An Alternative for Confronting ISIS……

Trying to control radical religious fundamentalists, by bombing and shooting them, is like trying to control a forest fire, by burning down the entire forest — forgetting, of course, that sparks will be carried by the wind into neighboring forests.

This year we commemorate the centennial of the “Great War to End all Wars.” A major accomplishment of that First World War was setting the stage for the Second World War.

When will we begin to understand that increased military violence simply leads to a continual cycle of violent interventions, that never really address the root causes of conflicts: poverty, ignorance, social inequality, cultural blindness, religious discrimination, and economic imperialism?

What would the ethic of Jesus say about dealing with ISIS? How would that ethic have us respond to the situation in Iraq, Syria, and points East and West today?

I am not a professor of political science; but an historical theologian, who, necessarily, has studied a lot of wars and Christian violence over the years.

When, under Constantine, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s state religion, it lost much of its counter-culture influence. It quickly put on the breastplate and ideology of administrative torture and violence, for dealing with wayward people and various kinds of enemies.

After 1,700 years not much has changed. We have been stuck in cycles of violence, with little or no capacity to reflect and realize there can be other ways of dealing with violent and destructive human beings: non-violent resistance, better education and enlightenment, multi-cultural understanding and acceptance, inclusive governance and diplomacy, sustainable development, and community-level peace and reconciliation processes.

Perhaps we are slow learners. Arming some or all rebel groups in Syria makes about as much sense today as support for the Afghanistan “freedom fighters” did in the 1980′s. And……lest we forget……George Bush Jr’s invasion and military engagement in Iraq contributed to the current sectarian divides, and helped lay the foundations for today’s extremist ideologies, including the growth of ISIS.

If the West is going to send or drop anything in the Middle East, it should be humanitarian aid not more bombs and destruction. It should contribute to the building-up of the infrastructure instead of destroying it. It should halt the proliferation of (produced in the West and sold by Westerners) weapons in the region, promote education, promote broad-based access to unbiased knowledge and information, really work to eliminate poverty, and provide health care.

There are other ways to deal with ISIS. For example, ISIS has gained control of massive oil reserves in the Kirkuk area. Why not an international purchasing embargo that would stifle their resources?

There are other realistic and effective non-violent ways to proceed today.

Concerned individuals, groups, and nations have to be willing to work at it. It is analogous to environmental awareness and climate change policies. The United States and the United Nations need to put on their thinking caps. Christian, Islamic, and Jewish religious leaders (representing the three great Abrahamic religious traditions) need to commit themselves to serious reflection, study, dialogue, and mutual collaboration.

And of course…..Arabs and Muslims need to reflect about how such a violent fundamentalist Sunni death cult like ISIS could emerge in their midst; and they need to acknowledge their own responsibility for allowing this to happen……and their responsibility to correct the evil. They could have and should have seen it coming.

Another non-violent proposal. For starters, in every major city in the United States, England, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, civic leaders should begin inter-religious think-tanks and action-groups to deeply reflect, seriously discuss, and concretely plan how men and women today can live and learn together to defuse and counteract inhumane fundamentalist movements.

They should focus particularly on young people and ask themselves: What have we done and what are we now doing that motivates young men and women to become global terrorists and fundamentalist murderers? What is the appeal of radical fundamentalism? How did the image of God become so twisted into a vengeful and violent being, who delights in the torture and death of the “infidel”? Who, in fact, are today’s “infidels”?

Just as we have moved well beyond the eleventh hour in global warming, we have moved well beyond the eleventh hour in global violence. In both cases, we are all at fault. We all bear the burden of re-configuring the world around us.

Yes, one can bomb and kill fundamentalist fanatics. In the process, however, one risks turning oneself into an equally-evil counter-fanatic and accelerating the growth of still more fanatic fundamentalist movements.

We cannot run from today.

We all bear responsibility for tomorrow.


The Latino Challenge: The Catholic Survival Challenge

Not so long ago, one of my bishop friends slapped me on the back and told me to “brush up on my Spanish” because “Latinos are the future of the Catholic Church in America.”

My friend had a point, because right now most young Roman Catholics in the United States are Latinos. My friend can’t see the other side of the picture, however, because Latinos are now leaving the U.S. Catholic Church at a striking rate. Especially the young.

For years the Catholic Church, in the United States and in Latin America, has been losing members to evangelical Protestantism, and, especially, to Pentecostal and other charismatic churches. Now however, particularly in the United States, another form of faith-switching is underway: More American Latinos are leaving the Catholic Church and becoming religiously unaffiliated. A strange scenario: a rising percentage of American Catholics are Latino while a falling percentage of American Latinos are Catholic.

Nearly one-quarter of Latinos in the United States are former Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center. By comparison, about 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.

The religious affiliation of Latinos has great significance for researchers (like me) and others interested in the future of religion in the United States, because Latinos make up such a large and growing part of the U.S. population.

By 2030 more than 22% of the U.S. population will be Latino. By 2050, 29% will be Latino and 47% “white” with the percentage of “whites” going down quickly after that…. The times will certainly be “a changing.”

What I call the “Catholic eclipse,” will be striking among Latinos. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 % of U.S. Latinos identified themselves as Catholic in 2013, down from 67 percent in 2010. About 22 % of Latinos today identify themselves as Protestant — including 16 percent who say they are evangelical or born-again — and 18 % say they are “unaffiliated.”

Religiously “unaffiliated” Americans are a growing trend especially among younger Americans, who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” (If I were a bishop I would not denigrate them but spend a lot of my time and energy listening to these “unaffiliated.” They are our contemporary God-seekers and tomorrow’s “believers.”)

The Pew researchers find the rise in the number of Latinos, who say they are unaffiliated, particularly strong among Latinos under age 30. But this under-age-thirty unaffiliated trend is equally strong among “white” American Catholics as well.

The Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project has found that four out of five Catholics who have left the church and haven’t joined another church did so before the age of 24.

So what does all of this mean? I would say the Roman Catholic institutional church has a major Roman Catholic theological problem on its hands, that cannot be ignored by simply complaining that people are becoming “increasingly relativistic and secularized.”

Theology is faith seeking understanding.

A lot of people whom I call “God-seekers” are indeed seeking understanding for their faith and their “spiritual” searching. They are asking for bread. Far too often the institution — at all levels — still seems to excel in giving them lifeless old stones.


The Church — Misogyny and Patriarchy and Paternalism

Forty years ago, when I was a somewhat younger fellow and DRE in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I found myself the only man at a table with seven women, during a diocesan conference on the role of women in the church.

When our small group gathered, for the first time, I was the first to start speaking. With a big smile and a lot of enthusiasm, I began talking about the terrific lecture we had just listened to. I spoke a bit too long. (Yes that happens.)

One of the women in our group, with obvious dislike for my long-winded observations, looked right at me and said: “Well isn’t that just what we need in a conference on women in the church: another pontificating phallus? Why can’t you let us women speak? Why can’t you really listen to what women are thinking and saying?” Some criticism stings….

I thought about my Kalamazoo pontificating experience, a few days ago, as I read about Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s ongoing criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The CDF Prefect claims over and over that LCWR is promoting doctrinal errors, radical feminism, and heretical gnosticism. LCWR leadership continues to assert that the Cardinal Prefect doesn’t listen and is simply unable and unwilling to try to understand what they are saying. Last week L’Osservatore Romano — the voice of the Vatican — carried an interview with Cardinal Müller. “We are not misogynists,” he said. “We don’t want to gobble up a woman a day…” he quipped.

A humorous remark? A serious statement of ecclesiastical management style? Or simply a way to avoid confronting the issues?

Does Pope Francis have a similar style? Early in his papal ministry, when asked about misogyny in the church, he joked that the first woman was “taken from a rib.” More seriously the Bishop of Rome then observed: “Priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers.”

And the point is?

In less than a month, we will witness (more or less depending on which news source one follows) the Synod on the Family. Great preparations. Numerous consultations around the world. Great hopes raised.

This week we have been informed that over one hundred and seventy-five celibate male clerics will be entitled to vote. No women will be able to vote of course, although there will be some lay women and men as “observers.” The voice of the faithful? Vatican II’s sense of collegiality?

At some point truly genuine dialogue has to begin. In so many ways today, women, around the world, continue to be gobbled up; and there is nothing comical about it.

In her most recent column in the National Catholic Reporter, Jamie Manson observed: “…. the truth of the matter is, women are indeed being ‘gobbled up’ by poverty, lack of education, inadequate health care, slavery, and sex trafficking. They and their children bear a disproportionate burden of the hunger, violence and discrimination that shatter this world every day. And all of these injustices are rooted in the misogynistic idea that women are not of equal value, ability, and dignity to men, an idea that the hierarchy, with its blind insistence on preordained gender roles, perpetuates.”

Patriarchy in a church environment — well in any environment — has a negative impact and creates an environment more susceptible to the abuse of women than one characterized by mutuality and shared leadership between men and women.

The virtue of mutuality must replace subjugation. The virtue of harmony must replace man-over-woman power-struggles.

Certainly in the church, men need women not as subordinates but as partners. It started that way, actually, in our Christian beginnings….

Mary of Magdala, for instance and not one of the “apostolic” guys, was charged with proclaiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead. No small proclamation. Early Christians were counter-cultural….and more much more inclusive and woman-friendly than later “fathers” of the church.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however, has put the Leadership Conference of Women Religious under male hierarchical control. What happened to woman-friendly counter-cultural and inclusive Christian leadership?

Sometimes our contemporary Catholicism becomes curiouser and curiouser.

In an event….let serious and respectful dialogue truly be encouraged at every level in the church, starting of course in our own parishes and neighborhoods……

Last week I was having a friendly chat with a fellow about Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God. I had recommended the book for an adult faith-sharing discussion group, that will resume in October. My friend said: “That feminist heretic! Absolutely not!” I asked if he had ever read anything written by Elizabeth Johnson. He said “no!” I asked if he knew that she was a distinguished professor of theology at Fordham University. He said: “No…but I know she is just another one of those dangerous and radical feminists.” I asked how he knew all that…..No response at first. Then he muttered: “Rome doesn’t like her.”

Ignorance is not bliss. And there can really be no excuse for ignorance among supposedly intelligent and well-educated people.

Maybe a lot of us men — whether we wear neckties, Roman collars, or red skull caps — need to keep quiet and really listen before speaking so authoritatively.

Patriarchal paternalism and misogyny are still very much alive in our church. They are not Christian virtues.


Belgian Bishop Says it is Time to Close the Catholic Gap

As reported in Belgian newspapers and the Belgian Catholic press service, Kerknet, this morning (September 5), Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has written a long letter to the Vatican about his personal expectations for the Synod on the Family, which takes place from October 5 to 19 in Rome.

Obviously he cannot anticipate what will happen there but he has indicated what he would like to see happen.

Johan Bonny has been Bishop of Antwerp since October 2008. Many church observers would like to see him succeed Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard as Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and thus Primate of Belgium.

As a bishop, Bonny said that he has experienced a decades old gap between what the church teaches and the perception and attitudes of most believers. This gap arose particularly with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. Bonny insists that gap must now be closed by a church that truly is collegial in its decision-making and truly listens to people.

Bonny hopes that the October synod, will begin to effectively close the gap. That will only happen, he says, if the church once again becomes the traveling companion of the faithful and listens carefully to their concerns about the complex life situations in which they find themselves.

In his twenty-three page letter, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Antwerp pleads for understanding for those who are divorced, those who are living together without marriage, those who are civilly married and homosexual, and those who have become or would like to become parents through in vitro fertilization.

There are good reasons for suspecting that Bishop Bonny’s letter will be given serious consideration by the Vatican. Cardinal Walter Kasper, close friend and theological advisor to Pope Francis, is also a personal friend of Johan Bonny. They met in 1997, when Bonny was one of his closest collaborators in Rome.

That Bishop Bonny’s thinking is very similar to the thinking of the German is therefore no coincidence; and the German cardinal has a great influence on the Pope.

With Bishop Bonny’s letter, the October Synod is truly starting to take on new interest.