Restricted Ministry for Catholic Chaplains

New regulations sent to Catholic chaplains, on September 18th, by Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, describe in detail how Catholic chaplains must act when encountering gay and lesbian people who are in committed relationships.

The rules are apparently in response to the military’s repeal of the “Don’t Ask/ Don’t Tell” policy for service personnel and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer to strike down a key component of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Clearly, strong American Catholic military muscle against same-sex unions. The focus and intent, however, are disconcertingly out of sync with the commander back home at headquarters in Rome.

Some weeks ago, remember, when asked about gays, Pope Francis, replied: “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized.” Most recently Pope Francis criticized his church’s mania for “small-minded rules” and urged it instead to emulate Jesus’ emphasis on serving people rather than excluding them.

My chaplain friends tell me that the new Roman Catholic policies were expected and follow similar guidelines issued in August by the Southern Baptist Convention for its chaplains.

 What the rules specify for Catholic chaplains:


 (1)  Chaplains cannot participate in weddings, blessings, retreats, counseling, or funerals that involve same-gender couples.

(2)  Chaplains may attend ceremonies and functions “as long as the priest is not required to acknowledge or approve of a ‘spouse’ of the same gender.”

(3)   Chaplains must exclude men and women in same-gender relationships from any lay ministries.

(4)  Catholics in military leadership positions, should be directed to discourage any support for same-gender couples; and should be encouraged to abstain from doing work that would provide benefits like housing and healthcare.


JAD Editorial comment:

Last year, Congress approved conscience protections for military members that allow them to express their personal beliefs without fear of punishment.


A Question of Conscience

A couple days ago I finished reading A Question of Conscience, written by the well known Redemptorist Tony Flannery, with more than 40 years of service to the Catholic community in Ireland.

The book chronicles Flannery’s painful journey since February 2012 when he was ‘silenced’ by the Vatican. That’s not long ago! He was forbidden from publicly presiding at Eucharist, hearing confessions, conducting retreats, leading novenas or otherwise practising his ministry as a Roman Catholic ordained minister.

One of the best-known and most-valued Catholic ordained ministers in Ireland, a man regarded with respect and affection by a great many Irish Catholics has now been stopped in his tracks.

Why did the Vatican silence him? Because of Tony Flannery’s work as a founding member of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). and some offensive-to-Cardinal-Levada passages in articles he had written for the Redemptorist magazine Reality.

Cardinal Levada’s CDF — Pope Benedict’s CDF — crushed Father Flannery, using secret machinations right out of a Renaissance horror story. In his articles he expressed theological questions and positions that in fact are held by most of today’s internationally respected Catholic theologians.

Now…… the question remains: Will the CDF under the current Bishop of Rome be just as secretive, Machiavellian, and cruel?


Climate Change in the Catholic Church?

Pope Francis continues to surprise us. First it was the July “who am I to judge” airplane conversation with reporters during the twelve hour flight from Rio to Rome. Now it is the more extensive interview conducted in August and published simultaneously in a number of Jesuit publications.

The most recent interview was conducted by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal. Spadaro conducted the interview on behalf of La Civiltà Cattolica, America and several other major Jesuit journals around the world.

Reporting for The New York Times on Friday, September 19, Laurie Goldstein wrote: “Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic Church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown ‘obsessed’ with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.”

The headline in the September 20 The International Herald Tribune proclaimed: “Bluntly, Pope Pushes Shift in Church.”

One of my bishop friends reacted quickly to what I called a “climate change in the Catholic Church.” “Just remember,” he said, “the pope cannot change Catholic moral teaching!”

I wonder……. It seems to me, as an historical theologian, that there have been a lot of changes over the centuries in Catholic moral teaching. And I am sure more changes are on the horizon….

Official Catholic teaching has always given the impression that Catholic moral teachings can never change because these teachings are based on God’s law. Certainly Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted on this approach and understanding.

In fact, however, the Catholic Church has changed its moral teachings over the years on a number of issues.

For more than 1,800 years the popes and the church did not condemn slavery. Up until the 17th century, popes, in the very strong terms, condemned making loans with interest.

What about Catholic misogyny? Early Christian writings by great bishops and doctors of the church like Augustine, John Chrysostom and Thomas Aquinas are prime examples of the negative perception of women that has been perpetuated in Catholic teaching and practice.

St. Augustine – “I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman was not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?”

St. John Chrysostom – “The whole of her bodily beauty is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum, and the fluid of digested food… If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is merely a whitened sepulchre.”

St. Thomas Aquinas – “Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence, such as that of a south wind, which is moist.”

Papal social teachings have change significantly in the last two hundred years. Pope Gregory XVI, for instance, in an 1832 encyclical condemned freedom of conscience in society as an “absurd and erroneous teaching or rather madness.” Pope Leo XIII condemned “the modern liberties” and opposed the equality and participation of citizens in civic and political life. The people, he wrote, are “the untutored multitude” that must “be controlled by the authority of law.” Vatican II, of course, accepted religious liberty for all human beings.

Quite frankly there has been a fair amount of papal and magisterial schizophrenia about changing moral teachings in the Catholic Church. Can Francis change that? Indeed, for me, that will be the big test.

Papal schizophrenia…….When one examines issues of civic, political, and economic life, contemporary papal social teachings have stressed history and the understanding that social understandings can and do change with the times. Church teachings now emphasize the freedom, equality, and participation of the person, in what moral theologian Charles Curran calls a “relationality model” that understands people developing in multiple relationships with God, neighbors, the Earth, and self.

When it comes to papal and magisterial sexual ethics, however, Catholic teaching regresses to the older no-change methodology. It stresses an unchanging human nature and God’s unchanging eternal law. There is no understanding of human development.

Of course, a great many people inside and outside the Catholic Church recognize the dissonance (schizophrenia) between papal / magisterial sexual and papal / magisterial social teachings.

One authority but two different understandings and two different methodologies at work in areas where there should be consistency.

Changes would logically occur in Catholic moral sexual teachings if these teachings resulted from the same methodology as used in papal social teachings. Indeed, the CDF does not like to hear this but papal sexual teachings, like social teachings, will never be able to claim absolute certitude about complex and specific issues.

We are pilgrim people, making new discoveries along the human journey. Our understandings and the daily applications based on them are provisional. (I thought about this last night sitting at my desk. To my right was a handsome old crank telephone, made in Paris in 1920. In my hands I held my iPhone5, as I upgraded it to IOS 7. Afterwards my wife said: “well that will do it until next year’s upgrade.” Provisional.)

A final reflection. Church history should remind us that change in Catholic moral teachings has always come from the grass roots. Vox populi vox Dei. When it comes to the papal condemnation of artificial contraception, for instance, the vast majority of Catholics do not follow the pope.

And so the discussion about gay marriage, about women’s ordination, about our understandings of Jesus, God, and the church are all works in progress.

I hope Francis allows the work to go on

much more smoothly and much more constructively

than his two predecessors!


Belief and Contemporary Culture

This weekend I finished preparing a lecture I will be giving next month about theology and contemporary culture.

The inspiration for my lecture came from a long discussion I had a couple of months ago with a  young Roman Catholic ordained minister. I had asked him what he sees as the major challenge in his pastoral ministry. His response surprised me. “The world is an evil place,” he said. “The culture in which we live is like polluted water that infects our minds with the work of the Evil One. The Human City is not and cannot be the City of God.”

He went on to explain that when he becomes pastor of a parish he will turn the altar around in his church so that he does not have to look at people but can face God directly. “In liturgy,” he said “looking at all those people is a terrible distraction and upsets my prayer.” I asked him how he would reconcile that viewpoint with the Incarnation. He said he really didn’t understand my point.

Somewhat annoyed, I replied that contemporary culture is where we live and that is the only place where we can experience and meet the Living God. He said he would like to return to the 1950s. I chuckled and said: “we can only live where we are planted.”

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

I have no doubts that contemporary people do indeed want to experience the Divine, the Transcendent, the Living God  – yet contemporary religion often seems to give them answers to their religious questioning from a place far away from their daily lives.

We need to find a way to understand the positive, substantive, and real meaning of transcendence as it makes a claim on human beings within their contemporary historical existence: within contemporary culture.

We need to find a new theological language. As Paul Ricoeur noted already, some years ago, “It is not regret for the sunken Atlantis that animates us, but hope for a re-creation of language. Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”

Indeed, much current churchly theology – like the theology of my young priest friend — seems motivated by a longing for the sunken Atlantis!


And so here…….. My four principles for a life-giving theology anchored in contemporary culture:


(1)     The AIM of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the world. We really cannot turn-back the clock. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments on the basis of critical principles. That is why the upsurge of fundamentalism today is so offensive. It is fundamentally faulty.

(2)     Theological thinking today needs to feel and experience the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experience) by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The truly contemporary theologian must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past. There must be a dynamic tension between contemporary religious consciousness and historical critical consciousness.

(3)     When we do theology – when we reflect in-depth about our Faith experiences of God – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture; but we also look for the resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures.

(4)     A truly authentic theology can never be simply the expression of individual, subjective experience. Theology is the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience and the Faith experience of the community of Faith: today as well as yesterday. Yesterday’s theology becomes a heritage, a tradition that finds expression in doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual and patterns of conduct.




Punishing Assad

Yesterday I saw photos and read about the small group of Syrian rebels who brutally executed seven Syrian government soldiers.Their commander invoked the name of the “Lord of the Throne,” then the seven shirtless, bound, and terrifed men were shot in the head. I had just finished reading that Syrian update when I received an article from a good friend.

Richard Kropf is a priest theologian friend from my home state Michigan. His reflections often appear in the religion section of the Huffington Post. With his permission I am pleased to post his reflections about the situation in Syria.

By now there seems to be very little doubt that Bashar al Assad, or at least some of his military command, are guilty of using chemical weapons against their own people. However, I do very much doubt that President Obama’s call for a limited but unmistakable punitive strike against his regime will accomplish much except to throw the Middle East into even greater chaos.

Yes, poison gas is horrible stuff, so much so that most of the world’s nations have gotten rid of their stocks of it, especially after the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or treaty was drawn up back in 1993. But not every nation signed up, among them some African states, as well as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and while Israel signed, it has failed to ratify the agreement.

What then can or should be said or done about those nations who failed to sign?
Saddam Hussein was known to have used chemical weapons during his long war with Iran during the 1980s, and the USA, at least as far as I can remember, said nothing. It was only when Saddam used poison gas against some of his rebellious Kurds that we in the West became upset, and subsequently used this news as a part of the justification to invade Iraq because it possessed “weapons of mass destruction”. Only in 2009 has Iraq gotten around to “acceding” or agreeing to the CWC.

So can nations or leaders who have not agreed to the CWC be legally held to its provisions or restrictions? Or can we rightly punish Assad for doing what his country never agreed not to do? Certainly, we are justifiably outraged by what has happened, but is the death of the thousand or more victims of this particular attack any worse than those of the tens of thousands of civilians already claimed by Syria’s on-going civil/sectarian war?

But aside from that question, we must ask on what grounds can we claim to rightfully intervene in this conflict? Humanitarian concerns might justify it, providing that there be a UN resolution to do so. Although an immediate and direct threat to the USA could lawfully allow us to interfere unilaterally, at this point any such claim is patently ridiculous. Meanwhile, I would suggest that we think twice about involving ourselves in an internal struggle in which any Western interference will, as it did in Iraq, lead to making life nearly impossible for Christians, and eventually even for Jews, anywhere in the Middle East.

Instead, I would suggest that such finger-pointing or worse, missile-pointing on our part at the bad-guys of the world for breaking treaties that they never agreed to is rather useless, or even hypocritical. I say this especially considering that the USA has the dubious distinction of being one of the few nations that has still failed to ratify the 1998 Rome Statute — in fact, in 2002 we even rescinded our earlier signature — that established the International Criminal Court. This treaty was designed explicitly to try, convict, and punish people like Bashar al Assad and others, who like him, as heads of state, are unlikely to ever be brought to justice in their own countries.

I will leave it to the reader to speculate as to why our government opted out of something that is so sorely needed in this world, despite the fact that we were among the first to agree to or even insist upon holding the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders and the trials of the Japanese military commanders after World War II. Admittedly, the whole idea and functioning of the ICC remains a work in progress. Instead, I will only suggest that President Obama, as constitutional lawyer who in 2009 at least pledged to cooperate with the ICC, needs to put first things first before we wade into a conflict in which, however things turn out, we are likely to be the loser.

[Richard Kropf’s website, where his writings are posted, can be found at]