Looking for a Trustworthy Guide

August 25, 2018

What does one do when institutional leadership misleads? When some of the “shepherds” are really wolves? Where does one find a trustworthy guide for life? Where does one find inspiration and hope for tomorrow? After so many ecclesiastical disappointments and ongoing revelations, many are turned off or disappointed. The questions abound.

To start, I suggest we need to focus on the church not primarily as a religious institution but a gathering of believers. One of the unfortunate mis-translations in the New Testament concerns the word ecclesia. It is usually translated “church.” In fact it should be more correctly translated as an “assembly” or a “convocation” of those called together under Christ: people of faith, brought together, inspired, and enlivened by the message and spirit of Jesus.

My reflection today is not a bunch of pious old rhetoric. It is a contemporary plea to take Jesus seriously.

Perhaps we need to dismantle and deconstruct some church structures before credibility can be restored.

The lifestyle and teaching of Jesus are indeed our anchor in restless times and our blueprint for personal, group, and institutional regeneration.

Re-reading the Gospels this week, these Jesus virtues challenged me:

HUMILITY: Jesus was a humble man from a humble town: Jesus of Nazareth. People joked about Nazareth. In the Johannine Gospel, we read: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Torah and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” (John 1:45-46)

In Luke 14 we read “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” When putting on a meal, Jesus said “Don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”

We can live humbly with each other. How does one live humbly in an institutional church well known for grandeur, fancy dress, and imperial pretense?

GENDER EQUALITY: Jesus was not an old boys club kind of guy. Among his disciples were men and women. The first disciples to discover and announce that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women. Luke’s Gospel gives us the account of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary. The whole point of the narration is that Mary can be a disciple just like the guys. The New Testament scriptures strongly attest to women disciples, women apostles, and women ministers.

If today we could have an abundance of women ordained ministers and bishops, we would witness a marvelous ecclesiastical transformation.

NOT A PATERNALISTIC PATRIARCH: Jesus was not an authoritarian leader. He did not exercise power OVER people. He empowered people. His virtues were compassion, forgiveness, and challenging people to do better.

In the community of faith we must discover ways to move ahead with honesty, clear judgment, respectful ministry, and dialogue.

FAITH IS MORE THAN RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE: Some of Jesus’ strongest words were criticisms of religious leaders. One finds them throughout the Gospels. Here I recall an account in Matthew 23: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.’”

STRUCTURES SPRING FROM FAITH: The historical Jesus was not an institutional organization man. He did not establish an institutional church, did not ordain anyone. He did not create bishops, dioceses, or a pope. Jesus left structural systems to his followers: to the community of faith.

The community of faith, the assemblies of believers, need to do some re-structuring today.

NOT A WHITE SUPREMACIST: Jesus wasn’t white. He was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jewish fellow. He was neither xenophobic nor racist. His social morality is clearly explained in the narrative about the Good Samaritan.

WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW: Looking at Jesus, there is much we do not know. Things he didn’t talk about. Was he single? Married? Gay? Straight? For the evangelists these were not important questions. Perhaps they are really not important for us either, although some get hung up on just these issues.

GOD WITH US: Jesus is the revelation of God for us. He is the “image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) He is also the revelation of authentic humanity. He is for us “the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

Now let us reform, rebuild, and restructure a church worthy of Jesus Christ.


[Photo: Recent research by Joan Taylor (professor at King’s College London) suggests Jesus may have been of average height, with short black hair, brown eyes and olive-brown skin. Credit: Painting by Cathy Fisher, showing shorter clothing and hair for Jesus, in accordance with Taylor’s research.]

Sex in Church

August 17, 2018

“With revelation after revelation, a new wave of sexual abuse scandals is rocking the Roman Catholic Church and presenting Pope Francis with the greatest crisis of his papacy.” — Chico Harlan observation in the Washington Post on August 12, 2018.

Then on August 14, 2018, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an 884-page report on sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. In often chilling detail, the grand jury report details how the Catholic Church spent decades covering up sexual abuse claims against 300 “predator priests” who abused nearly 1,000 children. The report covers 70 years of clerical misconduct and a negligent church response. One can find the report here:

Click to access InterimRedactedReportandResponses.pdf

I have been reluctant to write about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, because so many have been writing about it. It is a major issue. It is clearly not going away. It may very well reduce the Catholic Church to a mostly conservative Christian sect.

A longer reflection this week end, since many readers have been asking me for my thoughts about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. So, at last, I agreed to offer my own reflections.

Five opening observations:

(1) I am indeed a Catholic theologian. My big concern continues to be: coming to a better understanding of what it means to be a contemporary believer.

(2) Some suggest that I am basically anti-Catholic. Very truthfully I am NOT anti-Catholic. I am committed, however, to seeking evidence, examining reasoning and assumptions, and analyzing basic concepts. I am a critical thinking and critical speaking Catholic, because as an historian I know that it is a dangerous development when institutional leaders say one cannot ask questions or challenge the accuracy or truthfulness of ecclesiastical pronouncements. (The same holds true for political statements and positions; but I am staying clear of politics this week end.)

(3) I have worked for Catholic educational institutions – schools, parishes, and universities — all my professional life — for more than fifty years. For a good twenty-five years I was very actively involved in the education and formation of Catholic seminarians and ordained ministers (priests), and the continuing education of ordained ministers and men and women in lay pastoral ministry.

(4) I have known, and still known, a great many wonderful priests, bishops, and cardinals. They are genuinely fine people who deserve strong affirmation and public support. Over the years I have tried to be particularly supportive of young ordained ministers, who have also suffered from the bad press generated by abusive clergy. I remember well one young priest, one of my former students, who wrote that he never wanted to wear a Roman collar in public. When he did, he said teenagers would pester him and run after him yelling “Hey Father! Having fun? How many kids did you screw today?”

(5) I have also known some bishops who were deceptive and immoral men. Some, for example, were strongly anti-gay in public but privately ran after young men or had live-in boyfriends often disguised as “nephews” or “private secretaries.” A broken clerical culture can only be repaired when church leaders openly confront the truth. Unfortunately, even the Vatican has had a tradition of soft-glove treatment for predatory bishops. The latest example of course is no-longer-cardinal-but-still-archbishop Theodore McCarrick.

I should share a bit of personal history. I was never an ordained minister but came very close. I went to seminary high school and college. Never witnessed any abusive sexual experiences there, but it was a healthy place back then. After college, my bishop then sent me, in 1965, to the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium (his alma mater) for my formal theological education. Louvain (today we say more often LEUVEN) had a big impact on me. My Dad often said “Jack was never the same after Louvain.” Louvain professors encouraged me to think, to question, and to do research using original documentation. I learned the “historical-critical method.” Asking critical questions became a major part of my life outlook. It changed my life as well in big ways.

After three years in Louvain, and just one year before my ordination, I realized I did not want to spend my life as a life-long “celibate” bachelor. And I had some theological issues like the prohibition of artificial contraception and extreme clericalism and misogyny in the church. I realized my “calling” was to become a critical-thinking theologian and teacher, not an ordained minister. I informed my bishop. He was not just disappointed in me but became furiously angry. He told me I had sold my soul to “1960s humanistic sex-craving secularism.”

Some months later, one of the bishop’s key advisors invited me to have a “friendly chat” with him. We met in his rectory. He welcomed me with a Scotch on the rocks and we started talking. Very friendly. Then he became very serious: “You know of course that the bishop is very disappointed in you. The bishop and I want you to come back. Please come back. Forget that marriage nonsense. Most married people are unhappy and the sex is not always that good. We want you to understand that, as a priest, you can always have a boy or a woman whenever you need sexual relief.” That was my introduction, and invitation, to clerical sex abuse. As I sat there, speechless, staring at him, my host started laughing and continued “God loves his priests and will always give his priests cute guys and sexy women for their sexual comfort.” I put my glass on the table and walked out. Never saw the man again.

Clerical sexual abuse springs from a warped and unhealthy understanding of human sexuality; but it is primarily about power over people. It is not about love or intimate affection. It is about using and abusing people, for selfish personal sexual gratification.

Last week, Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who spent much of his life studying the roots of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, died in San Diego. He was 85. I had great respect for him. His research into celibacy and sexuality within the clergy helped establish a foundation for those studying and responding to the ongoing sexual abuse crisis. Sipe estimated that 6 % of all priests were sexual abusers of children and minors, and that, at any given time, only 50 % of priests were celibate.

“Sooner or later” Richard Sipe wrote in a 2016 letter to Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego “it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among, and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children….When men in authority — cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors — are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.” Well we have now seen that in the revelations about the sexual lifestyle of former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, with seminarians and young priests.

People interested in the complete letter from Richard Sipe to Bishop McElroy can find it here:


In the church and outside the church we need to educate and help people form a healthy understanding and / experience of human sexuality. Human sexuality is not just about genital acts. It is about a way of being: the way people experience and express themselves physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

What are the moral values in human sexual behavior that promote the wholistic growth and development of the human person? I am a theologian not a sexologist; but here — gathered from my own reading and reflection — are some human sexuality values that I believe are a good start. They apply to people in all kinds of relationships, genders, and lifestyles.

(1) Sexual activity should be other-enriching. Healthy human sexuality gives expression to a genuine concern for the well-being of the other person. It is, therefore, sensitive, compassionate, and supportive. It does not use people.

(2) It must be honest. Healthy human sexuality expresses openly and truthfully the depth of the relationship that exists between people.

(3) It must be faithful. A healthy sexual relationship is characterized by a consistent pattern of concern and support. Fidelity promotes stable relationships anchored in mutual respect.

(4) Healthy sexuality is socially responsible. Healthy sexuality is not just about individual responsibilities but acknowledges the responsibilities of individuals for the larger community. A healthy sexual relationship and sexual behavior should promote and help sustain the common good.

(5) Every expression of human sexuality should be life-serving. A healthy relationship that brings life and/or promotes and sustains life.

(6) And finally, healthy human sexuality should be joyous. Human sexual expression is meant to be enjoyed without feelings of guilt or shame.

Here I remember the observations of my old 1960s Louvain professor of moral theology. I was in his class with a group of seminary classmates. Our venerable professor was talking about marriage and sexual intercourse. He smiled and said it was “wonderful, a blending and a union of body, mind, heart, and spirit. Something wonderfully unique, wonderfully human, and a taste of the divine.” One of my classmates leaned over to me and whispered: “If this is true, what are we doing here in the seminary?”

Next week some thoughts about contemporary Christian belief.


Muslims in the USA

11 August 2018

This week end some brief reflections about our USA multicultural and multi-religious society. This reflection is prompted by comments from two young postgraduate university students. One asked me: “Aren’t you afraid that fanatic Muslims will take over the United States?” Before I could respond, the other a young doctoral student replied with a chuckle, “I would be more afraid of fanatic Christians.”

My paternal ancestors were English immigrants. They were Quakers from Chester, England and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. When they arrived, what would become the United States of American was already multi-cultural and multi-religious.

People sometimes only look at our history through Christian-tinted glasses. This is not an anti-Christian comment. Just an objective observation. We all wear different kinds of glasses or none at all.

Right from the beginning, the USA was multi-religious: Christian, Muslim. Jewish, and (not to forget) Native American religious in a variety of forms. In general, it was not always easy but we have learned to live together, support one another, and grow in our understanding of Divinity. No single religion controls God. When a religion tries to do that, society slips into idolatry and authoritarian inhumanity. Religious freedom — much talked about today — means the freedom to be and practice your own religious belief.

Not all history books are clear about this; but Muslims arrived in North America long before the founding of the United States. Not just a few, but thousands. Muslims arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually composing 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. Muslims from the Middle East did not begin to immigrate to the United States as free citizens until the late 19th century. Key USA “Founding Fathers” demonstrated a marked interest in Islam and its practitioners, most notably Thomas Jefferson. A few months after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state. Writing, in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration,” he noted: “Neither Pagan nor Mahometan (Muslim) nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”

Later, as President Jefferson, he welcomed to the White House, in 1805, the first Muslim Ambassador to the United States. Because it was then Ramadan, the president moved the state dinner from 3:30 p.m. to be “precisely at sunset,” a recognition of the Tunisian ambassador’s religious beliefs, though not quite the first White House official celebration of Ramadan.

Yes, Islam in America is a tradition with deep roots. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims. They were not “citizens” but slaves. Scholars debate the number of Muslim slaves brought to the Americas. The estimates range from 40,000 (in the USA) up to 3 million across North and South America and the Caribbean. [In the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (1525-1866), 12.5 million Africans were “shipped” to the New World.]

Charles Ball, an enslaved African-American from Maryland, best known for his 1837 account as a fugitive slave, The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, wrote: “I knew several who must have been, from what I have since learned, Mohamedans; though at that time, I had never heard of the religion of Mohamed. There was one man on this plantation… who prayed five times every day, always turning his face to the east, when in the performance of his devotion.” Ball’s grandfather, from a prominent African family, was enslaved and brought to Calvert County, Maryland around 1730.

I suspect very few contemporary U.S. Americans know that many Muslim slaves were educated and literate in Arabic; and that they occupied leadership roles in the jobs that slaves performed on plantations in the American South. Historians researching Muslim slaves, in antebellum America, have discovered that the presence of such slaves stratified slave society, by creating the category of the superior “Moor” over the inferior “Negro.” Nevertheless, conversion to Christianity was the most widespread method by which most African Muslims had to reconfigure their religious practices and beliefs to adapt to their new societal context. Therefore, American-born children of African Muslims did not practice Islam nor did they self-identify as Muslims. Nevertheless, when Islam was fading among communities of slaves and former slaves, millions of new Muslim immigrants began arriving in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them, tens of thousands from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

The United States’ first mosque was built in Chicago, in 1893. Frankly it was an “attraction” at the World’s Columbian Exhibition. The second mosque built in the United States was located in Highland Park, Michigan. It was completed in 1921. This time it was built, not as an exotic or foreign cultural attraction, but to witness to an authentic American faith tradition —just like the nearby Christian churches and synagogues. It was built for Muslim worshipers: Muslims who were truly American citizens.

Subsequent to the 1965 “U..S. Immigration and Naturalization Act,” more than 1.1 million new Muslims arrived in the United States, before the end of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the contemporary “Islamophobia industry,” heavily funded and heavily biased with often factually inaccurate information, is working hard to spread the falsehood that Muslim Americans are dangerous, violent, sinister, and un-American. This is racist, xenophobic propaganda, and fake news.

Today Islam is the third largest religion in the United States after Christianity and Judaism; but one must pay close attention to the percentages. Contrary to certain contemporary political rhetoric, neither a Jewish nor an Islamic takeover is imminent. According to the 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, approximately 69% of Americans are Christian; Judaism is the religion of approximately 2%; and Islam represents approximately 1% of the total U.S. population.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey of U.S. Muslims, Muslim Americans have great optimism and positive feelings about being Muslim and about being American. They are proud to be Americans. They believe that hard work generally brings success. They are satisfied with the way things are going in their own lives – even if they are not satisfied with the direction of the country as a whole.

Especially noteworthy is the Pew finding that American Muslims largely share the general U.S. public’s concerns about religious extremism. In fact U.S. Muslims may be more concerned than non-Muslims about extremism in the name of Islam. They stress, there is little support for extremism within the U.S. Muslim community, and very few say violence against civilians can be justified in pursuit of religious, political, or social causes. Overall, eight-in-ten Muslims (82%) say they are concerned about extremism in the name of Islam around the world. This is similar to the percentage of the U.S. general public that shares these concerns (83%). We do need correct information these days and a balanced perspective on all contemporary Americans not just the narrow-minded ones.

There is a particular urgency for Christians and Jews to become participants in dialogue with Muslims, their brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. Anti-Muslim prejudices in the United States are very real and damaging. In recent years, Anti-Muslim protesters have broken into mosques, destroyed copies of the Qur’an, spray-painted vulgar language on Muslim buildings, accompanied by threats of other violence, arson attacks, and even murder. (It reminds me of the nineteenth century U.S. “Nativist” prejudice and the burning of churches and convents, and murderous attacks against Catholics.)

Religious, cultural, and political polarization is a contemporary evil. It does not have to be that way……For our survival it MUST NOT be that way. The house divided against itself will not stand….


NPD : A Personal Disorder — Our Moral Challenge

4 August 2018

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) involves a distorted self-image and is a psychological disorder, with moral implications. It affects approximately 1% of the population, with a greater prevalence in men. Historically we have often seen it in men in leadership positions. Their emotions can be unstable and intense; and they display excessive concerns about personal prestige and power, stressing personal “greatness.” They also tend to lack compassion, have an exaggerated sense of superiority, and enjoy bullying people. Nothing Christian in such behavior. The Gospel is good news. Not fake news propaganda.

Below are some of the most common characteristics of people with a narcissistic personality disorder life orientation:

1 They have an insatiable appetite for the attention of others, by claiming to be the smartest, the most popular, and the most loved.

2. They exaggerate, fabricate or simply lie about achievements, talents, and importance.

3. They take advantage of others to achieve a personal goal, without regret or conscience.

4. They create facts or simply re-shape the truth to mislead, confuse, and control people. Their focus is not reality news but propaganda. Any media coverage unfavorable to them is rejected as part of a fake news “hoax” against them. Paranoia prioritized.

5. They lack empathy, or the ability to understand the feelings of others. They disregard, joke about, or demean others’ feelings.

6. They react to criticism by denigrating their critics in racist and xenophobic diatribes.Their toxic rhetoric and propaganda stimulate and support hate groups and racist movements.

7. They use women as playthings and brag about their sexual exploits in immature and adolescent boyish fashion.

8. Whatever they crave or yearn for must be “the best” because they are the best and deserve the best.

9. They clandestinely or openly take advantage of others so they can move forward in life and/or get what they want, with no remorse toward the ones stepped on, used, and abused.

10. Narcissists are toxic people. They are proudly self-obsessed, arrogant, tough-minded bullies, and immature people lacking healthy emotions.

What to do?

People with NPD need help. Psychotherapy. For many, the disorder lasts a lifetime. Nevertheless, they still have moral responsibilities toward other people and within the institutions in which they operate. One cannot excuse their behavior.

People who are victimized by people with NPD, or who are alarmed by the power and negative influence of people with NPD, need to network and collaborate in curtailing their power and influence.

I first encountered an NPD person when he was pastor of a nearby parish. The situation went from annoying to bad then to very bad. Eventually the parish council, with abundant documented evidence about his erratic behavior and psychological disorder, told the local bishop that the pastor was “very unwell” and had to go. Within a few days, a healthy “pastoral change” was made. Change is possible when conscientious and courageous people work together.

I suspect one could make a list of famous people with NPD. Reflecting, as an old historian, on Western European history, I think immediately about people like Henry VIII, Napoleon, Generalissimo Franco, and Hitler of course. In the church I think of men like Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878). “Pio Nono” was pope for more than 31 years. He started out good but then regressed. Loss of papal influence and power, and then the the loss of the Papal States twisted his brain. He could not make the papacy great again. He was the last Pope-King before the Catholic Church’s broad temporal power was swept away. He became the quintessence of ecclesiastical obscurantism and intransigence. He is famous for papal infallibility (personal papal power) and his 1864 “Syllabus of Errors” : a strong condemnation of liberalism, modernism, and separation of church and state. (He also supported President Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy in the US American Civil War.)

In contemporary political life there are also people with NPD. Vladimir Putin is just one key example.

NPD is a pressing contemporary challenge. People who recognize this disorder in political and religious leaders need to deal with the problem constructively and effectively. The clock is ticking.

As the Spanish-born, US American/European philosopher and novelist George Santayana (1863 – 1952) said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”