Some quick reflections. I am on the USA road. Back with a longer reflection after the US presidential elections.

Our conference about millennial believers was excellent. I strongly recommend our presenter Todd Salzman from Creighton. 

Here is an interesting and very worthwhile book that charts the data on US teenagers. Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out Of, and Gone from the Church by Christian Smith. He asks: 

          “What happens in the religious and spiritual lives of American Catholic teenagers when they grow up, graduate from    high school, and start leaving home to launch their own new adult lives? What is the shape of the religious and spiritual lives of American Catholic 18-to 23-year-olds?”

His reply applies not only to teenagers nor just to Catholics I suspect: “Catholic emerging adults do not use their Catholic faith as a key resource for arriving at any counter-cultural religious, social, or ethical commitments.”

Happy All Saints!

Charting a New Course – Changing the Conversation

22 October 2016

I have always been interested in politics and come from a politically active family. This year, however, I have seen and heard more than enough about Donald and Hilary. I am politically tired and frustrated. I am also keenly aware that regardless who wins the key to the White House, the battles will not be finished when we wake up on November 9th. The civil/uncivil conflict may have just begun.

Today, in secular society and in the church, fierce polarization is our “realpolitik.” It threatens to disempower us and tear us apart in a long-lasting way. This past month (by way of a small personal example) because of my political and theological positions, I have been “unfriended” on Facebook by people who have been (I thought) my real friends for more than twenty-five years. Painful. Disappointing. Unnecessary.  

In the United States — but across the globe as well — we are in an historic and major socio-cultural transition: cultural change everywhere with various violent eruptions. It impacts religion and political stability. It shapes our sense of personal and group identity. It spreads fears about security and our sense of security. It demands, frankly, that we start working together to chart a new course – a new direction — for church and civil society.  

Charting a new direction and changing the conversation means moving beyond self-centered “my group” expediency to an other-centered engagement that promotes a more genuine Christian community and a safe and healthy society for all citizens: what we used to call “the common good.” It means looking at life and talking about life in new ways.  

Last week I read the Robert P. Jones book The End of White Christian America. Are we experiencing the “end of white Christian America”? Probably. Should we be anxious about this? I don’t see why. It is not the end of Christianity. It is not the end of America. It is reality. Now how do we talk about it?  

Americans in the United States are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past. They will be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. WILL NOT have one single racial or ethnic majority, and “white people” will be a minority group. It may come as a surprise to some observers; but Asia has already replaced Latin America (including Mexico) as the biggest source of new immigrants to the United States.  

One of my correspondents wrote recently that “gays are destroying American society and thanks to them family life is disintegrating.” Well that is one way of looking and speaking. What, however, would gay people say about American society today? How would they speak about family life? If we can shift our conversation from quick condemnation to dialogical comprehension, we might also become a bit more understanding and supportive of men and women living and struggling in a variety of family situations.  

The American family is changing. In the United States, today, there are nearly 13.6 million single parents raising over 21 million children. Single fathers are far less common than single mothers, constituting 16% of single-parent families. The number of American adults who have never been married is now at an historic high. Two-parent households are on the decline. Divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation are on the rise. So, what is our appropriate response? We can shake our heads or we can be supportive of people living in changing times. It is a called ministry and outreach. Healthy social movements and positive social evolution are launched and maintained by compassion, support, and collaboration. Christianity is there to pick people up not push them down and ignore their plight. The historic Jesus understood this. He did not condemn the woman at the well, the woman about to be stoned to death, nor the good Samaritan.  

Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday. He said that many prominent Catholics (he had the Democratic vice presidential candidate in mind) are so weak in their faith that it would be better if they just left the Catholic Church. He said he would prefer a smaller church of holy people, anchored in traditional orthodoxy. With Chaput’s approach, I fear, Catholics will continue their exit; and the Catholic Church will indeed become smaller. I am not convinced it will necessarily become holier. We could change the conversation however. Sit down with people who are leaving or have already left the church: not to pass judgment on them but to listen to their stories: their experiences, their expectations, and their disappointments.  

Another important element in changing our conversation must be inter-religious dialogue. As we chart a new course, we need to start building bridges with Islam. In our churches, we can and should have Muslim/Christian discussion groups and adult education programs. Why not have an adult ed. presentation on “Understanding the Qur’an: Islam’s Holy Book.” 

Projections about our world, over the next four decades, suggest that while Christianity will remain the largest religion, Islam will probably grow faster than any other major religion. By 2050, the number of Muslims in our world will nearly equal the number of Christians. Muslims are not Christians, but they are sons and daughters of the same God; and they are indeed our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. It is time we get to know and respect each other. It is not enough simply to change our conversation about them. We need to change our conversation with them. 

The Millennials, young adults born after 1980, are the new generation to watch. They have already surpassed Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) as the largest U.S. generation. In many ways, they differ significantly from their elders. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. They are much less interested in institutional religion and very supportive of LGBT issues and same-sex marriage.  

A colleague suggested recently that we need to do a “better job of educating the Millennials.” I am all for good education, and my friend may have a point. Charting a new course and changing the conversation, however, means first that WE must start LISTENING to the Millennials. We need to hear and learn from them about their life realities, their experience of church, their hopes, their frustrations, and expectations for tomorrow. 

I am not a misogynist. I do want to see women exercising every type of ordained ministry. I suggest however that we need to change our conversation about “women deacons” and “women priests.” Changing the conversation means that we consider the more basic questions about the meaning of ordained ministry. How should we understand Christian ministry today? What is the specific nature of ordained ministry today? What should it be? What structures and institutional roles and behaviors are appropriate for contemporary Christians? What is a proper – appropriately Christian – understanding of power and authority in the church? Is it not possible that the “ordained” have more than once misunderstood and misused their “power and authority”? I suggest that in many ways we need to chart a new course for ordained ministry. A new course will necessarily involve new parochial and ministerial structures. I can imagine for example that a parish could have a ministry supervisor (pastor) who would not necessarily have to be ordained. Within the parish there could be a great number of ordained ministers (women, men, married, single, gay and straight): ministering in schools, hospitals, youth groups, neighborhood and home visitations, college campuses, etc. 

Well enough thoughts for today. I read in the very latest (October 19th) Pew Research bulletin that only 13% of Americans have a great deal of confidence that religious leaders act in the best interest of the public. We do need to change our conversation and chart a new course: away from polarization.

(Next week end I will be participating in a conference on the Millennials. I will offer some reflections on that after the week end.) 

The Dictatorship of Relativism

14 November 2016

One of my former students emailed me a few days ago that he is alarmed because I continue stressing religious change and an historical/critical understanding of Sacred Scripture and church teaching. He fears that I have succumbed to “the dictatorship of relativism” which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI so often condemned.“Our Christian morality,” my correspondent insisted, “is unchanging.” 

Ok, let’s be historically honest. I tried to respond to my concerned writer, the way I believe a good teacher should respond: a good teacher is not necessarily the answer person but the one who raises questions and tries to help students think and act with a broader perspective on reality. I reminded him for instance, that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great “Doctor of the Church,” taught that women are inferior to men because they are really “misbegotten males;” and that St Augustine, the very influential Neo-Platonic “Church Father,” taught that sexual intercourse, even within marriage, was always sinful. Augustine and Thomas, any good student knows, have been major shapers of Christian moral attitudes and behavior for centuries. I asked my young friend if he could affirm the papal teaching of Pope Nicholas V, who in 1452 instituted hereditary slavery for captured Muslims, solemnly teaching from his papal pulpit that all non-Christians are “enemies of Christ.” My final question was what he thought about the morality of a centuries old practice in Christian Europe of castrating prepubescent boys to ensure, in future years, a good supply of soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto singers for church choirs, especially in the pope’s Sistine Chapel. Churchmen justified this practice to insure high tone voices for divine praise, because they were in agreement with the Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, that “women should keep quiet in church.” Just a few historic examples. 

Yes change happens; but when speaking about morality, I prefer to avoid using words like “relative” and “situational,” because they have become hot potatoes and impede dialogue. Nevertheless, morality deals with our ongoing human reality that is never static. Historical circumstances change, so too our understanding of appropriate and inappropriate moral behavior. In every age, moral reflection must be anchored in concrete human experience and circumstances. Sometimes developments in human understanding lead to a better appreciation for traditional moral norms. Sometimes, however, the norms themselves must change, as has occurred when we look at moral issues linked with slavery, misogyny, personal freedom, human mutilation, genocide, and human sexuality.  

A key focus in my professional life, for many years, has been Christian ethics and Christian moral behavior. Here I have big concerns and strong feelings. Our Christian moral life is much more than simply being obedient to a set of moral norms. For some it may sound strange, but the most fundamental moral reality for the Christian is not obedience to God’s commands but the discernment of God’s presence in our daily lives and our response to that presence. Not just observing a set of laws but pursuing an all-inclusive way of life: what we have traditionally called the life of grace. 

Sin, for instance, cannot be identified merely with actions against the Ten Commandments. Sin is the breakdown of our multiple relationships with God, neighbor, world, and self. Christian ethics differs from philosophical ethics precisely because it understands that our moral life, informed by the message of Christ and animated by his Spirit, is a grateful response to the Devine presence in our lives: God with us. Christian morality, therefore, springs from an authentic Christian spirituality. (Many years ago, one of my favorite professors in Louvain insisted that if we had a healthy spirituality there would be no need for courses in theological ethics.) 

Our Christian understanding of reality calls for a broader and more universal love that embraces the poor, the marginalized, and the needy. It stresses that in our complex world, our moral responsibilities are not just interpersonal. They involve our collaboration, our critique, and our continually challenging the organizations, structures, and institutions that constitute a vital part of our local and global existence.  

One cannot claim, for instance, to be a Christian leader and at the same time denigrate women and legislate against them, make fun of the physically impaired, despise “foreigners,” degrade black people, dismiss people from a non-Christian background, promote personal fantasies as statements of objective truth, and understand self-promotion and self-gratification as more important than service to one’s neighbor. 

Last week, Johan Bonny, the current Roman Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, reiterated his position that homosexual couples, divorced and remarried Catholics, and cohabiting couples should be given some sort of Church blessing as part of a “diversity of rituals” that would recognize the “exclusiveness and stability” of their unions. He went on to stress: “There is no way we can continue to claim that there can be no other forms of love than heterosexual marriage. We find the same kind of love between a man and woman who live together, in gay pairs, and lesbian couples.” Bishop Bonny, whom I know and for whom I have great respect, understands very well the developmental nature of our moral understanding; and he has the courage, as a bishop, to publicly acknowledge it. 

Today I am less concerned about a dictatorship of relativism than I am about a dictatorship of ignorance, closed-mindedness, and socio-cultural barrel vision. 

Warmest regards to all.  

Jack at Another Voice  

Poetic Anthropomorphisms

 7 October 2016

(This week’s reflection was written by William Joseph, a good friend and a priest scientist currently living in London. He wrote this reflection a couple weeks ago, as he was traveling on the Eurostar from Paris to London. He sent it to me because of my recent observations about God-talk and antropomorphisms. I post it today with his permission.)  

The sky slowly becomes luminous. A small brush stroke of red grows on the horizon and swells into a sphere of bright white light illuminating a new day. The child thinks: Time to get up, eat and see my friends. The mystic thinks: Thank you God for another day which you begin here with such beauty and hope-filling regularity. The scientist thinks: Thank you Isaac Newton for describing how I could trust that this morning would dawn for me again.  

Each thought is a different poetry, each with a worthy degree of anthropomorphism. The child is thinking not too far ahead with only a shallow memory of the past. Those spiritually minded envision a personal presence of the Devine who has arranged things in ways we cannot perceive and is ever willing to acknowledge our requests if not always respond to them positively. The scientist, being able to see a beauty in equations and poetry in the mathematical expressions of physical reality, is not unappreciative in what sounds like a sterile welcome to another day.  

All three are, however, based on anthropomorphisms, making our universe act in the only human way we know. But an anthropomorphism must be seen as an aid to understanding and not a description of what is happening in reality. To the child, everything is simply what happens in their world with no interpretation or judgement, only uncomplicated and short term anticipation. In traditional spirituality, the universe is uncomplicated by physical realities or theories but relies only on insights framed in myths and metaphors. To the scientist God is not needed to give us another day any more than to keep the Earth in rotation on its axis at its constant rate. Newton has that well in hand even if he cannot explain how it all started.  

The child wants only to know the when. The religionist and philosopher is concerned about the why. The scientist is interested in the how of the universe but understands the limitations involved. It may take all three to cover every possibility. The Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, in his Hymn to Matter, saw the universe as a “triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations.” In one unified concept he embraced the macrocosm, the fundamental particles of the physical microcosm and all humanity in the noosphere. He also championed the evolutionary nature which characterizes this universe.  

Soon, but not before its time, the light dims and darkness embraces our world. Could there be humanity even beyond or independent of this cycle of dawn to dusk and the darkness of night? While everyone does not think about it, anticipate it or view it as possible or necessary, we have all passed through moments in which we perceived it as an appealing thought and even a desire. If it is reality then eligibility must extend to humanity and not to some mechanism of membership. The Divine willed creation of a universe and that will not be limited by anthropomorphisms.  

Reality and Religious Realities

2 October 2016

The Public Religion Research Institute, in Washington, DC, has published an updated report about the “nones”: the religiously unaffiliated. Today 24% of all U.S. Americans, and 39% of young adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine, say they have no religious affiliation. The “nones” are now the largest “religious” group in the United States

Linked with the rise of the “nones” is yet another trend: an ongoing exodus out of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. U.S. Catholics have now experienced the largest membership decline of any Christian group in the country. While about one third (31%) of U.S. Americans indicate they were raised Catholic, less than a quarter (21%) currently identify as Catholic. When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, 25% of the U.S. adult population was Roman Catholic. 

Mainline Protestant churches are showing a decline in membership as well; but nothing compares with the current Catholic exodus. Daniel Cox, the Director of Research at the Public Religion Research Institute, notes that 36% of all U.S. Americans who have left their childhood religion were Roman Catholic. While, as I indicated above, 21% of the total U.S. population currently identifies as Catholic, only 15% of young adults ages 18–29 say they are Catholic. Not a particularly encouraging trend for Roman Catholic leaders, strongly Republican but now scratching their heads about what to do about a presidential race between one candidate whose views on immigration clash with decades of Catholic pro-immigration work, and another who supports same-sex marriage and expanded access to abortion and contraception. 

Today 60% of those who have left their U.S. church of origin say it was because they stopped believing that church’s teachings. Interestingly, the “nones” who were raised Catholic — more than the people who have left some other religious tradition — cite the Roman Catholic Church’s negative treatment of gay and lesbian people (39%) and the still festering clerical sexual-abuse scandal (32%) as their primary reasons for leaving their church. Sorry to say, given the high rate of Catholic disaffiliation and the fact that one-third of Catholics indicated clergy sex-abuse as their primary reason for disaffiliation, the Catholic exodus can be expected to continue as more revelations about hidden abuse scandals become public.  

Another point that the Public Religion Research Institute study makes clear is that while the “nones” are often portrayed as “seekers” or “spiritual but not religious,” the data presents a more uncertain picture of what is happening. Nearly 60% of the unaffiliated are what the Public Religion Research Institute calls “rejectionists”: they “say religion is not personally important in their lives and believe religion as a whole does more harm than good in society.” Another 22% are “apatheists. ” They say “religion is not personally important to them, but believe it generally is more socially helpful than harmful.” Contrary to what one often reads about the “nones,” only 18% were found to be “unattached believers.” That means that religion is unimportant for a good 80% of the “nones.” As Daniel Cox observes: “The bulk of the unaffiliated are not carrying on faith traditions or seeking different types of spiritual activity. Most don’t give a lot of thought to religion and God in general.”  

Is there a future for the Roman Catholic Church? Of course there is; but then some important remedial steps have to be undertaken. Church leadership has to constructively and effectively respond to what I call level one big issues and level two big issues. If this does not happen, the Catholic eclipse will be pervasive and long-lasting. 

I begin with the level two big issues. 

At the top of this list is human sexuality. The institution, whose key leaders are mostly old men who – from the time they were very young men — have officially signed-off on sex, has a major difficulty understanding human sexuality as a human good. We are all sexual people; and our sexuality is more than just genital procreative behavior. It is the way we experience ourselves, the way we express love and affection, the way we bring life to each other and bring new life into the world. It is the way we experience human pleasure and find contentment. It is natural and good; and some people are “gay” and some people are “straight.” Most people, my sexologist friends tell me, are somewhere between being totally one way or the other.  

While 86% of the baby boomers consider themselves “completely heterosexual,” one third of the Millennial generation consider themselves “less than 100% straight.” According to recent studies by the Pew Research Centre, ABC News, and the Washington Post, well over 80% of the Millennial generation say they believe gay and lesbian individuals should be accepted by society and allowed to get married if they so choose. 

Related to the human sexuality issues of course are issues of gender roles and gender identity. I wish we could move beyond discussions about “women’s roles” and “men’s roles” in the church. This is not a healthy way of thinking or speaking. We are a community of faith; and all believers in the community share and participate in the community’s life and ministry. Galatians 3 reminds us: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Establishing separate categories and ranks in the church is not what we should be about. 

The final issue in my list of level two big issues is gender identity. As an old observer of human life, who tries to stay current as well, it is very clear to me that human beings are much more than simply individuals who were born with a penis or a vagina. One of my classmates, when I was a freshman in high school, was a young man. Many years later we met again. He – SHE – is now a married professional woman, leading a very happy life. My eyes were opened in more than one way. Gender identity is an important issue for thousands of people. There is nothing decadent or immoral about it. Some people scoff at or make fun of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner the Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete. I think we still have a lot to learn about human identity….. 

Now moving on to the level one big issues: 

As individual believers and as institutional leaders, we need to seriously and honestly reflect about who God is for us today. Too much of our traditional talk about God does not connect with people today. Perhaps we forget that all God-talk is anthropomorphic. God is just as much “Mother” as “Father.” For me God is more like a traveling companion. Nevertheless, there is no Heavily Father sitting on his throne up there above the clouds. There is Reality right here and right now.  

Connecting with us, loving us, and sustaining us from the deepest dimension of Reality is the Sacred. It is deeply personal and intimate. All the great mystics attest to this. We need to adjust our perspectives on Reality and how we describe and live with it. How we travel in time with it and celebrate it. The old dichotomies – as my older priest-philosopher friend often reminds me – are no longer appropriate or acceptable: dividing Reality into “transcendent” and “immanent.” Or into the “physical” and the “metaphysical.” Or even cutting Reality into “sacred” and “profane.” Reality is a unity. There we discover “God with us.” Now we need to explore and explain and better express that for ourselves and for contemporary people. It is the number one task for contemporary theologians. 

Helping us with our level one big issues of course is the absolute necessity of an historical/critical understanding of our scriptures; but not just our scriptures. We need an historical/critical understanding of church teachings, church structures, and moral imperatives as they have developed and changed over the centuries. No small task. And not always easy because some new discoveries can be temporarily disorienting and disconcerting. I still remember being a terribly upset little boy, sitting with my parents restlessly staring at our Christmas tree, when it dawned on me that Santa was a fantasy. Later I began to smile, when I realized all the more that I had a very loving mom and dad.  

We are never too old to realize that we still have much to learn. This is a grace not a vice. 

We can resonate with T. S. Eliot’s famous observation: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”