See — Judge — Act

Joseph Cardijn (1882 – 1967) was a Belgian social activist best known for his lifelong dedication to social activism and working towards the improvement of the working class. He blamed the death of his mine-worker father in 1903 on harsh labor conditions. Many of his former schoolmates working in the mines and mills believed the church had abandoned them, which prompted Cardijn to found a social movement dedicated to helping them…Working-class Belgians in that era tended to see the church more interested in serving the interests of the aristocracy. 

When Cardijn was first made an assistant priest near Brussels in 1912, he began to work with factory workers. In 1915, he became the director of the city’s Catholic social work. In the years after the First World War, he began to organize young Catholic workers in the Brussels area to evangelize their colleagues. The group was named “Young Christian Workers.” A spin-off was the “Young Christian Students” movement.

Joseph Cardijn was well-known and greatly respected at the University of Leuven and passed away in a Leuven hospital 1967, when I was a seminarian in Leuven. I never met him unfortunately but had already learned much about him. I was active with a Young Christian Students group when a college student in Detroit.

The big Cardijn impact on my life, however, was his stress on critical thinking. He really helped me become a careful and questioning observer. His famous exhortation that we need to “See, Judge, and Act” could also be my motto. As a teacher I have always tried to engage people in critical thinking. Cardijn I am sure was far better at it than I have been. But I keep working on it…

Just two years before Joseph Cardijn’s, Pope Paul VI honored him and his prophetic ministry by appointing him a cardinal. Today must people know this remarkable Christian as “Cardinal Cardijn.”

See, Judge, Act — Thinking about the past:

I guess I find it easy to be a critical thinker about the past. I still give lectures and write about the “historical-critical method.” I understand, for example, the place and meaning of biblical mythology about Adam and Eve and about Noah and the great flood. 

I am not surprised that many contemporary scholars suggest that the Hebrew prophet Moses may have been a legendary figure, but a Moses-like figure existed in the 13th century BCE. I am surprised when contemporary “biblical experts” on the Internet say Moses wrote the Pentateuch. There is no way “Moses” could have written the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were  composed between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Indeed there once was a belief in both Judaism and Christianity that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Those days passed long ago.

I truly believe that “Yeshua,” our historical Jesus from Nazareth, did live, did reveal divinity, as well as revealing authentic humanity. He was cruelly executed by the Romans, who found him a dangerous trouble-maker. Some of Jesus’s fellow Hebrews, unfortunately, felt the same way. But Jesus was later experienced very much alive. The earliest witnesses to that were some of his women disciples. He lives. His spirit guides us today. Too many Christians, however, still ignore the major role played by Jesus’ women disciples… 

In our historical-critical look at the past, we should be reminded to avoid some of the aberrations of the past. At the beginning of October, for instance, I published a couple articles about Christopher Columbus who was hardly a saintly explorer. He was a murderer, a tyrant, and a scoundrel. A couple people on Facebook “unfriended” me when they read my article. But there is life after Facebook.

Among early Christian “fathers” we know today that a number of them were outright misogynists. Among them are certainly: Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 – 430); Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century; and his pupil Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church, 13th century. Nor should one forget the great Reformers Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin  (1509-1564).

See, Judge, Act — Contemporary life:

But what about the challenge of being a critical observer, thinker, and activist today? It is more difficult because via Internet critical observers can be immediately challenged, repudiated, or outright denigrated. They can be  “cancelled.”

There is certainly a lot of falsehood and pure nonsense in our contemporary world that is packaged and promoted as truth. We see that of course in political and religious rhetoric. And in the ongoing Covid pandemic. Right now as hospitals again fill up with COVID-19 cases, I am becoming very peeved at the nonsense of the anti-vaxxers and especially with the “Christian” anti-vaxxers. They have fed themselves such a steady diet of falsehoods that they are unable to respect and respond to contemporary medical science. They are not just ignorant and foolish. They are dangerous people.  

Another alarming trend that concerns me these days is “cancel culture.” On the “Left” and on the “Right” cancel culture has become a socio-cultural virus. It is being used by misguided Christians as well. I recall many examples. Right now I am thinking about a fellow who for several years was a well-liked and respected teacher in a Catholic high school. He announced recently that he is going to marry his male partner. Shortly after his announcement, he was fired from his job and informed that he will be banned from working in any Catholic school in the diocese. Catholic cancel culture. Parents protested his being fired but were informed that their children would be expelled from school, and made unwelcome at any Catholic school unless the parents stopped their protests.

Cancel culture has been compared to a modern day “witch burning.” It has certainly been used by religious groups to eliminate “troublesome people.” It is greatly manipulated and distorted by people on the far right. Former US President Trump once said: “The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know it.” Really? This is just another Trumpian falsehood. In fact the former-president himself has quite a history of engaging in cancel culture behavior. He has pushed for boycotts, called for the firing of his critics, and has used his platform, particularly Twitter, to attack people. In 2017, Trump went after football players who knelt during the National Anthem as a form of protest against racial inequality, calling for them to be fired and encouraging fans not to support the league. That is real cancel culture.

Cancel culture is unhealthy because it primarily creates more hateful polarization. Engaging in a respectful exchange of opinions while working toward the same goals is how we will thrive and grow as a society. Yes, there is a time to disagree and to vigorously dialogue. But how to respect each other through discussion and debate is and remains our Christian challenge.

See, Judge, Act — Values Clarification:

Thinking about helping people become well-informed critical thinkers today, I suggest we start giving classes in “values clarification.” (I did that in the 1970s and 1980s.) How do people display and practice truth and honesty? Or how do they display and practice falsehood and deception? Do we take time to compare or help people compare a person’s rhetoric with that person’s actual behavior? How do we help people clarify their own values? How do we clarify our own values?

For example, I would like to see more people critically examining the rhetoric and actual policies of Viktor Orbán who has served as Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010. As the Boston College historian, Heather Cox Richardson, observed in a recent column, Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with “Christian democracy.” He wants to replace multiculturalism with “Christian culture,” and wants to stop immigration. He rejects “adaptable family models” and promotes “the Christian family model.” Is this really Christian? Values clarification?

Having lost their leader in Washington DC, it appears that Donald Trump-supporting Republicans have settled on Orbán as the new authoritarian leader to admire. He is anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-free press, and anti-democracy. The Conservative Political Action Committee, which holds the US right’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists and politicians is now planning its next big conference in Budapest in 2022.

The far right is quite active these days. Last weekend, the leaders of the QAnon far right conspiracy movement gathered in Las Vegas to discuss the state of the world and the future of their movement. QAnon members, as I have written, embrace a range of unsubstantiated beliefs. They center on the notion that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, consisting mostly of elitist Democrats, undermined former-president Donald Trump. The lead speaker at last week’s QAnon gathering in Las Vegas was the actor Jim Caviezel, who is best known, among conservative Christians, for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Caviezel’s speech, amounted to a call to arms against the liberal worldview and concluded with the proclamation that “the Storm is upon us.” This was a direct invocation of QAnon’s central conspiracy theory. On Monday, Caviezel’s speech was quoted approvingly by a far right Catholic bishop. “All need to listen to this speech,” wrote Joseph Strickland, the anti-Biden, Bishop of Tyler, Texas. Strickland is strongly anti-LBGT and insists that Catholics cannot be Democrats.

And so we do indeed have much to carefully and critically observe and think about these days. And much that calls for concerted action…

  •  Jack

PS I have a couple big projects on my calendar in coming days and am taking a week off. I plan to return after Veterans Day.

Power and Prestige

(Occasionally I receive a reflection written by a friend that, with his or her permission, I really want to post on Another Voice. That happened this week. I will simply call the author “Fr. Jim.” He is a retired US Army chaplain.)

Jesus criticized his followers who were looking for power. He reminded them that, if they had learned anything from him, they would know that following him was about service, not power and prestige. 

There is a lot going on in the church these days that is all about power. There are a number of bishops, especially in the US, who are openly playing the power game. 

A number of them want to deny certain people communion for a number of reasons, one of which is that thosepeople are not sufficiently against abortion. The Pope has asked them not to do this, but they have publicly ignored and defied him and even now the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) is preparing a document to do this. 

Recently a number of bishops have chosen to ignore, or perhaps even defy, Pope Francis in the matter of the Covid vaccines. Francis has said there are no moral problems in getting the vaccine, and doing so is an act of charity and concern for others. A number of bishops have publicly ignored this and acted against it, including the Archbishop for Military Services. 

The way so many Catholics, not just bishops but certainly with the bishops’ support and encouragement, treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is totally opposite from how Jesus lived, yet this mistreatment is done allegedly in the name of God. I can bless bombs, rockets, gunships, animals, but not two people of the same sex who love each other. God’s first act of self revelation is creation, so the more we know about creation, the more insight we have into God. I don’t think God is done revealing God’s self yet. We don’t have all the answers, and we don’t get to judge who is or isn’t created in God’s image and likeness.

Currently Francis is calling the whole church to take part in a Synod to look at where the church is and where it is going. He want folks at all levels to have a part in the discussion. Again, in the US a great number of bishops are ignoring his call or giving it faint lip service. It is public knowledge that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is a Francis-free zone.

One of the most serious delicts (crime), on a par with child abuse, a Catholic priest can commit is to be in favor of ordaining women as priests. If a priest is publicly in favor of ordaining women, which I am, he can be suspended from priesthood and thrown out of the church without any process. Catholic Cancel Culture?

The way the clericalist church treats folks whose marriage has failed and who are just looking for, and perhaps have found, love again is a brutal disgrace. Some marriages fail. They may have started out well, but bad things happen to good people for any number of reasons that the clericalist mind just does not grasp, and so the acts of power and control begin. For some folks the annulment process is good, while for others it is painful. There has to be another way. It would seem that a significant number of celibate male church officials really believe they know more about how to live a Christian life than the folks who are actually living it. This celibate male has at least a glimpse of the reality but I really don’t know much.

The polarization in our country is happening with the support of a number of bishops, who are definitely encouraging it in the church. Many of the bishops are clearly aligned with a particular party and its reputed leader, and this alignment seems to be the basis for their leadership or lack thereof.

Francis is calling the church to be like a battle ground field hospital that is working to help the folks deal with the suffering in their lives, just to walk with them. I have served in some of them, and have experienced the kind of care he is talking about. A great number of bishops, especially US bishops, see the church not as a place of healing, but as a system of laws and penalties. As it was in the days of Jesus when the priests told the people if you want to go to God you have to go through us, the bishops of today are saying the same thing.

In my own life, I am in the very fortunate position of being retired and not in charge of anything. I do not depend on the church for anything, except perhaps the opportunity to help out in parishes, hospitals, and similar places. I am thankful for my active duty Army experience which has afforded me some insight that others might not have. No doubt I look down the alley with my own set of lights. This does not make me better or worse than anyone else, just perhaps unique, a character, so to speak.

I don’t think there needs to be a separate class of person (clergy). The fact that there is one now is a source of many of the problems in the church, clericalism. As clerics we were taught that ordination makes a person ontologically different. I do not believe this at all. A number of experiences in the Army convinced me beyond any doubt that this is just not true. We just have a different role in the church, one of gathering and leading folks in prayer. We don’t need a separate caste to do this.

I believe that Jesus said “I will be with you always”, and “I will send the Spirit to remind you of what I taught you”, and this is happening right now. Perhaps the church will be led kicking and screaming into a new awareness of what it means to be followers of Christ in our own day and time. Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, had already foreseen something along this line in a 1969 radio broadcast: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge.” We certainly are in a current crisis. I hope we can be open to the Spirit leading us forward.

Catholic Women Priests

Last week my reflection was about Natural Law. This week, since many have asked me for more explanation, I offer a reflection about “being natural” and women priests in the Catholic Church. I did write about women priests a good eight years ago. But much has happened since then. 

Today, October 15, 2021, I should also add that the National Catholic Reporter came out with an article yesterday about Anne Tropeano, or ‘Father Anne’, who blames God for leading her towards ordination. She will be ordained as a Roman Catholic woman priest in Albuquerque, NM on Saturday, October 16, 2021 at the Cathedral of St. John. Anne Tropeano holds a Master of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA, and ministered with the Jesuits for twelve years. Recently profiled in The New Yorker, ‘Fr. Anne’ is quoted saying, “You say women can’t be priests? Watch me.”  

I have to acknowledge, since I was overwhelmed by the revelation, that my first thought for this week’s post was to comment about the most recent devastating revelation about widespread clerical sexual abuse in France. The official report tells us that French Catholic clerics have abused more than 330,000 minors over the past 70 years. Terrible and unreal! The report is devastating and disgusting. I agree with historian and journalist Massimo Faggioli that this is the biggest RCC development since the sixteenth century Reformation. I am not ignoring it but will let others, like Massimo, follow up on that. 

In my my post today, I want to change the conversation, shifting from wayward bishops and abusive clergy. They will all get what they deserve. And everyone needs to help the victims…

Today however I really want to focus on women’s ordination in my RCC Christian tradition. Life goes on. We need to build a better future; and women’s ordination is an essential part of that. As I write today, I am also very conscious of a wonderfully talented young woman priest, ordained recently and who celebrated her first mass this week.

First I offer a bit of older church history…  In 1994, to officially stamp-out what he considered a rapidly spreading “deviant behavior” and unorthodox thought and teaching, Pope John Paul II declared women’s ordination a closed matter. In his  letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalishe wrote: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” The Roman Catholic prohibition of women’s ordination argued from a perception of divinely-constituted gender roles: the belief that masculinity was integral to the ministry of both Jesus and the apostles. Being a woman is fine, the churchmen said, but if a person is going to act “in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) that person needs to have male genitalia.

Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and apparently Pope Francis have all believed, when it comes to priesthood, that there is an essential difference between being male and being female —  i.e. that maleness is necessary for priesthood just as water is necessary for baptism. Why? Because, they argue,  that’s the way the historical Jesus set it up. All of this is summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (issued by Pope John Paul in 1992): “Only a baptized man (vir in Latin) validly receives sacred ordination.” The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

Interesting. I remember very clearly the official declaration of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976 that no valid scriptural reason existed for not ordaining women. With all due respect, even popes need remedial theological education. Or they at least need well educated and up-to-date advisors and ghost writers.The Pontifical Biblical Commission was formally established by Pope Leo XIII (1810 – 1903) in October 1902. Its purpose was and has always been to ensure the proper Roman Catholic interpretation and defense of Sacred Scripture. 

Very often those who oppose women’s ordination argue that Jesus chose only male disciples so therefore all priests and bishops must be men. The historical testimony, however, does not confirm this. The historical Jesus was not a male chauvinist.

Jesus’ disciples were a dynamic group of young men and women, most probably in their early or late teens. In the Hebrew tradition, we know that young men began studying under a rabbi when they were between ages 13 and 15. We know from the Martha/Mary account in Luke chapter 10 that Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, was truly a disciple. 

In each of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection, there is a common thread: the first witnesses to the reality of the empty tomb were women. 

Yes indeed, among Jesus’ disciples, later called apostles when sent out to preach the Good News, there were men and women. Certainly Mary the Magdalene was a key disciple and has often been called the “apostle to the apostles.” Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, refers to Priscilla and Aquila. He praises the woman Junia as a prominent apostle and Phoebe, a leader from the church at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth.

As far as ordination is concerned, as I have often written, the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. Ordination came several decades after Jesus’ Last Supper. When it was established, it was not about sacramental power. It was simply a form of quality control insuring qualified and competent ministers.

In the early Christian communities, long before ordination came into being, male and female leaders, selected by the communities, presided at Eucharistic celebrations. There were male and female ministerial leaders. Much later in the history of the church, misogyny slipped in and an all-male clerical culture took over. Priesthood then became male-hood.

A major development in the contemporary experience of women’s ordination came in 2002 with the ordination of the “Danube Seven” —  a group of seven women from Germany, Austria and the United States who were validly ordained as priests on a ship cruising the Danube river on 29 June 2002. It was an historic moment. A year later, two of the original group were ordained bishops.

Today, RCWP (Roman Catholic Women Priests) and ARCWP  (Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests) are two branches that have developed from the ordination of the seven women on the Danube. Both groups have members in the USA and both are international. RCWP women priests and bishops minister in over 34 USA states and are also present in Canada, Europe, South and Central America, South Africa, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Today there are 270 Women Priests and 15 Women Bishops worldwide.

Prophetic movements, like RCWP, always shake-up institutional managers. That of course is often a good thing. The prophetic leaders who condone women’s ordination often incur excommunication. In every institution it takes time for top management to acknowledge and appreciate the change makers. Even the historical Jesus discovered this in his early thirties.

Looking historically at how change occurs in the Roman Catholic tradition, we see a three stage development: (1) When a big change starts, the change is condemned. (2) Later, if the change continues to develop and prosper, it is officially “tolerated” and often as “an experiment.” (3) Finally, once the change is fully established and flourishing, it is labeled “good and truly a part of our tradition.” As they say, hope springs eternal. As I would say – Yes. The Women Priests movement proves it is happening.

  • Jack

Being Natural

A friend reacted to last week’s post saying “Development is good but when it comes to Natural Law some things ARE carved in stone.” His observation introduces this week’s brief reflection about “Being Natural.”

Catholic moral teaching has traditionally been based on the Natural Law and not directly on Scripture or revelation. The Catholic tradition holds that human reason, by reflecting on human nature, can arrive at true ethical wisdom and knowledge.

In its most general sense, Natural Law concerns the whole order of things that defines us as human persons and contributes to human development. Understanding Natural Law however, should involve historical consciousness: recognizing the developmental and pluralistic character of human experience and expression. Unfortunately that is not always the case. Some approaches to moral issues surrounding human sexuality, for example, fail to give enough importance to historical and cultural developments and place an overemphasis on a physicalism that too readily identifies the moral aspects of the act with the physical aspects. Human sexuality is about much more than just genital activity.

Today we see two approaches to Natural Law: the “classicist” and the “historically conscious.” We need to strive for a balance. The classicist mentality stresses the obligation, perceived by reason, to conform to human nature, which some understand as “carved in stone.” The historically conscious mentality appreciates the developmental and pluralistic character of human experience and expression.

The classicist mentality, for instance, would say that being gay is unnatural, or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered…They are contrary to the Natural Law.” 

The historically conscious mentality would say: We once thought homosexuality was unnatural, but now we understand that some people are naturally gay. Others are naturally heterosexual. They all need our understanding and support.

I remember when one of my former students, a young gay Catholic priest, decided to tell his very classicist bishop that he was gay and needed the bishop’s understanding and personal support. The bishop listened to him and then stood up and yelled at him: “You are a disgusting human being. Get out of my sight. I never want to see you again.” Late one night, a few months later, the young fellow crashed his car into a tree and killed himself.

Fortunately, however, unlike this awfully classicist mitered man, we do have some wonderfully pastoral bishops. On January 25th they issued a statement titled “God Is on Your Side: A Statement from Catholic Bishops on Protecting LGBT Youth.” Their statement says Jesus taught mercy and compassion for all, particularly those who are marginalized and persecuted. “All people of goodwill” the bishops wrote “should help, support, and defend LGBT youth; who attempt suicide at much higher rates than their straight counterparts; who are often homeless because of families who reject them; who are rejected, bullied and harassed; and who are the target of violent acts at alarming rates.” These bishops deserve recognition and support. They are: Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey; Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego; Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona; Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky; Retired Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore; Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan of San Diego.

The classicist, carved-in-stone mentality has indeed created a number of historical moral problems, and not just for gay people. Slavery was once considered natural because some people, like black Africans, were understood as naturally inferior to white Caucasians. Even when I was a high school student in the 1950s a biology teacher had a class presentation on “racial differences.” He produced a chart showing an African head and a Caucasian head. “Please note,” he said, “Africans have smaller brains that are inferior to the brains of us white people.” He also said that African men have much larger genitalia than white men and that they therefore cannot control their sexual urges and have a natural inclination toward dangerous and abnormal sexual behavior.

For centuries, women have suffered greatly because they were considered naturally inferior to men. In many countries, historically, they could not own property and could not vote. In civil society in the USA and in Western Europe today, much of that old pejorative understanding has fortunately disappeared. In fact, as a sign of progress for women, the United States Mint has just announced the designs for the first five coins in the “American Women Quarters Program.” The 2022 coins will honor the achievements of the poet Maya Angelou, the astronaut and physicist Dr. Sally Ride, the Cherokee activist and social worker Wilma Mankiller, the woman’s suffragist and educator Nina Otero-Warren, and the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

In my RCC Christian tradition, however, even today, many bishops remain rigidly classist and follow the teachings of  Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI that women are below men and cannot be ordained as priests because they are not male. I read last week about a US bishop who wants physical examinations of all candidates for priesthood to insure not only that they have male genitalia but also that they have both X and Y chromosomes — proving they are indeed male.

Pope Francis has made some small institutional changes in favor of women but he still agrees with his predecessors that priesthood demands manhood. Ironically most biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity stress today that the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone and that women and men, without ordination, did preside at Eucharist in early Christian communities. 

Personally, I greatly support those courageously prophetic Catholic women who, today, ARE in fact priests and bishops. The RCC institutional leadership has sanctioned them, but I find them noteworthy pastoral pioneers.

Concluding my brief reflection about “Being Natural,” —  When it comes to moral decision-making I really would like to see a shift away from a strict Natural Law interpretation to a theological ethics understanding based on love of God and love of neighbor, acknowledging and promoting everyone’s human dignity. Jesus of Nazareth did show the way…

  • Jack

Development Not Static Regression

The understanding of human development is one of our great inheritances from the last century. Human life and knowledge are not static but developing. When I go to the doctor, I appreciate that my doctor’s knowledge and skill are far more developed today than when I was a teenager.

For most people, a developmental understanding of reality is just a fact of life. Sorting through some old things stored in our attic I had to chuckle at the small computer I used to write my doctoral dissertation, now so many years ago. It was one of the very first laptops. My son considers it an historic artifact; and I guess it is. (Perhaps just like his dad.) Nevertheless, I have now been through a few computers, laptops, and iPads. 

I suggest today that understanding a process of development is also an essential element in our lived faith experience and in theology as it tries to understand and interpret that faith experience. 

Not everyone, however, is comfortable with an evolving and developmental understanding of faith and theology, especially when it touches on dogmatic teachings and moral “certitudes.” Certainly not for some people in my Christian tradition where an entrenched old guard wants to push people back into a 1950s religiosity with dogmatic rigidity.  

When other sciences are undergoing rapid development, official institutional theology often remains static. In many ways, the institutional church is still burdened with a theology which assumed form in a prescientific age. This affects biblical understandings, male and female roles in the church, the relationships between Christian churches, and the relationships between Christianity and other religions. Very basically it affects our understandings about the birth and life of the historical Jesus, and of course about Christian morality. 

Morality is certainly developmental. Many moral rules and values change over time. A good example of a shift in morality over time is our attitude toward slavery. Most people in the world today think that it is immoral to own slaves but that was certainly not the case a century ago. And of course it used to be morally acceptable, with a biblical backing, to keep women at a secondary social level under male control. Sexism as a virtue?

In my own theological understandings, as I grew up I moved from a static to a developmental understanding. I once thought Adam and Eve were historic people, but now I understand them as part of a rich and ancient religious mythology. They are not historical. But they are certainly not meaningless. I am a Catholic. I once thought Protestants belonged to a “false religion” and only Catholics had the “true faith.” Now I know better.  I understand that Protestants and Catholics belong to the Body of Christ. Together we pursue Truth. 

My own developmental understanding has undergone a number of changes about human sexuality, about the meaning of a vocation, and how I understand and experience God’s presence in my life. I don’t want to regress. I have been happily married, a theologian, a teacher, and a learner for more than fifty years.  I want to move ahead and continue learning – developing as a person and as a believer.

How do we protect ourselves from regressing? How do we  move on with a healthy developmental understanding of human life and Christian belief? 

Here are seven suggestions I have found helpful: 

  • Forget the good old days: Frankly they were not always so great. Two of my elementary school classmates had polio and ended up in “iron lungs.” I had scarlet fever and other childhood diseases. Yes I have a pretty good understanding of the past. I experienced it. I have no desire to live like back then. But where are we going today? Are we really dealing with contemporary reality, reading the signs of the times, and building for tomorrow?
  • Augustine (354 – 430) theologian and Bishop of Hippo divided the world into two camps: the City of God and the Human City. I have no desire today to get into a discussion about the pros and cons of Augustinian theology. There is a problem, however, when we fail to understand that the Human City — in which we live — is the place where we encounter and live with the living God. It is sometimes tempting perhaps but neither healthy nor authentically Christian to run away from the Human City. It is not healthy to simply condemn it as “secularized,” and then ignore the men and women wrapped up or crushed today under a broad array of human concerns and problems. The world is not our enemy. It is where we live with our brothers and sisters. Incarnation means God-become-one-with-us. What is God-become-one-with-us asking us to do this day?
  • Building temples: My old friend, who died much too young, Bishop Ken Untener (1937 – 2004) Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, often reminded people that building temples can be very seductive but has very little to do with Christian ministry and witness. If we follow the example of Jesus, he said, we cease being temple-builders and become traveling pilgrims pitching our tents. We follow and live with God’s people wherever their lives take them. Are we often too wrapped up in building and maintaining our own temples? 
  • Finding scapegoats: It is easy to find scapegoats in today’s society and in today’s church. I agree that problematic and abusive people need to be sanctioned. On the other hand, if we spend most of our energy on finding and heaping abuse on our scapegoats, we risk becoming incapable of being change agents. By only focusing on the sawdust in another’s eyes we risk ignoring the planks in our own. We need to be critical. But we also need to pick up and carry our own crosses. We need to take charge. Who is my scapegoat and how am I going to make constructive change?
  • Having the truth: No one has all the truth. No theology, whether progressive or conservative, has all the truth. No single religious tradition has all the truth. We are all truth-seekers and we need each other as we move along in our truth-seeking-journeys. Arrogance and self-righteousness have no place in the lives of Christian truth-seekers. Collaboration, humility, and compassion are the key virtues for all seeking the truth. Have we become arrogant and narrow-minded about our own positions? Are we really willing to listen, learn, and collaborate with others?
  • Exercising authority: Authority in the church is greatly misunderstood and greatly abused. Authority comes from Latin auctor which means the capability to influence people. It is connected with action and encouragement. Jesus provided the model for Christian authority: compassion, service, and the work of the Spirit. Authority in the church should be used to motivate and transform people, based on trusting relationships. Authority is horizontal not vertical. We all have authority. But how do we exercise it? Jesus says in the Gospels that whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Servant ministry = Servant leadership. 
  • Protecting the church: Church leaders sometimes behave in very unchristian ways, arguing that they are “protecting the church” or “safeguarding the name of the church.” This is not development. This is regression into a static self-protective power base. Gay people who get married are fired from church positions “to protect the name of the church.” Clergy who abuse children are allowed to continue their immoral behavior but in a different parish, in a different state, or in a foreign country “to protect the good name of the church.” It goes on and on. At all levels. A church that condones and promotes immoral behavior is not worth defending. Are we critical enough or too tolerant? And yes, it does take courage and supportive helpers.

As our understanding about life develops, we still have so much to learn. I am reminded of an observation by Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955): “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike. We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us. It is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware…The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books.”

  • Jack