Order, Disorder, Reconfiguration


Confronted with an ongoing Covid-19 & DELTA pandemic, life-endangering anti-vaxxers, and far right agitators, many people today feel both confused and powerless. They find it much easier to look for someone to blame when they see no coherent meaning or divine purpose in the world. Perhaps it comes as no big surprise that the religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid pace. The big loser is institutional Christianity: Catholicism in first place but Protestantism as well. The basic explanation is lost credibility. In the church increasing numbers of people find less support and meaning.

Tucker Carlson of Fox News has led the anti-vaxxer charge among the right-wing set, ignoring the fact that 99.5% of those people who died of COVID-19 in the last six months were unvaccinated. Far too many disoriented people are reverting to the mythic “good old days” or, even worse, to racism, xenophobia, and white Christian nationalism. Consider QAnon, which has shifted from being an Internet message board hoax to becoming a quasi-religion. QAnon offers its followers convenient explanations for their social anxieties as well as evil villains to blame. Some QAnon cultists claim to be Evangelical followers of Christ. But QAnon beliefs and behavior are totally incompatible with healthy and authentic Christianity.

Patriotism has become divisive rather than inclusive. The spread of violence throughout society is frightening. In my favorite US city, Chicago, over the 2021 Fourth of July weekend, at least 100 people were shot, including five children age 13 and younger. 

Last week closer to my current home, dikes broke and raging rivers burst through their banks in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany: killing people, submerging towns, leaving all of us shellshocked at the intensity of the destruction. Now the big clean-up….Not far from my house a dike needs to be rebuilt.

In my US homeland last week, the northern Rocky Mountains were bracing for another heat wave, as wildfires spread across 12 states in the US American West. We seem neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor able to live with it. Too many people still say that climate change is a myth created by liberals. “Truth” often becomes unrelenting rhetoric.

Perhaps we need to teach and relearn the wisdom of life. We are now facing a crisis of meaning. Our world seems so complex. We seem so small. Historically, Modernism, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, believed that reality is ordered. Times changed. Postmodernism, in the mid-to-late 20th century, proclaimed there is no order at all. 

We are now moving into post-Postmodernism. People are searching for values and for authenticity. We are entering a new age. Living in a transitional age can be scary. It can lead to cynicism, anxiety, and pandemic violence. But it can also be a hopeful time. New avenues? New perspectives? The  writer Linda Kinstler asked in The New York Times this week: “Can Silicon Valley Find God?” Many people, actually, would like to find God.

As an older student of history, I am convinced that one of the greatest qualities we must bring to the present malaise is a sense of history. Extremes, good times, and bad times have been interwoven throughout history. During the best of times, they balanced each other. We are not in that balance today. The opposing players in our highly polarized society are incapable of self-criticism or appreciating the other players. Does humility still exist? Many people feel that the traditional institutions in our society are impotent and incapable of communicating believable patterns of wisdom and truth. 

A power and confidence vacuum has opened the doors for the far right to seize and exploit the language of religion. That is not a very good position from which to proclaim the Good News of Jesus the Christ. As a Catholic I often feel that the church tries to speak the Gospel but church structures have remained monarchical and unaccountable. Most often, when confronting serious problems like clerical sexual abuse, it still adheres to policies promoting secrecy and protecting the church’s reputation. No. I am not anti-Catholic; but I often have to remind people of that, because some find it so convenient to label and box me in. Ignorant arrogance. 

The church should first of all listen to the Gospel: “Put new wine in fresh wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17). Authentic Christianity is not passive but active. It is not secretive but out in the open. It is energetic and alive, helping people move beyond despair, by providing credible and supportive help and guidance.

Time for rebuilding. We need new imagination and new configurations. We need to remember that Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to reform religion. It is still an ongoing process. Disorder is only a temporary stage calling for reconstruction. Sometimes I think that even though the church proclaims the Christ, it is, in fact, afraid of Christ. I call it self-protective institutional idolatry. 

As the Franciscan spiritual guide, Fr. Richard Rohr (b. 1943), stresses in his book The Wisdom Pattern, reconstruction — transformation — has to be based on a positive and fully human experience of God as a loving Presence. “When religion is punitive and acts as if it can lead someone to God through threat and coercion,” Richard stresses “this is junk religion.” Just like junk food, it only gratifies momentary desires but feeds neither the intellect nor the heart. And it contributes to more hatred and violence.

Next week I would like to continue this reflection under the theme of “transformation.”

  • Jack

Christianity and LGBTQ Issues

LGBTQ issues today are raising hopes for some Christians as well as anguish, confusion, and anger for others. 

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted, in the past decade, to allow the ordination of LGBTQ people, to permit the performing of same-sex marriages in church buildings by Presbyterian ministers, and to advocate for equal rights in church and society for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

The Episcopal Church in the United States has allowed gay marriage since 2015 and is open and welcoming to the LGBTQ community. 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has passed repeated resolutions to welcome LGBTQ people since 1991.

In fact, a growing number of organized religious groups in the United States have issued statements officially welcoming LGBTQ people as members and extending marriage rites to them.

In my Catholic tradition, there is now a mixed LGBTQ message for sure. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated in 1992, characterizes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and “acts of grave depravity” contrary to natural law. In March 2021 the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), stressed again that Catholic clergy may not bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.” The CDF statement was approved by Pope Francis. 

Bryan Massingale, an openly gay Catholic priest and professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University, said priests who want to engage in pastoral outreach to the gay and lesbian community “will continue to do so, except that it will be even more under the table … than it was before.”

Pope Francis, over the years, has sent ambivalent LGBTQ messages. In July 2013, on his flight back from Brazil, when asked about gay priests during a spontaneous exchange with the press, he responded, “If they [gay priests] accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” Nevertheless, a Vatican decree on training for Roman Catholic priests in 2016 stressed the obligation of sexual abstinence, as well as barring gay men and those who support “gay culture” from holy orders. In May 2018 Pope Francis told the Italian bishops to carefully evaluate priesthood applicants and to reject anyone suspected of being homosexual.

In December 2018, Pope Francis expressed his deep concern about what he described as the “serious issue” of homosexuality, saying that being gay is a “fashion” to which the clergy is susceptible. Speaking about candidates for priesthood, he said: “The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates….In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the church.”

In the 2018 book The Strength of a Vocation, by Pope Francis and Fernando Prado, Francis considers gay clergy “a very serious issue.” He further emphasizes: “In consecrated and priestly life, there is no room for that kind of affection. Therefore, the church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life.” Nevertheless, in a handwritten letter dated June 21, 2021, Pope Francis praised and thanked the Rev. James Martin —  Jesuit priest and author, and high-profile LGBTQ advocate – for reaching out to LGBTQ Catholics. 

As a positive development, in July 2021, one of Germany’s most senior Catholic bishops, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster, has called for an official Catholic Church apology for the way its pronouncements “over years and decades” have deeply hurt homosexuals.

When asked recently about gay priests in the United States, Fr. James Martin, replied: “I think that if you had suddenly all the gay priests in the United States come out, I think the Church would be forced to look at the question of homosexuality in a very different light.” When asked how many priests are gay, he replied  “I’m guessing maybe 40 percent. Who knows?….If it was 40%, I wouldn’t be surprised; if it was 80%, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a retired Catholic bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit, has consistently been a supporter of New Ways Ministry for LGBTQ Catholics and  has also called for homosexual priests and bishops to “come out” and be truthful to themselves and others. 

A friend reprimanded me recently for being LGBTQ supportive, stressing that I apparently ignore “the clear condemnations of homosexual behavior in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.” I suggested to him that I am not ignoring Sacred Scripture and that historical consciousness is particularly important in drawing biblical conclusions. I find it impossible to agree that the texts so often used to assert the immorality of homosexual acts are unambiguous and provide solid foundations for condemning same-sex behavior.

In determining contemporary moral values and behavior, a realistic understanding of human life requires an historically conscious worldview, because human reality is dynamic, evolving, and changing. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science. People do not always apply this to moral values. As our human understanding develops and changes, so too do our human concepts, theories, and courses of action. This is not a matter of relativism but of changing human perspectives. There is indeed a human thread from generation to generation that links faith and moral values. People in every age reflect, evaluate, and interpret that faith and moral values tradition in terms of their contemporary culture and understanding.

When people determine moral obligations from “nature,” they are really deriving them from their human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law”and “human nature” is that our understanding of human sexuality – with its biological, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual dimensions — has developed historically and it continues to develop. I learned this years ago from my  Louvain (Leuven) professor, Louis Janssens (1908 – 2001), founder of the Louvain tradition of personalism. Janssens made an original contribution to the study of the human person through the approach which he coined as “the human person adequately considered.”

Personalist moral philosophers and theologians stress that the old “traditional” biological and strictly physicalist understanding of traditional natural law and human “nature” must be transformed into a contemporary personalist, relational understanding. The former defines the morality of acts based only on the physical, biological structure of those acts. The latter defines the morality of acts based on the meaning of those acts for persons and relationships. Marital sexuality in a personalist relational understanding, for example, is about much more than simply linking genitalia to produce progeny.

The ethical criterion for human choices and actions therefore is the extent to which these choices and actions respect and enhance a person’s living together in time and space, in all the many different dimensions of a person’s life world and life history: familial, social, material, environmental, spiritual, physical, and psychological. The human person adequately considered.

What did the historical Jesus say about sex? A strong case can be made that Jesus did not directly discuss sexual activity at all. The biblical record is totally silent about his attitudes towards the sexually-related religious controversies of the present day: equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, transgender, etc. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL human actions.

Now, I return again to those “homosexuality texts” in the Bible. The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament condemn homosexual acts is shaped by the socio-historical conditions of the times in which they were written. Probably the most influential Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) text leading to the condemnation of homosexual acts is the interpretation given to the biblical story of Sodom in the Book of Genesis. Scholars agree that contextual exegesis shows that the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story is not accurate and that the sin in both the Hebrew text and its literary context is the sin of inhospitality. 

As far as the New Testament is concerned, the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans has been seen traditionally as the New Testament’s clearest condemnation of same-sex relations – both male and female. Recent scholarship, however, suggests a different interpretation. Paul, the religious Hebrew, is looking at life in the capital of Greco-Roman culture. Homosexuality itself is not the focus of his condemnation. Rather, Paul’s criticism falls upon paganism’s refusal to acknowledge the true God. Paul, actually, probably did not understand a homosexual orientation. A number of contemporary highly respected biblical scholars suggest in fact that Paul struggled personally with his own “thorn in the flesh” — his own same-sex desires. 

I strongly resonate with those moral theologians who state very simply that homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. In today’s churches we need to sit down face-to-face and dialogue about this.

To some extent we are all involved in what I call a process of moral conversion: progressively understanding the present situation, exposing and eradicating our individual and societal biases, constantly evaluating our scales of preferred values, paying attention to criticism, and listening to others. 

Human change and growth can and do happen for the human person adequately considered.

  • Jack

Identity and Equality

This week end no more reflections about Jack the historical  theologian. Today you find my post-Fourth of July reflection about identity and social trends in US society.

Although I currently live abroad, I am still very much a born-in-Michigan patriotic US citizen; and for many years now, my academic research and teaching have focused on religion and values in US society. I still work hard to stay up to date, through research visits (limited most recently by Covid-19) and close contact with research institutes and historians.

These days I also have a different US vocabulary than a few years ago. Not everyone agrees with my position, but I try to refrain from speaking and writing about “Americans” when the focus is clearly about “US Americans.” I see it as an important identity issue for all Americans, because ALL people born in North and South America, from Canada to Argentina, are “Americans.” I am a US American and have friends in Canada and Mexico who are Americans. 

Changes in the words and phrases we use to describe each other reflect whatever progress we make on the path toward a world where everyone feels respected and included. 

In language usage, we change and grow. Years ago in my Catholic elementary school, Sister Stella Maris told our class one day that the world had two kinds of Christians: “Catholics” who have “the one true faith” and “Non-Catholics” who think they do but actually are “defective” believers. Then she told me – in front of the class – that it was very sad that my mother was Catholic but my father was a “Non-Catholic defective believer.” Later I told my father what had happened in school. With a short expletive he quickly replied: “Stella is nuts. Your mother is a Catholic Christian and I am a Protestant Christian. Neither of us is defective. We just have different traditions.”

Well, times do change. One very positive result of the liturgical reforms from the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) is that Catholic Christians and mainline Protestant Christians now share almost the same readings of the Word of God on the same Sunday, or at least the same Gospel.

Words, perceptions, and realities. What strikes me about US society today is how much it has changed in the last fifty years. Part of the tension and polarization in the contemporary United States comes from the tremendous growth of a multiracial and multicultural USA. White Christian nationalism is a backlash to this, but it will not change the demographic reality. The USA is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white, Christian nation; and the  United States will continue moving along the multiracial and multicultural roadway. The USA Census Bureau has made it official: White births are no longer a majority in the United States. A good book to read in connection with this is The End of White Christian America  by Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. 

And the United States and US Americans need to adjust to how dramatically the world has changed in just the past 20 years. On Thursday, July 8th, President Biden announced that the US war in Afghanistan, “the military mission of the United States,” will end on August 31, 2021.

That “military mission” began in October 2001, to go after Taliban terrorists. Today, as US Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas  have  stressed, the terrorism danger in the United States is homegrown and comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.” Issues of identity and equality for  sure.

Some observers also suggest that contemporary US Americans are facing a new generational conflict, in which young people think the old have sold them out; and the old think the young are arrogant and foolish. I am still wondering about that. In general, these days, I tend to be rather positive about young people.

Recognizing and accepting one’s socio-cultural identity, however, is not always easy and painless. There is a current movement in US society to neither teach nor speak about troubling or painful identity issues. As of the end of June 2021, nine US states have passed “divisive concepts” laws. Seventeen more states are considering passing similar laws. 

“Divisive concepts” laws are attempts to control how teachers talk about issues of race, sex, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin. The assertion is that such discussions are “divisive.” These laws promote a distorted understanding of reality. Regardless of political identity, age, race, gender or education level, these so-called “divisive concepts” do in fact provide essential historic information. They are appropriate and should be part of every school curriculum. Teaching should be broad-minded and honest.

The “divisive concepts” laws are about more than just schools of course. They contribute to the destruction of accurate history. They shape self-determination and restrict one’s freedom to make good decisions about his, her, or their life.

This past Fourth of July weekend I read a fascinating book, America in Crisis and Renewal, by George Parker, staff writer at The Atlantic. The book is provocative in every good sense of the word. It is short and to the point. Whether one agrees with him or not, Parker asks the right questions.

Parker’s main observation is that, in the post-Trump era, US inequality has undermined the common faith that US citizens need to create a successful multi-everything democracy. 

What we now have in the USA, according to Parker, is a “cold civil war” between four incompatible narratives that now dominate US life: (1) “Free US America,” which imagines a nation of separate individuals and serves the interests of corporations and the wealthy; (2)  “Smart US America,” the world view of Silicon Valley and the professional elite; (3) “Real US America,” the white Christian nationalism of the heartland; and (4) “Just US America,” which sees citizens as members of identity groups that inflict or suffer oppression.

Packer stresses that none of these narratives can sustain a truly well-functioning democracy. Indicating a more hopeful way forward, he looks for a common US identity and finds it in the US passion for equality, what he calls “the hidden code” that US Americans of diverse persuasions have in fact long maintained. How to achieve that is the contemporary problem. 

All four narratives, Parker suggests, have emerged from the United States’ failure to enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years as a multi-everything democracy. All four narratives respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks values  that the others have. But the narratives still divide us up, pitting tribe against tribe. These divisions impoverish each narrative and create ever more extreme version of each. More polarization.

So how do we interpret this today? At the heart of contemporary US divisions are almost fifty years of rising inequality and declining social mobility. US citizens tolerate more economic inequality than citizens of any other modern democracy. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. It is also one of the most unequal. According to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, income inequality in the United States is highest of all the G7 nations. 

Education is not equal in the United States. Educational inequality contributes to a number of broader US problems, including income inequality and expanding prison populations. A number of studies have found that US states are spending less money on students from low-income communities than they are on students from high-income communities. Students from minority backgrounds, immigrant origins, and economically disadvantaged families leave school earlier. They receive fewer degrees and certificates; and they exhibit lower academic skills than their more privileged peers.

There must be changes at the US national and individual citizen levels: in economic structures, in education for all, and in habits of thinking and acting. An economy for truly equal US Americans is one that gives everyone a chance not just to survive but to live and participate with dignity. Human dignity.

Packer says again: “Schools that congratulate themselves on achieving numerical diversity, while they sink into intellectual mediocrity, degrade the value of equality and merit.” We need to reexamine and revamp education at all levels. When  curiosity dies, when the quest for knowledge dies, when the desire to see beyond the obvious dies… what more remains to struggle and live for.

Creating the conditions of equality requires new structures and new policies — new ways of thinking and living.

  • We need journalism that is independent and imaginative enough to go to places that Mark Zuckerberg and Fox News never see. And never care about.
  • We need citizens who can listen to one another respectfully while thinking for themselves. We need correct information not fabricated news and “reality.” We need critical thinking and education that passes on critical thinking skills. Just because something appears on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean it is true and accurate. There is helpful and good information on the Internet. But there is also a bundle of pure nonsense and phony information, presented as “truth.”

The document of  July 4th 1776 is memorable and remarkable in many ways. Now two hundred and forty-five years later we need not just to read it again but to implement it in its fullness.

ALL people are created equal: men and women; indigenous peoples and immigrants; gay, trans, and straight people; Nones, Muslims, Jews, and Christians; yellow, black, and white people. ALL have dignity. We are all human, we are born with certain inherent, natural, and unalienable rights. Those rights include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” No one is born with a natural right to rule over others without their consent.

This applies to governments and to churches as well. In my religious tradition, equality is often not considered a virtue….but that is a discussion for another day. Jesus, fortunately, was not that way. He is our hope, our guide, and our inspiration. 

We can and we must build communities which enable us, in the words of Sr. Joan Chittister in a July 8th NCR article, to “learn from the other what we do not know and to supply for the other what they need. We are there to do together what we cannot possibly do alone — which means come to the depth of ourselves and the growth of the world around us, both psychologically and spiritually. We are there to go beyond our self-centeredness to the gift of self-giving and immersion in the presence of God.”

  • Jack

Being an Historical Theologian

On numerous occasions, people have asked me for a reflection about my life as an historical theologian. On June 26th my wife and I celebrated our 51st wedding anniversary. Maybe now is a good time.

History examines the evidence of the past; but the process is not so simple. There are facts and there are beliefs which are not always based on factual reality. I remember my excitement, now many years ago, when as a young man I visited Germany’s Cologne Cathedral and stood before the “Tomb of the Three Magi.” Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 to house these important relics. In my later education, however, I learned that there could be old bones in the ornate Cologne reliquary, but the “Three Magi” story is more post-Constantine mythology than historic fact.

History and facts. History and truth. Today of course there are big questions about history and truth. Right now almost two-thirds of US Republicans believe that the 2020 presidential election of Joseph Biden was “stolen.” And a quarter of those people believe that our world is run by Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Documentation? Truth?

I remember the US astronomer and author, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996), writing a year before he died: “when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority, (with)……critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

Are we now in a post-truth state of mind? Certainly the internet is a goldmine of information as well as a minefield of misinformation and distortion. Facebook and Twitter are hardly the sources of always reliable truthful statements. What are the criteria for making reliable judgments about truthfulness? I look for reliable reporters, trustworthy news sources, and well-documented reports. I don’t trust undocumented reports. Primary sources are crucial. We need to discern and help people discern the difference between fabricated stories and reality. We need to steer clear of fake history and fake news, but it is not always easy.

My own truth-seeking journey has taken a number of turns. As a small child I was a curious research examiner. One of my first explorations, when I was about four years old, was taking a small screw driver and tearing apart my Dad’s pocket watch to see how it worked. As an adolescent I tore apart old telephones, radios, old clocks, etc. My Dad thought that was fine as long as I didn’t touch his watch. I was good at taking things apart. Reassembly was more difficult. But I could see how things worked. Or used to work.

In high school and college, I spent eight years – 180 miles from my home — at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. The country boy became quickly urbanized, and his intellectual and socio-cultural world expanded tremendously. In high school I reached the point at which I could write a term paper in Latin. I then moved on to learn Greek and Spanish. I studied German for a year but couldn’t warm up to it. I also learned how to play the seminary pipe organ, with hands AND feet. It felt great. If he could have seen me, Bach would probably have laughed.

Seminary was a new world of experiences. I got used to showering every day with a bunch of naked guys but never found it a turn on. I did wonder however about some of my fellow students who had very strong “particular friendships.” Some of those guys were also among those seminarians who mysteriously disappeared, usually while the rest of us were at morning prayer and mass. After breakfast we would  see their clothes lockers open and empty. In the dormitories even their beds would disappear.

Philosophy intrigued me, especially existentialism. The search for the authentic. I had to study Thomas Aquinas of course but read as much as I could about  Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980). At the same time I was very religious. My classmates called me “Pious Dick.” I resonated with William James (1842 – 1910) and his The Varieties of Religious Experience. In many ways I was – for a while — a Catholic fundamentalist. I had questions but my spiritual director stressed that I should never question and never doubt. Those questions would later bombard me. 

In the 1960s the “generation gap” was also very real for me. I was strongly opposed to the then developing US involvement in Vietnam. My parents supported US engagement. At one point my parents feared I was  becoming a “pinko,”  a communist like so many “university people.” It was all so very strange. My parents were alert and well-read people. Their WWII history played a big role here as well. They later saw the foolishness of the US war in Vietnam. Difficult times. Many of my friends died in Vietnam. I saw them as victims not heroes. Their parents thought I had betrayed them. Deep wounds last a long time. The Vietnam War, from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, tore the US apart much more than the nineteenth century Civil War.

When I graduated from college, my bishop, who had gone to The American College seminary in Belgium at The Catholic University of Louvain (founded 1425) sent me to Louvain, better known today as Leuven. For me it was a tremendous  eye-opening and mind-expanding experience. My Dad would often comment, with a chuckle, in later years: “Jack was never the same after Louvain.”  I began to question everything. It began in my first year when a dogma professor, Gustave Thils (1909 – 2000),  asked: “If tomorrow archeologists in Jerusalem would find the bones of the historical Jesus, would that destroy your belief in the Resurrection?” I thought it would, but asked him how he would answer that question. He said: “Of course not….Resurrection is not resuscitation.” 

And so the questions began. It was in December of my second year in Louvain (1966) that the British theologian Charles Davis (1923 – 1999), whom I greatly respected, announced he was leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Davis explained that the church had become too powerful and too dehumanizing: “a vast, impersonal, unfree, and inhuman system.” I went back to Professor Thils. I told him how upset and how very sad I was and that I had always considered Father Charles Davis an excellent theologian. Thils smiled and said: “Yes and he still is an excellent theologian.”

Gradually I also came to a better understanding of “faith” as it appears in the Bible. It means first and foremost trust and confidence in God. That understanding of faith still sustains me.

After three years in major seminary, and just one year away from priesthood ordination, I decided I wanted to become a non-ordained theologian and did not want to spend my life as a celibate priest. I informed my bishop. He was not happy. A couple of his priest friends sent me advice-letters to help me “think more clearly” about my vocation. They stressed that many married men were basically unhappy and that even as a priest there would always be ways for me to “have sex” when I “needed it.” I was disappointed and angry; and I was amazed that they could be so blind to human love and intimacy. I wrote back to the chief letter writer that love and marriage were much more than just having sex “when one needed it.” 

With the friendly help and support of professors Gustave Thils, in Louvain, and Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) at the University of Nijmegen, I began my journey toward becoming an historical theologian. I have never had any regrets. 

In Louvain my classes were in French. Going to Nijmegen, however, I had to learn Dutch. I went to a Dutch language school and there I met a charming young teacher, who has now been my teacher and loving wife for more than 51 years. A remarkable human journey.

Historical theologians ask what was the life experience and belief of people back then and how do we best understand that today. One has to distinguish fact from folklore, fake news, and fantasy. One has to understand the local cultures and languages that shaped people’s understandings.

Doing historical research it is also important to understand that those who report “facts” often report just the facts they want people to know. They narrate only part of the story. Recent contemporary and unsettling revelations about the fate of Indigenous children in Canada certainly show a selective presentation of Canadian history. Critical and careful historians need to consult and report many voices from various points of view. Even when unpleasant and disheartening.

Historical narratives are often interpretive narratives. What, for example, relatives in Michigan call the “Civil war” is what my relatives in Virginia call the “War Between the States” and the “War for Southern Independence.” Those narratives shape perceptions of truth and shape what and how people think and believe.

I have done a lot of genealogical research about my paternal family line. I discount much family folklore, because it is often a confusing mismatch of facts and fantasy. I rely on birth records, marriage records, property deeds, last wills and testaments, etc. I have documentation and know that a couple of my gr gr grandfathers were slave owners in Virginia. No historic records told me, however, that my gr gr grandfather, John Dick (1787 – 1865), had at least one Afro-American mistress. I discovered the truth about him when I discovered an Afro-American relative who was also doing genealogical research. Her gr gr grandfather was also my gr gr grandfather John Dick. DNA research confirmed the family link. She sent me photos of her family….all very, very dark. When I mentioned this to my white Virginia relatives, they said “well yes he had a slave lover but we did not want to mention that.” Historical narratives are often interpretive narratives. And DNA research greatly helps one find genealogical truth.

Historical theologians need to listen to all versions of what happened and then make wise decisions about what is truthful. It is not always easy.

Historical theologians need to be attentive as well to the role played by myth in religious history. Not all religious narratives are strict historical narratives. Prime examples are the “Infancy Narratives” found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Here myth is used to convey theological belief about Jesus Christ. In the Hebrew Scriptures of course we find religious myths about Adam and Eve and of course Noah and the great flood. A few years ago, one of my relatives sent me a photo of a chunk of wood which she said was part of Noah’s Ark. I asked her if she also had photos of the six years old George Washington chopping his mythological cherry tree. No response. These days we don’t talk about religion anymore….

There is absolutely no scientific evidence that Noah’s Ark ever existed as it is described in the Bible. There is also no evidence of a great global flood. Most scientists agree, in fact, that it would be impossible. About George Washington, the cherry tree myth and other myths about him were invented by the nineteenth century traveling minister and bookseller Mason Locke Weems (1759 – 1825).

Myth and understanding the use of myth is important. Some myths are pure fantasy. Other myths do convey human and religious values. I find it too bad that the word “myth” is too often understood negatively. 

Historians should pursue serious open-minded research, in conversation with other historians. When they discover falsehood or purveyors of falsehood they need to report that as well. And…if and when historians make mistakes they need to humbly acknowledge that. Some historians are bright people but they are not infallible.

When it comes to the history of Christianity, I do have a recommendation, for those looking for a reliable history. It is A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by the British church  historian Diarmaid MacCulloch (b 1951). The book begins – for important background information — a thousand years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford.

In his Introduction, Diarmaid MacCulloch writes: “There are two thousand years’ worth of Christian stories to tell …. I have given the book a subtitle which invites the reader to consider whether Christianity has a future (the indications, it must be said, can hardly be other than affirmative); yet it also points to the fact that what became Christian ideas have a human past in the minds of people who lived before the time of Jesus Christ. As well as telling stories, my book asks questions. It tries to avoid giving too many answers, since this habit has been one of the great vices of organized religion.”

And so we continue our historical explorations, with faith, moving ever closer to ultimate truth.

  • Jack

Catholic Bishops Dysfunctional and Polarized

In what many observers see as a growing episcopal polarization, the US Catholic bishops, the USCCB, in their 2021 spring meeting, voted to advance their  “Communion document.” The draft document passed by 75% of the bishops’ conference advances a push by conservative US bishops to deny President Biden communion because of his support for abortion rights.

The action was both expected and problematic. The USCCB approved on June 18, 2021 plans to draft a document addressing communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians, delivering an extraordinary rebuke to the Vatican’s attempts to slow the process and avoid attempts to adjust the church’s sacraments for partisan aims. 

The promised document marks the culmination of efforts that began in November 2020, days after the election of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the second Catholic US president, who also, like the first, John F. Kennedy, supports abortion rights. Biden has strongly asserted that he is personally opposed to abortion. US Catholic bishops appear blind to that reality.

The USCCB decision drew immediate criticism from 60 Catholic Democrats in Congress, who urged the bishops “to not move forward and deny this most holy of all sacraments” and who challenged the bishops by outlining their own commitment to “making real the basic principles that are at the heart of Catholic social teaching.” 

The US bishops are expected to vote on the forthcoming statement in November 2021, ahead of the midterm elections, giving conservatives a tool to criticize Democratic politicians throughout the campaign cycle. Abortion has long been one of the most mobilizing political forces for the religious right. That subtext was made plain as the bishops debated the topic for more than two hours on Thursday, June 17, 2021. “I can’t help but wonder if the years 2022 and 2024 might be part of the rush,” observed Bishop Robert M. Coerver of Lubbock, Texas. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington and the nation’s first African-American cardinal, has made it abundantly clear that he does not support denying communion to President Biden. 

The USCCB’s move to target the current US president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a lifetime steeped in Catholic religious practices, is striking coming from leaders of the president’s own faith. It is particularly striking considering that a great many conservative bishops had turned a blind eye to the sexual improprieties of former President Donald J. Trump because they supported his political agenda. It reveals an American Catholicism highly politically polarized . In the 2020 US presidential election, according to AP VoteCast, 50% of US Catholics backed Donald Trump and 49% favored Joseph Biden. Interestingly, when it comes to abortion, more than half of US Catholics (56%) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The former US President was rhetorically anti-abortion but hardly pro-life. “Certainly, we know President Trump was a deeply amoral individual whose personal and political stances flew in the face of virtually everything the Catholic Church teaches,” said Maggie Siddiqi, senior director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. In the Trumpian days, I often found Catholic episcopal support for him from bishops like Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York, very strange and disconcerting. Well-documented allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, were repeatedly denied by Trump; but those charges did not bring any move against him from conservative Catholic bishops.

“There is a special obligation of those who are in leadership because of their public visibility” observed Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend last week. Bishop Rhoades was speaking about Mr. Biden not Mr.Trump. In 2016 in fact he strongly criticized the decision by the University of Notre Dame to honor Mr. Biden, then Vice President, for his “outstanding service to church and society.” Rhoades criticized Biden for his support for abortion rights and gay marriage in violation of church teaching.

Despite an intervention from the Vatican’s doctrinal office in May 2021, urging the US bishops to exercise “extensive and serene dialogue” on the matter and follow a process of consultation with Catholic politicians who disagree on matters of church teaching, the US bishops voted to advance the drafting of a document after two hours of virtual debate where more than 40 bishops spoke for and against the measure. The debate over the document underlines the level of division among the US bishops. The document, which the Vatican has already cautioned needed more time for dialogue and episcopal unity, will now require the support of two-thirds majority of bishops and the Vatican’s approval.

Over the past seven months, when it comes to their approach to President Joseph R. Biden, the US Catholic bishops have been in a state of open discord, among themselves as well as with the Vatican. They expressed no such criticism about the person and policies of the former US president Donald Trump. In fact, the President of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, issued an unprecedented 1,200-word statement on President Joseph Biden’s Inauguration Day that warned “our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils.”

The Vatican, however, marked President Biden’s inauguration with a customary telegram congratulating him and urging him to pursue policies “marked by authentic justice and freedom.” While some bishops praised Gomez’s narrow focus on abortion in his statement, other bishops, like Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, labeled the statement as “ill-considered.” 

Throughout the USCCB’s June 2021 three-day meeting, a few bishops insisted the proposed Communion document was directed toward neither a particular person nor a particular political party. Those claims, however, were repeatedly contradicted and undermined by several bishops who stressed that both President Biden’s and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s kind of Catholicism was why they believed the document was greatly needed right now.

Among those who strongly oppose the proposed USCCB document as well as who oppose denial of Communion to President Biden is Bishop John Stowe, of Lexington, Kentucky. Bishop Stowe summarized his position in a recent tweet: “There’s a reason the longstanding pastoral practice of the church is to presume people present themselves for Communion in good conscience. Jesus is at work in their lives in ways we will never know. We should reverence the mystery of God’s grace at work in every person and the gift of faith present in every heart that seeks him in the sacraments. Jesus is not a legalist. He never ceases to draw people to himself. His arms outstretched, on the cross and in the sacraments, are where the saving occurs.”

As a US Catholic and a Catholic historical theologian, it seems clear to me that President Biden has shown himself to be a man of deep faith. Unlike his presidential predecessor, he is indeed totally pro-life. I find the USCCB’s targeting of a US president who is a devout Catholic a very sad reality. Clearly the US Catholic bishops appear to have decided to hold President Biden responsible for his nuanced and precise abortion stance. In the process they further distance themselves from open-minded Catholics and further promote the growth of far-right Catholic fundamentalism. 

It is not the same thing but the current US bishops’ action reminds me of the historically wrong choices made by the Spanish bishops during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War. Then the bishops backed the wrong national leader because of his supposed anti-Communism. In reality the Spanish bishops tolerated horrible crimes against humanity by their cruel national leader Generalisimo Francisco Franco. A cruel dictator supported by the bishops’ dysfunctional leadership. 

This current USCCB story is hardly over. Socio-political polarization and narrow theological vision will be the key themes. Only attentive listening and compassionate conversation can bring ecclesiastical health. 

Whether the bishops realize it or not, the winds of change are blowing for sure. As Sister Sister Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, said in a recent talk, everything has changed and “everything must grow up, religion too. It must be much more than obeying rules.”

Jack, back at his Another Voice computer. Warmest regards to all.

History Clarifies and History Challenges

A Conversation:

It was a strange conversation. A friend who was, at that time, an American archbishop had congratulated me on an academic promotion. He slapped me on the back in his customary gung ho way and said: “You are a smart guy, a theologian, but remember that I have something you don’t have.”

“I have sacred power,” he continued. “I say the words over bread and wine. At once, bingo, Jesus Christ is right there on the altar in front of me. We bishops call it apostolic succession. I have power over bread and wine. I have power over people as well. I can fire laymen, even theologians like you, if I think they are heretics or disobedient. Just like that, I say the word and bingo they are out and finished.” He slapped me on the back again and laughed. I was flabbergasted…and very happy I didn’t work in his diocese. The archbishop’s sense of power resonated far more with Constantine the Emperor than with Jesus the Christ.   

Constantine & Helena:

Constantine (c.272 – 337) and his mother Helena (c.246 – c.330), also known as “Saint Helena,” left big marks on Christianity. Most of those marks were hardly blessings. Thanks to Constantine, authority and power in the church took on a very different meaning – very far from what they had meant for the historical Jesus.

Jesus never exercised power over people. He empowered people to live and act responsibly: loving God and loving their neighbors. Jesus exercised authority; but his authority was not one of control but one of influence: an invitation and an encouragement for people to believe and live as compassionate and caring people.

During the thirty years of Constantine’s reign as Roman Emperor (306 – 337) more changes took place in the status, structure, and beliefs of the Christian Church than had occurred in its first three centuries. Ironically in 306 when Constantine became Emperor, the Roman imperial government had been involved in a major effort to remove all traces of Christian presence from the empire. By the time Constantine died in 337, however,  Christianity was well on its way to becoming THE religion of the empire. Christian leaders had assumed the rank, dress, and duties of the old Imperial Roman civil elite. 

Before the 4th century ended, the tables had been turned completely. Traditional  pagan sacrifices had been outlawed and the old Roman state cults forbidden. Constantine’s mother Helena did her best to go shopping for Christian artifacts and pilgrimage sites for the new imperial Christian religion. Constantine appointed her the Augusta Imperatrix and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate important Christian objects and places. 

Thanks to Helena’s efforts and her well-paid enterprising “researchers,” she discovered all kinds of amazing things. In Egypt, for example, she located and ordered the construction of a church at the site of Moses’ legendary Burning Bush. There in the 13th century BCE God had asked him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, the Promised Land. (Exodus 3:1 – 4:17) 

Helena’s expertise however was primarily in Christian discoveries, many of which are now considered mistaken or simply imaginative suppositions. They did indeed have a powerful impact back then. Powerful impact was exactly what the imperial son, Constantine, wanted and needed to establish his Imperial Christianity

Helena found, for example, the exact location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It became a major pilgrimage site. Most of today’s biblical scholars, however, would strongly suggest that Jesus was more likely born in Nazareth. It was the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David that led to the development of the creative biblical narrative about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Foremost among the religious artifacts that Helena discovered were the bones of the legendary “three wise men,” Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the “true cross” on which Jesus was crucified. Her tour guides, probably with a good tip from Helena,  helped her discover, as well, the exact location where Jesus’ body was buried and the exact location in Jerusalem where the Resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven. 

Historians in the fifth century claimed that Helena had also found the nails used in Jesus’ crucifixion. To use their miraculous powers to aid her son, she had placed one nail in Constantine’s helmet and another nail in his horse’s bridle.

Constantine a Believer:

Getting back to Helena’s son Constantine, one really needs to ask how “sincere” Constantine’s conversion had been. Was he in truth a devout son of the church, or was he rather a political mastermind who grabbed the power he could gain by subordinating and using a well-organized and doctrinaire institutional church? He certainly had a powerful influence over the bishops at the Council of Nicaea. Many contemporary scholars would suggest Constantine’s main objective was to gain unanimous approval and submission to his authority from all classes, and therefore chose the growing and widespread population of Christians to conduct his political campaign. Scholars debate whether Constantine adopted his mother Helena’s Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. Some doubt that he was ever really a Christian. He was not baptized until on his deathbed. 

Imperial Christianity:

In 313 Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan. The edict stopped the persecution of Christians and launched a period in which Constantine began granting favors to the Christian Church and its members. He truly created what one could call “Imperial Christianity.” After his death in 337, Constantine’s influence continued to grow and was strongly felt.

It came as no great surprise, therefore, in 380 when the Emperor Theodosius (347 – 395) made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The Bishop of Rome, starting already with Pope Damasus I in 366, had already become an authoritarian monarch. The institutional church took over the Roman governmental structure, with dioceses, and the Roman imperial court liturgy, remnants of which one still finds in Vatican ceremonials. 

Imperial Christians forgot the message of Jesus the Prince of Peace. Christian militarism became strong and fearsome. Under Imperial Christianity, bishops adopted as well a changed ministerial focus. The compassionate service and humility of the historical Jesus were replaced by a hardened framework of entrenched, and occasionally cruel, authoritarianism. 

Bishops began to stress that disobedience to them amounted to disobedience to God. The official sanction for disobeying a priest or a judge was death. Bishops were both priests and judges. Christian bishops in fact became regional judges, ordering the execution of those who were disobedient or criminals. A clerical culture anchored in strong clerical power became well established. 

Women under Imperial Christianity were edged to the sidelines and denigrated. It was all so clearly contrary to the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth and the important roles women had played in his life and in the lives of first century Christians.

A great many Imperial Christian “Church Fathers,” became outspoken misogynists. Consider, for example, St. John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407) who became the Archbishop of Constantinople in the autumn of 397. Called the “golden mouthed” he said: “It does not profit a man to marry.” Then he explained why: “For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?…The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.” Golden mouthed?

Today:

Today we still experience the reverberations of Imperial Christianity. Clericalism remains a problematic issue. (Sometimes I think many of the younger clergy are more rigidly clerical than the older generation.) We have a church hierarchically and qualitatively divided into laypeople, at the bottom, and the ordained, on top.

Thinking about ”lay” and “ordained,” I found Pope Francis’ May 11th Apostolic Letter, titled Antiquum Ministerium (“The Ancient Ministry.”) very interesting. The letter establishes the “lay ministry” of catechist. I am not certain whether the document accurately reflects Pope Francis’ theology or that of his Vatican-approved ghost writer. It sends, however, a mixed message. 

Antiquum Ministerium begins with a welcomed reminder that Christians in the early apostolic communities operated with great creativity in exercising and sharing ministerial roles. They formed one egalitarian community that promoted a variety of ministerial roles. Everyone sharing an equal status as members of the Body of Christ.

I was surprised to see that by the end of Antiquum Ministerium, however, one of the concepts that the new papal document clearly safeguards is the strict dualism of clergy and laity, that had been codified with great institutional rigidity in the 16th century Council of Trent. 

Rather than make all the baptized faithful co-sharers in the work of catechesis, as was the practice in the early Christian communities,  Antiquum Ministerium reinforces the segregation of clerical (sacred) ministry and “lay ministry.” The bishop is still explicitly designated as the “primary catechist.” Lay people are seen once again as helpers of the clergy. They are called to engage in “cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” 

In reality, the ministry of catechist does not need to be defined as a “lay ministry.” It is simply a form of Christian ministry shared and exercised by all members of the church. We are all catechists, some more specifically engaged in that ministry than others. For a good fifteen years, I was once upon a time a very actively engaged catechist in high school and parish ministry. As an historical theologian today my catechetical ministry continues but in a different form and context.

Changing Structures:

In today’s church we need to not just say nice words. We need to make changes in structures. We will not move beyond the virus of Constantine’s Imperial Christianity, with its distorted ecclesiology, until we shift from a polarizing authoritarian leadership model to a dialogical communitarian model. It can happen. 

We need to understand and affirm an important clarification about ordination. The historical Jesus did not establish ordination. No one at the Last Supper was ordained. The early men and women who presided at celebrations of Eucharist were not ordained. Ordination, starting somewhere around the year 100, began as a way for Christians to insure and promote qualified and credible leaders. One could say it was a form of quality control. It was created by the church not by the historical Jesus.The ordained had community approval. They were competent and trustworthy.

Under Imperial Christianity, however, ordination gradually came to be understood as a power and control mechanism, in a segregated society of “ordained” and “lay.” As the archbishop, mentioned above, liked to remind me, I have a doctorate in theology but remain “just a layman.” He had sacred powers which in the hierarchic society elevated him above the common “layperson.” 

The words laity and lay come from the Middle English lai, meaning “uneducated.” They ultimately come from the Greek lāikós, meaning “of the common people.” Perhaps we really should just stop using these words. I am a theologian not a “lay theologian.” And there are catechists not “lay catechists.”

Fortunately, understandings do change. History does clarify. History does challenge. People today should be encouraged to move forward. Our encouragement comes from knowing that the Spirit of Christ has not abandoned us and that the challenge is now in our hands — to study, to collaborate, to structure, to reform, and to re-structure according to changing human needs and growth in human understanding. 

Early Christians did a lot of structuring and restructuring in the days before Constantine. We can do it today as well. We do need to work together. Praying and working for unity and reconciliation for all in the church. 

A contemporary perspective is important. We are not in an ecclesiastical doom scenario. Restructuring is already happening. New church configurations ARE evolving. We may not yet have a clear idea of where the development will take us. I believe it will be good. 

On this Pentecost 2021 weekend, I suggest we also need to remember that unity does not mean the uniformity and rigidity, which was Constantine’s approach. The Spirit of Christ gives simultaneously unity and diversity within that unity. In Acts 2:5–11 we read about Christians from a variety of countries, speaking a variety of languages and yet “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Unity and diversity are not a contradiction. They are our richness. 

There is great diversity among Christians today. There will be great diversity tomorrow. May we all be supportive collaborators: removing walls of polarization in our churches that protect misogyny, clerical hegemony, homophobia, racism, and antisemitism.

As mentioned last week, in 1979 Bishop Ken Untener, wrote: “We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.”

  •  Jack

P.S. In keeping with my annual practice, I will be away from Another Voice for about three weeks of R & R & R (reading, relaxation, and reflection). When I return, I hope to have some worthwhile thoughts to share with you. I hope you will have some to share with me as well.

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

My wife and I got our second Moderna vaccinations last week. When we got home from the clinic, we gave a cheer and said now, at last, we can look forward to being again with family and friends. The Covid-19 pandemic, in our area, increased rapidly in March–April 2020. That is when we went into our Covid-19 retreat. We got our supply of face masks. No more visits. No more classes. Carefully sanitized grocery shopping.

The Covid-19 pandemic at home and around the globe has been a strong reminder of the fragility of human life as well as of our interdependence and need for one another. 

These past months I have done a lot of reading, thanks to Kindle,….and a lot of thinking. It has been much more than an old-style forty-day retreat. We have had more than a year of topsy-turvy polarized politics, topsy-turvy polarized religion, and a lot of just plain nonsense and irresponsibility about Covid-19 precautions.   

Occasionally various lines from a reflection, written by an old Michigan friend, Ken Untener, the fourth Bishop of Saginaw, kept popping onto my head. He had often told me: “It helps, now and then, to step back.” On Covid-19 retreat, and now as we look toward better days, Ken’s words offer wisdom and reality. Ken’s reflection, titled “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” is my Another Voice post for this week:

It helps, now and then, to step back

and take the long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of

the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,

which is another way of saying

that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything

and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,

but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,

ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

___________________________________________

“Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” is an excerpt from a homily given by Cardinal John Dearden (1907 – 1988), and written for him by then Father Ken Untener. The occasion was a Mass for deceased Detroit priests on October 25, 1979. Ken Untener was named Bishop of Saginaw in 1980.

On March 27, 2004, Bishop Kenneth Edward Untener, Bishop of Saginaw, died of leukemia. He had been my older seminary classmate at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit: he in college and I in high school. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1963. Two years later, seminarian John Dick was sent by his bishop to study in Louvain. Years later Ken became my contemporary church hero as well as my good friend. On occasion we even shared the same stage as speakers at catechetical and continuing ed conferences.

Ken Untener’s death on March 27th at age 66 coincided with my 61st birthday. His death on my birthday touched me deeply. 

Yes indeed….It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. We plant seeds that one day will grow.

  • Jack

Praise for a Prophetic Woman Theologian


A couple weeks ago, a friend in the Netherlands sent me a recent book (a Dutch translation from the original Portuguese) by  Ivone Gebara, the Brazilian Catholic, woman religious, philosopher, and feminist theologian. (Photo attached.) I had a chance to meet Ivone a few years ago when she was on a lecture tour and have always had great respect and appreciation for her and her ministry. 

Today a bit of background information about Ivone Gebara and then some reflections about her key theological focus: “ecofeminism.”

Ivone was born in São Paulo and, as a young woman,  joined the Augustinian Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady. She holds two doctorates: one in philosophy from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and another in theology from L’Université Catholique de Louvain.

For almost seventeen years, Ivone Gebara taught at the liberation theology Instituto Teológico do Recife in close collaboration with the institute’s founder Archbishop Hélder Câmara (1909 – 1999), called the “bishop of the slums.” He was well-known for his social and political work for the poor and the struggle for human rights and democracy during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964 – 1985).  Government authorities began to harass Câmara actively in 1968, interfering with his ministry in the slums and condoning machine-gun attacks on his residence. The Instituto Teológico do Recife existed from 1968 until it was closed in 1989, during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (1920 – 205), under direction of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul’s Prefect of  the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the historical Roman Inquisition. From the very beginning of his pontificate in 1978, Pope John Paul II had built a case against ”liberation theology.”

The closing of the Instituto by the Vatican had a major impact on Ivone Gebara’s role as an educator and her own philosophical and theological viewpoints. She was uncomfortable with the church’s resistance to change and with a liberation theology that ignored the patriarchal power structures in the church. In the church, she saw an oppressive hierarchical worldview that categorized people in terms of gender, race, and class.

In 1995, Gebara was tried and convicted by the Vatican for defending the decriminalization of abortion and stating in an interview in the Brazilian weekly magazine  Veja that she did not believe that abortion was always a sin, based on her observations and reflections about the life experiences of poor women throughout the Brazilian slums. In the United States, the National Catholic Reporter (1995:24) reacted to her Vatican condemnation by proclaiming: “Ivone Gebara Must Be Doing Something Right.” She was punished with the penalty of “silence” and ordered to “reflect” on her ideas for two years in Europe. It was during this time that she completed her second doctorate at L’Université Catholique de Louvain.

Today Ivone Gebara is a key leader in the Latin American ecofeminist movement, writing, teaching, organizing, and working with marginalized and impoverished women. The term “ecofeminism” was created in 1974 by the French writer and civil rights activist Françoise d’Eaubonne in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort (Feminism or Death).

Ivone Gebara Is the  author of over thirty books and numerous articles published in Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and German. One of her books in English which I strongly recommend is Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Fortress Press 1999).

Gebara’s commitment to social justice for women has shaped her understanding of what the theological task ought to be and has contributed to the development of her methodology and feminist theological vision. Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women. It explores the connections between women and nature in culture, economy, religion, politics, and literature. It takes from the Green movement a concern about the impact of human activities on the non-human world and from feminism a view of humanity as gendered in ways that subordinate, exploit, and oppress women.

Ivone Gebara’s pioneering feminist work and her own life ministry and witness, have inspired Christian women in Brazil and globally to challenge and oppose an androcentric theology that diminishes women’s place within the church and within society. She is indeed a wonderfully prophetic woman theologian. 

In Ivone Gebara’s book Longing for Running Water, there are many observations I have underlined. Here is one that strongly resonates with my own theological sense of purpose and meaning: “I  think it is always important to understand our need to refashion our beliefs and their particular formulations in each new moment of history…..Theology will have to carry out its social role with greater humility and openness. Its truths will always need to be open-ended…. They will be mere approximations of the Divine Mystery: attempts to grasp the meaning of our existence, if only in a tentative way. We will need to leave behind absolute statements and “ex cathedra” truths, and learn to live in the midst of the extraordinary….Religious experience is polyphonic and multicolored, despite the fact that in the depth of each of us we hear something of the same note or perceive something of the same choir. It is a search for the meaning of our existence, a groping for that “mysterious something” that is within us and at the same time surpasses us.”

The Divine Mystery still speaks to all of us. Our response is our challenge….

  • Jack 

Systemic Racism

In a front page headline on April 25, 2021, the Washington Post asked: “In the aftermath of the Chauvin verdict hangs a question: Where do we go from here?” A very good question.

US racism and white supremacy have a long history, and Christians have contributed to that problem, right from the beginning. Jesus brought life and truth but many of his later followers followed his teachings very selectively. Christians today – even those who reside in Rome — are not infallible. When they sin and fall into error, however, they must do more than simply apologize and feel bad. They have to repair the damage. 

This week some historic as well as contemporary reflections about Christianity and racism in the New World.

On May 4, 1493, just a year after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, Pope Alexander VI (not a striking example of moral rectitude for sure) issued his papal bull Inter Caetera. Alexander was far more interested in wealth and power than spirituality. His document which became known for proclaiming “The Doctrine of Discovery” announced that any land not inhabited by Christians was open to be “discovered” by Christian rulers and that “the Catholic faith and Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread… and that the barbarous nations be overthrown….”

The Doctrine of Discovery produced clear examples of how racist ideas of supremacy over Indigenous peoples were used not only to justify but to sanctify the seizure of occupied Indigenous lands, the physical removal of communities to undesirable reservations, and systematic genocidal violence. 

There is much about American history that can make one proud of being American. Unfortunately, American history also attests that too often American Christianity promoted and sustained racism through the brutal colonialism of missionaries and the enforced segregation of its churches.

The majority of early American colonists did not recognize the deep culture and traditions of Native peoples, nor did they acknowledge their tribal land rights. They sought to convert the Native people in the New World and at the same time strip them of their land.

Newcomers from England during the 17th century, for example, saw themselves as settling in a “virgin land” where real “civilization” had not yet been established. From the colonial period on, relations between European and Native peoples were predominantly expressed and negotiated in terms of land. The issue of land became, in many ways, the deepest “religious” issue over which world views collided. Many of the colonists saw the new land as a “wilderness” to be settled, not as already inhabited. They also saw the New World as the New Promised Land and considered the Indigenous peoples like the Canaanites of old to be conquered and removed. John Winthrop (1588 – 1649), English Puritan lawyer and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was convinced that God favored his community above all others. In 1641 Winthrop helped write the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first legal sanctioning of slavery in North America. About a hundred and forty years later, in a 1783 sermon celebrating the American Revolution, Yale president Ezra Stiles praised the rise of the “whites” whose numerical growth, he said, proved divine favoritism. Interestingly, there were almost 700 thousand African slaves in the US by 1790, which equated to approximately 18% of the total population. White Supremacy.

Over the course of nearly three centuries, American Indigenous peoples were “removed” from the lands they had occupied, “displaced” to other lands, and had their lands “ceded” to the newcomers. Then, native tribes were forcibly “settled” on “reservations.”

Early Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify the enslavement of darker-skinned people. Vigilante groups terrorized Black Americans as the vigilantes rode around in white hoods with the Bible in hand. Prominent evangelical pastors spewed racist hatred against America’s first Black president. And most recently of course we have witnessed racial hate crimes, murders, and police brutality.

So what do we do once we realize that religious actors have been complicit in forming and upholding American racism? What might we do to correct racism? Certainly racial justice will not come just from individual acts of charity. It will require the transformation of our social structures. Racism is systemic.

A failure to grasp the systemic nature of racism  could explain why the country has not made as much progress as it should—and could—on racial equity. Racism is a virus. Like the coronavirus, if ignored it will not disappear. Many people have a too narrow view of racism that has really blocked racial progress. They fail to understand systemic racism and are, therefore, more likely to attribute poverty, for example, to individual failings rather than to structural disadvantages like racial disparities in wealth and wages and substandard education for Blacks. Segregated housing, too, has left many Black people living in neighborhoods without access to good jobs, reliable public transportation, or quality health care.

As President Biden said following the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter, the killing of George Floyd “ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism” that has become a “stain on our nation’s soul.”

Combating racism is a particular challenge to US Catholic leadership. As Thomas Reese stressed in an article in yesterday’s April 29th National Catholic Reporter: “The American Catholic bishops are frequently criticized by the left and the right for what they say in the political arena….But it’s what the bishops haven’t said, particularly on racial justice, that has kept them from being a more prophetic voice in American life. Few if any bishops, for example, have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement or said anything about voter suppression laws. African Methodist Episcopal clergy, on the other hand, have rallied and threatened boycotts over voter suppression bills in state legislatures across the country. The U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops has said nothing. The reluctance of Catholic bishops to take on racial issues has deep roots in Catholic history. Catholic bishops did not lead in the abolition movement. Catholic immigrants, many of them poor, did not want to die to free Black slaves.”

I am neither anti-Christian nor anti-American, but, being very honest, we all have a lot of transformative work to do. I share Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese’s concerns about US Catholic leadership; but I also applaud some positive Catholic signs which give encouragement and guidance.

The honesty and reparation of Georgetown University and the Jesuit Community are prophetic examples. In 1838, the Jesuits sold 272 Black men, women, and children and used the proceeds to support their Georgetown University, founded by Bishop John Carroll in 1789. 

I find it noteworthy and encouraging that in September 2015, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia established a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. This led to dialogue with and apology to descendants of the slaves sold. Georgetown today is making key efforts to address the legacy of slavery and overcome racism at Georgetown, in Washington DC, and beyond. In March of this year, the Society of Jesus in the United States announced the establishment of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, a collaborative effort among Jesuits, Georgetown, and some descendants to raise $100 million to help address the legacy of enslavement in the United States and its impact on families and communities today.

We really need to conscientiously and collectively combat racism. 

  • We need to be alert to language, jokes, slogans, and labeling. In the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, a demonstrator wore a shirt proclaiming “Camp Auschwitz.” That action was a sinister danger sign. Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor, Fritzie Fritzshall, was greatly upset.“That made my stomach turn,” she said. “Why do they have to still wear t-shirts about hatred and stuff like that? That’s what the Nazis did. That’s exactly what they did.”
  • We need to critique and work to improve educational, employment, and police policies and actions. Friction, for example, between African Americans and the police is a reality that should be immediately addressed. 
  • We need to be alert to signs of racism in our churches, neighborhoods, and social groups.
  • We need to be alert as well to increased antisemitism. Violent antisemitism and hatred did not end with the Holocaust. According to the Anti-Defamation League antisemitic incidents in the United States reached their highest on record point in 2019. Assault, harassment, and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the United States today.

For further reading, I recommend: The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism and Religious Diversity in America (Orbis, 2017) by Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Professor of Theology at Fordham University.

  • Jack

A Contemporary Creed?

This week, a follow-up from last week…

When looking at Christian history, starting with the earliest Christian communities, we see a dynamic spirituality anchored in the faith experience of the followers of the Way of Jesus. Gradually, recollections of Jesus’ life and deeds and Christian community foundational experiences were recalled and written down. As communities expanded, organizational structures were created for good order and to ensure a correct passing on of the Way of Jesus to the next generation. The Scriptures were written down. Symbols, rituals, and statements of belief were created. A key operational principle was that if language and structures no longer worked, they were changed and adapted to fit the needs of the local community. This explains why we have four very different theologies in the Four Gospels. 

Ideally, change and adaptation in language and structure should be an ongoing process. Occasionally, as history shows, Christians have had times of arrested development and institutional rigidity. In times of rigidity, the message always was: don’t question or think, just believe!

This brings me to my subject today: the Creed. 

I know the creeds – Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed — very well. For many decades now I have recited and sung the Nicene Creed; and in my younger days -– few know this — I even accompanied that singing as a part-time organist in my home parish. 

Now for my first creedal observation: 

The classical Christian creeds: the Nicene Creed, written in the fourth century, and the Apostles Creed, whose earliest version appeared in the fifth century, were formulated within the context of a comparatively simple biblical understanding of a three-level universe: Heaven was up there with God. Earth was down below. Below earth was Sheol: the abode of the dead. What we think of today as “outer space” was believed to be a large universally-wide cosmic ocean. A big dome over the flat earth kept the waters away. As needed God could open little windows in the dome to let it rain over various sections of the earth. The stars were suspended from the ceiling of the dome. Very simple and compact. God was the heavenly manager. He – yes God was considered male — had all the strings in his hands. 

A very faulty English translation of Sheol in the Apostles Creed, by the way, says Jesus “descended into hell.” A more correct translation would be “he descended to the underworld” or “descended to the world of the dead.”  What the creed was really referring to was that, after dying on the cross, Jesus went to the place of the dead. He did not go to a Satanic hell. The Latin version of the Apostles Creed has absolutely no mention of hell. The Latin version reads “descendit ad inferos,” where “inferos” (not infernos with an “n”) means “those below.” 

The three-level universe perspective is also found in accounts of Jesus’ Ascension, where Jesus steps into a cloud, like into an elevator, and then he is lifted up to Heaven. Curiously the same old perspective was used in the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. That teaching dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950, says that Mary was lifted up to Heaven, body and soul to sit next to her Son and reign as “Queen over all things.”

Today we have moved far beyond the biblical three-level universe. Consider for a moment that one light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth year: about 6 trillion miles. Our ever-expanding Universe is 93 billion light-years in diameter at the present time. Those 93 billion light-years cover just our observable Universe. The whole Universe might very well be 250 times larger than the observable Universe.

Last week I stressed that the reasons why people are abandoning the churches do not lie within our Christian Faith but rest with the way many church authorities present Christian belief. 

We are not static medievalists. We need to begin with an historical developmental perspective on what happened with the disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Then we need to shift to an historical developmental understanding of what is happening to us today as contemporary believers. 

Now for my second creedal observation:

Christian life is a process. Spirituality comes first. Structures, doctrines, and creeds come after that. If certain church structures, doctrines, and creeds in particular times and places fail to nourish the spirituality of its constituents, they will either have to change, or they will fade away. Or people will fade away from them. It is happening now.

When I read either ancient creed, I think immediately about obedience and loyalty to the institution. The Roman Emperor Constantine (emperor from 306 to 337 CE) certainly wanted exactly that when, in 325 CE, he convoked the first Christian council in Nicaea and had the bishops come up with a binding creed to unify Christianity in his empire. Many scholars suggest Constantine’s main objective was to gain unanimous approval and submission to his authority from all classes in the empire. He chose Christianity to implement his political agenda but had to first of all insure Christian unity through loyalty and obedience to the Nicene creed. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 during the reign of Emperor Theodosis I, who ruled from 379 to 395 CE.

Frankly what I miss, in both creeds, is human warmth: a spirituality that speaks of a compassionate and loving God, who journeys with us, and holds us in the palm of his or her hand. I would like a more spiritual creed that speaks of a wondrous creator of the constantly expanding and immense universe, who is beyond our imagination and ability to describe, and yet who is as close to us and as intimate as the air in our lungs. I would like a creed that resonates with Paul in I Corinthians:  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” That warrants much reflection.

I would like to see a creed that reassures people today that Jesus’ voice is just as much a living voice as ever; that his truth is a living truth; and that his God is a living God, near to all of us.

A few years ago, in a summer theology course I taught at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, I asked my students to write their own creeds. The results were amazing and deeply moving. The most touching creed was written by a young fellow who was a professional jockey! When I complimented him in private he replied with a big smile: “Well I guess I am a believer who is also, as you say, an inquisitive still searching believer.” I hope he is doing well today, and still an inquisitive believer.

Third creedal observation:

Please write down your own creed. I am serious. For your own spiritual reflection. Or it could even be a group process.

By way of a example of a contemporary creed.  a friend sent me a creed created by The United Church of Canada. 

We are not alone,
    we live in God’s world.

 We believe in God:
    who has created and is creating,
    who has come in Jesus,
       the Word made flesh,
       to reconcile and make new,
    who works in us and others
       by the Spirit.

We trust in God. 

We are called to be the Church:
    to celebrate God’s presence,
    to live with respect in Creation,
    to love and serve others,
    to seek justice and resist evil,
    to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
       our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
    God is with us.
We are not alone.

    Thanks be to God.

Now get started writing your own creed. 😇

  • Jack