In just a couple weeks we will have the second anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as Bishop of Rome. The Tablet calls him the “Root and Branch Reformer,” while many hail the “Francis effect.” Certainly Pope Francis’ style and bearing are a welcomed change after decades of exaggerated Renaissance papal grandeur, so out of sync with our contemporary world. Even when we are often left wondering just exactly what his words mean in contemporary pastoral practice, Francis drops good sound bites, thanks to his former Fox News, high-level Opus Dei, PR guru.

I have nothing against Pope Francis. His style is far better than that of his last two predecessors (with all due respect to emeritus Benedictus who is still with us) but I often feel that people today focus far too much attention on the leader making grand symbolic gestures and ignore life in the local church.

The local church scene still suffers from what I call persistent paradigm paralysis (PPP) —  a religious and theological disease that gets transmitted in closed static environments where there is little fresh thought, vision becomes tunnel vision, and anxiety replaces imagination.

We saw it last month again in San Francisco……..

At the Star of the Sea school, whose pastor has already banned girls from acting as altar servers, copies of “The Examination of Conscience and Catholic Doctrine” were given to students in second through sixth grades. Part of their preparation for Lent. In that examination of conscience, little children were asked questions like, “Did I perform impure acts by myself (masturbation) or with another (adultery, fornication and sodomy)?” and, “Did I practice artificial birth control or was I or my spouse prematurely sterilized (tubal ligation or vasectomy)?” as well as, “Have I had or advised anyone to have an abortion?” Maybe San Francisco has unusual grade school children?

PPP flourishes wherever people are unable or unwilling to a knowledge that we grow in our understanding of Christian belief, that our human life is a pilgrimage through time, and (nostalgia aside) that the good old days were not always that great.

Persistent paradigm paralysis is really fundamentalism. It is a serious disease: a form of malignant religion that ignores human dignity and particularly denigrates contemporary women. The recently concluded Vatican Conference On “Women’s Cultures: Equality And Difference” that never progressed much beyond its rocky start is a good example. Women in our church are still officially considered lower than men and innately incapable of priestly ordination. All those Catholic women  currently exercising ordained ministry (very effectively by the way) are considered defective, invalid, and excommunicated.

PPP of course is the problem we see in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism. We easily see it in them, however, but often ignore it in ourselves. Jesus says it best in the Luke’s Gospel: “Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” Some people find it convenient to ignore or reject paradigm shifts because shifting paradigms threaten their own power structures and personal authority. Many years ago, when I completed my doctoral studies in theology, a bishop acquaintance told me “Guys like you scare me. You know too much.”

For Roman Catholics the biggest paradigm shifts in the past fifty years have been: (1) the shift in theological understanding from an outsider-God to an insider-God, and (2) the shift from understanding the church as an institution run by ordained men to the church as God’s people: a community of faith in which all men and women are equal members. The insider-God of course is the God who journeys with us, who is part of human history and discovery, and who is the intimate spirit animating our lives. These two paradigm shifts are connected of course and they underpin the theology of the Second Vatican Council.

Fifty years after the council, some people are still locked in their antiquated fundamentalist viewpoint. This past September, in my former parish for instance, the new director of religious education announced that for guidance in sacramental preparation and formation programs he would be relying on the teachings of the (sixteenth century) Council of Trent! What a contemporary guy! What absolute nonsense!

Lots of people within the Vatican’s walls are still very uncomfortable with paradigm shifts in the church. In the days of the Francis effect their PPP anxiety may be a bit muted but it remains just as poisonous.

New Ways Ministry, a ministry of advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, sponsored a pilgrimage to Rome two weeks ago for nearly fifty people. To their joy and great surprise they were given VIP seats for the papal Ash Wednesday liturgy and were led by Loreto Sister Jeannine Gramick, who co-founded the organization. Pope Francis, however, completely ignored them and they were introduced as simply “a group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loreto.” As Robert Mickens observed in Commonweal, another example of ecclesiastical “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Ironic when it is well-known that a large number of bishops inside and outside the Vatican’s walls are gay.

Today, in far too many dioceses, teachers in Catholic schools and lay ministers in parishes are being fired because they have expressed an openness to women’s ordination, have questioned official church teaching about birth control, or because they are gay or have committed the offence of expressing openness or support for gay marriage.

An antidote for persistent paradigm paralysis? Like combating HIV or EBOLA it will take concerted efforts and it will take time. There are three steps we can take right now:

(1) When it appears in our parishes or schools, denounce it as nonsense and unacceptable. Non-violent protest may be necessary.
(2) Insist on well-rounded and high-quality education in our parishes, in catechetical programs, in schools, and in adult ongoing education programs.
(3) Do a personal ongoing education check-up. What is our understanding of our tradition, our history? Is our understanding of biblical research, for example, truly up to date?


There are some very big paradigm shifts on the way. Many connected with the rise of the Millennial generation. Exciting times ahead…… Being on the inside track will be much more fun.



























13 thoughts on “Persistent Paradigm Paralysis

  1. Jack, I’m reading this as I’m preparing for masses and homilies. This Wed is diocesan confession day at all parishes, so I’m talking about sins as free actions, not reactions. I ilke Marcus Borg’s approach. I suspect it will go well in one parish, but not in others. Still rankling about goings-on in SF. Our bishop says that tomorrow (Mon) he will release to the priests a process for consulting for the Synod. Grabbing coffee and off to dig out my car — lots of snow this AM.

  2. Trent? Giving babies documents intended for adults? Ignoring the ministry of Sr. Gramick? The tectonic paradigm shifts attempted at vatican II seem to have moved no mountains, just created more rubble.

      1. One other major paradigm shift was to move to include experience as a source of theology. Prior to World War II and the II Vatican Council, only Scripture and Tradition were considered valid theological sources. But after the war, theologians realized that Scripture and Tradition provided the seedbed for the Holocaust. There are enough anti-Jewish verses in the New Testament and whole theological tracts Contra Judaeos to allow Hitler to claim that he was doing the church’s work in his war against the Jews. The experience of the Holocaust compelled Catholic theologians to insist that no theology should be done without being able to look into the ovens at Auschwitz. So who are the marginalized today who could be assaulted by the state and no (or very few) bishops would raise a complaint? The LGBT community? Those uppity radical feminists who have no respect for patriarchal tradition? Those free-thinking theologians who ask questions about the church’s traditional teaching about sexuality? Only experience a.k.a. learning from out mistakes of the past will
        allow us to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

      2. Thank you! I would like to come back to this in a future reflection…probably next week. What you write is of key importance….Experience and praxis! Thank you Ron

  3. Paradigm shifting needs to happen across the whole board of human knowledge. Both within the churches and religions but also within secular sections of the cultures.

    Within the Church, and following your lead Jack about updating our knowledge re Biblical analysis. I would recommend a full acknowledgement that the Bible stands firmly on the grounding of the Mesopotamian tablets, on which much of the Old Testament is based. The”Enuma Elish” and “The Epic of Gilgamesh” are but two such written stories taken from the original tablets, easily available now. It also needs to be remembered that the the writing of the OT was done in Babylon where they were held captive. Translations were likely manipulated and changed in order to keep the Jews easy to control and manipulate.

    A study of many authors and archaeological experts, historical scholars, biologists, quantum physicists palaentologists etc etc. shows overwhelming evidence that the history of our solar system, our planet and human evolution, is vastly different than most of us believe it to be, including the PPP of the academic world. The stories of our true origins etc are told in the works mentioned above which have been researched, documented, investigated and interpreted by such great minds as Zecharaiah Sitchen. His “Genesis Re’Visited” is a triumph of break through thinking and a revelation regarding our Bible and the total misinterpretation Christendom and other religions have put upon it. Sitchen’s many works have provided a basis for many academics and open minded researchers in all walks of life and ordinary open minded people who want to know the real truth of things and not just swallow half truths or – worse- total lies put about by those who want to dominate our thinking for their own spurious reasons. mostly for purposes of control and worldly power.

    Let’s challenge a few accepted paradigms and be open to new ways of seeing and thinking. The kind you do outside the box would be good.All who aspire to follow Yeshua should not be afraid to seek Truth at every turn. It is greater and more beautiful than you could ever have imagined.

    Best Wishes

  4. Once again, Jack, you get to the root of the matter. The projection of the religious hierarchy’s sins onto young children is almost incredulous to me. I say almost as I’ve survived that kind of delusional condemnation myself. “To the pure, all things are pure.” That speaks volumes about the Religious Wrong.

  5. Well said, Jack. Yes, the Catholic laity should protest against the manifestations of PPP at the parish level. But as long as the PPP pastors are selected by the PPP bishops and the bishops by the PPP pope – regardless of his nice “style” – chances of success are slim. Betty

  6. Jack you give me hope that the church may move toward sanity. Interesting word, sanity. In my parish a couple of weeks ago, the priest delivering the sermon (no homilies here) decried mental illness as possession by demons. Here’s a URL to what I mean: The original has been changed, apparently after a groundswell of complaint, my own included, but he left some of the original language in his blog. When we have to be exposed to this tripe, and understand that our children are still being exposed to it, I want to give up. I’m so glad, in this instance I, and all of the others who responded to his sermon, did not.

  7. Jack, thanks sincerely for your thoughtful and insightful posts. I have been reading you for about a year and NEVER miss reading your reflections. I am always refreshed. PPP is so completely saturated into our Catholic and probably other faith systems, one wonders if there is really a way out. Then, I guess that simply neglects the power of the Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, refresh the hearts of us all.

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