A Prophetic Bishop

26 August 2016

When church leaders speak out courageously and prophetically, they deserve to be acknowledged and supported. I wish to do that with Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, of Parramatta, a suburb and major business district in the metropolitan area of Sydney, Australia.

Vincent Long Van Nguyen was born in Vietnam and is an Australian Roman Catholic bishop. He and his family came to Australia as refugees in 1980. This year, Pope Francis appointed him the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, on 5 May 2016 and he was installed just two months ago on 17 June 2016. 

As reported by Bob Shine, from New Ways Ministry, in his blog “Bondings 2.0,” Bishop Long gave a talk last week titled “Pope Francis and the Challenge of Being Church Today.” In that address he explored the meaning of real church inclusiveness.  

Bishop Long:  

“By that (inclusiveness) I mean there must be space for everyone, especially those who have been hurt, excluded or alienated, be they abuse victims, survivors, divorcees, gays, lesbians, women, disaffected members. The church will be less than what Christ intends it to be when issues of inclusion and equality are not fully addressed. That is why you heard me say that I am guided by the radical vision of Christ. I am committed to make the church in Parramatta the house for all peoples, a church where there is less an experience of exclusion but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness, and solidarity. 

“We cannot be a strong moral force and an effective prophetic voice in society if we are simply defensive, inconsistent and divisive with regards to certain social issues. We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, while at the same time colluding with the forces of oppression in the ill-treatment of racial minorities, women, and homosexual persons. It won’t wash with young people especially when we purport to treat gay people with love and compassion and yet define their sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ This is particularly true when the church has not been a shining beacon and a trail-blazer in the fight against inequality and intolerance. Rather, it has been driven involuntarily into a new world where many of the old stereotypes have been put to rest and the identities and rights of the marginalized are accorded justice, acceptance, affirmation and protection in our secular and egalitarian society.” 

In his closing remarks, the Bishop of Parramatta stressed that the church must reform itself by becoming:   

(1) Less a role of power, dominance and privilege but more a position of vulnerability and powerlessness.  

(2) Less an experience of exclusion and elitism but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness, and solidarity.  

(3) Less a language of condemnation but more a language of affirmation and compassion. 

You can express your support for Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, by writing to:  



Speaking of God…..

19 August 2016

Yuri Gagarin, who died in 1968, was a Soviet cosmonaut and the first human in space, on 12 April 1961. I remember the day well. Commenting about Yuri’s time in space, Premier Nikita Khrushchev told the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see God there.” Today I guess we would say, Nikita’s statement was more about an old cosmology than about theology. The question of God and God’s presence, of course, is more than ever contemporary. 

How people contemplate and speak about God has critical consequences. It shapes people’s identity and behavior. People who see God as a warrior, and praise the way he smashes his enemies to bloody pulp, end up promoting and justifying their own aggressive behavior: “kill the bastards.” Or they see God sending flooding waters to Louisiana to punish people for living the gay lifestyle. People, who understand God more lovingly, are motivated toward care for their neighbor and mutual peacemaking. Pick your cause and then pick your god? 

Theologians today – thanks to the increased number of women theologians — are much more conscious that the old patriarchal conception of God, in the image and likeness of the powerful ruling man, had the effect of legitimating strong male authority in social, religious, and political structures. The male Lord, King, and Father God ruled over all; and it gave men the justification to control, dominate, and marginalize women. 

Actually, the human mind can never really and fully know the essence of the Divine. We can never satisfactorily wrap our minds around this great mystery. Nor can we exhaust the divine reality in our words, concepts, symbols, and rituals.

Thinking about God is not primarily a matter of using our intellect but of connecting with our experience. How do people experience and live their faith in different historical periods and in different cultures? 

Traditional African religions, for instance, suggest names for God that are shaped by strong communal experiences: “Wise One, the One who sees all, the Greatest of Friends, the Great Spirit,” etc. 

If we turn to the ancient Hebrew tradition, we see God, in the Book of Exodus, promising to be with his people throughout their future troubles: God is “I am who I am,” as well as “I am who I will be.” This understanding of God was much richer of course than the highly anthropomorphized God on his heavenly throne high up at the summit of the Hebrew three layered earthly cosmology. 

The God questions are essential spiritual questions for us today: “How do we experience God? Do we experience God? How do we conceptualize God? Father? Mother? Ground of being?” 

A number of twentieth century thinkers, with whom I resonate, would say that God is not a person, but that God affects us personally: The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty described God as “a force that is not compromised with the world of adversity, and who agrees with us against it.” The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, remarked: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity; but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

I cannot understand God as external to our life and in that sense “super-natural”…a God who periodically intervenes in our world from outside…..Yet I have absolutely no doubts about my experiences of God. 

Nevertheless, I cannot relate to a God who is a macho-man.  

For some nineteen hundred years, institutional Christianity (to whatever degree it was authentically Christian) lived quite comfortably with prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. They saw it as God’s way. Yet when we look to Jesus Christ, we get a very different perspective. 

My old professor at the University of Nijmegen, Edward Schillebeeckx, called Jesus Christ the “sacrament of the encounter with God.”  

In the the Fourth Gospel, for instance, we read…”I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus restrict the “they” to only men, only whites, or only heterosexuals. Nor does Jesus restrict the “they” to just one religious group. 

Prejudices do strange things to the human imagination. They distort reality. It struck me last week that all those people who believe Barack Obama is a sinister Muslim are the very same people who believe Donald Trump is a good Christian. 

In her wonderful book Quest for the Living God, Sister Elizabeth Johnson courageously delineated the spiritual and institutional problems created by a conception of God that limits God to male images, patriarchy, and male superiority. I can understand why so many bishops have condemned her book. It pulls the carpet from beneath their feet. 

How easily we forget the message and the meaning of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came down on that group of men and women, gathered in fear in the upper room. The manifestation of God’s Spirit on that group of disciples broke through every human boundary of language, culture, and geography. The disciples were called to a new life and a mission to promote a humanity open to all people, because that is where one encounters the living God. That is the gift of Jesus: calling people to step outside of their defenses, to courageously move beyond fear, and their feelings of insecurity, to embrace in a new way of living what it means to be human.  

Thanks to Jesus, divinity is seen in the fullness of humanity: when prejudicial limits are removed, hatred fades away, and what the Apostle Paul calls “a new creation” emerges. 

Christianity’s message is not just about being. It is about human evolving and becoming: where the human enters the very life of God. Tremendously exciting. 

Now….younger theologians need to work this out for the millennial generation….. 

Faith to Faith and Face to Face

12 August 2016

We are caught today in a socio-cultural climate change. Angry self-serving rhetoric and fanatic religion are turning “God” into a fierce combatant, who protects “us the good people” against “them our enemy.” Control freaks manipulate their god to justify terrorism and slaughter. Not good Christianity. Not good Islam. Not good Judaism. Unhealthy religion….So many people seem to have forgotten that God is love.

Around the globe, the religious climate shows the danger signs of people edging toward the old fascism. History saw it in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Pétain’s Vichy France, Franco’s Spain, Suharto’s Indonesia, and several Latin American regimes. Fear becomes the great control mechanism. Exaggerated ultra-nationalism replaces patriotism and displaces democracy.  

People become easily persuaded that human rights can be ignored; and religion too often becomes a tool to kill people and to manipulate public opinion. In February 2016, for instance, Defence for Children International accused the Israeli army of the intentional killing of Palestinian children in the West Bank. It said that the army had killed more than 180 Palestinians since the escalation in October 2015, including 49 children. In May 2016, a Muslim mob in Niger burned Christian churches and killed four people because of a ‘blasphemous’ post on Facebook. Around the same time, in the United States, the well-known Christian evangelist and Focus on the Family founder, Dr. James Dobson, said Christians should shoot transgender people using public bathrooms. He also called President Obama a tyrant, determined to destroy Western civilization…….The examples go on and on. Within all religions and between religions. 

It is time for a change. And healthy religious people have a serious responsibility to be alert to the problem and to accept the challenge to critique and halt religious violence. 

In all of our religious institutions and religious traditions, we need to embark on in depth intra- and inter- religious dialogue that is intelligent, well-informed, humble, respectful, and mutually collaborative in constructing a more humane way of life for people at home and around the globe. Faith to faith and face to face. In can happen in religious education programs in our schools; in adult study and discussion groups; and even by inviting a group of neighbors for coffee and conversation. 

Some suggested guidelines: 

1. Being faithful to one’s own religious tradition is no justification for violence or for arrogantly dismissing or demeaning the religious tradition of another. God is bigger than all of us; and no religious tradition has all knowledge about God completely captured in a text, doctrines, or ritual. 

2. Healthy and constructive inter-religious dialogue assumes the equality of all partners and creates opportunities for a free expression of opinions, perspectives, and beliefs.  

3. Participants in faith to faith and face to face dialogue have a double responsibility: to become better informed about their own religious tradition and then better informed about the other religious tradition. Healthy dialogue assists in avoiding prejudices and misinterpretations of all religious traditions. When 9/11 happened, for example, I read all kinds of nonsense about what was supposedly written in the Quran. It was prejudiced, ignorant, and untrue. 

4. If we do our job well, inter-religious dialogue can offer a way towards more peaceful coexistence, better global education, and more fruitful collaboration: all lessening the risk of religious and political extremism. It’s a bit like decreasing CO2 emissions in the religious world climate. 

5. Yes. Religions can play a vital and constructive role in the society, promoting the common good.  

 I close with some reflections from my old friend, and University of Louvain fellow alumnus, Ron Rolheiser:

 Different peoples, one earth

 Different beliefs, one God

 Different languages, one heart

 Different failings, one law of gravity

 Different energies, one Spirit

 Different scriptures, one Word

 Different forms of worship, one desire

 Different histories, one destiny

 Different disciplines, one aim

 Different approaches, one road

 Different faiths – one Mother, one Father, one earth, one sky, one beginning, one end.

Next time……some thoughts about God.

Catholic Confrontations in a Pluralistic Society

6 August 2016

Carl Anderson, the thirteenth and Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and a very influential U.S. Roman Catholic said this week that since abortion far outweighs all other issues in the current presidential campaign, American Catholics cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights. His meaning is clear: Catholics cannot vote for Hilary Clinton.

At the end of July, Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, posted a message on Facebook: “Democratic VP choice, Tim Kaine, has been widely identified as a Roman Catholic. It is also reported that he publicly supports ‘freedom of choice’ for abortion, same-sex marriage, gay adoptions, and the ordination of women as priests. All of these positions are clearly contrary to well-established Catholic teachings; all of them have been opposed by Pope Francis as well.” So good Catholics should not vote for bad Catholic Kaine?

And now, heating up the Catholic political debate, Vice-President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, officiated at a gay wedding on August 2nd, at the Naval Observatory, the vice-president’s official residence. Biden has never officiated at a wedding before, and had to get temporary certification from the District of Columbia to make it legal.

The reaction from leading U.S. Catholic bishops has been swift. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, issued a statement on August 5th, saying: “When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of two people of the same-sex, confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics.”

A few reflections:
(1) Abortion far outweighs other issues:
I have long considered myself pro-life. Nevertheless, I would like to see a well-informed and respectful discussion about abortion. I am not convinced that all procedures done under the term “abortion” are taking human life. Nor am I convinced that it is always the greatest moral evil. If, for example, saving the life of a mother results in the death of a fetus, I would argue that saving the life of the mother is the morally better thing to do. So is abortion always wrong? I think not. I remember a now deceased Roman Catholic cardinal who was a strong public opponent to abortion – until. His sister, who was a Catholic nun working in an African country was attacked and raped. When informed, the cardinal ordered that his sister be taken to the nearest hospital “to be cleaned out so she won’t have a baby.” When I asked him about this, he nervously chuckled and said “questions of morality are rarely clear-cut.”

So abortion is not clear-cut? Are any moral issues ever clear-cut? What about raping adult women and men? What about the sexual abuse of children? What about torturing political prisoners? What about white supremacy and racial discrimination? I find it hard to believe that these actions are ever justifiable.

I find it cruelly ironic, for instance, that so many conservative Christians express their outrage at abortion but ignore and often oppose legislation and aid programs to assist, aid, and educate impoverished children. That is indeed an outrage.

(2) Rights and responsibilities of Catholic politicians: It is an old discussion but never seems to ring home. Sometimes I think it is time for a civics lesson for some religious leaders. The concepts of civil rights and of civil law are both functions of the concept of a pluralistic civil society in which people have the right to live according to their conscience and in conformity to civil laws established to promote the common good and maximum freedom for its citizens. Separation of church and state means that the United States is not a theocracy and religious institutions have no right to impose their institutional morality on civil society. Religious leaders can and should critique what is happening in the greater society but they cannot control civil society. Same-sex marriage is a civil right in U.S. society. Even Roman Catholics have a civil right to officiate at such civil ceremonies. John F. Kennedy understood this very clearly.

When JFK was running for president, people raised concerns about his “divided loyalty,” suggesting that a Catholic chief executive would be torn between his loyalty to his faith and the Catholic hierarchy and his oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. In an often quoted statement, Kennedy replied: “Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decisions in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.” Kennedy said he believed in an America “where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners how to vote.”

Yes…..The concepts of civil rights and of civil law are both functions of the concept of a pluralistic civil society in which people have the right to live according to their conscience and in conformity to civil laws established to promote the common good and maximum freedom for its citizens. Separation church and state means that the United States is not a theocracy and religious institutions have no right to impose their institutional morality on civil society.
Representatives and members of religious institutions (like the Bishop of Providence and the head of the K of C can certainly express their ethical viewpoint and engage in conversation – respectful dialogue – with legally recognized leaders of civil society about the most appropriate civil legistaion for the civil state. In the end, if they wish to continue living as members of the civil state, representatives and members of religious institutions must respect civil law.

(3) Clinton and Trump, my only comment about them (I think):  In this blog I have generally tried to avoid taking sides with any political party. I come in fact from a long family line of Republicans. My parents were Lincoln Republicans and very active in the State of Michigan Republican Party. (They were also exceptionally wonderful parents.) I too was a Republican until it came to the 1960 Nixon vs Kennedy election. Change is also part of life. Frankly I have never been a strong supporter of Hilary Clinton – for reasons one need not explore here. For me, however, the key issues in this very strange presidential campaign of 2016 are not Republican or Democratic party politics but questions of personal integrity and trustworthiness (values and morality), intellectual honesty, psychological maturity, and political wisdom, experience, and competence. Based on these criteria, I am ready to vote.