Inauguration Day Reflection

January 20, 2017

If I could have a face-to-face and man-to-man chat with our new president, this is what I would like to say:

Mr. President:  By way of introduction I am an American and an older academic, a couple years older then you. For more than three decades, my primary research, teaching and writing has focused on religion and socio-cultural values in American (U.S.) society. I consider myself a patriotic citizen and come from a very politically active family.  

Although I have been a Democrat since the Nixon/Kennedy election of 1960, I have strong Republican DNA. Maybe that enables me to engage in respectful dialogue with people who don’t hold my personal political viewpoint? I am happy that, in the United States, we have at least two political parties. Monotone politics can lead easily to despotic dictatorships. Republicans and Democrats, with their differing viewpoints are nonetheless genuine Americans.We can debate, we can reflect; and then we can determine how we can best work together for the good of all in our society. That is an essential part of the American way of life. 

Yes Mr. President I must acknowledge that I did not vote for you; but I speak today with no animosity. I address you respectfully, because I do have some major concerns, as you become our forty-fifth president. 

Mr. President, one of my big concerns, as I reflect on contemporary U.S. Society, is the extreme socio-political polarization that is tearing our country apart. It is worse, Mr. President, than at the time of our nineteenth century Civil War. Sorry to say, sir, you and your election campaign have greatly contributed to this national tragedy. I am not writing today to condemn you or your supporters. I write to strongly suggest, however, that it is now your presidential responsibility and that of your administration to drop the rhetoric of animosity, to build bridges, and to repair the damage. 

I am reminded of the words of our Civil War Republican president. You took the oath of office with your hand on his Bible. Abraham Lincoln was speaking about Civil War America. You, Mr. president, could use his words today: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” 

Mr. President, you have often said you want to make America great again. Personally, sir, I think America is already great.  

When it comes to greatness, however, I would suggest that the genius of greatness is not located in overpowering other people or other countries. Greatness is not an exercise of self-centered power but an exercise of understanding, respectful dialogue, compassion, and humble collaboration. American greatness is reflected in the words of Emma Lazarus at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  

Mr. President, there are a lot of people in our country, and in our world, yearning to breathe free. In 1987, Republican President Ronald Reagan told the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Why don’t you emulate President Reagan and demand that all walls be be torn down when they block people yearning to breathe free. There are concrete walls. There are legal walls. There are walls of ignorance, and walls of racism and prejudice. They all need to be dismantled. You and your administration can do this. 

Mr. President, I happen to be a Catholic and I was very surprised when I learned that a great number of U.S. Catholics voted for you. The argument I have since heard and read is that they felt compelled to vote for you because you are anti-abortion. I too am opposed to abortion but I am also pro-life. I hope, sir, that your administration will be not just anti-abortion but strongly pro-life as well. And pro-life for all.  

Being pro-life demands reaching out to lift up the poor, giving a hand to those whom you call “losers.” Pro-life is pro-education, pro-child support, pro-health care, pro-living wage, pro-single parents. It is pro-straight and pro-gay…..Being pro-life means that one truly does believe Thomas Jefferson’s words in our Declaration of Independence that a legitimate government must protect the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all.  

Actually, Mr. president I would like to see you establish a strong human rights commission in your administration. I would suggest that your commission insist, at home and abroad, on a strict adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. It was our Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who praised that Declaration for its “recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and as “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”  

Mr. President, throughout your campaign and even afterwards there have been a number of questions raised about your competence, your psychological health, your moral rectitude, and your commitment to truth and honesty. These are serious questions. As you begin, your presidency I strongly encourage you to seek the truth, reflect on the truth, and to speak the truth. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong Republican president. As I watched your campaign, I thought of his words. “The man who knows the truth and has the opportunity to tell it,” Roosevelt said “but who nonetheless refuses to, is among the most shameful of all creatures. God forbid that we should ever become so lax at that.” On another occasion, President Roosevelt reminded reminded Americans: “A true patriot must necessarily be a zealot and fighter for the truth.” Good advice, sir. Good advice for all of us. 

Well Mr. President I wish we could sit down and discuss these and other issues. You and your administration are introducing a major climate change in Washington. If the opinion polls and the news reports are accurate, more than half of our U.S. citizens, as well as millions of people around the globe, fear that your winds of change are launching, to use Shakespeare’s famous words, a long “winter of discontent.” Some very big challenges will confront you — and us — before we can all sing “spring is in the air.” 

For my part, in my teaching and writing I will do my best to promote genuine American values. I will endeavor to dialogue, especially when it seems to be so difficult. I will do my best to collaborate in maintaining the common good. I will challenge ignorance. I will challenge bullies who denigrate other people because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. I hope, sir, that you and your administration will do the same. We must work together. We will not survive as a healthy and peaceful country unless we do. I remember the words of President Eisenhower: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”  

Mr. President, your presidency comes at a pivotal point in U.S. history. I hope you are up to the challenges that await you. I hope sincerely that the Donald J.Trump administration will be characterized by strong humanitarian leadership and unquestionable integrity. If not, sir, be prepared. I suspect that either the people will call for your resignation or Congress will remove you from office. 

A Quick Update

A very sincere thank you to those readers who have contributed to my blog fund. I am about 1/3 of the way toward my goal.

If you have any questions, you can contact me at my personal email:

My next blog post will be 20 January…..a pivotal day in U.S. history for sure.

Warmest regards to all!


Avoiding Shipwreck in Cyberspace

It is difficult to predict the future and I have never wanted to be a prophet of doom. There are some realities, however, that appear rather clearly. A key theme for 2017 will be transition. We have the transition from the Democratic presidency of Barack Obama to the “breaking news” new presidency of Donald Trump. Changing White House residents is a big transition. There is a bigger transition, however, that will outlive any presidential administration.

For me the big transition in 2017 — which will increasingly impact our lives in the coming years — is the now rapid transition from physical space, where morality and civility govern human behavior, to cyberspace, where no one is in charge and words and images fly across the globe in a moral vacuum. Increasingly, cyberspace is where we connect with other people, buy our products, exchange information expressing our content or discontent, find “baby sitters” for restless children; and it is where we watch other people and they watch us. 

Cyberspace calls into question everything we know, what we want to know, or what we think we know. People can move easily from information to misinformation without realizing the difference. Is a comment on Facebook a statement of truth or a prejudicial or biased opinion, reinforced by multiple smiley-face “likes”? What is good? What is true? What people announce as goodness and truth? 

I am reminded of a quote from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22: “It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” 

Is it enough to express one’s beliefs and attitudes, without some form of verification that they have an anchor in concrete historical or day-to-day reality? In November 2016, a Stanford University Graduate School of Education study reported that students had a dismaying inability to critically reflect about information found on the Internet. They even had difficulty distinguishing advertisements from news articles.  

Using the Internet requires careful observation and critical thinking. I discovered that a few years ago, as I began a genealogical research project about my paternal family. Encouraged by a friend, I went on the Internet. I googled the family name, and bingo I got all kinds of “helpful genealogical information.” What I discovered however was a hodgepodge of legends, conflicting family stories, some bits of history, many inaccuracies, and a lot of just plain nonsense. I discovered for instance that my paternal grandmother died in Indiana, when I know she died in Michigan, because I was there. I discovered that my wife is Belgian (she is Dutch) and that we have two sons. In fact we have only one son. I can make a long list of nonsensical Internet “genealogical facts.” Today I will only accept genealogical information that I can document with a birth certificate, marriage license, property deed, or death certificate, etc. 

One of my university students, told me not so long ago, that she feels increasingly lonely and often abandoned in cyberspace. She fears posting anything on a “social network.” She feels she has become an object of not-always-friendly observation by other students, by her part-time work employer, by her current boyfriend, and by her former boyfriend. She wonders as well about her two hundred Facebook “friends” who never react. Silent observers. She wonders who her “real” friends are and whom she can really trust and confide in.  

I told her we all need to avoid shipwreck in cyberspace. Since she was a student in my “American Way of Religion” course, I reminded her of John Winthrop’s speech, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop, an English Puritan lawyer, was one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On 8 April 1630, four ships left the Isle of Wight carrying Winthrop and other leaders of the colony across the Atlantic. Winthrop sailed on the Arbella, where he gave a speech to reassure his nervous travelers that they could indeed avoid shipwreck.  

“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity,” Winthrop stressed, “is to follow the counsel of Micah, ‘to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.’ For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one….We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together…”   


My Travel Advisory for Survival in Cyberspace 

          (1) Remember that all people have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rights, however, imply responsibilities. Preserving one’s own rights implies a responsibility for protecting and preserving the rights of others.
          (2) Remember that every word and every picture that one sends into cyberspace will remain there. Probably forever. One must be careful about what one posts. It may return to embarrass, haunt, or hurt the original poster. 
          (3) Bullying and denigrating people online is neither mature nor humane. Acting responsibly requires dealing with issues, discussing differences, and respecting people who see things differently. 
          (4) We need cyberspace guidelines and educational programs for children and adolescents. Something like drivers’ ed programs. Well-equipped with smart phones and tablets, they are often playing with something far more dangerous and destructive than playing with fire.  
          (5) Schools and universities must insist on internet research protocols: exploring internet “facts” one needs a healthy skepticism and critical thinking skills; anonymous citations are not acceptable; and original sources must be found and indicated. 
          (6) In cyberspace one can find an enormous trove of religious and theological information. One finds as well an abundance of not so trustworthy religious and theological trash. Pastors, parish leaders, and educators need to help believers separate cyberspace chaff from whole grain Christian belief. 
           (7) Social networks do link people together; but cyber-connectedness will never replace the warmth and assurance of a face-to-face smile or a supportive pat on the back. A lot of people today truly need that supportive human touch. 

Safe travels in cyberspace……..


Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A — 3001 Heverlee, Belgium 

Yesterday has a Future: Christian Leadership in 2017 Epiphany Reflection

5 January 2017

During a New Year’s Eve dinner, a friend asked me if I would be watching the presidential inauguration on January 20th. I said I would of course watch some of it, but that I was not delighted that the Archbishop of New York would be involved in it. I said I do not want to see a Catholic blessing on the new administration, especially by a fellow who had such great disdain for the previous administration. My friend disagreed with me. He suggested it was an appropriate gesture by one of the country’s foremost Christian leaders.

Thanks to my friend, I started scratching my head about Christian leadership in the new year. What should we expect from Christian leaders in 2017?

I will try to be objective. In ten points.

(1) I don’t expect a Christian leader to have a big ego but a big heart. The authentic Christian virtue is love of neighbor not self-adoration. Over many years I have worked in the church and in academia with some great leaders. They were generous, hard-working, and supportive men and women. I have suffered as well under some oppressive authoritarian leaders who allowed their egos to run rampant, trampled over colleagues, and became not only ineffective but destructive tyrants.  

(2) I expect Christian leaders to be committed to their own self-improvement. Ongoing education is essential for all of us. A couple years ago, a bishop friend bragged that since becoming a bishop he no longer had to read any books. He started laughing and said he had “the grace of episcopal leadership and teaching.” I chuckled and reminded him that grace builds on nature…..and, pectoral cross and all, he still had to study. 

(3) Along with a commitment to self improvement, I want leaders who realize that they have to listen to others and be willing to adapt. Authoritarian narrow-mindedness is not acceptable. The context and situations in which we live do change. I want leaders so anchored in Christian Faith that they can collaborate, with people from the whole spectrum of religious and philosophical outlooks, in charting a new course in troubled waters. Constructive leadership demands an open, frank, honest, and wide-ranging conversation about what it means to be a human being today, whether gay, straight, male, female, or transgender. 

(4) 2017 is an historic year. We celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. This year especially, I want Christian leaders to be strongly and publicly committed to a truth-based understanding of Christian history, not an ideologically selective reading of the Christian story, nor simply a pious fantasy that makes one comfortable in anxious times. Truth is not the best-selling fabrication on the evening news. We must move beyond old misunderstandings and old myths. A commitment to truth requires that all leaders humbly acknowledge that no one individual, no single group, no single Christian church or confession possesses all Christian truth neatly packaged in particular rituals and approved doctrines.  

(5) As they reflect on the Christian narrative across the centuries, I want Christian leaders who understand the absolute necessity of an historical critical understanding of EVERYONE’s sacred scriptures and religious doctrines. So important for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim shared life together. Historical understandings, cultural interpretations, and a great variety of languages have changed and continue to change. Believers need to ask what a text meant back then and what it means for us today.  

(6) Shortly before becoming president in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt famously said on more than one occasion: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some contemporary leaders still try to emulate him. I want to see, however, a very different kind of leader. Nothing praiseworthy is accomplished by behavior that is meant to trick people and then badger them into compliance. I want to see leaders who base their leadership style on the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth not on Niccolò Machiavelli’s self-centered, crafty, crooked, and cynical manipulation of people and events. 

(7) Good leaders have the trust and confidence of those whom they lead: giving people confidence that he or she is leading them into a bright new day rather than down some dark tunnel into chaotic oblivion. Good leaders don’t demand trust. They earn it. 

(8) I want to see Christian religious leaders who do not position themselves in favor of one political party over another. Prophetic Christian religious leaders critically insist that political leaders in all parties recognize that all people are created equal and all people are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They collaborate in constructing a social morality that supports the common good and enables all of us to live more harmoniously in an increasingly complex and culturally-mixed society. 

(9) Finally….. everything I expect from an effective “leader” is what I expect from effective “followers.” That of course is our “at home” challenge. This coming year, it may be our number one challenge. This year we will either sink or swim, regress, or move ahead constructively. 

(10) And now: what about Cardinal Dolan’s invocation, later this month, at Donald Trump’s inauguration? I would like to see the Archbishop of New York speak and act as a prophetic Christian leader who courageously challenges the new administration rather than benevolently consecrating it. 



I conclude with a personal request. I am an older retired fellow. My old laptop is about to expire. Last week I was able to resuscitate it after three hours of careful tinkering; but I don’t think it has nine lives. I am basically healthy. I am still clear-headed, and my fingers still connect with my keyboard in a meaningful way. I would like to continue my writing and publications, as long as people believe I have something meaningful to say.  A number of people want me to write another book about faith and contemporary life. 
I hope no one takes offense at this; but, just once a year, I am asking readers of Another Voice if they would like to contribute something to help keep it going. My key areas of interest and ongoing research are: religion, politics and moral values in U.S. society; spirituality; the life perspectives and values of the Millennial generation; and fundamentalism and secularization in Europe and North America.
Perhaps there are readers or friends of readers who would like to contribute? There are no obligations of course. People wishing to contribute to my blog fund can send a U.S. Dollars check, made out to John A. Dick, and send it to me at my Belgian address:
Dr. J. A. Dick,

Geldenaaksebaan 85A

3001 Heverlee

People wishing to do an electronic funds transfer into my USA bank account in Michigan or into my Belgian account, can contact me at: I will promptly send transfer coordinates. My sincere appreciation for considering my appeal. As always, my warmest regards to all!


Happy New Year

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,And next year’s words await another voice – To make an end is to make a beginning. (T.S. Eliot)

I look forward to sharing thoughts with you in 2017!


Journey of the Magi

December 22, 2016
Dear Friends,

Once again, this year my Christmas reflection is T.S. Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi. Eliot retells the story of the Magi who travelled to Palestine to visit the newborn Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. This narrative, told from the point of view of one of the magi, expresses themes of alienation and feelings of powerlessness in a world that has changed. Many would resonate with that today. For all of us, however, the message of Christmas is a sign and an assurance of hope. We need to remind each other about that from time to time…..
Many kind regards and every good wish for Christmas 2016. May 2017 be a year of grace for all.


The Journey Of The Magi

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

A New Social Morality

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
17 December 2016 

Intense and often hateful polarization in politics and religion are a result of changing values within major segments of our population. As people reaffirm their identity, the assertion of opposing beliefs and values threatens people and creates anxieties. How one responds is crucial. 

Some forms of political and religious polarization have always been with us, of course, and probably will always be with us. When polarization and accompanying violence reach a dangerous high point, however, the warning lights begin to flash. 

Historically, our survival as individuals and as groups within U.S. society has been based on shared values sustained by government, churches, schools, and the media. When there is no longer a socio-cultural common vision and fake news and fiction are promoted as truth, polarization becomes life-threatening. That of course is what’s happening today. The packaging of information has become more important than the content. The best-selling news story more important than the most truthful. Honesty becomes what people want to buy not what is truly honest.

Within less than an hour, for instance, a hateful Twitter comment or an unfounded Facebook remark can get promoted as reality; and life becomes intensely unpleasant and often mortally dangerous for the people mentioned in the posting. Opposing groups dominate and attempt to vanquish the other. Mr. Trump is an example. The people he despises the most are not America’s traditional “enemies” but the American men and women who disagree with him 

This post is not about Donald Trump, per se, but his conflicted election has underlined the new predicament in which we find ourselves. Some observers fear the situation is life-threatening. Are we becoming a house divided against itself? Will America explode? 

We have inherited transforming ideas from the cultural revolution of the 1960s, key among these: the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, the drive for women’s equality, the questioning of institutional religion, and the whole question of hard-nosed militarism as a solution for contemporary international problems.  

In our contemporary American socio-cultural growth and change, we see as well increased hatred and violent social intolerance within segments of American society. They have gone hand in hand with a weakening of what we call social morality, our social glue, that is an essential part of civility and shared civil life. 

Social morality directs, guides, and restrains individual and group behavior. In day-to-day conduct, social morality is normally more important than the law. Generally speaking, law prescribes minimalist standards of conduct. A person can act legally and still not act ethically or civilly or politely. That’s where we are. It has been front page news. 

Today, we observe almost routine ethical scandals in American political and corporate life. We witness increased hatred for blacks, gays, Mexicans, Muslims, and assorted immigrants. Ironic of course for a country of immigrants. We see a lack of civility in public places, denigrating language from political and religious leaders, and increasingly violent public confrontations. Donald Trump is, in fact, example, symbol, and instigator. He is not the grand inquisitor but the great self-centered authoritarian leader whose authoritarian followers, more comfortable in their 1950s fantasy life than in our contemporary changing society, trust and follow him blindly. A very unAmerican situation. 

So we have the big contemporary dilemma in American life: How do we reconstruct a viable social morality that will unite us in our diversity? A social morality that stresses that all are created equal. A social morality that stimulates and promotes tolerance, dialogue, and collaboration. A social morality that will promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. 

I remain the long-term optimist. It can and will happen. I believe Millennial Americans have a key role to play here in constructing a viable new social morality. (It is a deadly risk for churches to ignore the Millennials.) 

In constructing a new social morality, we need the close and consistent engagement of families (in the great variety of family forms), schools, businesses, and churches.  

And they all need to affirm a set of eleven core American values: 

(1) Patriotism that sees the USA as a collaborating country in an interdependent world. 

(2) Self-confidence rooted in the belief that every American has self-worth. 

(3) Individualism for self and for the other. 

(4) Belief in hard work and productivity that enhances human life. 

(5) Religious beliefs that should critique a country but not control it. 

(6) Child-centeredness that pushes right to life beyond simply arguing about abortion. 

 (7) Community and charity seen as essential exercises in civil life and responsibility. 

(8) Pragmatism and compromise as we walk down the same road. 

(9) Acceptance of the diversity of ethnic and cultural and religious backgrounds, and our ability your respect and live with each other. 

(10) Cooperation with other countries as the authentic way to make America great.

(11) Hunger for common ground. 

I close with the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Where Are We Going? What’s Happening?

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent
Posted on 9 December 2016

The first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this week end reminds us:

Strengthen the hands that are feeble, 

make firm the knees that are weak,

say to those whose hearts are frightened:

Be strong, fear not!

Those thoughts are in the back of my head as I read news stories about the new Vatican document, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, issued on Wednesday, December 7th and signed by Pope Francis. Most surprising in this new document is not just that it reaffirms celibacy for priests but that it reiterates the narrow teaching of a document issued in 2005 by the Congregation for Catholic Education. That Vatican directive had been issued in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis; and it was seen by many as way to (unfairly) blame sex abuse on gay priests. 

I quote from The Gift of the Priestly Vocation:
The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’. Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.” 

When I first read about this most recent document, signed by the pope, my thoughts went back immediately to his famous July 22, 2013 airplane interview, when he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis spoke to reporters in Italian but used the English word “gay.” 

What does this latest Vatican document mean? I really don’t know. Will it force more gay men to lie about their sexual orientation if they want to be ordained? Will it encourage more Catholic institutions to fire gay and lesbian employees? Will it encourage more priests to simply move on? Commenting about this document in the National Catholic Reporter (8 December 2016), the Jesuit journalist Thomas Reese observed: “I sometimes think that it would be good for the church if 1,000 priests came out of the closet on the same Sunday and simply said, ‘We’re here!’ I don’t think the church is ready for that yet, but someday it should be.” 

Like many of you, I know more than a few very fine Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Protestant ordained ministers and seminarians who are gay. Over many years I have helped educate a great many gay seminarians, most of whom were healthy and well-balanced men of faith and Christian zeal. Thinking about these men, I never thought about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” My concern has always been “does it really make a difference?” 

One of my homophobic friends said not so long ago: “I thank Almighty God that Jesus was not gay.” With a chuckle, and wanting to edge him on a bit, I replied “I guess we really don’t know. The historical Jesus did seem to have a thing about the ‘beloved’ young fellow John.” We will never know. It is all hypothetical. To me it makes no difference.  

One thing we do know about Jesus of Nazareth, of course, is that he was not a white, male, supremacist. These Trumpian racist days, I find that important to emphasize. 

Gaudete!  In Jesus, we rejoice.

Mixed Voices: Contemporary Catholic Sounds

Second Sunday of Advent

4 December 2016

Once upon a time, Roman Catholic bishops sang in unison. Today one hears a variety of tunes, not always harmonious. Theological polarization from the papacy to Philadelphia is the new thing. All in all, I suspect it may be more a sign of life than a reason for anxiety. 

This week’s reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent begins where our independence began, in Philadelphia, the city of fraternal love. In new guidelines issued by Archbishop Charles Chaput, Catholics in Philadelphia, who are divorced and civilly remarried, will be allowed to receive Holy Communion, ONLY if they abstain from sexual relations and live like “brother and sister.” Fraternal love? 

In his guidelines, the Archbishop of Philadelphia also asks his priests to help Catholics who are attracted to people of the same sex but “find chastity very difficult” by encouraging them to seek penance more frequently. And of course, people living in a same-sex marriage cannot receive Holy Communion, because they are living in serious sin. 

The Philadelphia guidelines are Archbishop Chaput’s response to Pope Francis’ appeal to bishops, in his apostolic exhortation on family love Amoris Laetitia that they be more understanding of divorced and remarried Catholics as well as people in same-sex relationships. Amoris Laetitia called on bishops to show greater mercy and flexibility to bring Catholics back to the church. I don’t think brothers and sisters will be running back to the Catholic Church in Philadelphia. 

They might, however, out West, where we hear a different episcopal sound. 

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, by way of a follow-up to a diocesan synod held in October, has asked his priests to encourage Catholics, who are divorced and remarried, to consider whether “God is calling them to return to the Eucharist.” McElroy has instructed his pastors to post notices in parish bulletins, inviting divorced and remarried Catholics to “utilize the internal forum of conscience” in making their decisions whether they should receive Holy Communion. The decision is theirs, the bishop stressed. 

Back on the East coast, in the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, has praised the pro-life stance of the President-elect Donald Trump and said he hopes the new administration will correct eight years of abuses by the Obama administration. “Sadly,” Cardinal Dolan stressed, “the Obama administration has been an ally to abortion advocates in advancing oppressive policies. It imposed the so-called HHS mandate forcing even religious organizations to cover contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health insurance plans.” 

Cardinal Dolan did not comment about Donald Trump’s (pro-life?) rhetoric about immigrants and refugees. His new cardinal neighbor, Joseph Tobin, however, has been more than outspoken. Tobin, the new Cardinal Archbishop of Newark — as the crow flies, only about 9 miles from Dolan in New York City — warns that the church will have four difficult years ahead if it insists on providing a welcome to immigrants and refugees during a Donald Trump presidential administration. Tobin stressed that anyone who wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out migrants — as President-elect Trump has proposed — is “not Christian.” 

Another newly-named U.S. Cardinal, Kevin J. Farrell, believes U.S. bishops, working together, should have discussed pastoral guidelines for implementing Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, before individual bishops, like Archbishop Chaput, began issuing guidelines for their own dioceses. Farrell, the former Bishop of Dallas, has just been appointed prefect of the new Vatican Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life. About Philadelphia’s Chaput, Farrell is very clear: “I don’t share the view of what Archbishop Chaput did, no…. I think there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at – each case as it is presented to us.” 

Some fascinating contemporary episcopal rhetoric, is echoing from Australia as well. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane says it is time for a Catholic re-thinking of some traditional Catholic terms if the church is going to have any relevance and credibility today. Terms he specifically mentioned are: the “indissolubility” of marriage; the “intrinsically disordered” nature of homosexual acts; calling divorce and civil remarriage “adultery;” and the old maxim of “love the sinner but hate the sin.” 

One final bit of contemporary Roman Catholic drama. The senior Vatican lawyer, Archbishop Pio Vito Pinto, who leads the Vatican’s appeal court, says that by calling into question Pope Francis’ faithfulness to Catholic doctrine, four cardinals (see last week’s blog), among them the U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, have caused a “grave scandal” in the Catholic Church and should be demoted and forced to surrender their red hats.  

Cardinal Burke, who already has had to surrender his Vatican job, and has no desire to hand in his crimson hat and cape, responded by launching a crusade of prayer on December 1st, called “Operation Storm Heaven,” praying: “That bishops and priests will have the courage to teach the Truth and defend the Faith against all her enemies both within the Church and outside the Church.”  

I close with a citation from the Australian Archbishop Coleridge, who stressed that being pastoral means getting “in touch with the facts of human experience.” 

“It means,” says Coleridge, “that we, like God, abandon the world of abstraction to engage the real lives of real people…. This will mean a new kind of listening to the truth of people’s experience. From a new listening, will come a new language that people can understand because it’s in touch with their lives. That’s what it means to be a truly pastoral Church.” 

In the Advent Wreath Prayer for the First Week of Advent, we asked Christ to come to our aid. This week, we ask him to move us to action.

Time for a New Perspective: Time for Changing the Conversation 

27 November 2016: The First Sunday of Advent

Regardless where we are on planet Earth these days, we are witnessing a major shift in human history. Perhaps we no longer have either the language or the imagination to deeply describe and interpret what’s happening. Perhaps we have grown so accustomed to inflated rhetoric and public relations packaging of people and events that we have lost our perspective on the human drama that is reshaping our lives. People are fearful and anxious about losing their identity: national identities, religious identities, sex and gender identities, racial and ethnic identities. 

A person’s identity was once based on a common language, a common religious tradition, and ancestral, social, cultural, or national experiences. Today, in a world of tremendous human migrations across all the ancient boarders and cyber communications networks that share not just information but human hopes and frustrations, identities are changing, whether people are comfortable or not about the new realities. Perhaps our identity is based on something far deeper? Maybe we need a new perspective on identity?

Some fearful people are working hard to reassert their old, often prejudicial, identities. In the United States, and across Europe, we see the last gasps of white male supremacy in all its ugliness, hatred, and violence. In the United States, we see as well a level of socio-cultural polarization that is higher than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (or the “War of Northern Aggression” if you are from the South).  

In my Roman Catholic religious tradition, Pope Francis has just named seventeen new cardinals and warned about a “virus of polarization and animosity” that has seeped into the church. Symbolically and significantly, four semi-retired cardinals (Carlo Caffarra, former archbishop of Bologna; the American, Raymond Burke, former head of the Vatican supreme high court; Walter Brandmüller, former president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; and Joachim Meisner, former Archbishop of Cologne) have now publicly questioned the pope’s most recent teachings on family life. They fear Francis has now strayed from orthodoxy and is creating disturbing confusion in the church. 

Confusion in the church? Well it is there of course. I am not certain Francis created it….As I survey the results of the most recent presidential election, I see reports that millions of Catholics — like Cardinal Raymond Burke — helped elect a candidate who has shown contempt for values at the heart of our Christian morality: compassion, forgiveness, humility, and fidelity. His campaign rhetoric ran completely contrary to core values stressed in Catholic social teaching: solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, the common good, stewardship of the planet, and the dignity of every person. The president-elect has demonstrated a constant denigration of society’s so-called “losers.” In the Gospels, however, we see Jesus of Nazareth going out of his way to help just such marginalized people.  

In this November’s presidential election, Roman Catholics made up 23% of the electorate; and 52% of them voted for Donald Trump. Catholic confusion indeed. Ironically, some of the strongest Catholic denunciations of candidate Trump came from ultra-conservative U.S. Catholics, like George Weigel and Robert P. George, who found Trump “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.” Did any American Catholic bishop have the courage to publicly speak out, like the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, who denounced Trump as a “walking affront to the Gospels”? 

I suggest we need a new perspective about contemporary life and we need to change our conversation. Seeing people in the old categories just don’t work anymore: liberal vs conservative, Republican vs Democrat, traditional Catholic vs Vatican II Catholic, and of course Protestant evangelical vs progressive Christian. 

In the United States, Millennials now outnumber the baby-boomers. They, like all of us, have their shortcomings; but I enjoy my teaching and collaboration with Millennials. In so many ways, they are the future taking shape right now: the most ethnically and racially diverse generation yet. They are also more open to change than older generations. They support LGBT people and their concerns. They are electronically tuned-in and interconnected. Unlike fear-struck racial and ethnic supremacists, they experience socio-cultural change as part of our contemporary reality and not a threat to their identity. They are much more concerned about the human values of truthfulness, integrity, honesty, respect for the other, and human outreach based on dialogue, compassion, and personal encounter.  

A couple days ago, I had my last university seminar session for this semester. Our theme has been “Religion, Fundamentalism, and Socio-cultural Change.” The twenty participants in my class are bright and energetic young men and women: our future leaders. While answering a question about the presidential election, I mentioned that just over 50% of American Catholics voted for Trump. I chucked and said “so is the U.S. Catholic glass half empty or half full?” A young lady raised her hand. “Professor,” she said, “I think the Catholic glass is cracked and needs some major rebuilding.” Millennial wisdom.  

With a new perspective on reality, we change the conversation. My primary concerns today are not whether a person is conservative or liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, or (it is not my style!) a nineteenth century Catholic like Cardinal Burke.  

The conversation I would have with Christian religious leaders and “Christian” political leaders today is this: To what degree do the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth reverberate in your hearts? That is what our conversation should be about. To what degree does the Gospel guide your decision making: celebrating divine love to the extent that people genuinely care for others, support, and yes even forgive one another. This conversation undercuts racism, the denigration of “losers,” the unhealthy lifestyles of self-centered and self-seeking bullies, xenophobia, homophobia, and all human phobias. Genuine Christianity celebrates the life of the Holy Spirit to the extent that a healthy and healing spirit pervades the individual and collective lives of people who try to genuinely follow the way of Jesus. 

If the life and message of Jesus do not animate and guide their lives, people who proudly wear the Christian label, whether “conservative” or “progressive,” are meaningless propagandists and phonies.  

Today we light the first Advent candle, remembering the Prophet Isaiah’s words: 

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2