Fr. Richard McBrien

In Memoriam

Richard McBrien — priest, theologian, mentor — passed from this life on 25 January 2015. Archbishop Leonard P. Blair will preside at his funeral liturgy on Friday 30 January.

“The theologian’s job,” McBrien said, “is one of critically reflecting on that tradition or raising questions about it, even challenging it, and that’s how doctrines evolve and move forward.”

When asked about the greatest need in theology today, Father McBrien replied:

“I think our greatest need is for well-informed, generous moderation. We live in a culture that is increasingly polarized: in politics, in public discourse, in social institutions, even in the church. The “culture wars” continue to grow more intense, and to paralyze us. To my mind, we especially need Catholic thinkers who are deeply conscious of the roots of Catholic teaching and practice in the Scriptures and in the great classical writers of our tradition, and who are confident enough of what the church has thought and thinks to be able to know what forms of further development are possible. A thoughtful and sympathetic understanding of tradition—as the theologians of the “ressourcement” showed us in the 1930s and 1940s—frees us to imagine what the church can best be today and tomorrow.”

The process continues; and the challenge and the task are passed on to a new generation….


Adult Maturity or Stunted Faith Development?

For many years now I have been interested in the thinking of James W. Fowler (born 1940). His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and that of those around me; and he has greatly influenced my own approaches to catechetics, religious education, faith formation, and continuing education.

Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University in Atlanta, he was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.

Fowler is perhaps best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he outlined his understanding of the developmental process in “human faith.”

Reflecting on religious fundamentalism today, polarization in a variety of religious institutions (not just the Catholic Church), and my own real-life experiences of what I would call healthy and unhealthy religion, I still find Fowler’s analysis helpful and challenging. In the end it is about growth and maturity….or stunted development and locked-in immaturity.

Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg. He defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions about how one is related to others, the world, and the divine.

Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith: From birth until about age 2, people are greatly shaped by their experiences of a safe or unsafe environment. One develops either a sense of trust and safety or distrust about the universe and the divine. How important early childhood environment!

Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Religion is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people?

Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith: At this stage, elementary-school-aged children develop an anthropomorphic sense of the divine. Metaphors and symbolic language are often taken literally.

Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith: From about age 12 to adulthood. This stage is characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage. One fears inconsistencies and what challenges authority. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements.

Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith: From the mid 20s to mid 30s. This is a stage of angst and struggle as one begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs. One begins to see that issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. This stage is Important turning point as one either accepts ambiguity and the need to explore or one simply shuts the door to faith challenges. Is this why some young people become missionaries and care-givers in difficult situations, while others become terrorists and suicide bombers?

Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith: This is the time of the mid-life crisis. People in this stage acknowledge the paradoxes found in human life and can begin to resolve conflicts about reality through a complex understanding that human life is grounded in a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained in any particular institution. Everyone is a truth-seeker.

Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith: Some call this “enlightenment.” The individual realizes that all people — regardless of their sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, or culture – must be treated with compassion, guided by universal principles of love and justice. I think Jesus of Nazareth arrived at this stage when he was close to 30……..And he hoped his followers would arrive there as well. Some did of course……and some still do.

Closing reflection. In all segments of the community of faith – members, teachers and leaders in the church – we need to ask: How are we alert to and ministering to babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults? In not just what we say, but in what we do, are we stimulating and promoting healthy human development and growth in authentic faith? Or…..are we, by actions or inaction, contributing to interpersonal environments that stunt human growth and faith development, and distort individual and group religious understanding?


More Episcopal Polarization: A Sign of the Times?

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday (January 16, 2015) agreed to decide whether all 50 states must allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The court’s announcement made it likely that it would resolve one of today’s great civil rights questions before its current term ends in June.

If indeed same-sex marriage becomes legal across the United States, what will be the reaction of our U.S. Catholic bishops? My guess would be even more of a stormy and polarizing polemic, if recent developments in Miami are any indication.

Same-sex marriage became legal in the State of Florida on January 6, 2015. Immediately, Thomas Wenski, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Miami, went into action and sent a memo to all church employees reiterating that any expressions of support for gay marriage — even if only a tweet or a Facebook post — could cost them their jobs.

Archbishop Wenski is convinced that those in favor of same-sex marriage are doing so “solely for adult gratification” and has said that same-sex marriages “will lead to polygamy.” How that works, I don’t understand. In any event, he has no tolerance for people advocating an expanded understanding of marriage.

“Whatever the role in which you serve within the Archdiocese, you publicly represent the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese in everything you do and say,” Wenski wrote to church employees and included an excerpt from the Archdiocese of Miami employee handbook, stating that all archdiocesan workers “are expected to conduct themselves in a moral and ethical manner consistent with Catholic principles.”

The handbook goes on to state that conduct inconsistent with Catholic teachings could lead to an employee’s being fired, “even if it occurs outside the normal working day and outside the strict confines of work performed by the employee for the Archdiocese…..Employees should exercise discretion when posting on social media sites, and note that online activity indicative of prohibitive behaviors may subject an employee to disciplinary action or termination.”

Archbishop Wenski chairs the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. Is there some irony here? Justice? Human development?

Across the Atlantic in Belgium, Johan Bonny, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, sees life differently.

The official teaching that the Catholic Church can only recognize male-female committed relationships has to change, Bishop Bonny said in 2014 a few days after Christmas. “There should be recognition of a diversity of forms,” he said. “We have to look inside the church for a formal recognition of the kind of interpersonal relationship that is also present in many gay couples. Just as there are a variety of legal frameworks for partners in civil society, one must arrive at a diversity of forms in the church….The intrinsic values are more important to me than the institutional question. The Christian ethic is based on lasting relationships where exclusivity, loyalty, and care are central to each other.”

Bonny made headlines in September 2014 when he issued a letter to the Vatican in preparation for the Synod on the Family in October. At that time, Bonny stressed that the church urgently needs to connect with contemporary society, showing more respect for homosexuality, divorced people, and modern kinds of relationships.

“In his or her life,” the Belgian bishop said “everyone has to deal with relationships, friendship, family, and children’s education. We should not deny that dealing with these issues within the church has brought injuries and traumas. Too many people were excluded for a long time.” Bonny said the open-minded spirit and pastoral focus of Pope Francis have given him the courage to speak out about issues that are important and pressing for today’s believers.

The Catholic bishops of Germany, according to various news reports, will soon approve a change in policy that will allow people in same-sex marriages and people divorced and remarried to still work for church agencies. Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau said that the German bishops would change their existing policy to preserve the “credibility” of the Church. The German bishops had scheduled a vote on the policy for their November 2014 meeting, and reportedly were prepared to endorse the change; but the vote has been postponed until April 2015.

Polarization. It won’t disappear tomorrow. Some of it is quite serious. Some of it is courageously prophetic. Some of it is silly but nonetheless frightening…..Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly of St Louis, Missouri, warned a few days ago about the feminization of the church. He blames altar girls for a shortage of vocations to the priesthood; and he blames women for clerical sexual abuse. How that works I don’t understand either.

Cardinal Burke has launched a program called “the new eMANgelization” of the church (my emphasis…). Burke wants to put more (more?) men in charge and get women out of the sanctuary. “Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women…” Burke said, and continued “…the activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.” I call this cardinatial gynophobia. It is a serious disease.

One thing for sure: the Catholic Church will not be dull in the coming months.


Religious Fundamentalism

The events in France this past week have led me to share once again some reflections about religious fundamentalism, especially when it becomes radical fanaticism. Religious fundamentalism — whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or any religion — is a problem that will not be solved this week or next. If we are going to live on this planet together, however, it has to be solved and it can be solved.

Reflections about Religious Fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalism is fundamentally flawed because it takes one element of the truth and proclaims it as the WHOLE TRUTH.

Fundamentalists pick and choose from their scriptures, using certain texts to justify their narrow vision and actions. Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on their own perceived doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they sacrifice those values basic to the world’s great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring.

In their overwhelming seriousness about their exaggerated religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social process to ensure that society is forced to conform to the values and behaviors their basically static worldview requires. For fundamentalists cultural change is the great threat to their identity.

Fundamentalists are their own justification.

Fundamentalism appeals for a variety of reasons.

For people who feel unimportant or insignificant, fundamentalism says you are important because you are God’s “special messenger.”

For people who feel dislocated in a “foreign” culture and who see their identity threatened, fundamentalism says the foreign culture is their enemy and God’s enemy.

For people who are fearful, fundamentalist leaders say: “you can’t be saved without us…join and be saved.”

For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine nor even be educated in it. Just agree and obey.

Fundamentalism makes the fundamentalist feel good about himself or herself. It is self-stroking.

Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another, because it believes that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist’s worldview.

For people burdened and hopeless about their socio-economic status, fundamentalism says: “It is not your fault but the fault of the ‘foreign’ world out there. ‘They’ are the oppressors.”

Fundamentalism appeals to people burdened by guilt and shame because it exempts them from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame. Fundamentalism says…if you are one of us, you are OK.

Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination; and it justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance and hatefulness.

What should we do about fundamentalism?

The best way to confront ignorance is not through indoctrination but through real education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills. Real education stresses the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Fundamentalists work in opposite fashion.

In all religious traditions we need to stress the importance — the absolute necessity — of an historical critical understanding of all sacred scriptures and religious teachings. And we need to help people understand that change is a fact of life…whether secular or religious.

In the Muslim world, an historical critical understand of the Quran — across the board — is essential for the survival of a healthy Islam and essential for our survival as well. Here, particularly, non-fundamentalist Muslims bear a heavy responsibility.

We need to establish channels for dialogue and institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.

In our parishes and community centres, we need to establish inter-religious study sessions, discussion groups, and shared prayer. We need to combat the kind of religious arrogance that makes one religious tradition “true,” and the others “false.”

In our world with its great migration of peoples we need to study what cultural identity means today and the process of cultural assimilation and change. The great migration of people’s is not going to stop.

We in the West need to practice a genuine humility that enables us to really see the rest of the world and the rest of the world’s socio-economic needs.

We need to translate our vision-gained-from-humility into concrete and achievable socio-economic actions and strategies.

None of this will come easily……..Right now people in France are huddled in grief and fear. My thoughts and heartfelt sympathy go out to them……..A big challenge stands before us; but it is a challenge none of us can sidestep.


A Catholic Agenda for 2015…………

I am an ecumenically-minded fellow, but this first reflection for the New Year (which I originally thought I would post on Epiphany) is directed to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters….


Reviewing the past year and looking forward to 2015, I see seven key action projects for contemporary Catholics:

(1) Keeping the pope in perspective: Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, appears to be a genuine and friendly fellow, and an outspoken leader with some keen pastoral sensitivities. Let’s not however make the old mistake of making the pope – superstar or not — the center of our Faith. Our inspiration, and the foundation for our Faith, is Jesus of Nazareth not the Bishop of Rome. Papal superstars come and go. Christian life, witness, and ministry, however, are the responsibility of all in the church.

(2) Change is a fact of life: We live in a time of gigantic global migrations and cultural shifts. Some speak fearfully about a clash of civilizations. Cultural change, questioning, and temporary cultural estrangement are unavoidable. Let’s not see this as terrible and frightening but challenging and hopeful. The ways in which we understand both God and the church move in dialogue with ongoing changes in human culture, our changing knowledge, and our expanding consciousness. In any event — no matter how hard the fundamentalists try to convince people otherwise — there really is no turning back. We are all on a new journey…..and we are all travellers and explorers.

(3) Sexism is sin: Rush Limbaugh, known for his somewhat comic and always conservative proclamations, has warned of those who are working today to “chickify” contemporary society. What he means is that radical feminists are taking control of society and the media and subverting and subjugating men. I don’t think so. Sexism in civil society and in the church remains as strong as ever. It is unjust and inhumane and of course unchristian. We don’t need a “theology of women.” We need a theology, an attitude, and a language that are all inclusive. You and I must make it happen.

(4) Ignorance is not bliss: In our church, and especially in our ordained leadership, there is great historical and biblical ignorance. Together let us seek good and correct information. Let’s insist on theological updating and continuing education for our bishops and educators. Let us think critically and ask the critical questions. And……may we do this without demeaning the other; but never flinching either from challenging those who make ignorant and sometimes stupid church pronouncements. No one has all the truth. Together we must all be truth-seekers.

(5) Human sexuality: Perhaps it comes, in part, from a centuries-old tradition of having ordained ministers who are officially celibate. Nevertheless, the official Roman Catholic understanding and official Roman Catholic teaching about human sexuality – in it’s great variety of forms and expressions – is terribly medieval. Change here will come slowly; but it will not come at all, unless we all challenge ignorance and protest the institutional sin and hypocrisy that allow sexual ignorance and discrimination as well as sexual abuse to continue unchallenged.

(6) Prophetic church movements: Around the world there are a great number of prophetic church movements, many inspired and animated by prophetic ordained women. They deserve our recognition and support. They not only belong to the Church of Christ but may indeed be its best hope for the future.

(7) God-seekers:
Most importantly, ever mindful of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, let us be God-seekers: explorers of the Divine and creative interpreters of the Divine who in words, symbols, and songs can speak about God’s presence in human life. The number of God-seekers is growing among those who are “spiritual but not religious.” Their journey is our journey as well.

We have some exciting projects ahead of us……..