My Ideal Church

Thinking about last week’s post about Gabriel Moran, several people have asked me to describe my ideal church. There are several qualities I would like to find in a church that is a healthy Christian community:  

  • I would begin my response by saying I want a church that is truly a supportive community of friends: men and women striving to live in the spirit of Christ. Not a doctrinaire, authoritarian institution. 
  • Some institutional structures of course are necessary but they should be understood as provisional. They, along with institutional leaders, should be regularly critiqued and changed. 
  • Institutional structures are tools – a means – constructed to help and support Christian communities. The innate danger in all institutions is that, if left unchecked, they cease being service-oriented structures and become hard-nosed self-serving institutions demanding unquestioned loyalty. A kind of institutional idolatry.
  • A healthy church affirms the dignity and equality of all men and women, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. It does this not just in official rhetoric and documents but in personal and institutional behavior. We need male and female ordained ministers. IGBTQ people should be welcomed in church ministries and employment. For too long church leaders have patronized, insulted, or simply removed people who do not fit their mold. It still happens.
  • An honest and humble church must realize that it does not possess all the truth and has to collaborate with a variety of people in pursuit of the truth. It has to acknowledge as well that all church doctrines are time and culture bound. They are provisional and changeable. Some doctrines may have been meaningful in the past but just don’t work today. Others evolved more from religious fantasy and folklore. Gabriel Moran mentioned the great assumption about the Assumption. 
  • A healthy church asks questions and welcomes the questioner. Asking questions brings greater self-knowledge, a more realistic life understanding. It is an essential element in personal conscience formation.
  • All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” By asking these kinds of basic questions they were able to start the processes that lead to historic  breakthroughs in human and scientific understanding. And of course, Jesus of Nazareth asks in the synoptic gospels: “Who do people say that I am?” In John 7:19, Jesus asks: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
  • I want a church that stresses and practices tolerance and freedom of inquiry: a church that realizes that all doctrines, even RCC infallible papal declarations, are temporary. All “official teachers” must also be humble learners. A healthy Christian community rejects intimidation and realizes that conflicts must be resolved through patient and humble dialogue. It may not be easy but it has to happen.
  • I  want a church in which the higher-up ordained leaders dress and act like normal contemporary leadership people not museum-piece Renaissance princes. I just checked by the way. It costs between four and five thousand dollars to dress an RCC cardinal. I often think about the comment of Jesus in Mark 12:38: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes…”
  • I want a church in which leadership people are elected by the community for set terms of office, like five or ten years. They – like professors where I taught for many years — should be regularly evaluated. They should be replaced by new leadership people when their terms of office expire. If a bishop knew that he or she would only be bishop for about five years, his or her behavior would be greatly modified. Can you imagine, for instance, what would happen in places like the Archdiocese of New York? Or of course in the Holy See of Rome?
  • I want a church in which openness to the signs of the times is a key virtue rather than a closed-minded condemnation of all that is contemporary. We live in the present. God – whatever one wants to call God – is alive and closely with us right now. Not as a controlling authority but as a loving companion.
  • And yes indeed… I want a church open to the bigger questions that touch on a contemporary understanding of Jesus Christ and a contemporary understanding and experience of God. For many people today the old anthropomorphisms just don’t work anymore. God is just as much Mother as Father, but much more than that. Why don’t Christian religious leaders sit down with, pray, and meditate with leaders of non-Christian religions? God is much more than a Christian. 

It is not too late to make a few good New Year’s resolutions: To ask more questions about contemporary Christian belief and practice. To support those who question. To explore together, in respectful and earnest dialogue, the complete range of answers. More questions will arise of course. 

We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived. And a healthy Christian community is our GPS.

  • Jack

Gabriel Moran and His Memoir

Last week, I mentioned that I was reading the final book written by Gabriel Moran (1935 – 2021): What Happened to the Roman Catholic Church? What Now? I have now finished it and would like to share some observations. It is an excellent book and I strongly recommend it. The book is both Moran’s memoir about the Catholic Church, from the 1950s to today, and his personal reflections about his own growth and development as theologian, educator, Christian Brother, and later a happily married man.

Brother Cyprian Gabriel, as he was then known, became a Christian Brother in 1954. A year later his religious superior sent him to the Catholic University of American, where he completed his BA in Philosophy (1958), his MA in religious education (1962), and his PhD in religious education (1965). His main focus was adult education. In 1970 he was elected the Provincial Superior of the Christian Brothers for the Province of Long Island and New England. He held that position for three years. In 1981 Moran joined the Department of Humanities and the Social Sciences at New York University, where he taught religion, philosophy, and the history of education. 

Moran decided to leave the Christian Brothers in 1985. In April 1986 he wed his colleague, Maria Harris, who had left the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1973. Maria was a prolific writer, speaker, and educator. She and Gabriel were close collaborators until her death in 2005. Unfortunately, in 2001 Maria was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and the beginning of dementia. Her dementia gradually grew worse and, in the winter of 2004, Maria was placed in a nursing home on the grounds of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She died less than a year later on February 1, 2005.

Ironically, Gabriel Moran’s book, explored here today, was published on October 4, 2021 and he passed away on October 15, 2021. 

What Happened to the Roman Catholic Church? What Now? Provides a clear and balanced criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and offers what some consider radical suggestions for dealing with its problems. I would say they are realistic and very necessary. 

Moran reflects on the tradition of the church in a positive and creative way. The first three chapters trace the history of the Roman Catholic Church from 1945 to the crucial period of the 1960s. The remaining nine chapters examine various issues that surfaced after the partial reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65.

Early in his book, Gabriel Moran writes: “The Roman Catholic Church has been slowly breaking up for the past seventy years. It is now less Roman and its claim to catholicity is questionable … It is in its worst crisis since the sixteenth century, but a changed institution will surely emerge from the crisis.”  He pinpoints the beginning of the crisis to November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII (1876 – 1958) proclaimed as infallible and “a dogma revealed by God” that Mary, the mother of Jesus, “when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.”

Millions of Catholics rejoiced in the proclamation. Nevertheless, the world of scholarship was stunned by the papal proclamation. Protestant scholars complained that Catholic scholars had not been honest in assuring them that Catholic teaching was rooted in the Bible. “Here” Moran writes “was a blatant disregard of scholarship. The story of the Assumption has no basis in the New Testament or in church tradition before the fourth century.”  

Fortunately, most Catholic scholars today have a much better understanding of the Bible and of church history than did Pope Pius XII. (Some bishops I fear still resonate more with Pius XII.) Jesus of Nazareth did not leave a blueprint for an institution that aims to continue his mission. The earliest form of church was a community of believers, praying, ministering, and gathering for the breaking of bread in memory of Jesus. Obviously, as time moved on, it needed to develop an institutional structure. Some features of that structure may have been inevitable, but others were not. 

The development of the clerical hierarchy, for instance, with leadership steps from subdeacon to deacon to priest to bishop set a direction that has never been altered. It had nothing to do with the historical Jesus.The four-step hierarchy was a development from a much later split in the church between a clergy and a laity. 

When asking what is indispensable for change in the church today, Moran insists on a change from a structure that obstructs thinking. Change must be in the direction of simplicity; and Moran says the first step in such a needed reform would be to eliminate the clergy.

A permanent class called the “clergy” is an historical development that, he says, can and should be changed. A first stage in the change process, Moran clarifies, would be to ordain some men and women only as “temporary priests.” After serving for a specified time, perhaps ten years, they would then be replaced by others and no longer exercise their earlier ministry. What starts as a temporary move to shore up the present structure could then prove itself in practice and become a permanent arrangement. A different structure for the church without “clergy” or “laity” would be on its way. The old two-class structure is really a hindrance to genuine community.

There are times in this book, when I wanted to shout out “Yes! Yes!” Gabriel Moran’s observation about preaching at Sunday mass is one. He writes: “The Second Vatican Council in ordering priests to preach every Sunday made a terrible mistake. Priests should have been forbidden to preach until they became sufficiently learned in the New Testament and took lessons on how to speak effectively in a public setting. Furthermore, other people in the community could often do a better job at preaching than the priest does. There is no necessary connection between priesthood and preaching.”

Moran had a genuine sense of pastoral ministry. Perhaps the sacrament of matrimony, he suggested, should be expanded in imaginative ways, including a ceremony for courtship and a blessing for divorced people when a marriage fails. And of course the church should accept the reality of same-sex marriage. Already same-sex marriage, he reminds his readers, reflects what the church recognized as a marriage long before the Council of Trent (held between 1545 and 1563) imposed a set of ecclesiastical rules. Marriage for gays or lesbians is constituted by the consent of the two persons. The same is true for male/female marriages. 

The sacrament of Holy Orders, Moran argues, needs a complete overhaul. Perhaps, he suggests, it is not even needed for pastoral ministers; but some kind of ritual for designating pastoral ministers would be appropriate, whether or not it is part of a sacrament. For those ministers who are elected bishops a ritual could continue the practices of the early church. But the titles of monsignor, archbishop, and cardinal should be retired. And I would add: drop antiquated wardrobes and medieval clerical paraphernalia as well.

The sacrament of the sick and dying, Moran notes occasionally throughout his book, can still have an important place in the church, because all of us could use a friend and counselor when we are nearing the end. That person need not be a priest. The preparation and appointment of a community member for such a task would be a very fine way in which the church could be of great service. Moran is not certain whether anointing someone makes any sense today, but the use of oils does go back to ancient times.

Reforms in the Roman Catholic Church that are passionately advocated, such as ordaining women or endorsing gay marriage, would certainly improve the current Catholic institution. But, Moran strongly insists, they would not get to the radical restructuring of the church that is required. 

Over centuries, Moran strongly insists, Catholic as well as Protestant Christians have failed to construct an organization that can retain a sense of community and an exercise of power-as-mutuality. Experts in group dynamics, he notes, say that the ideal size of a community is eight to eleven people. Radical restructuring? Certainly we need smaller communities of faith where people really know one another as supportive companions. The word “companion” Moran reminds us comes from the Latin words cum (“with”) and panis (“bread, food”).  

Well, an institutional system of course cannot be changed easily or immediately. But there can and should be an immediate start to dealing with the problem. Again Moran stresses that no reform can succeed without education. And learning needs to continue throughout the whole of one’s life. Otherwise one’s religion is very likely to become a burden: a cold stone fir hungry people not a loaf of bread. We should be “companions” on a shared faith journey.

“The choice,” Moran says at the end of his book, “is whether to oppose all change or attempt to develop a well-educated church membership for whatever the church may look like in the future.” He was not certain what it would look like but had no doubts that it would still be around.

Yes. Gabriel Moran’s book is a delight and a powerful challenge, not just for Catholics but for all Christian believers. 

Warmest regards to all.

  • Jack

A New Year and New Religious Trends

The secularizing shifts evident in contemporary U.S. American society show no signs of slowing. In 2019, only 14% of all U.S. adults said they never went to church. But in 2020, that number jumped to 53%. That was an almost 40 point jump in less than twelve months. The shift continued throughout 2021.

While Christians continue to make up a majority of the U.S. population, with about 63%,  their share of the adult population is 12 points lower in 2021 than it was in 2011. Currently, about 29% of U.S. adults are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. 

Contrary to what some people think, Muslims currently make up only about 1.1% of the total U.S. population. But the projection is that by 2050, they will make up 2.1% and surpass the U.S. Jewish population which is now about 1.9% of the total U.S. population and is not expected to greatly increase. 

For some time now, surveys have shown that younger U.S. Americans are less likely than older adults to attend church, believe in God, or say religion is important to them. 

According to the Gallop National Poll over 72% of U.S. Americans say that religion is losing its influence on the U.S. way of life. But what do they really mean by that? 

Some people, like the white Christian nationalists, want religion to control just about every aspect of U.S. national life. Separation of church and state is, for them, a grave error. But a theocracy is not a democracy. Theocracies are inhumane and abusive. They also blaspheme God, using God to manipulate and oppress human beings. 

Is the ongoing U.S. cultural change bringing a crisis for Christian churches? Everything depends on how one should understand such a “crisis.” Membership is decreasing. Should one regret it? Or accept it as a fait accompli? Or should one take the polarization road and launch a counterattack? 

What some see as crisis I see as a challenge. I ask: what does the proclamation of the Gospel mean in our rapidly changing cultural situation?

Cardinal Jozef De Kessel, the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and a bishop whom I greatly respect, said perhaps the real question is not so much whether the church can maintain its current membership, but whether the church can also attract new people. That would show the credibility and vitality of the church. Not so much by the number of participants that one still maintains; but whether a person, who is fully integrated into our contemporary secular culture, can be touched by the power and beauty of the Gospel as proclaimed and lived by the church. 

Much indeed depends on the perspectives of those who proclaim-and-live the Gospel.

Sometimes people forget what Christianity is all about. Christian Faith is not about doctrines but about a shared experience and a way of life. Jesus taught by being with and affirming other people. He was hardly a doctrinaire authoritarian.

On Epiphany, January 6, 2022, I was pleased that Pope Francis asked: “Have we been stuck all too long, nestled inside a conventional, external and formal religiosity that no longer warms our hearts and changes our lives?” Then he continued: “Do our words and our liturgies ignite in people’s hearts a desire to move towards God, or are they a ‘dead language’ that speaks only of itself and to itself?” Very good questions. But, of course, questions that demand not just more words but concrete institutional and personal action. 

Too many church leaders are great advocates for clear-cut doctrine but fear their own and others’ ongoing human experience. I remember an after-dinner chat with a U.S. archbishop bishop, now deceased, who visited our university for a few days. He and I had known each other for a many years. One evening I asked him: “Do you ever think about the not always so easy life experiences and questions of people in your diocese?” I mentioned divorced and remarried who are no longer allowed to receive communion; young priests who are very unhappy being celibates; other priests who are gay; and all those well educated and pastorally trained women who feel called to ordained ministry? 

Sorry to say the archbishop found my questions, more than a bit annoying, and totally inappropriate because, as he said rather emphatically: “one should not think about such things and I am not that interested in even discussing these things. Good Catholics don’t question. They follow the rules.” 

Contemporary church leaders – well all of us  — really need to listen to what people are experiencing and saying, as they go through life’s changes and developments. 

And we all need ongoing education. Some need major remedial education. Not just in theology but in our anthropological and psychological understanding and perspectives about ongoing human development. Change and new understandings are facts of life. We would not go to a cardiologist whose cardio-vascular understanding is 1950s vintage. Why should we do it in the church?

As part of ongoing formation for church leaders I would stress the importance of spirituality and spiritual direction. People today don’t need more dogmatic indoctrination. They do need spiritual insight and direction. In the depth of our human experiences, people need help discovering the Divine Presence. 

Right now I am reading Gabriel Moran’s book: What Happened to the Roman Catholic Church? Moran (1935 – 2021), theological scholar and educator, died in October this past year. He had such a profound understanding of human experience and spirituality – because of his own spiritual journey as a Christian Brother, provincial Superior, professor, and later as a married man. He was one of my own theological heroes and guides. 

Reading Moran’s final book, which is truly an institutional and a personal memoir, his words ring so true for all of us. (I will come back to his book in a future post.)

“The presence of God is the experience of the depths of presence in which we realize that we have barely begun to grasp the mystery of existence. We inevitably live most of the time on the surface of reality as we move through our mundane existence. But there are moments, if one is attentive to them, when there is an opening to a level of being that we are usually oblivious of. It can be a moment that is profoundly shaking such as the death of a close friend. But it might also be the scent of flowers or the sound of a voice that throws open the mind to a usually hidden universe.”

Every good wish for the New Year!

  • Jack