When White Smoke Gets in our Eyes : How to Welcome the Next Pope

In mid March (I presume) the proclamation “Habemus papam!” will launch a new papacy.

The next Bishop of Rome will be the 265th pope and launch the 267th papacy. (An earlier Bishop of Rome, Benedict IX, served multiple times, but with interruptions…..And then we have the little historical problem that Apostle Peter, the Rock, can only be considered “first pope” with a lot of symbolic imagination; but that is a discussion for another time……)

How should we react to Joseph Ratzinger’s successor? I suggest a sevenfold spiritual path:

(1) We should welcome the new Bishop of Rome with respect; but not with self-negating, servile adulation for a new Catholic monarch. We are followers of Jesus of Nazareth and not some Jesus of Rome.

(2) In what we say and do, therefore, let’s keep a healthy perspective on popes and Catholic life. Popes come and go. We the people remain the Body of Christ: the People of God. Let’s not let the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel cloud our vision.

(3) Let’s be honest and frank about our old institution. Our contemporary Roman Catholic Church has tremendous moral shortcomings and organizational problems. It is terribly dysfunctional right now. It rewards unthinking obedience and unquestioning loyalty instead of critical observation, respectful collaboration, and shared decision-making. Too many of its high level managers sacrifice principled behavior for self-survival and career advancement.

(4) We cannot rebuild Rome. We can shape the quality of church life in our families, parishes, schools, and dioceses. Let’s reject arrogant authoritarianism and unquestioning servile obedience and work toward a humble recognition of our mistakes and ongoing respectful collaboration.

(5) The current Roman Catholic scene can invite cynicism and sarcasm. Let’s be firm and correct in our criticism but remember that no institution is perfect and without sin. We aren’t either. Christians are people who believe in giving the other a second change. That goes for the men in pointed hats as well.

(6) Ignorance is not bliss. Let’s take seriously our own responsibility to stay up to date: in our knowledge about contemporary life, our understanding of human evolution, our understanding of the Scriptures, and in our remaining open to ever new perspectives on Catholic faith and history. A lot of those old men in red and purple behind Vatican walls are woefully ignorant old guys. They prance around and pontificate in medieval theatrical grandeur and with rock-hard medieval understandings of what it means to be a woman, a man, or a happily sexual person. Let’s neither be nor become silly ignoramuses like them!

(7) Let us not fall into the trap — into which so many “progressives” as well as “conservatives” fall! — of energetically TALKING about our Faith without humbly and genuinely LIVING our Faith. God’s Spirit is closer to us than the air in our lungs and the blood in our veins…..She beckons and says: attune your ears and open your eyes. Walk with me!


Outmoded Papal Paradigm: Father Knows Best

Popes come and go, and I refuse to speculate about who will follow Joseph Ratzinger. I respect his courage to step aide, but cannot honestly say I am sad to see him go.

Angelo Roncalli, starting in 1958, and his successor Giovanni Montini, starting in 1963, firmly planted the stones for a Roman Catholic life-based theological paradigm that stressed that expressions of belief spring from a deep reflection about our lived faith experience. Theology as faith seeking understanding. This became the solid foundation for Vatican II theology. The opening words of Gaudium et Spes still ring in my ears:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of women and men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their God and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for all people. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”

Then in 1978 Karol Wojtyla arrived at the Vatican: a strong man with an equally strong “father knows best” attitude. With a big smile and theatrical charisma, he began to pry lose the foundation stones of Vatican II. In 1981, Karol brought a new theological demolition crew to Rome and installed Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, affectionately called by some “The Holy Office.” In 2005 Joseph took over as Bishop of Rome and Vatican II demolition went into high gear.

Joseph proclaimed a “Reform of the Reform,” and quickly began creating little bishop and cardinal reformers of the reform in his own image and likeness. He scattered them around the world in a seeding program called the New Evangelization. I call it patriarchal magisteriumism or FKB: Father Knows Best.

The theology of Angelo Roncalli and Giovanni Montini moved from lived experience to statements of contemporary belief and liturgical practice. The authority of evidence.

The theology of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger moved from hierarchical edict to mandated belief and liturgical regulation. The authority of evidence was replaced by the evidence of authority. FKB.

Popes come and go but Christian life goes on. And the same questions are asked anew. Age and changing times do not silence the question, but merely pose it in ever new ways. Our joys and hopes….our griefs and anxieties…….Who or what is God in my life? How can I be an authentic follower of Jesus in today’s world? Who am I? Where is my security? What does it mean to come into the brightness and warmth of the human day, hurrying on my way from the mystery of my origin to the mystery of my end?

Faith seeking understanding. If may or may not happen when the next Bishop of Rome takes his seat in the Vatican.

It can and must happen in our parishes, Bible study and prayer groups. In our youth groups and catechetical classes. In our Facebook chats with friends and around the backyard barbecue.

Forget the reformers of the reform. They still make some noise. The passing roar of dinosaurs, singing and prancing in the setting sun of an outmoded papal paradigm. This too will pass.


Ash Wednesday : Last Public Liturgy?




Ash Wednesday — February 13, 2013

St. Peter’s Basilica — Rome, ITALY

Pope Benedict XVI presides at his last big public liturgy today. An historic moment. Newspapers and electronic media have been pushing the pope story around the clock. A temporary distraction from the really big news in our global community. I’ve been scanning and skimming the reports, looking for a bit of balance and sanity in papal-mania.

Garry Wills says it best in his op-ed in the New York Times. My final comment (I think!) about Joseph Ratzinger’s pontificate is the Wills commentary:

THERE is a poignant air, almost wistful, to electing a pope in the modern world. In a time of discredited monarchies, can this monarchy survive and be relevant? There is nostalgia for the assurances of the past, quaint in their charm, but trepidation over their survivability. In monarchies, change is supposed to come from the top, if it is to come at all. So people who want to alter things in Catholic life are told to wait for a new pope. Only he has the authority to make the changeless church change, but it is his authority that stands in the way of change.

Of course, the pope is no longer a worldly monarch. For centuries he was such a ruler, with all the resources of a medieval or Renaissance prince — realms, armies, prisons, spies, torturers. But in the 19th century, when his worldly territories were wrested away by Italy, Pope Pius IX lunged toward a compensatory moral monarchy.

In 1870, he elicited — from a Vatican council he called and controlled — the first formal declaration that a pope is infallible. From that point on, even when he was not making technically infallible statements, the pope was thought to be dealing in eternal truths. A gift for eternal truths is as dangerous as the gift of Midas’s touch. The pope cannot undo the eternal truths he has proclaimed.

When Pope Paul VI’s commission of learned and loyal Catholics, lay and clerical, reconsidered the “natural law” teaching against birth control, and concluded that it could not, using natural reason, find any grounds for it, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the secretary of the Holy Office, told Paul that people had for years, on papal warrant, believed that using a contraceptive was a mortal sin, for which they would go to hell if they died unrepentant. On the other hand, those who followed “church teaching” were obliged to have many children unless they abstained from sex. How could Paul VI say that Pius XI, in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, had misled the people in such a serious way? If he admitted it, what would happen to his own authority as moral arbiter in matters of heaven and hell? So Paul VI doubled down, adding another encyclical in 1968, Humanae Vitae, to the unrenounceable eternal truths that pile up around a moral monarch.

In our day, most Catholics in America have reached the same conclusion that Paul VI’s commission did. But successive popes have stuck by Pius and Paul and have appointed bishops who demonstrate loyalty on this matter. That is why some American bishops in the recent presidential election said that President Obama was destroying “religious liberty” if his health plan insured funds for contraception. Nonetheless, more Catholics voted for Mr. Obama than didn’t. In a normal government, this disconnect between rulers and ruled would be negotiated. But eternal truths are nonnegotiable.

Wistful Catholics hope that on this and other matters of disagreement between the church as People of God and the ruling powers in the church, a new pope can remedy that discord. But a new pope will be elected by cardinals who were elevated to office by the very popes who reaffirmed “eternal truths” like the teaching on contraception. They were appointed for their loyalty, as were the American bishops who stubbornly upheld the contraception nonsense in our elections.

Will the new conclave vote for a man who goes against the teachings of his predecessors? Even if they do, can the man chosen buck the structure through which he rose without kicking the structure down? These considerations have given the election of new popes the air of watching Charlie Brown keep trying to kick the football, hoping that Lucy will cooperate.

As this election approaches, some hope that the shortage of priests, and their damaged reputation and morale, can be remedied by adding married priests, or women priests, or gay priests. But that misses the point. Whatever their sexual status, they will still be priests. They will not be chosen by their congregations (as was the practice in the early church). They will be appointed from above, by bishops approved for their loyalty to Rome, which will police their doctrinal views as it has with priests heretofore. The power structure will not be changed by giving it new faces. Monarchies die hard.

In 1859, John Henry Newman published an article that led to his denunciation in Rome as “the most dangerous man in England.” It was called “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” and it showed that in history the laity had been more true to the Gospel than the hierarchy. That was an unacceptable position to Rome. It still is. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was asked if it did not disturb him that Catholics disagreed with the rulings of Rome. He said no — that dogma is not formed by majority rule. But that is precisely how it was formed in the great councils like that at Nicaea, where bishops voted to declare dogmas on the Trinity and the Incarnation. There was no pope involved in those councils. Yet they defined the most important truths of the faith.

Jesus, we are reminded, said to Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” But Peter was addressed as a faithful disciple, not as a priest or a pope. There were no priests in Peter’s time, and no popes. Paul never called himself or any of his co-workers priests. He did not offer sacrifice. Those ideas came in later, through weird arguments contained in the anonymous Epistle to the Hebrews. The claim of priests and popes to be the sole conduits of grace is a remnant of the era of papal monarchy. We are watching that era fade. But some refuse to recognize its senescence. Such people will run peppily up, like Charlie Brown, to the coming of a new pope. But Lucy, as usual, still holds the football.

Garry Wills is the author, most recently, of “Why Priests? A Failed Tradition.”





SPECIAL REPORT reflection: Pope Benedict to Resign on 28 February


For reasons of health  and advanced age, Pope Benedict XVI will resign on February 28, 2013.

A surprising and historic event for sure.

I can imagine that people within the walls of the Vatican (and more than a few cardinals around the world and their confreres) are running around right now like ants under an upturned stone.

Catholic church reform people, this is your special challenge.

You have less than a month to: get better organized, draw together, pick your words carefully, and make your voices heard.

A pre-Lenten Refection about Christian Ethics and Abominable Perversions

He is a Kentucky farmer, a writer, an activist, and a cultural critic. His theology isn’t that bad either.

Wendell Berry gave a talk to Baptist ministers in Kentucky on January 11th. I wish someone could sign him up to give the same talk to the USCCB at their next meeting.

“The Bible,” Berry reminded the Baptists, “… has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality. If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions.

“If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion?

“By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.

Berry’s theology is unquestionably orthodox and Christo-centric. In principle it should delight any red-hated episcopal authority. “Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God,” Berry stressed. “Yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so,” he said. “Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses — not all of them together — has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

Wendell Berry is not gay. John Greenleaf, happily marred to the woman of his dreams for more than 40 years, isn’t either; but he resonates completely with Berry.

“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians,” Berry said.

“When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us.”

My final citation from Berry’s ministerial lecture should be carved in stone and put on granite monuments in front of every seminary, chancery, and cathedral.

“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred,” Berry said. “Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.”


After Ash Wednesday some thoughts about doing theology in a positive and enriching way.


According to an AP article by Rachel Zoll, published on February 6th, the USCCB is again taking on President Obama, this time about immigration and gays.

“The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops,” writes Zoll, “are in a difficult position as the debate over immigration reform gets underway: The immigrant-built American church, known for advocating a broad welcome for migrants and refugees, could end up opposing reform because it would recognize same-sex partners. . . .

“. . . Catholic bishops, with the support of evangelicals and other theological conservatives, have sent a letter to Obama protesting his proposal. In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would not provide a copy of the statement, saying the signatories agreed not to make the letter public. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops, would say only that recognition of gay couples in the president’s reform proposals ‘jeopardizes passage of the bill.’ ”

So much for transparency and an open discussion of issues.

But then fighting gay marriage is a divine gift of grace. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, newly installed and flexing his episcopal muscles, said in an interview with the British Catholic Herald that the struggle against gay marriage is a gift from God “and by overcoming it we may achieve spiritual greatness.” And of course Pope Benedict reminded the world in his Christmas message that gay marriage destroys the “essence of the human creature.”

Archbishop Cordileone’s position on gay marriage is dead wrong, says Daniel Maguire, a theologian and Marquette University professor who has written on church teaching and sexuality. Maguire said the interpretation of church teaching held by Cordileone, Cardinal Dolan and other bishops isn’t representative of the position held by many lay Catholics and theologians.

I call it papal biology: looking at people and their human relationships as functions of their genitalia. The issue came up again last week when a papal theologian explained that women cannot become priests because they lack the genital equipment that Jesus had. For me the issue came up nearly five decades ago when I told my bishop I was leaving the seminary because I wanted to get married. The bishop was furious and sent one of his key advisors to talk me out of leaving. Father X told me it was stupid for me to leave just to get marred because as a priest I could easily get sex any time I needed it “from a woman or a guy if you swing that way.” I told him marriage for me was first of all about affection, love, union, and commitment rather than just a legitimate way to get sex.

Hmmmmmm……. In the Scriptures I hear Jesus saying: “where two or three are gathered, there I am.” He didn’t specify any particular genitalia requirement.

Incidentally, 59% of Catholics in the United States (according to a poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

An old Catholic tradition says: “Vox Populi Vox Dei” — an affirmation of the infallibility of the People of God.

When it comes to sex however I guess Rome and the Roman-minded speak for God.

Sometimes I think we should change the name of our national episcopal conference……from USCCB to USCRB : United States Conference of Romanized Bishops.


Why Did the Pope Shame Cardinal Mahony, But Not Ireland’s Cardinal Brady?

Jerry Slevin, a “retired Catholic and Harvard schooled international lawyer” asks the question and offers a very plausible explanation.

In his blog http://christiancatholicism.com/ Slevin explains it this way:

Pope Benedict XVI for the first time publicly shamed a voting Cardinal, Mahony of Los Angeles. The Pope’s pawn, Archbishop Gomez, publicly referred to Mahony’s child abuse cover-up conduct as ‘evil.’ This unprecedented and selective public papal condemnation, in my view as an experienced retired lawyer, significantly increases the risk for Mahony that he will yet still be criminally prosecuted, possibly for obstruction of justice or perjury. Prosecutors now have a papal blessing to go after Mahony. Yet the Pope has also just permitted Ireland’s voting Cardinal Brady to exit gracefully, without papal condemnation. Brady was reportedly involved in priest abuse cover-ups at least as ‘evil’ as Mahony. Why the different treatment for two Cardinals?

The likeliest explanation is current papal election politics. Conservative Cardinals in the Vatican clique, including American ones like Burke, Law, Stafford and Rigali, and their right-wing U.S. Republican contributors, have for years targeted Mahony, often an ally of U.S. Democratic political leaders, as an obstacle to the Vatican clique’s efforts to maintain Vatican domination of the Catholic Church worldwide, through groups like Opus Dei that Gomez and convicted criminal Bishop Finn are members of. Brady, on the other hand, supports domination by the Vatican clique, as evidenced by his acquiescence in the current unchallenged attack on one of Brady’s most popular priests, Fr. Tony Flannery, by the Pope’s new German Inquisitor. Flannery’s brother is a top ally to Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who has strongly opposed papal domination in Ireland.

The signal is clear. The Vatican is prepared, it appears, to use selectively the criminal prosecution risks inherent in the worldwide abuse scandal to intimidate voting Cardinals……


You can file this under: “what’s in a name?” Or “freedom of the press Catholic baloney” Or (my favorite) “Catholic fundamentalists aim to strengthen strangle-hold on US Catholic Church.”

As CNA (Catholic News Agency) reported on January 31st, a canon lawyer at the Catholic University of America says that a recent column in his diocesan newspaper by Bishop Robert Finn (Bishop of Kansas City-St Joseph, Missouri) serves as a strong urging to the National Catholic Reporter to re-establish its fidelity to the Church.

“What he’s doing here,” Dr. Kurt Martens said, “is he’s giving them a warning, saying ‘Be careful, because…I’ve looked into the NCR’s positions against authentic Church teaching on a number of issues.’”

“He has, as a diocesan bishop, not only the right, but the duty or obligation to oversee what is happening in his diocese,” Martens told CNA in a Jan. 30 interview, and “to make sure that the name ‘Catholic’ is not used in vain.”

The National Catholic Reporter’s editorial offices are in Kansas City.

In his January 25th column for his diocesan paper, “The Catholic Key,” Bishop Finn wrote that “in light of the number of recent expressions of concern, I have a responsibility as the local bishop to instruct the Faithful about the problematic nature of this media source which bears the name ‘Catholic.’”

Robert Finn takes issue with NCR’s editorial stance………..

“In the last months,” The Kansas City bishop writes “I have been deluged with emails and other correspondence from Catholics concerned about the editorial stances of the Reporter: officially condemning Church teaching on the ordination of women, insistent undermining of Church teaching on artificial contraception and sexual morality in general, lionizing dissident theologies while rejecting established Magisterial teaching, and a litany of other issues.”

Kurt Martens, an associate professor of canon law at the D.C. university, who works closely with the USCCB, said that the gravity of the National Catholic Reporter’s editorial stance of supporting the ordination of women is significant – because it endangers church unity the sacraments.

Apparently even thinking and expressing one’s theological thinking in print is now dangerous and deviant. Is the Catholic Taliban taking over?

Martens continued……….“Bishop Finn is…exercising vigilance over the use of the title ‘Catholic’ in his diocese. And if there is a need, he intervenes by first warning, and ultimately taking away that title ‘Catholic.’”

In his column, the bishop noted that in 1968, his predecessor Bishop Charles Helmsing condemned the publication “and asking the publishers to remove the name ‘Catholic’ from their title – to no avail.”

Martens said, “it is correct that the title ‘Catholic’ can only be used with permission, explicit or implicit, of competent ecclesiastical authority” – who in the National Catholic Reporter’s case, is Bishop Finn.

“His authority as local bishop is that he has indeed that right and obligation to verify that every organization that calls itself Catholic, is indeed Catholic.” He said this is important so that the faithful are not “misled” by writings in disagreement with Church teaching.

Dr. Martens also speculated that Bishop Finn’s final step could be to remove the National Catolic Reporter’s permission to use the name “Catholic,” which is “perfectly within his rights.”

Permission to use the word “catholic”? The local bishop has the right to control an independent newspaper? It is all so very strange…….and it is a terrible aberration. Arrogant authoritarianism parading as virtue.

If the National Catholic Reporter is not open to dialogue with Bishop Finn, Dr. Martens said that the bishop “might have no other option but to take away their right…to use the title ‘Catholic.’”

In doing so, Bishop Finn would be exercising his responsibility of governing his diocese.

Martens observed that the bishop “has not only the right to do so, but he has the obligation. If there is indeed a problem with the editorials, as is the case here, and you see that someone uses the term ‘Catholic,’ yet is constantly undermining the Magisterium of the Church, then a bishop cannot just sit back and relax and enjoy a drink.”

“He has to intervene. It’s not only a right to intervene, but an obligation also. The combination of the two is important. What Bishop Finn does here, is what he has to do as a bishop.”

Have a fine week end!

Catholic John W. Greenleaf