An Open Letter from Roman Catholic Women Bishops

(Certainly one of the most hopeful developments in the Roman Catholic Church has been the ordination of women as priests and bishops. This week I am pleased to post this letter, sent to me by my friend Bishop Nancy Louise Meyer. It is dated January 6, 2023. – Jack)

An Open Letter to: the People of God, Pope Francis, Curia Officials, Conferences of Bishops in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania

Hope arrived for women in the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Pope John XXIII called the Church to open the doors and windows and to “read the signs of the times”. When Pope Francis recently called for a global synodal process, we, the women bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, dared again to hope that the leadership of the Church would listen and walk with all the People of God. 

In a November interview published in America magazine, Pope Francis attempts to justify the exclusion of women from ordained ministry utilizing the archaic, patriarchal theology that Jesus was a man and he chose men as his apostles, therefore, priests must also be male.  He appealed to the medieval spousal imagery of an active-receptive relationship, in which the Church is the bride and the priest the bridegroom. This disregards the fundamental message of the Gospel and contradicts our baptismal oneness in Christ: “. . . there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)  Baptism rests on faith, not on gender, not nationality, nor any other form of discrimination.

In the interview, Francis fails to acknowledge the many times in Scripture where women are chosen by God or Jesus to minister. Mary of Magdala was proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and a host of other women named in Scripture went out to proclaim the Good News in the early church. The argument that maleness is necessary for ordination damages the Church and greater society.  A church subjugating women with their structures supports similar subjugation in the world. In this the Roman Catholic Church violates its own words from the Second Vatican Council which states that, “Forms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed or eradicated as incompatible with God’s designs.”(Gaudium et Spes 29) Francis’ attempt to justify the exclusion of women from ordination is a failure to “read the signs of the times” and to understand the basic human rights of all members of the Church.

Roman Catholic Women deacons, priests and bishops have answered the call of God and their communities through valid ordination in apostolic succession. We are providing a vibrant experience of community and sacraments where we live. We are not responsible for people leaving the Church, we are bringing people back to the faith. We heal those grievously wounded by physical, emotional and spiritual abuse and exclusion. We offer a model of church easily recognizable as Roman Catholic, but offering transparency of governance, the inclusion of those marginalized, and recognition of gender equality.

We call on Pope Francis and the Conferences of Bishops in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania to meet with us, the Roman Catholic Women Bishops serving across the world. Despite his call for dialogue, Pope Francis refuses to engage in authentic conversation with us. Francis can use his Petrine key to unlock that door.

On behalf of Roman Catholic Women deacons, priests and bishops around the world:

+Jane Kryzanowski, Regina, SK, Canada; photina61@gmail.com,

+Martha Sherman, Washington, IA; revmmsherman@gmail.com

+Mary Eileen Collingwood, Cleveland, OH, USA; mecreg6@yahoo.com

+Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Pettenbach, Austria; mmcml@almnet.at

+Jane Via, San Diego, CA, USA; janevia17@gmail.com

+Olga Lucia Álvarez Benjumea, Envigado, Colombia

+Jean Marie Marchant, Boston, MA, USA

+Suzanne Avison Thiel, Portland, OR, USA

+Mary Keldermans, Springfield, IL, USA

+Ida Raming, Stuttgart, Germany

+Bridget Mary Meehan, Sarasota, FL, USA

+Marie Evans Bouclin, Sudbury, ON, Canada

+Merlene Olivia Doko, Pismo Beach, CA, USA

+Andrea Michele Johnson, Annapolis, MD, USA

+Sibyl Dana Reynolds, Pebble Beach, CA, USA

+Joan Clark Houk, South Bend, IN, USA

+Patricia Fresen, Johannesburg, South Africa

+Nancy Louise Meyer, Brownsburg, IN, USA

+Dr. Gisela Forster, Berg, Germany

http://www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org

A Reflection about Morality and Same-sex Identity

Last week’s reflection about Joseph Ratzinger, who passed from this life on December 31, 2022,   generated a lot of reaction and questions. One issue that many people commented about was his strong affirmation of Catholic teaching about gender, human sexuality, and specifically the same-sex orientation, traditionally called “homosexuality.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered….Under no circumstances can they be approved.” Regarding homosexuality as an orientation, the Catechism describes it as “objectively disordered.” The Catechism, as I mentioned last week was drafted by a commission chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992.

Certainly today the scientific and experiential insights available to us clearly indicate that the RCC’s theological tradition can be and must be approached critically, to clarify its foundation, rationale, and continued meaningfulness in the changed socio-historical circumstances of the contemporary world. 

The Bible and Homosexuality

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) turns to the Bible in its discussion of the “problem of homosexuality” and asserts that “there is … a clear consistency within the sacred scriptures for judging the immorality of homosexual behavior.” The texts on which this “clear consistency” is built are: Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10.

Nevertheless, in the light of contemporary biblical scholarship, it is impossible to agree that the texts on which this Catholic tradition about the immorality of homosexual acts is based are “unambiguous” and provide “solid foundation.” Contemporary theologians would stress that the biblical accounts are complex and socio-historically conditioned literary forms that demand careful historical-critical analysis.

First of all, neither the Bible nor the Christian tradition rooted in it prior to the twentieth century ever really considered the homosexual condition as a specific sexual orientation. They took for granted that everyone was heterosexual. To look for any mention in the biblical texts of what today is called “homosexual orientation” is simply unfounded. One might just as well search the Bible for advice about buying a cellphone or a laptop computer

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, namely that all human beings naturally share the heterosexual condition and that, therefore, any homosexual behavior is a perversion of “nature” and immoral. Because that biblical assumption is now scientifically shown to be incorrect, the Bible has little to contribute to the discussion of genuine homosexuality and homosexuals as we understand them today. In fact, the Bible also contains many questionable moral teachings about sex: the evil of sexual relations during menstruation for example, or about the stoning of adulterers, about women’s role, about slavery, and a host of other issues. All of these issues have been rejected by modern Catholic moral theology as archaic misunderstandings. But homosexuality?

In this reflection, I cannot go into a detailed analysis of all biblical texts touching on homosexuality. For a detailed analysis of the biblical texts I suggest the book: The Sexual Person, Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler (Georgetown University Press / Washington, D.C., 2008). It is still an excellent book. I have known and respected Todd for many years, from the time he was a theology student at the Catholic University of Leuven and then completed his doctorate in 1994.

The Catholic tradition also teaches that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered because they are  “contrary to the natural law.”

The Natural Law Argument

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. During the 19th century, for example, bloodletting was a very common treatment for basically any ailment you might be suffering from. At the time, doctors believed that too much blood would throw off the balance in your body.

People today laugh at such ignorant foolishness. People, however, do not always apply new human insights to moral 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 own 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. This is “the human person adequately considered.”

“Nature” and natural law have always had a prominent place in Catholic moral theology and, in official Church teaching, not only homosexuality but also masturbation, premarital, extramarital, contraceptive, and non-reproductive types of marital sexual activity have been condemned as “contrary to the natural law.”

I would emphasize, however, that every interpretation of “nature” is a socially constructed reality dependent on human perspective and interpretations. The reality of “nature” must  always be subjected to scrutiny, even if the interpretation be advanced by the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Period. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. 

The historical Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. He did say “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

(Mark 12:31)

Jack

Reflections About Joseph Ratzinger

Dear friends, you have to bear with me this week. Yes I realize this is a much longer post than usual, with a lot of historical information. I do feel a need to share it, at least for an objective and correct historical perspective on the recently deceased former Pope. If you find it too long, you can simply move down to the final paragraph: an observation by the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, SJ in the National Catholic Reporter on December 31, 2022. Thomas Reese is senior analyst at Religion News Service and a former editor-in-chief of the weekly Catholic magazine America.


Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (16 April 1927 – 31 December 2022) was Pope Benedict XVI from 19 April 2005 until his resignation on 28 February 2013. Since his death, there has been an abundance of articles about him. I would like to share an historical perspective about his theological focus. Nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler,” he remained a hero to many theological conservatives. U.S. Catholics make up about 20 percent of all U.S. adults. The church has grown increasingly polarized in the past few years, and the faction that has opposed Pope Francis’ agenda has been strengthened.

Joseph Ratzinger – later Benedict XVI – has been the inspiration for the conservative far right polarizers. Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings were prolific. He generally defended traditional Catholic doctrine, values, and liturgy, like the old style “Tridentine” Latin Mass. No one was more important in helping Pope
John Paul II – Pope from 1978 until his death in 2005 — turn Catholic Church leadership, especially in the United States, right of center.


On 25 November 1981, Pope John Paul II, appointed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the CDF, formerly known as the “Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office,” the historical Roman Inquisition. Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the CDF from 1981 until 2005, when he became Pope Benedict XVI on 19 April. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s pronouncements as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
mark for posterity his theological positions.

As an historian, I have collected a summary of his major
condemnations of contemporary theology and theologians. They offer important perspectives on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI.

(1) October 4, 1983: Notification to Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle, Washington that an apostolic visitation of his archdiocese would be conducted, focused primarily on liturgy, the education of seminarians, clergy formation, the
marriage tribunal, and ministry to homosexuals. (The process ended with the
appointment in 1985 of an auxiliary bishop, Donald Wuerl, later archbishop of Washington. He was controversially named an auxiliary bishop and given primary responsibility over many areas of archdiocesan governance.)


(2) August 6, 1984: “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of
Liberation.’” Although applauding efforts to promote social justice, it criticized
theologians who borrow “uncritically” from Marxist ideology, reducing salvation to the liberation of the poor from worldly oppressors.

(3) March 11, 1985: Notification on the book Church: Charism and Power by
Brazilian Franciscan Father Leonardo Boff, who argued that the church’s current
hierarchical structure was not that intended by Christ and that authority can
spring from the community of the faithful. The notification said the book was
“dangerous” and Father Boff was ordered to refrain from publishing or speaking publicly for one year.


(4) March 22, 1986: “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,” a
second document on liberation theology providing guidelines for the theology’s
development, insisting that it have as its goal the liberation of people from sin, not
simply from sinful social structures.


(5) July 10, 1986: Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Ratzinger head of a
12-member commission charged with drafting the Catechism of the Catholic
Church. The text was released in French in 1992 and in English in 1994.
The Catechism strongly reflects and supports a pre-Vatican II theology.

(6) July 25, 1986: The suspension of U.S. Father Charles E. Curran from teaching Catholic theology because of his dissenting views on several issues in sexual ethics. The Vatican declared that Curran could no longer teach theology at the Catholic University of America and that he was neither suitable nor eligible to be a professor of Catholic theology. Father Curran later was given a full tenured professorship at Southern Methodist University and has published personal accounts about his
experience with the Catholic Church and his viewpoint on the actions of Catholic Church authorities.


(7) September 15, 1986: Notification about dangers in the book The Church With a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry by Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx. The notification warned that the book was “in disagreement with the teaching of the church,” particularly regarding ordination and the possibility of lay people presiding at the Eucharist. However, the doctrinal congregation did not apply any penalties to the Belgian-born priest, because he had already retired
from teaching. Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) became my theological mentor in 1968, when he was my professor in Nijmegen.


(8) October 1, 1986: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” The letter called for “special concern and
pastoral attention” to homosexuals, but also for clarity that homosexual activity
is fundamentally immoral.


(9) February 22, 1987: “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and
on the Dignity of Procreation,” clarifying the church’s position on assisted
fertilization techniques and other biomedical issues, reaffirming teaching that
an embryo is human from the moment of conception and that conception is moral
only in the context of traditional sexual intercourse within marriage.


(10) February 16, 1989: Notification regarding the moral rule of “Humanae Vitae” and
pastoral duty, saying couples who find it difficult to follow church teaching about
birth control “deserve great respect and love,” but the church is firm in teaching that contraception is an “intrinsically disordered act” that is prohibited without exception.

(11) October 15, 1989: “Letter on Certain Aspects of Christian Meditation,”
cautioning Catholics about using Buddhist, Hindu and other meditation techniques
that place the focus of prayer on the self rather than on God.


(12) May 24, 1990: “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,”
underlining the important role theologians have in clarifying, explaining and
exploring church teaching, but also calling on theologians who disagree with
church teaching not to use the mass media to publicize their views or try to pressure for change in the church.


(13) January 31, 1992: Notification on the book The Sexual Creators, an Ethical Proposal for Concerned Christians by Canadian Oblate Father Andre Guindon. The
Vatican said the book presented questionable views on premarital sex, homosexual
relationships and contraception.


(14) March 30, 1992: “Instruction on Some Aspects of the Use of the
Instruments of Social Communication in Promoting the Doctrine of the Faith,” reaffirming church law requiring prepublication theological review and approval of manuscripts dealing with church teaching.


(15) May 28, 1992: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some
Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion,” emphasizing the essential bond
between the local church and universal church, particularly through recognition of
the authority of the pope.


(16) July 23, 1992: “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to
Legislative Proposals on Nondiscrimination of Homosexual Persons,” saying, “It is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account” when making laws
concerning “adoption or foster care, in employment of teachers or athletic
coaches, and in military recruitment.”


(17) September 14, 1994: “Letter to Bishops Regarding the Reception of Holy
Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful,” saying the church
cannot ignore Jesus’ clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and
reaffirming that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may not receive Communion.

(18) October 28, 1995: Response to questions about the doctrine contained in the
apostolic letter, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” saying the church’s teaching that
women cannot be ordained priests belongs “to the deposit of faith” and has
been taught “infallibly” by Pope John Paul II.


(19) January 2, 1997: Notification on the book Mary and Human Liberation by Sri
Lankan Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya, saying the book contained heretical
statements regarding Mary, original sin, Christ’s redemptive role, and papal
infallibility. The Oblate was excommunicated, but reconciled with the church a
year later.

(20) May 30, 1997: Revised “Regulations for Doctrinal Examination” of
theologians and their work, encouraging a more direct role for the theologian’s bishop or religious superior, allowing the possibility of naming an advocate and an
adviser for the theologian, and permitting face-to-face meetings between the
theologian and congregation members.


(21) August 15, 1997: Publication of the final Latin “typical edition” of the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, containing some corrections and additions to
the 1992 text, including an acknowledgment that science has not determined the cause of homosexuality.


(22) June 24, 1998: Posthumous notification concerning the writings of Indian
Jesuit Father Anthony De Mello, saying some of the priest’s views “are
incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.” It particularly cited
those views presenting God as an impersonal cosmic reality, organized
religion as an obstacle to self-awareness and Jesus as one master among many.


(23) October 31, 1998: “Considerations on ‘The Primacy of the Successor of Peter
in the Mystery of the Church,’” saying that, although Pope John Paul called
for an ecumenical discussion of how primacy could be exercised in a united
church, “the full communion desired by Christ among those who confess to be his
disciples requires the common recognition of a universal ecclesial ministry,” and
the Catholic faith holds that that ministry belongs to the Pope.


(24) May 31, 1999: Notification regarding School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine
Gramick and Salvatorian Father Robert Nugent, barring the U.S. team from
further pastoral ministry to homosexuals, saying they advanced “doctrinally
unacceptable” positions “regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the
objective disorder of the homosexual inclination.”


(25) June 26, 2000: Publication of a 43-page booklet containing the complete
“Message of Fatima,” including the so-called “third secret” given to three
Portuguese children in 1917. In his commentary, Cardinal Ratzinger said the third
part of the message is a symbolic prophecy of the church’s 20th-century
struggles with evil political systems and of the church’s ultimate triumph.


(26) August 6, 2000: Dominus Iesus, a declaration on the “exclusive, universal
and absolute” value of Jesus Christ and his church for salvation.


(27) September 14, 2000: “Instruction on Prayers for Healing,” noting the
importance of believing that God wants to free people from suffering, but encouraging local bishops to be vigilant that the services do not become occasions for hysteria or focus more on the so-called gift of healing possessed by certain
individuals than on God.


(28) January 24, 2001: Notification on the book Toward a Christian Theology of
Religious Pluralism by Belgian Jesuit Father Jacques Dupuis, warning that
although Father Dupuis’ intentions were good his 1997 book contained ambiguous statements and insufficient explanations that could lead readers to “erroneous or
harmful conclusions” about Christ’s role as the unique and universal savior.


(29) February 22, 2001: Notification regarding certain writings of Redemptorist
Father Marciano Vidal, a Spanish moral theologian. At the congregation’s
request, the priest agreed to revise several of his books to emphasize the church’s
official position on contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, abortion and
other issues.


(30) May 18, 2001: Letter to all bishops “regarding the more serious offenses,
‘graviora delicta’ reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith.” The letter said Pope John Paul had given the congregation juridical control
over cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests, classifying it as one of
several “graver offenses” against church law. The other offenses include acts
committed by priests against the sanctity of the Eucharist and against the
sacrament of penance.


(31) August 5, 2002: Publication of the declaration of the excommunication of
seven Catholic women from various countries who had “attempted” to be ordained
Catholic priests. The congregation had sent them a warning July 10 asking them to
indicate their “repentance for the most serious offense they had committed.”
The Vatican said the ordaining bishop had already been excommunicated.


(32) January 16, 2003: Doctrinal note on the participation of Catholics in
political life saying that while Catholics are free to choose among political
parties and strategies for promoting the common good, they cannot claim that freedom allows them to support abortion, euthanasia, or other attacks on human life.


(33) February 7-14, 2003: Revised norms issued for dealing with “serious offenses”
against the sacraments; the new norms included an expedited process for
laicizing priests guilty of sexually abusing minors.


(34) July 31, 2003: “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal
Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” reaffirming church teaching
requiring compassion for homosexuals, but saying legal recognition of gay unions is
contrary to human nature and ultimately harmful to society.


(35) July 31, 2004: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” saying the
subjugation of women is the result of original sin and not of God’s original design
for creation. Rather than ignore the God-given differences between men and
women, the church calls on them to collaborate for the good of the family, society
and the church.


(36) December 13, 2004: Notification regarding the book Jesus Symbol of God by
U.S. Jesuit Father Roger Haight, which said the book contained “serious
doctrinal errors against the Catholic and divine faith of the church,” particularly
regarding the divinity of Jesus and the universality of salvation in him. The Jesuit was forbidden to teach as a Catholic theologian.


(37) February 11, 2005: Statement and commentary reaffirming church teaching that
only priests can administer the anointing of the sick and saying the doctrine
must be “definitively” accepted by Catholics.


***************


As Thomas Reese S.J. wrote in the National Catholic Reporter on December 31, 2022: “What matters is that after the Second Vatican Council open discussion was suppressed by Ratzinger under the papacy of John Paul. If you did not agree with the Vatican, you were silenced. Yet, without open conversation, theology cannot develop, and reforms cannot be made. Without open debate, the church cannot find ways of preaching the gospel in ways understandable to people of the 21st
Century.”


[https://www.ncronline.org/opinion/guest-voices/pope-benedict-xvi-elected-philosopher-king-was￾heart-german-professor]


And so…we do move forward with knowledge of the past and hope for tomorrow.

Jack

Contemporary Theology – Not Old Stones

Some may have already heard this little story. Starting the new year, however, I wish to repeat it once again. 

Many years ago, one of my wife’s uncles approached me during a family reunion. He said he needed to draw on my expertise. He then pulled from his pocket a small reddish stone and said: “what do you make of this?” I looked at it and said: “very colorful.” He frowned and said: “but what is your professional interpretation?” I told him I had no idea about it. Very disappointed, he grumbled something and then said: “they told me your field of expertise was geology.” I chuckled and said: “not GEology but THEology.” 

I am an historical theologian. Theology should focus on life-nourishing belief not old doctrinaire stones.

The best definition of THEOLOGY is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – “Faith seeking understanding.” 

When people do theology, they reflect in depth about Reality and their Faith experiences: experiences of being touched by God, even for people for whom the word “God” may be problematic. I remember the words of Dag Hammarskjöld (1905 – 1961) in his book Markings: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

When we do theology, we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all of our concepts and experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge. 

In every age, theologians should strive to better articulate the human experience of the Divine for contemporary believers. I hope I can make at least a small contribution to that.

I shared the story of my wife’s uncle and his stone with an adult discussion group, which I moderate. One lady in the group, a retired professor of sociology at our university, then asked: “ok…but in these days of alt-truth, how do we distinguish healthy and unhealthy theological developments?”  

A very good question, because some theology does indeed appear unhealthy — more like a collection of old stones. 

Healthy contemporary theology should speak to contemporary people in contemporary language. It should help them discover the signs of Divine presence in human life and promote a morality of interpersonal respect, compassion, and solidarity. Jesus taught and lived the truth that love of God cannot exist without love of neighbor. 

I suggest five points for evaluating theology, regardless whether it comes from episcopal lips, from the local church pulpit, or from the keyboard of an older theologian. 

1-The aim of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the worldthe “good old days.” We need contemporary fresh air. Pope John XXIII when he opened the Second Vatican Council said it was time to “open the windows and let in the fresh air.” Some archconservative contemporary church leaders want to slam them shut and retreat into an earlier closed environment. They forget that the good old days were really not always that great. 

Nevertheless, we really cannot turn-back the clock. We should not even try. It would mean becoming a religious child again and thereby abandoning our adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments, based on critical reflection and developmental human understanding. The current upsurge of populist fundamentalism – with its appeal for “the good old days” — is not just annoyingly offensive. It is dangerously subversive and destructive. We must live today where we are planted.

2-Theological thinking today needs to reflect on the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experienceby interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The Sacred has not abandoned us, but we may need to better attune our awareness. There are many Catholics and other Christians today who are no longer comfortable in a church that does not speak to them. Nevertheless, many have indeed felt the presence of the Divine in their lives but do not have a language to express it. They speak about experiencing the “unbelievable,” or the “indescribable,” or their own sense of awe. 

A few years ago, I began this blog to encourage people to think and speak with “another voice.” The truly contemporary theological thinker must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past: maintaining a dynamic tension between contemporary religious exploration and consciousness and earlier religious consciousness. We explore and we grow. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”

3-When we do theology – when we reflect in depth about our Faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words,  and rituals that are products of our culture. But we also look for resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures. I often tell people in my lectures that I am not a far-out anti-historical liberal but a Christian traditionalist. Most people start laughing and then I do have to explain…It is living and believing today but with interpretation and resonance with earlier understandings.

4-Authentic and life-giving theology can never be self-serving narcissismthe expression of individual, subjective experience. Theology is the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience AND the Faith experience of the community of Faith. Today as well as Yesterday. Yesterday’s theology invites critical reflection and becomes a heritage, a tradition that finds an expression in historical doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual, and patterns of conduct. 

5-Theology therefore relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. It cannot, for example, venerate just ancient or medieval European culture. Jesus, for example, was not a fair-skinned European male.

All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses. These lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and the great movements in human history. When a theology becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry. Then the words, symbols and rituals of a particular culture no longer communicate and connect people to the depth of the human experience but become hardened old stones and become objects of worship in themselves.

My warmest regards as we move into 2023. I look forward to traveling with you.

Jack

“Journey of the Magi”

Once again my Christmas reflection is “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965).

Eliot was Born in St. Louis, Missouri but moved to England in 1914 at the age of 25. He became a British citizen in 1927. In the late 1950s, Eliot described his religious beliefs as “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.” “Ash-Wednesday” is the first long poem written by Eliot, after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. He also wrote “Journey of the Magi” in 1927. 

Thomas Stearns Eliot remains my favorite poet. I don’t have a Calvinist puritanical temperament but I do resonate with him in many ways. My inspiration for this blog came from his 1942 poetic observation: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” 

Warmest regards to all and every good wish for Christmas and the New Year. May we all make good beginnings in 2023.

Jack

PS        I will be away from my computer until the second week of January.

********************************************************

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Fourth Sunday of Advent


As we now draw very close to Christmas, a friend asked me how I understand the relationship between Christianity and other world religions. 

My own theological understanding of world religions has been greatly influenced by the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” It was issued on October 28, 1965, shortly after my arrival as a younger man and a theology student at the Catholic University of Leuven, then called “Louvain.”

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

My own theological understanding has moved beyond three “traditional” viewpoints about Christianity and other religious traditions: pluralism, exclusivism, and inclusivism.

Pluralism. Pluralism is generally the position that all world religions are true and equally valid. Jesus becomes just one more historic religious founder like Mohamed or Siddhartha Gautama, etc. Well, I respect other religious traditions but I remain a committed Christian. We all live and grow where we have been planted. I remain rooted in Christian faith in God as mediated by Jesus of Nazareth, who remains uniquely the center of my faith. 

Exclusivism. Exclusivism is the theological position that maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Exclusivists insist that there is no salvation in non-Christian religions. The main objection to exclusivism, however, is that it contradicts the essential message of the New Testament. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all and not to members of just one religious group.

Inclusivism. While exclusivism is clearly a minority theological position today, the same is not true of the inclusive view that Jesus causes the salvation of all. In one form or another this has been the dominant theology of mainline churches for some time. Inclusivism maintains that God is present in non-Christian religions but only through Christ. This viewpoint gave rise to the concept of the “anonymous Christian” by which God saves through Christ, even when the believer knows nothing about Christ or Christianity. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984) popularized this “anonymous Christian” understanding.

I would suggest, however, that a close and careful reading of the New Testament runs in a direction quite contrary to inclusivism. The message of Jesus is theocentric. It is about God. God who saves and God who is love. Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. I would stress that a theocentric perspective on Jesus – where we are today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions.

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we need to work together in what the US American theologian, Paul Knitter (currently emeritus professor at Union Theological Seminary where he was the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture) has called “unitive pluralism.” 

We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions. We need to develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer. We need to move from tolerance to collaboration. From collaboration to genuine appreciation. From appreciation to learning from the other.

Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future. Yes. We are all on this journey together. We can no longer travel arrogantly alone.

Jack

Cosmic Consciousness and the Star of Bethlehem

This past week, I was thinking about the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as I also began sorting some Christmas decorations, and came across a Star of Bethlehem.

The “Star of Bethlehem,” or the “Christmas Star,” appears only in the Gospel of  Matthew (composed 80 – 90 CE). There we read that “Wise Men from the East” were inspired by the star to travel to Jerusalem. The star then led them to Jesus’ Bethlehem birthplace, where they worshiped him and gave him gifts. Most contemporary biblical scholars do not understand the story as an historical event but an imaginative way to demonstrate the uniquely all-encompassing significance of Jesus’ birth as Immanuel — “God with us.”

Moving toward the third Sunday of Advent 2022, the Star of Bethlehem narrative leads me to a contemporary reflection about God, our Cosmos, and our place in the Cosmos.

Astronomy and the physical sciences are transforming our picture of the Cosmos. Titan, Saturn’s moon, for example, is a prime target in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. I read this week that NASA plans to put a flying robot there in 2026 as part of its newest planetary scientific mission.

Our Cosmos is fascinating. There may be tens of billions, perhaps even a hundred billion, solar systems just in our own galaxy. AND astronomers now estimate that there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. Amazing. One hundred billion galaxies. And our universe is still expanding and changing at an accelerated rate.  

Reflecting on the age and size of created reality, our image and conception of God takes on new forms as well. Even more fascinating and amazing. A good friend is completing a book in which he calls God “Creator.” I like that. Our universe is expanding. Our sense of God as well.

Do we have a spirituality for Creator of the expanding cosmos? Are the old theistic anthropomorphisms adequate for today’s believers? Years ago I read that Albert Einstein had started asking these kinds of questions. He wrote about “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.” He added: “and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” 

And…the First Epistle of John (written in Ephesus between 95 and 110 CE) reminds us: “We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16)

I suggest a new cosmic consciousness demands a more encompassing Earthly  engagement as well. How do we implement, down the street and around the globe, the Christian values of love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, and concern for the poor? 

There are new challenges for all of the world’s religions. New challenges for world governments as well. 

Who is master of our planet Earth? Can we continue, for instance, to just discuss but really ignore climate change? Can we just sit back and wait until the seas rise? The current best estimates predict that the average sea level rise for the contiguous United States could be 7.2 feet by 2100 and 13 feet by 2150.

What will it mean in 80 years to take care and responsibility for people and their lives, when millions of people are displaced by rising waters? What does it mean to take care and responsibility for people and their lives today? Is one race naturally superior to another? Can one race, or one country, or one religion ignore and/or denigrate the rest? 

In my now more than seven decades being a student and a teacher, I have come to realize that a good teacher is not necessarily the answer person, but the one who raises questions and helps students think and act within a broader and deeper horizon. Now I realize, more than ever, that all of us on planet Earth are called and challenged to be students and teachers for each other. We are one human reality and one human family. We either learn to live together or perish together. 

Cosmic consciousness? I believe God is Creator of everything and calls for responsible action on behalf of all human beings, together as a group and individually as members of the species we call human. Yes, today we also see human beings caught up in negative situations of ignorance, sin, suffering, and death. We are members of a single humanity. Our human solidarity should prohibit anyone from conceiving or hoping for a salvation that would leave others behind. Is it conceivable that Creator would stress love for some and not for the others? Is Creator’s truth up for grabs in a society of alternative truths. 

The solidarity of humankind is central to an authentic Christian vision. 

Each year we see ever more clearly that our planet Earth is like a grain of sand in an immense Cosmos. But, Earthly engagement is our calling, our mission, and our urgent responsibility today. 

Our churches, schools, colleges, voluntary organizations of all types, and cultural groups constitute the primary places where we should be actively engaged. Protests are often good and appropriate. Just by themselves, however, they are not enough. We need structural and institutional change. Christians, properly understood, must be active social-change agents.  

The Jesus message – the Good News — challenges everyone. We urgently need to implement a liberation theology for the poor and politically oppressed; a feminist theology, that confronts and disables all androcentric forms of patriarchal misogyny, denigration, and abuse; a queer theology, that values and sustains people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity; and an inter-religion theology, that values all the great religious traditions and promotes dialogue and collaboration…

Then we can truly live the Good News and celebrate Emmanuel: God-with-us.

Jack

Travel Reflection — Second Sunday of Advent 2022

The older we get, the more we realize that we are travelers. In our life journeys we move not just from day to day, but from place to place, and from event to event. There are grand discoveries, routine daily chores, great joys and great disappointments. 

One of my favorite New Testament journey accounts is the journey of the married couple from Jerusalem to Emmaus found in Luke 24. In that journey the couple chat with a fellow traveler about Jesus. They share their grief about Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Later, they come to the amazing realization that they had been journeying with the Resurrected Christ. In our life journeys as well, we sometimes forget that God travels with us.

Throughout our Advent journey, indeed, the realization that we need to focus on is that God travels with us. Perhaps we don’t always recognize the Divine presence, but it is life-giving. And now we look forward again to celebrating the birth of Immanuel who is “God with us.”

Very soon, we hear again the biblical account of the journey of Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem. The Gospel of Luke starts with Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Galilee. Mary was probably between 13 and 15 years old. They journey to Bethlehem in response to a census that the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus had required. The U.S. Catholic biblical scholar John  Meier (1942 – 2022) stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is to be taken not as an historical fact but as a theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.  In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. 

Nevertheless, we have a powerful image of the young couple on the road. Their journey leading to the great revelation that would change the course of human history. Matthew’s infancy narrative also describes Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees, fleeing into Egypt to escape the villainy of Herod the Great. Self-centered Herod launched colossal building projects. He ordered great buildings and walls and promised to make Judea Great. Focusing on Jerusalem, he expanded the Second Temple (“Herod’s Temple”) and even slaughtered children to eliminate any possible opposition. Every age has a Herod, determined to make things great, branding “accomplishments” with his own name.

And so for today, as we look toward the Second Sunday of Advent, my travel advisory for contemporary Christians:

  • Traveling with “them.” The fundamental reality for most travelers is that we travel with other people. It is easy then to make comparisons and to make judgments. Other travelers can make us feel uncomfortable and occasionally frightened. They do it to us; but we do it to them as well. In truth, however, we may dress strangely and speak in funny ways; but we all have human dignity, equality, and self-worth. We are not just “us” and “them.” We are brothers and sisters. If we travel with the Spirit of Christ, differences in gender, race, political party, and nationality can never allow us to denigrate and condemn the other. Contrary to an old Catholic teaching about queer people, for example, no one is innately disordered. God loves all. So should we. We need to welcome and accommodate them.
  • Travel brings change. Life is not static. Change happens. We either make the best of things and move forward or we regress and die. Nostalgia can be fun for a short time, but do we really want to live in the past? An acquaintance, who is a US Catholic cardinal, told me some time ago how wonderful the 1950’s were and how much he misses those days. I chuckled and said he had a very selective memory. I said I remember the “good old days” as well. I remember having scarlet fever. I remember the petrifying fear of polio and learning that a couple kids in my school were in “iron lungs.” And I remember public drinking fountains marked “for whites only.”
  • We change and our understandings can and should change. Women are not inferior to men. Protestants do not adhere to a “false religion.” Some of our religious understandings and practices (perhaps) made sense in the Middle Ages but certainly are nonsensical today.
  • News travels fast. Yes, but not all the news is fit to print. A lot if it these days is phony and dishonest, especially when linked with regressive politics. As we travel through time and cyberspace, we have an obligation to check facts, and to speak out about and protest those often self-righteous “Christians” who propagate falsehoods and plant seeds of destructive discord.
  • Traveling with fear. Fear is a part of life. In our human journeys, I suspect most of us have had fearful days that threatened to destabilize or even destroy us. I certainly have. And, in our sociocultural polarized times, new fears are on the horizon. We need to acknowledge our fears but continue the journey and face life with courage. We are not alone. As believers we know that, despite paralyzing problems, we are loved. Love energizes and strengthens. Over the years I have often thought about the final journey of the young Hebrew man in his early thirties, stumbling towards his death, with a cross-beam on his back. Frightened beyond belief. His courage, suffering, and death give us the courage to continue our journeys on difficult days. “Greater love no one has than to lay down one’s life for a friend…”
  • On a God pilgrimage. We are traveling with God and to God. The most exciting part of our journey. There are of course threatening temptations along the way. The first is to think that God is only for “us” and only with “us.”  God travels indeed with all kinds of believers and nonbelievers. God is at the heart of all life and all Reality. No group owns God. The second temptation, however, is to act as though we can indeed control God and, like some fundamentalist fanatics found in all religious, use God to condemn and destroy the people we just don’t like. The temptation is there — to make God in our own image and likeness.

Safe travels. May we be courageous…

Jack

And once again many sincere thanks to those who responded to my annual appeal

Advent 2022

Sunday, November 27th is the first Sunday of Advent 2022, a time of reflective preparation for celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth: God’s revelation of Divinity as well as God’s revelation of authentic humanity. 

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

A person’s identity was once based on a common language, a common religious tradition, and ancestral, social, cultural, or national experiences. Today, in a world of tremendous human migrations across all the ancient boarders, and with ever-growing cyber communications networks, identities are changing, whether people are comfortable or not about the new realities. 

Perhaps we should see our identity as based on something far deeper? Maybe we need a new perspective on identity? Some fearful people are working hard to reassert their old, often prejudicial, identities. In the United States, and across Europe, we see the last gasps of white male supremacy in all its ugliness, hatred, and violence. In the United States, we see as well a level of socio-cultural polarization that is higher than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (or the “War of Northern Aggression” if you are from the South). The past week has brought seven mass shootings in the United States. Twenty-two people have been killed and 44 wounded. 

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

Although an older fellow, I still meet occasionally with groups of young university students.They are a delight. They experience socio-cultural change as part of our contemporary reality and not a threat to their identity. They are much more concerned about the human values of truthfulness, integrity, honesty, respect for the other, and human outreach based on dialogue, compassion, and personal encounter.

I get frustrated with contemporary church leaders trying to resurrect the 1950s. Or worse. In October a fundamentalist pastor in Idaho told his congregation that gay, lesbian, and transgender people should be executed. A Texas fundamentalist pastor did the same in multiple sermons. They call themselves Christian! And I get frustrated with contemporary politicians pretending to be Christians but displaying neither words nor actions grounded in Christian belief.

We should ask all of them: To what degree do the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth reverberate in your hearts? That is what our conversation should be about. To what degree does the Gospel guide decision-making: celebrating divine love to the extent that people genuinely care for others, support, and yes even forgive one another. This conversation undercuts racism, the denigration of “losers,” the unhealthy lifestyles of self-centered and self-seeking bullies, xenophobia, homophobia, and all human phobias. 

Genuine Christianity celebrates the life of the Holy Spirit to the extent that a healthy and healing spirit pervades the individual and collective lives of people who try to genuinely follow the way of Jesus.

This week end we light the first Advent candle, remembering the Prophet Isaiah’s words: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2

Jack

Today is also U.S. American Thanksgiving. I offer a very sincere thank you to readers who have contributed to my annual For Another Voice appeal. If  someone would still like to contribute, all details are in last week’s post. Any questions? Just write me at  jack.dick@kuleuven.be