Catholic Complexity

During her early adventures in Wonderland, Alice cried out that things were becoming “curiouser and curiouser.” Her statement could be applied as well to the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, which is becoming a complex cacophony of ecclesiastical sounds. Three observations:

Stern Warnings for Americans 

Tuesday, May 17th, was the twelfth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. About a thousand prominent Roman Catholic clergy and lay people gathered at 7:00 am in the Marriott Marquis hotel and conference center to pray, have breakfast, and listen to Cardinal Robert Sarah, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Sister Constance Veit, from the Little Sisters of the Poor.  

This week, as you recall, the United States Supreme Court “vacated” all of the lower court cases and required them to reconsider the claims, brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor, that regulations promulgated by Obamacare violate their freedom of religious exercise, in light of the government’s admission that it could indeed provide contraceptive coverage, without the Little Sisters’ collaboration.  

In his address, Paul Ryan, echoed the position and concerns of the Sister Constance and her community, stressing that “religious liberty is under assault” in the United States and that the Obama administration “has shown a total misunderstanding of faith.” 

Cardinal Sarah, however, was the keynote speaker; and he was strongly condemnatory of a contemporary American culture disfigured by gender ideology and relativism. Cardinal Sarah was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in 2014. Is he also part of the “Francis effect”? 

In his address, the Cardinal said: “Sadly the advent of artificial reproductive technologies, surrogacy, so-called homosexual marriage, and other evils of gender idolatry will inflict even more wounds in the midst of the generation we live with.” The Cardinal warned the Prayer Breakfast group about signs of “the Evil One” in the United States: “The legalization of same-sex marriage, your beginning to accept contraception within healthcare programs, and even bathroom bills that allow men to use the women’s restroom and locker rooms.” His comments about “bathroom bills” drew applause and chuckles from his audience. 

Curing Pseudo-homosexuality 

According to a report, this week, from Religion News Service, over a period of several years, superiors of seminaries around France sent seminary students to Monsignor Tony Anatrella, a prominent French priest and therapist, to counsel them about their struggles with homosexuality. (Anatrella, as I mentioned in an early blog, was also the Vatican appointed speaker at a conference for new bishops. There he told the new bishops that they did not have to report clerical sexual abuse to civil authorities.) 

Monsignor Anatrella has long condemned homosexuality and argued that gay men cannot be ordained as priests. In 2005 he helped the Vatican, then under Pope Benedict XVI, to draft guidelines aimed at keeping gay men out of the priesthood. Around that same time, he wrote an article for L’Osservatore Romano, stating that homosexuality demonstrated “an incompleteness and a profound immaturity of human sexuality.”  

Today, Monsignor Anatrella’s former seminarian clients are coming forward with accusations that the highly-respected-at-the-Vatican monsignor therapist tried to cure their “pseudo-homosexuality” by engaging in sex acts with them. One former client, again a former seminarian, said he was counseled by Anatrella for 14 years, from 1997 to 2011. After the first few years, the client said, Anatrella began “special sessions” with him that included episodes of mutual masturbation. Curiously, in February 2016, Monsignor Anatrella was the chief organizer of a major conference on priestly celibacy, held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.  

Women and Women Deacons in the Church 

As Jamie Manson wrote in the National Reporter this week, “(Pope) Francis’ theological imagination makes it impossible for women to achieve equal decision-making power and sacramental authority in this church. And its time we faced it.”  

Last week Pope Francis agreed to launch a commission to study the role of women deacons in the early church. Immediate press reactions greeted this with hopeful observations that the Catholic Church would soon be welcoming women to diaconate ordination. The Vatican quickly dispelled such expectations. 

What journalists failed to observe was that, in his remarks about women deacons in the early church, Pope Francis reasserted all of the old Roman Catholic theological arguments that prevent women from any kind of ordination in the Catholic Church.  

“There is no problem for a woman — religious or lay — to preach in a Liturgy of the Word…” Pope Francis said, “But at the Eucharistic Celebration there is a liturgical-dogmatic problem, because it is one celebration: the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy. There is unity between them; and he who presides is Jesus Christ. The priest or bishop who presides does so in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a theological-liturgical reality. In that situation, since women are not ordained, they cannot preside.” As Manson observes, there is still a phallic problem in the Catholic Church. Women do not have the same kind of genitalia that Jesus had.  
Curiouser and curiouser for sure. Reflections this week are neither anti-Catholic nor anti-Francis. They are simply expressions of serious concern. We are united in one faith, one Lord, and one baptism. I am not convinced however that everything coming from Rome these days is truly holy, catholic, and apostolic. Seriously hypocritical behavior has no place in church leadership; and everyone in church leadership, even the pope, seriously needs broad-range biblical and historical theological updating.  

Thoughtful Catholics need to think through the contemporary Catholic cacophony. They need to chart a new course for the Catholic Church. They can do that. They can speak out. They can change the conversation. They can continue to transform the venerable institution. If they fail, the eclipse of the Roman Catholic Church is sure to succeed.  

[With this week’s reflection I am shutting down my computer for a few weeks, to once again do some vacation research about Christianity in post-communist Eastern Europe. I hope to return in early July.]

Donald Trump and Pentecost 2016

I don’t believe we are now in the end times; but we are certainly living in strange times. In his 2015 article, “Terrorism, Violence, and the Culture of Madness,” the Canadian cultural critic Henry Giroux stresses that “malevolent modes of rationality” are starting to be imposed on everyone.

So far Donald Trump has alienated large numbers of Hispanic, Asian, and college-educated voters. He calls for temporarily banning Muslims from America. He is not much of a bridge-builder and supports building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. He advocates the deportation of 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S., people have come to represent a substantial segment of the American labor market. (Trump prefers to hire undocumented Polish workers in his enterprises.) Nevertheless, his support among likely U.S. voters has surged, and he is now running about even with Hillary Clinton. Although they themselves are the descendants of immigrants, Trump supporters strongly believe that “immigrants threaten American customs and values.”  

Whether holy or not, Trump has a lot of spirit and he knows how to fire up his supporters. His campaign appeals to their hatred, anger, bigotry, and racism. 

Some foreign Trump supporters are OK, however. According to the Associated Press, the presumed Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency has picked up some strong foreign support from India, where, this Pentecost week end, fundamentalist Hindus are trying to get their gods on his side. These people put their faith and hope in Donald Trump. 

Already on Wednesday, May 11th, about a dozen members of the right-wing Indian Hindu group “Sena” lit a ritual fire and began chanting mantras asking Shiva and a variety of other Hindu gods to help Trump win the U.S. presidential election. “The whole world is screaming against Islamic terrorism, and even India is not safe from it,” said Vishnu Gupta, founder of the Hindu Sena nationalist group. “Only Donald Trump can save humanity….he is our hope for humanity.” 

In other parts of the world, Christians are gathering this week end to celebrate Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. 

Pentecost (the fiftieth day) is the Greek name for Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, for centuries an important Jewish feast. According to Jewish tradition, Pentecost commemorates God’s giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, 49 days after the Exodus. According to a later Jewish tradition King David was born and died on Pentecost. In the Apostle Peter’s first sermon, recorded in Acts 2:14-39, Peter linked the life, death, and Ascension of Jesus to King David’s death, burial, and hope of immortality.  

For Jewish people, Pentecost came fifty days after Passover. For Christians, fifty days after God raised Jesus from the dead. We find the earliest Christian celebration of Pentecost described in the second chapter of Acts of Apostles. About one hundred and twenty followers of Jesus (Acts 1:15) were present, including the Twelve, Jesus’ mother, various other women disciples, and Jesus’ brothers (Acts 1:14).  

We used to call Pentecost the birthday of the church. Some still do. The church, the community of faith in Jesus Christ, began right after the Resurrection. Mary of Magdala was the first church-woman, the apostle who really got things going, when she witnessed Jesus alive and raised from the dead. She was the first to proclaim the Goodnews. (In the light of Mary of Magdala’s inaugural ministry, all discussions about whether or not women can be ordained becomes meaningless chatter.) 

Pentecost proclaims that, with Jesus raised from the dead, a new age had begun: life in God’s spirit, characterized by love, unity, compassion, and understanding. Pentecost contrasts with the arrogant and narcissistic way of life portrayed in the Tower of Babel Genesis story. 

The Babel story is found in the first nine verses of Genesis 11. It narrates how, after the great flood, humanity became proud, self-centered, and arrogant. People tried to take God’s place in the world by building a tower that would reach into God’s heavens. God punished their arrogant self-centeredness. The result was confused speech, disharmony, and people scattered around the world in tribal conflict. Hatred, anger, bigotry, and racism enter human history. Not God’s way.

Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. At Pentecost people from every nation under heaven were brought together. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Pentecost built no arrogant tower and no walls. It broke the barriers of race, religion, and nationality. Peter announced that this event was the beginning of a new life in the Spirit that would be available to all believers from that point on, Jews and Gentiles alike (Acts 2:39). 

Happy Pentecost.  

May we all grow in God’s Spirit.



Future Change: Millennials Surpass Baby Boomers

David Burstein, just under twenty-five, is a writer, political-action organizer, filmmaker, and passionate believer in the Millennial generation. In his 2013 book, Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping Our World, Burstein illustrates how his generation is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by a fast-paced and fast-changing world. Now I wish someone like David would write a book about how the Millennial generation is shaping and being shaped by Christian belief.

According to population estimates released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation; and the Millennial generation continues to grow, as young immigrants expand its ranks.

The U.S. Millennial population is projected to peak in 2036 at 81.1 million. Millennials are expected to live longer than any previous generation; and new research suggests that old age may actually begin for them at age 74.  Before the Millennials, the Baby Boomers had always had an outsized presence compared with other generations. They were the largest generation and peaked at 78.8 million in 1999. There were an estimated 74.9 million Boomers in 2015. By midcentury, the Boomer population will dwindle to 16.6 million.

Born between 1980 and 2000, Millennials have grown up in a time of rapid change, giving them a set of priorities and expectations sharply different from previous generations. Pearl Harbor or the assassinations of President Kennedy or Dr. Martin Luther King are historic events that they cannot relate to. They were greatly touched by 9/11. That was their big event. They have also learned to live with terrorism and the thought that they could be shot at school, as they learned early that the world is not a safe place. For Roman Catholic Millennials, the 1960s Second Vatican Council is as important for their lives as the sixteenth century Council of Trent. And they are not interested in either of them. Their big Catholic turn-offs have been the ongoing sex abuse scandal and the church’s opposition to women priests and gay marriage. 

More than a few people in my peer group consider the Millennials entitled, lazy, unmotivated, and technology addicted. From what I have read and from what I have experienced teaching and working with Millennials at my university, I have to disagree with such a negative stereotype. There are extremes in every social grouping. I find Millennials generally compassionate, socially concerned, inquisitive, and creative. They have a lot of understandable anxiety about their own lives and their future; but they also have a lot of care for the larger world and life’s big questions. For them a lot of church rhetoric sounds hollow or is anchored in fighting human sexuality issues that for them were resolved long ago. 

Millennials belong to a generation eager to make its own mark on the world. And they will make their own mark on the church, one way or another. For many that mark may very well be to simply ignore it as antiquated and irrelevant. 

With each generation since WWII, U.S. Church attendance has been decreasing. The Millennial generation illustrates and strengthens that trend. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) rarely or never attend religious services. About one-fourth (24 percent) are active in church (meaning they attend at least once a week). A number of Millennials who do attend church do so as seekers.  

For Millennials knowledge is not so much what is passed down from authorities as what is derived from personal experience and shared group discovery. They neither need nor respect a church leader who hands them a package of beliefs to be accepted. They would rather sit down with church members and church leaders and explore the meaning of Christian belief for people today. Mutual respect, shared decision-making, grounded in the realization that no single person, and no single institution has all the answers. For a quick check on factual data they turn to the Internet more than to the local library. They are current events focused and concerned about tomorrow. In no way do they see Jesus as an institution man; and their perception is correct of course. Jesus was concerned about people. 

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Millennials’ feelings toward present-day Christianity are rather ambivalent. Church is ok if it is helping people to be happy and to have meaningful life experiences. Church hypocrisy, misogyny, and self-defensive authoritarianism leave them cold. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of today’s say that “anti-gay” somewhat or very well describes present-day Christianity for them. More than 6-in-10 (62%) also believe that present-day Christianity is “judgmental” and much too involved in politics. In their social and political views, Millennials are clearly more accepting than older Americans of homosexuality and a broad range of gender and sexuality issues. They are scientifically oriented, more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation for human life; and they consider all sacred scriptures as human attempts to express deeply felt human spiritual experiences. In that respect, Jesus makes sense to them — often much more so than the churches that claim to embody his spirit and emulate him.  

In the Prophet Joel and in Acts of the Apostles, we read: “God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young will see visions, your old will dream dreams.”  

I often day-dream about the Millennials: about what their lives will be like…. the bridges they will have to cross…. the struggles that will mark their lives. I hope their visions will help them confront climate change with dramatic sea-level changes and environmental changes impacting water supplies and food supplies. I hope their visions will enable them to confront employment and unemployment problems we can only imagine as more production and maintenance tasks are taken over by robots and technology. With their visions they will have to learn what it means to live long lives in cultures that are multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual, etc.  

I would hope that the Millennials will also shape and be shaped by new forms and patterns of Christian life and ministry. Perhaps any meaningful church for the Millennials will have to be a humble human-service organization, pointing to deeper spiritual realities and experiences, anchored in an open and welcoming spiritual wisdom, while still very much a shared traveler and a shared discoverer and a shared truth-seeker on the human journey. I think Jesus would like that: truth-seekers on a contemporary road to Emmaus. 

When Prophets Die: Daniel Berrigan RIP

A brief and very personal reflection.

Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest whose anti-Vietnam-War protests shaped and challenged many an American, like me, starting in the 1960s, died on Saturday in the Bronx, New York. He was 94.

As Daniel Lewis observed in his New York Times Article on April, 30th: “The United States was tearing itself apart over civil rights and the war in Southeast Asia when Father Berrigan emerged in the 1960s as an intellectual star of the Roman Catholic ‘new left,’ articulating a view that racism and poverty, militarism, and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society.”

On May 17, 1968, just six weeks after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and race riots in dozens of U.S. cities, nine Catholic protesters, led by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, entered the local draft board offices in Catonsville, Maryland and seized hundreds of draft records. They carried them to a parking lot and set them on fire. It was an American Catholic prophetic turning point. A prophetic turning point in my life. 

The statement, that had been given to reporters ahead of time, read: “We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.” Berrigan landed in prison. That would happen many times over the next decades.

Thank you Father Berrigan……..At the time you burned draft records in Maryland, I was an “ex-seminarian” emerging from being a politically conservative and pious, fundamentalist Roman Catholic young man. Yes I do understand fundamentalism. Your prophetic gestures alarmed me at first; and then they helped me to realize that asking questions was neither anti-Christian nor anti-American. A revelation. Perhaps I was simply a slow learner.
Over the years, I have tried to pass on to my students not just packets of information but the skills for critical thinking. That is real education — especially when students can now find all kinds of information data on the Internet.

May you rest in peace. May we continue to learn from your example.