A PAPAL REFLECTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jack

Conflict and Polarization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do?

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

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

****

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

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

  • Jack

“Chicago to Brussels”

(Main library KU Leuven)

This week a brief summer travel reflection…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  •  Jack

Climate Change an Ethical Alarm

This week, a day earlier than normal, a hot weather reflection about ethics and global warming/climate change.

Glaciers continue to melt, sea surface temperatures increase, and sea levels keep rising. Climate change is real. 

Some quick observations: 

  • While our Earth’s climate has changed throughout its history, the current warming is happening at a rate not seen in the past 10,000 years.
  • In the United States, in 2021, 58,968 wildfires burned 7.1 million acres. As of July 11, 2022, over 35,700 wildfires have impacted about 4.8 million acres this year.
  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Since systematic scientific assessments began in the 1970s, the influence of human activity on the warming of the climate system has evolved from theory to established fact.”
  • Scientific information taken from natural sources (such as ice cores, rocks, and tree rings) and from modern equipment (like satellites and sophisticated instruments) all reveal signs of a changing climate.
  • From the global temperature rise to melting ice sheets, the evidence of a warming planet is beyond doubt. (Although there are still “doubters.”) Sea levels along the U.S. coastline, for example, are projected to rise, on average, 10 – 12 inches by 2050 which will create increased and regular regular coastal flooding. Florida currently has more 3,600 square miles in the 100-year coastal floodplain. By 2050, this area is projected to increase to 5,300 square miles due to sea level rise. 
  • And in Belgium where I currently live, the rising sea levels could be catastrophic, because much of the country lies at or below the current sea level. Already by 2030 the rising sea level will present severe flooding all along the Belgian coast and as far inland as seven miles. 

As we move along in summer 2022, parts of the United States have already experienced punishingly high temperatures. Projections suggest more abnormally hot weather, an expansion of drought, above average wildfires, and hurricane activity in coming months. 

On Sunday, July 24th a fast-moving brush fire near Yosemite National Park exploded in size into one of California’s largest wildfires of the year, prompting evacuation orders for thousands of people and shutting off power to more than 2,000 homes and businesses. 

Each year Pakistan struggles with the June-through-August monsoon season. This year it has already been particularly brutal, an urgent reminder that in the era of global warming extreme weather is becoming the norm. Just in Karachi, monsoon rains this month have killed close to three hundred people and damaged close to six thousand homes. 

We feel the global warming in Europe as well. As of July 24th France is facing  severe forest fire situations.The three main fires are located in Corsica, in the department of Alpes-Maritimes, and in the region of Luberon. More than 7,500 acres have burned. The fire danger remains very high for the coming days. For two days last week, my wife and I escaped to our downstairs living room with curtains drawn and fans blowing, as record heat in Belgium and in Europe is surpassing all maximum temperature records. We do not have air conditioning and are now preparing our plans for August. More fans? 

Our climate is changing rapidly and dangerously. My area of expertise is not climatology. But I do experience and closely study what is happening. I am a theologian, with a background in ethics and climate change blasts an ethical alarm. 

About climate change, one can easily say we are all responsible — individuals, groups, and countries around the globe. Climate change can only be dealt with by unparalleled levels of global cooperation. It should compel countries to question economic models, invent new industries, and recognize the ethical responsibilities that wealthy nations have to the rest of the world, placing a value on nature that goes far beyond economic success and growth.

In some respects, however, it is too late to alter the coming impacts of climate change. In poor countries the impact will be very bad. They have less money to pay for adaptation and more need of it, not least because they tend to be in zones where heatwaves can push temperatures to unsurvivable levels. They also tend to have high population growth, meaning more and more people will be affected. 

Our world is in dangerous climate health. The illness does not have to be fatal. We certainly cannot just surrender our responsibility.

My reflection this week is an invitation for further reflection and action. I don’t have all the answers. We all need to collaborate on that: individuals, groups, parishes, companies, politicians, and governments.

I see climate change bringing together three major ethical challenges.The first springs from the reality that climate change is a truly global phenomenon. Regardless of their source, greenhouse gas emissions have climate effects everywhere on the planet. Collectively most countries would prefer to limit global emissions and reduce the risk of severe or catastrophic impacts. When acting individually, however, too many countries continue emitting unimpeded. And it is true as well that many of the world’s most vulnerable countries and people are those who have emitted the least historically. Their emissions levels continue to be relatively low.

The second challenge is that current emissions have profoundly intergenerational effects: for us, for our grandchildren, and for our great grandchildren. On and on. They will impact coming generations for hundreds of years. For example, emissions of the most prominent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, persist in the atmosphere for a very long time, resulting in negative climate impacts for centuries. 

The third challenge to ethical action is that we need to expand our our ethical thinking. I think immediately about ethics and international justice, about intergenerational ethics, about honesty and dealing with false scientific information. And we need to ethically consider the appropriate relationships between humans and the rest of nature. Climate change raises questions about the value of nonhuman nature. Do we have obligations to protect nonhuman animals, unique places, and nature as a whole? How do we do that?

So far my reflection has focused on addressing climate change from a more collective perspective. But what responsibilities do individuals have with respect to climate change? 

Some people argue that the responsibilities of individuals are primarily political, and that they have little obligation to change their consumption or lifestyle choices. This is a perception problem. A faulty perception problem. One person’s emissions do seem very small in comparison to the global total. The reality, by way of example, however, is that on average and over the course of a lifetime, the emissions of a single typical U.S. American are significant enough to contribute to the severe suffering and/or deaths of two future people. Yes. Our intergenerational impact.

The U.S. environmentalist Lester Milbrath (1925 – 2007) often argued that the only way to save our planet was through social learning, enabling us to “learn our way to a sustainable society.” He strongly made this argument in his 1989 book: Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out(SUNY Press, 1989). In his view, the key is to understand environmental perceptions and values and build on those values and perceptions to modify both individual and institutional behavior. For more than ten years Lester Milbrath headed the Environmental Studies Center, at the University of Buffalo. He then directed the University’s Research Program in Environment and Society, which focused on future societies, environmental beliefs and values, and public policy. 

Milbrath, often stressed that historically human efforts to dominate nature had worked too well, and now a new approach was needed: “Learning how to reason together about values is crucial to saving our species,” he wrote in his book. “As a society we have to learn better how to learn. I call it social learning. It is the dynamic for change that could lead us to a new kind of society that will not destroy itself from its own excess.”

Human beings, in their need and greed, have done too much to not only harm the environment but humans as well. Human activities that harm the climate include deforestation, relying on fossil fuel, and industrial waste. The ocean level is rising. Glaciers are melting. CO2 in the air is increasing. Forrest and wildlife are declining.

So…what to do? Here are five quick suggestions:

  1. Be well informed and counteract fake climate change beliefs. Learning how to learn and teaching how to learn.
  • Make our voices heard by those in power. Joining a social movement or campaign that focuses on environmental activities gets everyone talking about climate change action. We need to vote for climate change politicians. And vote the others out of office.
  • Leave the car at home. Walk or cycle if possible. Use public transport or try car sharing. Cars greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution caused by exhaust fumes poses a serious threat to public health. If driving is unavoidable…Investigate trading in your diesel or gasoline car for an electric or hybrid model.
  • Reduce energy use. Lower thermostats in winter. Air conditioning in the summer? Turn off lights and appliances when not needed. Replace light bulbs with LEDs or other low-energy lights.
  • Respect, protect, and promote forests – we need trees — and green spaces such as parks and gardens. They absorb carbon dioxide and lower levels of air pollution. They reduce flood risk by absorbing surface rainwater and can provide important habitats for a wide variety of animals, birds, and amphibians. Green spaces also reduce our stress levels.

Again, I am not a prophet of doom but a clear-eyed realist. The future is in our hands. As the old seafarer said: “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The realist adjusts the ship’s sails.” 

  • Jack

Addendum 1: For further reflection I suggest: A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change by Stephen M. Gardiner (Oxford University Press, 2011). Gardiner illuminates our dangerous inaction by placing the environmental crisis in a new light, considering it as an ethical failure. He is professor of philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington in Seattle. Stephen Gardiner clarifies our contemporary moral situation, with three assertions: (1) The world’s most affluent nations are tempted to pass on the cost of climate change to the poorer and weaker citizens of the world. (2) The present generation is tempted to pass the problem on to future generations. (3) Our poor grasp of science, international justice, and the human relationship to nature helps to facilitate inaction.

Addendum 2: I would not recommend a book which just came out this week: The Truth about Energy, Global Warming, and Climate Change: Exposing Climate Lies in an Age of Disinformation by Jerome R. Corsi. The author is a fiercely far-right conspiracy theorist and QAnon supporter. His new book aims to expose climate change as a neo-Marxist and anti-capitalist global warming hoax. His two earlier books were indeed New York Times best-sellers Unfit for Command (2004) and The Obama Nation (2008). Both books attacked Democratic presidential candidates. But both books have now been severely criticized for the author’s narrow vision, his their distorted information, and numerous inaccuracies.

U. S. Politics and Christian Fervor

I realize that I wrote about Christian nationalism already a few months ago. This week, however, I am returning to that theme once again. I find it has particular U.S. religious and socio-political relevance today. I will not just repeat earlier observations…

In February 2022, during a Center for American Progress (Washington, DC) interview, with Amanda Tyler, the U.S. American lawyer and executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) in Washington, D.C., Tyler said “The single biggest threat to religious freedom in the United States today is Christian nationalism.” Christian nationalists advocate a revisionist historical view of the United States and insist that the United States was established as an explicitly Christian nation. 

The January 6th hearings in the United States, have reminded us once again about the role played by Christian nationalism in the 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. As they stormed the Capitol, the rioters brandished Bibles, wooden crosses, Christian flags, and signs declaring “Jesus Saves.” They conflated patriotism with Christianity, as they chanted Christian hymns and cried out to God to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and “save” the country. 

Breaching the Senate chamber, Jacob Angeli (born Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley in 1988) the horn-wearing, self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman” led the rioters in prayer. He thanked God for “allowing the United States of America to be reborn” and for “allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government.” He saw the uprising as an opportunity to send a clear message to the enemies of God: “this is our country, not theirs.”

In fact the U.S.A. was not founded as a Christian country. The U.S. Constitution is a totally secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or of Jesus Christ. The Constitution refers to religion only twice: in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as an officially Christian country. 

Historically, the United States has always been marked by religious pluralism and diversity. Religion in the United States began with the religious and spiritual practices of Native Americans. English colonialists – including my paternal ancestors — arriving in the seventeenth century were Christians. The history of the first Jewish people in Colonial America begins with their arrival as early as the 1650s. Historians argue that Muslims first arrived in the Americas in the early 16th century in present-day New Mexico and Arizona. All analysts agree that the first migration consisted of African slaves. Most slaves who tried to maintain Islamic religious practices after their arrival were forcibly converted to Christianity. In the mid-seventeenth century, Ottoman Muslims immigrated with other European immigrants. Archives from the American Revolutionary War indicate that Muslims also fought on the American side. Estimates of up to two hundred and ninety-two Muslims served in the Union military during the American Civil War. 

The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid pace. According to the Pew Research Center, self-identified Christians made up 63% of the U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade earlier. The religiously unaffiliated share of the U.S. population now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009. The Jewish population is at about 2%. The U.S. Muslim population is now over 1.1%. Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion and is forecasted to grow faster than Christianity by 2050.

Nevertheless, looking ahead four months from now to the 2022 midterm elections, religion, especially far-right Christianity will be a key issue.

Many far-right evangelical Christians viewed the 2000 presidential election of George W. Bush, as the 43rd President of the United States, as the direct work of God. Repaying his election supporters, President Bush created the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives and Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in eleven Federal agencies. In 2016, Christian nationalists had a huge influence in electing Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. president, believing he was their only hope to “keep America Christian.”

In the midterm elections on Tuesday November 8, 2022, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate will be up for election. Thirty-nine state and territorial gubernatorial elections will also be up for election. And politics and religion will be front-page news.

Already in Pennsylvania, by way of example, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano  (state senator, retired Army colonel, and a prominent figure in Donald Trump’s futile efforts to overturn the 2020 election results) has displayed his religious fervor in his midterm elections campaign speeches. When he won his primary in May 2022, the Associated Press described his victory celebration as an “evangelical worship service.” Mastriano quoted the Bible and warned about the “darkness” of the Democrats. His rhetoric is just one example of the ever dangerous ideology of Christian Nationalism. Mastriano thinks that the United States has run into difficult times because U.S. Americans have abandoned godly ways. Mastriano objects to Covid vaccine mandates, gay rights, transgender anything, critical race theory, and any restrictions on gun ownership.

Addressing a far-right conference “Patriots Arise,” that mixed Christian beliefs with conspiracy theories, Mastriano spoke about what he saw as the true Christian identity of the United States. He said it was time for U.S. Christians to reclaim their political power. He stressed that the U.S. separation of church and state was a myth. “In November” he said “ we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so.”

Some of Idaho’s Republican 2022 primaries for the Legislature were won by candidates touting far-right Christian values or sharing priorities with Christian nationalists, such as banning transgender athletes. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who uses the biblical phrase to be “a watchman on the wall” against those seeking to “destroy our faith,” easily won her primary.

So how much influence does Christian nationalism have on American politics today?  And how big a threat does it pose to U.S. democracy? Some of my Catholic socio-political observers see more of a threat from the powerful conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei and its attempt to install something like a U.S. Catholic theocracy via the U.S. Supreme Court. Yes, there is something quite disturbing about the five hardline U.S. Catholic justices (Amy Coney Barrett, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito) who have links to the extreme far-right Catholic group. Opus Dei is dangerous and the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today. It’s history parallels that of Francisco Franco’s conservative dictatorship in Spain. Opus Dei members were appointed ministers in Franco’s government. Critics see this as indication of the organization’s penetration into the highest levels of Spain’s Fascist regime. Nevertheless, the U.S. journalist John L. Allen Jr. and the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori claim that Opus Dei as an institution was neither pro-Franco nor anti-Franco. (This is an ongoing historical discussion.) Pope John Paul II, who viewed the organization with favor, established it as a personal prelature, a part of the socio-administrative organization of the Catholic Church. And, critics note that John Paul II pushed through an unusually swift canonization of the founder of Opus Dei, the right-wing and controversial priest Josemaría Escrivá (1902 – 1975), because Opus Dei had bailed out the Vatican Bank with $250 million in 1985. He was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II.

In the United States, The Eternal Word Television Network, more commonly known by its initials EWTN, is a U.S.Catholic cable television network with strong backing by Opus Dei. The current Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Horacio Gómez, is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Archbishop Gómez did his doctorate in theology at the University of Navarre, the Opus Dei university in Spain, was ordained an Opus Dei priest in Spain in 1978, and was named “vicar” of Opus Dei in Texas in 1999. Archbishop Gomez’s Catholic bishop supporters are a group of zealots who in 2016 turned a blind eye to Donald Trump’s behavior. Yet today they consider President Biden a bad Catholic who should not be allowed to go to Communion. And they want to punish the new president for his support of legalized abortion, gay rights, and birth control.

Whether by a theocracy or through Christian nationalism, the aim of far-right U.S. Christian activists is to eliminate the traditional U.S. separation of church and state. Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican representing the western part of Colorado, said recently at Cornerstone Christian Center, a church near Aspen: “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” People in the congregation rose to their feet in applause. 

The ascension of far-right politicians and midterm election candidates comes amid a wave of actions across the country that advance the cultural priorities of far-right Christians. The most significant is the June 24, 2022 Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Right now I am thinking about the bishop who said: “Our prayers for the last 49 years have been answered by the Supreme Court.”) That decision raises the specter of state regulation of other health care decisions, including those regarding contraception, end-of-life care, respect for LGBTQ people, in vitro fertilization, and other fertility treatments. Common forms of birth control including IUDs and emergency contraception are already being targeted by some states as “abortifacients.” State laws declaring that life begins at fertilization will potentially endow thousands of frozen embryos with rights and impose impossible burdens on both fertility centers and their clients.

Christian nationalism idealizes a mythic view of the United States in which “real” U.S. Americans—white, native-born, mostly Protestant —maintain control over access to U.S. society’s social, cultural, and political institutions. And “others” must remain in their proper place. Many U.S. far-right conservatives — especially far-right whites — feel more threatened than in past decades. Obama’s election, as the first Black president, was a clear sign that the country has become more racially diverse and is destined to become even more so.

Sociologist Andrew Whitehead, Associate Professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, defines Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework that is all about trying to advocate for a fusion between Christianity — as they define it — and American civic life.”

On “Rumble,” a popular far-right video site, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia urged her followers to be proud of “Christian nationalism” as a way to fight “globalists,” the “border crisis,” and “lies about gender.” She stressed: “While the media is going to lie about you and label Christian nationalism, I’m going to tell you right now, they are the liars.”

The Texas attorney and author, Rick Green, who heads a group called the “Patriot Academy” runs “biblical citizenship” training programs in hundreds of churches to instill the belief that America was founded on Christian values. Biblical citizenship emphasizes the idea that the Founding Fathers, as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were divinely inspired documents. Strangely, Rick Green insists that “separation of church and state is not actually part of the First Amendment but was an idea that Thomas Jefferson articulated later in one of his letters.”

The Patriots Arise event, where Doug Mastriano spoke, opened with a video of conspiracy theories related to QAnon that prophesied that “control systems” including “media propaganda, the child trafficking, and the slave economy” would “crumble down.” A robotic voice-over forecast a “great awakening” and an image of a guillotine blade accompanied a promise of “executions, justice, and victory.”

Nevertheless, according to the Pew Research Center, declaring the United States a Christian nation and working to end U.S. federal enforcement of the separation of church and state are minority views among U.S. American adults. While support for church-state integration is above average among Republicans and white evangelicals, and far-right Catholics, many U.S. American Christians see that integration as a perversion of faith that elevates nation over God. But I wonder who pays attention to them. Many seem so silent.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says quite clearly that the country shall have no official religion. U.S. Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government since the country’s founding. The debate recently resurfaced with three new Supreme Court rulings over: religious symbols on public property, prayer in public schools, and state subsidies for religious schools.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults (73%) say religion should be kept separate from government policies.

Today, nevertheless, there is a vocal U.S. far-right Christian fringe vying for power. The November 2022 midterm elections will be significant. 

The idea that these extreme right-wing Christians are inconsequential or unimportant because most U.S. Americans don’t believe them ignores the fact that, over time, they can shift the national socio-political focus and become part of mainstream political thinking. We should not forget that many, at first innocuous movements throughout history, like National Socialism in Germany, eventually merged into inhumane and destructive mainstream movements. Why? Because people – for various reasons — allowed them to grow and take control. Such a process used to take decades but now thanks to Internet and mass media it has been greatly accelerated and is almost instantaneous. On the Internet, falsehoods can spread more quickly and be repeated more frequently. Fox News, for example, broadcasts conspiracies to millions of viewers. For too many people objective truth doesn’t matter. Only subjective belief.  

So we observe, we judge, and we act. We don’t have to be prophets of doom. We do need to join with others and think clearly and work constructively. 

  • Jack

P.S. For those  who might be interested, here are three helpful historical perspectives about Christian nationalism in the United States. 

  • The Power Worshippers by Katherine Stewart (Bloomsbury, 2020). Stewart reveals the inner workings and leading personalities of a movement that has turned religion into a tool for domination. She exposes a dense network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and pastoral organizations embedded in a rapidly expanding community of international alliances and united not by any central command but by a shared, anti-democratic vision and a common will to power. She follows the money that fuels this movement, tracing much of it to a cadre of super-wealthy, ultraconservative donors and family foundations.
  • Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry (Oxford University Press, 2020). It points to the phenomenon of “Christian nationalism,” the belief that the United States is – and should be – a Christian nation. At its heart, Christian nationalism demands that we must preserve a particular kind of social order, an order in which everyone – Christians and non-Christians, native-born and immigrants, whites and minorities, men and women – recognizes their “proper” place in society. 
  • The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America by Betty Clermont (Clarity Press, 2009). Betty’s well researched book examines how neoconservatives in the Republican Party forged a nexus with powerful right wing Catholics that would change the face of American Catholicism, the structuring of social policy in the United States, and the American agenda in the world.

A brief post-Fourth of July reflection…

This year on the Fourth of July, as I have so done many times, I re-read the Declaration of Independence. I am still a patriotic U.S. American citizen. The Declaration of Independence is THE foundational document which I respect and appreciate.  

This year I was also struck by the way that document signed by the “Founding Fathers” has been understood and interpreted over the years. A number of my women friends have protested the “all men” reference as misogynistic. Whether it is a text like this one from the pen of Thomas Jefferson or a biblical text, to correctly understand what the author meant one has to take an historical critical look at the original text. The first goal of historical criticism is to discover the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original historical context. (With biblical texts one has the added responsibility of going back to an historical critical look at the text in its original Greek or Hebrew.) The next goal is to ask what that text means today.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was adopted by the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1776, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783). The memorable lines of course are: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Dr. Jack Norman Rakove, historian at Stanford University, explains in his Pulitzer Prize book: Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, that when the Continental Congress adopted this historic text, they did not intend it to mean individual equality. Rather, what they declared was that American colonists, as a people, had the same rights to self-government as other nations.

After the successful Revolution, U.S. Americans began reading and interpreting that famous text differently. The words that “all men” are “created equal” soon meant white, male landowners. It did not include Black and Indigenous people. And of course it did not include WOMEN. It took a very long time in U.S. history for people to realize and accept that women might also be equal and have rights.

Eighty-seven years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, southern white men went to war to reshape the country into a nation in which African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish were locked into a lower status than the accepted white men. The Confederate rebellion failed. The United States endured, and gradually U.S. Americans began to expand the idea that “all men” are created equal meant Black men, men of color, and eventually even women. Women’s suffrage took a very long time, however. It was one hundred and forty-four years before the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 18, 1920. That amendment clearly states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

We cannot change the wording of the Declaration of Independence but we can proclaim today that all people: all men, all women, all races, all genders, are equal. And we can stress LGBTQ rights as well.

We do grow in our understanding of what texts meant back then and what they mean or should mean today. We are historical people. We learn. We grow in our understanding. 

So how do we work with texts today? Certainly the texts have to be factually accurate and comprehensive. This week, however, thinking about “all men” in the July 4th document, I would like to stress the use inclusive language. 

We should write about “women and men,” not just use “men.” We are a society of women and men. We are not “mankind.”  

As an encouragement that he use inclusive language, I once took the opening lines of a bishop friend’s pastoral letter, changing the text to inclusive language. Where the bishop had written “Dear Brothers, God our father in his wisdom has called all men to be kind brothers in the faith” I suggested he write: “Dear Sisters and Brothers, God who is just as much our mother as our father, acting in her wisdom, has called all of us to be loving sisters and brothers in the faith.” My bishop friend was not amused. Nevertheless,  but I continued the discussion and sent him a few more examples, along with suggested changes in liturgical prayers. Well, the Vatican could use some inclusive language education as well.

We must use and insist on using inclusive language. In reading biblical texts, I always say “sisters and brothers” when the text says just “brothers.” If you are going to recite the Nicene Creed, which states “who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven” at least drop the word “men.”

We must be prophetic and Insist on inclusive language which stresses the dignity and freedom of all people – all races, all genders. As a university professor I would only accept and approve a master’s or a doctoral thesis if the student used inclusive language. As editor of a university journal for many years, I insisted on inclusive language.

For their personal biblical reading, I encourage people to read and use an inclusive Bible. For liturgical readings, why not insist on an inclusive lectionary? Any why not use inclusive prayers? The historical Jesus was not a misogynist. We should not be either, if we are truly followers of Jesus and Christian believers. 

Using gender-loaded language reinforces inaccurate assumptions about the roles that women and men should occupy — and can successfully reach. The use of inclusive language offers us a chance to grow and become better communicators. When congratulating colleagues, why not say: ‘Well done, all’ instead of ‘Well done, guys.’”

Sisters and brothers we can move forward. God in her wisdom enables us to do that.

  • Jack

A Shared Vision and the Search for Truth

Today I am returning to “For Another Voice.”

I hope that I have something of value to say in the coming days and weeks. My main concerns remain the search for truth and a contemporary understanding of Christian faith and belief. Both can be challenging projects these days. Too many people promote their own fabricated fables as facts, and too many people simply accept such nonsense while refusing to think or question. And far-right Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) is very far removed from the teaching and witness of the historical Jesus.

My June traveling days were a time of genuine delight. (I will forget a few unexpected airport frustrations.) I crossed the Atlantic twice. I gave a much appreciated lecture at a conference of friends and colleagues. My focus was on the church as a healthy Christian community. Participants and I shared visions and concerns about today and tomorrow. My wife, Joske, and I also had wonderful reunions with family and friends, many of whom we had not seen for a few years. And, this summer, as younger relatives celebrated their weddings, Joske and I celebrated our fifty-second wedding anniversary. Still very much in love.

As an older U.S. American, and a long-time researcher about religion and values in U.S. society, my eyes and ears were open everywhere this past month. What I observed first-hand in my homeland raises a lot of concerns. The polarization IS extreme. More extreme than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War. Misinformation and mistrust are rife. It is not always clear who is really telling the truth. Or where one finds reliable sources of truthful information. And, of course, the recent supreme court decisions are promoting even more dismay, anger, and feelings of powerlessness. As I write this, the July 4 weekend in Chicago witnessed a shooting incident in which at least 30 people were injured and 6 killed. U.S. Americans have witnessed too many mass killings and buried too many children, parents, and grandparents.

In my USA journeys I did a lot of listening and observing of church people: members and leaders. I was pleased to get his most recent article from a religion professor at Western Michigan University. He confirmed the Catholic exodus in the areas where I grew up. When asked why people are walking away, he stressed: an increasingly conservative and often unfriendly “1950s style” young clergy, ongoing revelations of clerical sex-abuse, the church’s role in banning gay marriage in Michigan, efforts to limit access to abortion and contraceptives, and the treatment of women as “second-class citizens.”

Big changes are underway and the religious shifts in contemporary U.S. society show no signs of slowing. In 2019, 14% of all U.S. adults said they never went to church. But in 2020, that number jumped to 53%. Today it is about 73%. Many researchers now say that a lot of people who stopped going to church due to Covid-19 are just not coming back. They really don’t miss what they no longer experience. The Roman Catholic exodus continues.

Is the ongoing U.S. cultural change bringing a crisis for Christian churches? Everything depends on how one should understand such a “crisis.” Membership is certainly decreasing, especially among younger U.S. Americans. What some see as a crisis I see as a challenge. I ask: what does the proclamation of the Gospel mean in our rapidly changing cultural situation? And in a greatly polarized USA. For me, the question is whether a person, who is fully integrated into our culture, can be touched by the power and beauty of the Gospel.

The questions I ask about the institutional church are the same kinds of questions I ask about contemporary professional and political institutions. I see a lot of self-protective institutions increasingly out of touch with contemporary reality: not asking how they can be of service to people but asking how people can better serve them. This is institutional self-worship.

We need institutional reform and we need to dismantle oppressive systems.

As the U.S. pastor and author, John Pavlovitz, wrote recently: “Church, people are leaving you because you are silent right now in ways that matter to them. You aren’t saying what they need you to say and what you should be saying—and it makes them sick. They spend their days with a front row seat to human right atrocities, to growing movements of cruelty, to unprecedented religious hypocrisy, and to political leaders who are antithetical to the heart of Jesus. They live with the relational collateral damage of seeing people they love abandon compassion and decency; people who are growing more and more callous to the already vulnerable.”

During a long layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I read the newspapers and then re-read articles on my iPad, especially an article about the English anthropologist Jane Goodall, now 88 years young. She is a wonderfully prophetic and inspiring person. I remember her 1999 book Reason for Hope. The book details her own spiritual journey and her belief that everyone can find a reason for hope.

“Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference,” Goodall wrote. “It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.”

With constructive criticism, mutual respect, and collaborative efforts, we can indeed be “noble, generous, and heroic” in church and in civil society.

I look forward to traveling with you once again. I hope I can ask worthwhile questions and provide helpful pointers toward finding honest life-giving answers.

  • Jack

GUN CULTURE

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on the devastation and slaughter in Ukraine, one gun massacre after another continues in the United States.

Just yesterday a young eighteen years old gunman murdered at least 19 children and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. So far there have been 27 school shootings this year. Yesterday’s was the deadliest, since a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. There is little known about the motivation of yesterday’s killer, except that he wanted to kill. Before going to the school he shot his grandmother. He had purchased the guns right after his eighteenth birthday.

On Saturday, May 14, 2022, when another 18 years old gunman opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. killing 10 people and injuring three more, we know he was motivated by white supremacy. Almost all of the Buffalo victims were Black. Prior to the shooting he had posted a manifesto, inspired by “the great replacement theory,” a racist conspiracy spreading in a number of Western countries.

The great replacement theory is the far-right belief that people from minority populations are replacing the existing white, largely Christian population. It inspired not only the Buffalo shooter but earlier mass killings, including the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, the 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso and the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand.

Ironically many white Christian nationalists are strong supporters of “the great replacement.” There is absolutely nothing “Christian” about it. The historical Jesus – Yeshua – was not even white. He was a dark-skinned, broad-minded, and courageously prophetic man. He was hardly a racist, which was the main focus of his Good Samaritan account. And Yeshua clearly and painfully understood the importance of a separation of state and religion.

The term “the great replacement” was coined by a French nationalist writer, Renaud Camus (b. 1946), in his 2011 book titled Le Grand Remplacement. Camus argued that white Europeans are being “colonized” by non-white immigrants and face a threat of “extinction.” Former U.S. President Trump propelled the replacement theory into mainstream U.S. politics with his fear of white U.S. Americans being “replaced by minorities.” And most recently it has inspired Marine LePen and her party in France.

The extremist ideology that non-white immigration will ultimately destroy white values and western civilization has found favor with the top media figure on Fox News as well as quite a collection of politicians, who have convinced themselves that Democrats are operating an open-door immigration policy to “replace” Republican voters with people of color.

U.S. society is going through very difficult days. More than ever there is a great need for well informed people, for critical thinking, and for courageous speech and action.

President Joseph Biden warned about U.S. racism on Tuesday, May 17th, when he observed: “White supremacy is a poison … and it’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes.” I agree with the President but would stress that the country is facing twin inter-connected socio-cultural poisons: racism and gun violence. During an address from the Roosevelt Room at the White House after news of the yesterday’s mass killing in Texas, President Biden said: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?”

Well, it is indeed a strange culture that bans books and bans Cuban cigars but not guns. I call it the gun culture.

For your summer reading about the gun culture, I recommend: Enough!: Solving America’s Gun Violence Crisis by Thomas Gabor (Center for the Study of Gun Violence, 2019). The author is a Canadian criminologist who was a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa for thirty years. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1983. Since his retirement, Thomas Gabor has worked as a consultant on gun violence, crime, and related issues.

And for summer reading about racism and replacement, I recommend a book by Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and an international authority on the white-power movement. Her book is: Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. (Harvard University Press, 2018)

I am not running away from the issues, but I am running away from “For Another Voice” for a while. In keeping with my annual tradition, I will be away from my blog for about a month. Periodically, we all need time to relax, reflect, and refresh body and spirit.

I hope to be back with you around the Fourth of July.

Many kind regards.

  • Jack

Thoughts About Abortion and Pro-Life

I remember the days before the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. Many women died in those days from pregnancy complications or from the back-alley abortions that impoverished women or frightened teenagers inevitably sought.

I remember when President Bill Clinton said in 1992 that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” I remember as well, about the same time, a serious conversation about abortion with a now deceased European cardinal.

The cardinal had been publicly quite well-known for his very strong opposition to abortion. He invited me, however, as an historical theologian, to interview him about the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). Just the two of us. After talking about the Council, I asked him if he really thought abortion could never be justified. He stared at me in silence for a minute and then said: “Not for publication! My younger sister was a missionary nun in Africa. She was raped and became pregnant. I contacted a missionary doctor, paid him, and ordered him to perform an abortion on my sister, and then to keep his mouth shut.”

Well, I did write about abortion in February 2021. But in view of the heated and vitriolic debate about Roe v. Wade and a possible reversal of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, I would like to return to it this week.

When speaking or writing about abortion, I believe we need to promote dialogue with civility: to build respectful conversation bridges not blow them up. Respectful conversation, of course, must also be honest conversation.

We need a clear clarification of terms. Some equate the “anti-abortion” position with the “Pro-Life” position. Quite often this is not the case, however. A great number of contemporary U.S. anti-abortion political and religious leaders support capital punishment and torture and ignore poverty, healthcare, and the environment.

Unfortunately, for many religious and political conservatives, “Pro-Life” often becomes just convenient rhetoric for avoiding the broad spectrum of urgent contemporary life issues.

As a Catholic I remember and applauded Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and his “Seamless Garment” appeal for a consistent ethic of life with attention to the whole array of life issues. In a December 6, 1983 Fordham University lecture, Bernardin said: “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.” He challenged Catholics to view as “a seamless garment” diverse issues, not just abortion, but also nuclear weapons, the battle against poverty, and human rights violations at home and abroad. Bernardin was President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1974 to 1977. Unfortunately Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment” was criticized by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while he was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI, feared the “Seamless Garment” approach would diminish the unique evil of abortion. More recently, Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles criticized the “seamless garment” approach in 2016 because he felt it results in “a mistaken idea that all issues are morally equivalent.”

Direct abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus before it can survive outside the uterus. An abortion that occurs without intervention is known as a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. Miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is between 10% and 20%.

U.S. attitudes about abortion have changed significantly since the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. According to a new poll by NBC, support for abortion rights has hit a new high, with 63% of U.S. Americans opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Only 5% of U.S. Americans say abortion should be illegal in all cases. According to Pew Forum, 83% of religiously unaffiliated U.S. Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a majority of US Catholics (56%).

On Saturday, May 14, 2022, thousands gathered in Washington DC and at hundreds of events across the United States to rally for abortion rights, as a direct response to the leaked draft of an opinion by the Supreme Court indicating that it is positioned to overturn Roe v. Wade,

Most studies confirm that criminalizing abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions. But it leads to more women dying from unsafe procedures. The most recent study of the U.S. abortion rate indicates that the rate is now at its lowest since legalization in 1973. Researchers attribute this decline to better sex education and greater availability of contraceptives, reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies in general and leading in particular to an historically low teen pregnancy rate.

Anti-abortion supporters argue that abortion is morally wrong on the basis that a fetus is an innocent human person or because a fetus is a potential life that will, in most cases, develop into a fully functional human being. Some believe that a fetus is a person upon conception. Some in favor of abortion argue that abortion is morally permissible because a woman has a right to control her own body and its life-support functions. This position simply ignores the question about whether or not the fetus is an innocent human person or prioritizes the rights of the woman over the rights of the fetus, whether or not it is a person.

Are fertilized eggs human life? Surprisingly between 30% and 40% of all fertilized eggs miscarry, often before the pregnancy is known. Some fertilized eggs develop into tumors. The question of when an embryo or fetus is a human life is still being debated with a variety of scientific and ethical opinions and theories. A good example, perhaps, concerns brain activity. If we use the idea of brain death as the criterion for dying, then the brain waves’ beginning would be the start of life. If one believes that death occurs when brain waves in the cerebral cortex cease to exist, then one could propose that human life begins, when brain activity starts around the 23rd week of a normal 40 week human pregnancy.

Some theologians suggest that human life begins with “ensoulment.” The thirteenth century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the philosophy of the fourth century BCE Aristotle, thought the fetus receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender: 40 days for males and 80 days for females, because females are “defective and misbegotten.”

In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV set “ensoulment” at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks. In 1869, Pope Pius IX moved the “ensoulment” clock to the moment of conception under penalty of excommunication, influenced, it was said, by scientific discoveries in the 1820s and 1830s. Nevertheless, the matter is still subject to debate in the Catholic Church.

When it comes to abortion, people want to see clear-cut answers about what is right or wrong. Frankly, I don’t think the answers are always that clear-cut. Some people get quite upset and angry when I say that. Sorry, but the question of when human life begins still gets a mixture of answers. Some are more biologically medieval than contemporary. People can and must make prudential judgments.

Right now, indeed, I believe the best responses about the morality of abortion and the legalization of abortion are found in sincere conscientious reflection and decision-making. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, there are situations in which abortion can be medically necessary due to serious problems connected with fetal development or to save the life of the pregnant woman. Then it is indeed a matter of personal conscience and decision-making.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the human person “has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” This teaching is clearly stated and affirmed, specifically, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes, where we read: “In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which does not impose, but which holds us to obedience…. As the innermost and inviolable part of the person, conscience is our encounter with the God who made us and wills our good.”

The formation of conscience is primary and depends on the traditional sources of ethical knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason/science, and experience. Yes of course, this means that people of good will and conscience can disagree, even on the absolute but not infallible moral norms of the Catholic Church. That is why we need to build bridges and respectfully study, discuss, work, and learn together.

And a final observation. The contemporary U.S. far-right wants to use the power of the government to enforce, on the majority of U.S. Americans, the beliefs of a radical minority of U.S. Americans. If the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, it is very likely that the far-right will also push to have the Supreme Court reverse the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. In either case, Pandora’s Box will be thrown wide open.

  • Jack

PS I am posting this reflection on Thursday, May 19. My next reflection will be on Thursday – Ascension Thursday – May 26. Then I will take my annual summer R&R.

Evolution and Human Understanding and Ethical Behavior

A friend commented about my post of last week: “You seem overly strong on evolution.”
Perhaps I am but as an historical theologian I am very much aware of changes in human understanding and ethical behavior. I see these changes as part of what I would call cultural evolution. Evolution is about much more than the arrival of the first human beings. It is about our evolving understanding of what it means to be a human being, about what is natural or unnatural, and about what is moral or immoral behavior.

Slavery, for example, once existed in many cultures. In the earliest written records, slavery is simply an accepted institution. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BCE) prescribed death for anyone who helped a slave escape or who sheltered a fugitive slave. The Bible mentions slavery as an established institution.
Even after the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many Southerners refused to revise their proslavery views. In their minds, slavery had been divinely sanctioned. They pointed to texts like Ephesians 6:5-8 where Paul states: “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”

Today we can affirm that slavery is neither natural nor moral.

Another example of cultural evolution is moving away from misogyny and the cultural denigration of women. The historical Jesus taught and acted in ways we might consider feminist today. Jesus promoted equality, showing that women and men are equal in dignity and value and spiritual depth. Women were the first official witnesses that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Nevertheless by the second century, as Christianity moved into the Patristics Age, strongly influenced by “Church Fathers” like Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 CE) and Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE) who said that being a female is a curse given by God, the virus of misogyny began to infect church leadership. It lasted a long time.

Even medieval Christian giants, like Thomas Aquinas, were distorted and demeaning misogynists. Aquinas often cited with approval Aristotle’s infamous affirmation that “the female is a misbegotten male.” And Aquinas himself declared that women are “deficiens et occasionatus” – defective and misbegotten. (ST Ia q.92, a.1, Obj. 1)

In Western culture misogyny has lasted a very long time. I was surprised and amazed, for instance, that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in a draft opinion obtained and published last week by Politico, had based his justifications for overturning Roe v. Wade on Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century English judge and jurist. Hale’s misogynist arguments have caused damage to women for hundreds of years.

Hale (1609 – 1676), just like a lot of fundamentalist extremists today, believed that women were made from Adam’s rib and that therefore God did not make women as autonomous beings but as obedient helpmates for men doing — whatever men wanted. In his treatise Historia Placitorum Coronæ (“The History of the Pleas of the Crown”) Matthew Hale affirmed that marital rape was totally legal, because a man owned a woman’s body as an extension of his own and could do whatever he desired. Hale was also responsible for the trial and execution of women for witchcraft. His legal opinions would be used as a base for state execution of women and children both in England and in the Americas. Those women executed for witchcraft were overwhelmingly poor and single. Most were widows. Judge Hale and his contemporaries considered independent women a serious threat in society, because they were not owned and controlled by a father or a husband. That meant such women were unnatural, dangerous and often evil. Thanks to Hale, there was even a serious debate about whether or not women, who were not Christian, were even human beings.

Nevertheless, in our current phase of cultural evolution, most people would argue that misogyny is neither natural nor moral.

Just in my lifetime I have seen several evolutions in the understanding of human nature and human dignity.

I remember when black people, where I was growing up, were demeaned as inferior humans. I remember when I was in high school one of my uncles, using his favorite ethnic slur, said “Ni**ers have small brains” making them incapable of abstract thinking. Then he laughed and said “but Ni**er men have big sex organs, making them natural-born rapists.” Disgusting.

My uncle was not pleased, but I was delighted when, in college, my classmates and I happily participated in the 1963 civil rights march in Detroit. It was the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.

I remember, as a Catholic boy with a Protestant Dad, when the local Catholic priest told my fourth grade class that we as Catholic boys and girls “had the true faith” but those Protestants belonged to “a false religion.” I found it crazy and painful. And it is pure nonsense. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is much bigger than the Church of Rome.

And as an obnoxious kid, I remember joking about the “Red Skins” (Native Americans) and praising General George Custer (1839 – 1876) who fought Native Americans in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. He was killed along with all of the five companies he led. This action became romanticized as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Jack was such an ignoramus. But his understanding and values have evolved. Change happens.

Cultural evolution continues. Today we defend LBGTQ rights. I do support same-sex marriage. In fact, right now 70% of U.S. adults support same-sex marriage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” That teaching, in time, will change. Remember that great churchmen once taught that women are “defective and misbegotten.” The Catholic Church is a slow-change institution.

Nevertheless, we do have changed understandings. Changed understandings, however, are not enough. Changed understandings demand changed behavior.

Jesus was not a racist. He was not a misogynist. He said nothing about homosexuality. He was prophetic, not just in words but primarily in his ethical behavior, showing acceptance, care, and compassion for all people. Jesus was radically transformative.

  • Jack