US Catholics a Divided House

Catholics now make up about 20% of the US population – down from close to 24% in 2007 – but the American Catholic Church is still larger than any other single religious institution in the United States. Catholics in recent years, however, have faced a number of significant challenges: an ongoing decline in membership, a shortage of priests, major financial problems, and continuing revelations of clerical sexual abuse. The US Catholic Church has experienced a greater net membership loss than any other US religious group.

Like contemporary US society, American Catholics, are also highly — and often heatedly —  polarized. Edison Research exit polls estimate that 52% of all Catholic voters went for Biden this past November, and 47% for Trump. The Edison exit polls in 2016 showed a 46% Catholic vote for Clinton, and 50% for Trump.

US Catholic bishops, with just a few exceptions, have been strongly supportive of Donald Trump, and critical of Democrats and now President Joseph Biden. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who gave the invocation at his inauguration, has been a strong supporter of his “great friend” former president Donald Trump. Cardinal Raymond Burke, former Archbishop of St. Louis and a former Vatican official, is probably the de facto leader of the Church’s conservative wing. He calls Democrats the “party of death.” This past autumn, when interviewed on the conservative Catholic show “The World Over,” he described the then presidential candidate Joseph Biden, as involved in a “grave, immoral evil that is the source of scandal.” The former archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput (the first archbishop of Philadelphia since 1921, by the way, to not have been made a cardinal), said, in December 2020, that President-elect Joe Biden should be banned from receiving communion because of his support for abortion rights and same-sex relationships. On its website the Catholic far right Church Militant called President Biden “Phony Baloney.” The strongest Catholic words about President Biden have come from Fr. Frank Pavone, the national director of the Catholic anti-abortion group Priests for Life and an advisory board member of Catholics for Trump. In an angry tweet, later deleted, he denounced “this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party.”

I guess it was really no surprise then that even before President Biden’s inaugural  ceremony had finished, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — issued an extensive statement criticizing Biden for policies “that would advance moral evils,” especially “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”  Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, immediately pushed back on Twitter, calling the statement by Archbishop Gomez “ill-considered,” because it was drafted without input from the conference’s administrative committee. Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, told Catholic News Service: “What I don’t understand are people who use very harsh words and want to cut off all communication with the president…”  A senior Vatican official (as reported in America Magazine) called Archbishop Gomez’s statement “most unfortunate” and feared it could “create even greater divisions within the church in the United States.” I find it significant to note that the day BEFORE President Biden’s inauguration both Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal Tobin had put intense pressure on Archbishop Gomez to make NO STATEMENT, as did the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. 

On  January 21st, the American journalist, Michael Sean Winters, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, characterized the new Catholic president and the US Catholic divided house this way: “Biden did more in 24 hours to remind the American people that the Catholic Church can be a force for good in our country than the bishops’ conference has done in 10 years. His memorial service for COVID-19 victims was more pastoral than their repugnant statement. Biden’s inaugural address was a better articulation of Catholic ideas about governance than any recent document from the conference. He cited Augustine to help unite our brutally divided country. They turn to citations that exacerbate the divide. Biden has allowed himself to be enriched by the faith of others, Catholic and non-Catholic. Gomez seems stuck in his Opus Dei playbook.”

Since the late 1970s, in fact, conservative US Catholics and evangelicals have been allies in the “culture war” that has shaped US partisan politics. This has been due in no small part to the conservative “reform of the reform” of the Second Vatican Council undertaken by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the bishops they appointed to make it happen.

Yes. Today the US Catholic Church is a divided house and it is time for institutional reformation. A good project for Lent 2021 that begins on February 17th.  A change in mentality is certainly needed: one that’s more open and inviting, less restrictive, and less confrontational. We need better educated leaders, who have undergone a kind of pastoral renewal with updated historical and theological perspectives.

Ongoing theological education and formation has been a big part of my life. With men and women in ministry or preparing for ministry. Even with bishops. I remember a session – now a few years ago – with a small group of US bishops, whom I knew as friends. They were complaining to me that they felt “out of touch” with their clergy and lay people. After a few minutes the group fell silent. I looked at them and calmly and simply said “Gentlemen, with all due respect, you don’t have much credibility anymore. Your knowledge of church history is minimal. Your biblical perspective and understanding resonate more with the early 1950s, as does your understanding of human sexuality and gender.” No one became angry. No got up and walked out of the room. We had a very sincere and respectful discussion. A  number of those men later went on continuing ed. sabbaticals. Others began to seek out, to read, and to listen to well-respected theologians. It can happen.

We all need renewed perspectives. Progressives as well as conservatives. In the process we need to listen to each other with humility, respect, inquisitive minds, and compassionate understanding. No one has all the answers. All theologies – even the ones I like —  are provisional until a better explanation is found. We are all teachers and we are all learners. We are all believers…..We do need each other. A divided “Body of Christ” is neither life-giving nor Christian.

Sooner or later divided houses collapse, but they take a lot of innocent victims with them.


Translation Perspectives: Jesus and Early Christians

Starting this week, we can pursue new perspectives in a great many ways. Whether it is about Covid-19, social action, or religious and political polarization, I hope there will be new perspectives anchored in honesty, fairness, and human compassion for all.

Another Voice begins our “new perspective days” with some translation perspectives on Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christian believers.

English and other languages have always intrigued me. In high school and college, Latin and Greek were my favorite “foreign” languages. Since then I have added facility with a few more languages; and in my spare time (retired people have more spare time), I do a lot of translation work.

When it comes to Sacred Scripture, especially the New Testament, I have come to realize that some translations present a perspective somewhat out of sync with what the biblical authors really said. This week, therefore, my focus is on New Testament translations using the words “Jew” and “Jews.” These translations invite reflection, especially when we see antisemitism on the rise across the United States and in Europe. 

By the time of the Roman Empire, in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, the Greek word Hebraioi referred to those whom today we call “Jews,” but, really should be more correctly translated as “Hebrews,” since strictly speaking there were no “Jews” back then. It would be similar to someone writing about William Bradford and the 1620 Mayflower Pilgrims and calling them “US citizens.”

Contrary to what some Christians understand, the leaders of the first Christian community in Jerusalem were called Hebraioi: “Hebrews.” In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea (265 – 339 CE), historian and later bishop, tells us that the Christian community at Jerusalem, “consisted of faithful Hebrews.” The New Testament “Epistle to the Hebrews,” once incorrectly attributed to Paul the Apostle, was probably written for these Hebrew Christians. The author is really unknown.

Today we are gradually correcting biblical translations that have contributed to antisemitism. It is a slow process. The New Testament is not antisemitic. Jesus was a Hebrew. His Hebrew name was Yeshua, which is a derivative from the Hebrew verb meaning “to rescue” or “to deliver.” His early disciples were Hebrews. We also have a much better historical realization that the structure of first century Hebrew synagogues directly shaped the structure of first century Hebrew Christian communities. A “president,” “deacons,” a “precentor” (song or prayer leader), and “teachers” were found in both the synagogues and in the Christian communities. James, the brother of Jesus, was the president of the early Christian community at Jerusalem. 

Studies of the Hebrew nature of early Christianity have brought many new insights and better understandings of the first-century Christian scriptures. A good example, whose complete meaning is missed in most English translations, is the story in Matthew 9:20–21. “Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’” (New International Version NIV) The Greek word kráspedon translated here as the “edge of his cloak” means edge but more precisely the embroidered border of a garment, especially with conspicuously large tassels. The woman was, most likely, reaching for the tassels on Jesus’ Hebrew prayer shawl. This gives a very different perspective on the historical Jesus: Yeshua called rabbi.

Neither Jesus nor his disciples ever renounced their Hebrew faith. They did not attempt to start a new religion. Christianity is an organic development from Hebrew roots, what today we call “Judaism.” Unfortunately the Greek and Latin biblical words for “Hebrews” and for “Judeans” have too often been incorrectly translated as “Jews.” In the Bible, we find Hebrews, Israelites, and Judeans; but NEVER “Jews.” The word “Jew” did not enter the English language until the twelfth century CE.  

In the 2001 third edition of Bauer’s Lexicon, one of the most highly respected dictionaries of Biblical Greek, one reads that the preferred English translations for the Greek words Ioudaios and Ioudaioi are not “Jew” and “Jews” but “Judean” and “Judeans.” Reviewing academic publications over the last ten to fifteen years, one sees increasingly the terms “Judean” and “Judeans,” rather than “Jew” and “Jews.” If the term “Judean” is used instead of “Jew” in translations, especially in the Gospel of John, it dislodges some of the old  antisemitism problem.

But we still have the important question: How did antisemitism get started?

As the church moved westwards and away from its Hebrew roots, the Roman church leaders, with barrel vision, created theologies which virtually did away with all that was Hebrew. New ideas began to spring up as early as 160–220 CE in the Roman African communities represented by Tertullian (c 155 – 240?), the early Christian author from Carthage, who argued that the non-Hebrew Christians had been chosen by God to replace the Hebrews, because they were more worthy and more honorable than the Hebrews. Antisemitism was also spearheaded by popular speakers like John Chrysostom  (349–400 CE) the “golden-mouthed” early Church “Father” who became Archbishop of Constantinople in 397 CE. In his prejudiced ignorance, he stressed that because the Hebrews rejected Christ, the Christian God in human flesh, they therefore deserved to be killed and were “fit for slaughter.” 

Antisemitism, with ecclesiastical approval, took off very quickly in the Middle Ages. Violent mobs accompanying the First Crusade, and particularly the People’s Crusade of 1096, attacked Jewish communities in Germany, France, and England, and put many Jewish people to death. Expulsion of Jewish people from cities became increasingly common in the 13th to 15th centuries. Ecclesia and Synagoga, a pair of contrasting images, began to decorate the facades of churches and appear in stained glass windows: Ecclesia is a woman depicting the Christian Church triumphant, wearing a crown, holding a cross in one hand and a chalice in the other, and looking confidently forward. Synagoga, representing people of the Hebrew tradition, is a blindfolded and unhappy  looking woman, carrying a broken staff, and crushed tablets of the Law.

Antisemitism is not just hateful and discriminatory. It is irresponsibly ignorant about Jesus and early Christianity: our spiritual roots. May we proceed in this new year, with new perspectives and renewed commitment to our Faith, Hope, and Charity.

The new dawn blooms as we free it 

for there is always light 

if only we are brave enough to see it

if only we are brave enough to be it”

– Amanda Gorman (January 20, 2021 – Washington DC)


A Disease More Deadly Than Covid-19

A bit early this week due to current and evolving events….My theological observation about last week’s terrorism in Washington DC….

As we so painfully saw, thousands of Trump-inspired demonstrators  broke into and vandalized the US Capitol on Wednesday January 6th. They came from across the country, including several hundred from my home state Michigan. Angry people at war with both truth and democracy.

The wild demonstrators had various affiliations — QAnon, Proud Boys, elected officials, everyday Americans — but they were united by one allegiance to their cult leader and his post truth environment. Many carried  “Christian” symbols and banners proclaiming “Jesus is my savior, Trump my president.”  They think they are saving the world from Satan. They carried crosses and flags announcing “Jesus 2020.” Constantine (272 – 337 CE),  the world’s first authoritarian “Christian” monarch, would have been very proud of them. He marched and fought along the Tiber in 312 CE with the Chi Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, painted on the soldiers’ shields.

Last week, the merging of Trump and Jesus was a common theme. Right-wing Catholics proclaimed their support as well. Church Militant (Ecclesia Militans) called the terrorists’ ransacking of the Capitol “an act of American patriots.” The Catholic anti-abortion LifeSite proclaimed “What I saw was a lot of people who love God and love their country.”

What I saw last week and see in this week’s news updates is a bunch of Right wing “Christians” with a neo-medieval vision incompatible with constitutional democracy. They may be on the far Right but their vision of Christ and Christianity is far wrong.

The mobsters who pillaged the US seat of government followed orders from their authoritarian leader. They beat the police with pipes. “Hang Mike Pence!” they chanted as they pressed inside. Outside, a makeshift gallows stood, ready for Biden’s execution complete with wooden steps and the noose. Guns and pipe bombs were stashed in the vicinity.

Trump exhorted his supporters “to fight.” “We will never give up, we will never concede,” he shouted, delighting the crowd and calling Democratic election victories the product of what he called “explosions of bullshit.” Trump’s faithful followers used Christian rhetoric and symbols but behaved like anti-Christian barbarians.

Very early in the Trump presidency the authoritarian cult danger signs were there:

  • Opposing critical thinking and calling it fake and leftist thinking.
  • Isolating critical authoritarian followers and penalizing them for being disloyal to his administration.
  • Emphasizing values like dishonesty and the denigration of other people: values so fundamentally contrary to the example and teaching of Jesus.
  • Fabricating thousands of falsehoods and calling them statements of truth and reality.
  • Using family members to strongly support his cultic leadership with unquestioned loyalty and devotion.
  • Using Christianity and church leadership to support his home-grown fascist cause, while remaining a non-church-going-agnostic.
  • Gladly accepting the religious devotion of authoritarian followers who proclaimed him chosen and sent by God.

Authoritarian leaders in public office find religion a wonderful convenience. It enables them to lord it over other people; and it allows them to punish their “enemies” guilt-free, since that punishment, they can proclaim, is what God wants. It enables them to bully people and denigrate them: women, gays, non-whites, foreigners, and miscellaneous “losers.” Values like love, mercy, and compassion disappear. The key value is faithfulness and obedience to the authoritarian leader.

There are classic historical examples: The atheist and anti-clerical Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) needed backing by the Vatican to promote his National Fascist Party. He therefore married in the Catholic church and had his children baptized. In his first parliamentary speech in 1921, he announced that “the only universal values that radiate from Rome are those of the Vatican.” —- Spain’s Generalissimo Franco (1892 – 1975) became a cruel and murderous dictator; but most Spanish Catholic bishops overwhelmingly endorsed Franco’s Spain. The Catholic Church portrayed the Spanish Civil War as a holy one against “godless communists” and called for Catholics in other countries to support Franco’s Nationalists. Although Franco himself was known for not being very devout, he portrayed himself as a fervent Catholic and used religion as a means to increase his power and  popularity. He used the Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey (Warriors of Christ the King) to implement his culture of torture and executions. —- And of course we know the story of Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). Hitler ceased being a Catholic when a teenager. He and his Nazi party promoted “Positive Christianity” which rejected most traditional Christian doctrines especially the divinity of Jesus. He described Jesus as an “Aryan fighter” who struggled against the corrupt Pharisees. Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1945) Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda and one of his closest and most devoted associates, wrote in April 1941 that although Hitler was “a fierce opponent” of the Vatican and Christianity, “he forbids me to leave the church. For tactical reasons.”

These authoritarian dictators used Christianity just like Donald Trump, a “good friend” of New York’s Cardinal Dolan, has used conservative Christians, who conveniently looked the other way when it came to his immoral behavior. Their argument: he was publicly anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, supported religious liberty, and (to keep Dolan happy) supportive of Catholic schools. 

A great number of US “Christians” still believe Donald J. Trump has been “anointed by God.” Remember that day in early June 2020 when, Bible in hand, the President posed for photos in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. It was a moment of political theater only made possible by spraying  protesters with tear gas. The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, Mariann Budde, stressed that Trump had used the Bible at St. John’s “as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position.” God bless Bishop Budde.

Ideally, religion maintains and gives meaning to our lives. It proclaims values about how we should live and how we should relate to one another. It can unite us and give us hope and courage for tomorrow. All the great religious traditions call for honesty, justice, respect, and compassion. When grossly distorted, however, religion can also be a source of violent division, destruction, and death.

Promoting a healthy Christian way of life, my friends, may very well be our biggest Christian challenge in 2021. With each other we need to reflect and examine our beliefs and behavior. And we need to call our religious leaders to repent and reform. As the Jesuit Fr. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America,  observed: “This is the time for Christian leaders to admit their part in the violence at the Capitol. When you cast elections as ‘good versus evil,’ vilify candidates and say that voting for one candidate is a ‘mortal sin,’ you encourage people to think that today’s actions are moral.”

America is not broken. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The destination is not a white, Christian America but a society with liberty and justice FOR ALL. Leadership counts. Character counts. Authentic Christianity makes it happen. 


A New Journey

January 6, 2021  :  Epiphany

With courage, hope, and creative energy we begin our flight into the New Year. 

For many years, my special area of research and teaching has been religion and values in American society. That area of observation and research is never dull, as we see in this week’s current events. I have no doubts that Covid-19 will be conquered and controlled. The more dangerous virus, however, is hateful and violent socio-political polarization; and this deadly virus will be much more difficult to conquer and control. It will indeed take a lot of courage, reinforced by shared hope, and much shared reflection and action.

Over the holidays I have had a chance to review some of my “religion and values” notes, in preparation for a book that should appear in the new year. I once again read a document written by the Appalachian Catholic Bishops in 1975, titled “This Land is Home to Me.” Their words were so appropriate back then. And…they ring so true today. 

Here are a few lines that have inspired me over the years:

“Although the Catholic tradition fully acknowledges the legitimacy of self-defense and force as the final recourse against injustice, we must beware of the temptation of a too easy violence — of a bitterness which can poison that for which we struggle, or which still worse, can provoke from forces of injustice an even more brutal and repressive institutional violence whose first victim is always the poor….

“We wish to thank the many Spirit-filled and dedicated people…who all along have been struggling in hidden or dramatic ways, for justice and unity among people. We thank the youth who have not given up hope, and who continue to believe in freshness in human experience. We thank parents, whose lives have been such that our youth have reason to hope. We thank the elderly, who despite great hardship, continue to survive with spirit and grace, and whose quiet wisdom inspires us all….We believe in the voice of Yahweh among us….

“Hopefully the Church might once again be known as a center of the Spirit, a place where poetry dares to speak, where the song reigns unchallenged, where art flourishes, where nature is welcome, where little people and little needs come first, where justice speaks loudly, and where in a wilderness of idolatrous destruction the great voice of God still cries out for life.”


The prophetic challenge of “This Land is Home to Me” speaks to all of us today and especially to the institutional church and its leadership.

My very best wishes for 2021. May we be hopeful, collaborative, and creative as we travel into this New Year.



Today’s  photo of a great bald eagle in flight was taken by John Zuk, a friend from Battle Creek, Michigan. I use it with John’s permission. It captured for me the vision of courageously flying into the new year. John’s photo also reminded me of lines from “On Eagles’Wings” by Fr. Michael Joncas, liturgist, and composer: 

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, Who abide in his shadow for life, Say to the Lord, ‘My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!’ And he will raise you up on eagles’ wings…”