A Meditation about the “Francis Effect”

At a dinner party a couple nights ago, a good friend commented that, with Pope Francis, Catholics could now stop arguing about church reform, stop criticizing recalcitrant bishops, and let the “Francis effect” do its work. I respectfully disagreed…. 

The issue is far more complex than just wanting Francis to reform the church.
First of all, if one wants to speak of the “Francis effect” as a positive solution for a number of contemporary church problems, there is still much unfinished work. And the Vatican is a good place to start.

The clerical sexual abuse crisis is not over and the Pope Francis Vatican remains sexual-abuse-schizophrenic. It refuses to remove abuse-cover-up bishops, like Bishop Juan Barros, defended by Pope Francis and assigned last year to Osorno, Chile, despite allegations that he covered up clergy sex abuse by a priest in the 1980s and 1990s. Victim testimony also indicated that Barros was present and witnessed sexual abuse by the abusive priest Fernando Karadima. 

Perhaps the self-defensive old boys club mentality still prevails behind Vatican walls? In February 2016, at an instructional presentation for newly appointed bishops, Tony Anatrella, a psychtherapist and consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, stressed that bishops DO NOT have a duty to report clerical sexual abuse to civil authorities, because going to the police is the responsibility of victims and their families. 

More recently, as we consider contemporary Vatican behavior, there is the strange case of Father Joseph Jeyapaul, a priest from India who admitted to raping two adolescent girls in Minnesota, when he served in the Crookston diocese from 2004 to 2005. 

After being charged with sexual abuse, which included rape and forcing one of the girls to perform fellatio on him, Jeyapaul fled to India, where he was arrested. Extradited back to Minnesota, he admitted his crimes. The man was then suspended from the priesthood and served a year and a day in prison in Minnesota. After his release in July, he was deported back to India. Then came an interesting turn of events.

In February, the Vatican approved lifting Father Jeyapaul’s suspension from the priesthood and agreed that he could be reassigned to a new parish in India. Later he was even appointed head of a diocesan education commission.
Pope Francis has focused appropriate attention on caring for the environment and continues to get positive acclamations for his encyclical Laudatio si. Perhaps, however, one could suggest that he has been less attentive to the spiritual and ministerial environment in our Catholic parishes. The priesthood is in crisis. Morale is low and priests are getting older and older. Calls for dropping clerical celibacy are routinely ignored; and bishops continue to shut down parishes. Not a very positive scenario. 

Contributing to the ordained ministry problem is an antiquated priestly formation process in our seminaries that, sorry to say, no longer attracts some of our best and brightest young people. Even the pope has complained about a new group of overly conservative young presets; but there has been no major overhaul of the seminary structure. It is time to stop closing parishes and start ordaining zealous and pastorally-minded young men, who are or would like to be married. We need more — not fewer — sacramental communities in our church. We need to re-think and re-make creative structures for pastoral ministry. A major complaint from millennial believers is that the church is out of touch, impersonal, and out of date. To date, 33 million Americans have dropped out of the Catholic Church.

And there is nothing positive about the still enshrined, hard-nosed old boys club structural mysogynism in our church. It is wrong; and there are absolutely no valid theological or historical reasons why women cannot be ordained as deacons and priests. For your summer reading I strongly recommend an excellent study: Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future by Gary Macy, William Ditewig, and Phyllis Zagano.

Looking at Catholic belief and practice these days, too many church leaders, including the Bishop of Rome, continue to bemoan the “tyranny of relativism.” They miss a nuanced understanding of what is happening. As theologians Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler noted, in their April 19th article in the National Catholic Reporter: “Concern about relativism is undoubtedly warranted in the 21st century, but the magisterium fails to discern the difference between relativism, which rejects objective, universal moral truth, and what we shall call perspectivism, which acknowledges objective, universal moral truth, but also insists that truth is partial and always in need of further clarification.”

Yes contemporary church leadership needs help comprehending that truth is developmental; and a good place to benign remedial education would be the entire range of issues involving human sexuality and gender. A lot of our bishops need to go back to school. It might help as well if some of them would just get married, and others come out of the closet. 

In this week’s reflection, I have no desire to denigrate Pope Francis. I am not ready to pre-canonize him either. The old gentleman can only do so much. He only wants to do so much. Frankly (no pun intended) I think Francis knows exactly what he is doing with his warm remarks followed by minimal institutional change. But do we know what we are doing? Perhaps there is too much focus on the pope? After all, it is Jesus Christ — not the Pope of Rome — who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

It is time for all of us to realize that when it comes to church reform, in the days of the “Francis effect,” the major task belongs to you and me.

Church history is clear. Church reform is always from the bottom-up and only secondarily from the top-down. The voice of the people is where it begins and gets its energy. Popes come and go, but the institutional church remains…..continually in need of reform.

Let’s start to really think, talk, organize, and get on with the project.

Islamophobia: Muslims in America

Directly after the March 22, 2016 terrorist bombings at the Brussels International Airport and in downtown Brussels, an American friend sent me an urgent email. “Now,” he wrote, “I hope you understand why we must restrict and diminish the Muslim presence in the United States…..Those people are evil.”

I am a committed Christian and an historical theologian. I have worked for decades, promoting inter-religious dialogue and understanding, especially with men and women belonging to one of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Nevertheless, Islamophobia is hard to combat. It is often true that if one calls for a factual and well-researched understanding of Islam in our contemporary world, that person is often labeled “unChristian” or “unpatriotic,” or simply “dangerous.”  

“Islamophobia” warns Georgetown University researcher Nathan Lean. “is sort of like the ocean. It is working, it is churning, it is ebbing, it is flowing, even when we are asleep. There are larger systems of power and structures of power in place.” I recommend his most recent book: The Islamophobia Industry. 

According to a 2016 estimate, there are about 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, and most see no contradiction between being American and being Muslim. About 1% of Americans, therefore, are Muslim, compared to 70.6% who are Christian, 22.8% unaffiliated, 1.9% Jewish, 0.7% Buddhist, and 0.7% Hindu. 

Interestingly, in this election year, 63% of Muslim Americans identify as Democrats or say they lean Democratic. About one-in-ten (11%) identify as Republican or lean Republican, and 26% say they are unaffiliated. 

Given the recent “Islamic terrorism,” it is not surprising that Muslims have become the target of attacks by people who feel anxious and insecure in a world of tremendous cultural change. It reminds me of nineteenth century anti-Catholic discrimination in the United States, when Catholics were perceived as foreign infiltrators and the pope was seen as an evil emperor out to destroy “Christian” America. 

After seeing and reading a lot of anti-Muslim political rhetoric, I started thinking: just what are the truths and the falsehoods behind entrenched beliefs that Muslims simply do not belong in the United States; and that they threaten U.S. security? 

1. The first falsehood is that American Muslims are not truly Americans
In fact, Islam was in America even before there was a United States; and Muslims didn’t peaceably emigrate to America. Slave-traders brought them to the New World. 

Historians now estimate that up to 30% of enslaved blacks were Muslims. The West African prince Abdul Rahman, liberated by President John Quincy Adams in 1828 after 40 years in captivity, was only one of many African Muslims kidnapped and sold into servitude in the New World. Muslim runaway slaves were among the pro-USA soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Muslims later fought to preserve U.S. independence in the War of 1812; and they fought for the Union in the Civil War. There are currently two Muslim members of Congress and thousands of Muslims on active duty in our USA armed forces. 

2. The second misunderstanding is that American Muslims are ethnically, culturally, and politically one solid block, who all think and act the same way
Actually, the American Muslim community may very well he the most diverse Muslim community in the world. U.S. Muslims believe and witness to their faith in different ways. A great many American Muslims, for example, have absolutely no problem with an historical-critical understanding of their sacred scriptures. Contrary to a popular misconception, the majority of Muslims in the United States are not Arabs. At least one-quarter, for example, are African American.  

Muslim Americans are also diverse in their beliefs and religious affiliation. They range from highly conservative, to moderate, and to secular in their religious beliefs and practices — just like members of other American religious traditions. 

With above-average median household incomes, American Muslims are also an integral and important part of the U.S. economy.  

3. One still hears the false claim that American Muslims oppress women
According a Gallup study, American Muslim women are more educated than Muslim women in Western Europe, and also more educated than the average American woman. More U.S. Muslim women report incomes closer to their male counterparts than do American women, belonging to other religious traditions. American Muslim women hold key leadership positions in religious and civic organizations, such as the Arab-American Family Support Center, the Islamic Networks Group, and the American Society for Muslim Advancement. 

4. A fourth major falsehood is that American Muslims often become “homegrown” terrorists. 
Many American Christians condemn Islam as an evil religion. Why are those Christians so silent when confronted with terrorism in the name of their own religion? Why can’t they acknowledge that parts of their religion are used for evil, just like any other religion? In fact, most of the terrorist activity in the U.S. in recent years has come not from Muslims, but from radical Christians, white supremacists, and far-right militia groups. 

According to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, more non-Muslims than Muslims have been involved in terrorist plots on U.S. soil.  

In 2011, for example, analyst Daryl Johnson of the United States Department of Homeland Security said that the Hutaree Christian militia movement possessed more weapons than the combined weapons holdings of all Islamic terror defendants charged in the US since the September 11 attacks. In 2015, Robert Doggart, a member of a private militia group, informed an FBI source (and was later indicted) that he intended to gather weapons for an attack on a Muslim enclave in Delaware County, New York. In November 2015, Robert Lewis Dear, a member of the Army of God, killed three and injured nine at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Dear had often expressed his support for radical Christian views and interpretations of the Bible, saying he was doing “God’s work.”  

Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Kuwaiti American Sufi imam, who worked with FBI agents on countering extremism right after September 11, 2001, has expressed strong fears that identifying Muslims with terrorism threatens American Muslims’ civil liberties and promotes the perception that Islam is a terrorist religion.  

5. American Muslims do not want to impose Sharia law on the United States
In the contemporary United States there is a strongly-promoted “Sharia Scare.” It is part of a larger Islamophobic campaign sponsored by an organized network of conservative foundations, religious leaders, media outlets, and politicians. 

Sharia is the Muslim ideal of justice and compassion, similar to the concept of natural law in the Western tradition. Sharia is characterized by flexibility depending on the context and the people interpreting it. Yes radicals exist on the fringes of Islam, as they do in every religion. Most Muslim jurists, however, agree that the principal objectives of Sharia are the protection and promotion of life, religion, intellect, property, family, and dignity. None of this includes turning the United States into a caliphate.  

For centuries, Muslim scholars around the world have agreed that Muslims must follow the laws of the land in which they live. American Muslims have no scriptural, historical or political grounds to oppose the U.S. Constitution. Muslims already practice Sharia in the United States, as they worship freely and follow U.S. laws. Muslims in the United States follow Sharia in the same way that Americans of other religions (Jews, Catholics, Mormons, etc.) follow their sacred laws and traditions. The First Amendment allows complete freedom of belief and freedom of religious practice, so long as believers respect other people’s rights. 

Today some people falsely equate Sharia with criminal or hudud laws, which are centuries-old specific punishments for major crimes such as killing, adultery, or theft, which are generally not applicable in a modern context. (One can find similar archaic laws in the Old Testament.) Unfortunately, contemporary Muslim fanatics in the Taliban and ISIS generally contradict both the letter and spirit of Sharia and have given it a bad name. In their ignorance, some American politicians and religious leaders continue as well to give it a bad name. 

6. Historically, people wishing to exercise authoritarian control over other people have misused their religions.  
One cannot defend the religious fanatic misuse of Muslim belief or Muslim scriptures to justify killing or torturing other human beings. Christians of course have to humbly acknowledge what fanatic Christians have done over the centuries in the name of Christ. 

A couple weeks ago I was in the South of France, doing some research on French Protestantism and my paternal grandmother’s family. In 1562 “Riots of Toulouse” Roman Catholics battled members of the Reformed Church of France (the Huguenots). The violence, taking place in about a week, ended with the deaths of at least 3,000 (some researchers say 5,000) citizens of the French city of Toulouse. About three hundred years earlier, in 1209 in the nearby town of Béziers, 7,000 Cathar heretics were killed on orders from the pope in Rome. The Papal Legate, Arnaud-Amaury, wrote to Pope Innocent III: “Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.” 

7. Yes we need to combat terrorism and fanatic religion.  
It is a complex issue; and it will take time to effectively deal with issues of economics, politics, group identity, cultural change, religious and ethical values, and feelings of lost self-worth or inferiority. Here religiously healthy Muslims need to work to combat Muslim fanaticism. And all of us, coming from a variety of religions and humanist perspectives, need to think, probe, research, and work together. 


Thinking of Bonhoeffer

So very close to the end of the Second World War, on 9 April 1945, Lutheran minister and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, aged 39, was executed by hanging at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Nazi Germany. After the start of WWII, Bonhoeffer had joined the underground resistance movement in opposition to Hitler. He believed that true
discipleship demanded political resistance against a criminal state. He staunchly resisted Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship and Jewish persecution and genocide.

Bonhoeffer remains one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.

Bonhoeffer’s writings on being a Christian in the secular world were widely influential and have had a major impact on my life, especially his books The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison. I first encountered Bonhoeffer’s thought in my early twenties when I was a seminarian at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. There I read and re-read Letters and Papers from Prison.

In a letter written from his Nazi prison cell on April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer described his thoughts about contemporary Christian life: “You would be surprised,” he wrote, “and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to… What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today.” He continued: “Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…. how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction? What does that mean for ‘Christianity’?”

When he was a young seminarian in his twenties, Bonhoeffer travelled to the United States for postgraduate study at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. There he encountered life-changing experiences and friendships. He studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and met Frank Fisher, a black fellow seminarian who introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below.” He said he “turned from phraseology to reality.” What was happening to Bonhoeffer was a personal conversion from being a theologian primarily attracted to the intellectual side of Christianity to being a dedicated man of faith.

Travel helps one better see oneself and to see bigger realities. Today I write about D. Bonhoeffer not J. Dick; but when I was a seminarian in my twenties I travelled to Europe for postgraduate theological study. My life for a while was turned upside down. Bonhoeffer’s thought was a strong spiritual guide as I started to really think about my own reality. My father use to chuckle and say “after Louvain, Jack was never the same.”

Today, 71 years after his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writings challenge us all to pursue justice even when it’s not popular, to care for and defend the persecuted, and to relentlessly ponder and follow the Gospel.

A concluding reflection: Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that someday, a time would come when Christians would once again powerfully proclaim the word of God so that the world could be transformed and renewed by it.

“It will be a new language,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming — as was Jesus’ language. It will shock people and yet overcome them by its power. It will be the language of a new righteousness and truth….”

And that was my inspiration for Another Voice. I hope I can meet the challenge.