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.

“You Are Peter….”

A question from a reader of last week’s post on Transformation creates the focus for this week’s reflection.

He was kind but critical and quite surprised that I “as a good Catholic” could not acknowledge and accept that Jesus did indeed set up the papacy and that Jesus chose Peter “the rock” as the first pope. 

The biblical citation my reader used of course was Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community and the powers of death will not prevail against it…” This text has, over the centuries, often been used by Roman Catholics as the scriptural basis for the Catholic understanding that the papacy was established by Jesus. (The greek word ekklesia here best translated as “community” has often been less appropriately translated as institutional “church,” something that came much later.)

Some historical background: Most scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was composed between 80 and 90 CE. The author is unknown but wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew Christians located probably in Syria. The earlier tradition attributing this gospel to the Apostle Matthew is rejected by most contemporary scholars. Actually the names of gospel authors remained anonymous until the second century, when the Church Fathers sought to establish who, in their opinions, were probably the original authors. Matthew was apparently attributed as the author of this gospel because, more than any other gospel, it speaks of the disciple Matthew.

The author “Matthew” appears to have been a Hebrew Christian who wanted to emphasize that the Hebrew tradition should not be lost in a church that was becoming increasingly Gentile. When biblical scholars look at the text Matthew 16:18, they see not an historic Jesus statement but a creative theological reflection, written years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. The historical Jesus did not choose Peter to be head of the church. And it did not happen. The biblical author wanted to stress the pro-Hebrew-Christian belief of his community and used a creative Peter narrative as his tool.

In early church history, if Paul could be labeled “the Apostle to the Gentiles,”  Peter could be called “the Apostle to the Hebrew Christians.” 

What do we really know about Peter? When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the early apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Yes Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE. But James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the Epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebrew-Christians.

Most scholars agree that Peter did end up going to Rome but he was never a bishop of Rome. Rome did not have a bishop until about the middle of the second century. There is in fact a broad consensus among scholars, including most Roman Catholic ones, that the church of Rome was led by a college of presbyters until well into the second century. And nowhere is there biblical or historical evidence that Peter founded the church of Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived in Rome there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome; but there was no central administrator. No bishop. 

The Roman Catholic biblical scholars, Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier (1942), were emphatic in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans, and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.” 

Despite its growing popularity, Christianity in Rome was often misunderstood and membership brought  enormous risks. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, the Emperor Nero tried to divert attention away from his own failings. He used Roman Christians as an easy scapegoat. He had Christians arrested, tortured and executed. Some were crucified, some were thrown to wild animals, and others were burned alive. Although the New Testament does not tell us how Peter died, there is a strong tradition that he died by crucifixion between 64 and 68 CE during the reign of Nero, who was emperor from 54 to 68 CE.

One can understand historically that imperial Rome also became an important Petrine location not because Peter had been bishop of Rome but because he was an important martyr and a real link with the historical Jesus. By the second and third centuries, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE). When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, the Peter legacy and legends were expanded and took on Imperial importance.

Already during the reign of Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and under the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena, Peter and legends about Peter were held in high regard. Helena no doubt was influenced as well by her reading of Matthew 16:18. Between 320 and 327, Constantine built a five-aisled basilica atop the early Christian necropolis that was purported to be Peter’s resting place. The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” however, came from Pope Leo I, in the fifth century. Leo was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. He greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession based on his personal devotion to St. Peter.

The term “pope,” coming from the Latin word papa meaning “father,” was originally applied to all the bishops in Western Christianity. In 1073, however, Pope Gregory VII restricted its use to the bishop of Rome.

To conclude this reflection….l would agree that today one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, and ministry. One can also understand today’s bishops, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant, as sharing in that same tradition. It is only with a bit of creative symbolic imagery, however, that one can really call Peter the “first pope.”

Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on better contemporary historical and biblical research. 

  • Jack

TRANSFORMATION


This week’s reflection — perhaps a bit longer than usual — follows up on last week’s post “Order, Disorder, Reconfiguration.”

Transformation most often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. It is change but not restoration. Transformation is a new configuration. For the church it means a doctrinal as well as a structural transformation. 

The ministerial deformity of clericalism is one of several issues that must be addressed. It is a clerical power structure that is accountable only to itself. And, as we have seen, it often ends up abusing the powerless. 

The Vatican, with its proconsul-like hierarchy, is a governance structure that owes more to the Roman Empire than to the Way of Jesus. In fact, Jesus gave no blueprints for church structure. His focus was clear: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Structure he left up to his followers. The early Christian communities were charismatic and creative. Today we need a liberation from imperial structures. We can also be creative. There is nothing healthy about an authoritarian church structure of self-protection and privilege, with a climate of secrecy and limited accountability.

The church is the People of God. Transformation starts there on the horizontal collaborative people level not the vertical pyramid authority level. Jesus was a horizontal people-person.“For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

A healthy church transformation calls indeed, as I said in opening remarks, for doctrinal and structural change.

DOCTRINE: Official Roman Catholic teaching, in the books and in papal pronouncements, needs to be updated and transformed in the light of today’s biblical and historical research and understanding. We can and must learn and grow. Continuing education should be a requirement for all church leaders, starting of course with the top leader in Rome. Just like medical doctors, bishops need to be kept up to date. Perhaps they should be examined and re-certified every five years?

Examining the meaning of ordination is a good example of what I mean by updated theological and historical understanding. The historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. We know today that ordination did not even exist in his lifetime. It was created by early Christians and was gradually introduced almost a hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The apostles, therefore, were NOT ordained as the first bishops. One of my archbishop friends still says he often thinks about Jesus putting miters on the heads of the apostles, rings on their fingers, and croziers in their hands. He has a talent for episcopal fantasy.

In the early Christian communities, men and women, as heads of households, presided at Eucharist — without being ordained. When Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, May 22, 1994, declared 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” he was showing his own theological and historical ignorance. Pope Francis, unfortunately, repeated the error. During a discussion with reporters on November 1, 2016  as he flew back to Rome from Protestant Reformation commemorations in Sweden, Pope Francis said: “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear.” The definitive decision, he said, “was given by St. John Paul II, and this remains.” 

Ordination began not as a way of passing on some kind of sacred power but as a form of quality control: ensuring that early Christian community leaders were well trained, knowledgeable, competent, and trustworthy. It was only at the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, that the church officially began to teach that only a properly ordained priest could consecrate bread and wine for the Eucharist. 

STRUCTURE: The needed Roman Catholic transformation is also a structural transformation. Some things could be done rather quickly. Three structures could change immediately: (1) Church leadership could acknowledge and welcome all the ordained Catholic women who are already priests and bishops. (2) Church leadership could drop the celibacy requirement for Roman Catholic priests. Let them get married — gay and straight. (3) In a spirit of equality and fairness, church leadership could also allow the already ordained to marry if they wish.

Unlike some of my friends, I don’t want to get rid of the pope. Papal ministry, however, has to be primarily one of service not administrative power. For restructuring the papal office, much can be learned from the structure of  the World Council of Churches, which has an administrative center in Geneva and a General Secretary. It has regional “Presidents” (supervisors) for Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, for North America, the Pacific, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Oriental Orthodox. In a Roman Catholic institutional transformation, the pope could easily become the General Secretary within the Roman Catholic Communion, ideally with a set term of office. There would also be regional supervisors — male and women bishops — around the globe. (I would love to see a woman bishop as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.) 

In the restructuring process, Roman Catholics can also learn a lot from the example and ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury, within the world wide Anglican Communion. 

When it comes to structural transformation and the role of bishops, one could write a long article. Very briefly, bishops should be well educated and pastorally-minded Christian community leaders. Not colorfully dressed company men with barrel vision. I do try to encourage bishops who are competent and credible contemporary leaders. I know some who are my former students and I am proud of them.   

A bishop whom I greatly respected and admired was Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga  (1928 –  2020), Bishop of São Félix, Brazil, from 1971 to 2005. He was a well-known supporter of liberation theology and a strong advocate for the poor and for indigenous peoples. In 1988 he was called to Rome to be examined by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about his theological writings and pastoral activity. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation of Bishops found him problematic. They produced a statement for him to sign, as an acknowledgment of his dangerous errors. Bishop Casaldáliga refused  to sign it. He simply replied: “My attitude is a reflection of the view of the church in many regions of the world… I have criticized the Curia over the way bishops are chosen, over the minimal space given to women, over its distrust of liberation theology and bishops’ conferences, over its excessive centralism. This does not mean a break with Rome. Within the family of the church and through dialogue, we need to open up more space.” In 1971 when Pope Paul VI had named him bishop, he refused to wear the miter, preferring instead the sombrero of a peasant. He refused to wear a bishop’s ring; and he refused to carry a crozier, preferring instead to carry an oar he used to steer his boat along the Amazonian rivers to the churches of his diocese. He later replaced the oar with a Tapirapé Indian ceremonial stick. I A wonderfully courageous and prophetic bishop.

Roman Catholics in some parts of the world like in Australia and Germany are already experimenting with what is now called “synodality.” The term comes from the Greek word for “assembly” or “meeting.” It is a process of consultations between ordained and non-ordained that leads to a consensus. There have already been some positive and some awkward moments in the process. The big question is how authoritative synodality is or can be. 

A good example of synodality was the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region (6-27 October 2019). On 26 October 2019, they voted, with 128 in favor and 41 against, that married men who are permanent deacons should be ordained as priests in the Amazon region. For another proposal, in a vote with 137 in favor and 30 against, they recommended continuing to study the possibility of ordaining women as deacons. 

In February 2020, Pope Francis promulgated his follow-up apostolic exhortation “Querida Amazonia” (“Beloved Amazonia”) in which he does not mention the priestly ordination of married men nor women deacons but pleads for “justice for the region’s 33 million people for the protection of their lives, their cultures, their lands, the Amazon river and rainforests; against the ‘crime and injustice’ being perpetrated in the region by powerful economic interests, both national and international, that risk destroying the people and the environment.” 

Pope Francis focused on truly important and pressing issues. But he sidestepped a couple very important issues as well. He is not always comfortable dealing with structural institutional transformation. I certainly side with Pope Francis against his conservative critics like the US Cardinal Raymond Burke and his German critics Cardinal Gerhard Müller and Cardinal Walter Brandmueller. Pope Francis is not a heretic. He speaks very pastorally; but when it comes to hard structural decisions he often remains, unfortunately, very much an old-fashioned company man. 

There are indeed a great many issues for doctrinal transformation and structural transformation. Today I have touched on just a few. Human sexuality remains a big issue. Is same-sex marriage sacramental? Does the church have a sexual hang up? Ecumenical relations? Is Catholic belief closer to the truth than Protestant belief? Who has the truth? Is consolidating parishes and having circuit-rider priests driving from place to place on week ends a healthy way to maintain parish communities? How does a church establish itself as a credible moral authority? Is abortion really the major moral evil in today’s world? What about racism, poverty, starvation, and genocide? How does the church deal with climate change? Are democracy, justice, and equality church virtues as well?

Transformation is a big process. It is an absolutely necessary process, and the Catholic clock is ticking. I hope it will happen. 

John Gehring, who is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, understands very well the current Roman Catholic predicament. I conclude this week’s reflection with one of  his observations, in “Confessions of an exhausted Catholic,” published on July 23rd in the National Catholic Reporter.

“I still believe the best of Catholicism can enrich our culture, politics and search for meaning. The artists, activists and ordinary Catholics who live our faith in the shadow of scandal and hypocrisy are not blind to the flaws of our church. We persist because we search and struggle together, connected in spirit and memory to all those who did the same before us, and to future generations who will take up this difficult, worthy pilgrimage after we are gone.”

  • Jack

Order, Disorder, Reconfiguration


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jack