Three Values: A Reflection on What We Do and Why We Do It

Lent is a good time to reflect on personal behavior: about the religious dynamics that guide people’s lives. We have been witnessing a lot of religious dynamics in the news of course: from fundamentalists objecting to anti-measles and anti-polio vaccinations, to Charlie Hebdo in Paris, to the pope making colourful new cardinals, to the bloody IS beheading of Coptic Christians, on and on…..

What are the religious attitudes, the religious values, that shape human action? I see three: reward and punishment, narcissism, and Jesus-based acceptance. These values shape and direct how religious people behave. They can be the basis for a deep and serious self-examination in these forty days of Lent.

Reward and Punishment

Some religious people believe – and at one time many religious people believed – that God rewards or punishes people for their behavior. Reward-Punishment-preachers remind us that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their sinfulness, they remind us about Noah and the flood, and just a few years ago various religious leaders in the United States suggested that Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,836 people, was sent as a divine punishment for the sins of New Orleans. And for far too long, many Christians have seen the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth as a necessary supreme sacrifice to atone for human sinfulness and appease a judgmental and vengeful God, so very distant from the Loving Father about whom Jesus spoke. In the Hebrew Scriptures (what we often call the Old Testament) the prophets called for justice in the face of evil and for reliance on a gracious and loving God.

Actually the concept of the reward and punishment God works best for anxiety-plagued religious people at an early stage in human development. If I don’t behave well, Mommy and Daddy will punish me.

What are the signs of healthy and mature religious development today?


In the Hebrew Scriptures, unfortunately, God’s fidelity to God’s people was too often seen in a tribal way: God was faithful to God’s chosen people. Religious narcissism. Even later Christians taught that one of the joys of the chosen was to see the annihilation of the unchosen. This viewpoint inspired the Crusades of course and the religious wars in the sixteenth century. Even today, some fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians still operate with this kind of religious narcissism.

The notion that God’s grace is for some and not others is highly problematic and pernicious. Quite frankly, however, Western imperialism and colonialism have been one of its most virulent manifestations. In addition, annihilation of the unchosen by the chosen is always very tempting. Yesterday I was informed in an email that, as two friends were leaving their parish church with ashes on their foreheads, one fellow said “well another Lent.” “Yes,” the other fellow replied, “and let’s hope that by Easter we have killed all those Muslim bastards!”

Jesus-based Acceptance

As a Jewish fellow of his own time, I suspect Jesus of Nazareth had to work-through his own understanding of God and grow and mature as a believer. Perhaps it took him thirty years to do that. Jesus had a human mind, a human will, human emotions, and a human body, etc.

Looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, what stands out in amazing clarity is the sense of God’s grace for all. That is the golden thread that links us to the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith and that connects all Christian history – even when Christians, at times, have been miserable failures at living it out.

With the men and women who were his disciples and apostles, Jesus believed in and longed for the Reign of God. And if we pay close attention to the life and message of Jesus it becomes absolutely clear that for us today, if we are truly his followers, there can be no talk of divine vengeance, condemnation, repudiation, or of religious rejection or exclusion of anyone for any reason whatever. All men and women are radically equal before God. And this is Good News for certain. It is also our Christian challenge.



From 4 to 7 February 2015 the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture hosted a conference on “women’s cultures: equality and difference.” The conference got off to a rough start because of the sexist and women-denigrating images used in the Pontifical Council for Culture’s promotional materials.

On Valentine’s Day 2015 Pope Francis is “creating” twenty new cardinals. Some older cardinals, and perhaps some new ones, have expressed anxious concerns about the “feminization of the church.” Certainly news reports and news images about the pope’s up-coming meeting with cardinals new and old reinforce that alarming situation. (See image below.)

To correct the situation in the church, I strongly suggest that the Pontifical Council for Culture host an international conference on “Men’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” Perhaps the Leadership Council of Women Religious would be willing to coordinate this worthwhile project…….

By adjusting the female/male language a bit, they could use the same agenda as was used for the women’s cultures conference. It would look like this;

1) Between equality and difference: the quest for an equilibrium
An historical overview through cultural anthropology and sociological analysis to outline the condition of men in different cultures today, especially men in difficulty. Referring to the categories of reciprocity, complementarity, diversity and equality, this is a reflection trying to avoid the two risky extremes of this process: uniformity on one hand and marginalization on the other.

2) “Generativity” as a symbolic code
Beginning with the fundamental steps of generativity (desiring, bringing to the world, looking after and letting go), this is a reflection on the ways of “giving life” beyond paternity.

3) The male body: between culture and biology
The body expresses the being of a person, more than an aesthetic dimension closed in on itself: the reflection is on the value of the male body and its communicative force and the relational ability of men. Other aspects won’t be overlooked: freedom of choice, aggression against men’s bodies, domestic violence, commercialization, reduction to a unique model of being.

4) Men and religion: flight or new forms of participation in the life of the Church?
The reflection looks at the spaces proposed to men in the life of the Church, and if men are made to feel welcome in light of specific and changed cultural and social sensibilities. The pastors will ask themselves whether the way men participate in the life of the Church functions today.

Happy Valentine’s Day……


Tremors and Rumbles in San Francisco….

“I think the church’s insistence on the distinctiveness of gender, that being male and female is a charism given by God that enables a person to do certain things and not other things, that gender is not just accidental, cannot be changed at whim, is deeply part of the essence of a person — that’s why this is such a big thing in San Francisco.” An observation by Fr. Joseph Illo from San Francisco, as reported in Crux on February 4, 2015. Illo was explaining why he has banned girl altar servers in his parish. To make things very clear, Illo stressed: “The assistants of priests at the altar should be male, because the priesthood is a fatherhood, not a motherhood.”

Illo was a controversial figure at a previous parish, when he told parishioners that if they voted for President Obama they would have to go to confession before receiving communion.

Father Illo’s current parish, Star of the Sea, is the only parish in the Archdiocese of San Francisco that bars altar girls. Illo said, however, that he has the backing of San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

Archbishop Cordileone — well known for his strong opposition to LGBT civil rights and his affection for the Latin Tridentine Mass — has been much in the news this week, because of a proposed new handbook and contracts for teachers in his archdiocesan high schools.

The new documents, approved by Cordileone, call on archdiocesan teachers to avoid publicly challenging the church’s position on “hot-button issues.” Teacher handbooks will be updated for the 2015-16 school year with descriptions of key points of Catholic doctrine. Examples of the new language that will be found in the teachers’ handbook have already been presented in a “Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church.”

The statement stresses that Catholic high school administrators, faculty, and staff “of any faith or of no faith,” are expected to “arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny these truths.” Among the truths one must not deny are: the immorality of artificial contraception, and that all extra-marital sexual relationships are gravely evil along with masturbation, and homosexual relations.


Male chauvinism is never a virtue; and restricting a free exchange of ideas undermines genuine education and derails the search for truth. We need to build open bridges not close them to all traffic.

Sometimes presumed leaders become people managers instead, and authoritarian control replaces visionary leadership.