Stationary and Pilgrimage Christians

A couple friends have asked for my projection/predictions about the church fifty years from today. Frankly, I am not good at predicting the future; and fifty years is a long time, especially for a guy who passed his own fifty years, more than twenty years ago.

There are of course trends in the church — in all churches; and I do have some thoughts about where these trends will take us in the coming five to ten years.

Polarization between church leaders and church members, as well as between ideological groups within the church, is now approaching a point of no return. I expect ongoing explosions, confrontations, and further division of the church into smaller and independent churches. I think it is unavoidable.

Regardless what’s happening to the earth’s polar ice caps, ecclesiastical climate change is a fact of life; and it will shape and reconfigure Christian identity and behavior in the coming decade.

First of all we have the melting-away of the church due to departures. Not so much a storm. More a low pressure dissipation. Whether out of frustration, ignorance, or just plain spiritual laziness, large numbers of people will continue to walk away from institutional churches. Especially young people.

Those who remain “Christian” will be either “Stationary Christians” or “Pilgrimage Christians.”

Simply put, “stationary Christians” are those who see change as either a great disruption, a great distortion, or downright evil. They have age-old answers for every age-old question. Even if no one is really asking those questions anymore. In the contemporary Roman Catholic world, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is a clear example of the stationary Christian, incapable of understanding Christianity in the light of ongoing human growth and development. Commenting this week about the Irish same-sex marriage referendum, Cardinal Parolin stressed “I believe that we are talking about not just a defeat for Christian principles but about a defeat for humanity.”

In my Dominus Vobiscum observations here last week, I referred to other examples of retro-catholic stationary Christians. Stationary Christians are now circling their wagons and building fortifications against the evil world, or, as Augustine of Hippo would say, the great confrontation between “The City of God” and “The City of Humanity.” (As we gear up for the coming U.S. presidential election, I suspect we will see a lot of defensive maneuvering by stationary Christians who want to circle their wagons around an America threatened by secularism and Islamic fundamentalists. I just read, for instance, that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida has announced that same-sex marriage is a real and present danger to the United States and to Christianity.)

“Pilgrimage Christians” are believers who experience human life, and therefore Christian life, as an open-ended journey with the Divine. They don’t have ready-made answers for every question. They see Christian life as a process of individual and communal discernment. Tomorrow may bring new and exciting discoveries. It may bring disappointments and misery as well. The cross is part of Christian life. Throughout it all, we make progress. We move forward. Life is stronger than death. We mature. We are not abandoned. We move ahead, more humble and a bit wiser…..

In the coming decade I expect major clashes between the “stationary” and “pilgrimage” people at all levels in our churches. While the Vatican’s Cardinal Parolin sees approval of homosexuality and same-sex marriage as a defeat for Christian principles as well as a defeat for humanity, Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx has called for a “welcoming culture” in the church for homosexuals, saying it’s “not the differences that count, but what unites us.”

Today Vatican authority is being challenged in yet another way as Roman Catholic women act upon their vocations to ordained ministry. Since 2002—when seven women were ordained by male Roman Catholic bishops—more than 190 women have been ordained to the priesthood, including at least a dozen women bishops; and all have served or are serving their faith communities very effectively. Reiterating the teaching of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, remains steadfastly opposed to the ordination of women, stressing that “The church has spoken and says ‘No.’” Not everyone in the hierarchy is in agreement with Pope Francis however. The head of the Swiss bishops, Bishop Markus Büchel of St. Gallen, has spoken out quite openly in favor of women’s ordination, saying that the church should “pray that the Holy Spirit enables us to read the signs of the times.” Hierarchical polarization for sure. (How I would love to hear the head of the U.S. Catholic bishops echoing the voice of Bishop Büchel.)

Polarization is strong and “stationary” and “pilgrimage” groups are going to clash and collide many times and in many places, over the next few years. They will contribute to a further dissolution of large institutional churches into smaller and independent churches. Open to women. Open to all. With no hierarchical distinction between ordained and non-ordained. A variety of roles and responsibilities within genuine communities of faith. Prophetic church movements….Small Christian communities are less capable of exerting the kind of demeaning power over people that one sometimes sees in large institutions.

Because of this further break-up into smaller groups, I see major financial problems for the once affluent institutional church, which will be unable to maintain its large buildings, institutions and services. In the Roman Catholic Church there will be even more dioceses going bankrupt. I don’t necessarily rejoice in this; but acknowledge it as a fact of life.

I see as well major and ongoing explosions about human sexuality and gender issues, coming from more honesty about what is going on and has been going on in the church. Clerical sexual abuse is not over. In addition, one has not yet seen major reports from India and Africa, where my contacts tell me it is a major problem. One African bishop told me he hoped the stories would never come out about clerical sexual abuse of African women religious. A few years ago, my eyes were opened when a bright young African priest arrived at our university to begin working toward a doctorate in theology. I helped him get settled in town. Arriving a few days later, from the same diocese, was a young African sister, dressed in light blue, and sent “to study philosophy.” A few months later, I learned that the young priest’s bishop had sent “sister philosophy student” to be the young priest’s sexual companion to comfort him during his strenuous doctoral studies. An isolated occurrence? I don’t think so.

On the positive side, in the coming decade, I expect to see — in all areas and forms of church life — stronger prophetic action and I expect to to hear more courageous prophetic voices. More prophets like the Vicar General of the Diocese of Essen in Germany, Klaus Pfeffer, who commented about Cardinal Parolin’s recent anti-homosexuality remarks, in this way: “’Defeat(s) for humanity’ are things like violence, terror, war, and inhumanity.” Gospel challenges to contemporary values and behavior….

All in all I am optimistic in my ecclesiastical realism. The Spirit has not abandoned us. And we must not abandon the Spirit.

I cannot predict details but will offer two final thoughts about fifty years from now:

(1) Certainly there will be a major reconfiguration of the Christian Church, because what we are already experiencing is far greater and much more revolutionary than anything springing from the sixteenth century Reformation. Christian institutional structures will change in major ways yet to be seen.

(2) Regardless what happens fifty years from now – or ten years from now – the important issue is what’s happening today: how we read the signs of our own times and how we allow that understanding to shape and enliven our own ministry and witness.

Next week I will be on the road for some summer travel. I may be quiet for a couple weeks, depending on what I see and hear….. And how much sunshine comes my way. That too is part of being on pilgrimage. Many kind regards to all. I do appreciate your own thoughts and observations.


Dominus Vobiscum Catholics

Some of today’s Roman Catholic ordained men enjoy walking around in public, in oldstyle cassocks and birettas; and delight in “celebrating Mass” in Latin. I guess they have a right to do that. Pope Benedict, the emeritus pope, made sure of that. I still wonder these days if all “rights” make certain actions “right.”
Mass in Latin is happening rather regularly in a parish not far from my home. Over the past year I have had some generally friendly conversations with some of the (what I call) Dominus-Vobiscum-Catholics. The “celebrants” are most often young men, born a decade or more after Vatican II. I have often asked why they have reverted (regressed) to a former era? What animates these young clerics? What animates their congregations? They seem so steadfastly sure of themselves. Some of them are absolutely arrogant in their self-righteous speech and behavior.
One of my former students (painful) is a reverted priest. He is an athletic, friendly, and outgoing young guy. He often walks around the neighborhood, however, in a sombre black cassock. (Young kids think he looks like Dracula.) When he processes to the altar for his “Sunday Mass,” he turns his back to the congregation and does everything in Latin, with abundant incense and old bells. Lots of incense. Lots of bells.
Why do young Roman Catholíc ordained ministers (“priests”) enjoy doing this Latin ritual? One fellow told me that Latin is a “holy” language. I laughed a bit and said it is no more holy than English, or Spanish, or French, or whatever…… Actually my working-knowledge of Latin is excellent. Superior to their’s I suspect. Four years in high school and four years in college. Nevetheless, I have absolutely no desire to experience Sunday worship in the old language. I like museums as well, but wouldn’t want to live in one.
Why do people gather behind these Latin Mass ministers?
You really can’t say that people gather around these oldtime-religion priests. They sit, stand, or kneel, looking at the sacerdotal derrière. OK I know. I came of age in the 1960s; but I really prefer looking at people face-to-face. Much more interesting. Human contact. And I really don’t find backsides ,draped in ritual attire, all that charming.
Frankly, I find the Roman Catholic Latin Mass people analogically akin to the Islamic sharia people. They are fundamentalists, stuck in a former time. Unwilling, fearful, and incapable of living in our contemporary world. I understand this, because I was once a fundamentalist. Anxious and unable to cope with a changing culture around me and confused about my own psycho-sexual development, I found stability and security (for a while) in an obedient servitude to a static theological viewpoint that said change is dangerous and deadly. I liked girls, for instance, but my spiritual director said they were an occasion of sin. Counseling me about “sexual feelings,” he told me they were a terrible burden, the result of Original Sin, which brought many a young man close to eternal damnation. Unquestioningly I believed him…..for a while.
One day (truly an amazing grace) thanks to one of my university professors, I started asking: why? He encouraged me. And I had a long list of “whys?” I had come to respect him as a man of faith; and he stood by me and said it was a good, healthy, and holy thing to ask “why?”
Today I ask “why?” when I am with these Dominus-Vobiscum-Catholics. In general they are not bad people but distorted believers, I am now convinced. I understand, because I too was once a distorted believer. I was ensconced in a nineteenth century Catholic ethos, where everything was nicely packaged. Catholicism was the embodiment of Christian truth. No need to think. The answers had been given. Just affirm obediently and say “yes.”
One young reverted-priest told me he liked the “sense of mystery”‘ that Latin added to “his” liturgy. He didn’t have to deal with contemporary people and issues. He doesn’t like to look at people during “his” celebration of liturgy because they are a distraction. I told him one of the greatest real-time divine “mysteries” in my life was being with my wife face-to-face, when our son was born. He replied that I obviously was a very secular man. I told him I thought Jesus was a very secular man as well, but the young cleric had absolutely no understanding of what I meant. (The Incarnation.)
Aren’t we more properly and more truly looking at God when we face our sisters and brothers face-to-face than when we only stare at the back wall behind an altar?
Chatting with another young-but-oldtime-minded priest recently, the young man told me that he was a priest because “priests are ontologically superior” to lesser “lay people” human beings like me. When I reminded him that in the Gospel Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches…..a community of equals with various roles in the community of faith, he chuckled and said (rather unkindly) that “1960s old liberals” like me were, fortunately, now dying-off. (I reminded him that resurrection follows death….)
Change is a fact of life. Pentecost reminds us — reassures us — that God’s Spirit is with us in our ongoing and ever-changing human journey. That should give us ample security and stability in our lives. We are not alone out there in space and time.
Most fundamentally, the Dominus-Vobiscum-people are Catholic fundamentalists. They are religiously frigid….frozen in the past (about which many of them are terribly ignorant). They cannot fathom that people of faith live, change, and grow in their faith relationship and their understanding of our human condition and our Christian belief and practice. Each day is a new discovery. Each day we re-evaluate and re-interpret our history.
We cannot allow fundamentalists to distort the message and run the show. That would be counter-productive and ulimately destructive of what we, as disciples of Jesus, are all about. We must be strong and active. We have to stay alert and be well-informed. On the other hand, like my old professor (close to 100, when he died two years ago) we need to befriend, respect, and challenge fundamentalists — in all religuous traditions — to study, reflect, and continually ask “why?”
This week end we hear again: “Suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as a wind blowing. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking of the wonderful works of God.”
And so we continue on our human journeys, amidst changes that we may or may not understand. The Spirit has not abandoned us, even when our vision seems a bit cloudy.

Happy Pentecost

Christian Decline : Christian Challenge

According to the latest report from the Pew Research Center, Christianity in the United States is declining and the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. 
The drop in Christian affiliation is particularly strong among young adults; but it is occurring among Americans of all ages and of all ethnic and educational backgrounds.

Americans are shifting away from organized religion.

The percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christian has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in seven years — from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. 

Mainline Protestants are declining but Roman Catholics are declining more rapidly both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers. 

Currently there are about 51 million adult Catholics in the U.S. That is 3 million fewer than in 2007; and 13 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics, up from 10 percent in 2007. Just 16 percent of the 18-to-24-year-olds today are Catholic, and that is not enough to offset the numbers lost through aging and switching. The American RCC bishops are looking to the Latinos to save their church. For certain, U.S. Latino population growth over the past two decades has boosted numbers in the Catholic Church; but a new, in-depth analysis shows Latinos’ allegiance to Catholicism is now waning as growing numbers move toward other Christian denominations or claim no religion at all.

One can expect more closed Catholic churches in coming years. Unless…..

One of the most important factors in the declining number of declared Christians is the growth of the unaffiliated. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations. 

Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33). And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. 

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that many of America’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are “spiritual” in some way. Two-thirds of them believe in God. More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” 

Overwhelmingly, the unaffiliated see organized religion out of touch with contemporary life when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality. They think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. Large numbers of Catholics are still not convinced that the horrors of clerical sexual abuse are over.  

Christian decline is our Christian challenge. The unaffiliated have not sold their souls to hedonistic secularity. In their hunger for bread and living water, they too often find their churches handing out dried-up old stones. 

We need to change our focus. We need to help people on their spiritual journeys. We need to see our parishes as meaning of life clinics, where people are listened to, their problems are appreciated, spiritual exploration is stimulated, support communities are built, and people find direction and encouragement in difficult times. Christianity is about life, hope, and future life.

Roles, Rules, and Tools: Breaking the Cycle of Death

How do churches evolve? Can orderly patterns be found in the midst of apparent chaos? 
The cyclical process of birth, growth, breakdown, and disintegration was a perennial theme in ancient philosophy, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks. Jesus of Nazareth introduced a new element in the sequential process: resurrection. We are not caught in a deadly cycle but life goes on in ever new forms. The paschal mystery.
Sometimes people forget the paschal mystery when it comes to the institutional church. They wander blindly amid breakdown, oblivious about the need for change, forgetful that Christian life is about rebirth and hope for new life.
Church history tells the story. Once the institutional church has reached a peak of institutional organization and vitality, leaders often succumb to the temptation to be self-centered, self-protective, and self-righteous. Bishops become lords and pay lip-service to the Lord. It happens to pastors and theologians as well of course.
When too much organizational success at the top clogs the brains of church leaders, the institutional church tends to lose its socio-cultural momentum and starts to decline. Membership drops. Young people move out. Churches are closed. Bankruptcies  spring up and schools collapse. (How many merged parishes and closed churches are there in your region?)
An essential element in this religious breakdown is a loss of prophetic flexibility. When ecclesiastical structures and behavior patterns become so rigid that the institution can no longer adapt to changing conditions, it will be unable to carry on the creative process of critical reflection and theological and institutional adaptation. It will then break down and begin to disintegrate. 
Whereas growing and developing churches display variety and versatility, those in the process of disintegration show uniformity and a lack of inventiveness. Loss of flexibility is one of the institutional church’s capital sins.
More than a few years ago, while thinking as a young man about the Second Vatican Council and change in the Catholic Church, a friend gave me a copy of Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As I read Kuhn’s book, my brain began to vibrate. It still vibrates.
Kuhn introduced the concept of a paradigm. He observed that as long as a paradigm explains most observed phenomena and solves the problems most people want solved, it remains dominant. But as new understandings of reality begin to contradict it, the paradigm succumbs to increasing doubt. As these problems multiply, it is thrown into crisis. 
Today of course one thinks about issues of gender, sexual orientation, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and a church still burdened with a nineteenth century corporate style as we move forward in the third millennium. I think as well about overcoming biblical and theological ignorance that has warped our understanding of authentic Christianity. (I cringed recently when a young ordained minister reiterated from the pulpit that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Not true. That fallacy was created by (misogynist?) Pope Gregory in the sixth century. Mary of Magdala was one of Jesus’ most influential apostles and witness to his being raised from the dead. She was not a prostitute.)
When a new paradigm is articulated, a broad paradigmatic shift occurs. People of course – usually the people down below — make the socio-cultural change that results in the paradigm shift.
Change in the Catholic Church in fact has most often come from below – from courageously prophetic people at the bottom of the Catholic pyramid. 

Catholic Church change most often has followed a three-stage process of development:
(1) Changed understandings lead to changed behavior, which is condemned by church authorities.
(2) When the condemned behavior persists within a large group of believers, church authority allows it as an experiment.
(3) As the experiment becomes actually widespread practice, church authority goes back to the doctrinal and disciplinary drawing board and then canonizes the change as simply part of good Catholic practice.

What’s my point? 
If we want genuine church reform, it is pointless the wait for top administrators to make the changes because they probably are a big part of what needs to be changed, even when they smile and say popular things.
We need to be part of, to animate, and to support prophetic people and prophetic movements. We need to  encourage and support, for instance, Catholic high school students and their parents when a man or woman teacher in a Catholic school is fired because of a same-sex committed relationship. We need to support and encourage those women who are now in fact women priests. We need to encourage and support those men and women who are exploring new forms of ministry and pastoral life, in lay ecclesial movements. 
We need to protest unacceptable behavior as well, when no one else seems to protest. Why for example, is Robert Finn, the convicted criminal and now resigned Bishop of Kansas City still allowed to preside over the priestly ordinations of seven deacons on May 16 in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese? 
This is not an awkward situation. It is a disgrace. Is there not even one of those men about to be ordained who finds it objectionable?
A strategy for change
People need to organize and develop a plan for effective change if there will indeed be a paradigm shift. I offer a six-step program:
(1) The formulation of a goal: people affected by or concerned about a bad church situation need to set a goal, a desired and realistic outcome.

(2) Clear communication: The goal formulators need to communicate their vision to others, beginning with those most affected by the root problem and expanding to a greater community of concern. Email, Facebook, telephone calls, articles in newspapers, public meetings, parish council meetings, and neighborhood discussion groups are some kinds of very effective communication.

(3) Organization: Once the goal vision begins to attract more supporters, some form of organization is required to manage the group and implement a plan.

(4) Goal adaptation: As the new vision gets broader exposure, it can grow and change. Quite often an initial vision is incomplete, especially in its practical details. Some accommodations may have to be made, for instance, to broaden the appeal of the vision.

(5) Socio-cultural transformation: Once the movement has gained enough support within the society, the thrust shifts from communication to implementation. People start doing what should be done. (Years ago I was part of this process in my SW Michigan diocese when it came to receiving communion on the hand, fiercely condemned at the time by the local bishop. I recall one diocesan event when Cardinal Dearden was present and distributing communion on the hand in our local cathedral. The local bishop walked over to him and reprimanded the cardinal saying “we don’t do that in my diocese. Dearden smiled and said “that is your problem,” and then continued to distribute communion on the hand. I know because I was standing in front of him.)

(6) Establishing a new behavior pattern: Once the initial  shift – the transformation — has taken place, the next stage is to establish the new vision as the new but constant practice, which basically means institutionalizing it in various ways. This of course will be fine until, in view of the signs of the times, new goals must be set!

Life goes on……..step by step…..stage by stage. Resurrection.


Christian Democracy: Amazing Grace

Continuing last week’s reflection about the theocratic distortion of Christian life……

The church as theocracy always gets in the way of accepting the church as democracy, the community of faith. (I have a couple bishop friends who get red-faced and throw pontifical fits when I speak about democracy in the church. They are good men but terribly short-sighted.) Theocracy blinds people to the full human reality of the Incarnation: God with us in the human journey. Not out there or up there passing judgment on lowly humans down below. Closer to us than the air in our lungs.

The Christian democratic experience is symbol and reality of God’s presence in human life. Leadership in the church should not be the old vertical pyramid but a horizontal circle of members and leaders in community and in conversation with each other: shared discussion, shared responsibility for the community, and shared decision-making. Vatican II called it collegiality. One of my old Louvain professors called it the infallibility of the people of God.

Indeed. Sometimes in fact church “members” see things more clearly than church “leaders.” It was that way from the beginning. The first followers of Jesus who gave witness to and announced that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women members of the community of disciples. (An important reminder for certain men at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith….)


Vox populi vox Dei is an old understanding: the voice of the people is the voice of God. Sometimes it takes a very long time for certain Christian realities to sink in. Across the globe, the people of God have been speaking clearly about issues of marriage, gender, sexuality, liturgy, and leadership in the church. Many leaders up there in their ecclesiastical pyramids still remain deaf, blind, and paralyzed like old (and occasionally young) static sphinxes.

Last month, for instance, students at the Catholic University of Santiago launched a demonstration against Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, because of his dismissal of a prominent liberation theologian, Professor Jorge Costadoat. The widely-respected Jesuit priest and professor of theology has been outspoken on the social mission of the Church, about a contemporary and broader understanding of sexual morality, and about Communion for divorcees who have remarried.

In a letter to the newspaper, El Mercurio, Fr Costadoat said he did not know what the cardinal, who is Grand Chancellor of the university, was accusing him of. Fr Costadoat told El Mercurio that there were other professors at the university who were “fearful” about their future, feeling they were “being watched” because of their contemporary theological views.

Often in the news, Cardinal Ezzati, is one of Pope Francis’ group of nine advisers and one of the first bishops whom Francis had made a cardinal. He is also a conservatively controversial figure in the Chilean Church.

Cardinal Ezzati was accompanied at last month’s event, where the student demonstration took place, by the newly-appointed Bishop Juan Barros, who was also targeted by the protesters. Bishop Barros is alleged to have colluded in or covered up the child abuse committed by the priest Fernando Karadima, who was banned from ministry by the Vatican. More than a thousand Catholics have protested the appointment of Barros as Bishop of Osorno and have petitioned Pope Francis to have him removed. Barros still remains in place.

In Chile the old power structure appears deaf and blind to the protests. In California as well, where in an unprecedented move, more than 100 prominent Roman Catholic donors and church members have signed a full-page ad running  in The Chronicle that calls on Pope Francis to replace San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone for fostering “an atmosphere of division and intolerance.”

Such vertical leadership blindspots are hardly limited to Santiago and San Francisco….

Nevertheless, in the Gospels we see  the historic Jesus stressing the importance of open eyes and ears in the community of faith. In the Gospel of Luke, he reminds the community: “The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me; and the one who rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” And in the Gospel of Matthew: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus, “Son of God,” was not very theocratic. Reading the scriptures, we are continually reminded that the church is a community: a body with inter-related and inter-dependant parts, animated by God’s Spirit. Without distinctions and hierarchic positions, as Paul reminded the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Christian life is an amazing grace. It takes some Christians, however, a long time to really understand it….