Fundamentalism


Closing the three-day National Conservatism Conference, in Miami on September 13, 2022, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, argued that the great divide in the United States is now between Christian theology and a “woke religion that is raising itself up as the official state ideology,” adding that “insofar as conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims.” 

“Theological claims” of course caught my attention.

Mohler is a “young earth creationist.” He maintains that our Earth and its lifeforms were created by the Abrahamic God, just 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Mohler is an ardent fundamentalist.

My point today is not to get into a discussion about the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky but to share some thoughts about fundamentalism, because it underlies so many contemporary religious – and political — movements. On both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe: Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and now Italy, by way of examples.  

The word “fundamentalist” was first used in print in the United States, in 1920, by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of The Watchman Examiner, a national Baptist newspaper. He proposed that Christians who were fighting for the fundamentals of their faith should be called “fundamentalists.” But the term “fundamentalism” was extended to other religious traditions around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79.

In general all fundamentalist movements arise when people are confronted with an unsettling disruption of their “normal” way of life. Sensing societal chaos, they develop strong feelings of anxiety and fear about losing control over their lives and losing personal and group identity. 

Regardless of the religious tradition to which they belong, all fundamentalists follow certain patterns: 

• Religious ideology is the basis for their personal and communal identity.

• They insist upon one statement of truth that is inerrant, revealed, and unchangeable

• They see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. 

• They seize on historical moments and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. 

• They demonize their opposition. 

• They are selective in what parts of the religious tradition and heritage they will stress. 

Although we have not usually thought of Roman Catholics as fundamentalists, the term can certainly be applied to a number of Roman Catholic individuals and movements. Certainly more than a few of today’s U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are starting to resemble fundamentalists in their words and actions.

Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they end up sacrificing values basic to all the great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and caring.

When Christian belief becomes highly fundamentalized, churches start to become repositories not of grace but of grievances. They become places where something like tribal identities are reinforced, fears are nurtured, and aggression and nastiness become part of a holy cause. In their overwhelming seriousness about “their” religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social processes to ensure that society conforms to the values and behaviors required by their fundamentalist worldview. Fundamentalists become their own justification.

Fundamentalism appeals for a variety of reasons: 

  • For people who feel unimportant or insignificant, fundamentalism says you are important because you are God’s “special messenger.” 
  • For people who are fearful, fundamentalism says “you can’t be saved without us…join us and be saved.” 
  • For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine nor even be educated in it. Just believe what we say.
  • Fundamentalism makes the fundamentalist feel good about himself or herself. It is self-stroking.
  • Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another, because it believes that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist worldview.
  • Fundamentalism appeals to people burdened by guilt and shame because it exempts them from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame. Fundamentalism says…if you are one of us, you are OK.
  • Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination; and it justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance, and hatefulness.

What does one do about fundamentalism?

  • The best way to confront the narrow vision of fundamentalism is through broad-based education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills.
  • Broad-based education emphasizes the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Fundamentalists work in the opposite fashion. They begin  with their conclusions and then search for arguments to support them.
  • We need to establish channels for dialogue and support those institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.
  • We need to courageously work against ignorance and speak-out about dishonest or faulty information. And speak-out about those who advocate and publish it.
  • We need to humbly realize that we too are still on the road to discovery. We cannot fall into the trap of many fundamentalists who have become self-centered know-it-alls.

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“Truth is always complicated by the human envelope in which it is enclosed.
It’s not only an intellectual problem, but one at the heart of the gospel itself. It was not sinners who turned Jesus off. It was the righteous religious types who felt they had all the answers.”- Rev. Raymond E. Brown (1928 – 1998), Catholic biblical scholar

Contemporary Belief

“Faith seeking understanding” is a good definition of belief. Faith is our experience of God and belief is our attempt to express that experience in words and symbols. 

When we attempt to describe our experiences of God, we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture. All of our concepts and all of our experiential interpretations are shaped to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge.

There is no belief without culture; but there can be a culture without belief. This of course is the situation in which many people find themselves today: in a belief desert. 

Right now a lot of my friends are talking about the Pew Research Center’s September 13, 2022 report “Modeling the Future of Religion in America.” That report predicts that, if current religious membership trends continue, Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades. That report estimates that in 2020, about 64% of U.S. Americans were Christian but that by 2070 that figure could well be at about 54% or lower.

The group that continues to expand is what we call the religious “nones” – those people who, when asked about their religious identity, describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

Researchers suggest that the United States may very well be following the path taken, over the last 50 years, by many countries in Western Europe. Countries that once had overwhelmingly Christian majorities but no longer do. 

In Great Britain, for example, the “nones” had already surpassed Christians; and they became the largest group in 2009. In the Netherlands, the Christian exodus accelerated in the 1970s. Today about 47% of Dutch adults say they are Christian. In Belgium, where I currently live, we have a population of about 11.58 million. Just under 60% say they are Christian (most of them Roman Catholic) but less than 5% of them go to church regularly. Many unused churches are being converted into apartments, stores, bars, and restaurants.

Some observers blame secularization for our current situation. As an historical theologian, I understand the process of secularization; but blaming secularization is far too simple. As my friend and Leuven graduate, Ron Rolheiser, often observed “Bad attitudes towards the church feed off bad church practices.”

For example: Catholic teaching still forbids women from becoming deacons, priests, bishops, cardinals or popes, mis-interpreting Jesus’ and his disciples’ masculinity as sanctioning an all-male liturgy and clergy. (Of course there were women disciples and women apostles.) The church also condemns homosexual acts as a sin and considers gay individuals as “intrinsically disordered.”

People lose interest in institutional religion when they find that the church’s expressions of belief and what they hear from the pulpit no longer resonate with their minds, their hearts, and contemporary life experience. When a religion speaks more in the name of authority than with the voice of compassion, it becomes meaningless. 

We need to find ways to understand the Divine presence, not “up there” or “out there” but “here and now” at the center of all Reality, because that is where we live, love, and think. Perhaps we need to disconnect regularly from our cellphones and drop our earbuds. We need meditation times. We need a truly contemporary spirituality. Animated by the life, message, and spirit of Jesus, we can then move ahead in our life journeys  and accompany others in their own life journeys. 

There are good examples if we look closely. A Catholic pastor, whom I visited this summer, holds contemporary faith discussions in his home. He invites young women and men in their twenties and thirties to share, discuss, and reflect together with him about their faith and their life experiences.

Some other priests whom I know, and a good handful of bishops, are trying to “rebuild the church” by returning to a 1950’s style Catholicism. They now have Latin masses, done with their backs to the congregation. Many as well are contemporary book-banners. History warns us, of course, that people who ban books also ban people. 

A healthy spiritual journey moves forwards not backwards. 

Nostalgia is fun for a while, but there is no virtue in turning-back the clock. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the capacity to think and make one’s own judgments on the basis of critical principles. That is why the upsurge of fundamentalism today is so dangerous. It is a narrow and closed vision, which most-often nurtures fear and aggression. 

Thinking about our human life journey, I have always been greatly concerned about education. We must insist that broad-based and honest information be passed on to the next generation. But I am particularly concerned about the formation of teachers. Most students who fall in love with learning do that not because of their instructional materials and school curriculum but because they encountered a teacher who encouraged them to think – to reflect on life, to ask questions, and to search for answers.

When pondering our belief today we need to hear and to help people hear the “call” of the Sacred. We do this by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The truly contemporary believer has one foot anchored in contemporary life and religious consciousness and the other in historical critical consciousness. We value the past but we don’t live in the past.

Our communities of faith – our churches  — should be centers of excellence where people can speak courageously about their awareness of the Divine Presence and where continuing dialogue and collaboration are patterns of life.

When we explore our belief – when we reflect in depth about our faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals which are products of our culture. We also look for resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures.

Truly authentic Christian belief, of course, can never be simply the expression of one’s individual and subjective experience. We are a community of believers – a faith community. We need each other. Expressions of belief are the result of deep reflection about my faith experience, YOUR faith experience, AND the faith experience of the community. As I told one of my bishop friends: “we need you but you also need us!”

Belief relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. Nor can it just unthinkingly venerate any particular culture. Some Roman Catholic church leaders, for instance, are locked in a late medieval culture and still dress and think that way. Nevertheless, when belief becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry.

Christian belief, because its focus is on what lies within and yet beyond our culture, is continually engaged in critical reflection and critique of the contemporary and previous cultures. Critical thinking is a Christian virtue. Growth is part of life. 

And so we continue our journey.

NAR Virus Alert

On July 1, 2022, Dutch Sheets, founder of the Freedom Church in Colorado Springs, stood on stage, at Gas South Arena outside Atlanta, with the far-right politician, Marjorie Taylor Green. Sheets told the crowd of supporters of the “New Apostolic Reformation” (NAR) to pray with him for Green, who was wearing a bright red dress. “We say she is covered by the blood of Jesus” he said, “and she will not be taken out by evil forces.” 

Greene, by the way, sells t-shirts that say “Proud Christian Nationalist.”

NAR is a contemporary religious movement, launched in the United States, which seeks to establish a new form of Christianity. The U.S. missionary, C. Peter Wagner (1930 – 2016), founder of the movement, stressed that Satan and satanic demons are active in the world and that Christians have to engage in combative warfare against them. 

Wagner coined the term “New Apostolic Reformation” and claimed “We are currently witnessing the most radical change in the way of ‘doing church’ since the Protestant Reformation.” 

Current estimates are that close to 66 million people are now linked with the New Apostolic Reformation in the United States and its outreach in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Central to the movement are two key concepts: “spiritual warfare” and “territorial spirits.” 

“Spiritual warfare,” emphasizing demonology, maintains that demons and evil spirits are present and endanger our daily lives. The rhetoric of Paula White Cain, chairperson the former U.S. president’s evangelical advisory board, calling for the termination of “all satanic pregnancies” and the rhetoric of the anti-vax doctor, Stella Immanuel, calling Covid-19 “demon sperm” are NAR spiritual warfare terms. New Apostolic Reformation spiritual warriors maintain, as well, that sickness and poverty are the result of demonic possession. 

With the concept of “territorial spirits,” the New Apostolic Reformation stresses that demons occupy specific places and institutions in U.S. society like abortion clinics, the LGBT community, and the U.S. Democratic Party. These malevolent forces don’t just advocate for things that believers oppose. They are evil personified. Fortunately, according to the movement’s followers, it is through the New Apostolic Reformation that God will rescue society by establishing a theocratic government that will destroy all forms of satanic evil.

The New Apostolic Reformation’s “Seven Mountain Mandate,” or 7M for short, is fortifying many on the radical far-right of U.S. politics. It calls on far-right Christians to conquer the seven mountains and take control over the “spheres of influence.” They believe that their mission, therefore, is to take over society by controlling (1) education, (2) religion, (3) family, (4) business, (5) government, (6) the arts, and (7) entertainment. 

NAR is also quite popular with hyper-masculine, gun-toting types, like the Proud Boys. In January 2019, Rick Joyner, head of Morningstar Ministries, an important New Apostolic Reformation organization, claimed he had a prophetic vision that “The Second American Revolutionary/Civil War is inevitable.” And, he said, “It is right, and it will be successful.” The U.S.A., he stressed, was “already in the first stages” of that civil and revolutionary war.

Also on July 1, 2022, inside the Gas South Arena in Georgia, four Christian-right religious leaders recited a Prayer Declaration called “The Watchman Decree.” It was written by Dutch Sheets. 

THE WATCHMAN DECREE

As a Patriot of faith, I attest my allegiance first and foremost to the kingdom of God and the Great Commission. Secondly, I agree to be a watchman over our nation concerning its people and their rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

WHEREAS

• We, the Church, are God’s governing Body on the earth

• We have been given legal power from heaven and now exercise our authority

• We  are God’s ambassadors and spokespeople over the earth

• Through the power of God, we are the world influencers

• Because of our covenant with God, we are equipped and delegated by Him to destroy every attempted advance of the enemy,

WE MAKE OUR DECLARATIONS:

We decree that America’s executive branch of government will honor God and defend the Constitution.

We decree that our legislative branch (Congress) will write only laws that are righteous and constitutional.We decree that our judicial system will issue rulings that are biblical and constitutional.

We declare that we stand against wokeness, the occult and every evil attempt against our nation.

We declare and we now take back our God-given freedoms, according to our Constitution.

We declare that we take back influence at the local level in our communities.

We decree that we take back and permanently control positions of influence and leadership in each of the Seven Mountains.  

We decree that the blood of Jesus covers and protects our nation. It protects and separates us for God.

We declare that our nation is energy independent. 

We declare that America is strong spiritually, financially, militarily and technologically.

We decree that evil carries no power, authority or rights in our land nor over our people.

We decree that we will operate in unity, going beyond denominational lines in order to accomplish the purposes of God for our nation.

And we decree that AMERICA SHALL BE SAVED!

We know this country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

We know the truth; therefore, we stand for truth and will NEVER be deceived! 

We will NEVER stop fighting!

We will NEVER, EVER, EVER give up or give in!

We WILL take our country back.

We WILL honor the ONE TRUE GOD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! 

AMERICA SHALL BE SAVED!

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The New Apostolic Reformation is really a bizarre form of pentecostalism with modern-day “apostles” who promote a contemporary “Christian” theocracy exercising cultural and political control over all aspects of contemporary society.

Currently Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano is probably the movement’s best-known political proponent. He angrily claimed a few days ago that the Bible forbids Christians from criticizing elected officials like himself. NAR also draws support from Ron DeSantis, the Catholic governor of Florida and two other prominent, right-wing, Catholic governors: Greg Abbott of Texas, and Doug Ducey of Arizona. All three have been making headlines for their cruelly abusing migrants to score their own political points. 

NAR with its fundamentalist warfare language is a dangerous religious virus. 

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For more information see: 

A New Apostolic Reformation? A Biblical Response to a Worldwide Movement   by R. Douglas Geivett and Holly Pivec. (2018)

A New Focus and a New Conversation

We See Differently When We Change Our Focus

When I began my blog now many years ago, I was inspired by lines from T.S. Elliot’s poem “Little Gidding –  For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.

I was convinced we needed to change how we observe and speak about our cultural and church experiences. That need is just as true today as it was back then. I am not so certain I have always done a good job moving ahead with another voice but I continue my reflection and efforts.

A few days ago, in fact, in a discussion with friends about contemporary church issues, it stuck me how easily we can slip into simply repeating the same old stuff we have been saying again and again. That is just reiterating “last year’s words.” Older people do that. But younger people as well. We all need to change the conversation. Changing the conversation requires a new focus – a changed perspective – about what is really important.

Since the 1990s, large numbers of U.S. Americans have left Christianity to join the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” The Catholic Church has lost the most members in the unchurching process. According to Gallup the percentage of Catholics who say they are a “member” of a church has dropped by nearly 20 points since the year 2000.

The conversation? The perspective? In November 2021 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a three year Eucharistic revival initiative, which will culminate with a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in 2024. The goal is to have 80,000 people or more at the national congress. The revival includes the development of new teaching materials, the training of diocesan and parish leaders, the launch of a revival website, and the deployment of a special team of 50 priests who will travel the country to preach about the Eucharist. So far the price tag is $28,000,000.

The U.S. bishops were shaken by the revelation that only about 30% of U.S. Catholics believe in the Real Presence. One of the patron saints for their Eucharistic revival is the Spanish bishop, Manuel González García (1877 – 1940), who was known as the “Bishop of the Tabernacle.” He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2016. Garcia described Jesus calling to Catholics from the tabernacle: “Are you going to come for a visit? Will you look at me? Will you spend time with me?” 

Is the Catholic Eucharistic revival a good contemporary focus? The  bishops believe that, by emphasizing the Real Presence in the consecrated bread, fallen-away Catholics will be brought back to church. I would rather see our bishops emphasizing the Eucharistic community, gathered around the Table of the Lord as a compassionate and supportive group of caring friends. In Eucharistic celebrations, they – we – are encouraged and sustained by the presence of the Lord as Jesus describes it in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.” 

Changing the conversation, I suggest, means looking at and questioning past and present in new ways and developing new strategies and new patterns for church life. For today and for tomorrow. It means thinking creatively and asking deeper questions. It means last year’s words don’t necessarily work today, when they are locked in last year’s mentality and language.

Some proposals for contemporary refection and action: 

(1) Look less at the church as an institution and more as a community of faith. What is happening within your own community of faith? What are the life-issues that really concern your family and friends? What does it mean for you to experience God today? Where do you find your support? How can you motivate and help the women and men in your community to truly minister to each other? What is keeping us from experimenting with new forms of parish and parish life? Perhaps a parish should be a collection of many smaller communities of faith? My wife and I once belonged to a parish like that. We met in small groups in our homes for prayer meetings, Bible study, and discussion groups. Our son, like all the children in our parish, made his first communion in our home with the local neighborhood parish group. Later all first communicants gathered in church with the entire parish community for their solemn first communion celebration. We all recalled the early Christian household communities in which the heads of the households – women and men — presided over informal Eucharistic liturgies. We can make it happen again.

(2) Look deeper than the shortage of priests and the questions about women deacons and priests. Let’s look at the meaning of ministry itself. Let’s look at and examine the very idea of ORDAINED ministry. Jesus did not ordain anyone. Let’s scratch our heads about new forms of ministry and break out of the old patterns and paradigms. Why not have qualified graduate students, with short-term ordained ministry, helping out in university parishes? Why not ordain women and men for small or large group parish ministry? Perhaps a parish could have many part-time ordained ministers who also have “regular” jobs? In the past fifteen years, many “progressive” seminaries have been closed by conservative retro-minded bishops. Are today’s seminaries in touch with contemporary life? Perhaps such old-style seminaries are not the best structures for the formation and education of contemporary ministers?

(3) And why not elect diocesan leaders for limited terms of ministry? Why not five year terms for bishops, which could be renewed for just another five-year term? In fact, do bishops have to be the top person in a diocese? Why not give ecclesiastical leadership responsibilities to a diocesan leadership team? I could see a team of at least three people: a diocesan administrator, who could be a woman or man and not necessarily ordained; a diocesan director of pastoral formation, who could be a woman or man and not necessarily ordained; and a bishop (woman or man) who would serve as spiritual director and sacramental coordinator for the diocese. Shared ministry and decision-making is great way to dismantle the clerical old boys club.

(4) Healthy Catholicism is rooted in healthy Christianity. So what does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ today? This raises questions of knowledge and belief. What do we really know about the historical Jesus? He was not white, for sure. More likely dark brown. What about all of those very white, blue-eyed, and rather androgynous images of Jesus that really distort who he was and what he was all about? Was his biological father the Holy Spirit or the man we call Joseph? Isn’t the “virgin birth” more about saying he was a very special person than analyzing the biology of his conception? What if Jesus was gay or a married fellow? Would that make a difference for you? Would that destroy his meaning for Christian believers? Why? Was Jesus God? Early Hebrew Christians, including St. Paul, would have never said that. They understood Jesus as the revelation of God’s graciousness and love. The revelation of God’s intimate link with humankind. Didn’t Jesus reveal as well authentic humanity? Jesus is “Lord,” the “Christ,” “Son of Humanity,” and “Son of God.” All of our religious language tries to point to his uniqueness. The most important thing we do know about Jesus is that his ministry and his message was about love and compassion and not at all about power over people. 

(5) Ecumenical discussions. What are the real differences between church groups in Christianity today? Are there any good reasons why we cannot simply start worshiping together? Are we not locked in medieval theological categories about “them” and “us”? Are structural church distinctions based on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism still significant differences in belief? Isn’t, for example, ordained ministry “valid” in all Christian traditions?  What today is the uniqueness of Roman Catholicism? The goal of ecumenical collaboration today must be forgetting the old denigrating stereotypes of “other churches” and growing in our respect and appreciation for “the other” and learning from all traditions. 

(6) Seven sacraments. Today we know of course that the seven sacraments were created by the Christian community not the historical Jesus. I have just written a little book about this. What then is the meaning of “sacrament” today? Who controls sacramental forms? Does it make sense to argue about who can “validly” administer certain sacraments? When I got married, I was told, based on Catholic sacramental understandings, that my wife and I as baptized believers really “conferred the sacrament” on each other and the priest was simply an official witness. OK, so what about baptized gays and lesbians who get married? Isn’t their marriage then just as “sacramental” as mine? What about “lay” pastoral ministers in hospitals and homes for the elderly. They are often the key Christian ministers in these people’s lives. Why can’t they “anoint” the sick and dying? In earlier days non-ordained people did most of the anointing of the sick for centuries. Maybe today’s lay ministers should just start doing it? 

(7) Moving beyond the old worn-out on-and-on discussion. It is time to act. Changing the conversation can also mean moving from conversation to change. And we must realize today that change rarely comes from the top. In the RCC tradition, for example, change starts at the grassroots level. People see the need and make the change. Women’s ordination is a good example. The change begins. Institutional leaders at the top complain and condemn. Nevertheless, the old pattern is proven historically: change is made; change is condemned by leadership; change endures; leadership allows the change as a limited “experiment;” change becomes more widespread; and finally leadership allows it as “part of our tradition.” 

These are just a few thought-starters… Creative and critical reflection is not a dangerous activity and it can be a source of life, because it brings a new focus, new conversation, and a new change. 

Resurgent Antisemitism 

It struck me that in news reports about the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago on August 8th an important detail did not receive enough attention. Bruce Reinhart, the Palm Beach Gardens Magistrate Judge who signed the FBI’s search warrant is Jewish. Since then he and his children have been threatened. And the day after the search at Mar-a-Lago, the judge’s synagogue reported 78 obscene or harassing calls. The following Friday, that synagogue, where Judge Reinhart sits on the board, had to cancel Shabbat services after a deluge of antisemitic threats.

Antisemitism is fear or hatred of Jewish people. It has become one of the most enduring and malicious forms of racism in human history. Antisemitism includes, but is not limited to, racial stereotyping, anti-Jewish discrimination, and the acceptance or spread of conspiracy theories involving Jewish people.

It is quite true that right after World War II, many branches of Christianity reacted to antisemitism and the horrors of Holocaust in a very constructive and Jewish-supportive way. The Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), for example, issued an historic document about Christianity and Judaism called Nostra Aetate, which sparked a serious and systematic effort by the Catholic Church to repair its past bitter and negative relationship with Jews and Judaism. For centuries the Roman Catholic Good Friday liturgy had contained this antisemitic  prayer: “Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.” Fortunately, that prayer today has been changed to this: “Let us pray also for the Jewish people, to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.”

Nevertheless, antisemitism today is resurgent in the United States and around the world. 

Jewish U.S. Americans make up less than 3% of the total U.S. population. But according to FBI reports nearly 55% of religious-biased crimes target U.S. Jews. The call for more Jewish security began as conspiracy theories swirled that Jews were responsible for bringing down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and coincided with a wave of terrorist attacks in Israel. Before 2001, synagogues in the United States had remained open and allowed for non-Jews to join in services as far back as the 1700s. Historians observe that that continued even in the face of lynchings, firebombing, and exclusion of Jewish people from country clubs and gated communities. Not even when synagogues were being firebombed during the civil rights era in the 1960s did they close their doors.

Then came the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in 2018 – the deadliest antisemitic attack on U.S. soil – when a gunman opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle inside a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people. 

Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, the Anti-Defamation League said in its annual assessment. There were 2,717 incidents last year, representing an increase of 34% over 2020 and the highest on record since the New York-based Jewish civil rights group started tracking such cases in 1979. These antisemitic incidents include harassment, assaults, and vandalism.

As the noted U.S. American Rabbi, A. James Rudin, observed recently: “For many Jews in the United States, there is now a growing sense of anxiety that antisemitism, emerging from both the political left and right, has moved from the shadows of society and the fringes of social media into the American political, social, cultural and religious mainstream.” (Rabbi Rudin joined the staff of the American Jewish Committee in 1968 and retired in 2000 after serving for many years as National Interreligious Affairs Director.)

Today heightened security has extended beyond synagogues to Hebrew schools, assisted-living facilities, retirement communities, and nursing homes that serve predominantly Jewish communities.

Some of the incidents in recent years have included deadly attacks by gunmen at an orthodox synagogue north of San Diego and a kosher grocery store in New Jersey, and the stabbing at a rabbi’s home in New York. Many of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 wore swastikas. One man wore a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt glorifying the Nazi concentration camp.

And in a two-week period in May 2022, during an outbreak of violence between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas, there were a record 193 anti-Jewish attacks, in the United States.

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What to do? It is important to clarify historic misunderstandings and to help people change their own misconceptions. 

(1) First of all, we should remind people that Jesus (Yeshua) was a first century Hebrew. Today we would call him a Jew. But there were no “Jews” in the first century. There were Judeans or Judean authorities and leaders. Jesus and all of Jesus’ friends, associates, colleagues, and disciples were not Christians. They were Hebrews. Actually the word “Jew” did not enter the English language until the twelfth century. Our English language biblical translations, however, have not always been helpful.

(2) We need to stress that Jews did NOT kill Jesus of Nazareth. The old antisemitic rhetoric about “Jews as the Christ-killers” is totally without foundation. The Gentile Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, condemned Jesus to death and had Jesus tortured and executed by Gentile Roman soldiers. Jesus was indeed one of thousands of Hebrews crucified by the Romans.

(3) When reading the New Testament, one should be alert to problematic English translations of the Greek and Latin words Ioudaios and Iudaeus. They mean first of all Judean not Jew or Jewish. For example, Pontius Pilate’s inscription on Jesus’ cross, often abbreviated as INRI, was Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. It is often translated as “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” A more correct translation would be “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans.” (The letter “J” did not exist in ancient Greek or Latin.)

(4) Unfortunately, as early Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, blame for Jesus’ death was increasingly placed on Hebraic people, thus decreasing Roman culpability. In Matthew, the Roman governor washes his hands of Jesus’ blood while the people proclaim, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:25). John’s Gospel portrays Judeans as wanting to kill Jesus throughout his ministry (John 5:18, John 7:1, John 8:37). Here once again once we see mistranslations of Ioudaioi leading to later antisemitism. The original word meant Judeans not Jews. But once the word “Jew” became common in English New Testament translations,  antisemitists latched on to a “biblical foundation” for anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior. In the Gospel of John, for example, the word Ioudaioi, now translated as Jews,” is used 63 times and in a hostile antisemitic sense 31 times.

I have three more constructive suggestions:

  • We really should promote serious dialogue and reflection about antisemitism. Why not  invite Jewish friends and friends of different faiths for discussions about their experiences and thinking about antisemitism. Perhaps as part of an adult education program?
  • We can speak out against antisemitic jokes and slurs, when we hear them. Silence can send the message that such humor and derogatory remarks are acceptable.
  • And let us not forget some important history that should not be erased or ignored. Dates and events I find particularly important are the following:


September 15, 1935: “Nuremberg Laws”: Anti-Jewish racial laws are enacted. Jews were no longer considered German citizens. They could not marry Aryans. Nor could they fly the German flag.

October 28, 1938: 17,000 Polish Jews living in Germany are expelled.  

November 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) a major anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. At least 200 synagogues were destroyed and  7,500 Jewish shops looted. And 30,000 male Jews were sent to the concentration camps Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen.

Two weeks after the German national pogrom known as Kristallnacht, Fr. Charles E. Coughlin (1891 – 1979), in Royal Oak, Michigan, known as the “radio priest” blamed Jews for their own persecution, making him a hero in the German press. In the late 1930s Coughlin was spewing pro-Nazi propaganda to 30 million listeners in his weekly CBS radio antisemitic broadcasts, proclaiming, for example, that an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers” caused the Great Depression. On May 1, 1941, Detroit’s Archbishop Edward Mooney (1882 – 1958) ordered Coughlin to stop all of his political activities.

November 15, 1938: All Jewish pupils are expelled from German schools.

January 30, 1939: Adolf Hitler proclaims in a Reichstag speech that “If war erupts it will mean the Vernichtung(extermination) of European Jews.”

September 1, 1939: World War II begins when Germany invades Poland.

October 12,1939: Germany begins deportation of Austrian and Czech Jews to Poland.

May 20, 1940: Concentration camp is established at Auschwitz, a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

December 8, 1941: Chelmno, Poland extermination camp begins operations. By April 19, 1943, there will have been 340,000 Jews, 20,000 Poles and Czechs murdered there. 

March 17, 1942: Extermination begins in Belzec, Poland. By the end of 1942, there will have been 600,000 Jews murdered in Belzec.

Summer 1942: Deportation of Jews from Belgium, Croatia, France, the Netherlands, and Poland to NAZI extermination camps.

Winter 1942: Deportation of Jews from Germany, Greece, and Norway to e termination camps. 

May 15, 1944: NAZI authorities begin deporting Hungarian Jews. By June 27th there will be 380,000 sent to Auschwitz.

June 6, 1944: D-Day: Allied invasion at Normandy.

November 8, 1944: Beginning of the death march of approximately 40,000 Jews from Budapest to Austria. When the Third Reich stood on the verge of military defeat and Allied forces approached Nazi camps, the SS organized death marches of concentration camp inmates, in part to keep large numbers of concentration camp prisoners from falling into Allied hands. 

January 17, 1945: Evacuation of Auschwitz and the beginning of a death march.

January 25, 1945: Beginning of a death march for inmates of Stutthof, Poland.

April 6-10, 1945: Death march of inmates of Buchenwald, Germany. In the last months of the Third Reich, about 250,000 inmates of concentration camps perished in death marches.

April 30, 1945: Hitler commits suicide

May 8, 1945: V-E Day: Germany surrenders. It is the end of Third Reich.

******

“Old antisemitic stereotypes and ideas have been given new packaging and justification in the modern era. Blaming Jews for social ills and crises remains a convenient conspiracy theory when people in a community are experiencing fear and anxiety. When people perpetuate antisemitic images, ideas, and references, whether it be in political campaigns, on social media platforms, or in pop culture, the resources below will help equip students to recognize these contemporary manifestations of antisemitism and their origins.” See: facinghistory.org

Theological DNA

Something a little different this week. A bit of personal family history. I call it a meditation on my “theological DNA.”

A reader of my blog suggested that I am probably a “closet Protestant.” Not really. But From the time I was an adolescent, I have been an inquisitive Catholic. It started when I was about thirteen in my 8th grade class in southern Michigan. One day, our parish priest, Fr. Linus, told my class we should avoid contact with Protestants because they belong to a “false religion.” I stood up and in front of the class I told Fr. Linus I did not agree with him. I said that my father was a Protestant and that there was absolutely nothing false about him. Fr. Linus did not react but my teacher practically killed me with her angry-nun stare. 

As I grew older I remained inquisitive but became an even more critical Catholic. I am not anti-Catholic. I am a constructively critical Catholic. I also appreciate my Protestant family roots.

My mother’s family, on her father’s and her mother’s side, came from the Alsace, near Strasbourg. They were well anchored in the Catholic tradition. My paternal grandfather, however, had English Quaker roots, and my paternal grandmother had French Huguenot roots. 

The Huguenots, starting in the mid-16th century, were a religious group of French Protestants who held to the Reformed, or Calvinist, tradition of Protestantism. They argued that the Catholic Church needed a radical cleansing of its impurities and that the pope represented more of a powerful and wealthy kingdom than the Reign of God. Due to strong Catholic anti-Protestant persecution, in the 17th  century, the Huguenots were either forced to leave France or become Catholic. When the French king, Louis XIV (1638 – 1715), revoked all Protestant rights in his 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, my grandmother’s family left southern France, via Marseille. They escaped first to England and then on to the Province of Pennsylvania in colonial America.

I have always wondered about my Quaker roots. Quakers rejected ornate religious ceremonies and had no official clergy. Quakers also played key roles in abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Quaker missionaries first arrived in North America in the mid-1650s. My Quaker ancestors arrived in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1684. They had come from Chester, England.

The founder of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, was George Fox (1624 – 1691) born near Leicester, England. Driven by his “inner voice,” Fox left his home in 1643 and began his spiritual quest. The English Civil War (1642 – 1651) had begun and troops were stationed in many towns through which he passed. The Civil War was actually a series of civil wars and political maneuvers about the form of England’s governance and issues of religious freedom. 

In 1647 Fox began to preach publicly, wherever people would listen to him. Initially he had no desire to found a new religious movement, but he saw a need for Christianity to rediscover its original simplicity. 

There was of course much political and religious turmoil in England in the 17th century. The execution of King Charles I (1600 – 1649) saw Puritanism take hold and the monarchy end. Puritans believed the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church and should be purified by eliminating ceremonies and practices not rooted in the Bible. After the King’s execution, a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England. 

After King Charles II’s (1630 – 1685) restoration to the throne in 1660, a new period of religious and political turmoil began. Charles II was Anglican but open to other Christian traditions. Charles’s English parliament, however, enacted laws known as the Clarendon Code, designed to strengthen the position of the re-established Church of England

George Fox travelled throughout Britain as a dissenting preacher, and he was often persecuted by the disapproving English authorities. He was searching for a more direct spiritual experience and came to believe that the presence of God was found more within people than institutional churches. In 1669, he married, Margaret Fell, the widow of a wealthy supporter. She is often called the “mother of Quakerism.” Fox’s ministry expanded and he made tours of North America and the Low Countries. He was arrested and jailed numerous times for his beliefs, as was his wife. 

Fox spent his final decade working in London organizing, with his wife’s strong support, the expanding Quaker movement. Despite disdain from some Anglicans and Puritans, George Fox was viewed with respect by his Quaker convert William Penn. Two days after preaching as usual at the Gracechurch Street Meeting House in London, Fox died on January 13, 1691. He was interred three days later in the Quaker Burying Ground, known today as Quaker Gardens a small public garden in the extreme south of the London Borough of Islington.

The term “Quaker” began as a derisive nickname for Fox and others who shared his belief in the biblical passage that people should “tremble at the Word of the Lord.” In Quaker prayer services people did occasionally tremble or “quake” with religious fervor. The group eventually embraced the term “Quaker” although their official name remained the Religious Society of Friends. Members are still referred to as “Friends” or “Quakers.”

By 1660 there were around 50,000 Quakers. Among them my ancestors who knew Fox quite well. In 1681, King Charles II in England gave William Penn, a wealthy English Quaker, a large land grant in America to pay off a debt he owed to Penn’s father, the admiral and politician Sir William Penn (1621 – 1670). The colony of Pennsylvania was then founded by William Penn junior in 1682, as a safe place for Quakers to live and practice their faith. Within just a few years, several thousand Friends had moved to Pennsylvania, among them my ancestors, who were friends of Penn and purchased from him a parcel of land near Chester, Pennsylvania.

Many Quakers were actively involved in Pennsylvania’s new government and held leadership positions in the first half of the 18th century. They later realized that their political participation forced them to compromise some of their beliefs, including pacifism. Quakers were also early abolitionists. One of my ancestors was a strong abolitionist who spent much of his time promoting abolition from Georgia to New Hampshire. By the 1780s, all Quakers were barred from owning slaves.

Quakers seek religious truth through inner experience. They stress a direct experience of God rather than via rituals and ceremonies. Trying to integrate religion and everyday life, they believe God can be found in the middle of life and human relationships as much as during a gathering for worship. Quakers call their worship events “a meeting for worship” rather than services. At least once a week, the members of a Quaker meeting gather for silent worship. 

In a Quaker meeting for worship people sit in a circle or opposite each other in silence for an hour. From time to time someone may speak briefly, but sometimes the entire hour may pass without a word being spoken. Quaker meetings for worship are open to everyone and they take place in “meeting houses” not churches. These are simple buildings or rooms. Quaker worship is very different from the worship of most Christian churches. It doesn’t follow a set ceremonial ritual. A Quaker service has no structure and no one leads it.

Many of my paternal ancestors, particularly in Pennsylvania, were what today we could call Quaker “pastors.” From what I have found in historical documents they were compassionate ministers in touch with their people. They believed that faith is something that is always developing and not something frozen at a particular moment in history.In their own ways, I would say they were probably very good theological thinkers. 

No. I am not ready to become a Quaker. I am still a Catholic, but I was thinking about my Catholic, Huguenot, and Quaker ancestors this past week. Maybe my religious chromosomes were interacting?  I pictured them sitting around a table, praying and discussing contemporary belief. I could almost hear them speaking: “What does it mean to belong to a church today? What doctrines and institutional structures need to be changed? How do we come to religious truth? How do we listen to contemporary people searching for meaning and purpose in their lives? How do we hand on values to the next generation?”

Yes indeed. We live in a time of widespread uncertainty about the future. Considering the current crises our world faces, we urgently need to find a new way of living together in this world. A way of shared life that bridges differences and embodies the reality of all life as sacred and connected. We need a new way of thinking, a new way of speaking with each other, and friendly and supportive  collaboration. We need honest and good information. But life-giving ministry is more than passing-on good information. Life-giving ministry is a process of traveling with people in their spiritual development wherever they are in their life journey. 

Ok. Enough about my “theological DNA.” 

  • Jack

Civility

Norman Rockwell “Golden Rule” 1961

Thinking about a local experience last week, some thoughts about the decline of civility in our contemporary human environment.

It was early morning. I was driving to pick up a couple things from our neighborhood grocery store. Two cars ahead of me I saw a young woman with a baby carriage suddenly start crossing the street. The car in front of me stopped quickly as did I. The fellow behind me started honking and honking and blinking his lights. Then he aggressively drove around me, gave me the finger, and called me an old SOB. Speeding ahead he drove around the young woman and almost collided with her baby carriage. He gave her the finger and called her a “stupid bitch.”

The loss of civility, of course, goes far beyond irritating road rage and giving someone the finger. But it is based on a personal attitude that says: “I can do what I want and you can just shut up.” Already back in 2013, the Powell Tate bipartisan public affairs firm, in Washington DC, warned that “civility in America continues to disintegrate and rude behavior is becoming the ‘new normal.’” 

Today in 2022 we have abundant examples of ever declining civility. Airline passengers, as I saw on my recent flight from Chicago to Brussels, are assaulting flight attendants, who simply ask passengers to observe airplane regulations. Parents are threatening teachers, who teach important history like the Holocaust and want their students to read The Diary of Anne Frank. Customers are haranguing store clerks or fellow shoppers. And of course we see a lack of civility in political discourse and campaign rallies. Yes Donald Trump flamboyantly transgressed norms of civility, but declining civility is a bigger issue than the behavior of a former president. 

On Facebook, You Tube, Twitter, and cellphone messages one finds rudeness, denigrating remarks, and a lack of civility from “conservatives” as well as “liberals.” Being negative is often much more infectious than being positive. And, and in social media, anger travels faster than joy.

I often think a lack of civility contaminates the entire highly-polarized political spectrum. But it happens in religious and ethical situations as well. A good example is the reaction to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many U.S. Americans, it seems, have retreated to their respective corners of “pro-life” or “pro-choice” and are bludgeoning the other side with outrageous and often uncivil accusations. I wrote a Catholic bishop acquaintance after the Supreme Court decision and suggested that instead of another episcopal   condemnation of abortion we really need an intelligent discussion about all biological and ethical aspects of abortion. He sent back a quick note: “You really are an old leftist heretic. Good Catholics don’t question. They shut up and obey!” Well this is not going to get us to a place where we can work together on an issue as sensitive as abortion. I find it not just unfortunate but irresponsible that church leadership is unwilling to examine the abortion issue in all if it’s biological and ethical complexity. And being “pro-life” has very broad implications.

What were once episodes of ugly verbal abuse are now evolving into a nasty plague. Civility is being replaced by adolescent-type bullying and public denigration of anyone who challenges and questions the other. Incivility takes form in rude and discourteous actions, in gossiping, in spreading rumors, or simply in refusing to assist another person. 

Civility means much more than simple politeness. 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. I have a number friends on the far- right religiously and politically. I don’t shun them and I ask them not to shun me. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal conversations in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Not always easy. Civility means that despite different personal perspectives we still have a larger shared vision and we must collaborate to make it a reality.

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

The reflection this week is brief. But the task awaiting us is a long process. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.

In her 1964 book, Continuities in Cultural Evolution, the famous cultural anthropologist, Margaret Meade (1901 – 1978), said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

  • Jack

A PAPAL REFLECTION

In a long email “conversation” with a friend last week, he expressed his enthusiasm for Pope Francis and his recent trip to Canada. “The spirit of Peter the first pope is alive and working in Pope Francis” he said.

We correspond just about every week and I replied that I appreciated the pope’s going to Canada but that his apology to Indigenous peoples didn’t go far enough. Reconciliation, I said, is still very much a work in progress. Francis apologized for the “evil” of church personnel who worked in the schools. He did not acknowledge the Catholic Church’s papal and institutional support for the human denigration and misery created by the 15th century “Doctrine of Discovery.” In fact, just before a papal Mass at the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré on July 28 in Quebec, a large banner with the words “Rescind the Doctrine”was unrolled in front of the altar.

The Doctrine of Discovery was launched by Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503) in 1493. This new papal teaching stressed that lands not inhabited by Christians were available to be “discovered” and exploited and that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, so that the health of souls be cared for and barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” It played a central role in the Spanish conquest of the New World and supported Spain’s exclusive right to the lands discovered by Christopher Columbus (1451  – 1506) the previous year. 

The Doctrine of Discovery soon became the basis for all European claims in the Americas. Called “the principle of discovery,” it became as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. As U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall (1755 – 1835) declared in the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson v. McIntosh,“the principle of discovery” had given the “discovering” nations an absolute right to their New World lands. In essence, John Marshall was saying that U.S. American “Indians” had only a right of occupancy, which if need be could be abolished. 

Pope Alexander’s Doctrine of Discovery made headlines again throughout the 1990s and in 2000, when many Catholics petitioned Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) to formally revoke it and recognize the human rights of indigenous “non-Christian peoples.”

Alexander VI, of course, was quite a character. Born Rodrigo de Borja, in the prominent Borgia family, Alexander was one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes. He had manny mistresses and fathered several children with them. One of his sons, Cesare Borgia (1475 – 1507), when only seventeen, was made Archbishop of Valencia. The Florentine Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498) strongly and regularly criticized Pope Alexander. In 1498 the annoyed and angry Alexander had Savonarola arrested, tortured, hanged, and burned.

I wrote to my friend that Pope Francis really needs to renounce, repudiate, and revoke the Doctrine of Discovery. For centuries, this doctrine has justified the seizure and dispossession of Indigenous territories and nations all over the world. And I added, “And an important clarification: the Apostle Peter was not the first pope and he was never a bishop of Rome.” 

My friend replied with a smiley and said “You really have become anti-pope as well as anti-Catholic.” I replied with my own smiley that I am neither anti-Catholic nor anti-pope. I stressed that Roman Catholic institutional leaders have to be knowledgeable and must be truthful about the church’s history. Some archaic papal teachings should simply be abandoned.

For my friend’s summer reading, I recommended the 2020 edition of Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy, Irish historian and professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and a former president of Magdalene College. It is an excellent papal history.

Along with most contemporary historical theologians, Eamon Duffy stresses that, although a number of pious legends about Peter were accepted and passed on by people like Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – c. 397) and Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), many early stories about Peter are simply religious fantasies. They are not historic facts. They are pious legends. Peter’s being crucified upside down, for example, and his being the “first pope.”

Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Christian community at Rome. There were Christians in the city long before either Peter or Paul arrived there. And, as Eamon Duffy and many other well respected Catholic scholars like John P. Meier (b. 1942) and Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) stress, there was no single bishop in Rome until many decades after the deaths of Peter (c. 68) and Paul (c. 65)..

To be clear, the papacy was not established by the historical Jesus. Bishops weren’t either. The papacy was a later Christian development. In Rome, when Peter was alive, there was no pope, no bishop as such, because the Christian community in Rome was slow to develop the office of a chief presbyter, or bishop. The early treatise The Shepherd of Hernias, written in Rome in the second century, speaks always collectively about the leaders of the community, or about the elders who presided over the community. The author makes no attempt to distinguish between bishops and elders. 

In the fourth century, however, many believed that Peter’s tomb was located on the Vatican hill where he had been executed and where Constantine (c. 272 – 337) ordered the construction of a basilica (Old St. Peter’s Basilica) on the site of today’s St. Peter’s Basilica. Supposedly, Peter’s bone fragments and remnants of a burial shrine were discovered under the current St. Peter’s Basilica in excavations started in 1939. In 1965, Pope Paul VI declared that they were indeed the relics of Peter. Unfortunately, controversy still surrounds the methods and some of the findings of the excavations. Historically it is not clear that the shrine in fact marked the grave of Peter and the fragments of bone discovered were not in the central niche of the shrine. Also, one cannot really be certain that they belonged to Peter, since in first century Rome the remains of executed criminals were usually thrown into unmarked mass graves.

A bit more about Christianity and early Roman bishops: The Roman empire in the third century was divided by civil war and swept by plague and disease. It was ruled by a bewildering succession of emperors, and for a while by the “tetrarchy” of four emperors. Constantine was declared the only emperor in 306. In 313, he proclaimed that every person was free “to follow whichever religion one chooses.”  Under Constantine, Christianity rapidly became the dominant religion. Christianity alone seemed to offer a single overarching intellectual and moral frame of reference. This greatly appealed to Constantine. Like his father, he had originally worshipped Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, but his mother Helena was a Christian. His conversion to Christianity was gradual. He wasn’t baptized until right before his death in 337. Constantine, however, saw Christianity as the needed cement for his empire. He appointed Christian bishops as civil judges. Bishops tried and judged people and corporal punishments were regularly administered at the command of the bishops. 

In 325 Constantine summoned a council of bishops to meet at Nicaea to reinforce the Christian church as the great unifier of his empire. Constantine needed a church that would demand strong adherence to discipline and dogma. In the ancient city of Nicaea, which today is located within the modern Turkish city of Iznik, Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to resolve the Arian dispute in the church which threatened to destabilize the entire empire. The Creed of Nicaea clearly expressed the dogmatic teachings that all believes had to uphold. I have always found it interesting that the famous creed says nothing about being a Good Samaritan and loving one’s neighbor. The bishops at Nicaea reinforced the view of God as a God of strict rules and vengeful punishments. Constantine, of course, was a savvy and ruthless emperor when  he declared himself a Christian.

During the early years of Christianity, the bishops of Rome enjoyed no civic temporal power until the time of Constantine. Most of the bishops of Rome, in the first three centuries of the Christian era, were rather obscure figures. The conversion of Constantine, however, propelled the bishops of Rome into the heart of the Roman establishment. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, c.476, the bishops of Rome became powerful rulers.

When Pope Leo III (750 – 816) crowned Charlemagne (743 – 813) as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, he established the precedent that, in Western Europe, no one could be emperor without being crowned by a pope. After a conflict, known as the Investiture Controversy, the papacy increased its power in relation to the secular rulers of Europe. In 1095 Pope Urban II (1035 – 1099) launched the First Crusade which united Western Europe under papal power. The objective of the First Crusade (1095 – 1099) was the recovery of the Holy Land from Islamic rule.

The word “pope” derives from the Greek pappas meaning “father.” In the early centuries of Christianity, the title was applied to all bishops as well as to senior clergy. Later it became reserved in the West for only the bishop of Rome, during the reign of Pope Leo I (400 – 461). He was pope from 440 until his death. Leo was a Roman aristocrat and was the first pope to have been called “the Great.” He is probably best known for having met “Attila the Hun” in 452 and persuading him to turn back from his invasion of Italy. Attila (c. 406–453) was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death. He is also considered one of the most powerful rulers in world history.

Pope Leo I, a powerful man, greatly contributed to developing ideas of papal authority. He was greatly esteemed by Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878) the pope who strongly condemned liberalism, modernism, separation of church and state, and other Enlightenment ideas. In 1869 he proclaimed that he as pope was infallible, enhancing the role of the papacy and decreasing the role of the bishops. Pio Nono, as he is often called, had this Catholic doctrine dogmatically defined at the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870.

Well enough papal reflections for now. I like the synodality movement in today’s Catholic Church: a process of mutual collaboration and discernment engaging the whole People of God in the life and mission of the Church. Synodality speaks a different voice. As Phyllis Zagano reported in Religion News Service on August 17th: “The synod is a worldwide event, and early reports from bishops’ conferences outside the U.S. repeat the same story: Clericalism is a scourge on the church, and women are not respected or included in leadership.”

  • Jack

Conflict and Polarization

Polarization is certainly not limited just to the United States. Political and religious leaders in India, in Poland, and in Turkey, by way of examples, have relentlessly inflamed national divisions by demonizing their opponents and curtailing democratic processes. But the United States is polarizing much faster than other democracies.

The contemporary USA is a deeply divided country. The extreme U.S. religious and political polarization leads us to ask very basic questions. What long-term effects will polarized politics and religion have on U.S. society and democracy? Is there a tipping point beyond which polarization passes a point of no return? Journalist, Tom McTague, pointedly observed in the August 8th Atlantic “Yet everywhere you turn, there is a sense that the U.S. is in some form of terminal decline; too divided, incoherent, violent, and dysfunctional to sustain its Pax Americana.” The November 2022 midterm elections will be a very significant indicator of where we are going. Some of my European friends asked me recently if the U.S. is headed for another civil war. The country is certainly much more polarized than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (April 12, 1861 – April 9, 1865).

There is no need for me today to repeat accounts of religious and political polarization. It is in the news everyday. Reactions to the August 8th FBI investigative raid on the former US president’s Mar-a-Lago residence is a good example. As an older Catholic, I am still thinking about the Jesuit middle school in Worcester, Massachusetts, that had its Catholic status revoked by the local bishop who was angry that the school defied his order to stop flying flags supporting LGBTQ pride and Black Lives Matter. Stop flying flags that support discriminated people?

What is missing in so much of today’s polarized religious and political rhetoric is a focus on basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. Listening to the other side. Telling the truth. Being honest. Loving neighbors as ourselves. Welcoming the worn out, the lonely, and the downtrodden. And recognizing that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have innate dignity and deserve to be treated with kindness, affirmation, and respect. 

A big problem is what social scientists call “affective polarization.” We see it when people have strong FEELINGS about people based on political, ideological, racial, religious, or gender issues. They don’t just disagree but detest, distrust, and strive to eliminate them. Often with hatred and violence. They find support in contemporary mass media which is better at stimulating feelings than passing-on objective facts. The emotional language used to galvanize one side directly antagonizes the other. 

In far-right political propaganda today, what really matters is spin. Not facts or history or justice. Interestingly Ezra Klein, the young U.S. journalist and political analyst, observed that the introduction of Fox News appears roughly consistent with the acceleration of the growth in affective polarization during the 1990s. (Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized, was published by Simon & Schuster in January 2020. His perspective is that over the past fifty years in the United States, partisan identities have merged with racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities are tearing apart the bonds that hold the country together.)

History shows that highly charged affective polarization not only divides societies but leads to social chaos. Today the “I’m right, you’re wrong and evil” thinking is pervasive. When partisanship becomes equated with patriotism, and destroying the other side becomes the ultimate goal, democracies fall apart. 

Authoritarian “leaders” take advantage of social chaos and respond to it by taking control to re-establish  “good order.” But the authoritarian institution or government maintains good order by demanding strict discipline and unquestioned submission and obedience. Authoritarian regimes require, as well, a beguiling leader who has absolute authority. This is the concept of the Führerprinzip, “the leadership principle” in German. There are ample contemporary examples of such beguiling leaders in religions and civil society. The leaders insist of course that it is disloyal to criticize the leader. People who refuse to submit to authoritarian leaders are ostracized or simply eliminated. Usually some form of physical violence is necessary to suppress anyone who stands outside the approved and obedient group.

So what do we do?

Here are my brief suggestions for combating polarization. You may have your own suggestions.

  • Being good listeners.
  • Most people do not listen well. They only passively listen while thinking about something unrelated. Or they listen only long enough to plan what they want to say. But we need to truly listen to understand a person’s reasons for thinking other than we do. We need to ask non-judgmental and open-ended questions. Understanding breeds empathy and even respect. It may not always be easy. But we have to work at building bridges.
  • Not using denigrating language.
  • This becomes especially important, for example, when telling jokes. Many jokes use violent or dehumanizing rhetoric by suggesting that certain people are stupid or inferior. Denigrating people is not funny. The dumb blond jokes? The Jewish jokes? The Polish Jokes? Or the Stupid Republican jokes? Or the Subversive Democrat jokes?
  • Examine and question feelings of superiority over other people.
  • This can happen in parish or neighborhood discussion groups. A U.S. Catholic priest friend, by way of example, set up a Lenten discussion program for his parish titled “Listening to the Other.” He had a different presenter each week. Among those whom he invited were:  a Lutheran minister, a Catholic woman priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, and a representative from DignityUSA the Catholic organization that works for respect and justice for LGBTQ people. The final “Listening to the Other” event was a prayer service in which all of the presenters had key roles. 
  • Decide to be part of the solution.
  • We really do have to decide to be part of the solution. When questioned, we can explain why we think the way we do and respectfully ask others why they think the way they do. We need to be open-minded and admit that we too can be wrong or mistaken. Sometimes we may have to agree to disagree. But one can disagree respectfully without bashing the other. We do have an obligation to collaborate and build bridges for the common good. The destructive consequences of polarization are too great.
  • Using social media wisely.
  • Considering the contemporary revolution in communication technology, social media may have done more to promote taking sides than seeing the world through the eyes of another. If we use social media, we can work to promote a kinder and more honest social media. We can  encourage Facebook friends, for example, to remove inaccurate information or denigrating or hateful images. Just “unfollowing” or “unfriending” someone is no solution. We need to discuss our objections and then decide how to deal with them in a constructive way. 
  • Focus on facts not feelings.
  • Polarization is often more emotional than factual. Feelings are a poor source for factual information. For example, the ramifications of the historic megadrought happening in the U.S. right now are getting increasingly serious. Research published in the February 14, 2022 issue of the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that the past two decades in the U.S. Southwest have been the driest period in 1,200 years. And France today is experiencing its most severe drought in its recorded history. Nevertheless, too many people still FEEL that climate change is just a temporary phenomenon and that global warming is a leftist hoax. Polarized people tend to have distorted feelings as well about who makes up the other party or the other religious group. They support and believe untruthful stereotypes about “the other.” Are all Republicans stupid? All Democrats dangerous leftists? All Mexicans drug dealers? All Catholic priests pedophiles? 
  • Check perspectives and judgmental thinking about others.
  • Helping people to look at a disliked person or group in an empathetic way can reduce malicious beliefs about them. Perspective is important. Jesus of Nazareth, for example, was not a white European but a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Hebrew. His disciples were young men AND  women most probably under the age of eighteen. Jesus said nothing about someone being gay. I remember a fellow, who was strongly anti-gay and said at a parish council meeting that gays who “came out” should not receive communion and should not be welcomed in the parish. He said “Gays are immoral and unclean. We don’t want them!” Well, a couple weeks after he had said that, his eighteen-year-old son told him that he was gay. The father came to me, teary-eyed and said “He used to be such a fine young man.” I said “Your son still is a fine young man. Don’t you love your son?” He said “Of course!” Then I said “Tell him you love him. Be supportive. Gay people are not defective. Some people are gay. Some people are straight. They all deserve love and respect. Human sexuality is complex.”
  • Be truth seekers.
  • It is absolutely essential to remember that no one has all the truth. No political party. No church. No theological group. No particular religion. Not even the Catholic Church. No particular country or nation. We are all truth seekers. We need to listen to the other. We need to be collaborative learners. We have to search along with “the other” as we build bridges across religious, ideological, and political divisions.

****

The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978) was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. She explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. A  broken femur that has healed, Mead said, is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.

May we be civilized in our polarized world. We don’t tear-down the house. We renovate. We  renew. If necessary we rebuild. Together we make constructive change happen.

  • Jack

“Chicago to Brussels”

(Main library KU Leuven)

This week a brief summer travel reflection…

At the end of June, on my way back to Belgium, I had a six hours layover in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Fortunately, they put me in a very comfortable waiting room, designed primarily for older people. I had just begun to read the Chicago Tribune when a lady, about my age, arrived and sat down directly across  from me. I said “good morning.” She smiled and said “yes, it is a lovely day.” I continued reading.

After about half an hour, I put down my newspaper. She immediately said “where are you going?” I said “Brussels, Belgium.” “0h!” she said “I know Brussels very well. I can tell you all about it because I have visited it at least seven times in the past forty years.” “That’s great,” I said and added, with a chuckle, “I know a lot about it as well. I have lived a few miles from Brussels for the past forty years.” “My, my” she said “you must speak French very well, because French is the national language of Belgium.” “I do” I said and added “but Belgium has three national languages: Dutch, French, and German. The primary language in Belgium is not French but Dutch, spoken by approximately 60% of the population. And my Dutch is very good.” “Well, well” she said “I hate to say this but you are a very ignorant man when it comes to languages in Belgium.” 

I was in no mood for a linguistic debate. I just politely smiled and ignored the lady. I grabbed my iPad to review an article and send a couple emails.

After almost an hour, she interrupted me again. This time she said “Well…” she stared at me with raised eyelids and said  “Well…if you think you know so much about languages in BELGIQUE– the French name for Belgium by the way — what do you do over there?” I smiled and said “I am a retired professor of theology from the Catholic University of Leuven.” “Oh my God!” she said, “I am a VERY good CATHOLIC! I know all about Louvain, what you call LEUVEN. It is a hotbed of leftist so-called-Catholics who are really heretics! Heretics!” I started to laugh and said “well at least then I am a happy and contented old heretic.” But, before she could could react, an attendant came to get her and take her for her flight to Atlanta. I wished her a pleasant flight. She went “humpf!” and disappeared.

A couple minutes later, a fellow from across the room started laughing. He then stood up and walked over to me and tapped my shoulder. “I like heretics” he said and he laughed some more. Then he told me, in Dutch,  that he was Belgian, a retired professor, and had lived close to Leuven for sixty years. We both had a good laugh. Then a young attendant came to get both of us, because it was time for us to board our plane for Brussels. 

About nine hours later, I was back home in Leuven – hardly anyone says “Louvain” these days — with its “KU Leuven” university. The “KU” stands for “Catholic University” in Dutch. The university’s legal name is  Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven, which translates in English as “Catholic University of Leuven.”

The KU Leuven will celebrate its 600th anniversary in 2025, making it one of Europe’s oldest universities. 

Our institution is the oldest university in the Low Countries and the oldest extant Catholic university in the world. The University was founded by Pope Martin V (1369 – 1431) on December 9, 1425, after the city of Leuven had requested permission for the foundation of the University. 

The University of Leuven initially comprised four faculties (divisions): humanities, church law, civil law, and medicine. In 1432, Pope Eugene IV (1383 – 1447) gave permission to add the faculty of theology. 

A little over a century after it was founded, the University already had about 2,000 students and more than than 200 of them came from abroad. The presence of great thinkers, like the humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536), was certainly part of the Leuven appeal. Erasmus spent several years in Leuven and though not a professor he actively contributed to the development of the University. In Leuven he promoted research in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in his College of Three Languages, the Collegium Trilingue, founded thanks to a bequest from his friend Hieronymus Busleyden (c. 1470-1517). 

Erasmus advocated the printing and publishing of Thomas More’s Utopia. That could not be done in  England. It was printed in Leuven in 1516 in the workshop of the printer and publisher Dirk Martens (1447 – 1534). His print shop (now a restaurant) was close to the University Hall, which is still the main administrative building for the KU Leuven. 

Towards the end of 1534, the twenty-two-year-old Gerardus Mercator (1512 – 1594) returned to Leuven – he had been a teenager in Leuven for a couple years — and threw himself into the study of geography, mathematics, and astronomy. He would later become the world-famous cartographer, most renowned for creating his 1569 world map, one of the most significant advances in the history of cartography.

Over the centuries, the Leuven University has continued, grounded in the humanities while exploring other scientific domains. I am thinking right now, for example, about the ground-breaking research of Leuven’s Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966), professor and priest. In 1927 Professor Lemaître’s explanation of the expanding universe greatly contributed to the theory of general relativity. Lemaître is now considered the founding father of the “Big Bang theory,” which in 1931 he called the universe’s expansion from the “Primeval Atom.”

Today’s KU Leuven ranks among the top 10 universities in Europe and consistently ranks among the top 100 universities in the world. It has close to sixty thousand students and has 24 libraries and learning centers across its 12 campuses, containing millions of books and other media. Its theology library alone holds 1.3 million volumes, including 1200 manuscripts and 702 works printed before before 1501.

Leuven’s Faculty of Theology and Religions Studies is anchored in the historical-critical approach to theology: trying to understand the world behind the biblical and theological texts. Leuven theologians played a key role in the deliberations at Vatican II, the Second Vatican Council which met from October 11, 1962 to December 8, 1965. (I arrived in Leuven for the first time in September 1965. But returned a few years later to complete my doctorate.)

Leuven theologians – who were my professors in the 1960s — exerted a decisive influence on a number of Second Vatican Council  documents, including the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, and particularly the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

True to the spirit of the Council, in the years following Vatican II the university’s theologians have maintained active dialogue with philosophers, sociologists, scientists, and others who study our contemporary human condition. They ask questions. They are open to change and to new understandings. But, really, they are not heretics. They strive to develop a theological language faithful to tradition and realistically in touch with the mentality and situation of contemporary people and times.

Today the women and men, who are today’s Leuven theologians, work energetically to make room for broad approaches to Christian understanding and to other religious traditions. In their research and teaching, they stress getting to know other religious traditions through ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and research. I consider them energetic explorers on the theological landscape. 

In the last few years, the number of KU Leuven international students has increased significantly. Today’s Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies enjoys a broad range of contacts with international theological researchers and institutions. (I am currently on a committee working to set up scholarships for foreign theology students.)

And so… this week just a bit of the “heretic’s” personal journey “Chicago to Brussels” and his being back home in Leuven.

  •  Jack