History Clarifies and History Challenges

A Conversation:

It was a strange conversation. A friend who was, at that time, an American archbishop had congratulated me on an academic promotion. He slapped me on the back in his customary gung ho way and said: “You are a smart guy, a theologian, but remember that I have something you don’t have.”

“I have sacred power,” he continued. “I say the words over bread and wine. At once, bingo, Jesus Christ is right there on the altar in front of me. We bishops call it apostolic succession. I have power over bread and wine. I have power over people as well. I can fire laymen, even theologians like you, if I think they are heretics or disobedient. Just like that, I say the word and bingo they are out and finished.” He slapped me on the back again and laughed. I was flabbergasted…and very happy I didn’t work in his diocese. The archbishop’s sense of power resonated far more with Constantine the Emperor than with Jesus the Christ.   

Constantine & Helena:

Constantine (c.272 – 337) and his mother Helena (c.246 – c.330), also known as “Saint Helena,” left big marks on Christianity. Most of those marks were hardly blessings. Thanks to Constantine, authority and power in the church took on a very different meaning – very far from what they had meant for the historical Jesus.

Jesus never exercised power over people. He empowered people to live and act responsibly: loving God and loving their neighbors. Jesus exercised authority; but his authority was not one of control but one of influence: an invitation and an encouragement for people to believe and live as compassionate and caring people.

During the thirty years of Constantine’s reign as Roman Emperor (306 – 337) more changes took place in the status, structure, and beliefs of the Christian Church than had occurred in its first three centuries. Ironically in 306 when Constantine became Emperor, the Roman imperial government had been involved in a major effort to remove all traces of Christian presence from the empire. By the time Constantine died in 337, however,  Christianity was well on its way to becoming THE religion of the empire. Christian leaders had assumed the rank, dress, and duties of the old Imperial Roman civil elite. 

Before the 4th century ended, the tables had been turned completely. Traditional  pagan sacrifices had been outlawed and the old Roman state cults forbidden. Constantine’s mother Helena did her best to go shopping for Christian artifacts and pilgrimage sites for the new imperial Christian religion. Constantine appointed her the Augusta Imperatrix and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate important Christian objects and places. 

Thanks to Helena’s efforts and her well-paid enterprising “researchers,” she discovered all kinds of amazing things. In Egypt, for example, she located and ordered the construction of a church at the site of Moses’ legendary Burning Bush. There in the 13th century BCE God had asked him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, the Promised Land. (Exodus 3:1 – 4:17) 

Helena’s expertise however was primarily in Christian discoveries, many of which are now considered mistaken or simply imaginative suppositions. They did indeed have a powerful impact back then. Powerful impact was exactly what the imperial son, Constantine, wanted and needed to establish his Imperial Christianity

Helena found, for example, the exact location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It became a major pilgrimage site. Most of today’s biblical scholars, however, would strongly suggest that Jesus was more likely born in Nazareth. It was the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David that led to the development of the creative biblical narrative about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Foremost among the religious artifacts that Helena discovered were the bones of the legendary “three wise men,” Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the “true cross” on which Jesus was crucified. Her tour guides, probably with a good tip from Helena,  helped her discover, as well, the exact location where Jesus’ body was buried and the exact location in Jerusalem where the Resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven. 

Historians in the fifth century claimed that Helena had also found the nails used in Jesus’ crucifixion. To use their miraculous powers to aid her son, she had placed one nail in Constantine’s helmet and another nail in his horse’s bridle.

Constantine a Believer:

Getting back to Helena’s son Constantine, one really needs to ask how “sincere” Constantine’s conversion had been. Was he in truth a devout son of the church, or was he rather a political mastermind who grabbed the power he could gain by subordinating and using a well-organized and doctrinaire institutional church? He certainly had a powerful influence over the bishops at the Council of Nicaea. Many contemporary scholars would suggest Constantine’s main objective was to gain unanimous approval and submission to his authority from all classes, and therefore chose the growing and widespread population of Christians to conduct his political campaign. Scholars debate whether Constantine adopted his mother Helena’s Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. Some doubt that he was ever really a Christian. He was not baptized until on his deathbed. 

Imperial Christianity:

In 313 Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan. The edict stopped the persecution of Christians and launched a period in which Constantine began granting favors to the Christian Church and its members. He truly created what one could call “Imperial Christianity.” After his death in 337, Constantine’s influence continued to grow and was strongly felt.

It came as no great surprise, therefore, in 380 when the Emperor Theodosius (347 – 395) made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The Bishop of Rome, starting already with Pope Damasus I in 366, had already become an authoritarian monarch. The institutional church took over the Roman governmental structure, with dioceses, and the Roman imperial court liturgy, remnants of which one still finds in Vatican ceremonials. 

Imperial Christians forgot the message of Jesus the Prince of Peace. Christian militarism became strong and fearsome. Under Imperial Christianity, bishops adopted as well a changed ministerial focus. The compassionate service and humility of the historical Jesus were replaced by a hardened framework of entrenched, and occasionally cruel, authoritarianism. 

Bishops began to stress that disobedience to them amounted to disobedience to God. The official sanction for disobeying a priest or a judge was death. Bishops were both priests and judges. Christian bishops in fact became regional judges, ordering the execution of those who were disobedient or criminals. A clerical culture anchored in strong clerical power became well established. 

Women under Imperial Christianity were edged to the sidelines and denigrated. It was all so clearly contrary to the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth and the important roles women had played in his life and in the lives of first century Christians.

A great many Imperial Christian “Church Fathers,” became outspoken misogynists. Consider, for example, St. John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407) who became the Archbishop of Constantinople in the autumn of 397. Called the “golden mouthed” he said: “It does not profit a man to marry.” Then he explained why: “For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?…The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.” Golden mouthed?

Today:

Today we still experience the reverberations of Imperial Christianity. Clericalism remains a problematic issue. (Sometimes I think many of the younger clergy are more rigidly clerical than the older generation.) We have a church hierarchically and qualitatively divided into laypeople, at the bottom, and the ordained, on top.

Thinking about ”lay” and “ordained,” I found Pope Francis’ May 11th Apostolic Letter, titled Antiquum Ministerium (“The Ancient Ministry.”) very interesting. The letter establishes the “lay ministry” of catechist. I am not certain whether the document accurately reflects Pope Francis’ theology or that of his Vatican-approved ghost writer. It sends, however, a mixed message. 

Antiquum Ministerium begins with a welcomed reminder that Christians in the early apostolic communities operated with great creativity in exercising and sharing ministerial roles. They formed one egalitarian community that promoted a variety of ministerial roles. Everyone sharing an equal status as members of the Body of Christ.

I was surprised to see that by the end of Antiquum Ministerium, however, one of the concepts that the new papal document clearly safeguards is the strict dualism of clergy and laity, that had been codified with great institutional rigidity in the 16th century Council of Trent. 

Rather than make all the baptized faithful co-sharers in the work of catechesis, as was the practice in the early Christian communities,  Antiquum Ministerium reinforces the segregation of clerical (sacred) ministry and “lay ministry.” The bishop is still explicitly designated as the “primary catechist.” Lay people are seen once again as helpers of the clergy. They are called to engage in “cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” 

In reality, the ministry of catechist does not need to be defined as a “lay ministry.” It is simply a form of Christian ministry shared and exercised by all members of the church. We are all catechists, some more specifically engaged in that ministry than others. For a good fifteen years, I was once upon a time a very actively engaged catechist in high school and parish ministry. As an historical theologian today my catechetical ministry continues but in a different form and context.

Changing Structures:

In today’s church we need to not just say nice words. We need to make changes in structures. We will not move beyond the virus of Constantine’s Imperial Christianity, with its distorted ecclesiology, until we shift from a polarizing authoritarian leadership model to a dialogical communitarian model. It can happen. 

We need to understand and affirm an important clarification about ordination. The historical Jesus did not establish ordination. No one at the Last Supper was ordained. The early men and women who presided at celebrations of Eucharist were not ordained. Ordination, starting somewhere around the year 100, began as a way for Christians to insure and promote qualified and credible leaders. One could say it was a form of quality control. It was created by the church not by the historical Jesus.The ordained had community approval. They were competent and trustworthy.

Under Imperial Christianity, however, ordination gradually came to be understood as a power and control mechanism, in a segregated society of “ordained” and “lay.” As the archbishop, mentioned above, liked to remind me, I have a doctorate in theology but remain “just a layman.” He had sacred powers which in the hierarchic society elevated him above the common “layperson.” 

The words laity and lay come from the Middle English lai, meaning “uneducated.” They ultimately come from the Greek lāikós, meaning “of the common people.” Perhaps we really should just stop using these words. I am a theologian not a “lay theologian.” And there are catechists not “lay catechists.”

Fortunately, understandings do change. History does clarify. History does challenge. People today should be encouraged to move forward. Our encouragement comes from knowing that the Spirit of Christ has not abandoned us and that the challenge is now in our hands — to study, to collaborate, to structure, to reform, and to re-structure according to changing human needs and growth in human understanding. 

Early Christians did a lot of structuring and restructuring in the days before Constantine. We can do it today as well. We do need to work together. Praying and working for unity and reconciliation for all in the church. 

A contemporary perspective is important. We are not in an ecclesiastical doom scenario. Restructuring is already happening. New church configurations ARE evolving. We may not yet have a clear idea of where the development will take us. I believe it will be good. 

On this Pentecost 2021 weekend, I suggest we also need to remember that unity does not mean the uniformity and rigidity, which was Constantine’s approach. The Spirit of Christ gives simultaneously unity and diversity within that unity. In Acts 2:5–11 we read about Christians from a variety of countries, speaking a variety of languages and yet “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Unity and diversity are not a contradiction. They are our richness. 

There is great diversity among Christians today. There will be great diversity tomorrow. May we all be supportive collaborators: removing walls of polarization in our churches that protect misogyny, clerical hegemony, homophobia, racism, and antisemitism.

As mentioned last week, in 1979 Bishop Ken Untener, wrote: “We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.”

  •  Jack

P.S. In keeping with my annual practice, I will be away from Another Voice for about three weeks of R & R & R (reading, relaxation, and reflection). When I return, I hope to have some worthwhile thoughts to share with you. I hope you will have some to share with me as well.

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

My wife and I got our second Moderna vaccinations last week. When we got home from the clinic, we gave a cheer and said now, at last, we can look forward to being again with family and friends. The Covid-19 pandemic, in our area, increased rapidly in March–April 2020. That is when we went into our Covid-19 retreat. We got our supply of face masks. No more visits. No more classes. Carefully sanitized grocery shopping.

The Covid-19 pandemic at home and around the globe has been a strong reminder of the fragility of human life as well as of our interdependence and need for one another. 

These past months I have done a lot of reading, thanks to Kindle,….and a lot of thinking. It has been much more than an old-style forty-day retreat. We have had more than a year of topsy-turvy polarized politics, topsy-turvy polarized religion, and a lot of just plain nonsense and irresponsibility about Covid-19 precautions.   

Occasionally various lines from a reflection, written by an old Michigan friend, Ken Untener, the fourth Bishop of Saginaw, kept popping onto my head. He had often told me: “It helps, now and then, to step back.” On Covid-19 retreat, and now as we look toward better days, Ken’s words offer wisdom and reality. Ken’s reflection, titled “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” is my Another Voice post for this week:

It helps, now and then, to step back

and take the long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of

the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,

which is another way of saying

that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything

and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,

but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,

ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

___________________________________________

“Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” is an excerpt from a homily given by Cardinal John Dearden (1907 – 1988), and written for him by then Father Ken Untener. The occasion was a Mass for deceased Detroit priests on October 25, 1979. Ken Untener was named Bishop of Saginaw in 1980.

On March 27, 2004, Bishop Kenneth Edward Untener, Bishop of Saginaw, died of leukemia. He had been my older seminary classmate at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit: he in college and I in high school. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1963. Two years later, seminarian John Dick was sent by his bishop to study in Louvain. Years later Ken became my contemporary church hero as well as my good friend. On occasion we even shared the same stage as speakers at catechetical and continuing ed conferences.

Ken Untener’s death on March 27th at age 66 coincided with my 61st birthday. His death on my birthday touched me deeply. 

Yes indeed….It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. We plant seeds that one day will grow.

  • Jack

Praise for a Prophetic Woman Theologian


A couple weeks ago, a friend in the Netherlands sent me a recent book (a Dutch translation from the original Portuguese) by  Ivone Gebara, the Brazilian Catholic, woman religious, philosopher, and feminist theologian. (Photo attached.) I had a chance to meet Ivone a few years ago when she was on a lecture tour and have always had great respect and appreciation for her and her ministry. 

Today a bit of background information about Ivone Gebara and then some reflections about her key theological focus: “ecofeminism.”

Ivone was born in São Paulo and, as a young woman,  joined the Augustinian Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady. She holds two doctorates: one in philosophy from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and another in theology from L’Université Catholique de Louvain.

For almost seventeen years, Ivone Gebara taught at the liberation theology Instituto Teológico do Recife in close collaboration with the institute’s founder Archbishop Hélder Câmara (1909 – 1999), called the “bishop of the slums.” He was well-known for his social and political work for the poor and the struggle for human rights and democracy during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964 – 1985).  Government authorities began to harass Câmara actively in 1968, interfering with his ministry in the slums and condoning machine-gun attacks on his residence. The Instituto Teológico do Recife existed from 1968 until it was closed in 1989, during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (1920 – 205), under direction of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul’s Prefect of  the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the historical Roman Inquisition. From the very beginning of his pontificate in 1978, Pope John Paul II had built a case against ”liberation theology.”

The closing of the Instituto by the Vatican had a major impact on Ivone Gebara’s role as an educator and her own philosophical and theological viewpoints. She was uncomfortable with the church’s resistance to change and with a liberation theology that ignored the patriarchal power structures in the church. In the church, she saw an oppressive hierarchical worldview that categorized people in terms of gender, race, and class.

In 1995, Gebara was tried and convicted by the Vatican for defending the decriminalization of abortion and stating in an interview in the Brazilian weekly magazine  Veja that she did not believe that abortion was always a sin, based on her observations and reflections about the life experiences of poor women throughout the Brazilian slums. In the United States, the National Catholic Reporter (1995:24) reacted to her Vatican condemnation by proclaiming: “Ivone Gebara Must Be Doing Something Right.” She was punished with the penalty of “silence” and ordered to “reflect” on her ideas for two years in Europe. It was during this time that she completed her second doctorate at L’Université Catholique de Louvain.

Today Ivone Gebara is a key leader in the Latin American ecofeminist movement, writing, teaching, organizing, and working with marginalized and impoverished women. The term “ecofeminism” was created in 1974 by the French writer and civil rights activist Françoise d’Eaubonne in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort (Feminism or Death).

Ivone Gebara Is the  author of over thirty books and numerous articles published in Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and German. One of her books in English which I strongly recommend is Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Fortress Press 1999).

Gebara’s commitment to social justice for women has shaped her understanding of what the theological task ought to be and has contributed to the development of her methodology and feminist theological vision. Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women. It explores the connections between women and nature in culture, economy, religion, politics, and literature. It takes from the Green movement a concern about the impact of human activities on the non-human world and from feminism a view of humanity as gendered in ways that subordinate, exploit, and oppress women.

Ivone Gebara’s pioneering feminist work and her own life ministry and witness, have inspired Christian women in Brazil and globally to challenge and oppose an androcentric theology that diminishes women’s place within the church and within society. She is indeed a wonderfully prophetic woman theologian. 

In Ivone Gebara’s book Longing for Running Water, there are many observations I have underlined. Here is one that strongly resonates with my own theological sense of purpose and meaning: “I  think it is always important to understand our need to refashion our beliefs and their particular formulations in each new moment of history…..Theology will have to carry out its social role with greater humility and openness. Its truths will always need to be open-ended…. They will be mere approximations of the Divine Mystery: attempts to grasp the meaning of our existence, if only in a tentative way. We will need to leave behind absolute statements and “ex cathedra” truths, and learn to live in the midst of the extraordinary….Religious experience is polyphonic and multicolored, despite the fact that in the depth of each of us we hear something of the same note or perceive something of the same choir. It is a search for the meaning of our existence, a groping for that “mysterious something” that is within us and at the same time surpasses us.”

The Divine Mystery still speaks to all of us. Our response is our challenge….

  • Jack 

Systemic Racism

In a front page headline on April 25, 2021, the Washington Post asked: “In the aftermath of the Chauvin verdict hangs a question: Where do we go from here?” A very good question.

US racism and white supremacy have a long history, and Christians have contributed to that problem, right from the beginning. Jesus brought life and truth but many of his later followers followed his teachings very selectively. Christians today – even those who reside in Rome — are not infallible. When they sin and fall into error, however, they must do more than simply apologize and feel bad. They have to repair the damage. 

This week some historic as well as contemporary reflections about Christianity and racism in the New World.

On May 4, 1493, just a year after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, Pope Alexander VI (not a striking example of moral rectitude for sure) issued his papal bull Inter Caetera. Alexander was far more interested in wealth and power than spirituality. His document which became known for proclaiming “The Doctrine of Discovery” announced that any land not inhabited by Christians was open to be “discovered” by Christian rulers and that “the Catholic faith and Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread… and that the barbarous nations be overthrown….”

The Doctrine of Discovery produced clear examples of how racist ideas of supremacy over Indigenous peoples were used not only to justify but to sanctify the seizure of occupied Indigenous lands, the physical removal of communities to undesirable reservations, and systematic genocidal violence. 

There is much about American history that can make one proud of being American. Unfortunately, American history also attests that too often American Christianity promoted and sustained racism through the brutal colonialism of missionaries and the enforced segregation of its churches.

The majority of early American colonists did not recognize the deep culture and traditions of Native peoples, nor did they acknowledge their tribal land rights. They sought to convert the Native people in the New World and at the same time strip them of their land.

Newcomers from England during the 17th century, for example, saw themselves as settling in a “virgin land” where real “civilization” had not yet been established. From the colonial period on, relations between European and Native peoples were predominantly expressed and negotiated in terms of land. The issue of land became, in many ways, the deepest “religious” issue over which world views collided. Many of the colonists saw the new land as a “wilderness” to be settled, not as already inhabited. They also saw the New World as the New Promised Land and considered the Indigenous peoples like the Canaanites of old to be conquered and removed. John Winthrop (1588 – 1649), English Puritan lawyer and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was convinced that God favored his community above all others. In 1641 Winthrop helped write the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first legal sanctioning of slavery in North America. About a hundred and forty years later, in a 1783 sermon celebrating the American Revolution, Yale president Ezra Stiles praised the rise of the “whites” whose numerical growth, he said, proved divine favoritism. Interestingly, there were almost 700 thousand African slaves in the US by 1790, which equated to approximately 18% of the total population. White Supremacy.

Over the course of nearly three centuries, American Indigenous peoples were “removed” from the lands they had occupied, “displaced” to other lands, and had their lands “ceded” to the newcomers. Then, native tribes were forcibly “settled” on “reservations.”

Early Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify the enslavement of darker-skinned people. Vigilante groups terrorized Black Americans as the vigilantes rode around in white hoods with the Bible in hand. Prominent evangelical pastors spewed racist hatred against America’s first Black president. And most recently of course we have witnessed racial hate crimes, murders, and police brutality.

So what do we do once we realize that religious actors have been complicit in forming and upholding American racism? What might we do to correct racism? Certainly racial justice will not come just from individual acts of charity. It will require the transformation of our social structures. Racism is systemic.

A failure to grasp the systemic nature of racism  could explain why the country has not made as much progress as it should—and could—on racial equity. Racism is a virus. Like the coronavirus, if ignored it will not disappear. Many people have a too narrow view of racism that has really blocked racial progress. They fail to understand systemic racism and are, therefore, more likely to attribute poverty, for example, to individual failings rather than to structural disadvantages like racial disparities in wealth and wages and substandard education for Blacks. Segregated housing, too, has left many Black people living in neighborhoods without access to good jobs, reliable public transportation, or quality health care.

As President Biden said following the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter, the killing of George Floyd “ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism” that has become a “stain on our nation’s soul.”

Combating racism is a particular challenge to US Catholic leadership. As Thomas Reese stressed in an article in yesterday’s April 29th National Catholic Reporter: “The American Catholic bishops are frequently criticized by the left and the right for what they say in the political arena….But it’s what the bishops haven’t said, particularly on racial justice, that has kept them from being a more prophetic voice in American life. Few if any bishops, for example, have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement or said anything about voter suppression laws. African Methodist Episcopal clergy, on the other hand, have rallied and threatened boycotts over voter suppression bills in state legislatures across the country. The U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops has said nothing. The reluctance of Catholic bishops to take on racial issues has deep roots in Catholic history. Catholic bishops did not lead in the abolition movement. Catholic immigrants, many of them poor, did not want to die to free Black slaves.”

I am neither anti-Christian nor anti-American, but, being very honest, we all have a lot of transformative work to do. I share Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese’s concerns about US Catholic leadership; but I also applaud some positive Catholic signs which give encouragement and guidance.

The honesty and reparation of Georgetown University and the Jesuit Community are prophetic examples. In 1838, the Jesuits sold 272 Black men, women, and children and used the proceeds to support their Georgetown University, founded by Bishop John Carroll in 1789. 

I find it noteworthy and encouraging that in September 2015, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia established a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. This led to dialogue with and apology to descendants of the slaves sold. Georgetown today is making key efforts to address the legacy of slavery and overcome racism at Georgetown, in Washington DC, and beyond. In March of this year, the Society of Jesus in the United States announced the establishment of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, a collaborative effort among Jesuits, Georgetown, and some descendants to raise $100 million to help address the legacy of enslavement in the United States and its impact on families and communities today.

We really need to conscientiously and collectively combat racism. 

  • We need to be alert to language, jokes, slogans, and labeling. In the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, a demonstrator wore a shirt proclaiming “Camp Auschwitz.” That action was a sinister danger sign. Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor, Fritzie Fritzshall, was greatly upset.“That made my stomach turn,” she said. “Why do they have to still wear t-shirts about hatred and stuff like that? That’s what the Nazis did. That’s exactly what they did.”
  • We need to critique and work to improve educational, employment, and police policies and actions. Friction, for example, between African Americans and the police is a reality that should be immediately addressed. 
  • We need to be alert to signs of racism in our churches, neighborhoods, and social groups.
  • We need to be alert as well to increased antisemitism. Violent antisemitism and hatred did not end with the Holocaust. According to the Anti-Defamation League antisemitic incidents in the United States reached their highest on record point in 2019. Assault, harassment, and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the United States today.

For further reading, I recommend: The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism and Religious Diversity in America (Orbis, 2017) by Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Professor of Theology at Fordham University.

  • Jack

A Contemporary Creed?

This week, a follow-up from last week…

When looking at Christian history, starting with the earliest Christian communities, we see a dynamic spirituality anchored in the faith experience of the followers of the Way of Jesus. Gradually, recollections of Jesus’ life and deeds and Christian community foundational experiences were recalled and written down. As communities expanded, organizational structures were created for good order and to ensure a correct passing on of the Way of Jesus to the next generation. The Scriptures were written down. Symbols, rituals, and statements of belief were created. A key operational principle was that if language and structures no longer worked, they were changed and adapted to fit the needs of the local community. This explains why we have four very different theologies in the Four Gospels. 

Ideally, change and adaptation in language and structure should be an ongoing process. Occasionally, as history shows, Christians have had times of arrested development and institutional rigidity. In times of rigidity, the message always was: don’t question or think, just believe!

This brings me to my subject today: the Creed. 

I know the creeds – Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed — very well. For many decades now I have recited and sung the Nicene Creed; and in my younger days -– few know this — I even accompanied that singing as a part-time organist in my home parish. 

Now for my first creedal observation: 

The classical Christian creeds: the Nicene Creed, written in the fourth century, and the Apostles Creed, whose earliest version appeared in the fifth century, were formulated within the context of a comparatively simple biblical understanding of a three-level universe: Heaven was up there with God. Earth was down below. Below earth was Sheol: the abode of the dead. What we think of today as “outer space” was believed to be a large universally-wide cosmic ocean. A big dome over the flat earth kept the waters away. As needed God could open little windows in the dome to let it rain over various sections of the earth. The stars were suspended from the ceiling of the dome. Very simple and compact. God was the heavenly manager. He – yes God was considered male — had all the strings in his hands. 

A very faulty English translation of Sheol in the Apostles Creed, by the way, says Jesus “descended into hell.” A more correct translation would be “he descended to the underworld” or “descended to the world of the dead.”  What the creed was really referring to was that, after dying on the cross, Jesus went to the place of the dead. He did not go to a Satanic hell. The Latin version of the Apostles Creed has absolutely no mention of hell. The Latin version reads “descendit ad inferos,” where “inferos” (not infernos with an “n”) means “those below.” 

The three-level universe perspective is also found in accounts of Jesus’ Ascension, where Jesus steps into a cloud, like into an elevator, and then he is lifted up to Heaven. Curiously the same old perspective was used in the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. That teaching dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950, says that Mary was lifted up to Heaven, body and soul to sit next to her Son and reign as “Queen over all things.”

Today we have moved far beyond the biblical three-level universe. Consider for a moment that one light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth year: about 6 trillion miles. Our ever-expanding Universe is 93 billion light-years in diameter at the present time. Those 93 billion light-years cover just our observable Universe. The whole Universe might very well be 250 times larger than the observable Universe.

Last week I stressed that the reasons why people are abandoning the churches do not lie within our Christian Faith but rest with the way many church authorities present Christian belief. 

We are not static medievalists. We need to begin with an historical developmental perspective on what happened with the disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Then we need to shift to an historical developmental understanding of what is happening to us today as contemporary believers. 

Now for my second creedal observation:

Christian life is a process. Spirituality comes first. Structures, doctrines, and creeds come after that. If certain church structures, doctrines, and creeds in particular times and places fail to nourish the spirituality of its constituents, they will either have to change, or they will fade away. Or people will fade away from them. It is happening now.

When I read either ancient creed, I think immediately about obedience and loyalty to the institution. The Roman Emperor Constantine (emperor from 306 to 337 CE) certainly wanted exactly that when, in 325 CE, he convoked the first Christian council in Nicaea and had the bishops come up with a binding creed to unify Christianity in his empire. Many scholars suggest Constantine’s main objective was to gain unanimous approval and submission to his authority from all classes in the empire. He chose Christianity to implement his political agenda but had to first of all insure Christian unity through loyalty and obedience to the Nicene creed. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 during the reign of Emperor Theodosis I, who ruled from 379 to 395 CE.

Frankly what I miss, in both creeds, is human warmth: a spirituality that speaks of a compassionate and loving God, who journeys with us, and holds us in the palm of his or her hand. I would like a more spiritual creed that speaks of a wondrous creator of the constantly expanding and immense universe, who is beyond our imagination and ability to describe, and yet who is as close to us and as intimate as the air in our lungs. I would like a creed that resonates with Paul in I Corinthians:  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” That warrants much reflection.

I would like to see a creed that reassures people today that Jesus’ voice is just as much a living voice as ever; that his truth is a living truth; and that his God is a living God, near to all of us.

A few years ago, in a summer theology course I taught at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, I asked my students to write their own creeds. The results were amazing and deeply moving. The most touching creed was written by a young fellow who was a professional jockey! When I complimented him in private he replied with a big smile: “Well I guess I am a believer who is also, as you say, an inquisitive still searching believer.” I hope he is doing well today, and still an inquisitive believer.

Third creedal observation:

Please write down your own creed. I am serious. For your own spiritual reflection. Or it could even be a group process.

By way of a example of a contemporary creed.  a friend sent me a creed created by The United Church of Canada. 

We are not alone,
    we live in God’s world.

 We believe in God:
    who has created and is creating,
    who has come in Jesus,
       the Word made flesh,
       to reconcile and make new,
    who works in us and others
       by the Spirit.

We trust in God. 

We are called to be the Church:
    to celebrate God’s presence,
    to live with respect in Creation,
    to love and serve others,
    to seek justice and resist evil,
    to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
       our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
    God is with us.
We are not alone.

    Thanks be to God.

Now get started writing your own creed. 😇

  • Jack

Contemporary Religious Recession

A Gallup poll released on Monday, March 29 , 2021, indicates that the proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church or synagogue has now dropped below 50%. The results highlight a dramatic shift away from religious affiliation in recent years, and among all age groups. When Gallup first asked the question in 1937, church membership was 73%. 

Organized religion in the USA is clearly in recession. In the case of Judaism, the indicators  include declining synagogue membership, a general disinterest in traditional religious practice and belief, and decreased belief in God. In USA Islam, by the way, a substantial share of adults who were raised Muslim no longer identify as members of that religious tradition. Unlike some other religions in the United States, however, Islam gains about as many members as it loses, due primarily to immigration.  

In terms of US church membership, Protestants show a 9% decline from 73% to 64%. Catholics, however, have the greatest decline with 58% indicating church membership, which is down 18 points from 76% in a previous Gallup survey from 1998-2000. Already in 2015 a Pew Research report noted that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.

US Catholicism is a divided house, as we have seen in recent Catholic support and Catholic opposition to the second US Catholic president: President Joseph Biden. 

The contemporary Catholic reality is that most American Catholics, today, do not agree with official Catholic teachings about key moral issues.That official teaching still stresses that artificial contraception, homosexuality, and abortion are “intrinsically evil.” Nevertheless, more than half of today’s US Catholics, 56% as of September 2020,  said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. More than 82% say birth control is morally acceptable; and 61% said in a 2019 survey that they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry. Same-sex marriage of course became legal across the United States following a Supreme Court ruling in 2015.

Most of today’s American Catholic bishops were not educated and shaped by the pastoral focus of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) but by the rigid dogmatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For them obeying institutional directives comes first and they tend to be right of center or very far right. Many strongly supported the former US president, Donald Trump. Most are not positively influenced by the opinions and beliefs of today’s US Catholic laity; and are busily closing and consolidating parishes, closing schools, and worrying about bankrupsies. But asking why? Speaking at a book launch in Munich in 2011, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who died on April 6, 2021, said that, at that time, the Catholic Church in the United States had lost one-third of its membership. “The American Catholic church never asked why,” he said. “Any other institution that has lost a third of its members would want to know why.” Institutional self-examination is important….

I mentioned in a recent email to a bishop acquaintance, whom I have known for a many years, that we used to say “vox populi, vox Dei,” — “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” His response was a friendly note, but in bold type he wrote: “When it comes to morality, the voice of the bishops is the voce of God.” He also informed me that, since he became a bishop, he has not had to read any contemporary theological books, because the Holy Spirit guides him.

Thinking about Catholics leaving the church, an American priest friend asked recently: “After the pandemic when we are all back to ‘normal,’ I wonder how many people will really start attending church again?” That is a good question. Some of my friend’s parishioners told him they liked and respected him; but they did not miss going to church, due to Covid 19 restrictions. They also said they really don’t resonate with  “zoom liturgies,” because they focus too much on “the priest just doing his thing at the alter.” 

Most researches at Gallup and Pew Forum suggest that a continued religious membership decline in future decades seems inevitable, due to much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger generations.

So what is happening? 

To some extent, US culture, norms, and patterns of social behavior are always in flux and religion is part of the ongoing cycle of change. I think, however, something more significant is happening today. In the past, if Americans didn’t like a particular form of church, they simply created a new one. A few years ago even Catholics started doing that. Now more people are simply leaving rather than creating or joining new communities.

As fewer Americans say they are members of a church, some critics say this is just part of a generalized secularization trend. The reasons for this are debatable and complex. In general, however, I think laying the blame on “secularization” is a cop out. The whole point of the Incarnation is that we really do find the sacred in the secular — but that is a discussion for another time.

Other reasons for people dropping out, of course, are: clerical sexual abuse, which is not just a Catholic problem; institutional religious opposition to LGBT people and gay marriage; the blending of religion and politics along lines of far-right politics or theocracy; and institutional misogyny and racism.

The underlying issue in all of the above reasons for dropping out, I suggest however is an institutional disconnect from people’s hunger and thirst for a contemporary spirituality. Spirituality should be our way of life: a real life awareness of  Divine Presence. Many come to church looking for warm living bread but find instead cold old stones. 

My friend, Joseph Martos, who passed away a couple years ago, wrote an excellent book about spirituality and meaningful contemporary ritual:  Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments: Letting Go of Doctrines and Celebrating What’s Real. 

Symbol, ritual and music connect us – should connect us – to the depth of Reality. I always appreciated symbol, ritual, and times of reflective silence in my Catholic tradition. To be effective, however, they have to be rooted in contemporary life experiences and not in some kind of resuscitated medieval culture

I will share a little personal story and then offer a bit more explanation of what I mean.

A couple years ago, on the evening before Pentecost, my wife and I attended a concert of sacred music in a small local church. The church was packed, with about two hundred people. The concert was marvelous and deeply moving. 

When the concert finished, no one applauded. No one moved. People sat there in deep reflection for a good ten or more minutes. I whispered to my wife: “This is amazing – a deeply meditative group experience.” A few minutes later, the somewhat agitated pastor stood up, looked at his watch, and then spoke to the congregation: “Ok everybody. The concert is over. It is getting late. Time for you to go home. I need to get some sleep. Big Pentecost Mass tomorrow!”

Slowly we all got up in silence and peacefully walked out.

The next morning, I attended the Pentecost High Mass at which the pastor presided. He was a good man but lived in his own small clerical world. For Pentecost there were about twenty people present for Mass. Many showed little enthusiasm, especially when the pastor – never looking at the congregation — read his long homily from a printed leaflet. After Mass the pastor was at the church door wishing everyone a Blessed Pentecost. As I walked out, I went up to him wished him a Happy Pentecost and remarked with a chuckle that he had had a full house for the Saturday evening concert. He smiled but then rather seriously said: “All the heathens came here last night.” I smiled back and said in a friendly way: “I don’t think so. They had a prayerful experience.” Hearing that he shrugged, grumbled something, and turned to greet the next person….

I think many people today are dropping out of institutional religion, for all the reasons indicated above but mostly because their church experiences too often leave them hungry for spiritual experiences and spiritual nourishment. They are hungry for a taste of the Divine, even when they may not know how to express that hunger. Their hunger is real.

This year on Easter, April 4,  I was thinking about the post-resurrection experience of Cleopas and the disciple, who was probably his wife Mary, on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus in Luke 24. They had an encounter with Jesus that touched them deeply but they did not at first recognize him. 

Luke writes that they met a fellow traveler who talked with them about the events in Jerusalem but then acted as if he were going farther. “But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’”

A healthy church gives people living bread, feeding not only their minds but warming their hearts as well: providing profound experiences in which they feel connected intimately to Someone larger than themselves. We call that the Sacred, the Divine, the Ground of Being or God. I remember the observation of Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations (1953-1961), and a deeply spiritual, almost mystical, man: “We die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

I suspect many people today feel like uncertain travelers looking for a map and a faithful guide. Christian leaders with meaningful words, symbols, and rituals can indeed give direction and a secure footing. They can enable people to enter into a deeper dimension of life, inspired by THE great Christian leader:  “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10

  • Jack

EASTER 2021

With Easter wishes, a good friend wrote this week: “Easter is the quintessential expression of our faith in grace as God’s unconditional love.” Christians are Easter people. Easter brings hope and strength when hatred, violence, and fear can seem so overwhelming.

The historical Jesus knew, very well, fear and anxiety in his own day’s environment of terror and aggression under Pontius Pilate, the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea. Pilate was cruel and brutal. He had Jesus horribly tortured and crucified.

The great Jesus event, of course, did not end with Jesus’ agony and death on the cross. The New Testament narrates various kinds of post-resurrection appearances, some quite imaginative. Nevertheless, all biblical authors agree that, shortly after his death, a transformed and living Jesus appeared to the women and men who were his disciples. As Paul the Apostle reminded the Christians in Corinth “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (I Corinthians 15:14) 

The post-resurrection testimony is clear. The early followers of the way of Jesus were empowered to live in his Spirit and to begin transforming the world around them. They understood the message and witness of Jesus — that the way of Jesus is a new way of being and living in which the poor are blessed, in which the gentle are blessed, in which the mourning are blessed, in which the peacemakers are blessed, in which those who hunger and thirst for justice are blessed, in which the persecuted are blessed, and in which the pure of heart are blessed. (See Matthew 5:3–11.)

We live in and with the Spirit of Jesus raised-from-the-dead into a new kind of life. Living in and with his Spirit, we find our prophetic call. It means that WE do his walking today. WE are the ones to do his talking, living life, getting involved. WE are the ones struggling. WE are the ones who need to work hard. Our support and encouragement come from HIM. For some it may seem that Jesus does not take away the difficulties of our journey. In reality he does. 

Following Jesus is not a sentimental journey with lots of pious rhetoric. It is a real-life journey with its ups and downs, but guided by the One who is with us here and now and will not abandon us. As Jesus said in John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it in abundance.” And in Matthew 28:20: “I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.”

Institutional Christianity may be having some uneasy days; but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have great contemporary significance. They give us the strength and energy to be his disciples in the Third Millennium. Alleluia!

Happy Easter! 

– Jack

PS    I will be away from my computer for a couple weeks and plan to return on April 16th.

Our Christian Environment

Christian environmental change has already begun. Its significance and impact will be much greater than what the sixteenth century reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, ever imagined. It requires that our churches be not only supportive caring communities but up to date biblically and historically, and open to discovery and development. It requires that our churches be much more than just well-organized religious institutions.  

For a number of years, I have been active in church reform activities, most of it involving Catholics. When I think today, however, about changing the Christian environment, my focus is much broader than the Catholic Church. Today, all Christian churches must be part of a necessary environmental change.

I have great respect and appreciation for my maternal Roman Catholic heritage and upbringing. All my professional career I have happily worked for Catholic schools, parishes, colleges, and universities. BUT….I am also proud and appreciative of my paternal Quaker and Huguenot roots. I am still a Catholic, but in many ways I think I have a very Quaker psyche. After reading one of my recent articles, a friendly critic wrote “your Protestant roots are showing.” 

Changing the church environment, for all Christians, has to be a prophetic movement forward. Today, I suggest eight ways to change, improve, and move ahead. 

(1) We must move from living in the past to engaging with the present and thinking creatively about tomorrow.This means moving well beyond, for example, antiquated understandings of human sexuality and gender, prejudice against women, and distorted biblical and historical understandings. I am an old man. I respect old people; but I don’t want today’s church leadership to act like a bunch of old people simply repeating, again and again, their old doctrines and stories. As my friend and mentor Archbishop Jean Jadot, former Apostolic Delegate to the United States, said shortly before his death: “Now is the time to look ahead. Just as we can look at the sky at night and tell what the morning will bring, so we must be able to read the signs of the times to prepare for the future.”

(2) We need to shift from practicing religion to living the Faith. It is easy to go to church and comfortably recite the creed and official prayers. It also gives one a sense of self and civic importance. I think this is what Jesus was speaking about in Matthew 23:5-6: “All their deeds are done for people to see. They broaden their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues.” It is much more difficult to follow the example of Jesus and live our faith by being a contemporary Good Samaritan. Far too many “good Christians” remain anchored in racism, misogyny, and self-veneration.

(3) We need ongoing education that moves people from boxed-in religious ideology to open and developing theology. Whether Catholic or Protestant, all doctrinal statements are provisional understandings. We are all learners. No one has all the truth. There is still much to learn and discover. We need to move ahead into a new age of discovery and collaboration. Some people find it more comfortable to revert to “good old days” stagnation. There is no intellectual challenge. No human  growth either! And frankly, the “good old days” were not always so great.

(4) We need to shift from self-protective bureaucratic hierarchies to communities of faith and courageous outreach networks. Christianity inherited and blessed some very bad elements of the power structures of the fourth century Constantinian Roman Empire. Thanks to Constantine,  Christianity was both officially established and fatally compromised. The Constantinian church began to exercise power over people. Church leadership forgot that Jesus did not exercise power over people; but that he empowered people to take responsibility in living, learning, and caring for one another. Jesus did not control people through authoritarian decrees, laws, and sanctions. 

(5) We need to abandon religious arrogance and move into humble inter-church collaboration. No Christian and no Christian tradition can be regarded as superior to others and therefore act in a haughty or snobbish manner. We need to humbly move from “possessing” all the truth to continually “searching” for the truth. Some Catholics still think they have all the truth. Some evangelicals think that way as well.

(6) We need to stop being energetic and proud temple-builders and start being traveling pilgrims, pitching their tents along the journey. What do people today really need? An impressive and bigger cathedral or a roof overhead, a meal, health care, child care, compassionate understanding, and a more secure and hopeful life. It is a values question. Very basically, do we value more impressive institutional architecture or men, women, and children in need? The Catholic Diocese of Orange California, by way of example, spent $57.5 million to buy the Crystal Cathedral of the American televangelist Robert Schuller and then $72.3 million to renovate it and turn it into Christ Cathedral,”the largest glass building in the world.” Just a thought…

(7) We must not focus on schooling professionals but mentoring spiritual  leaders. When looking for a product or a service, I think we all appreciate people who are polite and professional. When it comes to Christian ministry, however, the mentality of the professional is often not enough. I trained and taught seminarians for many years. We need pastoral leaders and ministers who are much more than professionals who are well developed organizationally. We need leaders who are men and women anchored in deep faith and who, as our fellow travelers, understand us and support our own faith development as compassionate and genuine spiritual guides. Witnessing a funeral last year, by way of example, I saw an ordained minister who was professional and polite. When it came to his spiritual guidance and support for the family and friends, however, he was an incompetent cold fish who couldn’t wait to get the service concluded.

(8) Christians must stop seeing the world as their enemy and start appreciating the world as the real place where we live and encounter the Divine. He may have been an influential early bishop, but I never agreed with Augustine of Hippo’s dichotomy of the ”City of God” and the “Human City.” The Human City IS the City of God. Our world IS the place where we are and it IS the place where we encounter God and see the Face of Christ.

Conclusion: These eight points mean nothing unless we use them to OBSERVE, JUDGE, and ACT. We can and we must be change agents.

In our actions, however, we need to be nuanced and constructive. The aim is not to be confrontational but in a clear, responsible, and caring way to discuss, learn, plan, and move forward together.

  • Jack

No Blessings for Gay Unions?

On Monday, March 15th, Pope Francis demonstrated the limits to his “reformist”  policies. He expressed his agreement with a Vatican Responsum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) regarding blessings for same-sex unions. The question to the CDF was: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The Responsum answered with a very firm NO, saying that same-sex unions are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan.” The CDF says acknowledging those unions is “illicit,”and that God “cannot bless sin.”

Once again we see the papal paradox. In his public rhetoric, Pope Francis is positive and supportive of gay people; but in official ecclesiastical policy, he remains rigidly closed and negative. It reminds me of Pope Paul VI, who had seemed open to change on sexual morality but then issued his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reiterating the church’s ban on artificial contraception.

For many people today there will be more anguish, confusion, and anger. The Belgian Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, wrote in an opinion piece in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard on Wednesday, March 17, that he feels “shame for my Church” and “intellectual and moral incomprehension” after Pope Francis approved the “negative” response to a question about whether Catholic clergy have the authority to bless same-sex unions.

Jamie Manson, journalist, president of Catholics for Choice, and a member of the LGBTQ community, said in an interview with NPR’s A. Martinez: “You know, my sense is that this will be a final blow for a number of Catholics who really had been holding onto hope because of Pope Francis. The media had such a love affair with him, and I think people were really holding on tight to the last threads of hope. And this could be the final blow.”

Nevertheless, we do need to examine the issue with knowledge and an open mind. I suggest an examination using the four traditional sources of moral knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Historically, moral theologians have relied upon these four sources in formulating norms to guide human behavior. When there is a conflict between these sources, a process of research, dialogue, and discernment must be undertaken to determine the best course of action. That’s where we are today.

This weekend I can only offer some discussion/thought starters. I do recommend an excellent book by Todd Salzman, Professor of Theology at Creighton University, The Sexual Person. Todd is a pastoral-minded theologian who writes with knowledge, perception, and human sensitivity.

SCRIPTURE – Up to now, the traditional religious condemnation of homosexual behavior has been based on: Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10. In the light of contemporary Catholic and Protestant biblical scholarship, however, it is impossible to affirm that these texts provide a solid foundation for condemning homosexual acts today. They cannot be taken literally but must be interpreted in terms of the authors’ times, culture, and social contexts.

The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament condemn homosexual acts was shaped by the socio-historical understanding of the times in which they were written. The understanding, back then, was that all human beings were naturally heterosexual and, therefore, any homosexual behavior was unnatural, a perversion, and immoral. That biblical assumption is now shown to be scientifically incorrect. Some people are, by nature, homosexual.

No doubt the most influential biblical account leading to the condemnation of homosexual acts has been the biblical account about Sodom in the book of Genesis. A contextual exegesis, now agreed upon by most contemporary biblical scholars, shows that the homosexual interpretation of that account is really not accurate. The clearer sin in both the Hebrew text and the original Hebrew context was the sin of inhospitality. A prime affirmation of this interpretation is found in Jesus’ mention of Sodom were his disciples accorded inhospitality. (Luke 10:8-12)

TRADITION – Relying upon the historical critical method, it is clear that traditional interpretations of scriptures condemning homosexual acts lack legitimacy. An historical-critical perspective does not support the old “traditional” normative conclusions as applicable to contemporary understandings of homosexuality. The old tradition is time-bound. A new tradition is already taking shape.

REASON – The heterosexual orientation is an innate, deep-seated, and stable orientation to, predominantly, persons of the opposite sex. It is natural. The homosexual orientation is a similarly innate, deep-seated, and stable orientation to, predominantly, persons of the same sex. It is natural. A person’s sexual orientation is neither chosen nor readily changeable. It simply is.

Sexual acts – whether heterosexual or homosexual –  are moral when they are natural and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. As Todd Salzman so clearly sums it up: “Sexual acts are moral when they are reasonable, and they are reasonable when, as a result of careful attention to and understanding of all the relevant human circumstances, a person makes an informed judgment that a given sexual action is according to right reason and facilitates human flourishing.”

EXPERIENCE – Dr. Mary E. Hunt, co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology in Silver Spring, Maryland, responded to the March 15th papal statement this way: “Catholics in many parts of the world already bless same-sex unions. That genie left the bottle some years ago. Now that the Vatican has hoisted its flag, they may regret not staying quiet. I foresee story after story of good Father So-and-So who blessed Bob and Bill, Olivia y Cristina, Jacques et Georges. More common are the stories not of priests, many of whom remain too timid to bless themselves, but of lay people, indeed whole communities that gather to affirm the goodness of couples who love.”

A gay Catholic priest and professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University, Bryan Massingale, said priests who want to engage in pastoral outreach to the gay and lesbian community “will continue to do so, except that it will be even more under the table…than it was before.”

Support for same-sex marriage among Americans as a whole has grown since Gallup analytics began asking about it in 1996. As of 2020, two in three US adults (67%) say marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid, matching the previous high Gallup measured in 2018.

Most US Catholics, according to Gallup, believe that same-sex unions should be legal; and they go farther than the pope and support marriage for same-sex couples. Catholics, who constitute more than a fifth of US adults, have been consistently more supportive of same-sex marriage than the population as a whole, for more than a decade. Pope Francis’ comments will please some US bishops but will most likely make little difference for the belief of Catholic laypeople in the United States, where same-sex couples have enjoyed full marriage rights and protections since 2015.

And so, one way or another, we still move and must still move ahead. – Jack