Trust, Truthfulness, and Together

October 25, 2019

A short reflection as I sit in the airport in Chicago, listening, watching, and chatting with people around me awaiting my flight across the Atlantic and back to Leuven/Louvain….

Some people, depending of course on one’s personal and/or religious values — and who often make a lot of noise in public — think of public morality as primarily a way of regulating sexual behavior: prostitution, same gender marriage, pre-marital sex, pornography, matters of dress and nudity, and pornography. I find those very same people often tend to ignore issues like ecclesiastical corruption, political leaders who are regular liars in official public statements; and who certainly ignore personal and group responsibilities connected with the environment, immigration, income inequality, misogyny, and racism.

I would contend that public morality is what motivates and holds a society together. It is based on a social covenant of truthfulness, trust, and respectful collaboration. Sometimes I fear, in our highly polarized society, that we live in a time of a broken public covenant.

Public morality should keep us from killing each other, enable us to respect individual life, respect people’s property; and promote constructive and effective social interaction.

Ideally, public morality should be a set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors TRANSMITTED and REINFORCED by all social institutions: church, family, school, neighborhood associations, the workplace, and government.

Looking at the contemporary signs of the times, the traditional shapers of public morality have lost much of their effective voice because of lost institutional credibility, uncertainty about truth and falsehood, and a cultural impoverishment that disconnects people from tradition, history, literature, and a sense of common human identity.

Some people fall back on the one thing they have: an exaggerated sense of individualism. Then individual experience and personal sentiment determine what is true. A young fellow at the airport said he didn’t know much about Nazi concentration camps, thinks much is probably made up, but that if he had lived “back then,” he might have supported the anti-Jewish movements in Germany “because, well after all they ARE just a bunch of selfish crooks.”

And yes, today we do have a growing secularization that perceives God and religious institutions as unimportant and simply a matter of personal taste. Christian values become personal and individual values and not matters of public virtue.

I am truly convinced that gradually a new public morality will take shape – a new consensus in our pluralistic society. Before that happens, however, various religious and political fundamentalisms will try to take charge and control individuals, groups, and society in general.

We need to be alert travelers. It will be a bumpy and turbulent flight…..

Take care.


Changing Religious Landscape: Decline of Christianity in USA Continues at Rapid Pace

October 18, 2019

According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the religious landscape of the United States continues to change ever more rapidly. Based on surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults now describe themselves as Christians. This is down 12 percentage points over the past decade. The religiously unaffiliated share of the population, people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%. This us up from 17% in 2009.

One of my friends suggested that this was primarily a Catholic problem due to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, not exactly. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) now identify as Catholic, down from 23% in 2009.

Meanwhile….. in the religiously unaffiliated population – the religious “nones” – we see the numbers swelling. Self-described atheists account for 4% of U.S. adults. This is up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009. Agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.

Religious “nones” are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, although their ranks are swelling in both parties. And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults. Christianity is losing contact with young people.

So how does one interpret this? The simple answer is to say that people are simply becoming more sinful and secular. Period. Frankly I find that too simple and an unfair response.

We need a new Christian Reformation. I fear too many church leaders want to preserve churchianity not Christianity…… We need to seriously reflect about what it means to be a believer today. We need to examine our own “Christian” behavior. We need to better communicate what we are all about as contemporary believers.

And yes…..I would like to see our Christian communities MORE actively listening to young people and truly involving them in life and ministry in our communities. And in our communities of faith, we must absolutely affirm and support our gay, lesbian, and transgender people. People should not be fired or expelled from our institutions because of their sexual orientation.

Quick but serious thoughts. I am in the air this week end. Going to Chicago!


Today’s Special Anniversary

October 11, 2019

For observers of Christian history, and especially for Christians in the Catholic tradition, October 11th is an important date.

Fifty-seven years ago today the Second Vatican Council opened in St. Peter’s Basilica In Vatican City. Between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops and thousands of observers, auditors, women religious, laymen, and laywomen gathered at St. Peter’s between 1962 and 1965. Pope John XXIII opened the Catholic Church’s windows for what was called “aggiornamento”: bringing the Catholic Church up to date. At the time, I was in my second year of college in Detroit and one of my professors, with a bit of dry humor, observed “the old pope is opening the windows and the winds of change will shake-up everything.”

The winds of change actually preceded Vatican II, starting in the 1940s and 1950s with a non-hierarchical theological movement called la nouvelle théologie – the “new theology.” For some people the term was a negative put-down. Nevertheless, the nouvelle théologie theologians we’re truly prophetic. One of them, Edward Schillebeeckx, ended up being my professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the late 1960s. He had a profound impact on my life and thinking.

The nouvelle théologie arose especially among certain groups of French, Belgian, and German theologians. Their shared objective was a fundamental reform of how the Catholic Church was approaching theology. The movement reacted against the dominance of nineteenth century neo-scholasticism which insisted on a rigid adherence to the thought, methods, and principles of the 13th-century thinker Thomas Aquinas.

The new theology advocated an historical-critical understanding of the written “sources” of Christian belief, and a methodological approach known by its French name ressourcement “return to the sources”). It rejected, for example, the then official Catholic teaching that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The new scholarly consensus had affirmed that the Pentateuch had multiple authors and that its composition took place over centuries, starting in the late 7th or 6th century BCE. It pointedly observed that Moses died around 1592 BCE. (Some contemporary scholars understand Moses as a legendary figure and not an historical person; but I don’t care to get into that today!)

The new theology also advocated a genuine openness to “the signs of the times” and to dialogue with the contemporary world on issues of human meaning and Christian belief and understanding. That dialogue of course must be ever ongoing.

Today, on this anniversary day, it is appropriate that we all commemorate and NOT forget the prophetic message of la nouvelle théologie, the opened windows of the Second Vatican Council, and the message of its life-giving theology.

Vatican II stressed that humanity and the human condition progress through time. Cultural understandings and the ways in which we think and express ourselves change. The “signs of the times” deserve in depth reflection and concrete action rooted in that reflection. Yesterday’s understanding of the human condition is not necessarily today’s and may not be tomorrow’s. Church teaching, like all theology, is time-bound. Healthy theology dares to ask questions and dares to formulate answers that echo the tradition and resonate with the experiences of contemporary believers.

Pope John XXIII smiled at the world and opened the windows. Today there are some – like the red-hat critics of Pope Francis — who dream of a fantasy-land glorious past and want to slam the windows shut, and keep them tightly closed. They are constitutionally unable to function in fresh air and with fresh ideas. Well, perhaps we need to open even more old windows….

Post-Vatican II, we have our own contemporary theological challenges: How do we speak today about our experiences of the Divine? Who is God for contemporary believers? Two thousand years after he walked the earth, who is Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead, whom we proclaim Lord and Christ? And what does it mean to be a human person? And how do we develop and live a system of values that respects that humanity in all its cultural, historic, religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender varieties? And how do Christian believers collaborate to turn back the contemporary tide of racism, xenophobia, and authoritarian political leadership?

These are our contemporary issues. With faith and fortitude, we can meet the challenge.

As Vatican II said (using an inclusive language translation of the Latin text) in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs, and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts….”

The windows are open…..




October 4, 2019

The gift of prophecy is listed among the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and Romans 12:6. The Greek word translated “prophesying” or “prophecy” in both passages most properly means to “speak forth.”

Many people misunderstand the gift of prophecy as the ability to predict the future. Knowing something about the future may sometimes have been an aspect of prophecy; but it is really a gift of proclamation (“forth-telling”) and not of prediction (“fore-telling”).

Prophets and prophetic movements are agents of social change. We need them. We also need to support and take on the prophetic challenge. In my RCC tradition, I greatly value the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement. These ordained women are courageous contemporary prophets.

We need prophets in religion and of course in politics and environmental issues. I find Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist, a contemporary prophet.

Maybe we need to set up formation centers for training prophets, who can be effective change agents….A good parish project for Advent or Lent? A project for youth ministry?

I see five qualities necessary for effective prophetic change agents (drawing from the book THE INNOVATOR’S MINDSET, by the Canadian educator George Couros):

1. Having a Clear Vision – The change agent does not have to be the person in authority, but does have to have a clear vision and has to be able to clearly communicate that to others. A clear vision does not mean that there is only one way to do things. Having a clear vision means one can draw on the strengths of the people one works with and can help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common objective. Interactive dialogue is important. Know-it-all little dictators are not bonafide change agents.

2. Being patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight. To have sustainable change, it must be presented as something truly meaningful and something people see as important and something they should embrace. In our push-button culture, many people get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough and they lose sight of the vision as something that can really be achieved. Effective change agents need to help people see that every step forward is a step closer to the goal. This helps people to continue moving ahead.

3. Asking tough questions – When a solution is someone else’s, there is little accountability for seeing it through. When people feel a personal connection to something, however, they can truly move ahead. Asking questions and helping people come to their own conclusions, based on their experience, is when people truly take ownership in what they are doing. Effective change agents ask questions to help people think. They don’t just tell people what to do.

4. Being knowledgeable and leading by example – Effective change agents have character and credibility. They are not just nice people. They are knowledgeable in what they are speaking about. If one wants to create change, one must not only be able to articulate what that change would look like but actually show it to others. What I like, for example, about the women priests movement is that women are truly and effectively ministering as ordained ministers.

5. Having strong relationships built on trust – All of the points above, mean just about nothing if one does not have solid relationships with the people one is serving. People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person who is pushing for change. Change agents must be extremely approachable and reliable. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to have respectful but tough conversations. That also builds trust. Trust is built when one knows someone will deal with things and not be afraid to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable.

A friend asked me last week what changes I would like to see in our communities of faith. There are three I would stress right now:

First of all, I am very concerned about young people. I would like to see our Christian communities actively listening to young people and truly involving them in life and ministry in our communities. A Catholic bishop acquaintance told me, not so long ago, that he was going to meet with about a hundred young men and women from his diocese. I said: “Terrific. What are you going to do?” He replied: “I have a list of things to tell them, because, as their bishop, I am their teacher.” I chuckled and replied: “But maybe you should first of all just listen to what they are thinking and want to say. Perhaps they are YOUR teachers.”

Next month I am starting a new course about Jesus, his disciples, and the early Christian communities. In my first class, I will point out to my students that the men AND WOMEN who were Jesus’ disciples were YOUNG — most likely all under 20 and some quite possibly as young as 15 or 16.

Secondly, in our communities of faith, we must absolutely affirm and support our gay, lesbian, and transgender people. People should not be fired or expelled from our institutions because of their sexual orientation. Jesus said, as I stressed in an earlier post, absolutely nothing about sexual orientation. I find especially repugnant the ecclesial hypocrisy of church leaders who are publicly homophobic and privately abusively gay. I am thinking right now of a bishop who died this past year. In public he was strongly anti-gay and proclaimed that they were “innately disordered.” Privately he was a regular sexual molester of handsome young seminarians.

Thirdly, I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Church leaders have no business telling people for whom they should vote. Church leaders, however, do have a responsibility to encourage believers to Observe, Judge, and Act: (1) Observe how our political leaders are speaking and behaving, (2) Judge whether or not their rhetoric and actions are consistent with their often-professed Christianity, and (3) if there are obvious values failures and shortcomings, to take appropriate Action. There are many contemporary applications here…..

May we all be prophetic,