Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday March 2, 2022, which is 46 days before Easter Sunday. Our English word “lent” comes from the Old English word lencten, meaning spring season. Contemporary Dutch still uses the word lente for springtime. 

Our season of Lent as a penitential/personal renewal time prior to the arrival of Easter Sunday was created at the Council of Nicea in 325. It commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, before beginning his public ministry.

The carnival celebrations which in many cultures traditionally precede Lent are seen as a last opportunity for excess before Lent begins. Some of the most famous are the Cologne Carnival in Germany, the New Orleans Mardi Gras, and the Rio de Janeiro carnival. 

Last week, in my Truth Decay column, I wrote about the need for ongoing education about theological history and biblical studies. A friend asked me about the origin of the seven sacraments. He had seen a video about the sacraments by Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, noting that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1210)

So for Lent 2022 I would like to explore the history and contemporary significance of “the seven sacraments.” I hope you will find it an interesting and worthwhile historical journey. As I have said before, our understandings do change. Church doctrines and theological understandings do change. Some have to change. Catholic sacramental doctrines are still shaped by the viewpoint of medieval Aristotelian Scholasticism. 

Yesterday, looking at the sun on a cold wintry day, I was thinking…astronomers, looking at the sun in the early middle ages, invented an explanation that made sense based on what they saw in the sky by day and by night. The idea that the earth was stationary, that the sun and moon were round bodies that circled the earth, and that the stars were lights affixed to the “heavens” made sense to everyone. 

In the early seventeenth century, however, when Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and a small group of astronomers turned telescopes towards the “heavens,” more accurate observations could be made. The geocentric model of the “heavens” was first questioned, then discredited, and finally replaced with a heliocentric model that put the sun at the center and made the earth one of the planets. Later observations of course have revealed that we live in an immense universe of planets, stars, and galaxies.  In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are at least an estimated 100 billion planets. Discoveries continue.

Today our historical-theological telescopes are observing old doctrines and theological understandings. Our eyes look at the past but are really focused on today. The changing world. 

My initial interest in sacramental theology came from my old professor, Edward  Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) – in his classes and his monumental 1963 book Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Schillebeeckx, who was truly my mentor, opened my eyes and cleared my vision. 

More recently my sacramental focus has been adjusted by articles and books by theologian-of-the-sacraments friend Joseph Martos. In his book Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments: Letting Go of Doctrines and Celebrating What’s Real, for example, Joe takes us back through church history, from the first Christian communities, through the Middle Ages, and then to today. He proposes a contemporary sacramental way of life that is honest about the past and builds for today and for tomorrow. 

Joe stimulated my current reflection about sacraments when he wrote: “Catholic sacramental doctrine is historically incoherent…inconsistent with its origins.” He and I had many discussions about that. We even chuckled about offering continuing ed courses for bishops and seminary professors.

My focus in what I plan to explore this Lent is hardly anti-Catholic but should be of interest to contemporary Catholics — as well as all Christians. Sacraments are signs of life.

  • Jack

Truth Decay

Truth is the property of being in accord with facts or reality. Truth is usually held to be the opposite of falsehood. Our problem today – and it is a major problem – is that falsehood in politics, religion, and contemporary medicine is being promoted as truth and the actual truth-speakers are being condemned and threatened as conspirators or leftist trouble-makers. Some observers say we have moved into the “post-truth era” in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and populist opinion.

I remember Yale University historian Timothy Snyder writing in the New York Times last year: “When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions… Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.” (NYT, January 9, 2021. “The American Abyss”)

When people loose the ability to be critical observers and critical thinkers and are unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we have a problem. A young fundamentalist Christian told me recently that our Earth is only 10,000 years old. I chuckled and said: “Well today we know from radiometric dating that our Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.” He frowned and said at me: “Well that’s your opinion. I disagree based on what the Bible says.”

I said maybe we should talk about biblical interpretation. He frowned at me and said he did not want to discuss biblical interpretation because: “A true believer does not interpret the Bible but believes the Bible and follows it.” Well that was his opinion I guess.

I found it painful to read last month that Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his family are being threatened for speaking the truth. “Sometimes the truth becomes inconvenient for some people” Fauci said. 

Fauci’s critics, like Lara Logan on Fox News in November 2021, have been   comparing him to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Others have gone to Washington DC, with AR-15 rifles and a to-kill list of “evil” targets, that included Fauci. A fellow from California did that last month. 

On Sunday, January 23rd, thousands of people rallied against vaccine mandates in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Fauci’s name was scrawled on derogatory signs. A woman from Yorktown, Virginia held up a homemade sign depicting Fauci’s decapitated head in a noose. Her sign read: “HANG EM HIGH.”

In the last couple decades, strong sentiments of anti-intellectualism and distrust in scientific authority have developed and spread throughout U.S. society. It is all part of our contemporary disinformation and truth decay. Disinformation leads people to distrust everything. Contemporary digital media, unfortunately, is more often better attuned to distorted information than to truth. Today anxious people turn to authoritarian political and religious leaders whose rhetoric simply makes them feel good. They don’t have to think about it.

So what does one do? 

Well we can help people develop critical thinking skills. This is an essential part of education: learning to critically observe and to ask questions. What is the source of the information? Is it a reliable source? People who spread fake news and “alternative facts” sometimes create web pages, newspaper stories, or “doctored” images that look official, but aren’t. Trusted online fact-checking sites like Snopes can help to verify stories that sound too good to be true.

And of course we all need to combat ignorance. As an historian and a theologian, I realized long ago that a great many church leaders need remedial historical and biblical education. They may be well-intentioned but too often what they say about church history and biblical understandings is simply not true. And it creates problems like arrogant clericalism and ecclesiastical misogyny. The historical Jesus, by way of example, contrary to what I still hear from church authorities, did NOT ordain anyone at the Last Supper. And yes there were men AND women among his key disciples. And there were women apostles.

My focus on For Another Voice is to try to speak clearly about accurate historical, theological, and biblical information. Not just my opinions but information drawn from reliable documented primary sources. I acknowledge as well that I am not infallible.

What sources of news can one trust? Well I do trust the Associate Press, as an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting. I find it a reliable source of accurate and unbiased news. I find Fox News, on the other hand, not only anchored in a far-right bias but often giving reports that are misleading or simply not true. This is especially the case when Fox offers political commentary or reports about contemporary medicine, Covid-19 for instance, and climate change. Fox News has also been a strong supporter of QAnon, the dangerously cultic far-right political movement.

And I find it very disappointing that, according to the RNS: Religion News Service, 47% of today’s U.S. Catholic bishops, when they want to know what’s going on in the world, say they tune-in to Fox News. 

A credible news report will include a variety of facts, quotes from bonafide experts, official statistics, or detailed, consistent and corroborated eye-witness accounts from people on the scene. If these are missing, one should question the report’s truth and accuracy. Does the evidence prove that something definitely happened? Or, have the facts been selected or “twisted” to back up a particular viewpoint?

By way of example, my hobby is genealogy. I have discovered, however, that some family history websites do not provide truthful information but are full of family folklore and much misinformation. Last year I read on a family history website that my paternal grandmother died in Indiana and her remains are buried in Michigan City, Indiana. Not true. She died in Watervliet, Michigan, near where she had lived in a small house built by my father. I was there. Burial was in Montpelier, Indiana. I was at her funeral. But, when I sent an email asking that the information on the website be corrected, I was told I had to be “mistaken” because the information came from a “real genealogist” and not from an “amateur” like me. So…what is “real” and what is “true”? Who are reliable sources of information. One needs to document, document, and document.

Finally, one should use common sense! Bear in mind that fake news is designed to “feed” biases, hopes, and fears. I use Facebook because it enables me to stay in contact with family and friends. But I also realize that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media contain massive collections of user-generated content: flooded with real news, allegedly true reports or blatantly false information. One needs to be a critical user-observer.

Ultimately people will come to the realization that denying the truth doesn’t change the facts. But sometimes the process goes painfully slow. I often think about the old proverb that goes back to the first century Greek philosopher Plutarch: “The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.”

  • Jack

Roman Catholic Turbulence

As journalist Robert Mickens wrote in La Croix International on Tuesday of this week: “There was more turbulence in Roman Catholicism this past week…  A number of recent events verified — to those who are willing to open their eyes and face reality — that the Roman Church’s ongoing implosion is picking up pace.”

Mickens called attention to ongoing clerical sexual abuse issues, specifically that Spain’s government has announced it was launching a major investigation into Church-related sexual abuse because the country’s Catholic bishops have refused to do so.

Not all Catholic turbulence, of course, is negative. Mickens mentioned the two cardinals who have recently called for radical changes in Catholic Church teaching and practices. Other commentators have called attention to them as well.

Last week, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich, told the  Sueddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s largest daily newspapers, that “it would be better for everyone to create the possibility of celibate as well as married priests.” Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin made the same recommendation a few days before. 

Marx said the church needs deep reform to overcome the “disaster” of sexual abuse. For some priests, he said it would be better if they were married—not just for sexual reasons, but because it would be better for their life. He asks whether celibacy should be taken as a basic precondition for every priest. Already in 2019, Marx had expressed support for a call by bishops in the Amazon region for the ordination of married men.

I like Cardinal Marx’s thoughts and words. I would suggest however that, in today’s church, words are not enough. It is time to move into action: (1) Allow priests who would like to be married to do so; and (2) Drop the celibacy requirement now.

Another hopeful Catholic development has come from the Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who is also president of COMECE: the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union. Cardinal Hollerich said the church’s assessment of homosexual relationships is wrong and that it is time for a fundamental revision of church teaching. Hollerich made his comments in response to the public campaign by 125 Catholic Church employees in Germany who recently outed themselves as queer, saying they want to “live openly without fear” in the church.

The Luxembourg cardinal stressed that it is important for the church to “remain human.” He added that he knows of “homosexual priests and laypeople” in the Archdiocese of Luxembourg. “And they know that they have a home in the church,” he said. “With us, no one is dismissed for being homosexual. With us no one has ever been dismissed because of that.” Divorced and remarried people are also active in the church in the Archdiocese of Luxembourg, said Hollerich. “I can’t kick them out,” he said. “How could such an action be Christian?”

I am delighted to read Cardinal Hollerich’s words but would stress as well that it is time to move beyond such fine words. It is time to welcome church ministers who are gay. To welcome gay and lesbian married couples. And to welcome gay and lesbian couples to be married in the church.

And the third most positive recent development came from participants in the German Catholic Church’s “Synodal Way” —   a series of conferences involving Catholics in Germany discussing a wide range of contemporary theological and organizational questions concerning the Catholic Church in Germany. The Synodal Assembly consists of 230 members, made up of bishops and an equal number of non-ordained members. They voted on Friday, February 4, 2022,  in favor of women’s ordination and married priests. Germany’s Synodal Way is generating far-reaching proposals for significant changes in Catholic governance and practice. But it is also causing considerable concern among church officials in Rome, including Pope Francis.

Meeting in Frankfurt, the German synod voted 159 to 26 to adopt a draft statement calling on the pope to allow Catholic bishops around the world to ordain married men and to give already ordained priests permission to marry without having to leave the priesthood. It later voted 163 to 42  to ask for permission for bishops to ordain women as deacons, able to preach and officiate at baptisms, weddings, and funerals: all as an intermediate step toward making women priests and bishops.

Frankly, I don’t think progressive bishops like Marx, Koch, and Hollerick should wait for Rome to move. And I would like to see US Catholic bishops taking similar steps: supporting LGBT people, ordaining married men, and of course ordaining women. 

Change in the Catholic Church usually begins at the local church level not higher up. The Roman Catholic Church still carries the marks of Imperial Rome which means it remains very pyramidal. The Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church, is the last absolute monarchy in the world today.

Looking at Catholic history, therefore, we see a three-stage pattern for church change:

          Stage One: A changed understanding and a changed way of doing things begins at the local level. But church authority condemns it.

          Stage Two: The change continues and spreads. Then, church authority allows it as “an experiment.”

          Stage Three: The change becomes widely accepted and implemented. Then,  church authority recommends it for all as “part of our tradition.” 

Yes. Understandings evolve and structures and practices can change. It is time to make it happen.

  • Jack

PS  In my post last week about Christian nationalism I neglected to mention a book that came out in 2009. It is an important book for understanding an element in Catholic turbulence today as well as Christian nationalism in general. It is available from Amazon:

The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America….By Betty Clermont.

U.S. Christian Nationalism

As revelations about the January 6th 2021 storming of the United States Capitol continue to emerge, what is emerging as well is the strong involvement of far-right Christian nationalists. Already, as the supporters of the former president rallied near the White House early on January 6th, the former president urged them to go to the Capitol and to “fight like hell.” A rowdy group of young men waving their “America First” flags, began chanting: “Christ is King!” 

As the insurrectionists moved on to the Capitol, many carried bibles, wooden crosses, and banners proclaiming “Proud American Christian” and “Jesus Saves.” The far-right organization, Proud Boys, gathered in a prayer rally near the Washington Monument. One fellow prayed into a bullhorn: “God will watch over us as we become proud.”  Other Proud Boys joined him and looking up to the sky began yelling: “We love you God!”

Several ideological currents animate the U.S. far-right: racism, antisemitism, and fervent nationalism. But Christian nationalism has come to serve as a unifying element. What we see today is reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, which flourished in the post Civil War era and again in the 1920s. It was an extremist terrorist movement that targeted African Americans, Jews, Latinos, Asian Americans, Catholics, and Native Americans. I recommend a book by  Kelly J. Baker Gospel According to the Klan, The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. Baker, who completed her doctorate at Florida State University in 2007, is a well-informed commentator on contemporary religion and its intersections with race, class, gender, and violence.

Linking patriotism and religious piety has become common among U.S. far-right Christian nationalist movements. Radicalized Christian nationalism is a growing threat to U.S. democracy as well organized factions are working to turn the country into something resembling a theocracy. Christian nationalism has also become a common theme among anti-vaccine activists and the extremist QAnon ideology, which has prospered in many evangelical Christian groups. And today some Christian nationalists are in fact energizing their movement with opposition to coronavirus vaccines and face mask mandates.

A more sinister element of Christian nationalist movements is a growing ideology that claims, among other things, that Jesus of Nazareth was a white Aryan and that very soon the “end times” will arrive through a racial holy war. In fact, like most people in Judea and Egypt around his time, Jesus most likely had brown eyes, dark brown to black hair and olive-brown skin.

The white-skinned ideology about Jesus, however, is directly linked with a nonsensical but dangerous propaganda development being spread by the prominent QAnon influencer “GhostEzra” about the “two-seedline theory.” The belief also called the “serpent seed” is a far-right fringe religious belief which bizarrely interprets the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. It states that the Serpent also mated with Eve in the Garden of Eden. This event resulted in the creation of two races: the wicked descendants of the Serpent and the righteous descendants of Adam. The man, who goes by “GhostEzra” by the way, is Robert Smart of Boca Raton, Florida. He is an open Nazi who praises Hitler, admires the Third Reich, and denounces the supposedly treacherous nature of Jewish people.

A prominent American Pentecostal minister in the 1940s and 1950s, William Branham, with links to the Ku Klux Klan, also promoted the “serpent seed” doctrine. Branham taught that the Serpent had sexual intercourse with Eve and their offspring was Cain, whose modern descendants appear to be educated people and scientists but are really (in Branham’s words) “a big religious bunch of illegitimate bastard children.” Branham accused Eve & Serpent of producing an evil “hybrid” race. He traced that hybrid line to Catholics, Africans, multiple figures in Jewish history, and the Antichrist.

Adherents of the “serpent seed” ideology do not believe that Jewish people are the true chosen people of God because, they say, not all of them are “white.” In their view, only white people are the descendants of Adam and therefore only white people are the chosen people of God. Yes it is ridiculous but very sinister. Judaism is not a race, it’s a religion. And the Adam and Eve account in Genesis 1:26 to Genesis 5:5 is a symbolic religious narrative not a precise historical report.

Another book recommendation is White Too Long, the Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Roberto P. Jones, the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, DC.

The dangerous “serpent seed” nonsense has been appearing in QAnon and Proud Boys media links, coupled with growing antisemitism. When Art Spiegelman had learned on January 10th 2022 that Maus — his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about his family’s experience during the Holocaust — had been banned by a Tennessee school board, he told the Washington Post: “It’s part of a continuum, and just a harbinger of things to come. This is a red alert.” In the last week of January 2022, by way of example, three synagogues in Chicago were vandalized.

Published in 1991, Maus is inspired by the story of Spiegelman’s parents, Vladek and Anja, who survived the Holocaust after being shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The graphic novel depicts Nazis as cats and Jewish people as mice.

A study conducted by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism revealed a December 2021 internet post by Mike Lasater, president of the St. Louis Proud Boys chapter which stated: “Our time is not up. It is the Jewish hegemony whose days our numbered. This is a Christian nation.” (Ironically, Lasater says his path to the far right began rather far on the left. He voted for Obama in 2008 as a “socialist-leaning Democrat,” but his politics shifted as he started watching Fox News.)

U.S. Christian nationalism is a virus. More dangerous than Covid and Omicron. It is perverted religion. You think it is fading or under control then it reappears in new configurations. There are no vaccinations or face masks to protect us. 

To paraphrase the historical Jesus in John 8:32: only the truth will set us free. With clear vision we need to observe, judge, and act. Here are my points for perverted religion virus alerts. They apply to individuals, to local communities, and to larger church organizations. 

Healthy religion builds bridges between people. Perverted religion sets up barriers between people and creates qualitative classes of people.

  • Healthy religion strengthens a basic sense of trust and relatedness to people. Perverted religion feeds fear and distrust of the other and negatively stereotypes “the other.”
  • Healthy religion stimulates personal responsibility. Perverted religion puts all the blame on the other and promotes further polarization.
  • Perverted religion’s primary concern is controlling people’s surface behavior. The big show. Healthy religion is concerned about the underlying faith and values that shape a person’s life outlook and behavior.
  • Healthy religion helps people find the sacred in life, with all of its ups and downs. Perverted religion has a narrow vision and even justifies the horrific as holy.
  • Healthy religion encourages all people to deal kindly with others, overcome personal selfishness, and create just and caring communities. Perverted religion categorizes certain people as evil and unworthy of life.
  • Healthy religion sees religion as a way to support and liberate people. Perverted religion sees religion as a way to use and control people.
  • Healthy religion encourages intellectual honesty, questioning, and doubts. Perverted religion condemns the questioner and demands unquestioned loyalty. 
  • And, of course, healthy religion emphasizes love and growth.

Be well. Be healthy.

– Jack