A Reality Check-up

A couple years ago a young ordained minister in California told me that he couldn’t wait to become pastor of his own parish. He told me he had lots of ideas about pastoral ministry and he was anxious to implement them “to get the church back on track.” The more he talked, and the more I listened, the more I realized that he wanted to push people back into a 1950s religiosity built on male chauvinism, silent obedience to the clergy, a medieval morality, and an unquestioning dogmatic rigidity. This young fellow would resonate completely with Raymond Burke, the US Roman Catholic cardinal – wrapped up gloriously in his fancy lace and flowing red dress – who complained that the church is no longer “manly” enough. He reiterated last week that women and girls are the source of the current crisis in the church: all part of a “radical feminism which has assaulted the church and society since the 1960s.” “Apart from the priest,” the cardinal stressed, “the sanctuary has become full of women. The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and have become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.” (How ironic then that the first Christians to proclaim that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women……)

Since we will soon be in Lent 2016, here a seven-point reflection for all in pastoral ministry of one form or another – some questions for personal and possibly group reflection:

(1) The good old days: Do we want to be anchored in the past or engaged with today and preparing for tomorrow? As an old man and a retired professor of history, I have a pretty good understanding of the past. I have no desire to live like back then.

We also have to ask what one means by the past. Cardinal Burke is a Renaissance era ecclesiastic in dress, manners, and modes of thought. Some of my friends and former colleagues, on the other hand, are locked in the 1960s: repeating again, and again all their old complaints about the church but demonstrating in fact that they have become as out-of-date as the contemporary hierarchs they complain about. So where am I today in this discussion? Am I dealing with contemporary reality or still enjoying fighting yesterday’s windmills?

(2) The City of God and the Human City: I have no desire to get into a professional argument about the pros and cons of Augustinian theology. (Not today at least.) There is a problem, however, when we fail to understand that the Human City — in which we live — is the place where we encounter and live with the living God. It is sometimes tempting perhaps but neither healthy nor authentically Christian to run away from contemporary life, condemn it as “heathen” or “secularized,” and ignore the men and women wrapped up or crushed under a broad array of human concerns, problems, and agonies. The world is not our enemy. It is where we live with our brothers and sisters. INCARNATION means God-become-one-with-us. And what is God-become-one-with-us asking me to do this day?

(3) Building temples: My old friend (who died much too young) Ken Untener, formerly RC Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, often reminded people that building-temples can be very seductive but has very little to do with Christian ministry and witness. If we follow the example of Jesus, he said, we cease being temple-builders and become traveling pilgrims pitching their tents: following and living with God’s people wherever their lives take them. Am I often too wrapped up in building and maintaining my own temples?

(4) Finding scapegoats: It is easy to find scapegoats in today’s church. I agree that problematic and abusive people need to be sanctioned and removed. (Some need to be sent to a federal prison.) On the other hand, if we spend most of our energy only on finding and heaping abuse on our scapegoats, we risk becoming alarm bells incapable of being change agents. By only focusing on the sawdust in another’s eyes we risk ignoring the planks in our own. We need to be critical but we also need to pick up and carry our own crosses. We need to take charge. Who is my scapegoat and how am I going to make constructive change?

(5) Having the truth: No one has all the truth. No theology, whether progressive or conservative, has all the truth. No single religious tradition has all the truth. We are all truth-seekers and we need each other as we move along in our truth-seeking-journeys. Arrogance and self-righteousness have no place in the lives of the truth-seekers. Collaboration, humility, and compassion are the key virtues for all seeking the truth. Have I become arrogant about my own positions? Am I really willing to listen and collaborate with others?

(6) Exercising authority: Authority in the church is greatly misunderstood and greatly abused. Authority comes from Latin auctor which means the capability to influence people. It is connected with agency and encouragement. Jesus provided the model for Christian authority: service and the work of the Spirit. Authority in the church should be practiced as the ministry to motivate and transform people, based on trusting relationships. Authority is horizontal not vertical. We all have authority; but how do we exercise it? Jesus says in the Gospels that whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Servant ministry = Servant leadership.

(7) Protecting the church: Certainly the greatest reason given by church leaders for their allowing unethical and unchristian behavior is that they are or were “protecting the church” or “safeguarding the name of the church.” Gay people who get married are fired from church positions to protect the name of the church. Clergy who abuse children are allowed to continue their immoral behavior but in a different parish, in a different state, or are sent to “minister” in foreign country: to protect the good name of the church. It goes on and on. At all levels. A church that condones and promotes immoral behavior has no name worth defending.

The English word “Lent” is a shortened form of an Old English word meaning “spring.” In the Dutch language “lente” still means “spring.” Wherever there is winter in the institutional church, spring can and will return, because the church is first of all not an institution but a community of faith: women and men alive with the reality of God-with-us.




Something New

Last week as part of a lawsuit settlement, St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota released the personnel files of 18 monks it says were credibly accused of sexually abusing minors….. Just a few days ago Pope Francis issued a reminder of his and the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriage as a fierce debate rages in Italy about a vote that could give legal recognition to same-sex couples. A Roman Catholic friend observed with dismay “the Catholic glass is now below half empty.”

Following a meeting with Pope Francis on January 15th, a group of Finnish Lutherans were offered Holy Communion by Roman Catholic priests at a mass held in St. Peter’s Basilica. ……..Another Catholic friend smiled and said “the Catholic glass is half full and filling.”

I suggest that we probably spend far too much time looking at glasses, whether half full or half empty. There is a much bigger world out here and people are caught up in a great transition. Perhaps we are too close to it right now to understand its extent and all ramifications.

The Pew Research Center observed this past week that Americans may be getting less religious, but feelings of spirituality are on the rise. “The growth of the unaffiliated population and their decreasing religiosity have been the main factors behind the emergence of a less religious public overall,” according to the Pew report. “But, interestingly,” the report continued “the rise in spirituality has been happening among both highly religious people and the religiously unaffiliated.” I have seen this same phenomenon in my part of Europe. Sunday mass attendance is very low, but retreat centers are full. That great hunger for a taste of the Divine.

We may not yet be on the edge of a new Great Awakening, but something fascinating is going on. Coincidentally this week a friend emailed a reflection by the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I connected with it immediately:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are, quite naturally,

impatient in everything to reach the end

without delay.

We should like to skip

the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being

on the way to something unknown.

something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability —

and that it may take a very long time.


And so I think it is with you.

Your ideas mature gradually —-

let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

as though you could be today

what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)

will make you tomorrow.


Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of

feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

A big Amen! Thank you Teilhard de Chardin.



Some time ago I was having a pleasant lunch conversation with a small group of American bishops. A couple of them were my friends and seminary classmates. It didn’t start with me, but gradually the table conversation shifted to the intrinsic immorality of the gay lifestyle, the heretical aberration of women “pretending” they are ordained, the immorality of artificial contraception, and an exaggerated humanism distorting Catholic theology. One bishop thumped the table and said that if he were pope he would demand that all Catholics make a pledge of fidelity to church teaching and a promise of obedience to the instructions of their bishops. That did it for me.

With a chuckle I told them they would have little credibility, moving in that direction. I told them that the table conversation for the past twenty minutes had focused on issues that most Catholics had resolved years ago and young Catholics yawn at, the same way they yawn at old relatives who repeat and repeat the same old stories every time there is a family get-together. “Bishops, friends,” I said “you have to change the conversation….”

It is not just bishops however who have to change the conversation. All of us in the church need to re-examine what we talk about and how that connects with what we do…or should be doing as contemporary followers of Jesus.

Four examples:

(1) God-talk: A retired professor of psychology, in an adult discussion group I moderate, commented one day: “I still go to church because I like seeing my old friends; but very frankly” he said “I am bored to death.” He went on: “Before I die, I would like to come up with an adult understanding of what we mean by God and how we are connected with that God.” I gave him a copy of Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson. Very quickly our discussion group shifted into a discussion of that book and then reflections about a truly contemporary spirituality. He died of cancer last summer. I saw him a couple weeks before he died. He smiled and said “now I realize that God is at the heart of everything — right here and not out there somewhere. Thank you.”

A great many people, young and old, are on their own quest for the living God. They look to the church not for a re-iteration of old dogmas nor for condemnations of a contemporary theology trying to be in sync with contemporary human understanding. They want and they need spiritual guidance that is focused on people not the institution – a spirituality that is humble, wise, contemporary, and authentically Christian. 

(2) Sex-talk: If you had a serious heart problem or a serious knee problem, you would not go to a doctor with a late medieval understanding of the human body nor a nineteenth century understanding of surgical procedures. We would neither listen to nor follow the advice of such a doctor. We grow in our understanding of our human condition. We have certainly grown in our understanding of human sexuality. Some people are “gay” and some people are “straight.” Most people exist some place in between total gayness or total straightness. That is the way they were made; and God does not make anyone intrinsically immoral. We need to shift our conversation away from condemnations and prejudicial remarks and actions. We all need to grow in our understanding and help others grow in their understanding. Whether gay, straight, or bi, that’s how some people are. People dealing with big issues of sex, gender, and transsexuality are our brothers and sisters – worthy of Christian understanding, ministry, and support. Healthy Christians do not denigrate such people nor fire them from working in Christian schools and parishes. (As a friend in Rome recently said: if we fired all the gays working in the church, there would be a lot of empty Vatican offices.)

(3) Church-talk: One of the bishops, at the lunch I mentioned in my opening remarks, reminded me that Jesus had ordained the Apostles as bishops at the Last Supper. With all due respect, that is silly talk. The historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. He did not appoint anyone a bishop. Nor did he say that only males could function in ministerial and leadership positions in the church. Jesus left no blueprint for how the church should be structured. To continue talking as though he did is pointless and groundless. Jesus promised he would be with us and God’s Spirit would not abandon us. He left the rest up to us and to our ingenuity — to institutionalize, to structure, and to reform and re-structure according to changing human needs and growth in human understanding. There are already “women priests,” for example; and they deserve our appreciation, collaboration, and support.

(4) Bible-talk: One of my young students told me recently that he thought the Bible was just a collection of old “fairy tales.” I gave him a copy of Introduction to the New Testament by my friend and biblical scholar Raymond Collins. I said: “read this then let’s sit down and talk about it….” Young or old, ordained or non-ordained, we all need to enlighten ourselves about contemporary biblical scholarship and do some serious Bible-study. The Bible is not a collection of fairy tales. It is not a detailed Jewish/Christian history book either. The Bible tells us how people across the ages have lived and experienced the Living God in their lives. That narration is written in symbol, poetry, imaginative imagery, and historical recollections.

So here we have four areas where we need to change the conversation. Each area would make a fine adult education discussion/learning program for Lent…or whenever.



According to the Pew Research Center, the Christian share of the US population is still declining, while the number of US adults, who do not identify with any organized religion, is growing. These changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.

The drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, but it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks, and Latinos. Among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education. Among women as well as men.
The falloff in traditional religious beliefs and practices coincides with changes in the religious composition of the US public. A growing share of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, including some who self-identify as atheists or agnostics as well as many who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Altogether, the religiously unaffiliated (also called the “nones”) now make up 23% of the adult population.
The drop in the Christian share of the population has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Each of these large religious traditions has shrunk by approximately three percentage points since 2007. The evangelical Protestant share of the US population also has dipped; but at a slower rate, falling by about one percentage point since 2007.
Even as their numbers decline, American Christians – like the U.S. population as a whole – are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Non-Latino whites now account for smaller shares of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics than they did seven years earlier, while Latinos have grown as a share of all three religious groups. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics, 24% of evangelical Protestants, and 14% of mainline Protestants.
While many US religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young – and getting younger, on average, over time. There is a rising cohort of highly unaffiliated Millennials reaching adulthood. They will have a major impact on religion in America over the next twenty years.
In 2007, there were an estimated 41 million mainline Protestant adults in the United States. Today the number of mainline Protestants has fallen by well over 7 million. Like mainline Protestants, Catholics appear to be declining both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers, with a decline of well over 3 million since 2007. For every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church. Taken a step further, Catholicism loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination, with nearly 13 percent of all Americans describing themselves as “former Catholics.” So far Pope Francis does not appear to have an impact on slowing-down the Catholic exodus. Perhaps the US Catholic bishops still have more impact than Francis? Perhaps the “Francs effect” is not what some observes so optimistically anticipated? Something for future historians to ponder and examine…….
The number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007. There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the States and this group – sometimes called the religious “nones” – is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants, according to recent surveys.
One of the most important factors in the growth of the “nones” is the Millennial generational change. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much less connection with Christian churches, than the older generations. And the Millennial generation is big. It’s bigger than the Baby Boomers: there are nearly 78 million Millennials, as opposed to just 76 million Boomers. By 2020, the Millennials will represent almost 40% of all American voters.
So what are the Millennial values?
Spirituality is a key value for Millennials but not the institutional church. Certainly the Millennials hold less traditional or orthodox religious beliefs. Perhaps they are intent on redefining what religion means for themselves, just like everything else in life. A great many Millennials see the Bible not as the Word of God but as a record of peoples’ religious beliefs over the centuries, and more about creative theological imagery than strict historic fact. Millennials strongly support issues such as marriage equality, climate change, and reproductive rights, while many traditional religious institutions still reject these ideas. Millennials are strongly supportive of Christian values but find the churches too judgmental, too linked with conservative politics, and more concerned about protecting and promoting the institutional church — often with little humility and little transparency — than witnessing to authentic Christian values. They see Christian leaders often creating more polarization than promoting dialogue, collaboration, and mutual respect.
Changing the conversation?
As Christians, and Christian leaders, we need to shift our focus from speaking about the operational administration of the church, fidelity to institutional doctrine, and a morality overly-focused on pelvic concerns to speaking about and listening to the life concerns of contemporary people, and therefore more truly representing Christ. Rather than judging people and disciplining them, Christians and Christian leaders should be ministering, mentoring, and spirituality guiding.
Yes we live in a time of great change. Rather than denying, bemoaning, or condemning the religious shifts and changes, perhaps we should refocus and become more observant about God’s Spirit still at work in the people and events around us. We need more productive conversations that engage people, stimulate their minds, and touch their hearts. More constructive conversations about real and contemporary human issues.
The renewal of hearts and minds. A ministry that reaches out to people rather than pushing them aside. This is what Christian life and ministry should be about.
Next week some further reflections about changing the conversation. Your own reflections are always warmly welcomed.

Our Challenge: Belief and Contemporary Culture

“Faith seeking understanding” is a good definition of belief. Faith is our experience of God and belief is our attempt to express that experience in word and symbol.

When we attempt to describe our experiences of God, we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all of our concepts and all of our experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge.

There is no belief without culture; but there can be a culture without belief. This of course is the situation in which many people find themselves today: in a belief desert. This happens when expressions of belief no longer resonate with contemporary life experience.

It happens as well when people substitute fidelity to doctrinal statements for openness to the Divine presence in all of life. I was there and did that once upon a time. One day, however, I moved from considering God as an article of belief to appreciating God as an element of my experiences. My eyes were opened…. Those experiences convinced me that “God” is real. Now I continue my own belief journey: pondering what I experience, determining how to express that in contemporary language, and connecting my experiences and belief with the experiences of other believers and with Christian scripture and tradition.

We need to find more effective ways to articulate the human experience of the Divine that reduces it neither to the extreme secularity of the “post-theistic” thinkers nor to the unthinking and closed-minded certitude of the “hyper-theistic,” whose god is mostly the creation of their own fantasies.

We need to find ways to understand the Divine presence, not “up there” or “out there” but “here and now” at the heart of all Reality, because that is where we live, love, and think.

Animated by the life, message, and spirit of Jesus, we need to set off on our own spiritual journey.

So……A good project for the New Year. It is best done with a group of friends.

Some spiritual direction for along the way:

(1) A healthy spiritual journey moves forwards not backwards. Nostalgia is fun for a while, but we really cannot turn-back the clock. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments on the basis of critical principles. That is why the upsurge of fundamentalism today is so offensive. It is a closed vision and fundamentally faulty.

(2) Pondering our belief today we need to feel and experience the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experience) by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The truly contemporary believer must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past. There must be a dynamic tension between contemporary religious consciousness and historical critical consciousness.

(3) When we explore our belief – when we reflect in depth about our Faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals which are products of our culture. We also look for the resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures.

(4) Truly authentic Christian belief can never be simply the expression of one’s individual and subjective experience. We need each other. Expressions of belief are the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience AND the Faith experience of the community. As I told one of my bishop friends: we need you but you also need us!

(5) Belief relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. Nor can it unthinkingly venerate any particular culture. Some Roman Catholic Church leaders, for instance, are locked in a late medieval culture and still dress and think that way. Nevertheless, when belief becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry.

(6) All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses; and these lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and great movements in human history. Change is part of life.

(7) Christian belief, because its focus is what lies within and yet beyond culture in all of its historical manifestations, is continually engaged in critical reflection and critique of the contemporary and previous cultures.

Happy New Year!

Epiphany still happens.
I look forward to traveling with you in 2016.


(Sorry for the old picture but it seemed to fit….)