25-37: On one occasion an expert in the law, who wanted to justify himself, stood up to test Jesus and so he asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

Take care.


Natural and Unnatural

12 July 2019

On Monday, July 8, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of an advisory commission: the “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” He hopes it “will provide the intellectual grist of what I hope will be one of the most profound re-examinations of inalienable rights in the world since the 1948 Universal Declaration.”

The Commission on Unalienable Rights will be headed by Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a former United States Ambassador to the Holy See. When he was a law student at Harvard, Pompeo was Glendon’s research assistant. Glendon, when thanking Pompeo for the appointment, stressed that this is a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.” One can agree with her, perhaps, but then one needs to make some important distinctions.

Mary Ann Glendon’s statement, underlines my current concerns about the basis for human rights today and what has been called the “natural law.” Indeed, when setting up the commission at the State Department, the Secretary of State said its purpose would be to redefine human rights based on “natural law and natural rights.”

What is natural is a perennial question. Viewed over several centuries, “natural law” has often had a wax nose, which has bern twisted to accommodate the morality of those in power, in church and state. Arguments based on natural law have been used to justify slavery, condone torture, denigrate women, condemn gays, and of course (in the Catholic Church) to condemn contraception.

Nevertheless, my observations today are not about politics, Pompeo, or Glendon. The more important issue is clarifying, first of all, what we mean by “natural law” and, secondly, how one can promote an international ethic, still struggling to be born under the rubric of human rights.

When we survey the history of Western philosophy and theology, we see of course many thinkers who have referred to natural law. By no means have they always understood the same thing. They often came to different conclusions about what the natural law called for in human conduct. For centuries now there have been disputes between the Thomistic and Suarezian interpretations of natural law. These divergent views show that even older Catholic authors never agreed on a univocal understanding of natural law. In fact, natural law as a coherent theory with an agreed upon body of ethical content throughout history has never existed, even in the Catholic tradition. The approach of Thomas Aquinas to natural law, for instance, differs from that of many Scholastics; and outside the Catholic tradition there does not exist a concept of natural law as a monolithic theory, with an agreed-upon body of ethical content.

People who argue, for example, that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is a clear statement of the “natural law” principle that “all men are created equal” forget that this eighteenth century understanding of “natural law” did not apply to imported African slaves, to Native Americans, and certainly did not support any natural equality of men and women.

It takes time but institutional perspectives do change, thanks to, as I wrote last week, coalitions of transformation. The Catholic perspective on the world and “natural law” certainly changed dramatically in the mid 1960s.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), Catholic moral theology — what is more often called today “theological ethics” —moved from classicism to historical consciousness; and historical consciousness greatly affects the understanding of natural law.

Classicism and historical consciousness are two different ways of looking at the world. Classicism sees reality in terms of the static, the unchanging, and the eternal. (Actually, before his great awakening, Jack was a very pious young man solidly anchored in classicism.) Historical consciousness, on the other hand, sees reality in terms of historical change and places more emphasis on the particular and the individual, while classicism stresses the abstract and the universal.

Classicism (strongly upheld by many fundamentalists and by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor) understands objective truth as unchanged in the course of history.

Historical consciousness says ultimately there is objective truth, but it recognizes the historicity of truth and the need for people to grasp and understand it. Historical consciousness gives greater importance to the subject seeking truth and to the historical reality itself. We are still on the road to discovery.

As an historical theologian and a proponent of historical consciousness I would be quick to point out, contrary to the objections of people like the former-pope Cardinal Ratzinger, that historical consciousness is not the same thing as historical relativism. It is a matter of perspective. Our human history involves both continuity and discontinuity. Historical consciousness is a middle position between the extremes of classicism and relativism. We are anchored in human life and tradition; and we move toward a greater understanding of life and tradition.

We learn. We grow. We are always moving toward ultimate truth. And we maintain our stability with the words of Jesus of Nazareth: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” THAT is our fundamental moral principle. That covers a lot of human territory and reenforces human dignity.

I don’t recall that Jesus ever distinguished between gay and straight, male and female, Latinos and Gringos, black and white, etc. Jesus, truly human and truly divine, had a marvelous respect for the other.

We say we live in his spirit. That is not just our challenge. It is our duty.. No relativism here.


The Fourth of July : An Historic Coalition of Transformation

To all my USA family and friends happy Fourth of July!

We can indeed celebrate. The Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. It initiated a revolutionary political change, which had global implications. Representatives from the 13 American colonies, a coalition of transformation, rejected the authoritarianism of King George III and British control over the colonies.

George was a model authoritarian ruler. (The only thing he lacked was a Twitter account.) When he assumed his nation’s highest office, he had no previous governmental experience. He was born wealthy. Never worked for anyone. Although he became his nation’s commander in chief, he had never served in the military.

For his every move, he relied on a secretive, eccentric advisor bent on reshaping the nation’s political order. Demanding absolute loyalty, the new authoritarian ruler did not trust anyone more popular than he was, and he detested all opposition. He took advantage of severe insomnia to grab his pen quill —day and night — and write often bizarre, negative notes about people with whom he had big and small complaints: cabinet ministers, generals, and citizens. Nothing was too great or too trivial for his authoritarian critical pen.

George gathered around himself a group of loyal authoritarian followers: a coalition of restoration to make his monarchy great again.

The challenging question in 1776 was transformation or restoration. The thirteen American colonies decided to become a coalition of transformation: creating a new, democratic government independent from England. They chose not to build a coalition of authoritarian followers, that would enable King George III to manage and manipulate them according to his own self-centered authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is something leaders and their followers generate when they create a coalition of restoration — longing for the imagined good old days — to maintain control. It often occurs in times of socio-cultural change, when too many people close their eyes, stop thinking, and allow fear to replace faith.

We live in a time of tremendous socio-cultural change. A heyday for authoritarians, with their closed systems of power and authority.

The collapse of a critical social consciousness begins when authoritarian followers unquestioningly submit to their leaders. Loyalty is demanded and rewarded. Cheap slogans become truth statements. Fiction becomes reality. Gradually authoritarian “leaders” are allowed to do whatever they want, which is often undemocratic, amoral, tyrannical, and inhumanely brutal.

In today’s world, we have ample examples of people surrendering to mind-distorting authoritarianism, which spreads like a cancerous growth. We see it politics, but it is out there in church as well.

Humanity, human rights, human dignity, compassion, and collaboration. These are the values that healthy leaders promote. Whether civil or religious, leaders and institutions must be challenged to promote people not denigrate them. When they begin to deny the human dignity of every man, woman, and child, institutional structures and leaders must be changed. We need to build coalitions of transformation.

This week, for example I am delighted to read that half a million Catholic women in Germany demand access to ordained ministry (priesthood). Germany’s largest Catholic women’s organization has for the first time called for the ordination of women to the priesthood, passing a unanimous resolution to this effect in a Federal Assembly in Mainz. Now that is what we mean by a coalition of transformation. Change can happen.

People thinking and collaborating to construct new frameworks, with new language, new images, and new inspirations.

Happy Fourth of July!

Another Voice is back……..

History in the Eye of the Beholder

May 24, 2019

This week end, for my US family and friends Memorial Day week end, basically launches the summer season. For me, this week end also marks my annual short-term departure from Another Voice. I will return in time for the Fourth of July!

True to my personal history, I will escape from my computer to spend more time reading and reflecting. And to relax and travel with my wife. This June we celebrate our 49th wedding anniversary. Now THAT celebrates important history.

History is a slice of life that we observe and interpret, it is always through the observer’s eyes. We need, therefore, many historians observing and interpreting……Just like we need many theologians observing and interpreting. Once again I will be an historical theologian in Eastern Europe: enjoying the salty and clear waters of the Adriatic and taking another look at religion and values after Communism. It intrigues me. The questions of course are about the role religion plays in people’s lives today in that part of the world.

A couple years ago, in a small town in Eastern Europe, I learned that the most prominent and influential members of a local Catholic parish, were once important (anti-Catholic) Communist Party bosses……Today they are still in control but now they make a pious sign of the cross and receive communion on Sunday mornings……Is it a matter of socio-cultural identity, political expediency, or Christian faith?

Not so strange perhaps when one sees how Vladimir Putin uses Russian Orthodoxy to grow his empire.

Last week a friend observed : “History continually repeats itself. Life is a repetitive cycle…” I basically disagree. We do have control over our lives. Our “history” is not predetermined. Yes people sometimes repeat the human mistakes made in the past, acting out of ignorance or an unwillingness to confront life as it is. Today we are indeed caught up in a tremendous wave of cultural change. It takes time to decipher what’s happening. Millions of people are now banding together in forms of xenophobic populism. This week’s European elections underline that with a red pencil.

It takes time to make sense of what’s happening. It is all part of the human journey. Even when people are confused, chaotic, or uncertain about tomorrow. Growing pains.

I resonate with Martin Luther King Jr. who said “history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” History shows how we take or reject personal and group responsibility for the world in which we live. We can grow in our understanding of human existence, life, morality, sacred scriptures, faith, and religious traditions. Or, we can close in on ourselves, wither, and dry up.

I am not ready to dry up and I do plan to be back in contact with you in a few weeks. And….when I return, I hope I will have something worthwhile to share with you.

Take care!


Focus on Faith

May 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter is over and Spring is in the air.


Targeting Pope Francis

May 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your old friend, Jack

My Religion, Your Religion, Our God

May 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Religious Change

First Sunday after Easter

According to a new Gallup poll, the percentage of adults in the United States who belong to a church or other religious institution has plunged by 20 percentage points over the past two decades, hitting a low of 50%. Church membership was 70% in 1999 — and close to or higher than that figure for most of the 20th century. Since 1999, however, the figure has fallen steadily.

Among Americans, who identify with a particular religion, the sharpest drop in institutional membership is among Catholics: from 76% to 63% over the past two decades. Membership among Protestants dropped from 73% to 67% percent over the same period.

Most interestingly, among Hispanic Americans, church membership has dropped from 68% to 45% since 2000. Bad news for Catholic church leaders who have been counting on Hispanics to keep their church alive.

So what is happening? I suggest there is an increasing erosion in the level of trust people have for institutions in general and for churches in particular. Just look at the current U.S. political landscape….This trend will continue until institutional credibility is restored. If and when. Institutions and institutional leaders become credible only when they speak in a helpfully meaningful way about contemporary life issues.

An important factor in the the examination of contemporary religion is being clear that “religion” and “faith” are not the same thing. Major complications arise when this distinction is unknown or ignored. Religion should support and promote faith but doesn’t always do that. Faith is a person’s relationship with the deepest heart of Reality, called “God,” the “Divine,” or in the language of theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) the “Ground of Being.”

Religion is an institutionalized interpretation of the faith experience, expressed in a system of beliefs and practices. Ideally it should point people to the Divine. In practice it sometimes points only to itself. Then a form of idolatry takes over: not the Divine but the institution, with its doctrines, power bosses, and structures, becomes the object of veneration.

Another contemporary example of the use of religion. Back in 2016, many journalists pointed out a stunning change in how religious values were understood. They noted how white evangelicals perceived the connection between private and public morality. In 2011, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Religion News Service found that 60 % of white evangelicals believed that a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” But in an October 2016 poll by PRRI and the Brookings Institution — after the release of numerous revelations of sexual immorality by a key political figure in Washington DC — only 20 % of evangelicals, answering the same question, said that private immorality meant someone could not behave ethically in public

Sometimes religions serve politics more than God.

Where there is religion there is a continual need for healthy criticism and reformation. European Christianity experienced a big Reformation in the sixteenth century. An even bigger one is underway right now but its extent and shape are still evolving. Things like, former pope, Bishop Ratzinger’s recently published reflections and trouble-maker Steve Bannon’s attacks on Pope Francis are mere distortions.

Back to some recognizable trends….Across 27 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, more people in North America and Europe say religion plays a less important role today than it did 20 years ago: in the U.S.A. (58%), in Canada (64%), in Germany (51%), in Poland (46%), and in the Netherlands (61%), by way of examples.

Note well, however, that adults in the Asia-Pacific region have a very different perspective on the role religion plays in their societies. In Indonesia (83%), the Philippines (58%), and in India (54%) believe that religion has a bigger impact on their nations today than it did 20 years ago. However, in South Korea, Japan and Australia, people tend to say religion has become less important or there has been no change.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, a 65% majority thinks religion plays a more important role in their country, and 60% of Kenyans say the same. Significantly, large majorities in these countries (96% and 93%, respectively) say religion is very important in their lives.

How does one interpret these trends? That calls for more research and reflection. Much, I believe, has to do with the cultural and political roles that religion plays in people’s lives. In the Putin era in Russia, by way of example, the Russian Orthodox Church is extremely powerful and strongly supportive of the government. If you want to move ahead in Russia, you must be Orthodox. Only 18% of today’s Russians think religion is les important that twenty years ago.

This will be an ongoing discussion in various says.

Personally, I am still a believer but much less “religious” than twenty years ago. Some of my old religious practices just don’t make sense to me anymore. But my daily prayer and contact with the Divine are stronger now than ever. I scratch my old head about to speak in contemporary language about God. Nevertheless, I am hardly a saint but I do truly believe I journey with God each day and that with the love of my wife, son, and friends keeps me going.

Next week some thoughts about Christianity and world religions…..

Easter 2019

(A field by Park Abbey close to home….)

An Easter reflection by one of my theological heroes: Jon Sobrino.

“The Resurrection of Jesus is…a symbol of hope…I don’t see how you can show love…without being in solidarity with the victims of this world. And if you are in solidarity with the victims, I don’t see how you can avoid the cross. The theology of the cross is the theology of love in our real world.

“There is a reality of sin, which has structural causes and kills a majority of the population, and an evident need to overcome this situation of death. Without doing this task, theology was neither human nor Christian. From here I re-thought the reign of God—as justice and fellowship—as the core of Jesus of Nazareth. I re-thought the historical Jesus, and the following of him, including centrally his compassion towards the poor, the announcement of good news to the oppressed and the denunciation of the oppressors. I insisted that for this he died on a cross, and I insisted that the risen Christ is a crucified Christ. The resurrection of Jesus was the reaction of God against the victimizers who killed the innocent. From the love of the crucified and from his rehabilitation on the part of God emerges hope. God is the God of life in a struggle against the idols that demand death for survival.”

Happy Easter!

Jon Sobrino SJ (born 1938) is a Jesuit Catholic ordained minister and theologian, known mostly for his contributions to liberation theology. Born into a Basque family in Barcelona, Sobrino entered the Society of Jesus when he was 18. The following year, in 1958, he was sent to El Salvador. He later studied engineering at Saint Louis University, and then theology at Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt in West Germany for his Doctor of Theology degree. Returning to El Salvador, he taught at the Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, which he had helped to found.