A Christmas Letter to the Pope

First Week end of Advent 2013

Pope Francis
Bishop of Rome
Vatican City State

Dear Pope Francis,

In my country, around this time of the year, people, especially children, write letters to Santa in which they express their Christmas wishes.

Francis, I am not a child but I like to write letters and thought I would write one to you with my Christmas wishes for our Catholic Church. You are six years older than I but I was thinking we were both in the seminary at the same time. I was a kid in Michigan and you a kid in Argentina, We certainly share some common background and ministerial ideals. You became a bishop and I became a married theologian. Most importantly, we are both still concerned about the church that nourished us; and we hope that church will nourish future generations when you and I are historic footnotes. (Your footnote will be bigger than mine of course; and I have no problem with that.)

So much for background.

You have written a lot of good things in Evangelii Gaudium. A lot of people like me are looking forward to the Synod in October 2014; but frankly Francis you need to be a bit more courageous. I write today to suggest exactly how.

I think you are a wonderfully pastorally minded pope. Indeed I think you are much better at that than the Polish Pope or the Bavarian Pope. Deo gratias, as we used to say, and some fundamentalists still say. But frankly Francis your theology is locked in the nineteenth century and your understanding of church history is terribly deficient. (I know what I am talking about because I am a pretty good historical theologian.) These professional deficiencies can be corrected of course. All professional people — even Bishops of Rome — need continuing education. For more than twenty years I directed continuing or on-going education programs for men and women in ministry…

Francis, I have often thought that bishops should be required to get theological certification at least every five years. Perhaps they should be mandated to acquire twenty continuing theological education credits or lose their appointment as bishop of a diocese. I sure wish my bishop would go back to school! He is much worse than you and totally lacks your kind of humility. HE is an unfortunate old fellow…. Anyway. You see I really do like you!

My main point….

Francis you need to call a special synod to study ordained ministry. In fact I will give you the title: MINISTERII GAUDIUM: ROMAN CATHOLIC MINISTRY FOR TODAY NOT THE MIDDLE AGES. You see, like you, I kind of like that little bit of Latin because in college in Detroit I was also a classics major.

Now to specifics.

Francis I suggest a four day synod; and here are the topics for each day, with a bit of explanation.

Day One: Ministry in the Apostolic and Early Post-Apostolic Church

Here we will have some of our best and brightest biblical scholars and historical theologians — men and women of course, but I am sure you already thought about that.

They will explore Christian ministry before the Christian community had ordination. And of course they will explore the phenomenon of men and women presiding at Eucharist as heads of households.

Day Two: Apostolic Succession

Frankly Francis you may have to bite your lip on this one. You see Francis, the historic Jesus did not ordain anyone and the notion of “apostolic succession” as an unbroken line of imposition of hands from the apostles down to my parish priest just doesn’t hold water. I don’t know how you say this in Argentina; but in my country we would say the notion leaks like a sieve.

Apostolic Succession means succession in the faith, witness, and ministry of the apostles. No small thing. But……the Lutheran ordained minister who lives down the street from me has that as well. So does the woman ordained minister who lives about twenty miles from me. Lots of discussion material here Francis,

Day Three: The Experience of Other Christian Churches

Frankly Francis (I like the ring of “frankly Francis”) we need to listen, look, and learn frpm our sister churches. There married ordained men and ordained women minister happily and very effectively. The Church of Rome really needs to get with it. Our other Christian sisters and brothers can help us as we make the big step forward. Remember Jesus told us where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there as well. We have nothing to fear!

Day Four: Goodnews Ordinations

Francis this is the crowning moment. I am so excited about the possibility that I may book a flight to Rome for my wife and me….YOU AS BISHOP OF ROME can gather a large group in St Peter’s and personally ordain (great symbol and we Catholics love symbols) twelve women and twelve married men. In your homily you can tell the world (CNN and BBC will have all their cameras on you….) that the theme of your papal administration will now be “Tradition AND Renewal”……i.e. Change in the Roman Catholic Church is not only possible but absolutely necessary.

Dear Pope Francis, thank you for your attention to my note. What I write about is no small matter. I am happy to discuss details with you and if you send me an email at jadanothervoice@gmail.com I will send you my mobile phone number so we can discuss and work out the details. By the way I am also very good at organizing international conferences…..and I have some friends with money who might help pay for it. I don’t know that Opus Dei would warm up to this. And frankly they don’t like me.Their problem of course….

My very best wishes, Pope Francis, for the holiday season and….I do want to hear from you!



PS …..I though about calling you “Frank” but don’t know if you like that. I am officially “John” but prefer “Jack.” Americans like their nicknames but I don’t know what Argentineans, even Rome-based, like….


German Bishops Challenge the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a member of Pope Francis’ “Group of Eight” cardinal advisors, has challenged Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The issue is Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics and was raised by the Archdiocese of Freiburg.

The Archdiocese of Freiburg recently indicated, in a new pastoral document, a willingness to allow remarried divorced Catholics to receive communion. In fact Freiburg had raised the issue in 1993 but was immediately shot down by the then head of the CDF, Joseph Ratzinger.

The issue has been vigorously raised once again due to a perception of a different style Vatican under Pope Francis. The new pope has warned against burying the faithful under a mountain of rules and the change of tone has inspired a new confidence among many Catholics in Germany.

Robert Zollitsch, now retired Archbishop but still Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Freiburg and Chairman of the German Episcopal conference since 2008, has often demonstrated his openness toward a new approach for divorced and remarried Catholics. Most recently, in September at a meeting of the German bishops, he stressed: “They belong to the church,” and said pastors must “find solutions [that apply] across the entire church.”

A solution was already being proposed in his own home diocese: a paper titled “Recommendations for Pastoral Ministry,” published by the Freiburg diocese’s Office of Pastoral Care.

The document reaffirms the Catholic understanding of marriage but also makes recommendations for those who have remarried; and it opens a door that has until now remained shut. It reads: “Following a decision taken responsibly and according to one’s conscience, the possibility can also arise, under concrete circumstances, to receive the sacraments of baptism, holy communion, confirmation, confession, and anointing of the sick as long as the necessary faithful disposition is present.”

Andreas Möhrle, head of the Freiburg Office of Pastoral Care, explained: “In contact with divorced and civilly married congregants, our concern is that the hospitable and respectful attitude of Jesus can be experienced … The faithfulness and mercy of God also applies to those whose life plans have failed.”

That was the good news. Now the bad news.

Archbishop Müller, from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, has ruled out categorically that remarried divorced Catholics could ever hope to receive the sacraments without an annulment of previous marriages. “The Magisterium underlines the practice based on Holy Scripture that remarried divorcees may not be allowed to receive the Eucharist,” Archbishop Müller wrote in his response to Freiburg. And he warned against “confusing the faithful regarding the Church’s teaching.”

This is where the plot thickens.

A Freiburg Archdiocese spokesman, Robert Eberle, said the Archdiocese of Freiburg was “completely unperturbed” by Archbishop Müller’s demand. He recalled Pope Francis’ words to religious from Latin America on 6 June 2013: “Don’t worry if you get a letter from the CDF. Explain what you have to explain to the CDF but carry on.”

Apparently in sync with Freiburg, Munich’s Cardinal Marx said (remarkably I would say) at a press conference after a gathering of the Bavarian bishops’ conference in the first week of November 2013: “The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cannot put a stop to the discussion [of how the Church is to deal with remarried divorcees]. It will be discussed in its entire breadth and depth [at the Extraordinary Synod in October 2014].”

The Vatican questionnaire on the family, sent to bishops’ conferences last month, is designed to reflect the opinion of grass-roots Catholics, Cardinal Marx said. “‘Look, this is what the faithful think’ is what Rome expressly wishes to hear,” he explained and added: “While the majority of Catholics desire lifelong marriage, there are circumstances which lead to marriage breakdown and people expect the Church to understand this.”

Four days later, the conservative German daily Die Tagespost published a letter by Archbishop Müller to the president of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, saying that a Freiburg Diocese statement on allowing remarried divorcees to receive the sacraments – in individual cases, after consultation with a priest – had to be revoked.

This story is not finished. How does one say episcopal chutzpah in German?


Irresponsible Disobedience or Adult Thinking and Responsible Believing

As the Vatican surveys the opinions of Catholics in dioceses and parishes around the world, two news stories caught my attention this week. Signs of the times for sure.

(1) On the USA side of the Atlantic, a Roman Catholic bishop in Illinois insisted that Satan was behind his state’s recent legalization of same marriage. When it was announced that Illinois Governor Pat Quinn would be signing equal marriage legislation into law next week, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki said he would be holding an exorcism at the same time in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield. The bishop stressed that sane-sex marriage “comes from the devil and should be condemned as such.”

Interestingly, support for gay marriage has increased in the United States in recent years, and support is actually higher among American Roman Catholics than it is among Americans overall. A majority of Catholics, 54 percent, now support gay marriage, compared to 47 percent of all Americans, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll. Bringing great dismay to American Catholic bishops, who are counting on Hispanics to reinvigorate the US Catholic Church, the poll also found that more Hispanics, Catholic or otherwise, support same-sex marriage than any other US demographic group. Sixty-three percent of self-identified Hispanics are in favor of gay marriage, compared to just 32 percent of blacks and 48 percent of whites.

I guess there will have to be a lot of episcopal exorcisms in North America.

(2) On the other side of the Atlantic, Catholics are thinking for themselves as well. Three large polls carried out this year for the Westminster Faith Debates reveal a profile of British Catholics clearly adrift from Pope-Benedict-style Catholicism, and significant disparities between older and younger believers.

Only 36% of British Catholics surveyed say that they view the Catholic Church as a positive force in society. This is a very big shift. Even up to the early post Vatican Ii days, British Catholics were noted for their staunch support of a nineteenth century Roman Catholic ethos….

When those contemporary British Catholics, who take a negative view of their church, were asked their reasons, the answers that stand out are: it discriminates against women and gay people; the ongoing child abuse scandals; it is hypocritical; and because it is too morally conservative. A fascinating development, echoed of course in contemporary Ireland.

Overall, British Catholics have moved far from a Pope John Paul / Pope Benedict model of what it means to be a faithful Catholic. Note well. This does not mean, however, that most British Catholics have become secular, atheistic, or even non-Catholic – it means that they have become Catholic in a different way.

British Catholics today are much less likely to go to church every week and to think of themselves as “religious.” They are more likely to support the Catholic Church’s social teachings; but they are increasingly less likely to support traditional Roman Catholic natural-law-based teachings about sex, gender, and the traditional family.

British Catholics as a whole are now in favor of allowing same-sex marriage by a small margin and over half of British Catholics under 50 now say “same-sex marriage is right.” British Catholics are contemporary and critically-reflective believers. Interesting again, when asked where they look for guidance in living their lives and making moral decisions, over half of those interviewed said they rely on their own reason or their own judgement. Another fifth turn to family or friends. Only eight percent turn to the “tradition and teachings of the Church.” I think that is unfortunate, actually, because we Roman Catholics do have a rich tradition of Christian wisdom and belief.

Far from endorsing highly critical hierarchical remarks about mainstream “secular” culture (like US Bishop Paprocki), Growing numbers of Catholics in Britain actively embrace some aspects of its contemporary culture’s ethical progress, including its widening commitment to principles of human liberty and equality. Here I see a genuine resonance with Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes.

What does all this mean for the future? The Roman Catholic Institutional Church clock has moved far beyond the eleventh hour. On both sides of the Atlantic, the credibility gap between hierarchical leaders and the rest of the church is widening. The 2014 Synod on Family and Evangelization to Promote Episcopal Collegiality will have a lot of work to do.

And it will have to do a much better job of re-establishing the credibility of hierarchical leadership than did the most recent meeting of our National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Their most notable accomplishments appear to have been approving the drafting of a formal statement on pornography to be issued from the entire body of bishops; and approving five liturgical items presented by the Committee on Divine Worship.


A Letter to Pope Francis

José Arregi is a Basque theologian. He published, on his Spanish language blog, a letter to Pope Francis and Rebel Girl has published an English translation on her blog: http://iglesiadescalza.blogspot.be

It is an EXCELLENT Catholic theological reflection about marital and sexual issues in our contemporary church.

It should be sent to every Catholic bishop, especially our USCCB meeting this week in Baltimore.

Dear Pope Francis:

As everything goes so fast today, the questionnaire on the family that you just sent to the bishops all over the world has already come into our hands — 38 very specific questions organized into 8 thematic blocks. We understand that we are not just the subjects, but also the ones to whom these questions that affect — and hurt — us, even more than the bishops, are addressed. Therefore we are allowing ourselves to answer them directly, because of the affection we have for you and the trust you inspire in us. Thank you, Pope Francis, for asking us about so many uncomfortable issues that have been, and still are, taboo. And thanks for listening to us, for receiving our voices speaking from the soul, with their certainties and doubts.

1. Whether the teachings of Sacred Scripture and the hierarchical Magisterium on sexuality, marriage, and the family are known and accepted among the faithful.

Perhaps they’re not well known, and certainly they are poorly accepted or simply ignored. We note that in recent decades the gap, or rather the rupture, between official doctrine and the feelings of a wide majority of believers, has grown to a critical degree. It’s serious and it grieves us. But we sincerely believe that the reason for the growing break is not the ignorance, much less the irresponsibility of the believers, but rather the hierachy’s being locked into patterns from the past.

Times have changed a lot in a short period in everything that has to do with family, matrimony, and procreation, and with sexuality in general. We know they are delicate subjects, that what is most holy is at stake, that the utmost care is necessary. But you can’t care for life by repeating the past. We believe deeply that the Spirit of Life goes on speaking to us from the heart of life, with its joys and sorrows. We believe that the living Ruah cannot be closed in any doctrine, or document, or words of the past, and that it goes on inspiring the feelings of all believers and all men and women today. Nothing should ever remain closed.

Pope Francis, we congratulate you on your willingness to listen again to the voice of the Spirit in the men and women of today, and we dare to ask you to keep speaking words of mercy and encouragement, to not go back to obsolete and meaningless “truths” and “norms”. In the name of Life!

2. On the place that the concept of “natural law” in relation to marriage has among believers.

We will tell you simply and frankly: For the great majority of thinkers, scientists, and believers in our society, the concept of “natural law” no longer has any place at all. Yes, the nature that we are has a wondrous order, some marvelous laws, and thanks to them, science is possible. But the supreme law of nature is its capacity for change and novelty. Nature is creative and inventive. The fruits of that creative and inventive capability, of that holy creativity, are all the atoms and molecules, every star and galaxy. All of us living beings, all languages and cultures, all religions are fruits of it. For billions of years to come, infinite new forms yet unknown to us will be the results of it.

Nature is inhabited by the Spirit, by the holy Ruah that blew on the waters in Genesis, that goes on vibrating in the hearts of all beings, in the heart of every atom and particle. The family too has been changing unceasingly, from the first clans to the nuclear family, through the patriarcal family we have known until recently.

Before our very eyes, the model of the family is still changing: families without children, single parent families, families with children of different fathers and mothers…And it will go on changing, we don’t know how. It’s all very delicate. There’s a lot of pain. We ask the Church not to speak ill of the new forms of family, since they already have enough living day to day and getting ahead amid the greater threats that come to us from a cruel, inhumane economic system. It’s not the Church’s job to dictate but, first of all, to provide accompaniment, relief, and encouragement, as you yourself have said.

3. On how faith, spirituality, and the Gospel are lived out and transmitted in families

A crucial question. Yes, we note with sorrow that families have stopped being “domestic churches” where there is prayer and where the good news of Jesus is nurtured, felt, and transmitted. But we don’t believe it’s fair to blame the families for this. The crisis in religion and the transmission of faith in the family has to do in the first place with the deep cultural transformation we are going through. And a big challenge not only or perhaps primarily for the families themselves, but for the church institution itself, is accepting the new spiritual keys and religious forms that the Spirit is inspiring in the men and women of today.

4. On how the Church ought to face certain “difficult marital situations” (couples who live together without getting married, “common law marriages”, divorced and remarried people,…).

Thanks again, Pope Francis, just for wanting to raise these questions again! Thanks for wanting to listen to us and for showing mercy through your questions! You know well the complex and changing history of “the Sacrament of Matrimony” since the beginning of the Church. The history has been quite variable and will go on being so. Look, for example, at what is happening among us, in this ultra-modern Europe. Our young people have neither the houses nor the economic means to get married and live with their partners until their 30s in the best of cases. How can the Church ask them to abstain from sexual relations until that age?

The forms change, but we believe that the criterion is very simple and that Jesus would agree: “Where there’s love, there’s a sacrament, whether the couple get married or not, and where there’s no love, there’s no sacrament, however canonically married they may be.” Everything else is extra. And if the couple is having difficulties, as happens so often, only God will help them solve their difficulties and love each other again, and only God will help them separate peacefully, if they can’t solve their problems and go back to loving one another.

Eliminate, then, we beseech you, the canonical impediments so that those who have failed in their marriages can remake their lives with another love. Let the Church not go on adding more pain to their pain. And let it in no way prevent them from sharing the Bread of comfort at Jesus’ table, because Jesus did not impede anybody.

5. On same-sex unions.

The harm caused by the Church to homosexuals is huge, and someday it will have to ask their forgiveness. Let’s hope that Pope Francis, in the name of the Church, will ask forgiveness for so much shame, contempt, and feelings of guilt that have been laid on them over the centuries.

The vast majority of men and women in our society today can’t understand this obsession, this hostility. How can they go on saying that homosexual love isn’t natural, being that it has been so common and natural, for biological and psychological reasons, among so many men and women of all times and on all continents, and in so many other animal species?

In this case, as in many others, the Church should go first, but society precedes us. We celebrate that there are increasingly more countries that recognize that persons of the same sex have the same right as persons of the opposite sex to form unions. What prevents us from calling them “marriages”? Aren’t heterosexual unions that, for whatever reason, aren’t going to have children called that too? So, let the dictionaries and canon law change to conform to the times and meet the needs of the people.

And what is stopping us from calling homosexual marriage a sacrament? It’s love that makes us human and makes us divine. It’s love that makes the sacrament. And everything else is gloss and human tradition.

6. On the education of children in irregular marital situations.

We believe that this language — regular, irregular — is inaccurate, even harmful. It’s harmful to a child to hear that he has been born into or lives within an “irregular” marriage or family. And it hurts their parents, whoever they be. What hurts is not being an exception, but being censured for being an exception. Moreover, we all know that it is sufficient for the cases to multiply for the exception to become the norm. In any case, the Church is not here to define what is regular and what is irregular, but to accompany, encourage, and support each person as they are, where they are.

7. On the openness of spouses to life.

Fortunately, there are very few among us believers under 60 who have heard of Humanae Vitae, that encyclical by Paul VI (1968) that declared it a mortal sin to use any “unnatural” contraceptive method, any method other than abstinence or adjusting to the female fertility cycle. But it made almost all our parents suffer a lot. That doctrine, adopted against the advice of much of the episcopate, was unfortunate in its time and it is no less regrettable that it is still maintained today.

Today no one understands it and almost nobody complies with it among Catholics themselves. And few priests or bishops dare to lay it out these days. It no longer makes sense to state that sex has to be open to reproduction. It no longer makes sense to distinguish between natural and artificial methods, much less to condemn a method for being “artificial”, since for the same reason one would have to condemn any vaccination or injection.

Nowadays we are witnessing a momentous change in everything that has to do with sexuality and reproduction: for the first time after many millennia, sex is no longer necessary for reproduction. It is a technological change that brings with it an anthropological change and requires a new moral paradigm. Sexuality and life remain as sacred as ever and it is necessary to care for them with utmost delicacy. But the criteria and standards of Humanae Vitae don’t help in this, but rather make it harder. Let the words of the Church be light and comfort, like the Spirit of God, as Jesus’ words were in his time and would also be in ours.

8. On the relationship between the family, the individual and the encounter with Jesus

We believe that Jesus comes out to meet us on all paths, in every situation. In whatever model of family, in any family situation. We believe that Jesus doesn’t distinguish between regular and irregular families, but tends to each situation, with its grace and its woundedness. We believe that being closed in on ourselves (our ideas and norms, our fears and shadows) is the only thing that separates us from others and from God. And we believe that humility, clarity, and trust bring us closer each day to others and open us every day to the Presence of the Living One, being where we are and being as we are. And we believe that a Church that would proclaim this, like Jesus, would be a blessing to humankind in all its situations.

José Arregi


USCCB to Vatican : In the USA Father Knows Best

November 1, 2013

Two remarkable developments this week end, as we honor our deceased People of God.

Joshua McElwee reported in the National Catholic Reporter, yesterday, that the Vatican has asked national bishops’ conferences around the world to conduct a wide-ranging poll of Catholics asking for their opinions on church teachings about contraception, same-sex marriage, and divorce. Remarkable! The spirit of Vatican II is alive once again in ancient Rome.

Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, who is the Secretary General of the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops, has asked the world’s bishops to distribute the poll “immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received.”

The poll’s questionnaire was sent on October 18th to the presidents of the world’s individual bishops’ conferences in preparation for the Vatican’s October 2014 synod on the “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” This is the first time Rome has asked for input from grass-roots Catholics, since the establishment of the synod system.

As NCR reports: Among topics bishops’ conferences are asked, in the Vatican document, to question their Catholic populations about are:

How the church’s teaching on “the value of the family” is understood today.

Whether cohabitation, the problem of divorce and remarriage, and same-sex marriages are a “pastoral reality” in their church. “Does a ministry exist to attend to these cases?” the document asks.

“How is God’s mercy proclaimed to separated couples and those divorced and remarried and how does the Church put into practice her support for them in their journey of faith?”

How persons in same-sex marriages are treated and how children they may adopt are cared for.

“What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live these types of union?” it asks. “In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?”

Whether married couples have “openness” to becoming parents and whether they accept Humanae Vitae, an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI that prohibited artificial contraception use by Catholics. “Is this moral teaching accepted?” it asks. “What aspects pose the most difficulties in a large majority of couple’s accepting this teaching?”

Some conferences of bishops have responded immediately and creatively. The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, for example, has set up an online survey that Catholics in their countries can use to respond to the Vatican’s questions.

And in our United States? What has been the creative response of the USCCB? Another remarkable development.

McElwee reports that while Archbishop Baldisseri asked in his Vatican letter for wide consultation with the Catholic people, the American bishops have changed the focus.

It appears that American Catholic bishops see no need to consult their people. Apparently they still believe the nineteenth century Catholic adage that Father Knows Best. Remarkable!

An accompanying letter sent with the U.S. version of the Baldisseri Vatican document does not request that the American bishops undertake wide consultation in their dioceses! That letter, dated October 30, 2013, was sent from Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, the General Secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and only asks the U.S. bishops to provide their own observations.

As Msgr. Jenkins writes, according to documents published by NCR, “In his correspondence, Archbishop Baldisseri requests the observations of the members of the Conference regarding the attached preparatory documents and questionnaire that will provide a basis for the preparation….”


 So much for the voice of the People of God, so much for the Vatican II spirit of collegiality,

and so much for good old American democracy.

Sometimes our USCCB appears to act more like the old USSR……