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.
(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.