Catholic Women Priests

Last week my reflection was about Natural Law. This week, since many have asked me for more explanation, I offer a reflection about “being natural” and women priests in the Catholic Church. I did write about women priests a good eight years ago. But much has happened since then. 

Today, October 15, 2021, I should also add that the National Catholic Reporter came out with an article yesterday about Anne Tropeano, or ‘Father Anne’, who blames God for leading her towards ordination. She will be ordained as a Roman Catholic woman priest in Albuquerque, NM on Saturday, October 16, 2021 at the Cathedral of St. John. Anne Tropeano holds a Master of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA, and ministered with the Jesuits for twelve years. Recently profiled in The New Yorker, ‘Fr. Anne’ is quoted saying, “You say women can’t be priests? Watch me.”  

I have to acknowledge, since I was overwhelmed by the revelation, that my first thought for this week’s post was to comment about the most recent devastating revelation about widespread clerical sexual abuse in France. The official report tells us that French Catholic clerics have abused more than 330,000 minors over the past 70 years. Terrible and unreal! The report is devastating and disgusting. I agree with historian and journalist Massimo Faggioli that this is the biggest RCC development since the sixteenth century Reformation. I am not ignoring it but will let others, like Massimo, follow up on that. 

In my my post today, I want to change the conversation, shifting from wayward bishops and abusive clergy. They will all get what they deserve. And everyone needs to help the victims…

Today however I really want to focus on women’s ordination in my RCC Christian tradition. Life goes on. We need to build a better future; and women’s ordination is an essential part of that. As I write today, I am also very conscious of a wonderfully talented young woman priest, ordained recently and who celebrated her first mass this week.

First I offer a bit of older church history…  In 1994, to officially stamp-out what he considered a rapidly spreading “deviant behavior” and unorthodox thought and teaching, Pope John Paul II declared women’s ordination a closed matter. In his  letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalishe wrote: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” The Roman Catholic prohibition of women’s ordination argued from a perception of divinely-constituted gender roles: the belief that masculinity was integral to the ministry of both Jesus and the apostles. Being a woman is fine, the churchmen said, but if a person is going to act “in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) that person needs to have male genitalia.

Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and apparently Pope Francis have all believed, when it comes to priesthood, that there is an essential difference between being male and being female —  i.e. that maleness is necessary for priesthood just as water is necessary for baptism. Why? Because, they argue,  that’s the way the historical Jesus set it up. All of this is summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (issued by Pope John Paul in 1992): “Only a baptized man (vir in Latin) validly receives sacred ordination.” The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

Interesting. I remember very clearly the official declaration of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976 that no valid scriptural reason existed for not ordaining women. With all due respect, even popes need remedial theological education. Or they at least need well educated and up-to-date advisors and ghost writers.The Pontifical Biblical Commission was formally established by Pope Leo XIII (1810 – 1903) in October 1902. Its purpose was and has always been to ensure the proper Roman Catholic interpretation and defense of Sacred Scripture. 

Very often those who oppose women’s ordination argue that Jesus chose only male disciples so therefore all priests and bishops must be men. The historical testimony, however, does not confirm this. The historical Jesus was not a male chauvinist.

Jesus’ disciples were a dynamic group of young men and women, most probably in their early or late teens. In the Hebrew tradition, we know that young men began studying under a rabbi when they were between ages 13 and 15. We know from the Martha/Mary account in Luke chapter 10 that Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, was truly a disciple. 

In each of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection, there is a common thread: the first witnesses to the reality of the empty tomb were women. 

Yes indeed, among Jesus’ disciples, later called apostles when sent out to preach the Good News, there were men and women. Certainly Mary the Magdalene was a key disciple and has often been called the “apostle to the apostles.” Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, refers to Priscilla and Aquila. He praises the woman Junia as a prominent apostle and Phoebe, a leader from the church at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth.

As far as ordination is concerned, as I have often written, the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. Ordination came several decades after Jesus’ Last Supper. When it was established, it was not about sacramental power. It was simply a form of quality control insuring qualified and competent ministers.

In the early Christian communities, long before ordination came into being, male and female leaders, selected by the communities, presided at Eucharistic celebrations. There were male and female ministerial leaders. Much later in the history of the church, misogyny slipped in and an all-male clerical culture took over. Priesthood then became male-hood.

A major development in the contemporary experience of women’s ordination came in 2002 with the ordination of the “Danube Seven” —  a group of seven women from Germany, Austria and the United States who were validly ordained as priests on a ship cruising the Danube river on 29 June 2002. It was an historic moment. A year later, two of the original group were ordained bishops.

Today, RCWP (Roman Catholic Women Priests) and ARCWP  (Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests) are two branches that have developed from the ordination of the seven women on the Danube. Both groups have members in the USA and both are international. RCWP women priests and bishops minister in over 34 USA states and are also present in Canada, Europe, South and Central America, South Africa, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Today there are 270 Women Priests and 15 Women Bishops worldwide.

Prophetic movements, like RCWP, always shake-up institutional managers. That of course is often a good thing. The prophetic leaders who condone women’s ordination often incur excommunication. In every institution it takes time for top management to acknowledge and appreciate the change makers. Even the historical Jesus discovered this in his early thirties.

Looking historically at how change occurs in the Roman Catholic tradition, we see a three stage development: (1) When a big change starts, the change is condemned. (2) Later, if the change continues to develop and prosper, it is officially “tolerated” and often as “an experiment.” (3) Finally, once the change is fully established and flourishing, it is labeled “good and truly a part of our tradition.” As they say, hope springs eternal. As I would say – Yes. The Women Priests movement proves it is happening.

  • Jack

Being Natural

A friend reacted to last week’s post saying “Development is good but when it comes to Natural Law some things ARE carved in stone.” His observation introduces this week’s brief reflection about “Being Natural.”

Catholic moral teaching has traditionally been based on the Natural Law and not directly on Scripture or revelation. The Catholic tradition holds that human reason, by reflecting on human nature, can arrive at true ethical wisdom and knowledge.

In its most general sense, Natural Law concerns the whole order of things that defines us as human persons and contributes to human development. Understanding Natural Law however, should involve historical consciousness: recognizing the developmental and pluralistic character of human experience and expression. Unfortunately that is not always the case. Some approaches to moral issues surrounding human sexuality, for example, fail to give enough importance to historical and cultural developments and place an overemphasis on a physicalism that too readily identifies the moral aspects of the act with the physical aspects. Human sexuality is about much more than just genital activity.

Today we see two approaches to Natural Law: the “classicist” and the “historically conscious.” We need to strive for a balance. The classicist mentality stresses the obligation, perceived by reason, to conform to human nature, which some understand as “carved in stone.” The historically conscious mentality appreciates the developmental and pluralistic character of human experience and expression.

The classicist mentality, for instance, would say that being gay is unnatural, or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered…They are contrary to the Natural Law.” 

The historically conscious mentality would say: We once thought homosexuality was unnatural, but now we understand that some people are naturally gay. Others are naturally heterosexual. They all need our understanding and support.

I remember when one of my former students, a young gay Catholic priest, decided to tell his very classicist bishop that he was gay and needed the bishop’s understanding and personal support. The bishop listened to him and then stood up and yelled at him: “You are a disgusting human being. Get out of my sight. I never want to see you again.” Late one night, a few months later, the young fellow crashed his car into a tree and killed himself.

Fortunately, however, unlike this awfully classicist mitered man, we do have some wonderfully pastoral bishops. On January 25th they issued a statement titled “God Is on Your Side: A Statement from Catholic Bishops on Protecting LGBT Youth.” Their statement says Jesus taught mercy and compassion for all, particularly those who are marginalized and persecuted. “All people of goodwill” the bishops wrote “should help, support, and defend LGBT youth; who attempt suicide at much higher rates than their straight counterparts; who are often homeless because of families who reject them; who are rejected, bullied and harassed; and who are the target of violent acts at alarming rates.” These bishops deserve recognition and support. They are: Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey; Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego; Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona; Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky; Retired Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore; Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan of San Diego.

The classicist, carved-in-stone mentality has indeed created a number of historical moral problems, and not just for gay people. Slavery was once considered natural because some people, like black Africans, were understood as naturally inferior to white Caucasians. Even when I was a high school student in the 1950s a biology teacher had a class presentation on “racial differences.” He produced a chart showing an African head and a Caucasian head. “Please note,” he said, “Africans have smaller brains that are inferior to the brains of us white people.” He also said that African men have much larger genitalia than white men and that they therefore cannot control their sexual urges and have a natural inclination toward dangerous and abnormal sexual behavior.

For centuries, women have suffered greatly because they were considered naturally inferior to men. In many countries, historically, they could not own property and could not vote. In civil society in the USA and in Western Europe today, much of that old pejorative understanding has fortunately disappeared. In fact, as a sign of progress for women, the United States Mint has just announced the designs for the first five coins in the “American Women Quarters Program.” The 2022 coins will honor the achievements of the poet Maya Angelou, the astronaut and physicist Dr. Sally Ride, the Cherokee activist and social worker Wilma Mankiller, the woman’s suffragist and educator Nina Otero-Warren, and the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

In my RCC Christian tradition, however, even today, many bishops remain rigidly classist and follow the teachings of  Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI that women are below men and cannot be ordained as priests because they are not male. I read last week about a US bishop who wants physical examinations of all candidates for priesthood to insure not only that they have male genitalia but also that they have both X and Y chromosomes — proving they are indeed male.

Pope Francis has made some small institutional changes in favor of women but he still agrees with his predecessors that priesthood demands manhood. Ironically most biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity stress today that the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone and that women and men, without ordination, did preside at Eucharist in early Christian communities. 

Personally, I greatly support those courageously prophetic Catholic women who, today, ARE in fact priests and bishops. The RCC institutional leadership has sanctioned them, but I find them noteworthy pastoral pioneers.

Concluding my brief reflection about “Being Natural,” —  When it comes to moral decision-making I really would like to see a shift away from a strict Natural Law interpretation to a theological ethics understanding based on love of God and love of neighbor, acknowledging and promoting everyone’s human dignity. Jesus of Nazareth did show the way…

  • Jack

Development Not Static Regression

The understanding of human development is one of our great inheritances from the last century. Human life and knowledge are not static but developing. When I go to the doctor, I appreciate that my doctor’s knowledge and skill are far more developed today than when I was a teenager.

For most people, a developmental understanding of reality is just a fact of life. Sorting through some old things stored in our attic I had to chuckle at the small computer I used to write my doctoral dissertation, now so many years ago. It was one of the very first laptops. My son considers it an historic artifact; and I guess it is. (Perhaps just like his dad.) Nevertheless, I have now been through a few computers, laptops, and iPads. 

I suggest today that understanding a process of development is also an essential element in our lived faith experience and in theology as it tries to understand and interpret that faith experience. 

Not everyone, however, is comfortable with an evolving and developmental understanding of faith and theology, especially when it touches on dogmatic teachings and moral “certitudes.” Certainly not for some people in my Christian tradition where an entrenched old guard wants to push people back into a 1950s religiosity with dogmatic rigidity.  

When other sciences are undergoing rapid development, official institutional theology often remains static. In many ways, the institutional church is still burdened with a theology which assumed form in a prescientific age. This affects biblical understandings, male and female roles in the church, the relationships between Christian churches, and the relationships between Christianity and other religions. Very basically it affects our understandings about the birth and life of the historical Jesus, and of course about Christian morality. 

Morality is certainly developmental. Many moral rules and values change over time. A good example of a shift in morality over time is our attitude toward slavery. Most people in the world today think that it is immoral to own slaves but that was certainly not the case a century ago. And of course it used to be morally acceptable, with a biblical backing, to keep women at a secondary social level under male control. Sexism as a virtue?

In my own theological understandings, as I grew up I moved from a static to a developmental understanding. I once thought Adam and Eve were historic people, but now I understand them as part of a rich and ancient religious mythology. They are not historical. But they are certainly not meaningless. I am a Catholic. I once thought Protestants belonged to a “false religion” and only Catholics had the “true faith.” Now I know better.  I understand that Protestants and Catholics belong to the Body of Christ. Together we pursue Truth. 

My own developmental understanding has undergone a number of changes about human sexuality, about the meaning of a vocation, and how I understand and experience God’s presence in my life. I don’t want to regress. I have been happily married, a theologian, a teacher, and a learner for more than fifty years.  I want to move ahead and continue learning – developing as a person and as a believer.

How do we protect ourselves from regressing? How do we  move on with a healthy developmental understanding of human life and Christian belief? 

Here are seven suggestions I have found helpful: 

  • Forget the good old days: Frankly they were not always so great. Two of my elementary school classmates had polio and ended up in “iron lungs.” I had scarlet fever and other childhood diseases. Yes I have a pretty good understanding of the past. I experienced it. I have no desire to live like back then. But where are we going today? Are we really dealing with contemporary reality, reading the signs of the times, and building for tomorrow?
  • Augustine (354 – 430) theologian and Bishop of Hippo divided the world into two camps: the City of God and the Human City. I have no desire today to get into a discussion about the pros and cons of Augustinian theology. There is a problem, however, when we fail to understand that the Human City — in which we live — is the place where we encounter and live with the living God. It is sometimes tempting perhaps but neither healthy nor authentically Christian to run away from the Human City. It is not healthy to simply condemn it as “secularized,” and then ignore the men and women wrapped up or crushed today under a broad array of human concerns and problems. The world is not our enemy. It is where we live with our brothers and sisters. Incarnation means God-become-one-with-us. What is God-become-one-with-us asking us to do this day?
  • Building temples: My old friend, who died much too young, Bishop Ken Untener (1937 – 2004) Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, often reminded people that building temples can be very seductive but has very little to do with Christian ministry and witness. If we follow the example of Jesus, he said, we cease being temple-builders and become traveling pilgrims pitching our tents. We follow and live with God’s people wherever their lives take them. Are we often too wrapped up in building and maintaining our own temples? 
  • Finding scapegoats: It is easy to find scapegoats in today’s society and in today’s church. I agree that problematic and abusive people need to be sanctioned. On the other hand, if we spend most of our energy on finding and heaping abuse on our scapegoats, we risk becoming incapable of being change agents. By only focusing on the sawdust in another’s eyes we risk ignoring the planks in our own. We need to be critical. But we also need to pick up and carry our own crosses. We need to take charge. Who is my scapegoat and how am I going to make constructive change?
  • Having the truth: No one has all the truth. No theology, whether progressive or conservative, has all the truth. No single religious tradition has all the truth. We are all truth-seekers and we need each other as we move along in our truth-seeking-journeys. Arrogance and self-righteousness have no place in the lives of Christian truth-seekers. Collaboration, humility, and compassion are the key virtues for all seeking the truth. Have we become arrogant and narrow-minded about our own positions? Are we really willing to listen, learn, and collaborate with others?
  • Exercising authority: Authority in the church is greatly misunderstood and greatly abused. Authority comes from Latin auctor which means the capability to influence people. It is connected with action and encouragement. Jesus provided the model for Christian authority: compassion, service, and the work of the Spirit. Authority in the church should be used to motivate and transform people, based on trusting relationships. Authority is horizontal not vertical. We all have authority. But how do we exercise it? Jesus says in the Gospels that whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Servant ministry = Servant leadership. 
  • Protecting the church: Church leaders sometimes behave in very unchristian ways, arguing that they are “protecting the church” or “safeguarding the name of the church.” This is not development. This is regression into a static self-protective power base. Gay people who get married are fired from church positions “to protect the name of the church.” Clergy who abuse children are allowed to continue their immoral behavior but in a different parish, in a different state, or in a foreign country “to protect the good name of the church.” It goes on and on. At all levels. A church that condones and promotes immoral behavior is not worth defending. Are we critical enough or too tolerant? And yes, it does take courage and supportive helpers.

As our understanding about life develops, we still have so much to learn. I am reminded of an observation by Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955): “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike. We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us. It is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware…The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books.”

  • Jack

In Pursuit of Truth

As I was reviewing some notes about “truth,” two quotations caught my attention. The first is from the US American writer William Faulkner (1897- 1962): “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.” The other is from Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005: “We have come to live in a society based on insults, on lies, and on things that just aren’t true. It creates an environment where deranged people feel empowered.”

My reflection this weekend is about the journey toward Truth.

Our contemporary world is experiencing a crisis in facts and truth, which also contributes to distrust in various political and religious institutions. The key question is how do we know what is true and what is not true when watching the news, listening to elected officials, listening to religious leaders, or using social media? 

Just a few years ago, Edward, one of my seminary students in my contemporary theology class told his classmates  I was a heretic. When I asked him to explain, he told the class that he had been reporting my lectures to “a theological expert” on the Internet. I asked who the “expert”was and Edward replied that he goes by the name of “Father Thomas.” Edward had no idea about the “expert’s” identity or background. “Father Thomas” made him feel good and told him to trust him, without questions. Today there are many Edwards following many a “Father Thomas.”

Sometimes I think the world is swimming in misinformation. Conflicting messages bombard us every day, about religion, politics, and of course Covid-19 and vaccinations. The daily newspaper, Internet news, websites, and social media all compete for our attention. Quite often each insists on a different version of “the facts.” They appear to suggest that truth is relative or simply a matter of personal opinion.

Nevertheless, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported recently that half of today’s US adults consider made-up news and information a very big problem. Made-up news and distorted information have a big impact on US Americans’ confidence in their government and their political leadership. Far-right religious polemicists create even more confusion and angry polarization. People on both sides of the spectrum complain about “fake news.” But absurd conspiracy theories are taken much too seriously.

Rather than making decisions on what is true or not true (the classic model), people today make decisions on what they feel or think is most probable. Narrow perspectives and narrow self-interest replace traditional law and order. So who is telling the truth? How can we know? What can we do? The Internet, of course can be a helpful tool, but it makes truth-finding ever more difficult. Once a lie is published online, it is difficult to trace, retrieve, or simply debunk it.

The simple and traditional answer about truth-seeking is that we know something is true if it is in accordance with measurable reality. In medieval times, however, people knew something was true because great authorities said it was true. Now that happens quite often today as well. In the Middle Ages, at the insistence of powerful institutions, like the Catholic Church, something was true because church authorities said it was true. No discussion. Case closed. This created problems of course. When, for example, Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) looked through his homemade telescope and saw mountains on the moon, objects orbiting around Jupiter, and the variations of lighting on Venus — all sights not in line with authoritative teaching — he decided to speak out. He was condemned by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, narrowly escaped being executed as a heretic, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo courageously argued for a new way of knowing, insisting that what mattered was not what the authorities said was true but what anyone with the right tools could discover and show was true. He made the case for modern science. Truth is found in the quest for facts not in dogmatic teaching.

All human beings, whether they realize it or not, are on a fact-finding truth journey. Our destination is Ultimate Truth. In the meantime, we pursue smaller truths. We observe, we make educated judgments, and then, like the courageous Galileo, we act and speak out. 

Here, below, are some of my personal guidelines for truth-seeking:

(1)  A helpful tool today, when checking the accuracy of what one finds on social media and news websites is “Snopes.com.” Founded in 1994, Snopes is a reliable resource to research and debunk urban legends, fake pictures, etc. I use it to check Facebook observations. Another helpful website is “FactCheck.org.” It is very helpful checking the news reports circulating on social media.

(2) We are not expected to have all the answers on our own. As we look for truth, we can turn to trusted sources for guidance. That may mean a trusted mentor, a well informed friend, an insightful public figure respected for her or his integrity, or a respected book using primary source material.  (When he was a university student, my historian son commented: “If there are no footnotes, it can’t be a good book.”)

(3) It is helpful as well to evaluate new information against known truth. As one comes upon new information, it helps to contrast it with what one already knows. It is also helpful of course to look for consistency between what was held before and now, a golden thread, realizing that we do grow in our understandings. 

(4) When truth becomes simply a personal or group fabrication, the understanding of reality is turned upside down. Discrimination and cruelty become the norm and compassion disappears. Extremist websites and groups gather more supporters. Self-advancement at any cost becomes the new virtue. History gets a new interpretation. Last week I read about a young Jewish university student who said that perhaps, given the socio-cultural situation at the time, Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews, unfortunately for them, could have been justifiable. Truth?

(5) When truth becomes simply a personal or group fabrication, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes a do-it-self deity who condones and blesses criminal and immoral behavior. God becomes a monster who condones the hateful and murderous behavior of the new “faithful.”

(6) In looking for trustworthy and truthful spokespersons, I find it impossible to respect or rely on the words of people who, like a former US president, are dishonest and immoral in their personal behavior and enjoy denigrating women, ethnic and racial minorities, and gays. Such people are not truth-seekers but deceptive manipulators of people working to advance their own selfish and sinister goals.

(7) People like “Father Thomas,” who hide their identity and reveal nothing about their personal backgrounds or the sources for their information cannot be trusted. They are dangerous deceivers.

(8) Remember the old saying “the proof is in the pudding.” Some ideas might sound wise, but, when examined more closely, prove to be deceptively hollow. 

(9) Undocumented information or assertions are not immediately trustworthy and call for deeper and critical examination. In researching my family history (my genealogical hobby), for example, I have found a great many false assertions in family history accounts and recollections. One fellow told me that my wife and I have two children. No. In fact we have one but the ignorant fellow interpreted our son’s two first names as the names of two children. Crazy. Another self-proclaimed family historian – who is a bit arrogant — wrote that my paternal grandmother died in Indiana and is buried in Michigan City, Indiana. I wrote back that I was close by when grandmother died in Michigan not Indiana. I was at my grandmother’s funeral, and know for certain her remains are buried in Montpelier, Indiana. Not Michigan City. The “family historian” refused to believe me, so I sent a copy of grandmother’s death certificate and photos of the cemetery plot and name of the cemetery. The “family historian” thanked me for sharing my “opinion” about my grandmother’s death and burial. Unreal.

(10) As a longtime educator I really do have to stress the importance of quality education. Quality education equips students with the skills for critical thinking and analysis and enables them to observe, judge, and more fully understand what is true and what is false.

Evidence-based truth seeking is not just possible but absolutely necessary.

  • Jack

Jadot’s Calls to Action

Many have asked for a bit more background…. This week, therefore, one final Jean Jadot reflection.

I do understand and respect that some readers may not be very interested in more narrowly Catholic issues. Nevertheless, this book project has been a major life event for me, going back to the mid 1980s, when I met Jean Jadot for the first time.

Next week something else.

The Call to Action conference in Detroit (July 21 to 23, 1976) was the closest the Catholic Church in the United States has ever come to holding a genuine national assembly. It created sensational headlines and provoked heated responses, pro and con. Today it seems to be a mere footnote in US Catholic history. 

The idea for the Call to Action came from the Advisory Council of the United States Catholic Conference. Chaired by Detroit’s Cardinal John Dearden (1907 – 1988), the Advisory Council was composed of lay people, religious, and priests appointed by US bishops.  

Archbishop Jadot was strongly supportive of the Detroit Call to Action program in general, and of Cardinal John Dearden in particular. Dr. Frank Butler, former Executive Director, NCCB Committee on the Bicentennial Observance, stressed Jadot’s involvement in a personal email: “During the Call to Action conference Archbishop Jadot was an affirming presence. He gave warm encouragement to Cardinal Dearden there and later, when Dearden’s colleagues at the NCCB were giving him such grief for having provided a platform for so many voices.”

At the end of Call to Action in Detroit, twenty-nine recommendations were made. As Archbishop Jadot stressed to me on several occasions, many of the recommendations were considered far too radical by Philadelphia’s Cardinal John Krol (1910 – 1996) and many other bishops in attendance. There were recommendations, for example, to return laicized and married priests to their ministry, to ordain married men and of course to ordain women. They called for expressed freedom to practice contraception, for an open attitude toward homosexuality, and for the reception of communion by divorced and remarried Catholics. Recommendations of a social or political nature included supporting amnesty for Vietnam War resisters and undocumented immigrants.

Cardinal John Carberry (1904 – 1998), from St. Louis and a strong Jadot critic, was furious about the Call to Action; and Cardinal John Krol, sent negative reports to his hierarchical friends at the Vatican. (Not good for Jadot.)

With the recommendations from Call to Action still buzzing in their heads, the US Catholic bishops gathered for their autumn meeting in Washington DC from November 8 to 11. At this meeting, Archbishop Jadot gave his bicentennial address to the US bishops, titled “A Watchman for the House of Israel,” which was very much in the spirit of the Detroit Call to Action.

Jadot explained that his choice of title for his address came from the words of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel 33:7:  “Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for the people of Israel. Listen to what I say, and warn them for me.”

Jadot saw the US Bishops as watchmen for US Catholics and told them:

“A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height for all his life to help them by his foresight….Our knowledge of history – the “magistra vitae” as Pope John XXIII called it – the insights coming from the modern sciences of psychology, ethnology, and sociology; our means of communications, all give us the possibility to see further and wider into the future than ever before…

“Now is the time to look ahead. Just as we can look at the sky at night and tell what the morning will bring, so we must be able to read the signs of the times to prepare for the future. This morning my brother bishops, I would like to share with you some of the signs that I read in our times so that we can see from afar and be prepared for what is coming…

(1) One problem that we will have to face very soon — at most within ten years — is the shortage of priests. I ask your permission to be frank and candid. I am worried that so many of us, laity, clergy, and bishops, do not seem to be concerned that, if not today, then in a very few years, we will not be able to staff our parishes and institutions with priests as we did in the past. 

(2) Another problem ahead of us which will grow in the coming years is the size of our Christian communities…People today, and especially young people, are searching for a group in which they can find a true communion of faith, of worship, and of commitment. Many are suffering from a certain feeling of loneliness…

(3) I should like to mention a third problem that is with us today and will undoubtedly increase in time. It is the problem of minorities. I refer to pastoral care for ethnic and racial minorities, both Catholic and non-Catholic… At times I wonder if the majority of our priests and people realize our shortcomings in these areas and even our arrogance towards our brothers and sisters in the faith who are in some ways different from ourselves…

(4) There are other problems either near or far on the horizon. I could mention the question of the role of women in society and in the Church or the problems that will come from the rejection of the traditional standards of morality in social, political, and business life.”

When Jadot concluded his address, some bishops applauded enthusiastically. Many others sat there silent and dumbfounded. Others sat staring angrily at the Apostolic Delegate. This autumn 1976 meeting with the US bishops was clearly a moment of transition for Archbishop Jadot in the United States. Nevertheless, history will be kind to him. He was wise, courageous, and prophetic. Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington.

  • Jack

Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man Washington

This weekend I am happy to announce that my biography of Archbishop Jean Jadot has been published. 

Jean Jadot (1909–2009) was a Belgian bishop and Apostolic Delegate to the United States from 23 May 1973 to 27 June 1980. His episcopal appointments were far different from those of his predecessor, Luigi Raimondi (1967–1973) or his successor, Pio Laghi (1980–1984).

The Jadot bishops, at the request of Pope Paul VI, were less big-business-type managers and more pastorally-oriented leaders with a generally open-minded and contemporary approach to Catholic life. Like Jadot, the Second Vatican Council was their inspiration. Jadot In his seven years as apostolic delegate, was responsible for the appointments of 103 new bishops and the assignments of 15 archbishops. 

The bishops appointed upon Jadot’s recommendation were quickly known as the “Jadot boys.” They were also quickly denounced by conservative US Catholics, after the 1976 Call to Action gathering in Detroit. After his address to the US bishops in Washington on 9 November 1976, in which Jadot very pointedly told the bishops what their reform agenda should be for the sake of the church in the United States, Jadot  became the target of bitter animosity from conservative bishops and laypeople. A close friend in Rome warned him at that time that “they” would now be “out to get him.”

Over the years the image of Jean Jadot has been distorted by some “progressives” as well as some “conservatives.” (All one has to do is Google “Jean Jadot.”) The first group often saw the Archbishop as a very liberal, progressive theologian. The second group saw him as an irresponsible modernist archbishop, who gave the United States its “problem bishops.” The truth of course, is in the middle.  Archbishop Jadot was not a far-out liberal theologian, but an open-minded and pastorally-oriented Apostolic Delegate, who was keenly aware that a changing world needed creative church leaders alert to the “signs of the times.” 

That some of the Jadot bishops ended up being less-than-exemplary bishops greatly pained Archbishop Jadot. On more than one occasion, he remarked that an apostolic delegate tries to research, consult, and come up with those whom he considers the best candidates for episcopal ordination and appointment; but no apostolic delegate is infallible.

Over a period of several years, with notebook and tape recorder in hand, I asked Archbishop Jadot questions, and he talked and offered candid observations. In the course of a friendship that lasted close to thirty years, Archbishop Jadot gave me access to documentation, correspondence, his diaries, photos, etc. I became his archivist as well, especially for documentation pertaining to his years in the United States. He was a wonderfully wise, warm, and supportive friend. 

Pope Paul VI held Archbishop Jadot in very high regard. Sentiments about Jadot at the Vatican, changed significantly, however, with the election of Pope John Paul II. In 1980, a physically worn-out Jadot offered his resignation to John Paul II. It was happily accepted. Jadot was called to Rome, where he worked in obvious papal disfavor for four years, as President of the Secretariat for Non-Christians (renamed “Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue” by Pope John Paul II in 1988.) During lunch with Archbishop Jadot one day in 1989, I asked him what it was like working at the Vatican after his seven years in the United States. He chuckled and then very seriously said: “I was given every courtesy but never any friendship.”

Unlike his predecessors and his successor, Archbishop Jadot was never named a cardinal. I vividly remember being with him, the day the announcement came out that his successor, Archbishop Pio Laghi, was being named a cardinal. Jadot had called me that morning and asked if he could drive over to Leuven for lunch with his friends at The American College. At the time I had not yet heard the news, but learned what had happened while he was on his way from Brussels. We met and had a delightful lunch. No one said anything about Laghi. After lunch, I walked him back to his car. Just before he opened the door, he turned to me: “Did you hear the news?” “Yes,” I said, “just after your phone call this morning.” “Well,” Jadot said, “I had to be with my US American friends today. It is not important to be a cardinal. What bothers me is that I know this is not about being a cardinal. It is a papal slap in my face.”

The last lengthy conversation I had with Archbishop Jadot was a couple years before his death. We shared critical observations about some not-so-positive developments in the church. Then he paused, looked at me, and said: “It is winter now, but spring will return.”

Although I had great affection and personal regard for Jean Jadot, I hope readers will find this book a well-documented and objective look at a man who had a major impact, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, on the Catholic Church in the United States. The focus of Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington, therefore, is the man Jean Jadot: his character, vision, and pastoral ministry. The book is not hagiography but history.

Writing this announcement about my book, I can’t help thinking about one of Archbishop Jadot’s successors: Carlo Maria Viganò, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States from 19 October 2011 to 12 April 2016. So very different from Jean Jadot, Apostolic Nuncio Viganò was not just a far-right conservative but a toxic trouble-maker. As Apostolic Nuncio he engaged in a massive personal coverup of sexual abuse by US bishops, was hostile to Pope Francis, and worked very hard to discredit and demean him. I am glad Archbishop Jadot did not have to witness all of this.

Today’s post is not a sales pitch but an update about a very important personal project. Archbishop Jadot had asked me to write this biography. The project took a bit longer than anticipated. The Archbishop had asked that publication not happen until after his own death and that of a few upper-level hierarchical personalities. Then came some unexpected publication twists and turns along the way. I am so very happy it is finally in print. If someone is interested in a copy of my book Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington, it can be found  on Amazon.com for a very reasonable price. It is available in paperback for $15 and as an ebook for $7. For people in Europe it is also available via Amazon.fr. 

Jean Jadot was a wonderfully kind and wise bishop; and, yes, Jean Jadot was a wonderfully wise, warm, and supportive friend. — Jack

The Changing US Religious Belief Landscape

The religious landscape of the United States continues to change rapidly.

The General Social Survey (GSS), by the Nonpartisan and Objective Research Organization (NORC) at the University of Chicago, has been asking US Americans, since 1988, what they believe about God. For decades, the answer did not change very much. Around 70 % of the Silent Generation, people born from 1928 to 1945, said they “know God really exists” and “have no doubts.” That same sentiment was shared by about 63 % of the baby boomers and the generation after them, Generation X.

In 2018, however, the millennials, people born from 1981 to 1996, expressed much less certainty about belief in God. Only 44 % had no doubts about the existence of God. More doubtful were members of Generation Z, people born from the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s. Only 30% claimed certain belief in God.

No segment of US society, in fact, has been immune to the rise of religious disaffiliation. While it can be easy to say religious belief changes are driven by young people, is also strong evidence that older Americans are moving away from faith communities, as they enter their “twilight years.” A big factor is lost credibility in institutional religion. This is a strong factor in US Catholic church-departures but it is hardly just a Catholic issue.

Religious voters, especially white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have been the bedrock of the modern Republican Party. It’s well known that Donald Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2020. Religious “nones” (people whose religion is “none”) backed Biden. 

It now appears, however, that the US conservative Christian tide is changing. The big change factors are that (1) the United States has become more multiracial; and (2) that larger shares of US Americans are simply leaving Christianity. Former Christians are either joining other religions or leaving entirely and joining the ranks of the religious “nones.” 

These trends in US religious belief create a consequential socio-political situation. In 2021, when about 26 % of US Americans have no religious affiliation, just 0.2 % of members of the US Congress identify as “nones.” Given the rapid religious change in the United States, it’s clear that the US political establishment does not represent what is truly a seismic shift in US society. Even more significant, however, is the fact that the declining far-right US Americans are becoming more angry, volatile, and violent. There is a real danger that US democracy will be  immobilized by hostile polarization.

But why are more US Americans becoming “nones”?

Some observers think the churches need more “evangelization.” I think that response is analogous to saying “take an aspirin if you have Covid-19.” The issue is more complex. The Christian share of the population is down and religious “nones” have grown across multiple demographic groups: white people, black people, and Latinx; men and women; in all regions of the country; among college graduates; and among those with lower levels of educational attainment. Religious “nones”are growing faster among Democrats but their ranks are actually swelling in both parties.

David Campbell, chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department, says a key reason for the Christian decline is an “allergic reaction to the religious right.” Many US Americans he stresses “see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically.” Christian nationalists, who believe the United States was established as, and should remain, a Christian country, have gone overboard with a broad range of measures to thrust their version of religion into US life.

I think another key reason for Christianity’s US decline is the way Christians have been behaving: individually and institutionally. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus was asked about which commandment was the greatest. He replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Christians are called to walk alongside struggling people: an expectant mother facing an unintended pregnancy; a young man recovering from substance use; impoverished parents hoping to keep their family together; immigrants seeking a safe asylum; gay, lesbian, and trans people seeking acceptance. The human needs are great. How do Christians respond to them? How does institutional Christianity respond to them?  Last week I read about a young woman, a greatly liked and effective teacher in a Catholic high school, who announced that she is pregnant and the soon-to be-father is her boyfriend. The local diocesan head of education ordered the school principal to fire her immediately. 

A great Christian revival could break out if Christians focused more on loving God and caring for the most vulnerable.

I am not a pessimist. I suspect many people today are not necessarily rejecting God. They just  feel that many religious organizations have lost touch with reality and are too concerned with their own money, power, self-preservation, and official doctrines. Those religious organizations  are spiritually bankrupt. They are no longer able to speak to and address some of the big questions of our time. I really do think many people today, of all ages, want to be a part of something larger. They seek a new life-giving perspective. Many may not even know how to express it but are looking for a renewed spiritual belief, what I call a taste of the Divine. A meaningful church must listen and journey with them. 

A good friend joked, rather mockingly, about people who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I don’t joke about it. I understand what is happening. Many of these people have a desire to live with integrity. They want to work for transformation and a more just, compassionate, and responsible world. Religions are good at giving answers. The spiritual quest begins with the opposite. It begins with the questions. Sometimes I fear that organized religion is not really listening to the questions of today’s searchers.  

I often think about the questions of the young husband and wife on the road to Emmaus, as reported in Luke. Jan Lambrecht (1926), my friend and Professor Emeritus of New Testament at our Catholic University of Leuven, calls it “one of Luke’s most exquisite literary achievements.” 

The two disciples are returning from Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. On the way they meet Jesus raised from the dead but don’t recognize him. They discuss with him their great sadness about recent Jesus events. They also invite the stranger to eat with them. Only later in their spiritual quest do they discern who their traveling companion is. They  say: “Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us on the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) 

On their life journeys, I am convinced many “nones” are indeed continuing their spiritual quests. We can help by traveling with them. I know, because I was once there.

  • Jack

God, Faith, and Disasters

More than 2,100 people have died in the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Saturday, August 14th. More than 7,000 were injured. Tens of thousands of people have been left homeless. Rescue work was hampered by heavy rains brought on by Tropical Storm Grace.

Natural disasters and human suffering have long challenged people of faith. Why would  God allow such things to happen? It’s a core problem for some believers. But it also drives some people to become agnostic or atheist. A friend asked me: “Why is the world in such a mess if God really is in control? How can a loving God let thousands of people die from earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, disease, and terrorist attacks? Is God pouring out divine wrath on sinners?” 

Another friend said: “Well that’s just the way God works. You should remember the story of Job in the Bible.” Job’s seven sons and three daughters were killed in a wind storm that blew down the house where they were gathered. Job was confronted with the fact that because of a natural disaster he lost all of his children. His wife said to curse God and die. But Job said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” 

Is it possible to make sense of such awful events? Philosophers refer to this kind of suffering as “natural evil” – evil that impacts the natural world itself, as opposed to “moral evil,” which results from human behavior. So why does God let disasters happen? I remember the day after Christmas 2004, when an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean created a tsunami that caused more than 227,000 deaths and displaced millions more in Southeast Asia.

Some Christians say that natural disasters are God’s punishment for immoral behavior. They argue that a whole city can be destroyed because of its sinful ways. They point to New Orleans, hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They say this happened because New Orleans has long been known as one of the “most sinful cities” in the USA. 

I have always found it strange when some people describe natural disasters as “acts of God.” I don’t understand God as a vindictive and hard-nosed authoritarian  —  a God who even had to have his own Son brutally sacrificed for our sins. Did God really want and demand that Jesus suffer terrible torture and death on the cross? In the New Testament, such an understanding of God does not resonate with the historical Jesus’ understanding of God, as his loving Father. A loving parent does not demand the torturous suffering and death of a son or daughter.

Unfortunately, some of our medieval Christian theologians did have distorted authoritarian notions about God, and they passed them on to future generations. Anselm (1033 – 1109) of Canterbury is a good example. He was a theologian and the Archbishop of  Canterbury for sixteen years. Unfortunately, Anselm did not have a very benevolent understanding of God. He saw God as a nard-nosed judge and stern task-master. Anselm believed that human sin and human disobedience to God (going back to Adam and Eve) had defrauded God of the honor that God was due.That offense to God’s honor had to be compensated for and repaired. God, Anselm said, could only be satisfied by having a being of infinite greatness, God’s own Son, acting as a human on behalf of humankind, repay the debt owed to God and thereby satisfy the injury to God’s honor. In other words, God would only be happy when God’s own Son was tortured and suffered a cruel death. Strange. What an image of God. Anselm was made a “saint” and unfortunately many later Christians inherited Anselm’s theological distortions about Jesus and about God. Catholic teaching called it the “Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.”

Anselm’s vision of God was limited. I would suggest in fact that much of our own understanding of God is still greatly limited. Jesus and early Christians clearly understood God as loving and kind. That is essential. That is where we begin. As my theological mentor, Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009), often said: “Christianity began with an experience, an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, which caused people to discover new meaning and to direct their lives in a new direction.” That new meaning and direction was anchored in forgiveness, compassion, mutual support, and collaboration. The Christian community of faith. 

Today, unlike “back then,” we are very empirical. The expression “the scientific method,” with its stress on knowledge coming from sensory experience, came into popular use in the twentieth century. Some contemporary people still suggest that “science and God do not connect.” In fact, however, there have been notable scientists of the 20th century, like Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Max Born, and others, who were very open to an understanding of God in their concepts of life, the universe, and human beings. The Anglo-American mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead developed a metaphysical creativity framework for his scientific study. He suggested that God’s own process of continually emerging into reality serves as the “divine lure” that guides and sustains everything else in creation. 

The US American philosopher Charles Hartshorn (1897 – 2000) and the US theologians Bernard M. Loomer (1912 – 1985), longtime Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, and David Ray Griffin (1939), who co-founded the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology, paved the way to what would become know as “process theism.” They understood God as omnipresent and immanent in such a way as to be intricately related to and bound up with a continually evolving creation. Many process thinkers argue that the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955) can be included among process theologians.

Not everyone likes “process thought.” But there are indeed many contemporary theologians, Protestant and Catholic, who do. I, in fact, resonate very much with “process thought” but would stress that “process thought” is still very much IN PROCESS.

I see our earth, our universe, and humanity very much in process: still evolving. I see natural disasters as part of our earth in process but also very much a part of human responsibility or irresponsibility. Climate change, for instance, is our responsibility. Earthquakes and tsunamis are often part of our earth still in process. Although, even with earthquakes, we now know some have had human origins. A database created by geophysicists at Durham and Newcastle Universities in the United Kingdom, has tracked down 730 cases of human-made earthquakes over the last 150 years. The primary causes have been mining, heavy water locked behind reservoir dams, and conventional oil and gas extraction.

So where does prayer fit into this process perspective? The clear message of the Incarnation is that the Divine Presence is here, with us, and with all of creation. God is not simply “over there” in some far-off realm. Over the centuries, the understanding of prayer has often been somewhat narrow. Too often people have seen prayer as just an action, a behavior, a recitation, or participating in a gathering where God and Jesus are mentioned. In all religious traditions there are indeed people who appear to say lots of prayers and yet live very self-centered lives rooted in hatred, racism, and even terrorism.

Prayer first of all refers to an inner state, a state of consciousness, a loving union with God. I do pray. In good times and bad times. In prayer I express my concern for family members and friends who are going through difficult days. In my prayer I try, as well, to travel faithfully with the loving God, even when I don’t understand the twists and turns in life: in the lives of my friends and in my own life. And I realize that my understanding of God is very incomplete. My understanding is still in development, in process, even though I know so very well all the classic God doctrines.

The Jesuit philosopher and theologian Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984) stressed that people do not  come to know God by solving doctrinal conundrums, proving God’s existence or engaging in an abstruse metaphysical quest. Rahner stressed the importance of Divine mystery as very simply an aspect of our humanity. Sometimes we must simply live that Mystery, with openness and calm reflection. Sometimes we limit ourselves, relying too much on rational knowing and a too narrow-minded scientific method. That Mystery, which defies description, is God. Religious doctrines can never totally explain or define that Mystery.They are simply symbolic or analogous pointers toward God. When people focus only on the pointers, however, they are getting close to idolatry.

Contemporary theologians really do have to ask how we can develop better pointers towards God. We need pointers anchored in all the complex realities and needs of our time, enabling people to believe and deal with human suffering with serenity and courage. Many of us learned about God at about the same time we also learned about Santa Claus. As we grew in awareness, our understanding of the Santa Claus phenomenon evolved and matured. But for many people their religious belief remained somewhat static and infantile. 

Divine revelation is not an event that happened once in the past. It is an ongoing and creative process that requires human perception and contemplation. Revelation is a part of reality. We are called to be open, alert, and contemplative. Faith means trust, commitment, and engagement. But too often it is mistakenly understood as an intellectual assent to ecclesiastical propositions.

Today, as science itself says there is so much we still don’t know, it is also time perhaps  to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to mystery and calm and reflective exploration. This may not be easy for contemporary people so used to getting instant information with a click on a cellphone or checking their favorite website or social network.

The image of a domineering and controlling God is an archaic image. We journey today with a different and more of a traveling-companion God, even if we struggle with descriptive words about God. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1John 4:12) The true and essential work of all religions, but especially Christianity, is to help us recognize the divine image in everyone and every thing. This is the illuminating light that enlightens all things, making it possible for us to see things in their fullness.

  • Jack 

The Burning Issue

The “burning issue” of course is climate change, and it raises many life-changing ethical questions. Covid-19 and the Delta variant are serious problems for sure. Climate change, however, is a looming catastrophe.

On Monday, August 6th, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  issued its latest assessment about the state of our planet. The cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, led by the United States and European countries since the start of the industrial age, and now more recently by China, have not only heated up our planet, but have set it on course to get much worse in coming years. 

The IPCC report validates decades of scientific predictions about our human contribution to climate change and its already severe impact all over the globe. We have to brace ourselves for more extreme heat waves, more droughts, more floods, more wildfires, and more hurricanes. Rising sea levels will threaten coastal cities like Miami and even locations like Mar-a-Lago.  

A week later, on August 13th, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared July 2021 the world’s hottest month in 142 years. NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad stressed in his statement: “This new record adds to the disturbing and disruptive path that climate change has set for the globe.”

A record-breaking heat wave that has touched temperatures of up to 46 degrees Celsius, or 115 degrees Fahrenheit, has also set off wildfires in the United States, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Siberia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and places in between. Elsewhere in Europe, floods that used to come once in a millennium in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands have killed at least 196 people. Not far from where I live, the flood devastation and destruction of homes, buildings, and infrastructure is tremendous. 

Water levels at the largest reservoir on the Colorado River — Lake Mead — have fallen to record lows. Lake Mead, formed by building the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, supplies water to millions of people in Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico.

Thomas Reese SJ observed, nevertheless, in NCR last week: “Millions of us are going about our business worrying about our daily lives while Catholic bishops and elites (myself included) argue about the Latin Mass, Communion for politicians and Grindr, rather than the coming climate apocalypse.” Pope Francis warned about climate change in his 2015 encyclical  Laudato Si, yet millions of Catholics, including bishops, are ignoring the looming climate apocalypse and the individual and systemic transformation needed to address it. 

In 1967, historian Lynn White Jr. argued that Christian beliefs promoted the domination and exploitation of nature, and therefore were incompatible with environmentalism. Almost half a century later, polls showed that fewer than 50% of all US Protestants and Catholics believe the Earth is warming as a result of human actions.

I remember when Pastor Robert Jeffress, who belonged to the former US president’s Evangelical Advisory Board, retorted on Fox News: “Somebody needs to read poor Greta (Thunberg) Genesis, Chapter 9 and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps aren’t going to melt and flood the world again.”

Many evangelical Christians, polls show, still agree with Jeffress. Others who reject climate change are simply convinced it is a hoax. Nevertheless climate change ignorance contributes to impending disasters. A helpful book here is Robin Veldman’s The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change. Veldman observed in an interview in Newsweek “Part of being a part of the evangelical community is showing that you keep good theologically conservative company and environmentalism is associated with being liberal.” 

Recall the story of Chicken Little playing in the yard when an acorn hits her on the head. She yells. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” With climate change we now realize the alarm is real. It is neither an hysterical nor a mistaken belief. Climate disaster has begun, and more frightening scenarios are imminent. 

Climate change has been described as a “perfect moral storm” because it brings together three major challenges to ethical action. (1) Climate change is a truly global phenomenon. (2) Emissions have profoundly intergenerational effects. Emissions of the most prominent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, typically persist in the atmosphere for a long time. This contributes to negative climate impacts not for a few years but for centuries. (3) Our combative tools are underdeveloped in many essential areas, such as international justice, intergenerational ethics, scientific uncertainty, and the appropriate relationship between humans and the rest of nature.  

The issue of climate change is complex, but the message is simple:

• Global warming is real. Human activity is the major cause.

• Global warming is dramatically changing the world around us today.

• Urgent action is called for.

• If we do nothing new (business as usual), the consequences will be dire.

Individuals, groups, associations, churches, and governments must take concerted action now. We must study. We must seriously reflect. We must all collaborate and act.

  • Jack 

ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES

Surveying today’s news reports, we see many “anti-vaxers” using the Bible to promote their cause. They most often link coronavirus vaccinations and the “evil” of face masks with the “mark of the beast” – a symbol of submission to the Antichrist found in Revelation 13:16-18. There we read: “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man. And  his number is 666.” Some Christian anti-vaxers even claim that the mark of the beast is a microchip within the vaccine. They blame Bill Gates.

The link between the vaccine and the mark of the beast has also been drawn by Pastor Guillermo Maldonado of the Miami megachurch, King Jesus International Ministry, where the previous US president launched his 2020 campaign outreach to Latinos. The previous US president’s religious counselor Paula White also liked to quote from Revelation. She assured the president that he was chosen and blessed by God and had to promote “spiritual warfare” against his and God’s enemies. 

The most common understanding of 666 is that in the ancient world letters of the alphabet often substituted for numbers. Each letter stood for a number. The number 666, for instance, referred to Nero Caesar, in the Hebrew spelling of the name. Later interpretations of 666 applied it to Hitler, and even (conservative US Americans take note) to President Reagan as 666: Ronald (6 letters) Wilson (6 letters) Reagan (6 letters).

As one of my old biblical theology professors liked to say: “The Book of Revelation, what Catholics often call the Apocalypse, has a wax nose. For centuries people have twisted and shaped its texts to fit a variety of enemies, fears, and anxieties.”

A distorted use of the Bible works like all great conspiratorial narratives. People select the most appealing interpretation, even when it offers a simplistic, unambiguous explanation for the complexities of the world. It is part of our “post-truth” contemporary environment. On Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, and in the news sites like Fox News, objective facts seem less influential in shaping public opinion than strong appeals to emotion and personal opinions. 

In the discussion, for example, about the Apostle Peter not being the first pope, one person wrote to me that whether or not he was the first pope is simply a matter of personal opinion. I wrote back that it is not a matter of opinion but documented historic fact. “That’s YOUR opinion!” was the response.

Biblical interpretation is a complex process. It involves an historical-critical examination of the text, which aims to discover the text’s original meaning in its original historical context. Historical criticism asks, for instance, when and where a text was written and for whom. The first five books (the Pentateuch) of the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, were long held to have been written by Moses. In 1906, in fact, the Roman Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a ruling that Moses was indeed the author. Good Catholics had to accept that.

The contemporary scholarly consensus, however, is that the biblical person Moses may very well be largely mythical. But a Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in the mid to late 13th century BCE. Hardly any biblical scholar today would claim that the five books of the Pentateuch were written by Moses, or a Moses figure. Such an author would have been long dead before the first texts began to take shape. The development of the Pentateuch began around 600 BCE, with a variety of authors. By around 400 BCE these books had reached their modern form. By around 200 BCE the five books were accepted as the first section of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Historical criticism also involves understanding the language and culture of the biblical authors and the variety of literary forms in the Scriptures. There we find, for instance, myth, history, laws, poetry, symbol, and metaphor. 

Biblical authors also used creative imagery, supposing what one thinks the historical biblical figure would have said in set circumstances. We see this for instance in the Gospel of John, where Jesus gives very developed theological soliloquies about himself. They are theological but not historical. We see as well much creative imagery in the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Those accounts of Jesus’ birth are more about a theological understanding of Jesus than an exact historical account of his birth. Their focus is on the theological question “who is Jesus of Nazareth?” 

Many contemporary scholars suggest actually that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth and that the Bethlehem nativity narratives reflect a desire by the Gospel writers to present his birth as the fulfillment of a prophecy given by the minor prophet Micah. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel….” (Micah 5:2)

Fundamentalist believers insist that a written biblical record must be historic or else it is nonsense and meaningless. Too many people these days have very little tolerance critical questioning and are blind to nuance. I suggest, nevertheless, that if one wants to do a bonafide reading of the gospels, one must be open to the process of historical criticism and appreciate the variety of literary forms by which truth is revealed but not necessarily in a precise historical manner. These texts do indeed reveal truth but on a different level. 

Biblical texts can also be the result of creative editing. For example, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7) Jesus is clearly portrayed as the New Moses. The old Moses brought the Ten Commandments from the mount. Jesus brings from his “mount” not commandments but exhortations about how one should live. Scholars suggest these exhortations were collected from what Jesus had said at various points in his public ministry. The final author of Matthew simply edited and pulled them all together.

In the Jesus sayings in Matthew chapter 5:29 – 30, we also find Jesus using hyperbole: figures of speech usually not meant to be taken literally. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away….And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.” The Greek word here translated as “hell” is Gehenna. It was originally understood as a grave and in later times a place of purgation where deceased people were judged based on their past deeds.

Not everything in the Bible is to be observed and followed literally. Some, mistaken, rigid fundamentalists do that. How, for instance, do we evaluate the legal prescriptions in the Hebrew Scriptures? Frankly, some of them in Leviticus and Exodus, are simply archaic and cruel. People do grow and change. Or they can! Belief and morality develop as well.

Leviticus and Exodus developed indeed over a long period of time. Leviticus emphasizes ritual, legal and moral practices rather than beliefs. Exodus, starting with Moses and the delivery of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, presents the defining features of Israel’s identity. The consensus among scholars is that the events in Exodus are best understood as creative religious imagery and not historical events. Exodus and Leviticus reached their present forms between 538 and 332 BCE. 

Right now I am thinking about two regulatory texts. Leviticus 25:44 states that one may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to using Mexicans. But does it apply to using Canadians as well? 

Then, there is a question about working on the Sabbath. The Sabbath goes from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. My neighbor, down the street, insists on working on the Sabbath. The fellow always mows his lawn, with lots of noise, very early on Saturday mornings. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that the person who works on the Sabbath should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Is there a biblically correct way to kill Sabbath-breakers? 

Evaluating literary forms and historical critical interpretations can indeed get one into big debates. Thinking about Genesis, I would strongly agree with those biblical scholars who understand Adam and Eve as mythological biblical figures, along with Noah and the great flood. One of my friends strongly insists, however, that as a true Christian I must accept Adam, Eve, and Noah as historic people. Why?

Biblical translations also deserve special attention. Translating the Bible is not something that is easy to do. Should the translation be literal? Should the work be more thought for thought? No translation is totally literal or totally thought-for-thought. Every translation gives a particular nuance and occasionally a different meaning. I am sensitive to translation issues because I do a lot of translations. Nuance is so important.

The Hebrew Scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek in the mid 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. What we call the Septuagint is the translated Greek version. When we read Isaiah 7:14 in the Septuagint, for example, we read “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” That text, which we know so well from Christmas, was used for centuries to affirm the virginal conception of Jesus of Nazareth. When we look at the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14, however, we read “Behold a young woman will conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” 

The original Hebrew text referred to King Ahaz who was the twelfth King of Judah from c.744 to 728 BCE. The prophet Isaiah admonished Ahaz to trust in God rather than foreign allies. In the text Isaiah 7:14, the prophet assured Ahaz that his young wife would conceive and have a son who would be Immanuel – God with us. Ahaz did have a son, Hezekiah, who, unlike his father, became a very righteous and religious king.

Some people are reluctant to trust newer Bible translations. There is a great abundance today and in  many languages. I have a modest collection of new translations in English, Dutch, and French. Each with a particular nuance. One English translation, which I generally like, uses inclusive language. It does raise some eyebrows. It is most definitely not patriarchal. 

I would stress that we need to recognize that today we do indeed have much more and more accurate  historical information than people had, for instance, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when major English translations were made. The Douay–Rheims (Catholic) Bible came out between 1582 and 1610. The King James Bible was published in 1610. We need to be alert as well to the changing meanings of English words. Consider, for example how the word “gay” has changed over the years. In the King James Bible, James 2:3 speaks about “gay clothing.” But the New American Standard Bible translation speaks of “fine clothes.”  

A contemporary New Testament translation issue that very much interests me is about the Greek words Hebraios and Ioudaios. Strictly speaking, Hebraios means “Hebrews” or “Hebrew Christians;” and Ioudaios means “Judeans.” In most English New Testament translations, however, both words are translated as “Jews.”

Strictly speaking, there are no “Jews” in the New Testament. Inhabitants of Judea were called Judeans, not Jews. At the time of Jesus, there was no religious, racial, or national group called “Jews.”  Not in Judea nor anywhere in the world. The word “Jews” appeared for the first time in an English biblical text in the Wycliffe Bible of 1382. There, citing John 19:19,  we read: “This is Jhesu of Nazareth, kyng of Jewis.”

John Wycliffe (c.1320s – 1384) was an Oxford professor and priest who produced the first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts in the 1380’s. The Pope, Martin V who was pope from 1417 to his death in 1431, was so infuriated by Wycliffe’s teachings and his translation of the Bible into English, that 44 years after John Wycliffe died, he ordered Wycliffe’s bones to be dug-up, crushed, and scattered in the local river.

How does one know how to best understand Biblical texts? It is not just a matter of personal opinion. I rely on up-to-date biblical commentaries and the research of respected biblical scholars: scholarly researchers who are well informed and trustworthy. There are a great many credible scholars today. Among Catholic scholars whom I like are my friends Raymond Collins and Frank Matera, and Luke Timothy Johnson. Among Anglican and Protestant scholars I have great respect for the Anglican scholar and bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright and the Protestant scholars Michael K. Gorman, Christopher W. Skinner, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa.

All theology is faith seeking understanding. It is a collaborative effort. We inform and support one another, and we journey together, grateful for credible, wise, and trustworthy guides. Our faith is something living, something dynamic, and something life-changing. 

  • Jack

PS    Next week a shorter reflection. About a burning issue.